Ancient History & Civilisation


Back on Euboea

The trail has been long, but from north Syria to the Bay of Naples we have followed the tracks of travelling objects which locate the movements of Euboean travelling heroes across the sea. In Homer’s epics, however, we meet the Euboeans only once, in the Catalogue of the Greek ships in his Iliad’s second book. Seven places are mentioned on the island, homes of the swift warrior-Abantes, who ‘breathe might’, carry ashen spears and wear their hair long on the backs of their heads. Their leader is Elephenor, who brings ‘forty black ships’ to the Trojan War.1 Homer’s Catalogue probably draws on information which is much older than the rest of his Iliad, but in the eighth century Euboeans on the central Lelantine plain were still known as ‘Abantes’, men from Chalcis and Eretria. They were still keen warriors, although unlike Homer’s heroes they rode into battle. They were more than able to manage ‘dark ships’.

It is we, not Homer, who track Euboeans up to the Chalcidic peninsula in northern Greece, across to Chios and Cyprus and off to their settlement by the mouth of the Orontes river. It is we, too, who track them by their travelling objects to Corcyra, the west coast of Italy and to Ischia and Cumae by the Bay of Naples. The ancient Greeks themselves forgot most of this wide horizon in the Euboean eighth-century past. In the late fifth century BC when the great Athenian historian Thucydides wrote a brief outline of earlier Greek history, the first phase of this Euboean venture was one of several modern rediscoveries he omitted.

In Greek topographic texts, the Euboean settlement of Ischia and Cumae was explicitly recorded later and therefore available to be believed or contested by Thucydides’ modern followers. Fifty years ago, however, a Euboean presence on tenth- to eighth-century Cyprus, in the Levant or at Al Mina, had only just begun to be suspected from a new identification of the pottery which we now know to be theirs. On Euboea, the significance of Lefkandi and its tenth-century contacts was wholly unknown. Even thirty years ago Euboeans’ presence and settlements in the north of the Chalcidic peninsula were widely considered to be no earlier than the seventh century BC. Almost none of their objects in the Near East between c. 980 and c. 780 had been discovered.

As their trail began to become clearer, the first archaeologists to see it considered that Euboeans were the early to mid-eighth century’s ‘masters of the trade between the East Mediterranean and central Italy’.2 From north Syria they brought back objects and skills which changed the range of archaic Greek arts and crafts; to Etruscan Italy they brought literacy and luxury-objects which changed Etruscan upper-class culture and introduced a literate and ‘Orientalizing’ age. This dominant role then began to be questioned from several sides, by Near Eastern archaeologists who were wary of such a prominence for Greek ‘pioneers’, by Italian archaeologists who emphasized the importance of existing western non-Greek networks and by scholars who simply feared that Euboean pottery was being taken uncritically to prove Euboeans’ presence. Others even saw a western colonialist mirage in such an emphasis on Greek pioneers who had supposedly settled ‘colonies’ in the east and west, transformed their eastern borrowings and brought a new culture to ‘primitive’ western societies. Instead, Phoenicians were invoked as the carriers of Euboean goods eastwards, while Cypriots, Phoenicians and Etruscans were given greater emphasis in the west. Al Mina, even, was presented as a non-Greek settlement; Herodotus’ Posideion was wrongly located at the non-Greek Ras el-Bassit and the Greek and Latin texts about Euboeans on Ischia were downgraded as the supposed projection of remote sources in a later Greek age.

We have followed the tracks of Euboeans and their objects so closely because the trail of myths which they also laid will depend on their contacts with exactly located sites and landscapes. No other such trail in the eighth century is discernible to my eye, but naturally in a mobile age contacts between Greeks and the entire Asian coastline cannot be limited to this one Euboean network. The ancients remembered ties of friendship between Euboeans and Ionian Greeks in western Asia Minor (now Aegean Turkey): Chalcis was linked with the island of Samos, Eretria with Miletus on the Asian mainland, and those links were still active when a major war broke out between these two Euboean settlements in the later eighth century BC. No doubt Ionians and east Greeks were already engaged with non-Greek societies in Asia: in the ninth and eighth centuries Samian pottery existed in the lowest levels at Al Mina and the dedication of horse-harness from Unqi was dedicated in sanctuaries on Samos and at Miletus. However, these pieces of harness may simply be gifts from Euboeans, an Eretrian’s gift to a Milesian, a Chalcidian’s to a Samian, one guest-friend to another. On present evidence, these east Greeks do not match the scale of the trail which was left by Euboeans in both the east and the west. Other Greeks had contacts, but they are not nearly so prominent nor so far-flung.

In the 730s and the next two decades Euboeans who had shown the way on Ischia, Cumae and Corcyra went on to found at least six more settlements, true poleis, on the east coast of Sicily and in Italy across the straits. A ‘new Euboea’ and other settlements on and off Tunisia existed too. While kings Tiglath Pileser, Sargon and Sennacherib were terrifying Israel and Judah and the Phoenician and Syrian cities, Euboean leaders were settling city-state after city-state, untroubled by Yahweh or the gods of Assur. Out in the west, their presence had begun in the wake of Cypriot, then Phoenician predecessors in the years before Tiglath Pileser’s demands for tribute intensified pressure on the Phoenicians’ cities in the Levant. In the Near East, Euboean ventures had also begun long before Assyrian pressure was a major issue. Euboeans had sustained their own mobility for more than two centuries, passing down existing Greek networks, going east for the further lure of precious metals, going west, then further west on the tracks of Cypriots and Phoenicians. In 706 BC Greeks were founding Tarentum in Italy, the offshoot of civil strife in its homeland, Sparta: the town’s settlement was later blamed on the bad behaviour of Spartan women. In 706 BC, by contrast, King Sargon was holding his magnificent New Year celebrations in his great Dur Sarrukin and its landscaped garden. But the Euboeans in the west were not a side effect thrown off across the Mediterranean by the conquests of Sargon and his predecessors. They had flourished independently: as the inscribed cup on Ischia implies, they had also taken a love of Homeric epic with them to the west.

What emphasis should we give to contacts between Levantine visitors and such Greeks at home? On Euboea itself we have ruled out an important Phoenician presence: if there were Near Eastern craftsmen at Lefkandi, they may have been imported as slaves. Phoenicians were active elsewhere in the Aegean, but on trails which were distinct from the Euboeans’ main lines. Phoenicians settled at Thasos in the north Aegean because the island’s gold and silver mines attracted them.3 They were present on the island of Cythera, just off southern Greece, because it was a natural stopping-point for their journeys on to the west.4 We have seen how in later history the Crusaders’ ships circled carefully round from the Levant to the Cilician coast, then on to Rhodes, then Crete on their journeys west. Many centuries earlier both Rhodes and Crete were on the line of Phoenician travellers going westwards too: away from Euboea, what evidence do we have on each island for contemporary eastern contact?

On Rhodes, the first signs of foreign contact are Cypriot, with only one tomb (near Ialysos on the north-east of the island) showing direct contact with faience objects and a seal from the Levant.5 There is nothing to compare with the eastern goods in the contemporary cemeteries at Lefkandi: Rhodes in the ninth century is almost a blank to us. From the mid-eighth century onwards, however, the island’s settlements began to form and the main sanctuaries began to attract imported dedications. Between 750 and 700BC, Lindos’s fine sanctuary of Athena then received small ivories from the Near East, a north Syrian bronze figurine and some bronze north Syrian mace-heads. At Camiros, a notable series of carved ivory figurines was also on site by c. 700 BC. However, these goods had not necessarily been brought by Phoenicians. We have followed Rhodians in the later eighth century into Cilicia and also (under the hero Amphilochus’ guidance) claimed them tentatively for Posideion on the Bay of Issus. The later eighth century is exactly the time when their Rhodian compatriots were also exporting objects, and perhaps themselves too, to western Pithecussae. Most of the eastern dedications on eighth-century Rhodes could therefore be Rhodians’ own trophies, acquired overseas. At Camiros a gold-equipped burial of a warrior in this period includes a (possibly) Euboean mixing-bowl: it too may be a sign of contact with travelling Greeks.6 At Ialysos, Cypriot imports of ‘black-on-red’ flasks brought precious oils, a type of container which Rhodians rapidly copied.7 The case for Phoenician residents on the island is much more localized and is ultimately based only on Greek texts written much later. Phoenicians were located at Ialysos by a local Rhodian Greek historian, one who was writing in the early second century BC. He claimed that a group of travelling Phoenicians had once been blown by a storm to Ialysos and had founded a cult of the sea-god there in thanks. They then retained its priesthood in the families which they bred by intermarriage, Ialysos attracted other such ‘Phoenician’ stories: at least they make sense in terms of Phoenicians’ natural sea-routes towards the west.8 Archaeologically, at present, they have left even less of an eighth-century imprint on the island than Levantine imports have left across two centuries on Euboea.

On Crete, a crucial point for such routes, we have more solid evidence, some of it for actual visitors. At Kommos on the south-west coast, Phoenician pottery is found from c. 900 BC at a cult-site which was rebuilt and equipped, c. 800, with a small three-pillared Phoenician-style shrine. Phoenicians clearly worshipped here, but probably only when they put in briefly on sea-journeys to the further west.9 In the eighth century Phoenician pottery on the site dies out. Even in the ninth century the main imports into Crete are Cypriot, as on Rhodes, although a few Phoenician items appear too, most famously an inscribed bronze bowl, which ended up buried in a Greek grave at Knossos.10 Near Eastern jewellers and bronze-workers have also been proposed on the island, with varying plausibility, but only recently have we found Phoenician-style stone grave-markers. One has been detected in a tomb at Knossos where it had been reused during the later eighth century. Others appear to have marked out a small burial area in the cemetery of Eleutherna, a settlement inland in western Crete.11

Here, at least, it looks as if a Phoenician family came to reside, die and be buried. We would much like to know if they included craftsmen or traders because Eleutherna lies on a route to the island’s most important cult-site, one with by far the most prolific evidence of Near Eastern imports and artistic influences in the entire ninth- and eighth-century Aegean. High up on the peaks of Mount Ida a cave marks the site which was linked in Greek myths to the birth and infancy of the god Zeus. Excavations in the cave have produced imported ivories of varied Near Eastern origin, including what may even be pieces of a throne.12 Among the offerings and trinkets the most spectacular are decorated bronze shields with patterns or central bosses which draw on Near Eastern, especially north Syrian, models. These shields had a use in ceremonies in honour of Zeus, one which we can infer from the cult’s accompanying myths: the dancing worshippers would clash shields like the youthful attendants who had once clashed shields, so the later Greek story said, in order to drown the cries of the infant god Zeus in the cave. The Ida cave lies above the snowline for much of the winter, but nonetheless it looks out onto a wide enclosed plain which could hold a big festival crowd of spectators. The ceremonies here drew pilgrims despite the altitude and remoteness of the site: some of them brought very luxurious dedications, including silver jugs and bronze bowls. They will turn out to have had an important role for a mythical trail which reached our Euboeans, but as yet we do not know if the worshippers up at this cave also included visitors from the Near East. Myths about the god developed at the cave with the help of stories ultimately acquired by Greeks in the Levant, but its remarkable ‘Oriental’ range of offerings may be the exotic offerings of Cretan Greeks only. The rites in their Zeus’s honour required shields and music: the dedicated objects include an exceptional ‘gong’ on which a god and his attendants are shown in a style based firmly on Near Eastern originals. Even so, there are Greek details in its decoration, implying that this item was adapted from a Near Eastern object by a Greek craftsman on Crete itself.13

The objects at the Ida cave may not point to Near Eastern worshippers, but they are a reminder that strong currents of eastern influence could run in the ninth and eighth centuries independently of Euboean carriers. Cretans profited from one such current and as a result of their contacts may even be the first Greeks to have adopted the Near Eastern practice of drinking and reclining at parties on comfortable ‘sofa’-couches, the eventual practice of the rest of the male Greek world.14 Other such currents of influence may be discovered in future in the Aegean, but even so they will not dislodge the scope of the Euboean trail which we have followed across more than two centuries from the last days of Lefkandi’s ruler, buried and honoured with his huge building, to the Euboeans at Al Mina on the edge of Unqi, at Mende in northern Greece or Ischia and Cumae in Italy. This particular Euboean line and its consequences are singularly important and inter-linked.

So far I have written only of ‘Euboeans’ and credited them indiscriminately with important settlements and contacts from Tunisia to the Chalcidic north, from Syria to the Bay of Naples. Were there really enough travelling Euboeans to man all these places? On the island itself, between c. 950 and 730, we should not think of a ‘population-explosion’ or more vaguely of sudden ‘over-population’. Probably we should think of no more than a few hundred settlers at Al Mina or in the Chalcidic peninsula or even in the first settlement on Ischia, let alone in north Africa. This Euboean core then took non-Greek women and reproduced. On their home island, meanwhile, there were various settlements which we loosely class together as Euboean. They too provided settlers besides the two main sources, Chalcis and Eretria, on which archaeology at present concentrates. We have noted the importance of the other Euboean coast, which looks out onto the island of Scyros and the Aegean with an ancient Cumae nearby and access to volcanic vineyards. Settlers from here too went west and other Euboeans, no doubt, joined the expeditions, whether from Eretria’s eastern dependencies on the island or places like Histiaea on its north-west coast in good grape-growing land, or Carystos on its opposite southern extremity. There is so much more to discover on the island if modern development allows it.

Even the best-known sites on the gulf saw changes in the years of the Euboeans’ increasing presence abroad. In the later ninth century, c. 820 BC, Lefkandi was not abandoned, as previously thought, but it appears to have diminished. The obvious guess is that some of its families moved further down the coast and joined in the settlement of what emerges as the ‘new Eretria’ just to the east. Meanwhile, west up the gulf from Lefkandi, the city-state of Chalcis persisted, although only a few of its outlying graves are accessible to modern excavations. It is misguided to exalt one Euboean settlement here over the others, to credit only Eretria with the alphabet or to deny Chalcis a serious naval presence down the gulf.15 The foundation-stories of Ischia show that both sites acted together before 750 BC. Afterwards, our impression is one of growing hostility which left Chalcis and her allies dominant in the west, while Eretria settled on the Chalcidic peninsula on one prong, Chalcis on another, glowering at each other in the north. Famously, these tensions led on to the ‘Lelantine War’, fought for Euboea’s valuable Lelantine plain, its vines, its horse-pasturage and crops. Endlessly debated, the signs of this war are late eighth century, involving other warriors from distant Greek settlements, who were drawn in by contacts made by previous Euboean networks. The outright winner of the war remains uncertain, although Chalcis is perhaps the current favourite.16

The two leading Euboean states thus ended by fighting each other at home. Before their war ended (perhaps c. 705 BC), can we see effects of their trail from east to west in the archaeology of their own sites? The one place, so far, which can help us is the increasingly excavated site of new Eretria.17 Just as burials at Lefkandi have shown us the eastern contacts of the previous centuries, so Eretria in the later eighth century shows a gratifyingly clear impact of the wider Euboean trail. Western objects are not so evident, except for a notable Etruscan metal belt which was acquired on Euboea, perhaps near Eretria, by a nineteenth-century Danish visitor.18 Eastern imports and influence are much more prominent. They are visible in small seals and Oriental objects which were deposed in a sanctuary area for worship, perhaps a sanctuary of the goddess Artemis, in Eretria’s main area of settlement.19 Eastern contacts may also underlie a personal hoard of gold which resembles the bullion-hoards of metals which are found in the Levant.20Above all, eastern contacts are visible in inscriptions found on items of pottery which were offered at Eretria’s temple of Apollo. Recently published, these inscriptions extend through the eighth century BC and concentrate in its later decades: they are proof of the diffusion of the alphabet which had arisen from a Euboean’s Near Eastern contact and then spread among these Eretrians too.21 The forms of some of the inscribed letters bring us close to the first transmission of alphabetic writing from Levantine prototypes. They even include Semitic letters inscribed on a locally made pot. As they do not make sense as a Semitic word, they may be the work of a Greek who knew the Semitic script but not the Semitic language. At Eretria we also have a pair to the ‘Nestor cup’ on Ischia: it is another Rhodian cup inscribed with a similar metrical statement of ownership and some fragmentary verses, also three lines in all. It alludes to a woman in its second verse, giving us a matching ‘his’ and ‘hers’, one on Euboea, one on the Euboeans’ western outpost at Ischia.22

In the mid- to later eighth century, as the war for the Lelantine plain loomed, Eretrians had begun to erect buildings which made up a co-ordinated settlement. They had several burial grounds, one of which lay near the seashore, others in the settlement a short distance inland. Both sites contained graves with some rich grave-goods, so we cannot infer that they were socially distinct, one cemetery for the poor, the other for the rich. Eretrians also controlled the coastal plain which ran on to the east of them, including the ancient site of Amarynthos and its important temple of Artemis, a major extramural sanctuary for Eretrian worshippers.23 On their own site they had goldsmiths and potters. They also had access to the finest known painter of the age, the craftsman whose masterpiece is the big mixing-bowl which was exported out to Kourion on Cyprus and whose favourite patterns, the grazing horses, water-birds and symbolic trees, were copied by admiring lesser craftsmen. His style was exported to Scyros and Eretria’s dependent islands, to Cyprus and even to Ischia and the west: his own home is uncertain, perhaps Chalcis with clients at Eretria.24 With the help of his painted imagery we can imagine bold ‘sons of the Abantes’ on Euboea with their long hair flowing Homerically on the backs of their heads. They were armed with their famous swords and spears, and mounted on their beloved horses. They wielded one of their master-painter’s favourite symbols, the double-headed axes which they used when hunting or when felling trees for their houses, ships and funeral-pyres. Metal axes were even useful when trading, because they were acknowledged as items of pre-monetary value and exchange.25 From a funeral-pyre in the settlement of new Eretria there are newly found items which evoke such people’s wit and spirited existence. They are fragments of a big painted mixing-bowl for wine, a fine centrepiece for the table of an Eretrian party c. 760 BC.26 On one side, the rim is decorated with a picture of a stallion mounted on a mare and ready to penetrate her. The other side has the same image, but there is another image beside it of two figures, one bigger than the other, engaged, or about to engage, in a sexual act. They may even be a man and a younger boy. At parties the host’s big bowl would amuse his guests, showing horses doing it one way, while men, it seems, do it another.

These Eretrians were credited (in later texts) with control of their nearby Aegean islands, including Scyros and Andros, sites which are archaeologically part of a similar network of styles and objects in the eighth century.27 They also founded settlements in the north, especially the important site of Methone on the coast of what was to become Macedon. We can for once date a settlement there with more confidence, because a story of its origins presupposes a date for the foundation c. 733–732 BC.28 Excavation there has begun to find evidence of the first settlers, promising us invaluable glimpses of an ‘Eretria overseas’ with similar pottery, imports and perhaps even eighth-century inscriptions. Nearer home, Eretrians were also credited with the important foundation at Oropos, which lies across the gulf directly opposite their own site. Already in the mid-eighth century Oropos shows the establishment of a second settled area which would become increasingly a centre of houses and public buildings. For more than a thousand years Oropos and its territory were to be contested by its three strong neighbours, Eretria, Attica and Thebes.29

In later texts, Oropos is located in territory called ‘Graia’, a district which had been mentioned by Homer on this side of the Euboean Gulf and was to be located there too by the authoritative Aristotle.30 Our increased knowledge of eighth-century Oropos has added force to an older conjecture: it aims to answer one of the great problems of Greek ‘identity’. The Euboeans who first went west came from various Euboean sites, to judge from the diversity of the pottery which we can connect to them in Italy and elsewhere in the west. Were some of them men from Eretria’s Graia, from the site of Oropos which was growing so significantly in the later eighth century? Pottery found at Oropos resembles early Euboean pottery which was carried out to the west; Oropians were also sometimes buried in graves covered by heaps of stones similar to those which are found among the settlers’ graves on Euboean Ischia. If men from Oropos–Graia were among the early Greek visitors to Capua or Veii and even early Rome, we can better understand an age-old puzzle: why Greeks were called ‘Greeks’ in the Latin west. Such people told their first contacts in the Latin region that they were ‘Graikoi’, that is, people from Graia. They were thus called ‘Graeci’ by the people whom they met. It was not a name which Hellenes, back at home, used ethnically of themselves. The names ‘Hellenes’ and ‘Graikoi’ may then have attracted separate support in statements from two oracular Greek sites. The ‘Hellenes’ seem to have been at home initially in Thessaly and to have been endorsed as a wider ‘Hellenic’ name by Apollo’s Delphic oracle.31 The ‘Graikoi’ were later located in the north-west near Zeus’s ancient oracle at Dodona, a likely point of oracular consultation by Euboeans and ‘Graians’ on their way further west.32 Perhaps the great oracle at Dodona spoke of ‘Graikoi’, while its rival at Delphi talked of ‘Hellenes’, the name which prevailed.

‘I wish I was here, or I wish I was there…’ From Potamoi Karon to Monkey Island, such thoughts of alternative travel could flash readily in an eighth-century Euboean’s mind. The Euboean trail is a challenge to retrace, from the ‘Lefkandi era’ to the late eighth century, but having tracked it we need to pursue an uncharted dimension, the question of what these travelling heroes carried in their minds. It is the dimension which marks them out among travellers in this eighth-century world.

Lyre-player seal, showing a standing lyre player and beneath the lyre a six-pointed star and a small bird set to the side, c. 730 BC.

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