The Phoenicians

Phoenician and Greek colonies c. 550 BC. Click to enlarge in new window This enterprising people had sailed the length of the Mediterranean by the 8th century BC. They were to sail beyond it, and indeed right round the continent of Africa. Like so many trading nations that came after them, they established colonies in convenient places for ports. Eventually their western colonies coalesced into the Punic Empire, headed by the city of Carthage in North Africa.

Where had they come from? The language we call Phoenician was first written down in the coastal strip of the Levant between the mountains of Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. Ancient authors saw this strip as the northern part of the land of Canaan. Today it mainly falls into Lebanon. Phoenician is a Semitic language of the Canaanite branch; its closest living relative is Hebrew. The Phoenicians had no name for themselves as a whole. Each of their prosperous trading cities, such as Byblos, Sidon and Tyre, was independent to the point of mutual competitiveness. It was the Greeks who labelled Semitic sea-traders Phoinix (Phoenix), from which we get our name Phoenician. What the Greeks meant by it is a mystery. The word had several meanings. Rather than the mythological firebird, they may have had in mind the colour purple-red, since the purple dye of the Murex snail was among the most prized of Phoenician trade goods.1G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 10-11, 108. A tradition stemming from Herodotus [The Histories, 1.1] that the Phoenicians came from the Red Sea probably sprang from an mistaken colour association.

Coin of the reign of Adarmilk of Byblos, depicting a war galleyAll of the Phoenician cities looked seaward. The site of Tyre on an offshore island, protected by reefs north and south, was perfect for a port.2M.E. Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West: politics, colonies and trade (2001), p.33. The roots of ancient Byblos (present-day Jubayl) go back into the Early Bronze Age. A fishing village gave way to a planned, walled town c. 3000 BC.3M. Dunand, Byblos: its history, ruins and legends (1973), pp. 18, 20-21. Tyre too was first settled in the Early Bronze Age, but it was deserted in the Middle Bronze Age, and then resettled. So Byblos was the most ancient continuous Phoenician trading centre. It was also engaged in bronze-working by the early 2nd millennium. It had the advantage of local copper deposits; tin was acquired from Afghanistan. Byblos was long the chief emporium of the eastern Mediterranean coast, trading with Egypt, the Aegean and Mesopotamia.Desert-encased Egypt, permanently short of timber, craved the cedars of Lebanon. Supply was assured under Tuthmosis III (1479-1425 BC) by taking the whole Phoenician coastal strip under loose Egyptian control.4G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 14-15, 17-19, 195-6. This has left us with useful records of Bronze Age Phoenicia. Among the Amarna letters found at the palace of Akhenaten are correspondence from King Rib-Addi of Gubal (Byblos), King Ammunira of Beruta (Beirut), King Zimriddi of Zidon (Sidon) and King AbiMilki of Tyre.5W.L. Moran, The Amarna Letters (2nd ed. 2000), Letters 68-227.

The Phoenician cities were untouched by the incursions of the Sea Peoples c. 1200 BC, which caused the collapse of the Mycenean and Hittite empires and the decline of Egypt and Assyria. They survived the political shifts of succeeding centuries. As Near Eastern powers - Assyria, Babylon and Persia - sought expansion, they tended to seek a share of Phoenician wealth in tribute rather than wreaking destruction. The conquest of Phoenicia by Alexander the Great in 332 BC has been seen as the end of its independence. More significantly perhaps the Phoenicians lost their cultural distinctiveness. The Hellenization of Phoenicia began before Alexander's arrival. It probably reached a peak under Abdashtart I (376/70-360/58 BC), the avidly philhellenic King of Sidon, who adopted the Greek name Straton.6G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 23-63.

The present genetic pattern in Lebanon will not be an exact genetic mirror of that in the days of the Phoenicians. Yet the present distribution of Y-DNA chromosome haplogroups does show a distinction between the former Phoenician coastal strip and the inland Levant. The Near East overall is strong in haplogroups E1b1b, J1 and J2, thought to have spread with the Neolithic, and also has significant amounts of G and R1b. The Lebanese have more J2-M172 (29.4%) than J1 (18.9%), whereas the opposite is true for most other Semitic-speakers.7Mirvat El-Sibai et al., Geographical Structure of the Y-chromosomal Genetic Landscape of the Levant: A coastal-inland contrast, Annals of Human Genetics, vol. 73, no. 6 (November 2009), pp. 568-81. As we shall see, J2 appears at an elevated level at some of the places where Phoenicians settled. J2 is far from exclusive to the Lebanese. Indeed it seems to have been spread also by the Greeks, trade rivals of the Phoenicians. So further research is needed to see whether a specific subclade within J2 could have been carried by the Phoenicians.

Expansion westwards

Gradually the Phoenician trading network spread westward, often seeking sources of copper and tin for bronze-making. Cyprus was so famed for its copper that it gets its name from the metal. Kypros means copper in ancient Greek. Phoenician sites have been found on the copper-rich Troodos range there. Cyprus was also a useful staging post for trade further west. Pottery scatters and finds in the necropolis of Palaeopaphos show that Phoenicians were passing through from the 11th century BC. Tyre established a more permanent presence in the 9th century at the town of Kition (present-day Larnaka). Phoenician inscriptions on Cyprus reflect the transit trade and involvement in the copper industry.8G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians  (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 17, 170-71; M.E. Aubet, Political and economic implications of the new Phoenician chronologies, in. C.Sagona (ed.), Beyond the Homeland: Markers in Phoenician Chronology, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Suppl. 28 (2008), pp. 247-259.

The Phoenician alphabet. Click to enlarge in new windowHowever the literacy of the Phoenicians was more of an aid to them than to historians, since their entire literary corpus has been lost. It was written on perishable papyrus. We are left with inscriptions and the Amarna letters, incised on clay. The first script used by the people of Byblos was a syllabic one of about 120 signs. An alphabet was adopted in the 11th century BC. The alphabet was not invented by the Phoenicians. The idea seems to have been developed by a Semitic community working at an Egyptian mining camp in Sinai, inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs, and then developed in Canaan. Each pictograph stood for the first sound of the Semitic word for what it depicted. For example the picture of a house (bayt) denoted the letter b. To the Phoenicians goes the credit of spreading this script all over the Mediterranean. The Greeks adopted the idea from them and the Romans from the Greeks.9G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 110-112.

From Cyprus the next convenient stopping place between Byblos and the Aegean was Rhodes. Phoenician luxury goods from c. 700 BC have been found there, such as ivories, gold and silver jewellery and ceramic unguent flasks. Rhodes seems to have been a production centre for such items, as well as a trading partner of Tyre. Crete was another transit point. It had useful iron deposits. Phoenician trade with the northern Aegean was also driven mainly by mining interests.10G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 171-3. Herodotus tells us that the island of Thasos was named after the Phoenician who discovered the gold mines there.11Herodotus, The Histories, 6.47. He also mentions Phoenician vessels laden with Egyptian and Assyrian wares sailing to Argos on the Greek mainland.12Herodotus, The Histories, 1.1. Corinth too was was a port of call; Phoenician goods have been found there.13G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), p. 174.

From Crete Phoenician ships could skirt the western coast of Greece and make for the toe of Italy and Sicily. Thucydides tells us Phoenicians settled all round Sicily, on promontories upon the sea coasts and the islets adjacent to trade inland. But when the Hellenes began to arrive inconsiderable numbers by sea, the Phoenicians abandoned most of their stations,and drawing together took up their abode in Motye, Soluntum, and Panormus, in the north-west, convenient for the voyage between Carthage and Sicily.14Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, book 6. This was also a natural point of departure for mineral-rich Sardinia and trade north with Campania and Etruria. Meanwhile Malta, with its many natural harbours, made an ideal safe haven and refuelling point for Phoenician traders sailing westwards across the Mediterranean. They settled in strength on Malta and Gozo, as shown by widespread necropoli and inscriptions, interacting with the indigenous people.15G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians(British Museum Press 2000), pp. 175-180.

Gold funerary mask from Sidon, Lebanon, 5th-4th century BC (Louvre)Phoenician settlement in Southern Iberia has long been recognised. The attraction was metals: tin and silver in particular, though Iberia could also offer copper, iron and gold. Classical authors claimed that Gadira (modern Cadiz) was founded by Tyre in the 12th century BC. Its situation is similar to that of Tyre. The colony was founded on a small island, now attached to the mainland. However the date is suspected to rest on a confusion, as are similar dates for the foundation of Lixius and Utica in North Africa. None has produced Phoenician material earlier than the 8th century BC. Phoenician interest in Iberia pre-dates Cadiz though. Mediterranean and Levantine artefacts reached the ancient settlement of Huelva in the previous century. Phoenician pottery predominates in the mixture, so it seems likely that Phoenician traders were regular arrivals.16M.E. Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West: politics, colonies and trade (2001), pp. 33-4, 162, 259-262; D. R. Mata, the ancient Phoenicians of the 8th and 7th centuries BC in the Bay of Cadiz: state of the research, in M.R. Bierling (ed. and trans.),The Phoenicians in Spain (2002), pp. 155-198. M.E. Aubet, Political and economic implications of the new Phoenician chronologies, in.C. Sagona (ed.), Beyond the Homeland: Markers in Phoenician Chronology, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Suppl. 28 (2008), pp. 247-259.

The eastern coast of Spain is seen as an area of Greek influence by 550 BC. So strong has the Catalonian focus been on studies of the Greek presence that Phoenician contacts were disregarded until the 1970s. Excavations since then have revealed the dominant Phoenician trading role in north-eastern Iberia between 630 and 575 BC. A recent survey mapped 73 sites of Phoenician finds along the eastern coast, with a particularly dense cluster around the mouth and lower reaches of the River Ebro.17D. Garcia I Rubert, F. Gracia Alonso, Phoenician trade in the North-East of the Iberian Peninsula: a historiographical problem, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 30, no. 1 (February 2011), pp. 33-56.

Carthage

Carthage (Punic Qart-hadasht: new city) was one of the most important off-shoots of Tyre. The coast of North Africa was dotted with Phoenician colonies by 550 BC, but most of these were settled from Carthage, rather than direct from Phoenicia.18G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 181-2. The city was shrewdly sited. The Bay of Tunis provided shelter from prevailing winds and faced Sicily. Carthage itself had a double natural harbour. The traditional date for its foundation - 813/4 BC - was arrived at by complex calculation. Flavius Josephus says that in the seventh year of the reign of Pygmalion of Tyre, the king's sister fled away from him,and built the city of Carthage in Libya (the ancient name for the whole of North Africa).19Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, 1.18. Josephus appears to have taken this from the now lost Annals of Tyre. Yet he may have been influenced by the tragic tale of Elissa, better known as Dido. Her story was told by the 4th-century Greek historian Timaeus, and appears in later Roman sources.20J. Van Seters, In Search of History: historiography in the ancient world and the origins of Biblical history (1997), pp. 195-198 and note 42. Elissa is said to have been a maiden of extraordinary beauty, who married her wealthy uncle, who was then slain by the greedy Pygmalion. Elissa chose exile in Africa, along with a body of notable men of Tyre. Sought in marriage by a neighbouring king, she threw herself on a sacrificial pyre, so ensuring the independence of Carthage. For that deed she was worshipped by Carthaginians thereafter as a goddess.21Marcus Junianus Justinus, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, 18.4-6. The story was reworked by the Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid, to connect it with his hero Aeneas. Whatever the truth of the tale, the date is supported by recent radiocarbon dates of 835-800cal BC from the earliest levels in Carthage.22M.E. Aubet, Political and economic implications of the new Phoenician chronologies, in. C. Sagona (ed.),Beyond the Homeland: Markers in Phoenician Chronology, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Suppl. 28 (2008), pp.247-259.

Reconstruction of a 2,500-year-old Carthaginian. Click to enlarge in new windowThis reconstruction of a Carthaginian was created for the museum of Carthage, a few miles north of Tunis. It was based on the skeleton of a young man found in a sepulchre of the 6th century B.C. For the exhibition, he was baptised Ariche, meaning the desired man. He was was 1.7 metres (five feet six inches) tall, and of pretty robust physique. He is depicted clad in a white linen tunic, sandals in the ancient Carthaginian style and a pendant and beads like those found with his remains.23Agence France Presse Oct. 28, 2010. His mitochondrial DNA haplogroup is now known to the European type U5b2c1.24Matisoo-Smith, E. A. et al. (2016), A European Mitochondrial Haplotype Identified in Ancient Phoenician Remains from Carthage, North Africa, PLoS ONE 11(5): e0155046.

By his day Carthage was independent of Tyre, conducting its own explorations, and creating its own colonies. The spreading Greek colonies were trade rivals in the Mediterranean.25G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 54-6, 189. Yet it fell to Rome to crush the power of Carthage in a series of wars. The thorough destruction of Carthage in 146 BC gave the Romans mastery of the Mediterranean.

Notes

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  1. G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 10-11, 108. A tradition stemming from Herodotus [The Histories, 1.1] that the Phoenicians came from the Red Sea probably sprang from an mistaken colour association.
  2. M.E. Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West: politics, colonies and trade (2001), p.33.
  3. M. Dunand, Byblos: its history, ruins and legends (1973), pp. 18, 20-21.
  4. G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 14-15, 17-19, 195-6.
  5. W.L. Moran, The Amarna Letters (2nd ed. 2000), Letters 68-227.
  6. G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 23-63.
  7. M. El-Sibai1 et al., Geographical Structure of the Y-chromosomal Genetic Landscape of the Levant: A coastal-inland contrast, Annals of Human Genetics, vol. 73, no. 6 (2009), pp. 568 - 581.
  8. G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 17, 170-71; M.E. Aubet, Political and economic implications of the new Phoenician chronologies, in. C. Sagona (ed.), Beyond the Homeland: Markers in Phoenician Chronology, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Suppl. 28 (2008), pp. 247-259..
  9. G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 110-112.
  10. G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 171-3.
  11. Herodotus, The Histories, 6.47.
  12. Herodotus, The Histories, 1.1.
  13. G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), p. 174.
  14. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, book 6.
  15. G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 175-180.
  16. M.E. Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West: politics, colonies and trade (2001), pp. 33-4, 162, 259-262; D. R. Mata, the ancient Phoenicians of the 8th and 7th centuries BC in the Bay of Cadiz: state of the research, in M.R. Bierling (ed. and trans.), The Phoenicians in Spain (2002), pp. 155-198. M.E. Aubet, Political and economic implications of the new Phoenician chronologies, in. C. Sagona (ed.), Beyond the Homeland: Markers in Phoenician Chronology, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Suppl. 28 (2008), pp. 247-259.
  17. D. Garcia I Rubert, F. Gracia Alonso, Phoenician trade in the North-East of the Iberian Peninsula: a historiographical problem, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 30, no. 1 (February 2011), pp. 33-56.
  18. G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 181-2.
  19. Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, 1.18.
  20. J. Van Seters, In Search of History: historiography in the ancient world and the origins of Biblical history (1997), pp. 195-198 and note 42.
  21. Marcus Junianus Justinus, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, 18.4-6. The story was reworked by the Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid.
  22. M.E. Aubet, Political and economic implications of the new Phoenician chronologies, in. C. Sagona (ed.), Beyond the Homeland: Markers in Phoenician Chronology, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Suppl. 28 (2008), pp. 247-259.
  23. Agence France Presse Oct. 28, 2010.
  24. Matisoo-Smith, E. A. et al. (2016), A European Mitochondrial Haplotype Identified in Ancient Phoenician Remains from Carthage, North Africa. PLoS ONE 11(5): e0155046.
  25. G.E. Markoe, The Phoenicians (British Museum Press 2000), pp. 54-6, 189.