Ancient History & Civilisation


The travelling heroes of this book are particular Greeks at a particular phase in the ancient world who travelled with mythical stories of gods and heroes in their minds. Its story is one of exploration and foreign contact, creative misunderstanding and brilliant lateral thinking. It intersects with the great masterpieces, Homer’s epics, and the near-contemporary poetry of Hesiod on whose audience, sources and contacts it aims to throw new light. It also identifies an eighth-century way of thinking, active from Israel to Sicily, and credits it to particular Greeks, the first, but hitherto unrecognized, in a line which I also illuminate by their later heirs, the historian Herodotus or Alexander and his soldiers, constant companions of my mind.

The main ideas of this book have travelled with me too on journeys to almost all the places which it cites. While I have been thinking, travelling and writing, evidence has continued to be found on my main themes and I am glad not to have finished too soon. It was a special moment to stand on the beach beside Al Mina in the Hatay district of modern Turkey and to go into the Al Mina disco, hitherto unmentioned in scholarship, which stands not far from the site. On its inner walls runs a frieze of Egyptian, Greek and Levantine-style mythical figures but its Turkish owner, their painter, assured me that he had never seen any of the originals. He had made them all up, he said, because ‘This is the Al Mina disco. In the Al Mina disco all the stories of the world are welcome.’ This book aims to prove that they were already welcome in the proto-disco of the eighth century BC.

I have used many types of evidence and I owe a special debt to experts in particular fields. I am not an archaeologist but I am at least aware of the skill of those who are and their knowledge of a find’s exact context. So much is best understood by those who excavate it and I am particularly grateful to the many who have shared their doubts and knowledge with me. I have learned much from Irene Lemos who kept me supplied with publications for many years and kindly discussed her continuing excavations at Lefkandi and invited me to visit them. She and her team exemplify the skill in the field which I had previously seen applied by their predecessor, Mervyn Popham. On Cyprus I was helped by the local knowledge of Joan B. Connelly who also put me on the track of an important item in Chapter 14. Nicola Schreiber guided my early moves through complex excavations in the Levant and has exemplified a grasp of detailed context and material in her cardinal study of Cypro–Phoenician pottery. Jan Paul Crielaard widened many horizons, both in print and in person, with a range of otherwise elusive references. Above all I was made undeservedly welcome at Eretria and shown and taught so much by the Swiss School there. Claude Léderrey transformed my faltering grasp of the shapes, styles and problems of Euboean pottery and Sylvian Fachard took me on a site-finding expedition, in my view an unusually effective one, while sharing his own exceptional knowledge of Euboea and historical study. In the north I was initially helped by the late Julia Vokotopoulou and on the crucial question of prehistoric animals by the prompt generosity of Evangelia Tsoukala in Thessaloniki, a major contributor to my knowledge in Chapter 18. Like all who write on the period I owe an immeasurable debt to the years of work in the field by Giorgio Buchner and David Ridgway on Ischia, to the many Lefkandi teams, to those who have now excavated at Oropos and to the initial work on the cemeteries at Torone completed by J. K. Papadopoulos. On Cyprus, Vassos Karageorghis and in ancient Unqi my New College forerunner Leonard Woolley are true Titans whose work underlies my sense of the subject. Across the Mediterranean and the entire period, so many objects have been interpreted and classified by two other Titans, Nicolas Coldstream and Sir John Boardman. Like everyone I owe so much to their clear judgement and I am most grateful to the latter for reading parts of my text and at once seeing weaknesses and errors.

I cite Assyrian sources and even Luwian ones but I cannot begin to read either language. I am most grateful to Stephanie Dalley for random help over many years and to the late Jeremy Black for characteristic insights and corrections, especially in Chapter 14. I owe much to a chance meeting with Ian Rutherford, a fellow library-user, whose own grasp of Hittite and related scholarship has been crucial at several points. The late O. R. Gurney gave sceptical help for many years, finally driving miles into Oxford in his advancing eighties in order to confirm that he could actually substantiate one of my most elusive ideas. H. C. Melchert gave prompt and penetrating answers on philological questions in Chapter 13. I was similarly helped by J. D. Hawkins, whose superb Corpus of Hieroglyphic Luwian Inscriptions is the supreme scholarly monument in my horizons. I have written of the ‘Near East’ or ‘east’ as a convenience to readers, not as a comment on the nature of these very varied societies.

In my own home pastures of Greek, Latin and Oxford, I gained from work kindly lent me by Nicholas Richardson and from Jane Lightfoot’s masterly grasp of evidence. I have been kept up to the mark by Robert Parker, Denis Feeney, Peter Wilson, John Ma, Peter Thonemann, Angelos Chaniotis and Bryan Hainsworth. Maria Stamatopoulou has been an invaluable bridge to archaeology in northern Greece and, as ever, kind. I have gained so much from the writings of Walter Burkert, who also sent me important offprints. Above all I am indebted to M. L. West, whose brilliant commentary on Hesiod’s Theogony inspired me to begin and whose East Face of Helicon is an unsurpassable work of comparison between texts which he, not I, knows in their original languages. I began simply by thinking that his literary work might gain from a fusion with John Boardman’s Euboean theories. He has thought of so much else meanwhile.

Nonetheless I have retained this idea and pursued it with many other companions across the world, especially my son Henry in western Asia, my daughter Martha who uniquely had the nerve to drag me to the top of the Jebel Aqra and charm its Turkish soldiers, and Lord Michael Pratt who drove me, without killing us, through many sites and landscapes in the Colline Metallifere where, happily, his wife Janet was able to house us so well. Several sides of my life coincided on Ischia in the fine garden of Lady Walton at nightfall, so close to the Pithecussans’ settlement and audibly above one of my main subjects. Lord Charles Fitzroy and Jane Rae, Caroline Badger and Aurélia Abate are among those who have caused me to stand on cardinal sites along the trail, clearer to me than to them. William Poole found books not in any British library, no less of a gain.

There would be nothing to read without the skill of pupils who typed it, above all Robert Colborn whose accuracy and grasp of the subject have made it all possible. I am also grateful to Jane Goodenough, Jane Anderson and especially Christopher Walton for their expert typing of the notes and to the generous help of Gene Ludwig. Claudia Wagner has been a patient and brilliant tracker of the illustrations which I most wanted and Alison Wilkins’ expertise made the maps a reality. The title and the jacket are the publisher’s choice. I am especially grateful to the firm editing and criticisms of Stuart Proffitt and Charles Elliott, masters of the art. Elizabeth Stratford has been the most acute and helpful copy-editor. Phillip Birch, in turn, gave a close editorial reading of the first chapters and made a crucial observation on them. As ever Jonathan Keates has been my literary support, this time reading the entire text. For some while it has occupied a seat or two in the Library of New College whose Librarian, Naomi van Loo, has been very kind to it and whose former Fellow Librarian, Tony Nuttall, remains a constant presence to me even in absence.

I began this study while teaching early Greek history and literature and learning Arabic as a lecturer, then Fellow, at Worcester College, Oxford. It seemed appropriate that I was making a daily journey between Asia and the world of Homer. The first person to read any of it was Martin Frederiksen, whose judgement and exceptional ability to bring texts and archaeology together left a permanent mark on me and the many whom we taught. One of the first outings for a bit of it was a lecture in Oxford to an audience which included many of the older gods. Some of them, fortunately, could not hear it. Absentees asked for the text, which did not exist, so that they could improve or, rather, dominate it. One hearer merely commented on the movements of my left hand. Another, however, asked a delicately phrased question, as if I understood it, and put the core of the book on a new track. At the time I hardly knew George Forrest but for the next twenty years in New College he taught me so much about Greek history, not least by posing clear, new questions round which evidence then clustered in unforeseen ways. I hope this book is not untrue to what he, too, loved.

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