Maritime Empires: the Phoenician Gap

Maritime Empires and the West

We in the West seem to spend a lot of time tracing our cultures back to the maritime empires — thalassocracies — like the Greeks and the Vikings, but we spend very little time talking about the civilization that inspired Greece to consolidate its military power, supplied Egypt with timber, and invented the oldest known alphabet.

maritime empires: greece

Before I started teaching, if I looked at a map like this, I would have assumed that the reason Greece didn’t trade with North Africa had to do with the unsuitability of the area for living if I thought about Africa at all. There’s a desert there, right? I might have assumed that the mountains made habitation impossible, ignoring the mountains dotting most every other coast of the Mediterranean.

But now I’ve spent months teaching about Africa, and years thinking about the importance of narratives that aren’t completely eurocentric, and that awareness has helped me realize that this map has to be missing something. But what?

oh, right. Phoenicia.

The Who’s Who of Mediterranean Maritime Empires

First, it’s worth noting that I had no idea that the Phoencians, the Carthigians, and the Caananaites are all, culturally, the same people. Oh, and that the term “Punic” specifically means related to Carthage. I picked up a textbook — Phoencians and the West by Maria Eugenia Aubet — while doing unrelated research for my novel. I was trying to figure out how fast classical ships traveled, and decided to pick it up because it looks interesting. Boy was it! I learned a ton from just the introduction.

I’d heard of Carthage, and I’d heard of Canaan (you probably have too, even if you don’t realize it; the Caananites are the bad guys for most of the Old Testament. You know, the ones driven out of the Promised Land)  but I didn’t know that they were culturally the same people. From what I can tell, this omission is mostly because of some really stupid linguistic gymnastics scholars use to differentiate between the people of a particular culture when the city-state of Tyre was ascendant vs. the people of the same culture when the city-state of Carthage was ascendant, and whether they lived along the east coast of the Mediterranean or… literally any other coast.

The problem apparently comes in because many of the western Phoenicians (properly the Punic peoples) pre-date the founding of Carthage, thus making “Punic” a particularly weird term for them.

Why is this news?

As much as I think it’s kind of stupid that we use different terms for the same civilization, I refuse to complain about not having known much about them before. There are a ton of things I’ve never learned about before, and if I got upset every time I was exposed to something new, instead of exciting, it would be a pretty miserable existence.

As a teacher, I get so angry whenever I hear “why didn’t I learn insert cool thing here in school!” — whether it’s “how to do my taxes” or “about a cool historical figure” — because usually the answer is some variant either you did, you just didn’t realize it at the time or because we can’t possibly teach everything… or, of course, because your curriculum was written according to the dominant narrative, which doesn’t want to address [controversial topic or minority narrative.]

Basically, I’m either mad because I agree or mad because I don’t and want to defend my profession.

Taxes have been a part of the human experience since the dawn of civilization. I'm sure you can figure them out.

You learned how to do taxes in elementary school when you learned how to do addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in a word problem. It can’t get more specific than that because the forms and rules change every year. /endrant

In this case, there are, I think, two probable reasons that Phoenicia isn’t part of our common cultural understanding of the Mediterranean region. One frustrates me, one doesn’t.

The Western Tradition: Military, not Maritime, Empires

Less frustrating first. It’s important to remember that Phoenicia is not a direct forebear of western culture the way that Greece and Rome are. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s occupied the cultural place of “the enemy” not only to Rome, but also in the Biblical underpinnings of predominantly-Christian nations — which is a little ironic, because for centuries, Rome was also the enemy. Until Constantine, at least. But I digress.

The whole point of the Renaissance was, essentially, the “rediscovery” of Greek philosophy; the arts, the science, that had been lost with the fall of Rome and the emergence of feudal values in Europe. Western European culture — and nations that trade their cultural roots to western Europe like the USA and Australia — likes to think it was influenced in a very linear way; Greek democracy, Roman engineering, some wars that established the backdrop of international politics, then the Renaissance mixed it all together and added in art and kicked us into modernity, where industrialization is what put the west on top of the world.

the Mona Lisa

Admit it, when I say “Renaissance,” this is what pops into your head.

It’s a nice, neat, linear narrative, easily understood, and even that much takes a lot of time to wrap a child’s brain around. It has some pretty glaring gaps, though — for one thing, a lot of the Renaissance knowledge about “Greek thought” came from the Levant… which is, coincidentally enough, the birthplace of Phoenician culture and heavily influenced by the same.

So maybe if the United States and Australia were maritime empires, more mercantile and less military, more of us would study Phoenicia instead of Rome — or, if not study it, come across more articles referencing it as a comparison point.

Cultural Diffusion thru Conquest

Probably not, though. After all, the British Empire and Portugal were maritime empires, and they certainly buy into the Greco-Roman narrative of history.

I think there’s something to be said for the fact that Alexander the Great (and more importantly, his father Philip of Macedonia) was a conquering king, and Rome was — for the time period we actually study, at least — an empire. It’s not the maritime part that matters in the West, it’s the empire part, and when I call “Phoenicia” a maritime empire it’s important to understand that it wasn’t a united one. Tyre wasn’t controlling its colonies, not the way Rome did — and certainly not the way France, Portugal, and Britain were.

What I find interesting is that Phoenicia definitely influenced the development of the Iberian peninsula — before Roman conquest, Phoenicia established colonies along the coast and sent trading vessels through the Strait of Gibraltar.

pillars of hercules

Fun fact: the “Pillars of Hercules” is the poetic name the Greeks gave the mountains that flank the Strait of Gibraltar.

It’s worth noting that the textbook I’ve been reading was written by a Spanish professor before being translated.

Who Conquered Who?

I’s not just a matter of who conquered western Europe, otherwise we’d never learn about Egypt — which was also not a direct predecessor of western culture, and was neither particularly inclined toward conquest nor a great trading empire. It wasn’t the first river civilization, or in Europe. It just happened to be the spot conquered by colonizing forces, so we know a lot about it.

Egyptian coffin in British Museum.

The British have worked really hard to strip Egypt (and Greece, and west Africa) of its cultural heritage.

We know a little something about Mesopotamia because of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving work of literature in the world. But despite the Crusades, despite the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite America and Russia fighting over influence in Syria like two pit bulls with a meat doll, the west hasn’t conquered much of the Middle East since the short-lived efforts of Alexander the Great.

The Bible as a Source

Honestly, I think the lack of information about Phoenicia in American curriculum has a lot to do with the Biblical underpinnings of our information. There’s a real fear of referencing the bible in an academic context. Hell, I’m strongly discouraged from teaching about early Judiasm and Christianity — and especially Islam! — that I’m just not when it comes to early Greek or Egyptian religions, or even contemporary Buddhism and Hinduism.

I don’t know whether this should be derided as moral cowardice on the part of the school board or praised as being responsive to the preferences of the local electorate, but either way, it’s true, and it’s a damn shame.

The Phoenician Perspective

Anyway, I’ve heard of Carthage. Carthage must die! right? Hannibal ad portasOf course I’ve heard of Rome’s greatest enemy. I’d just never thought about it much more deeply than that, which I’m not proud of. I’ve even heard of Dido, a jilted lover from the Trojan War. Wasn’t there a clever thing with an oxhide?

Cripes, what a disservice Roman mythology does to her. The Romans hated her about as much as they hated Cleopatra and the Israelites hated Deliliah. I know better than to trust the literary tradition — written by men, written by the “victors,” inherently biased — but still I somehow missed that Dido is awesome. 

Coin found in Sicily.

She’s been displayed on coinage from the region for centuries.

How awesome must she have been to have inspired a city’s worth of people — including members of the local aristocracy — to leave their home and found a colony half the sea away?

This isn’t a case where she was the only heir of a powerful dynasty, like Elizabeth. She wasn’t the widow of someone powerful technically ruling on behalf of a son, like Wu Zetian. She didn’t share roughly equal-billing with a male war-leader like the Israelite Judge Deborah (not that Deborah wasn’t awesome!) No, as far as I can tell, she came to power on her own merits.

I also really like that rather than start a civil war, she led a migration of like-minded people and created something even greater than her home city. Don’t think this meant she wasn’t a badass, though; according to Strabo, she had to fight the North Africans pretty much constantly during the early years of Carthage.

What would you have done if your brother usurped the throne you had been promised and killed your husband in an attempt to steal his wealth?



Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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