Ancient History & Civilisation


The Western Greeks

Grant O son of Cronos, that the battle-cry of the Carthaginians and the Etruscans may stay quietly at home… Such were their losses when they were vanquished by the ruler of the Syracusans, who threw their young men into the sea from their ships, drawing Greece from heavy slavery

Pindar, Pythian 1.71–5 (470 BC)

A (Roman) citizen is not to bury a dead man in the city. He is not to do more than this: he is not to smooth the funeral pyre with a trowel. Women are not to lacerate their cheeks or to hold a wake for a funeral… Nor is a Roman citizen to add gold. But, for anyone whose teeth have been joined with gold, if he buries or burns it with the dead man, it shall be done without his being liable.

Table X, of the Twelve Tables at Rome (451/0 BC)

The Persian threat to Greek freedom was matched by another in the western Mediterranean. Greek settlements here had multiplied since their beginnings in east Sicily in the later eighth century BC, but in 480, the year of Salamis, the Greek sector of Sicily was invaded by a vast barbarian army, led by Carthaginians. The impulse for it came partly from a Greek initiative. A recently ousted Greek ruler on the island, together with his brother-in-law, had appealed for help to Carthaginian friends. The Carthaginians needed little encouragement. Not long before, the Greek ruler of Syracuse, Gelon, had been trying to persuade the Greeks in Greece to join him in attacking the Carthaginian sector of Sicily. He had even promised them renewed trading opportunities, a clear call to a Greek war with a commercial motive. But there was also a Persian dimension. In 480 the Persians were said to be urging Carthage to attack Sicily and to keep its Greeks from helping Greece itself. Carthage had a connection with the Persian campaign because she was the colony of Tyre in the Levant, and Tyrian sailors were serving loyally in the Persian fleet against Greece.

In reply, an army of 300,000 barbarians are said to have swarmed into the island, but the Greeks in Sicily won a tremendous victory on their north coast, at Himera. Gelon of Syracuse was credited with an ingenious stratagem, Themistocles’ equal, which deceived the Carthaginian commanders by intercepting a letter of help to them. In defeat, the Carthaginian general Hamilcar died, possibly by throwing himself onto the fire during a religious sacrifice, and Greek freedom was saved. Justly, the poet Pindar described the victory as ‘drawing Greece from heavy slavery’: it imposed slavery on the barbarian participants instead.1 Hordes of them were distributed as captives to Greek cities on Sicily. At Acragas (Agrigento), it was said that many of the citizens acquired up to 500 prisoners each as their personal slaves. The slaves were used to quarry stone and to work on new temples to the gods: Acragas acquired a gigantic temple of Zeus (whose debris is still visible). As so often in ancient history, the acquisition of quantities of captives or fugitives in war was the most effective transformation of a local economy. In the West, barbarian slavery assisted new levels of Greek splendour and luxury.

Twice in his life the Emperor Hadrian visited Sicily, on the first occasion climbing volcanic Mount Etna to see the sunrise which was ‘said to be like a rainbow’.2 By then many Greeks had been there before him, not least the poet Pindar who had composed a wonderfully sonorous ode for Hieron the Greek tyrant, founder of a new city of Etna in the 470s. The poem reveals a first-hand awareness, surely Pindar’s own, of Etna and its slopes during an eruption. By Hadrian’s day Sicily had had more than three centuries of Roman rule, and he would have had no clear idea of the island’s turbulent past.

The western Greeks’ dynamics were complex. Phoenician-Carthaginians had settled in western Sicily at least since the early eighth century BC. Earlier migrants to the island continued to occupy

parts of it, especially the Sicels in the interior; since the eighth century Greeks had also settled in the east and south, especially near the coastline. The two sectors were not segregated; Carthaginians lived in Sicilian Greek cities, just as Sicilian Greeks lived across the sea in Carthage. The Greek islanders’ main networks lay not with Africa, but with yet more Greek cities, those which had been settled on the nearby Aeolian islands and in southern Italy. In due course this region became known as ‘Great Greece’, Magna Graecia.

It certainly had a ‘New World’ grandeur and extravagance: the great modern Sicilian novelist Lampedusa called Sicily the America of antiquity. Already in the mid-sixth century BC Greek cities had ostentatious temples to the Greek gods, as we can see at Selinus in south-west Sicily: half-cut columns still lie in the big stone-quarries, several miles from the acropolis to which they were pulled on huge wooden rollers. In Sicily, as a pupil of Plato later observed, the Greeks even ate two major meals a day.3 Pindar’s fine poems for Sicilian patrons celebrate the rich farmland on the island, the crops and flocks, as well as the recent grand buildings. Pindar evokes the blossoming townscape of Camarina, in 456 BC, where ‘a soaring forest of solid dwellings’ was helping to bring ‘the people of the city from helplessness into daylight’.4 There was also very lucrative trade, not least from the Sicilian coast to barbarian Carthage. By land and sea, many Sicilian landowners had the best of both worlds.

Since their first foundations in the 730s BC the Greek settlers had gone on to found yet more settlements as they gained in confidence. These sub-colonies lay on excellent farmland too, great swathes of it (about a hundred and fifty square miles) at Selinus in the south-west. The greatest modern historian of the western Greeks, T. J. Dunbabin, who was himself a New Zealander, has compared these settlers with ‘the almost complete cultural dependence… on which the colonials most pride themselves’.5 Were they simply creating more of the same?

The main lines of their history down to c. 460 are already familiar from mainland Greece. There had been wars between western Greek cities and also wars between the Greeks and the many non-Greeks on the island. There had been no new ‘Western’ military inventions and no really new political experiments: there was no common Sicilian Greek council or festival. The most pan-‘Siciliote’ occasions must have been their horse races but we do not even know where the big meetings were held. On the mainland Greek model, there were citizen-armies of armoured hoplites and excellent cavalrymen (horses proliferated in the good river-lands, as only in Thessaly back in Greece). There were tyrants, and eventually there were democracies to replace them. The main difference was the timescale. The grandest Sicilian tyrants emerged in Syracuse and Gela c. 505 BC (when the Athenians had just adopted democracy). Democracies replaced Western tyrants quite often, but not until the 460s (in Asia Minor, democracy had already been motivating the eastern Greeks to revolt by c. 500). From Sicily, we now have inscribed evidence of the reforms by which the newly strengthened city-state of Camarina adapted its social units c. 460 BC, but the reform was some fifty years later than Cleisthenes’ somewhat similar reforms in Attica.6

In religion, too, the western Greeks were traditional. They honoured the same Greek gods and connected themselves to similar myths. A few of them have left some clear evidence for beliefs about life in the underworld, and until recently these speculations were loosely called ‘Orphic’ (after Orpheus, who escaped the underworld) and were thought to be a western Greek innovation. New evidence has shown that they were not distinctively Western but were widespread in Greece too. An important inscription, dated c.450BC, gives us some of the flavour of everyday religiosity in the big Greek settlement at Selinus: it sets out ways in which people can purify themselves from a hostile spirit-presence, whether seen or heard, by sacrificing a full-grown sheep and following other rituals.7It shows no sign of a ‘Western enlightenment’, and is not a response to a rare crisis.

The Greek cities in the West had been settled ‘top down’, by land-distributions from their leaders to their settlers. This style of settlement rested on less of an infrastructure of villages and nuclei in the countryside than many ‘bottom up’ settlements in old Greece: in the Sicilian city-territories, rich and absentee landowners may have been more frequent. Yet, this pattern was not the prime cause of political turmoil. As in old Greece, the dynamics for it were faction among a competitive upper class and greater riches in a few new hands, combined with changes in military tactics and continuing popular resentment of corrupt justice. The West’s tyrants were no more ‘populist’ than the upper classes whom they dominated: the rulers of Syracuse were said to regard the common people as an ‘unfit object of cohabitation’.

Of course, in such a wide network of so many Greeks, there were also a few innovations. Sicilian Greeks invented the after-dinner game of kottabos, or wine-flicking: they began a limited form of comic drama; they were credited with a special type of cart, forerunner of the painted festival and wedding carts in later Sicilian life and opera.8 To judge from vase paintings, women in ‘Great Greece’ may have worn more transparent clothing than women in Greece itself, although neither wore what we call underpants.

These innovations were not a new type of culture, but they were part of a confident and self-assertive one. Western Greeks increasingly amassed their own prized deeds and memories. They showed them off in old Greece, but not as Greece’s obsequious poor relations. In the eighth and seventh centuries dedications from Italy and the Greek West were already quite conspicuous at the great sanctuary of Olympia. They included weaponry, probably to thank the gods for victories won by western Greeks over their fellow Greeks or the surrounding non-Greeks. In the sixth century BC a prominent terrace at Delphi became the setting for an array of lavish ‘treasury’ buildings: five out of the ten ‘treasuries’ had been paid for by western Greeks. Westerners also proved to be great racehorse-owners and competitors on the Greek athletic circuit. It was, then, no novelty when the tyrant-rulers of Sicilian Greek cities dedicated helmets, tripods and statues at Olympia and Delphi in the 470s. They, too, were showing off their victories in games and their prowess in battle against barbarians. This same Western self-confidence greeted the mainland Greek envoys who arrived to seek help in the crisis of the Persian invasion of 480. The ruler of Syracuse demanded the command of the entire Greek force against Persia as his condition of acceptance. The Athenian envoys cited their role in Homer’s Trojan War and refused him. It was an effective retort, because at that remote time the Sicilian Greek cities had not even existed.

Seen from old Greece and the Aegean, the West was simply a convenient refuge for a ‘new start’ when all else failed. Losers in old Greece’s headlong political upheavals went west to found or take over a community. Greek refugees from the Persian conquest of Ionia took their gift for philosophy to south Italy and founded a settlement, Elea (about forty miles south of Paestum), which became famous for its subtle approach to questions of truth and knowledge. In the Bay of Naples, c. 521 BC, aristocratic refugees from Samos founded a place called ‘Just Government’ in explicit contrast to their tyranny at home (it later became the important port of Puteoli). Followers of the philosopher Pythagoras had preceded them, c. 530 BC, in south Italy, especially at Croton. Nonetheless, not every migrant was as just as the admirable Cadmus, who came to Sicily having renounced his tyranny on the island of Cos ‘out of justice’.9 In c. 514 one of the two Spartan kings, Dorieus, was ousted by his brother and arrived in the West with a small band of adventurers. First, they tried to help in an inter-city battle in south Italy; then they invaded the Carthaginian end of Sicily in the belief that they were ‘reclaiming the heritage of the hero Heracles’. Dorieus died and a few of his followers withdrew to the south coast where they founded a consolation prize, another ‘Heraclea’, on the site, however, of an existing Greek city-state.

As these Greek exiles arrived and the existing Greeks in the West remained confident, neighbouring non-Greeks were not left in peace. In c. 570 the Greek settlers at Cyrene in Libya won a spectacular victory over Libyans and Egyptians and cleared the way for a further wave of Greek settlement in north Africa. However, in c. 560 the non-Greeks then won something of their own back and thereafter, the Greeks in the West did not carry all before them. From c. 560 to c. 510 attempts at further western Greek settlements failed, on Corsica, in western Sicily and close to Phoenician settlement in northern Libya. In the West, there were few entirely empty spaces for people to fill up. Carthage, too, had grown in confidence in the centuries since her foundation from the Levant: in the late sixth century Carthage’s surviving treaty with Rome shows Carthage trying to limit Romans’ access to her coastlines. The western Greeks, therefore, remained only one ‘ethnicity’ in a wider crowd. Like others, they travelled up the west coast of Italy, but the sanctuaries outside the coastal settlements there were already being frequented by quite other visitors and traders: Phoenicians and Etruscans were prominent, and these peoples were already concerned with their own inter-relations.

For the sixth century BC was a particular age of splendour for the ruling families in Etruscan settlements. As at Tarquinia, they liked to drink from painted Greek pottery, to patronize Greek sculptors and painters and even to imitate the Greek style of hoplites and, probably, cavalrymen. But they were not passive debtors to the Greeks so much as self-aware choosers and adaptors of what they were offered. They were also aggressive. In the Bay of Naples, in the 470s, the Greek ‘tyrants’ of Syracuse had to intervene to protect the local Greek cities from a major barbarian invasion, headed by Etruscans. Soon afterwards Sicilian Greeks helped in the founding of a local ‘New City’ (called Neapolis, modern Naples). Its regular layout of streets is still visible, even in the jungle of the modern city. ‘New City’ was not so very far south of another famous site, Rome: how far, if at all, was the future ‘eternal city’ integrated into this western Greek melting pot around her?

The early history of Rome remains a vivid arena of dispute, scepticism and scholarly ingenuity. The Latin sources have obviously been elaborated, or invented, many centuries later and so modern scholars rely heavily on local archaeology. On questions of political change and ethnic variety, its evidence is often ambiguous or irrelevant. What we need to stress here is that from the eighth century BC, the age of Homer onwards, Rome was not an odd community, isolated from surrounding fashions. Archaeological finds do show that Levantine ‘Phoenicians’ and Greeks (probably Euboeans) had visited the site up the river Tiber. For the Romans were not sufficiently supplied to remain quietly inland: it has been brilliantly observed that Rome had no nearby source of that animal and human necessity, salt. Salt-fields, the only ones in west Italy, lay at the river Tiber’s mouth on the north bank. In due course a ‘salt road’ (the Via Salaria) ran down from Rome and Ostia was founded at the river-mouth, traditionally in the mid-seventh century BC, no doubt with an eye on the salt-assets.10 Up at Rome, meanwhile, the local huts were being replaced by houses; there was a public space, or ‘Forum’, which was paved; by c. 620 BC archaeologists detect an ‘urban transformation’, in which the cultural influence of Etruscans was extremely important, accompanied by migrants from Etruscan towns. Then (as strong tradition said) it was followed by the rule of a sequence of Etruscan kings, the Tarquins (traditionally, 616–509 BC).

Western Greek visitors to the Roman community in this period would have found a society which was not wholly unfamiliar. Until the late sixth century BC it was being ruled by kings, although their line was not hereditary. Clans (or gentes) and ‘tribes’ helped to organize society. There was an array of male priesthoods, although they had unusually specialized functions by Greek standards. During the sixth and early fifth centuries the social organization also changed in ways which are broadly familiar from Greek communities. The number of Rome’s tribes was increased and the army was reorganized. At the end of the sixth century kingship was overthrown (like tyrannies in the Greek world) and annual magistrates assumed the leadership of the resulting state. Within decades there was to be popular agitation over indebtedness and access to land; concessions had to be made to what Greeks would call the dēmos, or ‘people’. In the 450s there was even the publication of a body of laws (Rome’s famous Twelve Tables), just as laws were sometimes published in early Greek city-states. The Roman laws included a ban on intermarriage between the noble patricians and non-patricians (many Greek aristocrats would have applauded). They addressed the problems of debt and adoption, marriage and inheritance which were important in Greek communities too. According to these laws, badly deformed children should be rapidly killed (Spartans would have agreed), but what was unique (as Greeks later observed) was the exceptional power granted to the male head of a Roman household over all its members, including children. So long as a Roman father lived, his sons had no right to own anything: they could simply be killed by their father, the paterfamilias. This extreme power for the father was evaded in practice, but it remained an important element in later Roman respect for tradition.

In the stories which were told later about this period, Rome’s connections with the wider world were drawn even closer. The last three kings of Rome were said to have begun (in 616 BC) with a migrant, Tarquinius, from the Etruscan city of Tarquinia: his father had been an aristocrat from Greek Corinth. This Greek, Demaratus, had been ejected by the first tyranny at Corinth (c. 657) and obliged to seek a new life in Italy. The second of Rome’s Etruscan kings was the celebrated Servius Tullius (in tradition, 578–535 BC) who became remembered for a lowly origin (the son of a slave), and a special relationship with the gods; he was probably an Etruscan warrior, called Mastarna in Etruscan. It was he who introduced a fundamental reform of the tribes and connected ‘centuries’ of the Roman people to their public assembly. Servius’ reforms had a definite similarity to those of the early Greek reformers who had changed the structure of ‘tribes’ in their city-states during the sixth century BC. Even the first publication of Roman law was connected to the Greeks. Ambassadors are said in later tradition to have been sent out from Rome in the late 450s to study the laws of Greek cities, specifically those of Athens, the ‘laws of Solon’.11 Certainly, the Twelve Tables’ word for ‘punishment’ (poena) was derived from Greek (poinē); the reason was not, surely, contact with Athens, but Roman contact with some of the newer Greek communities in south Italy. It was, however, a particular Roman precision to specify that a debtor who defaulted when owing debts to several people should be divided into pieces and distributed to each of his creditors.

By c. 500 BC the Roman community numbered probably about 35,000 male citizens, and its territorial control already extended southwards as far as Terracina, on the coast about forty miles from Rome. Although its male citizenry was probably bigger than contemporary Attica’s, culturally it was still a humble place onto which a strong rejection of ‘luxury’ was only later projected by legends. But values of ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ were prominent. The reforms of Servius were admired by later Romans as a source of ‘freedom’: at the time the most urgently desired freedom was surely freedom from the monarchical rule of a king. Freedom from kings continued to be the political value of all noble Romans, long after the ending of monarchy. Roman nobles, not the people, deposed the last tyrannical ‘king’ in 510/9 Bc, at a time when aristocrats in most Greek cities had already deposed their tyrants.

What followed, however, was a decidedly popular demand for justice. In 494 BC, probably during a military levy, some of the common people (the plebs) are said to have decamped to a hill outside Rome and ‘seceded’ from their superiors at a moment when their help was needed as soldiers. One of their concerns was protection against the abuse and physical oppression of the powerful, the sort of abuse which, a hundred years earlier, had been curbed by Solon in Attica. Defence of these interests was therefore assigned to a new type of magistrate, to be known as ‘tribunes of the plebs’. On hearing of an individual’s ‘cry for help’ these sacrosanct officials could now physically interpose themselves between the aggrieved citizen and his oppressor. In later tradition, the burdens of debts and dues were also said to have been resented at this time, and demands for a distribution of land followed. In broad terms, these demands, too, would have been familiar to Greek observers. In the 450s the collection and publication of the laws met a further demand for justice, which arose as much from Rome’s ruling class as from their social inferiors. At Athens, in the 620s, the publication of the first Athenian written laws can be traced to similar social pressure.

In early Rome, then, we can detect some of the dynamic which had precipitated changes in parts of early Greece too. Of course, the Romans spoke their own ‘barbarian’ Latin, worshipped their own gods and went their own way without Greek guides. If Romans really did ever visit Athens to inspect their law-code, the Athenians certainly left no record. Rome was of no interest to them. What interests us, however, is the Athens which these Romans were supposed to have visited.

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