Published: June 15, 2018 By

The Phoenicians were a Semitic-speaking people whose maritime trade networks were crucial for the spread of information and culture throughout the Mediterranean. We do not know what the Phoenicians called themselves: the name comes from classical Greek authors and is derived from the word "phoinix," which means "purple," probably because Greeks ascribed the discovery of the color purple to the Phoenicians (hence the name "Tyrian purple").

Phoenicians were maritime traders organized in a loosely defined confederation, that is, there was not a unified country governed by a single entity. Most Phoenician cities emerged during the Late Bronze Age, probably around 1,500 B.C.E. and experienced a great deal of cultural continuity until around 300 B.C.E. Contemporary literature presents the Phoenicians as ingenious and adventurous seafarers and traders, a characterization that resulted in their imaginative stereotyped reputation as "cheaters and hucksters...insatiable mongers and unscrupulous profiteers" (1). In Homer's Odyssey (13.271-273), for example, the Phoenicians are called "illustrious" and are easily bribed by booty.

The homeland of the Phoenicians, called Phoenicia, refers to a small strip of land in the Levant bordered by Syria to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Palestine to the south, and the Lebanon Mountains to the east. "Border" is a fluid term in this context because territorial boundaries shifted throughout Phoenician history and, in fact, "Phoenicia" seems to refer more to a loose collection of independent -- and often rival -- cities acting as centers of trade than to a unified culturally- or ethnically-based kingdom or empire. In addition to founding major cities in the Levant, such as Sidon, Tyre, and Byblos, the Phoenicians also set up colonies in foreign lands, including Greece and the islands of the Aegean, as their trade spread west (2). 

Phoenician borders were often in flux as neighboring peoples, including the Hittites in Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the Assyrians in northern Mesopotamia, as well as the Egyptians were constantly expanding and fighting over their own borders; this fighting often took place in the realm of Phoenicia, which was in between the three powerful entities. This placed Phoenicia in a tenuous position. The Phoenicians, however, seemed to be cunning strategists and they fared better than many other cultures and peoples by making themselves allies through a process of supply and demand. They provided necessary goods to their powerful neighbors (3), including wood to Egypt and metal to Assyria (4). Archaeological evidence suggests that at least some of the metal that the Phoeneicians supplied to Assyria came from the island of Cyprus, which had abundant copper resources, as well as from Crete, Thasos, and other parts of Greece (5). The Phoenicians also provided maritime knowledge and skills to the Achaemenid Persians when they were warring with Egypt and Greece (6). A double shekel coin minted in the city of Sidon around 345 B.C.E. shows a Phoenician war galley, suggesting that the Phoenicians continued to be prominent in the maritime realm even at this late date.

The Phoenicians are significant in the study of Greek pottery because through their maritime trade, they brought Near Eastern and Egyptian goods, with their foreign styles of decoration, to Greece and the islands of the Aegean on their merchant ships (7). Through this trade, the Greeks were exposed to the styles and influences of multiple cultures and they selectively appropriated Eastern decoration, techniques, and forms, particularly during the so-called Orientalizing period of the 8th to 7th centuries B.C.E. (8). 

In addition to bringing foreign goods to Greek markets, the Phoenicians may also have carried Greek pottery to foreign ports on their ships: much of the Greek pottery in museums today, for example, comes from sites in Etruria, located in northern Italy and Phoenicians may have been partly responsible for their transportation. Phoenicians also created and spread their own culture and, like the Greeks, they absorbed and adapted Egyptian and Near Eastern artistic styles to their own crafts (9). 

Most of our information about the Phoenicians comes from the literature of other cultures, including the Greeks, Romans, and Assyrians, as well as from the Hebrew Bible. We do not know much about the cultural identities of the Phoenicians (10). We know, however, that their influence extended beyond trade. The Phoenician alphabet, for example, is thought to have influenced the early adoption and creation of the alphabet of the Greeks, as well as the alphabet of the Carthaginians known as the Punic script. Unfortunately, the purported immense quantiites of Phoenician written documents has mostly been lost, along with a clearer understanding of Phoenician culture (11). 

This essay was written to accompany a collection of Greek artifacts at the CU Art Museum


  1. Glenn E. Markoe, Phoenicians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000): 10.
  2. Markoe, Phoenicians: 11.
  3. For a general history of Phoenicia and its relations with its neighbors see: Glenn E. Markoe, "History," in Phoenicians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000): 14-67.
  4. Markoe, Phoenicians​: 39,44.
  5. Phoenicians mined copper in Cyprus. Crete is rich in phosphorus-bearing iron ore and there is evidence of iron working center, but not necessarily run by Phoenicians. The island Cythera near the Greek Laconian mainland has iron-rich hematite deposits though there is no archaeological evidence yet found connecting the Phoenicians to this island. There is literary and archaeological evidence for Phoenician mines in Thasos. Markoe, Phoenicians​: 171-173.
  6. Markoe, Phoenicians​: 50.
  7. There has been scholarly debate about whether Phoenician traders were responsible for transporting goods to Greece or whether the Greek traders brought Eastern goods back to Greece themselves. The latter opinion is based, to some extent, on a surmise that the city of Al Mina along the northern coast of Syria was a Greek trading city. However, current thought seems to be that Eastern goods came to Greece by Phoenician ships. John Nicholas Coldstream, "Greeks and Phoenicians In the Aegean," in ed. H. G. Neimeyer, Phönizier im Westen, Die Beiträge des Internationalen Symposiums über die phönizische Expansion im westlichen Mittelmeerraum, in Köln vom 24 bis 27 April 1979 (Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Phillip von Zabern, 1982): 261-275.
  8. Hurwitt discusses the obvious Oriental influences and motifs on Greek pottery, but says that the Greeks altered and changed Oriental influences to suit their personal taste. Jeffrey M. Hurwitt, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 BCE (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985): 125-134.
  9. Phoenician ivory carvings were directly influenced by Egyptian and Syrian motifs and decorative styles. Irene J. Winter, "Phoenician and North Syrian Ivory Carving in Historical Context: Questions of Style and Distribution," Iraq 38 (1976): 2.
  10. Markoe, Phoenicians: 11.
  11. Markoe, Phoenicians​: 108-110.