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Opening the Mediterranean: Assyria, the Levant and the transformation of Early Iron Age trade.


The evidence for structures of exchange in the Early Iron Age Mediterranean has been rationalised in many ways, variable in terms of both the evidence selected and the arguments applied. However, the most pervasive and tenacious explanation has been based upon a coreperiphery model, which approaches the expansion of Phoenician commerce in the Early Iron Age by conceptualising it as flowing from a largely eastern Mediterranean core to the western Mediterranean periphery. Thus the Early Iron Age expansion has been interpreted as a direct function of Neo-Assyrian imperialism (Frankenstein 1979), an idea that has circulated in the work of many scholars (Shaw 1989; Kuhrt 1995: 403-410; Coldstream 2003: 240-41, 359; Fantalkin 2006).

The basic outline of the argument is that Phoenicia and Assyria operated as a 'core' with a westward-moving 'periphery', beginning with Cyprus and the Aegean and moving to the western Mediterranean as the demands of the Assyrian state increased. To begin with, the Phoenician cities put themselves in positions of importance to the Assyrians, thereby gaining advantageous treatment from them, not only by producing valuable commodities and luxuries, but also by supplying the demands of the Assyrian 'war machine' for iron (Frankenstein 1979: 272). With time, however, "the Assyrian demands forced the Phoenician cities to become suppliers of raw materials for the production centres of trading partners and in order to obtain these raw materials the Phoenician cities had to enlarge their trading sphere"; thus the Phoenicians had to expand into the western Mediterranean in search of ever more resources and more profitable rates of exchange (Frankenstein 1979: 273).

The argument is attractive and has remained so for more than 30 years, but however much it is rephrased or reprised, it remains flawed in irs essence. The core-periphery model entails that peripheries are placed in positions of dependency upon 'dominant' core areas, and not only did Frankenstein originally fail to demonstrate this, but it is arguable whether such a relationship could have existed. Most importantly, however, the model is chronologically unsound. The movement of both Phoenicians and Greeks began in the late ninth and early eighth centuries, at the precise moment when Assyrian power in the east underwent a decline from the succession of Shamshi-Adad V (824 BC) until the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BC).

For both Phoenicians and Greeks (Frederiksen 1979: 284), the "search for metals" is generally accepted as a prime mover, simply because it provides a convenient, almost mechanical correlation between mineral rich resources in the west and the commercial expansion in the Mediterranean, as evidenced by Levantine and Greek material from the eighth century onwards. The traditional strength of such ideas ultimately derives from the deeper influence of the homo economicus image which lies at the heart of neoMarxist conceptions of 'trade', according to which the primary motivation for trade is exclusively economic (rather than also social and/or political) and social structure is dictated by economic activities driven by exploitative relations of power.

However, changing perspectives have led to the consensus that the Early Iron Age Mediterranean was intricate and multifarious, and probably consisted of largely static regions very much dependent upon their connectivity with each other. One of the foremost scholars on the orientalising phenomenon in the Aegean, Sarah Morris, recently appreciated that "at least we have outgrown the lame use of 'trade' as a self-explanatory force" in the analysis of the Early Iron Age (Morris 2006: 67). There is, in fact, a growing emphasis in current scholarship upon context, consumption, the role of native peoples, and an understanding of the sheer complexity of the Mediterranean world (in particular in Riva & Vella 2006).

With this in mind, there should be better explanations for the expansion of Levantines--and for the development of interconnectivity in the Early Iron Age Mediterranean, matters that are to be explored in what follows.

The nature of Phoenician trade

It is generally accepted that the Phoenician cities traded as a profession to obtain the means to survive, and that their external relations, their tribute and their policies were structured in order to secure that trade (Liverani 1991; Diakonoff 1992). The Phoenician economy was thus primarily based upon commerce and exchange in which luxury goods such as metalwork and ivory, scarabs, glass beads and amulets, shells and ostrich eggs, as well as the dyeing and manufacture of cloth, were central (Aubet 2001: 52-6). This picture is, however, demonstrably incomplete. To characterise the economy of the Phoenician centres of the Levantine coast as wholly dependent upon 'trade' and the manufacture of luxury commodities is an oversimplification. The endless tug-of-war for the possession of mainland territory in the hinterland of Tyre and Sidon shows the importance the Levantine cities gave to agriculturally productive land (Katzenstein 1997: 249-79). Hiram of Tyre's rejection of Solomon's offered '20 Galilean cities', even if it may be of questionable historical accuracy, indicates an avoidance of the difficulties the Tyrians would have faced in possessing such land, rather than a lack of desire for possessions in their immediate hinterland. The later founding of Levantine colonies in the west, for example, can be shown to have been predicated upon agricultural and maritime factors, just as much as upon commerce and access to resources (Fletcher 2007). Carthage held an excellent position on the route to the west, as did the Phoenician colonies on Cyprus, on Sardinia and on the southern coast of Spain, but they were also positioned very well in terms of access to agricultural land as well as fisheries (Niemeyer 1990; Wagner 1993; Lopez Castro 2006).

Moreover, our understanding of the Phoenician economy as dependent upon luxury manufacture and distribution is based upon a largely naive reading of the archaeological and textual record. It remains an oft-forgotten fact that the archaeological evidence consists only of material that has been preserved. Phoenicians in this period carried slaves, textiles, garum, dyed material, wine, oil, foodstuffs and construction materials (mainly wood), in addition to the pottery, metalwork and the Aegyptiaca that is often all that is left for us to find (Starr 1977; Mele 1979; Kopcke 1992). Although there is increasing evidence showing that the mass of ceramics moved around the Mediterranean by both Greeks and Phoenicians was in the form of transport amphorae, there is still a lot of work to be done. Many excavations until recently did not quantify the evidence for transport amphorae, although if current trends from some excavations at Phoenician sites in the west are indicative, they constituted 40-50 per cent of all surviving ceramics (see also Botto 1990; Ramon 1995; Docter 1997). This argues for the movement of large quantities of produce.

There is considerable written evidence supporting the contention that organic materials such as wood, grain, oil and wine were of greater importance than so-called luxuries. In the Late Bronze Age, both the Amarna Letters and Ugaritic texts make it clear that most of the material being shipped was just such organic material. Grain, oil and wine were important, but shipments of hides and textiles were also known (Linder 1970; Moran 1992, EA 34.42-9, EA 35.27-9, EA 40.12-15, EA 101.1-11, EA 151.35-48, EA160.14-29). The most mentioned commodity in terms of Phoenician trade was wood; it is mentioned repeatedly in Late Bronze Age records as well as biblical texts (e.g. Ezekiel 27.5-6). Assyrian inscriptions from the Early Iron Age show that they almost constantly sought the wood of Lebanon (Michel 1954; Luckenbill 1968; Klengel 1992: 191-200). Later maritime texts from the Persian period from Egypt again show that the bulk of material transported was organic (Tammuz 1986: 54-6). By the sixth century there is ample evidence that bulk commodities made up the majority of shipped goods in the Mediterranean with grain and timber as the most important, probably followed by wine and oil (Reed 2003).

Corollary to the belief in luxury trade is the idea that the distribution of imported material in the wider Mediterranean from the Phoenician cities is attributable to gift-exchange (Crielaard 1993) based upon an aristocratic cultural base that "allowed Phoenician luxury goods to be easily marketed" (Crielaard 1996, G. Markoe in Discussion). But why should this have necessarily been aristocratic? Luxury goods may have ended up in 'aristocratic' contexts and often been manufactured for such a market, bur not all goods carried and distributed by Phoenicians should have necessarily been so marketed. Similarly, a lack of imported material need not automatically correlate to a lack of wealth. The Keynesian approach to the responsiveness of the ratio of consumption to changes in income was challenged quite a longtime ago now: consumption cannot be interpreted as being compelled by wealth. It can be irrational, superstitious, traditionalist, or experimental. Consumption is very often implicated with the construction and performative constitution of social power; objects can be obtained for their rarity and/or their ability to send a social message about the possessor. However, in Near Eastern economies there was also significant space for trade in simple commodities, in material that had little impact or had limited social value. Bulk trade in textiles, foodstuffs, wood, garum and even wine had relatively little to do with social messages, and even the market for certain metals and ores would often have had a simple commodity exchange value that was in no way luxury or 'aristocratic'.

Thus the trade conducted by the Phoenician cities need not be seen within the political framework of empire and imperial agents. Phoenicians were doing more than supplying Assyria with status emblems and redistributable bulk commodities; they were also trading in a free market in which commodities had both utility and, sometimes, social value. What is thus far missing from a demand-side oriented, economically simplistic image of the Phoenician economy is the potential complexity and situational variability of such systems. Archaeological material, here exchanged objects, must be seen in this context: as both utility and moveable chattel within a social dialogue.

Phoenicians going west and the decay of Assyrian power 826-744 BC

It is now fairly certain that the first evidence that various peoples from the Levant and the Aegean turned to the western Mediterranean after the Late Bronze Age can be dated to the end of the ninth and the beginning of the eighth century. Despite various attempts to place Phoenicians in the western Mediterranean before the late ninth century, the very earliest levels at Carthage and the earliest material at Huelva date to the last quarter of the ninth century. At Carthage, radiocarbon dates have been made available from the earliest levels, giving dates around the end of the ninth century (Docter et al. 2008). At Huelva, a difficult and contradictory set of evidence has been used to suggest an earlier date, though Gilboa has convincingly demonstrated that the late ninth century is the earliest possibility (Gonzalez de Canales et al. 2006; Nijboer & van der Plicht 2006; Gilboa et al. 2008). The endless debates about the Nora stele and other 'pre-colonial' evidence has been best summarised by van Dommelen, who also supports a late ninth- or early eighth-century period for the earliest Iron Age evidence for colonisation, while the chronology of the mass of early material evidence in the central Mediterranean has been clearly outlined for the early eighth century (Fletcher 2007).

What is true for the central Mediterranean can be seen in other areas. While tentative trade contacts with the Aegean, for example, had existed earlier, there is a marked increase in the eighth century. Similarly, on Cyprus, Phoenician artefacts have been discovered in contexts dating to as early as the eleventh century, but in the late ninth century and early eighth century these show a marked increase in quantity (Bikai 1983, 1987). A similar story seems to be told by the Phoenician artefacts at Kommos (Bikai 2000). Also, objects from the east were being brought to Lefkandi as early as the tenth century (Popham et al. 1982: 169-71; Coldstream 1988:91; Popham & Lemos 1995; Lemos 2002: pl. 106.1), but these imports were soon to have a wider distribution in the late ninth century, with eastern material turning up ar four other Aegean sites: the Kerameikos cemetery at Athens, with its group of rich aristocratic graves; the northern cemetery at Knossos and Teke tomb J in Crete; the Seraglio cemetery at Cos; and Kommos (Coldstream 1982; Gorton 1996). In Cyprus there is a real expansion of not only Levantine trade, but settlement from the Phoenician cities (Yon & Childs 1997). The considerable evidence for Levantine, Greek and Aramaean cooperation in their initial exploration of the west also supports this; one may also add a substantial amount of evidence for an ongoing relationship between Levantines and Euboeans in the central Mediterranean (Boardman 2006; Hodos 2009). It is striking enough that in the central Mediterranean Euboean material occurs at all the sites where Levantine material is found before about the middle of the eighth century, with the exception of Vetulonia and Torre Galli, and the same is also true of Carthage. Some of the earliest material found at Carthage is of Pithekoussai manufacture (Rakob 1997; Vegas 1999: 398-400). There is little need to expound further upon this subject bur the close cooperation between these two groups of traders suggests that their methods and aims may very well have been similar (van Dommelen 1998).


What is perhaps less well known is that Phoenician commercial expansion occurred in the Levant at the same time. Lehmann has observed that Phoenician pottery only begins to appear in numbers in Syria ar the end of the Syrian Iron Age IIA, which one should date to the end of the ninth century BC. He also emphasises that "this is also the beginning of the small harbour at Al Mina, the maritime outlet of northern Syria in general and the 'Amuq region (ancient Pattina or Unqi).... while the Greek evidence has been thoroughly emphasised, the early Phoenician pottery at Al Mina was somewhat neglected ... [and] appears only in very small numbers" (Lehmann 2005, 2008: 155). It is worth pointing out that it is at this moment that Greek pottery also begins to appear in numbers in Syria particularly, but also in the Levant generally. Greek pottery has been found in the Levant dating to before the end of the ninth century, but there are in fact very few pieces (Luke 2003: 31-5). Thus, the evidence for the resumption of Phoenician commercial activity in the wider Mediterranean occurs at roughly the same time as that for Greek exploration (Figure 1).

New models

Whatever explanation may be offered for this sudden movement on the part of so many seafaring peoples, one must dismiss the idea of the Assyrians as a driving force, in the sense that their tribute demands or the needs of their 'war-machine' forced Phoenicians into a search for silver and other metals in the western Mediterranean. There is simply no evidence for it at the end of the ninth century or the beginning of the eighth. The expansion of commerce and contact in the Early Iron Age and the motivations that led to the colonising of the western Mediterranean by Levantine and Aegean peoples has for too long been explained away by the "grand Assyrian vacuum-cleaner" (Larsen 1979: 100). It should be acknowledged that the imperial powers of the Levant were a 'source of movement' which intensified the economic and social system in each society with which they came into contact. As Purcell would have it, there was "a general increase in the 'kinetic energy' of local productive systems ... and a lubrication of mobility and material and people" (Purcell 1990: 39). However, it is important to recognise that the movements brought about by the expanding power structures in the east were intensifications of movements and structures that already existed (Purcell 1990: 41). What was happening in the Mediterranean was an increased involvement in a growing world-system, but it was not the result of an imported 'sophistication' so much as an expansion and an inclusion into an economic and social powerhouse.

The mechanisms, however, of this inclusion have not been explained; the usual explanations, based as they are upon a rather outmoded Marxist disposition of exploitation and materialist determinism, are simply not sufficient for the task. The Phoenician exploration of the western Mediterranean was thought to have been 'forced' upon the peoples of the Levant by the core of Assyria drawing in resources from its periphery. Coreperiphery analysis in this case fails abysmally in terms of chronology, since the movement west occurred when Assyria was weak and did not control the cities of the Levant. Nor does such a theory address the roles of Greeks and other peoples. Simply placing Greeks into the 'semi-periphery' basket, somehow linked to an eastern economic system that was drawing wealth from the rest of the Mediterranean, cannot explain, for instance, Euboeans in the west, Corinthian trade success in the seventh century or east Greek expansion in the sixth century.

Moreover, the use of the search for metals as a touchstone for any understanding of trade between the eastern Mediterranean and the west, from the Late Bronze Age onwards must be challenged. Mycenaeans are said to have come in search of metals; Phoenicians are believed to have been similarly motivated; and, naturally, Greeks were also in search of the same. Such ideas have become self-supporting: since early trade is believed to have been primarily focused on metals, then areas of early trade must therefore have been metal producing. The use made of written sources to support this argument has little consistency. To quote Homer's references to metals and metals trade is to ignore the more numerous occasions when he or Hesiod mention trade in other goods. In Hesiod this is hinted at (Works and Days 618-640; Most 2006), while cargoes other than metals are common in Homer (esp. Odyssey XV; Dimock & Murray 1919). One must face the facts that metal resources in southern Italy, in Sicily, even in the Aegean and in North Africa are and were too meagre to have enticed traders away from the resources and trade networks they would have had locally, at least as a primary motivation.

A far more useful model may be based upon the idea that the events of the ninth to the seventh centuries in the Levant encouraged and facilitated commercial expansion and colonisation in the western Mediterranean as one factor among others. It may well have been the actual breakdown in Assyrian power after 824 BC and the interruption of trade routes from the east that led Phoenicians, Greeks and others from the eastern Mediterranean, all of whom had begun to tap into this eastern trade, to seek new markets and new opportunities in the western Mediterranean. The resurgence of Assyrian power in the later eighth century would have resulted not only in a renewal of eastern trade routes, but also in a prosperous trading environment in Assyrian controlled areas. This is not because of Assyrian 'demands', but because the new Assyrian Empire founded by Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II increased consumption and gave better access to the interior. At the same time, however, the exploration of the western Mediterranean would have vastly increased opportunities for commercial expansion. Not only would volume have increased, but commerce with connections west would have been able to step outside the system and avoid paying tribute. Tyre, with most control over the western Phoenician colonies, increased both its wealth and power. The increasing independence of the Phoenician colonies may have meant that more people from these places, as well as others from outside the Assyrian Levant such as Aegean seafarers, could have all the benefits of trade opportunities as they grew in the Assyrian open market, but without the onerous demands of tribute payment. This led to increasing uneasiness in the Phoenician cities as they too tried to step outside the system by rebelling.


This model, while by no means flawless, is an improvement upon 'the grand Assyrian vacuum-cleaner'. Other models, such as Niemeyer's 'non-Greek model for expansion and settlement in antiquity' (Niemeyer 1990) or even Culican's refugee thesis (Culican 1970) have equal validity; perhaps more. Niemeyer explicitly criticised the idea of the Assyrians driving the Phoenicians west and proposed a model of commercial exploration in two phases: the first being pioneering long-range trade and the second the establishment of small colonies to secure that trade. Culican pointed out (some ten years before Frankenstein's theory was published) that

... there is ... no evidence that Tiglathpileser's domination in Phoenicia proper was any worse than that of his predecessors [and] has no more weight than any suggestion made that the tribute levied by Shalmaneser III on Tyre and Sidon caused the late ninth-century colonial enterprise.... the existing evidence from Assyrian records allows us to assume that economic danger came to Phoenicia only with the coming of Sennacherib, who imposed an annual tribute instead of the sporadic levies exacted by his predecessors (Culican 1970: 32).

It is nevertheless evident that numerous scholars are attached to the idea of a monolithic Assyrian entity oppressing the Phoenicians and forcing them to seek metals in the west, despite inconsistencies both chronological and evidential. Some very prominent researchers have used this explanation, among them Aegean archaeologists like the late Nicolas Coldstream, or Near Eastern specialists like Amelie Kuhrt--and many others less well known. What they all have in common is that they are not Phoenician specialists, but have a peripheral expertise that only relates to the Phoenicians. Culican and Niemeyer, in contrast, were critical, and Aubet does not even mention the Frankenstein thesis in her seminal work The Phoenicians and the West.

There can be little doubt that 'Classical' archaeologists and historians are comparatively ill-informed in the field of Near Eastern studies, and vice versa; even within the field of Phoenician studies itself a separation exists between those studying Phoenicians in the east and those studying the Phoenician colonial movement in the west. The field of Phoenician studies, particularly the study of cultural exchanges between the Classical world and the Near East, suffers as a result. A gulf, always seemingly present between east and west, has developed between geographically separated fields of archaeology. A good example of this is the continued misunderstanding of the role of Assyrian power in the eastern Mediterranean and the expansion of trade in the Early Iron Age.

The study of the interaction that occurred between the Levant and the wider Mediterranean, so important in the Early Iron Age, is diminished by the dominance of Classical and Aegean archaeologists in the Mediterranean, a dominance Near Eastern scholars have a tendency to concede too readily. If this situation is to be rectified, one can begin by dismissing the idea of the 'grand Assyrian vacuum cleaner' and look for models that more closely fit the evidence.


I would like to thank the reviewers of this paper for their valuable suggestions and revisions. In particular, I would like to thank Martin Carver for his editorial work on this paper--which has been quite exceptional. I take responsibility, however, for any limitations or errors that remain.


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Richard Nathan Fletcher, Department of History & Classics, 2-28 Henry Marshall Tory Bldg, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2H4, Canada (Email:
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Title Annotation:Debate
Author:Fletcher, Richard Nathan
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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