Early in my schooldays I did a history project on the Phoenicians. I didn’t question who or what they were. They were just part of history. By the time I was old enough to ask further questions I had left them behind and was thinking of other things. But I recently read a review of a book which seems to question their existence(1). In this view they were a construction of the Greeks who wrote about them, a collective term for a category of ‘others’, traders who operated across North Africa and Lebanon. But in spite of being described by the catch-all term: phoenix, their common identity may be no more certain than that of the mythical bird with whom they share a name. They were not, apparently, a distinct ethnic group, nor even an organised network of trading peoples. For the Greeks who wrote about them ‘Phoenicia’ might well have seemed like a distinct place which these peoples inhabited. But the Phoenicians themselves had other ideas. There is a single surviving example of one of these people describing ‘Phoenicia’ as his home. But it is a bilingual funerary inscription and this is only the case in the Greek text. In his own language the person concerned, someone called Antipatros, describes himself as an ‘Ashkelonite’. So Phoenicia is likely to be a translation into terms Greek readers of the inscription would understand.
It may be that when people are relating to a dominant culture they will use the terms of that culture’s view of them to describe themselves. To the dominant culture ‘others’ are frequently categorised in general terms rather than specific identifiers which are of no interest to those regarding their own culture as the central focus of their world view. The Greeks similarly categorised the tribes to the north of them as ‘Keltoi’, another catch-all term which these ‘Celts’ sometimes also used to describe themselves. For the Romans, when they had become the dominant European culture, the Carthaginians, with whom they were at war, were thought of as those same Phoenicians the Greeks had described, hence the Latin descriptor ‘Punic’, a word from the same root. If they began to differentiate between the ‘Celts’ it was because they needed to differentiate between those they had conquered, e.g, the ‘Gauls’ and those they had not e.g. the ‘Germans’, tribes occupying one side or the other of the Rhine which was the frontier between territory occupied by the Romans and what was beyond.
In her most recent work on Roman Britain(2) Miranda Aldhouse Green also deals with the sense of provincial peoples as ‘others’, even when they had become fully Romanised. It is understandable that groups such as the Druids who stood in the way of the conquering army and resisted the spread of Roman values, or the Germanic tribes who remained outside the Roman sphere, should be thought of in this way. But, to the sophisticated citizens of Rome itself, fully Romanised peoples from the provincial areas of the Empire could be similarly patronised. So the satirist Juvenal can jeer at a Gaulish consul called Laterus for worshipping the Goddess Epona rather than native Roman gods:
He swears before Jove’s high altar
By none but his revered
Goddess of horses, and images daubed
On the stinking stalls.
So much, we might think, for the interpretatio Romana, but Green observes that Juvenal is here representing a not uncommon ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude and a hatred of un-Roman practices among the peoples of Rome in spite of the apparently tolerant attitude to the diverse and multi-ethnic nature of the Empire which sustained the home city. Green makes the comparison with modern intolerance in a number of places in her work. She begins by quoting Herodian, a Roman historian who describes Britain as a barbaric place where the natives happily wade through swamps and do not wear clothing but paint their bodies instead. This was written not before Britain was part of the Empire, but two hundred years after it had become incorporated into it. Green compares Herodian to Donald Trump and his wish to build a wall between America and those strange ‘others’ beyond the southern border of his sovereignty. She reminds us that such attitudes are not new and often coloured the accounts of other peoples of the ancient world by the colonising powers first of Greece and later of Rome. We should not take what they say too seriously. Fake news - then and now - is always with us. But avoiding an identity which mirrors that of the dominant sovereign powers, and instead finding another sovereignty which governs a more elusive sense of who and what we are - as it is suggested was the case with the Phoenicians - may make what we are harder to pin down, and enable a refusal of labels that attempt to categorize ourselves, or anyone else, as 'others'. And that, in a world of dividing walls, hard brexits and rigid nationalities can only be a good thing.
(1) In Search of the Phoenicians by Josephine Quinn (Princeton, 2017), reviewed in The London Review of Books, 3 January 2019 by Robert L Cioffi .
(2) Sacred Britannia by Miranda Aldhouse Green (Thames and Hudson, 2018).