Phoenicians were more than smart ancient people who ruled the Mediterranean before the grandeur of Rome took over the world under the sandals. They were brilliant seafaring merchants, navigating the open waters with the direction of the Polaris, the occupants of Canaan, the biblical land of honey and milk, the high-end manufacturer of Tyrian purple, and the inventor of the alphabet. They were adventurous and impetuous, wild and civilized, just as Dido, the queen of Phoenician Carthage, was to Aeneas and General Hannibal to his Roman enemy force.
As aforesaid, Phoenicians were Canaanite of Semite groups that shared the same cultural and linguistic roots with Jews. Interestingly, Phoenicia was not a single country but a confederate of city-states located along the eastern Mediterranean Sea, comprising modern-day Syria, Israel, and Lebanon about 3,000 B.C. Phoenicians sailed across unknown seas of antiquity, always bringing seeds of vine tree with them to sow them on foreign lands, propagating the bliss of wine everywhere they went. So they went to North Africa and established their city-state called Carthage, located in what is now known as Tunisia, and planted vine trees producing melliferous wine. Perhaps it’s the aura that the land of vine trees infatuated Aeneas, a Trojan prince, destined to become the founder of the Roman race, in the person of sultry queen Dido. Sure, Dido was a Baal worshipper. So was Hannibal because Phoenicians regarded Baal, the dignitary in the circles of hell, to Christians, as the god of fertility and weather, with El, the father of all gods, and Astarte, the progenitor of Greek Artemis and Aphrodite. Moreover, human sacrifices of children during natural disasters or wars were performed, while sacred prostitution to honor their gods Adonis and Astarte, just as Babylonian women did in the temple of Ishtar. It seems that except for the Jews, the ancient peoples from the Middle East, near the Middle East, and the Mediterranean seem to regard physical pleasure as the essential component of euphoria that accounted for sacred ecstasy in the worship of their deities.
Such is my impression of ancient Phoenicians whom Alexander the Great couldn’t even dominate. Romans destroyed Phoenician city-state Carthage, after which it was said that a priest cursed Phoenicians, sprinkling grain of salt on the conquered land, lest they arise again, evermore. Whether it was true, the curse proved not as effective as the Romans wished because the Phoenician legacy continues in the form of cultural influence as aforesaid.
In The Adventures of Asterix, a popular Franco-Belgian comic strip whose protagonists Asterix and his friend Obelix in a village of Gauls during the Roman occupation in 50 BC outwitted their Roman colonialists with Druidic magic potion and spontaneous ingenuity laced with Celtic sense of humor and and mysticism, the Gauls were constantly at war with the Romans in the reign of Julian Caesar, who was bent on subjugating the culture of the colonials, let alone the recalcitrant Celtic spirit, to that of the empire. But it wasn’t always like that, pace popular conception of the Roman ruling of the Gauls and the Britons as widely portrayed in popular culture. The relationship between the Romans and the Celts was quite peaceful and even surprisingly symbiotically beneficial – that is, at least prior to the emergence of Caesar and Claudius.
The Romans and the Celts were in Apollonian co-existence bound by flourishing trade and cultural exchange between the two peoples. There was a long period of peaceful trading between the Mediterranean Romans and the Celts of Gaul inhibiting modern-day France with exports and imports particular to each of the regions. To illustrate, the Gauls were known for their penchant for diluted Mediterranean wine that was transported by boat on the sea and wagon in land from the Peninsular. The Romans received in return Celtic slaves who never seemed to be short of a supply because there was a surplus of slaves in Gaul where frequent raiding among the tribes was the sine qua non of such abundance of exploited manpower to be used to tend the Roman vineyards and other aristocratic estates. Gaulish chieftains offloaded excessive number of newly acquired slaves by trading them off for proverbial Roman wine to distribute it to his followers as an ostentatious display of their wealth and prowess in their tribes. In fact, the Gauls’ love of the Roman wine was so undeniably famous that among the Romans the stereotypical image of the Gauls as drunkards slurping wine through their long, drooping mustaches was widely circulated in the empire.
Olive oil, tableware, jewelry, and other luxuriant goods were among the popular Roman exports, however expensively they were sold by canny Roman traders, who then bought metals, cured hams, beer, and hunting dogs from the Celts at low prices. Notwithstanding such discontentment in terms of fair trade, the prosperous bartering of the goods between the colonials and the colonialists brought the grist to the mill of effective management of the colonies in the context of regarding economic and political stability that could/would have been otherwise in turmoil as a result of despotic constraints on the preexisting native social and political structures characteristic of colonialism. This favorable symbiotic relationship between the Romans and the Celts (the Gauls in France and the Britons in Britain) greased the wheel of the cultural and political expansion of the empire by egging the Celts on to adopt Roman-style systems of government and the young ones on to enlist in the Roman army as auxiliaries.
However, the pacific era of the Roman-Celtic relationship saw cataclysmic waves of change that would punctuate the stability of the status quo as destabilizing forces loomed large in Western Europe: Firstly, the prospect of Germans occupying the Alps was a cause of concern to the Roman Elite. Secondly, Julius Caesar, the ambitious Roman ruler who was seeking for a popular acclaim to fortify his rulership in the empire as well as booty enough to get himself out of debts, determined to impose his despotic rules on the peoples of the conquered lands as portrayed in The Adventures of Asterix. Then later, there came Claudius, the lame and slightly deaf emperor who was spared of his life by his nephew Caligula perhaps on account of such physical defects. Claudius launched a campaign of conquest in northern Europe to attain military prowess in the region and thus enforced totalitarian policy on the management of the colonial systems, discouraging autonomous trading and social and cultural exchanging between the colonial and the colonialist.
In light of the above, the relationship between the colonialist and the colonial sometimes begets unexpectedly mutual benefits in terms of cultural exchanges between the two peoples counter-intuitive byproducts, such as attested in the case of the Romans and the Celts, which could lead to diversification of native cultures, enriching the wealth of cultural legacies that would become another mode of new culture. If the Celts had been vehemently resisted against the cultural influences of the Romans as a result of the conquest of their lands, the cultures and history of Western Europe would and could have become very different from what we have known today, such as the English language, architectural and other historical artifacts, and political systems. In my opinion, sometimes, the colonial regime is not altogether downright evil in the sense that it somehow results in amalgamation of cultures favorable to both of the ruling and the ruled, not out of the benevolence of the former for sure but of the necessity of governing the conquered in the most effective way in order that the conqueror may quell the social and political dissonance arising out of the inept administration of the colonial affairs. In point of view as held by Ancient Athenian historian Thucydides, one must listen to the other less popular side of the story to transcend the subjectivity of times and to test the validity of truth. In this regard, I opine that however adamantly one may object to the benefits derived from the Roman-Celtic relationship, it attests to the fact that it enriched the cultures of both of the peoples and helped them reshape their ideas of epicurean ways of life that has passed on to the present progeny.
Author’s Note: The inspiration of this essay comes from my reading of “Traders to Invaders,” written by Barry Cunliffe, formerly professor of European archeology at the University of Oxford, from December 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine.
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