Color in Homer

An interesting article in Aeon magazine:

The sea was never blue

The Greek colour experience was made of movement and shimmer. Can we ever glimpse what they saw when gazing out to sea?

Homer used two adjectives to describe aspects of the colour blue: kuaneos, to denote a dark shade of blue merging into black; and glaukos, to describe a sort of ‘blue-grey’, notably used in Athena’s epithet glaukopis, her ‘grey-gleaming eyes’. He describes the sky as big, starry, or of iron or bronze (because of its solid fixity). The tints of a rough sea range from ‘whitish’ (polios) and ‘blue-grey’ (glaukos) to deep blue and almost black (kuaneosmelas). The sea in its calm expanse is said to be ‘pansy-like’ (ioeides), ‘wine-like’ (oinops), or purple (porphureos). But whether sea or sky, it is never just ‘blue’. In fact, within the entirety of ancient Greek literature you cannot find a single pure blue sea or sky.

Yellow, too, seems strangely absent from the Greek lexicon. The simple word xanthos covers the most various shades of yellow, from the shining blond hair of the gods, to amber, to the reddish blaze of fire. Chloros, since it’s related to chloe (grass), suggests the colour green but can also itself convey a vivid yellow, like honey.

The ancient Greek experience of colour does not seem to match our own. In a well-known aphorism, Friedrich Nietzsche captures the strangeness of the Greek colour vocabulary:

“How differently the Greeks must have viewed their natural world, since their eyes were blind to blue and green, and they would see instead of the former a deeper brown, and yellow instead of the latter (and for instance they also would use the same word for the colour of dark hair, that of the corn-flower, and that of the southern sea; and again, they would employ exactly the same word for the colour of the greenest plants and of the human skin, of honey and of the yellow resins: so that their greatest painters reproduced the world they lived in only in black, white, red, and yellow).”

How is this possible? Did the Greeks really see the colours of the world differently from the way we do?

Read more at the link. I was curious to discover that William Ewart Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of the UK in the nineteenth century, also wrote a book entitled Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858), in which he advanced the novel theory that “the visual organ of the ancients was still in its infancy, hence their strong sensitivity to light rather than hue, and the related inability to clearly distinguish one hue from another.”

Speaking of “wine-like,” here is Ian Johnston’s commentary on that most Homeric of epithets:

All similes are inherently ironic. For while they insist upon the similarities between two apparently different things, they also implicitly call attention to those differences. The effect of a simile depends upon an appropriate balance between these two contrasting tendencies. If the differences are too extreme (“heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together,” as Dr Johnson says of the Metaphysical poets) the comparison is too strained to work. If, on the other hand, the comparison is too familiar and obvious, the simile has become inert and trite, what we call a cliché. A successful simile retains enough difference to be fresh and enough similarity to be apt and, in the process, pulls the reader in different directions.

Consider, for example, Homer’s most famous comparison, the “wine dark sea.”  At once the metaphor suggests the rich attractiveness of the ocean, the fascination with the hidden emotional powers of nature. For the sea, like wine, benefits a man, tempts him, intoxicates him, and can overpower and kill him. On the other hand, the sea in many ways is not like wine at all. Wine is produced by human skill and has become an essential part of civilized life in homes and temples. It is an important part of those occasions where human beings celebrate among themselves. The sea, by contrast, follows its own whims and cannot be made a permanent and predictable part of anyone’s peaceful social existence. Its eternally bitter vintage arises from and works by some mysterious, ambiguous power uncontrolled by human beings. The complex paradox in this apparently simple metaphor simultaneously insists upon the similarity and the difference.

By calling attention to nature in this way, Homer’s style creates and sustains throughout the poem a constant ironic tension.

Thoughts on Book 5 of the Histories of Herodotus

Book Five is the pivot in the whole work, for it is now that we learn of the revolt of the Ionian Greeks against the Persians, the event that prompted the Persian invasion of the Greek mainland and thus the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, the subjects of each of the remaining four books. The revolt begins with a famous episode of steganography in 35: Histiaeus of Miletus, kept under watch in the Persian capital of Susa, sends a message to his son-in-law Aristagoras, whom the Persians have installed in his place at Miletus in Ionia. Since the roads are all guarded, Histiaeus shaves the head of one of his slaves, tattoos a message on it, waits for the hair to grow back, and sends the slave to deliver a message orally, which is simply to shave his head. The message: Raise a revolt! (Aristagoras has recently failed to take the island of Naxos for the Persians and so, fearing for his position, he is rather receptive to the message.)

Aristagoras does raise a revolt, declares an isonomic constitution, and then goes to the Greek mainland to seek help. At this point the narrative launches into a long disquisition on the history of Sparta, Athens, Corinth, and other Greek poleis. Aristagoras is rebuffed in Sparta (Spartans don’t get involved in that sort of foreign adventure) but the Athenians already dislike the Persians since they had suggested that the Athenians take the tyrant Hippias back (96), and respond to his message with an offer of twenty ships, which “were the beginning of evils for both Greeks and barbarians” (97). Even though the Athenians eventually abandon the Ionian revolt, their role in the burning of Sardis so enrages Emperor Darius that he calls for a bow and arrow, shoots the arrow into the sky, and prays to Zeus that he would have a chance to punish the Athenians. Darius also enjoins a servant always to remind him of Athens (103-105). The die is cast.

On the Greek mainland, even now we see some of the tension between Sparta and Athens that is later to break out in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta feels that Athens duped it into removing the Pisistratids (the tyrants of Athens), and the Oracle claims that if Athens is an oligarchy, Sparta would control it, but if Athens is a democracy, it would control Sparta (91). So Sparta becomes interested in Athenian politics. But it is in Book 5 that we see the installation of the democracy that Athens is so famous for. Herodotus seems to approve: in 66 he writes that “Athens had already been a large city, and now that it had rid of its princes it became bigger yet,” and in 78 he writes that:

Athens increased in greatness. It is not only in respect of one thing but of everything that equality and free speech are clearly a good; take the case of Athens, which under the rule of princes proved no better in war than any of her neighbors but, once ride of those princes, was far the first of all. What this makes clear is that when held in subjection they would not do their best, for they were working for a taskmaster, but, when freed, they sought to win, because each was trying to achieve for his very self.

That “princes” can be evil is emphasized in 92, which deals with Periander of Corinth, who is clearly suffering from some form of madness like Cambyses in Book 3. Periander kills his wife Melissa, has sex with her corpse, and buries her naked. The Oracle of the Dead informs Periander that on account of her lack of clothing Melissa feels cold, so Periander has all the women of Corinth appear at the temple of Hera in their finest clothing, then orders them to strip down, dedicates the pile of clothing to Melissa, and burns it. Only then does the Oracle fulfill Periander’s original request and tell him the location of some buried treasure.

Who would want a ruler like that? But Herodotus can’t resist noting, in 97, that:

It seems that it is easier to fool many men than one; Cleomenes the Lacedaemonian was only one, but Aristagoras could not fool him, though he managed to do so to thirty thousand Athenians. The Athenians were convinced and voted to send twenty ships to help the Ionians.

The “madness of crowds” was always the trouble with Athenian democracy…

If Athenian democracy functioned at all, however, the reforms of Cleisthenes had something to do with it. Cleisthenes, who took over upon the expulsion of the Pisistratids, reorganized the Athenian tribes, increasing the number from four to ten, and making sure that the entire Athenian population was evenly divided among the tribes (66, 69). This past summer, Greg Nagy pointed out that Martin Luther King did much the same thing when he was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. For the sake of social leveling, King organized parishioners by birthday month – and each month was in charge of raising a certain amount of money for church operations. In this way was King hoping to prevent the church from becoming the plaything of a few wealthy families.

Some other details from Book 5:

• Apparently the Oracle can be bribed! In 63, an Athenian faction convinced the Oracle to command Sparta to help them overthrow the Pisistratids, which indeed came to pass. I wonder how often such bribery took place?

• Perhaps this is why disputes were submitted to arbitration? Twice in Book 5, third parties are called in to rule on diplomatic disputes: in 28-29, the Parians help solve problems in Naxos and Miletus, and in 95, Periander of Corinth served as an arbiter between Athens and Mytilene. Why were these disputes not submitted to the Oracle? How was an arbiter selected anyway?

• Herodotus confirms that the Greeks derived their alphabet from the Phoenicians (58).

• Periander’s antics in 92 are not the only example of the regulation of women’s clothing. In 87-88, Herodotus relates a story about how a group of Athenian women, angry that their husbands had been killed in a military expedition, enviously murdered the sole survivor with their brooch-pins. To punish them for this grave misdeed, the Athenians compelled their women to abandon their Dorian dress for Ionian, which had no pins. Thus were they downgraded in fashion, and compelled to suffer a loss of identity.

• As with Oedipus and with Cyrus, so with Cypselus, who grew up to rule Corinth and who fathered Periander. Ill omens were told of the baby and a team was sent to kill him, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to do such a wicked deed, so they just made the claim that they had.

• This is probably nothing, but the tattooed slave’s head is not the only tattoo in Book 5. In 6, we learn that being tattooed in Thrace is a mark of high birth. In a similar vein, the swarm of bees that made its home in the severed head of Onesilius (114) were foreshadowed by the great numbers of bees that the Thracians claim live north of the River Ister.

• An interesting vignette from 95, about Alcaeus of Mytilene (b. 620), one of the canonical nine lyric poets of the Archaic Age:

All sorts of events took place during this war, and among them the case of the poet Alcaeus. During an encounter that the Athenians were winning, he took to his heels and escaped; but the Athenians got his arms and hung them up in the temple of Athena in Sigeum. Alcaeus made a poem about this, which he sent to Mytilene, which he sent to his his friend Melanippus.

It seems that Alcaeus was taking after another lyric poet, Archilochus of Paros (680-645) (who was not one of the nine). From Richmond Lattimore’s Greek Lyrics:

Some barbarian is waving my shield, since I was obliged to leave that perfectly good piece of equipment behind under a bush. But I got away, so what does it matter? Let the shield go; I can buy another equally good.

Poets, eh? Just abandoning their arms and running away?! (We’re a long way from the Iliad, for sure.)

• I am invested in the notion that the Christian cult of saints did not grow out of the pagan cult of heroes but I can’t help but notice certain similarities between the two phenomena. For instance, in 67, Cleisthenes (ruler of Sicyon and grandfather of his Athenian namesake) made war on Argos, and so attempted to expel from Sicyon the shrine of the Argive hero Adrastus. The Oracle would not let him, so he imported from Thebes a shrine to Melanippus, who had been Adrastus’s enemy. Cleisthenes then transferred all honors given to Adrastus to Melanippus. In 114, the Oracle orders the Amathusians to bury the head of Onesilius the hero in a shrine and perform annual sacrifices to it, so that all would be right with them. Images of heroes are important as well: in 75, the Spartans institute a new rule that their two kings cannot go on campaign at the same time, and one of the two images of Castor and Pollux has to stay back in Sparta. In 80, the Thebans ask the Aeginetans for help, and the Aeginetans send the Aeacidae (i.e. the images of the sons of Aeacus and of Aeacus himself, according to the editor). One can’t help but think about Greek icons here.

• In Book 5, statues of gods or personified qualities perform miracles as well. In 72, Cleomenes of Sparta enters the shrine of Athena at Athens; the goddess actually stands up and tells him to go back to Sparta. Then there is (from 82) the interesting story about how Athens and Aegina came to be enemies. The Epidaurians are having trouble growing crops, and the Oracle recommends that they fashion images of “earth” and “increase” out of olive wood. The Epidaurians ask the Athenians for some wood, and the Athenians agree, in return for yearly offerings to Athena Polias and Erechtheus. Aegina, subject to Epidaurus, revolts, and steals the images of “earth” and “increase.” They set them up in Aegina, and perform sacrifices and choruses to them. So Epidaurus stops sending payment to Athens. The Athenians are annoyed, but Epidaurus tells them to contact Aegina. They do so, but Aegina disavows any obligation. The Athenians send a trireme with men to get the images back – but for some reason the men are unable to move them! So they tie ropes around the images, and as they pull there is a thunderstorm and an earthquake. The men pulling go mad and start killing each other.

One could imagine a medieval hagiographer telling a similar story about a saint’s statue…

Things I did not know until this year

• According to a drama major in one of my classes, a theater (-er) is a place, while theatre (-re) describes the acting profession. And here I thought it was just a British variant spelling still acceptable in the US.

• “Thespian” to describe an actor derives from Thespis of Icaria; “Thespian” as a demonym describes someone from Thespiae in Boeotia. These Thespians were with the Spartans at Thermopylae (not that the movie 300 shows them).

Thoughts on Book 4 of the Histories of Herodotus

Of all the people described by Herodotus, the Scythians seem the most “barbaric,” in both senses of that word (according to 46, though, they are quite “clever”). The Scythians are to the Persians what the Picts are to the Romans, or the Mongols to the Chinese: semi-nomadic invaders from the north, who cause nothing but trouble. Unfortunately their barbarian nature makes them hard to conquer, or so Darius discovers.

The Scythians are not the only people detailed in Book 4. Along with Scythian neighbors (such as the Budini, Issedones, and Hyperboreans), the reader is also treated to some details about Libya – in Herodotus, a general name for Africa, or at least North Africa. Herodotus explicitly compares Scythia with Libya in 29-30, through the lens of climate: Scythia is cold, and Libya is hot, and this affects the growth of animal horns: in Libya they grow quickly, and in Scythia hardly at all (also 129: “there is not in the whole country of Scythia an ass or a mule at all, because of the cold”; see also Herodotus’s remarks on the thickness of Persian and Egyptian skulls in 3:12). At this point, Herodotus invokes “the testimony of Homer,” citing a line from the Odyssey about horn-growing Libyan sheep as “correct” evidence for his theory. One certainly gets the sense here that Herodotus is aware of Homer’s prestige, but that he is writing a different sort of work; he cites the poet, but minimizes his overall importance. (Interestingly, Herodotus does not cite Homer when discussing the Libyan Lotus-Eaters in 177, even though they appear in book nine of the Odyssey.)

In 151, the Oracle tells the Thereans to colonize Libya, and they found Cyrene, to the west of the Nile, under Battus. After a rocky start the Oracle recommends a Mantinean commissioner for reform (in 161), to help the Cyreneans organize themselves as a proper polis. They have an influence on their Libyan neighbors, like the Asbystae, who “more than any others of the Libyans, are drivers of four-horse teams to the chariot, and in most of their customs they imitate the Cyrenaeans” (170). Otherwise, Libyans are strange: among the Auschisae it is the custom for “each man to have many wives, but their enjoyment of them is in common” (172). The Garamantes “avoid everyone and the company of anyone. They have no warlike arms at all, nor do they know how to defend themselves” (174). The Auseans “enjoy their women in common. They do not live in couples at all but fuck in the mass, like cattle” (180).

The successful Greek colonization of Cyrene contrasts with the unsuccessful Persian attempt against the Scythians. Herodotus reveals his bias in this book – and suggests that he is better than Homer, or at least a worthy successor.

Thoughts on Book 3 of the Histories of Herodotus

I gave a short lecture this evening on Book 3; my comments are reprinted below:

Book 2 deals largely with Egypt, and Book 3 marks a return of Persia to the narrative, although we get the usual Herodotean diversions, including Samos and Corinth in the Greek world; and India, Arabia and Ethiopia on the periphery. Of course, the farther afield you go, the more exotic the people’s customs, like the Ethiopian crystal coffins or the Indian use of ants to collect gold.

An important episode in Book 3 is the so-called Constitutional Debate, starting at section 80. A group of seven Persian conspirators has deposed and killed the Magi who have usurped the throne. They then hold a debate on what sort of constitution they should adopt for their new regime. Otanes goes first, and speaks in favor of popular government (isonomia, or equality before the law), although this speech is more anti-monarchical than pro-democratic and reminds me of Samuel’s speech on the dangers of monarchy in 1 Samuel 8. Essentially, by giving monarchs absolute power, it absolutely corrupts them. Equality before the law acts as a check on this tendency. Megabyzus then speaks in favor of oligarchy, or rule by a few, on the principle that the masses are fickle and feckless. Oppression by kings is bad, but at least kings act deliberately; mobs do not. The next best thing is to adopt a constitution favoring rule by a few – included, of course, would be all the conspirators themselves. Finally Darius speaks in favor of monarchy. It is best to have one ruler – provided he is the best. Oligarchy leads to violent quarrels among the members of the ruling clique, from which a victor, and thus a monarch, emerges – so why not just pick a monarch right off the bat? Democracy, too, leads to faction and partisanship, and then the advent of a people’s champion (a monarch again) who promises to break it up. And anyway, says Darius, Persia has always been a monarchy – why change now? The remaining four conspirators find this speech convincing, and vote for it. So Persia does indeed remain a monarchy.

Now it is highly unlikely that this debate actually occurred. Herodotus himself claims that “some Greeks refuse to believe the speeches took place, nevertheless they did” – without providing any further evidence. It is easy to see why people would be skeptical. Discussing the ideal constitution was a Greek pastime (as the works of Plato and Aristotle confirm), and really only applicable at the level of the polis, where one could afford such constitutional experiment. Ancient democracy, or even oligarchy, did not really scale up; empires required emperors. So of course Darius won the day with his vigorous defense of the traditional arrangements – as though there was ever really another choice.

We have talked about how Herodotus is genuinely curious about and even respectful of other peoples’ customs. But it seems to me that ultimately The Histories is pro-Hellenic, since ultimately it is a Greek history of the Persian Wars. It makes sense that the Persians should choose the form of government that suits them – as Herodotus says in 38: “if anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably, after careful consideration of their relative merits, choose those of his own country.” But I would say that Herodotus, the Greek, in this case ultimately looks down on the Persian system. Darius claims that monarchy is good if the king is “the best” – but how does one guarantee this? Does monarchy really serve Persia well when someone like Cambyses is on the throne? Cambyses of course is the Persian successor to Cyrus, and defeats the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus, thereby incorporating Egypt into the Persian empire. He executes numerous Egyptians who offer him resistance, humiliates the family of Psammetichus, burns the body of the Pharaoh Amasis in defiance of both Persian and Egyptian custom, and in a fit of anger sends his men on an expedition into Ethiopia without proper supplies, leading to the loss of most of them. But his greatest crime is the impious killing of the Apis bull in Memphis, for which the gods punish him with madness. In this state he kills his brother and sister, shoots a boy through the heart with an arrow, arbitrarily buries twelve Persians upside down, kills the men who had not carried out an order that he had come to regret, and many other crimes. He is put out of his misery when a self-inflicted wound becomes gangrenous.

This is the major drawback of monarchy. There is no guarantee that you’ll get the best man for the job.

Karl Marx proposed that history always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. He was referring to the advent of Louis-Napoleon in nineteenth-century France, but he might as well have been referring to Book 3 of the Histories. As we read, it is Darius, the defender of monarchy, who becomes monarch. Having agreed that they should have one king, the conspirators devise a method to see which one of them should assume the office. Rather than selecting the one most likely to rule well, they essentially cast lots for the job by seeing whose horse would neigh first at dawn. Of course, this process is gamed by Darius through the judicious use of the pheromones of a mare in heat. Herodotus can’t resist a story of cleverness, and perhaps, he implies, such skills are precisely what a monarch needs to have. But I can’t help but feel that the whole thing makes the Persian monarchy into a sort of joke.

Darius does not die until Book 7, and enjoys certain successes throughout his reign. But before Book 3 is out he is already executing his co-conspirators and their families because he has grown suspicious of them. This is another drawback of monarchy.

Thoughts on Book 2 of the Histories of Herodotus

Book 2 of the Histories largely concerns itself with Egypt. Herodotus is not just the father of history,* he is also the father of ethnography, and his description of the Egyptians suggests that they often do the opposite of whatever the Greeks do: in Egypt, women pee standing up, men sitting down; Egyptians, “preferring cleanliness to comeliness,” practice circumcision; women go to market and are employed in trade, while men stay home and do the weaving (which they do downwards, not upwards). But the Egyptians are not so odd that they have nothing in common with the Greeks. Although they may not be the oldest people in the world (the pharaoh Psammeticus ran a language deprivation experiment and determined that the Phrygians were older), they are certainly older than the Greeks. And Herodotus, being the lumper that he is, matched up Greek with Egyptian gods – and assumed that the Greeks derived their gods from the older Egyptians. (Elsewhere he suggests that the Greeks learned geometry and other things from the Egyptians as well.)

This is a touchy subject. If modern Europeans looked back on the Greeks with admiration, African scholars, in riposte, idealized the Egyptians. There is nothing essentially wrong with this, but the Herodotean notion of cultural priority was emphasized quite a lot by so-called Afrocentrists, including Marcus Garvey, George James, and Cheikh Anta Diop, and was developed into the charge that the Greeks stole everything from the Egyptians – just as nineteenth-century Europeans colonized Africa and expropriated its resources. (When I lecture on this topic I try to say that it is silly to hold the past hostage to present day concerns. Greeks are not stand-ins for “Europe,” nor is Egypt symbolic of “Africa.” They were different people in a different time, and interacted in various ways that may bear little resemblance to our current age. They should be studied as much as possible on their own terms.)

Herodotus is still our main source for Egypt’s Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (664-525 BC), but not for nothing is he called the “father of lies.” It seems that he can’t resist a good story, and I often get the distinct impression that his informants are pulling his leg, while he earnestly writes down everything they tell him. His theory of Egyptian cultural priority is an example of another characteristic: he often draws logical inferences from the facts as he discovers them, which may not actually be borne out by further investigation. Martin Bernal in Black Athena (1987) suggested that Europeans abandoned Herodotus’s Egyptian theory in the nineteenth century because their racism couldn’t bear the thought that the Greeks weren’t original, but Mary Lefkowitz in Not Out of Africa (1997) points out another reason: the decipherment of hieroglyphics in the 1830s meant that we no longer solely dependent on Herodotus for our information on ancient Egypt. As a consequence, we started to discover just how original the Greeks really were, and how Herodotus was simply wrong on this count.

*Patrick Wadden of Belmont Abbey College noted that Herodotus’s extensive discussion of the geography of Egypt, and how it has changed over time, is a topic that historians have only recently returned to.

Thoughts on Book 1 of The Histories of Herodotus

I am currently teaching a multi-institutional course on Herodotus through Sunoikisis, “a national consortium of classics programs.” Combined with the Council on Independent Colleges’ seminar on Herodotus that I participated in last summer at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC, I have been learning quite a lot about this most fascinating of ancient authors. Here are some notes on Book 1; others may follow.


“I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history.” Thus it begins: the father of history designates himself as the author of his own prose work, winning glory (and presumably taking responsibility for any errors that he may commit). Such a move, of course, contrasts with Homer’s call to the muse to help him sing of gods and heroes at Troy, in dactylic hexameter. So just as Herodotus puts himself forward as the author of his own work, the gods themselves play little direct role in the Histories – although the actors reverence gods in various ways, and frequently consult the Oracle, which is never proven wrong.

Herodotus, for the most part, acts as his own authority. He narrates events, including direct speech, as though he were a witness to them (e.g. 84: “This is how Sardis was captured”). But we know that he was not – how then did he get this information? He claims direct observation for his ethnographic descriptions (131: “I speak from personal knowledge [about Persian customs]”), and this we can accept, even if we are skeptical of some of the more outlandish stories he relates. We can assume therefore that his major source was simply conversations with various people in order to collect information about their past, and indeed he occasionally reveals that he has heard things, particularly when he encounters contradictory information, or when he disagrees with it. (20: “So much I know, for I heard from the Delphians that this was how it was. But the Milesians add this besides…”; 76: “I do not accept… the general report of the Greeks”; 172: “personally I believe that the Caunians have always lived in the same country though they themselves say they are from Crete”). But these are simply groups; he does not list any one person as a source.

(One instance of him consulting a historical record as such comes at the very beginning, when he invokes “Persian chroniclers.” He proceeds to dismiss them, however (5: “For my part I am not going to say about these matters that they happened thus or thus.”) A poem of iambic trimeters by Archilochus of Paros is also cited as corroborating evidence of the story of Gyges and Candaules in 12.)

Whether Herodotus is “true” is a question for which we would dearly love corroborating evidence of our own. We are heartened, however, to read that the author is unafraid, at least occasionally, to employ reason to test the veracity of his stories.

Minoans and Mycenaeans

From Smithsonian Magazine, news of a recently discovered tomb at Pylos, which has upended our knowledge of Bronze Age Greece. An excerpt:

“What brings about the collapse of the Minoans, and at the same time what causes the emergence of the Mycenaean palace civilization?”

The distinctions between the two societies are clear enough, quite apart from the fundamental difference in their languages. The Mycenaeans organized their towns with free-standing houses rather than the conglomerated shared buildings seen on Crete, for example. But the relationship between the peoples has long been a contentious subject. In 1900, just 24 years after Schliemann announced he’d found Homer’s heroes at Mycenae, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered the Minoan civilization (named for Crete’s mythic King Minos) when he unearthed Knossos. Evans and subsequent scholars argued that the Minoans, and not the Mycenaean mainlanders, were the “first” Greeks—“the first link in the European chain,” according to the historian Will Durant. Schliemann’s graves, the thinking went, belonged to wealthy rulers of Minoan colonies established on the mainland.

In 1950, however, scholars finally deciphered Linear B tablets from Knossos and Pylos and showed the writing to be the earliest known form of Greek. Opinion now swung the other way: The Mycenaeans were reinstated as the first Greeks, and Minoan objects found in mainland graves were reinterpreted as status symbols stolen or imported from the island. “It’s like the Romans copying Greek statues and carting them off from Greece to put in their villas,” says Shelmerdine.

And this has been the scholarly consensus ever since: The Mycenaeans, now thought to have sacked Knossos at around the time they built their mainland palaces and established their language and administrative system on Crete, were the true ancestors of Europe.

The griffin warrior’s grave at Pylos offers a radical new perspective on the relationship between the two societies and thus on Europe’s cultural origins. As in previously discovered shaft graves, the objects themselves are a cross-cultural mix. For instance, the boar tusk helmet is typically Mycenaean, but the gold rings, which are rich with Minoan religious imagery and are on their own a hugely significant find for scholars, says Davis, reflect artifacts previously found on Crete….

In their view, the arrangement of objects in the grave provides the first real evidence that the mainland elite were experts in Minoan ideas and customs, who understood very well the symbolic meaning of the products they acquired. “The grave shows these are not just knuckle-scraping, Neanderthal Mycenaeans who were completely bowled over by the very existence of Minoan culture,” says Bennet. “They know what these objects are.”…

Together, the grave goods and the wall paintings present a remarkable case that the first wave of Mycenaean elite embraced Minoan culture, from its religious symbols to its domestic décor. “At the very beginning, the people who are going to become the Mycenaean kings, the Homeric kings, are sophisticated, powerful, rich and aware of something beyond the world that they are emerging from,” says Shelmerdine.

This has led Davis and Stocker to favor the idea that the two cultures became entwined at a very early stage. It’s a conclusion that fits recent suggestions that regime change on Crete around the time the mainland palaces went up, which traditionally corresponds to the decline of Minoan civilization, may not have resulted from the aggressive invasion that historians have assumed. The later period on Knossos might represent something more like “an EU in the Aegean,” says Bennet, of the British School at Athens. Minoans and Mycenaean Greeks would surely have spoken each other’s languages, may have intermarried and likely adopted and refashioned one another’s customs. And they may not have seen themselves with the rigid identities we moderns have tended to impose on them.

In other words, it isn’t the Mycenaeans or the Minoans to whom we can trace our cultural heritage since 1450 B.C., but rather a blending of the two.

More at the link.


Tim Furnish shares an interesting article on Plato, who “was neither fully liberal, nor a totalitarian”:

Plato is not Ricardo or Locke or Hayek or Nozick. He was probably more optimistic about political authority than most classical liberals. But it’s a mistake to characterize him as a proto-totalitarian on the basis of the “ideal city” thought experiment in the Republic, which is really an argument in individual moral philosophy. He is very explicit about the allegorical nature of the analogy, and his non-allegorical political observations, such as the dangers of unrestrained democracy, are mostly spot-on. It’s not helpful to classical liberalism to rail against a totalitarianism that isn’t there, especially when the ethical insights are both intrinsically worthwhile and relevant to the philosophy of freedom.

More at the link.

Priam’s Treasure

Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War, a series of six hour-long videos that first aired on BBC2 in 1985, remains very interesting and is a great teaching tool. I enjoy showing episode one, The Age of Heroes, in my upper-level Classical Civilizations course. That title is ambiguous: it refers to Homeric characters like Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hector, and it also refers to the heroes of archaeology who opened up the field of Bronze Age Greece. The biggest name of all, of course, is that of Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), the self-made German businessman who, deciding that he wanted to do something significant, took up archaeology and excavated Hisarlik, a hill overlooking the Hellespont in northwestern Anatolia, thereby uncovering the ancient city of Troy. This was a remarkable achievement for which he remains justifiably famous, although Wood hints that Schilemann was a self-promoter and perhaps also a “liar.” Schliemann certainly seemed to enjoy remarkable strokes of luck at just the right times. His discovery of a treasure trove at Hisarlik in 1873 (from 25:45 in the video), right as his first season was about to end, is one such. A copper cauldron inside a stone-lined chamber contained “gold, silver and bronze vessels, bronze lance heads, several thousand gold finger rings and earrings, bracelets and necklaces, and two splendid diadems.” An ecstatic Schliemann dubbed it the “Treasure of Priam,” after the king of Troy in Homer’s Iliad (with the diadems being the “Jewels of Helen”), even though he had not yet discerned an archaeological layer that matched up with the traditional date of fall of the city, some time in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1250 BC). It turns out that this treasure was a thousand years too early to be associated with the characters of the Trojan War – and, admits Wood, may even have been planted by Schliemann as a way of attracting further attention! But Wood then interviews Donald Easton of the University Cambridge, who asserts that “despite all the hoo-ha” (contradictory field notes, and the false assertion that Schliemann’s wife Sophie was present at the time of the find), Schliemann did find the “Treasure of Priam” as a single hoard. Furthermore, it may have been dug down into the ground from a later period, i.e. it could very well have been a collection of grave goods deposited in the Late Bronze Age.

Unfortunately, the treasure disappeared from Berlin in 1945, and in the 1980s was unavailable for further tests of its authenticity. Wood implies that it was destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War – but as it turns out, it wasn’t destroyed, it was liberated by the Red Army and removed to the Soviet Union. It came to public attention in 1993 and is now on display in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Germany has asked for it back, but the Russians refuse to return it, claiming that they’re entitled to everything they stole as compensation for the damage they suffered in the war. (In 1998, in order to justify this policy, the Duma passed the gloriously-named “Federal Law on Cultural Valuables Displaced to the USSR as a Result of the Second World War and Located on the Territory of the Russian Federation.”)

So have any tests been done on it since 1993? Have we discovered something that reveals the whole thing as a hoax, like the Hitler Diaries or the Getty kouros? One Manfred Korfmann of the University of Tübingen has had the chance to examine some of the pieces, and found no evidence that they are fakes. But more details about the discovery of Treasure of Priam are available in David A. Traill’s Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit (1995), and they aren’t particularly savory. Essentially, the Treasure of Priam was not discovered at once – it was bundled together from a number of different discoveries, in order to be smuggled out behind the back of the Ottoman official supervising the excavation! Eventually Schliemann did hand over some of the treasure to the Ottoman government, as he was obliged to do, in return for the right to continue digging at Troy. Traill notes, however, that Schliemann had contracted with a Parisian jeweler to make reproductions of some of the items, which Schliemann was probably hoping to pass off to the Turks.

As you can see, a bit of a charlatan.

But for actual forgeries, we have to turn to the other great hero of Greek archaeology, Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), who excavated Knossos on Crete (and who is the subject of the second of Wood’s videos, The Legend Under Siege). What Evans uncovered on Crete was so different from was Schliemann uncovered at Troy (and subsequently at Mycenae and other sites on the mainland), that Evans gave the civilization a new name: Minoan, after the legendary Cretan King Minos. Evans seems to have been a man of greater integrity than Schliemann, although just as much of a fantasist: if Schliemann was bent on proving the Iliad true, Evans was keen on imagining a peaceful Bronze Age society, perhaps as an example to the warring Greeks and Turks that he saw around him (this is the thesis of Cathy Gere in her brilliant book Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism [2009]). The forgeries were produced behind Evans’s back by two people in his employ, a father and son both bearing the name Émile Gilliéron. The Gilliérons were in charge of cleaning and as much as possible reconstructing artifacts that the excavators uncovered, but according to Kenneth Lapantin in Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History (2002), the pair did far more than that. Working in their own building and paid by the piece, they constructed any number of Cretan “goddess” figurines from nothing much at all – or at least, according to Lapantin, “the combined evidence of history, style, imagery, technique, and science… suggests that [the sculptures] are modern works.”

Just as Homer’s audience might have felt grateful not to be living in the Bronze Age, so also one feels gratitude that we’re no longer living in the “heroic age” of archaeology….