IN SEARCH OF THE PHOENICIANS

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight History/Historical -

Josephine Quinn, Prince­ton Univer­sity Press (DE­CEM­BER) Soft­cover $35 (360pp), 978-0-691-17527-0

The Phoenicians left no sur­viv­ing lit­er­a­ture and rel­a­tively lit­tle ma­te­rial ev­i­dence of their ex­is­tence, yet they were es­tab­lished ex­plor­ers and traders be­fore the emer­gence of the Greek and Ro­man em­pires. Who were these peo­ple we call “Phoenicians”? Josephine Quinn’s In Search of the Phoenicians ar­gues in fa­vor of an in­tri­cate, of­ten po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent, iden­tity that was and is read onto a group of peo­ple by those on the out­side.

Quinn is me­thod­i­cal as she ex­am­ines sites through­out the Mediter­ranean, Le­vant, and At­lantic rang­ing from Bronze Age to late-an­tiq­uity pe­ri­ods. By no means does she deny the ex­is­tence of the Phoeni­cian lan­guage or an an­cient peo­ple re­ferred to as Phoenicians. Rather, she ex­am­ines an­cient lit­er­ary, epi­graphic, nu­mis­matic, and artis­tic ev­i­dence to tra­duce the ways in which modern as­sump­tions of eth­nic­ity, na­tion­hood, and col­lec­tive iden­tity may have caused the back-for­ma­tion, rather than the dis­cov­ery, of an an­cient peo­ple.

An ex­pan­sion of three lec­tures given at Tufts Univer­sity, Quinn’s book chal­lenges the no­tion of self-aware, col­lec­tive Phoeni­cian iden­tity. The book’s three sec­tions al­low Quinn to drill down into spe­cific, di­ver­gent ar­eas of in­quiry. By the con­clu­sion, she’s ex­plored top­ics as di­verse as vo­tive ar­ti­facts and fu­ner­ary in­scrip­tions (of which there are over ten thou­sand in Phoeni­cian), Ro­man-carthaginian an­tag­o­nism, and modern na­tion build­ing in places as dis­parate as Le­banon and Ire­land, which grafted Phoeni­cian roots onto their iden­tity for­ma­tions dur­ing their nascent na­tion­al­ism.

Filled with in­for­ma­tive, ar­rest­ing im­ages and deep-think­ing ar­gu­men­ta­tion, Quinn’s In Search of the Phoenicians makes a com­pelling, wide-rang­ing case that sug­gests “Phoeni­cian” was a po­lit­i­cal rather than a per­sonal de­scrip­tion. As Quinn her­self says, she’s ar­gu­ing “from si­lence. A lack of ev­i­dence for col­lec­tive iden­tity is not ev­i­dence for its ab­sence,” but it’s def­i­nitely an omis­sion wor­thy of at­ten­tion.

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