Friends and Neighbours


The Phoenicians were never a unified nation, never really a nation at all, and in fact their identity was imposed on them by the Greeks. The Levant around the beginning of the 1st millennium BC (modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine) was inhabited by a Semitic people known as Canaanites. Some of them occupied cities along the coast - or, in the case of Tyre, an island off the coast. These cities (Beirut, Sidon and Byblos, along with Tyre) developed as trading centres, with their people (Phoenicians to the Greeks) as entrepreneurs selling the rich resources of the Levant to the Mediterranean worlds across the sea. They held a monopoly in exploiting the small mollusc which produces the purple dye - symbol of wealth and success for ruling elites - Roman senators had purple borders to their tunics, and their emperors could wear solid purple. The Greeks assumed that their name, Phoenicians, meant "The purple people": although it also relates to phoinix, meaning a date palm. They planted trading outposts all over the southern Mediterranean (unchallenged by Greeks - except in Sicily - who monopolised the northern part). Carthage, Palermo, Tangier, Algiers, Malaga and Gibraltar all reveal Phoenician/Canaanite origins.

Phoenician ship

Phoenician ship from a sarcophagus 2nd century AD. Wikimedia commons.

There had been a thriving kingdom, connected with the Hittite empire to the north, in the late bronze age based in Ugarit (near Latakia) which was destroyed around 1200 BC. Its fall is linked with the decline of the major civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean (The Hittites and the Egyptians) perhaps connected with the arrival of the mysterious "Sea Peoples". This allowed smaller players like the Phoenicians to fill the vacuum. They explored the Red Sea and the coasts of Africa; they traded for silver in Spain and tin in far-off Britain (at least according to some interpretations of Strabo), as well as copper from Cyprus and African gold. They sold wine to Egypt, and exported glass - and especially, the uniquely valuable purple dye.

From their Canaanite ancestors they inherited a system of writing which they developed into an alphabet - the ancestor of the Greek alphabet, and from there the Roman alphabet used for many of today's languages (including the one you are reading here), and several others. There were earlier writing systems (the numerous versions of cuneiform, for example) - but only the alphabetical system made literacy available to anyone, no longer just to a secret coterie of scribes or priests.

Phoenician alphabet

The Phoenician alphabet

Persian rule (from about 539 BC).

When Cyrus took Babylon in 539 BC, all of Mesopotamia and the coastal lands of the Levant became part of the new Persian empire. The Phoenicians' ships and nautical expertise were now available for Persia. Added to the navies of the Ionian Greek cities acquired after the fall of Lydia in 547 BC, the Persians now had the sea-power they needed to protect their western frontier.

We hear little of the Phoenician cities under the Achaemenids - presumably they and their trade prospered. Their neighbour, Egypt, had managed to escape from the Persian empire, and resisted several attempts to reconquer it. When the Phoenicians attempted to revolt in 343 BC, they were decisively crushed and brutally punished by King Artaxerxes III in person, before he moved on to recover Egypt at last. Diodorus is the source:

But the people of Sidon before the arrival of the King burned all their ships so that no one could save themselves by sailing off in secret. When they realised the city and the walls had been captured and was swarming with tens of thousands of soldiers, they shut themselves, their children, and their women up in their houses and set fire to them. They say that more than forty thousand, including the slaves, were burned to death in the fire. After this disaster had befallen the Sidonians and the whole city together with its inhabitants had been obliterated by the fire, the King sold that funeral pyre for many talents, for as a result of the wealth of the people a vast amount of silver and gold was found melted down by the fire.

Alexander and later

Just over 10 years later (332 BC) Alexander of Macedon, heading for Persian territory in Egypt, laid siege to Tyre. Other Phoenician cities had already surrendered their navies to him - weakened by their abortive rebellion a few years earlier. The city held out for seven months: finally Alexander built a causeway to connect the island with the mainland (which is why Tyre today is a peninsula, not an island any more). The final assault came from both the sea and the land. Arrian:

There was huge carnage... the Macedonians attacked everything in their path, enraged by the hardships of the siege, and because the Tyrians had captured some of their men. They then paraded them on their walls, in full view of the Macedonian camp, executed them and threw the corpses into the sea. 8,000 Tyrians were killed [as against 400 Macedonians], and some 30,000 sold into slavery.

After the conquest by Macedon, the Phoenican cities began to lose out on their trade to the Greeks. Their culture lived on in their colonies in the west, especially Carthage [in modern Tunisia], and in western Sicily.

Alexander's successors - the Ptolemies and Seleucids - fought several wars over the Levant. In 217 BC the Battle of Raphia (now Rafa in Egypt near the border with Gaza) was one of the largest confrontations in the ancient word, with Ptolemy IV's African elephants facing Antiochus III and his Indian elephants. Egypt won on this occasion. Ownership changed several times, but the Seleucids finally prevailed in 197 BC. After a brief period of rule by the Armenian Tigranes, Phoenicia became part of the Roman province of Syria.(65 BC)

African war elephant

Between AD 614 and 619 Khusrau II recovered most of the territory once ruled by the Achaemenids in the west: but it was a brief episode before reconquest by the Byzantines, and only shortly before the entire region was taken by the Arabs.