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Sparta and… Scotland? Laconic wit through the centuries

by July 13, 2021

By Andrew Rattray
When you think of Sparta, what’s the first thing that jumps to mind? I’m willing to wager that you’re picturing immoveable, impenetrable warriors, the infamous black broth, or perhaps the often-brutal agoge. These things are certainly what first come to mind for me. After all, modern day depictions of Spartan culture portray a hard people who pride martial prowess above all else. Just look to the impossibly chiselled abs in the heavily stylised cinematic retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, ‘300’.
This isn’t just a modern view either. Even at the height of their power the Spartans were seen more as miserable brutes than philosophical thinkers. However, while this reputation isn’t totally unearned, I’m not so sure it’s perfectly accurate. I think the Spartans were less grim realists, and more sarcastic humourists. I should know, I’m Scottish. Let me explain.
We in Scotland have for a long time suffered under a similar reputation of being grumpy, miserable, hard-heads, much like the Spartans. I think this is, in part, due to each nation sharing a neighbour typified by a more refined and well-to-do reputation. Scotland has England, Sparta had Athens. The contrast, and the cultural exports of our neighbours, has painted both Scotland and Sparta with a mischaracterisation that doesn’t necessarily represent our true nature.
The two most powerful city states of Ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta, were often at odds with one another
If you’ll indulge me, I will recount two quotes on the Spartans and the Scots that demonstrate this similarity even further.  Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, describes the hidden cunning of the Spartans: “…they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle…This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child.”
Now consider this extract from Chapter One of André Mourois’ biography; The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming: Discoverer of Penicillin. “The English laughed, too, at the absence of humour with which (so they said) these northern immigrants were afflicted. It took hours of hard work, they maintained, to drive a joke into a Scotsman’s head…This picture was very inaccurate. The Scots have their own sense of humour, which is utterly unlike that of the English, who love long stories full of mockery and sentiment. The Scots, on the other hand, delight in a humour which is laconic, dry, vigorous and expressed with a perfectly straight face.”
These two extracts, from two authors over two thousand years distant, perfectly encapsulate the hidden wit of these two cultures which were (and are) so often painted as boorish and ignorant. I consider the Spartans great humourists because I recognise in Spartan discourse this same sense of humour that pervades Scottish culture.
You see, the Spartans were known for what we now call ‘Laconic wit’, a manner of conveying ideas characterised by short, sharp, pithy aphorisms that deliver truth in a satisfyingly minimalistic way. Those of you familiar with the regions of ancient Greece will be one step ahead of me. Laconic wit is named for Laconia, the home of the Spartans. They didn’t just adopt the idea, they pioneered it.
The lambda on the Spartan shields stood for Lacedaemon, from which we also get the word ‘laconic’
However, where most consider the terseness of the Spartans an extension of their hard, hand-to-mouth style existence, I believe it displays a silly, care free sense of humour. After all, Shakespeare teaches us that ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’.
One of the most famous examples of this Laconic wit is found in the Spartan response to Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great). Philip, after invading Southern Greece and forcing the submission of some of the other prominent City States, wrote to the Spartans asking whether he should come to them as friend or foe. The Spartans reply? “Neither”. This incensed Philip who then wrote, “If I invade Laconia, I shall turn you out.”. Again, the Spartans reply with one word. “If”. In the end, Philip never did conquer the Spartans.
Spartan history is dotted with examples of this sort of sharp, direct, retort but I feel these come across more as ironic, self-aware jibes than true, grim, arrogance. When I think of the Spartan exchange with Philip the first thing that comes to mind is the Scots phrase “Did ye, aye?” an extremely sarcastic way of saying you don’t believe someone, but easy for non-Scots to miss. In the same way, I think the humour of the Spartans has been missed here.
In Book 3 of his Histories, Herodotus recounts another quintessential example of Laconic wit at play. Herodotus describes how a group of Samians, unseated from their homes, petitioned the Spartans for their aid. The Samians, in audience of the Spartans, spoke at length of their troubles to ensure that the greatness of their need was well understood. To this the Spartans replied that the speech had been so long that they had forgotten the beginning and thus could make no sense of the end! The next day the Samians returned to the audience of the Spartans once more with nothing but an empty sack. Holding it out before them the Samians said simply; “The sack wants flour.”. The Spartan response? “You didn’t have to say ‘the sack’”. I find it impossible to picture that final line without imagining its speaker with a well-deserved smirk. This isn’t hard headedness, it’s tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s almost silly.
Let’s compare with a Scottish example. Robert Burns, the most famous of all Scottish poets, and figure of the ‘Scottish enlightenment’ of the 18th century, was once at the Greenock quay when a wealthy merchant fell into the harbour. The merchant couldn’t swim and floundered in the water as a crowd gathered. Before long, a sailor dove in, risking his own life, to pull the merchant out and save him from drowning. By way of thanks, the merchant reached into his pocket and produced a single shilling (a meagre sum) much to the dismay of the crowd who found such a small reward to be contemptible. Burns stepped forward to calm the tensions and with a broad smile shouted over the clamour “Please, the gentleman is of course the best judge of the value of his own life!”.
The poet Robert Burns
This is what I mean when I say I recognise this same humour in these Spartan stories. Burns’ response couches truth in humour in a way that cuts to the core of the issue. The sarcastic humour of the Scots might be a little more direct, a little more obvious, but to an accustomed ear, one can find the same elements with the Spartans.
So far, history has been kinder to the wit and humour of the Scots than of the Spartans, but in our modern age, full of resurgence of interest in the ancient world, now is the perfect time to deepen our appreciation of Spartan culture for more than just their warrior mentality and stoic resolve. When an Argonian visitor remarked to the Spartan King Eudamidas I that foreign travel risked corrupting Spartan citizens, Eudamidas replied simply; But you, when you come to Sparta, do not become worse, but better.
Perhaps we all can become better if we were to open our mind to new perspectives a little more often.   

Ancient Bactria: Battleground For Civilization

by April 14, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The ancient region of Bactria was in what is now Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in Central Asia. Today, this is a remote, relatively little-known area. In the ancient past, Bactria was a culturally and economically dynamic region of great interest to ancient empires. In fact, Bactria’s contribution to history and civilization from 500 BC. to approximately 500 A.D is immense.

Bactria’s Early History

In the Bronze Age, Bactria was mainly populated by Iranian-speaking people who established urban settlements. The region first enters recorded history under the Persian Achaemenian Empire. During the sixth century BC, Cyrus II subjugated the region, making it a satrapy. Bactria became a province of the Persian Empire for two centuries during which time the area prospered.

Bactrian soldier from the tomb of Xerxes I, circa 470 BC

Its geography to a large extent dictated its social structure, with nomadic peoples living in the plains and tribes inhabiting the mountains. In the fertile valleys, wealthy, sophisticated urban societies developed.  Many scholars believe that Bactria played an important role in the development of Zoroastrianism.

Alexander the Great and Bactria

It appears that Bactria enjoyed a period of peace until the arrival of Alexander the Great. Leading the opposition to the Macedonian was Bessus, who made his last stand in Bactria before his execution. Alexander the Great campaigned in Bactria to secure his position in this rich region, even marrying Roxanne, the daughter of a Bactrian ruler.

Administrative document from Bactria dated to the seventh year of Alexander’s reign, 324 BC, source: Khalili Collection of Aramaic Documents

Alexander built numerous cities in the region and many Greeks and Macedonians came to settle there. Interestingly, there was already a large Greek-speaking minority in Bactria. Indeed, there were more Greeks in Bactria than in regions closer to mainland Greece.

The Rise of Bactrian Greeks

The Seleucid Empire ruled the region for over 70 years after the death of Alexander. The cities founded by the Macedonian conqueror flourished, and so did trade. In about 250 BC, Bactrian satrap Diodotus proclaimed independence and became king. Antiochus III the Great defeated Diodotus’ successor but recognized Bactrian Greek independence.

However, the rise of Parthia cut off the Bactrian Greeks from the rest of the Greek world. Meanwhile, Bactria grew rich and powerful, with a large army and heavy cavalry. It was poised to expand.

Bactrian King Euthydemus I and his son Demetrius crossed into what is now Pakistan, managing to conquer a large part of modern Pakistan and North-West India around 180 BC. These conquests placed a great strain on the Bactrian-Greek kingdom, leading to several revolts.

After a period of civil war that left the Bactrian Greeks divided among themselves, an usurper seized the throne of the kingdom and proclaimed himself King Eucratides I.

Gold 20-stater showing Eucratides. This is the largest-known gold coin from antiquity and was originally found in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Bactrians who had conquered parts of India established a powerful new region, known as the Indo-Greek kingdom, and advanced its territory far into the Ganges Plain in Northern India.

The Decline and Fall of Bactria

After the death of Eucratides I, the kingdom of Bactria fell into near-anarchy, leaving it vulnerable to nomadic invasions. In the second century BC, Indo-European nomads known as the Saka conquered Bactria and ended Greek rule. This invasion saw the burning of several Hellenic cities. The Saka were driven out by the Yuezhi, who had been driven from their homeland by the Xiongnu Confederation. The Yuezhi were deeply influenced by the Greeks and even adopted their alphabet.

In the first century AD, a prince of the Yuezhi, Kujula Kadphises, established the great Kushan Empire. Greek was one of the official languages of this realm. The Indo-Greeks were eventually conquered by the Saka. Small Indo-Greek communities survived until possibly 10 A.D and they adopted Buddhism. The Kushan Empire later conquered much of North-West India. They were later conquered by the Sassanian Persian monarchs who ruled the area until the arrival of the Muslims in the 7th century AD.

The Contribution of Bactria

Bactria was a cross-roads for many cultures. It quickly became a significant hub of trade and great cities such as Balkh were famed for their wealth. Chinese envoys who visited Bactria in the first century BC were amazed by its wealth and sophistication. They noted that the people disliked war, preferring trade and luxurious lifestyles. The merchants of Bactria contributed to the later development of the Great Silk Road.

The Greeks in Bactria, and later in India, played a particularly important role in the development of the region and indeed global culture. They introduced Greek sculpture, architecture, art and thought to the region. They have deeply influenced Classical Indian art and architecture. Bactria was also crucial in the history of Buddhism, especially during the Kushan period.

The Gandhara Buddha, a statue influenced by Greek models

The Kushan Empire was very culturally diverse and eventually adopted Graeco-Buddhism, developed by Bactrian Greeks that ruled kingdoms in India.  The Kushans were great benefactors of Buddhism and they helped to spread the religion into Central Asia and ultimately China. They also helped spread the influence of Graeco-Buddhist art, which still influences Buddhist art to this day.

Conclusion

Bactria is a historical region that has largely been forgotten, yet it played a crucial role in several Empires and the early development of the Silk Road. It was a centre of Greek power and culture despite being very distant from the Mediterranean World. The Bactrian-Greek kingdom developed a thriving culture and economy. Their culture spread into India, where they influenced the region’s art and religion, specifically in the development of Graeco-Buddhism.

References:

Rawlinson, H.G., 2002. Bactria, the history of a forgotten empire. Asian Educational Services.

Delphi: The Center of the Greek World

by February 18, 2020

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Delphi was an important religious, social and cultural center in Ancient Greece. It was one of the few places where the Greeks came together; indeed, Delphi was crucial in their collective identity. This religious site played a critical role in Greek politics, which meant that a number of wars were fought over its control.

The History of Delphi

In Greek myth, it was believed that Delphi was the center of the world, known as the navel of the earth, ‘omphalos’. From the Late Bronze Age the location was a religious sanctuary, the site of an oracle, and archaeological evidence suggests that the Mycenaeans had a temple dedicated to the Mother Earth goddess here.

The omphalos in the museum of Delphi

The omphalos in the museum of Delphi

Later, it was dedicated as a sanctuary to Apollo, the god of light, poetry, and reason, as it was believed that the god killed the giant serpent Pytho at the location. This sanctuary became famous for having a female priestess who was inspired by the god and gave oracles. The Oracle at Delphi had enormous prestige and was consulted by many important persons from all the different Greek city-states. Visitors from all over the Greek world came to Delphi to honor the god Apollo, and the Athenians consulted the oracle during their wars with the Persians.

While the oracle’s advice was often heeded, there were also suspicions that the oracle was bribed to provide an answer that was advantageous to some political leader or group.

Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse, showing eight priestesses in a temple of prophecy

Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse, showing eight priestesses in a temple of prophecy

Delphic Games

Delphi was the location of one of the four Panhellenic Games, which included both athletic and non-athletic events in honor of the god Apollo. There was track, chariot racing, horse racing, wrestling, boxing and even musical contests. Greeks from all over the Mediterranean and the Black Sea would attend these Delphic or Pythian games, and in fact, the various City-States entered into a truce so that their athletes could participate.

Delphi Games

This starting line at the Delphi stadium used for the Pythian Games at Delphi, Greece, has a design representative of that of many ancient Greek stadiums: stones with two lines in which the athletes nudged their toes, and round holes in which posts could be erected to support the start signalling mechanism.

History of Delphi

There is little of the history of Delphi before the 6th century BC. It was originally inhabited by non-Greeks but around the 6th century BC, the Phocians conquered the area and took control of the shrine. This site was very important, not only for its religious and cultural prestige, but also because of its vast wealth. The treasury of Delphi was overflowing with gold and silver, donated by pious pilgrims.

Map showing location of ancient Phocis

Map showing location of ancient Phocis

Delphi was reclaimed by the Athenians during the First Sacred War (597–585 BC). They established the Amphictyonic League, a political alliance designed to protect Delphi, but it later came under the control of some Athenian exiles. During the Second Sacred War (449–448 BC), which was part of the 1st Peloponnesian War, the Phocians were able to regain control of Delphi.

The Phocians gradually lost control of the sanctuary and this led one of their leaders to act out and seize its treasury. This led to the Third Sacred War (356–346 BC) between a coalition led by Phillip of Macedon and the Phocians, resulting in the destruction of the Phoceans and the rise of Macedon, who effectively came to dominate Delphi.

In the first century BC, the Thracians raided and sacked Delphi, stealing the temple’s sacred fire. The location was also badly damaged later by an earthquake. These events, as well as inaccurate prophecies, led to a decline in Delphi.

Ruins of Delphi

Ruins of the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi, overlooking the valley of Phocis.

The sanctuary was once more revived in the 2nd century AD, under the patronage of Emperor Hadrian. The oracle continued to flourish even after Constantine the Great made Christianity the new religion of the Roman Empire. The Pythian Games continued to be held and remained popular. Eventually as Christianity became more prominent, the sanctuary declined. It was possibly closed by the command of Emperor Theodosius the Great.

Ironically, Delphi, the center of classical Greek religion, later became a major Christian center. It is believed to have flourished until the Avar and Slav invasions of Greece in the 8th century AD. Delphi was probably fully abandoned by 900 AD.

The Architecture of Delphi

Theatre at Delphi

Theatre at Delphi

In its heyday, Delphi was a complex of buildings and facilities, most of which were built by Greek City-States. There are many remarkable architectural remains still to be seen at Delphi. One of the most astonishing is the Temple of Apollo, which dates from the 4th century BC. It was built in the Doric style and is believed to have been the 6th temple built on this site. All that remains is an outline of the walls and rooms and a colonnade of broken columns. There was once a large number of votive statues at the shrines in Delphi and some of these can still be seen.

Delphi was once enclosed by walls. Upon entering the sanctuary, there were a number of treasuries, and one of these, the so-called Athenian treasury, has been fully restored by modern archaeologists. The stoa of the Athenians consisted of an open public space that was a covered walkway or portico, constructed by donations made by Athens. Many of the columns of the stoa, as well as its paved floor, can still be seen.

Delphi illustration

Speculative illustration of ancient Delphi by French architect Albert Tournaire.

There was a theatre set into the hill at Delphi, built in the traditional Greek style, and it is very well preserved. The Tholos of Delphi was a circular temple and much of this remarkable building, which comprises of a number of Greek styles, has been restored. There are also a number of remains that were associated with the Pythian Games and they include the stadium and the hippodrome.

Delphi Today

Delphi is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and there are still archaeological excavations being conducted in the area. It is now a very popular tourist destination.

References

Dempsey, T., Reverend, The Delphic oracle, its early history, influence and fall, Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1918

The History of Pompeii and its Volcanic Eruption

by December 10, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The Roman city of Pompeii was famously destroyed in 79 A.D by an eruption of the volcano Vesuvius, which buried it beneath feet of ash and pumice. However, while the volcano ruined Pompeii, it also, perhaps ironically, preserved it for posterity. Today the city is arguably one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Pompeii Volcanic Eruption

Ruins of Pompeii with Vesuvius in the distance

The early history of Pompeii

Pompeii was founded after a number of small Oscan villages were united to form the town in about the 8th century BC. It slowly grew until it came under the influence of Greek colonists and within the orbit of the Etruscan League of city-states. At this point, it was ringed by a double ring of tufa walls.

It appears that after the Greeks from Syracuse and Cumae defeated the Etruscans, Pompeii went into a period of decline. The Samnites later occupied the area and Pompeii once again flourished and become an important trading center.

After the Samnite Wars, Rome became the dominant power in the area and Pompeii became its ally (socii). It was to remain faithful to Rome even during the Second Punic War when Hannibal threatened the very existence of the Republic. In the years following the Carthaginians defeat the town prospered, due mainly to its rich agricultural land and its exports of wine.

City walls south of the Nocera gate

City walls south of the Nocera gate

During the Social War (91-88 BC), the Pompeii revolted against Rome and joined with an alliance of Italian tribes and cities that sought Roman citizenship rights. While the Roman general Sulla besieged Pompeii, he failed to take it after fierce resistance. Eventually, however, Pompeii surrendered, following the defeat of the Italians. After the Roman victory, Sulla settled many of his veterans in the area and this eventually led to the Romanization of Pompeii. By the 1st century AD, Latin had become the language of the city and its culture was Roman. In 62 AD the city was badly damaged by an earthquake.

The Eruption of 79 AD

By 79 A.D, Pompeii was a town or small city of 15 to 20,000 inhabitants and the nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius, had been dormant for many years. However, one day in either August or November 79 AD, the volcano erupted and send lava and hot ash down upon the city. Volcanic ash and molten rock were shot miles up into the atmosphere. A pyroclastic surge, which consisted of hot mud and molten rock, flowed down the slopes of Vesuvius. It engulfed the settlement and buried it beneath several feet of mud and rock. Many Pompeiians were suffocated by the hot ash or were trapped and buried beneath the hot mud and molten lava. A great many victims were preserved, in their death throes, by the mud that killed them and they can still be seen to this day.

Plaster casts of the victims of the volcano

Plaster casts of the victims of the volcano

Pliny the Younger, who was an eyewitness, gives a graphic description of the terror of the people. They had the choice to stay in buildings that were collapsing or to go onto the street where red-hot pumice was falling down. Many tried to protect themselves from the volcanic debris by placing rags and pillows on their heads, but nothing could save them. Most of the buildings were destroyed but many were also buried, and largely left intact. Those who survived the eruption were evacuated by ships, but thousands never made it out. The poor, old and slaves found it hard to secure passage, unlike the wealthy.

The day after the disaster the cone of the volcano collapsed, causing a tsunami that engulfed what remained of the once flourishing city. Most of the city was buried under 9 feet (3 m) of ash and pumice. Pompeii was never rebuilt after the disaster and its name was forgotten to history.

The buried city of Pompeii

 Fresco from a villa from Pompeii

Fresco from a villa from Pompeii

The town was re-discovered in the 16th century but little thought was given to it. Only in the late 18th century was the town excavated by one of the pioneers of archaeology, the Swiss Karl Weber. Since then the site has been excavated and it is still being investigated by archaeologists. Today Pompeii is an archaeology park and it is open to visitors and is very popular with tourists from all over the world.

Insight into Roman life

There have been a large number of remarkable archaeological finds in the Roman city. A great deal of graffiti has been found and these writings have offered researchers an insight into the preoccupations of ordinary people. There have been many amazing villas discovered, such as the Villa of the Mysteries. Some of the most important finds have been made at these palatial residences; great murals have been uncovered here, masterpieces of Roman art, as well as many beautiful mosaics. Among the buildings that have been found are a launderette, brothel, and baths. Numerous artifacts and organic remains have also been unearthed, providing a great deal of information about life in Ancient Rome.

A villa unearthed in Pompeii

A villa unearthed in Pompeii

References

Rowland, Ingrid D. (2014). From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press

The Phoenicians: More than Just Pirates

by November 19, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The Phoenicians are among the most important people in the Ancient world. According to Homer the Phoenicians were also feared as pirates, but it’s clear they were much more than that. In fact, they decisively shaped the culture and the economy of the Levant and greatly influenced the Ancient Greeks and the Carthaginians.

The Phoenicians were a Semitic people who inhabited the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean, mainly in what is now Lebanon. It is now believed that they were related to the ancient Canaanites. They were an urban people and their major cities were Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos. They were not unified and each city had its own king or later ruling oligarchy. The cities were often rivals, but often cooperated on maritime and trading matters. The Phoenicians were great sailors and they dominated the Mediterranean with their oared galleys.

We do not know what the Phoenicians called themselves and the name that we know them as is actually a Greek name for the people.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenicia

Map of Phoenicia and trade network

Phoenicia timeline

The Phoenicians emerged as a distinct people in about 1500 BC, during the Bronze Age. They soon developed large urban centers and the cities became major trading hubs. The Phoenicians occupied a narrow strip of land and they were hemmed in by larger kingdoms, so they had no choice but to become sea traders and merchants. The wealth of the cities attracted the attention of other regional powers. The Phoenicians were dominated by the Egyptians until about 1200 BC. The invasions of the Sea-peoples led to the collapse of the Egyptian Empire. This led to the economic and cultural flourishing of the Phoenicians. Based on the archaeological evidence, it seems that there was a great deal of continuity in Phoenician society and culture.

Phoenicians and the Mediterranean

The city population in Phoenicia exploded in the 9th and 8th century BC. They had already established a number of trading posts from Spain to the Levant, which they then expanded into colonies. In 814 BC, colonists from Tyre and Sidon settled in what became Carthage.

Punic ruins in Bysra (Tunisia)

Punic ruins in Bysra (Tunisia)

The Phoenicians were great explorers. The city-states had large fleets and they pioneered the development of the multi-tiered galley. They used their great nautical skills to discover new areas for metals and trading opportunities. In fact, a great Phoenician explorer by the name of Hannon attempted to circumnavigate the continent of Africa in the 7th century BC, and there is even some documentary evidence that the Phoenicians reached the British Isles.

Phoenician Economy

They were renowned as traders and merchants and were heavily involved in the metal trade.
Phoenicia was also known for the production of its purple dyes, which were very popular in the Ancient Mediterranean kingdoms, as well as their textile and craftsmanship.

Warship

Assyrian warship (probably built by Phoenicians) with two rows of oars, relief from Nineveh, c. 700 BC.

The main natural resources of the Phoenicians were the cedar trees that grew in what is now Lebanon. In the Bible, King Solomon imported Phoenician craftsmen to help to build the Temple in Jerusalem.

Phoenician Culture

The Phoenicians were a very religious people and worshipped a pantheon of gods that were similar to the ancient Canaanite deities. The chief god of the Phoenicians was El. While it has been claimed that the Phoenicians practiced human sacrifices and there is some evidence that they sacrificed children to their gods at a Tophet, this is still controversial and is refuted by many.

The Phoenician God Ba’al

The Phoenician God Ba’al

The Phoenicians were famous artists. They created new art forms by adopting the traditions and designs of the Egyptians and others and forming a new synthesis. Their artistic productions were exported all over the Mediterranean and they inspired other artists. Homer praises the arts and crafts of the Phoenicians.

The Phoenician Alphabet

Perhaps the most important cultural innovation of the Phoenicians was the development of the alphabet around 1000 BC. Adapted from previous versions, the Phoenician alphabet was based on consonants and vowels and was very flexible; it could be used to create complex communications.

The Phoenician traders spread their new alphabet throughout the Mediterranean. It was later adopted by the Greeks as they emerged from their Dark Ages. Today, the Phoenician alphabet is the basis of most of the world alphabets.

The Phoenician Alphabet

The Phoenician Alphabet

Some have claimed that they also influenced the development of democratic institutions in both Rome and Athens, but this is less verified. Either way, it is clear that the Phoenicians were a very cultured people and some of their ideas may have influenced Greek philosophy, especially the development of Stoicism. Sadly, much of their writings have been lost.

Decline and fall of the Phoenicians

From about the 9th century BC, the Phoenicians came under foreign domination. They were first conquered by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. In the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian Empire and Phoenicia. The Phoenicians were able to maintain their identity and much of their autonomy under these Empires. In fact, they were able to prosper.

Then in the 330s BC, the armies of Alexander the Great invaded Phoenicia. Tyre and other cities refused to submit to the Macedonians, and after a long siege, Alexander captured the city of Tyre with much bloodshed and destruction.

Drawing of the siege of Tyre (323 BC)

Drawing of the siege of Tyre (323 BC)

The Phoenicians became part of the Empire of Alexander and later that of the Seleucids. During these centuries of Greek rule, they become Hellenized and lost their ancient culture and identity.
However, the Phoenician culture and identity continued to flourish in the colony of Carthage. It established a large Empire and spread the Phoenician culture, an in fact, a neo-Phoenician tradition survived in North Africa, long after the destruction of Carthage. Clearly their impact has far surpassed their reputation as pirates.

References
Moscati, Sabatino (1995). The World of the Phoenicians. New York, NY: Frederick A. Praeger.

Pithecusae: Island of Firsts

by September 3, 2019

By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Home to thermal springs and verdant landscapes, the idyllic island of Ischia also houses the first Greek settlement in all of Europe. Enterprising pioneers from the Greek island of Euboea, founded the colony in the mid-eighth century BCE, naming it Pithecusae from the Greek word pithekos meaning “ape” or “monkey.” But was the island truly named for monkeys?

Situated in the Bay of Naples, Pithecusae was never inhabited by apes or monkeys, leading some scholars to speculate that its name may come instead from the Greek word pithekizo which meant “to monkey around.” Another thought is that this term was used derisively by mainlanders to refer to the speculative and profiteering islanders who originally hailed from the Athens environs, over seven hundred miles away.

Modern day Ischia

Modern day Ischia

Which begs the question, why on earth would settlers from Euboea, a sea-faring island to the east of Athens, be interested in colonizing what was then the westernmost boundary of the Mediterranean?

The Metal of Choice

In order to answer this question definitively, it is important to understand what was occurring in ancient Greece at the time. Never known for its arable land, the farmland shortage became pronounced during the population explosion of the Archaic Age. It was from the eighth through the sixth centuries BCE that colonizing other lands became fashionable to the intrepid ancient Greeks.

Although the rich fertility of Pithecusae’s volcanic soil was desirable to the Euboean settlers, more alluring to the Iron Age colonists were its ample iron ore reserves. In the eighth century BCE, iron was the new bronze and the adventurous settlers were willing to travel far and wide for their current metal of choice.

Because of its protected, well-positioned harbor along with its vast resources, trade networks were bountiful in Pithecusae. The island traded heavily not only with their mainland neighbors of Campania, Apulia, Etruria and Latium but also with the Near East and Carthage, amongst others. Throughout Greek settlements, Pithecusae was recognized as having the widest-range of objects from the farthest reaches of the Iron Age Mediterranean.

The Cup of Nestor?

Today, chief among Pithecusaean objects of interest is a seven-inch cup, originally made on the island of Rhodes and dated to around 750 BCE. Battered and diminutive, at first glance this artifact is unimpressive, but upon closer inspection an engraving can be found that has sparked no small amount of interest in the academic community.

the "cup of Nestor"

The “Cup of Nestor”

The etching, believed to have been scribbled in Pithecusae around 725 BCE, is not only the earliest example we have of Greek writing, more compelling still is that this is the first example we have of Greek poetry! Two of the three lines of text are in Homeric hexameter and refer to Nestor, a character from Homer’s Iliad:

“I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway Desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.”

Ironically, the earliest recorded evidence we have of Homer’s epic hymn is in the form of a joke. Both as a pun demonstrated by its modest size as in The Iliad Nestor’s cup was notorious for being too heavy to lift; and as a bawdy quip as the reference to Aphrodite bespeaks. That eighth century Greeks living on the edge of Magna Graecia could jest about the Homeric legends testifies to how deeply ingrained, even prosaic, Homer’s narratives must have been. Undeniably, The Iliad was originally composed as an oral hymn, to be sung or recited, possibly as early as 1200 BCE with its written format believed to have been penned anywhere from 725 BCE to 634 BCE.

As a result of the discovery of the etching on this obscure cup in the backwaters of ancient Greece, some scholars now argue that the date of Homer’s poem must be pushed back for knowledge of his verses to be as common as this cup attests.

Homer recites poem

Homer recites a poem

Sadly, in contrast to its amusing engraving this cup has a more sobering epilogue; it was discovered in the grave of a ten-year old boy offered by his father in a funeral pyre. Doubly tragic is that the young lad, who was in death its final recipient, would never know the adult delight the cup’s inscription signified. The somber conclusion of this cup’s destiny is a reminder that in the Greek world omnipresent death was humor’s dark companion.

Which brings us to the fate of Pithecusae; in a land of firsts with a population boasting ten thousand at its zenith in 700 BCE, why was this plucky Greek settlement not better known? While it was the rich volcanic soil that initially lured the Greeks to settle the island of Pithecusae, the reason for its demise lies also in the soil’s combustible origins.

According to geographer and historian Strabo (64 BCE to 24 CE), severe volcanic and earthquake activity impacted Pithecusae’s acclaim leading one classical scholar to term it “the lid of a cauldron.” Indeed, due to its geological volatility, an exodus ensued and Pithecusae’s bustling trade was eventually transferred to the nearby Greek settlement of Cumae on the southern Italian mainland. Most historians agree that by 500 BCE the settlement of Pithecusae was all but destroyed by a volcanic eruption of Mount Epomeo, the island’s largest volcano.

Perhaps in a fitting Homeric denouement, the fiery fate of Nestor’s Cup foreshadowed the incendiary collapse of the once burgeoning land from which it sprung.