The Government of Carthage

Hereditary kingship prevailed in Phoenicia down to Hellenistic times, and Greek and Roman sources refer to kingship at Carthage. It appears to have been not hereditary but elective, though in practice one family, the Magonid, dominated in the 6th century.

The power of the kingship was diminished during the 5th century, a development that has its parallels in the political evolution of Greek city-states and of Rome. Roman sources directly transcribe only one Carthaginian political term--sufet, etymologically the same as the Hebrew shofet, generally translated "judge" in the Old Testament but implying much more than merely judicial functions. At some stage, probably in the 4th century, the sufets became the political leaders of Carthage and other western Phoenician settlements. Two sufets were elected annually by the citizen body, but all were from the wealthy classes. Real power rested with an oligarchy of the wealthiest citizens, who were life members of a council of state and decided all important matters unless there was serious disagreement with the sufets. A panel of judges chosen from among its members had obscure but formidable powers of control over all organs of government.

Aristotle greatly admired the Carthaginian political system. Every year two "Suffetes" [literarly, 'judges' or 'chief magistrate'] were elected who were the state's chief administrative officers. They executed policy decisions made by a council of about thirty which itself was a standing subcommittee of a senate of 300. Apparently the ruling class was chosen in a matter that very overtly stressed the possession of wealth (something not unreasonable for a trading community). Carthage was the only non-Greek community about whose constitution Aristotle wrote a commentary and he directly criticized them for this aspect. (Since most Greek communities had some form of emphasis on wealth, the Carthaginians must have done so very dramatically to have earned this censure.)

Additionally, citizens met in popular assembly which appeared to carry little weight until the second century, by which time the ruling class had completely lost the contest with the Romans. Leaders called upon each of the increasingly larger political bodies if they could not reach a concensus within the smaller group. Thus, if the the council reached consensus on a matter of policy, it simply instructed the suffetes to carry out its decision. If council members could not reach consensus, they referred the matter to the senate for debate and decision. If they senate reached consensus, it directed the suffetes to implement its decisions. If they senate could not reach consensus, it referred the matter to the popular assembly. Although the assembly would only be called upon in truly important and controversial matters, citizens enjoyed a great deal of freedom of speech in assembly. Suffetes and members of the council and senate, as well as generals, were elected by the citizenry as a whole.

Unlike a Roman consul, the Suffetes did not take part in military affairs.The Carthaginians appointed professional generals, who were separate from the civil government.

The Carthaginians rested judicial authority in a council of 104 judges chosen from the senate of 300 by a board of five elected magistrates. The judges were charged with supervising magistrates and preventing the suffetes from acting on tyrannical temptations.


Legislative Responsibilities:

Council of 30 Nobles; Senate

Religious and Financial Responsibilities:

Two Annually Elected "Shofetim" or "Suffetes" ("judges")

Judicial Responsibilities:

104 Judges from Ruling Families

Military Responsibilities:

Elected Generals


Citizen Assembly (with property requirements for membership) (Polyb. Histories 6.51-52: "the people were supreme in matters appropriate to them")


Based on text © 1999 Christopher S. Mackay