History of Phoenicia - George Rawlinson

The People—Origin and Characteristics

Semitic origin of the Phoenicians—Characteristics of the Semites—Place of the Phoenicians within the Semitic group—Connected linguistically with the Israelites and the Assyro- Babylonians—Original seat of the nation, Lower Babylonia—Special characteristics of the Phoenician people—Industry and perseverance—Audacity in enterprise—Pliability and adaptability—Acuteness of intellect—Business capacity—Charge made against them of bad faith—Physical characteristics.

The Phoenician people are generally admitted to have belonged to the group of nations known as Semitic. This group, somewhat irrelevantly named, since the descent of several of them from Shem is purely problematic, comprises the Assyrians, the later Babylonians, the Aramaeans or Syrians, the Arabians, the Moabites, the Phoenicians, and the Hebrews. A single and very marked type of language belongs to the entire group, and a character of homogeneity may, with certain distinctions, be observed among all the various members composing it. The unity of language is threefold: it may be traced in the roots, in the inflections, and in the general features of the syntax. The roots are, as a rule, bilateral or trilateral, composed (that is) of two or three letters, all of which are consonants. The consonants determine the general sense of the words, and are alone expressed in the primitive writing; the vowel sounds do but modify more or less the general sense, and are unexpressed until the languages begin to fall into decay. The roots are, almost all of them, more or less physical and sensuous. They are derived in general from an imitation of nature. "If one looked only to the Semitic languages," says M. Renan, "one would say, that sensation alone presided over the first acts of the human intellect, and that language was primarily nothing but a mere reflex of the external world. If we run through the list of Semitic roots, we scarcely meet with a single one which does not present to us a sense primarily material, which is then transferred, by transitions more or less direct and immediate, to things which are intellectual." Derivative words are formed from the roots by a few simple and regular laws. The noun is scarcely inflected at all; but the verb has a marvellous wealth of conjugations, calculated to express excellently well the external relations of ideas, but altogether incapable of expressing their metaphysical relations, from the want of definitely marked tenses and moods. Inflections in general have a half-agglutinative character, the meaning and origin of the affixes and suffixes being palpable. Syntax scarcely exists, the construction of sentences having such a general character of simplicity, especially in narrative, that one might compare it with the naive utterances of an infant. The utmost endeavour of the Semites is to join words together so as to form a sentence; to join sentences is an effort altogether beyond them. They employ the {lexis eiromene} of Aristotle, which proceeds by accumulating atom on atom, instead of attempting the rounded period of the Latins and Greeks.

The common traits of character among Semitic nations have been summed up by one writer under five heads:—1. Pliability combined with iron fixity of purpose; 2. Depth and force; 3. A yearning for dreamy ease; 4. Capacity for the hardest work; and 5. Love of abstract thought.Another has thought to find them in the following list:—1. An intuitive monotheism; 2. Intolerance; 3. Prophetism; 4. Want of the philisophic and scientific faculties; 5. Want of curiosity; 6. Want of appreciation of mimetic art; 7. Want of capacity for true political life.According to the latter writer, "the Semitic race is to be recognized almost entirely by negative characteristics; it has no mythology, no epic poetry, no science, no philosophy, no fiction, no plastic arts, no civil life; everywhere it shows absence of complexity; absence of combination; an exclusive sentiment of unity." It is not very easy to reconcile these two views, and not very satisfactory to regard a race as "characterised by negatives." Agreement should consist in positive features, and these may perhaps be found, first, in strength and depth of the religious feeling, combined with firm belief in the personality of the Deity; secondly, in dogged determination and "iron fixity of purpose;" thirdly, in inventiveness and skill in the mechanical arts and other industries; fourthly, in "capacity for hard work;" and, fifthly, in a certain adaptability and pliability, suiting the race for expansion and for commerce. All these qualities are perhaps not conspicuous in all the branches of the Semites, but the majority of them will be found united in all, and in some the combination would seem to be complete.

It is primarily on account of their language that the Phoenicians are regarded as Semites. When there are no historical grounds for believing that a nation has laid aside its own original form of speech, and adopted an alien dialect, language, if not a certain, is at least a very strong, evidence of ethnic character. Counter-evidence may no doubt rebut the prima facie presumption; but in the case of the Phoenicians no counter-evidence is producible. They belong to exactly that geographic zone in which Semitism has always had its chief seat; they cannot be shown to have been ever so circumstanced as to have had any inducement to change their speech; and their physical character and mental characteristics would, by themselves, be almost sufficient ground for assigning them to the type whereto their language points.

The place which the Phoenicians occupy within the Semitic group is a question considerably more difficult to determine. By local position they should belong to the western, or Aramaic branch, rather than to the eastern, or Assyro-Babylonian, or to the southern, or Arab. But the linguistic evidence scarcely lends itself to such a view, while the historic leads decidedly to an opposite conclusion. There is a far closer analogy between the Palestinian group of languages—Phoenician, Hebrew, Moabite, and the Assyro-Babylonian, than between either of these and the Aramaic. The Aramaic is scanty both in variety of grammatical forms and in vocabulary; the Phoenician and Assyro-Babylonian are comparatively copious. The Aramaic has the character of a degraded language; the Assyro-Babylonian and the Phoenician are modelled on a primitive type. In some respects Phoenician is even closer to Assyro-Babylonian than Hebrew is—e.g. in preferring at to ah for the feminine singular termination.

The testimony of history to the origin of the Phoenicians is the following. Herodotus tells us that both the Phoenicians themselves, and the Persians best acquainted with history and antiquities, agreed in stating that the original settlements of the Phoenician people were upon the Erythraean Sea (Persian Gulf), and that they had migrated from that quarter at a remote period, and transferred their abode to the shores of the Mediterranean. Strabo adds that the inhabitants of certain islands in the Persian Gulf had a similar tradition, and showed temples in their cities which were Phoenician in character. Justin, or rather Trogus Pompeius, whom he abbreviated, writes as follows:—"The Syrian nation was founded by the Phoenicians, who, being disturbed by an earthquake, left their native land, and settled first of all in the neighbourhood of the Assyrian Lake, and subsequently on the shore of the Mediterranean, where they built a city which they called Sidon on account of the abundance of the fish; for the Phoenicians call a fish sidon." The "Assyrian lake" of this passage is probably the Bahr Nedjif, or "Sea of Nedjif," in the neighbourhood of the ancient Babylon, a permanent sheet of water, varying in its dimensions at different seasons, but generally about forty miles long, and from ten to twenty broad. Attempts have been made to discredit this entire story, but the highest living authority on the subject of Phoenicia and the Phoenicians adopts it as almost certainly true, and observes:—"The tradition relative to the sojourn of the Phoenicians on the borders of the Erythraean Sea, before their establishment on the coast of the Mediterranean, has thus a new light thrown upon it. It appears from the labours of M. Movers, and from the recent discoveries made at Nineveh and Babylon, that the civilisation and religion of Phoenicia and Assyria were very similar. Independently of this, the majority of modern critics admit it as demonstrated that the primitive abode of the Phoenicians ought to be placed upon the Lower Euphrates, in the midst of the great commercial and maritime establishments of the Persian Gulf, agreeable to the unanimous witness of all antiquity."

If we pass from the probable origin of the Phoenician people, and their place in the Semitic group, to their own special characteristics, we shall find ourselves upon surer ground, though even here there are certain points which are debateable. The following is the account of their general character given by a very high authority, and by one who, on the whole, may be regarded as an admirer:—

"The Phoenicians form, in some respects, the most important fraction of the whole group of antique nations, notwithstanding that they sprang from the most obscure and insignificant families. This fraction, when settled, was constantly exposed to inroad by new tribes, was utterly conquered and subjected by utter strangers when it had taken a great place among the nations, and yet by industry, by perseverance, by acuteness of intellect, by unscrupulousness and wait of faith, by adaptability and pliability when necessary, and dogged defiance at other times, by total disregard of the rights of the weaker, they obtained the foremost place in the history of their times, and the highest reputation, not only for the things that they did, but for many that they did not. They were the first systematic traders, the first miners and metallurgists, the greatest inventors (if we apply such a term to those who kept an ever-watchful lookout for the inventions of others, and immediately applied them to themselves with some grand improvements on the original idea); they were the boldest mariners, the greatest colonisers, who at one time held not only the gorgeous East, but the whole of the then half-civilised West in fee—who could boast of a form of government approaching to constitutionalism, who of all nations of the time stood highest in practical arts and sciences, and into whose laps there flowed an unceasing stream of the world's entire riches, until the day came when they began to care for nothing else, and the enjoyment of material comforts and luxuries took the place of the thirst for and search after knowledge. Their piratical prowess and daring was undermined; their colonies, grown old enough to stand alone, fell away from them, some after a hard fight, others in mutual agreement or silently; and the nations in whose estimation and fear they had held the first place, and who had been tributary to them, disdained them, ignored them, and finally struck them utterly out of the list of nations, till they dwindled away miserably, a warning to all who should come after them."

The prominent qualities in this description would seem to be industry and perseverance, audacity in enterprise, adaptability and pliability, acuteness of intellect, unscrupulousness, and want of good faith. The Phoenicians were certainly among the most industrious and persevering of mankind. The accounts which we have of them from various quarters, and the remains which cover the country that they once inhabited, sufficiently attest their unceasing and untiring activity through almost the whole period of their existence as a nation. Always labouring in their workshops at home in mechanical and aesthetic arts, they were at the same time constantly seeking employment abroad, ransacking the earth for useful or beautiful commodities, building cities, constructing harbours, founding colonies, introducing the arts of life among wild nations, mining and establishing fisheries, organising lines of land traffic, perpetually moving from place to place, and leaving wherever they went abundant proofs of their diligence and capacity for hard work. From Thasos in the East, where Herodotus saw "a large mountain turned topsy-turvy by the Phoenicians in their search for gold," to the Scilly Islands in the West, where workings attributable to them are still to be seen, all the metalliferous islands and coast tracts bear traces of Phoenician industry in tunnels, adits, and air-shafts, while manufactured vessels of various kinds in silver, bronze, and terra-cotta, together with figures and gems of a Phoenician type, attest still more widely their manufacturing and commercial activity.

Audacity in enterprise can certainly not be denied to the adventurous race which, from the islands and coasts of the Eastern Mediterranean, launched forth upon the unknown sea in fragile ships, affronted the perils of waves and storms, and still more dreaded "monsters of the deep," explored the recesses of the stormy Adriatic and inhospitable Pontus, steered their perilous course amid all the islets and rocks of the Aegean, along the iron-bound shores of Thrace, Euboea, and Laconia, first into the Western Mediterranean basin, and then through the Straits of Gibraltar into the wild and boundless Atlantic, with its mighty tides, its huge rollers, its blinding rains, and its frequent fogs. Without a chart, without a compass, guided only in their daring voyages by their knowledge of the stars, these bold mariners penetrated to the shores of Scythia in one direction; to Britain, if not even to the Baltic, in another; in a third to the Fortunate Islands; while, in a fourth, they traversed the entire length of the Red Sea, and entering upon the Southern Ocean, succeeded in doubling the Cape of Storms two thousand years before Vasco di Gama, and in effecting the circumnavigation of Africa. And, wild as the seas were with which they had to deal, they had to deal with yet wilder men. Except in Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, and perhaps Italy, they came in contact everywhere with savage races; they had to enter into close relations with men treacherous, bloodthirsty, covetous—men who were almost always thieves, who were frequently cannibals, sometimes wreckers—who regarded foreigners as a cheap and very delicious kind of food. The pioneers of civilisation, always and everywhere, incur dangers from which ordinary mortals would shrink with dismay; but the earliest pioneers, the first introducers of the elements of culture among barbarians who had never heard of it, must have encountered far greater peril than others from their ignorance of the ways of savage man, and a want of those tremendous weapons of attack and defence with which modern explorers take care to provide themselves. Until the invention of gunpowder, the arms of civilised men—swords, and spears, and javelins, and the like—were scarcely a match for the cunningly devised weapons—boomerangs, and blow-pipes, and poisoned arrows, and lassoes—of the savage.

The adaptability and pliability of the Phoenicians was especially shown in their power of obtaining the favourable regard of almost all the peoples and nations with which they came into contact, whether civilised or uncivilised. It is most remarkable that the Egyptians, intolerant as they usually were of strangers, should have allowed the Phoenicians to settle in their southern capital, Memphis, and to build a temple and inhabit a quarter there. It is also curious and interesting that the Phoenicians should have been able to ingratiate themselves with another most exclusive and self-sufficing people, viz. the Jews. Hiram's friendly dealings with David and Solomon are well known; but the continued alliance between the Phoenicians and the Israelites has attracted less attention. Solomon took wives from Phoenicia;Ahab married the daughter of Ithobalus, king of Sidon; Phoenicia furnished timber for the second Temple; Isaiah wound up his prophecy against Tyre with a consolation; our Lord found faith in the Syro-Phoenician woman; in the days of Herod Agrippa, Tyre and Sidon still desired peace with Judaea, "because their country was nourished by the king's country." And similarly Tyre had friendly relations with Syria and Greece, with Mesopotamia and Assyria, with Babylonia and Chaldaea. At the same time she could bend herself to meet the wants and gain the confidence of all the varieties of barbarians, the rude Armenians, the wild Arabs, the barbarous tribes of northern and western Africa, the rough Iberi, the passionate Gauls, the painted Britons, the coarse Sards, the fierce Thracians, the filthy Scyths, the savage races of the Caucasus. Tribes so timid and distrustful as those of Tropical Africa were lured into peaceful and friendly relations by the artifice of a "dumb commerce," and on every side untamed man was softened and drawn towards civilisation by a spirit of accommodation, conciliation, and concession to prejudices.

If the Phoenicians are to be credited with acuteness of intellect, it must be limited to the field of practical enquiry and discovery. Whatever may be said with regard to the extent and variety of their literature—a subject which will be treated in another chapter—it cannot be pretended that humanity owes to them any important conquests of a scientific or philosophic character. Herodotus, who admires the learning of the Persians, the science of the Babylonians,and the combined learning and science of the Egyptians, limits his commendation of the Phoenicians to their skill in navigation, in mechanics, and in works of art. Had they made advances in the abstract, or even in the mixed, sciences, in mathematics, or astronomy, or geometry, in logic or metaphysics, either their writings would have been preserved, or at least the Greeks would have made acknowledgments of being indebted to them. But it is only in the field of practical matters that any such acknowledgments are made. The Greeks allow themselves to have been indebted to the Phoenicians for alphabetic writing, for advances in metallurgy, for improvements in shipbuilding, and navigation, for much geographic knowledge, for exquisite dyes, and for the manufacture of glass. There can be no doubt that the Phoenicians were a people of great practical ability, with an intellect quick to devise means to ends, to scheme, contrive, and execute, and with a happy knack of perceiving what was practically valuable in the inventions of other nations, and of appropriating them to their own use, often with improvements upon the original idea. But they were not possessed of any great genius or originality. They were, on the whole, adapters rather than inventors. They owed their idea of alphabetic writing to the Accadians, their weights and measures to Babylon, their shipbuilding probably to Egypt, their early architecture to the same country, their mimetic art to Assyria, to Egypt, and to Greece. They were not poets, or painters, or sculptors, or great architects, much less philosophers or scientists; but in the practical arts, and even in the practical sciences, they held a high place, in almost all of them equalling, and in some exceeding, all their neighbours.

We should be inclined also to assign to the Phoenicians, as a special characteristic, a peculiar capacity for business. This may be said, indeed, to be nothing more than acuteness of intellect applied in a particular way. To ourselves, however, it appears to be, in some sort, a special gift. As, beyond all question, there are many persons of extremely acute intellect who have not the slightest turn for business, or ability for dealing with it, so we think there are nations, to whom no one would deny high intellectual power, without the capacity in question. In its most perfect form it has belonged but to a small number of nations—to the Phoenicians, the Venetians, the Genoese, the English, and the Dutch. It implies, not so much high intellectual power, as a combination of valuable, yet not very admirable, qualities of a lower order. Industry, perseverance, shrewdness, quickness of perception, power of forecasting the future, power of organisation, boldness, promptness, are among the qualities needed, and there may be others discoverable by the skilful analyst. All these met in the Phoenicians, and met in the proportions that were needed for the combination to take full effect.

Whether unscrupulousness and want of good faith are rightly assigned to the Phoenicians as characteristic traits, is, at the least, open to doubt. The Latin writers, with whom the reproach contained in the expression "Punica fides" originated, are scarcely to be accepted as unprejudiced witnesses, since it is in most instances a necessity that they should either impute "bad faith" to the opposite side, or admit that there was "bad faith" on their own. The aspersions of an enemy are entitled to little weight. The cry of "perfide Albion" is often heard in the land of one of our near neighbours; but few Englishmen will admit the justice of it. It may be urged in favour of the Phoenicians that long-continued commercial success is impossible without fair-dealing and honesty; that where there is commercial fair-dealing and honesty, those qualities become part and parcel of the national character, and determine national policy; and, further, that in almost every one of the instances of bad faith alleged, there is at the least a doubt, of which the accused party ought to have the benefit. At any rate, let it be remembered that the charges made affect the Liby-Phoenicians alone, and not the Phoenicians of Asia, with whom we are here primarily concerned, and that we cannot safely, or equitably, transfer to a mother-country faults which are only even alleged against one of her colonies.

Physically, the Phoenicians appear to have resembled the Assyrians and the Jews. They had large frames strongly made, well-developed muscles, curled beards, and abundant hair. In their features they may have borne a resemblance, but probably not a very strong resemblance, to the Cypriots, who were a mixed people recruited from various quarters. In complexion they belonged to the white race, but were rather sallow than fair. Their hair was generally dark, though it may have been sometimes red. Some have regarded the name "Phoenician" as indicating that they were of a red or red-brown colour; but it is better to regard the appellation as having passed from the country to its people, and as applied to the country by the Greeks on account of the palm-trees which grew along its shores.