How culturally similar were the Romans and Carthaginians

I realize that this is probably not a question with a clear cut answer (e.g. 87%), but I think it has a substantial factual basis. I don’t think I could get a reasonable “feel” for it without prolonged study, but I suspect that he historian here might speed that process greatly. Differences are easy, I’m more interested in similarities.

I’m specifically interested in the cultures of the two capital cities, and narrower still their ruling classes. (e.g. I recently had an interesting conversation comparing life in the various German courts with the English court in the middle to late 18th century, and we realized several things that wouldn’t have been evident by just comparing the national cultures, historical attitudes, and the fact of the Hannoverian kings) I would still welcome cultural comparisons of the empires, but that’s not my primary focus.

Did the ruling classes in those cities think of each other as “brethren” systems (e.g. the English vs. French royal systems) or completely opposed (e.g. US vs USSR in the peak of the Cold War.) The role of their relative histories is fairly clear, of course, but the details and sociology of Carthage before/doing The Punic wars is rather less clear to me than What I read of Rome in Latin class, long ago.

In terms of a ruling elite, their structures weren’t too dissimilar, but there was nothing but distrust and loathing in their interactions. Your best bet by far is a book called “The Punic Wars” by Adrian Goldsworthy, lots of good info but not too dull a read for the amateur historian etc.

The Romans certainly felt no bond to the Carthaginian elite, who they saw as backstabbing, untrustworthy savages who were into cannablism.


It is true that Roman and Carthaginian society shared certain traits. Both were dominated by an elite ruling class that held sway over the commoners. Both pursued expansionist policies. Both were influenced to some degree by Greek art and thought. By and large, though, their similarities were far outweighed by their differences.

Roman society sprang from an agrarian culture, and clung tightly to these roots throughout most of the Republican era. Romans believed in simplicity, austere living, and prized extreme stubbornness as a virtue. Wealth was respected, but took a back seat to blood and tradition in determining social status as well as government policy. Attachment to luxury was considered a vice, and so-called “sumptuary” laws forbad the excessive display of luxury goods. Senators were expected to be wealthy, and were required to own a certain amount of property in order to be kept on the membership rolls – at the same time, however, they were forbidden from participating in any actual business aside from real estate. “Grubbing one’s hands in the marketplace” was thought beneath the dignity of the Senate.

Carthage, on the other hand, developed from a Phoenician trading colony, and the mentality of mercantilism prevailed throughout its society. Carthaginians typically were concerned more with terms of profit and loss than with any other factor, and the most prized virtue was a sound head for business. They considered soldiering to be an unfit occupation for a citizen, and hired mercenaries to wage their military campaigns for them. Carthage was ruthless when it came to collecting taxes and tribute from its client states, and regularly drove their “allies” to total economic ruin. (Sorry that I cannot say more about actual Carthaginian society, but my knowledge in this area is quite lacking).

These opposing worldviews were instrumental in determining the eventual victor of the Punic Wars (“Punic” is from the Latin word for “Phoenician”). In the First and Second Punic Wars, Carthage dominated early on, but was defeated by sheer Roman stubbornness. Carthaginians, thinking in terms of profit and loss, could not imagine that the Romans, on the brink of defeat, would do anything but surrender (and bicker for the best possible terms). Underestimating the resolve of their enemies, they failed to press their early advantages and lost in the end.

As Pilchard said, “there was nothing but distrust and loathing” between them. One reason was “racial” differences; the Phoenicians were Semitic. The other was religious; the Phoenicians worshipped the bloody Semitic gods. In times of disaster (or other equally difficult circumstances), they offered human sacrifices, usually the children of rulers or the upper class.

I’ve never read Punic Wars. I’m not really knowledgeable about Roman society, especially when compared with people who’ve had more Latin than I (only 1 year in HS), and I’ve never felt any desire/need to read any of the Latin classics.

OTOH, I’ve read a fair amount about the Phoenicians, and I can recommend books which are informative without being soporific. :slight_smile:

The Phoenicians: The Purple Empire of the Ancient World (Morrow: 1975)[sup]1[/sup] by Gerhard Herm (translated by Caroline Hillier) is generally available used, either from eBay or Amazon for a few bucks (currently available on Amazon from $4.22; >40 copies at present, counting both used and collectible). Some of the chapter headings are: The Bedouins of the Sea, The Coming of the Aryans, Establishment and Rise of the Firm of Baal, Sons, and Co., Dealing with King Solomon, The Tyrian Whore, Admired and Hated by the Greeks, The Rise of Carthage, No Empire for Carthage (about every other chapter title of the first 15 of 17). It also includes a substantial bibliography and index, and has a map of the ancient Mediterranean on the endpapers which is marked to show the various cultural spheres.

Caesars & Saints:, The Evolution of the Christian State 180-313 A.D. (Norton, 1962) [sup]2[/sup] by Stewart Perowne makes quite a big deal out of Septimius Severus, who was “Punic”. The four Semitic emperors of Rome are treated in various chapters distributed between chs. 6 and 20. Perowne was an amazingly able popularizer, and published a number of books dealing mostly with the history of Palestine and/or Rome from Herod the Great through Constantine. Amazon currently has 18 copies, starting at $3.88. Unlike some US editions of his works, this one does include photographic plates - 30 pages’ worth of emperors’ busts, various Roman ruins, etc., mosaics from “Africa”, “Asia” and London, and more.
[sup]1[/sup]Phoenicians was published in the UK by Gollancz, and in Germany by Econ Verlag GmbH.

[sup]2[/sup] No information about presumed original UK edition. Perowne was a British civil servant for many years, and apparently spent much of them in Palestine. His wife was a well-known British travel writer, which probably added to his knowledge of the region.


Just a side note on linguistics courtesy of Mrs. Satyagrahi:

Punic and Phoenician are actually the same word, just imported from Greek in different periods.

‘Punic’ was imported into Latin circa 600 or 500 BCE and was used universally until after the destruction of Carthage. At some time in the Current Era, probably after 200 CE, the Romans felt the need to import the word again but, in the meantime, the pronunciation of the Greek word had changed: the hard ‘pi’ had softened to ‘phi’ and thus entered Latin the second time as a different-sounding word with a late-Latin ending tacked on: ‘Phoenician’.

I don’t know why I find these things fascinating…but I do. :slight_smile:

You may now return to your regularly scheduled discussion.


Thanks, all! This is exactly why I love this place!

Does the weekend crowd have anything to add?