The Date of Carthage’s Founding

The Phoenicians, who are credited with imparting the alphabet to the Greeks, themselves left few documents, though we know that they had their historians and kept official chronicles. Apart from the laconic testimony of some scattered inscriptions carved in stone, Phoenician writings have perished; for what we know of their history we depend on the reports of Greek and Roman authors who were not kindly disposed towards them. A grim struggle was waged for centuries between the Greeks and Romans on the one hand, and the Phoenicians and their western offshoot, the Carthaginians, on the other, in which the prize was nothing less than the political and commercial control of the Mediterranean. It began as early as the Orientalizing period of the eighth and early seventh centuries with the rivalry of Greek and Phoenician settlers in the West, and culminated with Alexander’s capture of Tyre in the fourth century, Rome’s defeat of Carthage after the exhausting Punic wars of the third, and Carthage’s destruction in the second. Carthage had been the focus of Phoenician presence in the West for many hundred of years before it was leveled to the ground by the Romans in -146. The Roman historian Appian gave a round figure of seven centuries for Carthage’s existence, which would imply a date for its founding about the middle of the ninth century. Timaeus, the Greek chronographer, gave the year -814 as the date of Carthage’s founding(1) by Dido or Elissa, who had fled with a group of followers from the hands of her murderous brother Pygmalion, king of Tyre. Josephus dated Dido’s flight 155 years after the accession of Hiram, the ally of David and Solomon, that is, in -826. Another tradition, associated with the fourth-century Sicilian chronographer Philistos, placed Carthage’s founding “a man’s life-length” before the fall of Troy. Despite the fact that Philistos’ dating of the Trojan War is unknown, scholars have assumed that he put the date of the founding of Carthage in the thirteenth century.(2)

Yet Appian, who followed Philistos in dating the founding of Carthage “fifty years before the capture of Troy”(3) knew that the city, destroyed in -146, had had a lifetime of not more than seven hundred years.(4) Thus Appian dated the Trojan War to ca. -800, and there is no reason to think that Philistos did not do likewise.

Archaeology, however, does not support a mid- or late-ninth century date for Carthage’s founding. After many years of digging archaeologists have succeeded to penetrate to the most ancient of Carthage’s buildings. P. Cintas, excavating a chapel dedicated to the goddess Tanit, found in the lowest levels a small rectangular structure with a foundation deposit of Greek orientalizing vases datable to the last quarter of the eighth century. These are still the earliest signs of human habitation at the site; although Cintas originally held out hope that there would be found remains of the earliest settlers of the end of the ninth century, the years have not substantiated such expectation.(5) Scholars are now for the most part ready to admit that the ancient chronographers’ estimate of the date of the city’s founding was exaggerated.(6) But if Carthage was founded ca. -725 the Trojan War would, in the scheme of Philistos and Appian, need to be placed in the first quarter of the seventh century.


  1. The Antiquities of the Jews

  2. Pauly’s Realencyclopädie, article “Karthago”; G. C. Picard, The Life and Death of Carthage (London, 1968) p. 30.

  3. Bk. VIII, pt. I. The Punic Wars I.1.

  4. Bk. VIII, ch. 132.

  5. J. N. Coldstream, Geometric Greece (London, 1977) p. 240; Picard, The Life and Death of Carthage, pp. 34ff.

  6. Picard, The Life and Death of Carthage, pp. 34, 37; Coldstream, Geometric Greece, p. 240. A. R. Burn long ago pointed to this tendency of the ancient chronographers to give inflated estimates of past dates. See his “Dates in Early Greek History,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 55 (1935) pp. 130-146. Cf. R. Carpenter, “A Note on the Foundation Date of Carthage,” American Journal of Archaeology 68 (1964) p. 178.