Lecture 4: Phoenicia and the Development of Mediterranean Trade

In our discussion of Egypt, we considered the importance of trade for those civilizations that bordered on the Mediterranean. Today, we will one of the major engines behind trade in the ancient world, the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians lived in what is now Lebanon. They were never numerous, but their economic and social impact on the rest of the Mediterranean through trade reflects some themes with which we began this course. Let us begin with water. The Phoenicians offer us another perspective on the role water played in the development of ancient civilization, since Phoenicia was never an agricultural civilization. The Phoenicians traded for the food they needed, rather than grow it. This is because they lived on the Mediterranean, and not along a river that irrigated their crops. Much like other peoples in the Red Sea, the Phoenicians struck out into the world because they had no cultivable soil. Now we will look at trade. Nothing expanded ancient civilization like the movement of goods and people. Trade made some civilizations rich, brought new products and customs to various regions, and moved ideas around the Mediterranean in fruitful ways. Finally, we reach a theme that we have not discussed yet, and that is colonization. With the expansion of trade around the Mediterranean, different societies competed for trading advantage, and this led them to found colonies that served either as trading ports, or as sources of raw materials. As we will see, with civilization came commercial competition and colonial expansion.
We will begin by considering who the Phoenicians were. We do not know their point of origin, though their was Semitic. Tradition says that their origins lay in the Persian Gulf, but there is no evidence for this. They arrived in the Mediterranean around 3000 BC and settled in the area that is today modern Lebanon. They were great merchants, having set up a trading network that reached all the way around the Mediterranean, past Spain and as far North as the British Isles. In their own language they called themselves Kena’ani, or the Canaanites. (Phoenician is the Greek word for this people.) You will already have noted that these are the Canaanites of the Bible, against whom the Jews waged war in their search for the Promised Land. Although they were enemies, the Phoenicians exerted great influence over the Hebrews. I have already mentioned that the Hebrews took their early alphabet from these people. Independent corroboration of the Phoenicians’ connection to trade appears in the Hebrew language itself: the Hebrew word Kena’ani also has a secondary meaning, merchant.
Having considered the Phoenicians in general, let us turn to their chronology, in order to place them more squarely in the ancient Mediterranean. As I have already noted, the Phoenicians arrived in today’s Lebanon around 3000 BC and then founded a series of city-states that carried names such as Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, and Berot. (This latter city is today known as Beirut.) Very soon they developed an important and extensive trading network. There is evidence of commercial trade with Egypt that dates back to the 4th dynasty in the Old Kingdom. For some reason, perhaps the lack of agricultural possibilities in their own land, the Phoenicians never went beyond the city-state structure. There was never a Phoenician empire, and indeed the Phoenicians were eventually dominated politically by all or most of their more powerful neighbors. During the New Kingdom, the Egyptians asserted their dominance over the entire region. With the collapse of Egyptian power 200 years later, other powers intervened. In the 9th century the Assyrians arrived. They eventually burned Tyre to the ground in the 7th century and put the King of Tyre’s daughters into the king’s harem. In the 6th century, the Persians arrived. In the 4th century Alexander the Great conquered the region. Finally, during the 1st century BC, the Romans assumed control. We could continue along these lines, but that would take us too far away from the subject of this lecture.
What you need to watch is the tremendous economic and cultural influence that the Phoenicians wielded, in spite of their relative political weakness. Here the secret is trade, and this is the theme we will pursue for the rest of this lecture. The Phoenicians were an important link between Africa and the Levant. Already by 2000 BC they had a reputation as the Mediterranean’s greatest traders. In addition, after the year 2000 they spread their influence around the region by founding a series of commercial colonies along the Mediterranean littoral, with names such as Joppa (modern Jafo), Dor, Acre, and Ugarit. They also extended their influence into Anatolia, Cyprus, and across Northern Africa. In addition, they traded with regions as far away as the Canary Islands, France, and Britain. Their ships explored as far away as the Azores and down the coast of West Africa up to the Guineas.
Their most important settlement was in northern Africa. Those of you who have studied Roman history will recognize the importance of the settlement; its name was Carthage. Well after the original Phoenician city-states had fallen under foreign domination, the city of Carthage became Rome’s most important rival in the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians also founded important trading outposts in Spain, which gave them access to Spanish minerals, especially iron. I want you to keep Spain in mind for a moment, since the demand for iron lured the Phoenicians. This is evidence, to a small degree, of both economic and imperial expansion. The workers and soldiers of this growing civilization needed iron. Hence, what we now call the Middle East actually expanded into what is now Europe. (To look ahead a bit, it is no accident that the Rome took the trouble to conquer Spain. Their centurions needed swords.)
The Phoenicians role as merchants and manufacturers made them a central player in the Mediterranean’s cultural and economic worlds. Their access to rare raw materials and the local skills they developed to work them kept their products in demand. Their most important export product was probably wood. The mountains in Lebanon were once covered by dense forests of cedar trees. This aromatic wood was sought after by many kingdoms. The ancient Egyptians, for example, used this wood in their temples and burial chambers. Already around 2600 BC, the Egyptians sent a fleet of forty ships up the Nile to Lebanon to haul back cedar for their building projects. Cedar was also beloved by the Jewish empire. As the Bible tells us, King Solomon bought cedar from King Hiram in Tyre to build the great temple in Jerusalem. I quote from the book of Kings:

And Hiram, king of Tyre, sent his servants unto Solomon, for he had heard that they had anointed him king in the room of his father, for Hiram was ever a lover of David. And Solomon sent to Hiram, saying, “Thou knowest how David my father could not build a house in the name of the Lord his God because of the wars which were about him on every side, until the Lord put his enemies under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God hath given me rest on every side, so that there is neither adversary nor evil occurring. And behold, I plan to build a house in the name of the Lord my God . . . Now therefore command thou that they hew me cedar trees out of Lebanon, and my servants shall be with thy servants, and unto thee will I give hire for thy servants to all that thou shall appoint, for thou knowest that there is not among us any that has skill to hew timber like the Sidonians.

The Phoenicians also became famous for other products. Tyre produced the finest linens, which were often dyed with the much sought after Tyrian purple. This color was made from the shell of a snail that only lived in that region. (Incidentally, the Roman emperors were so enamored of this purple that they made it illegal for anyone other than the emperor to wear it. This tradition passed to Europe in the notion of Royal Purple, the color that only a king could wear.) Sidon also became famous for its embroidery, wine, and glass. You have already heard that glass was invented in Mesopotamia. Well, glass blowing probably first appeared around Sidon. The Phoenicians also exported salt and dried fish. Phoenician arts and crafts also became very popular and important. On the one hand, their idols and sculptures mixed motifs taken from Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Aegean. These motifs were then exported around the Mediterranean, creating a much broader cultural zone.
The Phoenicians were, thus, great borrowers and great exporters. And they did not merely export products, but ideas as well. Let us consider religion. Like the Hebrews, the Phoenicians adopted basic religious structures from Mesopotamia. One of their most important imports was, for example, Astarte, the fertility goddess, which they later exported to Assyria and Babylon under the name of Ishtar. Like other peoples in the region, they associated deities with natural phenomena, such as wind, water, mountains and so forth. Many of their religious ideas not only influenced the early Hebrews, but also the early Greeks, whom we will discuss in another lecture.
Even more important than their religion, was their invention and distribution of the alphabet. The Phoenicians began writing with the Mesopotamian models. After 2000 BC, however, the Phoenicians and the Syrians as well began to simplify Mesopotamian cuneiform. By 1500 BC, cuneiform symbols, which had always been rather complicated, changed into 22 individual letters that could be combined to make sounds and words, though like the ancient Hebrews the Phoenicians never developed symbols for vowels. Learning letters and building words from them is easier than learning a complicated series of symbols that represent individual sounds, or even words. This new alphabetical system set the stage for an expansion of literacy. Now one did not need to be a priest or a scribe to become literate. (We need to be careful here not to associate this expansion of literacy with recent history. Just because reading and writing had become less complicated does not mean that Mediterranean peasants could read.) Now, as the Phoenicians traveled, their alphabet went with them. By the early ninth century, the Greeks had modified the Phoenician alphabet for their own uses. (This is about the same time that the Illiad and the Odyssey were written down.) A people called the Etruscans, who flourished in northern Italy between the eighth and the fifth centuries BC, took it from the Greeks, and passed it on to the Romans, who gave it to the European. This alphabet then made its way to the new world, where you and I learned it. The alphabet strikes me as the Phoenicians’ most important historical contribution to what we call Western Civilization, maybe even the most important. How would, for example, the New Testament have spread as far as it originally did, but for having been written in ancient Greek? A measure of the Phoenician importance to Mediterranean life is that the Greeks, one of the Mediterranean’s most literate people, took their name for book from the Phoenician city of Byblos. From this Greek word, we get perhaps the most well-known word in the world, the Bible. History would have followed quite different course in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa without the Phoenicians.
Let us step back now and consider what the Phoenicians meant for this stage of human civilization. The Phoenicians were a key element in the creation of a Mediterranean world. First, they show us how important trade was to the development of civilizations and empires. Second, they reveal how central colonization was to the spread of people in the ancient world. I mentioned earlier that one of the reasons the Phoenicians spread so aggressively around the Mediterranean is that they were feeling competition come from the Aegean. Our next lecture will be about the Persians and the Ancient Greeks, and I will need to pass on a lot of information then. In order to set the stage for that lecture, I am going to give you some background on the Greeks that will serve as a bridge between the Phoenicians and the Greeks, while keeping in mind our major themes of water, trade, and colonization.
As we look to the Aegean, a new civilization appears, the Minoans. These people had significant connections with the Phoenicians and were particularly important as a model for the Greeks. The Minoans lived on the island of Crete, off the coast of modern Greece. We do not know what they called themselves, since we cannot read their writing, but their name comes from Minos, a legendary king who may not even have existed. The capital city of Minoan civilization was Knossos.
The Minoans are one of history’s more mysterious people. We do not know where they came from, or how they got to Crete. We do know that Stone Age people could sail very far in their dug out canoes, and there is evidence of settlements on Crete that date back to the Neolithic Period (10,000 – 4000 BC). By 2500 BC, the island already had a network of towns and villages dotting its coastline. The people living there traded mostly with the peoples living in the Greek mainland, and their civilization was hardly remarkable. Around 2000 BC that began to change, for reasons that are not clear. Minoans began building massive palaces on their island, the largest of which was in their largest city Knossos, and which seems to have been started around 1900 BC. The Minoan civilization that begins here flourished for 600 years before disappearing completely, also for reasons that we do not quite understand. For four centuries this civilization prospered on trade, particularly with Egypt and the Greek mainland.
This civilization’s rise may have had something to do with favorable agricultural conditions. It was a very good place to grow olives and grapes, as well as to raise sheep. The export of these sought after items and their associated products created a surplus on which a new civilization was built. This civilization peaked around 1600 BC, but by 1500 it was seriously damaged. This may have had something to do with a massive earthquake (there is evidence of quake destruction on the mainland at about the same time), or even a volcanic eruption. Knossos was, however, rebuilt and continued for another century. The final end came around 1400 BC, as the entire city was burned down. No one knows what happened, but the city was never rebuilt, though some other Minoan sites persisted until about 1100 BC.
Like the Phoenicians, the Minoans were a sea-faring, trading people. They took to the ocean, because it allowed them to produce a surplus. Minoans had close trading connections with Syria by 1550 BC, and they may have had trading connections as far west as Sicily. Their goods turned up all over the Mediterranean and the Adriatic. Some of their art landed in Egypt during the New Kingdom. Cretan vases and metal manufactures also appeared in Asia Minor. So there was a strong Minoan influence around the Mediterranean.
The trade in which the Minoans engaged made their island very wealthy. Their palaces were large and well built. Their towns were complex, boasting water pipes and sewers. The Minoans took their mathematics from Egypt, and their religion is unknown to us. Their great contribution was in art, as Minoan motifs were particularly important in Greece and Egypt. (Early Greek pottery styles, for instance, followed Minoan principles.) The Minoan script is known as Linear A. A people called the Mycenaeans borrowed this script and transformed it into a new one called Linear B. Neither has been deciphered, but the Mycenaeans were an important conduit for Minoan practices. We will talk about the Mycenaeans next time, for now I will note that they were an ancient Greek-speaking people who arrived in Greece about 1600 BC and founded a civilization that lasted until 1100 BC. This is the context that we need to look back to the Phoenicians, since their colonization moves were spurred in part by the colonization that emerged from the first Greeks. We will have more to say about this next time, but for now just keep in mind that new civilizations were constantly entering the equation in the Mediterranean, and this would eventually lead to major conflicts. Mediterranean civilization cannot be understood apart from the rivalries that constantly led to war.