Those who lived at the time had no idea that they were living in the eighth century BC. It is a chronology which we impose on them. They reckoned time in generations only or, if they were attentive and living at court in a monarchy, by the years of their reigning king. In the eighth century BC, nonetheless, we place so many significant dates, ‘776 BC’ (for the Greeks), ‘771 BC’ (for Chinese history), ‘753 BC’ (for the Romans), ‘745/4’ or ‘705 BC’ (for the Assyrian kings) or ‘722/1’ (for the kingdom of Israel). Among the Greeks ‘776 BC’ is the date given to a distinctive cultural event: the beginning of the Olympic Games. In China or Assyria or Israel nobody sat and watched regular horse-races or the running and wrestling competitions of free-born adult males. The date ‘776 BC’ is our modern calculation, but it is based on the researches of the Greek scholar Hippias and the list of Olympic victors which he compiled c. 400 BC. There were probably games at Olympia before the starting-point of Hippias’ list, so ‘776’ is an arbitrary date. However, it was used in later Jewish and Christian polemic to show that the Greeks’ history and accurate chronology were relatively recent in world history, especially when compared with events in the Scriptures.1
In an eighth century marked by such dates, people were on the move at many points across the world, in China, the Middle East or the Mediterranean as far as southern Spain. The Greeks’ eighth-century activities are one patch in a wider picture, much of which was set in lands unknown to them. Certainly they never knew the big event of 771 BC. In that year, after three centuries of power in northern China, the ruling Zhou were driven eastwards by invaders and eventually obliged to settle at their secondary centre, modern Luoyang on the Yellow River. It was a cardinal change because in their wake northern China split into small states, leaving a vacuum, crucially, into which the Qin would start to move. After taking over the Zhou’s old western capital at modern Xi’an, the Qin, centuries later, would provide the first emperor of Chinese history.2
In India, we have no evidence which was written down in the eighth century BC. Instead we have religious texts, the Vedas, and epic poems which are older than their first written versions: they refer back to an earlier age before states began to form in the River Ganges plain. They leave us with the impression of warlike, horse-loving societies where ‘leisure hours were spent mainly in playing music, singing, dancing and gambling, with chariot-racing for the more energetic…The gamblers lamented, but played on…’3No big names from India’s eighth century BC are known to us and the archaeology of the subcontinent suggests a very diverse range of societies.
To the north-west, in and around modern Afghanistan, our written sources are also much later. They began life, however, as oral compositions, parts of which are as old as the eighth century: they were passed on because they were religious, the hymns and Avesta of the Zoroastrians. They refer to impressive settlements, ‘beautiful’ places ‘with raised banners’ or standards, which suggests that they were the sites of meetings, of troops, perhaps, or crowds for festivals. These ‘beautiful’ places are sited on either side of the Hindu Kush mountains, in Bactria, where the obvious such settlement is ancient Balkh, and in ‘Arachosia’ by the Helmand river, where another ‘beautiful’ place must be the ancient site near Kandahar, known archaeologically to us as a settlement which already occupied some two hundred acres by C. 700 BC.4
To the west in modern Iran we can glimpse one significant eighth-century people, the Medes, if only through the texts of their attackers from the south. These Medes, we learn, have ‘towns’ by the hundred, though archaeology has yet to find them: ‘lords of the city’ rule what we might otherwise imagine to be a nomadic, pastoral society. ‘Nearer Medes’ in the Zagros mountains were distinct from ‘distant Medes’ who were encountered as far off as ‘Mount Bikni’, probably the snow-capped Mount Demavend near Iran’s Caspian sea. Above all, Medes were horsemen, true riders, not secondary chariot-drivers. They were already exceptionally ‘mighty’, although their best-known years of conquest lay a century and a half in the future.5
The literate attackers through whom we know the Medes are the Assyrian kings in Mesopotamia (northern Iraq) near the Tigris river. The important eighth-century figure here was their usurping king Tiglath Pileser III. First, in 745/4 he began to re-establish Assyrian power against its enemies on the north, south and eastern borders of the kingdom. He reasserted Assyrian control over the great ancient city of Babylon; he marched armies north-west into the mountainous kingdom of Urartu up near Lake Urmia and Lake Van in modern east Turkey.6 Here too the Assyrians found horsemen and horses which caused them to marvel: they wrote of a ‘people without equal in all Urartu in their knowledge of horses for riding. For years they have been catching the young colts of wild horses. They do not saddle them [at once but when they do]…the horses never break away from the harness.’7 The horses were a magnet for the Assyrians’ attacks: they needed them for their own war-chariots and also, as we can see on their sculptures, for the mounted attendants who rode beside the chariots’ drivers.
In 740 and 738 BC Tiglath Pileser crossed the Euphrates and drove south-west into northern Syria. He conquered the kingdom of ‘Patina’ in north Syria which his scribes also called ‘Unqi’, from the West Semitic word for a low-lying plain. Like previous kings he went up to nearby Mount Amanus, which bars this plain from the north. It was the ‘Mountain of Box-trees’, whose pale wood was highly appreciated by craftsmen at the Assyrian court.8 From here he could look onto the ‘Great Sea’, our east Mediterranean, a landmark to the Assyrians, who were not seafarers themselves. Their conquering power surveyed the edges of a sea patterned by the travels of ships from many different ports, including ships of the Greeks.
‘I am Tiglath Pileser,’ runs the contemporary text on the monument which he set up in north-west Iran, ‘king of Assyria who from East to West personally conquered all the lands. From the Great Sea of the East…to the shore of the Great Sea of the West, I marched to and fro, and I ruled the world.’9 Tiglath Pileser’s victories were more impressive than his geography. He asserted Assyrian power as far as modern Bahrain; he also saw the Mediterranean, but he was not conquering lands which had never submitted to his predecessors. In the Levant he had been preceded by Assyrian kings of the mid- and late ninth century. At the beginning of the eighth century BC local rulers in north Syria were still appealing to Assyrian officials for arbitration of their disputes.10 It was Tiglath Pileser’s achievement to turn an older Assyrian presence in north Syria into outright conquest.
At their western edge, these conquests touched on Greeks, but it is not through Greek sources that we know of them. They live on, rather, in the Hebrew Scriptures and their books of kings and prophets, reminding us that there were important religious consequences when Assyrians ‘came down like the wolf on the fold’. In the Hebrew Scriptures an Assyrian envoy would warn the stubborn men of Jerusalem: ‘Where are the gods of Hamath and of Arpad?’11 In the Assyrians’ eyes, the answer was that those gods had deserted their great cities in north Syria and joined the Assyrians. Arpad fell in 740 and Hamath soon afterwards. ‘Five hundred and ninety-one cities of the 16 districts of Damascus’, the king’s annals claimed, ‘I destroyed like the mounds of ruins after the Deluge.’ The Assyrian conquerors then added to the region’s linguistic diversity. Into their conquests they moved tens of thousands of new settlers, putting Assyrians, Babylonians and other easterners into Cilicia (our southern Turkey), Syria and northern Israel.12
They also brought in their own gods. Some of them can be seen on a rare memorial beside an ancient route south from Unqi through the modern Turkish borderlands with Syria. Beyond the village of Senkoy the tobacco-fields give way to a grassy valley whose ancient track runs past some unmapped walling, probably a Roman guardpost, and the façades of rock-cut tombs for Christian burials. At Karabur, steep pinnacles of rock rise sharply from the fields and on their faces Assyrian masons carved four divinities, one of whom is receiving homage from a robed dignitary. Unbearded and bareheaded, he is surely an Assyrian governor of the late eighth century, perhaps a eunuch, who is worshipping his gods here, a witness to Assyria’s significance on this neglected route to the south.13
Further south on the road to Egypt, the city of Gaza also had to accept a newcomer into its cults: ‘A statue bearing the image of the great gods my lords, and my own royal image out of gold I fashioned. In the palace of Gaza I set it up’ (probably a single statue of King Tiglath Pileser himself, with pictures of the gods on his belt and dress). ‘I counted it among the gods of their land.’14 Long before Alexander the Great, this new god of Gaza was the region’s first cult of a living ruler. Its image was to leave a mark on stories which were later transposed to King Nebuchadnezzar and the worship of his ‘golden image’ in the biblical book of Daniel.15
In the kingdoms of Israel and Judah we can best follow the impact of these eighth-century upheavals. By a rare coincidence, the scriptural books of Kings and Isaiah present from one side events which Assyrian texts present from another. The Hebrew Scriptures make the Assyrians seem sacrilegious, but in the Assyrians’ view, the gods of their enemies were merely joining their own conquering progress: Yahweh, the god in Israel, was no exception. Kings who submitted to Assyrian power took a routine oath of allegiance by Assyria’s gods and if they broke it they were in the wrong.16 When Hoshea king of Israel promptly broke his oath, the Assyrians considered that by attacking him they were giving him the just reward for sacrilege. They had already done the same to the ruler of Unqi. In the later 720s Hoshea’s strongly walled capital of Samaria was stormed and many of his subjects were deported to northern Mesopotamia. Accepting the inevitable, charioteers and grooms of the northern Israelite kingdom entered Assyrian service. They can be traced there in contemporary texts, serving in the military hierarchy of the Assyrian conquerors’ homeland.17 In their place the Assyrians brought in new settlers from southern Babylonia who took up land in Israel and ‘made Samaria greater than before’. They worshipped Yahweh, a local god, beside their own, but in due course they worshipped him as their one and only god. Here, Yahweh was to triumph in a way which the prophet Isaiah had not foreseen. The conquering gods of Assyria are long dead, but in a ghetto near Nablus the self-styled heirs of the ancient settlers, the modern Samaritans, have continued to worship Yahweh with their own traditions.18
Since the 920s BC the Israelites had been split between two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah, with Jerusalem, in the south. In 722/1 the destruction of the northern kingdom caused shock waves in Judah, the southern Israelite kingdom, and challenged its followers of Yahweh to find an explanation for the catastrophe. Prophets in Jerusalem, including Isaiah, came up with a view very different from the Assyrians’ pronouncements. Yahweh had not defected to the conquerors: he was punishing, they believed, his chosen people because he had been alienated by their sins. During the next twenty years the threat of an Assyrian attack drew ever nearer to Judah too, culminating in a siege of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, the city escaped. Its king Hezekiah was merely ‘cooped up like a bird’, the Assyrian annals’ spin for a failed attempt at a conquest.19 These events are the setting for Isaiah’s continuing prophecies of doom and punishment which include the eighth century’s most influential words. As the Assyrians threatened the city, Isaiah prophesied to the king of Judah that a woman either would conceive or had conceived a child, to be called Immanuel, and that ‘unto us a child is born’. The prophecies, when uttered, applied only to a contemporary child, a late eighth-century birth. Their sense and translation were then disputed and distorted many centuries later, changing them into two of the best-known prophecies of the Christian Nativity, an event to which they had never referred. As for the birth of a child from a virgin, it was not a method which Isaiah had contemplated.20
Despite its vivid rhetoric Assyrian power did not carry all before it. Local kings in the Levant crept back into their cities ‘like a mongoose’, and like the king of Jerusalem some of them survived there, albeit ‘like caged birds’. The Assyrian armies also stopped on the borders of eighth-century Egypt. In the Scriptures, the hope of help from Egypt runs through the books of Kings and Isaiah, but our knowledge of the country in this period is still very sparse. Its most vivid witness is King Piye from Nubia in the south, a member of the Twenty–Fifth Dynasty who ruled in varying degrees over Egypt in the latter half of the eighth century. Piye captured Hermopolis on the Nile, probably in the 730s BC, and on entering the palace, he tells us, ‘His Majesty proceeded to the stables of the horses and the quarters of the foals. When he saw they had been [left] to hunger, he said, “I swear as the god Re loves me, the fact that my horses were made to hunger pains me more than any crime you committed in your recklessness.” ’21 After an attack on Memphis, horse-loving Piye returned southwards to Nubia.
In the Nile Delta of the 730s there was still an alternative dynasty (the Twenty–Fourth), but we now know from Assyrian evidence that the last of its kings was put to death by Piye’s successor as early as the 720s.22 Thereafter, eighth-century Egypt was not as fragmented as we have previously assumed: we see better why the Assyrian kings did not yet go on to capture this ultimate prize. They had difficulties enough in taking the walled cities which lay along the coast of the Levant on the approach-route to Egypt. In 701 Tyre had to be besieged again and Sidon merely came to terms. There was no prompt surrender by these two well-established kingdoms on the route south.23
Here, we touch on an area of direct contact between the Near East and travellers from the Greek world. Following the Greeks’ example we know these coastal Levantine cities as ‘Phoenician’, from the Greek word phoinix, meaning purple-red. The name arose from the purple dye for which these Levantines were famous, but it was not a name which the ‘purple people’ used of themselves. They were the people of Canaan, the Scriptures’ ‘Canaanites’, who spoke and wrote a West Semitic language and whose presence on this coastline went back long before the eighth century.24 By c. 800 BC they had formed or taken over some twenty separate settlements, extending from Arwad on its island down to Acco near Mount Carmel. Many of them were independent little states with their own local kings. Close to the sea, these states were usually shut in by mountain-chains to the east, but some of them had also held significant territory inland: in the Hebrew Scriptures we learn of the gift to Phoenicians of territory near Lake Galilee.25 It is as seafarers that we most readily imagine the ‘purple-people’ nowadays because it is the role which they play in Greek sources from Homer onwards. ‘Phoenicians’ were not limited to the production of their famous purple dye. They had many other luxurious distinctions: textiles, ivories, decorated shells, silverwork or bronzes, including their bronze candlesticks for burning incense, the heads of which were shaped like the flowers of fine Levantine lilies.26 Above all, they shipped big cargoes of timber and wine and brought home cargoes of precious metals from their exchanges abroad. They even kept monkeys, as we can see from the records of tribute which Phoenician cities paid to the Assyrians. They were literate, too, with a Semitic script of their own, a non-syllabic script which included some, though not all, of the vowels in each word and which is attested for us at least since c. 1000 BC.27
These Phoenicians are the people through whom our notional divisions of ‘east’ and ‘west’ make contact. Since c. 1050 BC objects from Cyprus had been reaching Phoenician sites. Conversely, Phoenician pottery was to be found at the ancient site of Paphos on the south-west coast of the island.28 Cyprus’s population included Greeks, so the two peoples coincided here. Phoenicians then made at least one settlement on Cyprus, what they called a ‘Qart Hadasht’ or ‘New Town’: it is almost certainly Kition, the modern Larnaca, founded by c. 850–820 on the south-east coast.29 Historians usually credit this settlement to Tyre, but our only contemporary Phoenician source, an inscription on a bowl found in Cyprus, implies that Kition was dependent on the king of the more northerly Sidon. Rivalry between Tyre and Sidon was intense and remained so in later centuries: perhaps Kition was indeed Sidon’s foundation, but the Tyrians later claimed the credit for their rival’s initiative. They may even have backed up their case by specious claims in their royal ‘annals’, especially in the text which was translated much later into Greek.30
Even before the pressure of Assyrian conquests, Phoenicians were to be found further west. Thanks to recent finds we can trace them on the south-west coast of Crete by c. 900 BC, another point of contact with resident Greeks.31 They are also said to have founded towns on the coast of north Africa, the modern Tunisia, beginning with an enigmatic ‘Auza’ between c. 880 and 850 BC. Tyre then founded another ‘new town’, the Qart Hadasht which we know as Carthage.32 Archaeologists have now traced evidence of occupation on the site of Carthage at least as far back as c. 800–760. True to its origin, its connections with Tyre remained close.
Perhaps it was their prior contact with Cypriot Greeks which encouraged Phoenicians to travel on into this westerly zone. They stopped on the coast of Crete, but although it was only a staging-point for further voyages, we should think of a real inter-relationship in which travellers from the two different cultures, Greek and Phoenician, influenced one another. We know that by the later ninth century Phoenicians were to be found on Sardinia, where Cypriots had long preceded them, and by the early eighth century archaeological finds connect them with mining activities on the north-west of the island.33 In due course Phoenician objects also reached the ‘Italian’ mainland, both Campania behind the Bay of Naples and places in our modern western Tuscany. Once again metals attracted their attention here, bringing them into contact with another ‘city-state culture’, the Etruscan communities which were such an expanding force in Italy in the eighth century BC. Should we also think of a Phoenician or two travelling up the Tiber to eighth-century Rome? Their presence has been detected there in aspects of the cult at Rome’s ‘Greatest Altar’, which was positioned at one of the river’s main crossing-points. The connection is still controversial, but the possibility opens up another eighth-century horizon.34 It was in 753 BC, according to later chronology, that Rome was said to have been founded by the wolf-twins Romulus and Remus. The twins are fine figures of legend and the date of Rome’s ‘foundation’ is not historically accurate. It is the invention of later Greek chronographers who were placing the origins of Rome only in relation to Greek foundations elsewhere in the west.35 In the eighth century BC Rome existed, but was much less momentous in reality than she was to be in subsequent legend. Any Phoenicians who came here were not witnessing the birth of the future ‘eternal city’.
In the early to mid-eighth century Phoenicians were to be found ‘all round Sicily’, using some of its promontories, we are told, as trading posts. We may, then, be wrong in thinking of Carthage as their first western stop. They were also, surely, already on Malta, although their presence there is still hard to support archaeologically before c. 750 BC.36 From stopping-points on Crete Phoenicians may already have been heading on past Malta and Sicily to Sardinia and even further west: this roundabout route avoided contrary currents along the rest of the north African coast. Here, they were to be originators of important eighth-century changes: they installed themselves on the southern coast of what is now Spain. From the Adra river to the bay of Algeciras, six Phoenician sites lie in a crowded row on low coastal promontories, a typical ‘model’ for Phoenician settlements.37 The heavenly climate of Malaga was enjoyed by Phoenicians, while beyond, in the Atlantic, a Phoenician outpost at Cadiz dominated the river mouth of the Guadalete on the coast opposite. Even further up the Atlantic coast Phoenicians settled by the Tagus river near modern Lisbon in Portugal. In the opposite direction, they settled southwards at points across the straits on the coast of modern Morocco.38 In the eighth-century lifetime of the prophet Isaiah there were Phoenicians who travelled west down the full length of the Mediterranean, past Crete and Libya, Malta and Sardinia to our Straits of Gibraltar and out onto the turbulent Atlantic, a sea which lay in the legendary realms of ‘encircling Ocean’ in the Greeks’ idea of the world. The Greek mainland was left to one side of these travellers’ direct route to the west.
How far did westward-travelling Phoenicians go? From Cadiz some of them are said in due course to have gone on to the ‘Tin Islands’, a destination which is hard for us to locate. Might it include the tin-mines in British Cornwall whose sources were indeed exploited later, or should we think of them at Mount Batten, a possible site for metal-trading beside nearby Plymouth Sound? A Phoenician presence at either site in the eighth century is unsubstantiated, although Cornish patriots and local historians have liked to claim a Phoenician link.39 In eighth-century Britain, however, yet another horizon opens up to modern eyes. According to the learned medieval chroniclers, the eighth century BC was the century of Britain’s King Lear. He was born c. 820 BC and died (they reckoned) c. 760. Like Romulus, Lear is to be imagined in a distant eighth-century setting, touring the ‘good hunting here, good fishing there’ of his kingdom but perhaps not losing everything quite as Shakespeare later devised for him.40
Like Romulus and Remus, Lear and Cordelia are figures of legend who add lustre to the fictional eighth century BC. In real life, the Phoenicians’ long-range travel across the entire Mediterranean is intriguing enough: should we explain it by the pressure of Assyrian conquerors on the Phoenicians’ coastal cities in the Levant?41 On this view the eighth-century changes inter-relate. Tiglath Pileser and his Assyrian successors forced Phoenicians to trade ever further afield in order to pay their demands for tribute: they caused a domino-effect which extended west across the Mediterranean as far as Spain. On the way, Phoenician goods, settlements and trading affected western societies of which Assyrians knew nothing: the Libyans, Etruscans, Iberians and some of the Greeks. If this explanation is correct, even the trail of Greeks and myths which I wish to retrace might relate to the impact of Assyrians on the Phoenician city-states.
Such an explanation is only valid if it fits with the dating and purpose of the Phoenicians’ westward travels. Precious resources are the obvious reason for such long-distance voyages and no resource is more localized than metal. Phoenicians did not need to go so far west to find iron: it was available on the coast of the Levant.42 Gold, silver and the copper and tin which made bronze were also known locally, but an easy access to such prestigious items was always attractive. Copper was known and mined prolifically on Cyprus, the ‘copper island’; Sardinia was rich in copper and other metals, including silver, whereas Sicily, most of which the Phoenicians neglected, had no known source of silver at all. In Italy, however, the ‘metalliferous hills’ in modern south-west Tuscany were accessible from the coast. Tin, a rarity, was available on Sardinia and is also inferred by archaeologists to have been passing down established routes from southern Europe into central Italy: by barter and exchange, it perhaps reached Phoenician ships which could then carry it to supplement their sources in the Near East.43 In north Africa we do not know whether metal-routes already ran near to Carthage and gave access to the African gold which was later to be such a bait. In south-west Spain, however, rich sources of silver existed in the Rio Tinto river-valley, while archaeological evidence for silver-working down on the coast goes back into the eighth century. It is highly likely that silver was the Phoenicians’ main lure here from the start of their contact. ‘Such was the greed of their traders’, later Greek sources alleged of Phoenicians in Spain, ‘that they replaced the lead anchors of their ships with silver ones when there was no more room for silver on board.’44
When did these far western ventures begin? We have the hints of Phoenicians stopping over on western Crete by c. 900 BC and a possible settlement at Auza in north Africa before 850 BC. In the early eighth century we can point to archaeological evidence of settlement at Carthage in north Africa and of Phoenician goods on Sardinia. Some arguable datings by radiocarbon have suggested that Phoenician settlements on Spain’s southern coast may belong as early as the ninth century BC. Later Greek texts give even earlier dates for these foundations, but they are only the calculations of later Greek scholars and are of very dubious value. Since 1998 the time-gap has begun to close with important finds at modern Huelva in south-west Spain beyond Cadiz.45 Here, Phoenician pottery has at last been found with a small proportion of datable Greek pottery, taking its arrival back into the ninth century BC. The finds include an unworked elephant-tusk, Greek plates made on the island of Euboea and pieces of the distinctive ‘black-on-red’ pottery which probably derived from Cyprus. These imports were unknown previously to us in the west and may have arrived with various carriers, Greeks as well as Phoenicians. At Huelva, Phoenicians evidently settled ‘specialists of all kinds, including metallurgical specialists, potters, carpenters and ivory workers’, certainly by c. 850 BC.
The Huelva finds confirm a Phoenician presence in south-west Spain long before Tiglath Pileser renewed Assyrian pressure on the Phoenicians’ home cities in the 730s BC. They did not go west, then, only because his Assyrians pushed them. Should we connect their voyages with the impact of Assyrian expeditions during the ninth century instead? The problem is that Phoenician goods have been found on Cyprus and western Crete in contexts which are even earlier: as for the route from ‘Tyre to Huelva’, it may go back further in time, too. In the book of Kings we are told of King Solomon’s ‘navy of Tarshish with the navy of Hiram’, king of Tyre: once every three years it would arrive with ‘gold, silver and ivory’, though not with the ‘apes and peacocks’ which biblical mistranslations credited to it.46 Faraway ‘Tarshish’ has remained a controversial place, but it lies in the west, most probably at or near Huelva, the future ‘Tartessos’ of the Greeks. Again, the finds at Huelva bring it nearer to Solomon’s biblical dates c. 965–930 BC: if the biblical reference is historical, the Phoenicians’ far-western ventures preceded the Assyrians’ pressure on their home cities. By c. 950 the Phoenicians already had good local reasons for importing yet more gold and silver. Their own local kings and notables would already want them, as would the neighbouring kinglets (including gold-loving Solomon) who surrounded them in the Near East. When the Assyrians arrived later, they took booty and tribute but silver was not particularly emphasized in their records of what the Phoenicians were made to pay. In the sixth century BC the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel gave a brilliant survey of the goods reaching Tyre from abroad: silver was one of the goods he listed, but it was an item for ‘re-export’ from the Phoenician city.47
The Assyrian conquests, then, may have given Phoenician traders a greater impetus to travel across the Mediterranean, but they did not force them westwards in the first place. By the time of Tiglath Pileser in the eighth century BC, Phoenicians in the west had come to know their western contacts’ resources very well. From north Africa they were bringing the fragile eggs of the ostrich, objects which were luxury items for customers in Cyprus or Italy.48 To south-west Spain they had brought tusks of ivory and no doubt their purple-red dye. Like the modern pirates of valued brands, they were copying goods which were known in Egypt: they gave them fake hieroglyphic inscriptions before trading them on. Phoenicians were the first people to exploit an Orientalizing style in art.49
They travelled eastwards, too, with their skills and luxuries, because there was a demand for them in the Assyrians’ Mesopotamian homeland. Of all the eighth century’s cities, the most amazing was not Carthage or even Tyre, let alone little Athens in Greece: it was the Assyrians’ new Dur Sarrukin, ‘Sargon’s citadel’, at Khorsabad in modern Iraq, to which Phoenician craftsmen came. Dur Sarrukin was built just to the north of the meeting-point of the Tigris and Greater Zab rivers and it is hard, even now, to do justice to its scale.50 Huge walls more than 65 feet high enclosed an area of a square mile, including palaces, an artificial terrace and a multi-coloured temple-tower which was no less than 165 feet high. This enormous city was built and decorated in ten years of intense activity between 717 and 706 BC. Its demands for wood, craftsmen and precious decoration can still be traced in a variety of contemporary Assyrian letters. Vast winged bulls, bigger than ever before, were carved in order to stand guard at the city’s gates and palace-entrance: made of stone, they were up to 20 feet high and 50 tons in weight. Blue-glazed bricks by the thousand were prepared and painted with animal and religious symbols. Above all there was a ‘tremendous park’ and a carefully landscaped garden.
At ‘Sargon’s citadel’ a royal garden included ‘all the aromatic plants of Hatti [the north-west, including Syria] and the fruit trees of every mountain’.51 The aim was to make a garden which was a record of power and conquest. We can follow some of the pressures its making caused through letters which were sent to and from Sargon’s court. They mention the problems of snow and ice and the transport of thousands of young trees, whether quinces, almonds, apples or medlars.52 On the central canal of Sargon’s garden stood a pillared pleasure-pavilion which looked up to a great topographic creation: a man-made Garden Mound. This Mound was planted with cedars and cypresses and was modelled after a foreign landscape, the Amanus mountains in north Syria, which had so amazed the Assyrian kings. In their flat palace-gardens they built a replica of what they had encountered.53
Craftsmen from north Syria and the Phoenician coast were brought east to decorate the palace, and in 706 BC the New Year festival was held in its splendid new setting, the climax of all eighth-century display. We can still read King Sargon’s inscribed notice of the event. He invited Assur, father of the gods, and all the ‘great gods who dwell in Assyria’. He gave them gifts and offerings, and ‘sitting in my palace with rulers from the four quarters of the earth, with the governors of my land, with the princes, the eunuchs and the elders of Assyria I celebrated a banquet’ and received gifts of gold, silver and precious materials. Sargon also believed that the gods would grant him to grow old in his newly built wonder of a city.54
The belief was severely mistaken. In 705 BC Sargon was killed while campaigning in Urartu. After this brutal shock to the Assyrians his new city and garden were abandoned and still await excavation of most of their surface area. Instead, the Assyrians’ royal splendour moved to Nineveh where it was to last for almost another hundred years. At nearby Nimrud we can now follow a female conclusion to his reign.55 One of Sargon’s queens, Atalia, was entombed beneath the paved floor of a room in a palace which had existed already in the ninth century. Her body was placed on top of a previous queen, Yaba, the wife of Tiglath Pileser. The royal ladies had each died in their thirties and were buried with exceptional gold objects and gold jewellery, one of recent archaeology’s most remarkable finds. Yaba’s burial had been protected by an inscribed curse against anyone who moved her or her jewellery ‘with evil intent’ or who added anyone else to her tomb or ‘breaks its seal’. Nonetheless, Atalia was put on top of her. In 1989 the tomb was reopened by archaeologists from the Iraqi Department of Antiquities and Heritage.
Despite Sargon’s claim to influence the ‘four quarters of the earth’ he and Atalia knew nothing about China or Etruria or Spain. Nonetheless, there was a long western axis with which his Phoenician subjects were familiar. On it there were many lives worth living, most of them beyond the horizons of eighth-century Greeks. Lear and Romulus are legends who came to be placed in its time-zone, but in real life there were silver-traders at faraway Huelva, Israelite charioteers turned traitors in the Assyrian army, landscape gardeners of Sargon’s Mound and perhaps even some ostrich-breeders in the Phoenicians’ Qart Hadasht in Libya, where it had begun to be worth rearing the birds for the sake of their fragile decorative eggs. In Nubia there was King Piye, who cared more for horses than people, and in Israel there was the prophet Isaiah, whose lips, he believed, had been touched from heaven by a burning coal. In western Asia Minor (now Turkey) we even have an eighth-century face, forensically reconstructed from bones buried in the big grave-mound at the Phrygian capital of Gordion. It is the skull of a man, perhaps Gordios himself, the father of King Mita of Muski, the Greeks’ King Midas with the legendary golden touch, the icon of modern investors.56 From Khorsabad to Cadiz there were many such people worth knowing and changes worth studying, all linked by travelling Phoenicians whose routes went way beyond those of the Greeks. These Phoenicians had myths and songs but despite their literate abilities we have no direct knowledge about them, except in texts which were written many centuries later in the distorting medium of Greek. We cannot, then, attach them to their accompanying mental baggage, whereas their travelling Greek contemporaries can still be reunited with theirs. They will be my travelling heroes, whose stories relate to the great Greek poets and a particular way of thinking about the world.