In Our Time: The Phoenicians

The Phoenicians were a culture whose origins were in what is now Lebanon, and who lived there in the Bronze Age (roughly speaking). Interestingly for a culture who were the originators of the alphabet that became the Greek alphabet we actually don’t know much about them from their own records. Discussing what we know about them (mostly from other sources) on In Our Time were Mark Woolmer (Durham University), Josephine Quinn (University of Oxford) and Cyprian Broodbank (University College London).

We don’t even know the Phoenicians own name for themselves – in fact it’s very likely that they didn’t think of themselves as a cohesive group, instead they were a collection of city states (much like Greece in Classical times). The word “Phoenician” is a Greek word, and was used by the Greeks to name the Phoenicians – but the Greeks themselves weren’t entirely sure why, or what quite it meant. Classical Greek writers speculate that it is derived from the word for “purple” and that this probably referred to the murex snail purple dye that the Phoenicians produced and traded. The writings that the Phoenicians themselves left are fairly limited in scope – some bureaucratic documents, some letters and an awful lot of copies of a particular formula of dedication to the gods which is found in many temples across the Mediterranean area.

The Phoenicians were known as sea traders (and sometimes raiders) – and not only is that reminiscent of the Vikings, but also why they became a seafaring nation is also similar. As with Scandinavia Lebanon consists of a relatively narrow strip of fertile land bordered on one side by the sea, and on the other by mountains. The most abundant resource of the region is trees (the cedars of Lebanon) and this was useful both for building their own ships, and as trade goods to other peoples around the Mediterranean.

One source for the Phoenicians is the Hebrew bible – and what I either didn’t know before or had forgotten is that the Phoenicians are the Canaanites of the Bible. They discussed how the Bible presents the Canaanites as rich traders who Solomon goes to for resources to build the Temple. Although the details may be wrong (it’s unclear when this bit was actually written, for instance) they considered it likely that the overall flavour of the episode is correct. Tyre (one of the Phoenician city states) is also mentioned in some of the prophecies (I think in Isaiah?) – it’s prophesied that it will be one of several cities to fall, but Tyre is the only one of the set that is universally mourned. Not, the experts said, because it was well loved per se but because it was an important hub in the economics of the region.

There’s also archaeological evidence of this Phoenician culture going back to at least the Amarna period of Egyptian history (i.e. c.1350BC) and probably before. Some of the Amarna letters are from Phoenician city states asking Pharaoh for help with taking their neighbours down a peg or two. Because of where the Phoenicians lived their city states were often squeezed between the superpowers of the day. At times they were under Egyptian control, at other times under control of whatever Mesopotamian culture was currently ruling that part of the world. Their shipbuilding skills, and trading network, meant that they were generally regarded as a valuable asset to whichever empire was claiming them – for instance one of the Persian leaders regarded a Phoenician warship as the best way to travel if he needed to go to sea (I want to say that was Cyrus, but I can’t quite remember if that’s the case).

As well as their core cities in modern-day Lebanon the Phoenicians settled colonies right around the Mediterranean. The most famous of these is Carthage, but there’s archaeological evidence for a lot of others (including Cádiz in Spain which has been continuously inhabited since being settled by the Phoenicians). The colonies generally started out as a simple trading post for a particular mother city to trade with a particular region but some then grew into cities in their own right. They made use of natural geography to make these cities defensible and seperate from the host culture – often on an island just off the coast, or a peninsula.

Quinn explained that the Phoenicians didn’t leave us any literature – which is particularly odd given that pretty much all the other cultures around them at the same time period did. She said there were a couple of possibilities – one is that we just haven’t found it yet. Many Phoenician cities are still inhabited so it’s pretty hard to do comprehensive excavations. The other (which I think was her preferred answer) is that maybe they just didn’t write that sort of stuff down, that they just used writing for the sorts of bureaucratic things we’ve found.

There were a couple of things in the programme that Bragg had clearly decided in advance were “must include” things, but then ended up feeling a little shoehorned into the programme. One of these was child sacrifice, which the Phoenicians were said to do. This was covered particularly abruptly, but I think the take home message was that whilst it probably happened occasionally across the Phoenician culture the biggest evidence for it happening is only in Carthage. And this evidence is a large number of infant burials at an age (1-2months) when they’re a little too old to’ve died from complications of their births. The experts speculated that this was perhaps a way that Carthage was separating its identity from that of its mother city – but in the absence of written records it’s pretty much impossible to know why (or indeed be totally sure if) they did it.

The other thing that Bragg particularly wanted to include was to talk about the Phoenician development of the alphabet and why this was important – but sadly this segment of the programme seemed a little muddled. Herodotus the Greek historian credits the Phoenicians with teaching the Greeks the alphabet, which seemed a plausible story to the experts. I was a little surprised they didn’t mention Linear B at this point – because it’s written Greek in a different alphabet, and it’s interesting that the Greeks seem to’ve learnt to write twice (after forgetting in between). I don’t think Bragg got quite what he wanted out of this section as when he was asking for the experts to explain what was so special about an alphabet he got more of an explanation of why writing is useful for a large widespread trading network.

Even with the muddled bits it was an interesting programme – I hadn’t realised how little is directly known about the Phoenicians. And I was interested by the comparison with the Vikings, having been thinking about them recently due to the British Museum exhibition.