Maritime History

High North: Carthaginian Exploration of Ireland

In the ancient world, the British Isles were on the edge of knowledge, so far from civilization as to be placed in the realm of the almost mythical. Prior to Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BC, few men from the Mediterranean had been there. Winston Churchill chose to begin his History of the English Speaking Peoples at this point, because that is the point when he saw Britain as first making contact with the outside world. Modern archaeology has shown this assessment to be manifestly unfair. Britain was inhabited for millennia prior, its inhabitants built great tombs, mounds and stone circles, and traded across water with mainland Europe. Immigration, invasions and population exchanges took place with the mainland. Goods found their way through trade networks across Gaul to the Mediterranean.

Yet, if Britain was mysterious to classical authors, Ireland was the very edge of knowledge, a mysterious island with fertile soil but inhabited by strange and savage people. Ireland was never conquered by the Romans, indeed, the island’s recorded history did not begin until St. Patrick visited the island in the 4th century AD. Yet, there is evidence of earlier contacts.

The Phoenicians had colonized the area around the Straits of Gibraltar from at least the 9th century BC. But their settlements did not range far, and there is little evidence of Phoenician exploration along the Atlantic coast past the settlements at Gadir and Mogador. Phoenician traders were content to buy their wares from local traders in Tartessos and Morocco and then resell them across the Mediterranean. Their suppliers in turn bought their wares from the interiors of Europe and Africa where Phoenicians could not reach.

Himilco's Voyage.

This situation began to change in the 6th century. The first change was that the disparate Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean were all gradually brought under the control of Carthage. Now united as one maritime empire, their pooled resources could be used for greater ventures. One of these ventures was to go to war to protect the Carthaginian sphere of influence and monopoly on trade. The Greeks were halted in 535 BC after the battle of Alalia and the westward expansion of Greek colonies past Massalia was halted. A treaty was concluded with Rome in 509 BC which recognized separate spheres of influence and trade for Carthage and Rome.[1]

The second venture was to outfit expeditions to explore the coasts of the Atlantic. Exploration could find new opportunities for trade and markets for Carthaginian goods. It could also cut out some of the middlemen in Spain and Africa, creating greater profits for Carthaginian traders.

A large scaled expedition under the command of Hanno explored the coast of Africa, founded several colonies along the coast of Morocco, and possibly reached as far as Cameroon. An account of the expedition has survived, but the exact date of this expedition is not known. Pliny the Elder says that it took place “while the power of Carthage was at its height.” Greek sources in the 4th century BC seem to have had knowledge of Hanno’s account.  A general consensus has formed around a date of approximately 500 BC or the early 400s.[2]

“At about the same time,” according to Pliny, an explorer named Himilco was sent to “to explore the remote parts of Europe.” Unfortunately, Himilco’s account of his voyage has not survived. Pliny does not mention anything about the expedition except that it happened.[3]

We do have one ancient author who cited sections of Hanno’s report (or cited someone who cited Hanno’s report). Oddly, the source is Ora Maritima, a poem by the 4th century AD Roman poet Rufus Festus Avienus. Ancient sailors used a type of document called a periplus as a guide when sailing unfamiliar regions. A typical periplus contained listed information about winds, currents, maritime hazards, and sailing distances between ports. Ora Maritima (“The Sea-shore”) is a periplus written in the form of a poem. Given that this is roughly equivalent to writing a poem based on Mapquest directions, modern critics have been rather charitable to describe Avienus’ work as “rambling” and “rather second-rate.”[4]


The Edge of the World: Life in the Phoenician Colony of Gadir

In ancient Greek and Roman geographic texts, Gadir (known in Latin as Gades, in Greek as Gadeira, and in modern Spanish as Cadiz) stands out as a marker, a boundary. Here was the end of the line, the western edge of civilization, the last traces of urban, settled familiar society. Gadir was inhabited by “people who dwell at the limit where the world ends.” To the north were the barely explored coasts of Iberia, Gaul, Britainnia and mysterious Hibernia (Ireland). To the south lay the even less well known shores of Africa, a land of inhospitable terrain, strange peoples and terrifying wildlife. Due west lay the great Ocean which ran around the edges of the world. Rumors and legends persisted of land across the waters to the west, of Hesperides, of Fortunate Islands or Islands of the Blessed, but none had been there, for the gods did not permit man to cross.[1]

What was life like on this colony at the edge of the world? Archaeological excavation of the city has been limited, because the site has been continuously inhabited and any large-scale excavation would involve unacceptable demolition of the modern city of Cadiz. We are left with the descriptions of ancient historians and what archaeological evidence is available.

Gadir is situated on the Atlantic coast of Spain, just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. Oddly, given its location on the far edge of the Mediterranean world, the ancient sources indicate that the city was the first Phoenician colony founded in the western Mediterranean. The dates given by Velleius Paterculus and Pomponius Mela indicate that the colony was founded shortly after the Trojan War, at around 1100 BC.[2] This would mean Gadir was founded before Carthage, before Utica, before Lixos or any of the other Phoenician colonies. Archaeologists have long disputed the early dates given to Phoenician colonization, but more recent discoveries have placed the founding of the first Phoenician colonies back to at least the late ninth century, definitely prior to Greek colonization of the western Mediterranean.[3] The earliest colonial outposts were likely small and would have left little to no archaeological evidence behind. Alternately, the founding date could have been the date of first contact with the area and establishment of trade, with permanent settlement structures being built at a later date. Whether Gadir was founded in 1100 BC or several centuries later, its great age and precedence over the western Greek colonies seems assured.

The Pillars of Herakles: The Rock of Gibraltar in the foreground and Jebel Musa in the background.

The people of Gadir traced their history to an oracle received by the people of Tyre directing them to set up a colony at the “Pillars of Herakles” (the strait of Gibraltar). They sent out an exploratory expedition, which reached the strait but assumed that the passage marked the edge of the world and did not dare to go further. They landed on the Mediterranean side of the straits, but the omens from their sacrifices proved unfavorable and they returned to Tyre. A second expedition was dispatched some time later, which plucked up the courage to venture through the straits and along the Atlantic coast of Spain for 1500 stadia. They found an island, but once again the omens proved unfavorable and the expedition returned. The third Tyrian expedition to the region founded the colony of Gadir.[4] Despite the founding story’s emphasis on the role of oracles, the tale as handed down to us does not mention any favorable omens associated with choosing the successful site. While other texts such as the Voyage of Hanno attest to the great influence given to divination and oracles in Phoenician exploration, one can also safely assume that the third expedition built on the discoveries of the first two. The idea of several scouting expeditions being made in preparation for finding an area for permanent colonization is entirely plausible.

Phoenician colonists were careful and shrewd in selecting the locations for their cities. They preferred to site colonies on small offshore islands or peninsulas, where they could be secured against sieges and attacks. They chose islands with good harbors and easy access to favorable trade winds. Because Phoenician colonies were primarily trade-driven rather than settlement-driven, they only needed small outposts rather than large land areas.[5]

Map of the island of Gadir as it appeared in ancient times.

The Tyrian colonists founded Gadir on what was then three small islands at the mouth of the Guadalete River. In today’s city of Cadiz, the islands have since filled in with sediment and connected to the mainland to form a narrow peninsula. The city of Gadir was built on the northern end of the islands, farthest away from the mainland. There was a temple to Ba’al Hemmon in the city proper, but on the tip of the south side was situated a temple to the god Melqart, which would grow to great size and become world famous by time of the Roman Empire. The nearby Guadalquivir River allowed easy access to the interior of Spain for communications and trade

The economic benefits of the site were enormous. The island was just offshore of the Spanish kingdom of Tartessos. The Tartessans appear to have been on friendly terms with the Phoenicians at Gadir and traded heavily with them. Tartessos was rich with mines that produced lead, tin, silver, copper and gold. The most valuable of these minerals was tin. Tin is required for the manufacture of bronze, yet it is a very rare mineral. On the other hand, bronze was used to make almost everything in the ancient world, even after the introduction of iron. Tin was only found in significant amounts in a few locations known to the ancient Mediterranean world, notably Britain, Spain and Germany.[6]

Two of these three locations were most easily accessed through the ocean route. Ships can move faster and carry more goods than caravans of pack animals moving overland. The colony at Gadir put the Phoenicians in prime position to trade not only with Tartessos but with the entire Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula as well as the mysterious “Cassiterides”, the “tin islands” commonly associated with the coast of Cornwall. What’s more, the location of Gadir meant they were now in a prime position to monopolize this trade by controlling the Straits of Gibraltar. At first, there was no competition, for no other nation thought to sail this far to trade. By the 6th century BC, all the Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean became part of the Carthaginian empire, and from then on Carthage set their foreign relations and national trade policy. The Carthaginian treaty with newly Republican Rome in 508 BC set spheres of influence and trade for each nation. The Romans were forbidden from trading or traveling anywhere west of what is now the north coast of Tunisia. Polybius speculates that this was to prevent the Romans from becoming familiar with the area, and he was probably right. What’s more, archaeological evidence indicates that the Greek colonists in Massalia (modern day Marseilles, France)  ceased trading with Tartessos at around 500 BC. It seems that the Carthaginians had a general policy by 500 BC of prohibiting non-Carthaginian trade in their western territories.[7]


Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 3

Previous entries in this series:
Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 1: Ugarit

Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 2: Phoenicia

The third installment in this series will take us away from the geographical area of the Near East to the Phoenician colonies of the western Mediterranean. The foremost of these colonies was Carthage, which came to rule the others in a maritime empire spanning most of the western Mediterranean.

The name “Carthage” is a latinization of the Punic qart hadasht, meaning, rather uncreatively, “New City.” This gets more confusing and even less creative later on when a city called Carthago Nova (modern-day Cartagena) was founded in Spain, literally meaning “New New City.”

Carthage was founded in 813 BC by colonists from Tyre, according to Roman sources. The archaeological record only dates back to the early 700′s, so the very early settlements were either too small to leave traces in the record or else the Roman’s dates were off. Carthage was not the first Phoenician colony in the west. Utica on the northern coast of Tunisia preceded it, as did Cadiz on the Atlantic coast of Spain. However, Carthage would become far more powerful, and eventually rule over the others.[1]

The longest account of the founding of Carthage is preserved in the history of Justin, which is itself an abbreviated version of the history of Macedon written by Pompeius Trogus, who based his history of Tyre off of that of Timaeus of Sicily. According to Timaeus, the king of Tyre died and in an unusual move left his son Pygmalion and his daughter Elissa as joint rulers. Disputes and jealousies soon brewed into open conflict. A large faction of the population supported Pygmalion becoming sole ruler, and he had Elissa’s husband (who was the chief priest of Melqart) assassinated.

Ancient coin from a later date depicting Elissa.

Elissa, on the other hand, had the support of many members of the Tyrian council of elders. She plotted with them to escape the city. Elissa and her supporters made their escape by sailing out of Tyre’s port in the middle of the night. They made their way first to Cyprus and then to the coast of what is now Tunisia. Here, Elissa famously told the locals that she only wanted to buy as much land as could be covered with an oxhide, and then cut the oxhide into extremely thin strips to enclose a wide area. “In a short time,” records Justin, “the inhabitants became numerous, and the city itself extensive.” The spot chosen to found Carthage was a peninsula, with a harbor. What’s more the, the city was naturally located to control access between the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean Sea, a prime location for a trading power.[2]

Another commonly held school of thought holds that Elissa never existed, and Carthage was originally founded by Tyrian merchants who also founded a new council of elders. In this view, Carthage never was a monarchy and began its history as a republic. However, Elissa is mentioned in a number of other ancient sources as the founder of Carthage, and the details of the stories are corroborated by Josephus, who quotes the historian Menander of Ephesus that “…Pygmalion succeeded him; he lived fifty-six years, and reigned forty-seven years. Now in the seventh year of his reign, his sister fled away from him, and built the city Carthage in Libya.”[3]


Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 2

The first installment in this series examined the role sea power and maritime commerce played in the society of the Late Bronze Age culture of Ugarit. While Ugarit actively pursued overseas trade, it never developed open and democratic institutions as a society. It may have been on its way towards doing so, but the Sea Peoples intervened and destroyed the city before that could happen.

The second installment in this series will examine the Phoenicians. Phoenicia is generally defined as the middle Canaanite city-states located in what is now Lebanon, which from 1200 BC onwards developed in a different fashion from their southern Canaanite brethren. While southern Canaanites city-states remained land-based powers that would soon be conquered or absorbed into Israelite or Philistine society, the middle Canaanite states took to the sea.[1]

The Phoenician city-states were well located for becoming maritime states. The coast of Lebanon is marked by a number of bays which serve as natural harbors. These harbors are lacking further south along the coast of what is now Israel, where the coast runs in a smooth curve down to the Nile Delta. What’s more, the Phoenician city-states were shielded from land invasions by the dual obstacle of the Lebanon and anti-Lebanon mountain ranges. Some of the cities were founded on even more geographically inaccessible locations. Sidon was built on a headland shielded by islands. Tyre was built on an artificial island created by filling in the space between two smaller islands (the space between the island and the mainland has since been filled in as well).[2]

Google Earth images showing modern-day sites of Phoenician city-states. Note all of them are on peninsulas with natural harbors. Tyre was an island until Alexander the Great built a causeway connecting it to the mainland during his siege of the city in 332 B.C.

As a result of geography, each Phoenician city was isolated not only from the threat of land invasion but from each other.[3] Therefore, the states operated independently of each other. Like the Greek polis, the Phoenician qeret (Phoenician for city-state) became the main political unit, and the unit to which a Phoenician owed his primary loyalty.


Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 1

Part 2 of this series can be found here.
Part 3 of this series can be found here.

Scholars have long noted a correlation between maritime societies and the development of open social institutions. This was first noticed by scholars in ancient Greece. Plutarch wrote that the early kings of Athens invented the myth of Athena defeating Poseidon in the contest to name the city in an attempt to “to draw the citizens away from the sea and accustom them to live not by navigation but by agriculture.” Much later, when Athens was under Spartan rule, the Thirty Tyrants tried to discourage seafaring “because they thought that maritime empire was the mother of democracy, and that oligarchy was less distasteful to tillers of the soil.”[1]

Likewise, Aristotle wrote in his discussion of political philosophy that “the naval multitude, having been the cause of the victory off Salamis and thereby of the leadership of Athens due to her power at sea, made the democracy stronger.” Sea power required lots of manpower to row triremes. If the power of the state rested on the work and valor of the majority of its people, the people would hold power in their society and not oligarchs or kings.[2]

Sea power theorists in more recent times have expanded this thesis into a broad theory of state development. In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan published his landmark work titled The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Mahan argued that commerce by sea was a very efficient method of moving goods from place to place. Nations that are geographically disposed to the sea by being physically isolated from land threats, possessing good ports and easy access to important trade routes choose to pursue sea power because it is advantageous for them to do so. [3]

Mahan’s thesis has been further developed by others such as Clark Reynolds to explain changes in a society after they take to the sea. Because maritime states are geographically protected from land threats, they do not need to maintain large land armies. Instead, the navy becomes the most prestigious military service. Agriculture-based land powers typically have a large and very poor peasant class to till the fields, and have authoritarian political systems based on the need to mobilize manpower to defend against overland invasions. Maritime powers, on the other hand, have an economy primarily based on commerce and trade. This leads to the emergence of a thriving middle class which gains political power.

What’s more, commerce and trade mean that the people of a maritime state are constantly coming into contact with new ideas from all over the world. The combination of this competition of ideas and a powerful middle class leads to a society where capitalism, freedom of speech, art and innovation all thrive. As a result, maritime societies become more open and democratic than their land-based counterparts. They have a higher degree of individual freedom than their landlubbing neighbors, and citizens are more able to participate in the government.[4]

This process has been observe in a number of maritime powers throughout history. Classical Athens, the Venetian Republic, the Dutch Republic and Britain are prime examples of such societies. But does the paradigm still apply to the ancient Near East?


The Battle of the Nile Delta, 1178 B.C.

This is the first in a monthly series which will examine battles in the history of the ancient Near East.

Egypt in the early 12th century BC was still one of the most powerful countries in the world. But Egypt’s power was falling from its height 50 years earlier under Rameses II. After Rameses II died in 1212 BC, his son Merneptah had to contend with a Libyan invasion in 1207. Civil war came to Egypt in 1204 as Amenmesse and Seti II fought over who would succeed Merneptah. Seti II emerged the victor two years later, but within the next decade the kingdom was plunged into war again between Sethnakhte and Queen Tewosret. This conflict ended with Sethnakhte’s victory, and ended Egypt’s 19th dynasty and ushered in the 20th.[1]

When Sethnakhte’s son Rameses III took the throne in 1186, Egypt was clearly weakened by the internal and foreign wars. Yet, Egypt’s condition was enviable compared to the rest of the eastern Mediterranean world. In a series of events which marked the end of the Bronze Age in ancient history and ushered in the Iron Age, most of the other powerful empires of the time were going up in flames. The Hittite capital of Hattushas had been sacked and burned. Troy was destroyed, Ugarit sacked, most of the Mycenean cities in Greece were obliterated. Dozens of cities all along the Anatolian coast were wiped out.

The culprits were a disparate group of maritime-inclined cultures known as the Sea Peoples. Who the Sea Peoples were and where they came from has been much discussed. Each ancient writer who listed the names of their peoples listed different but overlapping names. Generally, they seem to have come from the Aegean, the southern coast of Anatolia, Crete and possibly Greece. Like the Viking raiders of early medieval Europe, they first took to the sea to engage in piratical raiding, possibly due to harsh economic times at home and the abundance of readily available loot abroad. Again like the Vikings, their focus soon changed from raiding to finding new places to settle their populations.

The Sea Peoples first attacked Egypt in 1181 BC, during the reign of Rameses III. A few tribes of the Sea Peoples aided a large force of Libyans in attacking Egypt from the western desert. The result was a disaster for the Libyans, as their force was defeated, scattered and many of its members sold into slavery in Egypt. Despite the disaster, a different and much larger coalition of Sea Peoples planned another invasion.[2]

Countdown to Invasion

Rameses III’s inscription at the temple at Medinet Habu describe the beginnings of the war:

The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered into the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Kode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya on, being cut off at one time. A camp was set up at one place in Amor. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward to Egypt while the flame was being prepared before them. Their confederation was the Philistines, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”[3]

The Sea Peoples had already, according to Rameses, destroyed Hatti (the Hittite empire), Kode (Cilicia), Arzawa (in southwestern Anatolia), and Alashiya (Cyprus). They gathered in Amor in Syria to plan the combined attack on Egypt.



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