circumnavigation / 123RF Stock Photo
Mt.Etna seen in the distance, the largest volcano in Sicily (and Europe for that matter) and the highest peak as well
I hope you all enjoyed the introduction. Now we’ll talk about the older history of the Mediterranean that isn’t talked about quite as much as it should be. Some of this was mentioned in the intro of the Greco-Persian Wars series so you can look there for any related information. The western Mediterranean had been settled by the Phoenicians along Africa and the Greeks along Europe. This was a general trend for centuries to open new areas of commerce to the original cities and was highly effective as a model for profit and the spread of culture. However the Phoenicians led colonization partly for resources to continue paying tribute and later to curb the Greek advance so that they did not seize the whole Mediterranean. The Phoenicians were first in the 10th-9th centuries with the Greeks coming closer to the 8th-7th centuries. Most of us know where Greece is but where did these Phoenicians originate from?
The Phoenicians came from Phoenicia, a narrow strip of Mediterranean shoreline around present day Lebanon. They were a seafaring culture heavily involved in trade across the Mediterranean (like the Greeks) and northern Africa as well. Their best good was a dye called Tyrian purple (named after Tyre, one of their great cities) which was used for clothing that mainly the royalty wore or in ceremonial garb the Romans used. It’s found in certain species of Muricidae, a family of snails that could be found right off the coast. Phoenicia was so heavily associated with this luxury that its very name derived from phoinios, a Greek word meaning purple. Now one main issue with the Phoenicians was where they lived. As a trading culture, Greece was separated from any large powers for a long time and was allowed to spread unimpeded. Phoenicia still spread but their homeland didn’t.
Phoenicia had long suffered attacks and itself lacked internal stability. They emerged after the Bronze Age collapse as a loose collection of city-states bonded by a similar culture. Each was run by a king with the priests in politically power positions, similar to Egypt, and one city would typically rule the rest in a general government. You see, before the collapse Egypt and the Hittites fought for control over the entire Levant region, a fertile area spreading inland from the end of the Mediterranean and benefiting from its climate. But the collapse ruined both of them, along with several other states. This is what gave birth to the flourishing trade culture the Phoenicians would exhibit, as well as the Greeks. But the conflict that separated them as well as their small size left easy openings for stronger civilizations, namely the Assyrians (a dominant culture in Mesopotamia), the Babylonians (a civilization originating from near the end of the Euphrates) and then the Persians. Thankfully this was under various governmental methods which granted them independence in varying degrees, allowing their colonial experiment to move forward. But the direction would be altered due to the disruption.
A relief showing Assyrians hunting lions, a common cultural motif they used to represent power
The Phoenicians, like the rest of their subjects, resented the Assyrian Empire and would plot to rebel when they could. While this was ongoing they still founded new colonies but the inability to remain stable affected their rule. While they did not outright command their colonies as subjects they did have very strong relations with them. Luckily the form of Assyrian rule only came in the form of a yearly tribute (money, wood, slaves or whatever they wanted). Initially the drive to conquer them came from a desire for the production of iron, gold and timber, all materials necessary to sustain a massive conquering army. This conquest occurred in the 9th century BCE and would endure in various forms until the end of the 7th century BCE. With the collapse of the Assyrian empire at the end of the 7th century BCE came the domination of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians had gained their independence from a decade of revolt but the death of the empire occurred at the Battle of Nineveh in 612 BCE. A coalition of different nations, Medes and Chaldeans, Scythians and Cimmerians, attacked the capital and destroyed its power forever. It is during the 7th century BCE where the Phoenicians in the western Mediterranean begin their separation from the homeland. It is also here we end our second part but worry not! Next time we will talk about Carthage, Sicily and the beginning of the problems that lead straight to the Sicilian Wars!