Phoenician Commerce: Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy
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Phoenician Commerce
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John Ramsay McCulloch, Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1853

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Commerce being a result of that division of labour, or of that appropriation of particular individuals to particular pursuits, which is cöeval with the establishment of society, would, at first, be extremely limited, and be confined to the exchange or barter of articles produced by individuals belonging to the same tribe or neighbourhood. But as civilisation extended, and an intercourse began to grow up between different districts and countries, commerce would be proportionally increased. It no doubt was very soon found that certain products were wholly confined to certain localities, while others were more abundant, or of better quality, in some than in others. And this observation would naturally be followed by a commercial intercourse, the extent of which would depend on the character of the parties carrying it on, the diversity of their products, their proximity, and the ease with which articles might be conveyed from the one to the other. The intervention, between different countries, of an arm of the sea, or a navigable river, by affording them an easy means of communication, would serve, in no ordinary degree, to promote their mutual traffic. On this principle Dr Smith conjectured that the wealth and cultivation of ancient Egypt and India, were principally to be ascribed to the facility of intercourse between their different towns and provinces, afforded by the Nile and Ganges, and the canals and subsidiary streams connected with these great rivers. And the vast magnitude of Nineveh and Babylon, and the wealth and early refinement of the great empires of which they were respectively the capitals, were no doubt mainly owing to their being intersected by the Tigris and Euphrates, and to the extraordinary facilities which were thereby given to their internal and external trade.1

It is worthy of remark, that, with the exception of India and the empires now mentioned, the nations which made the first advances in commerce and the arts, dwelt round the shores of the Mediterranean and Red Sea. And this may, perhaps, be explained from the circumstance, that those great inland seas having no tides, nor, consequently, any waves, except such as are caused by the wind only, were eminently fitted, by the smoothness of their surface, the number of their islands, and the proximity of their shores, to facilitate and promote the infant commerce of the world, when, from their ignorance of the compass, men were afraid to quit the view of the coast, and from the imperfection of the art of shipbuilding, to adventure themselves upon the boisterous waves of the ocean.2

The wonderful improvement that has been made in navigation is known to every one; and the seas and harbours of the remotest and least advanced nations are now frequented by the ships and steamers of those which have made the greatest progress in science and art. But in land-commerce the advance has not, speaking generally, been by any means so great; and, except in Europe and North America, most part of the land-trade of the world is conducted, at this day, nearly in the same manner, and by the same routes, that it was conducted 3,000 years ago. The vast deserts by which Asia and Africa are intersected have given a peculiar, and, as it would seem, an indelible character to their internal intercourse. Being very ill supplied with water, their transit could hardly have been undertaken without the aid of the camel, or ship of the desert! This animal, which is native to those regions, is not only patient of fatigue and easily subsisted, but it has the farther and invaluable quality of being able to exist for three, four, or even more days without water. It is, therefore, used in crossing those “seas of sand,” in preference to the horse, the ass, or any other animal. The scarcity of water is not, however, the only difficulty with which the traveller has to contend in making his way across the great Asiatic and African deserts. From the remotest antiquity they have been infested with wandering tribes of predatory Arabs, who assault, tax, or plunder all who attempt to pass through the arid and inhospitable wastes over which they have established their lawless sway. And hence the origin of caravans, or of associations or companies of merchants or travellers. These usually comprise hundreds, and frequently thousands of individuals, with camels, horses, etc., for conveying the travellers and their goods. Being well armed, they are able to defend themselves against the attacks of the Arabs. Generally, indeed, they have treaties with the latter, by which they secure either their forbearance or their services, on payment of a certain tribute or toll. The routes followed by the caravans are determined by various circumstances. The most direct would seldom, however, be either the speediest or the safest and best. When oases are found in or adjacent to the line of route, they are uniformly selected for resting-places; and in their absence halts are, when practicable, made at wells. The cities of Palmyra, Baalbec, and Petra, the ruins of which continue to excite the astonishment of the traveller, and evince alike the taste and the wealth of those by whom they were constructed, owed their existence to their being situated in spots well supplied with water, in the line of the great commercial routes of antiquity, and to the trade of which they consequently became the centres. When, however, any circumstance occurs to divert a caravan from its accustomed pathway, or when the wells are dried up, or do not furnish the anticipated supply of water, the consequences are sometimes fatal. Under such circumstances, entire caravans have been destroyed.3 But this fearful contingency seldom occurs in the more frequented routes, or in what may be called the ordinary commercial channels.

One of the earliest commercial transactions of which we have any account, the sale of Joseph by his brethren for twenty pieces of silver, was made to merchants forming part of a caravan conveying spices to Egypt. And the incident is interesting not merely from its showing the mode in which commerce was thus early carried on, but also from its showing that a traffic was then established in slaves, and that silver was employed as a measure of value and universal equivalent.

It is not uninteresting to observe, that the earliest branch of commerce which we find noticed in history, has continued down to this day to be esteemed the most important and valuable. We refer to the trade between the countries bordering on the Mediterranean and Europe generally, on the one side, and Arabia, India, and the regions more to the east, on the other. At the first dawn of authentic history, this trade had its centre in Phoenicia, a country of very limited extent, occupying that part of the Eastern Mediterranean coast which stretches from Aradus (the modern Rouad) on the north, to a little below Tyre on the south, a distance of about 150 miles. It breadth was much less considerable, being for the most part bounded by Mount Libanus to the east, and Mount Carmel on the south. The surface of this narrow tract is generally rugged and mountainous; and the soil in the valleys, though moderately fertile, did not afford adequate supplies of food for the population. Libanus and its dependent ridges were, however, covered with timber suitable for ship-building; and besides Tyre and Sidon, Phoenicia possessed the ports of Tripoli, Byblos, Berytus, etc. In this situation, occupying a country unable to supply them with sufficient quantities of corn, hemmed in, on the one hand, by mountains and by powerful and warlike neighbours, and having, on the other, the wide expanse of the Mediterranean, studded with islands, and surrounded by fertile countries, to invite their enterprise, the Phoenicians were naturally led to engage in maritime and commercial adventures; and became the boldest and most experienced mariners, and the greatest discoverers and merchants, of ancient times.

Tyre, the principal city of Phoenicia, and the most celebrated emporium of the ancient world, was situated nearly on the spot where the inconsiderable town of Tsour now stands, in lat. 33° 17′ N., long. 35° 14½′ E. It was founded by a colony from Sidon, the most ancient of the Phoenician cities. The date of this event is not certainly known, but Larcher supposes it to have been about 1,690 years BC4 It is singular, that while Homer mentions Sidon, he takes no notice of Tyre, whose glory speedily eclipsed that of the mother city. But this is no conclusive proof that the latter was not then a considerable emporium. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, who flourished from 700 to 600 years bc, represent Tyre as a city of unrivalled wealth, whose “merchants were princes, and her traffickers the honourable of the earth.” Originally, the city was built on the main land. But having been besieged by the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar, the inhabitants conveyed themselves and their goods to an island at a little distance, where a new city was founded, which enjoyed an increased degree of celebrity and commercial prosperity. The old city was, on that account, entitled Palætyre, and the other simply Tyre. The new city continued to flourish, extending its colonies and its commerce on all sides, till it was attacked by Alexander the Great. The resistance made by the Tyrians to that conqueror showed that they had not been enervated by luxury, and that their martial virtues were nowise inferior to their commercial skill and enterprise. The overthrow of the Persian empire was effected with less difficulty than the capture of this single city. The victor did not treat the vanquished as their heroic conduct deserved. In despite, however, of the cruelties inflicted on the city, she rose again to great eminence.5 But the foundation of Alexandria, by diverting the commerce that had formerly centered in Tyre into a new channel, gave her an irreparable blow. And she gradually declined, till, consistently with the denunciation of the prophet, her palaces have been levelled with the dust, and she has become “a place for the spreading of nets in the midst of the sea.”

The Phoenicians are designated in the sacred writings by the name of “Canaanites,” a term which, in the language of the East, means merchants. They were the first to establish and carry on a traffic between the eastern and western portions of the ancient world. The spices, drugs, precious stones, pearls, ivory, and other valuable products of Arabia and India, have always been highly valued in Europe; and have been exchanged for the gold and silver, the tin, linens, wines, etc., of the latter. The former were originally conveyed to Tyre by caravans, or companies of travelling merchants, formed in the way previously stated. The routes of these caravans may yet be traced with more or less accuracy. One of the principal came from Arabia Felix (Southern Arabia), a distance of about 1,500 miles, by Macoraba (Mecca) and Petra6 to Gaza and Tyre. Another caravan set out from Gerrha, an important emporium on the west side of the Persian Gulph, crossing Arabia to Petra. Others came from Babylon, Nineveh, and other cities on the Euphrates and Tigris, and from Armenia, etc.

At a later period, a part at least of the eastern trade of the Phoenicians, which had long been wholly carried on by land, began to be carried on by sea. Having formed an alliance with David and Solomon, kings of Judea, the Phoenicians acquired by that means the ports of Elath and Eziongeber on the north-east arm (Gulph of Akabah) of the Red Sea. Here they fitted out ships, which traded with the ports on that sea, Southern Arabia, and Ethiopia, and probably also with the western ports of India, or those on the Malabar coast. It is also stated that they penetrated into the Persian Gulph, and conquered or colonised the isles of Tylos and Aradus (the Bahrein Islands), contiguous to Gerrha. Ophir would appear to have been a favourite resort of the Phoenician ships from the Red Sea; and a great deal of erudition has been expended in attempting to determine the situation of that emporium or country. We, however, agree with Heeren, in thinking that it was not the name of any particular place; but a general designation given to the coasts of Arabia, India, and Africa, bordering on the Indian Ocean, somewhat in the same loose way that we now use the terms East and West Indies.7

The goods brought to Elath and Eziongeber by sea were mostly conveyed to the great emporium of Petra, whence they were forwarded by different routes to Tyre. But as the distance of Tyre from Petra is very considerable, and the transit of goods might be interrupted by the Hebrews, the Tyrians, to lessen this inconvenience, seized upon Rhinoculura, the nearest port on the Mediterranean to Elath and Petra. And the products of Arabia, India, etc., being conveyed thither by the most compendious route, were then put on board ships, and carried by a brief and easy voyage to Tyre. If we except the transit by the isthmus of Suez, this was the shortest and most direct, and for that reason, no doubt, the cheapest, channel by which the commerce between Southern Asia and Europe could then be conducted. It is not certain whether the Phoenicians possessed any permanent footing on the Red Sea after the death of Solomon. But if they did not, the want of it does not seem to have sensibly affected their trade. And Tyre continued, till a considerable period after the foundation of Alexandria, to be the grand emporium for Eastern products.

The commerce of the Phoenicians with the countries bordering on the Mediterranean was still more extensive and valuable. At an early period, they established settlements in Cyprus and Rhodes. The former was a very desirable acquisition, from its proximity, the number of its ports, its fertility, and the variety of its vegetable and mineral productions. Having passed successively into Greece, Italy, and Sardinia, they proceeded to explore the southern shores of France and Spain, and the northern shores of Africa. They afterwards adventured upon the Atlantic; and were the first people whose flag was displayed beyond the Pillars of Hercules.1

Gades, now Cadiz, one of the most ancient and important of the Tyrian colonies, is supposed by St Croix to have originally been distinguished by the name of Tartessus or Tarshish, mentioned in the sacred writings.8 Heeren, on the other hand, contends, as in the case of Ophir, that by Tarshish is to be understood the whole southern part of Spain, which was early discovered and partially settled by Phoenician adventurers.9 At all events, it is certain that Cadiz early became the centre of a commerce which extended all along the coasts of Europe as far as Britain, and perhaps the Baltic. There can be no reasonable doubt, that by the Cassiterides, or Tin Islands, visited by the Phoenicians, are to be understood the Scilly Islands and Cornwall.10 The navigation of the Phoenicians, probably, also extended a considerable way along the western coast of Africa.

But of all the colonies founded by Tyre, Carthage was deservedly the most celebrated. At first only a simple factory, it was materially increased by the arrival of a large body of colonists, forced by dissensions at home to leave their native land, about 883 years bc5 Imbued with the enterprising mercantile spirit of their ancestors, the Carthaginians rose, in no very long period, to the highest eminence as a naval and commercial state. The settlements founded by the Phoenicians in Africa, Spain, Sicily, etc., gradually fell into their hands; and, after the capture of Tyre by Alexander the Great, Carthage engrossed a considerable share of the commerce of which her mother city had previously been the centre. The subsequent history of Carthage, and the misfortunes by which she was overwhelmed, are well known. And we need only observe, that commerce, instead of being, as has sometimes been imagined, the cause of her decline, was the real source of her power and greatness; the means by which she was enabled to wage a lengthened, doubtful, and desperate contest with Rome herself for the empire of the world.11

The commerce and navigation of Tyre probably attained their maximum from 850 to 550 years bc The Tyrians were at that period the factors and merchants of the civilised world, and enjoyed an undisputed pre-eminence in maritime affairs. The prophet Ezekiel (chap. xxvii.) has described in magnificent terms the glory of Tyre; and has enumerated several of the most valuable products found in her markets, and the countries whence they were brought. The fir trees of Senir (Hermon), the cedars of Lebanon, the oaks of Bashan (the country to the east of Galilee), the ivory of the Indies, the fine linen of Egypt, and the purple and hyacinth of the isles of Elishah (Peloponnesus), are specified among the articles used for her ships. The inhabitants of Sidon, Arvad (Aradus), Gebel (Byblos), served her as mariners and carpenters. Gold, silver, lead, tin, iron, and vessels of brass; slaves, horses, mules, sheep, and goats; pearls, precious stones, and coral; wheat, balm, honey, oil, spices, and gums; wine, wool, and silk; are mentioned as being brought into the port of Tyre by sea, or to her markets by land, from Eastern Mediterranean, Arabia, Damascus, Greece, Tarshish, Ophir, and other places, the exact site of which it is difficult to determine.12

Such, according to the inspired writer, was Tyre, the “Queen of the waters,” before she was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar. But, as already seen, the result of that siege did not affect her trade, which was as successfully carried on from the new city as from the old. Inasmuch, however, as Carthage soon after began to rival her as a maritime and mercantile state, this may perhaps be considered as the æra of her greatest celebrity.

It would not be easy to overrate the beneficial influence of the extensive commerce carried on by the Phoenicians. It roused the people with whom they traded from their indolence; and, while it gave them new wants and desires, it gave them, at the same time, the means by which they might be gratified. The rude inhabitants of Greece, Spain, and Northern Africa, acquired some knowledge of the arts and sciences practised by their visitors. And the advantages of which they were found to be productive, secured their gradual, though slow, advancement.

Nor were the Phoenicians celebrated only for their wealth, and the extent of their trade and navigation. Their fame, and their right to be classed amongst those who have conferred the greatest benefits on mankind, rest on a still more unassailable foundation. “If,” says Strabo, “the Greeks have learned geometry from the Egyptians, they are indebted for their astronomy and arithmetic to Sidon and Tyre.”13 Antiquity, indeed, is unanimous in ascribing to them the invention and practice of all those arts, sciences, and contrivances that facilitate commercial undertakings. They are held to be the discoverers of weights and measures, of money, of the art of keeping accounts, and, in short, of everything which belongs to the business of a counting-house. They were also famous for the invention, or improvement, of ship-building and navigation; for the discovery of glass; for their manufactures of fine linen and tapestry; for their skill in architecture, and in the art of working metals and ivory; and for the incomparable splendour and beauty of their purple dye.14

The invention and dissemination of these highly useful arts form, however, but a part of what the people of Europe owe to the Phoenicians. It is not possible to say in what degree the religion of the Greeks was borrowed from theirs; but that it was to a pretty large extent seems abundantly certain. Hercules, under the name of Melcarthus, was the tutelar deity of Tyre; and his expeditions along the shores of the Mediterranean, and to the straits connecting it with the ocean, seem to be merely a poetical representation of the progress of the Phoenician navigators, who introduced arts and civilisation, and established the worship of Hercules, wherever they went. The temple erected in honour of the god at Gades was long regarded with peculiar veneration.

The Greeks were, however, indebted to the Phoenicians, not merely for the rudiments of civilisation, but for the great instrument of its future progress—the gift of letters. Few facts in ancient history appear to be better established than that a knowledge of alphabetic writing was first carried to Greece by Phoenician adventurers; and it may be safely affirmed, that this was the greatest boon any people ever received at the hands of another.

The attention of the Phoenicians was not, however, wholly occupied by manufactures, navigation, and trade, and the cultivation of the arts and sciences subsidiary to their advancement. From the earliest ages they evinced a taste for philosophy and literature. Moschus, a native of Sidon, is said to have taught the doctrine of atoms previously to the Trojan war. And the treatise of Sanchoniathon on the Phoenician Cosmogony and Theogony is referred to about the same epoch.15 At a later period, Phoenicia continued to be a favoured seat of learning. Boethus of Sidon is said by Strabo to have been one of his fellow-students; and Antipater and Apollonius of Tyre are names well known in the history of the Stoical philosophy. Under the Roman emperors, Berytus, one of the oldest of the Phoenician cities, became no less famous for the study of law in the East than Rome was in the West. It was said by Justinian to be the mother and the nurse of the laws. It is not known when or by whom this legal school was founded. But it is obvious, from a decree of the emperor Dioclesian, that it had been established long before his time.16

Before quitting this part of our subject, we may shortly notice the statement of Herodotus with respect to the circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenician sailors. The venerable father of history mentions, that a fleet fitted out by Necho king of Egypt, but manned and commanded by Phoenicians, took its departure from a port on the Red Sea, at an epoch which is believed to correspond with the year 604 before the Christian æra, and that, keeping always to the right, they doubled the southern promontory of Africa; and returned, after a voyage of three years, to Egypt, by the Pillars of Hercules.17 Herodotus further mentions, that they related that, in sailing round Africa, they had the sun on their right hand, or to the north, a circumstance which he frankly acknowledges seemed incredible to him, but which, as every one is now aware, must have been the case if the voyage was actually performed.

Many learned and able writers, and particularly Gosselin,18 have treated this account as fabulous. But the objections of Gosselin have been successfully answered in an elaborate note by Larcher;19 and Major Rennell has sufficiently demonstrated the practicability of the voyage.20 Without entering upon this discussion, we may observe, that not one of those who question the authenticity of the account given by Herodotus, presumes to doubt that the Phoenicians braved the boisterous seas on the coasts of Spain, Gaul, and Britain; and that they had, partially at least, explored the Indian ocean. But the ships and seamen that did this much, might, undoubtedly, under favourable circumstances, double the Cape of Good Hope. The relation of Herodotus has, besides, such an appearance of good faith, and the circumstance, which he doubts, of the navigators having the sun on the right, affords so strong a confirmation of its truth, that there really seems no reasonable ground for doubting that the Phoenicians preceded, by more than 2,000 years, Vasco de Gama in his perilous enterprise.21

After the sack of Tyre and the conquest of Egypt, Alexander, who was no less eminent as a statesman than as a general, perceived the advantage that might be derived from the establishment of a commercial entrepôt at a convenient harbour near the western arm of the Nile. For this purpose he founded Alexandria, a city which, being connected with the Nile by a canal,22 became, first under the Ptolemies, and subsequently under the Roman emperors, a place of great trade, and the principal emporium for the exchange of the commodities of the eastern and western worlds. The trade with India was carried on from Myos-Hormos and Berenice, ports on the Red Sea, the latter being nearly under the tropic. The commodities landed at Berenice were conveyed by a N.W. route to Coptos on the Nile, and were thence conveyed by that river and the canal to Alexandria. This was not so short nor so expeditious a route as that by which the commerce of India had previously been carried on by the Phoenicians. And it is singular that none of the Eastern Mediterranean monarchs, the successors of Alexander, should have made an effort to secure to their dominions the advantages resulting from the possession of so lucrative a traffic, by restoring it to its old channel, or by establishing a route from the Persian Gulph to the Mediterranean.

  1. Wealth of Nations, p. 9.
  2. Jackson, in his account of Morocco, mentions that, in 1805, a caravan proceeding from Timbuctoo to Tafilet, being disappointed in not finding water at one of the usual watering places, the whole persons belonging to it, about 2,000 in number, with about 1,800 camels, perished miserably of thirst.—P. 339.
  3. Chronologie d’Hérodote, cap. ii. p. 131.
  4. Strabo, lib. xvi. § 16.
  5. In Idumæa, the capital of the Nabatheans.
  6. Heeren’s “Asiatic Nations,” vol. i., caps. on Phoenicians passim.
  7. Mons Calpe and Mons Abyla, the Gibraltar and Ceuta of modern times.
  8. De l’Etat et du Sort des Anciennes Colonies, p. 14.
  9. Huét, “Commerce des Anciens,” cap. 8.
  10. Borlase on the Scilly Islands, pp. 72-78.
  11. St Croix, p. 20.
  12. The Carthaginians are said to have fitted out, during the most flourishing period of the republic (Carthaginis potentia florente, Plin. Hist. Nat. lib. ii. cap. 67), an expedition, under a commander of the illustrious name of Hanno, for making discoveries and founding settlements along the coast of Africa, southwards from the Pillars of Hercules. A brief account of this voyage is extant in Greek, being apparently a version from the original Punic, which is said to have been preserved in the temple of Saturn or Chronos. This version has been translated into English and commented on by Falconer, who has endeavoured to repel the arguments of Dodwell and others against its authenticity.—(“The Voyage of Hanno,” etc., by Thomas Falconer, A.M. London, 1797.) It has also been translated into Spanish, and its authenticity vindicated, by Campomanes (small 4to, Madrid, 1756); and into French by Bougainville, in the Memoires de l’Academie des Inscriptions, tome xxvi. and tome xxviii. See also Rennell’s “Geography of Herodotus,” ii. pp. 409-443.
  13. There is, in Dr Vincent’s “Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients in the Indian Ocean,” vol. ii. pp. 624-652, an elaborate and (like the other parts of that work) prolix commentary on this chapter of Ezekiel, in which most part of the things and places mentioned are satisfactorily explained. See also “Heeren on the Phoenicians,” cap. iv.
  14. Lib. xvi. § 16.
  15. Scheffer, “De Militia Navali Veterum,” lib. i. cap. 2.; Goguet, “Sur L’Origine des Loix,” etc., Eng. Trans., i. 296, and ii. pp. 95-100. See also Heeren on the “Manufactures, etc., of the Phoenicians.”
  16. The authenticity of this treatise has been denied, but probably on no good grounds; at all events it has not been copied from the Mosaic cosmogony.
  17. Ancient Universal History, vol. ii. p. 325; Gibbon, cap. 17.
  18. Herod., lib. iv., cap. 42.
  19. Recherches sur la Géographie Systématique et Positive des Anciens, tome i. pp. 204-217.
  20. Hérodote, tome iii. pp. 458-464, edit. 1802.
  21. Geography of Herodotus, ii. pp. 348-402, 8vo edit.
  22. This canal, after having been for some ages filled up, was re-opened by the late Mehemet Ali, Pasha of Egypt, and is once more become the channel of communication between the Nile and the city.

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