Your guide to the Phoenicians

Internationally respected merchants and traders, these ancient peoples left behind one very significant, long-lasting legacy

Limestone relief depicting a a procession of courtiers paying homage to the Ahiram, king of the Phoenician city of Byblos

Who were the Phoenicians?

The Phoenicians were an ancient people who lived in what is now Lebanon (and some surrounding areas). They flourished from c1500 to c300 BC and were famed traders.

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Where did the Phoenicians come from?

Ancient writers believed the Phoenicians had arrived from the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean, but modern evidence suggests the society developed c3000 BC out of the Canaanite people in the same region. The first Phoenician city, Byblos, dates back to around this time, but it would be more than 1,500 years before the other great Phoenician cities emerged.

Where was Phoenicia? Was it a country, or an empire?

Neither, in the way that we would understand it today. The Phoenicians were more like a confederation of independent city states, the best known of which were Byblos, Tyre, Sidon and Arwad.

The Phoenicians developed trading networks across the Mediterranean and, to support these, they established small colonies along the coasts of Europe and North Africa – reaching as far west as modern-day Spain. One Phoenician colony, Carthage (in what is now Tunisia), ended up becoming a major power in its own right.

A 16th-century painting of the Tower of Babel

Where did the name ‘Phoenicians’ come from?

It was coined by the ancient Greeks. A popular theory is that the name derived from the Greek word for the colour of an expensive purple dye that the Phoenicians extracted from sea snails. The Phoenicians would not have referred to themselves by this name, and the term they used is not known.

Why did the Phoenicians focus so extensively on trade?

It was probably because of the geography of their lands. The region was not suited to farming, but had a long Mediterranean coast as well as cedar forests – a wood prized across the ancient world. So trading made good economic sense and, as the centuries progressed, they became highly skilled at it. They were renowned for the speed of their ships, their genius for navigation and their craftsmanship. The Phoenicians traded all manner of things including linen, wine, spices, slaves and, of course, cedar wood.

How did the Phoenicians relate to the other ancient civilisations of their day?

Much of what we now know about the Phoenicians is based on the reports of other peoples who encountered them, including the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Israelites. As well as trading with these civilisations, the Phoenicians often lived under the domination of the more powerful ones, beginning with ancient Egypt. Some of these overlords allowed the Phoenicians to operate relatively freely, valuing their trading and communication networks.

One ruler who went to war against the Phoenicians, however, was the Macedonian king Alexander the Great. In 332 BC, he captured the Phoenician city of Tyre and put thousands of its inhabitants to the sword, selling tens of thousands more into slavery. Nearly 200 years later, Rome crushed the great Phoenician outpost of Carthage and by 64 BC the Phoenician city states had all been incorporated into the Roman Empire.

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Hannibal’s war elephants are defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. (AKG)

What was the Phoenicians’ greatest legacy?

It was undoubtedly their alphabet. Created c1000 BC, the Phoenician writing system of 22 letters was in itself not very revolutionary. In fact, it was really only a modification of similar alphabets that already existed in the region.

Yet, because they were traders, the Phoenicians spread their alphabet all over the Mediterranean region and introduced it to people of many different civilisations. It soon became a valuable tool for international commerce and was almost certainly the source of the Greek alphabet, which later inspired the one that most Western languages – including English – use today.

This content first appeared in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed

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Rob Attar is the editor of BBC History Magazine