BMCR 2022.06.11

Phoenicians and the making of the Mediterranean

, Phoenicians and the making of the Mediterranean. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021. $45.00. ISBN 9780674988187 $45.00.

The book under review, Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean, includes an Introduction, two parts, and an Epilogue. Part I, p.23-89, is titled “Beware the Greek” and is composed of three chapters: Chapter 1 “Phoenicians Overseas”, chapter 2 “From Classical to Mediterranean Models”, and chapter 3 “The Orientalizing Kit”. Part II, p. 93-313, is titled “Follow the Sphinx” and with its 220 pages forms the larger part of the book. It is composed of six chapters, which trace Phoenician presence and influence across the Mediterranean: chapter 4 deals with “The Far West”, chapter 5 with “The Central Mediterranean”, chapter 6 with “The Aegean”, and chapter 8 with “Cyprus”. Chapter 9 is dedicated to “The Levant”, the Phoenician homeland. Under the title “Intangible Legacies”, Chapter 7 focuses on the alphabet, its transmission, and its use mainly in Greece. The reason why this chapter was placed after the one dealing with the Aegean may indicate the intention of the author to underline the influence of the Phoenicians on Greek culture itself (226). Endnotes, a bibliography, acknowledgements, and one general index complete the book.

The book is at the heart of the long-lasting debate about the origins of “Western culture.” For several decades the opinion prevailed among scholars that these origins have to be sought in Greek culture at the exclusion of any other Western or Oriental, more specifically Phoenician, influence. López-Ruiz seeks to demonstrate that the Phoenicians played an instrumental role in the formation of Mediterranean, and by extension, “Western” culture. She argues that their influence was either sidelined or altogether rejected by scholars while Greek culture was overstated, as was the case with the interpretation of the material cultures of al-Mina, Lefkandi, and Pithekoussai that the author cites as examples to make her case (47-52). She says that the only way to understand the historical role of the Phoenicians is “to overcome the sclerotic Mediterranean model of the classics, dominated by Greek and Roman cultures, which allow  ‘others’ to enter only as a concession” (61). One of the three reasons why the Phoenicians were denied any influence, according to López-Ruiz, is because they were considered to be an exclusively maritime people while the Greeks were both sailors and farmers (25-26). This assumption was easy to dismiss given the ample evidence for Phoenician and Carthaginian expertise in agriculture which was transmitted to the Greeks and to the Romans. Recent archaeological discoveries in the homeland and in the eastern Mediterranean indicate that the Phoenicians were major producers and exporters of wine and olive oil and may have brought vine culture into Europe.

In part I of her book, López-Ruiz discusses also issues of terminology, mainly the terms of “colonization” and “orientalization”. Regarding the former, she argues that “the conventional use of “colonization” and “colonial” for ancient settlement abroad remains valid and useful, as long as we do not impose the models of modern colonialism” (24). Regarding the latter, the author discusses the different approaches related to the issue of Orientalizing culture. She warns against projecting modern Orientalism onto the early Mediterranean context. According to her, orientalization “denotes the Levantine-inflicted cultural traits adopted by many local groups who came into contact with Phoenicians in the Iron Age” (77). She argues that it is in contexts where Phoenicians and locals met that Orientalizing culture appears and that under the vague term “oriental” one should understand “Phoenician.” Orientalization, thus, can be equated with “Phoenicianization” since these ancient Near Eastern traits were transferred to the local Mediterranean communities by the Phoenicians.

Furthermore, the author identifies an “Orientalizing kit” which “involved a set of favorite Levantine symbolic and decorative motifs; new technologies of pottery and metalwork; oriental-style monumental sculpture; industries of terracotta figures; ivory work; masonry techniques and architectural innovations; new burial forms or rituals; industrial developments…farming innovations; banqueting culture… the technology of alphabetic writing; and religious-mythological motifs” (82). The distribution of such representatives of the Orientalizing culture corresponds exactly to the areas of contact between Phoenicians and local elites.

In Part II of the book, the author tracks elements of this Orientalizing kit to detect contacts between Phoenicians and the indigenous populations. She seeks to unveil the hidden role of the Phoenicians and to prove their agency in the cultural transformations in various Mediterranean settlements. Basing herself on both the written and the available archaeological evidence, López-Ruiz follows the steps of the Phoenicians from the Iberian Peninsula to Cyprus to demonstrate their influence on the Iron Age cultures of the Mediterranean. In all these settlements she detects the existence of elements from her Orientalizing kit and provides evidence for their connection to contacts with Phoenician settlers and/or traders.

In discussing the Iberian Peninsula, she reviews the evidence from Huelva, the Algarve, and the Andalusian coast and points to the progressive incorporation of some Phoenician cultural traits into the local traditions such as new funerary customs, metal and ivory industries, as well as sanctuaries and Phoenician divine symbols. The presence of Phoenician inscriptions and the influence of the Phoenician alphabet on the development of the local Tartessic script is additional evidence for a Phoenician influence in the development of Iberian culture. She contrasts the situation in the Iberian Peninsula with that of North Africa and concludes that the latter was visited by the Phoenicians mainly along trade routes leading to the needed natural resources.

In chapter 5 she discusses the case of Sardinia and the evidence for Phoenician interaction with the native Sardinians who adopted some of the Phoenician traditions as a result of trade intensification with the island. She compares the case of Sant’Imbenia with that of Huelva: both were the gate for mining resources and both had no Phoenician colony but local imitations of Phoenician artifacts which led to hybrid cultural forms such as transport amphorae. She notes the large number of Phoenician and Punic inscriptions from Sardinia attesting Phoenician divine names. In the same chapter the author discusses the case of Sicily where the island’s settlement seems to have been an entanglement of local, Phoenician, and Greek cultural features. The case of southern Italy and Etruria is also presented in this chapter. The importance laid by the author on the case of Etruria is due to the Hellenocentric view that prevailed in the interpretation of Orientalizing features there and which López-Ruiz set out to deconstruct. Looking at the artifacts found in graves, for example, she concludes that they “show a deep association of banqueting and funerary rituals, which has its closest counterpart and predecessor in the Phoenician world where funerary banquets and recurring offerings were performed at the grave” (167).

Chapter 6, on the Aegean, deals with all the Orientalizing artifacts that were inspired, adapted, or imported from Phoenicia: in 50 pages the author traces the influence of the Phoenicians on Greek artifacts and technologies, including metal bowls, ivories, jewelry-making techniques, glass beads, faience objects, scarabs and scaraboids… She argues that the mortise and tenon technique that the Greeks used in their shipbuilding was acquired from the Phoenicians. In discussing Greek monumental architecture, she argues that both the Ionic and Aeolic orders have their antecedents in the Phoenician (and not Israelite, as argued in chapter 9) proto-Aeolic capitals. She also argues that Greek monumental sculpture is not due to direct Egyptian influence as generally assumed but rather to the Phoenician adaptation of the latter. Even the sphinx who originated in Egypt was copied from the winged and female version of this type which is found in the Levant. “The winged sphinx became a typical feature of Phoenician art in the Iron Age, and is ubiquitous throughout the Phoenician-Punic realm” (219).

Chapter 7 discusses the reception and development of the Phoenician script by people of the Mediterranean, mainly Greeks and Romans. She argues for the Phoenician origin of the Greek alphabet and challenges the opinion that the Greek modifications to the alphabetic signs were an “improvement” of the alphabet. She acknowledges, however, the Greek agency in its transmission to other Mediterranean people such as the Etruscans and the Romans. The famous passage of Herodotus acknowledging the transmission of the alphabet to the Hellenes by the Tyrian Cadmus is a clear recognition on the part of the Greeks of their cultural debt towards the Phoenicians who transmitted also “many other teachings” to them.

Chapter 8 is dedicated to Phoenician contacts and presence in Cyprus as well as their role in the formation of Cypriot Iron Age culture. The author discusses the various views dealing with the latter issue, namely whether Cyprus should be counted as part of the western or of the eastern world, an issue that remains a debated question to date. She argues that the island was a melting pot in the Iron Age and that “The main takeaway from recent reassessments of this period is that non-Greek speaking locals, Greek speakers, and Phoenician speakers met and interacted in Cyprus in a variety of scenarios” (257). Phoenician legacy is attested in pottery, metalwork, temples, shrine models, rituals and funerary traditions. Phoenician influence prevailed over the Greek since the Phoenician and the Cypro-syllabic scripts and languages are attested early in the Iron Age while Greek language and script are absent before the 6th century B.C.

The last chapter, 9, is dedicated to the homeland of the Phoenicians and their major cultural achievements in the Iron Age.

In the four-page Epilogue the author suggests ways that may help overcome the difficulties in the study of the Phoenician contribution to the ancient Mediterranean culture and bring this field of study forward.

Notwithstanding the high quality of the research, one can take issue with a few statements made by the author. For example, the statement that the alphabet was first used in Byblos: although some of the oldest inscriptions were found at Byblos, this does not automatically imply that it was first used there. Similarly, she claims that Tyre standardized the Phoenician script: this remains an assumption since no royal or official inscription is known from that city (228). The author also says that gold was brought from Syria (262), where no gold mines are known (at least to my knowledge). Questionable is also her description of Tyre’s harbors as “archaeologically elusive” (290). If the southern harbor has not been identified with certainty yet, the northern harbor is well identified as demonstrated by recent studies.[1] Finally, a few typos are scattered in the text such as the name of the Assyrian city Khorsabad which is written Khorshabar (290).

These few remarks, however, are minor issues compared to the substantial and important contribution of the book to the ancient history of the Mediterranean. López-Ruiz’ s work does justice to the Phoenicians’ role in shaping Mediterranean culture by providing rational and factual argumentation and by setting the record straight. It also speaks volumes about the author’s mastery of both Classics and Phoenicio-Punic studies which enables her to deconstruct false interpretations and long-lived biases. The long-debated issue of Orientalizing culture finds in the book a clear definition, a meticulous study of its various elements, and a convincing presentation of how Phoenicians and locals interacted in each different context. The author should be congratulated for having analyzed with a clear and sound methodological approach the Orientalizing phenomenon, and to have convincingly argued the agency of the Phoenicians in spreading it across the Mediterranean.


[1] Marriner, N., C. Morhange, N. Carayon, “Ancient Tyre and its Harbours: 5000 Years of Human-Environment Interactions” Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008) 1281-1310.