Ancient History & Civilisation


Just So Stories

I trust that the reader…will by now be persuaded of the general thesis that Greek poetry from Hesiod and Homer down to Pindar and Aeschylus is pervaded by influences from West Asiatic literature and religious thought and that this was not the consequence of a single focused burst of radiation but reflects an ongoing process over a broad front.

M. L. West, The East Face of Helicon (1997)

as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

William Shakespeare,
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, v. i. 7

Except the blind forces of Nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in its origin.

Sir Henry Maine, Village Communities (1875)


Homeric Horizons


We can at last understand the echoing sound of the Greek army’s feet in Homer’s Iliad as they first advance across the plain of Troy. It was not like a sound from Syria, as if Homer meant ‘Aramaeans’ by his puzzling Arimoi: Zeus was not lashing the monster Typhon in a lair under Unqi’s ground. It was not like a sound among people called Arimoi: it was like a sound ‘in Arima’, a place. The sound was not in Cilician Arima because the cave there was empty and, as pilgrims found, its underground river was ‘voiceless’. Typhon had moved elsewhere. It was a sound off the Bay of Naples, echoing on the island which Etruscans called Arim(a), their Monkey Island, which we now know as Ischia. When Homer reached for a simile to make the sound of his Greek army vivid to us, he reached far away to the western extremity of the Greeks’ settled world. The sound was thunderous and a worldwide comparison did it justice. When the Iliad’s fighting is about to begin, an Italian landscape is cited to catch the sound of it.

Despite the perplexity of many of the ancients, the sound was not lost on all of them. Gratifyingly, Virgil retained an inherited hint of the truth. In the ninth book of his Aeneid, the rampaging hero Turnus spears to death a fearsome Trojan who falls with such a crash that the earth groans and his huge shield thunders over him like a clash of rocks which causes the ‘Euboic’ shore off the Bay of Naples to clamour and sends tremors to the ‘hard bed, Inarime, laid at Zeus’s command on Typhon’. ‘Inarime’ here is Ischia–Pithecussae: the name had been used by an earlier Greek poet who had turned the old Etruscan-based name ‘Arima’ into a feminine Greek proper name Arimē and prefixed it, as in Homer’s original simile, with the Greek word ein, meaning ‘in’. Poetically, the island was given the metrical name ‘Einarime’ by a correct transposition of Homer’s elusive ‘ein Arimois’ to its site. The name then puzzled Latin-speaking authors but appealed to Virgil as a poetic title for Ischia in the forced rhetorical passage in which he tries to use a resonance of Homer to evoke his hero’s deeds of war.1

We can also appreciate an unnoticed element in the Iliad’s own momentum. Before referring us to faraway Arima, Homer has already compared the sound of the advancing Greeks to something else, the noise of birds in the ‘Asian meadow’, the ‘geese and cranes and long-necked swans’ who settle with such a clamour.2 He begins by referring us eastwards, to the meadow which is our first surviving use of the word ‘Asian’ in history or literature. After his Catalogue of the Greek ships he resumes his comparisons and now refers us westwards, to the furthest Greek settlement on an island off the coast of Italy. First east, then west, but in both there is a ‘crash’. In Arima the ground seems to thunder from chastised Typhon but in that haunting ‘Asian meadow’ the birds cause a similar din. It was best understood by the Homeric enthusiast MacLair Boraston, who heard the very ‘crash’ of Homer’s verb from birds which were alighting in India in February 1906: ‘To say the meadow “crashed” were modesty; but “crash” is the only word. It was a sound in which there were many parts, each flung down, as it were, to ring like metal and smash like glass, a sound that leaped along the nerves and seemed to touch a spring that set free impulses belonging to a time when man himself was more intimately a part of that Nature he now stands aside to contemplate. Smaragei de te leimōn.3

Does Homer’s western simile help us to date his Iliad? On Ischia, Strabo tells us, the Euboean settlers were ‘later’ driven out by ‘earthquakes and eruptions of fire, sea and hot water’. We do not know the date of this upheaval, although at Punta Chiarito we have those layers of black volcanic dust in a level of the site which archaeologists date to the ‘late eighth century BC.’ From evidence in and around the San Montano cemetery, the ‘Euboean period of Pithekoussai…is taken to end around 700 BC’.4 Is this ‘end’ the date of Strabo’s eruption and should we thus date Homer’s Iliad after 700 BC? The eruption, however, is not what Homer is describing. The ground ‘groaned’ beneath the Greeks as if under angry Zeus, ‘whenever he lashes the ground around Typhoeus’. It is an intermittent process, rather than the crash of a sudden volcanic upheaval. By Monte Vico, as elsewhere on Ischia, rumblings can still be heard from time to time beneath the earth while steam comes up through the island’s hot springs. Homer has heard reports of this ominous pre-seismic rumbling, but not of a final stupendous eruption. It is the rumble which fits the sound of the Greeks as their feet strike the ground, not the outburst of a volcano with which their tramping could not be fairly compared.

If there is a date here, it is a date before 700 BC while Typhon was still fretting but not trying to break out. He is not with his mate Miss Viper: he is alone in his bed, so ‘they say’. ‘They say’ is rarely used in Homer’s epics and sometimes, as nineteenth-century commentators realized, the phrase applies merely to ‘a thing universally admitted’, the pre-eminent power of Zeus or the fact that Olympus is the gods’ home.5 Homer also uses it elsewhere ‘of things well known, and indeed to emphasise the fact that they arewell known’, but when used for the distant Ischia the sense is more ‘men say, and they are surely right’ about a faraway land. Later in the poem, at a great moment, Achilles reminds King Priam about Niobe, ‘all tears’ for her dead children, ‘on Sipylus, where they say…’ Nowadays the supposed stone image of Niobe on Sipylus is correctly identified with a rock-cut Hittite (or pre-Hittite) monument on the mountain near modern Manisa, by the road inland towards Sardis.6 At this point too, ‘they say’ refers to hearsay, in Homer’s view to correct hearsay but not quite with the ‘authority of tradition’.7 Just as ‘they say’ heightens the faraway nature of Sipylus, so it heightens that of Arima earlier in the poem.

We shall return to the question of the date and sources of this hearsay. It is important, first, to look for the eastward horizons of Homer’s epics and then to set them beside the trail of travel and lateral thinking which we have identified for real Greeks in the eighth century, above all Euboeans. Their focal points are somewhat different.


For action in Homer’s south-east Aegean, the place to visit is a lowly hut on the south of Ithaca (our modern Ithaki), the scene, nonetheless, of two unforgettable tales of travel.8 In the Odyssey, noble Odysseus returns in humble rags, the king in disguise at the hut of his slave Eumaeus, keeper of the royal pigs. The conventions of hospitality delay their personal histories, but then at last they speak. On two successive nights the king and the pigman talk after dinner, telling stories of their previous lives.

Odysseus begins, concealing his true identity by claiming to have been born a bastard, the son of rich Castor and a slave-concubine on the island of Crete. When Castor died, so he says, his legitimate sons cast lots to divide their inheritance (the usual Greek practice) but they gave the bastard very little and only a small place in which to live. He was a strong warrior, however, and so he won a wife from a rich family. ‘Work in the fields was not to my liking, nor care of the household which brings up fine children’: instead he liked ‘oared ships and wars and polished spears and arrows’. A true Cretan captain at arms, he fought on nine lucrative campaigns and then shared the command of Cretan troops in the Trojan War. Returning to Crete, ‘I stayed only a month, taking pleasure in my children, my wife and my possessions.’ No family man, he was reclaimed by war and adventure. He raised a band of like-minded companions and after feasting and honouring the gods they all sailed south to Egypt.9

With a following wind they reached the ‘fair-flowing Aigyptos’ (our Nile Delta) ‘on the fifth day’. While the son of Castor sent out scouts, his men ‘gave way to insolence’ and started to ravage the land without orders, killing Egyptian men and carrying off their women and children. The local people heard the shouting and at dawn came out to fight, turning the Greek raiders to flight (which was caused by Zeus, Odysseus says). When many of them had been killed, the ‘son of Castor’ resorted to one last appeal. He was not responsible for his men’s misdeeds, so he took off his helmet and dropped his spear and shield: he approached the chariot of the Egyptian king and ‘took hold of his knees and kissed them’. It was a classic act of Greek supplication, or hiketeia.10

The self-abasement of the Cretan was extreme and occurred in very hostile circumstances: Homer ascribes the sudden idea of it to Zeus. The Egyptian king accepted, and restrained his hostile subjects because he respected ‘the anger of Zeus the god of strangers’. On both sides more than human calculations were involved. As the ‘son of Castor’ was both a stranger and a suppliant, he combined two related categories which Homer’s epics connect with protection from the gods. Knowing the ‘rules’ of hiketeia, the Egyptian king set him in his chariot and took him, weeping, to his home where he gave him a role of honour in his social group. The Cretan thus stayed in Egypt and received ‘many gifts’ from the Egyptians. They were not being naive or trusting foreigners too much. They gave gifts because their king had recognized his suppliant as an honoured guest.

Seven years passed and then a man from Phoenicia arrived in Egypt, a ‘deceitful grasping man who was already the cause of much harm to others’. He even deceived the son of Castor, or so deceitful Odysseus’ story pretends. He persuaded him to go back to his home in Phoenicia and after a year put the Cretan on board a ship for Libya, pretending that together they would ‘ship a cargo’ but really intending to sell the Cretan as a slave for an enormous price. The wind blew them smoothly to Crete but changed course and smashed the boat in a tempest. The son of Castor (Odysseus claims) escaped with Zeus’s help by floating on the ship’s wrecked mast for ‘nine days’ until he reached dry land. The local king took him in and even told him how he had recently entertained ‘Odysseus’, showing him the treasure of ‘bronze, gold and much-worked iron’ which the great hero would soon be bringing home. He put the Cretan on a ship, so the real Odysseus claims, which would take him towards Ithaca and again, the crew tried to enslave him. They put him, supposedly, in rags (hence the rags which Eumaeus could see on his visitor), tied him up and beached their ship for a while in Ithaca. Again the gods intervened: they undid the Cretan’s bonds, hid him on land from his captors and brought him to Eumaeus’ hut.

Odysseus’ story is an excellent instance of how a Greek tale involves the gods throughout its narrative: they are honoured before leaving Crete; they account for sudden turns of events, the running away, the risking of supplication, the onset of a storm. They free a captive from his bonds ‘easily’ and keep him safe from his persecutors, centuries before Euripides’ lines in his play The Bacchae on Dionysus’ escape from prison or the Christian Acts of the Apostles story of Peter’s similar rescue by an angel. Odysseus’ story is told with unquestioning assurance that the gods explain and enhance the adventures. The same assurance comes naturally to the next Greek teller of a military man’s tale in Asian lands some three centuries later, Xenophon the Athenian.11 From Homer to Xenophon, the pupil of Socrates, this way of telling brings us close to how Greeks understood their world. It also characterized Greeks in the eighth century BC.

On two more occasions Odysseus tells yet more lies in which he alleges that he is a Cretan, once to his protecting goddess Athena, herself in disguise, and once to one of his wife’s suitors in his own halls. Why does he choose this particular ‘origin’? ‘Wide Crete’, that long island, is a land in the Odyssey of ‘ninety cities’ and a multilingual mixture of five peoples. In the Iliad’s Catalogue, seven Cretan towns are named (Crete is now an island of ‘a hundred cities’) and, although Homer’s knowledge of names is precise, the aura of Crete is the aura of an unusual place which lies beyond the daily knowledge of people like Eumaeus on distant Ithaca.12 As in later Greek impressions of it, distant Crete is a place where warriors are strong and military adventurers proliferate, but the poet’s knowledge of it is not due to remote Bronze Age tradition, surviving from a past c. 1300 BC. It fits more readily in the ninth to eighth centuries and once, indeed, the mists clear and Homer gives us a much more focused view. Earlier in the Odysseyhe has made the elderly Nestor describe how the hero Menelaus and his Greek ships were blown by a storm to Crete on their journey home from Troy.13 They came to ‘where the Cydonians dwelt round the streams of the Iardanos river’, a point which we would place near modern Chania on the island’s north-west coast. But then they met a ‘smooth rock, going steeply down into the sea’ on the ‘borders of Gortyn on the misty deep’. The direction has changed now to the south and south-west coast of Crete: the south wind, we are told, drives the ‘great waves against a headland on the left towards Phaistos’ and a ‘small rock holds back the great waves’. There, the storm-driven ships were dashed on the reefs, but the men escaped death.

Even in late antiquity there were commentators who considered Homer’s precise topography here to be connected to ‘true history’. In 1928, Sir Arthur Evans, excavator of the Cretan palaces and connoisseur of the island, published his first-hand knowledge of the Cretan shoreline.14 Evans followed an earlier suggestion, made in 1896, and pointed out a jutting ‘headland of white rock’ exactly on the shoreline between the territories of Gortyn and Phaistos of which it is the ‘natural boundary’. It forms ‘the first real shelter for ships coming round the south-western cape of Crete in a southerly gale’. Phaistos lies only 4 miles away by land: on its ‘left’ towards Phaistos, just as Homer says, there is the island of Paxamidi, ‘shaped like a couchant Sphinx’ about 7 miles offshore and then a reef called the ‘Papadoplaka’ (the ‘Priest’s Slab’) which breaks any big wave (‘pushing it back’, in Homer’s words) before it reaches the shore. The reef has sunk down nowadays as the sea level has risen since antiquity. It was also bigger in the eighth century BCthan it is nowadays: German pilots used it for bombing practice in the 1940s.

By the shore Evans already found abundant pottery and recognized this bay as a major shelter which was used from the Minoan period (c. 1400 BC) to the later Greek centuries (c. 600 BC). Since 1976 American archaeologists have dug the area at modern Kommos and revealed buildings, pottery and sanctuaries of local, Phoenician and Greek visitors in three main phases before 600 BC.15 The reef, the Priest’s Slab, appears to have been linked to the shoreline by a sand-spit and could give shelter to ships which escaped being driven onto its rocks. The site’s later name in Greek antiquity was almost certainly Amyclaion: the name reflects a link with Amyclae, an important place in Menelaus’ Spartan homeland. If Amyclaion was the eventual ancient name of Kommos, it shows that the ancients, too, connected the site with Menelaus. Presumably, they did so after Homer and his story of Menelaus’ Cretan shipwreck.16

Homer seems to approach this shore from the south-west, although Menelaus’ ships should be coming to it from the north. There are imprecisions, but when he turns to describing the coast in the storm, the fit is generally so good that he is evidently describing this very bay.17 Either he or his immediate predecessors knew it from first-hand reports. They had heard of it from sea-travellers who were going past south-west Crete and for whom the rest of inland Crete was a dimly known place, as it is to Homer himself. This knowledge was knowledge of only a small part of the island’s shoreline and is perhaps most likely to have entered Homer’s epic tradition c. 800–730 BC. It is consistent with such a date that it came in through Greeks, not through Phoenicians, whose language and perceptions have not marked its details at all.

As for the trip to Egypt, it too is intended to be exotic, something by which Eumaeus will be ‘stirred’. Homer shows no clear knowledge of the place. Egypt (Aigyptos) is his name for the River Nile. He imagines, simply, that the people share common ground with Greeks. The local king obeys the Greek rules of a Greek ‘game’ of supplication because he fears a Greek god, Zeus the god of strangers. Nonetheless, Odysseus’ long false tale resembles a historical novel rather than a fairy-tale legend. It uses a precise framework with elements which we can connect with Homer’s own (eighth-century) range. His Phoenicians include a visitor to Egypt: in the ninth to mid-seventh centuries especially, we can trace such Phoenician visitors, both by their pottery and as the carriers of Egyptianizing goods across the Mediterranean or the shippers of wine and other cargoes by sea from their coastal cities to the Nile Delta.18 When Phoenicians founded their settlements in north Africa, including Auza (c. 880–850 BC) and Carthage (on present evidence, c. 800–760) they took cargoes between their home cities and Libya, like Homer’s mendacious Phoenician trader.19 On their route west they passed, as he did, by Crete, touching at Kommos where the American excavators have found a sanctuary which was visited by passing Phoenicians from c. 900 BC: they then constructed a small shrine there in their own style c. 800 BC, placing Egyptian figurines on it.20 On the northern side of Crete, at Knossos, archaeologists have found a bronze bowl of tenth-century origin, made by a Cypriot and inscribed by a Phoenician with words which have been read as referring to a previous dedication of the bowl to Amon, an Egyptian god. This much-travelled object ended up in a Cretan Greek’s grave with Greek pottery which dates to the ninth century BC.21 It touches on three of the points in Odysseus’ story: Crete, Phoenicia and (possibly) Egypt. So does the shrine built at Kommos c. 800 BC, whose debris suggests ‘a port of call where Cretans, central Greeks, probably other Greeks, perhaps even Phoenicians, lied to each other over wine and limpets’.22 Mendacious Odysseus would have been in his element.

A similar framework recurs twice in the poem when Odysseus is again telling lies.23 When he tries to deceive the disguised Athena, he assumes that Crete is an island which faraway Phoenicians would credibly visit too: we know that it was, from c. 900 BConwards. When he tells another lying tale to one of his wife’s suitors in his own hall, he pretends to have been a rich man, one who had fallen in with ‘roving pirates’ and accompanied them, again, to the ‘Aigyptos river’, a ‘long journey’.24 Once again Greek visitors began to kill and raid without their leader’s orders but the nearby Egyptians armed themselves and hit back. Once again the gods guided the story and once again it was Zeus who put panic into the hearts of Greek men. Many of them were killed, others were put to work as slaves, but the rich Greek was given to a ‘guest-friend’ of his captors, Dmētor (the Tamer), who ‘ruled in might over Cyprus’. A Cypriot is indeed a likely visitor, as the island’s south coast is an accessible starting point for a voyage to Egypt: ‘guest-friendship’ between a Cypriot Greek and an Egyptian is not implausible. The setting of this raid, too, is the Nile Delta and the victim a local king. Local rulers in the Nile Delta were a feature of the history of Egypt in the ninth and eighth centuries BC. As we have seen, the Greeks’ later praises of one such king, ‘Bocchoris’, imply that, somehow, a Greek had been in close contact or favour with this Egyptian ruler (a Delta king in the 720s BC). Whether Homer anticipated such a contact in his stories, or reflected this one, we cannot be sure. Elsewhere in the Odyssey, he takes us yet again to Egypt and in his mirage of the country and its culture he gives one credibly Egyptian name (‘Thon’).25 He also credits the visiting Helen with a plausible Egyptian item, a powerful drug (the drugs of Egypt were also esteemed by later Greek doctors). After these traces of reality his mirage returns. Thon’s wife has a purely Greek name and Helen, he tells us, has been given presents by women in Egypt, including a metal workbasket on a metal stand with wheels. We know from archaeology that such stands were made, not in Egypt, but in Cyprus or the Levant from where they were sometimes brought across to Greeks, including Euboeans in tenth-century Lefkandi.26

Such contacts as there are between Odysseus’ plausible stories and our archaeology are best placed in the ninth and eighth centuries BC: a Phoenician trading a cargo to Libya earlier than c. 880 would somewhat surprise us. Naturally this framework does not date the poet himself. At any time between c. 880 and c. 620 BC he could have composed these plausible fictions by using Greek hearsay from his own or a recent generation: local rulers in the Nile Delta could have remained an item in Greek travellers’ memoirs even after the change to a single major dynasty in Egypt c. 665 BC. But on one point Homer is particularly true to our eighth-century evidence. Twice, his Greek visitors to Egypt start killing and seizing slaves after arriving by sea. In the Levant, from Tyre to Cilicia, eight-century Ionian Greeks, we have seen, were doing exactly this. ‘The Ionians have arrived,’ as the Assyrian man on the spot wrote in c. 730; they were already a familiar hazard. What afflicted the Levant in the mid-eighth century afflicts Egypt in Homer’s fiction. A mid-eighth-century base for it is the most attractive guess.

The most important gain here, even for historians, is a sense of the subtlety of Homer’s art. In recent Greek rural societies, lying has sometimes seemed an acceptable form of self-assertion: the context in which Odysseus lies is somewhat different to our own.27It is also brilliantly constructed. In Eumaeus’ hut, Odysseus the master tells lies, whereas Eumaeus, the slave, follows on by telling a true story. Odysseus’ lies include travels to Crete, the Levant and Egypt which are plausible in the real eighth-century world. Eumaeus believes these lies, not because he is awed by the military prowess and man-slaying feats of his informant, but because of a typical Homeric movement of the heart and soul: ‘Indeed, you stirred my spirit deeply, telling each of your sufferings and your wanderings.’ Humble Eumaeus is touched and believes all the lies, except for the one truth which Odysseus tells, that Odysseus is nearby and will soon come home.

There may even be more of a game between the poet and his audience. The nucleus of the story told by the ‘son of Castor’ is a journey from Crete to Ithaca. It claims knowledge that the real Odysseus has returned to Ithaca’s nearby land of Thesprotia. Is Homer playing here with previous stories of Odysseus’ return home, but giving them to his own Odysseus as part of a lying story?28 This analysis has always had its attractions: if so, an older, simpler tale of Odysseus’ return has been sidelined by Homer into a false story, whereas his new story of the hero’s return has been enhanced with stories from a fantasy world. These fantastic stories are the ones which Odysseus tells to the idyllic Phaeacians, a mythical audience. They hear the great tales of his adventures with the Cyclops, the Lotus–Eaters, the Sirens and many more, all of which they believed, although the tales are impossible, set outside the real world. Eumaeus, by contrast, believes a false story which is a mixture of eighth-century plausibility and the older story of Odysseus’ route home. In games of truth and falsehood Homer was already a master-player.


On the following evening it is Eumaeus the pigman’s turn to tell his story. ‘Let the two of us drink and feast in this hut and take pleasure in each other’s bitter troubles while we remember them: after the event a man finds pleasure in his troubles if he has suffered much and wandered far…’ Eumaeus, so wise, warns that it will be a long sleepless night.29

He was born, he explains, on a wondrous isle called Syrie where nobody suffered in old age but the god Apollo would send them all to a gentle death. This island of blessed euthanasia had two cities, over which his father, ‘like the immortal gods’, ruled as king. When princely Eumaeus was a little boy, seafaring Phoenicians arrived, ‘grasping men’ once more, whose dark ship brought ‘countless trinkets’. In his father’s house worked a ‘fine, big Phoenician slave-girl, skilled at glorious handiwork’, who looked after the young Eumaeus, but one day one of the Phoenicians had sex with her by the hollow ship when she had gone out to wash the clothes: ‘Making love’, Eumaeus wisely observes, ‘leads astray the minds of young women even if they are good workers.’ The slave-girl explained after the act that she too was Phoenician by origin, the daughter of noble Arybas of Sidon, a man who was ‘overpoweringly rich’. In her youth she had been captured by raiders, ‘Taphians’, who had seized her and sold her away from her Phoenician family. Her Phoenician seducer promised to take her home, and so she made his colleagues swear an oath and agree to a secret plan. She would bring a reward for her transport, ‘as much gold as comes to hand’, and something else too, ‘the son of my noble master whom I tend, such an artful one (kerdaleos toios) who runs with me whenever I go out’. This little boy was Eumaeus.

For a whole year the Phoenician visitors exchanged the goods from their ship and then, on their final visit, they sent one of their company to the palace with a necklace of gold strung with beads of amber. The queen and her slave-maids handled and admired it: Homer’s image is a fine one, a mistress and her slaves united in feminine wonder at a piece of jewellery. Meanwhile the Phoenician nurse slipped away. She took several gold cups from the table where the king and his councillors had been feasting. She also took the trusting young Eumaeus, who was at her side. They put to sea on the Phoenicians’ ship but on the seventh day the nurse died and was thrown overboard to the ‘seals and fishes’. Storm-winds then blew the ship away to Ithaca where the distressed young Eumaeus was sold for a fine price. But he was bought by Odysseus’ father, a master who showed a neglected Homeric virtue, ‘kindliness’.30

Homer never describes a character who changes from good to bad: the Phoenician nurse is a slave who misbehaves only for temporary reasons, first sex, then an offer of transport back to her home and freedom. Unlike Odysseus’ story, Eumaeus’ story does not involve the gods in its main events: they intervene only when bringing his nurse to her death and sending the storm-winds at sea. But once again the people in this story live at risk from raiders, although this time they are Phoenicians, not Greeks.

Eumaeus’ home, Syrie, is an idyllic island which neither we nor Homer can place in the real world. Nonetheless Phoenician traders came to visit it bringing trinkets in their dark ships, just like the Phoenician jewellery or the ostrich-eggs, the rare shells and metal bowls which we find in cemeteries on a few of the Greek Aegean islands and ascribe to skilled Phoenician craftsmen and the transporters of their objects, whether Phoenicians or not. We even have amber-like beads for necklaces from sites on Crete or in the Levant. They are just the goods for Phoenicians to bring, for reasons which even Homer and his tradition probably did not know. Real amber, from the northern Baltic, had reached a few Greek sites in the distant Mycenaean age, but there was also ‘false’ amber, traceable to a ‘Lebanese fossilized resin’: examples of it survive from the ninth to seventh centuries at Phoenician sites within easy reach of Sidon, the home of Homer’s Phoenicians:31 it derived from particular trees, the liquidam-bars in the Levant. Other trinkets of Levantine origin had also been reaching Greek sites from the tenth century BC onwards and, as we have seen, are best known to us at places on Crete and coastal Euboea. Homer’s image of Phoenician visitors fits comfortably with this evidence, which expands in the ninth and eighth centuries BC and implies that real Phoenicians’ routes ran up to the north Aegean or out further west.

In the same words as Eumaeus earlier, Odysseus admits to being deeply moved. This time there are no lies and there is a socially significant truth: loyal Eumaeus, a slave by necessity, turns out to be nobly born after all, a king’s son. As for his home, Syrie is in faraway neverland, but the travels in the story have a connection with realities. As always, Homer’s only named Phoenician city is Sidon, ‘rich in bronze’, but not because Sidon is a distant echo of the reality of the long-lost Mycenaean age.32 Rather, Sidon’s importance in the ninth and eighth centuries BC is underestimated in our modern histories, which centre on Tyre instead.33 Not until 677 BC was Sidon sacked by the Assyrians. Again, it is easier (but not obligatory) to place Homer’s focus on this rich and famous city before it had been sacked in the real world.

The Iliad and Odyssey amplify these themes elsewhere. To Sidon (not Tyre) go Menelaus when returning from Troy and Paris when eloping with fair-haired Helen; Sidon is always a rich place for Homer, a source of superb textiles (brought to Troy by Paris) or silver and silver-gilt bowls adorned with gold. In the Greek world we find such Phoenician bowls in graves and sanctuaries, bronze bowls for the most part but decorated with well-worked figures: silver bowls are known too, in Cyprus or in the further ‘Italian’ west.34 Like Sidon, Egypt too is a land of great riches. Thebes, a city, is full of treasures, a few of which were given to the visiting Helen and Menelaus. ‘Thebes’ is a Greek name for the place, but it was probably based on a word heard in Egypt itself: it was quite rich enough in the ninth or eighth centuries BC for rumours about this ancient centre to have reached a Greek visitor to the Delta at that time.35 However, beyond these generalized riches and these bowls of magnified splendour, Homer gives no impression of these cultures’ profound difference from the Greeks’ own. His Egyptian kings behave like noble Greeks and one has a Greek name: so do all their wives. His Phoenician kings have Greek names only (Arybas or ‘Phaidimos’, Mr Bright). They give gifts to noble visitors, as do Homer’s well-behaved Greek heroes.

In the tenth to eighth centuries there were Greeks in the real world who knew so much more about such peoples and a further ‘triangle’ on the eastern map. They were Euboeans from Chalcis and Lefkandi, then Chalcis and Eretria who went with their cargoes to kingdoms on Cyprus which Homer omits, Amathus or Salamis or Kourion, founded after the heroic Bronze Age. They also went to Cilicia, the kingdom of Mopsus–Muksas, to north Syria, Mount Hazzi and places from Ras el-Bassit to Tyre and even Gaza. At Al Mina, perhaps even briefly at Tyre, they settled and interacted with real north Syrians and Phoenicians. None of these places turns up in Homeric epic. At them they spoke to local inhabitants in their non-Greek languages; sometimes they made love to their women; they adopted their units of precious metal and their words for luxuries, incense or scents; they enlarged their view of the gods by hearing the tales of battles and succession in the locals’ heaven. They knew far more than ‘Sidon’ and south-west Crete and people called ‘Tamer’ and ‘Mr Bright’. These Euboeans had a knowledge of lands, cultures and languages on which Homer, their contemporary, never drew, not even for his original similes or tales where he was most free to invent.

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