Fachbereich Geschichtswissenschaft

Carthage, late antique melting pot: an interdisciplinary approach to its population development between the 4th and 7th centuries

Carthage was the second city in the western Mediterranean after Rome in terms of size, and probably superseded it in economic and strategic importance between the 5th and 7th centuries, although it could not compete with Rome’s symbolic value. North Africa was the economic powerhouse of the western Mediterranean from the Roman period through Late Antiquity, and Carthage was its political, social and cultural capital. As other major provincial centres, it had always attracted regional dignitaries and entrepreneurs seeking political influence, fame and fortune. As administrative capital, it hosted the Roman provincial administration as well as the institutions that administered the large imperial estates in North Africa – Carthage was therefore also a destination for bureaucrats and officers in imperial service. In 439, the city was conquered by the Vandals, led by the Hasding royal family, who established their rule over central North Africa and the major western Mediterranean islands from the city. Carthage gained a major new group with the Vandal leading class, but also lost many influential bishops as well as landowners, who were exiled or migrated, due to the politics of the kings especially in its early phases. Another major phase of change was the Byzantine conquest of Carthage and North Africa in 533/4, that again led to the exile of major parts of the Carthaginian population, and the influx of a new class of officers, soldiers and clerics from the eastern Mediterranean. In short, Carthage was the location of major migrations, to and from it, as important metropolis in the late antique western Mediterranean, that must have changed the social structure of the city significantly.

In this project, I will follow an interdisciplinary approach to understand the development of Carthage’s population and its circumstances of life in different phases. The material image we have of the late antique city has become much more nuanced over the past decades, and there are a number of historic sources that allow to reconstruct some of the changes in population and the related migratory movements better. I will add to these two approaches, the classical archaeological and historic ones, data and insights from a current co-operation project that I co-direct with Hamden Ben Romdhane of the ‘Institut National du Patrimoine’ (INP) in Tunis. With Harvard PhD candiate Reed Morgan and the Tunisian anthropologist Najed Chalghoumi, we cooperate with a number of American archaeologists who have granted us access to do aDNA studies of burials from different excavations in Cartahge dating between the 4th and 7th centuries. The laboratory analyses are being done atthe Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. The project is a cooperation between the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) Rome, where I was based until 2022, the INP Tunis and the MPI. The new aDNA study, for which laboratory works are currently undergoing, will also add to a first study we did in cooperation with Marcello Mannino of Aarhus University in which a stable isotope analysis of a Vandal-era cemetery in Carthage was undertaken (Ma et al., 2021: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oa.2958)

With this bioarchaeological approach, we hope to reconstruct migratory patterns and the spread of ancient pathogens in the changing population of Carthage in Late Antiquity, adding new insights to the available archaeological and historic material.