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The Sufetes of North Africa: Comparative Contexts

Nathan Pilkington

Columbia University

The sufet (or shofet) has a long history in Near Eastern politics as a designation for power. At its core, the term means nothing more than ‘Judge’. At Carthage, the office appears in the epigraphic record in the mid-5th century BCE. The title is used to designate the chief political officials, two of which were elected annually. From the 4th century BCE, a small number of cities in the western Mediterranean of Phoenician origin also record the office of sufet. The appearance of this office may indicate the establishment of Carthaginian imperial control over dependent cities, most notably in Sardinia, where one inscription is dated with reference to the local sufetes and the sufetes at Carthage.

Problematically, the title continued in use over the course of the next five centuries, as polities in North Africa, Sicily and Sardinia shifted from Carthaginian to Roman imperial power. Statistically, the vast majority of epigraphic records that include the title shofet/sufet date to the Roman period. As a result, most scholars treat these records as artifacts of Roman imperialism. In this reconstruction, local populations are merely imitating a known title from the Carthaginian past as they progressively urbanized and developed civic institutions under the aegis of the Pax Romana. More importantly, these inscriptions cannot be used to understand the development of the earlier Carthaginian Empire.     

By contrast, it is the contention of this presentation that the spread of the sufet is related to Carthaginian imperialism. I thus argue that these inscriptions represent vestigial remnants of Carthaginian power and its imperial political structure, finding a late expression due to the inculcation of the epigraphic habit in the Roman period. To better understand these records, this study will place the epigraphic record of North Africa in comparative context. First, I examine the epigraphic records of Sicily and Sardinia in the Carthaginian and Roman periods, particularly those areas previously subjected to Carthaginian imperialism. Next, I broaden the study to the Hellenistic Kingdoms, many of which inherited imperial forms from earlier empires and which were subsequently influenced by Roman power. I show that in the vast majority of cases the Romans chose to leave existing political institutions intact, particularly where it did not directly exert power through annexation (be it colonization, settlement, or promotion of local polities to city status).

Returning to North Africa, I apply the comparative evidence to argue that Carthaginian political institutions experienced an extended nachleben. In the vast majority of cases, therefore, we can use the epigraphic record of sufetes as a proximate measure of Carthaginian imperial power at its height. Though we cannot ensure 100% accuracy in all cases, the vast majority of the polities that continued to express themselves in the language and political institutions of Carthage were Carthaginian in origin and testaments to the vast power it possessed before the First Punic War.  

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Carthage and the Mediterranean

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