Phoenician Government and Politics

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Form of Government

Kingship appears to have been the oldest form of Phoenician government. The royal houses claimed divine descent, and the king could not be chosen outside their members. His power, however, was limited by the powerful merchant families, who wielded great influence in public affairs. Associated with the king was a council of elders; such at least was the case at Byblos, Sidon, and perhaps Tyre. During Nebuchadrezzar II's reign (605-562 BC) a republic took the place of the monarchy at Tyre, and the government was administered by a succession of suffetes (judges); they held office for short terms, and in one instance two ruled together for six years. Much later, in the 3rd century BC, an inscription from Tyre also mentions a suffete. Carthage was governed by two suffetes, and these officers are frequently named in connection with the Carthaginian colonies. But this does not justify any inference that Phoenicia itself had such magistrates. Under the Persians a federal bond was formed linking Sidon, Tyre, and Aradus. Federation on a larger scale was never possible in Phoenicia, for the reason that no sense of political unity existed to bind the different states together.

Aristotle: On the Constitution of Carthage
"...held up as a model" c. 340 B.C.

The Carthaginians are also considered to have an excellent form of government, which differs from that of any other state in several respects, though it is in some very like the Spartan. Indeed, all three states---the Spartan, the Cretan, and the Carthaginian---nearly resemble one another, and are very different from any others. Many of the Carthaginian institutions are excellent. The superiority of their constitution is proved by the fact that the common people remain loyal to the constitution. The Carthaginians have never had any rebellion worth speaking of, and have never been under the rule of a tyrant. Among the points in which the Carthaginian constitution resembles the Spartan are the following: The common tables of the clubs answer to the Spartan phiditia, and their magistracy of the Hundred-Four to the Ephors; but, whereas the Ephors are any chance persons, the magistrates of the Carthaginians are elected according to merit---this is an improvement. They have also their kings and their Gerousia, or council of elders, who correspond to the kings and elders of Sparta. Their kings, unlike the Spartan, are not always of the same family, nor that an ordinary one, but if there is some distinguished family they are selected out of it and not appointed by seniority---this is far better. Such officers have great power, and therefore, if they are persons of little worth, do a great deal of harm, and they have already done harm at Sparta.

Most of the defects or deviations from the perfect state, for which the Carthaginian constitution would be censured, apply equally to all the forms of government which we have mentioned. But of the deflections from aristocracy and constitutional government, some incline more to democracy and some to oligarchy. The kings and elders, if unanimous, may determine whether they will or will not bring a matter before the people, but when they are not unanimous, the people decide on such matters as well. And whatever the kings and elders bring before the people is not only heard but also determined by them, and any one who likes may oppose it; now this is not permitted in Sparta and Crete. That the magistrates of five who have under them many important matters should be co-opted, that they should choose the supreme council of One Hundred, and should hold office longer than other magistrates (for they are virtually rulers both before and after they hold office)---these are oligarchical features; their being without salary and not elected by lot, and any similar points, such as the practice of having all suits tried by the magistrates, and not some by one class of judges or jurors and some by another, as at Sparta, are characteristic of aristocracy.

The Carthaginian constitution deviates from aristocracy and inclines to oligarchy, chiefly on a point where popular opinion is on their side. For men in general think that magistrates should be chosen not only for their merit, but for their wealth: a man, they say, who is poor cannot rule well---he has not the leisure. If, then, election of magistrates for their wealth be characteristic of oligarchy, and election for merit of aristocracy, there will be a third form under which the constitution of Carthage is comprehended; for the Carthaginians choose their magistrates, and particularly the highest of them---their kings and generals---with an eye both to merit and to wealth. But we must acknowledge that, in thus deviating from aristocracy, the legislator has committed an error. Nothing is more absolutely necessary than to provide that the highest class, not only when in office, but when out of office, should have leisure and not disgrace themselves in any way; and to this his attention should be first directed. Even if you must have regard to wealth, in order to secure leisure, yet it is surely a bad thing that the greatest offices, such as those of kings and generals, should be bought. The law which allows this abuse makes wealth of more account than virtue, and the whole state becomes avaricious.

For, whenever the chiefs of the state deem anything honorable, the other citizens are sure to follow their example; and, where virtue has not the first place, their aristocracy cannot be firmly established. Those who have been at the expense of purchasing their places will be in the habit of repaying themselves; and it is absurd to suppose that a poor and honest man will be wanting to make gains, and that a lower stamp of man who has incurred a great expense will not. Wherefore they should rule who are able to rule best. And even if the legislator does not care to protect the good from poverty, he should at any rate secure leisure for them when in office. It would seem also to be a bad principle that the same person should hold many offices, which is a favorite practice among the Carthaginians, for one business is better done by one man.

The government of the Carthaginians is oligarchical, but they successfully escape the evils of oligarchy by enriching one portion of the people after another by sending them to their colonies. This is their panacea and the means by which they give stability to the state. Accident favors them, but the legislator should be able to provide against revolution without trusting to accidents. As things are, if any misfortune occurred, and the bulk of the subjects revolted, there would be no way of restoring peace by legal methods.1

Aristotle on the Carthaginian State

It is a general opinion that the Carthaginians live under a polity which is excellent and in many respects superior to all others, while there are some points in which it most resembles the Lacedaemonian. The fact is that these three polities, the Cretan, the Lacedaemonian and the Carthaginian have a sort of family likeness and differ widely from all others, and not a few of their institutions are excellent. It may be inferred that a polity is well ordered, when the commons are ever loyal to the political system, and no civil conflict worth speaking of has arisen, nor has anyone succeeded in making himself tyrant. The points in which the Carthaginian polity resembles the Lacedaemonian are that the common meals of the Clubs correspond to the Phiditia and the office of the Hundred-and-Four to the Ephoralty, with this advantage that the Hundred-and-Four are elected for their personal merit, whereas the Ephors are taken from any ordinary people, and lastly the Kings and Senators in the one to the Kings and Senators in the other. It is a point of superiority in the Carthaginian polity that the Kings do not belong to a separate family and this one of no particular merit, and that, although they must belong to one of certain distinguished families, they succeed to the throne by election and not by seniority. For as the Kings are constituted the supreme authorities in important matters, the result is that, if they are worthless persons, they do serious injury and in fact have done it to the Lacedaemonian State.

Of the points which may fairly be censured as deviations from the best polity nearly all are common to the three polities mentioned above; whereas those which are censurable as offending against the primary conception of an Aristocracy or a Polity which the State proposes to itself are errors partly on the side of Democracy and partly of Oligarchy. For instance, it is within the competence of the Kings and the Senate, provided that they are unanimous, to decide whether business shall or shall not be brought before the Commons; although, if they disagree, it is necessarily referred to the Commons. On the other hand, whenever they submit business to the Commons, the popular assembly is thereby empowered not merely to listen to all the resolutions of the government, but it has authority also to pronounce judgment upon them, and anyone who chooses is at liberty to object to the proposals - which is not the case in the Lacedaemonian and Cretan polities. So far the polity of Carthage is democratical. But there is an oligarchical element in the power of cooption enjoyed by the Pentarchies, which are boards of high and various authority, in their right of electing the Hundred who are the highest officers of State and in their tenure of official power for a longer period than any other board of officers, as their power begins before they actually enter upon office and continues after they have actually gone out of it. The unpaid character of the Pentarchies, their appointment by other means than by lot, and other similar features of the polity may be regarded as aristocratical; so too is the rule by which all cases alike are tried by certain fixed boards of magistrates, instead of being divided among different boards as at Lacedaemon. The point in which the Carthaginian system departs most widely from Aristocracy on the side of Oligarchy is in the popular idea that wealth as well as merit deserves to be considered in the election of officers of State, as it is impossible for a poor man to enjoy the leisure necessary for the proper performance of official duties. Assuming then that election by wealth is oligarchical and election by merit aristocratical, we may reckon as a third method the one which obtains in the constitutional system of the Carthaginians who in the election of officers of State generally and especially of the highest officers, viz. the Kings and the Generals, pay regard not to wealth only nor to merit only but to both. This departure from the principles of Aristocracy must be regarded as an error of the legislator. It is a point of primary importance to provide in the first instance that the best citizens, not only during their period of office but in all their private life, may be able to enjoy leisure and be free from degrading duties. But granting that it is right to have regard not only to merit but also to affluence as a means of securing leisure, we may still censure the arrangement by which at Carthage the highest offices of State, viz. the Kingship and Generalship, are put up to sale. The effect of such a law is that wealth is more highly esteemed than virtue, and the whole State is avaricious. Whenever the ruling class regards a thing as honourable, the opinion of the citizens generally is sure to follow suit. No polity however can be permanently aristocratical where merit is not held in supreme honour. Nor is it unreasonable that people, if they pay for the privilege, should get the habit of making their official status a source of pecuniary profit, when they have been put to heavy expenses in order to hold it. If a poor man of good character will aspire to be the gainer by his office, the same will be true, a fortiori, of one whose character stands lower, as is the case with the purchaser of official power, when he has already been put to great expense. It follows that the offices of State ought to be in the hands of the persons who are able to fill them best. But even if the legislator did not trouble himself about the poverty of the higher class of citizens, it would be worth while to make provision for their leisure at least during the time that they hold office.

Another objectionable point is the concentration of several offices in the same hands, which is a favourite plan of the Carthaginians. For a single work is best performed by a single person. It is the legislator's business to secure this division of labour and not appoint the same man to be flute-player and cobbler. Thus in any state of considerable size a division of offices among a number of people is the more statesmanlike and popular arrangement; not only does it admit a larger number of citizens to official power, but, as we said, the same work is more successfully and rapidly performed, as may be seen in naval and military affairs, in both of which the principle of rule and subjection may be said to pervade the whole force. But despite the oligarchical character of the polity the Carthaginians are most successful in avoiding civil disturbance by sending out from time to time a certain number of the common people to their subject States and thereby enabling them to acquire riches. This is their means of healing the wounds of the polity and placing it on a permanent basis. But we may fairly object that this is but the work of Fortune, and that it is the legislator who ought to prevent civil war; while as things are, in the event of some calamity and a general revolt of the subject class, the laws afford no means of securing peace. Such then are the conditions of the Lacedaemonian, the Cretan and the Carthaginian polities which have all a just and high reputation.2

Royal Marriages and Political Alliances

The Israelite king Omri had allied himself with the Phoenician cities of the coast, and his son Ahab was married to Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of Tyre and Sidon. Jezebel, with her Tyrian courtiers and a large contingent of pagan priests and prophets, propagated her native religion in a sanctuary built for Baal in the royal city of Samaria. This meant that the Israelites accepted Baal as well as Yahweh, putting Yahweh on a par with a nature-god whose supreme manifestations were the elements and biological fertility, celebrated often in an orgiastic cult. Jezebel's policies intensified the gradual contamination of the religion of Yahweh by the Canaanite religion of Baal, a process made easier by the sapping of the Israelites' faith in Yahweh.

King Hiram and King David

King Hiram (also called HURAM, or HIRAM, Phoenician King of Tyre) (reigned 969-936 BC), appears in the Bible as an ally of the Israelite kings David and Solomon.

The Biblical account of a growing friendship between King Hiram of Tyre and the Kings of Israel was an introductory phase for a more important events which included military alliances and cooperation not only during King David's time but also during the reign of King Solomon.

". David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. 9. So David dwelt in the fort, and called it the city of David. And David built round about from Millo and inward. 10. And David went on, and grew great, and the LORD God of hosts was with him. 11. And Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, and carpenters, and masons: and they built David an house. 12. And David perceived that the LORD had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for his people Israel's sake."3

King Hiram's enemies were the Philistines, who kept the Tyrians and Sidonians from prospering on the sea. They were King David's first enimies. The latter, by training the Israelite infantry, especially the bowmen, he proved more than a match for Philistine and other foes who employed horses and chariots. In addition, King Hiram made common cause with King David, forming a land and sea alliance that endured into Solomon's reign. Solomon, accordingly, inherited a considerable empire, along with a Phoenician ally of prime importance for naval and merchant-marine operations.

King Hiram and King Solomon

Hiram maintained friendly relations with Israel, supplying King Solomon (Hebrew SHLOMO (fl. mid-10th century BC), son and successor of David and traditionally regarded as the greatest king of Israel, with men and materials for the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem and cooperating with him in Mediterranean and Red Sea trading voyages. The Temple was the crowning achievement of Solomon's vast building program his capital, Jerusalem. Solomon turned to skilled Phoenician builders, who helped cut and assemble stone and wood for the Temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 5). Today the best examples of Phoenician sacred architecture are the temple of Astarte at Kition, the sanctuary at Eshmun, and a small shrine at Zaraphath. Phoenicians often constructed stone walls with vertical piers of ashlar blocks laid in an alternating pattern of header and stretcher. The area between the piers was filled with irregular field stones.

In return Solomon sent grain and olive oil to Hiram king of Tyre, and even Galilean territory was given to him (1 Kings 5), although it was not to his liking.

The Biblical account of building the Temple: "I Kings 5: 1. And Hiram king of Tyre sent his servants unto Solomon; for he had heard that they had anointed him king in the room of his father: for Hiram was ever a lover of David. 2. And Solomon sent to Hiram, saying, 3. Thou knowest how that David my father could not build an house unto the name of the LORD his God for the wars which were about him on every side, until the LORD put them under the soles of his feet. 4. But now the LORD my God hath given me rest on every side, so that there is neither adversary nor evil occurrent. 5. And, behold, I purpose to build an house unto the name of the LORD my God, as the LORD spake unto David my father, saying, Thy son, whom I will set upon thy throne in thy room, he shall build an house unto my name. 6. Now therefore command thou that they hew me cedar trees out of Lebanon; and my servants shall be with thy servants: and unto thee will I give hire for thy servants according to all that thou shalt appoint: for thou knowest that there is not among us any that can skill to hew timber like unto the Sidonians. 7. And it came to pass, when Hiram heard the words of Solomon, that he rejoiced greatly, and said, Blessed be the LORD this day, which hath given unto David a wise son over this great people. 8. And Hiram sent to Solomon, saying, I have considered the things which thou sentest to me for: and I will do all thy desire concerning timber of cedar, and concerning timber of fir. 9. My servants shall bring them down from Lebanon unto the sea: and I will convey them by sea in floats unto the place that thou shalt appoint me, and will cause them to be discharged there, and thou shalt receive them: and thou shalt accomplish my desire, in giving food for my household. 10. So Hiram gave Solomon cedar trees and fir trees according to all his desire. 11. And Solomon gave Hiram twenty thousand measures of wheat for food to his household, and twenty measures of pure oil: thus gave Solomon to Hiram year by year. 12. And the LORD gave Solomon wisdom, as he promised him: and there was peace between Hiram and Solomon; and they two made a league together. 13. And king Solomon raised a levy out of all Israel; and the levy was thirty thousand men. 14. And he sent them to Lebanon, ten thousand a month by courses: a month they were in Lebanon, and two months at home: and Adoniram was over the levy. 15. And Solomon had threescore and ten thousand that bare burdens, and fourscore thousand hewers in the mountains; 16. Beside the chief of Solomon's officers which were over the work, three thousand and three hundred, which ruled over the people that wrought in the work. 17. And the king commanded, and they brought great stones, costly stones, and hewed stones, to lay the foundation of the house. 18. And Solomon's builders and Hiram's builders did hew them, and the stonesquarers: so they prepared timber and stones to build the house."4


  1. The Politics of Aristotle, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Colonial Press, 1900), pp. 49-51.
  2. Aristotle on the Carthaginian State, The Politics Of Aristotle, J.E.C. Welldon, tr. (New York: Macmillan, 1893), bk. 2, ch. 11
  3. II Samuel 5: 4
  4. I Kings 5

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