A Palm Tree, a Colour and a Mythical Bird

Robert L. Cioffi

  • In Search of the Phoenicians by Josephine Quinn
    Princeton, 360 pp, £27.00, December 2017, ISBN 978 0 691 17527 0

Certain places capture the imagination; others fade into the background, forgotten and overlooked. Phoenicia is one of the rare places that does both. In 1963, Sabatino Moscati, the founder of modern Phoenician studies, asked the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome: ‘Who were the Phoenicians?’ By 1988, he believed that he had begun to find the answer. With great fanfare, he unveiled the first general exhibition that embraced ‘Phoenicia’ in its totality. Visitors to the Palazzo Grassi in Venice were greeted by an artificial sand dune, in which marble sarcophagi had been artfully arranged as a reminder that many of the artefacts on display had only recently been excavated from sites in Lebanon, Tunisia and Sicily. The show’s location was particularly apt, Moscati told the New York Times, because, as the merchants of the ancient Mediterranean and the conduit between east and west, the Phoenicians were the precursors of their Venetian hosts.

The work of Moscati and other scholars fixed the idea of Phoenicia as an ancient civilisation, united by language and diplomatic ties, that originated in the Levant around 1200 BC and spread across the Mediterranean. Ancient sources tell us that Phoenicia flourished in the first half of the first millennium in the coastal cities of Arados, Tripoli, Byblos, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. In 814, settlers from Tyre founded Carthage in North Africa, which would later become an imperial power in its own right, claiming its own ‘Phoenician’ empire. By 332, the idea of Phoenicia in the east came to an end as these cities were conquered by Alexander. Carthage fell to Rome in 146, and was subsequently colonised by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus.

The Greeks and Romans admired the fine craftsmanship and navigational abilities of the Phoenicians but also branded them as untrustworthy and alien. It’s hard to get very far in classical literature without running into a Phoenician, from the shadowy traders and tricksters of the Odyssey, to the instigators of the Trojan War (according to Herodotus), to the author of the last and the most ambitious of the ancient Greek novels, An Ethiopian Story. Together with the archaeological finds, these sources form a picture of a maritime people, blessed with rich soil along the Levantine coast and a knack for political relationships, who mastered the Mediterranean seas, gave the Greeks the alphabet and, through the Carthaginians, challenged the imperialism of Rome. They appear to have a darker side, too, as evidence has mounted for the practice of child sacrifice, temple prostitution and necromancy.

There is just one problem with this picture, Josephine Quinn tells us in her extraordinary book, In Search of the Phoenicians: ‘They did not in fact exist as a self-conscious collective or “people”.’ Quinn’s central claim – that the concept of ‘Phoenician’ identity has for nearly three millennia been imposed from outside – is not as controversial as it may sound. Historians of the Levant and North Africa have chipped away at the notion that the label ‘Phoenician’ is useful for talking about the experiences, beliefs, networks or practices of such a heterogeneous group of ancient people.

Quinn’s contribution is not so much in confronting the idea of Phoenicianism, but in showing how it arose in the first place. She is deeply interested in cities that were considered Phoenician by the Greeks and Romans. Some of them – Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Byblos and Arados – are located on a thin strip of coast in the Levant, roughly coterminous with modern Lebanon. Others, fanning out across the western Mediterranean from Carthage (modern Tunis) to Gadir (Cádiz), were identified as Phoenician colonies in antiquity, but may have had more complex relationships with their ‘mother cities’. All were bustling centres of activity in the first millennium bc. The Levantine settlements are even earlier, reaching back into the second millennium.

Historians attempting to understand how these peoples saw themselves are constrained both by the lack of evidence and by the nature of the evidence that exists. Contemporary notions of identity don’t fit neatly onto the past: at one point Quinn compares ancient historians to police detectives, ‘constantly apprehending the dead and checking their pockets for identity’. Very few people ever called themselves ‘Phoenicians’. In part, this is a fact of language. ‘Phoenician’ (phoinix) is a Greek word (the Latin ‘Punic’ has the same root), and besides denoting a person from Phoenicia, it can refer to a palm tree, a deep red-purple colour and the mythical bird. There are only five Greek-language inscriptions in which people identify themselves as Phoenician, and just one of them – a bilingual funerary marker erected in Athens for a certain Antipatros of Ashkelon in the third century bc – seems definitively to refer to Phoenicia as a place. By this point, however, the cities of Phoenicia had long been conquered by Alexander the Great; it is more likely that Antipatros used the term ‘Phoenicia’ to ‘translate’ his homeland for a Greek-speaking audience. In his native language he refers to himself as an ‘Ashkelonite’.

Antipatros is one of several ‘phantom Phoenicians’ that Quinn tracks down and debunks with philological acumen in the early pages of her book. Scholars sometimes assume that Phoenicians called themselves Canaanites, but Quinn takes this view apart. On tombstones Phoenician-speakers defined themselves by family and city, rather than nation or people. (Quinn admits that tombstones can only tell us so much: if one were to walk through the graveyards of Athens or Rome – or London or New York – it would be easy to think that the people buried there belonged to families but not to countries or empires.) The only other significant evidence we have is Phoenician coinage. When cities issued coins, they identified themselves by toponyms – Tyre, Sidon and so on – rather than ethnonyms that might give any hint of what, if any, larger groups they felt themselves to be part of. We have no Phoenician literature from the first millennium bc – though, as the number of previously unknown texts discovered on papyrus over the last century should remind us, an absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.

As In Search of the Phoenicians pulls down one edifice, it reveals another: the idea of Phoenicia was largely an invention of the Greeks and Romans. In the Greco-Roman literary imagination, the Phoenicians were a catch-all model of alterity for eastern seafaring people, a canvas onto which to project fears and anxieties from the linguistic to the political. Yet, even in Greco-Roman sources, it was remarkably late on (the fourth century bc) that an ethnographer known to us only as Pseudo-Skylax called Phoenicia an ethnos, or people, for the first time.

Instead of a ‘Phoenicia’ writ large, Quinn gives us an ancient Mediterranean that is far more nuanced and far more contested. More important than political alliances were language, culture and shared religion and ritual, especially the practice of infant sacrifice performed in a group of Phoenician settlements in the central Mediterranean. Academics have called this a ‘tophet cult’ after the site in Jerusalem where, according to the Hebrew Bible, people killed their children and ‘made them pass through fire’. The name is far from ideal: the two practices have little in common – apart from the murder of young children – but ‘tophet’ is the standard scholarly moniker. Stories of child sacrifice, which appear in more than thirty different Greek and Roman sources, have always made ancient historians uncomfortable. By the 1990s they were dismissed as anti-Phoenician propaganda. The open-air sites in North Africa, Sicily and Sardinia that contained urns of the cremated remains of children and animals were interpreted simply as sacred graveyards for stillborn infants. That interpretation, however, is contradicted by every piece of ancient evidence currently available. Not only did these communities sacrifice infants, they continued to do so throughout the first millennium bc.

The tophet sanctuaries don’t betray the individual psychologies of ancient worshippers who decided to offer their infant children to the gods, but they do allow us to observe one way in which western Phoenician settlements expressed both their connections and their points of fracture. Quinn calls these cities the ‘circle of the tophet’, referring not only to their sacrificial practice, but also to what she sees as a kind of social network. The sanctuaries, the earliest of which were well established by the mid-eighth century bc, are in a geographically constricted slice of the central Mediterranean. They all use similar religious formulas, which describe their victims as a molk baal, ‘the offering of a person/citizen’ to the god Baal Hammon. Although the inscriptions attribute the offerings to individuals, there is good reason to think that they represented a broader community. ‘Public works’ appear to have been undertaken at the tophet sanctuary in Carthage, suggesting a community project. Some of the urns contain the remains of several infants, separated by less than nine months, which means that the sacrifice extended outside the nuclear family.

Although there is no obvious leader of the tophet cult, innovations in one sanctuary, Carthage’s use of stone markers, for example, often spread to others. Cities outside the circle, such as those in the Levant or in Spain, show no signs of adopting their practices. Infant sacrifice becomes a marker of cultural distinction, separating a geographically close set of cities from the wider Phoenician world. These distinctions are also rooted in myth; it seems hardly accidental that the stories about the foundation of Carthage emphasise family disputes, disagreements and murder.

In contrast to the tight ‘circle of the tophet’, worship of the god Melqart gave rise to a sense of a much broader Phoenician Mediterranean. Melqart, whose name means ‘king of the city’, is said to have been introduced to Tyre in the tenth century bc, but his cult spread widely. Like Hercules, with whom he was later identified, he was a wandering hero, credited with founding many cities. If the tophet cult divides, Melqart unites, suggesting a shared origin for all the cities founded by him. But the widespread worship, which caught on in the fourth century bc, was a relatively late phenomenon. Melqart can be seen as representing one of the first efforts to unite the Phoenician world retrospectively, and to distinguish that world from the cultures that surrounded it.

Around 410 bc, while Melqart mania was spreading across the Mediterranean, Carthage, which had established a firm foothold in Greek-speaking Sicily, sought to appropriate the idea of Phoenicianism for its own purposes. It produced a new series of coins in local mints that prominently featured a palm tree (phoinix in Greek) and a legend written in Punic script. The coins, which were produced using the Attic weight standard, were probably intended for a Greek-speaking audience in Sicily: the pun would only work in Greek. But this is not just a straightforward story of reclamation or a clever joke. The coins expressed the increasing dominance of Carthaginian Phoenicianism, especially in the central Mediterranean. In seeking to express their power in the name of Phoenicia, Carthage borrowed from the Greeks a term and a technology of empire, both of which were especially suitable for asserting the homogeneity of a wide-ranging sphere of political and military control.

It was more than half a millennium before anyone (to our knowledge) finally called themselves a Phoenician in Greek. This was Heliodorus, the last and the most ambitious of the Greek novelists. Writing in the middle of the third or fourth century ad, he concludes with an autobiographical coda: ‘A Phoenician man from Emesa wrote this. He is a descendant of the race of the sun, the son of Theodosius, Heliodorus.’ His Phoenicianism is in many senses a fantasy. The Levant had long since ceased to be autonomous, conquered in turn by Alexander, the Seleucids and the Romans. The Roman province of Phoenice included Emesa (modern Homs), which had never before been considered Phoenician. But Heliodorus’ interest in Phoenicia was not unusual: throughout the second century AD, authors such as Achilles Tatius, Dictys of Crete, and Lollianus took up Phoenicia as the subject and the setting of their fictional works. Heliodorus famously plays with the word phoinix throughout his novel, using it in every possible sense: merchants from Tyre, the dark red colour of murex dye or blood, dates and palm shoots and branches, the phoenix and flamingo (phoinikopteros). Its final appearance to describe the text’s author is the last and most striking of these usages, which, Quinn suggests, calls such identity claims into question.


The modern appropriation of Phoenicia began in 16th-century Kent with John Foche, who was said to have ‘discovered’ that the first foreign visitors to Britain were the Phoenicians. Although Foche couldn’t know it, there is today one piece of evidence for a Phoenician presence on the British Isles, a tile excavated at Holt in Wales on which ‘Macrinus’ is written in Phoenician. The writing almost certainly belongs to an African soldier serving in the Roman army. At the time, Foche’s claims were perhaps no stranger than those made by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 1130s that traced the kings of Britain back to Brutus the Trojan, a descendant of Aeneas. As Britain sought to distance itself from France, Foche’s ideas had a certain appeal, but they didn’t catch on straightaway. When, in the 17th century, Britain styled itself ‘a new Rome in the West’ (Milton), it applied the label of Phoenicianism instead to Holland’s growing maritime empire. During a session of Parliament in 1673, the Earl of Shaftesbury condemned the Dutch with Cato’s proclamation, ‘Carthage must be destroyed.’

One of the appeals of Phoenicianism to later cultures has been its adaptability. The mystery of the Phoenicians – who could be clever or tricky, the founders of civilisation or its antithesis – meant that they could be identified with anyone. They have often been invoked by nations seeking self-definition, especially in times of conflict and competition. In the 18th century, as Britain became a colonial and maritime power, Daniel Defoe wrote that ‘the Phoenicians were the Englishmen of that Age.’ He even suggested that, like the British, they had colonised America. Irish claims to Phoenicianism persisted into the early part of the 20th century. Among the best-known champions of the theory that the Irish were descended from Phoenicians was the antiquarian Charles Vallancey (1721-1812), who claimed that the Scythians had migrated to Ireland via the Phoenician cities of the Levant. The theory also crossed into popular culture. Ireland’s Phoenician origins are a recurrent theme in Sydney Oweson’s epistolary novel The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale, published in 1806. A century later, James Joyce drew attention to the supposed links between Ireland and the Phoenicians in a lecture entitled ‘Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages’. Speaking in Trieste, he said that the Irish language ‘is eastern in origin, and has been identified by many philologists with the ancient language of the Phoenicians, the discoverers, according to historians, of commerce and navigation’.

In Search of the Phoenicians demonstrates both how important the interpretation of antiquity is for the present, and how important the history of interpretation is for understanding the past. ‘In the end,’ Quinn argues, ‘it is modern nationalism that has created the Phoenicians, along with much else of our modern idea of the ancient Mediterranean. Phoenicianism has served nationalist purposes since the early modern period.’ In the first half of the 20th century, a group of Lebanese Christians insisted that the Phoenicians were part of Lebanon’s long, pre-Arab history, and Phoenicianism became an ideological weapon against political Islam, wielded both by far-right Christians and self-proclaimed secularists.

There is a great irony that the Phoenicians, who had no nation in antiquity, have become so central to the fight over nations in modernity. It is an irony not lost on Quinn, who wonders in her conclusion whether ‘to read a lack of collective identity, culture and political organisation among Phoenician-speakers as a positive choice, a form of resistance against larger regional powers’. She draws here on ideas advanced by James C. Scott, who suggested in The Art of Not Being Governed, a study of upland South-East Asia, that orality, rootlessness and an absence of political organisation may be understood not as a deficiency but as a response to and a mode of resisting dominant powers.[*] If the Phoenicians left it to others to write their story, that may have been by design.

[*] Sanjay Subrahmanyam reviewed The Art of Not Being Governed in the LRB of 2 December 2010.