The Punics (from Latin punicus, pl. punici), also known as Carthaginians, were a people from Ancient Carthage (modern Tunisia and Northeastern part of Algeria) who traced their origins to the Phoenicians. Punic is the English adjective, derived from the Latin adjective punicus to describe anything Carthaginian. Their language, Punic, was a dialect of Phoenician.
Unlike their Phoenician ancestors, the Carthaginians had a landowning aristocracy, which established a rule of the hinterland in Northwestern Africa and trans-Saharan trade routes. In later times, one of the clans established a Hellenistic-inspired empire in Mediterranean Iberia and possibly had a foothold in western Gaul.
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, Corsica, Sicily, the Balearic Islands, Malta and other small islands of the western Mediterranean. In the Balearic Islands, 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 and beyond, to Atlantic Iberia, the British Isles, the Canaries, and West Africa.
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.
Punic, in archaeological and linguistic usage, refers to a culture and dialect in Carthage from Hellenistic and later times 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, but their culture and government were distinct.
Punic remains can be found in settlements from Iberia to Cyprus.
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 outnumbered, had a lack of full governmental involvement, and relied too much on their navy. 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.
noli istum poenum monentem vel admonetem terra inflatus propagine spernere