Wednesday, April 25, 2018


Mark Woolmer, A Short History of the Phoenicians. I.B. Tauris short histories. London: I.B. Tauris, 2017. Pp. xviii, 233. ISBN 9781780766188. $15.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Aaron L. Beek, University of Memphis (

Version at BMCR home site


The 21st century has seen something of a boom in Phoenician studies, including the appearance of a fair number of texts targeted for general readers.1 Woolmer adds to this number with an affordable primer on the Phoenicians that focuses primarily on Phoenicia proper, largely excluding the western colonies.

Woolmer's text is divided into five chapters, topical rather than chronological. Woolmer presents roughly 900 years of Phoenician history and society concisely within 200 pages of content. The result is a readable text that owes much to his own earlier 2011 book as well as a fair bit to Markoe's more detailed 2000 book, particularly in matching its chapter organization.

Woolmer leads off with an introduction on Phoenician identity, including a tantalizing discussion of nomenclature and ethnonyms in Phoenicia. The Phoenicians do not call themselves Phoenicians, but men of Tyre or Sidon or Arwad. When in a later chapter Woolmer claims that 'Phoenician' artisans were present in Samaria (p. 38), however, the meaning of his term in this context is unclear. He follows this examination of nomenclature with an important description of the landscape and assessments of our different archaeological, literary, and epigraphic sources.

The first chapter, "Historical Overview", is precisely that: a rapid-fire assessment of major events in Egypt, Phoenicia, and Syria from the Amarna Period down to Alexander's invasion in 323. It is a clear summary, emphasizing the different conquests, revolts, and tribute-relationships. Phoenician leaders and craftsmen played a clear role in affairs outside of Phoenicia proper. Absent, however, is the difference between Phoenician offshore island cities and mainland coastal cities and the effect this difference had on politics in the Phoenician heyday (not to mention on the choice of sites for colonies). While other authors may overstate the defensive potential of a city on an island, Woolmer ignores the possible impact of this factor in explaining the recalcitrance of the cities like Tyre and Arwad towards Assyrian government and the milder terms they tended to receive. Indeed, I do not believe it is even communicated to the reader that Tyre was on an island until the discussion of Alexander's siege, near the end of the chapter. Also downplayed here is the importance of the later Phoenicians in providing a naval arm to the Assyrians and Persians.

The second chapter, "Government and Society", describes the Phoenicians as living in city-states ruled by kings, and much of the chapter deals with the interplay between a merchant aristocracy, local kings, and foreign overlords. Somewhat confusingly, kings are described as having absolute power (p. 57), while aristocratic councils are "not powerless" (p. 62). Similarly, Woolmer implies that wealth was crucial in creating men of status in Phoenician society, which does not seem to fit his inclusion of the account of Abdalonim, a poor aristocrat who became king of Sidon (p. 61). This chapter also contains good discussions of the role of Phoenician agriculture in both the local and export economies, and aspects of this topic return later in the fifth chapter. Other topics included in this chapter include women in Phoenician society, construction techniques, coinage, and town planning.

Temple construction, cultic practice, belief in the afterlife, and mortuary practice are addressed in the third chapter, "Religion". Excellent care is taken to show what evidence comes from which city and which particular gods seemed to be patrons of each city. Archaeological data forms the backbone of our understanding of Phoenician religion, while our epigraphic records are less varied than we might prefer. Literary records are used to fill in some gaps. Woolmer evades the thorny matter of the child mortuary evidence (and the still thornier question: "Did the Phoenicians practice child sacrifice at any point?") by leaving this evidence out entirely. At some level, this makes sense—much of the material is from the Phoenician colonies, not the mainland—but this comes at the risk of leaving students and general readers unaware of one of the most famous and controversial aspects of Phoenician religion. The role of women in religion is a topic discussed more in the second chapter than this one.

"Art and Material Culture", chapter four, shines as an example of balancing detail, illustrations, and explanation, and may well be the strongest chapter of the book. While Phoenician art has sometimes been seen as derivative or as a mixture of 'Eastern' and 'Western' techniques, that is not the approach pushed here (though Woolmer backpedals slightly in describing later Greek influences on stone statuary, pp. 152-3). Instead, the Phoenicians' art is shown to be eclectic and innovative. Woolmer succinctly discusses ivories, metalwork, statuary, glass, and textiles in a manner accessible to a wide readership. It is noteworthy that Phoenician bronze statues appear to be uncommon in comparison to metal bowls and razors, while some attention is also given here to the unusual custom of sculpted sandstone. Many of these items were also designed for the export trade, particularly ivory and glass, and, of course, the famous dyed textiles.

The fifth chapter, "Overseas Expansion", obviously makes compromises in terms of coverage. Much Carthaginian and Iberian material has been set aside for the sake of brevity (probably rightly). Woolmer takes an evenhanded approach to describing the 'two phases' of Phoenician 'colonization', which involves an early sparsely-populated network of trade routes followed by a more substantial outflow of population from the eastern Phoenician cities after c. 600 BCE. This rejection of single-stimulus explanations for overseas migration in favor of a more gradual diaspora is very useful and explained concisely. After discussing the patterns of settlement, a few settlements in Sardinia, Sicily, Spain, and North Africa are described, often in terms of their major exports. Woolmer also addresses the debate about the later spread of small Phoenician settlements in the good agricultural hinterland: was this move to growing large quantities of wheat motivated by local needs, a breakdown in local trade, or export opportunities? There is also some discussion of Phoenician merchant communities in majority-Greek cities, not often seen in a general text, but Woolmer seems to imply that this was less common in Sicily. Here, some reference to the Syracusans' seizure of Phoenician property in Syracuse (Diod. Sic. 14.46) might have been well employed. Moreover, this chapter would have been an excellent place to resume the discussion of Phoenician identity—now in the overseas context, with diverse populations in the major Phoenician ports.

After a short epilogue, Woolmer provides a substantial (ca. 3 pages) 'for further reading' section, and the useful selection (Anglophone, as expected for the target audience) ranges from seminal texts to articles on specific topics. The text is a bit sparing with endnotes, but those notes do contain references to much research of the last 20 years. In the beginning of the book, there are a few well-written 'content boxes' to explain geography and chronology (e.g., pp. 7-8, 23). Along these lines, a glossary of religious terminology in chapter 3 would help the general reader, no doubt unfamiliar with the Phoenician pantheon and ancient ritual, and a chart of trade imports/exports in chapters 3 or 5 would substantially clarify the Mediterranean economy to the newcomer unfamiliar with the role of products like Lebanese cedar, Greek olive oil, and Egyptian wheat.

The book is well edited, with few typos (one that stands out is p. xvii, where the text reads "c. 750—The city of Motya was founded in Spain," where it should say 'in/off Sicily'). There are apparent omissions in detail, but this is to be expected from a text targeting general readers. The frequent reminders of the difficulty of extrapolating simple general rules from our limited sources are useful for a non-specialist audience reading those simplifications. The three maps are good, but slightly limiting—the northern city of Arqa, between Tripolis and Arwad, is not on any of the maps, nor is its location described when discussed (e.g., pp. 26 and 40). Additionally, a better understanding of the trade routes and colonial patterns might be gained by clearer trade route lines. Moreover, there is little indication on the maps of how and where the Phoenicians and Greeks traded, whether at Crete, Cyprus, or Al Mina, which is noticeable when one considers how much of the book is concerned with trade and trade routes.

So faced with a choice between Woolmer's 2011 Bristol text, Markoe's 2000 California text and Woolmer's 2017 I.B. Tauris text, which should one choose to read? The price point is a factor in favor of this new I.B. Tauris text. Some sections of Woolmer's newer text are only paraphrases (sometimes rather slight ones) of the older text, including the introductions, the sections on classical and biblical sources, and the subsections on the agricultural economy. The clearest distinctions are the integration of the warfare and trade sections of the 2011 book into other sections in the 2017, and the reduction of content on the overseas Phoenicians in favor of mainland Phoenician evidence. Some may find the lack of 'how' the Phoenicians fought wars to detract from the newer text's utility to undergraduates, even if the older text was a bit speculative. Woolmer is somewhat more critical of literary sources in the 2017 text and utilizes more archaeological research, and certainly more 21st-century research. 2 The 2017 text also simplifies or omits a number of complex or controversial matters to a greater degree. On the technical side, the illustrations in the 2017 book are of lower quality than the Markoe volume, and arguably also the 2011 text. Additionally, with the exception of chapter 4 (where the images are quite pertinent), the illustrations are often less immediately relevant to the discussed matter than the images in the other texts. Somewhat surprisingly, the 'for further reading' section is thoroughly different: the majority of the suggestions in the 2011 text were not suggested in this volume, perhaps leading to different perceptions of warfare, religion, and urban archaeology, but also serving as a sign of how much new scholarship has been published.

One might ask whether a new text of this scope on Phoenicia was truly necessary. Those who have Markoe's text or Woolmer's 2011 volume will find relatively little new material in this text, though it is more readable and accessible to non-specialists. For the scholar, the citations of 21st-century articles in place of older scholarship may also make this text worthwhile, but even then there are not as many citations as there might be—not even for students needing further sources for writing essays. Although there is a fair amount to be critical of in this text, there is also a fair amount to applaud. It is not a dense text, and technical terminology is readily explained. The exclusion of much western material does allow a clearer picture of the eastern cities. Those looking to assign an affordable and accessible text for a class to read about the Phoenicians for the first time in earnest should feel comfortable in selecting it over the earlier texts, particularly if coverage of Carthage and the other western Phoenicians either is not desired or will be covered by another text.


1.   For a few in English, see the less specialized texts: Woolmer Ancient Phoenicia: An Introduction (Bristol Classical Press, 2011), Marston The Phoenicians (Benchmark, 2001), Markoe The Phoenicians (University of California Press, 2000); texts more for specialists: Moscati The Phoenicians (I. B. Tauris 2001), and Quinn In Search of the Phoenicians (Princeton, 2017); and some also might include Hoyos The Carthaginians (Routledge, 2010) and Aubet 2001 The Phoenicians in the West (2nd ed., Cambridge, 2001) as texts on the western Phoenicians.
2.   Compare the remarks in a review of Woolmer 2011, BMCR 2012.02.42.

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