Josephine Quinn: The Phoenicians never existed

The Phoenicians traveled the Mediterranean long before the Greeks and Romans, trading, establishing settlements, and refining the art of navigation. But who these legendary sailors really were has long remained a mystery. In Search of the Phoenicians by Josephine Quinn makes the startling claim that the “Phoenicians” never actually existed. Taking readers from the ancient world to today, this monumental book argues that the notion of these sailors as a coherent people with a shared identity, history, and culture is a product of modern nationalist ideologies—and a notion very much at odds with the ancient sources. Read on to learn more about the Phoenicians.

Who were the Phoenicians?

The Phoenicians were the merchants and long-distance mariners of the ancient Mediterranean. They came from a string of city-states on the coast of the Levant including the ports of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Beirut, all in modern Lebanon, and spoke very similar dialects of a language very similar to Hebrew. Their hinterland was mountainous and land connections were difficult even between these neighboring cities themselves, so the Phoenicians were very much people of the sea. They had a particular genius for science and navigation, and as early as the ninth or tenth century BCE, their ships were sailing the full length of the Mediterranean and out through the straits of Gibraltar to do business on the Atlantic coast of Spain, attracted by the precious metals of the west. Levantine migrants and traders began to settle in the Western Mediterranean at least a century before Greeks followed suit, founding new towns in Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, and North Africa. Their biggest Western colony was at Carthage in modern Tunisia, a city which eventually eclipsed the homeland in importance, and under its brilliant general Hannibal vied with Rome for control of the Mediterranean: when Carthage was eventually destroyed by Roman troops in 146 BCE, it was said to be the wealthiest city in the world.

But doesn’t your book suggest that the Phoenicians didn’t even exist?

Not quite! The people we call Phoenician certainly existed as individuals, and they often have fascinating stories, from the Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba, who married not one but two warring African kings, to the philosopher Zeno of Kition on Cyprus, who moved to Athens and founded the Stoic school of philosophy. But one of the really intriguing things about them is how little we know about how they saw themselves—and my starting point in this book is that we have no evidence that they saw themselves as a distinct people or as we might say, ethnic group.

“Phoenician” is what the Greeks called these people, but we don’t find anyone using that label to describe themselves before late antiquity, and although scholars have sometimes argued that they called themselves “Canaanite,” a local term, one of the things I show in my book is how weak the evidence for that hypothesis really is. Of course, to say that they didn’t think of themselves as a distinct people just because we don’t have any evidence for them describing themselves as such is an argument from silence, and it could be disproved at any moment with the discovery of a new inscription. But in the meantime, my core argument is when we don’t know whether people thought of themselves as a collective, we shouldn’t simply assume that they did on the basis of ancient or modern parallels, or because ethnic identity seems “natural.”

So how did the Phoenicians see themselves?

This is the question I’m most interested in. Although there is no surviving Phoenician literature that might help us understand the way these people saw the world, Phoenician inscriptions reveal all sorts of interesting and sometimes surprising things that people wanted to record for posterity. They certainly saw themselves as belonging to their own cities, like the Greeks: they were “Byblians,” or “Sidonians,” or “Sons of Tyre.” But one of the things that I suggest in my book is that in inscriptions they present themselves first and foremost in terms of family: where a Greek inscription might give someone’s own name and that of their father, a Phoenician one will often go back several generations—16 or 17 in some cases. And then Phoenician-speaking migrants develop new practices of identification, including regional ones. We see particularly close relationships developing between neighboring settlements in the diaspora, and between people who are from the same part of the homeland. But we also see new, Western identities developing—‘Sardinian,’ for instance—which bring together Phoenicians, Greeks, and the local population.

And I think we can get further by looking at the evidence for cultural practices that Phoenician speakers share—or don’t share. So child sacrifice rituals seem to be limited to a small number of Western settlements around Carthage, but the cult of the god Melqart, the chief civic deity of Tyre, is practiced by people of Levantine origin all over the Mediterranean. And on my interpretation, Melqart’s broad popularity is quite a late development—in the fifth or fourth century BCE—which would suggest that a sense of connectivity between Phoenician-speakers in the diaspora got stronger the longer people had been away from their homeland. But at the same time, the cult reached out to other Mediterranean populations, since Melqart was celebrated by Greeks (and later Romans) as the equivalent of their own god Herakles.

Politics played a part in the construction of identities as well, and this is particularly apparent in one episode where an attempt seems to have been made to impose the notion of ‘being Phoenician’ on other people. By the late fifth century BCE Carthage was the dominant power in the western Mediterranean, controlling trade routes and access to ports, taxing defeated enemies, and beginning to acquire overseas territory as well, at the expense of other Levantine diaspora settlements. And at pretty much exactly this time they begin to mint coinage, and their very first coins have an image of a palm tree—or, in Greek, a phoinix, which is also the Greek word for Phoenician. It’s hard to resist the impression that celebrating a common ‘Phoenician’ heritage or identity put a useful political spin on the realities of Carthaginian imperial control.

If there’s so little evidence for genuine Phoenician identity in the ancient world, where does the modern idea of “the Phoenicians” come from?

The name itself comes from the Greeks, as we’ve already said, but they didn’t use it to delineate a specific ethnic or cultural group: for them, “Phoenician” was often a pretty vague and general term for traders and sailors from the Levant, there wasn’t a lot of cultural or ethnic content to it. You don’t get the same kind of detailed ethnographic descriptions of Phoenicians as you do of, for instance, Egyptians and Greeks. And the Romans followed suit: in fact, their particular focus on Carthage meant that the Latin words for “Phoenician”—poenus and punicus—were often used to mean ‘North African’ in general.

It wasn’t until the modern period that the idea of the Phoenicians as a coherent ethnic group fully emerged, in late nineteenth century European histories of Phoenicia that relied heavily on new and specifically European ideas about nationalism and natural cultures. This is when we first find them described as a racial group, with an “ethnic character.” And these notions were picked up enthusiastically in early twentieth century Lebanon, where the idea that the Lebanese had formed a coherent nation since antiquity was an important plank of the intellectual justification for a new Lebanese state after the collapse of the Ottoman empire—another story I tell in the book.

A more recent example of this comes from Anthony D. Smith’s wonderful 1988 book, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, which argues that although true nations are a modern phenomenon, they have precursors in ancient and medieval ethno-cultural communities. Among his ancient examples are what he sees as ‘pan-Phoenician sentiments’ based on a common heritage of religion, language, art and literature, political institutions, dress and, forms of recreation. But my argument is that in the case of the Phoenicians at least we are not dealing with the ancient ethnic origins of modern nations, but the modern nationalist origins of an ancient ethnicity.

Is there any truth to the stories that the ancient Phoenicians reached America?

I’m afraid not! It’s an old idea: in the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe argued, not long after he published Robinson Crusoe, that the Carthaginians must have colonized America on the basis of the similarities he saw between them and the indigenous Americans, in particular in relation to “their idolatrous Customs, Sacrificings, Conjurings, and other barbarous usages in the Worship of their Gods.” But the only real evidence that has ever been proposed for this theory, an inscription “found” in Brazil in 1872, was immediately diagnosed by specialists as a fake.

The idea that Phoenicians got to Britain, and perhaps even Ireland, makes more sense. Cornish tin could certainly have been one attraction. There’s no strong evidence though for Phoenician settlement on either island, though the possibility captivated local intellectuals in the early modern period. One of the chapters I most enjoyed writing in this book is about the way that scholars in England concocted fantasies of Phoenician origins for their homeland, in part as a way of differentiating their own maritime power from the more territorial, and so “Roman,” French empire—at the same time as the Irish constructed a Phoenician past of their own that highlighted the similarity of their predicament under Britain’s imperial yoke to that of noble Carthage oppressed by brutal Rome.

These are of course just earlier stages in the same nationalist ‘invention of the Phoenicians’ that came to fruition in the nineteenth century histories we’ve already discussed: stories about Phoenicians helped the British and the Irish articulate their own national identities, which in turn further articulated the idea of the Phoenicians themselves.

Why did you write this book?

One reason was I really wanted to write a book about the ancient Mediterranean that wasn’t limited to Greece and Rome—though plenty of Greeks and Romans snuck in! But there’s another reason as well: “identity” has been such a popular academic topic in recent decades, and I wanted to explore its limits and even limitations as an approach to the ancient world. There are lots of reasons to think that a focus on ethnic identity, and even self-identity more generally, is a relatively modern phenomenon, and that our ideas about the strength and prevalence of ancient ethnic sentiments might be skewed by a few dramatic but unusual examples in places like Israel and perhaps Greece. I wanted to look at a less well-known but perhaps more typical group, to see what happens if we investigate them not as “a people,” but simply as people.


QuinnJosephine Quinn is associate professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College. She is the coeditor of The Hellenistic West andThe Punic Mediterranean.