“In Search of the Phoenicians” by Josephine Quinn

(Wikicommons) (Wikicommons)

There were no Phoenicians, so we aren’t going to find them. Simply put, that is Josephine Quinn’s thesis in this pioneering study.

“I’m going to start,” she tells us, “by making the case that they did not exist as a self-conscious collective or ‘people.’” Some individuals did indeed call themselves Phoenicians, and the Greeks referred to an almost-legendary amalgamation of Mediterranean sailors and traders as Phoenicians, but as far as actual identity was concerned, they were mistaken.

The term “Phoenician”, in the end, is everyone and no-one.

In Search of the Phoenicians, Josephine Quinn (Princeton University Press, December 2017)
In Search of the Phoenicians, Josephine Quinn (Princeton University Press, December 2017)

The term “Phoenician”, in the end, is everyone and no-one, and they became, as history goes forward, a nationalistic creation, claimed as ancestors by such diverse people as the Lebanese and the Irish. It is with the latter that Quinn starts her book, the action unfolding not on the shores of the blue Mediterranean but in a place called Baile Beag, an imaginary location in which Brian Friel’s play Translations (1980) was set. Hugh O’Donnell, an elderly schoolmaster, is quoting Virgil’s Aeneid, where the poet laments the destruction of ancient Carthage in the language of its conquerors. Hugh translates the passage into Irish, but we see the irony, because Friel’s play is in English. Carthage was said to be a Phoenician city, and apparently some Irish scholars in the early 19th century believed that at one time in the remote past there had been a Phoenician settlement in Ireland, and even that the Irish language was developed from ancient Phoenician! Similarly, Quinn amusingly titles her first chapter “There Are No Camels in Lebanon” to indicate that the Lebanese don’t consider themselves Arabs because they have appropriated the ancient Phoenicians as their ancestors.

It’s a startling idea to advance a provocative theory which essentially suggests that the Phoenicians can be seen as a construct of other people’s nationalism, and it leads us to consider broader questions such as the nature of ethnicity itself and of identity, and it is here that Quinn, an associate professor of history at Oxford, really comes into her own and engages the reader head-on. She sees the Phoenicians as a diverse group of people who may have had some common links, but who were never one country or one “collective”. Common links include, for example, the worship of the god Melqart, the equivalent to Herakles, whose cult originated in Tyre (the city which claimed Phoinix as its founder) and spread throughout the Mediterranean, but Quinn finds others in the study of coinage, poetry, drama, art, language and archaeology, as well as shared activities of seafaring, architecture and exploration.

The fact that human beings are linked by common artifacts or activities, however, does not make them become one people; when Herodotus, who seems to have coined the term “Phoenician”, wrote of them, he told us that they had originated in the Red Sea area and had settled in the Mediterranean area. Thus we might say that Herodotus “invented” the Phoenicians in order to perhaps distinguish them from Greeks and other people; the word phoenix in Greek actually means “palm tree”, and a diverse lot of lands have palm-trees. As Quinn tells it, the “first Phoenician” was probably Heliodorus of Emesa (3rd/ 4th century CE), who in his novel Aethiopika called himself “a phoenix from Emesa”. He did it probably during the reign of the demented emperor Elagabalus (217-22), who was from Emesa and under whom “Phoenicianism” seems to have flourished; even Roman coins sported palm-trees on the obverse.

Quinn thus sees the Phoenicians as a widespread group of culturally-diverse people (indeed, like the Greeks themselves), not a nation, and she argues persuasively that the Phoenician “nation” can be seen as a construct of mostly 19th and 20th century nationalism, even though that is only part of what Peter van Dommelen terms “a palimpsest of meaning” for the word “Phoenician”.

However, we could read this as being simply part of the way we tend to see things in the 21st century; nationalism has been on the outs for a while (except in the case of some eastern European countries and, now, the United States), and diversity has become the buzzword of the day. The Phoenicians, in Quinn’s hands, become the opposite of a “melting-pot” group, and the name simply shows that human beings have a propensity to seek for identity, whether it be their own or someone else’s, because it makes things easier to conveniently categorise them. And Quinn writes a lot about identity in this book, which is why the Irish and the Lebanese make their appearance, as do ancient Carthage, the Roman Levant and modern Tunisia. It’s as if someone declared, “we’re all Phoenicians now.”

We have little or no evidence to show that the Phoenicians thought of themselves as a single people or nation.

In Search of the Phoenicians deals with the question of identity. “The truth is,” Quinn tells us,


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.


We have little or no evidence to show that the Phoenicians thought of themselves as a single people or nation. People tended, if we believe Quinn, to think of identity as being connected to their particular cities; they were Sidonians, Tyrians or Carthaginians who identified themselves with some commonly-held cultural, economic, religious or social traditions. In time, as Quinn says, “being Phoenician” was “deployed as a cultural and political tool,” but never became what we now call “identity.”

Her conclusion is that


it is modern nationalism that has created the Phoenicians, along with much else of our modern idea of the ancient Mediterranean


and this view originated in the early modern period, developing by the 19th century into concepts of ethnicity with myth at the centre of a constructed past. A good 19th-century example would be Finland (a non-existent “nation”) and its reconstructed “national” epic, the Kalevala, cobbled together by Elias Lonnröt from a number of medieval sources. People need national epics, and if they haven’t got them, then they can annex some history or mythology to feed their new-found national pride.


At the end of her book Quinn returns to Ireland and the analogy of Carthage, which, in spite of the Romans sowing salt, has not been destroyed. Quinn shows us that identity may be fluid, and in the past its national aspect meant so much less than, say, a shared cult of Melqart or a shared propensity for seafaring and trade by people in a certain geographical area. Josephine Quinn’s elegant and erudite book is one which perhaps raises more questions than it answers, but certainly invites us to look at the whole concept of “nationhood” differently, and to question the way human being look at each other and classify themselves. In the end, the Phoenicians are truly everyone and no-one.

In Search of the Phoenicians is meticulously-researched; the densely-packed notes and bibliography stretch to over one hundred pages, and many of those notes are augmented by discussion, further quotation and clarification. This is exactly what scholarship should be, and there is nothing which Quinn writes about that she cannot fill out with textual evidence. There’s a formidably erudite scholar behind this book, but it must be said that Quinn can also communicate readily with readers who are not specialists in Mediterranean civilization.

A nice touch in this book is Quinn’s return to Ireland via (among other Irish writers) James Joyce, who, as she no doubt knows, ended Finnegans Wake with an incomplete sentence that starts again at the beginning.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.