By the middle of the eighth century BC, the Tyrians were all over the Mediterranean. Under Hiram I, they had begun developing an extensive trading network that connected various Mediterranean regions. They traded in precious metals like gold, silver, tin, and lead and also dealt in ivory, wine, olive oil, and, of course, the famous purple-dyed cloth. In the ninth century BC, the Assyrians started throwing their weight around, the result of which was to turn Tyre’s trading settlements into fully-fledged colonies. Assyria wanted Tyre’s cash. For Tyre to be able to supply it, she had to carefully guard her route to the Phoenicio-Iberian city of Gades, the source of all her wealth.
Soon, however, the Tyrians would realize that they weren’t alone. By the time the Tyrians were just about done occupying the Mediterranean in the eighth century, a new breed of colonizers was on the move. It was now time for the Greeks’ to share in the Mediterranean’s spoils.
When considering Greek history, it is easy to become blindsided by later developments. Our consciousness is permeated by events like the Persian Wars or the Peloponnesian Wars or the Wars of Alexander the Great. It is also easy to become lost in Greek cultural and intellectual developments. The thoughts of Socrates, the writings of Plato and Aristotle and the plays of Euripides take centre stage whenever the subject of Greece comes up in any random conversation. What we often neglect, however, is the subject of the Greeks’ colonization of the Mediterranean. Not only that, what we also neglect is the utterly rich and sophisticated history of the Greeks’ interaction with the Phoenicians. And it is this interaction, ladies, and gentlemen, that will be the subject of today’s episode.
When the Mycenaean civilization collapsed at the end of the Bronze Age, Greece entered her Dark Ages. Over what we could envision as being a reasonably long time, the Greeks lost their system of writing, and hence, left no written records for the period in question. Thus, for this period, from the end of the Bronze age to about the eighth century BC, we have very little data on Greece. What is doubly frustrating, is that no one else seems to have recorded what the Greeks were up to either. Thus, it is not unreasonable to assume that the Greeks just cut themselves off from the rest of the world. Post-collapse Greece just became a void.
The population of Greece, too, dwindled. The archeology of the post-Mycenaean period reveals that, at least according to one estimate, the population of Greece reduced to a quarter of what it used to be in Mycenaean times. A smaller population meant that whenever the Greeks found their way back to the rest of the world, a few among them would benefit immensely. Specifically, trading with other cultures in Greece’s immediate vicinity would generate copious amounts of wealth, at least for a fortunate few. And, as we’ll just see shortly, this is precisely the story that the archaeology tells us.
The acquisition of this wealth would have caused a series of dominoes to begin to fall. First, with more financial resources in their hands, their population would have grown. Second, with more people, the Greeks would have become highly stratified. Specifically, a landed aristocracy would have emerged. Third, with more social stratification, the Greeks would have competed amongst themselves for resources, especially land. And, as the Greeks became more conscious of the outside world, the more the outside world would seem attractive to the less fortunate among them. This chain of events, thus, fathered the Greeks’ colonial ambitions.
In complete contrast to this, Tyre’s colonization program was purely trade-driven, at least initially. And while later developments drove refugees from Phoenicia to seek refuge in the colonies, thus polluting the original pure profit motive, even as late as the eighth and seventh centuries BC, Tyrian colonization was about access to wealth. Tyre’s program was systematically geared towards one goal: the acquisition of the Tartessos’ silver. And because the silver was necessary to appease the Assyrians, no man less than the King of Tyre himself, directed this campaign.
The Greek efforts, on the other hand, appear haphazard. No single entity drove the Greeks to colonize the Mediterranean. Nor were they motivated by a collective, unified consciousness like that of the Tyrians. Greece’s colonies were individualistic. Groups of Greeks, who for one reason or another could not or would not live with their brethren in Hellas proper, moved out. Each Greek had his or her reasons for doing so. The result of this lack of focus was that most Greek settlers brought along their wives, children, and all the wealth that they could move to wherever it is that they wanted to settle. Thus, when a Greek colony began, it began not as an anchorage or a trading center, as was the case with Tyre’s settlements, but as a small, but proper, polis. Someone not in the know may erroneously assume that the Greeks were involved in a systematic empire building effort. But, the Greek colonies were independent. They developed their institutions independently and bound themselves to their mother cities only by ties of sentiment and religion.
The Greeks began their colonization efforts in the Balkans and the Aegean coast of Anatolia. By the eighth century, the entire coast of Anatolia was in Greek hands. In the middle of the eighth century, the Greeks founded Naxos and Syracuse in Sicily and Cumae and Tarentum in southern Italy. Southern Italy became so densely populated by the Greeks that later the Romans used to call it Magna Graecia. Through Cumae, the Greeks acquired the iron ore that originated in Etruria and Campania, and also the smelted copper that came from Sant Imbenia on Sardinia. And despite Tyre’s efforts at policing shipping, they even made it to Spain. On her eastern coast, they founded a colony called Rhode, at the foot of the Pyrenees, which turned out to be quite prosperous.
In the seventh century, they founded Gela, Selinus & Himera in Sicily, cities which will feature quite heavily in Carthaginian history. Himera was an aptly placed stop on the northern coast of the island, on the way either to Spain or central Italy from Carthage. Selinus, on the other hand, had no natural advantages of any kind, not even a harbor. But it prospered, because of its active trade with Carthage. It was also the first Sicilian city to use silver coinage, with the raw silver probably coming from either Spain or Etruria, mostly via Carthage.
Also in the seventh century, they founded Cyrene, not far from present-day Ben Ghazi, in Libya. Cyrene was the only colony that the Greeks were successful in planting in Africa. Before the foundation of Cyrene, there used to be a direct maritime trade link between Carthage and Egypt, which Cyrene now prevented. We know this because at around this time, Egyptian luxury goods disappear from Carthage’s archeology. The sudden disruption of trade between Egypt and Carthage also implies that when returning to Tyre, the Tyrians would have opted to avoid the coast of Libya and Egypt, and prefer to sail on the open sea.
At the very end of the seventh century, the Greeks settled Massalia, modern-day Marseilles. They also founded a colony in Catalonia that they called Empurias. For a short time, much to the chagrin of the Tyrians, Greeks from both these settlements controlled shipping in the north of the Western Mediterranean. Controlling shipping here allowed them to ship Cornwallian tin and Baltic amber, brought to them by the Gauls, into the Rhone river system and down to the Rhone delta. From here, they shipped ores of tin and amber all over the Mediterranean.
As I’ve alluded to earlier, the Tyrians, who were, by this time, masters of the Mediterranean, could not tolerate any disruption of their prized silver trade. Now, with Greeks rowing about in all corners of the Mediterranean, the Tyrians were none too pleased. Naturally, contact between the two sides would result in conflict. But it would be folly to think that strife was all there was. As a result of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, the Greeks had abandoned their former sophistication. They built no monuments, made no art, and wrote nothing down. Their encounters with the Phoenicians, however, became the impetus that catapulted the Greeks back into the limelight.
During the Greek Dark Ages, the Greeks from the island of Euboea became successful traders. Through inter-Hellenistic trade, they became masters of great wealth. As a result of their growth, they landed on the radar of the Phoenicians. When the Phoenicians grew cognizant of the Euboeans’ existence, they naturally wanted to trade with them. The first signs of such trading come from tenth-century graves on Euboea. Many of the goods in these tombs, which accompanied the dead into the afterlife, were of a Middle or Near Eastern origin. At this time, the Euboeans were not capable of the long distance trading that could allow them to acquire such goods on their own. The only other way that they could have bought these would have been through dealing with the itinerant Phoenician traders. These are the first glimpses of the Phoenicians expanding the international trade networks that had existed since before the twelfth century BC.
Through contact with the Phoenicians, the Euboeans also developed long-distance maritime capabilities, which allowed them to plug themselves into the same trading networks that the Phoenicians were a part of. The trading station at Al-Mina, on the mouth of the river Orontes in northern Syria, exhibits signs of Euboeans and Phoenicians residing and trading together as early as the ninth century.
And not only was the Phoenicio-Euboean cooperation limited to just maritime trade. The Euboeans also acquired Phoenician financial customs like interest-bearing loans, insurance schemes, joint financing and deposit banking.
Nor was economics the only realm where the Greeks found themselves at the feet of their Tyrian mentors. I would not be exaggerating if I said that the Phoenicians breathed a second life into the long-dead language of the Greeks. What today is the Greek script is, in fact, an adaptation of the alphabet used by the Phoenicians. The Mycenaeans had used a distinctive Indo-European script, today referred to as Linear B. However, in the centuries that followed the twelfth-century collapse, the Greeks forgot their alphabet. It is not difficult to see why. Linear B was divided into two separate sets of characters. The first set of symbols signified syllabic phonemes, while the second group signified semantic values. Overall, there were roughly two hundred characters that one had to memorize to use it for writing. Use of such a sophisticated writing system could only be sustained through the existence of educational institutions, and even then, would just be limited to the elite. With the collapse of civilization at the end of the twelfth century, the infrastructure required to maintain the use of this system would have crumbled to dust.
By contrast, the Phoenician script had only one set of characters that just signified phonemes. It was the combination of these phonemes that signified meaning, as opposed to the ideograms in the Linear B script. There were only 22 characters in the Phoenician set, so if someone wanted to memorize the Phoenician alphabet, they could readily do so. That way, one had a ready arsenal of phonetic characters that one could inscribe almost at a moment’s notice should one need to. You didn’t need to refer to complicated tables to figure out how to write something.
The utility afforded by the Phoenician alphabet and their constant contact with the Greeks meant that the Greeks would adopt it. Over time, the Greeks evolved the Phoenician alphabet, and by the time they entered recorded history, they were using the Greek alphabet we see today. The earliest examples of the adoption of the Phoenician script by the Greeks come from Lefkandi, on the island of, you guessed it, Euboea. The writing is on pottery shards, which can be dated roughly to the second quarter of the eighth century BC. Furthermore, the Greeks even adopted the use of some Phoenician words. Examples include the word ‘Byblos’ to refer to papyrus reed, ‘deltas’ to refer to clay writing tablets and ‘gypsum’ to refer to plaster.
Art is another discipline where a Phoenician influence on the Greeks is readily apparent. Scholars of Greek and Phoenician art have commented on the “orientalizing” influence on Greek art. This influence is most apparent on Corinthian pottery, which archaeologists have found in various settlements around the Mediterranean, both Greek & Phoenician. Cypriot manufactured statuettes of the hero-god Heracles, with his characteristic lion skin clothing, also shows him holding a weapon in the right hand, with him posing as though he is about to strike someone. The lion-skin motif is Greek. However, the “about-to-strike” pose is characteristically Middle Eastern.
And not only was this influence limited to the realms of economics, language, and art. Greek religion, too, found itself assimilating fundamental elements of Tyre’s religion. On Sicily, temples to the hero-god, Heracles, bear a striking similarity to their Phoenician counterparts. A temple to Heracles, in the Greek city of Acragas, has a staircase that symbolizes the ascension of the spirit of the human Heracles into divinity. If this reminds you of Melqart, and how his soul arose into godhood at the ritual of egersis, then you are not alone. It would not be far-fetched to claim that in the collective consciousness of the Greeks and the Tyrians, Heracles and Melqart were the same.
Herodotus mentions that he had traveled to Tyre to visit the temple of Melqart. There the priests of the cult told him that the temple to Heracles on the island of the Greek island of Thasos had, in fact, started out as a Tyrian shrine to Melqart. To confirm this, Herodotus paid a visit to the temple at Thasos himself. Confirming what the priests had told him, Herodotus then mentions that the Thasians worshiped this deity in two entirely different ways, as though he had two distinct personalities: one that belonged to an immortal god and the other that belonged to a human savior that had passed away.
The Greeks began associating Heracles with Melqart in the seventh century when Greek colonization was in full swing and had been so for more than a century. Both gods were considered founders of cities themselves, which made them symbols of the colonization efforts of both sides. Since I’ve already shared the legend of Melqart in its entirety, it is only fair that I do the same for his alter-ego, Heracles, at least in as far as his role as being a symbol of Greek colonization is concerned.
You may already know that in Greek legend Heracles, the human son of Zeus, had to complete twelve arduous tasks referred to as the Twelve Labors of Heracles, to become divine. One of these labors, the tenth one, in fact, became the basis of many a founding legend of many a Greek colony. Heracles was to steal cattle from the monster, Geryon, who lived in the sea beyond Tartessos. After taking it, he was to return to Greece with it. On his way back, Heracles is said to have laid the foundations of many a Greek city.
As is with countless legends and myths, Heracles’ tenth labor also suffers from the fact that it has undergone many a retelling. Originally, the starting point of Heracles’ journey was the island of Erythria, home of the monster Geryon, whom Heracles was to kill and whose cattle he was to bring back to Greece. However, a few versions of the legend put the starting point of Heracles’ journey, not at Erythria, but at Gades, instead.
Greeks on the actual colony on this island also ascribe its founding to Heracles. Their legend is that Heracles was sailing upon a raft which ran aground on her shore. They claim that his raft was coming from the direction of Tyre. One cannot miss the float coming from Tyre as being a direct reference to the ritual of egersis.
Both these legends suggest a Tyrian hand in their making. And if not a direct Tyrian hand, then a Greek one, that was, at the very least, heavily influenced by the Tyrians.
The Greeks used this “Heraclean way,” as Richard Miles puts it, from Iberia back to Greece, as a legitimizing tool for their colonization. Whenever Greek settlers arrived at a potential site, they would claim that Heracles had been there in the mythical past and had done something heroic to grant his “descendants,” i.e., the Greek settlers, the right to settle there. Every founding legend involving Heracles followed the same template: Heracles would just happen to be passing by. The inhabitants of the area would be in some distress, and he would perform a heroic deed for them. In return for his favor, he would ask the inhabitants to turn over their land to his descendants, when they came to claim it for themselves.
Heracles also fathered bastard children with local women. For the Greeks, this symbolized their power over the local peoples. In this respect, Melqart symbolized something slightly different. As just mentioned, for the Greeks, Heracles was a legitimizer of colonial foundations. For the Phoenicians, however, though Melqart was a founder of settlements, he didn’t serve as a legitimizer per se. The Greeks needed a legitimizer since there was the sense that they were appropriating the lands that belonged to others. The Phoenicians, however, didn’t suffer from such a psychological complex. Recall that they didn’t evolve their colonies into permanents settlements until quite late in the game. They weren’t out on a land grabbing program like the Greeks were. Hence, they didn’t need any “legitimizing tools” as the Greeks did. Consequently, Melqart represented the positive relationships that the Phoenicians had with the locals.
A prominent example of the use of the Heraclean legend as a legitimizing tool is the legend that places Heracles at Eryx, in Sicily. Even though Sicily is out of the way on the journey back from Spain to Greece, the Greeks managed to add Sicily to Heracles itinerary anyway. The Greek text Geryoneis by Stesichorus has Hercules in Sicily on account of a runaway bull that swam across the Straits of Messina, with Heracles in hot pursuit. A local king named Eryx found the beast and made him part of his herd. When Heracles demanded his bull back, Eryx challenged Heracles to a wrestling match, in which Heracles killed Eryx. Heracles then reclaimed his animal and gave authority over the land to the locals, as long as they’d hand it back to any of his descendants if they were to visit Sicily later. Of course, Heracles being Heracles, he stamped his name all over the island before leaving, which bolstered the claims of many a Greek that arrived later as a colonist.
Though the Greeks and the Phoenicians were everywhere, their primary interactions were in Sicily. It was here that the Greeks, Tyrians and the indigenous people of Sicily intermarried, worshiped, traded, and even fought.
Pre-Phoenician Sicily was home to three distinct ethnicities: the Sicans, the Sicels, after whom the Greeks named the island, and the Elymians. Thucydides claims that the Sicans came from Iberia, the Sicels from mainland Italy, while the Elymians were refugees from Troy. The Sicels were an aggressive bunch and after defeating the Sicans in war took over much of the island. The Phoenicians, because they were interested only in the profits from their trading, decided to be friendly with the locals, without taking any sides. The Greek colonists, however, were aggressive enough that the Phoenicians and the locals often found common cause against the Greeks and more often than not, ended up on the same side in any conflict involving the three groups.
Before the 6th century, there is no record of any violence between the Greeks and the Phoenicians. But with the Greeks now rowing about in all corners of the Mediterranean, the Tyrians could be forgiven for feeling just a tad alarmed. Tyrian insecurities regarding their trading routes combined with Doric Greek intransigence to produce unhealthy conflict. In 580 BC, Sicily became the battleground for the first war in a long series of engagements between them.
There was a community of Greek colonies on the islands around the southwestern coast of Anatolia. They had confederated themselves into something that we today call the Doric Hexapolis. Herodotus mentions that they came under threat of war from a “King of Asia.” We don’t know who this guy is, but some historians suggest that it might have been the King of Lydia, an ancient Anatolian kingdom. Given the threat, the Doric Greeks decided to abandon their colonies.
They decided to send a small band of settlers, under the command of Pentathlos, a man from the island of Cnidus, to look for a new land to settle. After a few unsuccessful attempts, they landed in Sicily. There, they found a spot on the western end of the island at roughly the same place where the future Carthaginian city of Lilybaeum would be. At the time, Selinus, a Greek colony, was at war with the Elymian city of Segesta. Both the Selinuntines and the colonists from the Doric Hexapolis were from the same sub-ethnic Greek stock, that of the Doric Greeks. Pentathlos and his men decided to give their Doric brethren a hand against the Elymians. But upon this interference, things began to go south for the Greeks. Pentathlos was killed, while the rest of the settlers were driven out of Sicily.
It seems odd that just when new men bolstered the Selinuntine forces, the balance tipped against them, instead of in their favor. Something must have happened that tipped that balance the other way. Some sources just describe the war as being between the Elymians and the Greeks. Diodorus, however, gives us the reason why the scales tipped in the Elymians’ favor; the Phoenicians on the island had intervened.
Diodorus does not give us the reasons for this intervention, but given what we know about Tyrian insecurities regarding their prized Tartessian silver, it’s not hard to imagine what might have propelled them to intervene. This new Greek colony was dangerously close to the Phoenician colony of Motya which was a key stop not only on the Spain-Levant silver route but also the North-South Carthage-Etruria trading route, which we will get to later in this episode. In the minds of the Phoenicians, if the Greeks had been lucky in subjugating the Elymians, there would have been no buffer between them and the Greeks, that would have kept the Greeks at bay. Pentathlos’ colony may have been ringing all sorts of alarm bells for them. Thus, when the opportunity presented itself, in the form of a conflict between Segesta and Selinus, the Phoenicians did not hesitate to take advantage of the situation. That is also probably why the Phoenicians then founded their third colony, that of Solus. It was to prevent any future conflicts by providing a buffer zone between them and the Greeks. After the conflict, Pentathlos’ defeated men settled on the Lipari Islands, just northeast of Sicily, from where they preyed upon Etruscan shipping.
The result of the cooperation and the conflict between the Greeks and Phoenicians caused in the Greeks an uneasy ambivalence regarding the Phoenicians. This uncertainty is readily apparent in Greek literature. The Iliad and the Odyssey are products of a time when Greek and Phoenician colonization were reaching their zenith in the late eighth and early seventh centuries. Both poems draw clear distinctions between Phoenician products and the people who produced them. In general, the products are great, but the people are dishonest, greedy and sly. They seemed to delight in kidnapping children and selling them into slavery. Such accusations may reflect genuine racism, but they also may be reflective of a bias against traders in general. Though, in the interest of fairness, I should add that such views were not held universally and many a Greek writer was willing to provide more honest assessments of the Phoenicians. It was in this world, the one that alternated between cooperation and conflict and in which the Greeks viewed the Phoenicians with ambivalence, that Carthage was born, and came into her own. Carthaginian history, as we shall see, is defined not so much by her attempts to be herself, but by the lens with which the Greeks saw her.
Before this point, Carthage was merely a lynch-pin in the Tyrian silver system, though a critical lynch-pin at that. In the larger scheme of things, Carthage itself was on a lower order of importance than Tyre and Gades. To speak of Carthaginian power, at this point, would be inappropriate. But as a result of a chain of events that exemplify the butterfly effect; that is, how smaller-scale changes in complex systems can produce quite significant results; Carthage found herself thrust forward, almost by accident.
By the sixth century BC, silver became so abundant in the Middle East that its value began to decline. The initial reduction in value might have brought about an intensification of shipping to compensate for the decline. But eventually, everyone would have clued into its loss of value. Thus, silver would have becomes less appealing as a currency. At around the same time, the Tyrian colonies began to decline economically. The evidence for this decline comes from the archaeology of the third quarter of the sixth century BC, which betrays a significant loss in the material culture of many of Tyre’s colonies.
The loss in the value of silver alone would have sounded death knells for Tyre since up until that point it was the Tartessian silver that kept the Assyrian war beast satiated. But by the sixth century BC, Assyria was no longer a player on the Middle Eastern political scene. An older kid on the block, the Kingdom of Babylon, had now decided to take over the playground. A few years after Pentathlos’ arrival and subsequent defeat on Sicily, Nebuchadnezzar began his thirteen-year long siege of Tyre.
As a result of all three phenomena, the loss in the value of silver, the economic decline in the colonies and the siege of Tyre, not only did Tyre not colonize new lands after 560 BC, the year Nebuchadnezzar’s siege ended, they even abandoned most of their old ones. In 560 BC, the Tyrian ascendancy of the Mediterranean Sea came to an end. To quote Mike Duncan, she went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Paradoxically, the colonies that did survive the economic decline thrived. Since the decrease in the value of silver didn’t happen overnight, some settlements may have seen the writing on the wall and may have begun looking for other options. As luck would have it, the silver route was not the only thing going for the Phoenicians in the colonies.
All this while, I’ve been hankering on about Tyre’s Tertessian silver trade. What I’ve neglected to mention thus far, however, at least in any meaningful way, is that the Tyrians had not only mastered the silver trading circuit but, concurrently, they had also developed a second route. This latter trading circuit ran from Etruria, through Sardinia and Sicily, down to Carthage. Along this path flowed raw materials and manufacturing goods that connected Carthage with the Italian city-states of Etruria.
Evidence for trading along this circuit is plentiful in the archaeology. While all the other colonies exhibit no affluence whatsoever after 560 BC, the settlements in Sicily, Sardinia and the Cap Bon peninsula, didn’t show even as much as a dent in their lifestyles. The colonies on the Etruscan-Punic route had borne the brunt of the decline in the value of silver, and come out strong, primarily because they didn’t rely on it.
One of the cities that benefitted from this new state of affairs was Carthage. If she had already begun taking advantage of this trading circuit to forestall the effects of the collapse in the value of silver, then it’s also not far-fetched to assume that, to safeguard her interests on Sicily, Carthage might have been the intervener in the conflict against Pentathlos. But this is merely a matter of speculation, so we’ll just leave it at that, for now.
Now that we have finally trudged our way through the history of Phoenician colonization in the Mediterranean, it is time for us to turn our attention entirely to the history of Carthage. As with all civilizations, it is only proper that we explore the various legends that explain her founding. And since we do not have Carthage’s own records of her finding, we will have to rely on the Greeks. Join me in the next episode where we will examine, first hand, the crafty Greek mind at work when he concocts a bunch of nonsense.
- Warmington, B. H. Carthage. London: Roberta Hale & Company, 1969 (Buy from Amazon, also here & here)
- Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed. London: Penguin Books, 2010 (Buy from Amazon, Buy audiobook from Audible)