Around 200 BCE, the Sidonians honored Diotimos, a dikastēs (probably Greek for “suffete”), with a Greek inscription for a chariot victory at the Nemean games. 1 The inscription contains an epigram that knits the pasts of Sidon and Greece. Highlighting Sidon’s Argive descent and its ancestry of Thebes with its references to Phoronis, the Argive father of Agenor, and Cadmos, the son of Agenor, the inscription also calls to mind the debt that Greeks owed to Phoenician letters. The Greek inscription thus represents how Hellenistic Phoenicians endowed their local identities with prestige within a Mediterranean Greek cultural koine. Corinne Bonnet’s book, aptly entitled Les enfants de Cadmos, illuminates the eclecticism of this phenomenon.
Les enfants de Cadmos is remarkable. In the spirit of Nicole Loraux’s Les enfants d’Athéna,2 it likewise weaves deep sophistication and erudition into the treatment of its vast topic: the religious life of Hellenistic Phoenicians. Its publication is timely. Recent decades have witnessed an outpouring of scholarship on Phoenicians in the Mediterranean and on the Hellenistic and Roman Levant, including Roman Phoenicia.3 Yet, a monograph on Hellenistic Phoenicia last appeared decades ago,4 and Bonnet’s book is the first synthesis integrating the extensive scholarly output of the interval. However, it does much more than that.
One merit of Bonnet’s work is its analytical position regarding cultural life. Alexander’s conquest of Phoenicia amplified the circulation of Greek culture there, but Bonnet aligns herself with recent critiques of the once canonical term “Hellenization.” For Bonnet, its traditional baggage does not capture the agency that the conquered Phoenicians exercised in cultivating Greek culture or the complexity with which they interwove it with local practices. The term also frames “Greek” and “Phoenician” as monolithic categories in ways that obscure the cultural pluralism of Phoenicia’s urban areas and rural hinterlands. Bonnet captures such intricacies by communicating the nature of Phoenicia’s “paysages religieux,” the landscapes or spaces in which Phoenicians created lived religious realities through their social and cultural practices, and her primary analytical frames are the negotiations of “the Middle Ground,”5 the entanglements of métissage, and anthropological views on culture articulated foremost by Marshall Sahlins and fellow travelers. In her characterizations of such phenomena, Bonnet also invokes other terms that have gained traction in classical studies, anthropology, various fields of history, and even the natural sciences, including, bricolage, “hybridity,” “modernity,” “new deal,” “subversive submission,” simplexité, and “more is different,” and she makes frequent comparisons to the engagement between European and indigenous populations in the Americas.6 Readers may differ regarding the utility of such terms and historical comparanda, but Bonnet makes some significant observations. First, the religious landscapes of the Hellenistic Phoenicians integrated diverse cultural symbols, and this was not a unique phenomenon. Cultural systems are inherently mixed, amalgamated, and indebted to multiple antecedents, and they transform as indigenous populations domesticate various foreign cultural forms, including those of imperial conquerors. Amid the contingencies of shifting social contexts, Phoenician articulations of indigenous cult and identity, which were foremost defined by civic locality (Sidonian, Tyrian, and so forth), likewise enjoyed profound eclecticism and change. Second, Phoenicians did not merely adopt, adapt, and intertwine cultural traditions from diverse sources. They created new forms of cultural expression in ways that typify dynamic social encounters and negotiations.
Another merit of Bonnet’s book is that its narrative scope spans beyond Phoenicia. It situates the local religious landscapes of Phoenicians within the “global” interconnections of a Mediterranean Greek koine. The book contains an introduction (15-36), four parts divided into nine chapters, a conclusion (521-35), detailed indices, 9 maps, and 117 illustrations. Errors are usually minor,7 and the figures are apt and generally of sound quality.8 Part I (Chapter 1: 41-106) anchors the efforts of Alexander the Great to establish royal legitimacy over Phoenicia’s cities in Greco-Macedonian and Near Eastern traditions of dynastic rule. His intention to sacrifice at Melqart’s sanctuary in the besieged city of Tyre, for example, highlighted his dynastic linkage and emulation of Herakles, Melqart’s Greek counterpart. But it also placed Alexander within a longstanding local narrative of royal legitimacy, as Tyrians and many Near Eastern peoples conceived of their kings as authenticated by their cities’ patron divinities.
Part II (Chapters 2-5) probes the religious landscapes of major Phoenician cities and their hinterlands. In Chapter 2 (109-52), Bonnet analyzes the island of Arados and its adjacent mainland territory. Her discussion treats the material finds of Amrit, a bilingual dedication to Herakles/Melqart, and the epigraphic dossier celebrating “the listening god” of the sanctuary of Zeus of Baetocaece ( IGLS 7.4028). She demonstrates how the complex interactions of urban elites, imperial authorities, and rural sanctuaries endowed indigenous practices with new language, cultural idioms, and semantic values. Chapter 3 (153-96) probes the religious landscape of Byblos (traditionally Gubal), which are documented by inscriptions, various material objects, the sanctuary at Afqa, and the cosmogony of Philo of Byblos. With an eye on longstanding Egyptian influences, Bonnet posits that the Hellenistic Byblians domesticated the newly reconstituted Greek and Egyptian practices through which the Ptolemies expressed dynastic legitimacy. The Byblians accordingly associated Astarte (the Baalat Gubal) with Isis and embraced an Adonis figure that bore many affinities with Osiris. Achaemenid and Hellenistic Sidon receives the focus of Chapter 4 (198-268). It features analyses of the philhellene king Strato I (Abdashtart), the famous temple and “Tribune” of Eshmun at Bustan el-Sheikh; the sanctuary at Kharayeb; the sarcophagus of Abdalonymos; and the honors for Diotimos previously mentioned. In this chapter, Bonnet reconstructs a religious landscape reflecting how the Sidonians participated in a Mediterranean koine. Sidonians amplified their prestige through their adoption of Greek culture. They interwove and embedded an assortment of Greek and Near Eastern (Assyrian, Cypro-Anatolian, Egyptian, Persian) antecedents into experiences of indigenous practice. Finally, they nurtured a cultural eclecticism and innovation that defy simple typologies and narratives of artistic “evolution” or “Hellenization.” Chapter 5 (269-327) focuses on Tyre and the culturally variegated material remains of the rural sanctuary at Umm el-Amed. It includes an examination of how Tyrians aligned the connotations of royal legitimacy traditional to their cults with the novelty of Ptolemaic dynastic worship. Bonnet also analyzes how Tyrians associated Melqart and his “avatar” Milkashtart, of nearby Umm el-Amed, with Herakles and his iconographic features. Rather than passive acculturation, these phenomena reflect how Tyrians reconstituted their local religious expressions and identities through their cultivation of Greek symbols (as well as Egyptian ones).
Part III (Chapters 6-7) examines the kinship myths, religious diplomacies, and iconographic forms through which Phoenicians inscribed local identities and claimed preeminence within the Mediterranean Greek koine. Chapter 6 (331-65) treats the genealogies and diplomatic ties that Phoenicians forged. As the book’s title highlights, the Sidonians and Tyrians claimed to have been descended from Argives through Agenor, to have founded Thebes through Cadmos, and thereby to have endowed Greeks with Phoenician letters. The inscription for Diotimos is only one expression of this phenomenon; Phoenicians, for example, also established cults to Leucothea and Melicertes (both descended from Cadmos) in their local landscapes. Chapter 7 (367-411) explores Achaemenid and Hellenistic period religious iconographies, with particular focus on sarcophagi, the reliefs at Umm al-Amed, sculpted thrones, stamped weights, and coinage. Opposing evolutionist arguments that religious landscapes transformed from aniconic to iconic ones, Bonnet emphasizes the eclectic manner and diverse antecedents through which Phoenicians crafted religious or artistic forms.
Part 4 (Chapters 8-9) focuses on the Phoenicians’ social navigation of an interconnected Mediterranean. While figuring into Bonnet’s analysis, the Phoenicians traditionally known by the controversial label “Punic,”9 on whom Bonnet has published elsewhere, are not treated systematically.10 Chapter 8 (414-72) explores the Phoenicians of the Piraeus and Athens. Among other texts, their religious life is documented by an Athenian decree for a koinon of Citians who worshipped their unique “Aphrodite,” the bilingual inscription of a koinon of Sidonians, and various bilingual funerary stelai. Similarly, Chapter 9 (474-520) treats the Phoenician presence on Delos, especially during the duty-free years of 166-88 BCE. During this period, the notable koina of Tyrian “Heracleistai” and Berytian “Poseidoniasts,” named for their patron divinities’ Greek counterparts, expressed their veneration for Melqart and Baal-Marin through ecumenical Greek symbols. Bonnet also examines the forms of worship on Delos that may have affected cult at Sidon and transformations in the worship of Astarte (often invoked as Aphrodite or Isis), as well as the Syrian divinity Atargatis. In these two chapters, the overall picture is one in which Phoenicians inhabiting certain multi-ethnic contexts reoriented their religious expressions in ways that conveyed the nature of their specifically ancestral cults through Greek symbols. In this way, they amplified the prestige of their home cities in a broader Mediterranean koine.
Finally, a valuable aspect of Bonnet’s book is that it consistently measures continuity and change in Hellenistic Phoenicia through learned forays into Bronze and Iron Age antecedents, classical Greek trends, and the materials and texts of Roman Phoenicia. In some instances, this is a figment of the preponderance of Roman-era evidence in comparison to Hellenistic witnesses. But Bonnet’s engagement with earlier and later periods adds greatly to the cogency of her book’s main arguments. As she defies the premise that Hellenistic Phoenician cultural expression was a static monolith, she also demonstrates that no single uniform Phoenician experience of indigenous culture had ever existed. The category of “Phoenician” was a Greek invention, and the cultural and religious practices of Phoenician cities and rural hinterlands had long been diverse and in dialogue with many cultural koinai (Assyrian, Egyptian, Anatolian, Persian, and Greek, for example) that were themselves prone to transformation and internal diversity. Accordingly, when Bonnet describes how Hellenistic Phoenicians integrated Hellenism into new expressions of their local identities, she situates this activity within a long history of transformation, heterogeneity, selectivity, and creativity among Phoenician actors. This history persisted throughout the Roman imperial period, even as the Phoenician language disappeared from the inscriptions of Phoenicia altogether.
1. Elias Bikerman, “Sur une inscription agonistique de Sidon,” in Mélanges syriens offerts à Monsieur René Dussaud 1 (Paris: 1939), 91-99. See Bonnet, pp. 260-65 and 342-43.
2. Nicole Loraux, Les enfants d’Athéna: idées athéniennes sur la citoyenneté et la division des sexes (Paris: F. Maspero, 1981), in English as The Children of Athena: Athenian Ideas about Citizenship and the Division between the Sexes (Princeton University Press, 1993).
3. The bibliography is vast. Recent examples are Josephine Crawley Quinn and Nicholas C. Vella (eds.), The Punic Mediterranean: Identities and Identification from Phoenician Settlement to Roman Rule (Cambridge University Press, 2014); Julien Aliquot, La vie religieuse au Liban sous l’Empire romain (Beirut: IFPO, 2010); Michael Blömer, Achim Lichtenberger, and Rubina Raja (eds.), Religious Identities in the Levant from Alexander to Muhammed: Continuity and Change (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015); Ted Kaizer (ed.), The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (Leiden: Brill, 2008).
4. J. D. Grainger, Hellenistic Phoenicia (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991).
5. The concept, often adopted and adapted by Mediterranean scholars, originates from Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
6. References are interspersed throughout the narrative. The introduction (15-36) and conclusion (521-35) contain some key discussion, and the index des notions/themes principaux (590-91) documents recurrent usage.
7. On p. 393, however, figure 47 is denoted as figure 72.
8. Images of some coins, however, are small and visually difficult.
9. See now Quinn and Vella, Punic Mediterranean (cited footnote 3).
10. Recent examples are “On Gods and Earth: the Tophet and the Construction of a New Identity in Punic Carthage, “in Erich Gruen (ed.), 373-87, Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2011); “Le destin féminin de Carthage,” Pallas 85 (2011): 19-29; “Phoenician Identities in Hellenistic Times: Strategies and Negotiations,” in Quinn and Vella, Punic Mediterranean (cited footnote 3), 282-98 (esp. 289-94); “Carthage, ‘l‘autre nation’ dans l’historiographie ancienne et moderne,” Anabases 1 (2005): 139-60; “Identité et altérité religieuses: à propos de l’hellénisation de Carthage,” Pallas 70 (2006): 365-79.