The Punic people or Western Phoenicians, were a group of Semitic peoples in the Western Mediterranean who traced their origins to the Phoenicians of the coasts of Western Asia. In modern scholarship, the term 'Punic' – the Latin equivalent of the Greek-derived term 'Phoenician' – is exclusively used to refer to Phoenicians in the Western Mediterranean, following the line of the Greek East and Latin West.
The largest Punic settlement was Ancient Carthage (essentially modern Tunis), but there were other settlements along the North African coast from Leptis Magna in modern Libya to the Atlantic, as well as western Sicily, southern Sardinia, the southern and western coasts of the Iberian Peninsula, Malta, and Ibiza. Their language, Punic, was a dialect of Phoenician, which is a Northwest Semitic language originating in the Levant.
The first Phoenicians settled in the western Mediterranean in the twelfth century BC and formed part of trading networks linked to Tyre, Arvad, Byblos, Berytus, Ekron and Sidon in Phoenicia proper. Although links with Phoenicia were retained throughout their history, they also developed close relations with other peoples of the western Mediterranean such as Sicilians, Berbers, Greeks and Iberians, and developed some cultural traits distinct from those of their Phoenician motherland. Some of these were shared by all western Phoenicians, while others were restricted to individual regions within the Punic sphere.
The western Phoenicians were arranged into a multitude of self-governing city-states. Carthage had grown to be the largest and most powerful of these city-states by the fifth century BC and gained increasingly close control over Punic Sicily and Sardinia in the fourth century BC, but communities in Iberia remained outside their control until the second half of the third century BC. In the course of the Punic wars (264–146 BC), the Romans challenged Carthaginian hegemony in the western Mediterranean, culminating in the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, but the Punic language and Punic culture endured under Roman rule, surviving in some places until Late Antiquity.
The English adjective "Punic" is used in scholarship to refer to the Western Phoenicians. The proper nouns "Punics" and "Punes" were used in the 16th century, but are obsolete and in current usage there is no proper noun. "Punic" derives from the Latin poenus and punicus, which were used mostly to refer to the Carthaginians and other western Phoenicians. These terms derived from the Ancient Greek word Φοῖνιξ ("Phoinix"), plural form Φοίνικες ("Phoinikes"), which was used indiscriminately to refer to both western and eastern Phoenicians. Latin later borrowed the Greek term a second time as "Phoenix", plural form "Phoenices", also used indiscriminately.
Numismatic evidence from Sicily shows that some western Phoenicians made use of the term "Phoinix", but it is not clear what term (if any) they used for themselves. A passage from Augustine has often been interpreted as indicating that they called themselves "Chanani" ('Canaanites'), but it has been argued by Josephine Crawley Quinn that this is a misreading, since although this term is "applied to Levantine people" in the Hebrew Bible, "there is no other evidence for self-identification as Canaanite, and so we might suspect him of learned optimism." However, this opinion is not shared by all scholars. St Augustine's quote reads: "When our rural peasants are asked what they are, they reply, in Punic, 'Chanani', which is only a corruption by one letter of the alphabet of what we would expect: What else should they reply except that they are 'Chananei'?".
In modern scholarship, the term 'Punic' is exclusively used to refer to Phoenicians in the Western Mediterranean. Specific Punic groups are often referred to with hyphenated terms, like 'Siculo-Punic' or 'Sardo-Punic'. This practice has ancient roots: Hellenistic Greek authors sometimes referred to the Punic inhabitants of North Africa ('Libya') as 'Liby-Phoenicians'.
Like other Phoenician people, their urbanized culture and economy were strongly linked to the sea. Overseas, they established control over some coastal regions of Berber Northwest Africa in what is now Tunisia and Libya as well as Sardinia, Sicily, Ebusus, Malta and other small islands of the western Mediterranean. In Sardinia 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 and beyond, to Atlantic Iberia, the British Isles, the Canaries.
Most of the Punic culture was destroyed as a result of the Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage, from 264 to 146 BC, but traces of language, religion and technology could still be found in Africa during the early Christianisation, from AD 325 to 650. After the Punic Wars, Romans used the term Punic as an adjective meaning treacherous.
Tunisia was among the areas settled during the first wave of Phoenician expansion into the west, with the foundation of Utica and Hippo Regius taking place around the end of the twelfth century. Further Phoenician settlements, were established in the following centuries, including Hippo Diarrhytus and Hadrumetum.
The foundation of Carthage on the site of modern Tunis is dated to the late ninth century BC by Greek literary sources and archaeological evidence. The literary sources attribute the foundation to a group of Tyrian refugees led by Dido and accompanied by Cypriots. Archaeologically, the new foundation is characterised by the focus of religious cult on the gods Tanit and Baal Hammon, by the development of a new religious structure, the tophet, and by a marked degree of cosmopolitanism.
Carthage gained direct control over the Cap Bon peninsula, operating a sandstone quarry at El Haouaria from the middle of the seventh city and establishing the city of Kerkouane in the early sixth century. The region was very fertile and allowed Carthage to be economically self-sufficient. The site of Kerkouane has been extensively excavated and provides the best-known example of a Punic city from North Africa.
Punic control was also extended inland over the Libyans. Punic influence on inland regions is seen from the early sixth century, notably at Althiburos, where Punic construction techniques and red-slip pottery appear at this time. Armed conflicts with the Libyans are first attested in the early fifth century, with several revolts attested in the fourth century (398, 370s, 310-307 BC). In the late fourth century, Aristotle reports that the Carthaginians dealt with local discontent by resettling poor citizens in cities in Libya. These settlements had to provide tribute and military manpower when required, but remained self-governing. There is some onomastic evidence for intermarriage between Punic people and Libyans in the fourth and third centuries BC.
From the 8th century BC, Phoenicians founded several cities and strongholds on strategic points in the south and west of Sardinia, often peninsulas or islands near estuaries, easy to defend and natural harbours, such as Tharros, Bithia, Sulci, Nora and Caralis (Cagliari). The north, the eastern coast and the interior of the island continued to be dominated by the indigenous Nuragic civilization, whose relations with the Sardo-Punic cities were mixed, including both trade and military conflict. Intermarriage and cultural mixing took place on a large scale. The inhabitants of the Sardo-Punic cities were a mixture of Phoenician and Nuragic stock, with the latter forming the majority of the population. Sardinia had a special position because it was central in the Western Mediterranean between Carthage, Spain, the river Rhône and the Etruscan civilization area. The mining area of Iglesiente was important for the metals lead and zinc.
The island came under Carthaginian dominance around 510 BC, after that a first attempt at conquest in 540 BC that ended in failure. They expanded their influence to the western and southern coast from Bosa to Caralis, consolidating the existing Phoenician settlements, administered by plenipotentiaries called Suffetes, and founding new ones such as Olbia, Cornus and Neapolis; Tharros was probably the main centre. Carthage encouraged the cultivation of grain and cereals and prohibited fruit trees. Tharros, Nora, Bithia, Monte Sirai etc. are now important archaeological sites where Punic architecture and city planning can be studied.
In 238 BC, following the First Punic War the Romans took over the whole island, incorporating it into the province of Corsica et Sardinia, under a praetor. The existing power structures, infrastructure, and urbanized culture continued largely unchanged. In 216 BC, two Sardo-Punic notables from Cornus and Tharros, Hampsicora and Hanno, led a revolt against the Romans. Punic culture remained strong during the first centuries of the Roman domination, but over time the civic elites adopted Roman cultural practices and Latin became first the prestige language and then the speech of the majority of the inhabitants.
The island of Ibiza derives its name from Phoenician: 𐤀𐤁𐤔𐤌, ʾBŠM, "Dedicated to Bes". (Latin Ebusus). A city, the Sa Caleta Phoenician Settlement, which has been excavated, was established in the mid-seventh century. Diodorus dates this foundation to 654 BC and attributes it to the Carthaginians.
The Punic religion was based on that of their Phoenician forefathers, who worshiped Baal Hammon and Melqart, but merged Phoenician ideas with Numidian and some Greek and Egyptian deities, such as Apollo, Tanit, and Dionysus, with Baal Hammon being clearly the most important Punic god. Punic culture became a melting pot, since Carthage was a big trading port, but the Carthaginians retained some of their old cultural identities and practices.
The Carthaginians carried out significant sea explorations around Africa and elsewhere from their base in Carthage. In the 5th 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 Essaouira. Carthaginians pushed westerly into the Atlantic and established important settlements in Lixus, Volubilis, Chellah and Mogador, among other locations.
They eventually also fought Rome in the Punic Wars of 265–146 BC but lost because they were limited in numbers, and talented commanders, had a misguided strategy in Hannibal's invasion of Italy, and misjudged the strength of their navy, especially in the first Punic War. They were soundly defeated by Scipio Africanus in Africa in 202 BC. That enabled Roman settlement of Africa and eventual domination of the Mediterranean Sea. Cato the Elder famously ended all his speeches, regardless of their 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!". Although the Carthaginians were eventually conquered in 146 BC, with their city destroyed, Cato never got to see his victory, having died 3 years earlier.
The destruction of Carthage was not the end of the Carthaginians. After the wars, the city of Carthage was completely razed and the land around it was turned into farmland for Roman citizens. There were, however, other Punic cities in Northwest Africa, and Carthage itself was rebuilt and regained some importance, if a shadow of its ancient influence. Although the area was partially Romanized and 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, emperor of Rome and a proud Punic, was said to speak Latin with a Punic accent. Under his reign Carthaginians rose to the elites and their deities entered their imperial cult. Carthage was rebuilt about 46 BC by Julius Caesar and settlements in the surrounding area were granted to soldiers who had retired from the Roman army. Carthage once 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 Northwest Africa, and Carthage became a Christian city even before Christianity was legal. Saint Augustine, born in Thagaste (modern-day Algeria), considered himself Punic, and left some important reflections on Punic cultural history in his writing. 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 the Western Roman Empire. 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 early Muslim conquests in the 7th century AD.