The Cults of Saturn and Juno Caelestis, and the Roman Era Tophet

The use of Carthaginian Tophet is well documented the archaeological record in the Punic time period. Over 20,000 burials have been unearthed in the numerous excavations that have occurred there. But after the destruction of the city in 146BCE by the Romans, the use of the Tophet becomes much more difficult to understand. Did the old religion of the conquered Carthaginians die at this time, or did the native North Africans continue to practice the belief system that had been in place for over five hundred years? There is excellent evidence that the cults of Baal Hammon and Tanit continued during the Romanization of North Africa, only with a Roman face. The evidence of a continued cult in North Africa is good evidence that the cult was also present in the leading city of North Africa as well, and this, by inference, will provide strong evidence that the Tophet of Carthage continued to function as a center of worship to the old Punic gods, although by then the Carthaginian Tophet had adapted its practices to be more acceptable to its new Roman masters.

The Primary Sources
Written primary sources for the continuation of the cults of Baal Hammon and Tanit, as well as the Tophet of Carthage are scanty at best. The most interesting quote comes from Tertullian:

Infantes penes Africam Saturno immolabantur palam usque ad proconsulatum Tiberii, qui eosdem sacerdotes in eisdem arboribus templi sui obumbratricibus scelerum votivis crucibus exposuit, teste militia patriae nostrae, quae id ipsum munus illi proconsuli functa est. Sed et nunc in occulto perseveratur hoc sacrum facinus.
Tertullian Apolegeticum, IX.2
Tertullian emphatically believes that the practice of sacrificing children to the god Baal Hammon and Tanit was still occurring in his time. He however does not name Baal Hammon by name, but says the god Saturn received the child sacrifice that was a defining element of his and Tanit’s cult in Punic times. It is difficult, however, to take Tertullian honestly, as he is very hostile towards the pagans who were at that time persecuting and executing his fellow Christians. His impassioned defense of Christianity may have made him over-zealous in his accusations. The implication, that the Carthaginians were still worshiping Baal Hammon, is evident, only that at this time the cult had taken on the face of their new Roman masters.
Other primary sources do not attest specifically to the use of the Carthaginian Tophet in Roman era Carthage, but do make reference to the cult practices of the North African rites. There are a few sources that do mention that the rites of Saturn (Baal Hammon) and of Juno Caelestis (Tanit) in this time period. St. Augustine mentions in both Civitas Dei 2.4 and 2.26 that the goddess Caelestis is the most important of pagan goddesses to the city of Carthage. In fact, in one instance, he even claims to have joined in the rituals as a young man. These references refer to the generic practice of ritual in the region of North Africa, and not to Carthage specifically. In addition, all of these classical sources are hostile, due to cultural differences, to the Punic Traditions. St. Cyprian (Acta Proconsularia 2) and Quodvultdeus (dealt with in more detail in Roman Tophet section) additionally mention the rites of Caelestis and Saturn in their own writings.
Saint Perpetua’s Passion offers another interesting idea. In the Martyrdom of SS. Perpetua et Felicitas, before the martyrs enter the arena for their sentence, the guards attempt to dress the men as Saturn and the women as Ceres, which Picard construes as a veneration to Saturn with blood, much as was done in Punic Carthage, except at this time in legal and socially acceptable form.[1]

Archaeological Evidence
Some of the clear archaeological evidence for the continuation of cult into the Roman period is the design of temples. The Punic period cult demonstrates a desire for tripartite images, such as the Punic shrine found at Cappidazzu in Motya on Sicily. This temple building contained a pillar shrine divided into three parts, which is considered a betyl, or pillar, shrine. The three-part shrines are common in Phoenician religion, and the image of this particular kind of shrine is shown on a number of stelae from the Punic world. The Temple of Saturn at Thugga demonstrates a continuation in form for the tripartite shrine, although on a much grander scale. The inner cellae at the Thugga temple also had a tripartite arrangement. The inner temple shrine was stepped, with two flanking rooms in a three-part arrangement.[2] There was no real need to create the temple in this manner, so why create a three-part shrine except to emphasis the number. The association of the number three, in addition to the literary sources that equate the god Saturn to Baal Hammon’s ritual, is compelling evidence for the continuation of cult practices from the Punic period.
More evidence is given for the continuation of Punic cult practice by the stelae and ex-votos pottery found in conjunction with the temple of Saturn and the Temple of Caelestis found at Thugga. The inscriptions, as well as the relief imagery, found on the stelae bring forth images of the exact same type of offerings made at the Tophet in Punic Carthage. The symbols associated with the Caelestis temple are the most striking in their similarity, notably their use of the symbol of Tanit and the crescent moon.[3] The only difference between the two is that no human remains are found at the Thugga site. The tripartite structure, taken in to account with the fact that the structure was built next to a site for the burial of offerings in pottery ex-votos, and there is a convincing argument made that this site represents the continuation of cult practice from a Punic period with a Roman façade.
Thus, when all is taken into account as a whole, an inference can be made that the traditional religion of the Punic North Africans survives the occupation of the Romans. The native North African population clung to their own traditions, even as they “put on a good face” for their Roman masters. The cult of the Capitoline Trio and the Emperor were introduced to tie the community with the city of Rome in far off Italy. Saturn and Caelestis, however, were the cults of the masses, continually practiced even after the destruction of the great city of Carthage.
Christian authors make mention of these deities as worshipped in North Africa, the places of worship have ties to forms and traditions from pre-Roman times, and the form of the offerings made are strikingly similar to those made in the Punic period. So the question now isn’t whether the cults of Saturn and Juno Caelestis constitute a continuation of a Punic belief system, but where and how this was practiced in the Roman colony of Carthage.

The Roman Tophet
Quodvultdeus, a bishop of 5th century Carthage prior to the arrival of the Vandals, describes a huge complex dedicated to the worship of Caelestis, Saturn and Venus in Carthage. Henry Hurst believes that he has found evidence for this site. Excavating in the area of the Tophet near the commercial harbor of ancient Carthage, evidence has been uncovered for a large series of Roman era vaults with monumental staircases. If leveled, these vaults would create a huge three tiered “platea,” big enough to be considered the two mile complex that Quodvultdeus mentions in his Liber de promissionibus et praedictionibus Dei 3.38.44. Hurst conjectures that the large “platea” was flanked on the left (when viewing from the commercial harbor) by a temple of Saturn, which was situated next to a temple dedicated to Venus. At the top of the hill now known as Koudiat el Hobsia looking over the “platea” was a temple of Caelestis.[4] The evidence for this complex is a bit tenuous. The main problems have been mass looting of the site for building materials, but a precious few evidentiary items do remain. The remains of the foundations, a possible cornice and door jamb fragment, a partial fragment of a what must have been a much larger mosaic, and pieces of the shaft of a column along with a broken Corinthian capital.
Stronger evidence is found in the marble head of a robed Saturn and the numerous stelae found with the standard S.A.S (Saturno Augusto Sancto) inscriptions typical for Saturn found at other sites such as Thugga.[5] The S.A.S type of stelae text is strikingly similar in form to almost all the Punic stelae found in pre-Roman levels at Carthage, Hadrumetum, and Motya.[6] The Punic stelae typically begin “To the lord Baal…” and usually include the worshipers name and comment that the promised sacrifice has been fulfilled. The Roman era stelae show a very similar standard, thus demonstrating a continued practice in the Roman era.
Taken altogether, along with the evidence for similar sanctuaries and cults at other sites in North Africa, and given the sad state of preservation for the site of Carthage[7] , it is difficult to definitively state that Hurst’s scenario is conclusive, but it certainly is an attractive idea that has its merits.

Religion is a personal event, and individuals place a great deal of their own passions and identity in their beliefs. To believe that in one fell swoop that the Romans were able to stamp out a belief system that had been in place in North Africa for six centuries is difficult. One only has to look through the history of the region to see how readily they adopted heresies and clung to them through the most oppressive of contrary dogmas.[8] Thus the evidence presented is plausible when taken as a whole. One, the cults of Saturn and Juno Caelestis are mentioned in numerous ancient sources; two, the temples for these deities are built on the remains of older centers of worship for their Punic counterparts; and most importantly the ex-votos practices for these Roman era deities are extremely similar to their Punic predecessors. The inference can be made that the Roman era Tophet in Carthage was used for the continuation of the cult practices of Punic Carthage.

Annotated Bibliography:
Primary Sources

Tertullian Apoligeticum IX.2-4
Tertullian was a Late 2nd/Eary 3rd century Christian writer. His vehement defense of the Christian faith during the times of the persecutions empowered an ever-growing crop of martyrs for the young Church. As impassioned an advocate though he was, Tertullian was not able to practice that which he preached, living until old age and dying a natural death. Tertullian rather shockingly state that child sacrifice is still practiced in North Africa in the pagan rituals associated with Saturn.
Saint Augustine Civitas Dei 2.4 and 2.26
The great father of the early Church was born to a pagan father and a Christian mother in the unassuming town of Thagaste. He was well educated in the Roman system at Carthage and spent his youth in the dispensations of pleasure. Baptized and ordained by St. Ambrose when in Milan, Augustine returned to Hippo Regius and became a strong advocate for the Catholic way in a tumultuous time for the early Church. Augustine details some of the pagan rituals of ancient Carthage in his City of God.
Quodvultdeus Liber de promissionibus et praedictionibus Dei 3.38.44
A bishop of early 5th century CE Carthage, Quodvultdeus lived during the Vandal occupation of the city. Exiled by Geiseric the Vandal king, he lived the rest of his life in Naples, Italy. He gives a description, albeit a hasty one, of the sanctuaries of Saturn and Caelestis at Carthage.
Saint Cyprian Acta Proconsularia 2
Saint and martyr of the early Church in North Africe, Cyprian was beheaded in the year 258 CE. Cyprian gives a very brief (a single line) in the Acta Proconsularia to describe the location of the temple of Saturn in the city of Carthage.
Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis 18.4
SS. Perpetua and Felicitas were two young women given to the beasts in the great persecutions under the Emperor Septimius Severus. In section 18.4, the curious idea of dressing the male martyrs as Christians before they enter the arena is put forward, providing evidence that Saturn is somehow associated with the shedding of blood of victims in the arena.

Web Sources
Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dougga
The Wikipedia site for Dougga (ancient Thugga) is a good source for general information for the inner workings of an ancient North African town. I personally inform students to avoid Wikipedia as a reference on any assignment, but this particular site is very well done. This would work as a wonderful resource to any study on the Romanization of the provinces.

Secondary Sources for Teachers
Brown, S. (1991). Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context. Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press.
An excellent source and catalogue of evidence for the ritual practices conducted in the Punic Tophet in the Western Mediterranean World. Brown not only gives her own interpretation of the Child Sacrifice in the Phoenician World, but backs it with compelling evidence from the archaeological record. The inscriptions are catalogued in an easy to browse format as well.

Hurst, H. (1999). "The Sanctuary of Tanit at Carthage in the Roman Period: A Re-Interpretation." Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series Number 30.

A revision of the archaeological evidence found at the Tophet. He argues that the Carthaginian cults did not disappear with the coming of Romanitas at the shrine. Quite to the contrary, he puts forth a plausible scenario for a temple complex to the successors deities of Baal Hammon and Tanit. Unfortunately for this scenario, the archaeological record is a bit thin to prove his ideas beyond a doubt.

Rives, J. B. (1995). Religion and Authority in Roman Carthage from Augustus to Constantine. Oxford, Claredon Press.
This book is an exhaustive study of the process of change in the religion of North Africans. The work is subdivided into well-organized chapters, allowing it to be used a bit at a time or for a quick reference. Rives makes a persuasive argument for the continuation of Punic practices even in the Christian era of North Africa.

Bomgardner, D. L. (1989). "The Carthaginian Amphitheatre: A Reappraisal." American Journal of Archaeology 93(1): 85-109.
This reference is more geared towards how the amphitheatre was put to everyday use in ancient Carthage, but Bomgardner does make a number of well present inferences as to the popularity enjoyed by the games in North Africa. He takes from Leglay and Picard the idea that the human sacrifice practiced by Carthaginians in Punic times finds a place in the shedding of human blood in the arena.

Secondary Sources for Students

http://archaeology.suite101.com/article.cfm/tophet Natasha Sheldon 2008
For students, it gives a brief overview of the use of the Tophet for students. It is unintimidating and easy to understand. This would be an excellent introduction site for a unit on Carthage, but not an in-depth study for the cult practices of Carthage.

This is a photo collection of building from throughout the ancient world, including North Africa. The site itself is well organized, and present a high-quality view of what the archaeological sites, such as the Temple of Saturn at Dougga, look like today.

The Phoenician Religion, with its myriad of strangely named gods and even stranger cult practices, can be difficult to relate to the high school student. This website would be an a great “jumping off point” for a student interested in learning more about the religion of Punic Carthage. It has a good section that discusses Baal and Tanit, including a description of the sign of Tanit by Pierre Cintas and an essay concering the representations of Baal Hammon by Louis Foucher. The website is also well foot-noted and referenced with a bibliography.

  1. ^ Bomgardener “The Carthaginian Amphitheatre: A Reappraisal” AJA:93.1 (1989) p90
  2. ^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dougga (Temple of Saturn)
  3. ^ Rives, J. B. (1995). Religion and Authority in Roman Carthage from Augustus to Constantine. Oxford, Claredon Press. p 163
  4. ^ Hurst, H. (1999). "The Sanctuary of Tanit at Carthage in the Roman Period: A Re-Interpretation." Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series Number 30. pp 32-39
  5. ^ Hurst (supra n. 4) pp 39-43
  6. ^ Rives (supra n. 3) pp 148-49
  7. ^ Rives (supra n. 3) p 153
  8. ^ Raven, Susan Rome in Africa gives a good overview of the controversy of the Donatists and the Arians in North Africa