Phoenicians Among Others: How Migration and Mobility Transformed the Mediterranean

Denise Demetriou

  Demetriou, Denise. "Phoenicians Among Others: How Migration and Mobility Transformed the Mediterranean." CHS Research Bulletin 9 (2021).


I spent a productive Fall semester 2020 at the Center for Hellenic Studies, where I worked on my second book project, Phoenicians Among Others: How Migration and Mobility Transformed the Ancient Mediterranean. The book offers a history of migration of individuals from Phoenician city-states mainly in the fourth-century BCE and primarily in the Greek world. My project shows that migration was a driver for many of the formative changes in this period. The presence of Phoenician diasporic communities helped create a spectrum of fluid notions of citizenship, and migrants’ adaptive practices facilitated their stay in their host state and helped develop novel diplomatic tools. During my stay at the CHS, I was able to draft two chapters. The first focused on honorific awards that states granted Phoenician speakers who frequented or lived in the Greek world as a way to both promote and control migration. Such monetary, legal, and honorific grants provided ease of travel, facilitated a permanent presence of immigrants in the host state, and ultimately expanded the notions of residency and citizenship. The second chapter explored the adaptive strategies and immigrant identities that Phoenician immigrants adopted in Carthage, Egypt, and the central Mediterranean islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Malta, comparing them to those they established in the Greek world. Strategies for integration were similar across the Mediterranean, including name changes, the adoption of local customs and art, and religious syncretisms, but exhibited local variations depending on the historical and socio-cultural context of each location.


Migration and mobility were common in the ancient Mediterranean. Both phenomena intensified in the fourth century BCE. Both changed the social landscape of the Mediterranean basin. What were the effects of migration in this period? Most recent books on immigration have focused primarily on Athens and on literary texts. These works have yielded many insights into Athenian political culture and its exclusionary politics (Kennedy 2014; Kasimis 2018). Phoenicians Among Others: How Migration and Mobility Transformed the Ancient Mediterranean is concerned more with finding the voices of the immigrants themselves. What can they tell us about their experiences? Did their identities change? What was their relationship with their host states? How did their presence change their host state?

My project focuses on a history of immigrants from Phoenician city-states living mostly in the Greek world in the fourth century BCE, and also in Carthage, Egypt, and the central Mediterranean. Large numbers of Phoenician immigrants lived in the Greek world, and they left behind more evidence than other immigrant groups. Their immigrant experiences offer us a perfect opportunity to study the effects of migration in this period and to contribute to the rising interest in Phoenician studies. Until recently, scholarship adopted and perpetuated Greek stereotypes of Phoenicians as enterprising traders full of guile and deceit, presenting a one-dimensional version of Phoenicians. Further, Phoenician cultures and artistic products have typically been viewed through a Greek lens and are often characterized as derivative at best. My project builds on recent work that has questioned monolithic understandings of “Phoenician” culture (Schmitz 2012; Quinn and Vella 2014; Celestino Pérez and López-Ruiz 2016; Martin 2017; Quinn 2018; López-Ruiz and Doak 2019) and has called for a move beyond Hellenocentric views of the ancient Mediterranean (López-Ruiz 2021). I hope that my research will move the discussion forward by redirecting our attention to the voices of the Phoenician speakers themselves and the multicultural context in which they lived to present a new history of ancient Mediterranean migration.

Phoenicians Among Others offers a new perspective on migration in the ancient Mediterranean and challenges fundamental starting points of many existing histories of the ancient world. First, the book departs from a long tradition of writing Greek-centered histories of this period and instead seeks to integrate the interconnected histories of Greeks, Phoenicians, Persians, and others, typically studied separately. But these groups did not each exist in isolation. By focusing on the effects of migration, I am able to study groups not alone but in relation to others with whom they interacted, lived, and died, bridge the gap between Classics and Near Eastern Studies, and present a more comprehensive history of the ancient Mediterranean. Second, my project views the fourth-century Mediterranean not as a period of decline, as it is commonly described, but rather as a formative period, when the population in this area exploded and new diplomatic institutions emerged alongside fluid notions of citizenship. Finally, my research seeks to decenter ethnicity from migration history. The focus is not a binary encounter between a monolithic group of Phoenicians and an equally monolithic group of Greeks, but rather their internal diversity, modes of self-definition, and the effects of multiculturalism.

My time at the Center for Hellenic Studies was extremely productive, despite the current circumstances of a global pandemic that prevented me from being in residence in DC. I consider myself privileged and grateful that I was able to make good progress using remote access to the CHS and Harvard’s library resources. While a fellow in the Fall semester of 2020, I drafted two chapters of my book project.

One chapter explores how Greek city-states simultaneously regulated the presence of immigrants by delimiting the rights of immigrants and promoted it by enabling a prolonged and even permanent stay of foreign-born residents, visitors, or sojourners through granting awards in the fourth and third centuries BCE. The chapter argues that mobility and migration helped construct a fluid spectrum of citizenship in the Greek world. Phoenicians were the most prominent recipients, among non-Greeks, of honorific awards. These could include gold or laurel wreaths, the honorific titles of euergetes (benefactor) and proxenos (an individual legally responsible for individuals who came from the city that granted this award), and the legal rights of enktesis (the right of ownership, reserved for citizens), isoteleia (equality in taxation to citizens), ateleia (exemption from taxation), asylia (inviolability), asphaleia (security), proedria (a seat in the theater at the state’s expense, also a citizen privilege), prodikia (priority of trial), promanteia (the right of consulting the Delphic oracle first), prosodos (the right to approach state offices), epidamia (the right of residence), and citizenship.

Through these awards, city-states both fostered and regulated mobility and migration. Honors such as gold or laurel wreaths, commendations, the monuments set up recording the awards granted to foreign individuals, and honorary titles, such as that of euergesia, brought both honor and prestige to the honorands in the host city. Privileges such as the official position of proxenia that came with responsibilities vis-à-vis citizens of the host state, the freedom to sail in and out of ports in times of peace and war, inviolability and safety during travel for one’s self and one’s cargo, tax exemptions from taxes imposed on foreigners, the right to own land and a house, the right to a seat at the theater at the state’s expense, and the right to serve alongside citizens in the military, all facilitated mobility. All these rights, together with the right to residence and the grant of citizenship, also enabled and encouraged migration and integration.

While these awards promoted mobility and migration, they also created distinct categories of residency along a spectrum of social status. States granted these awards separately or in combinations, thereby creating individual relationships with each honorand. In so doing, they constructed a spectrum of different social statuses, along which foreign individuals could move, as they were honored with the different awards and privileges. Social mobility and the public nature of these awards also incorporated foreigners into a polity and encouraged a sense of belonging. Interpreting the system of honors and privileges as creating a spectrum of citizenship and making the notion of residency and citizenship more fluid does not imply that these notions were eroded. Rather, this system provided a way for states to regulate the presence of foreigners by assigning them, publicly, specific positions along the spectrum. Once an immigrant, one always remained an immigrant.

The second chapter I completed during my time as a CHS fellow examines the lives of Phoenician speakers from the Eastern Mediterranean in Carthage, Egypt, and the central Mediterranean islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Malta, as they are recorded primarily in epigraphic texts from the fourth century BCE onwards. Just as Phoenician immigrant communities in the Greek world, which I examine in a different chapter, Phoenician-speaking residents in North Africa and the central Mediterranean employed similar strategies of adaptation to integrate themselves into the communities they lived in: name changing was common, as was the adoption of local customs and art and religious syncretisms. And just as Phoenicians in the Greek world, Phoenicians elsewhere in the Mediterranean used similar methods of expressing immigrant identities, especially by reference to their city of origin on the eastern Mediterranean coast. The persistence of the Phoenician script and language in Egypt, Malta, Sardinia, and Sicily suggests that language had become a marker of immigrant identity, just as it had in the Greek world.

Despite these similarities, local variations were common. In Carthage, Phoenician immigrants from the eastern Mediterranean adopted the local Punic dialect. Phoenician immigrants in Egypt, with a handful of exceptions, wrote their dedications only in Phoenician, whereas in the Greek world, including the islands of Sardinia, Sicily, and Malta, where Greeks, Phoenicians, and indigenous populations co-existed for centuries, they commissioned bilingual texts. In the broader Greek world, the practice of inscribing funerary and dedicatory inscriptions in both their and their host state’s language demonstrates an outward outlook that sought to claim membership and belonging in their adopted state. In Egypt, Phoenician speakers embraced more of an internalized sense of community.

Despite prejudices expressed about Phoenician speakers by all three of the host societies, the Greek world, Egypt, and Carthage, all three benefited, welcomed, and regulated the presence of immigrants in its own way. Egypt settled foreigners in specific areas and segregated them physically into quarters according to their ethnicity, at least in urban centers. Carthage offered open access to its sanctuaries to immigrants, citizens, foreigners, and in this way sought to incorporate disparate groups into a coherent society. And Greek city states provided privileges and awards to foreign immigrants who benefited the state. In all three societies, communities of Phoenician speakers liaised with their hosts, often with the mediation of religion, religious associations, and religious cults, and thereby incorporated more easily into and became integral members of the community of each polity.

The effects of migration and mobility rippled across the Mediterranean basin, and polities eventually were not just multiethnic but fully cosmopolitan. Syncretistic religious practices, hybridization of material culture, and amalgamation of customs became the norm rather than the exception. What happened in each of the locales studied throughout Phoenicians Among Others was not locally or regionally isolated. Mobility and migration were and are multidirectional. Homo migrans adopted and created new practices, adapted to being a migrant and an immigrant, and still found ways to maintain their identity or elements of it even while integrating in the new societies they lived in and creating new identities. 

Select Bibliography

Celestino Pérez, S., and C. López-Ruiz. 2016. Tartessos and the Phoenicians in Iberia. Oxford.

Kasimis, D. 2018. The Perpetual Immigrant and the Limits of Athenian Democracy. Cambridge.

Kennedy, R. F. 2014. Immigrant Women in Athens: Gender, Ethnicity, and Citizenship in the Classical City. New York and London.

López-Ruiz, C. 2021. Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean. Cambridge, MA.

López-Ruiz, C., and B. R. Doak. 2019. Oxford Handbook of the Phoenician and Punic Mediterranean. Oxford.

Martin, S. B. 2017. The Art of Contact: Comparative Approaches to Greek and Phoenician Art. Philadelphia.

Quinn, J. C. 2018. In Search of the Phoenicians. Princeton.

Quinn, J. C., and N. C. Vella, eds. 2014. The Punic Mediterranean: Identities and Identification from Phoenician Settlement to Roman Rule. Cambridge.

Schmitz, P. C. 2012. The Phoenician Diaspora: Epigraphic and Historical Studies. Winona Lake, IN.

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