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The Punics (from Latin pūnicus, pl. pūnici) were a group of western Semitic-speaking peoples from Carthage in North Africa who traced their origins to a group of Phoenician settlers, but also to North African Berbers. Unlike 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 some coastal regions of Berber North Africa like modern-day Tunisia and Tripolitania (modern-day Libya), Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, the Balearics, 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 Isles, the Canaries, and West Africa. Famous technical achievements of the Punic people of Carthage include 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 fought between Rome and Carthage from 264 to 146 BCE, while traces of language, religion and technology could still be found in Africa during the early Christianisation, 325 to 650 CE. 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.
The Punic religion was based on that of their Phoenician forefathers, who worshiped Baal-hamon and Melqart but merged Phoenician ideas with Numidian deities and some Greek and Egyptian, such as Apollo, Tanit and Dionysus, with Baal-hamon being clearly the most important Punic deity. Punic culture became a melting pot, since Carthage was a big trading port in the known world but they retained some of their old cultural identities and practices, such as child sacrifice. This was not outside of regional norms, as many cultures of the time made human sacrifices, including the Greeks, Celts, and Romans.
The Punics carried out significant sea explorations around 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.
Being trade rivals with Magna Graecia, the Punics had several clashes with the Greeks over the island of Sicily in the Greek-Punic Wars from 600-265 BCE. They eventually fought Rome in the Roman-Punic Wars, between 265-146 BCE, but lost due to being outnumbered, lack of full governmental involvement and reliance on their navy. This enabled a Roman settlement of Africa and eventual domination of the Mediterranean Sea. Cato the Elder famously ended all his speeches, regardless of subject, with the imperative that Carthage be utterly crushed, a view summarised in Latin by the phrase Praeterea censeo Carthaginem esse delendam meaning, "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, having died in 149 BC.
The annexation of Carthage wasn't the end of the Punics. After the wars, the vicinity of Carthage was placed under a curse by the Romans, so that no one would live there and the place would not be repopulated. There were, however, other Punic cities in North Africa. 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. Septimius Severus became emperor of Rome and he was a proud Punic. Under his reign Punics rose to the elites and their deities entered their imperial cult. Carthage was rebuilt about 46 BC by Julius Caesar. Places in the area were granted for settlement as benefits to soldiers that had served in Roman armies. Carthage again prospered and even became the number two trading city in the Roman Empire, until Constantinople took over that position. As Christianity spread in the Roman Empire, it was especially successful in Northern Africa. Carthage became a Christian city even before Christianity was legal. Saint Augustine considered himself to be Punic. 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."
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 the Arab conquest in the 7th century.
|This article may be expanded with text translated from the corresponding article in the French Wikipedia. (August 2013)|