Books interview: Josephine Quinn

The historian and author of In Search of the Phoenicians on reading the Bible under the blankets, DIY Latin lessons and the keys to unlocking the ancient world

January 18, 2018
Josephine Quinn

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?

When I read under the covers after lights out, I stuck to the Bible, hoping I would get into less trouble. I didn’t so much like the stories in those days, but I loved the laws and the lists: Leviticus was a favourite. I also read a lot of Irish literature and journalism. I taught myself enough to begin to make sense of the sections in Irish, but I didn’t keep it up.

Your new book, ‘In Search of the Phoenicians’, explores the life and afterlife of an ancient people. Which books first spurred your interest in the Classics and then specifically the Phoenicians?

I had been concentrating on modern languages, but when I got Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde for my 15th birthday, the descriptions of studying Classics at Oxford really appealed to me: such a seductive combination of hard languages and interesting places. I didn’t know Latin, which you needed in those days to apply, so my step-father taught me the basics from a textbook, and later my dad persuaded a kind friend from his church to coach me for Latin A level in return for gin. The first intriguing Phoenician I met was Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid, and on my first trip to Paris I saw a spectacular exhibition on Carthage at the Petit Palais that opened my eyes to the ancient Mediterranean beyond Greece and Rome.

What are the best non-specialist accounts of the state of our knowledge about the Phoenicians?

Mark Woolmer’s new Short History of the Phoenicians is a good introduction. On Carthage and the West, Richard Miles’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed is fantastic; and on the far West, Tartessos and the Phoenicians in Iberia by Carolina López-Ruiz and Sebastián Celestino is a readable way into a host of new discoveries and ideas in Spanish archaeology.

Which studies of national and other identities did you find most stimulating and useful?

In addition to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which we all read in graduate school in the 1990s, I got a lot out of Caspar Hirschi’s The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany; Colin Kidd’s British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the British Atlantic World, 1600-1800; and James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. More specifically on early modern geographies of the ancient Mediterranean, including the Phoenicians, I loved Zur Shalev’s Sacred Words and Worlds: Geography, Religion, and Scholarship, 1550-1700.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, to my nephew Nick, who has just turned 13.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

A double treat on Roman architecture – Amy Russell’s The Politics of Public Space in Republican Rome and Penelope Davies’ Architecture and Politics in Republican Rome – as well
as A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet, by Raj Patel and Jason Moore.

Josephine Quinn is associate professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford and the author of In Search of the Phoenicians (Princeton University Press).

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