The Phoenicians


In telling the story of Greece, there is a missing dimension: the Phoenicians.  In Greek art there is an orientalising phase: where did this come from?  The Greeks began living in city states: where did the idea of city states come from?  The Greeks invented the alphabet, but where did the alphabet come from?  For all these questions, the answer is the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians spread all over the Mediterranean, starting originally in Tyre and Sidon in the East and then spreading to Cyprus, Sicily and Sardinia and then to the metal rich areas of Spain in the West.

The story of the Phoenicians is a story in two halves: east and west.  The story begins in the east with the rise of the traders of Tyre and Sidon.  But the story continues in the west, in the story of the colonies that the Phoenicians founded, in Cyprus, Sicily, Spain and above all at Carthage.  We begin with the story in the east and in the late Bronze Age.

In the late Bronze Age, Egypt was pushing up into the Mediterranean, extending its empire and warring with the Hittites in Anatolia.  But on the coast, middle men emerged. The Egyptians were never really happy at sea, for the flat bottomed boats of the Nile are quite useless on the open sea.  There was a gap which the seafarers along the coast of the east Mediterranean were happy to fill.  One commodity in particular that the Egyptians lacked was timber, and the seamen of what is today Lebanon were happy to provide the cedars of Lebanon for the Egyptian shipbuilders.

There is a fascinating account of one such expedition preserved in a papyrus excavated in 1890 which tells the story of one, Wenamun, an Egyptian official who was sent out from Thebes to negotiate the purchase of some cedars of Lebanon.  He set out, was captured by pirates who robbed him of the gold and silver, and he arrived at the court of the king of Byblos who said he wanted a down payment which eventually arrived from Egypt in the form of gold and silver, linen garments, 500 rolls of finished papyrus, 500 cows’ hides, 20 bags of lentils and 30 baskets of fish.  In return seven great cedar logs were sent to Egypt and more were promised.  Wenamun then set out on his return but his ship was driven by contrary winds to Cyprus, where again he was faced by a hostile mob from which he was rescued, and at this point the account breaks off.  The merchants of Lebanon were already making their mark.

The Ahiram sarcophagus excavated in Byblos. Note the inscription round the base of the lid. This is the earliest known long inscription in the mature Phoenician language and is usually dated to the 10th century BC. The sarcophagus itself may be earlier and some date it to the 12th century BC. It shows the king sitting on a throne with a wilting lotus in his hand and accompanied by mourners in differing attitudes of mourning. It is now in the Beirut Museum. Photo: Wikipedia.

The 12th century saw a downturn, with chaos caused by the ‘sea peoples’. Yet the proto-Phoenicians seem to have come through quite well, — indeed it has been wondered whether the Lebanese were themselves the dreaded ‘sea peoples’ recorded in Egyptian documents? Their revival is marked by the rule of King Hiram of Tyre.  Hiram was a contemporary of the great kings of Israel, David and his son Solomon, and Hiram sent some workmen from Tyre to help build the new temple in Jerusalem.  It is all recorded in the Bible at a date traditionally recorded in the 10th century, though this should probably be pushed down to the 9th or even 8th century.

The kingdoms of Israel and the city states of Tyre, Sidon and Byblos flourished briefly as independent bodies until they were all overwhelmed by the rising power of the Assyrians.  And for the next half millennium they all became subjects to the successive powers of the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians.  But whereas the Jews went into exile and lamented, the Phoenicians flourished.

The need for metals

The Assyrians and their successors were not sea-people, but they needed some of the good things that could be brought from overseas, particularly metals.  And so the Phoenicians, a generalised term for these city states in what is now mostly Lebanon, were able to survive in a sort of semi independent status, sometimes revolting but almost always being more-or-less forgiven because of their usefulness.  But the price of this semi independence was they always had to pay a heavy tribute; that is they had to supply their masters with the metals they needed.  And it was in search of metals that they spread out all over the Mediterranean.

Silver gilt bowl from Idalion in Cyprus, now in the Louvre. Since the raison d’être of the Phoenicians was metal trading, it is appropriate that their finest art is to be seen in these metal bowls. This example dates to the sixth century BC and shows marked Egyptian influence as seen in the central image of the Pharaoh beating down his enemy. But the frieze surrounding it shows lions and sphinxes that are more typical of Phoenician art. Photo Wikipedia, courtesy of  Marie-Lan Nguyen

Cyprus was the first port of call, for Cyprus is rich in copper and at Kition, modern Larnaca, they set up a major trading station where a temple has been excavated.   They moved on to Sicily where they set up towns mostly in the west at Motya and Panormus, modern Palermo.  The next target were the metal rich areas of northern Italy occupied by the Etruscans with whom they entered into fruitful relations.  They then went on to Sardinia, again rich in metals and then on to Spain – not the east coast but they sailed right along the south coast and set up a settlement at Gadir underlying modern Cadiz.  There are rich mines in the interior in the Rio Tinto area, not only copper but also silver spread out along the Guadalquivir River where the Tartessos peoples with whom we shall be dealing in the next chapter, had established a prosperous civilisation.

But the most successful colony of all was in North Africa, at Carthage.  Settlement in North Africa was difficult. The trouble is there is a strong current that flows west to east along the African coast of the Mediterranean, so it makes sense for any ship going eastwards to take the more northerly route.  For the return journey however, a voyage along the coast of Africa is ideal, and though there are no metals along the coast of North Africa, the land, particularly around Carthage, is very fertile.  And when a colony was founded at Carthage it flourished exceedingly and soon outgrew its mother towns in size and in importance, so that the second half of the story of the Phoenicians is the story of Carthage and its wars with Rome and its eventual destruction by Rome.  And indeed one of the main problems in trying to reconstruct the story of the Phoenicians is that this story was so comprehensively trashed by the Roman historians.

The story of the Phoenicians in the east is the story of city states.  They all vaguely recognised that they were Phoenicians, just that the Greek city states recognised that they were Greek.  They were bound together by the same language: Phoenician belonged to the Canaanite branch of the Semitic languages, closely allied to Hebrew and they had an alphabet of 22 letters from which our alphabet is derived,  though it was left to the Greeks to make the crucial invention of having separate signs for vowels as well as constantans.

The towns were spread out along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.  To the north was Ras Shamra, or Ugarit originally part of the Hittite empire, well known from Claude Schaeffer’s excavations. Then came Arwad, well known for its later coinage.  Then Byblos, then Bayreuth, then Sidon, and then most famous of all Tyre. Tyre was built on an off-shore island, later joined to the mainland by a mole.  Being on an island is both a curse and a blessing: a blessing because it gave safety, a curse because it needed control of the inland for food and indeed water.  But somehow Tyre always flourished. To the south lay Jaffa and beyond that Gaza, though Gaza was part of the Philistine group.

Trading towns

But all of them were essentially harbour towns.  The main centre was always the harbour and the ship sheds and warehouses set round in an open area that should perhaps be called ‘a market place’.  There was also a palace known from the written records, though as far as I can make out no palace has yet been excavated.  There was often also a hill, notably that at Carthage known as Byrsa where the wealthy merchants had their houses.  But if there were no grand palaces there were few grand temples either.  The temple precinct seemed to have been focused on an open courtyard and there seems to have been watery element to their religion, like the lustral basins among the Minoans or the baptisteries among the Christians and the ablution fountains of the Muslims.

Aerial view of Tyre. It was originally an island, but Alexander built a mole to it which has been widened by the accumulation of sand on either side. Photo from Phoenicians, by Donald Harden, originally by Father Poidebard, 1934-6

They were quite small in size – Tyre on its island only covered some 16 hectares or 40 acres.  They tended to be divided between an upper town and a lower town.  The upper town contained the temples and the administrative buildings and also the residences of the upper classes.  None of them have survived very well.  There are no great Phoenician temples surviving, but it seems that the few temples that do survive often have a watery element, like the lustral basins in Minoan Crete or the baptisteries in Christian churches.

The heart of the town however was in the lower town and the port facilities.  The ports were often elaborate with breakwaters being constructed, sometimes using ashlar masonry to provide strong foundations, sometimes forming two harbours, one on either side of the mole.  There were also shipsheds and rectangular rock cut basins known as a ‘cothon’, where ships could be repaired.  At Carthage there were shipsheds for 220 war ships according to the Roman historian Appian. Behind the harbour there were the warehouses and also an open market square or plaza though none of these has survived to be excavated. But around these basin facilities, substantial towns often grew up, at first in an unplanned way with streets radiating out from the upper town, but later Greek ideas of town planning took hold and a number of towns, notably the new town at Carthage, were laid out on a grid pattern.

These trading towns were established along the whole length of the Mediterranean, along the north coast of Africa from Tyre in the east to Cadiz in the western corner of Spain. There were also the islands, two in particular, Sicily and Sardinia.  Sicily was divided between the Greeks and Phoenicians with the Greeks in the east centred round Syracuse and the Carthaginians in the west centred round the island fortress of Motya.  However in many ways Sardinia was the more important, for Phoenician towns were established all round the coast of southern Sardinia and these provided the agricultural surpluses, the food that was shipped to Carthage in its early days.




But the town that rose to become by far and away the most important was Carthage, and the second half of the story of the Phoenicians is the story of Carthage which spend nearly two centuries fighting with the Greeks in Sicily, and then fighting the three Punic wars with Rome, which eventually ended with the total destruction of Carthage and the end of the Phoenician era.

Plan of Carthage, from Wikipedia. Note the two harbours at the bottom the pride of Carthage with the circular military harbour and the rectangular commercial harbour, with adjacent to it the Tophet. However the real centre of Carthage was Byrsa Hill;, now crowned by the Cathedral. The most spectacular modern remains are the (Roman) Antonine Baths.

View of Carthage from the harbour. The site is dominated by Byrsa Hill now dominated by the tasteless and tactless Roman Catholic cathedral.

Carthage lies in the ideal position: it was halfway along the North African coast and thus ideally situated for what was originally its main function, that is facilitating the trade in copper and silver between the rich mines of Spain and the empires of the East Mediterranean.  Originally Carthage was founded in the 8th century BC, but its importance began in 539 when the Persians conquered Tyre, the mother city of Carthage and this meant that Carthage was cut adrift. Tyre survived, but Carthage thereafter was the bigger and more important centre.  In 535, Carthage allied with the Etruscans, won the crucial naval battle of Alalia off the coast of Corsica, as a result of which the Etruscans expelled the Greeks from Corsica, and Carthage firmly established itself in the eastern half of Sicily.

For the next two centuries, the story of Carthage is the story of its wars with the Greeks in Sicily.  The Greeks occupied the eastern end, centred round the great city of Syracuse, while the Phoenicians occupied the western third, centred round Motya, situated on an island at the extreme eastern end. But all this time a new power was arising in Italy: Rome.  Rome gradually overcame its neighbours: the Latins, the Samnites, and the Etruscans, until it eventually found itself master of all mainland Italy south of the Po.  For much of the time it tended to be allied with the Carthaginians against the Greeks, but then in the 3rd century there was a major shift and instead of the story being one of Greeks versus Carthaginians in Sicily, it became the story of Carthage versus Rome – an epic struggle about which thanks to Livy and Polybius we are comparatively well informed.

The circular harbour at Carthage

A stitched-together view of the circular harbour at Carthage with the island at the centre where the ships were kept in their shipsheds

Excavated shipsheds at Carthage

The excavated shipsheds displayed at the centre of the circular harbour at Carthage.

Model of the ship sheds at Carthage

Model of the shipsheds at Carthage showing two warships drawn up in their sheds

There were three Punic Wars. The first, from 264-241, was over Sicily and much of it fought at sea.  The Romans were at first at a disadvantage because they had no fleet, but Rome doggedly set to work to build a fleet, or rather several fleets as its fleets were several times destroyed.  But eventually they won and took over the whole of Sicily apart from Syracuse, and Carthage was forced to pay an indemnity, which meant in effect that it had to work its Spanish contacts particularly hard to provide the silver to pay Rome.  But though the Carthaginians may have been down, they were not out, and they responded by building up an empire in Spain under a new family – the Barcids, who founded a grand new capital called ‘New Carthage’ on the coast at what is today Cartagena.

It was from Spain that the second Punic War broke out, when a dynamic young leader called Hannibal decided that the only way to get rid of the Romans was to tackle the root of the problem and attack them in their home territory. He therefore led an army from Spain over the Alps, elephants and all, and won three stunning victories,  at Trebia, Trasimene and finally at Cannae, where in 216  he annihilated the Roman army.  But he was unable to consolidate his victory: the towns of Italy for the most part decided that they preferred Roman rule to Carthaginian rule, while Carthage failed to provide the much needed reinforcements.  Eventually the Romans counterattacked by invading Spain under a dynamic young leader, Scipio who then went on to invade Africa.  Finally in 202 he defeated the Carthaginians at the Battle of Zama and brought the war to an end.  Hannibal fled to the east and eventually in 183 committed suicide in Bithynia, on the coast of the Black Sea, a sad end to a career that had begun so brilliantly.

But still Carthage survived and despite paying a huge indemnity to the Romans it still flourished.  Eventually the Romans were persuaded that Carthage must be destroyed.  The third Punic War broke out and in 146 BC Carthage was finally destroyed.  The great Phoenician enterprise was at an end.

The secrets of the Carthaginians

For nearly a millennium the Phoenicians were the greatest, or least one of the greatest powers in the Mediterranean: how did they do it? In many ways they break  all the rules of history, or rather of history as practised today in the West,  in that they were essentially a trading empire, strung out over a thousand or more miles, held together by the bonds of trade and, if one dares use the word, ‘race’.  And I must ask my twin questions, how far did they use money and become a money economy, and how were they ruled?  Was there a palace, or were they ruled from the market place?

A Carthaginian shekel dating to around 300 BC bearing the wreathed head of Tanit and a standing horse. The horse became the symbol of Carthage. Photo: Wikipedia

The story of the monetary history of Carthage depends on how you approach it.  If you approach it from the Greek point of view, Carthage was very late in adopting money and it was not until 410, 150 years after when money was first used in Greece that Carthaginian money first made its appearance in Sicily, in order to pay the troops.   However if one looks at it from the Roman point of view, Carthage began minting coins well before the Romans did.  In fact the Carthaginian use of money is very odd because they minted coins essentially to pay their troops, and thus it is found mostly in Sicily and Sardinia. Unlike the Romans who used a citizen army, the Carthaginians mostly used mercenaries to fight their wars, and mercenaries need to be paid,  and turning silver bullion into coins made a convenient way of paying mercenaries, so the Carthaginians issuance of  coins tended to coincide with their need to pay their mercenary troops.  But it made them reluctant to issue money for trade, and it appears that they never developed a market economy.  Their trade was always in bulk goods and paid for by the exchange of these goods in barter form.

Approached from the other side, the search for palaces is also unsatisfactory, for no palace has yet been found.  At New Carthage in Spain, Polybius records that Hasdrubal, the founder had his palace up one of the hills, now known as Windmill Hill, but no trace of a palace has been found.  At Carthage itself, the palace would have been situated in the upper town, the Byrsa Hill, but unfortunately when the Romans re-founded the town they levelled off the top in a massive earth moving operation, thereby removing all traces of whatever buildings the Carthaginians may have had there.

As in other Phoenician towns, Carthage was divided between the upper town, the Byrsa Hill, and the harbour zone, occupied by the superb circular harbours.  Between them was the agora, or  market place, though its exact position is unknown.

The Tophet

The tophet at Carthage showing the massed gravestones marking the graves of the sacrificed infants. Photo BishkekRocks, Wikimedia.

The site that is best known, or rather most extensively looted, is also the most notorious site: the so-called Tophet.  This was a burial ground in which young children were buried, apparently after having been sacrificed to the gods.  The name Tophet comes from the Old Testament when the prophet Jeremiah condemns  the Tophet in the valley of Hinnom just south of Jerusalem where the people of Judah had been in the habit of burning their sons and daughters in the fire. There was also a Tophet at Carthage where numerous stelae or carved stones were discovered and urns containing the burnt bones of children. Numerous carved stones were discovered by treasure hunters, and the actual site was discovered on Christmas Eve 1921 when a police inspector, Francois Icard, caught a gang of illegal diggers who were looting the site. He purchased the site and with his friends carried out excavations which still remain among the best recorded from the site.  It was an extensive site from which thousands of burials have been recovered.  He located four separate layers spread over a long period of time from the 7th to the 2nd centuries BC. The cremated bones were placed in urns and some of them had stele attached, many of them elaborately carved, and it is from these that much of our  knowledge of the art of the Phoenicians is derived. The urns were studied by a young English student, Donald Harden who laid the basis for the dating of the pottery.

The Tophets remain controversial. The Roman historian Diodorus Siculus records an episode when the war was not going well, and it was felt that the disaster came from the gods who had hitherto had been appeased by the sacrificing of the noblest children to the gods.  However the noblest families had evaded this by buying children from the poorest families and sacrificing them instead.  To make up for this 200 of the noblest children were sacrificed, being placed on the arms of a huge bronze statue of Cronus, so that the children rolled down and fell into a pit filled with flames.  It all sounds very grim and it is the sort of propaganda with which the Romans besmirched the names of the Carthaginians.  It has been noted that the three greatest historians, Herodotus, Polybius and Livy do not mention this, but other authors do.

The archaeology seems fairly damning in that most of the remains are of young children aged between 2 – 3 whose bodies had been cremated and only the teeth survive.   In the lowest and earliest levels there are also the remains of burnt young animals suggesting that they had been burnt as a substitute.  But in the upper later levels almost all the cremated remains are those of children.  It has been argued that the children need not all have been sacrificed in this way, but that infants may have been buried in a separate cemetery, and that the burials in tophets were just the children that died in the normal course of childhood diseases.  But the evidence of the written texts seems to agree with the archaeological evidence that children were indeed sacrificed in this grisly fashion.

Tophets are known in other Carthaginian cities, notably in Motya. There is indeed an interesting case at the local site at Kerkouane, 80 miles east of Carthage,  where four different cemeteries have been located, mostly by looters, one of them was devoted to children, though in this case the bodies had not been cremated but were placed in large urns,  suggesting that this was indeed a separate cemetery for young children who may have died naturally.


The Carthaginian town of Kerkouane: a wide street flanked by houses

Kerkouane: a typical(?) Carthaginian settlement with a wide street flanked by houses. But note that the wide Street is curving, not the usual rectilinear layout of Greek influence.

Indeed, if we wish to understand what a Carthaginian town looked like, the most extensively excavated town is that at Kerkouane.  This was discovered in 1952 and was extensively uncovered in a major project to provide work for the unemployed, and as a result, a Punic town spread over nearly 9 hectares was revealed.  It was situated by the sea at the end of the long promontory known as Cape Bon: there is no sign of any harbour, though the harbour may have been washed away by the sea.

Kerkouane: a Carthaginian hip bath

One of the small hip baths, set in one of the houses at Kerkouane. These small baths were typical of this Carthaginian town

The main impression is of wide streets, curving gently with housing facing on to the streets. There is no strict rectangular grid but the town clearly was laid out along the streets. The remarkable aspect of the houses is the number of small baths made from red concrete.  Bathing appears to have played an important part in their lives: can the distinction be made between the Carthaginians who preferred to bathe in the privacy of their own homes, and the Romans who preferred to flaunt their nudity in public in the public baths?

Kerkouane: peristyle house

The finest excavated house at Kerkouane was this house with a peristyle overlooking the sea.

No public buildings were discovered, just a couple of small squares; though there was one building that was interpreted as the temple with a number of small rooms arranged round a courtyard, some of them showing bathing facilities.  One of the larger houses in a splendid position overlooking the sea had a peristyle courtyard at its centre, surrounded by columns, which it is tempting to think of as the result of Greek influence.

Carthaginian phallic urn from Kerkouane

Phallic urn from Kerkouane. Such phallic urns with a prominent penis on their side are frequently found on Phoenician sites.

It is difficult to know the economic status of the town. There is some evidence for fishing and there are piles of murex shells from which the dye for which the Phoenicians were famous was extracted. However there is little evidence for farming activities in the area excavated – presumably farming was carried out outside the town on individual farmsteads.  However there was considerable evidence for metalworking and glass and pottery kilns,  as well as stone carvers and moulds for making jewellery.

The main impression is that between the richest and the poorest there was a sort of middle class who constituted the majority of the population: there are numerous ordinary dwellings that have all the basic facilities without the luxury of certain richer dwellings. Kerkouane appears to show an industrious people with few grand public buildings, but concentrating their efforts on their own modest houses.

The constitution

But how was Carthage ruled?  Surprisingly there is a full account of the Spartan constitution in Aristotle’s Politics.  Aristotle like so many other Greek thinkers was mesmerised by the concept of the mixed constitution, a constitution mixed between monarchy, oligarchy and democracy.  The two constitutions which he reckoned were the best were those of Sparta and Crete which always surprises me because Aristotle, who is one of my heroes, seems to be a common sense sort of person who never lets theoretical concepts override practical results, so I am surprised he allows Sparta, – of whose deficiencies he must have been well aware, to have the best constitution.

Be that as it may, he adds Carthage to Sparta as having an excellent mixed constitution, with a king and a council of 104.  If they were in agreement their decision stood, but if they disagreed the decision lay with the people.  In other words, it was very much a Greek type of constitution with no sign of a Palace dominated by an Emperor. The only fault he finds is that the magistrates were chosen by wealth as well as by merit.

Punic mask from the Bardo Museum in Tunis

Punic mask from the Bardo Museum in Tunis

In practice, reality was somewhat different and Carthage was to a great extent dominated by two great families: in the early years they were dominated by the Magonids, descended from Mago, who dominated Carthage 5th and 4th centuries and later they were dominated by the Barcids, whose most distinguished member was Hannibal.  Later the suffetes cone to prominence, who were two  in number similar to the two consuls at Rome, though they are not elected annually.  There is debate as to how far this innovation was in imitation of Rome or whether Suffetes had been known previously in Tyre.  But in the latter days it was never quite clear where power lay and Hannibal was always having difficulties in getting money and reinforcements of troops out of the powers that be at Carthage.  But the general impression from the Roman sources is that Carthage was very much like the Greek cities – no hint of a Palace anywhere.

Eventually Carthage and with it the Phoenician enterprise fell to Rome and the question must be asked why was it that Rome won? Would the ancient world have been a better place if Hannibal had conquered Rome? Three answers may perhaps be given.

Firstly, on the more material level,  the Roman  army was a citizen army, whereas the Carthaginian army was an army of mercenaries.  The Carthaginians needed to pay their soldiers, indeed their best fighting force often consisted of the Numidians, the native people of North Africa with whom they maintained an on/off relationship.  The army with which Hannibal invaded Italy consisted of the formidable Numidian horsemen and troops from Spain and indeed Gaul (France) who he had recruited in his march through Gaul.  The coinage of Sparta is much more frequent than that of Rome precisely because the money was coined in order to pay the mercenary troops.  Rome on the other hand had a citizen army even if many of the citizens were in fact troops provided by their allies who were only half citizens.  It is ironic that in the later Roman Empire the army became fully professional with soldiers being properly paid, but Rome owed its early success to its citizen army.

Secondly, there is the success of the Roman state craft.  Romans as soldiers were good, but  not brilliant (Hannibal always defeated them).   Where they really excelled was in making peace. This they did by their system of giving the conquered peoples a sort of semi-citizenship, citizenship without the vote, or Latin Rights, and as a result the peoples who were conquered soon became to feel that they were ‘Romans’, and that life under Rome was better than life under their own nobility.  By the time that the Punic Wars broke out, Rome was no longer just Rome but had forged together the whole of central and southern Italy, from the Etruscans in the North, the Latins and the Sabines and even, perhaps reluctantly, the Greek citizens in the south, to form a unified Roman commonwealth.

The Romans turned Carthage into one of the great cities of the Roman Empire. These are the Antonine Baths, said to the the third largest set of baths in the Roman Empire

Finally perhaps, it was Rome that had been most successfully absorbed the ethos of Greece. Greece had a magic, a magic which I call civilisation and Rome had inherited that magic.  It was that made people feel that they were moving onto a higher plain of existence  – people felt better and more civilised. (Freedom and democracy are perhaps the words that we would use, though they are not words or even concepts that the Romans would recognise or understand in the way that we use them). And underneath there was the feeling that more people were able to do their own thing and lead their own lives.  And it was this feeling I believe that underlay Rome’s success.


On to Tartessos


22nd January 2017