The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade
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The Phoenicians and the West


Book review by kind courtesy of Mr. Roger Wright, University of Liverpool, UK and Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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This is the English translation of the second edition of María Eugenia Aubet Semmler's Tiro y las colonias fenicias de occidente, published by Ediciones Bellaterra (Barcelona) in 1994; the first Spanish edition appeared in 1987, and its English translation in 1993. Professor Aubet has established Phoenician Archaeology as a lively and ever-changing field in Hispanic archaeology, whose discoveries often get reported in the national media, and the most interesting new parts of the second edition are the final sections on the Western Mediterranean, including Ibiza, Portugal and Morocco as well as the amazing discoveries recently investigated on the coast of Andalucía. She writes with an admirable clarity verging on baldness, and the English translator, Mary Turton, manages to do the same, despite a few hints of translationese. Since Professor Aubet has admirably concluded that she needs to present the current picture of the whole of the Phoenician civilization and enterprise as the framework in which to understand the nature of the Iberian settlements, the result is as good an overall account of the Phoenician civilization as we could hope to find. Since this is a fast-moving field, and apparently small discoveries can re-shape the archaologists' appreciation of a whole period, it is unlikely to seem definitive for long. The already copious bibliography has been much enlarged in this edition (pp. 382-425), but is infuriating to try to use; it is almost impossible to find there any particular study, since the whole is split into so many separate sub-sections.

The topic is specifically that of the Phoenicians. The Carthaginians are discussed in so far as they are in origin a Phoenician colony, but the period which follows the eclipse of the Phoenicians and the rise of the Carthaginians (in the sixth century B.C.) is not in the focus of this book. The original Spanish title refers to Tyre, rather than to the Phoenicians, and, once Tyre ceases to have any hold over the Western Mediterranean, events are out of this study's brief. But the great length of the book, which is accompanied by many excellent photographs, not only from the Iberian Peninsula, almost no padding and only a small amount of repetition, shows what a great deal is now known, or can at least be now deduced, about these remarkable people.

The need for a second edition is due not just to the discoveries in Andalucía, of course, not least because Tyre and the Lebanon in general have been more available for archaeological study since the general end of hostilities there. The book starts with the question (the title of Chapter 1), "Who were the Phoenicians?" They were the Biblical Canaanites, based roughly within the borders of modern Lebanon. Not the least of the virtues of this book are the many excellent maps, which enable us to visualize the geography and the connections between the people of different places at several different times. Thus the map on page 15 makes it clear how far the Phoenicians were indeed confined to the Mediterranean coast, despite trading with the areas to their East. Their ports and their maritime expertise and contacts are shown as dominating their relations with neighbouring civilizations throughout this period. They were not a unified state, which is why it makes sense to see the westwards expansion as an enterprise of Tyre rather than of the whole of Phoenicia.

Professor Aubet has mixed feelings about the debate between modern historians and archeologists over the different kinds of evidence for dates and events. The controversy between those who accept early dates given by historians (most notably Velleius Paterculus, pp.195-97) for the founding of Gadir (Cádiz), in the second millennium B.C., and the archaeological evidence for its founding in the eighth century B.C., is seen firmly from the archaeologists' camp, and her own evidence seems more or less conclusive. The ancient historiographers, it is suggested, wished to tie in the founding of Gadir directly with the siege of Troy, and an elastic insouciance over chronology was the byproduct of that artistically-inspired desire. But the same Classical historians also tell us that the Phoenicians' empire was inspired by its silver trade, and here archaelogy supports their assessment. In fact, written accounts of many kinds are thoughtfully exploited where they can be helpful in the reconstruction of events, and necessarily so, for without written accounts she and her colleagues are "faced with a mass of decontextualized empirical information" (27). This is why she is grateful for, and relies extensively on, the story of the journey of Wen-Amon to Phoenicia from Egypt in, probably, 1070 B.C. (reprinted in English as Appendix I, pp.356-62). Biblical accounts also are used as historical evidence where they can be, bearing in mind how the Israelites did not often feel kindly towards the Canaanites, as is Homer; and as are inscriptions and art-works representing ships and historical events.

Tyre itself was founded from Sidon, and of no significance in its own land until the tenth century B.C. At the height of its power, though, it was probably more densely populated than the modern city is now. Considerable care is spent on reconstructing the geographical nature of Tyre up to the sixth century B.C., and it becomes indisputably clear that the kind of offshore island and peninsular terrain near the mouth of a smallish river characteristic of most Phoenician sites elsewhere (including, notably, Cádiz) is no accident; they were modelled on Tyre, in the sense that the Phoenicians often chose to settle in places that reminded them of home, not just for sentimental reasons but because they understood how to exploit such places both for defensive military purposes and practical matters concerned with their warehouses and their merchant fleet. Many of these sites have been extensively silted and remodelled by the tides since then, but reconstructions are usually possible and revealing. There is little doubt that the prime impetus for the expansion of Tyre to the West lay in the desire for trade, and in particular that in luxury goods; Professor Aubet demonstrates that they dominated this trade in the Eastern Mediterranean to such an extent that their economy came to depend on it, which is why such enormous effort was spent on developing the already productive silver-mines of Tartessos in the far distant South-West Iberian Peninsula. "Only if the merchandise has real value will it compensate for the enormous costs of transport" (p.95). The extensive fertile lands inland of the city of Tyre, which were expanding during the period studied, provided it with food, wood, and drinking water, which made the city more vulnerable than was convenient in times of war. And there were many of those, although the successful negotiations between the rulers of Tyre and their Egyptian, Assyrian, Israelite and other rivals and neighbours are reconstructed here, and, if accurate, show that Tyre, at least, preferred peace and commerce to war.

The interpretations of the actual excavations, as ever, depend extensively on pottery. It is valuable and incontrovertible evidence; the fact that pottery datable to the second half of the eighth century B.C. in Tyre itself is almost identical to that found in the oldest levels of Phoenician occupation yet found in the Iberian Peninsula is sufficient to clarify the dating of the latter. The many settlements made by Tyre in the Mediterranean as its citizens expanded westwards are each studied carefully and at length in this account, which makes for some repetition in that they followed a similar pattern in many places, but the attention to detail is impressive throughout. Carthage has an important role to play here, perhaps founded by Dido (Elissa to the Phoenicians) in 814/813 B.C. as "tradition relates" (p.51); Kition in Cyprus is seen as the most significant settlement in the Eastern Mediterranean, but Phoenician artworks are found throughout the Greek islands, including Knossos, probably as the consequence of trade rather than settlement or theft. And when Tyre itself was seriously damaged by Assyrians and Babylonians in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., guardianship of the Phoenician legacy had necessarily to pass west to their colonists. Other parts of Phoenicia are also mentioned, particularly to the north of Tyre itself. Professor Aubet was right to include such an extensive analysis of Tyre before studying the Western colonies announced in her book's title; the nature and history of Tyre explains a great deal about those colonies.

The expansion (rather confusingly referred to consistently as the "diaspora") is presented in an order which runs approximately from East to West, although Ibiza comes last. So we have accounts of what the current (1994) archaeological state of play is concerning the settlements in Malta, Sicily (including most interestingly, Motya, or Mozia, which was then an island off Marsala in the far west), Pantelleria, Carthage (unusual, in being an "aristocratic colony", p.348) with Utica and Hadrumeto, Sardinia (including Nora, Caralis, Sulcis (then an island) and Tharros), Cádiz, Lixus and Mogador (an island a thousand kilometres from Cádiz) in modern Morocco, Portugal, Málaga, Almuñécar, Abdera and other places on the Andalusian coast, as well as some contact areas inland in the Guadiana and Guadalquivir valley area of the pre-existing complex silver-producing society of Tartessos, and finally Ibiza. Contact with the Tartessians can be dated as starting in c.750 B.C. and ending in c.570 B.C., as in particular the Phoenicians brought new technology and techniques to the Río Tinto mines. Professor Aubet is unexpectedly unimpressed by the way the Phoenicians treated the Tartessians; their trade is categorised as "an example of unfair exchange" (pp.285-91), even though the evidence also suggests that the Tartessians were better off then than either before or after this period. The relationship of the coastal settlements to each other, by sea, is carefully worked out; distances and sailing-times are long and not predictable, and "a Tyrian seaborne expedition to the Western Mediterranean would frequently last more than a year between the outward and return voyages" (p.172). Their expeditions in the Red Sea are also mentioned but not examined in detail, and it is stated as a bald fact that they circumnavigated Africa, although the evidence for this is not adduced; and the supposedly Phoenician Cornish tin mines beloved of British historians do not make an appearance at all.

Considerable ingenuity goes into the depiction of the age as having a mercantile economy of a remarkably advanced, even medieval, kind. Overall, indeed, the picture painted of the Phoenician empire in the Mediterranean is strikingly reminiscent of the Mediterranean Empire of the Crown of Aragon (that is, of the Catalans) between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries A.D.; in each case, coastal settlements were established along their routes through the Mediterranean in order to protect their economically vital luxury goods market, which depended on safe transport of highly expensive and vulnerable materials from one end of the Sea to the other, a trade which was only viable in practice while they held their notable lead in shipbuilding and while the sailors and their diplomatic protectors could ward off the attacks of neighbouring powers in a context where there was no clear dividing line between piracy and merchant shipping; each was an empire which finally collapsed because of unrest at home and successful rivals at sea. Since Professor Aubet is based in Barcelona, it is tempting to wonder whether in the background her knowledge and understanding of her own country's proud medieval past has conditioned her perspective on her academic field; but it seems equally reasonable to conclude that it has given her an advantage in the understanding of the needs and requirements of cross-Mediterranean trade, shipping, currents, winds, sea-routes, trading posts, ports of call, settlement and related practicalities, since some of the problems involved and their solution would have been much the same (such as having an important base in the Balearics). Professor Aubet never makes this comparison herself. She does, however, compare the quest for silver with that of the Spanish explorers in Bolivia, which led to the River Plate getting its name (Río de la Plata, "River of Silver", p.82).

The view of Phoenicia presented by the Romans is inevitably coloured by their distaste for the Carthaginians, presented as barbarous in Roman accounts. Human sacrifice features here, and the modern discovery of what seem to be the sites of child sacrifices in Carthage and elsewhere has led to much discussion. Professor Aubet does her best to present them in as kind a light as possible, hinting that maybe these were just the sites of cremation for children who had died anyway, but there is probably a great deal of argument still to come on this topic. The Phoenician God Melqart features strongly in the account, even so, and at times is presented as if real ("Melqart not only extended his protection over the commercial undertakings but also set himself up as a protector of the colonists in a foreign land", p.278). Herodotus is brought into the frame (pp.152-53) to explain the cult's origins, and the temple of Melqart in Cádiz may even have preceded the building of the city itself. Even so, he worked in the service of commerce; it is described as "The Temple of Melqart, centre for the protection of trade" (p.273), and "the name of the god was invoked in oaths sanctioning contracts" (p.277).

The recently discovered colonies on the coast of Eastern Andalucía are described as "one of the biggest surprises of Phoenician archaeology in recent times", a surprise largely created by the superb work of Professor Aubet herself. This suggests that there may be many more surprises to come, and the present maps of Phoenician settlements may reflect the interests of those who have looked for them rather than the whole seventh-century B.C. pattern. One surprise is that there seem to have been quite a large number of small settlements fairly close to each other, which does not seem to be the picture elsewhere. Nothing has been found further West between Cádiz and Gibraltar, for example. The Andalusian settlements all have anchorages -- or rather, they all did at the time, since some are now inland -- and are even described as fitting "into a self-governing and self-sufficient economic structure". But the inhabitants were not all Phoenicians, and maybe the Phoenicians were no more than a powerful minority: some prehistoric sites in the area are exclusively indigenous, without Phoenician influence, even from this same period; on the other hand, a reader might legitimately wonder if some elements ascribed in later times to the Carthaginians could have continued from the pre-Carthaginian settlements of the years from 750 B.C., despite the apparent sixth-century break in the record. The four sites on the south coast of Ibiza are also considered in this section. Professor Aubet is not even sure if the Phoenician settlement was of benefit in Iberia, since it depleted the natural resources of the area. The very last sentence of the book (that is, before the "concluding thoughts", appendices, bibliography and index) finishes on this unexpectedly negative note: "We have here the typical degradation of the landscape and resources that occurs after a colonial period". This final chapter has also an exceptional number of diagrams and pictures of pottery, photographs of sites and artworks, and detailed maps, which make it a real pleasure to read as well as illuminating.

The book ends as the Phoenician empire in the West ends, in 550 B.C., with the rise of the Punic (Carthaginian) "phase" (p.341). "Tyre's western enterprise is revealed to us as a fairly heterogeneous affair, dynamic and interrelated with the indigenous societies involved" (p.453). The historical record will go on increasing in sophistication and understanding while such archaeologists as María Eugenia Aubet, skilled in working with many interdisciplinary perspectives, keep worrying away at the material, old and new.

Reviewed by Roger Wright, University of Liverpool (rhpwri @

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.12.17

María Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.  Pp. xv, 432.  ISBN 0-521-79161-8.  $70.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-521-79543-5.  $25.00 (pb).  

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