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Ancient Phoenicia: An Introduction.

Ancient Phoenicia: An Introduction. By MARK WOOLMER. London: BRISTOL Classical Press, 2011. Pp. 136, illus. (paper).

Many aspects of Phoenicia (history, archaeology, philology, art, religion, etc.) have enjoyed continued academic interest over the last several decades. An abundance of academic publications raises the question whether yet another book on the subject is necessary. Hopefully this review will answer this question.

The volume under review is published in the "Classical World Series" by Bristol Classical Press. The online catalog description of the series indicates that it is "designed for students and teachers of ancient history and classical civilisation at late school and early university levels." Consequently we need to examine the book through a particular prism, that of its intended audience. Woolmer is quite aware of the task ahead of him as he aims to provide a "schematic overview" (p. 8) of Phoenicia and Phoenician history from the late Bronze Age to the start of the Hellenistic period (1300-300 B.C.E.), along with analysis of the current state of archaeological research.

In chapter one, Woolmer delivers general observations regarding Phoenician self-identification, physical landscape, language, and people. He astutely identifies geographical features of the Phoenician mainland as those that "encouraged political individualism and isolation and prevented the formation of a unified state" (p. 13)--a reasonable explanation of why we should talk about individual Phoenician city-states rather than resort to the externally generated term "Phoenicia."

Chapter two is dedicated to the general history of Phoenicia, and here Woolmer tackles the problem of sources. The primary sources for our study of Phoenicia have traditionally been Josephus and Menander of Ephesus (who quote extinct "Annals of Tyre"), the Old Testament, and the Greek and Roman historians Herodotus, Xenophon, Diodorus Siculus, Arrian, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Philo of Byblos. Unfortunately, biblical texts are identified as one of the main sources of historical information, and Woolmer uses them somewhat uncritically, as in the case of the book of Chronicles used to paint the historical picture of the tenth century B.C.E. (p. 25). The same reliance on biblical authors is evident throughout the entire volume as well.

Chapter three overviews the major cities of the Phoenician diaspora, starting with the entities on the Phoenician mainland (Arwad, Berytus, Byblos, Sarepta, Sidon, and Tyre) and expanding further out to Phoenician colonies (Carthage, Gades, Kition, Motya, and Utica). Whereas it is understandable that Woolmer would include Phoenician colonies in his discussion, drawing conclusions about the social history of the Phoenician mainland based on the information gleaned from Carthaginian sources raises methodological objections, in this reviewer's opinion.

In chapter four, Woolmer deals with the political and administrative makeup of Phoenician cities. He also discusses such topics and issues as social structure, position of women and slaves, the arrangement and organization of Phoenician cities, construction methods, dwelling arrangements, water supplies and drainage, and the importance of Phoenician harbors.

While discussing the Phoenician economy in chapter five, Woolmer takes the already familiar approach of extrapolating information on Phoenicia from Carthaginian sources, this time by making use of Mago, who wrote on Punic agricultural practices, to describe agriculture on the Phoenician mainland. As promised at the outset of the book, he addresses recent archaeological discoveries in this chapter as well, but, unfortunately, Woolmer is cursory when mentioning who discovered what (dates and names are frequently lacking). For example, his discussion of the 1999 find of two Phoenician vessels does not mention the names of the archaeologists, their affiliation, or the dating of the finds. It is understandable that a young reader should not be overburdened with an abundance of dates and names, but in this case that find serves to explain how Phoenicians standardized capacities of amphorae to transport oil and wine (p. 73). An opportunity to demonstrate the chain of academic reasoning and arriving at conclusions is missed here. Also, in the section "Ezekiel and Homer as sources for Phoenician trade" Homer receives detailed treatment whereas Ezekiel is not mentioned at all, even in passing.

Chapter six contains a helpful and illuminating discussion of Phoenician participation in warfare, especially fortifications, city defenses, and naval warfare. A reader will benefit from learning about various types of Phoenician ships and naval accessories which receive extended and thorough treatment in the chapter.

In chapter seven, Woolmer provides an overview of Phoenician religion, albeit accentuating the inherent problem with the notion of religion itself. A coherent and visually well-illustrated narrative at times stumbles when Woolmer draws conclusions regarding mainland Phoenician religious practices from the information available from Kition on Cyprus and Carthage. What this reviewer finds most disconcerting is the discussion regarding child sacrifice at core Phoenician cities (inferred again from the evidence at Carthage). Woolmer condenses current scholarly views on Phoenician infant mortuary rites to two options--either the Phoenicians sacrificed children alive or ritualistically disposed of stillborn infants--leaving out for his readers the possibility that ritual immolation of children could have been the result of Greco-Roman writers' biased and damning reports.

Chapter eight covers the topic of Phoenician art. Although Woolmer starts with a statement that the majority of Phoenician art objects were characterized by stylistic borrowings from elsewhere, he nuances this notion by pointing out that "when the Phoenicians adopted, and adapted, foreign designs and motifs, they frequently did so for a specific purpose or reason" (p. 112). With this understanding in mind, Woolmer discusses metalworking, ivory objects, stone sculpture, terracotta, pottery, faience and glassware, jewelry, seals, and textiles.

The volume concludes with suggestions for further reading and an index. The bibliography points mostly to books and articles in English, in spite of the wealth of information on Phoenicia produced by French scholarship.

Much criticism could have been leveled against this volume had it been an average academic publication, because of the limited bibliography, the broad strokes deployed in the portrayal of Phoenicia and Phoenician history, the lack of proper citations when classical sources are invoked, which makes it difficult for anyone to conduct further research, etc. However, most of these drawbacks are inconsequential in light of the intended readership of the volume.

Some problems, however, cannot be excused by the notion that the likely readers are simply not professional academics. Woolmer frequently reads biblical sources as reliable historical documents. Thus, to establish the divine status of Tyrian kings, Woolmer quotes the prophet Ezekiel, who spoke of the Tyrian king as claiming to be god. It is doubtful that younger readers (and their teachers) will benefit from exposure to such uncritical reading of biblical texts. Oversimplification can also lead to such statements as "The mountainous regions to the east of Phoenicia teemed with panthers, bears, hyenas, wolves, jackals and hares, all of which were excellent sources of meat" (p. 14). There are some typos as well. Thus Woolmer states that Herodotus supposedly visited the city of Tyre in the middle of the fourth century B.C.E. (p. 43), whereas this should be the mid-fifth century b.C.e. Also, Tel Rehov is misspelled (p. 75).

Despite the drawbacks of the volume, Woolmer does achieve his purpose and delivers an easily readable and accessible primer on Phoenicia and its history.


Morgan State University
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Author:Jigoulov, Vadim
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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