A trade in other people’s children

An episode of Paul MM Cooper’s outstanding documentary podcast series “The Fall of Civilizations” recounts the history of Carthage, which includes details of wars fought between the Carthaginians and Syracuse during the 300s BC. Carthage, a highly successful sea-trading nation, fought a number of wars with Greek colonies in Sicily prior to later wars with Rome.

Cooper describes how the Carthaginians made extensive use of mercenary armies, to spare themselves from the dirty business of fighting wars. During a Carthaginian siege of Syracuse, the Syracusans turned the tables on their attackers and sailed to attack Carthage. The wealthy but martially inept Carthaginians made impromptu efforts at fielding an army. This didn’t go well. The Carthaginians brought shackles in hopes of enslaving the Greeks, but instead found themselves routed in the field. Having scrambled behind their walls, the Carthaginians attempted to generate divine favor by sacrificing children to their gods.

Contemporaneous Greek accounts, and later archeological evidence, indicate that the Carthaginians may have been the last Mediterranean civilization to practice human sacrifice. As if this were not odious enough, wealthy Carthaginians would purchase and sacrifice other people’s children.

At first these rituals seem to have been an authentic sacrifice, giving up the life of your own children in the hope of receiving favor from the gods, but before long, wealthy Carthaginians found a way around this. In fact, they seem to have developed a macabre industry, a trade in other people’s children for sacrifice.

Fortunately, sensibilities have evolved in intervening millennia, and we don’t go in for either human or for that matter, animal sacrifice, these days. Still this account struck me as unsettling. We manage to field our own military here in the United States. The decades of scandal related to politically connected Americans avoiding the draft has, however, more than a faint echo of the Carthaginian elite sending someone else to fight for them. Dodging military service inevitably entailed sending someone less connected, less fortunate than yourself to fight and sometimes to die in your place.

The phrase “a trade in other people’s children for sacrifice” is perhaps a bit strong to describe what happened to students during the COVID-19 debacle, but perhaps not, especially considering the minimal value derived from billions of federal education dollars. No small number of Americans benefited from choice schools as children, benefited from choice schools as parents, but oppose programs to provide K-12 choice to others. Like Carthaginians of old, these people are willing to sacrifice someone’s children for one reason or another, just not their own.

Between damaging their demographic prospects by sacrificing children to statues and mercenary forces turning on them in the Second and Third Punic wars, the Carthaginians hit the dustbin of history.

Praeterea dico exercitia Carthaginiensium in America delenda est.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.