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Exploring the Ancient Past

Houses in Ancient Carthage

By Natasha Sheldon

It was believed that the Romans erased all traces of Punic Carthage. But preserved under the Roman forum are the unique remains of the homes of ordinary Carthaginians.

Ancient Carthage was convincingly destroyed by the victorious armies of Scipio Aemilianus in 146BC. When Julius Caesar decided to reinstate the city as a colony ninety eight years later, it had to be completely rebuilt.

 

However, the Romans did not quite manage to destroy everything. Archaeologists excavating the Byrsa Hill have discovered the remains of houses, streets and shops under the Roman foundations of the forum that reveal a great deal about Punic civilization.

 

Carthage at the Time of the Punic Wars.

 

By the time of the final Punic Wars in 150BC, Carthage had expanded to within 400m of the Tophet. The Byrsa hill, the site of the original settlement, still represented the centre of urban life. On its peak were the city’s most important buildings and principle temples. From here, streets radiated down the hill, following the natural contours.

 

The buildings discovered under what became the Roman forum date from this time. Overlooking the harbour areas, they did not belong to the rich but rather merchants and ordinary public officials.

 

Preservation Under the Roman Forum.

 

The houses survived by chance. Left in ruins after the Roman’s razed the city, they lay abandoned until the rebuilding commenced.

 

 The new Roman forum was symbolically placed over the old Carthaginian civic centre. However, unlike their predecessors, the Roman’s did not choose to work in harmony with the hill. Instead, they flattened the summit of the Byrsa and supported the new forum was supported by arched foundations erected over the Punic remains.

 

Surplus earth from the excavation of Bysra hill was pushed downwards over the Carthaginian’s ruined homes, covering them completely. They lay preserved until the 20th century when archaeologists rediscovered the remains of streets and blocks of houses with walls surviving up to 3m in places.

 

The Streets.

 

Each block of houses was separated by a 5-7metre wide street. Unpaved and of beaten earth, they were extremely steep, with a 1:7 gradient. As the construction of this area was in sympathy with the topography, steps were built periodically built to allow pedestrians to move between different levels. It would have been impossible to have used wheeled transport.

 

The Houses.

 

The houses were identified as Punic by finds and the techniques used to build them. Bronze Punic coins were found in the ruins as well as black glazed Campanian pottery that was brought back from Italy with Hannibal. The common floor style was pavimenta punica, a style dated to the last 50 years of Carthage’s history. Consisting of a grey base over which shards of green and yellow pot were laid, it was uniquely Punic.

 

Each house was an elongated rectangle, with a back and front entrance opening out onto the streets. Commonly, a side corridor ran uninterrupted through the building, connecting both entrance ways. Depressions have been found in these corridors indicating the location for eliminating household waste into stone lined soak ways built in the streets.

Some buildings were purely residential, with large, often ornate rooms flanking the front and back entrances. Others were dual purpose, with shops on one of the street fronts.

 

 All were built around a central courtyard which was the main source of light for the house and also the site of its water cistern. The courtyard opened directly onto the house’s main corridor or else was partitioned off from the rest of the house. One house with a partitioned courtyard had a number of small rooms built directly onto it. Some seemed to be for storage purposes but one was a bathroom, complete with water and waste pipes and a terracotta mosaic floor.

 

Appian described Punic houses as being six stories high. Although it is impossible to verify whether this was actually the case, there is evidence of internal stairways so certainly the houses were more than one story high.

 

Sources.

The author's 2006 visit to Carthage.

Lancel, Serge (1992). Carthage: A History. Blackwell: Oxford and Cambridge