Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Phoenicians

I'm a bit on the fence about the Phoenicians.  On the one hand, they were extremely important historically; on the other, for reenactment purposes it may be difficult to portray them because I can find no sources on Phoenician costume in the Achaemenid period.

Geographical definition and names
Phoenicia (Gk. Phoinikia) was the Greek name for the Levantine coast from about Gaza through the southern part of coastal Syria.  The Phoenicians were a subset of Canaanites and it is uncertain whether they regarded themselves as a unified civilization, which together with the lack of centralized government, means that the history of Phoenicia is the history of many different cities.  Essentially they comprised those Canaanites who had taken to seafaring and trading; as such, they were among the most important subjects of the Persian empire.

Phoinikia is Greek for "red land," in reference to the famous purple dye the Phoenicians exported.  However, this name is probably adapted from an Egyptian word, Fnw, referring to Asians.

The Phoenicians probably didn't distinguish their land from the rest of Canaan, which was called Kn'n (probably to be read as "Kana'an"), either a native term meaning "lowlands" or from Hurrian Kinahhu, "purple land."  Hecataeus of Miletus in the sixth century wrote that Phoenicia was formerly called Khna.

Phoenicia seems to have developed gradually from the early Bronze Age, and although destruction was widespread during the Bronze Age collapse, the main centers of Phoenician culture - Byblos, Sidon, Tyre and Gaza among them - show no sign of a major cultural break.  In the early Iron Age these cities gained power through maritime trade and charted routes all around the Mediterranean, establishing colonies as far away as Gadir (modern Cadiz) in southwest Spain and Tingis (modern Tangier) on the Moroccan side of Gibraltar, as well as, most famously, Carthage in Tunisia.

Phoenicia's trade was built on third-party shipping, and on the export of goods like lumber (the prized cedars of Lebanon were used in the construction of Darius the Great's Susa palace and the Second Temple of Jerusalem) and the so-called Tyrian purple fabric.

This latter was dyed with excretions of murex sea snails collected on the coast, and because it was slow and labor-intensive to produce and the resulting color was both rich and resistant to fading, it was an incredibly valuable product (and remains so today).  When the Achaemenids conquered the area, they assumed control of the flow of Tyrian purple cloth and hoarded it.  Wearing Tyrian purple was a sign of royal favor.

It was in the early Iron Age, from about 1200 to 800 BC, that the Phoenician alphabet was adapted by various Mediterranean cultures, including the Greeks, Latins and Arameans, and thus became ancestral to most modern alphabetic scripts.

The power of Asiatic Phoenicia's city-states began to decline after 800 under repeated attacks from Assyria.  After Assyria fell at the turn of the sixth century, the Levant was subjected to Babylonian rule.  As such, it continued on as part of the Persian empire when Cyrus took Babylon in 539.

Achaemenid Phoenicia was divided into four administrative regions with capitals at Arwad, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre, Sidon being the most important.  As under the Assyrians and Babylonians, native kings remained in Phoenicia as vassals to the Persian king.  Unfortunately, the historical record becomes spotty because during Achaemenid times the Phoenicians began to rely on perishable papyrus documents rather than cuneiform.

By Herodotus' time, Phoenicia was grouped with Cyprus and Palaestina in the fifth tax district, paying a total of 350 silver talents yearly.  This region appears to be the same as those known in old Akkadian records as Eber-Nāri, "Across the River"; the name continued to be used in Akkadian documents from the Achaemenid period.

The Persians relied heavily on Phoenician ships in war and trade.  Herodotus says that the Phoenicians took part in Cambyses' expedition against Egypt and were "the most eager to fight" in the fleet sent to stop the Ionian Revolt (VI.6), throughout which their naval power proved important both at Lade in 494 and in the subsequent reconquest of Greek coastal cities.

According to Herodotus, the Phoenicians sent three hundred ships (a quarter of the armada) under the command of Tetramnestus of Sidon and Matten of Tyre.  The Phoenicians would have played major roles at the battles of Artemisium and Salamis as well as the king's return to Asia.

Phoenicians acting at the empire's behest briefly relieved Samos of an Athenian blockade in 440 and supplied ships to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.  However, the Persian reliance on Phoenicia was also a liability:  Attacks from the outside on Phoenician ports would cripple the empire's ability to project power.  Thus Evagoras of Cyprus targeted and briefly captured Tyre during his personal war with Persia, and Nectanebo II sought to protect Egypt from imperial attack by instigating a rebellion in Sidon.

The great king at the time, Artaxerxes III, had been gathering an army at Sidon when the pharaoh sent a message to King Tennes of Sidon that he would assist the Sidonians if they revolted; he made good on this by dispatching 4,000 Greek mercenaries under Mentor of Rhodes (brother of the famous Memnon of Rhodes) in 350.  The Phoenicians and Greeks defeated the Persian satraps sent to suppress them, and the rebellion spread to other towns.  Artaxerxes led a massive counterattack by 346, and Tennes and Mentor surrendered.  The great king retained Mentor as a mercenary but executed Tennes, and the Sidonians torched their own city.

Sidon was repopulated, and King Straton (Ph. Abdastart) initially supported Darius III during Alexander's invasion, sending ships to fight under Memnon in the Aegean.  However, after the Battle of Issus, the empire's power was withdrawn from Phoenicia.  Sidon and the other cities surrendered without a fight, but Hephaestus nonetheless deposed Straton and replaced him with Abdalonymus, who may have been a son of Tennes.

The lone holdout was Tyre.  While the Tyrians would have surrendered like everyone else, Alexander had further demanded to be allowed to perform sacrifices in the temple of Melqart, a right belonging only to Tyre's native king.  When he repeated his demands, the Tyrians executed his representatives.  Alexander laid siege to the city in January of 332.  The Tyrian women and children were evacuated to Carthage.  Built on an island just off the coast and defended by its ships, Tyre proved difficult to take until Alexander secured control of the other Phoenician ships belonging to the former Persian navy.  He then breached the city's walls and quickly overcame the defenders.  Most of the surviving population were sold into slavery.

Macedonian control over Phoenicia was now complete.  It was placed under the satrapy of Syria at the Partition of Babylon in 323, ruled by Laomedon of Mytilene.  But three years later Ptolemy invaded from Egypt at the start of the Wars of the Diadochi.  The land changed hands many times until again falling to the Ptolemaic empire in 286, where it remained for 89 years.  During this time, the high priests of Ashtart in Sidon acted as the Ptolemies' client rulers.

In 197, Phoenicia, still as part of Syria, was taken by the Seleucids.  However, rule began to crumble in the late second century, with Tyre and Sidon becoming independent.  From 82-69 BC, Tigranes the Great of Armenia invaded and held the country, but was driven out by the Romans under Pompey the Great, who officially named Syria a Roman province five years later.

It is difficult to know when Phoenicia ceased to be recognized.  The Canaanite languages in general were replaced by Aramaic from the Achaemenid period onward, though the process was gradual.  To some extent, the modern Lebanese regard themselves as having Phoenician roots.  In the western Mediterranean, variants of the Phoenician language (called Punic to distinguish them from mainland Phoenician) were spoken until perhaps around AD 600.

Phoenician belonged to the Canaanite subgroup of Northwest Semitic and is similar to Biblical Hebrew.

The Phoenician alphabet was an abjad, similar to a syllabary but representing vowel sounds only implicitly.  It may have been derived from proto-Sinaitic, a script attested from a handful of findings on the Sinai Peninsula dating to the early second millennium BC.  It has been further theorized that proto-Sinaitic derives from Egyptian hieroglyphs.  In any case, although Phoenician is the ancestor of most phonetic writing systems used today, it bears little physical resemblance to them.

Phoenicians followed the polytheistic traditions of other Canaanites.  Their most important gods included El, the traditional supreme god of Semitic religions; his wife Ashtart, who was the Northwestern Semitic cognate of Akkadian Ishtar; and El's son Melqart, known as Ba'al ūr or "Lord of Tyre."  The Greeks called Melqart "Tyrian Heracles"; he may also be the Ba'al worshipped by Ahab in the Bible.  Many other gods were worshipped in Phoenicia and the wider Canaanite region, including several imported from Egypt, like Isis.

As mentioned, there seems to be little information about Phoenician clothing.  However, it seems likely that they dressed in a manner similar to the "Syrians" at Persepolis, a topic covered in the Assyrian article.

Herodotus describes Phoenician weapons as "helmets very close to the Greek in style," linen corslets, "shields without rims" and javelins.  I can provide no further information or useful speculation.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.