Ethnicities in Eastern Numidia

The ancient city of Calama probably had a Punic origin. It prospered under Masinissa’s Numidian kingdom before incorporation into Rome’s political sphere. Like Hippo Regius and Thagaste, it was part of the Roman province called Africa Proconsularis. However, this was originally Numidian territory.

Like cities elsewhere in the region, Calama was ethnically diverse. Stelae housed in a small room stage left in the reconstructed Roman theater and scattered around the garden outside show a blend of Numidian, Punic, and Roman cultures. But before seeing pictures, here are a few quick remarks about ethnic terms.

(1) As already noted, “Libyan” refers to the indigenous language (or language family) in North Africa. The Numidians were an ethnic group whose native language was historically Libyan.

(2) The term “exonym” means “name (-nym) of a group used by outsiders (exo-),” and “endonym” means “name (-nym) used by people inside (endo-) a group for themselves.” The origin of exonyms is usually derogatory, though often groups adopt them and turn them into endonyms (e.g. “Christian,” meaning “Christling,” was once a condescending exonym).

(3) “Punic” is the exonym Romans used of Phoenicians in the western Mediterranean. The Phoenicians were from northern Canaan (roughly modern Lebanon). They colonized the western coast of North Africa and founded Carthage. However, “Phoenician” is the Greek exonym for this group, who seem to have called themselves “Canaanites.” But their endonym, “Canaanite,” refers to other groups in Canaan, too, as how “American” doesn’t just refer to people from the United States.

So we are left with a problem in terminology. Should we use the standard and sometimes derogatory exonyms (“Punic” for those in the west, “Phoenician” for those in the east) that don’t reflect the identities of the people we are talking about? Or instead should we use the endonym “Canaanite” despite it being too general for identifying the particular group in question (not to mention the biblical associations we’d do well to avoid)?

(4) One solution is to call these people in the western Mediterranean “Carthaginian” after the most prominent Punic/Phoenician/Canaanite city in the region. At least “Carthage” is actually from their own word for the city, Qart-Ḥadašt (meaning “New City”), though bastardized through Latin, French, and English. But “Carthaginian” suggests a sort of “national” unity among Punic/Phoenician/Canaanite communities with Carthage as its “capital.” This is just not historically accurate. So the meaning of “Carthaginian” should probably remain “related to the city of Carthage.”

Until someone comes up with better terms, I retain the exonym “Punic” despite the derogatory origin of the term (see 2) in order to avoid the ambiguity of “Canaanite” (see 3) and the unintended implications of “Carthaginian” (see 4).

In fact, all of the ethnic terms for this region are difficult. It’s not just the term Punic. “Libyan” is Greek. We do not know what Libyan speakers called themselves or their language. “Numidian” is from Latin, borrowed from the Greek νομάδες, “nomads,” which at best only smells of deprecation. The etymology of “African” is uncertain. While we use it to refer to the continent, Romans used it usually to refer to people from the province they called Africa.

So there’s no good answer to the question of what ethnic terms are appropriate. But at least we can look at pictures of what they produced. These are from Calama.

The room in the theater with stelae:

The figures resemble the standard depiction of the Carthaginian goddess Tanit, whose arms are often raised as if in prayer. (But Tanit usually has a triangular body that makes her representation look similar to the image of a woman on a restroom door sign.)

What looks like a sideways crescent moon at the top of stelae is a common Punic motif found even on stelae with inscriptions written in Latin (left and right):

A number of stelae have inscriptions written in Punic:

There are also some Libyan inscriptions:

It’s impossible to determine the ethnic makeup of a city like Calama from stelae and inscriptions alone. At the end of the day, a few stones are just a few stones. But there’s a variety of other evidence confirming that this part of Numidia was a rich blend of ethnicities and cultures. Haphazard finds like those above reflect this.

For more stelae and inscriptions from Calama, see the Flickr Album!

One thought on “Ethnicities in Eastern Numidia

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  1. Fortuitously, on the same day this post went live Prof. Josephine Quinn won a prestigious Goodwin Award for her book, In Search of the Phoenicians (Princeton University Press, 2018). Check it out!

    The Society of Classical Studies says this about her book: “Today we think we know who the Phoenicians were. Credited with a range of cultural firsts, from the alphabet to civilization itself, indeed “from the pole star to the Cornish cream tea,” the world would simply not be the same without them. But do we really know who they were? Josephine Quinn’s In Search of the Phoenicians offers a surprising answer: we do not; check the evidence itself. Understood as a singular, self-defining ethnic group, their shared identity manifest in language, in forms of government, and in a set of cultural practices, “the Phoenicians” appear in the historical record of other peoples only, from Homer to the present. Their ethnic and cultural label was not their own, but was awarded to them by others.

    “The thesis is startling, and its consequences mind-boggling. If we remove the label, the Phoenicians cease to enjoy an independent existence. Did they even have a sense of shared identity? Or were they no more than a phantom product of the West? They may be a historical mirage, but that is only the beginning of Quinn’s remarkable story.”


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