Ancient History & Civilisation


Beyond Ithaca

As we turn westwards, our respect increases for the Greeks whom a trail of objects will again help us to identify in faraway waters, true travelling heroes on the eighth-century sea. Texts, at last, will help us to fix the end of their journey, strongly supporting the Euboean connection which we have so far favoured. It seems like a journey into a new ‘western world’, but ‘east’ and ‘west’ are relative terms and along the open axis of the Mediterranean they mark less of a cultural division than ‘north’ and ‘south’. For a sense of the ‘west’ we can begin again from Homer, that elusive but contemporary witness to faraway horizons. He refers to places far west of Greece which nothing in the plot of his epics requires him to mention. Once again he leaves us to guess about the range of his understanding.


Four times near the end of the Odyssey, we meet incidental references to ‘Sicania’ or ‘the Sicels’, a land and people in the west beyond Ithaca, Odysseus’ home island. They are the faraway source of a good household slave or the point of sale for slaves who are to be sent out from Ithaca itself. Odysseus’ father Laertes has an elderly Sicel slave-woman among the ‘slaves under compulsion’, as Homer calls them, in his rustic household. They live beside his humble dwelling in a klision which runs ‘on all sides’ and in which they would ‘eat and sit and sleep’.1 The ancients themselves were puzzled by the meaning of this klision: should we think of a simple farm building, running round to make a courtyard so that old Laertes’ house was as close to its slave-quarters as the houses of the slave-owning farmers which we can still visit in the American South? Laertes was looked after here ‘with kind care’ by his elderly Sicel slave-woman. She would wash him in the bath and oil him, but she was married to another of his slaves, by whom she had had sons. Her husband, too, had lived to be an elderly man whom she also looked after ‘with kind care’. Laertes’ nameless Sicilian is the first old-age carer known in history or literature.2

Elsewhere in the Odyssey, Sicels are plausible, faraway buyers of people whom one of Penelope’s wicked suitors regards, wrongly, as potential slaves. The land of the ‘Sicels’ is the right sort of place in which to be rid of a pair of nuisances.3 Conversely, in Odysseus’ last lying story, he tricks his father Laertes by pretending that he is a man from ‘Sicania’, who has been blown off course to Ithaca by the wind at sea. He pretends to have a Greek name, although its exact meaning and spelling have been disputed ever since: a man from legendary Alybas, whose father’s name perhaps means ‘Unsparing’ (perhaps in the sense of ‘Generous’), himself the son of ‘Many Possessions’ (or ‘Many Troubles’).4 One possible interpretation of these names means a man of riches and open-handedness who comes from a far-off family of plenty. They are fictional Greek names with nothing non-Greek or Sican about them.

For us, and surely for Homer, Sicels and Sicania were located to the west in what we now know Homerically as ‘Sicily’. They were a faraway place and a faraway people and apparently they were one and the same. However, by applying Homer’s two different words, the Greeks in Sicily later distinguished two separate peoples on the island: Sicels, who were encountered in the east of the island, and ‘Sicans’ in the centre. For Homer the words had had no such distinct precision.

Homer also names Libya. It was there that Menelaus had travelled while returning from Troy by way of Cyprus and Egypt. Menelaus had found Libya to be a land rich in sheep where the lambs grew horns, apparently soon after birth, the ewes gave birth three times a year and such was their milk and flocks that no shepherd went short of milk, meat or cheese. Again we are in a faraway land, but one which is also a place of Utopian wonder. What exactly does Homer mean by Libya: is it our north Africa or a Libya more narrowly defined or is it the modern Libya, perhaps, where Greeks would eventually settle and flourish?5 If Homer means the latter, is he betraying his own date by what he tells us? Greeks first settled permanently on modern Libya’s mainland only in the 630s BC.The question, however, is more complex and will bring neglected evidence for Greek contact with north Africa to our attention.

On Odysseus’ home island of Ithaca, Homer surprises us by mentioning one Eurybates, who is bent and ‘rounded in his shoulders, dark skinned, woolly-haired’.6 Woolly Eurybates is described precisely by Odysseus, who is lying but wanting to give his hearer, Penelope, an unusual and specific detail and thereby validate his account of the Odysseus of whom he deceptively speaks. This Eurybates was a herald, with a clear loud voice therefore, but he was also the man whom Odysseus honoured ‘far above his other companions, because he was like-minded with himself.’ Eurybates was a well-chosen man for Odysseus to specify in order to validate his story. Eurybates’ skin and hair were black and woolly. Greeks specified ugliness in much more detail than beauty: Eurybates’ ‘bent shoulders’ were not the mark of a well-born hero or one of the long-haired ‘fine and fair’. His herald’s voice, perhaps, was ‘black’ and distinctive too. The physique is meant to be odd, with a touch of prejudice which historians have tended to gloss over. But neither Homer nor Odysseus is racist. Woolly-haired, stooping Eurybates might be expected to be stupid at first sight, but Odysseus knew that, underneath, his mind belied his looks. Eurybates is therefore a doubly unusual person for lying Odysseus to describe, a firm proof of his veracity. Homer does not need to tell us where the woolly-haired Eurybates had come from. In context he needs only to make him so different that he can serve as a ‘sign’ of Odysseus’ knowledge. Negroid features suffice for the story, reminding us that somehow, perhaps in slaves, Homer had seen them himself. Eurybates was invented to fit an improvised story which had not passed to Homer from older epic tradition.

What about Homer’s hints of the western world beyond Sicily? Ocean is its boundary, as is usual in early Greek thought, but although Atlas is mentioned once, it is not clear that he is in the far west when he is said to be holding up the pillars which keep the heaven above the earth.7 By later patriotic authors in antiquity, place names in southern Spain were connected with Ulysses–Odysseus because of their verbal likeness (Olisippo, our modern Lisbon, being one).8 Homer shows no such precision. However, theOdyssey describes Odysseus’ approach to the fearsome underworld at a place, as Circe has told him, by the shores of Ocean and by Persephone’s grove of ‘tall poplars and willows’ where two great ‘sounding rivers’ meet at a rock. One of the rivers is ‘Pyriphlegethon’, or ‘Flaming with Fire’, the name for a red-watered river. For Homer, this site lies far away in the fabled land of the Cimmerians, but the location is given with precise details.9 Has a real landscape guided the description? In 1920 the great local historian Adolf Schulten observed that in south-west Spain, the details of Homer’s topography are conspicuously present.10 Near Huelva two great rivers meet, the Rio di Huelva and the ‘fiery’ Rio Tinto with its famous red water, a true Pyriphlegethon. They collide at a conspicuous rock which is now the site of the Catholic Christian monastery of Santa Maria da Rabida. Had Homer or his fellow-poets heard of this memorable landmark which lay so far away towards Outer Ocean in the west? Had it passed into their imagined topography of the distant underworld? We now know that by the later ninth century BC Greek pottery had been carried, some of it surely by Greeks, to Huelva which lies just upriver from the rock of Santa Maria. We cannot conclude simply that ‘Odysseus communed with the dead on the banks of the Rio di Huelva in Andalusia’, but it may be that through rumour and second-hand reports, a touch of Spanish colour went into the first Greek description of the whereabouts of hell.11


Once again, travelling objects take us behind the allusions which Homer’s epics happen to make to faraway lands. As in the east, they show that there was a long history of contact between the west and the Aegean before Greeks founded a clearly defined settlement in western territory. They also remind us that there were no empty spaces in the eighth-century Mediterranean. Greeks and Greek goods arrived from highly significant places but they did not enter a vacuum, romantic though it may be to plot them in a blank New World.

As in the east, there had been a lively history of contact between Greeks, parts of Sicily and western Italy during the previous Bronze Age of the Mycenaeans, the ‘first western Greeks’ (c. 1350–1180 BC). Contact was then believed to have broken down, but once again the older idea of darkness has been challenged. Evidence centres on Sardinia rather than Sicily or the Italian mainland. The big island of Sardinia stands to one side of classical Greek histories (there were never any Greek settlements on it) but c.1100–800 BCit was still an important centre of metal-working and building skills. It also had rich resources of metals, including iron and copper and even some tin which may already have been worked in this period. Unlike Sicily it had silver too, particularly silver which could be extracted from lead.12

The island exemplifies the absence of a vacuum before Greeks returned to the west. In the eleventh to ninth centuries BC Sardinian bronze objects continued to reach western Italy and occasionally travelled inland beyond the Etruscan sites which had access to the coast. In the tenth to ninth centuries Sardinian pottery also reached the Lipari islands off Sicily.13 Sardinians themselves probably shipped much of it. Sardinians dedicated model boats in bronze and clay to their gods, surely in hope or thanks for safe journeys at sea. The models take various shapes, rounded or long, and some of them have a deer’s forequarters on the prow.14 Cutting the waves, these boats took Sardinians to the river-mouths of Italy and down as far as Sicily as if on the backs of stags at sea. They were to be joined by Phoenicians, whose boats had prows shaped like horses, galloping through the water.

Sardinia also attracted foreign visitors, as we can infer from the ultimate origin of particular finds on the island. The most significant are three bronze bowls which were found in a hut at Sardara where they were deposed beneath a room used for social meeting and perhaps for feasting. The room was destroyed before the later eighth century BC but the bowls had been made much earlier, at a date between c. 1000 and 900. Their shape and the style of their handles trace back to Cyprus, their ultimate source. Other such bowl-handles have been found elsewhere on Sardinia and although they were discovered out of context they point to a similar Cypriot origin. The Sardara bowls are particularly important because their style was then imitated on Sardinia, implying that they are chance survivors from a type which was more widely known on the island.15

5. North-west Greece to Sardinia

Who brought these foreign objects from the east Mediterranean to this island? No Cypriot pottery was found with them, but an important Cypriot imprint has been detected on the pottery of contemporary north-west Greece. Cypriots perhaps were passing regularly up its coast and then turning west for south Italy and Sardinia. Connections between objects found in Cyprus and objects in Sardinia suggest that Cypriots visited the island, bringing their bronze bowls with them for exchange. On Cyprus’s south coast, at Amathus, a revolving metal spit for roasting meat was placed in a Cypriot’s tomb and is itself datable to c. 1050–950 BC. It is almost certainly an import whose origins lie as far away as modern Portugal, on the Atlantic coast.16 A Cypriot is perhaps unlikely to have gone so far west so early, but we have a similar spit in Sardinia, preserved in a hoard of bronzes where it, too, dates before 800 BC. The island of Sardinia was an intermediary for goods brought from the far west: Cypriots who visited it could then take this sort of far-western object home. In the eleventh and tenth centuries BC, while Cypriot pottery was also going east to the Levant, other Cypriots, perhaps Greek-speakers, seem to have been heading west to Sardinia. If so, they were the first post-Mycenaean Greeks to span so much of the Mediterranean world. It is sad that in their pre-alphabetic age none of these widely travelled Cypriots could leave us a memoir.

Sardinia, meanwhile, was a point of contact for objects from even further west, for bronzes which we can best match in Spain and even for bronze sickles whose style traces to types known far away in the British Isles. These objects from distant Atlantic networks had probably travelled in stages on their long journey to the island.17 Likewise, it was probably after a stop on Sardinia that a bronze bowl of Cypriot type ended up further west, inland in the Estremadura of western Spain c. 900 BC.

The obvious human links between Sardinia and Spain are travelling Phoenicians, although evidence for Phoenicians on Sardinia in the tenth century BC is still indirect. We can follow them to the south coast of Italy where renewed study of graves at Torre Galli in Calabria has opened some fascinating horizons. A small number of Egyptian-style ‘seals’ were found in the graves of women and young children where they evidently served as protective charms for the dead person. Cypriots may have brought or supplied some of them, but Phoenicians were probably involved here too: a high dating for them has now been proposed in the local Iron Age c. 950–900 BC.18 Even if this date is optimistic we must reckon with local women here who were choosing and learning to use these faraway charms as a protection against evil spirits, as in the Near East. Further on to the north, Phoenicians’ skills and imports also influenced the Sardinians’ own notable bronzework. It was probably c. 825–780 BC that a Phoenician visitor then put up the island’s one famous early Phoenician monument, the Nora Stone, which was rediscovered at Nora on the island’s south coast in 1773. Parts of its text and translation are still disputed, but it certainly refers to a traveller from ‘Trss’ (surely Tarshish–Tartessos in the west) who had come to ‘Shrdn’ (the Phoenician name for Sardinia). The text honours a god, most probably in thanks for the traveller’s safe arrival after a storm.19 It can only be dated tentatively by the style of its lettering, but after the recent Phoenician finds at Huelva (the likely site of Tartessos), a Phoenician’s journey from Spain to Sardinia fits credibly at the end of the ninth century BC. The traveller may even have had links with Cyprus, suggesting that Cypriot contacts had guided Phoenicians to this island.

The next datable sign of Phoenicians is still more suggestive. On the north-west coast of the island the village of Sant’ Imbenia looks over the excellent natural harbour at Porto Conte and lies conveniently on a route inland through good farmland to metal-resources in the hills behind Algero. Continuing excavations here have given an intriguing context to finds of Phoenician pottery at the site.20 In a room of one of the huts, two amphoras, or big jars, were found packed with small copper-ingots: one of the jars was of Phoenician origin, whereas the other was probably a local copy of a Phoenician original. They are best explained as elements of a local trade. Phoenicians brought big jars filled with olive oil, nuts, spices or wine and in return the local Sardinians offered them packs of their excellent copper, returning them in the jars or copying the jars’ shape when making new containers. Above all, the finds are relatively datable. Beside the big jars there were two fragments of a broken Greek cup: they join together to make a cup with telltale decoration, the painted semicircles of a Euboean Greek cup, no less, whose date is most probably c. 800–780 BC. In the settlement outside the hut, among other Phoenician pottery (including a cooking-pot), three more pieces of Greek pottery were found which are probably slightly later in date (perhaps c. 770–750 BC) but are decorated with the other two hallmark Euboean designs. In faraway north-west Sardinia, therefore, these three pieces of Euboean Greek pottery make up a ‘full house’ of the three typical Euboean patterns.

Perhaps the earliest of the Euboean cups was brought here by Phoenicians who exchanged it locally during their exchanges for metals. Alternatively, like one or other of the cups outside the hut, it arrived with a Euboean Greek in person, perhaps one who was travelling with Phoenicians on a Phoenician ship. To later Greek visitors by sea Sardinia was known as ‘Footprint Island’, because of the shape of its perimeter.21 We cannot know, but the cup is a sign of a possible Euboean presence on ‘Footprint Island’ or nearby in the west in the late ninth century BC.

It is worth comparing the Euboean contacts in our ‘triangle’ of Cyprus, Cilicia and the Levant in the east. In the tenth and early ninth centuries a few Euboean jars and cups had been reaching Cyprus or Tyre or Ras el-Bassit in years when eastern imports had started to be deposed in the graves of Euboeans back home in Lefkandi. In the west, by contrast, nothing Euboean is known so early. The western traces begin later, surely as a result of Euboeans’ contacts with Phoenicians in eastern places like Cypriot Amathus or in harbour-towns along the Levantine coast. From these practised travellers Euboeans then realized that there were things and people worth going for in the opposite western direction. By the later ninth century they had begun to go for them.

A clearer trail of Greek goods then runs westwards in the eighth century from Ithaca and the Ionian islands. In the west, its dating involves a bigger margin of uncertainty. We have no connections with the datable biblical narrative and no link to anything royal and Egyptian, and therefore datable, before the 720s BC. Sequences of dates are ascribed to objects found in the big cemeteries on the coast of Italy, but they are not yet securely correlated between all the differing sites. The Greek objects, too, are uncertain markers, partly because the absolute dates of their own sequences are not firmly fixed either, and partly because they are found so far from their origin, placed casually in tombs where they may have ended up many years after their original making at home. If our present dating turns out to be wrong, it will be because it is often too low. The effect, then, will be to mark out the first Greek phase of renewed travel to the west even more clearly from the subsequent phase of Greek settlement which followed and is more securely dated. Meanwhile the trail itself makes geographical sense, even if we know that elsewhere the furthest points on a route are not always the last to be visited.

The westward trail begins c. 800 BC (on the provisional, traditional dating), going up from Ithaca and the surrounding islands and then across to the ‘heel’ of the Italian coastline. Here, southern Italy, the island of Corcyra (Corfu) and north-west Greece are no more remote from each other than are Cilicia, Cyprus and the Near East. Sea-travellers would prefer the route up modern Ithaca’s west coast, running up past Cephallenia to Corcyra (Corfu) and then to the island of Oricos in the Bay of Valona: later Greek sources connect Oricos with Euboeans who are even said to have founded a settlement there.22 The journey across the straits to Otranto in Italy is then only some 40 miles by open sea. Already, c. 800 BC, the most prominent Greek pottery on Ithaca was Corinthian, not Euboean: it relates to Corinth’s convenient siting on its own westward-facing gulf and the beginnings of Corinthian contact with sites like Ambracia on the Greek coastline’s north-west.23 A few Euboean pieces turn up too but they are in a minority. Archaeologists suggest that we should think here of a ‘closed circuit’ as the eighth century began, linking mainly Corinthian goods (and probably Corinthian travellers) to the Ionian islands and then running up the coast to the straits and over to Otranto (Hydrous, to the Greeks) just across the sea. The adjoining Salento peninsula and the coastline of Calabria (south Italy) have even been credited with an ‘intensity of circulation of Greek material’ in the early eighth century which is ‘unparalleled elsewhere in Italy’.24 However, there was apparently no attempt by visiting Greeks to settle at once on Italy’s pointed heel in its good farmland. The main reason was the hostility of the local Messapians, reflected in the protective stone walling around the village of I Fani, about 8 miles north-east round the cape. It was already in place by c. 750 BC. Euboean pottery is then present on the site, but not till c. 725 and then only casually.25

Euboean pottery, but much less Corinthian, then travels on round the south-east coast of Italy past Calabria and on to Sicily in c. 800–780 BC: why was there no immediate Greek interest in the eastern coast of Italy up the Adriatic? The main reasons were navigational: the exposed Adriatic sea, the scarcity of islands and prominent landmarks and the increasing problem of shallows.26 Another, surely, was the example of Phoenicians and Cypriote, people whom the Euboeans had already met in Cyprus and the Levant. Such people had already made the long journey up to Sardinia on their travels to the far west and could talk knowingly about it to Euboeans. More adventurous and better informed than most of the Corinthians, Euboeans and others set off further to the west, staying close to the coastlines.

In east Sicily an evocative trace of them duly emerges: fragments of three Euboean cups at Villasmundo up the River Marcellino whose good plainland was controlled by the resident Sicels (it grows the best rare types of blood-oranges, nowadays).27 The cups are datable to c. 800–770 BC, chance survivors but most suggestive in the light of Homer’s allusions to the Sicels and to Laertes’ elderly slave-woman, his Sicel carer. She makes sense as an eighth-century detail, known to Homer through Greeks’ contemporary reports of this end of the island. Perhaps, as in Homer, slaves were already an attractive asset here for Greek visitors.

From Sicily, Sicel goods had already been travelling northwards up to the Salerno peninsula in Italy and the big outlying settlement at Pontecagnano just upriver from the peninsula’s coast.28 The Euboean trail edges gratifyingly northwards in this same direction on a route which others, therefore, had travelled before them. It took Euboeans up the Sicilian coast to the straits between Sicily and Italy and as they looked across them, and then ventured on the crossing, they were surely reminded vividly of the straits between their own Euboea and the mainland opposite. The line of the hills behind either shore of Sicily and Italy is strikingly similar to the view across the Euboean Gulf from Lefkandi or Eretria. The likeness is particularly striking to an eye trained on Euboea’s gulf which looks back to Sicily from the first hills in Italy above modern Reggio, a natural first point of call. The currents in both the Euboean and Sicilian straits are extremely awkward: Euboeans from Chalcis knew ways of avoiding the rapidly changing currents in their own Euripus channel, and so the challenge of crossing the currents from Sicily to Italy would not be so unfamiliar.29 Perhaps they already knew by hearsay what lay beyond, but none of them had yet seen it. The view from the straits is one of mysterious headlands advancing northwards up the coast of what we now know to be Italy: it helps us to imagine the lure and uncertainties of a Euboean venture which was to stretch so far beyond this sightline. Like Sicels before them, Euboeans travelled up to Pontecagnano on the Salerno peninsula where early eighth-century Euboean cups were placed in graves of the non-Greek Picentines and Etruscans. Only eight cups with Euboean semi-circle decoration, the earliest pattern, have so far been found in Pontecagnano’s very big non-Greek burial grounds, and in total Euboean cups are a tiny minority of the pottery found in the graves throughout the eighth century.30 The place was never a main Euboean destination.

The same cups occur at points northwards up the coastline, including the other big outlying Etruscan settlement, Capua, which lay on the northern edge of the immensely fertile plains of Campania behind modern Naples. On the coast at the north-western end of the Bay of Naples there are also three Euboean cups in native burials, set to one side of the site which later became a Greek settlement at Cumae. Like Pontecagnano, this coast was already in active contact with Sardinian goods brought partly by Sardinians, partly perhaps by Phoenicians. Through contacts in these places we can well understand how Euboean cups then went on across to Sardinia and Sant’ Imbenia, accompanied by Phoenician contemporaries. The Greek visitors had coincided with a pre-existing network.

Up the west coast of Italy the Greek trail runs on, intriguingly, to the River Tiber and its tributaries in Old Latium. Near its mouth at Ficana, five Euboean cups and twelve good imitations imply that a Euboean Greek had even settled and worked here by c.750BC.31 Whereas all other such cups have been found only in tombs, these were in the settlement itself, proving that they had a daily use other than in funerary ritual. Suggestively, they were found in the area of the settlement where iron and metals were worked. On up the Tiber and to the north-west of it at least five more Euboean cups (with an early Corinthian one) are now known in tombs at Veii, a major Etruscan settlement, where they date from the period c. 800–760 BC. Here too they inspired good imitations whose clay is local but whose style is in the Euboean manner.32 Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are Euboean traces at Veii’s nearby rival on the Tiber, the fledgling settlement of Rome. Two graves on the Esquiline hill have produced two small jugs with Euboean-style decoration. A few more fragments, harder to place exactly, have been found out of context below the Palatine on the way to the Tiber’s bank.33 It may, then, be right to think of Euboean Greek visitors c. 770–750 BC rowing up to Rome on the River Tiber much as Virgil would later imagine for his travelling hero, the Trojan Aeneas, whose boats were ‘overcoming the river’s long bends, shaded by its varied trees, and cutting over the green woods reflected in the water’s calm surface’.34

What might have drawn Greek visitors up the Tiber? At Veii, as elsewhere, the Euboean cups are accompanied by familiar Near Eastern trinkets, scarab-seals in Egyptian style and ‘lyre-player’ seals cut in stone.35 These trinkets connect directly with the points of contact which we have credited to Euboeans in the Near East and linked with a pattern of Euboean ownership. Some of them, therefore, were brought west by the very Euboeans who had prior connections, direct or indirect, with the east: we can justly think here of travelling Greeks spanning both the eastern and western sectors of their trail. From Veii, a route follows the river’s course up into central Italy to territories ruled by Etruscan leaders and where access might be given to deposits of precious metals. At second hand, perhaps, Euboean visitors might have hoped to acquire these metals through exchanges. But the Tiber had its own assets too, the great salt flats at its mouth which remained such items of conflict for centuries between Veii and Rome.36 In Cyprus, north-west Sicily and Spain, Phoenicians were to settle conspicuously by big natural salt flats. Neither they nor the Euboean visitors would have ignored the value of these salt marshes which were so crucial for human and animal survival and for the Phoenicians’ particular skills in drying and salting fish. Euboeans may have exchanged goods at Veii or even at Rome for access to the salt which they could then consume or exchange with other networks on the coast.

This trail of Euboean goods up the coast to Rome and Latium helps to answer one question while posing others. For long-distance traders the most precious resources in central and northern Italy were the metals, including silver, which occurred up the coast in the Tolfa hills (in modern Lazio) and above all in the ‘metal-bearing hills’ of northern Etruria just inland from the coast around Vetulonia near modern Grosseto in our south-west Tuscany.37 Until c. 750–720 BC, however, the Greeks’ trail dies out a long way to the south. To continue it we must consider a different type of evidence, Etruscan objects which were dedicated c. 800–770 BC at sanctuaries back in Greece. The most conspicuous are two crested metal helmets, Etruscan by origin, which have been found at Delphi and Olympia.38 Although some of the Etruscans were seafarers, the dedicators of these objects at Greek sites were probably Greeks who had either acquired them as gifts, or perhaps more likely as trophies in combat. The piratical habits of Euboeans will not have been suspended in the west where Etruscan ships were raiders too, complicating our Greek visitors’ progress.39

Why is the ‘Euboean aura’ not more prominent up in the metal-bearing regions themselves? At Vetulonia, in its heartland, Sardinian objects are conspicuously present, brought across by Sardinians and perhaps by Phoenicians.40 The island of Elba, too, was an important source of iron, which was shipped across to the coastal settlement at Populonia. Etruscans dominated this port (‘Fulfuna’ in their language). It had been founded (according to late Graeco–Roman sources) by the inland Etruscan town of Volterra which stands on a commanding hill-site inland in the Cecina river valley.41 There was no one dominating centre among the towns of the Etruscans’ homeland, which ran in the great sweep of country between the Tiber and Arno rivers, but nonetheless the well-armed leaders of the individual centres were more than a match for visiting Greeks. Sardinians, followed perhaps by Phoenicians, may have had older and closer relations with the mainland, making a Greek penetration of its emerging Etruscan ‘city-state’ culture more difficult.

By c. 770 BC Greek visitors were still a very small minority on the coast of western Italy if we may judge from the tiny proportion of their pottery found in non-Greek tombs. What, indeed, did they have to offer which was special? Phoenicians, too, could sell Near Eastern trinkets and jewellery, true to their Homeric image. Long before the Greeks’ arrival, ‘Tuscany’ was already growing grapes for wine. Perhaps, then, Greeks brought better wine and olive oil.42 There may have been wild olives in Italy already, but Greeks had better varieties and so the Latin word for olive oil, oleum, is copied directly from Greek elaion: in the eighth century, as in Homer, this oil may have been used and sold by Greeks as a distinctive body-oil. Euboeans also brought their patterned cups, but these cups cannot have been their main trade: until c. 760 BC they were decorated only with geometric patterns, not images, whereas rich Etruscans preferred smart metal cups to such humble clay ones. As in the east, the Greek cups placed in non-Greek graves are probably only symbolic mementoes of a contact with Greeks which was based on other goods. These contacts did not mark the Etruscans’ introduction to the joys of wine (they had it already) or to the etiquette, as yet, of orderly drinking-parties (none of the supporting Greek vessels for such parties is found in the west so early). Euboeans brought better olive oil and better wine, and on one view another attraction was their mixing of ‘painkilling’ grated cheese and onions into a wine-based drink. The Greek vessels deposed in the local tombs may sometimes refer to this new-found palliative Greek tonic.43

Whatever the trade, it is wrong to think of Greek visitors impinging on a primitive, dormant west. As in north Syria, so in central to southern Italy they arrived on the edge of a rapidly expanding and changing landscape of settlements. Changes were being driven above all by the Etruscans and their expanding population who were altering the simpler village-style settlements of the previous age. The Etruscans’ big southern outposts at Veii or Capua or Pontecagnano stood out among the villages of the Latins and Campanians among whom they were established.44 By Greek standards they were huge settlements, supported by wide use of the surrounding land, no doubt (as later) through forced labour. The Etruscan network also shared metal-working, distinctive funerary rites and lines of communication, enough to bring metal goods from Bologna down south to Veii or to link Pisa with goods from Volterra and Populonia. Theirs was an interconnected world into which Greeks, we imagine, had to insinuate themselves slowly by gifts and services.45It was not, however, as advanced a world as the ‘triangle’ which we outlined in the east. There was no imperial past in Italy like that of the Hittites in Cilicia and north Syria and there were no dynasties as old as the ‘house of Muksas’ in Cilicia or the kings of Hamath or Carchemish. Despite the Etruscans’ heavy metal armour, local warfare was less developed, without such an emphasis, as yet, on horses and swift war-chariots. Above all there was no literacy, nothing to compare with the multilingual scripts used at Karatepe or Zincirli. If there were ever any long Etruscan poems we have no trace of them whatsoever. There was no Etruscan Homer.

In this network of contacts we can better understand the most remarkable of recent archaeological finds. Unlike the Etruscans, Euboean Greeks had developed an alphabetic system of writing after a Euboean had studied with a Phoenician and his script. This unknown Euboean devised his alphabet somewhere in the eastern ‘triangle’, perhaps in Cyprus, but it quickly caught on with fellow-Euboeans who then brought the new skill with them to the west. Chronologically our first surviving trace of it, so far, derives from the west, from non-Greek Gabii, a Latin settlement which lies about 11 miles east of Rome.46 Here, a small locally made pottery flask was inscribed with five letters after firing and was later pierced with a hole, presumably so as to pour from its side. It was then placed beside an urn containing cremated bones which were probably a woman’s, about sixty years old. The urn was buried in a grave-pit, part of which had already been used for the burial of a man in his thirties. This double burial is most unusual and is placed to one side of the burial ground at Gabii in a distinctive family plot. On one interpretation the five letters on the pot are Greek and seem to spell ‘Eulin’, a puzzling sequence which is not in itself a Greek word. Does it stand for Eulinos, ‘good at spinning’, a tribute, perhaps, to the skills of the woman (if woman she is) who was cremated in the nearby jar?

Soon after its discovery this inscription was brilliantly matched with a Greek text by the antiquarian Dionysius who wrote in Rome in the late first century BC. He described eighth-century Gabii as if it was already a centre of Greek: to Gabii, he even states, the honest, humble keeper of pigs took the two foundling ‘wolf-twins’, Romulus and Remus, so as to assure them an education in Greek music, Greek weaponry and, best of all, Greek letters. Have we found at Gabii a trace of the culture in which Rome’s two founding twins were trained at primary school before they returned to found Rome c. 753 BC? The story is a superb false turning. Romulus and Remus were figures of legend and the tale of their Greek education was only a variant in their story, perhaps introduced as late as the second century BC.47 These legendary people do not explain our first bit of alphabetic writing in Italy. We are not even sure what it says. On an alternative view the letters are Latin, running backwards from right to left as other early writing did in Italy. They then say ‘Ni Lue’, perhaps signifying ‘do not’ (ne) ‘(cause yourself) to pay a penalty’ (luas), perhaps by breaking or taking the object.48 Even if this reading is right it still implies contact with a Greek visitor: the Greek alphabet was the source of the Latins’ own (which is using vowels here, already). A Latin reading of the letters merely puts the Greek contact back at one remove. What explains it is the trail we have been following, one of alphabetic Phoenicians going west up Italy to Sardinia, literate Euboean Greeks writing vowels in an alphabet of their own and following them round southern Italy and Sicily, up to the Bay of Naples and the River Tiber, perhaps to Rome and then on to Gabii beyond. Archaeologically, families at Gabii seem to have had links already with south Italy, as did Euboeans, and from there they came north.49 Conceivably, a Euboean visitor to Gabii scratched a Greek word of praise for a Latin lady’s wool-working on a small flask in her honour: early alphabetic inscriptions in Italy tend to occur on women’s goods only. More probably, a Euboean Greek had taught a Latin to write, and here one of the Latins used the new skill. The pot was then pierced to pour an offering in the lady’s honour and was left beside her funerary urn, the earliest lettering yet known in a non-Greek milieu, one of whose existence, but not message, we can make sense.

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