The Phoenicians Analysis

The Phoenicians

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Lavishly illustrated and handsomely produced, The Phoenicians would be at home on the coffee table of a wealthy collector of art of the ancient world, or in a museum in the ancient civilizations section. That is not to say, however, that this book is not also of general interest, for while not everyone will find all aspects equally intriguing, it is hard to imagine anyone who could not find something to appreciate about such an expansive tome. The more than one thousand pictures alone take the breath away; well-designed maps give sections of the book an atlaslike quality, complementing the points being made in the text about Phoenician settlement patterns; and articles on everything from sarcophagi to whether the Phoenicians ever sailed to America yield a definitive volume with something for everyone.

The diverse articles gathered here are the work of contributing scholars scattered across many disciplines. In general their tone is academic—the more so because the volume has been published in the koine of the modern world (English), regardless of the native language of the contributors. In spite of this, the book manages at most points to be interesting, at some points entertaining as well, and laid out wonderfully with text, full-color pictures, maps, and diagrams all woven together with an artistic sensibility appropriate to the study of ancient craftsmen.

The book has four major sections, each one of which could have been a volume of its own. There is also a catalog of artifacts, which, along with statements in the introduction, indicates that the book was published in conjunction with a major exhibition on the Phoenicians in Venice, Italy. Sabatino Moscati, the scientific director of the project, says it well: “From the start, one point was clear to me: our effort must not be to organize an exhibition on the Phoenicians, but the exhibition.”

The first major section, “Phoenician Civilization,” is fundamental for anyone wanting to understand this ancient people. Surprisingly, the earliest Phoenician colonies were not near the mother cities in the Levant, but in Spain; other settlements along the Mediterranean were apparently supply lines in a support network for shipping taking place from the earliest times across the breadth of the Mediterranean Sea. Also surprising for some will be the revelation that the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa as early as 600 B.C. and that they quite probably visited what today are the British Isles. Many readers, too, will be interested to learn that Phoenician civilization included not only the ancient mariners, merchants, and craftsmen from city-states in northern Palestine mentioned in the Bible but the great Carthaginian empire as well. The contributors do maintain a distinction between Phoenician and Punic: The first is the larger, original category, and then both terms are subcategories in the later Punic or Carthaginian period.

The maps and their explanations show a pattern of settlement not easily grasped at first by those conditioned to living on great landmasses. The Phoenicians lived around the Mediterranean on peninsulas, islands, and other such seemingly tenuous footholds, apparently never making much of an inroad into the interior of any of the areas they visited. As strange as this may seem, it is not entirely unique. Present-day Caribbean culture (black; English- or French-speaking) unites the islands and most of the surrounding coastal areas of Central and South America in ways which estrange the inhabitants of those coastal areas from their inland (Hispanic or indigenous; Spanish-speaking) compatriots. This settlement pattern seems only in part to involve the realities of geography, since while at that point Phoenician technology was adapted better to travel in ships than it was to overland travel over rough terrain, the Romans later simply built better roads. There was something about the way the people thought of themselves which made them invariably pick out the same kind of site for colonization, and the predictability of it makes it cultural as well as physical history.

Sections on Hannibal and the development of the alphabet are also included in this background material, and one soon gets the sense that there are many different disciplines at work here with very scanty and seemingly contradictory data; from time to time professional differences of opinion will surface in polemics. The issues...

(The entire section is 1815 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Library Journal. CXIV, March 15, 1989, p. 77.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, June 4, 1989, p.18.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 3, 1989, p. 228.