Ancient History & Civilisation


Hera’s Flight

Your letter found me, as you would wish, in the Iliad, to which I return with ever greater pleasure, for one is always raised up above everything earthly, just as in an air balloon, and one finds oneself truly in the intermediate zone where the gods glide to and fro.

Goethe, writing to Schiller, 12 May 1798

One measure of man’s advance from his most primitive beginnings to something we call civilization is the way in which he controls his myths, his ability to distinguish between the areas of behaviour, the extent to which he can bring more and more of his activity under the rule of reason. In that advance the Greeks have been pre-eminent.

M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (1954)


Hera’s Flight

In the fifteenth book of Homer’s Iliad, the goddess Hera flies across to Mount Olympus and the poet compares her to a particular movement of the human mind. When a man has travelled far and wide, he tells us, his mind will sometimes leap and he will think, ‘I wish I was here, or I wish I was there’, as he ‘longs for many different things’. Hera’s sideways flight is as swift as these inconsistent thoughts as she moves from the peak of one mountain to another.1

Two thousand seven hundred years later we still know from inner experience what Homer meant. We do not connect such thoughts with the speed of a passing goddess, which we imagine, rather, as the invisible speed of light. Homer’s imagination is so much more precise. When a goddess descends directly to earth he compares her descent to a vertical shower of hailstones.2 When she flies sideways he refers us inwards to those lateral fancies which express our enduring sense that life does not have to be as it is.

Two thousand seven hundred years are a very long gap between Homer and ourselves and at such a distance the psychology of his heroes has been thought by some of his modern readers to be primitive. Homer’s heroes think in their ‘hearts’, not their brains; like us, they can disown an idea or impulse, but they often disown it as if it has come from outside or from an independent source; they have no word for a decision and because they are not yet philosophers they have no word for the self. Yet, as Hera’s flight reminds us, Homer’s idea of the mind is not limited by the words which he happens to use.3 Like ours, his heroes’ inconsistent thoughts belong in one unifying mind; they decide on actions; like Hector outside the walls of Troy they sometimes know what is best, but fail to act on their knowledge. Above all, they share our human hallmark, the sense that our life could be lived elsewhere and that people once loved and lost can seem in the contrasts of the present as if they were never really so.

‘I wish I was here, or I wish I was there…’ In our age of global travel we are all potential heirs to the simile of Hera’s flight. Among writers it may seem most apt for novelists, the idealized heroes of our habits of reading. Novelists, surely, need to imagine, whereas earth-bound historians have only to collect such mundane information as survives. Yet novelists become constrained by their own creations and by the need for them to be coherent as they develop. Historians must amass and collect but they then have freedoms too. It is for them to assess the credentials of what survives, to pose questions which some of it helps to answer, and to check that there is not other evidence which tells against their answer and which cannot be explained. As they reconstruct a life, a practice or a social group, their sources control their image of it, but they also need to imagine what lies beyond their surface, the significant absences and the latent forces. When they imagine these absentees they need to think how life would have been beyond their own particular lives. ‘I wish I was here, or I wish I was there…’: these thoughts also flash in minds which have travelled far among evidence for other times and places.

Philosophers will continue to tell us that it is an illusion, that historians cannot be in two times at once or travel backwards while remaining themselves. Yet we ‘long for many different things’, to be good, perhaps, in the new age of the first Christian emperor Constantine, to be wonderfully wild with Alexander the Great, to question convention in Socrates’ Athens or to uphold it on an estate of outrageous size in late Roman north Africa, with the names and pictures of the family’s beloved horses on the villa’s mosaic flooring, a Christian saint’s shrine on the farm for the prayers of the indebted tenants and a strong sympathy with that least Christianized company of Christians, the nearby members of Augustine’s congregation.

We can only wish, simulating Hera’s flight, but after travelling far and wide among evidence for the years from Homer to Muhammad, I continue to wish to revisit the Greek world of the eighth century BC. It is not a world with famous names, who are exactly dated and known from biographies. It is not even known through histories or memoirs which were written in its period: history had not yet been invented. Its main sources are particularly hard to interpret: poetry and archaeological finds. From the latter, especially, modern scholars have described this period as a ‘Greek renaissance’, or an age of distinctive ‘structural transformation’, propelled, perhaps, by a newly increasing population, an increased use of cultivable land and a new willingness of its village-leaders to combine into city-states. One sign of these changes is even discerned in the use of organized burial grounds for the dead.4 Others detect the origins of icons of our ‘western world’, the birth of the ‘free market’ after an age of exchange based on reciprocal favours, or the unencumbered ownership of small family farms, the birthright of those ‘other Greeks’, the small farmers whom our modern histories of warriors and lawgivers tend to pass over.5

It would be intriguing to test these theories by revisiting their eighth-century reality, but my own researches would be different. I would like to verify a pattern long visible to my eye, a trail of travel and myth traced by eighth-century Greeks, which stretched across the Mediterranean and is the subject of this book. Hitherto unrecognized, it bears on other great elements of ancient life to which we still respond, aspects of landscape, songs and oracles and the unsurpassed poetry of Homer and his near-contemporaries. It also points to a way of thinking and of understanding the world which is not prominent in modern histories of this early period but which was active from Israel to the furthest points of the Greeks’ presence, at a time when philosophy did not yet exist and there was no separate sphere of ‘western thought’.

Realists in the modern world will raise immediate objections to this wish to return to the edges of what appears to be such a dark age. Life expectancy was low in the eighth century; there was extreme exploitation of the many by the very few; there were the past’s invisible companions, intense smell and pain, compounded by the absence of flushing drains and lavatories. Among Greeks there was grumbling sexism, best seen in the myth of Pandora, the origin of man’s sufferings, and ‘from Homer to the end of Greek literature there were no ordinary words with the specific meanings “husband” and “wife” ’.6 There was also an absence of small significant comforts, no sugar, no chocolate, no pianos. In the dry spines of a Greek landscape were there ever horses worth riding? Objects and painted pottery of the period show men naked, not clothed, and surely those Greeks who competed in sports and races had to do so in the nude? It is a mercy that our lives have moved on…

Such objections are not all misplaced. Excavators of two of the best-studied cemeteries in the Greek world between 1000 and 750 BC have given few grounds for optimism. At Lefkandi, on the island of Euboea, ‘the most complete burials confirmed that adults tended to die quite young…in the prime of life, say between 17 and 40 years. The young persons recovered from all three cemeteries indicate that child mortality, too, was probably high.’7 At San Montano on the island of Ischia, where Greeks settled from c.770, ‘the cemetery population was divided roughly into one-third adult and two-thirds pre-adult’, 27 per cent of whom were babies ‘often new or stillborn’.8 Studies of bones, teeth and skeletons at these and other Greek sites in this period imply a distressing proportion of damage, decay and distortion. At Pydna, up on the coast of south-east Macedon, a sample of forty buried skeletons has shown that ‘degenerative joint diseases emerge early, from 13–24, and concern both sexes…At least nine individuals in our sample were suffering from arthritic changes, mainly in the spinal column…both of the individuals over 45 years show severe arthritic changes.’9

For those who lived on there were no human rights, no challenge as yet to the domination of the many by the powerful ruling few. Without compunction, this ‘happy few’ enslaved fellow-humans, using them in households or on their farms. They might even sell tiresome dependants abroad, as the suitors in Homer’s Odyssey acknowledged when they told Odysseus’ son to pack off two troublesome beggars to ‘the Sicels’ (in our Sicily) in the west ‘in order to fetch for yourself a worthy price’; they were unaware that one of them was noble Odysseus himself, in disguise.10 Slavery, meanwhile, was only the most extreme form of gain. In Attica, the nobles also took one-sixth of the produce of other Attic landowners’ farms. In Sparta, by the late eighth century, the Spartans were taking half of the produce of the Greek neighbours whom they had conquered and made their ‘serfs’.

These obstacles will hang over my wish to revisit this era unless they are agreed on and countered at the outset, from the high mortality to the nudity in public. The one counter to an early death was a lucky draw in the lottery of life. In the eighth century such a draw was possible, although the odds against it were much higher than ours. The ‘average’ lengths of eighth-century life in some of our modern tables include all the unlucky others and obscure the peaks and valleys of an individual’s span. Prospects were longer for those who survived the acute risk of infant mortality. Individual males who passed through this hazard and escaped death in war might go on to live for more than sixty years. Aristotle noted their political prominence in early Greek communities; a council of males over sixty had political powers in Sparta; elderly Nestor exemplified wisdom in Homer’s epics. Women had to survive the further cull of giving birth, but even so there were older ones who survived: an appropriate role for them, if well born, was to be made priestesses of the gods.11 A small minority of people, therefore, beat the index of life, propelled, in the view of one recent elderly historian of the Greeks, ‘by creative activity under tension, with the rewards of achievement, honour and fame…tension of a different quality, so to speak, from the ceaseless tension of those who struggled daily for sheer survival, which exacerbated their anyway inferior physical conditions of life’.12

This ‘creative activity under tension’ was most evident in one particular class, the male nobles who dominated their communities. To be born male into a noble family was the defence against social exploitation. Noblemen, and especially noblewomen, were at risk to enslavement, but only if their community was invaded and conquered. Ties of friendship between families, hosts and guests helped to reduce the risks from noble outsiders. Within their own home communities nobles would not be enslaved by fellow-nobles.

As for the pain and the smell, they existed even in this small upper level of society: how could they be overcome? Here, we need to be cautious. Homer’s poems describe fearful wounds in battle, 148 of them, and sometimes describe the accompanying throes of death (three-quarters of the wounds are fatal).13 We cannot assume that Greeks’ threshold of pain in the eighth century BC was higher than ours because suffering was so much more widespread or because their texts’ emphasis on it is different from our own. Homer is already aware of a fact we now accept, the time lag between a serious injury and the sufferer’s sensation of pain. He does not trace it to our brains, as we do: he links it to the flow of blood from the wound, as if it is the blood’s flow which delays the pain’s onset.14 He says little about the prelude to a natural death: he does not show an awareness that it can be as painful as death from a wound. This silence is not evidence that the experience of pain in Homer’s time was different from ours: it may be evidence only about the aspects of pain which it was conventional for poets to describe. Except, perhaps, at the margins of our modern sensibility, eighth-century Greeks acknowledged what we also feel, the ‘black pain’ from wounds and body-damage. The counter to it was not a difference in their sensibility: like ours, it lay in the use of palliatives. Wounds could be bound ‘skilfully’, although we hear only twice in Homer of specific bandages (one is called the ‘sling’).15 Pain-relief in Homer’s epics is also linked to the skills of women. In Nestor’s tent, the captive slave-girl Hecamede (her name imples ‘cleverness’) offers the wounded and battle-weary wine mixed with barley and flavoured with onion and grated goat’s cheese. To us it sounds like a recipe for rapid death, but the drink was assumed to relieve pain and restore strength: cheese-graters have even been found in a few pre-Homeric Greek burials, suggesting that in real life, too, rich Greeks believed in the value of mixing ‘cheese and wine’.16

Hecamede’s onion was the least of Homer’s healing plants. They are the ancestors of so many of our own painkillers which are also derived from plants in nature. Soon after Hecamede we meet another Homeric lady, freeborn fair-haired Agamede (‘Extremely Clever’) who ‘knew all the drugs which the broad earth bore’.17 In the Odyssey, Helen mixes a drug into the wine of her menfolk when their storytelling causes them to shed tears: ‘Whoever drinks this down’, she tells them, ‘would not for the course of a day let a tear run down his cheeks, not even if his mother and father were both to die.’18 Helen’s tear-stopper came, significantly, from Egypt, a recognized source of excellent medical drugs for the Greeks. It has never been found in nature, nor has the herb ‘moly’ which the god Hermes gave to Odysseus as an antidote, a plant with a black root and a flower like milk.19 We know, however, that the poet was magnifying practices in the real world. There, too, plants were used as palliatives, including opium. Pottery, shaped like the seed-heads of the opium poppy, was being made on Cyprus c. 850–800 BC and exported to neighbouring islands, including Crete. In the eighth century BC small handmade jugs may have transported opium to Greeks who had settled off western Italy on the faraway island of Ischia.20

Drugs, not a different mental threshold, were the ancients’ resort against pain, but drugs did not palliate the smells of everyday life. In Homer’s poems the smell of the dead on a battlefield is not unduly emphasized although people surely noticed it as exceptional: the smell of the dead, a cause of diseases, was later cited as a reason why Alexander moved so quickly off the site of Gaugamela, his great victory in Asia.21 Unlike acute pain, smell is blurred by habituation and in lesser circumstances than a battlefield we would probably become used to it quite quickly. Homeric heroes are sensitive only to very bad smells, like the smell of slaughtered seals’ skins when exposed to the sun. Lesser smells were made easier to accept by the widespread use of scents and oils. In the eighth century, as in so many pre-modern eras, scents and their making and trading were not just the means of stimulating feminine luxury and male and female desire. They were a basic sweetener of everyday life, prepared from a wide range of the Mediterranean’s flora: they are known to us from the durable flasks in which these products were traded.22 People in the eighth century knew their plants so much better than most of their modern historians. Oils from madonna lilies, roses or saffron crocuses were among their defences against invisible foes.

Scents were not an uncontested feminine charm. They might be expensive, one of the extravagances, therefore, which prompted male fear, even resentment, of idle and luxurious women. In the poetry of Homer’s near-contemporary Hesiod this sexist grumbling is explicit. In one of his poems the first woman Pandora releases so many evils, the end of an all-male era in which men had lived in happy masculine company with the gods. In another poem, his Pandora is lazy and luxury-loving, the origin, he tells us, of the ‘deadly race’ of women, with whom, nonetheless, men must marry to breed heirs and to be sure of care in their old age.23 Yet this grumbling is only one aspect of contemporary Greek perceptions. In Homer there may be no ordinary word with the specific meaning ‘wife’, but there is no such word, either, in the courteous language of French. From the absence of a word nothing follows about the absence of love between wives and husbands. Sensitive readers of the Odyssey know that the relations of Penelope and Odysseus are not simply those of a man and a ‘bed-mate’ or a man returning to an object of property or casual desire.

Other brighteners of life were available besides married love. There was no sugar, admittedly, but there was honey from the many beehives which were densely spaced in parts of the Greek landscape. There were no pianos, but the sound of music was ubiquitous, the strings of the lyre, the harvest-songs, the trumpet, even, or the box-lyre. There was also the challenge, and comfort, of horses. Horses were the beloved status symbol of the age, painted on big Greek pottery vessels of ‘geometric’ style, modelled on rounded pottery boxes for libations to the dead, incised on bronze belts and cast, above all, in bronze as attachments to big cauldrons and as figurines to be dedicated in sanctuaries, the most commonly found votive objects of this era which are evidence, too, of the social class and tastes of those who offered them.24 Among high society in Greece the eighth century BC was the supreme age of the horse. Horses grazed in the pastures of horse-breeding Greek aristocrats and influenced the very names which were given to noblemen’s children. We know them as horses drawn with spindly legs and schematic arching necks, but they were horses, too, for riding, something which Homer mentions only twice.25 A fine flat-bottomed cup from Athens c. 740–720 BC shows four horses on its inner frieze, on each of whose hindquarters stands a rider holding the reins in his right hand. This spectacular act of balance showed up inside the cup as its owner drank the contents. It was not symbolic: it represented eighth-century horsemanship at the highest level. ‘As a breeder and trainer of horses the Geometric period aristocrat embodies a new kind of master of animals. The message of the…cup could not be clearer.’26

In eighth-century Greek art and life, horses were admired and widely represented: it was even said later that one of them was responsible for the invention of drawing. When an eighth-century Greek, Saurias of Samos, saw a horse standing in the sun, he was said to have drawn the outline of its shadow and produced the first sketch ever.27 What, though, about the nudity which seems to be so prominent in contemporary vase-painting and figurative objects? Would we have to walk, run and meet in the nude? Here, drawing is not a straightforward reflection of real life, and its scope changes, too, in the course of the century. Nakedness was a convention of the craftsmen and at first was employed for all figures, without distinctions of sex. By c. 750 BC, on the great pottery vessels which were made in Attica females are shown naked while mourning the dead, as never happened in everyday practice. Figurines of naked women, carved in ivory, are also known in quantity, mostly from sites in the east Mediterranean and the Levant, but they originated as stylized votive offerings to the gods.28 By c. 740 BC women on Greek painted pottery are shown clothed, as are men who ride or drive chariots. The remaining male nakedness in art is not a sign that men really hunted, fought or lamented their dead in the nude.29

Were male athletes the exceptions? Their practice is the subject of stories set in the eighth century, the age which saw a new prominence for the Olympic Games. There are several stories of the first Greek men to compete naked, the later Greek practice, at public games, but as they survive only in texts of a later era, they are not reliable evidence of earlier custom. They are best understood as the competitive inventions of later ages. When naked exercise had become conventional, it was projected back into the eighth century and ascribed to competing champions as their invention; contenders were Athenians, Spartans or even Megarians, whose champion Orsippus was said to have first run naked at the Olympics, probably in the year 724.30 However, long after 720 vase-paintings continue to show Greek athletes running in loincloths: Homeric heroes wear loincloths when they are boxing and they are never said to be racing in the nude. Orsippus’ winning streak is perhaps a fiction, alleged by Megarians (who honoured him) in order to counter Spartan claims that they were the first to compete in the nude. Modest time-travellers need only shelter behind the great authority of the historian Thucydides in the late fifth century BC. The Spartans, he tells us, were the first to exercise naked, but nudity had replaced loincloths ‘not many years ago’, even at the Olympics. His dating has not persuaded everyone, but he did not believe in athletic nudity as early as the eighth century.31

It would take luck in the Greeks’ eighth century to avoid an early male death and luck, too, to be born into the ruling noble class. Other obstacles could then be negotiated. Pain could sometimes be blunted by drugs, and scents would help to dull the smell. There was music in plenty, and a husband could certainly respond to an epic story which expressed a man’s love for his wife. There were no saddles or stirrups or horseshoes but there were horses in plenty for riding; there was no need for a man to dance, run or box in the nude. Life was hard, but not unimaginable for a twenty-first-century male. I could imagine, therefore, revisiting it in pursuit of my eighth-century trail, but as an actual visit is impossible, I will have to proceed by stages, guided by surviving evidence, first on the tracks of particular travellers, then on the tracks of particular myths which travelled with them. These travellers were Greeks, but, as our age of multi-cultural history likes to reiterate, Greeks were by no means the grandest or richest of peoples on the wide canvas of their age. As the eighth century BC seems so remote from us, I shall begin by evoking points on its wide horizon, a series of new starts and famous names which stretch from China to Cadiz. They lead to particular people with whom Greeks, too, made contact and from whom they gained a new and important impetus. As Greeks, however, they had one asset which no others had then or since. The trail of their travels and its myths runs in parallel with this great Greek asset, the epic poems of Homer, and shows them off in a new, but contrasting, light. It bears on the poems’ elusive origins but it also bears directly on an elusive Homeric sound, one which, as time passed, his readers in antiquity were unable to understand. It can still be heard in our world: by following the trail laid by Greek contemporaries, at last we shall grasp what Homer meant.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!