In a recent publication of “Antiquity,” an archaeological journal, a group of scholars argue that the ancient Carthaginians did, in fact, sacrifice their children to their gods. Debate about this subject has raged ever since the burned remains of infants, fetuses, and young children were found in ceremonial jars near Carthaginian sites in Africa and Europe. This evidence seemed to support accounts from cultures contemporary to the Carthaginians who described the child sacrifice taking place in the North African city and it’s many colonies. Despite the first hand accounts and corroborating archaeological evidence, many historians still did not believe the accounts could be true. Apparently, they wanted to believe the best of the Carthaginians; that the bones were simply the cremated remains of children who died of natural causes. But this positive outlook is odd considering both Greek and Roman sources attest to child sacrifice in Carthage and the practice is well known among the ancient Canaanites who were the ancestors of the Carthaginians. Familiar Canaanite deities Ba’al and Astarte were worshiped in Carthage long before the ancient city state adopted the Greek Pantheon so it’s easy to imagine they might have also practiced the same rituals, however abhorrent.
Yet, the incredulity continues in the archaeological community. As to why this is, the lead archaeologist, Dr. Quinn, suggests, “We like to think that we’re quite close to the ancient world, that they were really just like us – the truth is, I’m afraid, that they really weren’t.” This desire for similarity Dr. Quinn describes is perhaps true for us regarding the Greeks, Romans, and their contemporaries. We like to think we are the cultural descendants of these mighty civilizations which held the light of democracy and philosophy above the barbarian darkness around them, a light which we bear today. But, when it comes to most other cultures, we like to believe the opposite, that we are quite different from them. This is our founding myth; that we “advanced” beyond the primitive civilizations that came before us. We rose above the hordes of illiterate and uncouth savages, tore down the crumbling superstitions of the dark ages, and built a new society based on science and the Enlightenment. We’re almost pleased when we learn of a new savagery committed by one of the ancient societies we’ve crushed beneath the boot of progress.
The irony here is that all of the written description of Carthaginian child sacrifice come for Greek and Roman propaganda condemning the practice and using it to drum up support for their wars against Carthage. But it is no secret that both Greeks and Romans were quite willing to kill their own children. Weak or deformed infants were quickly thrown on to garbage heaps and left to die of exposure. These children were considered inconvenient and expensive and therefore expendable. It was not just the Spartans who participated in this horrendous infanticide. Other Greeks did as well, along with the Romans who made no effort to hide the practice. In fact, many Roman pagans were critical of the Christians who would save these infants to raise as their own (pro-life has always been a foundation of the Christian faith). But, if this is so, why were the Greeks and Romans so appalled by the rituals of Carthage? It seems they objected not to infanticide or the sacrifice of children on grounds of convenience but rather to the sacrifice of children on religious grounds. Today, we can see how horribly inconsistent this is. It’s downright bizarre that the Romans would be disgusted by Carthage’s cremation pits but not by their own garbage heaps, strewn with the bones of their own children.
Unfortunately, inconsistency is a curse on all human beings. From our perch of modernity, we look back on the ancient Carthaginians and scoff. What a lot of superstitious fools! Their gods were nothing; an empty hope with no power to help or protect. Why didn’t the people of Carthage see this? How could the mothers and fathers in this city be so blinded by their false gods that they would be willing to burn their own offspring? Perhaps we could find an answer in our own culture.
We don’t believe in the Greek or Roman pantheons anymore. In fact, millions and millions in the west don’t believe in any deity at all. But that doesn’t mean we don’t serve idols. Today, many in our society believe wholeheartedly in efficiency and technology. We put our hope in these ideas and snatch up every new development with religious fervor. Our faith in consumerism is just as blind and we sacrifice huge sums of time and money in our certainty that “just a little more” will finally bring us peace. We also believe, most of all, in ourselves and in the broken compass of our own desires and feelings. Never mind that the needle of our hearts often spins wildly and points us toward our own destruction. Still we follow, no matter who gets hurt in this never ending quest.
These aren’t gods in the traditional sense, of course. But, like the ancients and their pantheons, we believe in the power of these to save us and give us what we want. And we’re willing to sacrifice much to placate them. This is no more clear than in the modern scourge of abortion where we literally kill our children on the grounds of convenience and self-interest. We don’t do this, of course, thinking we are literally appeasing an attentive deity. But we still make these sacrifices thinking they are necessary to preserve our comfort, our futures, our desires. The decision may be difficult, we say, but there is no other choice. Our gods – efficiency, comfort, our own capricious desires – demand it.
But it would seem our new gods are much more malevolent than the old. Cronus asked only a handful of infants. Our new gods require millions. At archaeological sites where children and babies were sacrificed to Cronus, thousands have been found. But, over some 200 years, 100 or so a year seems a conservative guess. Still, a horrific number for such a terrible fate. But how many today? Thousands upon thousands of late-term abortions every year and millions more at other stages of pregnancy. The death of a fetus in a sterile room doesn’t evoke the same horror of a baby set before a pagan altar. But this may have more to do with our failure to understand our actions.
No matter the method, the promises of both pantheons proves just as false. We know Cronus couldn’t save Carthage. Her empire fell and her land was salted. For us, there’s no evidence after so many deaths that we are any happier or more fulfilled. In a land of depressed people and broken families, what do our new gods have to show for themselves? This isn’t, of course, to blame our problems on abortion. Surely, the prevalence of this practice is a symptom of something else. A terrible, unspeakable symptom, yes, but a symptom nonetheless. Still, it’s impossible to believe that the death of our offspring actually serves to improve our lot.
Am I really comparing abortion to ancient child sacrifice? Well, yes. But I’m not saying this just to be shocking or offensive. Honest proponents of abortion will admit that the line between infanticide and late-term abortion is basically non-existent. Peter Singer and Kermit Gosnell recognize this. And, while there may be debate about the morality of early abortion, there is no doubt that it is the death of human offspring. While there are certainly significant differences between ancient child sacrifice and modern abortion, the comparison can still be useful to help us understand both ancient cultures and our modern motives and beliefs.
I’m not trying to demonize women who have had abortions. I believe we ought to be exceptionally charitable towards these mothers. I believe we also ought to be charitable toward the mothers in ancient Carthage. Surely they loved their children and wept bitterly at their deaths. But, for some reason, they still went through with the horrible act. Because they were lied to. Over and over again. By false priests, by their neighbors, by their own parents. I doubt these people were conscious of their lies. They probably believed them just as firmly. The lies were embedded so deeply in the culture that the parents and their advisers could see no way out. Without the sacrifice, crops would fail, enemies would triumph, and everyone (including their other children, born and unborn) would suffer. “I have to do this,” the mother would say, “It’s for the good of everyone else. I can’t burden other people with hardship.” But the sacrifice was for naught. Cronus and his peers were impotent. We can see this clearly from our modern perch even if we can’t see the impotence of our own false gods.
The recent discoveries from Carthage should scandalize us. But they oughtn’t make us feel smug. We should see such atrocities as the horrible acts of a civilization in decline. And we should see their sentiments and false hopes in our own culture of death. We should weep for their mothers and fathers (even if they are long since dead and buried) just as we weep for our own hurting mothers and fathers. More than anything, we ought to recognize the atrocities taking place in our own dying civilization and work to defend our victims; the babies who are victims of the practice and the women who are victims of our lies.