Negative Ethnic Stereotyping and Punica Fides

Dido. Aeneas telling Dido about the misfortunes of the city of Troy, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1815

Negative Ethnic Stereotyping and Punica Fides

By Brooke Boyd


Punica fides, literally meaning “Punic faith,” is a derogatory Roman idiomatic expression synonymous with treachery; it alludes to the stereotype that Carthaginians had an inborn ethnic flaw that gave them a propensity for disingenuousness and faithlessness. The expression probably stems from allegations that the Carthaginians caused the Punic Wars by breaking several treaties. However, extant literary evidence suggests that the phrase did not enter the Roman vernacular until several generations after the Third Punic War’s conclusion, long past the point when there were any Punici in North Africa at whom the slur might be directed, though other negative ethnic stereotypes about Punics existed throughout Roman history. As historical and literary contexts elucidate, Romans and later Roman subjects utilized these stereotypes to different effects, which steadily evolved and built on each other, starting with stereotypes that demonized Carthaginians ethnically in the mid-Republic and finishing with the adoption of previously negative Punic stereotypes by non-Punic groups to oppose Roman authority in the Late Empire.

An understanding of what counts as Punic is critical to any examination of the meaning of “Punic faith.” The Latin words Cartharginiensis, Poenus, Punicus, and Phoinix refer to people, places, and things that have Phoenician origins; however, the terms reference separate groups. Carthaginiensis refers to people and things from the city of Carthage. Although Carthage remained the dominant Phoenician colony for most of its existence, other notable independent Phoenician colonies existed as well. Thus, not all Punics were Carthaginian, but all Carthaginians were Punic. Carthaginiensis is a civic identifier, not an ethnic one. For ethnic identity, the Romans used the word Poenus to denote members of the western Phoenician ethnic group. The term refers to inhabitants of both Phoenicia proper and the western Phoenician colonies. The Romans differentiate between these two groups further by introducing the word Punicus, which refers to people, places, and things of western Punic origin, and Phoinix, which refers to the Levantine Phoenician centers and their inhabitants.1 Thus, both Poenus and Punicus are ethnic (not civic) identifiers for inhabitants of Carthage. Though the Romans (and even more so modern scholars) sometimes allowed these terms to blur together, the difference between them is crucial.2 These distinctions mean that the negative sentiments embodied by Punica fides were originally solely attached to the ethnic group living in Carthage.3

The Romans’ negative view of the Carthaginians must have emerged during the Punic Wars. However, mid-Republican authors who lived through the destruction and death of the first and second Punic Wars did not all portray Carthaginians as the strictly “evil” other that one might expect. Certainly, Ennius writes in his Annales that the Carthaginians sacrifice their own children (Poeni soliti suos sacrificare puellos)4 and are blatantly prideful (iniqua superbia Poeni)5 in an effort to emphasize negative stereotypes and Carthaginian practices that would be unpopular among his Roman audiences. However, Plautus, a contemporary of Ennius, presents a significantly more complex portrayal of the Carthaginians. Though Hanno, whom Plautus describes as Poenus plane,6 fulfills the role of the wily senex in the Poenulus, he is the only character in the Plautine corpus to whom pietas is ascribed—a virtue Hanno fulfills conspicuously throughout the play. Hanno, an embodiment of Rome’s greatest enemy, is the hero of the Poenulus.7 The title of the comedy, though, is not without note.8 Poenulus is not only a diminutive term, but, as discussed earlier, it is an ethnic label with primarily derogatory implications and applications in later Roman literature. This suggests that the play is, first and foremost, a product of ethnic stereotyping. These stereotypes envision a people who are paradoxically honorable and wicked, the two sentiments completely at odds because of their contemporaneity. The Poenulus, then, marks the beginning of the Romans’ conscious decision to distance themselves from the people they held responsible for the military and civilian deaths of the first and second Punic Wars.

The Romans did not, at this stage, hold a completely negative view of the Carthaginians, as suggested by the fact that they chose to preserve volumes from Carthaginian libraries, with D. Silanus, a Roman aristocrat, translating Mago’s agricultural treatises into Latin.9 This act not only shows respect for Carthaginian intellectual and literary contributions but also demonstrates that at least some of the Roman elite had command of the Punic language. 10

This dynamic began to change with the third Punic War. The war was a matter of contention from the beginning, with the Roman elite split on whether it was necessary and much of the Mediterranean shocked by what they saw as the brutal and unwarranted razing of Carthage in 146 BCE.11, 12 About a generation after the razing of Carthage, Punica fidesfirst appeared explicitly: Sallust used the phrase to describe the Moorish king Bocchus’ bad faith.13 The use of the phrase is important to note because it indicates two things: 1) sometime between the end of the third Punic War and Sallust’s publication of Bellum Jugurthinum, the phrase Punica fides was popularized and proverbialized,14 and 2) one does not have to be Punic to engage in Punica fides. Where earlier ethnic stereotypes about Carthaginians were the product of anti-Punic attitudes among survivors of the Punic Wars and served to distance Rome from Carthage, the new stereotype, Punica fides, originally served to justify Rome’s choice to raze Carthage and deflect external criticism.15 With neither Carthaginians nor recognized Punics left in North Africa to oppose the construct, it grew rapidly in prevalence and meaning until it lost its ethnic connotation and simply came to mean the deepest faithlessness one can exhibit.16 Livy famously describes Hannibal in this period as having perfidia plus quam punica, or “faithlessness worse than Punic.”17One who has “Punic perfidy” has no faith whatsoever, except for Hannibal, who had become the bogeyman of the Roman world. Hannibal apparently had so little good faith that Livy felt the need to invent a whole new category. For him, Hannibal’s bad faith was more than Punic; it was ultra-Punic.18 In other words, in trying to deeply vilify Hannibal and attribute to him extreme faithlessness, Livy demonstrates to modern readers that the term “Punic” had, at that point, already become disconnected from the western Phoenician ethnic group and morphed into a synonym of “untrustworthy.”

If Hannibal was ultra-Punic because he was Rome’s greatest enemy, then that also implies his exemplification of everything Rome was not. This reveals the ultimate purpose for which Rome utilized anti-Punic ethnic stereotypes in the early Empire: to redefine itself. Rome had entered a period of rapid expansion, taking on the role of the noble conqueror who embodies fides and remains committed to pietas and duty to its allies at all costs. As the poet Vergil wrote in the Aeneid, Rome’s creation epic: “Remember, Roman, it will be for you to rule peoples with your imperium; this will be your art, to crown peace with law, to spare the subjugated, and to decimate the proud.”19 Vergil defines Carthage and Rome as opposites right from the beginning: Karthago, Italiam contra Tiberinaque longe ostia.20 Then, when Dido and Aeneas’ relationship deteriorates completely because Aeneas abandons her, Aeneas ultimately leaves Carthage because he is attonitus tanto monitu imperioque deorum.21 Though visibly upset at the thought of leaving Dido, he chooses to leave to fulfill his duties. Vergil goes on to construct a picture of two nations whose brutal conflict was inevitable and predestined because it was the gods’ will. He imagines a Carthage whose scorned queen killed herself and vowed that her descendants would avenge her.22 Vergil’s Aeneid, like the Poenulus, is not completely anti-Punic, nor is it blindly nationalistic to Rome. Dido takes on the role of hospes, welcoming Aeneas and his compatriots, and it is Aeneas who reneges on his implied agreement with Dido, causing her to commit suicide. Moreover, John Starks Jr. asserts that Vergil intended Roman audiences to see Aeneas’ behavior as stereotypically Punic and to sympathize with Dido.23 Vergil emphasizes stereotypically Roman and Punic ethnic traits throughout the epic because he intends for the Romans to identify with a group that has ultimately become their opposite in popular belief. Vergil’s decision to write Aeneas and Dido in this way reveals that, even as Rome rebuilt a colony at Carthage, the city and its former peoples had been reduced to an idea through which Rome defined itself, and that Rome had adopted a self-depiction of the antithesis of an imagined Carthage.

Having adopted the image of Anti-Carthage, as Rome expanded its boundaries, enemies of the Roman state began to take ownership of previously negative Punic stereotypes. So entrenched had the view of Rome and Carthage as opposites become that enemies of the Empire began to assume the identity intentionally, twisting the stereotype a final time. Take the Vandals in North Africa. Though the Romans accused the Vandals of Punica fides,24 the Vandals themselves adopted the persona of the “new Carthaginians,” minting coins with Punic motifs: “Unburdened by its traditional negative connotations, the Vandal kings were willing to take ownership of the traditional Roman imperial narrative that emphasized the ongoing and as yet undecided struggle between two great Mediterranean powers” (Miles 391). What Rome contorted into its opposite to justify the razing of Carthage and then solidify its perception as morally superior to non-Romans, non-Romans adopted to overtly oppose Roman authority in the mid to late imperial era. Additionally, adopting a Punic ethnic tag allowed Vandal kings to build a rapport with the Romano-African elite in New Carthage and emphasize a narrative that promoted the image of a Punic Carthage free from Rome as opposed to a Roman Carthage conquered by barbarians.25

Roman anti-Punic ethnic stereotypes took different forms throughout Roman history. These stereotypes, invented and popularized at different times, often served different purposes. Ennius’ Poeni, who are evil and impious and everything Rome is not, are the product of a hurt and angry Rome in the shadow of brutal wars. Yet the examples of Plautus and Mago show us that opinions about the Carthaginians in their time were more complex and that a relationship of mutual respect still existed between Rome and Carthage. After the third Punic War, however, Rome needed to explain itself to a shocked world, thus marking the appearance and subsequent popularization of Punica fides, starting with Sallust. The stereotype quickly gained momentum until it became idiomatic. This was Rome’s way of justifying a massacre and explaining why Carthage and its inhabitants deserved to be wiped away. The phrase implied that Carthaginians had become corrupted at an ethnic level and that Rome was doing the world a service by eliminating them. Vergil illustrates that the phrase, entirely proverbial by his day, had become detached from the people it derogated and merely served as a vehicle through which Rome projected its self-depiction of moral superiority. Once the detached ethnic aspect of Punica fides became closely associated with Rome, enemies of the Roman state like the Vandals happily adopted the tag of Punica for their own geopolitical objectives.


Brooke Boyd is a senior at Tulane University majoring in Classics and Mathematics.



  1. Franko (1996) “The Characterization of Hanno in Plautus’ Poenulus,” 153-154.
  2. Ibid, 153-158.
  3. As stated previously, Poenus and Punicus also apply to inhabitants of other Phoenicians colonies in the western Mediterranean, however they have little relevance to this paper and, thus, I have chosen to omit them here. Though I have demonstrated the difference between Poenus, Punicus, and Carthaginiensis in Latin literature, I will, for the most part, employ these terms interchangeably and try to indicate when I am referring to ethnic labels as opposed to civic ones.
  4. Ennius “Annals,” 214.
  5. Plautus Poenulus 113; Franko (1994) asserts that Plautus’ choice to describe Hanno as plainly Punic (directly followed by quid verbus opust?) means that Plautus has not only heaped all existing stereotypes surrounding Punic peoples onto this character, but that Hanno represents all stereotypical Punic groups rather than an individual: audiences no longer see the character, only his ethnicity. Thus, Hanno’s interactions and descriptions should be analyzed as representative of Roman stereotypes of Punic individuals, not just Plautus’ possibly aberrant beliefs. Moreover, even if Plautus’ beliefs are aberrant from popular opinion, he must have expected his audiences to be receptive to Hanno, and thus Hanno’s sympathetic portrayal remains indicative of Roman attitudes after the Hannibalic War.
  6. Franko (1994) “The Use of Poenus and Carthaginiensis in Early Latin Literature,” 425-450; Starks (2000) “Nullus Me Est Hodie Poenus Poenior,” 163-186.
  7. Cf. Franko (1994) “The Use of Poenus and Carthaginiensis in Early Latin Literature,” 427-429 and Giusti 1.5. The actual name of the play and identity of the Poenulus in question is the subject of some scholarly contention since Plautus never gives the Latin name of the play and there are several Punic characters in the play.
  8. Ennius “Annals,” 287.
  9. It is important to consider here that though Rome was indeed preserving some of Carthage’s works and that some elite Romans spoke the Punic language, the desire to take some Carthaginian books into Latin and discard the rest is a highly imperial, dominating action. This action makes it clear that, though Rome respected Carthage and its innovations enough to preserve some of them, Rome and Carthage did not—under any circumstances—stand on equal footing at this point.
  10. Gruen “Punica Fides,” 129.
  11. See Plutarch Marcus Cato 26-27, Appian Pun. 10.69.
  12. Polybius (in the Histories 36.9) reports that there was both approval and disgust in Greece concerning Rome’s actions. Those who are shocked see Rome’s choice to wipe Carthage off the map as indicative of moral decay in Rome, a moral decay Sallust echoes later in this period.
  13. Sallust Jug. 108.3: Sed ego conperior Bocchum magis Punica fide quam ob ea quae praedicabat simul Romanum et Numidam spe pacis adtinuisse multumque cum animo suo volvere solitum, Iugurtham Romanis an illi Sullam traderet.
  14. While many sources published directly after the 3rd Punic War have not survived, it is unlikely that Punica fides was idiomatic or even a particularly popular stereotype because none of the extant sources make mention of it. Yes, Cato alleges in his Origines that the Carthaginians broke several treaties leading to the 3rd Punic War, however he does not attribute their breaking the treaties to some innate character flaw. Further, Polybius makes no mention of Punica fides either.
  15. Gruen “Punica Fides,” 130-137.
  16. Quinn “Phoenicians and Carthaginians in Greco-Roman Literature,” 679.
  17. Livy, “History of Rome 21,” 21.4.9.
  18. Starks “Nullus Me Est Hodie Poenus Poenior,” 258.
  19. “Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento;hae tibi erunt artes; pacisque imponere morem, parcere subiectis, et debellare superbos,” Vergil, Aeneid, VI. 851-853.
  20. “Carthage, across from Italy and far from the mouth of the Tiber,” Vergil, Aeneid, 1.13-14.
  21. “Stupefied by so great a command and the supreme power of the gods,” Vergil, Aeneid, 4.282.
  22. I have oversimplified Aeneas’ and Dido’s interactions in the Aeneid because the details of their relationship lie somewhat outside of the bounds of this paper. Cf. Starks (1999) “Fides Aeneia: The Transference of Punic Stereotypes in the Aeneid,” 254-284 for a closer analysis of Dido and her relationship with Aeneas.
  23. Starks “Nullus Me Est Hodie Poenus Poenior,” 265-266, 272-276.
  24. Historia Augusta Max. 18.1-2, Gord. 15.1, 15.3.
  25. Miles “Vandal North Africa and the Fourth Punic War,” 384-406


Works Cited

Ennius. “Annals.” Digital Loeb Classical Library, Translated by Sander M. Goldberg, 2018.

Franko, George Fredric. “The Characterization of Hanno in Plautus’ Poenulus.” American Journal of Philology 117, no. 3 (1996): 425–452.

Franko, George Fredric. “The Use of Poenus and Carthaginiensis in Early Latin Literature.” Classical Philology 89, no. 2 (1994): 153–58.

Gruen, Erich S. ‘Punica Fides.’ Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Livy. “History of Rome 21.” Digital Loeb Classical Library, Translated by J. C Yardley, 2019.

Miles, Richard. “Vandal North Africa and the Fourth Punic War.” Classical Philology 112, no. 3 (2017): 384–410.

Plautus. “The Little Carthaginian.” Digital Loeb Classical Library, Translated by Wolfgang De Melo, 2012.

Polybius. “The Histories.” Digital Loeb Classical Library, Translated by W. R. Paton, 2010.

Quinn, Josephine Crawley. “Phoenicians and Carthaginians in Greco-Roman Literature.” The Oxford Handbook of the Phoenician and Punic Mediterranean, 670–683, 2019).

Sallust. “The War with Jugurtha.” Digital Loeb Classical Library, Translated by J. C. Rolfe, 2013.

Starks, John H. “Fides Aeneia: The Transference of Punic Stereotypes in the Aeneid.” The Classical Journal 94, no. 3 (1999): 255–83.

Starks, Jr., John H. “Nullus Me Est Hodie Poenus Poenior: Balanced Ethnic Humor in Plautus’ Poenulus.” Helios 27, no. 2 (Fall 2000): 163+.

Virgil. “Aeneid.” 262-471. Digital Loeb Classical Library. Translated by H. Rushton Fairclough, 1916.