Aristotle’s analysis of the Carthaginian Constitution

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s take on the Constitution of Carthage

Around 340 BC, Greek philosopher and polymath Aristotle wrote a work called ‘Politics’, which is a collection of writings on politics. Among other things, the work provides an in-depth analysis of the Carthaginian government, institutions, laws, and society.

Aristotle was full of praise of the Carthaginian government, seeing the constitution of Carthage as unique in its time because of its mix of oligarchy and democracy. The Greek philosopher also highlighted how the Carthaginians managed to strike a balance between the power of the aristocracy and the people. Aristotle’s work on Carthage provides valuable insight into the political structures and practices of one of the great powers of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Discover why Greek philosopher praised Carthage as having one of the best forms of government, with the Carthaginian constitution being very superior to all the known constitutions of his time. But first, who was Aristotle?

RELATED: Interesting Facts about Aristotle

Who was Aristotle?

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath who lived from 384–322 BCE. He was a student of Plato and went on to become a tutor for Alexander the Great. Aristotle is known for his vast contributions to many fields, including ethics, politics, metaphysics, logic, biology, and more. His ideas and works had a profound influence on Western philosophy and thought, and he is often considered one of the most important figures in the history of philosophy.

Aristotle’s analysis of the Carthaginian Constitution

Summary of Aristotle’s analysis of the Constitution of Carthage

The Greek philosopher wrote a treatise on the Constitution of Carthage around 340 BC, in which he analyzed the political system of the ancient city-state. He described Carthage as having a mixed constitution, with elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

The Carthaginian government was headed by two chief magistrates, called the sufetes, who were elected for one-year terms and had powers similar to those of kings.

Below the sufetes were the council of elders, which was made up of wealthy and influential citizens who were appointed for life. The council acted as a check on the power of the sufetes, and its members were responsible for various administrative and judicial functions.

The third element of the Carthaginian government was the people’s assembly, which was made up of adult male citizens. The assembly had the power to elect officials, pass laws, and declare war. However, it was not a true democracy, as the assembly was controlled by the wealthy elite, who had a disproportionate amount of influence due to their control of the council of elders.

Overall, Aristotle viewed the Carthaginian constitution as a successful example of a mixed government, with each element balancing the others and preventing any one group from gaining too much power.


Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher

Key points from the analysis of the Carthaginian Constitution

Having looked at the various systems of governance that prevailed in the region in the 4th century BC, Aristotle came to a conclusion that the Carthaginians had a good form of government – arguably the best of the time.

Aristotle saw some sort of semblance between the Carthaginian government and that of the Spartan and the Cretan. He thus called Carthaginian Constitution similar to the type of the Spartans.

When it came to the efficacy of institutions, Aristotle opined that Carthaginian institutions were ‘excellent’. They ranked up there or even better than the ones possessed by Sparta and Crete.

Why did Aristotle see the Carthaginian constitution as superior?

First and foremost, Aristotle cited the fact that Carthaginians generally held in high regard their constitution to be evident of the superior nature of the constitution. The philosopher noted that Carthage was rarely plagued by rebellions as the general public had come to adore the system of government.

Additionally, Aristotle states that the efficacy of the Carthaginian constitution is evident in the fact that there was never a case where a tyrant came to power in Carthage.

Carthaginian constitution and the similarities with the Spartan constitution

Aristotle explained in his treatise just how Carthage’s system of government was a bit similar to the system in Sparta and even Crete. Similar to Carthage, Sparta had a system where the common tables of the clubs report to the Spartan phiditia.

The “common tables” or “syssitia” were communal meals shared by Spartan citizens as part of their daily routine. The “clubs” or “phiditia” were groups of 15 men who ate together at the common tables. The members of each club were chosen by lot, and the clubs were responsible for providing the food for the syssitia. At the end of each month, the clubs would report to the Spartan authorities on the quality of the food and the behavior of their members at the communal meals. This was done to ensure that the syssitia remained an important part of Spartan life and that citizens were living up to the ideals of the Spartan state.

The phiditia was not just a place for eating, but also a social and political institution that fostered camaraderie and collective identity among the Spartan citizens. The system was designed to ensure that all Spartans received a basic level of nutrition and to prevent social distinctions based on wealth, as all citizens were required to contribute equally to the mess.

Another important similarity came in the form of the magistracy. Like Carthage, Sparta had a magistracy of the Hundred-Four report to the Ephors.

The Spartan magistracy of the Hundred-Four was a group of elected officials who oversaw the day-to-day affairs of the city-state. They were responsible for maintaining public order, collecting taxes, and organizing the military. The Hundred-Four reported to the Ephors, a group of five magistrates who held the highest power in the Spartan government. The Ephors were responsible for enforcing the laws and overseeing the education of young Spartans. They also acted as a court of appeals and had the power to declare war or make peace.

The Hundred and Four

Also known as the Council of 104, the Hundred and Four was the tribunal of judges in ancient Carthage. According to Aristotle, in his treatise Politics, the tribunal was “the hightest constitutional authroity”. The tribunal had the power to judge high-ranking military generals of Carthage. By so doing they could make sure that those military gneerals acted in the best interest of the senate and the people. They members of the tribunal used to hold the position for life; however, that changed followig the reforms of Carthaginian general Hannibal. The term was changed to a year.

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman knights killed at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC) by Antwerp-born sculptor Sébastien Slodtz (1655-1726)

What was the Spartan phiditia?

The Spartan phiditia (also spelled phidytia) was a communal dining institution in ancient Sparta. It was a mandatory meal system where all male Spartan citizens were required to dine together at public mess halls, with each group of 15 men forming a “mess” (syssitia) and electing a “mess-leader” (syssitarches) to manage their affairs.

The phiditia was not just a place for eating, but also a social and political institution that fostered camaraderie and collective identity among the Spartan citizens. The system was designed to ensure that all Spartans received a basic level of nutrition and to prevent social distinctions based on wealth, as all citizens were required to contribute equally to the mess.

Kings, Gerousia and Council of Elders

Aristotle noted how the kings and their Gerousia, or council of elders corresponded to the kings and elders of Sparta.

Carthage was initially ruled by kings, with the monarchy believed to have been established around the 8th century BC. However, the power of the kings was gradually reduced over time, with the introduction of other governmental bodies such as the Gerousia and the suffetes (a group of annually elected magistrates). By the 4th century BCE, the kingship had become a largely ceremonial role, with the real power held by the suffetes and the Gerousia.

The Gerousia was a council of elders in Carthage that played an important role in the governance of the city-state. It was similar in function to the Spartan Gerousia, and was made up of 28 members who were chosen for life by the Carthaginian people. Members of the Gerousia were selected from the city’s most distinguished families and were typically over the age of 60.

The Gerousia had a number of important responsibilities, including advising the city’s magistrates and generals, overseeing the administration of justice, and serving as a court of appeals for cases that had already been heard by lower courts. The council also had the power to select judges and magistrates, and was responsible for appointing the city’s two suffets, or chief magistrates, who held executive power.

Aristotle’s view on the differences between Spartan and Carthaginian constitutions

The following are some distinguishing features of the Carthaginian constitution and the Spartan constitution enumerated by Aristotle:

When it came to the magistracy and the Ephors, Aristotle noted a distinguishing feature between Carthage and Sparta. The distinguishing feature was that the magistrates of the Carthaginians were elected based on merit. In Sparta, the Ephors are any chance persons.

Secondly, in Carthage, Aristotle noted that the kings and their council of elders/Gerousia in Carthage did not necessarily have to come from the same family. This does not mean that they were selected from an ordinary one. They were usually selected based on merit from a distinguished family. The selection did not take into consideration seniority.

In Sparta, however, the reverse was the case. The Gerousia and kings were appointed by seniority.

Aristotle bemoaned the flaws of Sparta’s selection methods, stating that it did a lot damage to the society. Therefore, the philosopher praised Carthaginian selection methods for the Gerousia as far superior to Sparta’s. He stated that if the person is of little worth, a lot of damage could be done – as seen in Sparta.

Thirdly, in Carthage, kings and elders could decide whether or not to bring an issue before the people only when they are unanimous. However, if not unanimous, the people decide on those issues. In Sparta and Crete, this is not allowed.

The Magistrates of Five in Carthage

The Magistrates of Five in Carthage were a group of officials responsible for the administration of justice and finances. Their exact duties and responsibilities are not entirely clear, but they were likely involved in managing the city’s finances and overseeing the legal system. The Magistrates of Five were chosen by the Carthaginian assembly, and they held their positions for one year. The number five may have represented the different regions of Carthage or the five parts of the city. Their importance declined over time, and by the time of the Punic Wars, they had lost much of their power and authority to other magistrates and officials.

Best known for dealing with many important issues, the magistrates of five were allowed to appoint other members (i.e. may co-opt additional members). They were responsible for choosing a supreme council of One Hundred. They were also allowed to hold office longer than other magistrates.

The oligarchical features of the Carthaginian constitution

Aristotle saw the Carthaginian constitution as geared more towards oligarchy than aristocracy. He noted that popular opinion was usually on the side of the Carthaginian oligarchs, who were a small number of people, often wealthy, that wielded substantial political influence.

In an oligarchy, the average citizens and mass-based interest groups do not have any substantial influence. The Carthaginians shunned aristocracy, a system of governance where power lies in the hands of small, privileged ruling class called the aristocrats. Unlike aristocracy which relies on the ‘rule of the best’, oligarchical system in Carthage selected the magistrate not only on the basis of merit, but also for their wealth.

Therefore, Carthaginians were ruled by a few, but not necessarily the best-qualified citizens. Greek philosophers like Xenophon, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle himself praised oligarchy as the ideal form of rule.

A poor man cannot rule well

Aristotle believed that the reason why merit and wealth were important determinants in choosing the rulers of Carthage (i.e. kings and generals) was because the poor were usually considered as not having the leisure to rule. Simply put: a poor man cannot rule well.

Aristotle also noted that the Carthaginians were able to avoid the evils of oligarchy by making one portion of the people rich after another. The philosopher believed the above was one of the reasons why the state came to be stable.

Did you know?

Since Rome razed to the ground the libraries of Carthage and destroyed many archives in 146 BC, there exist no definite record of how Carthage’s institutions were actually like.

Despite its important role in Carthaginian governance, little is known about the workings of the Gerousia. Most of what is known comes from ancient texts and inscriptions, as well as from comparisons with similar councils in other ancient Greek and Roman city-states.

Similar to Carthage, the Gerousia in ancient Sparta was a council of elders made up of 28 men over the age of 60 who served as an advisory board to the two Spartan kings and the Spartan assembly, known as the Apella. The Gerousia was responsible for proposing laws and policy, as well as overseeing the education and training of Spartan youth.

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