In Search of the Phoenicians

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Josephine Quinn
Miriam S. Balmuth Lectures in Ancient History and Archaeology
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , December
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In In Search of the Phoenicians, Josephine Quinn sets out to interrogate the manifold meanings that the ethnic identity “Phoenician” conjured up for the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as the inhabitants of early modern European and Mediterranean nation-states. Her conclusion, in brief, is that the Phoenicians “did not in fact exist as a self-conscious collective or ‘people’” (xviii). To support this conclusion, Quinn rallies epigraphic, numismatic, cartographic, and a host of other forms of evidence, ranging geographically from North Africa to the North Atlantic, and periodically from the Bronze Age to modern nation-states. By showing the idea of the Phoenicians’ wide-reaching and enduring influence from such vastly different periods and regions, Quinn effectively demonstrates that ancient ideas and assumptions continue to persist until today, and that it is worthwhile pursuing these “afterlives.” Ultimately, Quinn concludes, “identity claims are always … a means to another end, and being Phoenician is in all the instances I have surveyed here a political rather than a personal statement” (204). Quinn ultimately concludes by crediting modern nationalism with creating the Phoenicians.

Quinn divides In Search of the Phoenicians into three distinct parts, with each part containing three chapters. Part 1 focuses on the difficulty of assigning an identity to a group of people who have not identified themselves as Phoenicians. Nevertheless, says Quinn, rather than undercutting the significance of the Phoenicians, this actually made their identity more pliable: for example, Quinn’s first chapter explores how modern nation-states use the symbol of Phoenicia to rally support for their cause. Here she explores the concrete claims made by the “New Phoenicians” under the French mandate for Syria and Lebanon, who desired self-governance. By appealing to a supposed ancient past, they claimed they had a right to their land.

Part 2, “Many Worlds,” asks whether the ancient “Phoenicians” actually existed. Two of the three chapters in part 2 focus on the cults of Melqart and Baal Hammon as examples of communities established outside of the Levant. More specifically, Quinn looks at the practice of child sacrifice as a means of establishing distance from other groups in the Central Mediterranean. She examines the deity Melqart to demonstrate how the “Phoenicians” (Quinn variously labels the group as “Phoenicians,” “Phoenician speakers,” or in relation to their city: Tyrian, Sidonian, and so on) were able to create ties with unlike groups.

Finally, part 3 explores how and why people began identifying as Phoenician, beginning with the 4th-century CE Greek novelist Heliodorus and ending with examples from Ireland and Britain. Most interestingly, Quinn traces the development of the 6th-century BCE settlement of Lepcis, and demonstrates how Rome used language (here Punic) to serve their own imperial ends.

As a book concerned with the extension of the ethnic term “Phoenician” after the traditional chronologies chart the group’s demise, In Search of the Phoenicians is aware of the contemporary scholarship on colonialism, trade, and material culture. Quinn’s theoretical approach is reminiscent of some of the work of anthropologist Michael Dietler. They both significantly reject Braudelian understandings of the modern world as fundamentally new, yet also reject a linear and determined colonialism that began since time immemorial. Rather, Dietler and Quinn refer back to archaeological data to reconstruct identity and power relations in the ancient world. Parts 1 and 3 capitalize on theoretical models that treat cultural identity as emergent; Quinn goes further and sets these cultural identities within the context of colonialism, imperialism, and its relationship to the nation-state. It is here that Quinn’s book makes its most interesting point. By highlighting the absence of archaeological data for what appears to be a case of invented tradition, she questions the grounds for our knowledge of the Phoenicians.

The book raises broader questions about what precisely counts as an ethnic group, given that ethnic identities are always fluid. Quinn adopts Anthony Smith’s definition of an ethnic group, summarizing his work: “a collective name, a common myth of descent, a shared history, a sense of solidarity, an association with a specific territory, and a distinctive shared culture” (25). But such identity markers place an undue burden on potentially smaller ethnic groups that do not have the resources, or even the desire, to voice such identification markers, even though the lack of desire to be identified as a group might constitute some sort of bond. Moreover, what might be considered credible data? Do biblical texts, for example, looking backwards at least a couple hundred years count as evidence for an “Israelite” identity?

Quinn also attempts to reorient what “community” means by asking how the Phoenician community would have understood themselves. She gives precedence to inscriptions or evidence coming directly from the cities traditionally considered to be Phoenician (Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, Carthage, and so on). And while there are thousands of inscriptions coming from the coastal city-states region typically considered Phoenician, none of them self-identify as part of a larger ethnic identity. Quinn makes an important distinction between self-identifications, and those identities thought up by others. However, some examples, such as the discussion of Philo of Byblos’s account of the Phoenicians as an invention, are difficult to use as evidence that the Phoenicians never really existed. Quinn points to the fact that Philo contains contradictory myths as the key to claiming that the Phoenicians had no shared foundational mythology (48), yet it could be reasonably asked whether a single foundational myth is necessary, possible, or even measurable. Can the same requirement be placed upon Egyptian and Assyrian ethnic groups, or even among the data-rich multiplicity of ethnic groups within modern nation-states such as the United States or England? Is there a single American or English identity, and how might one go about finding this out other than examining the single myth promulgated by an elite? One other detail that might be considered is Philo’s commentary on the Phoenician’s cosmogony. Albert Baumgarten notes the constant use of the conjunction καιin poetic parallelism, a form typical of Semitic poetry (The Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos: A Commentary, Brill, 1981). Might this suggest that Philo possesses a direct form of knowledge about some sort of ethnic group according to Quinn’s criteria? 

Despite these remaining questions, Quinn does a splendid job of drawing out the fluidity and power of identity claims. While In Search of the Phoenicians does not decisively prove that the “Phoenicians” never existed as an identifiable ethnic group, this claim is not really its most significant or illuminating argument. Rather, Quinn provides an important contribution to theories of identity, colonialism and its impact, and Phoenicianism and its later instantiations in both the ancient and modern worlds.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aron Tillema is a doctoral student in the graduate group of the Study of Religion at the University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Josephine Quinn is Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College. She is the coeditor ofThe Hellenistic West andThe Punic Mediterranean.

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