According to the legend told by Virgil in the Aeneid, Carthage was founded by the Phoenician princess Elissa, also known as Dido, who fled from Tyre after her brother, King Pygmalion, had killed her husband for his money. When she landed on the Tunisian coast with her loyal followers, the local ruler agreed to give them as much land as could be covered by an ox hide. The clever Dido cut the hide into long thin strips, joined them together and stretched them around the hill of Byrsa, which became the site of the citadel. They called their settlement Kart Hadasht (‘New City’).
Carthage flourished, and soon became the leader of the Phoenician world. It controlled the North African coast from the western border of Egypt to the Atlantic, and established colonies on Sicily, Sardinia, Malta, the Balearic Islands and Corsica. The admiral Hanno even sailed down the west coast of Africa as far as Sierra Leone to develop new settlements and trade routes.
The Carthaginian empire was centred on commerce. They mined silver and lead, cut timber in the Atlas mountains, produced pottery, jewellery and glassware, and exported everything from ivory and gold to wild jungle animals. Carthaginian beds and bedding were highly prized.
Although the Phoenicians invented the cursive script upon which today’s European alphabets are based, they left no records of daily life in Carthage. Their artworks were largely imitations of other cultures. The wealthy buried their dead in impressive tombs with goods for the afterlife. There is evidence of human sacrifice to the principal gods, Baal and Tanit.
The Carthaginians were particularly advanced in agriculture. When their food supply from Sicily was threatened by continual battles with the Greeks, they developed farming in Tunisia, devising techniques to make land that would not be considered arable today productive. Their treatise on agriculture was translated into Latin after the fall of Carthage, thus Rome received the credit for their achievements.