Ancient History & Civilisation


Monkey Islands


In these early Greek travels to western Italy we are close to the roots of an element which went into Homer’s Odyssey.1 Its hero lived on Ithaca, off the north-west coast of Greece, to which he gradually travelled home. Into Odysseus’ journey Homer worked his incomparable tales of travels in the lands of the Lotus–Eaters or the Cyclops where calm and abundance were so dangerous and dreadful hazards lay. Ultimately these types of story developed from tales of seaborne Greek adventurers who were known to have set off for far-distant lands, probably in the west, away from the direction of Circe, daughter of the (rising) sun. It is tempting to identify these adventurers as Euboeans, travelling west beyond Ithaca from c. 800 BC onwards, but it would be excessive to make theOdyssey itself a Euboean creation.2 Fabulous stories arose about such adventurers, but perhaps not directly from them, in a phase when Greeks were travelling into new landscapes, exchanging goods, making contacts with strangers but not as yet founding a new home of their own.

In due course Greeks did found such a place, the first western Greek settlement of this period, which sits very well with the contacts we have been following. They chose to settle on Ischia, the island out beyond the coast which rounds off the north-western reach of the Bay of Naples. At last we have literary texts which specify the first founders: they were written c. 20–10 BC but they used earlier informed Greek predecessors (above all, the scholarly Timaeus, himself a western Greek whose full text is now lost to us). Reassuringly for our trail, the most precise one names the founders as ‘Chalcidians and Eretrians’, Greeks from the best-known settlements on Euboea’s gulf.3 There is no political reason in subsequent western Greek history why these founders should have been invented and read back into the past. A settlement’s origins were anyway likely to be accurately preserved: they were one of the ‘great events’ which oral tradition tends to remember, before later writers preserve it in a text.

From finds on the Italian coast of Euboean cups, Near Eastern trinkets and Cilician ‘lyre-player’ seals in close proximity, we have already inferred that the first Greek travellers to eighth-century Campania included Euboeans who had prior contact with the source of these objects in the east. On their new settlement at Ischia, evidence of this link between east and west continues. Neither end of it is securely dated, but no modern scholar has yet wished to date the foundation at Al Mina after the first western settlement on Ischia. Probably Al Mina existed by c. 780 BC and the elusive first Posideion to the north of it on the Bay of Issus perhaps existed earlier still. Traces of the first Greek phase on Ischia are very few, but a date of c. 770–760 is the most likely, about ten years after the Greek settlement at what came to be known in north Syria as ‘Potamoi Karon’.

Why did Euboeans ever settle on Ischia, their furthest point in the west, first of all? We should think of reports coming back to Euboea with the travellers up western Italy in the previous decade. These travellers were Euboeans from various settlements on the island, seafarers who were still acting on their own initiative. So often on our map of later Greek overseas settlements a foundation abroad was to be preceded by informal Greek contacts nearby. Although the dating of each pottery item is still disputed, some, at least, of the ‘Euboean trail’ up the west coast of Italy preceded the organized decision of Chalcis and Eretria to move in on Ischia. This move was not made in order to take good farmland. The island’s soil was volcanic and rocky with very little level ground for ploughing and sowing. It was also not well watered. If the first Greeks had been looking for good farmland they would have stopped much earlier on the rich east coast of Sicily where the Sicels were no match for them.

Using later Greek terms, historians class Greeks’ foundations either as ‘trading posts’ (emporia) or fledgling ‘city-states’ (poleis). Ischia, the first in the west, has seemed to fit neither: it was not the most fertile stopping-point for a proper polis, and yet it seems a cumbersome venture if all the Euboeans wished to do was trade: some of them were trading locally already.4 Perhaps it seems perplexing because it was chosen for one purpose, but turned out to suit another too. Initially Ischia was perhaps intended to be a first stop, a vantage-point for taking in a wider plan. It was not seized as a port of trade, the sort of place which Al Mina–Potamoi Karon had become by lying on the edge of the land of Unqi and the Assyrians’ conquests. Ischia was not connected politically to a state on the mainland nor was its trade to be directed or drawn from any one point. On the mainland, Euboean visitors had already seen the exceptional fertility of Campania behind the Bay of Naples. They could settle on Ischia, indulge in their usual sea-raids and piracy, continue their contacts with Etruscans and others on the coast and then eventually move to a second, richer site there when they felt secure. This two-stage pattern is frequent in later Greek settlements on other mainlands overseas, although the second stage was probably to be slow in this case.

There were no Phoenicians on Ischia, no resident Etruscans, nobody except a local population which was living quietly on the north-east coast of the island. The first Greek settlers concentrated themselves nearby. The modern harbour of Porto d’Ischia did not yet exist on the north-east. Instead, Greeks came to the north-west and settled on the high promontory of Monte Vico, which had access by sea on either side of it. On its west side lay San Montano bay, an ‘attractive little cove’, but one which is exposed to the strong north winds and slopes gently ‘so that a sizeable vessel could get nowhere near the shore’. The beach of modern Lacco Ameno lay on the east side with its thermal sands, ‘the most radioactive in Italy’, but it too did not offer ‘anything like complete all-weather protection. The island could hardly have met the needs of warships or sizeable merchant vessels.’5 The hill, then, was not suited for a major trading post. Rather, it was a first stop on which settlers could support themselves from the land while looking out to the coastline on the north-west edge of the Bay of Naples where several of their typical cups had already been acquired by local non-Greeks.

The settlers named the island ‘Pithekoussa(i)’, a name which means ‘Monkey Island(s)’ in Greek: the plural perhaps referred to the two other islands near it which were thought to be fragments of the main one.6 Zoologists deny that apes or monkeys ever lived on Ischia or in central Italy, but the Greeks did not invent the name by mistake. They learned it, we are told, from Etruscans who already called the island by their own word for monkey.7 These informants would be Etruscans whom Euboeans met at Capua and Pontecagnano and who would know the nearby island’s nature. The Etruscan monkey-name caused the Greeks to give one in their own language. The name, as we shall see, became part of an even bigger story. Meanwhile painted traces of a monkey’s head and tail have been discerned, in a crouching ‘monkey-position’, on a broken piece of a Greek mixing-bowl, made on Pithecussae in the late eighth century BC.8 Not everyone is convinced by this questionable reading of it, but even so there is a good case that Pithecussan painters did indeed depict monkeys: their example has been seen behind the representations of monkeys which turn up later in south Etrurian arts. The island’s name also encouraged legends which confirm how Greeks understood it. In later Greek poetry (c. 200BC), Zeus is said to have mocked some of his enemies by establishing them as monkeys on Ischia.9 The name ‘Monkey Island’ was not idly bestowed, as we shall see from its use by Greeks elsewhere. Either we ascribe it to an Etruscan and Greek view of the existing non-Greek inhabitants who seemed monkey-like in their speech and demeanour, or, more simply, we disbelieve the zoologists and accept that real monkeys lived on the island.

The cemeteries and areas of settlement below Monte Vico have been excavated in the most testing conditions of soil and heat, but the first phase of the settlement is still almost totally unknown. The excavators point out that their heroic work concerns only a fraction of the entire burial ground, perhaps as little as a tenth, and that they have only found graves from c. 750 BC onwards, ten or twenty years, perhaps, after the first settlers arrived. We know far more, therefore, about some of the settlers’ children and grandchildren than about the founding fathers themselves. The early evidence for them has mostly had to be sifted from a large dump of mixed pottery fragments which were discarded from the original acropolis-hill and then rediscovered on its east flank. Sixteen fragments of early Euboean cups have been detected in it, four of which can be ascribed by their style to the first phase, c. 770–750: ‘the first fleet did not, it seems, travel without its master-potters’.10

This first settlement was surely not very big. We should imagine hundreds of male Euboeans, not thousands, but even so they must have had acknowledged leaders. No names have been preserved but they were probably led by members of Euboea’s leading families, people who were as ready as Odysseus and his crew for raiding and long-range adventures and the prospect of settling, then moving across to a new home on the fertile Italian coast. The decision to send off settlers was nothing new for them, after (probably) their Posideion near Iskenderun, Al Mina on the Orontes river and their contacts, including settlements, in northern Greece on the prongs of the Chalcidic peninsula. A settlement on Ischia was more of the same, but in a new and even more remote direction.

Neither our texts nor the earliest bits of Ischia’s pottery dump give any sign of a significant non-Greek partnership. Nonetheless, as in the east, some of the Euboean males would turn to local, non-Greek women for sex and children: Euboean women would presumably not have been sent so far at such risk and effort. Nearby Etruscans acted as informants (whence the name ‘Monkey Island’) but there is no hint, or need, of Phoenician partners too. The island was rocky and volcanic and Phoenicians had so far ignored it. They had Sardinia instead, and Elba offered them access further north to metals, especially iron.

Nonetheless the first Greek settlers succeeded, ‘prospered’, even, according to Strabo (c. 20 BC ), who was probably drawing on Timaeus (c. 300–260 BC).11 The reason, he claims, was the ‘fertility’ of the soil but also, more enigmatically, ‘gold items’. By ‘fertility’ he perhaps means, as elsewhere, a volcanic soil and the island is only truly fertile for one crop: vines, the source of its long-admired wine. The first settlers probably discovered this asset only after their arrival, but we can see why Euboeans were the ideal Greeks to exploit it. At modern Koumi on Euboea’s Aegean coast, we have emphasized the importance of ‘volcanic vineyards’ in the similar local soil. Euboeans, especially Eretrians, would know this rare asset: men from Euboean Cumae, we know, were present in the west either with the first settlers or soon afterwards. They knew exactly how to farm volcanic soil. They would also plant olives in it, a slower crop, however, to yield a return. In due course wine and olive oil were shipped over to the mainland in distinctive transport-jars (amphorae), mostly adapted from a Phoenician prototype, some of which hold as much as 14 gallons.12 But neither crop was a reason for settling on Ischia in the first place. The pattern, rather, was one of farming to support the first foundation which developed a wider scope as the soil’s potential was recognized. Beyond Monte Vico and the valley behind it, traces of a Greek presence have been found elsewhere on the island, but we should not overestimate them and magnify the settlement into a big, island-wide venture. On the south coast at Punta Chiarito, finds of an eighth-century site with Greek pottery and crop remains (including fishbones) may point to nothing more than a coastal look-out post or even (on one view) the lair of a well-established pirate, based on the hill above two convenient bays.13

The ‘gold items’ are at first sight more puzzling. There are no gold mines on Ischia and the island’s most valuable mineral is alum, rediscovered in 1465 and retained thereafter as a papal monopoly for its value in dyeing and in medicine.14 Alum is extracted from sulphuric, volcanic soil but, oddly, our ancient accounts of it never single out Ischia, although they praise the alum on Sardinia and emphasize its great value for the volcanic Lipari islands off Sicily.15 Euboeans were familiar only with extinct volcanoes: did they for once miss a great natural asset? The ‘gold items’ (in Strabo’s original text, according to five main manuscripts) can in fact be accommodated.16 Beyond the cemetery below Monte Vico the excavators have indeed found a metal-working quarter: some iron slag traceable to Elba and some tools for heating and working it were also found up on the acropolis. The iron has proved a distraction to historians.17 Euboeans did not choose to settle on Ischia so as to trade iron from Elba or to ship it, worked or unworked, back home. Euboea had plenty of sources nearer to hand. Rather, the iron was essential for the first settlers themselves, for ploughs, knives and weapons. Their metal-working district worked other metals too, not only bronze (from copper and tin) but also the silver which is conspicuous in the setting of Pithecussans’ trinkets and finger-rings. So far, the gold-working which Strabo singles out is undiscovered, but is not so implausible, despite this gap. Since the tenth century BC Euboeans had been deftly working gold into jewellery, having found supplies of it in northern Greece. In their new western settlement they could have worked it and then traded it, making an exotic gain which was therefore remembered. Gold has been found so far in only one of the settlers’ graves on Ischia, where it made up a band to be worn on the head of the dead baby boy, about nine months old.18 In general, however, the graves are the graves of lower-class settlers who would not surrender gold to their dead. It is only an accident of survival that we do not readily find Euboean goldwork of the early to mid-eighth century in the graves or settlements of grand Etruscans on the mainland. In due course we do find goldwork there which is influenced by the Pithecussans’ ‘Orientalizing’ style.

Goldwork and wine became important, but it was even more important that the settlement started to fit into a wider, changing context and to prosper from it. By c. 770 BC Phoenicians were trading with Sardinia and, according to the great historian Thucydides, were ‘all round Sicily’ on offshore islands and promontories, trading there too.19 They then concentrated on its west and north-west coast, where we can locate them archaeologically from c. 720. Above all, Phoenicians founded a settlement with a far greater future than Ischia’s: their New Town or Qart Hadasht in north Africa, which we call ‘Carthage’.

In the third century BC it is Timaeus again who dates Carthage’s foundation, fixing it to what we reckon as 814/13 BC. A splendid tale of its origins came to be told, including the flight of Elissa (Dido) from Tyre, her refuge at Kition on Cyprus, her arrival in Libya, the support of eighty Cypriot girls, all of them destined to be temple-prostitutes, and her trickery when offered only as much of the ground as an oxhide could cover: she cut a hide into strips and laid them end to end.20 In its earliest known form the story spared her a disastrous contact with the legendary, taciturn Aeneas, but she was said to have killed herself on a bonfire nonetheless, if only to escape marriage to a local north African prince.

There is truth behind this fine story. Carthage was indeed founded from Tyre in the Levant; a stop by the settlers at the other ‘New Town’ on Cyprus is very plausible and a contact with Cyprus is proved by some of the earliest pottery found at Carthage.21 The main story is a legend but its emphasis on Elissa–Dido happens to allow us to date its presumed foundation, c. 830–810 BC. Dido, we can work out, was the niece of the biblical queen Jezebel whose active life we can fix from the Scriptures to c. 870–850 BC.Timaeus’ date of 814/13 is too precise: perhaps it was given so as to make Carthage eighty years older than its supreme Greek rival Syracuse in Sicily, which was founded in 733 BC; Carthage, therefore, could be presented as grandfather to this Greek upstart which was born two generations later. Even so, the dating is broadly consistent with the date implied in the Dido-legend: Timaeus may have based his date on discussions with a Greek-speaking Carthaginian.22

Renewed excavations at Carthage have increased our evidence: bones of animals killed on the site have now been dated tentatively to c. 800 BC but the earliest datable imports are still no earlier than c. 770–760.23 Tantalizingly, they are bits of a Euboean-style cup. The earliest piece came from a tomb in one of the burial grounds (the ‘Juno’ necropolis), but others have been found more recently in the settlement below the main Byrsa hill.24 From c. 750 seven more such pieces are known, with another twenty which are attributed to Pithecussae itself. Back on Pithecussae, seventeen of the published graves (out of 501 in this period) contain items which are traceable back to Carthage.25

These finds are proportionally very small and might be explained by Phoenician settlers at Carthage who came up to visit Ischia and its nearby Greek settlements and took some Greek objects home. There is, however, textual evidence which brings Euboeans (other than potters) to north Africa. It lies in a Greek description of the coastline which was composed for sailors c. 350 BC but which used earlier sources, among them the important Circuit of the Earth written by the great geographer Hecataeus of Miletus (c.500BC).26 This text takes us along the north African coast from Utica, another early Phoenician settlement, probably founded even earlier than Carthage, from which it was a day’s sea-journey. The text then specifies ‘Horse’s Point’ (Hippou Akra) in what is now Tunisia. Behind it lay a lake with settlements all around it which the text appears to locate inland. As transmitted to us, its Greek is clearly confused: some or all of these sites must be on the coast or else ‘opposite’ it in the sense of islands offshore. Their names could hardly be more remarkable: ‘Pithekoussai’, ‘Naxos-towns’ (Naxos was founded on east Sicily by Greeks, mainly Euboeans, in 734 BC) and, above all, an island ‘Euboea’. Their siting has recently been clarified. ‘Horse’s Point’ is the cape looking onto the Mediterranean, just north of Bizerta in Tunisia; the lake is the fertile Lake Ichkeul–Bizerta behind it, perhaps with ‘Naxos’ beside it. The ‘Pithekoussai’ islands are best placed on the Cani islands offshore from Bizerta. As for ‘Euboea’, the great historian and topographer Stephané Gsell wished to place it about 80 miles west of Bizerta at modern Tabarka. He observed, correctly, that the modern promontory there had once been a small island. It would not, however, have been much of a place, whereas the home island of Euboea was so big. ‘New Euboea’ fits better as the modern lie de la Galite, out to sea about 15 miles off Bizerta.27 We learn, perhaps through Hecataeus, of a ‘Bay of Monkeys’ in this region too. It fits very well on the coast opposite the lie de la Galite, in the modern Gulf of Stora, off which there is still an ‘Hot des Singes’. Monkeys proliferated on the Tunisian coast: in 307 BC the Greek general Eumachus marched further inland and found three local ‘Pithekoussai’ which show vividly what the Greek name could mean. Monkeys lived in the residents’ houses; the killing of a monkey was punished with death; children were named after monkeys, receiving ‘pithecophoric’ names, therefore, like the ‘theophoric’ names which Greeks gave to children after the names of their gods (theoi).28

This ‘Euboean aura’ in Tunisia lay only two days distant from Carthage and it centred on the next major promontory into the Mediterranean. The Greeks here were not naming existing African settlements in which they themselves played little or no part. The local monkeys suggested the name ‘Pithekoussai’ to them but ‘Euboea’ and ‘Naxos’ were proud Greek names and were given to new homes modelled on their counterparts on Greek Sicily.29 To an approaching Euboean adventurer the cape at Bizerta would indeed look like a friendly horse’s-head: there were monkey islands galore and there was an island big enough to be named Euboea. These names existed before 500 BC when Hecataeus wrote: surely they go back into the eighth century when Naxos was young and Euboeans were the main Greek visitors to Sicily, Italy and the West. Like the Euboean pottery in the earliest known levels of Carthage, they point to a direct Euboean presence in north Africa. There is no archaeology as yet to support them, but so far there have been no excavations on the right sites. The evidence is literary, but still strong. It implies that Euboeans had come south from Italy and across from Sicily and founded second homes among the monkeys, the lakes and the fishing of this ancient Libyan (Tunisian) coast.

When did this neglected Euboean network begin? It might even precede Pithecussae off Naples. Euboeans may have come even earlier to north Africa, following Phoenicians who were settled at Auza (by c. 850 BC), Utica and Carthage. From there they may have joined the route west to Huelva in Spain where Euboean plates and cups arrived by c. 800. The north African venture would then have developed, beginning with a local Pithecussae and spreading to a Naxos which followed the Euboean one in Sicily (734 BC). If the north African ‘Monkey Islands’ came first, it was from their example, perhaps, that a (second) ‘Monkey Island’, scarce in monkeys, was named at Ischia. The Euboeans’ early African venture may also help to answer the Homeric puzzle. When Menelaus talks in the Odyssey about the abundant sheep and lambs which he had met in wondrous ‘Libya’, we can perhaps trace Homer’s knowledge to early Greek reports about the coastline we now call Tunisia. It is not a sign of the Odyssey’s late date, as if it depended on the later Greek settlements in modern Libya, away to the east near Cyrene c. 630 BC. It may have been based on the tales of Greeks who had travelled to north Africa, going beyond Carthage and living among ‘dark-skinned, woolly-haired’ people like Homer’s Eurybates. The travellers were Euboean Greeks, active in the mid- to later eighth century BC.30

The first Euboeans on Ischia’s ‘Monkey Island’ had not known that such networks would develop. Nonetheless, they are symptomatic of others which helped the first western outpost to flourish. By c. 750 BC Phoenicians were settling at Sulcis just off the coast of south-west Sardinia. Nowadays the site of their settlement is joined to Sardinia’s mainland by a narrow isthmus, but in c. 750 it was still detached as an island. Rapidly, Phoenicians expanded onto the Sardinian mainland opposite and settled in an arc from San Giorgio near the sea to Monte Sirai inland. Existing Sardinian settlements here did not deter them from taking land for themselves.31 On our present datable evidence, this offshore settlement was followed by another in western Sicily, the flat little island of Motya, which lies just off the town of Marsala and the important local salt flats.32 Both settlements, however, were later than the Euboeans’ Ischia. If the Phoenicians needed a local western example for their new offshore ventures, they had one in their midst: it was a Greek example, the Euboeans’ ‘Monkey Island’. Certainly, the two peoples continued to make contact. At Sulcis, Euboean pottery appears from c. 725 onwards, while a little Phoenician pottery (some of which is Carthaginian) appears on Ischia too. The settlers in these two spheres interrelated. It was from such contacts that Euboean pottery continued to go west to reach sites in the Phoenician zone in southern Spain. It existed in the late eighth century at Toscanos near Malaga, where its style and shapes were then imitated, the sign of an important Euboean impact.33

In the years from c. 770 to 730 Ischia became a sustainable settlement whose Greeks planted and traded vines and olives, practised goldwork and also gained from the various settlements which had sprung up between Tunis and Sardinia. It belongs in a remarkable ‘long lifetime’ of Euboean settlements north, east and west of Euboea itself, hard though it is for us to give their chronology a secure sequence. In the context of all this activity, another settlement was founded on the Italian coast beyond Ischia. The heights of what would come to be called Cumae were visible across the sea from Monte Vico. They were inhabited by non-Greeks, but a few Euboean cups had already ended up in graves there and clearly there had been some contact. Nonetheless no further attempt at a Greek settlement had been made. One reason for the delay may be volcanic: a layer of volcanic dust has been found in some of Cumae’s pre-Greek tombs, suggesting a local volcanic fallout.34 Another may have been continuing Euboean caution, as the site was by no means empty. A further problem is our evidence: we cannot be sure of the date of the first settlement here, either. As on Ischia, the first settlers’ graves at Cumae and their first level of habitation have not been found. In 1913 a few fragments of early Greek pottery were published from the acropolis and from some of the graves after the first Greeks’ arrivals. They suggest a date c. 730 BC, but there were probably at least ten years of earlier occupation. Unfortunately we cannot yet know: recent researches have even located pieces of earlier Greek pottery, datable c. 750–740, by the line of the city’s later wall. They have been disturbed from burials below which might be non-Greek, but alternatively they might be the first early signs that Greeks had moved in. If so, they would close some of the gap after the settlement on Ischia and support the view of that island as a planned first stop. But the question remains open.35

One fact, at least, is certain. Unlike Ischia, Cumae was on an excellent mainland site. The new arrivals found a natural acropolis-hill which stood out against the flat coastline and on either side had access to the sea, although this has nowadays silted up. The settlers appear to have been quick to make a harbour, perhaps on its south side.36 They were quick to expand across the level coastland and were soon occupying at least 2 miles of it to the north. We also know the names of the settlement’s leaders: Megasthenes of Chalcis, a Euboean, and Hippocles of Cumae, almost certainly a Euboean from that Euboean town of Cumae which lay on the island’s Aegean coast beside the volcanic vineyards.37 Their names complicate our view of the process. Were they Euboeans by birth, but living on nearby Ischia? Or were they newcomers to the west who were dispatched with volunteers from Euboea and who acquired, or encouraged, more volunteers from Ischia itself? We cannot fill in the human background: if the venture had to wait until the 730s it becomes part of yet another story, the founding of Euboean Greek settlements in east Sicily. Conditions on Euboea itself must be important to the decision, but all we can say here is that neither of Cumae’s founders came from Eretria, although Eretrians had helped to found Ischia. There are signs of the tensions which were to bring settlers from Chalcis, but not Eretria, to the wave of new settlements in Sicily in the later 730s, and which were to see the expulsion of Eretrians from their previous settlement on Corcyra.

The ‘Monkey Island’ which settlers at Cumae left behind them was not diminished. It may even have helped the islanders that the new mainland Cumae could now supply them with more grain from its big territory, although it was not for that reason that Cumae’s founders had set out. They had the men, the force and the will to found a lasting new home and they were well led. So far we have no graves on Ischia which are rich enough to be credited to the upper class. At Cumae, however, such graves are some of the first known to us, in which rich settlers, children perhaps of the founding group, have been distinctively buried and equipped. On Ischia pieces survive from some poignantly decorated big pottery mixing-bowls; they are painted with a favourite contemporary Euboean motif, horses at a manger or grazing on open land.38 On rocky islands, as Homer makes Telemachus remark, there is no scope for using fine horses. By contrast, Cumae’s flat territory is a horse-lover’s dream. There are horse-bits in the earliest known Greek graves there and Cumae’s cavalry were to be famous. One attraction in the move to the mainland, it has been aptly observed, was the scope for horse-breeding and for a good gallop.39 On Cumae’s acropolis one of the earliest finds was a big jug for pouring wine, decorated with a line of galloping horses. Their riders hold the reins high in their left hand beside the horse’s arched neck and stretch their right hand out to its hindquarters, as if balancing themselves without stirrups. They are probably our earliest Greek representation of a horse-race: the curious placing of the right hand is a convention of artists only in the eighth to early seventh centuries BC.40 Cumae’s Greeks would also ride out for sport. On the wetlands near the city the local flax was to be famous, the finest in the Greek world for making woven hunting-nets.41 We should think of the Greek leaders hunting and riding in their new land, our Italy.

No Phoenician is known to have been involved in this settlement but there is no reported conflict with Phoenicians in the general neighbourhood. The two peoples went their separate ways, but not to the exclusion of one another. We can thus correct a suggestion of modern scholarship and two images made famous in English poetry. Phoenicians did not begin to found settlements of their own in the west in order to defend themselves against Greek ‘encroachment’ on their trade.42 Both peoples settled on new land there because there was gain to be had from taking it. At the sight of new Greek arrivals, Phoenicians did not behave like the ‘grave Tyrian trader’ at the end of Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘The Scholar Gypsy’. They did not sail ‘indignantly’ all day and night to a safe haven in the further west where they could trade with ‘dark Iberians’ far away ‘where the Atlantic raves’. Nor, as John Masefield imagined, were they the graceful carriers of ‘apes and peacocks’ and ‘sweet white wine’ from these distant lands. Rather, they brought metals back from the west, cargoes of silver and ‘pig-lead’, much like the ‘dirty British coaster’ with which Masefield wrongly contrasted them.

No doubt, as in Homer, there was individual sharp practice, and not all of it will have been on the Phoenicians’ side. But the authorities of the settlements allowed the two peoples to coexist, Euboeans visiting Sulcis, Phoenicians visiting Ischia. Greeks had Cumae and their Monkey Islands, and from the mid-730s a string of new settlements in east Sicily; they had even founded a new Euboea off Africa. Phoenicians, meanwhile, had Sardinia and west Sicily, Carthage and southern Spain. There was not yet a contest, one people against the other. Both wanted gains, including land, and in the eighth century BC there was more than enough in the west for them to set about getting them in peacefully separate spheres.


In 1717 Bishop Berkeley wrote to the poet Alexander Pope and described Ischia as the ‘epitome of the whole earth’ as it had every natural advantage. Even after the foundation of the new Cumae, Monkey Island continued to prosper. From the period c. 750–700 BCwe have much more material evidence, most of it from the excavated graves but some, too, from outlying finds and from deposits of charred Greek pottery, including pieces of big vessels, painted with pictures of horses. These vessels were probably burned on funeral-pyres but not transferred to the cremated individual’s resting place.

At first sight the ultimate origin of this evidence suggests that Bishop Berkeley’s phrase might as well refer to the multiplicity of the island’s settlers. There is some fine pottery in contemporary Euboean style, imported from Euboea; there are many local imitations of it; there is much in a Corinthian style, some of which may have been made in Corinthian outposts which were already in the west. Small scent- and oil-bottles become ever more numerous: Corinthian ones turn up from c. 725 BC and three separate Corinthian potters have been identified and credited with coming to work on the island.43 There are also small flasks imported from Rhodes whose style of decoration imitated Cypriot (not Phoenician) prototypes. There are even some special little Greek pots, made carefully by hand, which held special slow-poured contents, drugs probably, including (it has been argued) opium.44 There is Phoenician pottery too, including plates, some of which may have come from Carthage, others from their settlements on Sardinia. There is even a small perfume-vase shaped like an Oriental’s face, a type which derives exactly from Cilicia and its boundary with north Syria.45 There are a few pieces of east Aegean Greek origin: there are more of the ‘lyre-player’ seals whose origins we have traced to Cilicia; there are imitations of Egyptian seals shaped like scarab-beetles which were perhaps made by Rhodian Greeks; there are genuine Egyptian seals too which include a cardinal dating-point, a scarab-seal with the name of the short-lived pharaoh Baken-renef (‘Bocchoris’ to the Greeks), who ruled in the 720s BC.46 Nearer home, the Italian mainland left a clear imprint too. It is clearest in the clasps with which the settlers fixed their robes and dresses. They are big rounded clasps of metal (fibulae) of a distinctive Italian–Etruscan style. The settlers on Ischia adopted them and even produced them on the island: most of them were used by women (who also put them as offerings in their children’s graves). It is most likely that they were adopted from local women, the ‘wives’ of the early settlers.47 Back in Greece these big circular metal clasps looked remarkable and so they were sometimes dedicated to the gods in sanctuaries. There were also Etruscan users of Greek pottery. On one small Corinthian Greek wine-jug, made from local Italian clay c. 700 BC, we find the Greek inscription ‘I am Ame’s’, a female name which has been traced to Etruscan families on the mainland at nearby Pontecagnano. The script used is the Euboean alphabet.48

This diversity has suggested that Monkey Island grew into a truly international settlement. It has even been seen as a settlement abroad ‘of a particular type, one which cannot be traced directly back to Greek models’. Was it more like a trading post of a Near Eastern type, perhaps, one whose ethnic structures were more mixed?49 When the nobility moved over to Cumae, did a greater social freedom take root behind them, causing people of various talents to mix in a new sort of ‘skills-centre’ and even encouraging Greek craftsmen to sign their names for the first time on pottery which they decorated?50 The first such craftsman-names in Greek are indeed all known from the west, not from the Greek homeland.

Objects found on the island are diverse, but their proportional numbers vary and their implications may be less dramatic. About a tenth of the San Montano cemetery has been excavated and we still do not know where the settlement’s ‘top people’ were buried. Of the graves so far published and reported, almost all are simply equipped, if at all, and none is rich: nearly three-quarters of them are for children and infants. The surest sign of a non-Greek’s presence is the use of a non-Greek burial rite, but the San Montano cemetery follows Greek practices in almost every case. We have no sign of the characteristic cemeteries, or tophets, of Phoenician settlements like Carthage or Sulcis or even, in part, Amathus, in which Phoenicians placed the babies and children whom, we are told, they had killed and offered to the gods. Out of the 501 published graves from eighth-century Ischia, only four have been claimed to show evidence of a non-Greek funerary rite.51 Two of these four are indeed convincingly ‘Oriental’, one of them because it shows the smashing of plates at the grave itself, a practice found in the Levant, including at some recently excavated graves at Tyre.52

In the absence of many non-Greek burials, multi-culturalists have to reason from the non-Greek grave-goods, but the implications of these items are even more uncertain. As at Lefkandi, non-Greek objects could easily end up as personal objects in Greeks’ graves. A Phoenician-style plate with a Phoenician inscription is dated c. 700 BC (perhaps from Carthage) and a much-discussed jar, reused for a child’s burial, is suggestively inscribed: it shows an Aramaic sign, a Greek mark and (possibly) a Phoenician letter which was added for its final funerary use. Many of the storage-jars on the island derive from Levantine shapes and plainly there were Levantines who visited and sometimes lived on the island. But they need not have been many (they had their own settlements on south-west Sardinia). Euboean Greek pottery exists in the Phoenicians’ burial ground at Sulcis on Sardinia, and at least one Euboean potter resided in Carthage.53 Nonetheless Sulcis and Carthage were Phoenician settlements.

Only one text (Strabo) preserves anything of the settlement’s history: after a while there was ‘civil conflict’ and some of the settlers were driven out. As elsewhere in Greek history it would probably be ‘conflict’ between the two founding-groups, Chalcidians and Eretrians.54 If the Eretrians were expelled, the quarrel fits well into a wider pattern. From the mid-730s onwards, Euboeans helped to found new settlements on the east coast of Sicily and on the island’s straits with Italy, but the new Euboean settlers here were mainly Chalcidians, never Eretrians. Eretrians had settled on Corcyra, probably by c. 750 BC, but were then driven out by Corinthians, the Chalcidians’ partners in Sicily in the late 730s: Corinthian pottery appears in quantity on Ischia, continuing after the Eretrians’ expulsion; up in north Greece, on the Chalcidic peninsula, Eretrians settled on the western prong, whereas Chalcidians settled on the central prong. At Cumae in Italy there were Chalcidians, but no Eretrians. The two Euboean towns did not get on, and the ‘conflict’ on Ischia was probably an early sign of it.

An expulsion of some of the Greek settlers was a major event, although it would never be guessed from our excavated fraction of the cemetery: no arms and weapons have been found in its lower-class graves. The settlers, however, had not settled down cosily into being Pithecussans. One group took control and maintained it so as to keep the others out. This sort of conflict becomes familiar in Greek settlements later, in places with Greek institutions. If it happened at Pithecussae, it happened because there were dominant Greeks there who could force it through in a settlement which was run by Greeks with a Greek council (no doubt), and a largely Greek population.

The cemetery, our main evidence, also shows that social conventions were organized and funerary ‘rules’ were observed. The graves tend to group into family plots and the Greek rites vary according to age. Adults, including women, were almost always cremated; children were usually buried and babies were slipped whole, sad little skeletons, into plain pottery storage-jars, a bit of which might be knocked out to admit them. There were shared rules of death and there would also be shared rules of ordinary living.55Our later authors consider the island as Greek, run by Euboeans. In the metal-working quarter we have a weight, made to what we later know as the Euboic standard, based (we have seen) on Phoenician weights in the east. It too is a hint that Euboean rules were applied.

As yet we know nothing directly of the island’s cults and religious life, although shrines were built on the Greeks’ acropolis, at least from c. 725 BC onwards. We also need to remember the problem of languages: not many people could communicate in Greek, Phoenician and Etruscan. A Greek may have copied a Phoenician’s plate, so useful for eating, and Greeks clearly adopted their non-Greek women’s chunky metal dress-clasps: there is also a hint, as we shall see, that a Greek sailor talked to a Phoenician about the guiding stars. But there is not much of a cross-cultural legacy.56 Instead the diversity of objects in the graves makes neat sense in the light of something else, their Greeks’ contacts elsewhere.

The presence of Corinthian goods is unsurprising. Corinthians had co-operated with Euboeans previously on the routes to south Italy and occasionally some of them travelled on beyond: if the Eretrians left Ischia after the quarrel, ever more Corinthians may have come in, moving on from Corcyra (which they also seized) and being welcomed by their partners in Sicily, the Chalcidians. The objects from Cilicia, north Syria and Rhodes fit neatly too.57 It is exactly in this eastern triangle that we have traced Euboean eighth-century travellers who visited Tarsus on the Cilician plain and were followed by Rhodians who also settled by c. 700 at Soloi on the Cilician coast. Together they perhaps settled at the unexcavated Posideion across the Bay of Issus. At Pithecussae we duly find more ‘lyre-player’ seals than are yet known anywhere else: their stones and many of their designs were ultimately derived from south Cilicia. There is no surprise, either, in the presence of small Rhodian scent-bottles and Egyptianizing seals, probably of Rhodian origin. The likely content of the small scent-bottles is oil from the roses for which Rhodes was so famous. As we have suggested, the roses may have been improved by recent Rhodian contact with Cilicia’s twice-flowering forms.58 On Ischia, too, rose oil was surely being offered to the Greek dead. It is also less of a surprise that from the 720s onwards genuine Egyptian seals reach Ischia. The 720s are the decade in which, we now know, Pharaoh Baken-renef ruled in the Delta, the short-lived ‘Bocchoris’ whom Greek traditions later praised as their friend. For a brief moment, Greeks from the eastern triangle of Cyprus, Cilicia and the Levant may have had favoured access in Egypt’s Delta.

The Ischian grave-goods, therefore, cannot be understood only in terms of a local Euboean–Corinthian network and a parallel presence of some Phoenicians beside it. The most exotic goods make excellent sense in terms of our wider Greek ‘travelling heroes’ and their simultaneous presence in the east and west. They turn the apparent multi-culturalism of Pithecussae into an exact Greek connection. Euboeans and Rhodians from our eastern triangle came on west to enjoy the new opportunities by the Bay of Naples. They sold or gave away some of the typical goods which they carried with them. Not every grave which includes such goods is necessarily the grave of a Greek with eastern contacts, but some of them are. They are the graves of true Greek travelling heroes who settled on the island itself and who help to place two of the graves’ most remarkable features.

The ‘lyre-player’ seals and the Egyptian scarabs are often set in silver, a type of setting which points to the Pithecussans’ access to Etruscan silver from the mainland. Although they were often mounted locally on the island, they retained a distinctive use. They are mostly found in the graves of young children, where they are best understood as amulets to ward off evil spirits and protect the child in death. This use is known in the Levant and Egypt, and is attested for Egyptian-style scarabs at Torre Galli in south Italy, perhaps as early as c. 950–900 BC: the use had been transmitted here by visiting Cypriots and Phoenicians. Back in Greece the objects are found almost only in sanctuaries, as dedications and not as protective charms. Their use as charms on Ischia need not mean that these children and their families were non-Greek Levantines.59 The amulets were placed with their dead bodies by their parents, perhaps especially by fond mothers. With some of our Greek contingent from the eastern triangle non-Greek women may have come west: there was also the continuing influence of their non-Greek mothers and marriages in the previous generation. These amulets point to the mind-set of non-Greek women and their continuing influence on their families when ‘married’ by Euboeans or Rhodians in the eastern triangle. Such Greeks with Near Eastern contacts brought the eastern practice to Pithecussae. They also brought it to their home towns in Greece: an example of such a scarab in a child’s grave c. 700 BC is now known at Lefkandi, no less, on Euboea.60

The most famous object in Pithecussae’s cemetery also points to Greek contacts in this same area. In the 720s a young boy, aged about ten, was cremated rather than buried, the usual rite for his age group in the cemetery. In his grave with his ashes his family placed no less than four big pottery mixing-bowls for wine (the only ones known in an Ischian grave, so far), three small jugs for pouring it and a deep drinking-cup, made on Rhodes, with a Greek inscription on its upper rim. The alphabetic lettering is in the Euboean script and two of its three lines of verse are hexameters. They begin with a statement of ownership, like other inscriptions on known cups of this period: ‘I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink with’. They go on with a significant ‘but’: ‘But whoever drinks from this cup, at once the desire of fair-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.’ Endlessly discussed, these verses are best understood as playing with a witty contrast.61 In Homer’s Iliad we know of the old hero Nestor’s cup, the famous heavy cup fitted with gold in the eleventh book which befitted such a warrior. Our inscribed cup belonged to a Greek called Nestor, ‘but’ whoever drinks from this one will ‘make love, not war’. The language draws on epic hexameter phrases, but the message is light-hearted.62 We know of other early Greek cups inscribed with a warning curse: ‘Whoever takes this one will be struck blind.’ Nestor’s cup has a ‘curse’ of a different kind, the ‘curse’ of being love-struck.

This drinking-cup and the accompanying bowls have been explained as items for a Greek male drinking-party of the type known later as a symposion. They are not the first such items found in a Greek grave: at Eretria on Euboea we have others which go back toc. 875 BC and in northern Greece there are others which are even earlier, long before the symposion existed.63 By themselves these items do not prove that Greek drinking-parties already had their fully developed form, the one which separated the drinking from the earlier dinner and caused the male guests to recline on couches, not sit on chairs, while enjoying their watered wine. On Ischia the novelty, rather, lies in the inscribed verses’ wit and their erotic reference. They suit the tone of a grown-up Greeksymposion, as we know it later, where male love and sex were part of the atmosphere and where male guests enjoyed poetry and sometimes improvised verses of their own. On Ischia the cup and the mixing-bowls were put in the grave as a tribute to the young boy, before he himself could participate in such male party fun. The cup, then, had existed earlier: it has been well explained as the cup of a family-member who left it with the dead child as a token of the life which the young boy might have had.64

Above all, the verses on the cup allude knowingly to Greek heroic poetry and, for all but extreme sceptics, allude specifically to Homer’s epic the Iliad. They are ‘Europe’s first literary allusion’.65 Out here on Ischia, in a far from noble family, there were people who knew Homer. The verses are not elegantly written out: only three verses are inscribed, and already the writer’s hand starts to fail. But they were written in Euboean script on a Rhodian cup which had been made c. 740–730 BC and used for parties by adults before being put in the boy’s grave. Two other graves in the same family plot have been proposed to show ‘eastern’ influence. We can well see why. This family of Homer-lovers, the poet’s first known fans, were surely Euboeans from the eastern ‘triangle’ who had had contact with Rhodians and who then came on west to another home on Ischia. With them, from east to west, they brought a love of Homer’s Iliad.

In Ischia’s cemetery, some of the cremation-burials include a small Greek wine-jug in the grave, unburnt and therefore not brought from the funeral-pyre. These have been interpreted as jugs from which wine was poured to put out the pyre’s flames, copying the practice in Homeric heroes’ funerals.66 But these graves are very lowly affairs and the Homeric cause is not, unfortunately, convincing. The wine-jug may have been placed in the grave to satisfy the ever-thirsty dead: lower-class Ischians would hardly have modelled their last rites on an epic hero’s. Homer’s epic presence, rather, is suggested by the words on our boy’s drinking-cup, a small, but vital, insight into social life on this Greek island. Unfortunately we have no such detailed excavations at Cumae on the mainland opposite. No doubt there were more verses, more parties, more witty allusions to epic in Cumae’s grander houses.

Instead what we can document is a clear Greek cultural imprint on Etruscans in their own big settlements on the mainland. From c. 700 BC Etruscan aristocrats enter an ‘Orientalizing’ age of their own, absorbing foreign luxuries and styles which befit their own rich, noble standing. Some of this influence comes from their Phoenician visitors.67 Phoenicians brought silver and silver-gilt shallow bowls, decorated with narrative scenes whose underlying story we, probably like the Etruscans, cannot decode. These bowls were fine gifts from the Levant, accompanied by the usual ostrich-eggs, shells and (no doubt) purple textiles. In return, Etruscans gave metals, especially the prized silver of their metal-bearing hills.

Greeks also gave gifts and they too brought new items for Etruscan families. From c. 720 onwards Greek-style pottery becomes more frequent at the non-Greek sites on the Italian mainland which earlier Greek pioneers had visited. Up near Grosseto, beside the main Etruscan metal-zone, we have a remarkable tall mixing-bowl in the Greek style: it imitates the designs of the greatest contemporary painter of pottery back on Euboea and was perhaps imported directly rather than made locally.68 These items changed the appearance of an Etruscan party. Elsewhere Greek potters went to live in Etruscan company and caused their designs to be imitated locally. Everywhere in Etruscan company this Greek imprint is Euboean, radiating out from Euboean Cumae and Ischia. It is a further significant proof of the strength of the Euboean presence which we have tracked in the west.

From Euboeans, Etruscans adopted their form of the alphabetic script and learned to write. They already had wine and drinking-parties but they adopted Greek bowls, cups and jugs and transferred the Greek names for them directly into the Etruscan language.69It is still disputed whether they also took over the Greeks’ word for wine, oinos (through Etruscan contact, it became vinum in Latin, whence the Italian vino and our ‘wine’).70 They certainly took over the Greek word for olive oil.71 These items also changed the style of Etruscans’ parties. They even adopted the Greek mixing of ‘cheese and wine’: bronze cheese-graters are known in Etruscan graves, beginning with one c. 730–700 BC.72 Perhaps, too, on seeing the Euboean Greek example around them, Etruscans increased their skills in horsemanship. Etruscans already had chariots and they were quick to adopt the latest innovations from Cypriot chariot-designers.73 Before the Greeks arrived they had also been riding horses, but perhaps they had never ridden them quite as the cavalrymen of Greek Cumae rode and raced. It was from Greek craftsmen that Etruscans then learned the art of drawing and painting the horse.

Phoenicians never founded a town on the Italian mainland, but the Euboeans had founded Cumae, very close to Etruscan settlements. As on Ischia, some of their settlers will have married Etruscans, a channel through which their strong Greek cultural imprint could run.74 Naturally Etruscans adapted what they received. Most of the earliest uses of Etruscan writing, unlike Greek writing, are on women’s objects, not men’s; at Etruscan parties, even with Greek-style pottery, Etruscan women were present, contrary to the Greek all-male custom.75 The men of Euboean Chalcis, like the men of Corinth, were famous for a different art: they were said to be exceptionally keen on sex between males, as the Greek verb chalkidizein testified and later anecdotes elaborated. By the mid-fifth century BC Greeks claimed to have taught pederasty to the Persians: did male Chalcidians at Cumae enliven the sex-lives of male Etruscans and Campanians? The word katmite (meaning ‘catamite’) entered the Etruscan language from Greek, adapting the Greek ‘Ganymedes’ (Zeus’s beloved boy). The Euboeans of Chalcis even claimed that Ganymede had been abducted from their own territory.76

Even so, noble Etruscans were a match for Greeks in their midst. The most famous rich burial at Cumae, c. 720–700 BC, is that of a man who was cremated and preserved in a silver urn, protected inside two bronze ones. The burial rite matches that of a near-contemporary Euboean who was cremated and buried back in Euboea by the West Gate of Eretria.77 At Cumae this western Euboean was buried with fifty-two metal items, including eight silver items for a drinking-party, weaponry and two horse-bits, perhaps for horses who pulled his chariot. Some of the weapons, metal objects and the bronze shield in his grave are Etruscan, so much so that his identity has sometimes been read as Etruscan. However, his own funerary rite is decisive: he is a Euboean Greek. Near to his grave lies a woman’s grave, arguably for his Etruscan wife. She was found in it with traces of a magnificent silver-threaded robe.78 Here and elsewhere, Etruscan fashion made everyday Greek women and their homespun, criss-cross skirts seem as dowdy as Bavarian wives at a Hollywood gala evening.79 Spanning east and west in the eighth century, our travelling Euboean heroes had met styles and languages which their families at home had never imagined.

Alphabetic inscription on Nestor’s cup, c. 740 BC, for Ischia, beginning ‘I am the cup of Nestor, good to drink with…’

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