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Thread: [History] Masters of the Sea: Phoenicians

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    Default [History] Masters of the Sea: Phoenicians

    Author: Kleos
    Original Thread: Masters of the Sea: Phoenicians

    Masters of the Sea: Phoenicians
    Masters of the Sea: Phoenicians

    “The Mediterranean was a Phoenician lake and no man dared to wash his hands in it without Carthaginian permission.”

    The above phrase is often used to describe the Carthaginian’s mastery of the sea; however their military naval power was never so great. But I find the comparison to a lake to be somewhat fitting in terms of trade and exploration, areas in which they were unmatched for centuries. Phoenician sailors and traders travelled far and wide; explored and visited most of the Mediterranean, and who sailed even beyond it to West Africa and North West Europe (being the first sailors from the Mediterranean to do so) . In this short article I hope to explore some of this maritime heritage for which they are so famous.


    To begin with the early Phoenicians were great colonisers, rivalling the Greeks to establish colonies throughout Western Europe.

    As you can see the Phoenicians colonised widely. Several theories have been put forward as to explain how these particular people became so adept at establishing colonies, ranging from military pressures from hostile empires (Assyria, Persia etc.), rivalry with Greek colonising cities, and lack of space and resources at home.

    One must bear in mind that the map above doesn’t give any indication of Carthage’s colonies beyond the Pillars of Heracles and in Corsica.

    Phoenician colonies included:

    A colony situate on the North African coast, it deserves mention for being Tyre’s first colony in North Africa. Its importance in stimulating further trade and exploration cannot be ignored, and despite Carthage being founded very near to it remained independent from her control until the late sixth century.

    Gadir (Modern day Cadiz)
    Established by Phoenicians in 1104BC, Gadir is the most ancient city still standing in Europe. It was controlled by Carthage by 500BC and was their most important colony in Spain.

    The most famous and successful of the Phoenicians colonies Carthage became the leading Punic state after the decline of the homeland cities of Tyre and Sidon. Established in 814BC by settlers from Tyre, the cities founding myth tells of the well known flight of Queen Dido from her tyrannical brother after her husband was murdered.

    The Phoenicians established the city in the eighth century. It was situated on an island linked to the mainland of Sicily by a small causeway. For much of its history it was the primary stronghold of the Carthaginians against Greek expansion on Sicily. It was however sacked by Dionysius I of Syracuse in 397BC. Though recaptured by Carthage, Motya never recovered from the disaster and the newly founded city of Lilybaeum became the stronghold of Carthaginian power in Sicily.

    The Siege of Motya is very interesting, below is the account of it by Diodorus of Sicily in his ‘Bibliotheca Historica’. It’s quite long but a good read. Due to its length, and also because I wish to focus upon the Phoenicians maritime heritage, the account has been placed in spoiler tags (for some reason my compuer insists I use two, but both are part of the same thing).

    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
    "This city (Motya) was situated on an island lying 1100 meters off Sicily, and was embellished artistically to the last degree with numerous fine houses, thanks to the prosperity of the inhabitants. It also had a narrow artificial causeway extending to the shore of Sicily, which the Motyans breached at this time, in order that the enemy should have no approach against them.
    Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

    Dionysius, after ravaging all the territory held by the Carthaginians and forcing the enemy to take refuge behind walls, led all his army against Motya; for he hoped that when this city had been reduced by siege, all the others would forthwith surrender themselves to him. Accordingly, he at once put many times more men on the task of filling up the strait between the city and the coast, and, as the mole was extended, advanced his engines of war little by little toward the walls.

    After Dionysius had completed the mole by employing a large force of labourers, he advanced war engines of every kind against the walls and kept hammering the towers with his battering-rams, while with the catapults he kept down the fighters on the battlements; and he also advanced against the walls his wheeled towers, six stories high, which he had built to equal the height of the houses.

    The inhabitants of Motya, now that the threat was at hand-grips, were nevertheless not dismayed by the armament of Dionysius, even though they had for the moment no allies to help them. Surpassing the besiegers in thirst for glory, they in the first place raised up men in crow's-nests resting on yard-arms suspended from the highest possible masts, and these from their lofty positions hurled lighted fire-brands and burning tow with pitch on the enemies' siege engines. The flame quickly caught the wood, but the Sicilian Greeks, dashing to the rescue, swiftly quenched it; and meantime the frequent blows of the battering-rams broke down a section of the wall.

    Since now both sides rushed with one accord to the place, the battle that ensued grew furious. For the Sicilian Greeks, believing that the city was already in their hands, spared no effort in retaliating upon the Carthaginians for former injuries they had suffered at their hands, while the people of the city, envisioning the terrible fate of a life of captivity and seeing no possibility of flight either by land or by sea, faced death stoutly. And finding themselves shorn of the defense of the walls, they barricaded the narrow lanes and made the last houses provide a lavishly constructed wall.

    From this came even greater difficulties for the troops of Dionysius. For after they had burst through the wall and seemed to be already masters of the city, they were raked by missiles from men posted in superior positions. Nevertheless, they advanced the wooden towers to the first houses and provided them with gangways; and since the siege machines were equal in height to the dwellings, the rest of the struggle was fought hand to hand. For the Sicilian Greeks would launch the gangways and force a passage by them on to the houses.

    The Motyans, as they took account of the magnitude of the peril, and with their wives and children before their eyes, fought the more fiercely out of fear for their fate. There were some whose parents stood by entreating them not to let them be surrendered to the lawless will of victors, who were thus wrought to a pitch where they set no value on life; others, as they heard the laments of their wives and helpless children, sought to die like men rather than to see their children led into captivity. Flight of course from the city was impossible, since it was entirely surrounded by the sea, which was controlled by the enemy. Most appalling for the Phoenicians and the greatest cause of their despair was the thought how cruelly they had used their Greek captives and the prospect of their suffering the same treatment. Indeed there was nothing left for them but, fighting bravely, either to conquer or die.

    When such an obstinate mood filled the souls of the besieged, the Sicilian Greeks found themselves in a very difficult position. For, fighting as they were from the suspended wooden bridges, they suffered grievously both because of the narrow quarters and because of the desperate resistance of their opponents, who had abandoned hope of life. As a result, some perished in hand-to-hand encounter as they gave and received wounds, and others, pressed back by the Motyans and tumbling from the wooden bridges, fell to their death on the ground.

    In the end, while the kind of siege we have described had lasted some days, Dionysius made it his practice always toward evening to sound the trumpet for the recall of the fighters and break off the siege. When he had accustomed the Motyans to such a practice, the combatants on both sides retiring, he dispatched Archylus of Thurii with the elite troops, who, when night had fallen, placed ladders against the fallen houses, and mounting by them, seized an advantageous spot where he admitted Dionysius' troops. The Motyans, when they perceived what had taken place, at once rushed to the rescue with all eagerness, and although they were too late, none the less faced the struggle. The battle grew fierce and abundant reinforcements climbed the ladders, until at last the Sicilian Greeks wore down their opponents by weight of numbers.

    Straightway Dionysius' entire army burst into the city, coming also by the mole, and now every spot was a scene of mass slaughter; for the Sicilian Greeks, eager to return cruelty for cruelty, slew everyone they encountered, sparing without distinction not a child, not a woman, not an elder. Dionysius, wishing to sell the inhabitants into slavery for the money he could gather, at first attempted to restrain the soldiers from murdering the captives, but when no one paid any attention to him and he saw that the fury of the Sicilian Greeks was not to be controlled, he stationed heralds to cry aloud and tell the Motyans to take refuge in the temples which were revered by the Greeks."

    Phoenician and Carthaginian exploration

    The expedition of Hanno

    Our knowledge of this comes from a Greek translation of an inscription in the temple of Baal Hammon.

    "The Carthaginians decided that Hanno should go past the Pillars and found Carthaginian cities. He set sail with sixty fifty-oared ships, about thirty thousand men and women, food and other equipment.. After passing the Pillars of Hercules and sailing for two days beyond them we founded the first city, which was named Thymiaterion. Around it was a large plain. Next we went on in a westerly direction and arrived at the Libyan promontory of Soloeis, which is covered with trees; having set up a shrine to Poseidon, we set sail again towards the rising sun for half a day, after which we arrived at a lagoon close to the sea covered with many tall reeds. Elephants and large numbers of other animals were feeding on them. Leaving this lagoon and sailing for another day, we founded the coastal cities named Karikon Teichos, Gytte, Akra, Melitta and Arambys.

    Leaving this place we arrived at the great river Lixos which comes from Libya. On the banks nomads, the Lixites, were feeding their flocks. We stayed for some time with these people and made friends with them. Upstream from them lived the unfriendly Ethiopians whose land is full of wild beasts and broken up by high mountains where they say the Lixos rises. They also say that about these mountains dwell the strange-looking Troglodytes. The Lixites claim that they can run faster than horses. Taking Lixite interpreters with us we sailed alongside the desert in a southerly direction for two days, then towards the rising sun for one more day. We then found at the far end of an inlet a little island five stades in circumference. We named it Cerne and left settlers there. Judging by our journey we reckoned that it must be opposite Carthage, since we had to sail the same distance from Carthage to the Pillars of Hercules as from the Pillars of Hercules to Cerne. From there, sailing up a big river named the Chretes, we arrived at a lake in which there were three islands, all larger than Cerne. Leaving these islands, we sailed for one day and came to the end of the lake, which was overshadowed by high mountains full of savages dressed in animal skins that threw stones at us and thus prevented us from landing. From there we entered another river, which was big and wide, full of crocodiles and hippopotamuses. Then we retraced our journey back to Cerne.

    From there we sailed south along a coast entirely inhabited by Ethiopians, who fled at our approach. Their language was incomprehensible even to the Lixites, whom we had with us. On the last day we disembarked by some high mountains covered with trees with sweet-smelling multicoloured wood. We sailed round these mountains for two days and arrived in a huge bay on the other side of which was a plain; there we saw fires breaking out at intervals on all sides at night, both great and small. Having renewed our water supplies, we continued our voyage along the coast for five days, after which we arrived at a huge inlet, which the interpreters called the Horn of the West. There was a big island in this gulf and in the island was a lagoon with another island. Having disembarked there, we could see nothing but forest by day ; but at night many fires were seen and we heard the sound of flutes and the beating of drums and tambourines, which made a great noise. We were struck with terror and our soothsayers bade us leave the island.

    We left in haste and sailed along by a burning land full of perfumes. Streams of fire rose from it and plunged into the sea. The land was unapproachable because of the heat. Terror-stricken, we hastened away. During four days' sailing we saw at night that the land was covered with fire. In the middle was a high flame, higher than the others, which seemed to reach the stars. By day we realised that it was a very high mountain, named the Chariot of the Gods. Leaving this place, we sailed along the burning coast for three days and came to the gulf named the Horn of the South. At the end of it was an island like the first one, with a lake in which was another island full of savages. The greater parts of these were women. They had hairy bodies and the interpreters called them Gorillas. We pursued some of the males but we could not catch a single one because they were good climbers and they defended themselves fiercely. However, we managed to take three women. They bit and scratched their captors, whom they did not want to follow. We killed them and removed the skins to take back to Carthage. We sailed no further, being short of supplies."

    The Expedition of Necho

    Necho II was an Egyptian Pharaoh who sent out a naval expedition made up of Phoenician sailors to sail around the entire continent of Africa; which they completed. Our evidence of this comes from Herodotus. Though some scholars doubt the credibility of the journey many accept it as fact due to the point about the Phoenicians claim of the position of the sun (a claim which Herodotus disbelieves). Below is the account of the expedition as taken from Herodotus:

    “…after he (Necho) had abandoned the digging of the canal from the Nile to the Arabian Gulf, his next project was to dispatch ships with Phoenician crews with instructions to return via the Pillars of Heracles into the northern sea and so back to Egypt. So the Phoenicians set out from the Red Sea and sailed into the sea to the south. Every autumn, they would come ashore, cultivate whatever part of Libya they had reached in their voyage, and wait for harvest time; then, when they had gathered in their crops, they would put to sea again. Consequently it was over two years before they rounded the Pillars of Heracles and arrived back in Egypt. They made a claim which I personally do not believe, although someone else might – that as they were sailing around Libya they had the sun on their right.

    This is how information about Libya was first gained , and then the next people to claim that the continent was circum-navigable were the Carthaginians.”

    Beyond Africa…?

    There are some people who believe that the Phoenicians and Carthaginians even did better than the feats detailed above. Various people have claimed that the Carthaginians reached America, even Australia. While I personally disbelieve (most) of these claims, I feel that it’s worth mentioning what some of these theories are. At the very least, it will serve as a fitting testament to the Phoenician’s seamanship that there are people who believe they had the skills to achieve such levels exploration.

    Carthage and America
    This theory revolves around an image on a coin:
    (image taken from

    Personally I would question why the Carthaginians would print a map of America when they were so guarded about the trade routes even to Britain. However, the person proposing it knows the Phoenician language so that pretty much rules out the possibility of it being writing; and there are also references amongst ancient authors to a “true continent” and an island known to the Carthaginians with many resources.

    Whether or not you believe that the Carthaginians travelled to North America, it would not have been impossible. In 1970 Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian academic, constructed two ships of reed and papyrus. An attempted crossing of the Atlantic was made and though the first boat, ‘Ra’, failed; ‘Ra II’ succeeded – crossing the Atlantic in 57 days. If a boat made out of reed is capable of doing it, I imagine that the solid Phoenician ships, (like the 50 oared pentekonters of Hanno’s account) would be perfectly capable too. Though I don’t think that there were any colonisation attempts or regular resource gathering trips; the romantic in me likes to believe that perhaps a lost ship was blown off course and did reach the New World, and somehow managed to return home. (but that’s just me!)

    Above: The RAII and a model Pentekonter

    Other proposed places include Brazil and the mentioned Australia. I won’t bother describing the details; their real achievements are impressive enough. If you wish to know more about the alleged exploration of the Phoenicians throughout the world, the following website is a great resource:
    (Click on the settlements part near the top of the page)

    The First Punic War and The decline of Punic Naval power

    With naval defeat in the First Punic Was the Carthaginian thalassocracy collapsed, and Punic civilization begun its decline. It took the military genius that was Hannibal to make Carthage a power again, but without mastery of the seas his attempts eventually proved fruitless. I mention this as to address one misconception that is often repeated, and to highlight the irony of Carthage’s defeat. The Corvus did not secure Roman victory in the war, they won through bettering the Carthaginians in seamanship skills; skills that they were able to develop throughout the long war.

    I cannot help but think of Napoleon Bonaparte when he said:

    “You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.

    The Corvus did swing the war in the favour of Rome at first. In its first use in the battle of Mylae over a third of the Carthaginian ships were captured and the Romans perfectly utilised their superior infantry in a naval engagement. They repeated this in a succession of battles, at Sulci, Tyndaris, and Cape Ecnomus. However the Corvus had serious flaws. The extra weight seriously affected stability and manoeuvrability, Rome lost two whole fleets to storms on separate occasions. At the Battle of Drepana in 249BC a crushing Carthaginian victory eradicated Roman naval power, nullifying Rome’s previous success at sea. So complete was Carthaginain victory at sea that it was another seven years before Rome rebuilt her fleet.

    But rebuild it she did. Rome had learned from her mistakes; she now had experience in naval combat and dropped the Corvus. Her crews were repeatedly drilled and trained prior to engagement and her new fleet of 200 ships met the Carthaginian fleet at the Battle of the Aegates Islands. Here a great victory finally gave Rome unquestioned dominance at sea; after 23 years of bitter conflict the war came to a swift end: Carthage had lost her naval power and promptly realised the futility of carrying on the war. Peace was negotiated.

    How did such a great naval power lose to Rome and come undone in just one battle? The problem of being reliant on a navy is that in one battle your entire power base can come undone – look at Aegospotami with the Athenians, or what Jutland could have been for the British. Added to this ingrained weakness of any Naval reliant power was the poor decisions made by Carthage. After the Battle of Drepana Carthage did little to follow up her success at sea and took almost no action to renew or reinforce the war effort in Sicily. The worse mistake was disbanding the fleet in 244BC (only 3 years before Aegates Islands) – disbanding a powerful, victorious and highly experienced fleet during the war with Rome is one of the most unbelievable strategic moves in maritime military history. And who was responsible for such an idea? Hanno, Hanno the Great. Arguing it was far too expensive to maintain the fleet while Rome lacked one, he urged the Carthaginians to disband most of it, and they did. This was the same Hanno who stopped any reinforcements being sent to Hannibal after Cannae.

    With defeat in the Punic Wars, Rome took the position of Carthage as primary naval power in the Mediterranean. Later on in to the Empire the Mediterranean truly became a Roman lake, being known as Mare Nostrum. Though the Romans went on to vastly surpass Carthage in terms of naval power and trading wealth, one thing that no power was able to match the Phoenicians and Carthaginians in for many centuries was exploration; and in this respect they deserve our praise and admiration.

    1100 BC Utica established, first colony of Tyre
    Circa 950BC Tyre, under leadership of King Hiriam I puts down a rebellion in the colony of Utica
    Early 9th Century Phoenicians pay tribute to Assyrian Empire
    814 BC Carthage established
    539 BC Cyrus the Great conquers Phoenicia. Its influence begins to decline and many leave, moving to Carthage. Carthage now a powerful entity in its own right.
    332 BC Tyre captured and sacked by Alexander the Great
    262-241 BC First Punic War
    218-201 BC Second Punic War
    149-146 BC Third Punic War
    1482 ADDiogo Co, a Portuguese navigator,discovers the mouth of the River Niger (Hanno the Navigator reached it 1907 years before)
    1490 AD Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese navigator, “proves” that Africa can be circumnavigated when he reaches the southern tip of the continent. (2090 years after Necho’s expedition)

    Herodotus: The Histories (translation by Robin Waterfield)
    Adrian Goldsworthy: The Fall of Carthage

    Last edited by jimkatalanos; July 30, 2007 at 09:41 AM.
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