The Phoenicians were a people who lived along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As the principal seafarers in the eastern Mediterranean as early as the 700s B.C., they established trading posts and settlements as far away as Spain and the Red Sea and explored the coasts of Africa. The Phoenician colony of Carthage developed into a powerful city that rivaled Rome in the western Mediterranean until the Roman victory in the Punic Wars.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Phoenicians migrated to the Mediterranean coast from a region near the Persian Gulf around 2700 B.C. Archaeological traces of the Phoenician presence in Lebanon have been dated to as early as 3000 B.C. The history of the Phoenicians has always been closely connected to the sea. By the 900s B.C., they had replaced the Greek Mycenaean civilization as the principal traders in the eastern Mediterranean. With their advanced shipbuilding and navigation skills, the Phoenicians conducted an extensive international trade in metals, textiles, purple dye, crafts, and food.

The important Phoenician cities were Sidon, Tyre, and Byblos, with Tyre becoming the leading Phoenician port in about 700 B.C. The Phoenicians established trading posts and settlements in many places along the Mediterranean, including Spain, North Africa, and Egypt. Carthage in North Africa was the largest and most famous of their settlements. The spread of these settlements left traces of Phoenician art, crafts, religion, and inscriptions* throughout the Mediterranean.

From the beginning of their expansion, the Phoenicians had contact with the Greeks. During the 700s B.C., the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and modified it for their own language. However, it was not until after the Persian Wars in the early 400s B.C. that Greek culture began to substantially influence that of the Phoenicians. That influence rapidly increased after Alexander the Great conquered the Phoenicians in about 330 B.C. Tyre, the only Phoenician city that resisted Alexander, was eventually captured after a long siege*. After Alexander’s death, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties fought over the land of the Phoenicians until the Seleucid kingdom under Antiochus III gained control in 200 B.C. After Phoenician territory came under Roman rule in the 60s B.C., the area became part of the province* of Syria. Under the later Roman Empire, the Romans created a separate province of Phoenice with its capital at Berytus (present-day Beirut). (See also Alphabets and Writing; Inscriptions; Trade, Greek.)

* inscription letters or words carved into a surface as a lasting record

* siege long and persistent effort to force a surrender by surrounding a fortress with armed troops, cutting it off from aid

* province overseas area controlled by Rome


The Greeks called the seafaring people who lived in Tyre, Sidon, and other cities along the eastern Mediterranean coast Phoinikes (Phoenicians). There are several theories about what this name meant. One is that the name came from the Greek word for red, which may have been a reference to the Phoenicians' reddish complexion or to the purple dye they produced and exported. Other scholars think the name Phoenician derives from Egyptian words for Asiatic or woodcutters.

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