The turn of the 12th century BC in the Eastern Mediterranean was a turbulent time, to say the least. Because of reasons unknown, numerous tribes of barbarian seafarers were ejected from their homes in the northern Aegean around 1,200. The tribes formed a confederation and came sweeping into Anatolia and the Near East on a bloodthirsty rampage.
Mycenaeans ruling from the island of Crete were first to feel their wrath. The Sea Peoples torched Knossos and sent ancient Greece spiraling into a dark age. Then they landed on the shores of Egypt but were repelled by the forces of Ramses III after a hard-fought war. Despite being victorious, Egypt’s conflict with the Sea Peoples jeopardized its colonies in the Levant and plunged the state into a thousand-year decline.
The Hittite Empire, located in modern-day Turkey, also faced the onslaught of these marauding refugees: it was wiped off the face of the earth entirely. But there was one civilization that survived this calamity: ancient Phoenicia.
Ancient Phoenicia: Mediterranean Ingenuity and Exploration
And as the whole world seemingly burned around them, ancient Phoenicia’s little seaside kingdoms sat unscathed. In fact, amid it all, they were growing rich and founding colonies in such distant lands as Portugal.
They, too, faced the threat of demise from the encroaching Late Bronze Age chaos. But when the Sea Peoples arrived on Levantine shores, the clever Phoenicians paid them off — or at least that’s what historians have surmised.
So while their contemporaries were destroyed, the ancient Phoenicians minted new currency, prepared their fleets, and began growing the greatest trade network the Mediterranean had ever seen.
A Brief Overview
The Phoenicians are better known for their exploits at sea than on land. They endeavored to chart the entire Mediterranean basin, and that they did. Afterward, they adapted their seafaring skills to the ocean. And the extent to which they explored it is a matter of debate: at a minimum, they navigated the Atlantic coasts of Europe and West Africa; at most, they made it to the New World.
But before all of this seafaring, the Phoenicians were simply a group of Semitic-speaking city-states on a tiny strip of land in the Levant. Plato referred to them as “lovers of money.” Not quite as noble as the ancient Greeks on whom he bestowed the epithet “lovers of knowledge” — he may have been biased.
Whether or not the Phoenicians loved money is speculative. But it’s clear that, at the very least, they excelled in making it. Their kingdoms initially grew rich from mining iron and exporting cedar and a purple dye signature of the city Tyre. But their wealth exploded several times over as ancient Phoenician colonies flourished in the west.
The major cities that studded the Mediterranean coast, in order from north to south, were Arvad, Byblos, Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre. And despite sharing religion and culture, they were each independent and self-governing for most of history.
The site of ancient Beirut is the capital of modern-day Lebanon. Sidon, a biblical city, was a prosperous religious and economic center until it was destroyed by the Philistines. And, most importantly, Tyre was the city from where the early settlers of Carthage originated. In ancient times it was a fortified island just off the mainland that came under siege on a number of occasions. It was the last holdout during Alexander the Great’s conquest of ancient Phoenicia in 332. And for that, the Tyrian citizens paid a grave price.
The Phoenicians’ Ascent To Wealth And Prominence
Timber was a staple export of the earliest Canaanite economies. The abundance of cedar trees available in the mountains that hemmed the eastern boundaries of Phoenicia proved to be invaluable to its fledgling kingdoms.
It’s documented that King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was built with cedar imported from ancient Phoenicia. The same cedar that was used to build their world-class sailing vessels, most notably the bireme and trireme.
Another product critical to ancient Phoenician economies was Tyrian purple dye. The entire ancient world came to regard this color as a luxury. And it was later adopted by the Greeks and Romans as a hue of high distinction, often associated with royalty.
The Tyrians produced purple dye from extracts of a sea snail species endemic to the Levantine coasts. Its export throughout the Mediterranean made the early Phoenicians extremely wealthy.
But their height of economic prosperity didn’t come until they launched trade expeditions in the west. This major push to increase wealth in raw materials was a matter of exigency.
By the 10th century BC, imposing Assyrian armies sat just outside of Phoenician lands. Faced with an ultimatum of either forfeiting their sovereignty to the swelling empire or paying a hefty annual tribute to the Assyrian kings, the city-states of Phoenicia chose the latter.
Their natural resources at home in the Levant were limited to iron. So the Phoenicians, but really the Tyrians in particular, set forth to establish mining colonies all over the Mediterranean. And, at least at the beginning, their motivations were less imperial and more about forming alliances in places with the most lucrative and abundant raw materials.
Nearby in Cyprus, the Phoenicians staked out their claim of the island’s famously prolific copper mines. Farther west in Sardinia, they populated small settlements and built alliances with the native Nuragic people. From there they extracted an abundance of mineral resources.
And in southern Spain, at the edge of the ancient Mediterranean World, the Phoenicians established a major colony at the mouth of the Rio Guadalete. The long, snaking river served as a conduit to the vast silver mines in the interior of Tartessos, the ancient name for Andalusia.
These budding trade networks allowed the Phoenicians to maintain their dignity and keep the Assyrians at bay. But, more importantly, it led to their ascent as wealthy kingdoms revered all over the civilized world.
Coinage And Banking
Sophisticated banking didn’t quite exist yet in the ancient world. At least not by modern, or even medieval, standards. There were no centralized monetary authorities in the way that there are in almost all nations today. Rather, the treasury of a state fell under the auspices of its ruler. So, naturally, the currency was minted at the will and command of the sovereign.
Cleopatra VII, for example, minted a series of coins in her own honor during a period of exile from Alexandria in the Levantine city of Ashkelon. Currency was used as equal parts propaganda and an assertion of power, as was the case with Cleopatra’s Ashkelon mint.
Sovereigns attempted to align themselves with gods or former beloved rulers in the profile images carved on the obverse of coins. The reverse side would usually depict a symbol of the state — most often an elephant in the Punic world, a wolf or eagle in Rome, and a horse, dolphin, or naval vessel in coins coming out of Phoenicia.
The kingdoms of ancient Phoenicia minted new coins on pace with their mining and trade exploits around the Mediterranean. Out of Spain came a steady flow of silver shekels that were often minted with the profile of the Levantine god Melqart during Phoenician times. And in later Carthaginian times they were modified to represent the syncretized version of the same god, Hercules-Melqart.
Coins and, more generally, treasures belonging to the state were usually stored in temples. Such temples existed in all of the principal Phoenician city-kingdoms. But they also sprouted up around the greater Phoenician world, like the famous one dedicated to Melqart in Gades.
The term shekel, originating from the Akkadian Empire, came to represent the first currency of Tyre. The shekel was traditionally made of silver. And with ancient Phoenicia’s exploits in Spain, which were later transferred to Carthage, its production of shekels increased rapidly. They continue to be discovered in archaeological sites all over the Mediterranean and Near East.
Trade and Commerce In Ancient Phoenicia
According to Pliny, the Roman historian, “Phoenicians invented trade.” The sophistication of the Near East came as a byproduct of ancient Phoenicia’s commercial presence in the west. They traded opulent jewels and masterful ceramics in exchange for raw materials from the mines of native populations.
Along with fine products, the Phoenicians brought with them more sophisticated means of transacting in business. By the 8th century, they’d introduced interest-bearing loans to the Western Mediterranean.
The Phoenicians never established settlements too far into the hinterlands of their North African colonies. Cities like Carthage and Leptis Magna were critical for their positions along trade routes. But the Sahara Desert was an encumbrance to any further commercial trade networking on the continent.
In Iberia, however, they made significant inroads well beyond their coastal colonies. At Castelo Velho de Safara, an active dig site in southwestern Portugal that accepts volunteer applicants, traces of an ancient Phoenician trade network are evident in many of the material finds.
In the site’s Iron Age context layers, dating back to the 4th century BC, sherds of Greek pottery, Campanian ware, and bits of amphorae are copious. The natives, either Celtiberians or Tartessiens, likely developed an appetite for fine eastern ceramics and wines, the likes of which were unavailable in Iberia.
It’s probable that the Phoenicians transported these products from Italy and Greece to Gades. And then from Gades to the settlement at Safara along a network of inland rivers.
The commercial dominance of the Phoenicians weaved together the tapestry of the ancient Mediterranean. The tiny Levantine kingdoms managed to serve as the conduit that united the known world by means of imports and exports.
And in the process, they garnered a long-lasting and well-deserved reputation for financial and economic acumen.