Ancient Phoenicia

The Spanish Coast
By Ethan Gelber with the BikeAbout team
Civic Culture

Life in ancient Phoenicia seems to have been centered on a king chosen from amongst divinely blessed royal houses. However, the king was far from all-powerful. Since Phoenicia was essentially a merchant power, the leading merchant families were a counterbalance to royal meddling. In the earliest days ofByblos,SidonandTyre, there was also a council of elders that stood between the king and the public merchant families.

As foreign renegades swept through Levantine Phoenicia, new forms of government were imposed. For a short time in the 6th century BC, Tyre was even a republic. However, it appears that, for the most part, starting in the 6th century, civil administration was generally managed by suffetes, or judges. These were appointed or elected offices with limited terms. SinceCarthageand many of the Western colonies were the result of expansion led by Tyre, this system of suffete-led governance appears to have been carried afield. Nevertheless, despite cultural ties and a sense of Phoenician identity, no large-scale federation was either possible or ever even attempted. If there were great similarities between the governments of the Phoenician homeland and the distant colonies, it was more a function of common heritage than the rigors of imposed uniformity.


Although there is written suggestion that Tyre had established a colony at Gadir (today's Cadiz) on the Spanish coast, historians (and excavations) suggest that all Phoenician incursion along the Spanish coast were probably Carthage-led and occurred after 800 BC.

The move into Spain was probably prompted by the discovery of abundant natural resources. Trade families eager to exploit the mineral deposits of gold, silver, copper and tin were quick to establish bases both in Spain and to shore up outposts on the trade route all the way back to the homeland.

In Spain, excavations have found Phoenician settlements strong enough to have survived the fall of Tyre (in 573 BC) and subjugation of eastern Phoenicia. Abdera (Adra), Baria (Villaricos), Carmona (Carmo), Gadir (Cadiz), Malaca (Malaga), and Sexi (Almuqecar) all prospered in an area where trade was controlled through Carthage. Commerce with Eivissa (Ibiza) on the Balearic Island extended Carthaginian influence even further north. Finally, Cartago Nova (Cartagena) was established late in the 3rd century BC as a base from which to mastermind the conquest of Spain.

Cadiz, originally called Gadir (which means"an enclosure" in Phoenician), the earliest and most significant of the Phoenician ports on the Spanish coast, was a natural location for an outpost. Within easy reach of the Guadalquivir River, major source of alluvial deposits, and built on the protected shores of a narrow peninsula enclosing Gulf of Cadiz, this city is still today the capital of its province. Little remains of the ancient settlers, but excavations have led to the discovery of Phoenician sarcophagi. One of Spain's oldest and best-preserved Roman theaters was also discovered nearby.

Stretching back the length of the Mediterranean is a string of Phoenician. From Citium, the primary Phoenician colony in Cyprus, to Malta, to Motya in Sicily, and Sulcis and Nora in Sardinia, steppingstone bases made trade easy and retreat possible when the native cities of the Levant finally fell.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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