Child Sacrifice in the Ancient World – Did it really happen?

Child sacrifice, while completely repugnant and bizarre to modern eyes, has happened at times in history. In this article, Joe Greenslade investigates the practice of child sacrifice among the ancient Carthaginians. Did they really sacrifice living children? Or did they undertake practices that were somewhat less sinister?

An overview

In the modern world the thought of people conducting human sacrifice is morbid, un-thought of, and despicable.  Before we explore if and why the Carthaginians carried out human sacrifice, it is important that we take a moment to view the mind-set of the ancient Carthaginians. We must not judge them by modern standards; neither must we condemn them as child killing murderers until we have properly explored the evidence provided.

The peoples of the ancient worlds did not know science, not as we knew today.  They rationalized everything that happened with religion.  If there was an outbreak of disease, the gods were unhappy.  If a harvest failed, the gods were unhappy.  If a military campaign failed, it was because the commander had not offered the correct sacrifices before he left.  Everything was rationalized with religion.  In the Greek, Roman, and Carthaginian worlds the gods could be appeased by sacrifice.  The personal sacrifices were usually smaller animals, but the state sponsored sacrifices consisted of larger beasts, usually cows or bulls.  These sacrifices usually revolved around festivals, as the populace would eat the meat in the aftermath.

Although human sacrifice was frowned upon even in the ancient world, with Gelon of Syracuse and the Persians insisting the Carthaginians stop, there were still practitioners.  The Phoenicians were known to have carried out human sacrifice.  This helps us understand roots in Carthaginian sacrifice because it was the Phoenicians that originally set up the colony in North Africa that became Carthage, and in doing so it seems they took it upon themselves to continue the sacrificial practices of their forbears.

The literary evidence

The evidence for child sacrifice comes in the form of literary and archaeological evidence. This points to the Carthaginians using human sacrifice prior to the destruction of the Romans in 146 BC.  We have many ancient sources, mostly Roman, who chronicle the Carthaginians as child sacrificers.  For example Diodorus Siculus tells us of the process.  Diodorus insists that there was a statue with down facing arms that stood over a pit of fire. The young were placed in the arms of this statue and let go, where they rolled down the arms and into the pit.  This process was conducted to appease a Carthaginian deity, most likely Tanit or Baal Hammon.  Plutarch, a Greek biographer who was writing during the period of Roman dominance, wrote that street children would be bought and used for sacrifice.  Quintus Curtius tells us that this practice only died out when Carthage was destroyed, which potentially shows us that the Carthaginians always conducted this ritual.

The problem with these literary sources is that they were written some time after Carthage was destroyed.  They would have been writing with the knowledge that Carthage was an enemy of Rome, so could have been biased.  They were also not contemporary, so would have relied on earlier sources to complete the picture.  Finally, Livy and Polybius, two major sources, fail to mention even briefly that the Carthaginians carried out human sacrifice.  This is important in Polybius’ case because his work was focused on Rome’s conflict with Carthage.  In fact he was supposed to be at Scippio’s side when Carthage was destroyed in 146 BC.

The archaeological evidence

The archaeological evidence is more useful than the literary evidence.  We can put our hands on it, investigate it, see it.  The principles evidence comes from a site in Carthage known as the Tophet.  It was found and excavated in 1921 by P. Gielly and F. Icard.  The excavation revealed many burial urns that contained the ashes and bones of young infants along with some animal remains.  The jump was easy to make; the Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice.  This belief was further enhanced when certain steles at the graveyard were excavated.  One such stele was inscribed with amounts of coin paid by wealthy parents on behalf of their sons.  This could tie in with Plutarch’s works, as street children could have been sought out instead of the wealthy children.  Perhaps poorer families were chosen, families who could not afford the coin.  Another stele seems to show the parents taking pride in having their child sacrificed. It reads “It was to the Lady Tanit Face of Baal and to Baal Hammon that Bomilcar son of Hanno, grandson of Milkiathon, vowed his son of his own flesh.  Bless him you!”

This seems to suggest that these parents had a stele set up to commemorate the sacrifice.  The slightly unsettling aspect of this engraving is that it does not even include the child’s name – just the father and his ancestors.  The stele seems to be a testament to the father.  Another stele has an engraving depicting a priest carrying a baby, most likely to its doom.  These finds of the Tophet seem to fully allow us to believe that the Carthaginians ritualistically sacrificed children to appease their gods.  The literary evidence coupled with this archaeological evidence seems to offer no escape for the Carthaginians, who were of course condemned.  But there is quite a persuasive argument that could still yet exonerate the Carthaginians.

The problem

What could possibly cast doubt in the face of such evidence, both archaeological and literary, you ask?  It is tough to work out, and if you have by now then I salute you, it took me a while longer.  You see, there is an argument that suggests these children were already dead when they were offered up for sacrifice.

Bomilcar was perhaps offering up a child that had been stillborn, or had died of a disease.  It is still a form of offering, giving up his dead son’s body – an argument used by Schwartz in 2012.  He put forth the theory that the Tophet was an infant cemetery for those who died young, stillborn and even fetuses.  Schwartz argues that they were offered for sacrifice after death.  He tried to prove this by investigating the teeth of the deceased to ascertain an age of death; by doing this he could cross reference his finds with the high child/infant mortality rate to help prove they were already dead at the time of offering.

Schwartz’s argument is compelling, but it does not change the fact that the Carthaginians believed that the gods could be appeased by the burning of children, being alive or dead.  If this is the case, the ancient sources can be forgiven for thinking the offerings were still alive; indeed, they still could have been, Schwartz’s argument could be wrong.  Whether the children were alive or dead before they tumbled down the arms of the statue into a pit of fire, we’ll never know for certain. I’ll leave each of you to make up your own decision.

The ancient world was a brutal place, but we must not judge them too harshly.  Human sacrifice still has a place in modern society.  The Hindu practice of Sati, for example, where the wife of the deceased husband was placed on the pyre and burned alive along with the body of her husband, was practiced as recently as 2006.

Maybe modern times aren’t so different from ancient times after all.


Do you think others should know about this article? If so, tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below…