There was a time when the waters of the Mediterranean were silent and bare; when nothing disturbed the solitude of that blue and tideless sea but the weed which floated on its surface and the gull which touched it with its wing.
A tribe of Canaanites, or people of the plain, driven hard by their foes, fled over the Lebanon and took possession of a narrow strip of land shut off by itself between the mountains and the sea.
The agricultural resources of the little country were soon outgrown, and the Phoenicians were forced to gather a harvest from the water. They invented the fishing-line and net, and when the fish could no longer be caught from the shore they had to follow them out to sea or starve. They hollowed trunks of trees with axe and fire into canoes; they bound logs of wood together to form a raft, with a bush stuck in it for a sail. The Lebanon mountains supplied them with timber; in time they discovered how to make boats with keels, and to sheathe them with copper, which also they found in their mountains. From those heights of Lebanon the island of Cyprus could plainly be seen, and the current assisted them across. They colonised the island; it supplied them with pitch, timber, copper, and hemp—everything that was required in the architecture of a ship. With smacks and cutters they followed the tunny-fish in their migrations; they discovered villages on other coasts, pillaged them, and carried off their inhabitants as slaves. Some of these, when they had learnt the language, offered to pay a ransom for their release; the arrangement was accomplished under oath, and presents as tokens of goodwill were afterwards exchanged. Each party was pleased to obtain something which his own country did not produce, and thus arose a system of barter and exchange.
The Phoenicians from fishermen became pirates, and from pirates traders: from simple traders they became also manufacturers. Purple was always the fashionable colour in the East, and they discovered two kinds of
shell-fish which yielded a handsome dye. One species was found on rocks, the other under water. These shells they collected by means of divers and pointer dogs. When the supply on their own coast was exhausted they obtained them from foreign coasts, and as the shell yielded but a small quantity of fluid, and therefore was inconvenient to transport, they preferred to extract the dyeing material on the spot where the shells were found. This led to the establishment of factories abroad, and permanent settlements were made. Obtaining wool from the Arabs and other shepherd tribes, they manufactured woven goods and dyed them with such skill that they found a ready market in Babylonia and Egypt. In this manner they purchased from those countries the produce and manufactures of the East, and these they sold at a great profit to the inhabitants of Europe.
When they sailed along the shores of that savage continent and came to a place where they intended to trade, they lighted a fire to attract the natives, pitched tents on shore, and held a six days’ fair, exhibiting in their bazaar the toys and trinkets manufactured at Tyre expressly for their naked customers, with purple robes and works of art in tinted ivory and gold for those who, like the Greeks, were more advanced. At the end of the week they went away, sometimes kidnapping a few women and children to "fill up". But in the best trading localities the factory system prevailed, and their establishments were planted in the Grecian Archipelago and in Greece itself, on the marshy shores of the Black Sea, in Italy, in Sicily, on the African coast and in Spain.
Then, becoming bolder and more skilful, they would no longer be imprisoned within the lake-like waters of the land-locked sea. They sailed out through the Straits of Gibraltar and beheld the awful phenomenon of tides. They sailed on the left hand to Morocco for ivory and gold dust, on the right hand for amber and tin to the ice-creeks of the Baltic and the foaming waters of the British Isles. They also opened up an inland trade. They were the first to overcome the exclusiveness of Egypt, and were permitted to settle in Memphis itself. Their quarter was called the Syrian camp; it was built round a grove and chapel sacred to Astarte. Their caravan routes extended in every direction towards the treasure countries of the East. Wandering Arabs were their sailors, and camels were their ships. They made voyages by sand, more dangerous than those by sea, to Babylon through Palmyra or Tadmor on the skirts of the desert; to Arabia Felix and the market city of Petra; and to Gerrha, a city built entirely of salt on the rainless shores of the Persian Gulf.
Phoenicia itself was a narrow, undulating plain about a hundred miles in length, and at the most not more than a morning’s ride in breadth. It was walled in by the mountains on the north and east. To those who sailed along its coast it appeared to be one great city interspersed with gardens and fields. On the lower slopes of the hills beyond gleamed the green vineyard patches and the villas of the merchants. The offing was whitened with sails, and in every harbour was a grove of masts. But it was Tyre which of all the cities was the queen. It covered an island which lay at anchor off the shore. The Greek poet Nonnus has prettily described the mingling around it of the sylvan and marine. "The sailor furrows the sea with his oar," he says, "and the ploughman the soil; the lowing of oxen and the singing of birds answer the deep roar of the main; the wood nymph under the tall trees hears the voice of the sea-nymph calling to her from the waves; the breeze from the Lebanon, while it cools the rustic at his midday labour, speeds the mariner who is outward bound."
These Canaanitish men are fairly entitled to our gratitude and esteem, for they taught our intellectual ancestors to read and write. Wherever a factory trade is carried on it is found convenient to employ natives as subordinate agents and clerks. And thus it was that the Greeks received the rudiments of education. That the alphabet was invented by the Phoenicians is improbable in the extreme, but it is certain that they introduced it into Europe. They were intent only on making money, it is true; they were not a literary or artistic people; they spread knowledge by accident like birds dropping seeds. But they were gallant, hardy, enterprising men. Those were true heroes who first sailed through the sea-valley of Gibraltar into the vast ocean and breasted its enormous waves. Their unceasing activity kept the world alive. They offered to every country something which it did not possess. They roused the savage Briton from his torpor with a rag of scarlet cloth, and stirred him to sweat in the dark bowels of the earth. They brought to the satiated Indian prince the luscious wines of Syria and the Grecian amber-gatherers of the Baltic mud to the nutmeg-growers of the equatorial groves, from the mulberry plantations of the Celestial Empire to the tin-mines of Cornwall and the silver mines of Spain, emulation was excited, new wants were created, and whole nations were stimulated to industry by the agency of the Phoenicians.
Shipbuilding and navigation were their inventions, and for a long time were entirely in their hands. Phoenician shipwrights were employed to build the fleet of Sennacherib: Phoenician mariners were employed by Necho to sail round Africa. But they could not forever monopolise the sea. The Greeks built ships on the Phoenician model, and soon showed their masters that kidnapping and piracy was a game at which two could play. The merchant kings who possessed the whole commercial world were too wise to stake their prosperity on a single province. They had no wish to tempt a siege of Tyre which might resemble the siege of Troy. They quickly retired from Greece and its islands, and the western coast of Asia Minor and the margin of the Black Sea. They allowed the Greeks to take the foot of Italy and the eastern half of Sicily, and did not molest their isolated colonies of Cyrene in Africa and Marseilles in Southern Gaul.
But in spite of all their prudence and precautions, the Greeks supplanted them entirely. The Phoenicians, like the Jews, were vassals of necessity and by position: they lived half-way between two empires. They found it cheaper to pay tribute than to go to war, and submitted to the emperor of Syria for the time being, sending their money with equal indifference to Nineveh or Memphis.
But when the empire was disputed, as in the days of Nebuchadnezzar and of Necho, they were compelled to choose a side. Like the Jews, they chose the wrong one, and the old Tyre and Jerusalem were demolished at the same time.
From that day the Phoenicians began to go down the hill, and under the Persians their ships and sailors were forced to do service in the royal navy. This was the hardest kind of tribute that they could be made to pay, for it deprived them not only of their profits but of the means by which those profits were obtained. In the Macedonian war they went wrong again; they chose the side of the Persians although they had so often rebelled against them and Tyre was severely handled by its conqueror. But it was the foundation of Alexandria which ruined the Phoenician cities, as it ruined Athens. Form that time Athens ceased to be commercial and became a university. Tyre also ceased to be commercial, but remained a celebrated manufactory. Under the Roman empire it enjoyed the monopoly of the sacred purple, which was afterwards adopted by the popes. It prospered under the caliphs; its manufactories in the Middle Ages were conducted by the Jews; but it fell before the artillery of the Turks to rise no more. The secret of the famous dye was lost, and the Vatican changed the colour of its robes.
But while Phoenicia was declining in the East its great colony, Carthage, was rising in the West. This city had been founded by malcontents from Tyre. But they kindly cherished the memories of their motherland, and, like the Pilgrim Fathers, always spoke of the country which had cast them forth as "Home." And after a time all the old wrongs were forgotten, all angry feelings died away. Every year the Carthaginians sent to the national temple a tenth part of their revenues as a free-will offering. During the great Persian wars, when on all sides empires and kingdoms were falling to the ground, the Phoenicians refused to lend their fleet to the Great King to make war upon Carthage. When Tyre was besieged by Alexander the nobles sent their wives and children to Carthage, where they were tenderly received.