History of Phoenicia - George Rawlinson

Phoenicia Under the Romans

(65 B.C. to 650 A.D.)

Syria made a Roman province, B.C. 65—Privileges granted by Rome to the Phoenician cities—Phoenicia profits by the Roman suppression of piracy, but suffers from Parthian ravages—The Phoenicians offend Augustus and lose their favoured position, but recover it under later emperors—Mention of the Phoenician cities in the New Testament—Phoenicia accepts Christianity—Phoenician bishops at the early Councils—Phoenician literature at this date—Works of Antipater, Apollonius, Philo, Hermippus, Marinus, Maximus, and Porphyry—School of law at Berytus—Survival of the Phoenician commercial spirit—Survival of the religion—Summary.

The kingdom of the Seleucidae came to an end through its own internal weakness and corruption. In B.C. 83 their subjects, whether native Asiatics or Syro-Macedonians, were so weary of the perpetual series of revolts, civil wars, and assassinations that they invited Tigranes, the king of the neighbouring Armenia, to step in and undertake the government of the country. Tigranes ruled from B.C. 83 till B.C. 69, when he was attacked by the Romans, to whom he had given just cause of offence by his conduct in the Mithridatic struggle. Compelled by Lucullus to relinquish Syria, he retired to his own dominions, and was succeeded by the last Seleucid prince, Antiochus Asiaticus, who reigned from B.C. 69 to B.C. 65. Rome then at length came forward, and took the inheritance to which she had become entitled a century and a quarter earlier by the battle of Magnesia, and which she could have occupied at any moment during the interval, had it suited her purpose. The combat with Mithridates had forced her to become an Asiatic power; and having once overcome her repugnance to being entangled in Asiatic politics, she allowed her instinct of self-aggrandizement to have full play, and reduced the kingdom of the Seleucidae into the form of a Roman province.

The province, which retained the name of Syria, and was placed under a proconsul, whose title was "Praeses Syriae," extended from the flanks of Amanus and Taurus to Carmel and the sources of the Jordan, and thus included Phoenicia. The towns, however, of Tripolis, Sidon, and Tyre were allowed the position of "free cities," which secured them an independent municipal government, under their own freely elected council and chief magistates. These privileges, conferred by Pompey, were not withdrawn by Julius Caesar, when he became master of the Roman world; and hence we find him addressing a communication respecting Hyrcanus to the "Magistates, Council, and People of Sidon." A similar regard was shown for Phoenician vested rights by Anthony, who in B.C. 36, when his infatuation for Cleopatra was at its height, and he agreed to make over to her the government of Palestine and of Coelesyria, as far as the river Eleutherus, especially exempted from her control, despite her earnest entreaties, the cities of Tyre and Sidon. Anthony also wrote more than one letter to the "Magistates, Council, and People of Tyre," in which he recognised them as "allies" of the Roman people rather than subjects.

So far the Phoenicians would seem to have gained rather than lost by exchanging the dominion of Syria for that of Rome. They gained also greatly by the strictness with which Rome kept the police of the Eastern Mediterranean. For many years previously to B.C. 67 their commerce had been preyed upon to an enormous extent by the piratical fleets, which, issuing from the creeks and harbours of Western Cilicia and Pamphylia, spread terror on every side, and made the navigation of the Levant and Aegean as dangerous as it had been in the days anterior to Minos. Pompey, in that year, completely destroyed the piratical fleets, attacked the pirates in their lairs, and cleared them out from every spot where they had established themselves. Voyages by sea became once more as safe as travels by land; and a vigilant watch being kept on all the coasts and islands, piracy was never again permitted to gather strength, or become a serious evil. The Phoenician merchants could once more launch their trading vessels on the Mediterranean waters without fear of their suffering capture, and were able to insure their cargoes at a moderate premium.

But their connection with Rome exposed the Phoenicians to some fresh, and terrible, perils. The great attack of Crassus on Parthia in the year B.C. 53 had bitterly exasperated that savage and powerful kingdom, which was quite strong enough to retaliate, under favourable circumstances, upon the mighty mistress of the West, and to inflict severe sufferings upon Rome's allies, subjects, and dependencies. After a preliminary trial of strength in the years B.C. 522 and 51, Pacorus, the son of Orodes, in B.C. 40, crossed the Euphrates in force, defeated the Romans under Decidius Saxa, and carried fire and sword over the whole of the Syrian presidency. Having taken Apamea and Antioch, he marched into Phoenicia, ravaged the open country, and compelled all the towns, except Tyre, to surrender. Tyre, notwithstanding the mole constructed by Alexander, which joined it to the continent, was still regarded as impregnable, unless invested both by sea and land; on which account Pacorus, as he had no naval force, relinquished the idea of capturing it. But all the other cities either gave themselves up or were taken, and the conquest of Phoenicia being completed, the Parthian prince proceeded to occupy Palestine. Jerusalem fell into his hands, and for three years the entire tract between the Taurus range and Egypt was lost to Rome, and formed a portion of the Parthian Empire. What hardships, what insults, what outrages the Phoenicians had to endure during this interval we do not know, and can only conjecture; but the conduct of the Parthians at Jerusalem makes it probable that the inhabitants of the conquered districts generally had much cause for complaint. However, the time of endurance did not last very long; in the third year from the commencement of the invasion the fortune of war turned against the assailants. Rome, under Ventidius, recovered her lost laurels. Syria was reoccupied, and the Parthians driven across the Euphrates, never again to pass it.

In the struggle (which soon followed these events) between Antony and Augustus, Phoenicia had the misfortune to give offence to the latter. The terms on which they stood with Antony, and the protection which he had afforded to their cities against the greed of Cleopatra, naturally led them to embrace his cause; and it should scarcely have been regarded as a crime in them that they did so with ardour. But Augustus, who was certainly not clement by nature, chose to profess himself deeply aggrieved by the preference which they had shown for his rival, and, when he personally visited the East in B.C. 20, inflicted a severe punishment on two at least of the cities. Dio Cassius can scarcely be mistaken when he says that Tyre and Sidon were "enslaved"—i.e. deprived of freedom—by Augustus, who must certainly have revoked the privilege originally granted by Pompey. Whether the privilege was afterwards restored is somewhat uncertain; but there is distinct evidence that more than one of the later emperors was favourably disposed to Rome's Phoenician subjects. Claudius granted to Accho the title and status of a Roman colony; while Hadrian allowed Tyre to call herself a "metropolis."

Two important events have caused Tyre and Sidon to be mentioned in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, in the second year of his ministry, "arose and went" from Galilee "into the borders of Tyre and Sidon," and there wrought a miracle at the earnest request of a "Syro-Phoenician woman." And Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, when at Caesarea in A.D. 44, received an embassy from "them of Tyre and Sidon," with whom he was highly offended, and "made an oration" to the ambassadors. In this latter place the continued semi-independence of Tyre and Sidon seems to be implied. Agrippa is threatening them with war, while they "desire peace." "Their country" is spoken of as if it were distinct from all other countries. We cannot suppose that the Judaean prince would have ventured to take up this attitude if the Phoenician cities had been fully incorporated into the Roman State, since in that case quarrelling with them would have been quarrelling with Rome, a step on which even Agrippa, with all his pride and all his rashness, would scarcely have ventured. It is probable, therefore, that either Tiberius or Claudius had revoked the decree of Augustus, and re-invested the Phoenician cities with the privilege whereof the first of the emperors had deprived them.

Not long after this, about A.D. 57, we have evidence that the great religious and social movement of the age had swept the Phoenician cities within its vortex, and that, in some of them at any rate, Christian communities had been formed, which were not ashamed openly to profess the new religion. The Gospel was preached in Phoenicia as early as A.D. 41. Sixteen years later, when St. Paul, on his return from his third missionary journey, landed at Tyre, and proceeded thence to Ptolemais, he found at both places "churches," or congregations of Christians, who received him kindly, ministered to his wants, prayed with him, and showed a warm interest in his welfare. These communities afterwards expanded. By the end of the second century after Christ Tyre was the seat of a bishopric, which held an important place among the Syrian Sees. Several Tyrian bishops of the second, third, and fourth centuries are known to us, as Cassius (A.D. 198), Marinus (A.D. 253), Methodius (A.D. 267-305), Tyrannion (A.D. 310), and Paulinus (A.D. 328). Early in the fourth century (B.C. 335) Tyre was the seat of a synod or council, called to consider charges made against the great Athanasius, who was taxed with cruelty, impiety, and the use of magical arts. As the bishops who assembled belonged chiefly to the party of Arius, the judgment of the council condemned Athanasius, and deprived him of his see. On appeal the decision was reversed; Athanasius was reinstated, and advanced; the cause with which he had identified himself triumphed; and the Synod of Tyre being pronounced unorthodox, the Tyrian church, like that of Antioch, sank in the estimation of the Church at large.

Tyre also made herself obnoxious to the Christian world in another way. In the middle of the third century she produced the celebrated philosopher, Porphyry, who, of all the literary opponents of Christianity, was the most vigorous and the most successful. Porphyry appears to have been a Phoenician by descent. His original name was Malchus—i.e. Melek or Malik, "king." To disguise his Asiatic origin, and ingratiate himself with the literary class of the day, who were chiefly Greeks or Grecised Romans, he took the Hellenic and far more sonorous appellation of Porphyrius, which he regarded as a sort of synonym, since purple was the royal colour. He early gave himself to the study of philosophy, and was indefatigable in his efforts to acquire knowledge and learning of every kind. In Asia, probably at Tyre itself, he attended the lectures of Origen; at Athens he studied under Apollonius and Longinus; in Rome, whereto he ultimately gravitated, he attached himself to the Neo-Platonic school of Plotinus. His literary labours, which were enormous, had for their general object the establishment of that eclectic system which Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, Jamblichus, and others had elaborated, and were endeavouring to impose upon the world as constituting at once true religion and true philosophy.

He was of a constructive rather than a destructive turn of mind. Still, he thought it of great importance, and a necessity of the times, that he should write a book against the Christians, whose opinions were, he knew, making such progress as raised the suspicion that they would prevail over all others, and in a short time become universal. This polemical treatise ran to fifteen books, and "exhibited considerable acquaintance with both the Jewish and the Christian scriptures." It is now lost, but its general character is well known from the works of Eusebius, Jerome, and others. The style was caustic and trenchant. An endeavour was made to show that both the historical scriptures of the Old Testament and the Gospels and Acts in the New were full of discrepancies and contradictions. The history and antiquities of the Jews, as put forth in the Bible, were examined, and declared to be unworthy of credit. A special attack was made on the genuineness and authenticity of the book of Daniel, which was pronounced to be the work of a contemporary of Antiochus Epiphanes, who succeeded in palming off upon his countrymen his own crude production as the work of the venerated sage and prophet. Prevalent modes of interpreting scripture were passed under review, and the allegorical exegesis of Origen was handled with especial severity. The work is said to have produced a vast effect, especially among the upper classes, whose conversion to Christianity it tended greatly to check and hinder. Answers to the book, or to particular portions of it, were published by Eusebius of Caesarea, by Apollinaris, and by Methodius, Bishop of Tyre; but these writers had neither the learning nor the genius of their opponent, and did little to counteract the influence of his work on the upper grades of society.

The literary importance of the Phoenician cities under the Romans is altogether remarkable. Under Augustus and Tiberius—especially from about B.C. 40 to A.D. 20—Sidon was the seat of a philosophical school, in which the works of Aristotle were studied and explained, perhaps to some extent criticised. Strabo attended this school for a time in conjunction with two other students, named Boethus and Diodotus. Tyre had even previously produced the philosophers, Antipater, who was intimate with the younger Cato, and Apollonius, who wrote a work about Zeno, and formed a descriptive catalogue of the authors who had composed books on the subject of the philosophy of the Stoics. Strabo goes so far as to say that philosophy in all its various aspects might in his day be better studied at Tyre and Sidon than anywhere else. A little later we find Byblus producing the semi-religious historian, Philo, who professed to reveal to the Greeks the secrets of the ancient Phoenician mythology, and who, whatever we may think of his judgment, was certainly a man of considerable learning. He was followed by his pupil, Hermippus, who was contemporary with Trajan and Hadrian, and obtained some reputation as a critic and grammarian.

About the same time flourished Marinus, the writer on geography, who was a Tyrian by birth, and "the first author who substituted maps, mathematically constructed according to latitude and longitude, for the itinerary charts" of his predecessors. Ptolemy of Pelusium based his great work entirely upon that of Marinus, who is believed to have utilised the geographical and hydrographical accumulations of the old Phoenician navigators, besides availing himself of the observations of Hipparchus, and of the accounts given of their travels by various Greek and Roman authors. Contemporary with Marinus was Paulus, a native of Tyre, who was noted as a rhetorician, and deputed by his city to go as their representative to Rome and plead the cause of the Tyrians before Hadrian. A little later we hear of Maximus, who flourished under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus (A.D. 160-190), a Tyrian, like Paulus, and a rhetorician and Platonic philosopher. The literary glories of Tyre culminated and terminated with Porphyry, of whose works we have already given an account.

Towards the middle of the third century after Christ a school of law and jurisprudence arose at Berytus, which attained high distinction, and is said by Gibbon to have furnished the eastern provinces of the empire with pleaders and magistrates for the space of three centuries (A.D. 250-550). The course of education at Berytus lasted five years, and included Roman Law in all its various forms, the works of Papinian being especially studied in the earlier times, and the same together with the edicts of Justinian in the later. Pleaders were forced to study either at Berytus, or at Rome, or at Constantinople, and, the honours and emoluments of the profession being large, the supply of students was abundant and perpetual. External misfortune, and not internal decay, at last destroyed the school, the town of Berytus being completely demolished by an earthquake in the year A.D. 551. The school was then transferred to Sidon, but appears to have languished on its transplantation to a new soil and never to have recovered its pristine vigour or vitality.

It is difficult to decide how far these literary glories of the Phoenician cities reflect any credit on the Phoenician race. Such a number of Greeks settled in Syria and Phoenicia under the Seleucidae that to be a Tyrian or a Sidonian in the Graeco-Roman period furnished no evidence at all of a man having any Phoenician blood in his veins. It will have been observed that the names of the Tyrian, Sidonian, and Berytian learned men and authors of the time—Antipater, Apollonius, Boethus, Diodotus, Philo, Hermippus, Marinus, Paulus, Maximus, Porphyrius—are without exception either Latin or Greek. The language in which the books were written was universally Greek, and in only one or two cases is there reason to suppose that the authors had any knowledge of the Phoenician tongue. The students at Berytus between A.D. 250 and 550 were probably, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, Greeks or Romans. Phoenician nationality had, in fact, almost wholly disappeared in the Seleucid period. The old language ceased to be spoken, and though for some time retained upon the coins together with a Greek legend, became less frequent as time went on, and soon after the Christian era disappeared altogether. It is probable that, as a spoken language, Phoenician had gone out of use even earlier.

In two respects only did the old national spirit survive, and give indication that, even in the nation's "ashes," there still lived some remnant of its "wonted fires." Tyre and Sidon were great commercial centres down to the time of the Crusades, and quite as rich, quite as important, quite as flourishing, commercially, as in the old days of Hiram and Ithobal. Mela speaks of Sidon in the second century after Christ as "still opulent." Ulpian, himself a Tyrian by descent, calls Tyre in the reign of Septimus Severus "a most splendid colony." A writer of the age of Constantine says of it: "The prosperity of Tyre is extraordinary. There is no state in the whole of the East which excels it in the amount of its business. Its merchants are persons of great wealth, and there is no port where they do not exercise considerable influence." St. Jerome, towards the end of the fourth century, speaks of Tyre as "the noblest and most beautiful of all the cities of Phoenicia," and as "an emporium for the commerce of almost the whole world." During the period of the Crusades, "Tyre retained its ancient pre-eminence among the cities of the Syrian coast, and excited the admiration of the warriors of Europe by its capacious harbours, its wall, triple towards the land and double towards the sea, its still active commerce, and the beauty and fertility of the opposite shore." The manufactures of purple and of glass were still carried on. Tyre was not reduced to insignificance until the Saracenic conquest towards the close of the thirteenth century of our era, when its trade collapsed, and it became "a rock for fishermen to spread their nets upon."

The other respect in which the vitality of the old national spirit displayed itself was in the continuance of the ancient religion. While Christianity was adopted very generally by the more civilised of the inhabitants, and especially by those who occupied the towns, there were shrines and fanes in the remote districts, and particularly in the less accessible parts of Lebanon, where the old rites were still in force, and the old orgies continued to be carried on, just as in ancient times, down to the reign of Constantine. The account of the licentious worship of Ashtoreth at Aphaca, which has been already quoted from Eusebius, belongs to the fourth century after our era, and shows the tenacity with which a section of the Phoenicians, not withstanding their Hellenisation in language, in literature, and in art, clung to the old barbarous and awful cult, which had come down to them by tradition from their fathers. A similar worship at the same time maintained itself on the other side of the Lebanon chain in Heliopolis, or Baalbek, where the votaries of impurity allowed their female relatives, even their wives and their daughters, to play the harlot as much as they pleased. Constantine exerted himself to put down and crush out these iniquities, but it is more than probable that, in the secret recesses of the mountain region, whither government officials would find it hard to penetrate, the shameful and degrading rites still found a refuge, rooted as they were in the depraved affections of the common people, to a much later period.

The mission of the Phoenicians, as a people, was accomplished before the subjection to Rome began. Under the Romans they were still ingenious, industrious, intelligent. But in the earlier times they were far more than this. They were the great pioneers of civilisation. Intrepid, inventive, enterprising, they at once made vast progress in the arts themselves, and carried their knowledge, their active habits, and their commercial instincts into the remotest regions of the old continent. They exercised a stimulating, refining, and civilising influence wherever they went. North and south and east and west they adventured themselves amid perils of all kinds, actuated by the love of adventure more than by the thirst for gain, conferring benefits, spreading knowledge, suggesting, encouraging, and developing trade, turning men from the barbarous and unprofitable pursuits of war and bloodshed to the peaceful occupations of productive industry. They did not aim at conquest. They united the various races of men by the friendly links of mutual advantage and mutual dependence, conciliated them, softened them, humanised them.

While, among the nations of the earth generally, brute force was worshipped as the true source of power and the only basis of national repute, the Phoenicians succeeded in proving that as much could be done by arts as by arms, as great glory and reputation gained, as real a power built up, by the quiet agencies of exploration, trade, and commerce, as by the violent and brutal methods of war, massacre, and ravage. They were the first to set this example. If the history of the world since their time has not been wholly one of the potency in human affairs of "blood and iron," it is very much owing to them. They, and their kinsmen of Carthage, showed mankind what a power might be wielded by commercial states. The lesson has not been altogether neglected in the past. May the writer be pardoned if, in the last words of what is probably his last historical work, he expresses a hope that, in the future, the nations of the earth will more and more take the lesson to heart, and vie with each other in the arts which made Phoenicia great, rather than in those which exalted Rome, her oppressor and destroyer?