Sardinia under Punic rule

During the seventh and sixth century BC some important changes took place in Sardinia. Two developments at the same time were the cause of this: the changing political and economical situation in the eastern Mediterranean that had it's repercussions on the city of Tyrus and on the other phoenician towns in the Lebanon region, and the rise to economic and political power of the most important colony of Tyrus, Carthage, that wass to become the most prominent power in the western mediterranean. These developments had their effect on the phoenician settlements in Sardinia and it would change the relations with the Sardic indigenous peoples of the island. The final outcome of these changes was that Sardinia at the end of the sixth century would fall within the sphere of influence of Carthage and a period of Punic rule commenced 1. Much of what we know about this punic period and the rise to power of Carthage comes from ancient sources, many roman and greek writers who however provide us with a biased view of the historical events. After all the punics had been the adversaries of the Greek in Sicily and also depicted as the worst enemies of Rome in three punic wars to be fought. Fortunately our knowledge has been greatly enhanced by archaeological research on the punic presence in North-Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and Spain 2.

The Carthaginians in Sardinia

The phoenician cities in Lebanon became in the seventh century BC more and more isolated from the western mediterranean. This had three main causes. The first can be found in the aggressive Assyrian politics aimed at dominating the Middle-East and Egypte and which constituted a threat for the independence of the Phoenician city-states. The second cause can be found in the increasing inflation of the silverprice, caused by the massive influx of this metal via Tyrus to the east. As a consequence of the inflation the long journeys to Spain became less proftable. Finally, the third cause, the successful colonisation by the Greeks of Sicily and Southern-Italy inhibited the phoenician traders more and more because of the increasing competition, the piracy and the decreasing availability of free ports 3. A secondary wave of migrations from the phoenician city-states arrived in the west with the intent of permanent settlement in the existing colonies which increased the pressure to take control of the immediate hinterland of these towns 4. This wave of migration is illustrated in the legend of the foundation of Carthage; the flight of the sister of the king of Tyrus called Elissa (Dido) with a number of prominent merchants via Cyprus to North-Africa. Although this legend should not be taken literally it contains some historical truth 5.

By the second half of the sixth century BC, around 540 BC, Carthage became more prominent and extended it's influence to the phoenician colonies; first on Sicily and then on Sardinia. According to ancient writers, and followed by many arcaheologists and historians, Carthage engaged an aggressive military expansionist policy, but where Malchus (Malko), the general of the Carthaginian army, seemed to succeed in subdueing the phoenician colonies on Sicily, he encountered fierce resistance on Sardinia where the combined forces of Sardinians and Phoenicians defeated his army 6. Archaeological finds seem to support this period of tension. In Monte Sirai destruction levels have been uncovered dating back to the sixth century BC, when the site was abandoned, and similar traces of violence have been found at Su Nuraxi near Barumini. However the question is whether Carthage indeed engaged in an aggressive military expansionism or that these destruction levels were caused by internal struggles between Phoenicians and Sards 7. In the end Carthage extended it's political influence to Sardinia. Two historically documented events of the last decades of the sixth century BC indicate Carthage gained power and influence over the island. The first event is a naval battle in the sea of Sardinia where the Carthaginians sided with the Etruscans against the Phocaeans, mentioned by Herodotos, and the second event is the first treaty of 509 BC between Carthage and Rome, mentioned by Polybius.

The Phocaeans had already founded the colonies of Massalia and Alalia when they were driven out of their homeland in Asia by the Persians. After some time navigating around the Mediterranean they reached Corsica and established themselves in the town of Alalia. Meanwhile they took to piracy in the Tyrrhenian sea attacking Etruscan and Phoenician merchants, and probably also Sardic ships. Carthage and the Etruscans combined their forces and attacked the fleet of the Phocaeans in the first naval battle to be recorded by a historian and known as the battle in the Sea of Sardinia (Mar Sardonio). Both sides claimed victory but the result was that the Phocaeans had to abandon Corsica and sailed to southern Italy where they were welcomed in Velia 8

The treaty between Carthage and Rome in 509 BC mentions that the Romans could trade in Sardinia under the condition that a Carthaginian official would be present. Arcaheologists and historians see this as a clear sign that the island fell under Carthaginian rule by that time 9. Sardinia would remain under this rule until 238 BC and only once there is mention of an uprising under Sardic tribes against the Punic presence on the island in 368 BC 10.

The Punic presence in Sardinia

Architecture and Urbanization

Under punic rule the urbanisation of the phoenician settlements received a strong impuls. Walls with fortifications were built to defend the towns and tempels were built in stone 11. Although many temples have been rebuilt in roman times in many cases archaeological excavations have uncovered the original punic foundations and veen in roman times some temples had punic architectural features. In Nora the temple dedicated to Eshmun/Aesculapius was a punic sanctuary and there was a temple dedicated to Tanit on the top of the hill in the middle of the peninsula, once the site of a nuraghe. In Tharros the large temple complex with the doric halfcolumns is originally a punic temple. Finally in Bithia the foundations of a temple complex, dedicated to the Egyptian god Bes, have been excavated 12. Also in the countryside changes took place where some complex nuraghi were transformed into shrines deidcated to Kore/Demeter, like Nuraghe Lugherras near Paulilatino, Nuraghe Genna Maria near Villanovaforru and Nuraghe Su Mulinu near Villanovafranca 13. Definitely punic was the Temple of Antas dedicated to the god Sid, the god that was associated with the Sardic god Babai 14.

The tophet continued to be of great importance in punic times. Many steles date back to the punic phase of the sanctuaries 15. The punic gods were not much different from the Phoenician deities: Tanit was the punic name for Astarte, Melqart and Eshmun continued to be the most important gods of the towns. A difference with the previous phoenician phase are the burial chambers that can be found at Sulcis (Sant'Antioco) where they have become an extended labyrinth in the middle ages and continued to be used by the poor as dwelling well into the 20th century 16. Near Tharros similar gravechambers can be found dating back to the punic phase of the town, in part worn away by erosion of the hill.

The degree of urbanisation can also be seen in the inscriptions that give us a view of political and administrative organisation based on the Carthaginian model. The highest office was that of the suffetes (a word derived from the phoenician sophtim which means judges). These were elected by the people. Probably the towns also had a counsel of the elders like Carthage 17.

Economy in punic times

According to ancient roman sources the landowners were forced under Carthaginian rule to grow only cereals on their land and it was forbidden to plant grapes and olive or fruit trees. Probably this has been used as propaganda against Carthage and the Punics. It is true however that Sardinia was important for the grain supplies of Carthage as it would be in later days for Rome 18. That the punic farms that produced the grain were mainly latifundia (large estates) is an image from ancient writers that has been changed by more recent archaeological research. One of these researches show that near the punic town of Neapolis, a township founded in punic times in territory of Terralba, the hinterland was densely scattered with small farmsteads, sites where punic earthenware has been found abundantly. More inland, along the rivers Rio Mogoro and the Marmilla the sites were mainly indigenous with punic elements, a sign of increased punic influence among the Sardic inhabitants. This research also shows a continuity in the use of nuragic sites and nuraghi in punic times, more than from previous researches emerges, but that could have been due to insufficient knowledge of punic ceramics which caused many traces to have been overlooked 19.

It is known that in Tharros there was a particular industrious production of jewellery in gold and the use of gems (jasper and coral) that was exported throughout the mediterranean. In part these jewels and gems have been recovered but many graves that contained the jewellery were plundered in the 18th century in what has been also called a small californian goldrush on the Sardinian coast. A sample of these jewels can be seen in the British Museum in London 20. The first coins appear around the 3rd century BC, following Carthage where coins were minted to pay off the mercenaries. The Sardinian coins show the image of Kore/Demeter on the rear and often a horse or an ear of corn, in reference to the production of grain. The coins can be seen in the Archaeological museum of Cagliari 21


1 The term Punic is the latin form of the word Phoinike, the word the Greeks used to indicated the Phoenicians. The term Punic is used by historians and archaeologists as a synonym for Carthaginians.
2 Van Dommelen 1998, p 22-24. Roman and Greek ancient writers that treat the Punic history are Diodorus of Sicily and Polybius. From Livius only books on the second punic war have survived, at which time Sardinia was under Roman rule. An interesting history of Carthage is written by Richard Miles, Carthage.
3 Markoe 2000, p.140-143; Bunnens 1983, p. 191; Frankenstein 1979, p.291; Bondì 2000, p. 57 ff. ; Van Dommelen 1998, p 116
4 Barreca 1974, p.46; Sheratt and Sheratt 1993, p. 370-371
5 The legend is told by the poet Virgil
6 Barreca 1974, p. 57; Moscati 1985, p. 147 ; Bondì 2000, p. 63-65
7 Pesce 1961, p 77; Barreca 1974, p. 58; Van Dommelen 1998, p 120-125
8 Barreca 1974, p. 63; Moscati 1985, p. 148, Morel 2000, p. 21-25; Gras 2000, p.37-43; Colonna 2000, p. 47-53
9 Barreca 1974, p. 64; Moscati 1985, p. 148; Fantar 2000, p. 84; Mastino 2005, p. 63
10 Barreca 1974, p. 69-70 ; Moscati 1985, p. 150
11 Barreca 1974, p. 142; Moscati 1985, p. 149
12 Pesce 1961, p. 115, 265 en Moscati 1985, p 226 ff. (Bithia); Acquaro 1996, p 42-45 and Acquaro 1999, p 59,60 (Tharros); Tronchetti 1986, p 16-18,57-61 (Nora)
13 Van Dommelen 1998, p 151,153
14 Barreca 1974, p. 142 en 244 ff.; Moscati 1985, p. 149; Zucca 1989, p 33-38
15 Barreca 1974, p. 232; Moscati 1985, p. 161; Tronchetti 1995, p. 3-11
16 Moscati 1985, p. 162-163
17 Van Dommelen 1998, p 127
18 Moscati 1985, p. 251
19 Van Dommelen 1998 p. 129, 130-142, see also the previous page on archaeological surveys and the relations between indigenous sards and phoenicians.
20 Moscati 1985, p. 183
21 Acquaro 1999, p 530-533


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14. Moscati, S. 1985, Italia Punica, Milano
15. Pesce, G. 1961, Sardegna Punica heruitgegeven in 2000, Nuoro
16. Sherratt, A.G. & E.S. Sherratt 1993: The growth of the Mediterranean economy in the early first millenium B.C., in: World Archeaology 24, p. 361-378
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20. Zucca, R. 1989: Il tempio di Antas, Sassari

Last updated 29/12/2013

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