The Phoenicians: Early Lessons in Economics

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The Phoenicians: Early Lessons in Economics


The Phoenicians were members an ancient culture located in the region of the modern Middle East. They were renowned for their aggressive pursuit of trade and colonization in the Mediterranean Sea region during the last three millennia b.c. They established important cities and colonies throughout the region, including Sidon, Tyre, Carthage, and Berot. After its establishment, Carthage became the most important city in the western Mediterranean. It was the chief site of commerce and served as an important link in the trail of colonies that Phoenicia had established. There were also several other Phoenician settlements that provided an easy route to Spain. Spain was an important destination because of its wealth of precious metals. Other important imports were papyrus, ivory, ebony, silk, spices, precious metals, and jewels.

The Phoenicians made unique items that were desired all over the world. They were skilled craftsman noted for the fine detail of their work. Because of their wide range of travel, they often took an idea from one culture and improved upon it, or brought materials to parts of the world where they had previously been unavailable. Their most important exports were cedar wood, glass, and Tyrian cloth. Cedar was very important in the ancient Middle East because this natural resource was sorely lacking in many areas. In addition, the nobility desired its fragrance. The Phoenicians developed the technique of glassblowing, which enabled glass products to be available to all strata of society. Perhaps the best-known and most desired export was their famous purple Tyrian cloth, made from the snail-like shellfish Murex. In fact, the Tyrian cloth was so identified with this group of people that the name Phoenicia comes from the Greek word for purple. Other significant exports included fine linen, embroideries, wine, and metalwork. Lastly, the Phoenicians conducted an important transit trade that shuttled people from one place to another.

There is little evidence concerning how the Phoenician civilization came about, or even how they referred to themselves in their own language; however, historians believe they used the term kena'ani. Interestingly, in Hebrew this same word can also mean "merchant," an apt description for the trade-loving Phoenicians. They probably arrived in the Mediterranean Sea area around 3000 b.c.

In general, Phoenicia was not a sovereign nation for much of its existence. It was constantly threatened and overrun by powerful nations. Egypt initially seized some control over Phoenicia, but once the Phoenicians wrestled free from their grip, they were often controlled by other entities, such as the Syrians and the Persians, until the Romans eventually assimilated the Phoenicians into their society. Despite this, the Phoenicians were able to make a lasting impact on the world.

The Phoenicians were instrumental in disseminating their form of writing, from which our modern alphabet is derived. They encouraged trade with other cultures and through commerce they exposed various civilizations and cultures in the Mediterranean basin to each other. Through their constant travel of their trade routes, the Phoenicians encouraged cultural exchange between various civilizations. This helped to hasten the spread of science, philosophy, and other ideas throughout the ancient world. The Phoenicians have even been incorrectly credited with inventing such important technologies as glass; nevertheless, they certainly were vital in the dissemination and improvement of that technology through the known world.


The Phoenicians had established trade routes that used both land and sea. There is strong evidence that all of western Asia was served by land caravans led by Phoenicians. Phoenicia was involved in trade with most known cultures, and those they could not reach by land, they traveled to by sea.

There is little evidence that remains regarding Phoenician land trade. It is theorized by scholars that the extent of Phoenician trade stretched far beyond what the scarce historical records indicate. It may have extended to such places as central Africa. What is known is that the land commerce of the Phoenicians was carried out almost exclusively by caravans. This was done primarily for safety reasons, since large groups were much less vulnerable than small ones. This allowed the precious cargo to be protected from thieves that were invariably found along the route. There are records dating from 1600 b.c. that indicate Phoenician caravans traveled east with wood and returned with spices. They provided their closest neighbors with grain and other products, while supplying other cultures with goods they needed or desired. The Phoenician trade with Egypt was carried out on a large scale, where they imported such items as linen sails, papyrus, and scarabs, while exporting wine fabric and manufactured items. However, their most important land routes led to Arabia.

The Phoenician trade with Arabia was especially important because they were able to not only trade for desired Arabian goods, but it was the only way they could obtain products from India as well. Arabia was the main source of spices, such as cinnamon, for Phoenicia and in turn for the entire Western world. This area of the world was also known for its production of fine wool. There were other important goods that came from Arabia as well. In turn, it is believed that Phoenicia exported principally manufactured goods to Arabia, such as linen fabrics and glass, where it is believed they would be strongly desired.

As extensive as the Phoenician land trading routes were, the sea routes were much broader. Their voyages either went to trade with their own colonists or the natives of various countries. Most of the colonies that were established by the Phoenicians were trading settlements that were strategically placed near the supply of a particular commodity. The intent of this strategy was to provide the Phoenicians with a monopoly on that item so that they could ask any price. As an example, it is thought that Cyprus was originally colonized for its copper mines, while Lycia was established for access to timber. The colony worked to secure the commodity for Phoenicia, who in turn, provided the colonists with many different types of their own manufactured goods.

One colony, Carthage, was different. Carthage (New Town) was a great city of antiquity founded on the north coast of Africa by the Phoenicians for the purposes of establishing an important commerce center. The site was chosen in a natural bay that provided a safe anchorage and an abundant food supply. It served as a starting point for treks into the interior of Africa or voyages to Spain. Carthage was an extremely important city to Phoenicia until it was completely destroyed by the Romans in 146 b.c. during the Third Punic War.

The sea trade routes carried the Phoenicians to the ends of the known world. They traded throughout the Mediterranean Sea and even left to brave the Atlantic Ocean. There is speculation that these trade routes went as far as circumnavigating Africa, reaching Great Britain, and establishing trade with the Canary Islands.

In trading with other countries, Phoenicia desired to attain three goals. The first was to sell their manufactured goods for profit. The second was to sell goods from other nations at a profit. Third, Phoenicia wanted to obtain commodities from that country that would be desired by other nations. Thus, Phoenicia wished to profit from each country in three different ways. The main thrust of Phoenicia's economic philosophy was to always gain a monopoly. The traders would often come into a country and sell items necessary for living so reasonably as to put the native merchants out of business. Once this goal was achieved, the native market was now dependent solely on Phoenicia for support.


Some historians have unjustly characterized the Phoenicians as merely being passive peddlers of art and merchandise. Their historical achievements were not only noteworthy, but they were essential to the dissemination of knowledge and ideas in the ancient world. In many ways, their influence can be regarded as intermediary. The fact that they may have not been the originators of certain concepts or technologies should not diminish their contributions. They served as the conduit of thoughts and ideas between various cultures and enhanced the exchange of technology and information between them. Thus, many cultures that would have remained isolated from each other, possibly for extended periods of time, were able to benefit from each other's existence. The route of information can be traced from Mesopotamia and Egypt to Phoenicia, then on to Cyprus, Anatolia, and Syria. Thus, the Phoenicians can be credited with transmitting knowledge to many cultural groups.

The Greeks, in particular, owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Phoenician culture. First and foremost, they adopted the Phoenician alphabet for their own use with little variation or change. The Greeks also implemented the Phoenician standards of weights and measurement. Furthermore, the Greeks adopted the art of Phoenicia, from decorative motifs on pottery to the architectural styles of buildings.

In order to reign supreme in the area of commerce, the Phoenicians had to be skilled in navigational techniques. Their trade routes spanned the known world and beyond. They were characterized as patient yet fearless navigators who were willing to venture into regions where no one else would dare to go. The Phoenicians have been credited with the circumnavigation of Africa, the discovery of islands in the Azores, and they may have even reached Great Britain. They did this with the hope of establishing business monopolies or expanding their existing trade. They closely guarded the secrets of their trade routes and the techniques used to navigate them, but this information slowly leaked out to other societies. For instance, the Phoenicians are credited with utilizing Polaris (Pole Star) as a navigational aid. This and many other routing techniques were a great help to subsequent seafaring people.

The Phoenician's influence on the world was primarily an economic and cultural one. They had little political influence and steered away from confrontation whenever possible. They made use of well chosen sites with natural harbors to build their cities and colonies. These geographical locations enabled the Phoenicians to build up a large merchant trade where they could provide an exchange of not only goods, but also information and ideas between cultures. Certainly subsequent cultures owe a great debt of gratitude to the Phoenicians.


Further Reading

Aubet, Marua E. The Phoenicians & the West: Politics, Colonies & Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Bullitt, Orville, H. Phoenicia & Carthage: A Thousand Years to Oblivion. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing, 1978.

Rawlinson, George. Phoenicia. North Stratford: Ayer Company Publishers, 1977.

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The Phoenicians: Early Lessons in Economics

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