Who were the Phoenicians?

In modern society, we are obsessed with identity, specifically in terms of categorizing and labeling. This leads to a tendency to essentialize identity, but this isn’t supported by the evidence. The only thing we are born as is members of a particular species, homo sapiens.

What stands out is that other societies have entirely different experiences of collective identity. The most common distinctions, contrary to ethnic and racial ideologies, are those we perceive in the people most similar to us — the (too often violent) narcissism of small differences.

We not only project onto other societies our own cultural assumptions for we also read anachronisms into the past as our way of rationalizing the present. But if we study closely what we know from history and archaeology, there isn’t any clear evidence for ethnic and racial ideology.

The ancient world is more complex than our simple notions.  A good example of this is the people(s) that have been called Phoenicians.

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In Search of the Phoenicians
by Josephine Quinn
pp. 13-17

However, my intention here is not simply to rescue the Phoenicians from their undeserved obscurity. Quite the opposite, in fact: I’m going to start by making the case that they did not in fact exist as a self-conscious collective or “people.” The term “Phoenician” itself is a Greek invention, and there is no good evidence in our surviving ancient sources that these Phoenicians saw themselves, or acted, in collective terms above the level of the city or in many cases simply the family. The first and so far the only person known to have called himself a Phoenician in the ancient world was the Greek novelist Heliodorus of Emesa (modern Homs in Syria) in the third or fourth century CE, a claim made well outside the traditional chronological and geographical boundaries of Phoenician history, and one that I will in any case call into question later in this book.

Instead, then, this book explores the communities and identities that were important to the ancient people we have learned to call Phoenicians, and asks why the idea of being Phoenician has been so enthusiastically adopted by other people and peoples—from ancient Greece and Rome, to the emerging nations of early modern Europe, to contemporary Mediterranean nation-states. It is these afterlives, I will argue, that provide the key to the modern conception of the Phoenicians as a “people.” As Ernest Gellner put it, Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist”. 7 In the case of the Phoenicians, I will suggest, modern nationalism invented and then sustained an ancient nation.

Identities have attracted a great deal of scholarly attention in recent years, serving as the academic marginalia to a series of crucially important political battles for equality and freedom. 8 We have learned from these investigations that identities are not simple and essential truths into which we are born, but that they are constructed by the social and cultural contexts in which we live, by other people, and by ourselves—which is not to say that they are necessarily freely chosen, or that they are not genuinely and often fiercely felt: to describe something as imagined is not to dismiss it as imaginary. 9 Our identities are also multiple: we identify and are identified by gender, class, age, religion, and many other things, and we can be more than one of any of those things at once, whether those identities are compatible or contradictory. 10 Furthermore, identities are variable across both time and space: we play—and we are assigned—different roles with different people and in different contexts, and they have differing levels of importance to us in different situations. 11

In particular, the common assumption that we all define ourselves as a member of a specific people or “ethnic group,” a collective linked by shared origins, ancestry, and often ancestral territory, rather than simply by contemporary political, social, or cultural ties, remains just that—an assumption. 12 It is also a notion that has been linked to distinctive nineteenth-century European perspectives on nationalism and identity, 13 and one that sits uncomfortably with counterexamples from other times and places. 14

The now-discredited categorization and labeling of African “tribes” by colonial administrators, missionaries, and anthropologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provides many well-known examples, illustrating the way in which the “ethnic assumption” can distort interpretations of other people’s affiliations and self-understanding. 15 The Banande of Zaire, for instance, used to refer to themselves simply as bayira (“cultivators” or “workers”), and it was not until the creation of a border between the British Protectorate of Uganda and the Belgian Congo in 1885 that they came to be clearly delineated from another group of bayira now called Bakonzo. 16 Even more strikingly, the Tonga of Zambia, as they were named by outsiders, did not regard themselves as a unified group differentiated from their neighbors, with the consequence that they tended to disperse and reassimilate among other groups. 17 Where such groups do have self-declared ethnic identities, they were often first imposed from without, by more powerful regional actors. The subsequent local adoption of those labels, and of the very concepts of ethnicity and tribe in some African contexts, illustrates the effects that external identifications can have on internal affiliations and self-understandings. 18 Such external labeling is not of course a phenomenon limited to Africa or to Western colonialism: other examples include the ethnic categorization of the Miao and the Yao in Han China, and similar processes carried out by the state in the Soviet Union. 19

Such processes can be dangerous. When Belgian colonial authorities encountered the central African kingdom of Rwanda, they redeployed labels used locally at the time to identify two closely related groups occupying different positions in the social and political hierarchy to categorize the population instead into two distinct “races” of Hutus (identified as the indigenous farmers) and Tutsis (thought to be a more civilized immigrant population). 20 This was not easy to do, and in 1930 a Belgian census attempting to establish which classification should be recorded on the identity cards of their subjects resorted in some cases to counting cows: possession of ten or more made you a Tutsi. 21 Between April and July 1994, more than half a million Tutsis were killed by Hutus, sometimes using their identity cards to verify the “race” of their victims.

The ethnic assumption also raises methodological problems for historians. The fundamental difficulty with labels like “Phoenician” is that they offer answers to questions about historical explanation before they have even been asked. They assume an underlying commonality between the people they designate that cannot easily be demonstrated; they produce new identities where they did not to our knowledge exist; and they freeze in time particular identities that were in fact in a constant process of construction, from inside and out. As Paul Gilroy has argued, “ethnic absolutism” can homogenize what are in reality significant differences. 22 These labels also encourage historical explanation on a very large and abstract scale, focusing attention on the role of the putative generic identity at the expense of more concrete, conscious, and interesting communities and their stories, obscuring in this case the importance of the family, the city, and the region, not to mention the marking of other social identities such as gender, class, and status. In sum, they provide too easy a way out of actually reading the historical evidence.

As a result, recent scholarship tends to see ethnicity not as a timeless fact about a region or group, but as an ideology that emerges at certain times, in particular social and historical circumstances, and, especially at moments of change or crisis: at the origins of a state, for instance, or after conquest, or in the context of migration, and not always even then. 23 In some cases, we can even trace this development over time: James C. Scott cites the example of the Cossacks on Russia’s frontiers, people used as cavalry by the tsars, Ottomans, and Poles, who “were, at the outset, nothing more and nothing less than runaway serfs from all over European Russia, who accumulated at the frontier. They became, depending on their locations, different Cossack “hosts”: the Don (for the Don River basin) Cossacks, the Azov (Sea) Cossacks, and so on.” 24

Ancient historians and archaeologists have been at the forefront of these new ethnicity studies, emphasizing the historicity, flexibility, and varying importance of ethnic identity in the ancient Mediterranean. 25 They have described, for instance, the emergence of new ethnic groups such as the Moabites and Israelites in the Near East in the aftermath of the collapse of the Bronze Age empires and the “crystallisation of commonalities” among Greeks in the Archaic period. 26 They have also traced subsequent changes in the ethnic content and formulation of these identifications: in relation to “Hellenicity,” for example, scholars have delineated a shift in the fifth century BCE from an “aggregative” conception of Greek identity founded largely on shared history and traditions to a somewhat more oppositional approach based on distinction from non-Greeks, especially Persians, and then another in the fourth century BCE, when Greek intellectuals themselves debated whether Greekness should be based on a shared past or on shared culture and values in the contemporary world. 27 By the Hellenistic period, at least in Egypt, the term “Hellene” (Greek) was in official documents simply an indication of a privileged tax status, and those so labeled could be Jews, Thracians—or, indeed, Egyptians. 28

Despite all this fascinating work, there is a danger that the considerable recent interest in the production, mechanisms, and even decline of ancient ethnicity has obscured its relative rarity. Striking examples of the construction of ethnic groups in the ancient world do not of course mean that such phenomena became the norm. 29 There are good reasons to suppose in principle that without modern levels of literacy, education, communication, mobility, and exchange, ancient communal identities would have tended to form on much smaller scales than those at stake in most modern discussions of ethnicity, and that without written histories and genealogies people might have placed less emphasis on the concepts of ancestry and blood-ties that at some level underlie most identifications of ethnic groups. 30 And in practice, the evidence suggests that collective identities throughout the ancient Mediterranean were indeed largely articulated at the level of city-states and that notions of common descent or historical association were rarely the relevant criterion for constructing “groupness” in these communities: in Greek cities, for instance, mutual identification tended to be based on political, legal, and, to a limited extent, cultural criteria, 31 while the Romans famously emphasized their mixed origins in their foundation legends and regularly manumitted their foreign slaves, whose descendants then became full Roman citizens. 32

This means that some of the best-known “peoples” of antiquity may not actually have been peoples at all. Recent studies have shown that such familiar groups as the Celts of ancient Britain and Ireland and the Minoans of ancient Crete were essentially invented in the modern period by the archaeologists who first studied or “discovered” them, 33 and even the collective identity of the Greeks can be called into question. As S. Rebecca Martin has recently pointed out, “there is no clear recipe for the archetypal Hellene,” and despite our evidence for elite intellectual discussion of the nature of Greekness, it is questionable how much “being Greek” meant to most Greeks: less, no doubt, than to modern scholars. 34 The Phoenicians, I will suggest in what follows, fall somewhere in the middle—unlike the Minoans or the Atlantic Celts, there is ancient evidence for a conception of them as a group, but unlike the Greeks, this evidence is entirely external—and they provide another good case study of the extent to which an assumption of a collective identity in the ancient Mediterranean can mislead. 35

pp. 227-230

In all the exciting work that has been done on “identity” in the past few decades, there has been too little attention paid to the concept of identity itself. We tend to ask how identities are made, vary, and change, not whether they exist at all. But Rogers Brubaker and Frederik Cooper have pinned down a central difficulty with recent approaches: “it is not clear why what is routinely characterized as multiple, fragmented, and fluid should be conceptualized as ‘identity’ at all.” 1 Even personal identity, a strong sense of one’s self as a distinct individual, can be seen as a relatively recent development, perhaps related to a peculiarly Western individualism. 2 Collective identities, furthermore, are fundamentally arbitrary: the artificial ways we choose to organize the world, ourselves, and each other. However strong the attachments they provoke, they are not universal or natural facts. Roger Rouse has pointed out that in medieval Europe, the idea that people fall into abstract social groupings by virtue of common possession of a certain attribute, and occupy autonomous and theoretically equal positions within them, would have seemed nonsensical: instead, people were assigned their different places in the interdependent relationships of a concrete hierarchy. 3

The truth is that although historians are constantly apprehending the dead and checking their pockets for identity, we do not know how people really thought of themselves in the past, or in how many different ways, or indeed how much. I have argued here that the case of the Phoenicians highlights the extent to which the traditional scholarly perception of a basic sense of collective identity at the level of a “people,” “culture,” or “nation” in the cosmopolitan, entangled world of the ancient Mediterranean has been distorted by the traditional scholarly focus on a small number of rather unusual, and unusually literate, societies.

My starting point was that we have no good evidence for the ancient people that we call Phoenician identifying themselves as a single people or acting as a stable collective. I do not conclude from this absence of evidence that the Phoenicians did not exist, nor that nobody ever called her- or himself a Phoenician under any circumstances: Phoenician-speakers undoubtedly had a larger repertoire of self-classifications than survives in our fragmentary evidence, and it would be surprising if, for instance, they never described themselves as Phoenicians to the Greeks who invented that term; indeed, I have drawn attention to several cases where something very close to that is going on. Instead, my argument is that we should not assume that our “Phoenicians” thought of themselves as a group simply by analogy with models of contemporary identity formation among their neighbors—especially since those neighbors do not themselves portray the Phoenicians as a self-conscious or strongly differentiated collective. Instead, we should accept the gaps in our knowledge and fill the space instead with the stories that we can tell.

The stories I have looked at in this book include the ways that the people of the northern Levant did in fact identify themselves—in terms of their cities, but even more of their families and occupations—as well as the formation of complex social, cultural, and economic networks based on particular cities, empires, and ideas. These could be relatively small and closed, like the circle of the tophet, or on the other hand, they could, like the network of Melqart, create shared religious and political connections throughout the Mediterranean—with other Levantine settlements, with other settlers, and with local populations. Identifications with a variety of social and cultural traditions is one recurrent characteristic of the people and cities we call Phoenician, and this continued into the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when “being Phoenician” was deployed as a political and cultural tool, although it was still not claimed as an ethnic identity.

Another story could go further, to read a lack of collective identity, culture, and political organization among Phoenician-speakers as a positive choice, a form of resistance against larger regional powers. James C. Scott has recently argued in The Art of Not Being Governed (2009) that self-governing people living on the peripheries and borders of expansionary states in that region tend to adopt strategies to avoid incorporation and to minimize taxation, conscription, and forced labor. Scott’s focus is on the highlands of Southeast Asia, an area now sometimes known as Zomia, and its relationship with the great plains states of the region such as China and Burma. He describes a series of tactics used by the hill people to avoid state power, including “their physical dispersion in rugged terrain, their mobility, their cropping practices, their kinship structure, their pliable ethnic identities . . . their flexible social structure, their religious heterodoxy, their egalitarianism and even the nonliterate, oral cultures.” The constant reconstruction of identity is a core theme in his work: “ethnic identities in the hills are politically crafted and designed to position a group vis-à-vis others in competition for power and resources.” 4 Political integration in Zomia, when it has happened at all, has usually consisted of small confederations: such alliances, he points out, are common but short-lived, and are often preserved in local place names such as “Twelve Tai Lords” (Sipsong Chutai) or “Nine Towns” (Ko Myo)—information that throws new light on the federal meetings recorded in fourth-century BCE Tripolis (“Three Cities”). 5

In fact, many aspects of Scott’s analysis feel familiar in the world of the ancient Mediterranean, on the periphery of the great agricultural empires of Mesopotamia and Iran, and despite all its differences from Zomia, another potential candidate for the label of “shatterzone.” The validity of Scott’s model for upland Southeast Asia itself —a matter of considerable debate since the book’s publication—is largely irrelevant for our purposes; 6 what is interesting here is how useful it might be for thinking about the mountainous region of the northern Levant, and the places of refuge in and around the Mediterranean.

In addition to outright rebellion, we could argue that the inhabitants of the Levant employed a variety of strategies to evade the heaviest excesses of imperial power. 7 One was to organize themselves in small city-states with flimsy political links and weak hierarchies, requiring larger powers to engage in multiple negotiations and arrangements, and providing the communities involved with multiple small and therefore obscure opportunities for the evasion of taxation and other responsibilities—“divide that ye be not ruled,” as Scott puts it. 8 A cosmopolitan approach to culture and language in those cities would complement such an approach, committing to no particular way of doing or being or even looking, keeping loyalties vague and options open. One of the more controversial aspects of Scott’s model could even explain why there is no evidence for Phoenician literature despite earlier Near Eastern traditions of myth and epic. He argues that the populations he studies are in some cases not so much nonliterate as postliterate: “Given the considerable advantages in plasticity of oral over written histories and genealogies, it is at least conceivable to see the loss of literacy and of written texts as a more or less deliberate adaptation to statelessness.” 9

Another available option was to take to the sea, a familiar but forbidding terrain where the experience and knowledge of Levantine sailors could make them and their activities invisible and unaccountable to their overlords further east. The sea also offered an escape route from more local sources of power, and the stories we hear of the informal origins of western settlements such as Carthage and Lepcis, whether or not they are true, suggest an appreciation of this point. A distaste even for self-government could also explain a phenomenon I have drawn attention to throughout the book: our “Phoenicians” not only fail to visibly identify as Phoenician, they often omit to identify at all.

It is striking in this light that the first surviving visible expression of an explicitly “Phoenician” identity was imposed by the Carthaginians on their subjects as they extended state power to a degree unprecedented among Phoenician-speakers, that it was then adopted by Tyre as a symbol of colonial success, and that it was subsequently exploited by Roman rulers in support of their imperial activities. This illustrates another uncomfortable aspect of identity formation: it is often a cultural bullying tactic, and one that tends to benefit those already in power more than those seeking self-empowerment. Modern European examples range from the linguistic and cultural education strategies that turned “peasants into Frenchmen” in the late nineteenth century, 10 to the eugenic Lebensborn program initiated by the Nazis in mid-twentieth-century central Europe to create more Aryan children through procreation between German SS officers and “racially pure” foreign women. 11 Such examples also underline the difficulty of distinguishing between internal and external conceptions of identity when apparently internal identities are encouraged from above, or even from outside, just as the developing modern identity as Phoenician involved the gradual solidification of the identity of the ancient Phoenicians.

It seems to me that attempts to establish a clear distinction between “emic” and “etic” identity are part of a wider tendency to treat identities as ends rather than means, and to focus more on how they are constructed than on why. Identity claims are always, however, a means to another end, and being “Phoenician” is in all the instances I have surveyed here a political rather than a personal statement. It is sometimes used to resist states and empires, from Roman Africa to Hugh O’Donnell’s Ireland, but more often to consolidate them, lending ancient prestige and authority to later regimes, a strategy we can see in Carthage’s Phoenician coinage, the emperor Elagabalus’s installation of a Phoenician sun god at Rome, British appeals to Phoenician maritime power, and Hannibal Qadhafi’s cruise ship.

In the end, it is modern nationalism that has created the Phoenicians, along with much else of our modern idea of the ancient Mediterranean. Phoenicianism has served nationalist purposes since the early modern period: the fully developed notion of Phoenician ethnicity may be a nineteenth-century invention, a product of ideologies that sought to establish ancient peoples or “nations” at the heart of new nation-states, but its roots, like those of nationalism itself, are deeper. As origin myth or cultural comparison, aggregative or oppositional, imperialist and anti-imperialist, Phoenicianism supported the expansion of the early modern nation of Britain, as well as the position of the nation of Ireland as separate and respected within that empire; it helped to consolidate the nation of Lebanon under French imperial mandate, premised on a regional Phoenician identity agreed on between local and French intellectuals, but it also helped to construct the nation of Tunisia in opposition to European colonialism.