Elections in 9th Century BCE Africa: Carthage, Prior to Athenian Democracy

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Annual Elected Heads of state: Carthage (814 BC–146 BC)

The Ancient Republic of Carthage which survived from 814 till about 146 BC was founded by sailors and settlers from Phoenicia (a Civilisation that existed from 2500 BC to 539BC). Phoenicians may not have viewed themselves as a nation, but the label is the term we apply to various independent city states in the Western region of the Fertile Crescent of the Levant – most notably the cities Arwad, Berytus, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre, the capital in modern day Lebanon. The term Phoenicia is ancient Greek and comes from the main export of these cities, cloth dyed Tyrian purple from Murex mollusk.

Prior to settlements at Carthage, Phoenicians already had a mature maritime network in the Mediterranean. Starting earlier in the 2nd millennium the Phoenicians already had extensive trading relationships: with the Somali city-states of Malao, Mosylon, Mundus, Opone, Sarapion and Tabae, the region of modern-day Spain (the Iberian Peninsula), Sardinia, Crete, Sicily and North Africa. The Phoenicians founded Cadiz in Spain in 1110 BC, Utica also in Tunisia in 1101 BC, Hadrumetum in the 9th century. After Carthage, in the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries BC, Phoenicia founded Leptis Magna (in Libya), Tipasa, Siga (Rachgoun), Lixus (on the Oued Loukkos), Mogador, Motya in Sicily, and Sulcis and Tharros in Sardinia.


The Phoenicians were descendants of the Canaanites and thus referred to themselves as such, but the Greeks nicknamed them as Phoenicians. At the peak of the Levant side of Phoenician Civilisation, the federation of city-states controlled modern day Palestine, Syrian and Transjordan spread to the border of Egypt and deeply enshrined their culture over these areas. This did not last beyond sometime in the 1200 BCE as conglomerated forces pushed them out of their occupied lands. By 1050, they had been reduced to a very narrow part of the coastal region of Lebanon and occupied Berytus, Tyre, Byblos, Arwad, and Sidon.


Historians and Scholars have ascribed the location of Carthage at that time to the present-day Tunis, Tunisia. The Carthaginians were renowned for their wealth, traded mainly on wood, Tyrian purple powder, glass, and gems. They were also known for slave-trading. Their trading partners were the Greeks. Although, the city of Carthage is remembered today from Greek and Roman writing for its “Punic” wars with Rome, which eventually led to their downfall.

Biblical sources referred to the Phoenicians as being on good terms of the ancient Israelites which even culminated in allowing inter-marriages between the royal clans. They also had a good trading understanding with the Israelites and there were no records of any strife or war between them.

Carthage from the latin Carthago has its origin in a Phoenician name Kart Hadasht meaning New City.

How were the Carthaginians governed? To understand how the Carthaginians were governed and what the Carthaginians achieved first let’s recall the commonly told oral tradition of how modern democratic institutions developed.


ATHENS is among the list of the world’s oldest cities. Athens may have been in existence for over 3,400 years. It is known as a ‘city of wisdom’, having produced Draco, Solon, Plato and Aristotle, two great judges and two great philosophers. The seaport of Piraeus has been documented to have existed before the 5th century.

Athens is constantly referred to as the center of Western civilization and the origin of democracy. Today Athens is still a cosmopolitan metropolis. It is still a center of maritime, industries, economy and politics.


Aristotle made great inroads into every area of human endeavors. Today, Aristotle is still regarded as the father of knowledge and political philosophy. Although some of Aristotle views especially in regard to the status of women as being inferior in the society, and his views on slavery are no longer tenable today. But his philosophies on politics, the practice of politics, and his views on causes and safeguards against revolutions within political communities remained thought-provoking and influential for centuries.

Athenian democracy developed around the 5th century BC. This was at the center of Athens called a polis. The Athenian democracy is regarded as the foremost democracy known to man. Athenian democracy was a system allowing direct voting by citizens on legislation and all executive bills.

Pericles was acknowledged as the longest-serving democratic leader. The trend of democracy continued after his death although interrupted by oligarchic revolutions. It encountered some modification under Eucleides. In 322 BC, democracy was stifled by the Macedonians. The Athenian democracy was later restored but the retention of its original values was in doubt.

Not many people consider the far-reaching impact of the Athenian criteria for voting. The voters had to be adults, males, and proven citizens but excluding metics (foreigners), slaves, children, women and non-land owners: a citizen had to own land. This resulted in only the rich being voters.

Solon served in Athens as a chief magistrate around 594 BC (archon), Cleisthenes between 508 and 507 BC, and Ephialtes in 462 BC made consistent contributions to the development and sustaining Athenian democracy.

We often ignore that between 561 BC and 527 BC Peisistratos ruled as a tyrant and king. Peisistratos was succeeded by his son Hippias after his death. Although Hippias was overthrown in 509 BC. He later returned to advice King Darius I of Persia in his attacks against Ionia, Athens, and Sparta.

It is worth remembering that at this time Athens was still just a city and there were other Greek cities ruled by monarchs. One city Epirus would later produce king Pyrrhus, who would drive Carthage and Rome into a series of treaties of mutual assistance. As can be seen from this king list of the Aeacid dynasty of Epirus, democracy was not established in Epirus until 233 BC:

  • Admetus (before 470 – 430 BC)
  • Tharrhypas (430 – 392 BC)
  • Alcetas I (390 – 370 BC)
  • Neoptolemos I (370 – 357 BC)
  • Arybbas (373 BC – 343 BC)
  • Alexander I (342 – 331 BC)
  • Aeacides (331 – 317 BC)
  • Neoptolemos II (317 – 313 BC)
  • Aeacides (313 BC) second reign
  • Alcetas II (313 BC – 306 BC)
  • Pyrrhus I (307 – 302 BC)
  • Neoptolemos II (302 – 297 ВС) second reign
  • Pyrrhus I (297 – 272 BC) second reign
  • Alexander II (272 – 255 ВС)
  • Olympias II of Epirus regent after Alexander II, her husband died
  • Pyrrhus II (255 – 237 BC) brother to Ptolemy
  • Ptolemy (237 – 234 BC) brother to Pyrrhus
  • Pyrrhus III (234 BC)
  • Deidamia (234-233 BC[2]), ruled very briefly



The Roman Republic emerged after the overthrow of the Roman Kingdom in 509 BC. The Republic would continue as the form of government of Rome between 509 BC and 27 BC. There were a series of events which marked the transition period to being a Republic. These included: the ousting and exile of King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, of Etruscan origin, in 509 BC by some noblemen; the king of Clusium waging war against the city of Rome to reinstall king Lucius; the signing of a treaty with Carthage; the consecration of Jupiter Capitolinus; and the establishment of new systems of governance and reaching agreement.

The constitution of the old Roman Kingdom endowed the king with the sovereign power. Though the king received advice from a board of elders called the ‘Roman Senate’ and a popular assembly called the ‘Curiate Assembly’. This arrangement was akin to the system of the contemporary states of Athens or Sparta.

The process of evolution of Rome from the traditional monarchical reign brought both internal and external tensions giving room for incessant aggression from its neighbors. This eroded its strength. The level of chaos in Rome was high as the noblemen that disposed of its last Etruscan king, were not prepared with an agreed plan of the system of government to adopt after switching from a monarchy. The adoption and installation of the consuls to take over the leadership were delayed for many years.

The chief magistrate position was altered and was no longer reserved for those that fashioned the Roman senate. Much political instability gave rise to many factions and different allies. 509 marks the beginning of elected Consuls in Rome, referred to as a form of democracy. Until 27 BC, most Consuls would only come from about 50 patrician families.

Simon De Montfort’s parliament

Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, held two parliaments during his time in power. The second of these took place at Westminster between January and March 1265 and was the first parliament at which representatives of the cities and boroughs were present alongside knights representing their counties to discuss matters of national concern as opposed to granting taxation.

Simon De Montfort was estimated to have been born around 1208. He was a Frenchman, who was allocated a large extent of land by King Henry III of England. Simon De Montfort was a versatile politician who was renowned for his great insight into the art of politicking. As an astute military leader, he was accorded enormous responsibility by King Henry III. His in-depth knowledge in the military arts and politics made him popular and led to his ability to become a rebellion leader even against King Henry III. He took an unusual step of calling representatives of the shires and many towns into the Parliament.


In 1258, the barons became disenchanted with the style of King Henry III over his style of governance in England.  The King was forced to accept the popular reform that was named Provisions of Oxford which eventually removed the King from the throne. The exit of the King gave way to the reform’s setting up of fifteen barons to administer ministers. A regular parliament was set for three times in a year. But in 1261, King Henry III regained power and suspended the Provisions of Oxford. Majority of the barons accepted the move.  Simon de Montfort refused to consent. He began his rebellious move against the King until he eventually captured the King in 1264 and ascended to the throne of power. He reinstated his long-loved Provisions of Oxford and also recalled the parliaments. This time, he did not limit the parliaments to the members of the barons alone; rather he extended the invitations to counties’ and towns’ representatives. And that was the first enlarged or extended Parliament ever held in England. Also, The Cinque Ports had four representatives each.


During his reign over the country, Simon de Montfort convened two parliaments. His second parliament was more orchestrated and widely attended than the first one. This took place took place between the month of January and March 1265 at Westminster. On December 14, 1264, Simon de Montfort announced the second Parliament. It had 126 Bishops in attendance, in addition to twenty-three magnates, two knights representing each of the counties, and two citizens standing in for each town.  Though this was the second of Simon de Montfort’s parliaments, it was the first parliament with a wide range of representation. Some national issues related to taxation, and the release of Prince Edward was of primary concern at the parliament.

Simon de Montfort lost his life and his dream in the Evesham’s battle. This put a hold to the parliaments until later in the 13th and the 14th centuries. Although his ideas have survived till today as the United Kingdom House of Commons with representatives drawn from constituencies of England and Wales, then later Scotland and Ireland until Ireland secured independence from the United Kingdom.

Queen Anne, Acts of Union 1707 and the First Parliament 1707

Queen Anne was born on 6th February 1665 and became the Queen of England after King William III died in March 1702. She was well accepted and became popular with her first speech when she affirmed that “there was nothing she was not ready to do for happiness and prosperity of England”.

The Act of Settlement 1701, the English Parliament previously enacted, only applied to England and Wales, but not applicable to the Scottish. Queen Anne was eager and determined to see an effective union of the three states. There were so many political intrigues both in Scotland which came up with the Act of Security in response to the Acts of Settlement by the England Parliament.

The smart Estates of Scotland countered the Act of Settlement with their own version, the Act of Security which bestowed the Estates autonomy power to appoint the subsequent Scottish monarch among the Protestant descendants of Scotland royal line in case the Queen had no further children. This move was to force England to grant full trading freedom and rights to Scottish merchants.

The events and diplomacy between 1702 when Queen Anne ascended the throne and 1707 when the Acts of Union between England and Scotland became a reality showed that Queen Anne really desired a united English Kingdom.

Then the English parliament came up with the Alien Act of 1705 which was a move to place economic sanctions on Scottish in England and declare them ‘aliens’ in England. Two options were obviously offered; to repeal the Acts of Security or Scotland should unite with England. Scotland opted for the unification option. Queen Anne subsequently appointed new commissioners in the earlier part of 1706.

The Acts of Union became the one body of laws confirming the endorsed documents signed by the England Parliament and Scotland Parliament to unify the two separate states as one. There were two Acts of Union forged into one; The Scotland Act 1706 endorsed by England Parliament and the Union with England Act endorsed by the Scotland Parliament in 1707. In the Acts, England and Scotland became ‘United into One Kingdom’ as Great Britain and a single Parliament was created at Westminster. At Westminster, elected Members of Parliament from constituencies would meet to create and amend laws by voting.

United States of America

By now, you’ve probably already guessed that the USA copied a few systems. In addition to Greece, Rome and the United Kingdom, the US also took aspects of the Iroquois Confederacy, in a crafting a federal system. Still you ask!

What makes political structure of the Republic of Carthage original?

Did I mention that Carthage was a state, while Athens was just a city?

The source of our knowledge about Carthage were the Greek and the Romans, who had no appreciation for democracy until both ‘some’ Greek cities and the Kingdom of the city of Rome removed their monarchies. We therefore find that the Greek called the Senate of Carthage a Council, using the concepts available to them, and the Romans called the Council of 100 elders of Carthage a Senate using the concepts available to them. We also find that the Greeks and Romans identified the Carthaginian heads of state as kings, when they were actually elected.

The only similarity between Carthaginian heads of state and the monarchies of Athens and Rome is that one person held the position of heads of state.  Carthage did not refer to its monarchs as king or queen. Instead a title of Suffete meaning Judge was used, from a Semitic root meaning to pass judgement. This system is similar to how the Phoenician independent city-states were governed. The first head of state of Carthage was mythologically believed to be Queen Dido.


Around the time Athens and Rome moved to a democracy, Carthage moved to having two annually elected chief magistrates instead of just one. Unlike various Greek cities, we find that Carthage experienced extremely long periods without any coups by would-be tyrants or dictators.

Annually elected chief magistrates and the senate of Carthage were a different African take on creating a democratic structure, developed independently in Africa, with sufficient uniqueness to challenge idea that democracy originated in either Rome, the Athenian Democracy, and the English Parliamentary system. Prior to the forms of democracy admired in Rome, Greece and the United Kingdom Parliamentary system, in the period called the Greek Dark Ages, the Carthaginians had writing, senates, annually elected heads of state, and had an outstanding structure of government – unique in formation, and dispensation.

This Carthaginian system of government was quite different from Greek democracy because the assembly was only consulted when the Senate and Suffete could not agree the way forward. Carthaginian institutions were able to withstand acts of rebellion of note and preclude rule by a tyrant. By giving the assembly limited power, no-one who gained power lacked prior experience of having power.

Aristotle of Stagira depicted the Carthage constitution as swinging between democracy, monarchy, and oligarchy/aristocracy.

Though many defects were present in the Carthaginian system of governance, these defects were also present in Athens, Greece at large, Rome and the United Kingdom too. Though the two Carthaginian Suffetes (chief magistrates) came from the aristocracy, so did Greek archons who came from an Eupatrid clan and Roman Consuls who came from the Patrician class.

In the case of Rome, the bulk of Consuls came from just under fifty families (gentes).

Athens, Rome and the United Kingdom were slave economies, with significant wealth harvested from the labours of an unpaid class of the population. To confuse the public sometimes slaves are called “Submissives” in modern terms. Above slaves, Sparta had the Helots (who outnumbered the free nine to one), Rome had plebs and the United Kingdom had serfs; all who had no political voice. The poor of Athens – the European origin of democracy – were the Pelatae and also known as Hectemori, who cultivated the lands of the rich at sufficient rent to stay poor.

If then Greece and Rome (the bicameral architypes of the Federal Republic of the United States) and the United Kingdom had these societal features, was Carthage undemocratic or not antecedent to Greek democracy?

While Athens was ruled by Hippocrates, his son Peisistratos between 561 and 527 BC, and the grandsons of Hippocrates (Hipparchus and Hippias) between 546 and 510 BC, Carthage was electing heads of state like Hasdrubal I (who served between c. 530 and c. 510 BC).

Carthage had a Council referred to by Aristotle as the Tribunal of a Hundred and Four, by Rome as “the Senate” and by the Greeks as “the Council of Elders”. These elders provided a system of checks and balances for the Shophets / Suffetes – the Carthaginian chief magistrates or Judges.

The republic structure of Carthage is similar to the structure of early Greek democracy around 509 and early Roman democracy around 509 BC but predates them both.

The decline of Carthage started with international treaties with Rome (Polybius, The Histories, 3.25) to assist Rome in its fifteen-year war against the Greeks (Pyrrhus of Epirus). After Pyrrhus left the region of modern-day Italy, Carthage was seen as an aggressive expanding rival of Rome, following its occupation of Sicily to rescue Hiero II of Syracuse. When Hiero II changed his mind and asked Rome for assistance, this sparked the Punic wars that would destroy Carthage, considered the first World War.


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Elections in 9th Century BCE Africa: Carthage, Prior to Athenian Democracy

by Editorial Team time to read: 12 min