The Phoenicians

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The region of Canaan, which corresponds with modern Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon, had long been a site of prosperity and innovation.  Merchants from Canaan traded throughout the Middle East, its craftsmen were renowned for their work, and it was even a group of Canaanites – the Hyksos – who briefly ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period.  Along with their neighbors the Hebrews, the most significant of the ancient Canaanites were the Phoenicians, whose cities (politically independent but united in culture and language) were centered in present-day Lebanon.

Phoenician trade routes
Phoenician trade routes

The Phoenicians were not a particularly warlike people.  Instead, they are remembered for being travelers and merchants, particularly by sea.  They traveled farther than any other ancient people; sometime around 600 BCE, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, a Phoenician expedition even sailed around Africa over the course of three years (if that actually happened, it was an achievement that would not be accomplished again for almost 2,000 years).  The Phoenicians established colonies all over the shores Mediterranean, where they provided anchors in a new international trade network that eventually replaced the one destroyed with the fall of the Bronze Age.  Likewise, Phoenician cities served as the crossroads of trade for goods that originated as far away as England (metals were mined in England and shipped all the way to the Near East via overland routes).  The most prominent Phoenician city was Carthage in North Africa, which centuries later would become the great rival of the Roman Republic.

Phoenician trade was not, however, the most important legacy of their society.  Instead, of their various accomplishments, none was to have a more lasting influence than that of their writing system.  As early as 1300 BCE, building on the work of earlier Canaanites, the Phoenicians developed a syllabic alphabet that formed the basis of Greek and Roman writing much later.  A syllabic alphabet has characters that represent sounds, rather than characters that represent things or concepts. These alphabets are much smaller and less complex than symbolic ones.  It is possible for a non-specialist to learn to read and write using a syllabic alphabet much more quickly than using a symbolic one (like Egyptian hieroglyphics or Chinese characters).  Thus, in societies like that of the Phoenicians, there was no need for a scribal class, since even normal merchants could become literate. 

The Phoenician alphabet
The Phoenician alphabet

Ultimately, the Greeks and then the Romans adopted Phoenician writing, and the alphabets used in most European languages in the present is a direct descendant of the Phoenician one as a result.  To this day, the English word “phonetic,” meaning the correspondence of symbols and sounds, is directly related to the word “Phoenician.”

The Phoenician mastery of sailing and the use of the syllabic alphabet were both boons to trade.  Another was a practice – the use of currency – originating in the remnants of the Hittite lands.  Lydia, a kingdom in western Anatolia, controlled significant sources of gold (giving rise to the Greek legend of King Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold). 

Map of Lydia in ancient times
Map of Lydia in ancient times

In roughly 650 BCE, the Lydians came up with the idea of using lumps of gold and silver that had a standard weight.  Soon, they formalized the system by stamping marks into the lumps to create the first true (albeit crude) coins, called staters.  Currency revolutionized ancient economics, greatly increasing the ability of merchants to travel far afield and buy foreign goods, because they no longer had to travel with huge amounts of goods with them to trade.  It also made tax collection more efficient, strengthening ancient kingdoms and empires.

Gold kroisos from Lydia
Gold kroisos from Lydia
Silver kroisos from Lydia
Silver kroisos from Lydia

While the Phoenicians played a major role in jumpstarting long-distance trade after the collapse of the Bronze Age, they did not create a strong united state.  Such a state emerged farther east, however: alone of the major states of the Bronze Age, the Assyrian kingdom in northern Mesopotamia survived.  Probably because of their extreme focus on militarism, the Assyrians were able to hold on to their core cities while the states around them collapsed.  During the Iron Age, the Assyrians became the most powerful empire the world had ever seen.


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Next: The Assyrian Empire and the New Babylonian Empire

Phoenician trade routes map: By Yom (talk · contribs) – Own work based on: ar:File:Ph routes.jpgTransferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Akigka., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1074993
Phoenician alphabet: By Luca – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2311779
Kroisos: By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74443198
Silver kroisos: By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74443157
Lydia map: By Original: User:RokeSVG: User:NektoEnglish: User:WillemBK – Original picture:File:Map of Lydia ancient times.jpgInfo from these maps:Map 1 (brown):”middle of the 6th century at the time of King Croesus”http://i-cias.com/e.o/lydia.htmMap 2 (red line):”7th C. BCE roughly from 690 to 546 BCE”http://www.ancientanatolia.com/map07.htmSVG picture:File:Map of Lydia ancient times rus.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25815473

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
    CC BY-NC-SA
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University
    CC BY-NC-SA

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest


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