History of Phoenicia - George Rawlinson

Phoenicia Under the Greeks

(323 to 65 B.C.)

The Phoenicians faithful subjects of Alexander—At his death Phoenicia falls, first to Laomedon, then to Ptolemy Lagi—Is held by the Ptolemies for seventy years—Passes willingly, B.C. 198, under the Seleucidae—Relations with the Seleucid princes and with the Jews—Hellenisation of Phoenicia—Continued devotion of the Phoenicians generally to trade and commerce—Material prosperity of Phoenicia.

Phoenicia continued faithful to Alexander during the remainder of his career. Phoenician vessels were sent across the Aegean to the coast of the Peloponnese to maintain the Macedonian interest in that quarter. Large numbers of the mercantile class accompanied the march of his army for the purposes of traffic. A portion of these, when Alexander reached the Hydaspes and determined to sail down the course of the Indus to the sea, were drafted into the vessels which he caused to be built, descended the river, and accompanied Nearchus in his voyage from Patala to the Persian Gulf. Others still remained with the land force, and marched with Alexander himself across the frightful deserts of Beloochistan, where they collected the nard and myrrh, which were almost its only products, and which were produced in such abundance as to scent the entire region.

On Alexander's return to Babylon, Phoenicia was required to supply him with additional vessels, and readily complied with the demand. A fleet of forty-eight ships—two of them quinqueremes, four quadriremes, twelve triremes, and thirty pentaconters, or fifty-oared galleys—was constructed on the Phoenician coast, carried in fragments to Thapsacus on the Euphrates, and there put together and launched on the stream of the Euphrates, down which it sailed to Babylon. Seafaring men from Phoenicia and Syria were at the same time enlisted in considerable numbers, and brought to Alexander at his new capital to man the ships which he was building there, and also to supply colonists for the coasts of the Persian Gulf and the islands scattered over its surface. Alexander, among his many projects, nourished an intention of adding to his dominions, at any rate, the seaboard of Arabia, and understood that for this purpose he must establish in the Persian Gulf a great naval power, such as Phoenicia alone out of all the countries under his dominion was able to furnish. His untimely death brought all these schemes to an end, and plunged the East into a sea of troubles.

In the division of Alexander's empire, which followed upon his death, Phoenicia was at first assigned, together with Syria, to Laemedon, and the two formed together a separate satrapy. But, after the arrangement of Triparadisus (B.C. 320), Ptolemy Lagi almost immediately attacked Laemedon, dispossessed him of his government, and attached it to his own satrapy of Egypt. Six years later (B.C. 314), attacked in his turn by Antigonus, Ptolemy was forced to relinquish his conquests, none of which offered much resistance excepting Tyre. Tyre, though no more than eighteen years had elapsed since its desolation by Alexander, had, like the fabled phoenix, risen again from its ruins, and through the recuperative energy of commerce had attained almost to its previous wealth and prosperity. Its walls had been repaired, and it was defended by its Egyptian garrison with pertinacity. Antigonus, who was master of the Phoenician mainland, established dockyards at Sidon, Byblus, and Tripolis, set eight thousand sawyers and labourers to cut down timber in Lebanon, and called upon the kings of the coast towns to build him a fleet with the least possible delay. His orders were carried out, and Tyre was blockaded by sea and land for the space of fifteen months, when the provisions failed and the town was forced to surrender itself. The garrison marched out with the honours of war, and Phoenicia became an appendage of the empire (for such it was) of Antigonus.

From Antigonus Phoenicia passed to his son Demetrius, who maintained his hold on it, with some vicissitudes of fortune, till B.C. 287, when it once more passed under the dominion of Ptolemy Lagi. From this time it was an Egyptian dependency for nearly seventy years, and flourished commercially, if it not distinguish itself by warlike exploits. The early Ptolemies were mild and wise rulers. They encouraged commerce, literature, and art. So far as was possible they protected their dominions from external attack, put down brigandage, and ruled with equity and moderation. It was not until the fourth prince of the house of Lagus, Philopator, mounted the throne (B.C. 222) that the character of their rule changed for the worse, and their subjects began to have reason to complain of them. The weakness and profligacy of Philopater tempted Antiochus III. to assume the aggressive, and to disturb the peace which had now for some time subsisted between Syria and Egypt, the Lagidae and the Seleucidae. In B.C. 219 he drove the Egyptians out of Seleucia, the port of Antioch, and being joined by Theodotus, the Egyptian governor of the Coelesyrian province, invaded that country and Phoenicia, took possession of Tyre and Accho, which was now called Ptolemais, and threatened Egypt with subjugation. Phoenicia once more became the battle-field between two great powers, and for the next twenty years the cities were frequently taken and re-taken. At last, in B.C. 198, by the victory of Antiochus over Scopas, and the surrender of Sidon, Phoenicia passed, with Coelesyria, into the permanent possession of the Seleucidae, and, though frequently reclaimed by Egypt, was never recovered.

The change of rulers was, on the whole, in consonance with the wishes and feelings of the Phoenicians. Though Alexandria may not have been founded with the definite intention of depressing Tyre, and raising up a commercial rival to her on the southern shore of the Mediterranean; yet the advantages of the situation, and the interests of the Lagid princes, constituted her in a short time an actual rival, and an object of Phoenician jealousy. Phoenicia had been from a remote antiquity down to the time of Alexander, the main, if not the sole, dispenser of Egyptian products to Syria, Asia Minor, and Europe. With the foundation of Alexandria this traffic passed out of her hands. It may be true that what she lost in this way was "more than compensated by the new channels of eastern traffic which Alexander's conquests opened to her, by the security given to commercial intercourse by the establishment of a Greek monarchy in the ancient dominions of the Persian kings, and by the closer union which now prevailed between all parts of the civilised world."

But the balance of advantage and disadvantage does not even now always reconcile traders to a definite and tangible loss; and in the ruder times of which we are writing it was not to be expected that arguments of so refined and recondite a character should be very sensibly felt. Tyre and Sidon recognised in Alexandria a rival from the first, and grew more and more jealous of her as time went on. She monopolised the trade in Egyptian commodities from her foundation. In a short time she drew to herself, not only the direct Egyptian traffic, but that which her rulers diverted from other quarters, and drew to Egypt by the construction of harbours, and roads with stations and watering places. Much of the wealth that had previously flowed into Phoenicia was, in point of fact, diverted to Egypt, and especially to Alexandria, by the judicious arrangements of the earlier Lagid princes. Phoenicia, therefore, in attaching herself to the Seleucidae, felt that she was avenging a wrong, and though materially she might not be the gainer, was gratified by the change in her position.

The Seleucid princes on their part regarded the Phoenicians with favour, and made a point of conciliating their affections by personal intercourse with them, and by the grant of privileges. At the quinquennial festival instituted by Alexander ere he quitted Tyre, which was celebrated in the Greek fashion with gymnastic and musical contests, the Syrian kings were often present in person, and took part in the festivities. They seem also to have visited the principal cities at other times, and to have held their court in them for many days together. With their consent and permission, the towns severally issued their own coins, which bore commonly legends both in Greek and in Phoenician, and had sometimes Greek, sometimes Phoenician emblems. Both Aradus and Tyre were allowed the privilege of being asylums, from which political refugees could not be demanded by the sovereign.

The Phoenicians in return served zealously on board the Syro-Macedonian fleet, and showed their masters all due respect and honour. They were not afraid, however, of asserting an independence of thought and judgment, even in matters where the kings were personally concerned. On one occasion, when Antiochus Epiphanes was holding his court at Tyre, a cause of the greatest importance was brought before him for decision by the authorities at Jerusalem. The high-priest of the time, Menelaus, who had bought the office from the Syrian king, was accused of having plundered the Temple of a number of its holy vessels, and of having sold them for his own private advantage. The Sanhedrim, who prosecuted Menelaus, sent three representatives to Tyre, to conduct the case, and press the charges against him. The evidence was so clear that the High Priest saw no chance of an acquittal, except by private interest. He therefore bribed an influential courtier, named Ptolemy, the son of a certain Dorymenes, to intercede with Antiochus on his behalf, and, if possible, obtain his acquittal. The affair was not one of much difficulty. Justice was commonly bought and sold at the Syro-Macedonian Court, and Antiochus readily came into the views of Ptolemy, and pronounced the High Priest innocent. He thought, however, that in so grave a matter some one must be punished, and, as he had acquitted Menelaus, he could only condemn his accusers. These unfortunates suffered death at his hands, whereon the Tyrians, compassionating their fate, and to mark their sense of the iniquity of the sentence, decreed to give them an honourable burial. The historian who relates the circumstance evidently feels that it was a bold and courageous act, very creditable to the Tyrian people.

It is not always, however, that we can justly praise the conduct of the Phoenicians at this period. Within six years of the time when the Tyrians showed themselves at once so courageous and so compassionate, the nation generally was guilty of complicity in a most unjust and iniquitous design. Epiphanes, having driven the Jews into rebellion by a most cruel religious persecution, and having more than once suffered defeat at their hands, resolved to revenge himself by utterly destroying the people which had provoked his resentment. Called away to the eastern provinces by a pressing need, he left instructions with his general, Lysias, to invade Judaea with an overwhelming force, and, after crushing all resistance, to sell the surviving population—men, women, and children—for slaves. Lysias, in B.C. 165, marched into Judaea, accompanied by a large army, with the full intention of carrying out to the letter his master's commands. In order to attract purchasers for the multitude whom he would have to sell, he made proclamation that the rate of sale should be a talent for ninety, or less than 3l. a head, while at the same he invited the attendance of the merchants from all "the cities of the sea-coast," who must have been mainly, if not wholly, Phoenicians. The temptation was greater than Phoenician virtue could resist. The historian tells us that "the merchants of the country, hearing the fame of the Syrians, took silver and gold very much, with servants, and came into the Syrian camp to buy the children of Israel for money." The result was a well-deserved disappointment. The Syrian army suffered complete defeat at the hands of the Jews, and had to beat a hasty retreat; the merchants barely escaped with their lives. As for the money which they had brought with them for the purchase of the captives, it fell into the hands of the victorious Jews, and formed no inconsiderable part of the booty which rewarded their valour.

After this, we hear but little of any separate action on the part of the Phoenicians, or of any Phoenician city, during the Seleucid period. Phoenicia became rapidly Hellenised; and except that they still remained devoted to commercial pursuits, the cities had scarcely any distinctive character, or anything that marked them out as belonging to a separate nationality. Greek legends became more frequent upon the coins; Greek names were more and more affected, especially by the upper classes; the men of letters discarded Phoenician as a literary language, and composed the works, whereby they sought to immortalize their names, in Greek. Greek philosophy was studied in the schools of Sidon; and at Byblus Phoenician mythology was recast upon a Greek type. At the same time Phoenician art conformed itself more and more closely to Greek models, until all that was rude in it, or archaic, or peculiar, died out, and the productions of Phoenician artists became mere feeble imitations of second-rate Greek patterns.

The nation gave itself mainly to the pursuit of wealth. The old trades were diligently plied. Tyre retained its pre-eminence in the manufacture of the purple dye; and Sidon was still unrivalled in the production of glass. Commerce continued to enrich the merchant princes, while at the same time it provided a fairly lucrative employment for the mass of the people. A new source of profit arose from the custom, introduced by the Syro-Macedonians, of farming the revenue. In Phoenicia, as in Syria generally, the taxes of each city were let out year by year to some of the wealthiest men of the place, who collected them with extreme strictness, and made over but a small proportion of the amount to the Crown. Large fortunes were made in this way, though occasionally foreigners would step in, and outbid the Phoenician speculators, who were not content unless they gained above a hundred per cent. on each transaction. Altogether, Phoenicia may be pronounced to have enjoyed much material prosperity under the Seleucid princes, though, in the course of the civil wars between the different pretenders to the Crown, most of the cities had, from time to time, to endure sieges. Accho especially, which had received from the Lagid princes the name of Ptolemais, and was now the most important and flourishing of the Phoenician towns, had frequently to resist attack, and was more than once taken by storm.