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In Search of the Phoenicians

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

In Search of the Phoenicians

By Josephine C. Quinn. Pp. xxviii + 335. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2017. $35. ISBN 978-0-691-17527-0 (cloth).

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This book is the latest in a series of contributions on the subject of Phoenician identity. The first to launch the trend was S. Moscati, who introduced, in the 1960s, what he called the “Phoenician question,” although his main interest lay in recognizing and appreciating the particular culture that originated in Levantine cities such as Arwad, Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre, among others. Quinn’s book tackles the question and hopes to provide a definitive answer: the people we consider to be “the Phoenicians” did not consider themselves “Phoenicians” but, rather, inhabitants of a particular city (41–3). As a corollary, notions such as “Phoenicia” and “Phoenicians” should be regarded as external labels, primarily elaborated by the Greeks, that do not correspond to an ethnic group.

It may seem revolutionary to nonspecialists, but to the ears of a specialist, this sounds like a familiar argument, since it was put forth many years ago, as acknowledged by Quinn (xxiv). Actually, the book is aimed at the general public, as was the case when the author presented the material at the Balmuth Lectures in 2012 at Tufts University. Therefore, this book could be regarded as something that can be shouted from the rooftops; far from being groundbreaking, Quinn’s thesis probably does need to be echoed outside of our corridors to reach the (large) part of the public who consider “Phoenicians” to be a quite definite and unified people.

The book is composed of nine chapters divided into three parts and includes a brief introduction and conclusion and, on a general level, aims to embrace the problem of Phoenicians from a broad perspective, from antiquity to the present day. Given such a perspective, which constitutes an appreciable aspect of the book, it can sometimes be lacking in detail. The first part, “Phantom Phoenicians” (chs. 1–3), presents the context of the issue, starting with the understanding of Phoenicians as a people from the Renaissance to the modern Phoenician or Punic nationalisms in Lebanon or Tunisia. The analysis moves then, respectively, to the general absence of the word “Phoenician” in direct sources by individuals that we consider to be Phoenicians themselves, and to the fact that the label “Phoenician” was already, in antiquity, an external one, well established especially in Graeco-Roman literature. The second part, “Many Worlds” (chs. 4–6), deconstructs the way material culture (numismatic and iconographic in particular) and some ritual elements (such as the Tophet and the spread of the cult of Melqart) contributed to the scholarly creation of a Phoenician identity. The third part, “Imperial Identities” (chs. 7–9), analyzes the phenomenon of “Phoenicianism,” or the “vivid afterlife of these phantom Phoenicians” (xxiii). Quinn’s analysis begins in the ancient Levant, considers the so-called “colonial world” or the West (especially as a political legitimization by Carthage), then finishes with European nations and, in particular, with a case study of English and Irish intellectuals. The volume, enriched with maps and many images, ends with a set of notes, a bibliography, and indexes.

A few general concerns can be raised. The first is how Quinn uses archaeological data against the idea of a collective Phoenician identity. Following the general trend that dismisses the “pots and people” paradigm, she rightly shows that religious traditions and practices can be interpreted differently (e.g., not only in terms of continuity and derivation but also in terms of dissociation and later legitimation; 68–73). Although the book does not include a detailed analysis of a large body of material culture, pottery is especially notably missing. The author’s major contribution is in proposing a shift in perspective from a global identity (the Phoenicians as a whole) to smaller identities (such as the central Mediterranean area and Carthage’s network). However, two interpretations raised by Quinn signal the need for caution. First, the lack of any form of Phoenician literature is interpreted as the complete absence of any literary production whatsoever (59–62). This consideration not only underestimates the role of oral tradition and the possibility that writing on perishable materials existed but also raises a circular argument. Quinn rightly stresses that peoples, such as the Greeks and Israelites, from whom large portions of written texts have been passed down over the centuries, developed the consciousness of a collective identity in their literature (59–62). Although she is correct in pointing out that literature plays a pivotal role in shaping identities, she probably goes too far in suggesting that the lack of literature in Phoenician culture portrays a different forma mentis, ignorant about the very notion of narrative identity. Secondly, the Tophet, found only in the central Mediterranean, is interpreted as a kind of heretic practice that forced different Levantine groups to migrate westward “because of local disapproval of their religious customs” (100). According to Quinn, the religious customs connected to the Tophet included the sacrifice of children. Without delving into this controversial issue further, as it is far from widely accepted, the existence of “ritual communities” (102) migrating for cultic reasons hardly fits the polytheistic and variegate religious picture, although incomplete, that we know for the ancient Near East but rather it recalls other historical periods and different religious systems. In summary, on the basis of our current knowledge, none of these hypotheses can be supported by any kind of evidence. Nevertheless, the possible controversies on specific topics do not weaken Quinn’s major thesis, which regards the Phoenicians as a network of dynamic and overlapping communities and not as a people.

The second general concern is theoretical. One should congratulate Quinn on her courage to address directly the notion of “identity,” which is a very tricky word that can be understood, misunderstood, and used in many ways. Although Quinn tackles the notion mainly from the perspective of ethnic identity, she is well aware that criticizing the notion of “Phoenicians” as a uniform people does not imply the absence of any other form of collective identity. In particular, the entirety of the second part of the book is dedicated to embedded identities and smaller-scale identities. Besides this pivotal change in perspective, for the sake of fairness one can note that despite her deconstruction of “Phoenician identity,” the author is not equally attentive to foreign identities. For instance, in order to highlight the eclectic and cosmopolitan character of Phoenician culture (esp. in ch. 4), she draws heavily on a rich and traditional reservoir of ethnic labels, such as Israelite, Egyptian, Greek, Cypriot, Italian, and Persian, without criticism or qualification.

This leads to the last reflection. On a general level, the book suffers from a predominant orientation toward classical sources and the city of Carthage, reflecting the author’s background and interests. In this regard, the deconstruction of the Phoenicians is mainly carried out from a late and Western perspective, far from the Levantine coast. However, clues and comparisons to solve the Phoenician puzzle must also be found in the Orient. For this reason, the book, at least in part, misses out on an opportunity to address the problem in a Levantine context.

For the sake of comparison, Israelite studies could have supported and fostered Quinn’s research, but the absence of significant titles concerning ancient Israel highlights the problem of insufficient dialogue among disciplines. Moreover, discussion of the contemporary construction of “Phoenicianism” has direct parallels with studies on the notion of Israel in the diaspora, such as those carried out by Sand in The Invention of the Jewish People (London 2009) and The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland (London 2012). A close look at the current panorama of Israelite studies, no longer apologetic and Bible-oriented, provides supportive interpretations for the historian of antiquity. For instance, the argument that different levels of collective identity were willingly accepted by Israelites, especially in the diaspora would perfectly reecho Quinn’s emphasis on embedded identities or smaller scale identities. This situation intersected languages and perspectives, such as the autochthonous category of “Israel” and the Greek one of “ioudaioi,” a term that should be better translated as “Judeans” than as “Jews.” In other words, a consensus is growing to reappraise the ethnic-religious identity of ancient Israelites in terms of geographic origin. One could ask oneself, for example, whether a geographic understanding of the term “Phoenician” would not fit our documentation better than the ethnic one. After all, “phoinikes” was a generic term for describing a kind of redskin people (etymology never provided by the author, but possibly important for a nonspecialist reader) and, quite early on, Phoenicia became a designation that is consistently used for the Levantine coast.

This exercise of comparativism shows the extent to which Quinn’s approach is relevant on a broader level, not only for Phoenician studies. Indeed, this book can be profitably read by a wide public of readers. On a methodological level, its main merit is to have shown how deeply ancient and modern political propaganda affects collective memories. Quinn perfectly demonstrates how much our current disciplines are not only indebted to but also shaped by a long sedimentation of stereotypes, images, and expressions that we innocently reproduce. Finally, this highly valuable book is a product of a relatively recently evolved discipline—Phoenician and Punic studies—which still needs to clarify its agenda and its relation with neighboring fields of study and, most of all, one which is in need of academic recognition.

Fabio Porzia
Université de Toulouse–Jean Jaurès

Book Review of In Search of the Phoenicians, by Josephine C. Quinn

Reviewed by Fabio Porzia

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.porzia

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