You are here

The National Origins of Phoenician Ethnicity

Josephine Quinn

In his classic 1986 work on The Ethnic Origins of Nations, Anthony D. Smith argued that the Phoenicians are a prime example of his central argument that although the ‘nation’ as a political entity is a modern phenomenon, the kind of ethnic groups united by culture and sentiment that often justify the existence of modern nations can be found in much earlier periods. My suggestion in this paper is that the Phoenicians in fact illustrate a very different phenomenon, in which ancient ethnic groups are constructed by modern national discourse. I will use two histories of Britain written in the 16th and 17th centuries to show that the surprisingly large role they award to the Phoenicians in the formation of the British nation also involves the formulation of the Phoenicians themselves as an ethnic group or even ‘nation’ for the first time, focussing in particular on how these authors exploit and manipulate classical texts to justify their arguments.

It is well known that there is no good ancient evidence for self-identification as ‘Phoenician’, nor for the use of any parallel term such as ‘Canaanite’ as an internal or ‘emic’ ethnic label (Quinn et al. 2014). Nor is there evidence from the city states of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Byblos for common myths of descent, mutual feelings of solidarity, associations with the same territory, a distinctive common culture or the use of shared symbolism (Van Dongen 2010). It is unsurprising then that contemporary Greek and Latin authors from Homer to Augustine are wary of ascribing much ethnic or cultural content to the concept of the ‘Phoenicians’, often treating them more as a social or linguistic group (Frankenstein 1979, Quinn et al. 2014, and see also Mavrogiannis 2004 on Herodotus). In fact, it is not until the later 19th century that mainstream historical scholarship begins to treat the Phoenicians as the ‘people’, ‘ethnic group’ or ‘nation’ they are now held to have been, not only by Anthony Smith but also in standard textbooks alongside of course recognition of their strong parallel affiliations with city states (Liverani 1998 on the historiography; for recent examples see Aubet 2001; Bondì 2009; Woolmer 2011; Adam-Veleni & Stefani 2012).

How did this notion of the Phoenicians arise? I examine the role of the ‘national histories’ that posit the Phoenicians as an important foundational component of modern nations from Lebanon to Ireland, tracing in two case studies the development within the British strand of that genre the construction the Phoenicians themselves as an ancient ethnic group in parallel with developing contemporary notions of British nationalism.

My first example is a Tudor Churchman named John Twyne, who argues in 1590 that the Phoenicians were the first to settle Britain after the Giants. Twyne insists on the importance of classical sources over the myths and fantasies of medieval British texts, and while his claim about Phoenician settlement is based on intuition rather than textual evidence, his Phoenicians themselves are simply a group of ‘merchants’, as nebulous as in the classical authors. With a variety of origins and and close relations to other places and people, they fit in comfortably with inclusive contemporary concepts of European nations as related groups of peoples.

In 1676 one Aylett Sammes makes the case for Phoenician settlement again, does in fact creative interpretations of Greek sources to build his argument for Phoenician immigration, but then goes far beyond those ancient texts for his presentation of those Phoenicians themselves. European nationalisms are stronger and more separatist in this period, and Sammes treats his ancient Phoenician “nation” or even “state” as an ideological bulwark against Roman France.

In Sammes’ work we see a decisive emergence of Phoenician ethnicity; in both cases we see the new classical learning of the renaissance celebrated at the same time as it is eclectically deployed in the creation of new nations: used, abused, and ignored as politically appropriate.

Session/Panel Title

Identity and Ethnicity

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy