History Of A Nation: Phoenicia

1500 BC – 539 BC

Furthermore, I believe that Carthage should be destroyed.

We’re not there yet. But I think I shall include that quote in every nation that relates to Carthage in some way as it is one of my favourite historical quotes, under its Latin guise, ‘Carthago delenda est’. But the Phoenicians were more than Carthage. Carthage was just one of their colonies that formed a legacy perhaps even greater than the original Phoenicia. But original Phoenicia was definitely a powerful force in the early Mediterranean, as well as being possibly the first true overseas colonising nation in existence. For them, the Mediterranean was their home.


At the eastern end of the Mediterreanean, at three cities in modern Lebanon, Byblos Sidon, and Tyre, the Phoenician culture developed around the middle of the second millennium BC. From there, they saw the powerful empires all around them (kind of vaguely noticing them and then suddenly realising that they were screwed if they didn’t do something) and launched themselves across the sea to found colonies. The civilised reverse of the Sea Peoples. Maybe they even WERE the Sea Peoples (they weren’t, I’m fairly certain that that has been disproven). But they were all across the Mediterranean after a few years, as traders and as settlers and this meant that their culture spread almost as much as the Greek culture would later spread. Unlike the empires of Egypt and Assyria and the like it was not a hegemony ruled by one king, that would be impossible, but more a culture spreading out over the seas, the map just shows common areas of influence. I’ve seen it described as a thalassocracy, a  sea power who doesn’t necessarily have that much impact on land, and the Phoenicians definitely met that criteria.


Herodotus and Strabo, two veritable Greek historians that I’ll need to dedicate a section or so to when it’s appropriate later, believed the Phoenicians to not have originated from Lebanon, but to have come from over the Arabian Peninsula from what’s now the islands in the Persian Gulf. We have no clear evidence for this based on our excavations in that area for the time but it’s possible that we missed something there. Herodotus is less than favourable about the Phoenicians anyway, describing them as traders turned to slavers who were ultimately responsible for the Trojan War for starting a practice of carrying off Greek women from the Greeks that Paris pushed to a breaking point. Herodotus is notoriously a bit fanciful but then the whole Trojan War is fanciful. The Phoenicians were seen as the pre-eminent sea people in any case.

Phoenicia was probably a league of some city states, Sidon, Tyre, Byblos and others that had been in existence for far longer than 1500 BC but began to band together in trade and gaining riches around this point and reached a point where they were the leaders of trade in the Mediterranean for about four hundred years between 1200 BC and 800 BC. They became most powerful after the Bronze Age Collapse weakened the empires around them, leaving a gap for them to assert their independence and mastery of the sea. Which they were so good at they needed less competition to truly show it. They were excellent at trading and really opened up trade and prosperity through a Mediterranean that was still reeling from all the old empires of the Bronze Age falling on to hard times. The Phoenicians brought everyone trinkets to distract them from their troubles and made a lot of money doing so. They were excellent at trade. And at colonising, they set up trade posts across the Mediterranean early on and solidified their image as traders and explorers. Some trade ships went further than anyone had been before. There’s stories of them making it to Britain (or the tin isles), according to Strabo, and Herodotus asserts that a group of Phoenicians sailed all the way around Africa for a Pharoah, during which they claimed to see the sun to the north of them, although many doubt this happened at all. They left their mark across the Mediterranean for centuries to come, the country name Spain is ultimately derived from a Phoenician word meaning ‘land of Hyraxes’, while Carthage meant ‘new city’ and Malta means ‘refuge’. Their alphabet was possibly the first modern alphabet that we might recognise, and they spread this to the Greeks as they did so much else. The Greeks might dispute this, but they could have been an inspiration for democracy and oligarchy as many of their colonies administrated themselves this way, the kings of the original Phoenician cities important but not above all else like in other territories.

The cities weren’t allied against all else, they definitely competed with each other. First Byblos was strong, then Tyre, then Sidon, leading to the people to be called abroad Sidonians or Tyrians at times. Ithobaal, one of the kings of Tyre is notable for expanding Tyre’s power far further on the mainland and making it a dominant regional power. His daughter was supposedly Jezebel, who married King Ahab of Israel and became a byword for immorality of women. But that’s only a small thing. It’s not like the Phoenicians were evil. They only worshipped Baal. Who was a benevolent god, despite what you’ve heard. He only required the sacrifices of a few children. Allegedly. That was actually a Roman myth made up later against Carthage. Actually, let’s talk properly about Phoenician religion for a bit. Baal was actually a generic name to designate a god, it meant ‘master’, there were many gods who fell under this name. The most common in Phoenician times using this prefix was Hadad, the storm god. He dates all the way back to Akkadia in a different form. Baal became associated with him because the Phoenicians worshipped him so much, like with Yahweh ending up being called Lord or God only, we speculate that Baal received the same treatment from the Phoenicians, his true name becoming too holy to be spoken aloud. There were also Mot, the god of death and Yam, the god of the sea, who some suspect might have influenced the Greeks into developing a similar set-up for their own pantheon. Tyre preferred prostrating to the god Melqart, who also spread overseas and got equated with Herakles on the Greek mainland. His name just means ‘king of the city’. A version of Ishtar, Astarte, was also common as the local requisite fertility and motherly goddess. Different gods would become popular in the Phoenicians most famous successor of Carthage, and I’m going to come to how that was founded.

A later king, about three kings down the line from Ithobaal, Pygmalion, realised that the Middle East was not exactly the most stable place to house an empire from. During his reign, Phoenician attention turns to the centre of the Mediterranean, and a new colony on the northern shores of Africa is founded, known as Carthage (delenda est). Cyprus and Sardinia also had new colonies on them and after this there was a shift. The homeland of the Phoenicians was in the 500s BC conquered and subdued by the Persians, and later the Greeks, leaving the former Phoenicians colonies to their own devices. And of course, one, Carthage, took the lead and outstripped its predecessor in many ways, both in power and notoriety. But in lots of ways, the Phoenicians were the first of the true classical peoples and definitely influenced them a great deal, much more so than any nation before them. You have now entered the Classical Era. Thanks for playing, Ancient Era.


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