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Looking for the Lost Greeks

The Parthenon

by Mary Beard
Harvard University Press,209 pp., $19.95


The ancient Greeks could not tell just how ancient they were. Other cultures—Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese—had continuous written records descending from the Bronze Age. They were able to read and arrange these records in their chronological order. The Greeks, too, had writings from their indirect (Minoan) and direct (My- cenaean) forebears, but they could not read them. The intervening Iron Age had, in Hamlet’s phrase, “wiped away all trivial fond records.” The records that remained were not read for three millennia, until the Mycenaean (early Greek) part of them was deciphered in the 1950s. The Greeks themselves were left with, mainly, oral poetry as a bridge to the distant Bronze Age, and this poetry was then set down in a Semitic alphabet, which seemed to have nothing to do with the “Linear” syllabary language of the past. A great gap existed, then, between classical Greeks and their presumed “heroic” ancestors. Compared to the ancient civilizations they knew, the Greeks were newcomers. As Herodotus (2.53) put it:

Where specific gods came from, or whether they were always there, or what kind of form they took—these things they learned just the day before yesterday, as it were. For Homer and Hesiod, contemporaries who lived no more than four hundred years ago in my opinion, first gave them an account of the gods, distinguishing their titles, prerogatives, and special powers.

Hesiod, the very poet who (according to Herodotus) gave the Greeks their past, shows how uncertain he was about that past by the use he makes of a chronology of four metallic eras, a chronology derived from the East. He turns the eras into races, and lists them as the golden race, the silver one, the bronze one, and the iron one. His scheme is embarrassed by the fact that he cannot assign the Homeric poems to any of the four races, and has to insert, clumsily, a “heroic race” between the bronze and iron ones, producing a fivefold scheme with an anomalous (nonmetallic) era insecurely attached to the chronology of myth (Works and Days, 108–201).

Herodotus thought Homer lived “the day before yesterday” because he belonged to what we call the eighth century. But modern scholars have been moving “Homer” down to the seventh century or even the sixth. The renowned Oxford scholar John Boardman places him in the seventh, but followers of the Harvard professor Gregory Nagy prefer the sixth, though all now think of the date when the epics took their surviving shape as the culmination of a long evolution of oral performance.1 How vast and old that performance material was can be gauged from the fact that the earliest depictions of heroic myth (on Greek pottery) tend not to follow the versions given in the two major epics, but draw on some other traditions.2 It used to be said that these variants came from the Cyclic Epics—the cycle of six epic poems, apart from the Iliad and Odyssey, tracing the story of the Trojan War from the Judgment of Paris up to the fate of Odysseus’ son by Circe, Telegonus. Only fragments of the cycle survive, though there are many ancient references to their contents and some have argued that the epics were later confections to fill in the omissions of Homer, sometimes with variants. That is no longer thought plausible. The date of the old vase paintings shows that the variants were already available to artists in the eighth and seventh centuries. If these alternate versions were present in the Cyclic Epics, then the sources of those poems were pre-Iliadic, irrespective of when the Cyclic Epics took their final shape.3

These problems of charting the Greeks’ past give John Boardman the starting point for his new book. He thinks that the Greeks’ insecure purchase upon their founding legends led to an “archaeology of nostalgia,” a desire to establish as many points of contact with that distant past as they could contrive. This involved an energetic search for, and ingenious analysis of, any surviving physical stuff of that past—or what they could interpret as such. The search began with Homer himself, who tried to give a local habitation and a name to features of his story—the burial mound of Myrhine, for instance (Iliad, 2.814), or the cave where Odysseus stored his treasure (Odyssey, 13.366–367). Post-Homeric authors also showed a concern for physical evidence of the epic past—its topography, artifacts, tombs, and supposed monuments. The greatest example of this concern is Pausanias, the second-century-CE author who visited and described the major Greek sites, attaching them wherever possible to legendary figures and events. He says, for instance (1.21.3), that one side of Mount Sipylos is shaped like a human face, and rain or rivulets on it reveal the weeping Niobe turned to stone.

Boardman cites another passage in Pausanias (1.26.5) referring to the mark of Poseidon’s trident in the rock of the Akropolis in Athens. This triple cleft was so revered that it was enclosed within the Erekhtheion that housed the most sacred symbol of Athena. Such naturalia not only verified myth but gave the local residents a claim on the miracle. This resembles what Mark Twain encountered in his trip to Palestine. Clerical guides explained that a white cave in Nazareth showed that the Virgin Mary must have nursed Jesus there, since a drop of her milk could whiten the whole cavern. “The old monks are wise. They know how to drive a stake through a pleasant tradition that will hold it to its place forever.”4

Even more intriguing than natural features must have been artifacts surviving from the heroic age. Boardman tries to imagine classical-era Greeks’ reactions when they opened up Bronze Age tombs. They no doubt found strange utensils, exotic jewelry, obsolete armor, bronze weapons, indecipherable inscriptions. The most intriguing illustration in Boardman’s book shows a small clay sculpture (circa 800 BCE) from Crete, part of a find first published by Boardman himself. It seems to represent a mound-tomb (tholos) with two men kneeling on its round top and peeking down into it through a hole in the mound’s center. They are accompanied by a dog, and their gestures suggest surprise. Boardman plausibly argues that it depicts the discovery of an ancient tomb. (Was it the dog who came upon it?)

Boardman poses hypothetical problems in interpretation for such Schliemanns avant la lettre. What would they make of exotic burial procedures known to modern archaeologists that would look foreign to them? When they found, let us say, clay coffins shaped like bathtubs, did they imagine murders committed in the bath—giving them the non-Homeric detail that Agamemnon was killed that way? Some children were buried in large jars. Could that be the source of the story of the boy Glaukos, who drowned in a honey jar? (Glaukos was the son of Minos and Pasiphaë, and hence brother to Ariadne and Phaedra. After drowning in the honey jar, he was brought back to life by a seer who had been shut up in the tomb with the dead boy’s corpse—a story shown on a fifth-century Attic vase reproduced by Boardman.) Adults, on the other hand, were sometimes buried in large cauldrons, which might be the source of Medea’s boiling of Pelias in her witch’s pot. If there were rotting clothes around entombed skeletons, that could be the origin of Nessos’ shirt, which consumed the demigod Herakles when he donned it. These are all interesting guesses, but the conjectural finds he describes may simply have confirmed or exemplified already-existing tales rather than “inspired” them (the word Boardman uses of these examples).

A parallel line of inquiry Boardman borrows, with ample acknowledgments, from Adrienne Mayor, an independent scholar in Princeton who has also written about Native American fossil-related legends. As Boardman imagines archaic and classical men speculating over tomb finds, Professor Mayor imagines them confronting the bones or fossils of outsize, extinct, or rare animals.5 Bones from mammoth vertebrates may have been taken for relics of the giant heroes of the past or of the monsters they fought. One of Mayor’s spectacular examples is a Corinthian vase painting of a monster’s head protruding from a cliff face, a configuration in line with accounts of animal skulls bared on eroding cliffsides of the Aegean coast. Herakles is fighting the monster on the vase, and Mayor thinks that the creature’s large jawbone corresponds with the skull of a Miocene Age giraffe, but Boardman doubts that it had so specific a model. He says that any horse or cattle skull would offer a sufficient prototype. He finds many sources for the monsters in Greek art, from scrambled bones, combined animal parts, or freakish fossils, though he admits that some of the creatures came from stylized Eastern art.

Whatever the strength or weakness of Boardman’s particular hunches, he certainly makes one aware of two things: the need of the Greeks to seek every way of connecting with their heroic but largely vanished past, and the obvious recourse that would have been offered them by physical realia (objects from everyday life), naturalia (objects from the natural world), and artificia (art objects and technological artifacts) surviving from that past. Their condition in an aggravated state is similar to the milder form of it to be found among modern art historians looking back toward classical Greece. Though no lapse from literacy cuts them off from fifth-century-BCE Athens, there is a gap that resembles, if only partially, the one dividing fifth-century Athens from eleventh-century Mycenae. This was noticed by Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, a professor emerita at Bryn Mawr, in her 1996 Sather Classical Lectures, published in 1999: “Finally, in our starved desire for Greek originals, we romanticize and exaggerate the artistry and beauty of extant architectural sculpture—that is, of something that might occasionally have rated, in antiquity, at the level of a glorified molding.”6

Though she was talking only of architectural sculpture, she was echoing a common plaint about classical Greek art. The best and most famous sculpture from that time has disappeared because it was cast in bronze, a material easily and regularly melted down. For the most famous Greek statues all that remains are copies made in a different medium by indifferent artists—the Roman versions made in marble. A few ancient Greek statues have been retrieved from under the waves, where they could not be found to be melted in the intervening time. They impress us as miraculously good, but none is an anciently famous work by a famous artist. They still do not tell us what we would see if an original Praxiteles or Polykleitos were to be fished up tomorrow. The same is true of ancient Greek painting, of which we get only a distant approximation in the paintings of Pompeii or those on Greek vases. The aesthetic oohing and aahing over Greek pots is a good example of what Ridgway was talking about. They are important historical documents for learning about Greek myths, social customs, theater history, and chronology, but no ancient writer claimed that these illustrated utensils were examples of high art. They have to serve us faute de mieux.

  1. 1

    Gregory Nagy, Homeric Questions (University of Texas Press, 1996), pp. 65–112.

  2. 2

    Anthony Snodgrass, Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art (Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 12–39.

  3. 3

    Jonathan S. Burgess, The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp. 53–94.

  4. 4

    Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 529, 601.

  5. 5

    Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton University Press, 2000).

  6. 6

    Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Prayers in Stone: Greek Architectural Sculpture Ca. 600–100 BCE (University of California Press, 1999), p. 222.

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