Blog Post #73: Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean: An Interview with Dr. Carolina López-Ruiz

Our blogs posts this month explore the modern constructions of “East” and “West”: how these influenced the study of the ancient Mediterranean, and how the ancient Mediterranean was used in turn to further entrench these constructs. Authors take a range of approaches for evaluating how we deal with the persistence of “East” and “West”, interrogating the ways in which we study and understand the materials, motifs, and people who moved around this ancient world.

What pushed you to take on this monumental project? 

I have been “chasing the Phoenicians” ever since I was a graduate student. The questions that set in motion the type of enquiry that led to this book emerged as I was working on my dissertation, which was about the adaptation of Northwest Semitic motifs in Greek cosmogonies/theogonies (this became my first book, When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East, 2010). As I wrote in my introduction there, we still needed to find a historical and cultural frame that accounts for the adaptations of Near Eastern myth I saw in the literature of archaic Greece. How, where, and through whom did those stories travel? The more I looked into the archaeological data about Phoenician settlement and activity all over the Mediterranean, and the acknowledgement of Phoenician cultural “debt” in Greek sources, the more I became convinced that the Phoenicians were key players in this scenario of cultural exchange. The main challenge is the lack of literary heritage from this group, which also made the puzzle particularly interesting. I was set on pushing a view that champions them as cultural agents while forcing us to break away from the stereotypes of Phoenicians as merely traders and leave aside the Hellenocentrism that we have inherited precisely because we do have Greek literature.

The timing of the book and my effort to bring it to a close was also spurred by the increasing interest in the Phoenicians, and the need, I though, of bringing closer the advances from various disciplines, Classics, western Mediterranean archaeology, Near Eastern archaeology, Hebrew Bible, etc. I felt I could bring a unique perspective in the sense that I have a rare background in both classics and Northwest Semitic studies, and I have worked on western Mediterranean contexts (Tartessos in Iberia) as well on Greek-Near eastern literature. 

a light grey openwork plaque depicts a walking sphinx. It is missing most of its legs, but has very intricate patterns on its wings, headdress, and collar.
Fig. 1 Openwork plaque with a striding sphinx ca. 9th–8th century B.C., Assyrian, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In your opinion, what were some of the main forces at play in modern scholarship that succeeded in marginalizing the Phoenicians, such that they now need to be “rehabilitated” in their role as one of the major drivers of ancient Mediterranean history? 

As westerners educated on a Greco-Roman view of the European heritage, we have inherited the biases against other cultures, especially not Indo-European ones. This doesn’t mean every scholar who does not talk about Phoenicians or other non-Greeks and Romans is explicitly or consciously biased. There are dark tendencies behind this Euro-centric, Classico-centric education to begin with, of course (anti-Semitism has been a well-known part of it in certain periods). But in practice, the major force is inertia, or the tendency to follow the rut set by those disciplinary and institutional divisions, which in turn create and reinforce certain research niches and teaching cultures and habits. An inescapable fact is that the major disciplines (Classics, biblical, Near Eastern, e.g., Assyriology, Egyptology) were formed around corpora of texts. And that Phoenician culture lacks a comparable textual heritage, for historical reasons that are inseparable from the advancement of Greek and Roman literature and culture (it’s all a vicious circle). The bottom line is that Phoenician culture can never become a “classic” in the sense that those other cultures are. The main challenge is to demonstrate their role through painstaking reconstruction of the traces a lost heritage. For this, an essential avenue of progress is the dialogue between historiography and archaeology, the one main source of new information for the Phoenicians, including epigraphical textual evidence.  

You state on p. 81 that “Phoenicians. . . were the first and most frequent Near Eastern interlocutors these local groups [in the western Mediterranean] ever met, and the first and only Levantine group to actually permanently settle in their midst.” Can we understand why it was the Phoenicians, and not other coastal groups along the Levant (or elsewhere) that ended up taking on these long-distance ventures at such an early date? 

That’s the big question. A combination of factors must have aligned to make the Phoenicians willing and capable of setting out in these long-distance travels leading to their progressive settlement so far out from the Levant. For one thing, it is hard to think of other groups in the eastern Mediterranean who after the Bronze Age had maintained the political and economic stability that the Phoenician cities did; moreover, not every group had a maritime outlook and the technological “know-how,” while the coastal Canaanite states of the Phoenician shores, such as Byblos, had cultivated and exploited their naval expertise since the Bronze Age when they became timber suppliers for Egypt. Greater powers like Assyria or the Aramaean states were more inland looking and so were the Israelites. The Philistines, who seem to have had an Aegean origin, and were “recent” migrants themselves into Palestine, and seemingly had no interest or capability for these ventures.  

A brown terracotta jug sits on a grey table. It has a rounded body, a single handle, a short neck, and a fluted mouth. It has some Phoenician script carved into it.
Fig. 2 Phoenician Terracotta jug 7th century B.C. with incised Phoenician script in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But we still are kind of in the dark about the initial causes, as we lack an internal historiography about this period (and even then, that might have presented a distorted or hyper simplified explanation). Sometimes the decision or initiative of a single monarch may lie behind an enterprise that may have been unpredictable. Whatever the case, for the success of a sustained trading and colonial expansion you need particular conditions and motivations, as this process entails an enormous logistical and human investment, and an ongoing organization and infrastructure to maintain the networks. I think barring new texts, we will never know for sure how this all started at the socio-political level. But archaeological discovery in recent decades is shedding light on specific aspects of this movement: the earlier dates of the first permanent settlement (mid-late ninth century); the resources that were most sought-after and exploited (metals, timber, ceramic production, agriculture); and how these settlements sustained themselves and supported each other, as well as their working and personal relation with locals, which must have been fundamental for the Phoenicians’ success from the beginning. 

In some ways you defend the term “Orientalizing” in your book, specifically in Chapter 3. You note that we should redefine it, like other nineteenth-century terms, “according to current theoretical models” (p. 66). Your work is very conscious and thorough in its use of this term. Do you nonetheless worry that “Orientalizing” will continue to perpetuate an east-west divide in scholarship on the ancient Mediterranean along the lines of modern notions of Orientalism? 

It was not an easy decision. I debated a lot with myself which way to go with this, whether to scrap the term altogether or to work with it, extracting a revised meaning and function for it that might conform to the current interpretive paradigm. I ultimately decided in favor of or the second option, mostly because it is an entrenched term in art history and archaeology, not only in English-speaking scholarship but especially in Europe, in the countries where most of Phoenician archaeology is happening, such as Italy and Spain, as well as Greece. I agree, though, that it is hard to shake the Euro-centric colonialist layer implicit in the very lexeme “Orient” on which “orientalizing” is formed. In a time when institutions are renaming themselves to avoid the word “Orient” altogether, perhaps it is time to scrap it. On Cyprus, for instance, the type art we would call “orientalizing” by period and style is simply called “archaeo-Cypriot” which is an elegant and neutral term. So perhaps we will end up with more neutral chronological and local referents (Tartessic, archaic Etruscan, or whatever). But the category “orientalizing” is very much alive in other countries and in the discipline, not the least in Etruscan and Greek art. It is also difficult to find a substitute for this generalized trend. Others and I have proposed “Phoenicianizing” as a more accurate term, but of course not every referent in this type of art and culture of the archaic Mediterranean is Phoenician. If my take on the Phoenicians’ role is correct, however, this is still a more accurate concept, since it points to a specific historical agent, not a vague “Orient.” Even if the argument might be is well received (we will see) it might take decades for any change in terminology for artifacts in museums and publications, and I doubt Phoenicianizing will be the substitute. And, of course, the Phoenicians were not the exclusive referent in this phenomenon. That is why in my argument I insisted that the “-izing” ending is the key that allows us to rehabilitate the terms, if we want, as a vague emulation of Near Eastern things, not necessarily tied to a specific “origin.” In other words, there was a certain “reverse orientalism” in the sense that Iron Age elites and artisans were emulating both Phoenician art and technology and broader Near Eastern and Egyptian models largely mediated by Phoenicians.  

Where do you think the biggest contributions to Phoenician studies will come from in the next decade (e.g., traditional archaeological approaches, art history, scientific dating, genetics, etc.)? 

All of the above. Archaeology will bring most of the new information, no doubt. For instance, survey archaeology is informing us about the organization of the territory vis-à-vis resources and local interaction, while traditional archaeology continues to offer answers about trade networks, domestic architecture and social organization, ritual life, etc., while new findings are helping us fine tune the dates and conditions of the early stages of settlement abroad (not necessarily know the causes, as we were saying earlier!). Moreover, archaeological work in Lebanon and northern Israel, and in Tunisia too, is filling in the many gaps in information about early Iron Age Phoenicians in these homelands, which brings opportunity to draw east-west connections that can feed into the discussion about colonies as well. But everything contributes, and the analytical, lab work that accompanies every excavation now a days is fundamental too; it provides priceless data about daily life, trade, pottery production, etc. Finally, DNA studies are fascinating in their own right, although the data is always tricky to interpret culturally and does not easily map onto historical, lived identities (a topic for another time). 

Basically, materials dug-up from the ground or new written documents can shift entire interpretations of historical processes, and even the study and publication of archived museum materials can shed light on a particular site or area. For instance, an ongoing project by colleagues from the University of Seville is studying Punic amphorae stored in museums all over Greece and previously set aside and not identified as Punic; this re-evaluation required the expertise of western Mediterranean archaeologists to visit these museums and collect the data. This project will tell us a great deal about Phoenician-Carthaginian activity in the Aegean harbors. But then again, archaeology has to go hand in hand with broader cultural-historical interpretation to create new syntheses and advance the field more broadly. 

a small glass pendant depicts a man with dark hair, eyebrows, and a beard. He has a green pointed hat, golden beads on his ears, and one in the middle of his forehead.
Fig. 3 Phoenician Glass double head pendant 5th century B.C., in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A Cypriot silver-glit bowl is presented on a grey background. It is mainly gold in colour, and shows many figures and decorative patterns.
Fig. 4 Cypriot Silver-gilt bowl ca. 725–675 B.C. I am of Akestor, king of Paphos (inscription), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

If you could choose one artifact that encapsulates the type of interconnected world the Phoenicians helped to generate through their cultural and economic activities, what would it be? 

In my book I used the sphinx to trace the impact of Phoenician culture across the Mediterranean, as it appears in every art form and is a most successful motif, adapted by Greeks, Etruscans, Tartessians, Cypriots, and others. The use of sphinxes or griffins in funerary, votive, and mythological contexts shows this hybrid creature maintained a fairly consistent symbolic meaning not divorced from its use among Phoenicians and others (Egyptians, Canaanites, Hittites, Minoans-Mycenaeans) even earlier in the eastern Mediterranean. But it was the Phoenician version of the sphinx, very clearly, the one that was exported further afield in the Iron Age, through its representation in portable objects, such as ivories, terracottas, or engraved metalwork. There are countless materials that represent the interconnected Mediterranean in other ways, and even industries, such as the cultivation and consumption of wine and olive oil, which apparently was a product of this interaction as well, or the adaptation of alphabetic writing, but I will stick with the winged sphinx as the “face” of the Phoenician trail.  

A Cypriot ingot made of copper stands on a white surface. It is various shades of black, blue, green and beige.
Fig. 5 Cypriot Copper ingot ca. 1450–1050 B.C., in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

What do you hope your book teaches readers above all? 

That there is still plenty to figure out in regard to the early Mediterranean, or to ancient history in general. And that we should find new paths to break from the academic inertias of study that focus on classical cultures (even if I love classical cultures as well, which were my training and a good part of what I teach). There is always a risk of underestimating other actors that are not represented in the preserved literary canons from the ancient world. The Mediterranean was an incredibly diverse and dynamic arena of interaction and for the earlier periods we are barely scratching the surface and bringing that colorful world alive.  

Further Reading

Celestino, S. and C. López-Ruiz. 2016. Tartessos and the Phoenicians in Iberia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dietler, M. and C. López-Ruiz. 2009. Colonial Encounters in Ancient Iberia: Phoenician, Greek, and Indigenous Relations. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Doak, B. R. and C. López-Ruiz. 2019. The Oxford Handbook of the Phoenician and Punic Mediterranean. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

López-Ruiz, C. 2021. Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

López-Ruiz, C. 2020. “The Sphinx: A Greco-Phoenician Hybrid.” In Text and Intertext in Greek Epic and Drama: Essays in Honor of Margalit Finkelberg, edited by J. L. Price and R. Zelnick-Abramovitz, 292-310. London: Routledge.

López-Ruiz, C. 2010. When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Carolina López-Ruiz sits at a table outdoors on a a sunny day and smiles at the camera with her arms crossed. She has brown hair in a ponytail, and orange blouse.
Carolina López-Ruiz

Carolina López-Ruiz is Professor of the History of Religions, Comparative Mythology, and the Ancient Mediterranean World at the Divinity School and Classics at the University of Chicago. Previously, she taught Classics at the Ohio State University.  López-Ruiz received her BA–MA in Classical Philology from the Universidad Autónoma of Madrid, Spain, after which she studied for a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and obtained her PhD at the University of Chicago in the Committee on the Ancient Mediterranean World. López-Ruiz studies comparative mythology and cultural exchange, especially the intersections among Greek, Phoenician, and other groups throughout the first millennium BCE. Drawing on both textual and archaeological sources, her work produces a more integrated view of the ancient Mediterranean that transcends the barriers between Semitic and Indo-European languages and cultures that have been erected in the study of the western Classical heritage. Her books include When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East (Harvard University Press, 2010); an anthology, Gods, Heroes, and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation (Oxford University Press, 2014, 2nd ed. 2018), that integrates Near Eastern and Classical mythological narratives; and several volumes that consolidate and advance the field of Phoenician studies. On the historical-archaeological side, she has published Colonial Encounters in Ancient Iberia: Phoenician, Greek, and Indigenous Relations (2009, University of Chicago Press, co-edited with Michael Dietler), Tartessos and the Phoenicians in Iberia (2016, Oxford University Press, co-authored with Sebastián Celestino), and The Oxford Handbook of the Phoenician and Punic Mediterranean (2019, co-edited with Brian Doak). Her recent monograph, Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean (Harvard University Press, 2021), pushes back against the Hellenocentric framework of much ancient scholarship and places the Phoenicians’ cultural agency front and center. This project that was supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in 2016-17, for the initiative “The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square,” and the book has received the Frank Moore Cross book award from ASOR in 2022. In 2022, she has joined the excavations at the Phoenician site of Cerro del Villar (Málaga), as co-director of the University of Chicago excavations and under the general direction of the University of Málaga. 

Published by Peopling the Past

A Digital Humanities initiative that hosts free, open-access resources for teaching and learning about real people in the ancient world and the people who study them.

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