The Adoption of Demeter and Kore by the Carthaginians in 396 BC: A Climatological Perspective
(Trinity College Dublin)
In the year 396 BC, ‘a fiery eruption’ (πυρὸς ἐκραγέντος) of Etna forced a large Carthaginian invasion force to reroute their southern march through Sicily (Diod. Sic. 14.59.3). Over the course of the following weeks the army would suffer further setbacks, from ‘inexplicable disturbances’ (παράλογοι ταραχαὶ) that shook their camp by night, to the outbreak of a virulent epidemic blamed partly on the ‘unusually hot weather of that particular summer’ (ἐκεῖνο τὸ θέρος καύματα παρηλλαγμένα) (14.59.3; 63.2; 70.4). In Africa, the developing crisis worsened when a large rebellion gathered pace as it advanced through the countryside, besieging the city and sparking a domestic conflict which Carthage had yet to fully recover from by 392. While the rebel cause collapsed when ‘food ran out’ (ἐξέλειπον αἱ τροφαίto), the Carthaginians prevailed by provisioning themselves with supplies from Sardinia along with the extraordinary step of adopting wholesale the Greek agricultural cult of Demeter and Kore in attempts to end the ‘divine wrath’ (τὸ δαιμόνιον […] τῆς ὀργῆς) from which they suffered (14.77.4-6).
In this paper, I explore the possibility that the timing and intensity of Carthage’s early fourth century crisis were affected by volcanically induced climatic perturbations. Independent of evidence for Etna’s eruption in literary sources, recent developments in the resolution of ice core chronologies for events of explosive volcanism (Sigl et al. 2015) evince two substantial volcanic eruptions during this time: A Northern Hemispheric event in 396 and a tropical event in 392 (+/-1 year). The environmental impacts of these events in the southern Mediterranean may have included anomalous weather such as reduced or irregular precipitation harmful to the sensitive and rain dependent agriculture of the Carthaginian Maghreb and they therefore offer one potential piece of environmental context both for Carthage’s adoption of a new cereal cult and the severe nature of social unrest in the mid-390s.
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