Carthage, a Phoenician colony on the coast of North Africa, became a maritime powerhouse in the fifth century BC and challenged the Greek cities of Sicily and southern Italy for control of the western Mediterranean. By the early third century, much of Sicily had fallen under Carthaginian control and mints were established on the island to produce coins used to pay the largely mercenary army. The stage was now set for the collision with Rome, newly dominant in Italy. Starting in 264 BC, Carthage and Rome fought three titanic wars that produced more death and destruction than any other conflict before the 20th century. This large silver five-shekel piece, similar in size and weight to the Greek decadrachm, was struck early in the First Punic War against Rome. A powerful head of the Phoenician goddess Tanit adorns the obverse, while the winged steed Pegasus appears on the reverse. The Phoenician script reads “B’rst,” translated as “in the territories,” apparently meaning Sicily. The Carthaginian stronghold of Panormus on the north coast of Sicily is the likely mint site for this rare and impressive piece.
Struck in the earliest phase of the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.), this issue represents a strict departure from earlier Punic coinages in Sicily. The bulk of the earlier types were struck to the Greek Attic weight standard, whereas this coin employs the Punic weight standard, being five of its shekels. Their style and fabric are markedly different from that of earlier types. The Pegasus must have been derived from Corinthian-type staters of the Syracusan King Agathocles (317-289 B.C.), yet the head of the goddess is inarguably Tanit, rather than a modified Artemis-Arethusa. Most importantly, the designs are engraved in a somewhat abstract style that is uniquely Carthaginian. Jenkins translates the Punic legend b’rst as meaning ‘in the land’ or ‘in the territories’, noting that it might suggest an effort by Carthage to stake its claim as a rightful occupant of Sicily over the Romans, who were newcomers. He also suggests that these coins were minted in Sicily on the basis of hoard evidence, the inscription, and, perhaps most persuasively, the die axes, which are irregular on these five-shekel pieces and their related issues. By comparison, the much larger and more enduring series of coins assigned to Carthage are struck with the upright die alignment of a ‘medal turn’. In the centuries leading up to the First Punic War, Carthaginians and Romans had pursued a relationship of indifference, for their realms of influence did not overlap in any meaningful way. Their first treaty appears to have been made in 509 B.C., and they peacefully co-existed for centuries. The Romans were perhaps less sophisticated than the worldly Carthaginians in these early diplomatic ventures, as Carthage continually got what it desired: an assurance that Rome would not intervene in Carthaginian affairs in the Western Mediterranean. In return, Rome was immune from potential conflict, being quite occupied with its own efforts for regional conquest. The principal cause of Rome’s first war with Carthage is uncertain – perhaps it was a fear that Carthage would gain control of the north-eastern part of Sicily, or simply a desire to reap the spoils of victory from a Sicilian expedition. In a larger sense, however, conflict was inevitable in light of Rome’s meteoric expansion in central and southern Italy by the mid-3rd Century B.C. It seems there was no long-term plan on either side of the war, simply an escalation as Rome and Carthage became embroiled in partisan events in Sicily. The root cause was the disposition of the city of Messana, which had been violently taken by Mamertine mercenaries, who found an ally in Rome. Meanwhile, in opposition, the Carthaginians had formed a partnership with Hieron II, who recently had become king of Syracuse. The Romans successfully laid siege to Syracuse and, through their merciful treatment of Hieron, gained in him a staunch ally. This development alarmed the Carthaginians, who responded in 262 with an invasion of Sicily. After a particularly violent sack of Agrigentum, an ally of Carthage, hostilities continued on both land and sea, and by the mid-250s had even extended to North Africa, where the Romans occupied Tunis, only to have their victorious army virtually annihilated. Fortunes teetered from one side to the other in a series of violent encounters in Sicily, North Africa, and Southern Italy. By 241 it was apparent that the Romans would not yield, despite their mounting losses; after a final naval disaster near the Aegates Insulae, the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca sued for peace. As the spoils of victory, Rome gained control (with Hieron II) over Sicily and its adjacent islands, and was to receive from Carthage an indemnity of 3,200 talents over the next decade. Carthage was left broken, and still had to wage war on the home front against unpaid mercenaries and Libyans. In subsequent years, Romans also took control of Sardinia, which forced the Carthaginians to expand their interests in Spain and eventually gave rise to the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.).
Head of Tanit (Kore-Persepone) left, wreathed with grain ears, wearing single-drop pendant earring
Pegasus flying right; amphora with high handles in right field
Punic legend b’rst (“the territories”)
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