Thursday, May 29, 2008

Phoenicians

A friend of mine is planning a 4th Edition D&D campaign set in a fantasy version of ancient Lebanon. You can read about his plans here. I got interested enough in what he was doing to go ahead and read Phoenicians by Sanford Holst, the book that he's gotten many of his ideas from.

This is a really good book if you have an interest in ancient history. The history of the ancient Phoenicians is long and touches every culture that touched the Mediterranean. The history of the Phoenicians really ties together a lot of the other history that I've read. Their existence as a trading empire explains a lot of things about how civilization developed around the Mediterranean.

The short version is that the Phoenicians formed a trading empire that was a cross between a secret society and an employee owned corporation. They survived for thousands of years without a standing army by using secrecy and by blending in with their neighbors. In the process they contributed to important events from the building of the pyramids, to the toppling of empires, to the development of what was probably the worlds first tax shelter. Their methods were so effective that their enemies often didn't even understand that they were an empire, to the point that more than once a single Phoenician city would be "punished" by having its lands and trading rights stripped away and given to another Phoenician city. The "punishing" power not understanding that the cities weren't competitors, but partners in the running of the Phoenician trading empire.

I only have a few gripes with the book. The first is that the book seems to be aimed towards instilling a sense of nationalism in modern Lebanon. The author doesn't spend too much time belaboring this point, but it makes you wonder about whether or not the author is completely honest in his presentation of the Phoenicians' faults, especially since he doesn't really give any.

The second is the way he spends a little too much time excusing the Phoenicians' worship practices by explaining that it was pre-Christian and pre-Muslim. He's obviously writing with a modern religious audience clearly in mind. It is perhaps a wise precaution given his target audience, but it is also somewhat annoying for those of us who fully understand that neither Jesus nor Mohammad had yet to walk the earth during the periods of history that are being discussed. Fortunately, he appears to feel that he makes his point after the first couple of chapters, and doesn't continue to belabor it throughout the rest of the book.

In the end, these gripes are minor, and the insights into ancient history are more than worth putting up with them. If you have an interest in the development of the Ancient World, from Egypt to the rise of Rome, then you should check out this book.

1 comment:

BlackDiamond said...

Good summary of the book, including some observations I hadn't come up with after reading it. The only warning I would give is that a lot of what he writes is speculative. If you're meticulous about your history, this kind of speculation can drive you bonkers. As for me, it was exactly the kind of narrative story I was looking for a gaming campaign. Unfortunately, reading "just the facts" about Phoenicians from other sources will leave you with pottery shards, bible references, and very little to go on.

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