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Greater Phoenicia

9. Literature and Philosophy

The Phoenician language was a Semitic language and was related to Aramaic.  It was closely related to Hebrew, which is the language of the Old Testament.  The earliest written record is in the 11th century BC and the latest in the 1st century BC.  It became the language of Carthage and its colonies and Phoenician survived until the time of St Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, in the 5th century AD in the everyday language in some of the smaller cities of North Africa and was still used as late as the 6th century AD by North African peasants.

Source: Phoenicia.org, section on Ethnic Origin, Language and Literature; Miles, 370-1.


Some of the earliest examples are Ugaritic narrative poetry from the middle of the 2nd millennium BC.  It is epic literature in the same tradition as biblical literature.   Sanchuniathon was a famous ancient Phoenician writer who said to have lived before the Trojan War, that is, before the 12th century BC.   All information which we have about him comes from the works of Herennius Philon of Byblos, who lived AD c.70-160.  He is thus one of the world’s oldest authors and he wrote works of a religious character.

Source: Phoenicia.org, section on Ethnic Origin, Language and Literature; Hornblower, sv. Philon (5), Sanchuniathon


The Baal Cycle from Ugarit is a literary work date to c.1400-1200 BC, but is likely to reflect earlier traditions.  It is a cycle of stories about the Canaanite god Baal, also known as Hadad, the god of storms and fertility. It was discovered in the 1929s on clay tablets written in Ugaritic in a cuneiform alphabet.

Source: bible.org, Greg Herrick, Baalism in Canaanite Religion and Its Relation to Selected Old Testament Texts


Several important writers in Greek came from Phoenicia, most notably the above mentioned Philon of Byblos, who wrote a Phoenician History, and Porphyry of Tyre (AD 234-c.305).   Porphyry was important for disseminating the Neoplatonic philosophy, which would be influential during the period of the later Roman Empire on pagan and Christian thought.

Source: Phoenicia.org, section on Ethnic Origin, Language and Literature; Hornblower, sv. Philon (5), Porphyry


Although it is uncertain about the extent of Punic literature of the Phoenician colony Carthage, what existed was almost entirely obliterated by the destruction of Carthage by the Romans.  The literary output of Carthage can however be reconstructed from the surviving evidence.   There are a considerable number of Punic inscriptions with dedicatory and religious texts, and there are a few examples of works which were translated into Latin and Greek or cited by classical authors.  For example, Mago wrote a treatise on agriculture, dated before the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, and the Carthaginian leader Hanno wrote an account of a sea expedition, called a Periplus, past the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar) into the Atlantic Ocean, dated before the 3rd century BC.   Historical treatises about Carthaginian history are also known about.

Source: Miles, 12-13; Phoenicia.org, section on Ethnic Origin, Language and Literature


Pythagoras (c.570-c.495 BC) was born on the Greek island of Samos in the Aegean Sea.  His father was a Phoenician merchant named Mnesarchos, who came from Tyre and traded in Samos, and his mother Pythias was a Greek from Samos.  He was a Greek speaking mathematician and philosopher who lived on Samos, and subsequently in the Greek city of Croton in south Italy.


He is thought to be the first pure mathematician, that is, someone who studied mathematics for its own sake, without a desire for a practical application.  He was a very important figure in the history of mathematics, but very little is known about his mathematical discoveries.  Like many earlier Greek thinkers, nothing which Pythagoras wrote survives, whereas for many later mathematicians there are surviving books.  He led a society which was half scientific and half religious and had a code of secrecy.

Details of Pythagoras’ life exist from early biographies, which contain important original sources about him, but since the aim of the writers is to present him as a god-like figure, they attribute him divine powers.  There is general agreement about the main events in his life, although various scholars dispute his dates over a range of 20 years.


Pythagoras travelled widely with his father and there are accounts of him returning to Phoenicia and, while he stayed there for several years, he was instructed by the Chaldeans and by learned men of Phoenicia in the temples of Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, and his initiation into the ‘Ancient Mysteries’ of the Phoenicians took place.  With his father, he also is likely to have visited Italy.


One of two or three brothers, he was certainly well educated, and he played the lyre, learnt poetry and could recite Homer, these being the standard parts of  education of for well educated people in ancient Greece.  Three philosophers influenced him as a young man, the most important of whom was Pherekydes, who is described as his teacher.  The other two philosophers to influence him were Thales (c. 624-c.546 BC) and his pupil Anaximander (c.610-c.546 BC), both from Miletos in Ionia in Asia Minor, which was the principal centre for the early development of western philosophy.  When Pythagoras was about 20 years old, he visited Thales in Miletos, when the latter was an old man, and his role was largely that of an adviser rather than a teacher, and he encouraged him to travel to Egypt to learn more about mathematics and astronomy.  It was the younger Anaximander whose lectures Pythagoras attended, and Anaximander’s interests in cosmology and geometry were an undoubted influence on Pythagoras.


In 535 BC, Pythagoras visited Egypt and this was just after Polycrates became tyrant of Samos.  Polycrates had an alliance with Egypt and, since he was a close associate of Pythagoras, he gave him a letter of introduction.  Pythagoras visited many temples in Egypt and had discussions with the priests, although he was refused admission to all the temples except the one at Diospolis.  Many of Pythagoras’ beliefs, which he would later impose on the society which set up in Italy, can clearly be seen to have been adopted from his time in Egypt.   These included secrecy, eating habits, wearing only skins and the search for purity in their customs.


After the Persian conquest of Egypt in 525 BC, Pythagoras was taken as a prisoner to Babylonia, where he learnt a lot from the Babylonians about their sacred rites as well as mathematics, arithmetic and music.  He returned to Samos in 520 BC and after Polycrates’ death and a short visit to Crete to learn about the legal system there, he founded a school in Samos called the ‘semicircle’, which engaged in political discussions, and he conducted his own philosophical teaching and research in a cave outside the city.

Due to the incompatibility of philosophical life in the society of Samos, Pythagoras left in about 518 BC to live in southern Italy.  He lived in Croton and founded a philosophical and religious school there.  He was the head of the society and had many followers, and the members of the inner circle were called the mathematikoi. The latter lived permanently with the society, were taught by Pythagoras himself and followed strict rules.  They had no personal possessions and were vegetarians.  Pythagoras is said to have died in Metapontum in South Italy as a refugee.

According to his biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica, the beliefs held by Pythagoras were:

(1) that at its deepest level, reality is mathematical in nature,
(2) that philosophy can be used for spiritual purification,
(3) that the soul can rise to union with the divine,
(4) that certain symbols have a mystical significance, and
(5) that all brothers of the order should observe strict loyalty and secrecy.


Both men and women could become members of the society and several women were important Pythagoreans.  Other followers in the outer circle, known as the akousmatics, lived in their own houses and came by day to the society.  They could eat meat and could retain their own possessions.

Source: Hornblower, sv. Pythagoras (1), Pythagoreanism; Phoenicia.org, section on Pythagoras


Pythagoras was famous for his mathematical theorems, which are the basis of the study of the subject, the most famous of which is Pythagoras’ theorem which states, ‘In a right angled triangle, the square on the hypotenuse (that is, the longest side) is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.’  He was thus a significant philosopher in the early (pre-Socratic) period of Greek philosophy and particularly influential in the Greek world of south Italy and Sicily, including in the politics of the region.  Source: Hornblower, sv. Pythagoras (1), Pythagoreanism; Nicholas Hardwick


Ancient scholars were aware of the importance of the Phoenicians in the development of philosophy.   St Clement of Alexandria (AD c.150-c.215), the Christian theologian who lived in Egypt, talks about this in his work  The Stromata (Miscellanies) (Bk I, Ch. 15) and says that the origin of the philosophy and the arts can be found in non-Greek cultures such as Phoenician and Carthaginian, as well as Egyptian, Persian, Thracian, Etruscan and others.  Thus, he thinks that Greek philosophy was for a large part derived from the barbarians, that is, non-Greek speakers.   He states that one tradition is that Pythagoras came from Tyre and met the Egyptian prophets, followed their customs and was initiated into their mystic philosophy.  He had discourse with the chief of the Chaldeans and the Magi, and by the common hall, which he maintained, he provided an idea of the church.  Specifically, Pythagoras is said to have been a disciple of the important Egyptian prophet Sonches.   The Greek philosopher, Plato of Athens (428/7– 348/7 BC), in the context of his praise of the barbarians, notes that both himself and Pythagoras learned from the barbarians both the most important and the greatest number of their philosophical concepts.   Clement mentions that Thales of Miletos was by birth a Phoenician, and was said to have had discussions with the prophets of the Egyptians.

Source: Phoenicia.org, section on St Clement: Origin of Arts and Philosophy Non-Greek


Clement further discusses the wider influence of Pythagoras.  Zoroaster the Magus, the famous Persian prophet and philosopher, was said by Clement to be a Pythagorean, although his traditional date of 11th-10th century BC is well before that of the philosopher.   Source: Phoenicia.org, section on St Clement: Origin of Arts and Philosophy Non-Greek