Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.01.13

John D. Grainger, Hellenistic Phoenicia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. ix + 219; 7 maps. $55.00. ISBN 0-19-814770-8.

Reviewed by Nigel Pollard, University of Michigan.

John Grainger's second book, Hellenistic Phoenicia, follows remarkably closely on the heels of his first, The Cities of Seleukid Syria (Oxford University Press, 1990), and deals with the same region and the same period. Both deal with the impact of Graeco-Macedonian expansion into the Near-East. While in his earlier volume, G. dealt with the imposition of an entirely new Graeco-Macedonian urban network on Syria, in this second book he considers the manner in which the cities of Phoenicia, which existed and partook of a distinctive culture before the arrival of Alexander, survived through Macedonian conquest and Ptolemaic and Seleucid rule.

In his Introduction, G. refers to three important themes. The first is (p.3) the Phoenician cities' "methods of survival, the compromises they made to do so, and their varying responses to Greek and Macedonian power." The second theme is the fascinating issue of the cultural relationship between Phoenician and Graeco-Macedonian.1 To what degree did Phoenicia preserve a distinctive cultural identity? Does the concept of "Hellenistic Phoenicia" have any meaning at all beyond the purely geographic and chronological definition? The final theme is the economy of Phoenicia in the Hellenistic period, a question raised by the reputation of Phoenicians as traders.

The organisation of the book is generally chronological rather than thematic, and given the extremely limited nature of the evidence G. is dealing with, this tends to weaken his ability to tackle these key problems. However, this arrangement works well enough for a study of the political and military impact between the Graeco-Macedonians and Phoenicians. 360-287 B.C.E. was a period of tremendous upheaval in Phoenicia, with the revolt of Sidon against Achaemenid rule in 345 B.C.E and its subsequent destruction (though G. suggests, sensibly enough, that the latter was not as severe as implied by Diodorus' account) and the arrival of Alexander in 333-2 B.C.E. G. illustrates the varied responses of the Phoenician cities to Alexander. The ruler of Aradus submitted, the king of Sidon was overthrown (perhaps by Alexander or perhaps by his own people) and replaced by a pro-Macedonian (and perhaps more popular) appointee. Tyre, of course, resisted and was captured after a prolonged siege. Alexander is supposed to have executed 2000 leading citizens but maintained the king in power, and G. suggests (p.36-7) that he showed a preference for monarchs and popular control, as opposed to some form of oligarchy, which the 2000 executed men may have represented. After the siege of Tyre, no Phoenician city seems to have resisted occupation, despite the shifting control of the area by Ptolemaic and Antigonid/Seleucid armies in the following decades. G. suggests (p.50-51) that the sacks of Sidon and Tyre had taught the value of cooperation and compromise with conquerors.

The years 287-225 B.C.E. saw the Ptolemies gain and maintain control of the cities (except for Aradus), and the disappearance of the Phoenician monarchies. G. suggests (p.58) that in some cases the depositions were carried out by Graeco-Macedonian rulers because the kings had failed to change sides swiftly enough in the period of rapidly changing hegemony early in the century. They were replaced by nominally republican constitutions of "the Tyrians" and "the Sidonians," with epigraphic formulae (in Greek) suggesting similarities to the boule and demos combination of contemporary Greek cities in the area. Little is known about civic magistrates or the franchise, and the only possible expression of something untypical of Hellenistic cities in general is the use of the Greek term dikastes for a Sidonian magistrate in an inscription, a usage which may reflect the Phoenician title shofet (p.65-6; 81). However, just as in Seleucid northern Syria, (p.66) "real power, military power lay in the hands of the king, Ptolemaic or Seleukid." Thus there is little evidence of any major political distinction between the "Phoenician" cities and the "Greek" foundations of the Hellenistic world.

The Seleucids gained control of Phoenicia early in the second century, but from late in that same century there is evidence of increased assertion of local independence in the Phoenician cities as royal control broke down. This phenomenon occurred in other geographically marginal areas of the Seleucid kingdom too, notably those controlled by the Palmyrene, Ituraean and Emesene neighbours of Phoenicia. As before the Macedonian conquest, in Phoenicia this independence focused on the autonomy of individual cities, not some wider political and cultural entity of that name.

Thus G. provides a good survey and discussion of the limited evidence regarding the political histories of the cities of Hellenistic Phoenicia in the Hellenistic period. But what of his second theme, that of cultural identity? Regarding the violence and shifting control of the period 360-287 B.C.E. G. raises the pessimistic possibility (p.51) that the "cultural heritage (of the Phoenician cities) was also surely mutilated beyond repair, leaving an impoverishment which Greek culture could hope to fill." As noted above, there is little to distinguish the Phoenician cities from "Greek" Hellenistic cities in terms of political situation and institutions. Likewise the ruling classes are known to have engaged in Greek philosophy, Greek athletics and to have set up inscriptions in Greek. In contrast, Grainger refers us to sites away from the major urban centres, such as the cult centre of Astarte at Wasta and the rural community and cult centre of Umm el-Amed. The former (p.78) "remains resolutely local, Phoenician and traditional" in terms of the names of worshippers, the languages they employed and the cult symbolism employed. The latter (p.81-82) includes inscriptions in Phoenician (and only in Phoenician), and, according to Grainger, the material culture such as pottery shows little evidence of external influence, except for imported Rhodian amphorae. "Yet of Hellenization there is no sign" (p.81) he claims of Umm el-Amed. Examination of the excavation report suggests that this assertion is an unfortunate over-generalization.2 Certainly the inscriptions are Phoenician, and the courtyard plans of the temples on the site owe much more to Near Eastern antecedents than to contemporary Greek planning. However, the details of those temples, such as the architectural mouldings and the forms of column capitals and bases show very strong Greek influences. As G. indicates, there are fragments of imported Rhodian amphorae. But the report indicates that there were significant quantities of characteristically Hellenistic black-slipped wares and some red-slipped "Hellenistic Pergamene" (Eastern Sigillata). On a more fundamental level, the bulk of the pottery from the site, which the excavators suggest was of local production and which G. dismisses as "the usual local type," displays strong evidence of the influence of the wider Hellenistic world. The forms of most of those vessels, incurved rim bowls, everted rim bowls, fish-plates, fusiform unguentaria and even a lagynos and an amphoriskos, would be at home at just about any site in the Hellenistic world. Certainly these are not "Phoenician" in origin. The inhabitants of the site may not have been importing much pottery from Greece, but local potters were copying shapes from Greece and elsewhere in the Hellenistic world. The significance, nature and chronology of this "Hellenization" of the material culture of the site are all open to dispute, but it deserves more careful consideration than G. gives them. This tends to weaken the dichotomy between the "Hellenized elite culture" of the urban centres and the supposedly "more traditional" culture of the rural population.

In addition, one must take issue with some of G.'s comments regarding what one might describe as "pan-Semitic" cultural sympathies (such as his description, on p.145 of Tyre and the Jews under John Hyrcanus as "both-self-consciously Semitic"), which manifested themselves as occasional political cooperation between Phoenicians, Jews and Ituraeans in the late Hellenistic period. The evidence of such cooperation is slim enough, and there is plenty of evidence for conflict between "Semites" too, as G. himself documents (cf. p.153f., between Phoenicians and Ituraeans). What cooperation existed surely was based on immediate and practical considerations. Even if those responsible for policy-making in Phoenician cities at that time (the "hellenized" urban elite discussed above) had any conception of themselves as "Semitic," surely it was as Phoenician or Tyrian rather than "Semitic" in any general sense which included Jews and Ituraeans too.

The third topic considered in the book is the economy of Hellenistic Phoenicia. Of course, Phoenicians are, and were, known as traders, but at a more basic level it might be interesting to consider the contribution of local agricultural resources to the development of Hellenistic Phoenicia. Unfortunately there is little evidence. We do not have a clear idea of the rural hinterland controlled by the individual cities at specific times, and we lack archaeological survey data. However, G. does marshal some of the scattered evidence for the rural economy, including olive oil production at Umm el-Amed and Sarepta (p.67-69) and the possible Phoenician involvement in the development of villages in the hinterland (p.114). For the most part G. focuses on trade and traders, since that was how Phoenicians appeared to the Greeks and Romans to whom we owe most of our evidence. Much of what G. says is reasonable. However, when he tries to make a case for the Phoenicians as the developers of trade routes eastwards in the Achaemenid and Hellenistic periods, to the Red Sea, Arabia and India, by way of Syria and the Euphrates, he does seem to be stretching some very tenuous evidence too far. If Phoenicians were important in trade east along the Euphrates, one might expect to find evidence of their presence at Dura Europos, for example, along with the Palmyrenes who are attested there, albeit in the later Hellenistic and Roman period.

Grainger does a good job of bringing the scattered evidence for his subject together and raises interesting questions. The fact that the answers to those questions often are inconclusive reflects more on the limitations of the evidence rather than the author's judgement. However, an occasional lack of sophistication and understanding in the handling of archaeological evidence (also a failing of G.'s first book) does tend to detract from the work's qualities.


  • [1] This issue has been addressed in an important article by Fergus Millar, "The Phoenician Cities: A Case Study of Hellenisation," Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 209 (1983), 55-71.
  • [2] Maurice Dunand and Raymond Duru, Oumm el 'Amed. (Paris 1962).