BMCR 2012.02.42

Ancient Phoenicia: An Introduction. Classical world series

Mark Woolmer, Ancient Phoenicia: An Introduction. Classical world series. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. 136. ISBN 9781853997341 $23.00 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This new book on “Ancient Phoenicia” joins the growing body of monographs and edited volumes published in recent years on the subject of the Phoenicians, both East and West.1 As part of the “Classical World Series” of the Bristol Classical Press, it is aimed at students and teachers at late school and early university level, as well as the “general reader”, as the author clarifies (p. 8). The book aims to present a “schematic overview of Phoenicia and Phoenician history” between ca. 1300-300 BC.

The Introduction briefly summarises the comments commonly reiterated in literature on the perception of the Phoenicians in antiquity as cunning merchants and their negative portrayal in later Greco-Roman sources. Emphasis is placed on the value of archaeology for the reconstruction of social, political, religious and economic institutions.

Chapter 1 is the actual introduction into the topic, beginning with a definition of the name, its etymology and the question of the Phoenicians’ emic perception of ethnic identity, since ‘Phoenician’ was an ascribed term. A short description of the climate and topography of Phoenicia is followed by an overview of the alphabet and its dissemination. Chapter 2 aims to offer a general introduction into the history of Phoenicia, summarising the period before 1200 BC and subsequently treating the remaining period up to the 4th c. BC. For the earliest periods there is a heavy reliance on the Egyptian account of The Tale of Wen Amon, of the Assyrian and Hittite Annals and for later periods, of Josephus, Menander and of the Old Testament. With the exception of the first document and the annals (their propagandistic character notwithstanding), the remaining sources, though they cannot be ignored, are particularly challenging when used for the reconstruction of historical events. In discussing the early period, the author identifies, on the part of the Phoenicians, “a willingness to become intermediaries between the Asiatic interior and the states bordering the Mediterranean coast”. This statement is a simplified view based on Frankenstein’s hypothesis, first published in 1979,2 since then having been modified by a number of scholars so as to account for the archaeological evidence that documents an extensive Phoenician presence in the western Mediterranean that goes well beyond the role of the Phoenicians as suppliers of goods and services, resulting either in novel hypotheses3 or variations on the earlier theme of the role of Assyria in the expansion.4

Chapter 3 deals with the “Phoenician Diaspora”, including brief presentations of Phoenician cities and colonies based on historical and archaeological evidence, in particular, the Lebanese sites of Arwad, Berytos/Beirut, Byblos, Sarepta, Sidon, Tyre, Carthage and Utica in Tunisia, Gades in Spain, Kition in Cyprus and Motya in Sicily. It is surprising that given the multitude of information on the western Mediterranean, only Gades is included (which is poorly known archaeologically, famous though it is through the historical sources). No colony in Sardinia is included and the fact that the Phoenician colonisation penetrated well into the Atlantic shelf of both Africa and Europe is completely omitted, giving a very skewed picture of the phenomenon (with the exception of the map on fig. 8, showing western Mediterranean sites).

Chapter 4 deals with ‘government and society’, including such topics as “Monarchy”, “the Council of Elders”, “Social Structure”, “Women”, “Slaves and Freedmen”, “Phoenician cities”, “Construction methods and materials”, “Housing and ‘Water supplies and drainage” and “Harbours”. Despite the pitfalls of anachronism regarding the social organization and governance of Phoenician society, as well as the necessary simplifications required when speaking of Phoenician communities stretched across the eastern-central Mediterranean (the latter predominantly represented by Carthage), it is refreshing to see in this chapter a section dealing with the social role/position of Phoenician women. The last three sections are comprehensive summaries, although it should be noted that in the discussion of drainage systems, chronology is very elusive. And yet recent publications suggest that the earliest evidence for (rudimentary) drainage systems in the Levant dates to the Iron Age I (1150-950 BC).

Chapter 5 deals with the economy, treating agriculture and the various crops produced and traded, pastoralism, commerce, the Phoenicians as merchants, the organization of trade in pre-coinage economies, and the introduction and use of coinage, as well as the use of terrestrial trade routes in the Near East. There is also a section on information on these issues glimpsed via Ezekiel and Homer. Perhaps the Homeric information is approached in a positivist way, drawing too much on the epic poem for information reflecting historical reality. There are other sections included, dealing with the types and use of merchant vessels as well as the development of navigation and cartography, issues that are peripheral to the topic of economy, but which help illuminate it. Since the period treated is long, generalizations are unavoidable, resulting for example, in references to the wine drinking habits of the Phoenicians (p. 73), which could be considered anachronistic when speaking of the earlier periods. On one occasion, Woolmer paraphrases a modern source without referring to it.5

Chapter 6 deals with warfare in Phoenicia, for which however there is scarce evidence in terms of the organization of warfare, with most information coming from Greek sources describing the Phoenician segments of the Persian army during the campaigns against Greece. Fig. 17 is a photograph of an ostrich shell decorated with the engraved image of allegedly a Phoenician “phalanx”, now in the British Museum. It is a rather unusual specimen and its inclusion here is very useful in disseminating it to the wider public and hopefully drawing the attention of specialists. The discussion on fortifications is presented based on iconographic evidence from Assyrian wall reliefs and the bronze reliefs at the gates of Balawat (Iraq), complemented by archaeological evidence from Israeli sites (Hazor, Megiddo). It should be noted however that sites in Phoenicia proper have also yielded evidence for fortifications (e.g. Beirut), as have Phoenician sites elsewhere in the Mediterranean (e.g. Castillo de Doña Blanca, Toscanos). Chapter 7 collects and summarises information on Phoenician religion, including a synopsis of the primary deities, priests and the function of sanctuaries, cult practices, conceptions of the afterlife, cemeteries and types of burial. Favouring a break with the Ugaritic religion, it presents the pairs of primary Phoenician deities as specific to each Phoenician city-state. The discussion on eschatology is a positive step, since such issues are often neglected given the paucity of the sources. However, dismissing the possibility that there was a “distinction … between the body and the soul” in an off-hand manner does not take into account the literary and archaeological evidence that point to the contrary.6

Finally, Chapter 8 discusses various aspects of Phoenician art, e.g. metalworking, ivory-carving, stone sculpture, terracotta, pottery, faience/glassware, jewellery, scarabs and textiles. Although the last of these cannot, strictly speaking, be included under the rubric of “art”, it is a welcome addition here, bringing to the fore an important Phoenician craft production known mainly through ancient sources and installations for/by-products of the processing of mural shells. There is some repetition on the description/function of the tophet, already mentioned in the previous chapter.

Included in the book are also thirty-two illustrations including maps, diagrams, a chronological table, photos and drawing of sites and artefacts (some complemented by the author’s own archive), which are well-positioned to illustrate the author’s points. The index, including personal historical/mythical names, toponyms, terms, key words and even modern institutions (e.g. UNESCO) is a useful one.

The “Further Reading” section is to an extent dated and this is a problem reflected in part of the book’s contents, which do not reflect progress in the field. There is a lot of recent research, including articles written in English, which would enhance this book, as the study of the Phoenician past, both East and West, is a very dynamic and quickly evolving area of research. Non-English literature, which is crucial for the subject, cannot be ignored without omitting vital information. But even research published in English has been neglected. At the bare minimum, since Neville’s monograph (2007)7 is cited in the “Further Reading” section, one would expect some reference to the extensive archaeological record of Phoenician presence on Iberia (and northwest Africa). It is thanks to archaeological work that most of our knowledge on the Phoenician presence has been gained, reshaping our understanding of the Phoenicians and their contribution to Iron Age Mediterranean cultures. Instead, a lone reference to the chamber tombs at Trayamar, the small elite necropolis of Moro de Mezquitilla on the coast of Malaga, crops up unexpectedly in Chapter 8 within the discussion of tomb typology and burial customs, but without the slightest mention of its broader context. To my mind, this is a discrepancy between the aim of the book to treat “Phoenicia” and “Phoenician history”, which thus would understandably confine its subject matter to the Near East, and the systematic drawing of information, in many of the chapters, from Phoenician communities elsewhere, mostly though from Carthage and Cyprus. In any case, at least a rudimentary reference to the settlements in Sardinia and those in the western Mediterranean would have been expected.

In a work of this aim and condensed size, it is understandable that certain grey areas cannot be analysed fully, with argumentation kept at a minimum. The problem with this is that debatable hypotheses are sometimes presented as facts (e.g., the already mentioned example of the Phoenicians as “intermediaries” between the Asiatic interior and the Mediterranean or the soul/body distinction of their eschatology).

This book is considerably less detailed than others offering summaries on the Phoenicians in the East (e.g., Markoe 2006) and is largely devoid of archaeological terminology (both to be expected to an extent given the series’s targeted readership). Therefore the present reviewer is inclined to consider this book as of greater value to those in pre-university education, offering to students of that level, as well as to the general reader, an introduction into ancient Phoenicia.

Table of Contents

1. Defining the Phoenicians: Land, Language, Name and People
2. A general History of Phoenicia
3. The Phoenician Diaspora: Principal Cities and Colonies
4. Government and Society
5. The Economy
6. Warfare
7. Phoenician Religion
8. Phoenician Art
Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Marston, E. 2002. rev. ed. The Phoenicians. New York: Benchmark Books. Markoe, G. 2006. The Phoenicians. London: Folio Society. Sommer, M. 2005. Die Phönizier: Handelsherren zwischen Orient und Okzident (Kröners Taschenausgabe 454). Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner. Bierling, B. R. and Gitin, S. (eds). 2002. The Phoenicians in Spain: An Archaeological Review of the Eighth-Sixth Centuries B.C.E.. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 79-95. And targeting more the general reader: Moity, M., Rudel, M. and Wurst, A. X. 2003. Master Seafarers: The Phoenicians and the Greeks. London: Periplus.

2. Frankenstein, S. 1979. The Phoenicians in the Far West: a Function of Neo-Assyrian Imperialism. In Larsen, M. T. (ed.), Power and Propaganda; A Symposium on Ancient Empire. Copenhagen: Akademisk, 297-317.

3. Other reasons, beyond those strictly related to commerce, have been emphasised, e.g. López Castro, J.L. 2006. Colonials, merchants and alabaster vases: the western Phoenician aristocracy. Antiquity 80: 74-88. Wagner, C. G. and Alvar, C. 1989. Fenicios en Occidente: la colonización Agricola. Rivista di Studi Fenici 17: 61-202.

4. Sommer, M. 2007. Networks of Commerce and Knowledge in the Iron Age: The Case of the Phoenicians. Mediterranean Historical Review 22: 97 -111.

5. Compare Woolmer, p. 75-6: “From the fourteenth century onwards commerce and diplomacy became intermingled. The trader, who was fully integrated into the public sector, not only took part in public administration but was entrusted by the state with organizing commercial agencies and with buying and selling in his capacity of envoy of the king” with Aubet, M. E. 2001, 2nd ed. The Phoenicians and the West. Politics, Economy and Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 106-7: “From the fourteenth century BC in Ugarit and other cities of the east, commerce and diplomacy are intermingled. The trader, integrated into the public sector, not only took part in public administration, but was entrusted by the state with starting up commercial agencies and was commissioned to buy and sell in his capacity as emissary or consul”.

6. Indicatively, proposing the opposite view, see e.g. Fantar, M. 1970. Eschatologie Phénicienne et Punique. Institut national d’archéologie et d’arts. Centre de recherche archéologique et historique (Collection notes et documents). Tunis: Ministère des affaires culturelles. Schmitz, P.C. 2009. The owl in Phoenician mortuary practice. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 9(1), 51-85.

7. Neville, A. 2007. Mountains of Silver and Rivers of Gold. The Phoenicians in Iberia (University of British Columbia Studies in the Ancient World 1). Vancouver: Oxbow.