Mark Woolmer

I.B. Tauris (2017) p/b 233pp £15.99 (ISBN 9781780766188)

This little book is part of the I.B. Tauris ‘Short Histories’ series, which aims to provide ‘introductions with an edge’ for university students (and their teachers) approaching a history topic or period for the first time. Each is written by an expert in the field: W., based in Durham University, is ‘internationally recognised as an expert on the Phoenician civilisation’.

With this background, you would expect a scholarly work of reference containing everything that is known, believed or speculated about the Phoenicians, and that is what you get. Following the introduction (of which more below), successive chapters give first a historical overview, covering the relevant time-span from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic/Roman period, then deal with social organisation (‘government and society’), religion, art and culture, and overseas expansion. There are full reference notes, maps, timelines and an extensive bibliography. Anyone who wants to learn about the Phoenicians could hardly do better than start with this book.

The problem is, not enough is known about them—not nearly as much as we would like. Although they are credited with bringing writing to the Mediterranean, they left no texts behind: no literature, no Amarna letters, nothing but a few inscriptions. Texts from elsewhere which do talk about them come from outside and tend therefore to be biased and often hostile (Egypt, Assyria, Ugarit, Homer, the Old Testament) or written long after they ceased to be important (Josephus). We therefore rely more than usual on archaeology to show how they grew, traded, colonised and spread. This has provided increasing evidence especially of their seafaring activities, from much earlier than used to be thought (from the Bronze Age onwards), but the developing picture remains distant; without any literary remains to reveal their way of thinking, the Phoenicians still lack life.

There are artefacts, often of high quality, but not very much art. There are hardly any known individuals, except for King Hiram of Tyre, who the Bible shows doing deals with Solomon. It is not even clear that they thought of themselves as a distinct people. ‘Phoenician’ was just a name other people gave them. W., in a detailed introduction, discusses how the Phoenicians might be defined, and concludes that it is only possible to think of them as independent city states (Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, Arwad etc.), probably with similar social organisations (kings, priesthoods etc.) but their own enterprises and foreign policies, and worshipping different gods (at least, if they were the same gods, they went under different names).

The book is essentially an exposition of what little we know, plus a full discussion of the evidence, such as it is. It is well organised and well written, but that cannot save it from being a somewhat dry read; it is not a book for bedtime. Anybody interested in the Phoenicians would do well to read it straight through once, to get the overall picture, and then treat it as a reference source to supplement and guide further study.

Colin McDonald

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