The Punics, (from Latin pūnicus meaning Phoenician) were a group of Western Semitic speaking peoples originating from Carthage in North Africa who traced their origins to a group of Phoenician and Cypriot settlers, but also to North African Berbers. Punics were probably a biological and cultural mix of Berbers and Phoenicians. Contrary to other Phoenicians, Punics had a landowning aristocracy who established a rule of the hinterland in Northern Africa and trans-Sahara traderoutes. In later times one of these clans conquered a Hellenistic inspired empire in Iberia, possibly having a foothold in Western Gaul. Like other Phoenician people their urbanized culture and economy was strongly linked to the sea. Overseas they established control over coastal regions of the Maghreb, Tripolitania, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, the Baleares, Malta, other small islands of the Western Mediterranean and possibly along the Atlantic coast of Iberia, although this is disputed. In the Baleares, Sardinia, Corsica and Sicily they had strong economic and political ties to the independent natives in the hinterland. Their naval presence and trade extended throughout the Mediterranean to the British Islands, the Canaries, and West Africa. Famous technical achievements of the Punic people of Carthage are the development of uncolored glass and the use of lacustrine limestone to improve the purity of molten iron.
Most of the Punic culture was destroyed as a result of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, while traces of language, religion and technology could still be found in Africa during the early Christianisation. After the Punic Wars, Romans used the term Punic as an adjective meaning treacherous.
In archaeological and linguistic usage Punic refers to a Hellenistic and later era culture and dialect from Carthage that had developed into a distinct form from the Phoenician of the mother city of Tyre. Phoenicians also settled in Northwest Africa (the Maghreb) and other areas under Carthaginian rule and their culture and political organisation were a distinct form. Remains of the Punic culture can be found in settlements from the Iberian Peninsula in the West to Cyprus in the East.
814 BC to 146 BC
The Punics based their religion from their Phoenician forefathers, who worshiped Baal Hammon
, but merged Phoenician ideas with African
deities and some Greek
, such as Apollo
, and Dionysis
, with Baal Hammon being clearly the most important Punic deity. Punic culture became a melting pot, since Carthage was a major hub of trade in the known world, but they retained some of their old cultural identities and practices, such as child sacrifice. Children were sacrificed for religious purposes. One of Hannibal Barca's brothers may have been a sacrifice because Hamilcar Barca
, his father, had fathered four children but we only have three names: Hannibal Barca
; Hasdrubal Barca
; and Mago Barca
. So, it is a possibility - not an unusual one either - since many cultures of the time made human sacrifices, such as the Greeks, Gauls, and Romans, although more often used animals.
The Punics carried out significant sea explorations in Africa and elsewhere from their base in Carthage. In the fifth century BC Hanno the Navigator played a significant role in exploring coastal areas of present day Morocco and other parts of the African coast, specifically noting details of indigenous peoples such as at Mogador. Punics pushed westerly into the Atlantic and established important settlements in Lixus, Volubilis, Chellah and Mogador, among other locations.
Sicilian and Punic Wars
Being trade rivals with Magna Grecia
, the Punics had several clashes with the Greeks over the island of Sicily
in the Sicilian Wars
. They eventually fought Rome
in the Punic Wars
, but lost due to being outnumbered, lack of full governmental involvement, and reliance on their navy as the power of their military. This enabled a Roman settlement of Africa and eventual domination of the Mediterranean Sea. Cato the Elder
famously ended his speeches with the imperative that Carthage should be utterly crushed, a view summarised in Latin by the phrase Praeterea censeo Carthaginem esse delendam
, meaning simply, "Moreover, I declare, Carthage must be destroyed!". They were eventually incorporated into the Roman Republic in 146 BC with the destruction of Carthage, but Cato never got to see his victory because he died in 149 BC.
146 BC to 700 AD
The annexation of Carthage wasn't the end of the Punics. Although the area was partially romanized and the some of the population adopted the Roman religion (while fusing it with aspects of their beliefs and customs), the language and the ethnicity persisted for some time. People of Punic origin prospered again as traders, merchants, and even politicians of the Roman Empire
. Carthage was rebuilt about 46 BC by Julius Caesar
, which was considered a bad gesture by some because the ruins of Carthage were cursed and so would be anyone who built on its site (Caesar ironically died 19 months later). However, Carthage again prospered and even became the number two trading city in the Roman Empire, until Constantinople
took over that position. As Christianity
spread across the Roman Empire, it was especially successful in Northern Africa
; moreover, Carthage became a major Christian city even before Christianity was legal. It is possible that Saint Augustine
himself was Punic, as he was aware of Punic words. One of his more well known passages reads: "It is an excellent thing that the Punic Christians call Baptism
itself nothing else but salvation, and the Sacrament of Christ's Body nothing else but life." ("Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants", 1.24.34, AD 412)
The last remains of a distinct Punic culture probably disappeared somewhere in the chaos during the Fall of Rome. The demographic and cultural characteristics of the region were thoroughly transformed by turbulent events such as the Vandals' wars with Byzantines, the forced population movements that followed and, finally, the Arabic conquest in the 7th century.
Noted Punic or Berber people
B. H. Warmington, Carthage (2d ed. 1969)
T. A. Dorey and D. R. Dudley, Rome against Carthage (1971)
N. Davis, Carthage and Her Remains (1985).