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Book Review


Rawlinson, George. Phoenicia, History of a Civilization (London & New York: I. B. Tauris, 2005). 356 pp, $28.95.

     Every mature adult who feels drawn to ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern history retains happy memories of leafing through dusty books in the public library; books that lit a perennial curiosity about remote lands and peoples, books that still attract readers despite the present ubiquity of competitors like the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and video games. Such readers, and younger students whose knowledge of the past derives mostly from electronic sources, will discover many delights in a new reprint of George Rawlinson's Phoenicia, History of a Civilization, despite its obvious shortcomings by current scholarly standards.

     To write a history of Phoenicia as a distinct civilization was, and still is, a major challenge. A cohesive historical narrative must be stitched out of incompletely preserved Phoenician sources and from non-Phoenician, sometimes hostile witnesses. What should be included in a survey? Phoenician mother cities in the Levant were surpassed by some of their own colonies, most notably Qart Hadasht, "New City," or "Carthage" in modern Tunisia, so "Phoenicia" would necessarily include colonial settlements throughout the Mediterranean. It remains unclear whether Levantine and colonial "Phoenicians" considered themselves to be Phoenicians, Canaanites, or members of a particular city-state, like Sidon. Still, ambiguities aside, the collective term "Phoenician" has long evoked vivid images among western readers: Tyrian carpenters installing local cedar in King Solomon's Temple; strong-willed leaders like Elissa/Dido founding Carthage and Sidonian princess Jezebel promoting Baalism in the Northern Kingdom Israel; Levantine workers extracting clear droplets from coastal shellfish, processing them into rich dyes like "royal purple," and transmuting ordinary thread into colorful fabrics for commercial export; sailors who in three years circumnavigated the African continent.

     George Rawlinson faced the challenge with a gifted sibling, philological skills, and academic resources. His older brother, Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, had recorded and deciphered the cuneiform text of King Darius I's rock inscription at Behistun, Iran; further, he helped edit a five-volume set of The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia (1861-84). With both his brother and another colleague, George Rawlinson translated Herodotus' History, whose second book includes a report of the ancient historian's journey to Tyre. Rawlinson himself wrote synoptic histories of the great Near Eastern monarchies—Chaldean, Assyrian, Median, Babylonian, Persian, Parthian, and Sassanian—while serving as Camden Professor of Ancient History at the University of Oxford (1861-1889). Towards the end of his tenure, he turned from the major monarchies to peripheral states. The result of his labors was History of Phoenicia, published in 1889.

     Although Phoenicia: History of a Civilization is the first paperback edition (2005) of Rawlinson's work on this subject, the narrative has been reprinted, unrevised, from the third edition of 1893, titled simply Phoenicia. Rawlinson's organization is clear and orderly. In nineteen chapters, he deftly traces Phoenician history over a span of 1,500 years. His first chapter describes the topography of Levantine Phoenicia, roughly coterminous with southern Syria and coastal Lebanon. The next fifteen chapters cover political and economic history, beginning with settlement of the coast ca. 1400 BCE, moving to the foundation of overseas colonies, and ending with Phoenicia under Roman rule. The final three chapters are organized by topic: architecture; manufactures and works of art; and languages, writing, and literature. Rawlinson writes with warmth about his subject because he sees in the Phoenicians "the people who of all antiquity had most in common with England and the English." (23) He accords to the Phoenicians a place "among the chief of the secondary powers of the earth for nearly nine hundred years" (350). The Levantine Phoenicians flourished by directing their considerable energies towards commerce rather than state-building. Their civilization was founded on independent city-states, Semitic culture, and dynamic long-distance trade. Rawlinson blames Phoenicia's final decline on Hellenizing policies promoted by Alexander the Great's successors and on its incorporation into Syria by the Roman proconsul Pompey. Rawlinson acknowledges evidence of some cultural vitality in the Levant under Rome's imperium, e.g., the establishment at Berytus (modern Beirut) of a school of Roman jurisprudence that operated until an earthquake wrecked the city in 550 CE. Rawlinson, however, believes that Phoenician disappeared as a spoken language during the first century CE, so that local writers in late antiquity "were Greeks in feeling . . . whom accident had caused to be born in cities that were once Phoenician." (249)

     The book under review contains black-and-white line drawings and maps, a few footnotes, and no bibliography. This third edition is shorn of longer footnotes, including phrases in Greek and Hebrew, that appeared in the first edition. Rawlinson intersperses long block quotations from modern and ancient works in his narrative. References to modern works, however, are so casually rendered as to be practically useless. Rawlinson's book synthesizes a late Victorian consensus about Phoenicia and the Phoenicians on the eve of major archaeological excavations like those at Ugarit in Syrian Ras Shamra. As such, it draws heavily from sources like the Hebrew Scriptures, including the extra-canonical First and Second Books of Maccabees, when he describes the impact of Hellenism in the wake of Alexander the Great's conquests.

     In the late twentieth century, Phoenician and Punic studies have become a major scholarly enterprise. Now available to the public are syntheses like Nina Jidejian's magisterial book on Levantine Phoenicia's greatest city, Tyre Through the Ages (Beirut: Dar el-Mashreq Publisher, 1969). A concise, well-illustrated volume in the publisher's Peoples of the Past series is Glenn E. Markow's Phoenicians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). In 1988, a major exhibition ("I Fenici") of Phoenician antiquities was held at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice. A sumptuous catalogue, comprising 765 pages of essays and superb illustrations, was edited by Sabatino Moscati, and published in English as The Phoenicians (Milan: Bompiani, 1988). This is an essential reference book for students of Phoenician and Punic antiquities.

     What kinds of readers can benefit from the new reprint of Rawlinson's Phoenicia? Rawlinson's narrative will not suit the needs of anyone who needs an up-to-date survey of Phoenicia and the Phoenicians that takes into account both textual and archaeological sources. Undergraduates and graduate students who study the historiography of Near Eastern studies will find this edition to be a poor example of Rawlinson's work because it lacks the more ample footnotes of the first edition. On the other hand, Rawlinson wrote his synthesis for the general public, not for scholarly specialists. His narrative covers an immense range of subjects, clearly organized. He writes with lucidity and force: "Compassion was not an Assyrian weakness" (148).

     His vivid descriptions of travel, e.g., the dangers of Mediterranean voyages (72-80) compel admiration for the navigational acumen and physical strength of rowers on Phoenician ships. Despite its age and its modest archaeological references, Rawlinson's Phoenicia will engage teachers and general readers who enjoy travel writers like Freya Stark. Rawlinson's robust prose may ignite an interest among bright high school students and college undergraduates about encounters among Levantine pirates, priests, traders, and rulers over the course of many centuries.


Lawrence Okamura
University of Missouri-Columbia


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