BMCR 2024.05.03

Phoenicians among others: why migrants mattered in the ancient Mediterranean

, Phoenicians among others: why migrants mattered in the ancient Mediterranean. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. Pp. xx, 204. ISBN 9780197634851.



This volume written by Denise Demetriou follows a line of research in the Anglophone context (specifically American in this case) which some time ago began to take a broad interest in Phoenician culture. As clearly set out in the introductory section, the book’s purpose, which is both valuable and stimulating, is to analyse and interpret the presence of Phoenician individuals and/or communities outside their lands of origin, specifically in the Greek, Egyptian and (albeit only partially) “Phoenician-colonial” contexts. The period considered in the book broadly coincides with the Hellenistic age: the data collected and examined date from the 4th to the 1st centuries BCE, well beyond the start of the great diasporic movement that saw the Phoenician cities as protagonists at the beginning of the 1st millennium (a process that is described very briefly and with some historical approximation – which somewhat undermines this introductory part – on p. 7)[1]. More specifically, the book’s declared objective is to address, through the example of the Phoenicians, “broader issues regarding mobility and migration that continue to challenge migrants and state alike” and at the same time to show how migrants, through the adoption of particular adaptation strategies, “profoundly shaped the political, cultural, social, economic, and religious landscape of their host societies” (p. 4).

The first and second chapters are dedicated to describing the ways in which the presence of Phoenician immigrants on Greek soil was expressed. The first deals with the cases of individuals who became part of Hellenic communities. In this context, the adaptation strategies identified by the author include the changing of an immigrant’s name (which was sometimes altered so as to make it more familiar within the host society), the adoption and incorporation of local cultural customs (useful to the integration process), and the participation of immigrants in the civic life of the city that received them[2]. The second chapter, on the other hand, focuses on professional associations. This section, which should be read in conjunction with the previous one, shows very clearly how such associations must have helped both to maintain the link between the immigrants and their homeland and to facilitate the process of personal and professional integration in the areas of arrival. This function could be performed in three specific ways: by exerting pressure on the host “state” in order to obtain honours and recognition for immigrants; by preserving the traditions of belonging (of the motherland); and by bringing honours to the host “state” through, for example, participation in local cults.

The third and fourth chapters are centred, respectively, on the management of migration phenomena and on the types of honours and privileges that immigrants could obtain in Greek contexts. In the first case, the author addresses in a systematic and very lucid way the mostly original theme of the relationship between the Phoenician immigrants and their city of origin and, therefore, the means used by the former and the latter to gain mutual advantage (economically and in terms of image) from the migration contexts. Moreover, the chapter highlights the intention on the part of the “motherlands” “to both help their citizens who had migrated and remind them of their citizenship and fiscal obligations” (p. 73). In the second case, the deep connections that could be established between immigrants and the host city are highlighted, particularly when the immigrants themselves provided some functional service to the benefit of the local community. Such connections could result in the conferment on “foreigners” of honours and rewards, which were also useful for ensuring mobility and long-term relationships. Particularly important in this context, of course, was the (rare) granting of citizenship.

The volume closes with the fifth chapter, followed by a brief concluding note. This chapter is reserved for the study of the immigration of Phoenicians in non-Greek contexts. The first area to be examined is the Egyptian one (which, as the author states, appears to have been less welcoming than the Greek, thus providing a contrasting picture, with some very interesting implications). Attention then shifts to Malta, Carthage, Sardinia and Sicily – i.e. to some “Phoenician-colonial” territories. As with the introductory section, in this part some approximations can be found. For instance, I cannot agree with the following statement concerning the tophet: “it is accepted among scholars that the children were indeed ritually killed and buried as part of vows made to divinities” (p. 128). Although I myself lean towards the blood sacrifice hypothesis, it is by no means accepted by all scholars[3].

Overall, then, the volume has many positive attributes. In addition to being compact, clear and well written, it collates for the first time in a monographic work a series of testimonies – primarily epigraphic – relating to the presence of Phoenician individuals and communities outside their lands of origin, which will fill a gap in the scientific literature[4]. The phenomenon, which constitutes a historical problem of wide scope – and also of very current relevance – is addressed, on the one hand, by highlighting the forms that the Phoenician presence took abroad, with various manifestations and solutions; on the other hand, the book rightly underlines the contribution that the Levantine foreigners made to the communities in which they settled, forging and modifying their culture in some respects. In this way, the process of migration, despite all the difficulties and problems it must have entailed, stands out in the book as a sort of “structural” element of Mediterranean movements, as a repeated, inevitable aspect that often rendered political and cultural borders fluid. This element – as is generally accepted and as the author herself shows she is aware – started to emerge well before the period considered in the work (4th–1st centuries BCE).

On the whole, therefore, the first four chapters appear to me to be particularly successful and constitute the most substantial part of the volume (especially in comparison to the fifth chapter, which is perhaps the most problematic and least convincing one)[5]: indeed, their development fully captures the framework of the social conditions of the immigrants, observed through individual experience and through the connections of that experience with associations and institutions (of both the place of departure and that of arrival).

Despite the strengths of the study, I cannot help but express an overall sense of puzzlement. When one takes in the volume as a whole, what particularly stands out is the central position given to the problem posed by the ancient and modern formulation of so-called “Phoenician identity”; it is a question that permeates the entire book, from the opening pages. However, the author seems to be only partially aware of the current debate on the topic, which has been developed by numerous studies in recent years, especially among Italian scholars[6]. A more thorough discussion based on recent debates would have been useful in order to correctly frame the topic; a fundamental component of this would have been an in-depth investigation – to be understood as a methodological premise – of the etic/emic dialectic (at certain points in the volume the author shows she is aware of this, even if she only refers to it briefly, e.g. on p. 145). This premise would certainly have contributed to a more nuanced use of expressions such as “Phoenician identity”, which has complex implications and which should only be used, I would argue, in an etic context.

Furthermore, paying greater attention to the problem of identity on a methodological level would have allowed the author to better describe, a priori, the differences between the presence of the Phoenicians in contexts that were actually foreign (Greek and Egyptian, for example) and their settlement in “colonial” contexts (which may have been far from the “motherland” but were still “Phoenician”). Concerning the well-known relations between Carthage and Tyre, for instance, a process that would certainly have been useful to address is that represented, on the one hand, by the degree of “foreignness” of a Phoenician migrant who came from the East and, on the other hand, by the dynamics of “recognizability” that could contribute to the adoption of western customs by that same immigrant (thanks to the degree of recognizability, precisely, of those customs, as they belonged to a partly shared cultural background)[7]. Obviously, the above observations do not detract from the originality and validity of Phoenicians among Others. However, demonstrating a greater degree of precision, as well as a broader knowledge of certain issues and of the reference bibliography, would have contributed more to the success of a work that is already original and well developed in its objectives and in the themes addressed.



[1] For instance, one might question the chronological development of the Phoenician migration northward and into Cyprus and the idea of Kition as an urban centre founded by the Phoenicians.

[2] It may be worth pointing out here that in this chapter, as elsewhere in the book, the author refers to a Phoenician cult of the god Baal. Actually, neither in the motherland nor in any other Phoenician context do we know with certainty of any god defined using only the theonym b‘l; indeed, the latter consistently appears as part of composite onomastic sequences, as in the formula Baal + toponym (e.g. b‘l ṣdn, the “Lord of Sidon”).

[3] See, for instance, S. Ribichini, Caducità infantile e riti di guarigione in ambito fenicio e punico. A proposito di molchomor e mlk’mr, in C. Moreschini (ed.), La medicina allo specchio del sacro. Incontri e confronti tra scienza e religione, Brescia 2020, pp. 27-45.

[4] On this level, an anthology of the inscriptions would have been very useful (although some of them are reported in the footnotes).

[5] Some doubts remain, for example, as to whether some data can be regarded as actually pertaining to immigrants (as in the case of the epigraphs from Malta or the trilingual inscription from Sardinia).

[6] See, just to mention the main studies that do not appear in the book’s bibliography, G. Garbati, Fingere l’identità fenicia. Melqart “di/sopra ṣr, in “Rivista di Studi Fenici” 40, 2012, pp. 159-174; G. Garbati, Phoenician “Identity”: Methodological Approach, Historical Perspective, “Semitica et Classica” 14, 2021, pp. 19-31; I. Oggiano, Who Were the “Phoenicians”? A Set of Hypotheses Inviting Debate and Dissent, “Journal of Roman Archaeology” 32, 2019, pp. 584-591; T. Pedrazzi, Fingere l’identità fenicia: confini e cultura materiale in Oriente, “Rivista di Studi Fenici” 40, 2012, pp. 137-158; F. Porzia, “Imagine There’s no Peoples”: A Claim against the Identity Approach in Phoenician Studies through Comparison with the Israelite Field”, “Rivista di Studi Fenici” 46, 2018, pp. 11-27; see also the volumes G. Garbati, T. Pedrazzi (eds.), Transformations and Crisis in the Mediterranean. “Identity” and Interculturality in the Levant and Phoenician West 1-3 (12th-2nd centuries BCE), Pisa-Roma and Roma 2015-2021.

[7] Cf. G. Garbati, Le relazioni tra Cartagine e Tiro in età ellenistica. Presente e memoria nel tophet di Salammbô, in J. Aliquot – C. Bonnet (eds.), La Phénicie hellénistique. Actes du Colloque International (Toulouse, 18-20 Fèvrier 2013), Toulouse 2015 (Topoi, suppl.), pp. 335-353.