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Phoenician and Punic Civilizations

Josephine Crawley Quinn

Worcester College, Oxford

The Phoenician cities lived between literatures, both in space and time: the dramatic myth and epic of Bronze Age Ugarit and the rich literatures of the Iron Age Greeks and Israelites create expectations of the inhabitants of the Northern Levant that are not fulfilled until the Hellenistic period, and even then only in Greek. 

It is often assumed that the lack of direct evidence for Phoenician literature is an accident of survival, but there is no indirect evidence either for literature in the sense of myth, history, poetry, or drama. Pomponius Mela, writing in the Roman period, says rather vaguely that the Phoenicians invented letters and literary arts, and we do hear of technical and scientific work, and of historical archives, but that is all until the Greek work of Philo of Byblos in the second century CE; later authors claimed that he was translating an earlier Phoenician source, but if an earlier version of the text did exist, it dated to the Hellenistic period at the earliest. The first surviving Phoenician archive has recently been found on Cyprus, where documents were incised on marble, stone, and pottery in the fifth and fourth centuries, but it contains no literary texts.

This lack of literature may relate to a lack of ethnic self-identification among those the Greeks labeled Phoenicians, unlike among the Iron Age Israelites and arguably Greeks, who tell stories in their emerging literaturesabout people coming together to undertake great journeys and struggles together, stories that involve the contemplation and consolidation of group identity in new literary languages.

The situation in the west is more complicated. Seals from papyrus rolls have been found in Phoenician contexts in Sicily and Spain, and a building full of document seals was discovered in excavations at Carthage 25 years ago, ironically preserved by the fire that destroyed the city, and the 5000 or so papyrus documents they must once have closed; the usual assumption is that these were documentary rather than literary archives. 

Some Western Phoenician inscriptions, however, seem to have had significant historical or narrative content, from the Periplusof Hanno down the west coast of Africa that was said to have been erected in a temple at Carthage, probably in the fifth century, to the record Hannibal erected in late third century Italy of his own achievements. There is some evidence for other literary forms as well: we are told by Pliny that a Carthaginian library was given to the Numidian kings in 146 BCE, except for the agricultural work of Mago, which the senate arranged to have translated from Punic (the western dialect of Phoenician) into Latin. We do not however know what language or languages other works were in, nor what other genres it included. 

Our first positive indication of what we conventionally call literary sources in Punic is Sallust’s claim a hundred years later to have used ‘Punic books which were said to be of King Hiempsal’ in composing his own history. These may or may not have been part of the Carthaginian library given to the kings, they may or may not have been written by the Numidian king Hiempsal himself, they may or may not even have been in Punic – the Latin adjective punicus could by then refer to African things in general. 

However, I will finish by suggesting that we should take seriously the possibility that books in Punic were written by Numidians, and that the broader development of Phoenician as a literary language was in part or in full a Numidian phenomenon, and one that post-dated the fall of Carthage. It is certainly the case that Punic remained a popular language in North Africa long after that event, still in widespread use by the time of Augustine, who noted that many things had been saved from oblivion in works written in Punic: this may have been a relatively recent development. 

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Ancient Mediterranean Literatures

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