Cultures > Phoenicia



Both the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians extensively colonized vast areas of Europe, along the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. In doing so, they spread their culture, which strongly influenced the local tribes. For the Greeks, this is called “Hellenization”.The Greeks mainly focused their colonization efforts on Italy and the Black Sea. Especially Sicily was a major Greek colony, with the bustling trade port Syracus at its center. Greek influence was also felt in Cyprus, and the northern Levant. As these regions were also targeted by Phoenician colonization, the cultures not always mixed in peace, but direct conflict occurred. The probably least known fact is that Greece set up colonies as far north as the Crimea (in modern-day Ukraine), and expeditions to the Caucasus region were not unknown (Jason and the Argonauts comes to mind, stealing the Golden Fleece of Kolchis).Phoenician colonization was more focused on the western Mediterranean. The probably most prominent and important Phoenician colony is Carthage. From there, Phoenicians set up colonies all along the north African coast and in modern-day Spain. While the Greek colonization was very much concerned with spreading Hellenic culture, the Phoenicians were traders, and more concerned with making money. While many Phoenician colonies disappeared and were taken over by other cultures after the decline of Phoenicia, Carthage outlasted the Phoenician empire… and rose to become an even stronger power in the western Mediterranean, which would eventually bring fear into the citizens of Rome.Phoenicia lived its longest life under the Phoenicians, the ancient people whose name was given to this land we know today as Lebanon. After the conquest of Phoenicia by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, it took on new life as Greek-dominated Phoenicia. When the Romans took their turn as conquerors of Phoenicia, it then began to live as Roman-dominated Phoenicia. Each of these eras had its own unique character.Phoenicians in PhoeniciaFrom their earliest days in Byblos, the Phoenicians developed a unique and memorable society around their sea trade and much-desired cedar. They founded cities at Sidon and Tyre, then spread up and down the coast of what would one day be known as Lebanon creating cities at Beirut, Arwad, and other locations. Inland they went high into the Lebanon Mountains and down the eastern side into the Bekaa Valley, where Zahlé and other cities grew.Phoenicia also extended across the sea to many colonies such as Carthage in North Africa, Ikosim (Algiers) in Algeria, Tingis (Tangier) in Morocco, Gadir (Cadiz) in Spain, as well as colonies in Sardinia, Corsica, Malta, Sicily, Crete, Santorini, Rhodes, Cyprus and many other locations.During this time the Phoenicians were largely independent and self-reliant, though always attentive to their relationships with larger and more populous lands such as those of Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome. In their later years they frequently had "overlords" on the mainland part of Phoenicia, however the freedom of the seas and their many colonies allowed them considerable independence and negotiating room, even on the mainland. When the neighboring Hebrews were taken away to Babylon in captivity, the Phoenicians in Phoenicia simply paid tribute in gold to Babylon -- then continued to live in their own cities and went about their business.This independence was reduced in 332 BC when Alexander the Great arrived with his army and placed mainland Phoenicia under Greek control. It plummeted further when Rome destroyed Carthage in 146 BC, ending the overseas "safety valve" of the Phoenicians.Greeks in PhoeniciaThe life of Phoenicia became less glamorous under Greek rule, particularly after 146 BC, as the people of Phoenicia adjusted to Greek government and language. This was not entirely "Greek" as we normally think of it, with decisions coming from Greece, because upon the death of Alexander the Great his empire was split into three parts: Greece, Egypt and Asia. Phoenicia fell into the Asian empire, ruled by a king in near-by Antioch. Nevertheless, the language of administration, if not in the streets, was Greek, and life went on.The Greeks had their own problems, so the people of Phoenicia retained a moderate degree of freedom to conduct their affairs. The king at Antioch was preoccupied with rebellions and wars in the region now known as Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as other concerns. Life in Phoenicia was such that when Hannibal lost the Second Punic War to Rome, he fled Carthage and took up residence in lands belonging to the king of Antioch. That was not much protection, however, for the Romans pursued Hannibal to the city of Libyssa, where he took poison to avoid capture.The Romans were also fighting ongoing wars with the kings of Greece, eventually subduing those lands and working their way around to Phoenicia. The Roman general Pompey marched into Phoenicia in victory during 63 BC, and planted the banner of his legion there.Romans in PhoeniciaDuring this period, the attention of the Romans was mostly directed elsewhere. The neighboring Hebrews fought numerous revolts against the Rome, as well as raising a carpenter's son named Jesus of Nazareth who caused an upheaval of a different nature. One of the few areas in which the people of Phoenicia caught the attention of Rome was in their strong foundation of law. There were three great schools of law during the Roman period, and they were at Rome, Constantinople and Beirut. The other significant area was in houses of worship, due to the massive temples built at Baalbek, which were believed to have been placed upon an earlier Phoenician temple.When the huge and ponderous Roman empire eventually became split between East and West, Phoenicia fell into the Eastern half. The emperor for this half resided at Constantinople, which is today known as Istanbul. When the Western half of the Roman empire was destroyed by the fall of Rome and other depredations in Europe by Goths, Vandals and others, the Eastern empire just went on as before. Over time, the Eastern Roman empire has become known as the Byzantine Empire. Phoenicia likewise continued as before, simply acknowledging the Byzantine overlord. Christianity came to Phoenicia during this time, and in short order virtually the whole country was Christian.Those hundreds of years of Roman and Byzantine rule came to an end in the Arab Conquest that took place in 636 AD. The uneasy relationship that came into existence at that time between Muslims and Christians has continued in greater or lesser degree to the present day.Legacy of PhoeniciaEven though the Greeks called this place Phoenicia, there was a much older name for the land. The Lebanon Mountains were known as such from time immemorial, and the cedars brought down from the mountains were the lifeblood of the early Phoenicians. The Greek name of Phoenicia was eventually replaced by the name Lebanon, consistent with the early history of the people and the land. The boundaries of Lebanon today are remarkably similar to the old boundaries of Phoenicia, and the land is still home to many descendants of the original Phoenicians. They live today with much of their original Phoenician culture still visible, albeit with Greek, Roman, Arab and other contributions.The long and remarkable story of Phoenicia and the Phoenician people is told in Phoenician Secrets: Exploring the Ancient Mediterranean, which includes the arrival of the Greeks and Romans.
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