Phoenicia and the Mediterranean (1200-500 BCE)

Who were the Phoenicians?

Phoenicians: "Semitic-Speaking Canaanites living on the coast of modern Lebanon and Syria in the first millennium BCE. From major cities such as Tyre and Sidon, Phoenician merchants and sailors explored the Mediterranean, engaged in widespread commerce, and founded Carthage and other colonies in the western Mediterranean" (Bulliet, P. 90)
While the Phoenicians played a crucial role in the development of this area, little is known about the cultural and social aspects of Phoenician life; more is known about that of the Carthaginians (the city of Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians) because of the records that they kept. Because the two areas were separated by many miles, they developed slightly differently [warranting a somewhat unbalanced SCHEP chart].

phoenicia map 1.png

Brief Time Line:

1200 BCE- Canaanite communities shift to a city-state way of life and government. Seaborne commerce, especially near the coasts of modern-day Syria and Lebanon, becomes more popular.

1100 BCE- Byblos, Berytus, Sidon, and Tyre are the chief city states of the Phoenician Empire

1000 BCE-Byblos became the premiere city-state because it served as a distribution center for raw materials from Mt. Lebanon and Egypt.

1000 BCE- Tyre’s rise to prominence was led by King Hiram. This city-state gained influence through access to silver, food and trade routes to the East and South.

900 BCE- The Phoenicians established colonies on Cyprus

814 BCE- Carthage was founded in the West

800 BCE- Tyre took control of Sidon; by this point the Phoenicians dominated Mediterranean trade

721 BCE- Nearby, Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel

701 BCE- Until this time the Phoenicians had paid tribute to the Assyrian kings. Tyre finally fell to the Assyrian army in 701.

701 BCE- After the Fall of Tyre, Sidon became the leading city.

700 BCE- “Phoenician triangle” was fully formed—numerous settlements in the western Mediterranean.

500 BCE- religious practice of sacrificing of children involved more of the general population by 500; such religious practices were not supported by neighboring communities.

400-200 BCE- Carthage was at war with Rome and Greece (on and off

What were the Phoenicians most famous for?

The Development of the phonetic alphabet

  • alphabet contained about two dozen symbols
  • each symbol represented a sound
  • only consonants, no vowels
  • little evidence/original script survives becausepapyrus is perishable
  • this alphabet revolutionized communication and lessened the demand/need for professional scribes
  • the Phoenician alphabet is the basis of modern alphabets



  • Not much is known about internal affairs in Phoenicia-- but it is thought that the "political arena" was dominated by the most prominent merchant families in each community.
  • On an international scale, the Phoenicians played a crucial role in politics. Their extensive overseas settlement granted them access to new sources of trade goods and new trading partners.
  • Foreign policy was centered around trade and focused on “protecting the sea lanes, gaining access to raw materials, and fostering trade” (Bulliet, p.94)
  • Phoenician communities looked to Carthage and other territories for naval protection
  • Maintained a working relationship with the Assyrians through trading and supplying partnerships
  • More is known about the political situation of Carthage.
    • Magistrates heard legal cases
    • Two "judges" were elected each year from upperclass families; these heads of state served both administrative and judicial functions
    • Had a senate: comprised of members from the leading merchant families, the members sat for life and made decisions for the state
    • There were some elections via voting/public assembly
    • Political system can be considered a Merchant Aristocracy. This elite group was not fixed or closed like those in other civilizations (ex. the aristocracy of Greece and Rome). Any citizen had a chance to become successful and gain respect/power. This helped Carthage to avoid many political problems.
    • Military command was separated from the civilian government
    • The Carthaginian navy held control of the Western Mediterranean for hundreds of years



  • Economic system was centered around seaborne trade and commerce
  • Developed new types of manufacturing
  • by 900 BCE the Phoenician trade network dominated the entire Mediterranean with a network of ports around the area
  • described as a "maritime commercial monopoly" (Bulliet, p. 94)
  • Specialized in:
    • Raw materials like: cedar, pine, metals, incense, and papyrus
    • Foodstuffs like: wine, dried fish, salted meats, and spices
    • luxury goods like: glass, carved ivory, and textiles (dyed with rare and prized purple pigments)

Human interaction with the environment:

  • The Phoenicians made excellent use of the natural resources around them, especially the Mediterranean sea
  • They were innovators of shipbuilding and seafaring-- crafting countess ships called galleys. These ships could hold as many as 170 rowers at one time and set the standards for naval technology at the time.
Naval technology: innovations, galleys, as many as 170 rowers, set standards for naval technology


  • The city of Tyre had a marketplace, a palace, a treasury, many archives, numerous temples, and approximately 30,000 inhabitants
  • The Phoenicians valued art and culture
  • Competition between the Greeks and the Phoenicians arose, promoting new innovations and intermixing of cultural ideas and practices
  • More is known about the culture of Carthage:
    • more militaristic but citizens were not required to serve in army
    • most people were involved with either trading businesses or the navy
    • Carthage had and inner harbor equipped with many warships
    • the city was surrounded by high walls and protected by a watchtower
    • city center consisted of mostly multistory apartment buildings
    • population of around 400,000
    • ethnically diverse
    • Religion (polytheistic): gods had to be appeased by worshipers --> influential citizens would sacrifice their own children in times of crisis
      • tophets: walled enclosures where thousands of urns containing burned childrens bones were buried in sacrifice to the gods


  • Phoenicians readily intermarried with other peoples
  • Economic and social mobility allowed people to be successful and to become influential


Bulliet, Richard, et al. Earth and Its People, AP Edition, (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011)

"Phoenician Alphabet Illustration." Web. <>.

Tignor, Robert, Chapter outline (Chapter 4: First Empires and Common Cultures, 1200–350 BCE) <>

Tignor, Robert. Map of The Levantine Borderland 1000-400 BCE, Worlds Together Worlds Apart, 2nd Edition (New York: Norton, 2009) <>

Trethewey, Ken, Dr. "The Phoenicians." Pharology. Web. 14 Sept. 2012. <>.