A Lawyer's History of Malta

Home Carthaginian - 480-218 BC
Carthaginian (480-218 BC)

Of all the Phoenician kingdoms which disappeared under the domination of the Persian Empire only Carthage survived. Carthage was established 72 years before Rome in the gulf named after it, now called the Gulf of Tunis. Carthage inherited the mercantile spirit of the motherland, although, unlike the latter, Carthage was compelled through its location to warlike conquests.

Determined not to acquire more than they could protect, the Carthaginians aimed primarily for the possession of the islands. It is not certain when they conquered Malta. One writer, Heeren, believed that most likely the conquest took place at the same time as the commencement of the Carthaginian wars against Sicily, around 480 BC, and definitely not later. Another commentator, Bres, placed the conquest of Malta 80 years later at about 400 BC.

Soon after conquest, Malta became one of the principal markets of Carthage, especially for the manufacture of cloths, from which the inhabitants derived great wealth and prosperity.

first-punic-warFirst Punic War


Greek and Roman writers provide incomplete reports about the constitution of the Carthaginian government. Just as Tyre had ignored the despotic style of government due to its commercial activities, Carthage did the same, not forgetting their Tyre origin.

According to one writer, Polibio, supreme power in Carthage was shared among the kings (or in practice, the 'suffeti'), the senate and the people, similar to the setup in Rome and Sparta. Two elected 'suffeti' presided over the Senate made up of hundreds of elders, venerable by age, experience, social status and, above all, merit, who were elected probably for life. The senate deliberated on the most important affairs, on war and peace matters and on the taxation of the provinces. Where the 'suffeti' and the senate were in agreement, their decision was final. Where they could not agree, the matter was put to the people to decide.

About three centuries before the fall of Carthage there emerged from the senate the institution of 'centumviri' (one hundred men), initially intended to protect the constitution of the state against the powerful dignitaries and captains, and later claiming absolute power to themselves.

It appears that the magistrates were nominated by the senate and confirmed by the people. A pentarchy headed by a 'quaestor' managed the state finances.

Government of the Provinces

Very little is known of the internal governance of the Carthaginian provinces and of their relationship with the motherland. However, if the Carthagian regime in the metropolis was liberal, that was certainly not the case of the government in the conquered provinces.

In Malta, as in Sardinia, a garrison of mercenaries was raised and kept under the command of Carthaginian officials. The government of each province was entrusted to a general, to whom according the customs of conquered states, belonged supreme military authority.

Carthage was the centre of all activity in that whatever happened in the provinces and colonies had to be to Carthage's advantage and benefit. The tribute that provinces were expected to pay to Carthage was burdensome and, in extreme cases, reached up to one-half of the provinces' revenue. Customs duty was collected very rigorously. The severity and arbitrariness of the collection process rendered the tributes even more onerous. The governors in Carthage were much more respected and admired than their counterparts in the provinces, who were less benevolent to their subjects.

second-punic-warSecond Punic War

The harshness of the Carthaginian government in Malta could also be inferred, according to Bres, from two facts:

  • the island had declared itself on the side of the Romans at the start of the Second Punic War (as Silio Italico had reported), and
  • the Carthaginian garrison and captain were handed over to Titus Sempronius when he first appeared (as Titus Livio narrated).

The Maltese facilitated the transition from the Carthaginian domination to the Romans in search of greater political freedom.


It is believed that the early education of youth was entrusted to the priests, for the children of the more notable citizens were raised in the temples from aged 3 to 12 years, then trained in industry until aged 20 years, and thereafter in military discipline. According to Giustino, when the wars with the Greeks began, the senate prohibited the Carthaginians from studying the Greek language and literature.

Law of Persons

Great honour was derived from the title of citizen, which could be bestowed even on foreigners showing valour. These foreigners, however, could not hold any public offices.

Just like their fathers, the Carthaginians did not have any social classes. The division of the citizens into classes was simply the result of an ordinary distribution of wealth, which established itself without any contribution from the laws, according to social status, and which was determined by one's income, by the services one rendered and by one's merit.

Slavery was not ignored and slaves were traded extensively. The condition of the slave must have been very harsh, given the character of the Carthaginian people. However, side by side with slavery there arose in Carthage the institution of emancipation, which had to be made in front of witnesses.

Family Law

It is probable that the Carthaginians continued to permit polygamy. Marriage to foreigners was also permitted. Only males over thirty years of age and females over twenty-five were allowed to marry. The forms of marriage are not known. The magistrates regulated the cost of the nuptials. Within a month from entering the marriage contract, one was obliged to appear before the senate to declare one's marital status and chosen profession.

In his book Le mariage et le divorce, Tissot writes that in Malta, as in countries, such as, Cyprus, Armenia, Assyria and Phoenicia, prostitution took on a religious character. It became one way of honouring the goddess of sensuality, who while always the same, changed her name with a change of location.

In Carthage paternal authority did not have any restrictions greater than it had in other Phoenician cities. Adoption was recognised and it was exercised sometimes in the case of young slaves, whose owner instituted them as their heirs.

Law of Property

The acquisition, enjoyment and transmission of property were regulated by law. In their active extension of their commerce by land and sea, the Carthaginians aimed for a monopoly. While their commerce would have been mainly one of barter, it is probable that they and their colonies would have coined money. It is believed that they would have known exchange symbols. Having exhausted the public treasury through military expenditures, the government of Carthage is said to have designed the manufacture of money without using metals, at least as difficult to counterfeit as the notes issued by the Bank of England!

Time and, more particularly, as Pastoret noted, the hatred of the Rome, the most illustrious and fortunate of its rivals, stole away any traces of the maritime law of Carthage.

The effect of piracy on Carthaginian commerce was devastating. In the second treaty signed by the Carthaginians and the Romans, as documented by Polibio, the two peoples agreed not to commit any acts of piracy. However, the Carthaginians reserved the right to hold prisoners from nations united with the Romans by written pact without being able to sell them in Roman ports.

Crime and Punishment

The cruel character of the Carthaginians left its imprint on their penal system. Capital punishment was not only frequently used, but, as with the Phoenicians, was more serious due to the method of taking away life. Other forms of punishment included mutilation, which often ended in loss of life, imprisonment, banishment or exile, transportation, public labour, confiscation and fines. To the severity of the punishment one had to add the effect on inheritance.

However, Carthaginian law applied the principle of equality of all citizens in the eyes of the law - the same punishment applied to all citizens who committed the same crime. The legal provisions regulating attempted crimes against property are not known.

Crimes against religion, such as perjury, were very harshly punished. Not only rebellion and conspiracy but also political mishaps were elevated to the status of crimes. One of the greatest crimes, if not the greatest, in Carthage is that of being conquered.

Public Institutions

It is no surprise that the judicial organisation in the Carthaginian provinces remains unknown, when that of Carthage itself remains a mystery. One could assume that the same kind of institutions as those prevalent in the metropolis would have been in existence in the provinces. As narrated by Aristotle, while in Sparta the judges deciding a case depended on the nature or type of the dispute or cause, in Carthage instead of separating the matters or attributes, the same magistrates determined all matters.

The ordinary jurisdiction in the provinces, as in the colonies, belonged to the 'suffeti', according to Bochart. An inscription discovered in Gozo in 1855 and ascribed by palaeographers to the middle of the third century BC, refers to certain "Andat-Ares, son of Ioel suffeta".

Titus Livio paints a frightening picture of the administration of Justice in Carthage. The judges, according to him, committed most unfair oppression, capriciously disposed of goods, of honour, of lives of citizens and there was no shield to protect against their transgressions. If this was correct, it could be implied that the administration of justice in the provinces did not fare any better.

In the penal process torture and judicial secrets were permitted. One could be condemned without having intended to commit the criminal act.

External Relations

In spite of their stingy, melancholic and cruel character, the Carthaginians scrupulously observed hospitality, the right and duty to which they transmitted to the heirs. Conquerors and merchants had to enter into relationships with other peoples very frequently. Treaties and embassies regulated these relationships. There is a record of a number of treaties signed with the Romans, the Macedonians, the Syracusans and the Numidians. Treaties were sanctioned by the senate and placed under the protection of the gods. Often the fulfilment of treaties was guaranteed by taking hostages, although in Carthage more often one could reproach for breach of trust resulting from their non-observance. As was customary in ancient times, treaties were inscribed on columns. Ambassadors were chosen from notable citizens, more often from among the senators.

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