Why Were the Phoenicians Such Successful Merchants?

Fifth Century BC Coin from Byblos

Today, most people know little about the culture of the ancient Phoenicians, but for several centuries in the first millennium BC they were the premier merchants and explorers of the ancient world. Phoenician culture began in the Levant (the area roughly congruent with the modern nation-state of Lebanon), and quickly expanded through colonization to both sides of the Mediterranean basin. For the most part they were distinct city-states and they did not necessarily share languages or cultures with one and another. Even though they were distinct groups, as a whole, the people of the Levant (despite their differences, were outstanding traders.[1] The Phoenicians developed extensive contacts with their neighbors and influenced them in a number of different ways, one being the use of a syllabic alphabet, which was adapted by the Greeks. Most of the contact the Phoenicians had with other peoples came in the form of trade and merchant activities, which is what they were known for and what made their cities wealthy. It was not mere luck that led the Phoenicians to monopolize merchant activities in the Mediterranean, but a fearless spirit that propelled them to explore and colonize parts of the world that few people knew about at the time.

Phoenician Culture

The Tomb of King Hiram of Tyre in Southern Lebanon

Phoenician culture began in the region known as the Levant sometime in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1500-1200 BC), probably as a branch of the older Canaanite culture. Since the Phoenician language was Semitic and closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic, there is a good chance that the Phoenicians were at least partially descended from the Canaanites and related to the Hebrews. [2] The Phoenicians were fortunate enough to be in close proximity to other peoples who were literate so that by the early Iron Age, or sometime just after 1200 BC, they were able to develop their own alphabet and system of writing. The Phoenician alphabet was revolutionary and highly adaptable since it was completely syllabic, so it was later adopted by the classical Greeks for their system of writing. [3]

Phoenician religion was similar to that of other ancient peoples in that it was polytheistic, but it possessed several key points that made it unique among its neighbors. Since there was no single Phoenician state or kingdom, the theology and rituals varied from city to city. For instance, the god Melqart was the primary deity of Tyre, El/Baal was preeminent in Sidon, and the goddess Baalat – who had attributes similar to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar and the Egyptian goddess Isis – was supreme in Byblos. [4] To the Phoenicians, gaining favor for sea-borne trade expeditions from their gods was more important than doings so for the gods of war. All of the gods mentioned above were either associated with the seas or trade and water often played an important role in Phoenician religious rituals. [5] Timber was also a significant part of Phoenician culture as it was one of their primary exports and was needed to build their ships. Because of those factors, timber expeditions to the mountains near Byblos also doubled as religious pilgrimages to the goddess Baalat. [6] The focal point of Phoenician cultural life was their many vibrant and thriving cities.

The Phoenicians inhabited many different cities, but the three major ones were Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon, which all practiced monarchal forms of government. Although they worked closely together, their relationship was more of an unofficial confederation of independent city-states than an official alliance or league. Byblos was the oldest of the cities, becoming prominent in the middle of the fourteenth century BC. It was a wealthy, walled city, but was eclipsed by Tyre and Sidon in the early Iron Age. [7] Tyre became an international power under the rule of King Hiram I (reigned ca. 971-939 BC), who was known for trading extensively with his neighbor, the Kingdom of Israel. Hiram I is famously mentioned in the Old Testament book of I Kings (5: 2-8) for providing much of the timber used to build the Solomonic Temple. He was also responsible for moving the entire city from the shoreline to a more defensible position on a man-made island no bigger than forty acres. [8] The final of the three most important Phoenician cities was Sidon, which became a premier city in the sixth century during Achaemenid Persian rule. Sidon was a regional capital and responsible for supplying the Persian army with food, ships, mercenaries, and other resources. [9]

Phoenician Monopolization of Trade in the Mediterranean

A Murex Shell

By the sixth century BC, the Phoenicians had effectively monopolized most trade in the Mediterranean basin. They manufactured products such as jewelry, carved ivory, bronze table vessels, bottled oils, the gum storax, and most importantly, cloth dyed in “Tyrian purple,” which was extracted from the sea snail murex. [10] Tyrian purple was in high demand because it was applied to white garments, turning them violet or purple, which was the color of nobility. The dye is also the origin of the term Phoenicia, which is what the Greeks called Tyrian purple.

Tyrian purple may have been the resource that the Phoenicians were most closely associated with, but it was their monopolization of the timber industry that made them wealthy. The Phoenician cities were all located close to fertile cedar and fir in the hills and mountains of Lebanon, which they utilized to make their ships and to trade with other peoples. [11] For instance, the Egyptians only had direct access to various palm trees, which were not suitable for ship building, so they were willing to pay the Phoenicians princely sums for their timber. The Phoenicians knew how to work the ancient markets and produced fine quality finished goods, but it was their extensive exploration and colonization of the Mediterranean that made them the most successful merchants of the ancient world.

Phoenician Exploration and Colonization

Map Detailing the Three Primary Phoenician Cities and Their Major Trade Routes

In terms of shipping technologies, the Phoenicians were at roughly the same level as all of their contemporaries, so the answer to why they were excellent merchants is not found in any technological advantage. Instead, one must look to the Phoenicians’ fearless nature and curious spirit to understand how they monopolized trade in the first millennium BC Mediterranean. Although the Phoenicians were never known for their martial abilities, they pushed the known geographical knowledge and limits of the time and risked their lives in doing so. According to the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, the Phoenicians were the first people to sail beyond the “Pillars of Hercules” (Strait of Gibraltar), which sent them beyond the Mediterranean Sea and into the unknown. Strabo wrote:

“Again, the maritime supremacy of Minos is far-famed, and so are the voyages of the Phoenicians, who, a short time after the Trojan War, explored the regions beyond the Pillars of Hercules and founded cities both there and in the central parts of the Libyan sea-board.” [12]

Once past the Pillars, the Phoenicians were able to trade with peoples in Europe and Africa who were unknown and therefore their markets were off limits to the rest of the cultures in the Mediterranean basin. It is unknown when exactly they first sailed out of the Mediterranean Sea, but another classical historian claimed that the Phoenicians were the first people to circumnavigate Africa, nearly 2,000 years before Vasco de Gama did so in the late fifteenth century AD. According to Herodotus, a Phoenician ship was commissioned by the King Nekau II (ruled 610-595 BC) of Egypt, which sailed around the continent counter-clockwise.

“The Egyptian king Neco, who, after calling off the construction of the canal between the Nile and the Arabian gulf, sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail round and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Pillars of Heracles. The Phoenicians sailed from the Red Sea into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in where they were on the Libyan coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year’s harvest. Then, having got in their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Heracles in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt. These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Libya, they had the sun on their right – to northward of them. This is how Libya was first discovered to be surrounded by sea, and the next people to make a similar report were the Carthaginians.” [13]

Once the Phoenicians discovered lands that were far from their homes, they quickly set to work colonizing them. Although the eastern Mediterranean was already densely populated by other peoples for many centuries, and the areas that were not were colonized by the Greeks, the Phoenicians managed to build several small colonies in the timber rich region of Cilicia in Anatolia. [14] The Phoenicians had much more success colonizing the western Mediterranean region, where colonists from Tyre founded the cities of Carthage and Utica in the ninth century. [15] Both of these cities, especially Carthage, would grow to become extremely wealthy and important in their own rights, influencing many events in the ancient world, especially in regards to Rome.


During the first millennium BC, the Phoenicians were the premier merchants and business men of the Mediterranean basin. They monopolized the timber trade and manufactured many products, such as Tyrian purple, which ultimately made them the wealthiest group of people during the period. The Phoenicians were able to accomplish this through fearless exploration expeditions, which allowed them to claim new, resource rich lands for colonization. Once they established more and more cities, the Phoenicians were able to monopolize the products that were in the highest demand, moving them through their well-developed trade routes.


  1. Quinn, Josephine. "Phantasmic Phoenicia" Aeon.co
  2. Markoe, Glenn E. Phoenicians. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), p. 10
  3. Moscati, Sabatino. The World of the Phoenicians. Translated by Alastair Hamilton. (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968), pgs. 90-91
  4. Moscati, pgs. 31-34
  5. Moscati, p. 39
  6. Herm, Gerhard. The Phoenicians: The Purple Empire of the Ancient Near East. (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1975), p. 35
  7. Herm, p. 31
  8. Bikai, Patricia Maynor. “Cyprus and the Phoenicians.” Biblical Archaeologist. 52 (1989) p. 206
  9. Markoe, p. 51
  10. Bikai, p. 205
  11. Moscati, p. 83
  12. Strabo. Geography. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), Book I, 2
  13. Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. (London: Penguin, 2003), Book IV, 42-43
  14. Watson-Treumann, Brigette. “Beyond the Cedars of Lebanon: Phoenician Timber Merchants and Trees from the ‘Black Mountain.” Die Welt des Orients. 31 (2001) p. 82
  15. Markoe, p. 39