G. W. Bow­er­sock

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - G. W. Bow­er­sock

In Search of the Phoeni­cians by Josephine Craw­ley Quinn

In Search of the Phoeni­cians by Josephine Craw­ley Quinn. Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 335 pp., $35.00

In her book In Search of the Phoeni­cians Josephine Quinn has opened up the his­tory of a peo­ple who have been thor­oughly fa­mil­iar to Euro­pean schol­ars since the nine­teenth cen­tury, when Ernest Re­nan trav­eled to the Near East to study them. His Mis­sion de Phéni­cie (1864) drew upon ob­ser­va­tions he made in 1860–1861 and laid the foun­da­tion for a view of the Phoeni­cians as a na­tion with a co­her­ent eth­nic iden­tity. Oth­ers such as Ge­orge Rawl­in­son, in his His­tory of Phoeni­cia (1889), took up Re­nan’s po­si­tion, and their work was re­in­forced by the ear­lier de­ci­pher­ment of the Phoeni­cian al­pha­bet by the nu­mis­ma­tist Jean-Jac­ques Barthélémy in the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tury. The lan­guage seemed to pro­vide a philo­log­i­cal foun­da­tion for the uni­fy­ing vi­sion of Re­nan and his suc­ces­sors.

Quinn has taken aim at the en­tire ed­i­fice of Phoeni­cian his­tory and cul­ture. In do­ing so she has raised ma­jor ques­tions of eth­nic iden­tity as well as shown mod­ern claims to a pre­sumed cul­tural her­itage from an­tiq­uity to be part of a po­lit­i­cal agenda. Her work is richly and au­thor­i­ta­tively doc­u­mented and ad­mirably free of ide­o­log­i­cal prej­u­dices. At the end there can be no doubt that Quinn’s ar­gu­ment is de­ci­sive: there is scarcely any­thing left of the sup­posed Near East­ern na­tion that col­o­nized North Africa and west­ern Spain.

The de­mo­li­tion that Quinn has car­ried out has its im­me­di­ate ori­gins in a great ex­hi­bi­tion, “I Fenici,” at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 1988. The or­ga­nizer of the ex­hi­bi­tion (which was spon­sored by Fiat) was the Semitic philol­o­gist Sa­batino Moscati, who had posed two decades ear­lier the awk­ward and still-unan­swered ques­tion of who ex­actly the Phoeni­cians were. At Venice he tried hard to give publicity to what they did, and above all to sug­gest that they were re­ally one peo­ple. Quinn aptly quotes a wit­ti­cism that was cur­rent at the time: “Sa­batino Moscati in­vented the Phoeni­cians, Gianni Agnelli man­u­fac­tured them.”

There is no doubt that the Phoeni­cians, whose ori­gins go back to the an­cient Le­banese cities of Tyre and Si­don in the late sec­ond mil­len­nium BC, were prom­i­nent in the an­cient Mediter­ranean. They were fa­mous for com­merce and sea­far­ing. Athough their lan­guage was Semitic, the shape of their let­ters has been for­ever as­so­ci­ated with the emer­gence of the Greek al­pha­bet. As mer­chants they turned up in re­mote and un­re­lated places such as De­los, Carthage, and Cádiz, and their tire­less god Melqart was trans­formed into the Greek Her­a­cles, with Euro­pean wan­der­ings in Spain and France above all, where traces of his leg­endary travel can still be de­tected. As Quinn re­minds us in the ar­rest­ing open­ing of her book, the Phoeni­cians were even thought to have reached Ire­land and to have be­come the pro­gen­i­tors of the Ir­ish. In the Near East the Le­banese of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury AD looked to the Phoeni­cians as the an­ces­tral peo­ple from which they came, not least in or­der to as­sert that their iden­tity is wholly dis­tinct from that of the Arabs. This re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of the re­gion had been en­cour­aged by the French Man­date from 1920 on­ward, which is­sued pro­gram­matic Le­banese coinage with a Phoeni­cian ship and a cedar tree. These were the public im­ages with which the Man­date launched the con­cept of Greater Le­banon as a “Switzer­land of the East,” a place that was mul­ti­lin­gual, at­trac­tive for tourism, and hos­pitable to busi­ness and bank­ing en­ter­prises. The new Le­banon, with its dis­tinctly Phoeni­cian and non-Arab char­ac­ter, lin­gered on un­til the catas­tro­phe of the civil war that erupted in 1975.

Quinn out­lines the sys­tem­atic ar­ro­ga­tion of the claims of the Neo-Phoeni­cians by ex­treme right, anti-Arab Chris­tians, of whom the most con­spic­u­ous were the so-called Pha­lange (al-Kata’ib). This strug­gle brought an end to the cos­mopoli­tanism for which Beirut in par­tic­u­lar had be­come both cher­ished and renowned. Mean­while an­other wave of Phoeni­cian en­thu­si­asm was tak­ing hold in Tu­nisia, a na­tion that shel­tered the re­mains of the great an­cient city of Carthage with a to­tally dif­fer­ent but no less in­flu­en­tial his­tory of Phoeni­cian set­tle­ment. Mod­ern at­tempts to pro­claim “Le­banon First” still have a dis­qui­et­ing echo in na­tion­al­ist pro­pa­ganda to­day, which mir­rors the un­easy re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Le­banese and their Arab neigh­bors, a re­la­tion­ship with deep roots in Le­banese con­scious­ness of their Phoeni­cian ori­gins. At the present time a be­wil­der­ing pro­fu­sion of faiths and po­lit­i­cal groups gives Le­banon a di­ver­sity that in a strange way evokes the very lack of co­he­sion that char­ac­ter­ized the Phoeni­cians them­selves through­out an­tiq­uity. Who were these peo­ple, so widely dis­persed across the Mediter­ranean world and in­voked as an­ces­tors by peo­ples as di­verse, and ob­vi­ously un­re­lated, as the Carthagini­ans and the Ir­ish, the Le­banese and the Tu­nisians? Through the re­flec­tions of Re­nan in the nine­teenth cen­tury on the na­ture of states and eth­nic iden­ti­ties—re­flec­tions that un­der­lay his re­ports from Phoeni­cia—we can see the thread of Phoeni­cian set­tle­ments and in­flu­ences stretching across sev­eral mil­len­nia and vast spa­ces from Dido’s North Africa to Her­a­cles’s Spain. The mod­ern state of Tu­nisia looked to the Phoeni­cians as an­tecedents as re­cently as Habib Bour­guiba’s time in power from 1956 to 1987. And Phoeni­cia, which did not ex­ist as a de­fin­able re­gion un­til the Ro­man Em­pire (although great Phoeni­cian port cities, such as Tyre and Si­don, did), comes into the his­tor­i­cal record much later than the Phoeni­cians them­selves.

Quinn is even able to write con­vinc­ingly about “the in­ven­tion of Phoeni­cia,” although who did this and when is by no means clear. But she can an­chor this in­ven­tion in the emer­gence of the mod­ern Near East. The self-con­scious­ness of the Le­banese as non-Arab (“there are no camels in Le­banon”) went hand in hand with the pro­mo­tion of the Phoeni­cians as a peo­ple. Quinn’s book is a brac­ing ex­plo­ration of what we don’t know about them. It demon­strates how ex­plo­sively the con­junc­tion of their fame with our ig­no­rance can spawn ar­gu­ments for the con­struc­tion of na­tions and eth­nic groups in search of pres­ti­gious an­ces­tors.

Quinn has there­fore, in a timely and per­sua­sive way, tapped into the mod­ern ma­nia for Phoeni­cian cul­ture, or what has been called in French phénic­ité, which Moscati un­leashed through his great ex­hi­bi­tion in Venice in 1988. This was ar­guably the sin­gle most im­por­tant shift in Phoeni­cian stud­ies since Re­nan. Moscati’s com­pre­hen­sive treat­ment of Phoeni­cians, their set­tle­ments, and their ar­ti­facts not only pro­vides the back­ground for Quinn’s book but jus­ti­fies the re­lent­less in­credulity that she has brought to the whole sub­ject. Her work suc­ceeds in prov­ing that the Phoeni­cians were not a peo­ple or a com­mu­nity. She strips away the fic­tional premises of “Le­banon First” and Bour­guiba’s Tu­nisia, and she has de­liv­ered a pow­er­ful les­son for many who feel free, usu­ally for ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons, to spec­u­late on na­tions and na­tivism.

Phoenice, un­der that name (not “Phoeni­cia”), be­came a Ro­man prov­ince within Syria at the end of the sec­ond cen­tury of our era. This was due to the in­flu­ence of the rul­ing Sev­eran dy­nasty, which had links with the city of Emesa, home of Ju­lia Domna, the wife of the em­peror Sep­ti­m­ius Severus. The city for still-un­known rea­sons iden­ti­fied it­self as Phoeni­cian. Un­like the fa­mous Phoeni­cian cities of ear­lier times, Emesa was not a port, but it serves as a re­minder that the very word “phoenix” (Greek phoinix) evokes a date palm tree. The tree would have been fa­mil­iar in Emesa, and as a sym­bol it served the Phoeni­cians who col­o­nized Carthage as a re­minder of their dis­tant ori­gins. But its ap­pear­ance on their coinage was more a vis­ual ren­der­ing of the word “phoenix” than an al­lu­sion to some re­mote re­gion in Pales­tine or Syria. Ju­lia Domna’s pride in Emesa had noth­ing to do with Carthage or with trade, ei­ther in her day or long be­fore. Phoenice en­tered the Ro­man Em­pire nei­ther as an an­cient com­mer­cial peo­ple nor a ter­ri­tory, but sim­ply as the place where the palm trees grew. Ro­man Phoenice had no con­nec­tion, ei­ther at that time or be­fore, with Carthage.

Be­cause of Han­ni­bal’s con­fronta­tion with Ro­man power, Carthage gave weight to the myth­i­cal nar­ra­tives of Phoeni­cian ex­pan­sion across the Mediter­ranean. The tragic sui­cide of Dido as Ae­neas left her to ful­fill his di­vine mis­sion to move on to Italy and found Rome is an in­te­gral part of the story of the Ro­man state. But it says noth­ing about Phoeni­cians, nor does the bizarre cul­ture that had bloomed by the Bay of Carthage. The mag­nif­i­cent lo­ca­tion of the city, as any­one who has been there will know, could eas­ily have fos­tered dreams of em­pire across the wa­ter. But the cus­toms that have been re­vealed in Carthage have noth­ing to do ei­ther with Phoeni­cians else­where or, for that mat­ter, with the ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions of the city.

Carthagini­ans are prob­a­bly best known for sac­ri­fic­ing chil­dren, a prac­tice that is doc­u­mented in over thirty Greek and Ro­man au­thors and by ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­search on sanc­tu­ar­ies in Africa and else­where that re­veal the re­mains of in­fants. Their buri­als are com­mem­o­rated on in­scrip­tions as an ex­pres­sion of thanks to Baal Ham­mon and his con­sort Tin­nit. At­tempts to ex­plain away these buri­als by pos­tu­lat­ing pre­ma­ture deaths are in­de­fen­si­ble, as Quinn rightly ob­serves, in view of the im­prob­a­bil­ity of such ex­ten­sive in­fant mor­tal­ity at the ten­der ages in­di­cated by the os­te­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence. The deaths of such large num­bers of chil­dren can only be ex­plained by the prac­tice of rit­ual sac­ri­fice known to us from the an­cient sources. This Carthaginian cus­tom spread out­side North Africa into Motya off the coast of Si­cily and into Sar­dinia. But it is ut­terly with­out

par­al­lel in the Phoeni­cian cities of the Near East, and equally un­known to the Phoeni­cian di­as­pora west of Sar­dinia. The fu­ner­ary sanc­tu­ar­ies at Carthage and else­where have tra­di­tion­ally been des­ig­nated “tophets,” be­cause mod­ern schol­ars, fac­ing the hard ev­i­dence, took refuge in a name from the He­brew Bi­ble for a place in the Val­ley of Ben Hin­nom in Jerusalem where the res­i­dents killed their chil­dren and made them “pass through the fire.” This is the place best known to moder­nity un­der the name “Ge­henna,” which is of­ten trans­lated as Hell. Un­for­tu­nately the word “tophet” caught on, quite wrongly, as a way to pro­vide a ve­neer of aca­demic re­spectabil­ity to a Carthaginian prac­tice that had no known name. Such an ono­mas­tic sleight of hand is a pow­er­ful ex­am­ple of the way in which an older gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars strug­gled to make the un­men­tion­able men­tion­able. One has sim­ply to face the re­al­ity of what was go­ing on. Talk­ing about tophets at Carthage is yet an­other mis­taken ef­fort to link the Phoeni­cians of the West with the Near East.

The un­sa­vory but by now in­con­testable habit of killing chil­dren in trib­ute to the gods was clearly not an an­ces­tral Phoeni­cian tra­di­tion that ar­rived with col­o­niza­tion. It sharply seg­re­gates the peo­ples of the Near East from those who used a vari­ant of the same Semitic lan­guage in the or­bit of the Carthagini­ans. For the Ro­mans such peo­ple spoke Pu­nic, which is a Latin way of say­ing “Phoeni­cian,” although “Pu­nic” lacks the res­o­nance of the Greek word phoinix, which not only de­noted a palm tree but the mys­te­ri­ous bird called the phoenix, as well as a deep red dye. So mul­ti­va­lent is the word phoinix that for rea­sons that re­main, as far as I know, still un­ex­plained, the Greek verb phoinikizein serves to des­ig­nate per­form­ing cun­nilin­gus. The im­pli­ca­tion is that this ac­tiv­ity was as­so­ci­ated with Phoeni­cians, though it is by no means clear which Phoeni­cians are meant or where. Sex­ual prac­tices were some­times con­nected with a par­tic­u­lar place in an­tiq­uity, as was an­other in­trigu­ing verb, les­bi­azein, for what was done on the is­land of Les­bos. Cu­ri­ously this does not re­fer, as one might ex­pect, to sap­phism but to fel­la­tio.

In any case the very name of the Phoeni­cians is proof enough, through its breath­tak­ingly di­ver­gent senses, of the lack of co­her­ence among the many peo­ples to whom it was ap­plied. “Pu­nic” as an iden­ti­fier was far less flex­i­ble as an ad­jec­tive, which gen­er­ally evoked Carthagini­ans and their faith­less­ness (Pu­nica fides). “Phoeni­cian” by con­trast sug­gested Tyre and Si­don, but no re­gion and no com­mu­nity or na­tion.

In fact the name “Phoeni­cian” was so in­fin­itely flex­i­ble, and cer­tainly so ill de­fined, that when Ju­lia Domna’s Syr­ian home city of Emesa be­came iden­ti­fied with Phoenice, this could read­ily al­low the Greek writer He­liodorus, prob­a­bly well over a cen­tury later, to sign off at the end of his vast novel about Ethiopi­ans by call­ing him­self sim­ply “a Phoinix from Emesa.” His world could hardly be more dif­fer­ent from the old Pu­nic king­dom in North Africa, and his com­pa­tri­ots had noth­ing what­ever to do with the peo­ple who had lived there nor, for that mat­ter, with the res­i­dents of Tyre and Si­don cen­turies ear­lier.

But this is not the whole story, be­cause the Phoeni­cian di­vin­ity Melqart turns up promi­nently even far­ther west in the Mediter­ranean world, at Cádiz and from there all the way into France. He is iden­ti­fied by his Greek name, Her­a­cles. The trav­els of this peri­patetic di­vin­ity as far as the At­lantic Ocean un­doubt­edly tell us much about the com­merce of mer­chants who sailed west from Near East­ern ports, but the mythol­ogy of Her­a­cles in Spain and France de­pends en­tirely upon Greek nar­ra­tives and lo­cal sur­vivals of alien tra­di­tions in names and phys­i­cal re­mains. The story of Her­a­cles’s path across Europe into Switzer­land and then down into Italy has been thor­oughly traced in re­cent years,* and it sheds light on the con­tin­u­ing evo­lu­tion of Phoeni­cian le­gends well into the im­pe­rial pe­riod. But none of this shows, as Quinn is well aware, that the Phoeni­cians ever were, or even were imag­ined to be, a co­her­ent na­tion or peo­ple.

Quinn ends her work with a bravura chap­ter that re­calls the sup­pos­edly Phoeni­cian ori­gins of the Ir­ish, with whom her book had para­dox­i­cally be­gun. On the ba­sis of a six­teen­th­cen­tury ac­count of a din­ner party hosted by the last ab­bot of St. Au­gus­tine’s of Can­ter­bury be­fore Henry VIII dis­solved the monastery, Quinn re­counts the views of the ab­bot and his guests about the ori­gins of nos­tra Bri­tan­nia and its peo­ple. Af­ter the sep­a­ra­tion of Bri­tain from Ro­man France, the first for­eign­ers to ar­rive in the is­land were, we are told, the Phoeni­cians. It would be hard to find any sub­stan­tial ba­sis for such a na­tion­al­ist, an­tiEuro­pean per­spec­tive, apart from a sin­gle tile in Wales that bears a Ro­man name in Pu­nic, but “fic­tive Phoeni­cians,” as Quinn calls them, be­came in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble in Bri­tain well into the nine­teenth cen­tury. They proved

*See my “On the Road with Her­a­cles,” a re­view of Gra­ham Robb’s The Dis­cov­ery of Mid­dle Earth, in these pages, Fe­bru­ary 20, 2014. use­ful in con­struct­ing a dis­tinct Bri­tish iden­tity. By 1893 Ge­orge Rawl­in­son could main­tain that the Phoeni­cians were “the peo­ple who of all an­tiq­uity had most in com­mon with Eng­land and the English” as well as “the first who dis­cov­ered the Bri­tish is­lands.” By then Stone­henge had al­ready been claimed as a Phoeni­cian site. Be­fore long the pres­i­dent of the Royal In­sti­tu­tion of Corn­wall, which was proud of an imag­ined link be­tween the Cor­nish and the Carthagini­ans, could as­sert that the Phoeni­cians had ac­tu­ally in­tro­duced clot­ted cream to Bri­tain.

Fred­eric Leighton’s ro­man­tic paint­ing Phoeni­cians Bar­ter­ing with An­cient Bri­tons (1894–1895) shows an as­ton­ish­ing pas­sage from the world of the pre-Raphaelites to a na­tion of new Phoeni­cians. It is to Quinn’s great credit that af­ter so suc­cess­fully ex­plain­ing away the Phoeni­cians as a peo­ple or na­tion, she is able to build upon the mod­ern ex­am­ples of Phoeni­cian ma­nia with which she started, as in Ire­land or Le­banon, to cre­ate a far more com­plex ac­count of con­tem­po­rary Phoeni­cian­ism from the sixteenth cen­tury on­ward.

Quinn’s nar­ra­tive is both ex­hil­a­rat­ing and cau­tion­ary be­cause it shows how an­tiq­uity can be reimag­ined to pro­mote ide­o­log­i­cal prej­u­dices. One of the many lessons of her work is that an­cient his­tory is rarely sta­ble, and dog­mas that were cur­rent in both the re­mote and prox­i­mate past are con­stantly sub­ject to cor­rec­tion or re­jec­tion. Even now it re­mains hard to sort out “fic­tive Phoeni­cians” from all the oth­ers. The Phoeni­cians have not been ban­ished from the his­tor­i­cal past, but they have been dis­solved into di­verse and in­nu­mer­able peo­ples who bore their name and spoke their lan­guage, yet had no re­gion of their own in ei­ther East or West.

In an elo­quent con­clu­sion to her book Quinn draws from her com­plex ar­gu­ment what the prob­lem of the Phoeni­cians might re­veal for the large and much-de­bated ques­tion of eth­nic iden­tity. She rightly claims that in re­cent decades too lit­tle at­ten­tion has been paid to the con­cept of iden­tity it­self: “We tend to ask how iden­ti­ties are con­structed, vary, and change, not whether they ex­ist at all.” She con­trasts per­sonal iden­tity as the con­scious­ness of an in­di­vid­ual with a broad col­lec­tive iden­tity. Na­tions clearly dis­play a col­lec­tive iden­tity, although Quinn goes so far as to la­bel such cat­e­gories of iden­tity as “fun­da­men­tally ar­bi­trary.” Here one might le­git­i­mately quar­rel with her. She faults the whole idea of col­lec­tive iden­tity at the level of a peo­ple, cul­ture, or na­tion. But it is not un­rea­son­able to claim that for the an­cient Mediter­ranean world schol­ars have greatly dis­torted the pic­ture, by con­cen­trat­ing on a small num­ber of un­usual and un­usu­ally lit­er­ate so­ci­eties.

By ar­gu­ing that there is no good ev­i­dence that the peo­ple we call Phoeni­cians iden­ti­fied them­selves as a sin­gle peo­ple or ever acted as a “sta­ble col­lec­tive,” Quinn is cer­tainly not deny­ing the ex­is­tence of Phoeni­cians or that var­i­ous per­sons called them­selves Phoeni­cian. Quite the con­trary. What peo­ple call them­selves speaks to us mem­o­rably about their tra­di­tions, their as­pi­ra­tions, and their hopes. But it may not tell us any­thing at all about their his­tory.

BC

Phoeni­cian glass masks from Carthage (mod­ern-day Tu­nisia), third cen­tury

BC

Ter­ra­cotta mask from Carthage, sixth or sev­enth cen­tury

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