Carthago Inquirenda Est

Aristotle next examines the constitution of Carthage. From what I’d read about the Politics before I started into it, I seem to remember that Aristotle thought highly of the Carthagenian system.


He leads off by telling us that “Many of the Carthaginian arrangements are good; and it is an indication that a constitution is well arranged when the people are content to abide by the constitutional system, and no faction worth mentioning has appeared, and no tyrant.”

In Aristotle’s reckoning, the Carthaginian system has similar governing bodies to that of Sparta, but there are some improvements in how they are staffed. The body that corresponds to the Spartan Ephors, for instance, is “chosen on merit and not from all indiscriminately,” and the Kings (again, curiously plural) are not just whoever happens to erupt hereditarily in a predetermined “royal” family but are elected from a set of particularly eminent families.

He says the main constitutional arrangement is a combination of aristocracy and “polity” (a sort of harmonious democracy that does not encourage factions fighting for power), but that there are some flaws or deviations that have features of oligarchy and (ordinary flawed) democracy.

Examples of democratic deviations are these:

  • The Kings and Elders can decide matters on their own if they are unanimous; otherwise the popular assemblies can take up the matter themselves and make a decision.
  • The Kings and Elders can also “refer a matter to the people” who can then debate and make their own decision.

And examples of oligarchical deviations include:

  • The powerful “Boards of Five” have long tenures and a lot of influence even when they are not formally in power, and they select their own members.
  • Wealth is considered one of the qualifications for rulership. This is on the grounds that wealth gives one the freedom to devote oneself to affairs of state.

On that last point, Aristotle recommends instead that a state choose the best people for leadership, and then make sure they are provided with enough wealth that they do not have to concern themselves with making ends meet and that they do not “depart in any way from standards of propriety.”

Assigning power to people because of their wealth means that powerful public offices are “for sale” and that “wealth becomes of more esteem than virtue and causes the whole state to become bent on making money.” This is because the values of the ruling class tend to influence the values of society in general.

Furthermore, if people have to throw their money around to get into office, they will likely seek some return on their investment, and so they spend their time in office looking out for their own gain rather than the interests of the state.

Aristotle also criticizes the Carthaginian practice of letting one person hold multiple offices. For one thing, it’s hard for one person to do two jobs well. For another, there are advantages to distributing offices among as many people as possible so as to increase the feeling of civic involvement in the people. He adds this interesting note about how leadership was practiced in the military of his day:

[I]n this way the work is more widely distributed and each individual task is performed more efficiently and more expeditiously. This can be illustrated from the sphere of the army and the navy; for in both these one might say that commanding and being commanded run right through all personnel.

Finally, Aristotle notes that one of the ways Carthage has avoided “faction” is that they are able to foist ambitious people off onto their colonies to make their fortunes. But he says this is just a lucky accident, and not something to praise in their constitution. He says that if things were to go south and the people revolted, there would be little constitutional help in bailing out the state.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics