Did the Carthaginians sacrifice human babies?

Josephine Quinn


The Carthaginians sacrificed infants to the gods.


Mostly true


More than thirty Greek and Roman authors claim that the Phoenicians, and especially the Carthaginians, offer their children to the gods. Some of the descriptions are pretty lurid (Plutarch, On Superstition 171):

With full knowledge and understanding they offered up their own children [to Kronos, the Greek name for the Carthaginian god Baal Hammon], and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.

And it wasn’t just parents who engaged in this practice: child sacrifice was public business (Diodorus Siculus 20.14):

[When the Greek general Agathocles besieged Carthage in 310 BCE] the Carthaginians, believing that the misfortune had come to them from the gods…alleged that Kronos had turned against them inasmuch as in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons, but more recently, secretly buying and nurturing children, they had sent these to the sacrifice instead. (…) In their zeal to make amends for the omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in the city a bronze image of Kronos, extending its hands, palms up and sloping towards the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.

Such accounts formed the basis of equally lurid literary fiction in the nineteenth century (Flaubert, Salammbo 1862, transl. Kreilsheimer 1977):

The bronze arms went faster. They did not stop anymore. Each time a child was put in them, the priests of Moloch stretched out their hands over him, loudly crying: “These are not men, but oxen!” and the surrounding crowd repeated “Oxen! Oxen!” The devout cried: “Lord! Eat!” and the priests of Proserpine, conforming out of terror to Carthage’s need, mumbled the Eleusinian formula: “Pour down rain! Bring forth children!”

Creative orientalist fantasies aside, the ancient claims that Carthaginians offered infants to the gods were generally accepted in this era as factual. In the twentieth century, they helped to explain a strange group of cemeteries found at Phoenician sites in the central Mediterranean, first on the island of Mozia off western Sicily in 1919, then at Carthage itself in 1921, and eventually at around ten sites: fields of urns containing the burnt bones of children and animals, often with small markers carved with symbols and inscriptions, as well as funerary pyres, small shrines, statues, masks, and lamps. They were quickly labelled “tophets”, after the place in Jerusalem where the Hebrew Bible tells us people slaughtered their children and “made them pass through fire”. We don’t know what, if anything, they were called by the people who used them.

Backlash and nuance

In the second half of the twentieth century, a backlash began: the literary sources on child sacrifice, sceptical scholars suggested, were hostile propaganda put about by Carthage’s enemies, and the so-called tophets were in reality special cemeteries for children who had died of natural causes before birth or in infancy.

These revisionist theories became increasingly popular in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Italy and Tunisia, the modern states where most of the tophets are found. When the great Tunisian archaeologist M’hamed Hassine Fantar was asked in 2005 by the Wall Street Journal whether child sacrifice took place at Carthage, he replied, “We didn’t do it.”

One problem with such approaches is that Greco-Roman authors writing before the destruction of Carthage – when the Tophet was in use and when anti-Carthaginian propaganda might have had a point – aren’t actually very hostile. They report the matter as a curiosity, rather than a crime: a character in the fourth or third century pseudo-Platonic dialogues Minos, for instance, who notes that some of the Carthaginians “sacrifice even their own sons to Kronos” (315), is making the point in the service of a wider philosophical argument that peoples vary a great deal in their concepts of what is legally and religiously acceptable. And this shouldn’t really be a surprise given the regular mention of infanticide throughout the ancient Mediterranean, including among the Greeks and Romans (Evans Grubbs 2013).

The evidence from the tophets themselves points firmly in the direction of deliberate killing. For one thing, both children and animals are cremated and buried there, sometimes together (and these are sheep, not pets). In an ordinary cemetery this would be unexpected, to say the least. Perhaps then this was a sanctuary where children who die unfortunate but natural deaths were returned to the gods along with other gifts? The problem there is that it would be unprecedented in ancient Mediterranean religion to offer sick or disabled beings to the gods.

Gifts to the gods

The bones left behind by inefficient ancient methods of cremation have sparked fierce debate between scientists as to the age of the infants involved: so young that many must have been stillborn, or mostly between four and six weeks of age, which would point to an unnatural death, at least in the numbers involved?

But the inscriptions that survive on many of the markers are less equivocal: completely unlike the funerary epitaphs found in Carthage’s other cemeteries, they describe an “offering” or “gift” to a particular god (usually Baal Haamon, sometimes alongside the goddess Tanit), “because he heard the voice of my words” or “because he heard my voice and blessed me” – which is to say, because a prayer had been answered.

This suggests that these infants were votive offerings: gifts promised to a god in return for a favour. This was a common phenomenon in the ancient Mediterranean, and in fact we have a specific description of the rite practiced at Carthage in votive terms from a contemporary source: the fourth century Greek historian Kleitarchos (Scholia to Plato’s Republic 337A, tr. Mosca 1975):

Out of reverence for Kronos (=Baal Hamon), the Phoenicians, and especially the Carthaginians, whenever they seek to obtain some great favour, vow one of their children, burning it as a sacrifice to the deity, if they are especially eager to gain success.

This would also explain the presence of sheep: if a child was unavailable at the appropriate moment, perhaps alternatives were acceptable. Some have argued that this scenario isn’t quite what the term “sacrifice” implies – rather than sending gifts to the gods in the hope of provoking future generosity from them, this offering is conditional on a god’s positive response to a prayer (Mosca 2013) – but it does involve ritual killing for the gods.

This might sound horrific to some modern ears, whatever we call it, but there is plenty of literary and epigraphic evidence for infant offerings in the ancient Levant, the Carthaginians’ homeland, and it doesn’t mean that the parents were emotionally detached: as a good friend once pointed out to me, what greater gift could you give to your gods than the thing you hold most precious? There is also some reason to believe that the act of cremation itself in this instance should be seen as an act of divinisation (Mosca 2013, 134).

The most plausible reading of the current evidence then is that the ancient sources are telling the truth, at least in general terms: the Carthaginians and some of their neighbours did engage in the ritual killing of children as offerings to the gods. As such, we rate the claim as mostly true.

Related claims


For a longer statement of the case, see: Xella, P., J. Quinn, V. Melchiorri and P. van Dommelen (2013), “Phoenician bones of contention”, Antiquity 87, 199-207. A recent collection of essays on the phenomenon: Xella, P., ed. (2013) The “Tophet” in the Phoenician Mediterranean. Greco-Roman infanticide: Evans Grubbs, J. (2013) “Infant exposure and infanticide”, in J. Evans Grubbs and T. Parkin, The Oxford Handbook of Childhood and Education in the Classical World, 83-107. The problem of “sacrifice”: Mosca, P. (2013) “The tofet: a place of infant sacrifice?” in Xella ed. 2013, 119-36. On the meanings of the tophets: Quinn, J. (2010) “The cultures of the tophet: identification and identity in the Phoenician diaspora’ in E. Gruen (ed.), Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean, 388-413 and Quinn, J. (2013) “Tophets in the ‘Punic World’’’ in Xella ed. 2013, 23-48. And for a different perspective: S. Moscati and S. Ribichini (1991), Il sacrificio dei bambini. Un aggiornamento.