Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.43

Michael Dietler, Carolina López-Ruiz (ed.), Colonial Encounters in Ancient Iberia: Phoenician, Greek, and Indigenous Relations.   Chicago/London:  University of Chicago Press, 2009.  Pp. xiii, 323.  ISBN 9780226148472.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Andy Fear, University of Manchester (


This very welcome book on a neglected subject in English-speaking scholarship had its genesis in a symposium held in Chicago and as such is a collection of papers rather than a continuous narrative. It is a shame that constraints on its production did not allow engagement with Neville's Mountains of Silver and Rivers of Gold: The Phoenicians in Iberia (Oxford, 2007) or Bierling and Gitin's, The Phoenicians in Spain (Winona Lake, 2002). Readers of this volume will gain from reading all three of these books together. The general approach taken here is primarily theoretical and archaeological rather than historical. The impact of external groups on the development of the peninsula is a highly contested field, the strength and importance of its effects being sharply debated. In that regard a general paper on the nature of the existing indigenous societies at the beginning of the period covered here in order to give the reader a background in which to place the discussed changes would have been a useful addition to the work.

The volume contains 11 papers divided into five sections. The first has two papers dealing with theoretical issues. Dietler's "Colonial encounters in Iberia and the Western Mediterranean: an exploratory framework" attempts to give a broad perspective into which to fit later papers. This is an interesting piece, but is marred by tendentious statements made almost casually; for example, its attribution of the extinction of most Celtic languages in Western Europe and the various forms of Iberian in the peninsula (no mention is made of Tartessian) to Roman expansion. Sanmartí's paper, "Colonial encounters and Social Change in Iberia (Seventh to Third centuries BC)" is, as its title suggests, much more grounded in Iberian matters. The discussion on the importance of the introduction of wine to the peninsula on relations between native and coloniser is particularly stimulating. As well as looking at the impact of foreign imports in the area, the paper also underlines the contested question concerning the main agents of societal change in the peninsula: the indigenous population or external colonisers--a theme which underlies many of the following papers.

The second section deals with foreign ventures to the peninsula. Belarte's paper, "Colonial contacts and Protohistoric Indigenous Urbanism on the Mediterranean Coast of the Iberian peninsula", eschews the southern part of this coast and focuses on settlement in Valencia and Catalonia. Its conclusions are that although societal change was speeded up by foreign trade, evolution to an urban model of society would nevertheless have occurred through the existing dynamics of the indigenous communities. There is a useful discussion of the early site at S. Martí d'Empúries, and a long and especially useful, given the theme of later papers, account of the possible orientalising sanctuary at Turó del Calvari. Arruda, "Phoenician Colonisation on the Atlantic Coast of the Iberian Peninsula", examines possible Phoenician settlement in this area, though the Atlantic here curiously begins at the Algarve. This is pity as it means that the role of Cadiz and nearby settlements such as el Castillo de Doña Blanca, (see D. Ruiz Mata & C.J. Pérez, El poblado fenicio del Castillo de Doña Blanca, El Puerto de Santa María, 1995) are not considered. Indeed, the Andalusian coast, despite its importance, has somehow managed to slip through the volume's net to a great extent. How to detect Phoenician settlement, as opposed to mere contact or the circulation of Phoenician goods, is a difficult subject and a little more detailed discussion of whether Phoenician artifacts entail an actual Phoenician presence would have been useful at this point. Rouillard, "Greeks and the Iberian Peninsula", gives a detailed description of early Greek interaction with the peninsula, arguing that Ampurias was likely to have been only one of a sequence of ports of call along the Levant coast of Spain. He also however stresses the small size of such settlements and suggests that we should see a system of trade-emporia operating under indigenous control which perhaps implies a form of aristocratic guest-friend relationship between traders and the local rulers. Overall, he sees the impact of Greek culture as quite late in the peninsula's history (the mid-fifth century BC) and argues that the changes it caused would not have required a large number of settlers.

The third section of the volume contains with two papers which look at the impact of colonial contacts on the ecology of the peninsula. Buxó, "Botanical and Archaeological Dimensions of the Colonial Encounter", looks at changing patterns of agriculture in the peninsula and in particular at the introduction of viticulture. He notes that while the exploitation of wild grapes is found prior to contact with the Phoenicians, no trace of domesticated grapes has been found in this period. In the second paper Treumann, "Lumbermen and Shipwrights: Phoenicians on the Mediterranean Coast of Southern Spain", argues that although precious metals have often been regarded as the main magnet drawing foreign traders/settlers to the peninsula (an attitude extending back as far as G. Rawlinson, Phoenicia: a History of a Civilisation, London, 1889), its timber resources, especially given their proximity to other material needed for ancient ship-building, such as esparto and halfa grass, and ruddle, were also an important attraction for a sea-faring people like the Phoenicians. This would have been especially the case in the late eighth century, she believes, when the Phoenicians' traditional areas of supply for such materials had come under threat from the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Section 4 revisits the question of "Tartessos". Attempts to integrate Herodotus's brief accounts (1.63, 4.152) of "Tartessos" and its king, Arganthonius, in southern Iberia with the remains of an orientalising culture in this region, named "Tartessic" from these accounts, have provoked an enormous literature (see Ma. Aubet Semmler, ed., Tartessos: arqueología protohistórica del bajo Guadalquivir, Sabadel (Barcelona) 1989). Belén Deamos, "Phoenicians in Tartessos" argues that religion played a key part in Phoenician colonisation and expansion. She suggests that the remains found Caramabolo, near Seville, are not those of private housing, but rather a "sacred centre". Similar centres are posited at Castulo, Marchena, Huleva, and Carmona. Belén Deamos looks favourably on the early twentieth century Anglo-French archaeologist George Bonsor's hypothesis (recently championed anew by Wagnar and Alvar in their "Fenicios en Occidente: la colonizacion agrícola", Rivista di Studi Fenici 17.1 (1989) 61-102) that there was Phoenician agricultural settlement in Carmona. She detects in the orientalising pottery found there "encoded messages written in a symbolic language" which have a particular reference to the goddess Astarte and once again interprets the edifice where this material was found as a religious, rather than a secular, building. Her conclusion is that there were permanent Phoenician enclaves in the indigenous settlements of the Guadalquivir valley which were important intermediaries in trade between the two communities. It should be noted however, and Belén Deamos has the courage to concede, that other readings of the evidence which would see her Phoenician centres as orientalising native structures are possible. Celestino-Pérez, "Precolonisation and Colonisation in the Interior of Tartessos", looks at the presence of Phoenician material in the period prior to the putative Phoenician colonisation of the peninsula. This period, alas, has now given the unhelpful tag "precolonisation" period (as the author concedes this term "is a very complex one and has generated a certain amount of confusion"). The focus of the paper is on central southern Spain, away from the central area of Tartessian culture. The warrior stelae of this region (normally around 3 feet high and displaying an engraved "warrior" surrounded by weapons, a chariot, and sometimes other accoutrements) are seen as evidence of contact between this area and the Eastern Mediterranean with Tartessos as an intermediary. Celestino-Pérez suggests that the stelae were the product of a society based around cattle ranching. He dismisses the notion that exchanges between this area and Tartessos were based on metals and argues that it was the rich farmland of the area and its produce that attracted interest from Tartessos and the Phoenicians. The land of this society was then, it is posited, encroached upon by arable-farming migrants from the Tartessic area to its south. At the centre of this encroachment was the ritual site of Cancho Roano with its large sanctuary and ash altar. While at first this encroachment appears to have caused no tension, Celestino-Pérez suggests that conflict between cattle-ranchers and arable farmers may well have led to the demise of Cancho Roano and similar sites in the fourth century BC. The hypothesis is intriguing, though a little more detailed argument about how what is seen as a long period of peaceful co-existence finally turned to animosity would have been welcomed. The re-use of a stele in the first construction phases of the Cancho Roano sanctuary could perhaps hint at tensions existing from the very beginning of the edifice's construction.

The final section of the book has two papers, one by López-Ruiz, "Tarshish and Tartessos revisited", deals with linguistic question of how, if at all, to relate the Tartessus of Herodotus to the Biblical "Tarshish", often found in the phrase "ships of Tarshish". It is suggested here that "Tarshish" did originally did indicate the Iberian peninsula, but over the passage of time lost its precise referent and became a generalised metaphor for places "far off in the West". This is a plausible reading and helps resolve the seeming contradictions between various Biblical passages. However, as López-Ruiz concedes, more evidence is needed before we can be certain that the Tarshish of the Bible does in fact refer to the Iberian peninsula. Finally, Gómez Espelosín, "Iberia in the Greek Geographical Imagination" looks at the presentation of Iberia in the Greek literary tradition and warns the reader that geographical accounts of the peninsula from early antiquity should not be read without caution. He suggests that mythology, and in particular the Homeric poems, often played a key role in how new areas were perceived, as did the geography of the voyage by which they were encountered. The end product of these refractions he argues was to produce an "incoherent and variegated corpus of knowledge" from which it is not possible to construct a modern holistic account of the area being described. The piece is a timely warning about the temptation to be overly naive in reading ancient texts, but some readers may feel that the degree of distortion envisaged and the resultant pessimism is too great. It is right to see Homer as an "authority" in antiquity, but authorities can be cited to in order to make a correct cultural gesture or gain authority for a statement rather than out of true obeisance. Examples of this phenomenon in different periods include the insistence by various neo-Platonic philosophers that their work was but a development of, and entirely consistent with, that of Plato, and the claims of Renaissance figures, such as Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, that their works were compatible with Scripture. Such claims were cultural requirements and are not heralds that the works concerned are necessarily distorted by the works claimed to influence them.

There is only one important omission in the volume, namely that of any sustained treatment of Phoenician activity around the Bay of Cadiz. This is a great shame as the area is both an important one and one where much work has been done, for example by Ruiz Mata as cited above. A further, lesser, quarrel is given the, correct, insistence of how greatly the coastline in some areas of the peninsula has changed over time, a map of the coast at various points in antiquity. However, this is a highly stimulating volume which covers a great deal of important ground and although inevitably not all readers will agree with the theories outlined here, they will gain a great deal in engaging with them.

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