There was never a country or empire called “Phoenicia.” The historical name of this culture was coined by the Greeks and was not their own. The name Phoenicia derives from the Greek word phoenix, meaning in this case a dark red or purple-brown color. The Phoenicians were renowned for their cloth dyes, especially an expensive purple one popular with royalty. Because Greek language and writings were preserved in abundance, versus Phoenician texts which are very scant, the name stuck.
The Phoenicians appeared on the historical scene around 1200 BC, a time when most of the civilized world was being overrun by barbarians. In the political and military void of a 400-year ancient dark age, this small group of traders were able to prosper and gradually expand their influence. Instead of acquiring a physical empire of contiguous lands, they gradually built, instead, a large trading and colonial network from their home base of a few independent cities along the coast of what is now Lebanon.They were the remnants of the Canaanites, a Semitic people who occupied city-states in this region prior to 1200 BC. The most important of their early cities were Tyre, Sidon, Berytus (modern Beirut), and Byblos. These coastal cities were hemmed in on the land side by the Lebanon Mountains. The only obvious opportunity for expansion and economic gain was by sea.
Rise to power
Prior to the catastrophe of 1200 BC, Canaanite traders had been restricted to perhaps the Levantine coast, Egypt, and the southern coast of Anatolia. The Minoans on Crete blocked entrance into the Aegean, controlled all trade in that area, and perhaps even controlled trade further west. The Canaanite coastal towns were usually controlled by Egypt, and one of their principal businesses was providing wood (the cedars of Lebanon) to the Nile region.The Minoan civilization was destroyed in 1200 BC, removing most of the constraints on Mediterranean and Aegean sea trading by others. The Phoenicians were the most aggressive of those attempting to fill the void. Their cities were well-positioned for this enterprise by being located literally in the center of the known world. The Aegean, Mesopotamia, and Egypt were all roughly equidistant to the west, south, and east. For any of the three regions to trade with another, the easiest trade route was through the Phoenician cities. By the ninth century BC, the ancient dark age was nearing an end. The Phoenicians were growing rich as traders and this attracted enemies, principally the Assyrians. In the face of repeated assaults or heavy tribute payments at the least, the Tyrians adopted the strategy of establishing colonies to the west. Colonies were removed from the grasp of the Assyrians and also helped with the exploitation of metals and trade in the western Mediterranean.The most important Phoenician colony was at Carthage, established around 700 BC. Other important colonies were in Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, and Spain (modern Cadiz and Cartagena). Over the next 500 years Carthage grew rapidly in size and power. Most of its wealth came from the ore mines of Spain. Carthage fought for control of the western Mediterranean with the Greeks first and then the Romans.
The early Phoenician economy was built on timber sales, wood working, and cloth dyeing. Dyes ranging in color from a pink to a deep purple were made from the rotting gland of a sea snail. Gradually the Phoenician city-states became centers of maritime trade and manufacturing. Having limited natural resources, they imported raw materials and fashioned them into more valuable objects that could be shipped profitably, such as jewelry, metalwork, furniture, and housewares. They borrowed techniques and styles from all corners of the world that they touched as traders.While exploring the western Mediterranean, they either discovered large metal deposits in Spain or took them from Greeks who may have been there first. By fortifying sites on Sicily and North Africa, they effectively denied other traders access to the riches of Spain, the west African coast (gold, exotic woods, and slaves), and Britain (tin, a crucial strategic resource required to make bronze).
Religion and culture
Phoenician religion was polytheistic and their gods required continual sacrifices to forestall disaster, especially Baal, the god of storms. No significant Phoenician temple has yet been discovered, but most of their ancient cities lie buried under modern cities. The Bible recounts human sacrifices by the Phoenicians but this practice was eventually stopped. It carried on in Carthage, however. A cemetery outside of Carthage was found to contain thousands of urns of infants sacrificed to the gods. Noble families of Carthage got into the habit of substituting animals and slaves for their children, but following a military disaster in 320 BC, 500 infants from the best families were sacrificed. Early Phoenician culture was influenced to a large degree by their Semitic origins and Semitic neighbors. Their later culture was heavily influenced by the Greeks. There are few objects known today that are clearly Phoenician.One of their lasting contributions to civilization was a proto-alphabet where each letter represented a consonant. This cut down significantly the number of symbols required to make written words. When written, the vowels were implied. Later advances by the Greeks added symbols for vowel sounds, creating the first true alphabet.
When the Phoenicians began competing with the Greeks for trade and colonies, the contest led to construction of the first ships built expressly for war. These were rowed galleys armed with a ram at the front and marines for boarding. Sea warfare grew in importance during the fifth century when Persia fought the Greek city-states for control of the Aegean, western Anatolia, and eastern Mediterranean. By this time the Phoenician cities were under control of Persia. Phoenician ships made up the bulk of the Persian fleet that was defeated at Salamis in 480 BC. Phoenician galleys of the time were larger and less maneuverable than their Greek counterparts, and this was a fatal shortcoming in restricted waters.The Carthaginian navy dominated the early Punic Wars with Rome, but the Romans captured a Carthaginian ship that went aground and built duplicates. The Romans eventually cleared the Mediterranean of Carthaginian ships and carried the wars to a successful conclusion in North Africa.The Carthaginians had the only significant land army that can be considered Phoenician in derivation. Their greatest general was Hannibal, who invaded Italy from Spain, passing the Alps in winter with his army and elephants. Most of his troops were Celts enlisted from Spain and Gaul. One strength of his army was cavalry from North Africa that was usually able to drive off the Roman cavalry, surround the Roman infantry, and help annihilate it. The Romans defeated Hannibal eventually, not by fighting him, but by attacking where he wasn’t—Spain first, and then North Africa.
Decline and fall
The Phoenician home cities were periodically under the thumb of one eastern conqueror after another from roughly 900 to 332 BC. They were never strong enough to hold off the powerful armies from Assyria, then Babylon, and then Persia, although they were often rich enough to buy them off. In 332 BC Alexander the Great took them one by one, ending their on-again, off-again independence. They became Greek cities and lost their identity as Phoenician for good.The Carthaginians lasted another 200 years. Having held off Greek expansion past Sicily successfully for many centuries, they met their match in the more populous and better organized Romans. At the end of the Punic Wars in 146 BC, the people of Carthage were carried off to slavery and the city was destroyed.
The Phoenician tradition as traders carried on in Lebanon down through the years to modern times, regardless of who was in political control. Phoenicians are also recalled as great mariners. They are believe to have been the first civilized culture to reach Britain and the Azores. There is evidence that Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa on commission by the Egyptians around 600 BC. There is some questionable evidence that they reached the New World.Their most important contribution was their revised alphabet, which they spread around the known world. When further refined and spread by the Greeks and Romans, it became the alphabet used today by most western cultures.