When you think of pioneers of democracy or republicanism, the Greeks and Romans immediately—if not exclusively—come to mind.
But there is another example that was far bolder and more innovative: None other than Carthage, the Phoenician Mediterranean power best known for almost destroying Rome and changing the course of history. (Had Carthage prevailed, the Phoenician language and culture, rather than the Greco-Roman, could have formed the basis of Western civilization.)
Although it adopted representative government much later than its Greek and Roman counterparts—sometime after 480 BCE—Carthage went much further in implementing checks and balances, as well as popular representation. Even the otherwise hostile Romans, and typically xenophobic Greeks, gave them credit for going farther than their own societies in this respect.
Carthage was led by two “judges” called Sufetes, who unlike monarchs could not rule by inheritance and were instead elected by nobles and/or the masses (it is not entirely clear, but they were definitely elected). Likened by modern historians as the equivalent to “modern presidents”, the Sufetes had various executive and judicial functions, and were the only political leaders in the ancient world known to have to no power over the military—an incredibly unique separation of power. Instead, the head of the military was appointed by either the Sufetes or by some other political officials.
All top military officials were reviewed by the “One Hundred and Four”, a judicial tribunal described as the “highest constitutional authority” according to Aristotle. It was considered totally independent of the government, overseeing the performance of all military commanders to ensure they were serving the interests of the people. The One Hundred and Four also appointed some members to panels of “special commissioners” known as “pentarchies”, who were responsible for various state affairs, such as public works, tax collecting, and the national budget.
There was also a “supreme council” called the Adirim senatorial body that represented the wealthiest citizens. Though still elitist by our standards, this was very progressive for its time—and even compared to Medieval Europe! Since wealth and merit were the deciding factors in becoming a member, this meant that instead of being born into a landowning class—as was the case in much of the world until a few centuries ago—technically anyone who made enough money could get a voice. Given that Carthage was the preeminent commercial power at the time, known for its skilled merchants and traders, far more people had a shot for upward mobility and thus political power.
In any event, the Adirim was restricted in its power, too. According to Aristotle, unless it reached a unanimous decision with the Sufetes, a “Popular Assembly” made up of average people had the deciding vote, claiming “the voice of the people was predominant in the deliberations” and “the people themselves solved problems”—unlike anywhere else in the Greco-Roman world. He also praised Carthage for its “balanced” elements of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy.
Aristotle also claims Carthage had a sophisticated and functional constitution—which may have even inspired Sparta’s—while Eratosthenes, the head of the Library of Alexandria, believed the Greeks were wrong to describe all non-Greeks as barbarians, since the Carthaginians (as well as the Romans) had constitutions.
There is evidence of other forms of popular civic engagement, such as trade unions, townhalls, and elected legislators. When Hannibal—best known for almost destroying Rome—served a stint as a sufet, he was compelled by the populace to institute term limits of two years for the One Hundred and Four (who originally served for life).
Roman historian Polybius states that even amid the existential threat of the Punic Wars, the Carthaginian public held more sway over the government than the people of Rome held over theirs (notwithstanding how warfare usually breeds authoritarianism).
Ironically, he regards this democratic development as a fatal flaw, since the Carthaginians would become bogged down in debates and elections while the Romans, through their more elitist Senate, could act more quickly and decisively.