Carthaginians: A Semitic people who founded the city of Carthage in North Africa. The original Carthaginians were colonists from the Phoenician city of Tyre who settled founded Carthage (Karthadasht = “New City”) in c850 BC as part of their program to dominate the trade of the central and western Mediterranean. Several other Phoenician colonies were founded along the North African coast and islands like Malta, Corsica, and Sicily. Over time, Carthage grew in importance and wealth until it came to dominate all of these other colonies, creating a maritime commercial empire that was a match for the Etruscans, Greeks, and eventually the Romans. The government of Carthage was a municipal oligarchy, comparable to that of Venice in a later age. Although Greek and Roman writers refer to “kings” of Carthage, their two chief magistrates actually bore the title of Suffete (=Judge). Elected for life, these magistrates occasionally doubled as generals, although normally the civil and military leadership were kept separate. The legislative branch of the government was a Senate, some of whose members held office through heredity, while others were elected. Chosen from the Senate, was another group, the Gerusia, numbering between 100 or 104 members. It was the Gerusia, especially its leaders, who held the most power in Carthage, having control over all other civil and military magistrates.
The principal pursuit of the Carthaginians was the expansion of their commercial enterprises. They formed one of the western world’s earliest and most successful capitalist societies. Carthage is often held up today as an example of unrestricted capitalism. In its pursuit of wealth, the Carthaginians created one of the ancient world’s most prosperous societies. But the picture was somewhat deceiving as the wealth and power came increasingly into the hands of a small, privileged upper-class. Most of the inhabitants of ancient Carthage and its empire never shared in the great wealth and power. When Carthage was faced with a dynamic, democracy as it did during the Punic Wars, its inherent weaknesses were revealed. The Carthaginians were the principal rivals of the Greeks for control of Sicily. The only cities actually founded in Sicily by the Carthaginians were Drepanum (mod. Trapani) and Lilybaeum (mod. Marsala). Other cities which they controlled: Motya, Panormus (Palermo), Solous (Solunto), and Modica, were all foundations of their Phoenician predecessors. At the height of their power in Sicily, they had managed to wrest the entire island, except the citadel of Syracuse, from the Greeks.
Throughout the last half of the 3rd Century BC, the Carthaginians were locked in a death-struggle with the Romans. In the three terrible Punic wars, these two nations battled for control of the central and western Mediterranean. The ultimate defeat of the Carthaginians determined that, for better or worse, the course of western history would follow a European Roman path rather than a Semitic Carthaginian one.