Ancient History & Civilisation


The Euboeans and Phoenicians already had a long shared history in the eastern Mediterranean. And it appears that Levantine traders had done much to reconnect the inhabitants of Greece with the Near East after several centuries of insularity and obscurity. After the implosion of the Mycenaean civilization at the beginning of the twelfth century BC, which was part of the wider regional collapse at the end of the Bronze Age, Greece had suffered a huge drop in population, calculated by some at around 75 per cent. Furthermore, its inhabitants had abandoned sophisticated settlements and had forgotten many of the features that we associate with civilized life: monumental architecture, figurative art and even the ability to write had disappeared, and contact with the outside world had all but ceased.77

By the tenth century BC, however, the first signs of a quiet revolution can be detected in the archaeological record. At the settlement of Lefkandi on the island of Euboea, a surprising discovery has been made among the pottery and artefacts with which its inhabitants were usually buried. Arranged around the female occupant of Tomb 86 were gilt hair-coils and dress pins, and other bronze objects. Her bleached and brittle finger bones, covered in an assortment of nine gold rings, were placed over a finely crafted gilded bronze bowl. Although it is agreed that these luxury goods had come from the Near East, the question of how they got there is controversial. The Euboeans were the only Greeks during this period with sufficient experience of medium- and long-distance trade, but there is no evidence that they were engaged in contemporary mercantile operations with the Near East.78 It is far more plausible that the Phoenicians brought these goods to Greece.79 They had been continuously involved in Aegean trade since at least the fourteenth century BC. Their interest in resource-poor Greece probably lay in the fact that Euboea, through its successful regional trading networks within Greece, was far wealthier than other population centres.80 There also appears to have been a growing demand for Euboean pottery in the Near East–a market that the Phoenicians would have wanted to control.81

At the same time that the flow of goods to Greece from the Near East was increasing–particularly as emerging Greek institutions such as temples and religious sanctuaries grouped together to arrange the import of high-status offerings from the region–so too was the quantity of Greek pottery going in the opposite direction.82 By the end of the ninth century BC the Euboeans were undoubtedly involved in trans-Mediterranean transportation, for ninth-century archaeological evidence from the north-Syrian coastal trading station of Al Mina, located near the mouth of the river Orontes, points to the existence of Phoenicians and Euboeans residing and trading together in what was most probably an indigenously controlled settlement.83

Increasingly scholars have also speculated on the Phoenicians’ involvement in joint commercial ventures with Greeks besides the Euboeans. One particularly intriguing case is the city of Corinth, the pottery of which shows a clear ‘orientalizing’ influence, and begins to be exported in large quantities to both Phoenician and Greek settlements in the central and western Mediterranean during this period.84

Luxury goods and artisan techniques were not the only things that the Phoenicians had brought with them to Greece. Although the Phoenicians went to trade and not to deliver an extended tutorial on culture, many aspects of Greek literature, language, religious ritual and art were clearly heavily influenced by the Near East.85 Perhaps most important was the alphabet.86 The great strength of the Phoenician alphabetic script was that it could easily be learned by rote, and this was the way that the creator of the first Greek alphabet would have learned it.87 The first examples of Greek writing, scratched on pottery shards from Lefkandi, on the island of Euboea, date to the second quarter of the eighth century BC, and most scholars agree that the script was an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet.88 The loan words which the Greeks borrowed from the Phoenicians–byblos (the papyrus reed used as a writing material), deltos (a writing tablet), byssos (linen), sakkos (sack), gaulos (ship), makellon (market), titanos (lime), gypsum (plaster),harpe (curved sword), macha (battle)–give some indication of the scope of these adaptations.89 Predictably, many of the most important Phoenician innovations adopted by the Greeks related to maritime commerce–such as interest-bearing loans, maritime insurance, joint financing of commercial ventures, deposit banking, and, possibly, weights and measures.90 The Phoenicians were thus the bridge which brought the economic and cultural advances of the Near East to Greece and which created the foundation not only for future cooperation but also for deep-seated tensions between Phoenicians and Greeks.

The increase in Greek mercantile activities, however, makes it increasingly difficult to separate out the Greeks’ achievements from those of the Phoenicians. The best example of this is the invention of the trireme, the dominant warship on the Mediterranean between the seventh and fourth centuries BC, an achievement claimed for both sides by modern academics. The trireme had numerous advantages over its predecessor the penteconter, a narrow craft of around 25 metres in length, powered by a team of around fifty oarsmen and a single sail. The trireme was much more powerful, having space for eighty rowers who were placed at three different levels on either side of the greatly enlarged hull. Equipped also with two sails, one large, one small, in order to catch transverse winds, it was able to cover as much as 340 kilometres without stopping. For combat, the sails and other heavy equipment would be left ashore to give the ship more manoeuvrability. On the end of its prow it had a ram made of bronze, used for smashing holes in the sides of enemy ships. The trireme’s military capabilities were further enhanced by the presence of a foredeck close to the prow, on which archers and slingers would be stationed during sea battles, raining missiles on to the enemy crews.91

A number of ancient Greek writers claimed that the trireme had been invented by the Corinthians in the eighth century BC. In fact, with some notable exceptions, most Greek authors assert that all ancient warships were invented by their fellow Hellenes.92However, there is no artistic representation or any other evidence for Greek triremes before the late sixth century BC.93 The first unambiguous reference to the construction of triremes concerns the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II building them for use on both the Mediterranean and Red seas around the start of the sixth century BC. As the Egyptians had no previous record of constructing any kind of sea craft like the trireme, it has long been assumed that Necho must have needed outside expertise. While there is little evidence of a strong Greek connection with Egypt during that period, the Phoenicians are known to have long supplied timber for boatbuilding there.94 Furthermore, the earlier development of the Phoenician bireme, with a deck clearly constructed over the rowers below, appears to show the genesis of the design which would lead to the trireme’s upper level of oarsmen.95

More generally, the futile scholarly quest for the trireme’s origins merely serves to mask the fact that the diverse ancient claims to originality were a product of the simultaneous use by several seafaring peoples of broadly similar vessels, showing that cultural interactions were taking place throughout the Mediterranean.96

Throughout history, the Mediterranean Sea has acted as an agent of both diversity and unity. Although often perceived as a collection of interconnected seas–Ionian, Aegean, Adriatic, Tyrrhenian etc.–which all possess their own identities and histories, the Mediterranean has also provided the means for those peoples who live on its edges to interact with one another.97 The building of craft that could travel on its waters, meant that goods, people and ideas could be, and were, exchanged between areas many thousands of kilometres distant.98 Like the Mediterranean itself, those who managed to master the complex crafts and skills associated with shipbuilding and maritime navigation acted not only as agents of cultural interaction and acculturation but also as symbols of cultural distinctiveness. It was these seemingly contradictory dynamics that provided the basis for Phoenician–Greek relations. Thus, the archaeological evidence of commercial cooperation is counterbalanced by the growing ambivalence towards Phoenicians in early Greek literature.

In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey–each a product of a time when both Greek and Phoenician colonial expansion in the Mediterranean was reaching its zenith during the eighth and seventh centuries BC–a clear distinction is drawn between the Phoenicians as a people and the exquisite artefacts that they produced. In the Iliad a large silver cup, a ‘masterpiece of Sidonian craftsmanship’, is offered as a prize by the Greek hero Achilles as ‘the loveliest thing in the world’. In another episode, Hecuba, queen of Troy, is described as possessing richly embroidered robes woven by Sidonian women and so precious that they are kept in the treasure chamber of the palace and considered worthy to be offered up to Athena.99 This admiration for Phoenician workmanship is in stark opposition to the characterization of the Phoenicians as dishonest, greedy and sly.100 In one famous episode from the Odyssey, Eumaeus, the faithful swineherd of Odysseus, explains how he ended up as a slave looking after his master’s pigs. He had in fact been born a prince in his native land, before being kidnapped by his Sidonian nurse, who had given him to Phoenician traders. Odysseus himself would almost suffer the same fate at Phoenician hands. He recounts how he had been persuaded by ‘a dishonest Phoenician, a thieving wretch who had already performed a great deal of mischief in the world’, to travel with him to Phoenicia, where he had a house. However, the invitation turned out to be nothing more than a ploy to kidnap and sell him into slavery.101 Rather than expressing genuine hostility towards Phoenicians, these depictions might be viewed as representing a general deep-seated disapproval of traders among the Greek aristocratic elite, who wanted to create a clear distance between mercantile activities and themselves. However, the weight of evidence does seem to show that this antipathy was based on pre-existent negative attitudes towards the Phoenicians, rather than their acting simply as the random fall guy in a literary discourse on Greekness or its absence. It is also generally thought that theOdyssey was written down later than the Iliad, perhaps indicating that Greek attitudes towards the Phoenicians had hardened as their commercial rivalry developed. Yet, equally, the degree of cultural assimilation and appropriation that had already been taking place between Greeks and Phoenicians strongly suggests that such entrenched views were by no means universally held.102

During the second half of the eighth century BC there was a marked change in the nature of Phoenician activities overseas, particularly in the central Mediterranean. In Sardinia a number of settlements were founded in the south and west of the island, at Sulcis, Tharros and Nora. These colonies were very different from Sant’ Imbenia, because they were very much Phoenician settlements with little evidence of Nuragic residents. They conformed to the topographical particularities of Phoenician foundations located on islands, promontories and peninsulas, with two natural harbours so that wind direction would not inhibit use. Each provided good anchorage and easy access to the hinterland, where metal ores and agricultural produce could be acquired through trade with the Nuragic population.103 These new commercial relationships appear to have brought about a marked increase in competition for land and resources among the Nuragi, as different groups sought to control the lucrative business of supplying the Phoenicians with raw materials. This led to the clustering of populations into more nucleated settlements, a more complex social stratification, and the creation of a series of complex socio-political divisions.104

Pottery found at Sulcis clearly shows that trade with Pithecusa and Etruria, probably in conjunction with the Euboeans, was an important aspect of the economic life of these early Phoenician colonies.105 Sardinia also served as a platform for more ambitious trading strategies, especially by the Tyrians. As the most distant of all the Mediterranean islands from the European and African mainland, and with its long stretches of coastline, Sardinia was a natural ‘stepping stone’ to the far western reaches of the great sea, where far greater mineral riches could be found.106 Indeed, the Phoenician emporium at Huelva in south-west Spain was receiving goods from Sardinia in the eighth century.107

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