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Ground Truths: Reconsidering Carthaginian Domination

Peter Van Dommelen

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology

‘Carthaginian imperialism’ is the term that is widely used to describe the extent and impact of Carthaginian or more generally Punic influence and power; at the same time, however, it is also a notion that has rarely been scrutinized critically – with the notable exception of C.R. Whittaker’s probing discussion back in 1978. For the most part, the use of imperial terminology and considerations of Carthaginian overseas power tend to be based on and framed by Diodorus Siculus’ account of Carthaginian involvement in Sicily, in particular their political and military engagements with local Sicilians and Greek colonizers as captured by the notion of ‘eparchia’. While the literary evidence has been pored over numerous times, there is surprisingly little hard evidence to elaborate on what Carthaginian ‘hegemony’ or imperialism might mean, let alone what it might have meant in real terms on the ground.

Thanks to a resurgence of interest in and an upsurge of archaeological fieldwork exploring Phoenician and Punic settlement and culture more generally, however, a wealth of evidence has literally been brought to light over the past two decades that enables a fresh and, especially, detailed look at what ‘Carthaginian influence’ might have looked like to people who found themselves at its receiving end – that is, in the overseas territories like Sardinia, where taxes were collected and resources exploited for the benefit of Carthage. Because there is broad agreement about the importance of rural produce and raw materials as motivating and underlying ‘Carthaginian imperialism’, I wish to draw attention to the rural contexts where tribute was both produced and exacted - in other words, where empire ‘met’ the colonized in the broadest sense of the terms. My argument is that these rural settings offer a privileged and perhaps unique perspective on what Carthaginian imperialism and hegemony meant in practice.

In this paper, I thus intend to examine the Carthaginian ‘colonial footprint' on the ground in some detail by focusing on rural contexts. I will review a number of excavated Punic farms in Sardinia, and compare the composition and distribution of their remains to what has been recorded on two other islands in the West Mediterranean with close, if very different, Carthaginian ties, namely Ibiza and Mallorca. In doing so, I use the term 'colonial footprint' to gauge the intensity of Carthaginian impact and domination on the ground, as evident in the quantities and qualities of the material remains.

Session/Panel Title:

Carthage and the Mediterranean

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