The myths of the ancient Greeks have inspired us for thousands of years. Where did the famous stories of the battles of their gods develop and spread across the world? The celebrated classicist Robin Lane Fox draws on a lifetime’s knowledge of the ancient world, and on his own travels, answering this question by pursuing it through the age of Homer. His acclaimed history explores how the intrepid seafarers of eighth-century Greece sailed around the Mediterranean, encountering strange new sights—volcanic mountains, vaporous springs, huge prehistoric bones—and weaving them into the myths of gods, monsters and heroes that would become the cornerstone of Western civilization.
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Robin Lane Fox is a Fellow and Garden Master of New College, Oxford, and a University Reader in Ancient History. His books include Alexander the Great, Pagans and Christians, The Unauthorized Version, and The Classical World. Since 1970 he has also been gardening correspondent for the Financial Times.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In the fifteenth book of Homer’s Iliad, the goddess Hera flies across to Mount Olympus and the poet compares her to a particular movement of the human mind. When a man has travelled far and wide, he tells us, his mind will sometimes leap and he will think, “I wish I was here, or I wish I was there,” as he “longs for many different things.” Hera’s sideways flight is as swift as these inconsistent thoughts as she moves from the peak of one mountain to another.
Two thousand seven hundred years later we still know from inner experience what Homer meant. We do not connect such thoughts with the speed of a passing goddess, which we imagine, rather, as the invisible speed of light. Homer’s imagination is so much more precise. When a goddess descends directly to earth he compares her descent to a vertical shower of hailstones. When she flies sideways he refers us inwards to those lateral fancies which express our enduring sense that life does not have to be as it is.
Two thousand seven hundred years are a very long gap between Homer and ourselves and at such a distance the psychology of his heroes has been thought by some of his modern readers to be primitive. Homer’s heroes think in their “hearts,” not their brains; like us, they can disown an idea or impulse, but they often disown it as if it has come from outside or from an independent source; they have no word for a decision and because they are not yet philosophers they have no word for the self. Yet, as Hera’s flight reminds us, Homer’s idea of the mind is not limited by the words which he happens to use. Like ours, his heroes’ inconsistent thoughts belong in one unifying mind; they decide on actions; like Hector outside the walls of Troy they sometimes know what is best, but fail to act on their knowledge. Above all, they share our human hallmark, the sense that our life could be lived elsewhere and that people once loved and lost can seem in the contrasts of the present as if they were never really so.
“I wish I was here, or I wish I was there . . .” In our age of global travel we are all potential heirs to the simile of Hera’s flight. Among writers it may seem most apt for novelists, the idealized heroes of our habits of reading. Novelists, surely, need to imagine, whereas earth-bound historians have only to collect such mundane information as survives. Yet novelists become constrained by their own creations and by the need for them to be coherent as they develop. Historians must amass and collect but they then have freedoms too. It is for them to assess the credentials of what survives, to pose questions which some of it helps to answer, and to check that there is not other evidence which tells against their answer and which cannot be explained. As they reconstruct a life, a practice or a social group, their sources control their image of it, but they also need to imagine what lies beyond their surface, the significant absences and the latent forces. When they imagine these absentees they need to think how life would have been beyond their own particular lives. “I wish I was here, or I wish I was there . . .”: these thoughts also flash in minds which have travelled far among evidence for other times and places.
Philosophers will continue to tell us that it is an illusion, that historians cannot be in two times at once or travel backwards while remaining themselves. Yet we “long for many different things,” to be good, perhaps, in the new age of the first Christian emperor Constantine, to be wonderfully wild with Alexander the Great, to question convention in Socrates’ Athens or to uphold it on an estate of outrageous size in late Roman north Africa, with the names and pictures of the family’s beloved horses on the villa’s mosaic flooring, a Christian saint’s shrine on the farm for the prayers of the indebted tenants and a strong sympathy with that least Christianized company of Christians, the nearby members of Augustine’s congregation.
We can only wish, simulating Hera’s flight, but after travelling far and wide among evidence for the years from Homer to Muhammad, I continue to wish to revisit the Greek world of the eighth century bc. It is not a world with famous names, who are exactly dated and known from biographies. It is not even known through histories or memoirs which were written in its period: history had not yet been invented. Its main sources are particularly hard to interpret: poetry and archaeological finds. From the latter, especially, modern scholars have described this period as a “Greek renaissance,” or an age of distinctive “structural transformation,” propelled, perhaps, by a newly increasing population, an increased use of cultivable land and a new willingness of its village-leaders to combine into city-states. One sign of these changes is even discerned in the use of organized burial grounds for the dead. Others detect the origins of icons of our “western world,” the birth of the “free market” after an age of exchange based on reciprocal favours, or the unencumbered ownership of small family farms, the birthright of those “other Greeks,” the small farmers whom our modern histories of warriors and lawgivers tend to pass over.
It would be intriguing to test these theories by revisiting their eighth-century reality, but my own researches would be different. I would like to verify a pattern long visible to my eye, a trail of travel and myth traced by eighth-century Greeks, which stretched across the Mediterranean and is the subject of this book. Hitherto unrecognized, it bears on other great elements of ancient life to which we still respond, aspects of landscape, songs and oracles and the unsurpassed poetry of Homer and his near-contemporaries. It also points to a way of thinking and of understanding the world which is not prominent in modern histories of this early period but which was active from Israel to the furthest points of the Greeks’ presence, at a time when philosophy did not yet exist and there was no separate sphere of “western thought.”
Realists in the modern world will raise immediate objections to this wish to return to the edges of what appears to be such a dark age. Life expectancy was low in the eighth century; there was extreme exploitation of the many by the very few; there were the past’s invisible companions, intense smell and pain, compounded by the absence of flushing drains and lavatories. Among Greeks there was grumbling sexism, best seen in the myth of Pandora, the origin of man’s sufferings, and “from Homer to the end of Greek literature there were no ordinary words with the specific meanings ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’ ” There was also an absence of small significant comforts, no sugar, no chocolate, no pianos. In the dry spines of a Greek landscape were there ever horses worth riding? Objects and painted pottery of the period show men naked, not clothed, and surely those Greeks who competed in sports and races had to do so in the nude? It is a mercy that our lives have moved on . . .
Such objections are not all misplaced. Excavators of two of the best- studied cemeteries in the Greek world between 1000 and 750 bc have given few grounds for optimism. At Lefkandi, on the island of Euboea, “the most complete burials confirmed that adults tended to die quite young . . . in the prime of life, say between 17 and 40 years. The young persons recovered from all three cemeteries indicate that child mortality, too, was probably high.” At San Montano on the island of Ischia, where Greeks settled from c. 770, “the cemetery population was divided roughly into one-third adult and two-thirds pre-adult,” 27 per cent of whom were babies “often new or stillborn.” Studies of bones, teeth and skeletons at these and other Greek sites in this period imply a distressing proportion of damage, decay and distortion. At Pydna, up on the coast of south-east Macedon, a sample of forty buried skeletons has shown that “degenerative joint diseases emerge early, from 13–24, and concern both sexes . . . At least nine individuals in our sample were suffering from arthritic changes, mainly in the spinal column . . . both of the individuals over 45 years show severe arthritic changes.”
For those who lived on there were no human rights, no challenge as yet to the domination of the many by the powerful ruling few. Without compunction, this “happy few” enslaved fellow-humans, using them in households or on their farms. They might even sell
tiresome dependants abroad, as the suitors in Homer’s Odyssey acknowledged when they told Odysseus’ son to pack off two troublesome beggars to “the Sicels’ (in our Sicily) in the west “in order to fetch for yourself a worthy price”; they were unaware that one of them was noble Odysseus himself, in disguise. Slavery, meanwhile, was only the most extreme form of gain. In Attica, the nobles also took one-sixth of the produce of other Attic landowners’ farms. In Sparta, by the late eighth century, the Spartans were taking half of the produce of the Greek neighbours whom they had conquered and made their “serfs.”
These obstacles will hang over my wish to revisit this era unless they are agreed on and countered at the outset, from the high mortality to the nudity in public. The one counter to an early death was a lucky draw in the lottery of life. In the eighth century such a draw was possible, although the odds against it were much higher than ours. The “average” lengths of eighth-century life in some of our modern tables include all the unlucky others and obscure the peaks and valleys of an individual’s span. Prospects were longer for those who survived the acute risk of infant mortality. Individual males who passed through this hazard and escaped death in war might go on to live for more than sixty years. Aristotle noted their political prominence in early Greek communities; a council of males over sixty had political powers in Sparta; elderly Nestor exemplified wisdom in Homer’s epics. Women had to survive the further cull of giving birth, but even so there were older ones who survived: an appropriate role for them, if well born, was to be made priestesses of the gods. A small minority of people, therefore, beat the index of life, propelled, in the view of one recent elderly historian of the Greeks, “by creative activity under tension, with the rewards of achievement, honour and fame . . . tension of a different quality, so to speak, from the ceaseless tension of those who struggled daily for sheer survival, which exacerbated their anyway inferior physical conditions of life.”
This “creative activity under tension” was most evident in one particular class, the male nobles who dominated their communities. To be born male into a noble family was the defence against social exploitation. Noblemen, and especially noblewomen, were at risk to enslavement, but only if their community was invaded and conquered. Ties of friendship between families, hosts and guests helped to reduce the risks from noble outsiders. Within their own home communities nobles would not be enslaved by fellow-nobles.
As for the pain and the smell, they existed even in this small upper level of society: how could they be overcome? Here, we need to be cautious. Homer’s poems describe fearful wounds in battle, 148 of them, and sometimes describe the accompanying throes of death (three- quarters of the wounds are fatal). We cannot assume that Greeks’ threshold of pain in the eighth century bc was higher than ours because suffering was so much more widespread or because their texts’ emphasis on it is different from our own. Homer is already aware of a fact we now accept, the time lag between a serious injury and the sufferer’s sensation of pain. He does not trace it to our brains, as we do: he links it to the flow of blood from the wound, as if it is the blood’s flow which delays the pain’s onset.14 He says little about the prelude to a natural death: he does not show an awareness that it can be as painful as death from a wound. This silence is not evidence that the experience of pain in Homer’s time was different from ours: it may be evidence only about the aspects of pain which it was conventional for poets to describe. Except, perhaps, at the margins of our modern sensibility, eighth-century Greeks acknowledged what we also feel, the “black pain” from wounds and body-damage. The counter to it was not a difference in their sensibility: like ours, it lay in the use of palliatives. Wounds could be bound “skilfully,” although we hear only twice in Homer of specific bandages (one is called the “sling”). Pain-relief in Homer’s epics is also linked to the skills of women. In Nestor’s tent, the captive slave-girl Hecamede (her name imples “cleverness”) offers the wounded and battle- weary wine mixed with barley and flavoured with onion and grated goat’s cheese. To us it sounds like a recipe for rapid death, but the drink was assumed to relieve pain and restore strength: cheese- graters have even been found in a few pre-Homeric Greek burials, suggesting that in real life, too, rich Greeks believed in the value of mixing “cheese and wine.”
Hecamede’s onion was the least of Homer’s healing plants. They are the ancestors of so many of our own painkillers which are also derived from plants in nature. Soon after Hecamede we meet another Homeric lady, freeborn fair-haired Agamede (”Extremely Clever”) who “knew all the drugs which the broad earth bore.” In the Odyssey, Helen mixes a drug into the wine of her menfolk when their storytelling causes them to shed tears: “Whoever drinks this down,” she tells them, “would not for the course of a day let a tear run down his cheeks, not even if his mother and father were both to die.” Helen’s tear-stopper came, significantly, from Egypt, a recognized source of excellent medical drugs for the Greeks. It has never been found in nature, nor has the herb “moly” which the god Hermes gave to Odysseus as an antidote, a plant with a black root and a flower like milk. We know, however, that the poet was magnifying practices in the real world. There, too, plants were used as palliatives, including opium. Pottery, shaped like the seed-heads of the opium poppy, was being made on Cyprus c. 850–800 bc and exported to neighbouring islands, including Crete. In the eighth century bc small handmade jugs may have transported opium to Greeks who had settled off western Italy on the faraway island of Ischia.
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