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.

In Our Time: Hannibal

The famous Carthaginian general Hannibal was the subject of the In Our Time episode that we listened to on Sunday … unfortunately I can’t hear the name without thinking of Hannibal the Hamster, the hero of a book I had when I was little (and my pet hamster was his namesake). But I did manage to put that aside, and listen to the story of a much more impressive Hannibal. The experts on the programme were Ellen O’Gorman (University of Bristol), Mark Woolmer (University of Durham) and Louis Rawlings (Cardiff University).

They opened by setting the scene – Rome and Carthage each with an empire facing off across the Mediterranean. The Carthaginian empire had grown from Phoenician trading outposts, and was centred on the western Mediterranean with important holdings in Sicily and Spain as well as their North African heartland. Rome, obviously centred on Italy, were the new kids in town and the first war between Rome & Carthage (the First Punic War) started over control of Sicily. Hannibal’s father Hamilcar Barca was the general in charge of the Carthaginian army during the last part of this war – he didn’t win, but it seems he was probably never actually expected to win as the army was underprovisioned for that sort of undertaking. Also after the end of the war (Carthage lost) he wasn’t punished, which supports this – the Carthaginians had no qualms about executing generals that they felt had failed.

After the First Punic War Carthage’s finances were in trouble, which was even more of a problem than you might expect because their army was made up of mercenaries who promptly revolted when they weren’t paid. Hamilcar put down this rebellion, and then took the army off to Spain to secure & improve the Spanish holdings – Spain being a major source of wealth for Carthage due to the silver mines. And this is where Hannibal enters the story – he’s 9 at this point, and gets taken along with his father to Spain to live and campaign with the army. And this is really where & how he learns to be such a good general – he lives with the army so knows the men and what will motivate them etc. And gets to see how to run campaigns first hand.

Once Hamilcar dies (in battle) Hannibal’s brother-in-law takes over the army and gives Hannibal the job of cavalry commander. Once his brother-in-law dies (assassinated) Hannibal gets the job of overall commander – he’s only about 25 at this point, but has 16 years of military experience. Then Second Punic War kicks off – starting over control of a particular Spanish settlement which is under the protection of Rome. And right from the outset Hannibal demonstrates some of the genius for which he’s remembered – one of his key qualities is the speed at which he (and his army) reacts to events. Rome warned Hannibal off attacking the Spanish settlement, but by the time either Rome or Carthage had reacted Hannibal had already seiged and razed the city.

This is the point where Hannibal starts the journey that he’s most remembered for – he marches his 80,000 strong army north through Spain and into Gaul, then east to the Alps and across them to northern Italy. He had to do this because Carthage were no longer the major naval power in the Mediterranean, and if they’d sailed to Rome they would have had even more trouble. They had to fight their way through both Spain and Gaul, and provision the army from the land they march through. Then they crossed the Alps during the winter. This whole journey reduces his army to approximately 26,000 men – through desertions, through leaving garrisons behind en route and through deaths as they cross the Alps. He still has some of the war elephants too! Despite these crippling loses Hannibal goes on to win over 20 battles against Roman armies that outnumber him, due to his superior tactical skills (including paying a lot of attention to and making use of the lay of the land he’s fighting on) and the superior mobility of his troops. At one point he has the chance to march on Rome, but doesn’t take this opportunity – opinion is divided on whether this was the right decision. Perhaps he might’ve won the war if he’d marched on Rome then, perhaps he was right and didn’t have enough troops to properly seige the city for long enough for it to fall.

Eventually the Romans stopped trying to meet his army on his terms – instead they used delaying tactics to avoid battle but keep the army occupied. And then attacked Carthage itself forcing Hannibal to bring his army back home to save the city. This is the battle he lost, losing the war for Carthage – a while afterwards this was used as an excuse to send him into exile and he lived in a series of provinces/kingdoms that were being threatened by Rome offering them his advice on how to campaign against the Romans. Eventually one of these handed him over as part of their peace treaty with Rome, and rather than be captured he took poison.

Hannibal is still remembered (and respected) today because the Romans were impressed with him, and afraid of him. He was apparently used as a bogeyman for Roman children. And his tactical skill was respected even into modern times.