BMCR 2015.09.53

The Punic Mediterranean: Identities and Identification from Phoenician Settlement to Roman Rule. British School at Rome studies

, , The Punic Mediterranean: Identities and Identification from Phoenician Settlement to Roman Rule. British School at Rome studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xxvi, 376. ISBN 9781107055278. $125.00.


This important collection of essays explores current debates about Phoenician culture in its western Mediterranean aspects, a field of growing interest.1 Its authors examine what we call “Punic” culture, that is, the western Phoenician colonial world after the sixth century (all dates BCE), marked by the rise of Carthage. The contributors agree that the name Punic (from the Latin for “Phoenician,” or “Carthaginian,” poenus, punicus) does not correspond with a clearly defined and distinct identity, but should be treated as a subset of the broader “Phoenician world,” slippery, vague, and complex as that term might be in turn. The ultimate (and frustrating) difficulty for historians and archaeologists is how to discuss those cultures (Phoenicians, Sardinians, Iberians, Numidians, and others) who left little or no literary evidence and no surviving self-defining narratives, without creating artificial modern categories shaped by material evidence, institutional projects, and intellectual trends. How do we bridge the gaps and correct for the biases in the Greek and Roman sources in order to form a more authentic view of the “Phoenicians” that is not Hellenocentric or Romanocentric? Do the cultural differences reflected in material practices reflect a separate identity between western and eastern Phoenicians? In general, the chapters all build on current views of the construction of identities and postcolonial theory, offering a fresh perspective on old and recent archaeological materials and (in fewer cases) written materials.

In the Introduction, the editors offer an overview of the rise of Phoenician studies in the twentieth century and of the branching off of the “Punic” world as a separate subject of study. They present lucidly the questions that drive the volume, though perhaps take them to an unnecessary minimalistic point, asking, “should we go further, though, and avoid even [the term] “Phoenician”? (7). Surely the abolition of our one term, or the invention of another, would not solve our scholarly problem: “Canaanites from the Iron Age Lebanese coast” might be more accurate but is full of modern terms and blurs our group within an even broader category. In the end, only agreed-upon categories of analysis, of diverse magnitude (“Mesopotamian,” “Anatolian,” “Western”), make historical discourse (and book titles) possible.

Jonathan Prag (ch. 1) makes a clear case for the absence of a Punic/Phoenician binary in the ancient world, a terminology by which “modern writers have imported an additional layer of difference that cannot be found in the sources” (20). Where the Greeks said Phoinix the Romans said Poenus. Such double nomenclature was typical in antiquity: where the Greeks said Iberia the Romans said Hispania, where they said Hellas the Romans said Graecia (cf. “German” and deutsch). Prag clarifies that the terms were applied universally to eastern and western Phoenicians within each language, and that the distinction did not per se reflect negative or positive stereotypes. The Romans appropriated the Greek Phoenix in the late Republic, when much of Roman literature was absorbing Greek tropes.

Nicholas Vella (ch. 2) warns us of the dangers of decontextualizing artifacts conventionally identified as “Phoenician” in museum displays, which has inculcated an excessively neat idea of the Phoenicians as a materially identifiable culture. Vella shows how the Phoenicians can equally be obliterated from narratives constructed around Greeks and Italic peoples (Getty Museum) or artificially reified (Palazzo Grassi exhibit).

Peter van Dommelen (ch. 3) surveys the idiosyncratic adaptations and distortions of the Punic past from the orientalist prism through which Phoenicians have been treated in the West to local cultural movements (e.g., Tunisia, Sicily, Sardinia). These can prioritize the Punic past over other pasts, obliterate or “classicize” the Phoenicians, or absorb them into an indigenist discourse. He also encourages scholars to responsibly engage with local communities, as constructions of the past impact regional and national politics.

Providing examples from the central and western Mediterranean, Sandro Filippo Bondi (ch. 4) discusses a wide range of “punicities,” that is, variant modes of expression and development of western Phoenician culture under the aegis of Carthage. This variation corresponds to different articulations of Punic culture as it adapted to local contexts and interacted with others. The local idiosyncracies remain, however, well within the more global “Phoenician” culture, whose contours are marked by the common traits of language, religion, institutions, material culture, and ancestry.

Two chapters on material evidence underscore the importance of paying attention to local contexts, which does not undermine the existence of a level of uniformity. This is evident in burial practices and patterns throughout Punic sites (ch. 5: Carlos Gómez-Bellard), which maintained contact with the broader Phoenician world. The richly documented overview of coinage (ch. 6: Suzanne Frey-Kupper), focusing on the central Mediterranean, reaches similar conclusions. The inclusion of evidence from further west (e.g., Cádiz, Málaga, Utica) would have further illustrated this combination of supra-regional repertoires and local preferences.

The thorough overview of Carthage’s archaeology in ch. 7 (Boutheina Maraoui Telmini et al.) emphasizes the “special position” occupied by Carthage within the western Phoenician colonial network. The foundation of Carthage as a large metropolis from the start (which for consistency they propose should be labeled “Early Punic,” not “Archaic” or “Phoenician”), its rapid growth, and its openness to the wider Mediterranean, account for the role it played historically. They perhaps overemphasize the uniqueness of Carthage’s foundation story. Its preservation and reception is in part the result of the importance of the city in historical times, and we know other Phoenician foundation stories circulated (Tyre, Gadir).

Habib Ben Younès and Alia Krandel-Ben Younès (ch. 8) survey the funerary practices in Punic and Libyan (Numidian) nekropoleis of the Tunisian Sahel, illustrating how cultural influence worked both ways and how the variations within Punic practices were inflected by the fluid contact with Libyan populations. At the same time, the Numidians, who were acculturated to some degree, maintained a noticeable degree of distinctiveness vis-à-vis the more heavily Punic areas.

Josephine C. Quinn (ch. 9) offers a fresh reading of the story of “the Philaeni” brothers and the altars dedicated to them along the coast of the Greater Syrtis (Libya). The story, first told in full by Sallust ( Iug. 79), she argues convincingly, is not a Greek creation, but stems from a Carthaginian source and reflects Carthaginian territorial claims in the area in the third or early second century. Most interesting is the suggestion that the Carthaginian version of the story reverses nascent Greco-Roman stereotypes about the Carthaginians (the notion of punica fides ”, 178), as well as Greek “mythical norms.”

Virginie Bridoux (ch. 10) analyzes commercial relations, especially amphorae and other pottery, as an index of how Numidia related to the rest of the Punic world. She concludes that Numidia was part of the “Punic world,” broadly constructed. But she finds that, in the third to first centuries at least, economic and cultural relations revolved around other areas of Punic influence (especially the Balearic islands and eastern Iberia) rather than Carthage. The chronological limitations of the evidence, however, say little about what relations between Carthage and Numidia might have been before Carthage ceased to be the regional power. Ch. 8, which deals with burials in earlier periods, partly complements this picture.

In a chapter on Mauretania (Morocco) (ch. 11), Emanuele Papi questions the alleged impact of Punic hegemony, in contrast to the presence of older Phoenician colonies (e.g., Lixus and Mogador), though without denying that Punic traits penetrated some areas of culture, especially among the elites (“circulation of knowledge, information, technologies, skills and people”: 218).

Two chapters deal with Iberian materials. Alicia Jiménez (ch. 12) discusses a corpus of coins minted between the mid- second and mid-first centuries in southwest Iberia. As she shows, these have been misleadingly labeled “Libyophoenician” to conform to Greco-Roman ethnography. Besides deconstructing the simplistic relationship between the ethnonym and the coins, Jiménez resituates the materials within the realm of local expressions of late Punic culture under the Roman Republic. Carmen Aranegui and Jaime Vives-Ferrández (ch. 13) then discuss the archaeology of communities from the eastern Iberian coast (especially Alicante) and the Punic-Ibizan influence in the area. They focus on materials from the fifth to the third centuries, featuring recently excavated sites. The nuanced analysis of the relationship between material culture and local contexts and practices produces a fragmented cultural map that resists the etic categories “Iberian” or “Punic.”

Ch. 14 (Andrea Roppa) is a survey of the changes in settlement patterns and material culture in Sardinia from the late sixth century until Roman times. Besides archaeological data, he discusses historiographical sources, scholarly positions, and anthropological insights, and argues that long-term changes in economic and religious landscapes defy neat divisions between “indigenous” and “Punic.”

Moving to the Levant, Corinne Bonnet (ch. 15) offers insightful reflections on what Hellenization after Alexander might have meant in terms of cultural identity, and how it affected the continuum between the Phoenician world, east and west and she reminds us that Helleno-Phoenician contact had a longer history.

In a thought-provoking Afterword, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill highlights the main themes that run through the volume, but also reminds us that we may need to “put aside existential agonies over identity, and focus better on how they [the Phoenicians] networked.” I endorse his remark that accepting the existence of multiple identities (or sub-identities) does not mean that the Phoenicians have “evaporated and lost existence with the loss of a single identity. The key question remains the degree to which, for all difference, they perceived and cultivated affinity” (303).

Despite the anxiety about the legitimacy of the ethnonyms Phoenician and Punic, expressions of supra-local identity do come through, even in a volume that de-emphasizes this level: mythological narratives about the Philaeni, which responds to Greco-Roman claims about the Phoenicians generally; the religious and civic links between Carthage and Tyre, sustained until Hellenistic times; the persistence of language, writing, numismatic iconography, cross-regional religious institutions and practices, and other common traits. A surprisingly unexploited jewel is the ubiquitous use of the palm tree in Phoenician coins from the Levant to Iberia to Carthage and Sicily. The important statement that “the punning type of the palm tree, at least, stands for the large community of Phoenicians spread all over the Mediterranean and in some way expresses ‘punicity’” (103) is not developed to its full potential in the volume. The palm tree indeed must have expressed a broader sense of “Phoenicity,” as it plays on the Greek phoenix. Whether this was a regional icon (popular in Iron Age Syro-Palestine), taken by the Greeks to label the Phoenicians, or these Northwest Semites are playing on the name used for them by the Greeks, we should reconsider the assumption that no one called himself a “Phoenician” (e.g., 7, 13). In any event, “Punic” and “Phoenician” are useful categories (while artificial and modern) to the degree that they define chronological and geographical parameters, connected with a set of historical circumstances and sources (especially regarding Carthage and the Punic Wars). The authors in this volume accept the thing but are squeamish about the word. The use of “Punic” as a cultural-historical label should not be paralyzing or problematic, any more than “Mycenaean,” “Minoan,” “Hellenistic,” or “Byzantine,” modern labels which similarly denote some kind of cultural, ethnic, or political identity.

The fear of falling into (allegedly) simplistic categorizations has also driven the term “ethnic identity” out of the volume. It is systematically avoided in favor of the softer “cultural identity.” Following Wallace’s remarks, we should ask whether this is necessary. By now we all agree that identities, ethnic or otherwise, are culturally-socially constructed. People have ethnic identities because they choose to have them, or because they are raised to have them. But these constructions have a real life (if never a static one) on the historical and ideological plane. A related aspect of the volume is its almost exclusive emphasis on “cultural” history and avoidance of military and political history. Carthage was not only (or primarily) a cultural project. For instance, I missed a more explicit treatment of the change in dynamics caused by Carthage’s fall to Rome, though several chapters deal with post-Punic Wars evidence. As a curiosity, may we relate the mysterious appearance of pseudo-Ebusitan (Ibiza) coins with the image of Bes in the Naples area in the 130s-120s (ch. 6) to the conquest of Carthage in 146? Ibizan mercenaries were crucial to the Carthaginian armies and the conquest would have caused them and their money to circulate. Also, several contributors reject the modern model of colonization through military occupation and administrative control, but the ensuing vacuum is not then filled, as there is little discussion of how Punic economic, political, and military influence did work. Chris Gosden’s Archaeology and Colonialism: Cultural Contact from 5000 BC to the Present (Cambridge, 2004), not cited in any chapter, would have been useful in this regard.

This stimulating, informative, and timely volume advances our understanding of the Phoenicians’ place in the western Mediterranean, and reminds us that the Greeks and Romans should not be thought of as the only owners of the “Classical” past.


1. Cf. another recent collection, The Hellenistic West: Rethinking the Ancient Mediterranean (eds. J. C. Quinn and J.R.W. Prag, Cambridge, 2013).