Greeks, Phoenicians and the Western Mediterranean: 800–480 BC

At the dawn of the eighth century BC, a new town was founded on the west coast of the island of Euboea. The earliest settlers were probably refugees from the Dark Age town of Lefkandi, which had been abandoned in the early eighth century, for reasons unknown. This little settlement, stretching between a fine natural harbour and a naturally defensible acropolis rock facing the Greek mainland, bore the name of Eretria. Here, around 720 BC, a local prince was buried in extraordinary splendour. The dead man’s ashes were set in a bronze cauldron, with a second cauldron to serve as a lid; four swords and six spears were buried alongside him. Over the next forty years fifteen more family members were buried around this original tomb, in rich graves adorned with weapons and gold jewellery. For sheer ostentatious display of wealth, no other site in Greece at this period can match this group of Eretrian tombs. But around 680 BC, the series of burials came to an abrupt end. A huge triangular monument was built over the tombs, transforming an active private burial plot into a public cult site. This elite family had passed out of the present-day world of Eretria and become part of its past. A line had been drawn; the age of the basileis was at an end. In the eighth and seventh centuries BC individual communities right across the Greek world were beginning the slow process of turning themselves into poleis, ‘citizen-states’.

The rise of the Greek polis will be the central theme of this chapter. After exploring the evidence for the emergence of poleis in mainland Greece in the eighth century BC, we shall move on to see how the culture of the Greek world in this period was transformed under the influence of the civilizations of Egypt and the Near East. We shall see how, in turn, this cultural revolution spread to the central and western Mediterranean with the great colonizing movements (both Greek and Phoenician) of the eighth and seventh centuries BC. We then return to the world of the Greek polis, and the Greeks’ growing sense of a common ‘Hellenic’ identity in the sixth century BC. The chapter closes at the turn of the fifth century BC, with the Greek poleis facing the rise of a new Great Power in the east, the empire of the Persians.


Map 10. The Aegean c. 700 BC.

We begin with the notoriously difficult question of what a polis actually was. Essentially the term refers to a ‘citizen-state’, a clearly defined territory under the authority of a single political community. The key concept is that of the community, the body ofpolitai or citizens. The period 800–500 BC is characterized by the ever-increasing participation in the business of politics – literally, ‘polis-affairs’ – by the ordinary man. And there were a lot more ordinary men around in 500 BC than in 800 BC: the eighth century BC, in particular, seems to have been a period of explosive population growth throughout the Greek world. Around 600 BC a disgruntled aristocrat, the poet Theognis of Megara, complained that his polis was coming to be dominated by ‘people who formerly knew neither justice nor laws, but wore tattered goatskins around their sides and lived outside this polis like deer’. Needless to say, class distinctions between the goatskin-clad masses and the increasingly grouchy elite did not disappear overnight. The average polis in the period 700–500 BC was probably dominated, formally or informally, by a small aristocratic elite of a few wealthy families. But the fledgling citizen-states soon began to develop formal structures of authority which the Dark Age chiefdoms had never possessed. The process of power-sharing between elite families led to the definition of specific political offices and magistracies. The seventh century saw the emergence of the earliest law-codes, most of which are specifically concerned with limiting the powers of individual magistrates. In several states, a single family managed for a period to exclude its rivals from office, in which case the government was called ‘tyranny’, a term which did not develop its negative connotations until the later fifth centuryBC. There is some truth in the ancient view that tyranny marked a step towards true democratic government, since tyrants were largely reliant on the consent and support of the wider political community.

Whatever the precise mode of government, the crucial development in this period is the increasing sense of belonging to a political community. By 500 BC, self-identification as a citizen of a polis was so central to social relations that it became embedded in Greek naming practices. Henceforth, Greeks were known by a given name, their father’s name, and the name of their polis: ‘Cleomenes, son of Anaxandridas, Lacedaemonian’.

The evidence of archaeology can also help us trace the rise of the polis as the dominant form of social organization in the Greek world. Here, we focus on two crucial developments. The first is the eighth- and seventh-century proliferation of rural sanctuaries in marginal districts, whether at the fringe of a plain, in mountainous areas or on the coast. These sanctuaries can be regarded as highly visible ways of delimiting a political territory, of staking out a claim to a boundary between one’s own land and that of one’s neighbours. The case of Corinth may serve as an example. Corinth lies on a narrow neck of land, the Isthmus, connecting the Peloponnese to mainland Greece proper (see Map 11). In the early Iron Age, the population of the Isthmus region seems to have been small and widely dispersed. Only two sites in the region show any regular and continuous activity: a small communal sanctuary at Isthmia, and a loosely nucleated settlement at Corinth itself. In the early eighth century a new sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Hera was founded at Perachora, in an extremely isolated coastal position on the far north-eastern limits of the Corinthian sphere of control. Despite its unpromising location, on a rugged peninsula with poor water supply and a tiny harbour, Perachora had developed by the early seventh century into one of the richest sanctuaries in the Greek world, attracting lavish dedications of gold, jewellery, scarabs and faience. It was precisely the fact that Perachora was so far from the main centre of settlement which gave it its appeal: it ostentatiously marked the furthest reach of Corinthian power.

The fact that these rich dedications exist at all is important evidence for a change in the attitudes of the aristocratic elite towards their communities, as in the tombs at Eretria. The eighth century sees an abrupt rise in the quantity and quality of votive offerings in sanctuaries, marking a shift from display of elite wealth in exclusively private contexts, particularly burials, to a more public sphere of highly visible dedications. Dedications of bronze tripods and arms and armour start to appear at the old Isthmia sanctuary in the eighth century, in a pattern of increasing expenditure which culminates in the seventh century with the construction of the first monumental temple at Isthmia, a rectangular building measuring 40 × 14 metres, with stone walls and a tiled roof supported by wooden columns. We might add that the sheer human resources and corporate organization required to produce a building of this kind is a fairly reliable marker of the emergence of a centralized Corinthian state.


Map 11. Corinth, Perachora and Isthmia.


Figure 10. Changing patterns of cemeteries and settlements at Athens, 700–500 BC. Cemeteries are marked with solid circles, and traces of settlement are marked ‘S’.

A second type of archaeological evidence for polis-formation, which begins to appear at a slightly later date, is the emergence of clearly defined urban spaces. In the late eighth century BC Corinth consisted of a cluster of hamlets, separated by broad open spaces and market gardens, loosely concentrated around a looming acropolis rock, the hill of Acrocorinth. Eighth-century Athens presents a very similar picture (see Figure 10). In both cases, eighth-century burials are found scattered across the entire settlement area, with separate burial plots grouped around each individual cluster of habitation. After 700, however, all the cemeteries are very swiftly pushed outwards into a single outer zone, beyond the inhabited area altogether: a sharp distinction is drawn between the spaces reserved for the living and the dead. The inhabitants of the cluster of hamlets had chosen to combine to form a single bounded conurbation. Over the course of the seventh and sixth centuries, open areas within these conurbations gradually started to take on the function of civic and economic centres for the whole community. By the late sixth century, this new public space, the agora (‘gathering-place’), had been clearly marked off from residential districts and reserved for public functions. Within the urban space, a distinction was drawn between the public and private spheres.

This division of a settlement into different zones, separating residential and burial districts and private and public spaces, is perhaps the most distinctive sign of the emergence of a unified political community. In many cases, probably in most cases, this ‘zoning’ of different spaces with different functions led ultimately to full-scale urbanization: a sharp increase in population density, the construction of a wall surrounding the settlement, and the emergence of a market economy. By 500 BC most citizen-states were also city-states, with a single densely populated urban centre. But although urbanization was certainly widespread, it was not in fact a necessary and inevitable stage in the rise of the polis. Notoriously, the political centre of Sparta in the southern Peloponnese was never more than a loose cluster of five unwalled villages; no one has ever wished to deny Sparta the status of a polis on that account. Nonetheless, as early as the seventh century the villages of Sparta had developed the use of a single agora, defined in a seventh-century Spartan constitutional document as the space ‘between Babyka and Knakion’, a river and a bridge respectively. Once again, the most reliable evidence for political unification is the division of private and public space.

We have already seen one major change in the patterns of elite behaviour: the shift from the display of wealth in private contexts, particularly burials, to a more publicly visible investment in sanctuaries and temples. Another marked shift occurs over the same period, in the kinds of objects which aristocrats wished to be associated with. In the course of the eighth and seventh centuries BC the material culture of the Greek elites was transformed under the influence of Near Eastern and Egyptian models. This transformation is visible in almost every aspect of Greek material culture, so much so that these two centuries have become known to archaeologists as the ‘Orientalizing’ period of Greek history.

Most fine Greek pottery of the eleventh to the early eighth centuries BC had been decorated in the so-called ‘geometric’ style, characterized by abstract linear designs (meanders, zigzags, compass-drawn circles), although figural representations of animals, humans and even primitive narrative scenes were becoming ever more common. In the course of the eighth and early seventh centuries, the geometric tradition was unceremoniously scrapped, to be replaced by an entirely new style. As before, figures are painted in black, but they now possess physiognomical details, incised with a sharp instrument. An entirely new repertoire of naturalistic figures appears out of nowhere: wild beasts, fabulous monsters and exotic plants like lotus flowers, unknown in Greece (see Plate 6). This is not evolution, but an outright revolution. Both the technique and the imagery of these new vase-types derive directly from the pottery and metalwork of the Levant and Near East. The influence of north Syrian bronze-work can be seen on Crete already in the eighth and early seventh century, in an extraordinary collection of bronze shields and cymbals from the cave of Zeus on Mt. Ida. These bronze objects, with animal-head bosses and circular friezes depicting Assyrian-style hunting scenes, may actually have been made by immigrant Syrian artisans. However, there can be no doubt that most oriental-style bronzes in Greece were made by Greek craftsmen imitating eastern styles. In the seventh and sixth centuries, bronze cauldrons with cast griffin and lion heads attached to the upper rim were among the most popular dedications in Greek sanctuaries. The earliest of these were certainly imported from the Levant, but Greeks were soon producing these exotic objects in large numbers: we can infer the existence of specialized Greek workshops producing griffin attachments for the great sanctuaries of Olympia in the Peloponnese and the temple of Hera on the east Greek island of Samos.

Syria was not the only source of inspiration. From the mid-seventh century BC Greek sanctuaries began to fill up with statues of standing male figures, life-size or larger, always naked, facing forward, with one foot slightly advanced. These monumental statue-dedications, known as kouroi, have no precedent in Greek art, and scholars agree that the form is directly imitated from contemporary Egyptian stone sculpture. It is possible, though less certain, that the monumental stone temples which appear for the first time in the Greek world in the seventh century BC also owed something to the example of Egyptian temple architecture.

A different part of the Near East, coastal Phoenicia (whose crucial role in the tenth- and ninth-century Levant was described in the last chapter), was the source of one of the most important imports to the Greek world from the east. The Greek alphabet is a light adaptation of the Phoenician alphabetic script, which had been in use since at least the twelfth century BC. The names of the letters of the Greek alphabet carry Phoenician names: alpha, beta, gamma, corresponding to Phoenician aleph, beth, gimel, ‘ox’, ‘house’, ‘stick’. Originally, we may suppose, this was a mnemonic sequence designed to help Phoenicians learning to read and write; the sequence was preserved for the Greek alphabet, even though the names themselves had no meaning, and hence no mnemonic function, in a Greek context.

The date at which the alphabet was imported to Greece has been deeply controversial, but a consensus has hardened around the early eighth century. We have not a single example of Greek alphabetic writing before 775 BC, yet inscriptions from the latter half of the eighth century BC number in the dozens. This innovative new technology spread fast. Eighth-century Greek inscriptions on pottery have been found at Al Mina in Syria, Cretan Kommos, Rhodes and Kalymnos in the Dodecanese, the Aegean islands of Naxos and Euboea, Athens, and the Euboean colony of Pithecoussae on the bay of Naples. Most of these texts are everyday owners’ inscriptions or dedications, ‘I am the drinking-cup of Korakos’ and suchlike. Perhaps the most remarkable early written texts yet known to us are the hundreds of inscribed potsherds of the seventh and sixth centuries BC from a sanctuary of Zeus on the peak of Mt. Hymettos, just south of Athens. The content of these short texts seems, at first sight, to bear little relation to their function as dedications to Zeus: nonsense-inscriptions, alphabets, even the names of other random Greek deities. The key to understanding the Hymettos dedications is provided by one sherd on which the dedicator’s name is followed by the telling words tade autos egrapse, ‘he wrote this himself’. Alphabetic writing was still a sufficiently rare and prestigious skill that even the smallest scrap of writing, a bare alpha beta gamma, could be considered a worthy offering to the god.

Near Eastern influence can be detected not only in pottery and metalwork, sculpture and the alphabet, but also in much early Greek literature and myth. The earliest surviving Greek literary work is probably the Theogony of Hesiod (around 700 BC), a narrative poem describing the origins of the world and the genealogies and internecine wars of the gods. Many of the stories of the gods recounted in the Theogony have strikingly close parallels with Hittite, Babylonian and other Near Eastern wisdom literature. For example, Hesiod describes how the sky-god Ouranos was castrated by his son Kronos. Kronos goes on to have five children by his wife Rhea, but fearing a prophecy that one of them will eventually depose him, he swallows each one immediately after its birth. The sixth child is the storm-god Zeus, whom Rhea saves by presenting Kronos with a Zeus-shaped stone wrapped in baby’s clothes, which he duly swallows. Zeus grows up to conquer his father, and Kronos is forced to vomit up all his earlier children, along with the deceptive stone. The stone is eventually set up as an object of worship at the oracular shrine of Delphi. Almost every element in this story – the castration of the sky-god, his successor devouring his own sons, the false stone which is later set up as a cult object, the eventual victory of the storm-god – can be closely paralleled in a Hittite theological text of the thirteenth century BC, the Song of Kumarbi. In the absence of any Greek literary texts before Hesiod, it is impossible to say exactly when and how the transfer of ideas occurred, but the general direction of traffic is unmistakeable.

The fourth-century philosopher Plato wrote that ‘whenever Greeks borrow anything from non-Greeks, they take it to a higher state of perfection’. We do not need to subscribe to Plato’s (understandable) value-judgement about Greek borrowings – Greek griffins are not obviously more perfect than Assyrian griffins – to agree that the Greeks were not merely passive recipients of oriental culture. The male kouroi-statues, while clearly Egyptian in inspiration, are thoroughly non-Egyptian in execution. Egyptian male statues invariably wear at least a kilt; Greek kouroi, by contrast, are almost always nude. Male nudity is unparalleled in Egyptian art, and reflects a distinctively Greek cultural preference. We can see here an oriental prototype being modified to accord with Greek social expectations and tastes. Still more striking is the Greek adaptation of the monumental stone statue-type for female figures. The Greeks had long been producing rather rigid wooden statues of female figures, particularly for cult statues of goddesses. In the mid-seventh century, around the time of the earliest kouroi, stone statues of women (korai) also start to appear in Greek sanctuaries. Unlike the kouroi, these female figures are always depicted fully clothed. Probably the earliest of these stone korai is a life-size statue from the small island of Delos, dated to around 650 BC. An inscription cut on the statue’s dress identifies her commissioner as a woman, Nikandrē: ‘Nikandrē dedicated me to the far-shooter of arrows (the goddess Artemis) – the outstanding daughter of Deinodikes of Naxos, sister of Deinomenes, wife of Phraxos.’ It is not clear whether the statue is intended as a representation of Artemis, or of Nikandrē herself, who is defined entirely in relation to her male relatives: father, brother and husband. The interesting thing here is how the Greeks creatively adapted the new medium of stone statuary to fit the purely Greek artistic tradition of free-standing draped female figures (see Plates 9–10).

We have seen that the eighth and seventh centuries saw an ‘Orientalizing’ revolution in Greek culture and society. A more controversial question follows from this. Objects and ideas are not transmitted by osmosis; they are carried by individual people, physically moving between different cultural zones, trading, talking, eating and marrying with other individuals. How exactly did the Greeks come into contact with the cultures of the Near East and Egypt? Who was carrying what to whom, and, perhaps most crucially, where?

Modern archaeologists have emphasized the key intermediary role played by the Phoenicians, inhabitants of the coastline of modern Lebanon. Phoenicia in the early first millennium BC was divided into a number of independent city-kingdoms, the most important of which were Sidon, Byblos and above all Tyre. These cities held a strategic position between the three great cultural zones of the Near East: Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Since the mid-second millennium BC the Phoenicians had acted as intermediaries in the transport of goods between the great powers: the grain supply of the Hittites was largely in Phoenician hands, and the timberless Egyptians were always heavily dependent on Phoenician imports of wood. Then, in the early ninth century, the Phoenician cities had come within the orbit of the Neo-Assyrian empire of northern Mesopotamia. The Assyrians demanded a steady flow of Phoenician luxury goods, in particular ivory, metalwork and textiles; Egyptian imports to Assyria were also channelled through Phoenicia. Most importantly, the Phoenicians were the main suppliers of raw materials to the Assyrian kings, of which the most important was iron. The Phoenicians rapidly expanded their sphere of maritime commerce westwards into the Mediterranean to meet this demand. The first port of call was the mineral-rich island of Cyprus; in the late ninth century a Phoenician settlement, complete with monumental temple of the Phoenician goddess Astarte, was founded at Kition on the south coast of the island. From Cyprus, the main shipping route led due west to Crete, and around 800 BC a small Phoenician shrine was built at the harbour site of Kommos on the southern coast of Crete (see Figure 11). Numerous fragments of Phoenician transport jars were also found around the sanctuary. To all appearances, Kommos was not a permanent Phoenician settlement, but rather a watering and trading post, one of a chain of landfalls at which Phoenician ships regularly put in on their way west towards mainland Greece or Libya. By now the Phoenicians must have been in regular contact with Greek maritime traders; the harbour at Kommos is known to have been frequented by sailors from Boeotia in central Greece by the seventh century BC at the latest.


Figure 11. Phoenician tri-pillar shrine at Kommos.

The importance of Crete and Cyprus as points of contact between the Greek world and the Near East is beyond doubt. Whether the Greeks themselves actively penetrated further into the Levantine world is, however, a matter of deep controversy. In the second quarter of the eighth century BC, a new coastal settlement was established at Al Mina in northern Syria, at the mouth of the Orontes river. Virtually all the excavated pottery from the earliest phase of the settlement (c. 775– 725 BC) is of Greek, specifically Euboean, origin; during the second phase, which finishes in around 700 BC, around half the pottery is Euboean, with the rest deriving from Cyprus and Syria. Pottery from other parts of the Greek world is almost entirely absent. Who, then, were the inhabitants of eighth-century Al Mina? Sir Leonard Woolley, who excavated the site in the 1930s, argued that Al Mina was a Greek settlement, and until the 1980s most archaeologists subscribed to this view. They emphasized the overwhelming preponderance of Greek Euboean wares in the pottery record from Al Mina, and the fact that no other site on the Levantine coast has produced anything like the quantity of Greek ceramics found at Al Mina. On this view, the Euboean pottery marks the existence of a Euboean emporionor ‘trading post’ at Al Mina.

Over the past thirty years, however, a growing number of archaeologists have vigorously argued that this Greek trading post is a myth. They have emphasized the non-Greek elements in the architecture of the site (mud-brick rather than stone), the absence of Greek-style burials or cults, and the fact that the Euboean pottery consisted almost entirely of drinking vessels, with no sign of the cooking pots and plain day-to-day pottery one would expect at a Greek settlement. On this view, the Greek drinking-cups were brought from Euboea to Al Mina by long-distance Levantine traders, probably Phoenicians, who found Euboean wares particularly desirable. There need never have been any Greeks at Al Mina at all.

The archaeological evidence alone cannot decide the question one way or the other. It is unlikely that there will ever be any objective proof of who brought the Euboean pots to Al Mina and who used them once they had arrived there. That is not to say that the problem cannot be solved. At present the debate hinges on a fundamental disagreement as to whether Greek-style drinking-vessels were attractive and desirable to easterners; a comprehensive study of the types and quantity of Greek ceramics being exported to the Near East in the eighth century might well settle the question once and for all. But the debate over how to interpret the settlement at Al Mina has wider implications, reflecting as it does two opposing and incompatible views of the development of Greek ‘Orientalizing’ culture in the eighth and seventh centuries. To an older generation of archaeologists, predominantly from Britain and Germany, Euboean Al Mina marks the point at which vigorous and enterprising Greeks gained a foothold on the rim of the orient, from which they could select and assimilate the most valuable skills and technologies of the civilizations of the Near East. To a younger generation of scholars, predominantly from the New World (the United States and Australia), Levantine Al Mina reflects the essential passivity of the Greeks in their encounter with Near Eastern culture. It was, by contrast, the seaborne Phoenicians who made the running in the eighth century, penetrating deep into Aegean waters and flooding Greek harbour-towns with their products, both material and cultural.

The debate is perhaps more about modern ideology than ancient pottery. It is true that the development of the Mediterranean world in the early first millennium BC has traditionally been seen almost entirely from a Greek perspective. As one distinguished archaeologist has put it, there is an inexcusable tendency among historians and archaeologists to portray the non-Greek peoples of the Mediterranean as ‘people waiting for something interesting and Greek to happen to them’. It is distressing to contemplate how far the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century characterization of the Phoenicians as ‘mere traders’ might have reflected, and supported, contemporary stereotypes of Semitic peoples more generally. But there is no less of a danger in overplaying the Phoenician contribution to European history. By a kind of retrospective positive discrimination, the Phoenicians are sometimes given the credit for every significant historical and artistic development of the eighth and seventh centuries, with the Greeks stumbling along in their wake. This is little more than ideologically driven wishful thinking.

Black Athena

The most influential and controversial account in recent times of the relations between the Greek world and its non-Greek neighbours is the mammoth work by Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation (published in three volumes between 1987 and 2006). In this work, Bernal proposed two major theses: first, that the origins of Greek civilization are to be sought in Africa, specifically in Egypt; and second, that since the eighteenth century this fact has been systematically and deliberately concealed by western scholars, whether through Eurocentrism or downright racism.

Reactions to Bernal’s work have been passionate, ill-tempered and, at times, breathtakingly arrogant: one critic has suggested that ‘Bernal’s argument … can safely be ignored because Bernal is an expert in Chinese politics, not a trained classicist’. There is certainly much to disagree with in Black Athena, not least Bernal’s oddly single-minded focus on Egypt as the fountainhead of Greek culture, to the near-total exclusion of the Near East. Nor has Bernal helped his cause by his eager endorsement of such crude and muddled rants as George James’s Stolen Legacy: The Greeks were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, But the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians (1954). To be fair, Bernal has never gone so far as to argue, as James and others have done, that Cleopatra or Socrates was black, or that Aristotle stole his philosophical ideas from the Egyptians by ransacking the library at Alexandria (founded several decades after Aristotle’s death).

Bernal’s own position is better represented by his passing reference, in the first volume of Black Athena, to ‘Pharoahs whom one can usefully call black’. Bernal justifies this criterion of ‘usefulness’ as follows: ‘There is no doubt that the concept of “race” is of overwhelming importance today. Thus, I believe that both my emphasis on the African nature of Egyptian civilisation and the presence of people “whom one can usefully call black” among its rulers are important to contemporary readers. This is to counter the cultural debilitation to peoples of African descent brought about by implicit assumptions or explicit statements that there has never been a great “African” culture which has contributed to world civilisation as a whole and that “Blacks” have always been servile.’ That seems to us to be decent, fair-minded, and well argued; whether or not it is the right way to go about writing history, we leave to the reader to decide.

The ‘Orientalizing’ phenomenon of the eighth and seventh centuries BC sets the scene for another major historical development of the period, the simultaneous Greek and Phoenician penetration of the western Mediterranean. Contacts between the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean between the eleventh and eighth centuries had been very sporadic indeed. Over the first half of the eighth century, this traffic picked up speed. Successive waves of Greeks and Phoenicians sailed westwards in ever greater numbers, founding hundreds of new settlements on the coasts of the western Mediterranean. One of the earliest western outposts was the settlement of Pithecoussae, on the island of Ischia in the bay of Naples, dating to around 770 BC. The location of Pithecoussae, on a small island just off the coast of the mainland, is characteristic of the earliest Greek and Phoenician settlements in the west: Sulcis, on the island of Sant’Antioco off the coast of Sardinia, is very similarly situated. This offshore location reflects the primary role of the early western settlements as ports of trade, gateway communities through which trade was conducted with the indigenous peoples of the hinterland.

In the earliest phase of colonization in the western Mediterranean, no hard line can be drawn between Greek and Phoenician activity. Pithecoussae, although predominantly a colony of Euboean Greeks, was also home to substantial groups of Corinthians, Phoenicians and native Italians. It was no doubt due to their multicultural character that places like Pithecoussae were often at the forefront of new developments, such as writing. But Greek and Phoenician colonizing activity in the western Mediterranean soon took sharply divergent paths. The Greek colonies in the west were overwhelmingly concentrated in southern Italy and eastern Sicily, while the Phoenicians directed their attentions towards Spain and North Africa. More interestingly, there are clear differences in the physical form and functions of the new settlements. A few concrete examples will illustrate the point.


Map 12. The western Mediterranean c. 650 BC.

The earliest Phoenician contacts with the western Mediterranean seem to date to the tenth and ninth centuries BC, but it was not until the early eighth century that Phoenician traders began to settle permanently in the far west. The emergence of a west-Mediterranean Phoenician diaspora was remarkably rapid. In the late ninth and eighth centuries, the Phoenicians had established settlements in Tunisia (Carthage and Utica), western Sicily (Motya, Palermo, Solunto), Malta, Sardinia, Ibiza, and the Andalusian coast of Spain. Without exception, the Phoenician foundations in the west were situated so as to tap into pre-existing trading-circuits and areas of surplus production. The great colony of Gadir (later known to the Romans as Gades, whence its modern name of Cadiz) is an excellent illustration of what the Phoenicians were seeking from the west. Gadir is situated on an island off the south coast of Andalusia, just outside the straits of Gibraltar. On the Andalusian mainland lay the region known to the Greeks as Tartessos, essentially consisting of the Guadalquivir valley and the Huelva region. Here the Phoenicians encountered a late Bronze Age people whose contacts with the wider Mediterranean world had hitherto been tentative at best. However, the indigenous Tartessians controlled one of the major precious-metal sources of the Mediterranean, the Rio Tinto mines in the Huelva province, with rich seams of copper, silver, gold, lead and iron. Local exploitation of these mines in the tenth and ninth centuries seems to have been on a fairly small-scale, and more or less restricted to copper-extraction. The eighth-century Phoenician settlers at Gadir brought with them new silver-smelting technology, vastly superior to the metallurgical techniques employed by the native Iberians; crucially, they could also provide a ready-made market for bulk precious metals in their eastern Mediterranean homeland. From the mid-eighth century we see a massive acceleration of activity at the mines of the Huelva and Guadalquivir regions, as the Tartessian elites realized the profits to be gained from exporting silver and other metals through their new Phoenician trading partners.

We should lay equal emphasis on what did not happen at Gadir. Although the Phoenician settlement undoubtedly prospered, it remained an offshore trading post, never exercising any kind of political dominance in southern Andalusia. We have no indication that the Phoenicians made any attempt to annex Tartessian resources outright, or even to occupy and cultivate their own patch of territory on the mainland. Instead, economic expansion at Gadir took the form of a rash of maritime daughter-colonies, spreading north and south along the Atlantic coastlines of Portugal and Morocco, through which the Phoenicians could tap into another pre-existing commercial system, the east Atlantic tin trade. Phoenician settlement in the western Mediterranean has been neatly described as ‘maritime urbanization’. Although the western colonies did eventually become self-sufficient, places like Gadir were fundamentally dependent on the merchant shipping routes, like umbilical cords tying them to their Phoenician mother-cities in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Greek experience in Sicily and southern Italy was different. The colony of Metapontum, on the gulf of Tarentum in the instep of southern Italy, is an extreme but not wholly uncharacteristic example. This part of the south Italian coast was originally inhabited by an indigenous Italic people known to the Greeks as the Oenotrians. By the first half of the seventh century BC, the most important settlement in the region was at a small hill-site called Incoronata, about 8 kilometres inland, inhabited by a mixed population of native Oenotrians and a small group of ‘pre-colonial’ Greek settlers. Around 630 BC a large group of Achaeans from the north-east Peloponnese settled on the coast at Metapontum. Incoronata was promptly abandoned; when the site was occupied again a generation later, there was no longer any trace of the indigenous Italians. Shortly after the arrival of the Greeks at Metapontum, a new Greek sanctuary was founded at San Biagio, 7 kilometres north-west of the new urban centre, and very close to the recently abandoned site of Incoronata. It is tempting to suppose, on the model of outlying religious centres like Perachora in mainland Greece, that this sanctuary was in part intended to stake out the new settlers’ claim to all the territory lying between Metapontum and San Biagio. This territory was soon being parcelled up into rectangular farm-plots; the agricultural productivity of the region increased sharply, with the introduction of crop rotation and new Greek-style farming techniques. It appears that the early history of Metapontum was marked by violent displacement of the native Italic population, and aggressive acquisition and cultivation of large stretches of agricultural land, which were then divided into egalitarian plots for new Greek settlers. These settlers were clearly eager to achieve self-sufficiency right from the outset, and had no particular interest in maintaining good relations with their Italic neighbours. The picture could not be more different from the Phoenician model of settlement in Andalusia.

However, not all Greek settlements in the west were inspired purely by land-hunger. Perhaps the clearest example of a Greek settlement prospering through commerce with its non-Greek neighbours is Massilia, modern Marseilles, founded by Greeks from western Asia Minor around 600 BC on a magnificent natural harbour near the mouth of the Rhône (see Map 13). Southern France was the last area of the western Mediterranean to be opened up to eastern influence. In the seventh century BC the Etruscans had established a handful of trading posts on the Golfe du Lion, through which Etruscan wine was exported to Provence, Languedoc and the Rhône valley, but no Greek or Phoenician settlements are known in the region before the founding of Massilia. For the first fifty years or so of its existence the Greek settlers at Massilia seem to have been content to act as middlemen on the existing trading route between Etruria and Provence-Languedoc. Meanwhile, however, the Massiliots were also busy establishing an agricultural enclave on the coastal plain around the settlement, introducing viticulture to the region for the first time. Once local production of wine reached a sufficient level, the Massiliots could effortlessly undercut Etruscan imports. Around 540 BC Etruscan wine-jars abruptly stop being imported to southern France, to be replaced by a near-total monopoly of new-style wine-jars produced at Massilia itself. Massiliot wine was soon pouring northward through the Rhône corridor between the Massif Central and the Alps, into lands which had previously enjoyed minimal contact with the cultures of the Mediterranean (see Map 14).


Map 13. Massilia, showing the area of the settlement at three moments, 600, 500 and 100 BC. The settlement was located on the slopes north of the magnificent natural harbour; dashed lines within that harbour and to the west represent the modern coastline.

Thus far we have focused on the differences in the character of the Phoenician and Greek colonization of the west. We turn now to the overall impact of this western colonization on the course of European history. We have already seen how Greek society in the eighth and seventh centuries was transformed under the influence of Egyptian and Near Eastern art and technology. So too the cultures of the native elites of western Europe underwent profound changes through their integration into the Orientalizing culture of the eastern Mediterranean. In the Phoenician sphere of influence, the Tartessian elites of the Huelva region and Guadalquivir valley profited enormously from Phoenician export of their precious metal resources. Predictably enough, these local princes adopted the trappings of Phoenician culture with a vengeance. The huge princely burial mounds in the Guadalquivir valley rapidly start to show strong influence of Phoenician burial practices, and the graves themselves increasingly contain valuable luxury goods (bronzes, ivory and gold jewellery) of Phoenician origin. By the fifth century BC, a highly sophisticated new urban culture had emerged along the Mediterranean coasts of Spain under Phoenician and Greek influence (see Plate 17). We shall return to the changing world of the fifth- and fourth-century Iberians in Chapter 6.

In the ‘Greek’ sphere of influence in southern France, the opening up of the trade route from Massilia up the Rhône valley had an even more powerful impact. In the late ‘Urnfield’ period (above, pp. 69–72), the region north of the Alps, from Burgundy in the west to the Czech Republic in the east, was home to a stable, relatively homogeneous Iron Age cultural group collectively referred to by archaeologists as the Hallstatt culture (named after a salt-mining town in Austria). In the sixth century BC, as prestige goods of Mediterranean manufacture began to travel north along the Rhône corridor in increasing quantities, the western half of the Hallstatt zone underwent an extraordinary transformation. A new elite class emerged, residing in Greek-style fortified hilltop towns, marked out from their contemporaries by their conspicuous consumption of Greek luxury goods. The most thoroughly excavated of the Hallstatt princely residences is at the Heuneburg, on the river Danube near the modern town of Ulm. In the early sixth centuryBC, the Heuneburg was rebuilt with a new, planned layout of houses, encircled by a rectilinear defensive wall built of sun-dried bricks (see Figure 12). The fortification wall is unique in Europe north of the Alps, and seems to have been constructed by a Greek or Etruscan architect.


Map 14. Distribution of Massiliot wine-jars, c. 560–500 BC.


Figure 12. The south-east corner of the Heuneburg, with ‘Greek-style’ mud-brick fortifications. Note the density of housing within the wall-circuit.

Appropriately enough, these enthusiastic consumers of Massiliot wine were particularly keen to purchase Greek wine-drinking equipment. The Hallstatt elites adapted Greek drinking practices to fit their own needs; in some cases, Greek drinking-vessels seem to have been used for drinking mead rather than wine. One of the most westerly of the Hallstatt princely residences was located at Vix, near Châtillon-sur-Seine, some 300 kilometres west of the Heuneburg. A Hallstatt queen was buried at Vix around 500 BC in a huge barrow tomb (see Plate 13). The deceased queen was laid out on a wagon in traditional Hallstatt style, wearing a fine golden torc or necklace of local manufacture. The burial is, however, dominated by an enormous bronze krater or wine-mixing bowl, probably made in one of the Greek cities of southern Italy, accompanied by several fine Attic drinking-vessels.

The heyday of the Hellenizing West Hallstatt chieftains, distinguished from their fellows by their self-conscious adoption of Greek culture, was cruelly short-lived. No more than two generations after the burial of the Vix queen, a huge square enclosure, 25 metres long on each side, was laid out nearby, to mark the tomb of another royal couple. At the entrance to the tomb stood a pair of stone statues, one of a male warrior, the other of a seated female wearing a torc. Soon after their erection, the two statues were decapitated and the tomb-enclosure was violently destroyed; this was the last of the royal burials at Vix. As we shall see in Chapter 5, the emergence of the West Hallstatt princely states had sparked revolutionary disturbances among the Celtic societies of central and northern Europe, with far-reaching consequences for the history of the Mediterranean world in the fourth and third centuries BC.

The arrival of the Greeks in the western Mediterranean had a similarly profound and far-reaching impact on the native peoples of the Italian peninsula. The ninth and eighth centuries had been marked by a dramatic growth in the size of settlements in central and northern Italy (above, pp. 72–3). The process is particularly clear in southern Etruria, where five huge nucleated centres, Caere, Tarquinii, Veii, Volsinii and Vulci, each between 100 and 200 hectares in size, had developed by the end of the ninth century. It is very striking that no Greek or Phoenician colonies are known anywhere on the west coast of Italy north of the bay of Naples, the longest stretch of coastline anywhere in the western Mediterranean left untouched by Graeco-Phoenician colonization. It is tempting to suppose that the unusually precocious urban development of Etruria left the region out of bounds for Greek and Phoenician settlers.

After the foundation of the earliest Greek colonies on the bay of Naples (Pithecoussae and Cumae) in the mid-eighth century BC, contacts between the Etruscans and the Greek world intensified. Fine Greek pottery appears in ever larger quantities in Etruscan tombs after 750 BC, and by the late eighth century Etruscan potters were producing high-quality local imitations of Corinthian geometric pots. One particularly lavish Etruscan burial from Tarquinii, dating between 700 and 675 BC, also contains a wide range of luxury Egyptian imports, including a fine faience vase carrying the name of the pharaoh Bokenranf (717–712 BC). The Etruscans had clearly wasted no time in tapping into the great trading networks of the eastern Mediterranean. The Etruscans rapidly adopted the new Graeco-Phoenician alphabet for writing their own native language; the earliest Etruscan inscriptions date to around 700 BC, a mere two generations after the first surviving graffiti back in Greece.

Around 600 BC Etruscan society entered a new phase. At Tarquinii, the urban fabric was for the first time cast in stone, with impressive new monuments including an 8-kilometre fortification wall, a large temple, and an ingenious water-distribution system. Simultaneously, the Tarquinians also founded a new harbour-town on the coast, Gravisca, as a trading-post for Greek merchant shipping from the East. The sixth century also saw a new peak in pottery imports from mainland Greece. Between 580 and 475 the Etruscans imported huge numbers of fine Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases, some of them made especially for the Etruscan market, an unusually large proportion of which have survived intact in elite Etruscan tombs. Sixth-century Etruscan tombs are quite unlike anything in mainland Greece at this period, taking the form of monumental stone chambers, often with intricately painted interiors; at Volsinii (modern Orvieto), the necropolis is laid out on a neat grid-pattern, with ‘streets’ of uniform stone tomb-chambers, each labelled with the occupant’s name. This ostentatiously egalitarian form of burial seems to be unique to Etruria.

‘Etruscan’ vases

Ancient painted pottery began to attract the interest of Italian and British antiquarians and collectors in the early eighteenth century. Most of the vases purchased by the early collectors came from tombs in Etruria and southern Italy, and it was naturally supposed that they were originally produced in Etruria. The most influential British collector was Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803), British envoy to the court of Naples from 1764. In 1766 Hamilton commissioned a fantastically lavish four-volume catalogue of his Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities, which he declared to be ‘equally proper for the completing of well understood Collections of Prints and Designs, or to furnish in a manner not only agreeable but useful and instructive, the Cabinet of a Man of Taste and letters’. Hamilton’s ‘Etruscan’ collection had an enormous influence on eighteenth-century British taste; in particular, the simple compositions and sedate themes favoured by Hamilton had a formative impact on the early neo-classical movement in Britain. In 1769 Josiah Wedgwood opened a ceramic factory in Staffordshire, which he named ‘Etruria’, inspired by Hamilton’s collection of impeccably tasteful ‘Etruscan’ vases. The six vases produced on the opening day of the new factory were modelled on a red-figure vase in the Hamilton collection depicting Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides; each vase carried the bold inscription ARTES ETRURIAE RENASCUNTUR, ‘The Arts of Etruria are reborn.’

The belief that ‘Etruscan’ vases were originally made in Etruria was already being challenged in the eighteenth century – if they were native Etruscan work, why were all the painted vase-inscriptions in Greek? – and it is now thought that most of the vases discovered in Etruria were produced in the Kerameikos potters’ district of Athens. But eighteenth-century views on the artistic value of ‘Etruscan’ vases have had a more lasting influence. Hamilton’s lavish catalogue was primarily intended to push up the market value of his collection of vases (which he later sold to the British Museum for an astronomical sum). Consequently, he argued that ‘Etruscan’ vases were valuable and highly prized objets d’art in antiquity. This assertion is very dubious indeed. The highest price known to have been paid in antiquity for an Athenian painted vase is three drachmas, less than half the price of a second-hand ladder at the same period (eight drachmas), and vases with painted figures were only about a third more expensive than plain black vases. Nonetheless, a high artistic and monetary value is still attributed to sixth- and fifth-century painted pottery by many private collectors. In December 1993, a single sixth-century Etruscan vase was sold at Sotheby’s for more than £2 million.

The Etruscan reaction to the coming of the Greeks was very different from the local responses in Iberia and the West Hallstatt zone north of the Alps. Although the Etruscans borrowed many aspects of Greek material culture, the uses they chose to make of that culture were highly creative and innovative. The great phase of Etruscan urban development in the sixth century BC, although made possible by the influx of new wealth and new technologies from the Greek world, was ultimately wholly independent of the Greekpolis-model. Through becoming part of the wider Mediterranean world, bound together by Greek and Phoenician merchantmen, the Etruscans reaped huge economic and social benefits, without losing their distinctive local urban culture.

Whether looked at from Gravisca or Vix, Incoronata or Tartessos, the period from the eighth to the sixth century BC undoubtedly marks a critical stage in the development of Europe. Local cultures continued to flourish – in some cases, as in Etruria, in spectacular style – but the big story of the period is the ever-increasing connections between those cultures. The Greek and Phoenician diaspora in the west tied the whole Mediterranean into a single macro-economic system, with an increasingly homogeneous material culture stretching from Tyre to Gadir and from Massilia to Euboea, in which Egyptian faience was as prized at Tarquinii and Perachora as it was at Nineveh and Carthage. By 500 BC, we can for the first time talk about the Mediterranean world as a single cultural unit.

The Greeks had begun to use alphabetic writing some time in the early eighth century BC. The very earliest surviving pieces of writing are not hugely informative, but one short vase-inscription of the late eighth century offers us a remarkably evocative glimpse into the ways in which the first western Greeks conceived of their past. The text derives from the earliest Greek settlement in the west, the Euboean trading-centre of Pithecoussae on the bay of Naples. Here, around 730 BC, a boy of about 12 was buried along with a full set of Greek drinking-vessels, including a small drinking-cup of east Greek, possibly Rhodian, origin. This cup carried a three-line verse inscription in the Euboean script (see Figure 13): ‘I am the cup of Nestor, good to drink from. / Whoever drinks from this cup, he will immediately / Be seized by the desire of fair-crowned Aphrodite.’ This little scrap of verse, nicely evoking the mixture of wine, poetry and sex which characterized the early Greek aristocratic drinking party or symposion, is also our earliest indirect evidence for the existence of an oral poetic tradition about the Trojan War. That tradition knew of a hero called Nestor, king of Pylos, who went with the Achaean army to Troy. He took with him a famous cup, embossed with gold studs, with golden doves at the base of the handles, so large and heavy that an ordinary man could scarcely raise it from the table when full. The tiny clay drinking-vessel from Pithecoussae, claiming to be the mythical cup of Nestor, is in fact a joke. For the joke to be effective, we must assume that civilized drinking circles at Pithecoussae were expected to be au fait with a common tradition of oral epic poetry on the Trojan War – an oral tradition which achieved its final written form a generation later in the poems known as the Iliad and the Odyssey.


Figure 13. Greek verse inscription on ‘Nestor’s Cup’ (Pithecoussae, c. 730 BC). All three lines are written from right to left.

The Iliad and Odyssey are epic narrative poems of the heroic Bronze Age past (see Chapter 1 above), written down in the new alphabetic Greek script. The Iliad, some 16,000 lines long, recounts the events of a few dramatic weeks in the tenth year of the Achaean siege of Troy, culminating with the death and burial of the Trojan hero Hector. The Odyssey, 12,000 lines long and partly modelled on the Iliad, describes the return of one of the heroes of the Trojan War, Odysseus, to his native island of Ithaca after ten years’ wanderings. Although the ostensible focus of both poems is narrow – the first line of the Iliad announces its theme as ‘the rage of Achilles’, and more than a quarter of the poem is dedicated to a single day’s fighting – the Iliad and Odyssey in fact offer us a vast and compelling panorama of the whole heroic age, glimpsed through long similes, flashbacks, and stories told by the heroes themselves.

The world described by the Iliad and Odyssey, both in terms of social structure and material culture, is an intricate composite of different periods. At times the ostensible Bronze Age setting is accurately evoked; at others, the poems clearly reflect the conditions of the ninth and eighth centuries BC. So the poems often refer to woollen and linen clothing being treated with perfumed oil to make it fragrant and shiny, a practice unknown in Iron Age Greece, but well attested in Mycenaean Linear B texts. In some cases we can see strands from different periods being woven together. In the twenty-third book of the Iliad, Achilles, the son of Peleus, holds funeral games for his dead companion Patroclus, at which a series of luxury goods are offered as prizes in the various athletic contests, including a large unworked lump of iron.

Now the son of Peleus set down a lump of unworked iron,

Which mighty Eëtion once used as his throwing-weight;

But swift-footed godlike Achilles had slain him,

And taken the iron away in his ships with other spoils.

He stood upright, and spoke his word among the Argives:

‘Rise up, those of you who wish to try for this prize.

Even if the victor’s rich fields lie far away from any town,

He shall have the use of it for five full years;

For neither his shepherd nor his ploughman will need to travel

To the city for lack of iron, since this will supply their needs.’

At the beginning of this passage, the lump of iron is a prestige object in its own right, with intrinsic value as a precious metal. But by the end, it has been transformed into a practical source of utilitarian goods: the winner is expected to melt the iron down and cast or hammer it into tools. The technology to produce iron tools of this kind only emerged in Greece around 1000 BC (the beginning of the ‘Iron Age’). The first four lines of this passage seem to reflect an attitude towards iron characteristic of the late Bronze Age (1600–1070 BC); the last four lines assume the technological innovations of the early Iron Age (1070–900 BC).

Derek Walcott’s Omeros

In September 1990 the Caribbean Nobel laureate Derek Walcott published Omeros, a narrative poem of epic length, set on his home island of St Lucia. No work could more clearly show the continuing vitality of Homer as a source and inspiration. The protagonists, Achille, Hector, Helen and Philoctete, live out Homeric stories among the fishing boats and cafés of the Caribbean. The fisherman Philoctete is confined to shore by a shin-wound, inflicted by a rusty anchor, which refuses to heal. Helen, a beautiful waitress, leaves her lover Achille for his friend Hector, a one-time fisherman who now works driving a minibus-taxi. When Hector dies in a car-crash, Helen, now pregnant by one or other of the two men, goes back to Achille, and Philoctete’s wound is eventually healed by a wise woman, Ma Kilman, manager of the No Pain café.

Even while drawing on Homer’s poetry for the names, attributes and actions of his characters – often with dazzling ingenuity and grace – Walcott refuses simply to pay homage to his Homeric model:

Why not see Helen

as the sun saw her, with no Homeric shadow,

swinging her plastic sandals on the beach alone,

as fresh as the sea-wind?

In a key scene, Achille, suffering from sunstroke, imagines himself returning to the Congo, where he meets his father Afolabe and the men of his ancestral village. The episode is, on one level, an imitation of Odysseus’ journey to the underworld in Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus meets the ghosts of his mother Anticleia and his dead comrades from the Trojan War. But as he talks with his African ancestors, Achille realizes that he himself is the ghost; his father can neither remember his son’s real name, nor understand his ‘Homeric’ name, Achille.

The sadness sank into him slowly that he was home –

that dawn-sadness which ghosts have for their graves,

because the future reversed itself in him.

The vision ends with a raid on the village, and Achille watches his ancestors being led away in chains, to be transported across the Atlantic to Caribbean slavery. Achille is permanently cut off from his African past, but – Walcott suggests – he can never feel at home in the European cultural tradition represented by Homer. At the end of the poem, the narrator is left watching a sea-swift soaring between ‘both sides of this text’, his Homeric literary model and the real world of the rootless fishermen of St Lucia:

Her wing-beat carries these islands to Africa,

she sewed the Atlantic rift with a needle’s line,

the rift in the soul.

It is the expression of this ‘rift in the soul’ that makes Walcott’s reading of Homer so powerful and unexpected.

This kind of multiple layering implies that the Iliad and Odyssey as we have them are the product of many centuries of evolution. The poems must stand at the end of a long tradition of oral poetry, stretching back into the second millennium BC. For centuries, we infer, successive generations of oral poets had sung of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus. The songs which they performed were neither memorized verbatim nor entirely improvised on the spot, but were built up from a large and flexible repertoire of formulaic elements, ranging from single epithets (‘flashing-eyed Athena’) and lines of verse (‘then resourceful Odysseus answered him/her and said …’) to entire formulaic scenes (feasting, arming, dying). We should imagine a gradual accretion of formulaic elements over time, in which imprints of the material culture and values of earlier societies are preserved, as in the inner rings of a tree-trunk.

At some point between 700 and 650 BC, this flexible and evolving oral tradition attained a fixed and immutable form: it is clear that in the late seventh and sixth centuries BC the Greeks knew just one canonical form of each poem. In short, the poems were written down. An individual, not a committee, must have been responsible for these final versions. The question of how much of the poems’ undoubted emotional power and poetic beauty is to be attributed to the final ‘redactor’, and how much to the anonymous oral tradition on which he drew, goes right to the heart of the nature of artistic inspiration. Could successive generations of oral poets, gradually reworking and expanding the work of their predecessors, be collectively responsible for the magnificent and moving portrayal of Achilles in the Iliad? Or must we assume the input of a single mastermind, an original genius who took the formulaic elements of the oral tradition and transformed this mass of bronze and iron into gold?

The question of the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey became a matter of intense interest in the late sixth century BC. The strongest claim came from a corporation of rhapsodes or ‘singers of stitched verses’ from Chios, called the Homeridae. Their name probably originally meant no more than ‘assembly-singers’ (from the Greek word homaris, assembly). However, by the sixth century the Homeridae were claiming to be the descendants of a blind Chiot poet called ‘Homer’, author of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and several shorter hymns to Greek deities. Although the poet’s Chiot origins were soon being fiercely disputed by a dozen or more cities, the name stuck.

It was in this same period that Homer, as we must now call him, achieved a canonical position in Greek culture. At the end of the sixth century the philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon complained that Homer’s false ideas about the gods had become universally accepted, since the Iliad and Odyssey formed the basis of everyone’s education. In about 520 BC recitations of the Homeric poems were made a regular feature of the festival of the Greater Panathenaea at Athens. Unfortunately, the existing poems had embarrassingly little to say about the Athenians, aside from a passing mention in the catalogue of the Greek fleet in the second book of the Iliad. This omission was rectified by means of a few judicious additions to Homer’s text, describing the cult of Erechtheus on the Athenian Acropolis, praising the Athenian leader Menestheus, and claiming that the force from the island of Salamis fought alongside the Athenian contingent. This last addition is particularly telling. In the eighth and seventh centuries, Salamis had belonged first to the larger island-state of Aegina, and subsequently to the Athenians’ neighbours, the Megarians; it was not until the mid-sixth century that Salamis was incorporated into the Athenian state. At a time when the Athenians’ claim to Salamis was controversial at best, it was highly desirable to be able to show that the islanders had fought alongside the Athenians in the Trojan War.

The co-option of Homer for nationalist purposes is an important step in the creation of a communal past for themselves by the developing citizen-states of the Greek mainland. At the start of this chapter, we looked at the earliest stages of polis-formation in mainland Greece. We saw that one of the signs of the emergence of a new polis-identity at Eretria in the early seventh century was the transformation of a lavish private tomb-complex at Eretria into a public cult site: even as the Dark Age kings of Eretria faded into the past, the Eretrians took pains to preserve the memory of those past rulers as part of their common civic identity. A similar process of public ‘memorialization’ can be seen developing in many other parts of the Greek world at this period. The late eighth century had seen a sharp increase in the number of offerings being made at Mycenaean chamber and tholos tombs, particularly in Attica and the southern and eastern Peloponnese. In several cases we can be confident that it was entire communities, rather than isolated individuals, which chose to honour the resting places of their ancestors. So around 625 BC, when a fairly ordinary group of ‘geometric’ tombs was uncovered by building work in the agora of Corinth, the graves were immediately ringed with a sacred enclosure and made the centre of a cult (see Figure 14). The emergence of communal hero-cults of this kind is an early marker of a sense of collective polis-identity. These anonymous heroes were understood to be the ancestors not of individual elite families, but of the whole political community.


Figure 14. Sacred enclosure (‘hero-shrine’) around ‘geometric’ graves in the agora of Corinth, c. 625 BC

In a few cases, Bronze Age remains were positively associated with particular figures from the mythical past. The case of Sparta, in the far south of the Peloponnesian peninsula, is particularly interesting. In the late eighth century BC the Mycenaean palace site of Therapne near Sparta, which had been derelict for almost 500 years, began to attract small dedications, initially placed directly on and among the ruins. The mid-seventh century saw the construction at Therapne of a monumental stone hero-shrine to Helen and Menelaus, the husband and wife whose separation had sparked the Trojan War. The Spartans of the eighth and seventh centuries evidently identified the ruins of Mycenaean Therapne with the palace of the hero Menelaus.

At first sight it seems rather paradoxical that the Spartans should have been so keen to assert their connections to Menelaus and Helen. Menelaus was the grandson of Pelops, the mythical hero who had given his name to the Peloponnese (literally, ‘island of Pelops’). The Spartans themselves were generally believed to have been responsible for extinguishing the Pelopid line. According to Sparta’s own account of its past, as recorded by the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus in the seventh century BC, the Spartans originated in Erineos, a city far to the north in the central Greek region of Doris. In the generation after the Trojan War, the descendants of Heracles, the Heracleidae, were said to have appealed to the Dorians to help restore them to their rightful place as rulers of the Peloponnese. According to this story, the Dorians had successfully invaded the Peloponnese, killing or expelling the last Pelopid king of Sparta, Tisamenus, son of Orestes, and installing the Heracleidae in his place. The kings of Sparta were understood to be the linear descendants of the Heracleidae, and the rest of the Spartans to be the descendants of their Dorian supporters.

Whether or not this story reflects a historical ‘Dorian migration’ of the late Bronze Age (above, pp. 63–7), it is clear that the Spartans collectively saw themselves as post-Trojan War immigrants. Nonetheless, the Spartans also vigorously identified with the old, pre-Dorian dynasties of the Peloponnese. In the mid-sixth century BC a Spartan visitor to the central Peloponnesian city of Tegea fortuitously discovered what he believed to be the tomb of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, upon which the bones were promptly repatriated to Sparta. The bones of Orestes’ son Tisamenus were also uncovered by sixth-century Spartan archaeologists, at Helice in the northern Peloponnese. By returning the bones of their mythical precursors to their Spartan homeland, the Spartans were emphatically asserting continuity between the pre-Dorian Pelopid dynasty and their own present-day political community.

The interesting point is that we can see the Spartans defining their communal identity in two alternative ways. In one context, they could choose to emphasize their specifically Spartan identity, as a community rooted in a particular territory in the Peloponnese. As inhabitants of Sparta, they were heirs to the Pelopid kings of the heroic past, and made offerings to local Trojan War heroes like Menelaus and Orestes. In another context, they could emphasize their Dorian identity, as part of a wider ethnic group beyond the bounds of the Peloponnese. Their kinship ties with the Dorians of central Greece had a political reality: in 457 BC the Spartans sent a major expedition to Doris to protect their kinsmen from aggression by their Phocian neighbours. Ethnic and territorial identities were not exclusive.

However, and rather unexpectedly, there is one aspect of collective identity missing from all this: the Spartans’ sense of being Spartan and of being Dorian is not accompanied by a sense of being Hellenes, being ‘Greek’. Nor is there much sign in the Homeric poems of a positive concept of Greekness. For Homer, the geographical term Hellas refers to a small region in the Spercheios river valley in central Greece, and the Achaeans of the Iliad are not sharply ethnically or linguistically distinguished from the Trojans. It was only in the early sixth century that we find the first hints of a wider Hellenic self-consciousness. An anonymous poem of the early sixth century, the Catalogue of Women, argued that the various ethnic groups inhabiting Greece – Dorians, Aeolians, Ionians, Achaeans – were all descendants of a mythical king, Hellen. But the clearest evidence of this emerging ‘Panhellenic’ identity comes from the world of international athletics.

The most important inter-regional sanctuary in the Greek world was the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, in the far western Peloponnese. The development of Olympia was slow; since the sanctuary was not under the control of any one polis, there was little incentive for anyone to invest in monumental architecture at the site. Since the eighth century BC Olympia had played host to regular athletic contests, the origins of which are marked by a steep increase in the number of bronze tripods dedicated at Olympia (if their interpretation as victory dedications is correct). The participants seem initially to have been local aristocrats, but competitors were soon coming from further afield. Then, in the early sixth century, three major developments occurred at around the same time.

First, three new international athletic festivals were instituted between 582 and 573 BC, the Pythian games at Delphi, the Nemean games at Cleonae, and the Isthmian games at Corinthian Isthmia. A formal four-year festival cycle was set in place: Olympic games in Year One, Pythian games in Year Three, and Isthmian and Nemean games in Years Two and Four. The Olympics, too, were probably reorganized and set on a more official footing at this point. Secondly, the nature of participation at the Olympic games underwent a subtle shift. Whereas previously athletes had competed for individual glory and prestige in the eyes of their aristocratic peers, both at home and in neighbouring cities, from the early sixth century we start to see athletes competing on behalf of their home cities. The entire political community began to have an interest in their polis’s fortunes at the Olympic games. By the early fifth century BC, and perhaps earlier, participation in the games was restricted to Greeks. Thirdly, the early sixth century marks the beginnings of monumental architecture at Olympia. The construction of the first stone temple at the site, dedicated to the goddess Hera, was swiftly followed by lavish stone treasuries paid for by the cities of Sybaris, Metapontum, Gela, Sicyon, Epidamnus, Selinous, Cyrene and Megara, built in order to house those cities’ various Olympic dedications. The simultaneous decision by several Greek cities to start investing heavily in Olympia reflects the cities’ increasing sense of being part of a wider Greek community, stretching from Sicily to the western coast of Asia Minor.

It is hard to say how far this growing sense of ‘Greekness’ was influenced by the emergence of a new and threatening power on the eastern horizons of the Greek world. In the late seventh and sixth centuries BC the political order in the Near East had undergone revolutionary changes. Between 616 and 608 BC the Assyrian empire was overwhelmed by an alliance between the Babylonians and a semi-nomadic tribal group from north-west Iran, the Medes. Assyrian imperial territory in the fertile crescent was inherited by Babylon, while the Medes established a fragile hegemony in western Iran and eastern Anatolia. Among the west-Iranian tribes within the Median orbit were the Persians, an initially obscure nomadic group inhabiting the modern province of Fars in south-western Iran. In 550 BC the Persian king Cyrus successfully rebelled against Median dominance, capturing the Median capital of Ecbatana in the same year. Persian expansion was astonishingly swift. The year 547 BC saw the conquest of the Anatolian peninsula, including the Greek states of the western Asia Minor coast. In 539 the short-lived Neo-Babylonian kingdom fell, and by the late 530s Persian rule had been extended into eastern Iran and Afghanistan. After Cyrus’ death fighting the nomadic tribes of the central Asian steppe, his son Cambyses launched a simultaneous land and sea invasion of Egypt. By 525 BC the Persians had taken possession of an empire stretching from the Nile to the Hindu Kush. Cambyses was eventually succeeded by a usurper from another Persian noble clan, Darius the Achaemenid; the new Achaemenid royal line lasted until the fall of the Persian empire in 330 BC. In the course of his long reign (522–486 BC), Darius extended the eastern and western boundaries of the empire still further, conquering the Indus valley and much of modern Bulgaria (ancient Thrace).


Map 15. The Persian empire c. 500 BC

The Great King carried the title ‘King of countries of all kinds of people’. The Persians never pretended that their realm was anything other than a dizzying kaleidoscope of different cultural groups. Nor did they make any attempt to impose a uniform culture or system of government on their subjects. The empire was divided into a number of provinces or satrapies, governed by Persian satraps, usually relatives or dependants of the Great King. The routine business of administration and government was delegated to pre-existing local elites, tied to the satrapal court through reciprocal gift exchange. So long as these elites, which in the Ionian Greek cities took the form of tyrant dynasties, could guarantee the regular payment of tribute, the satrap interfered very little in native affairs.

One of the most striking images of the cultural pluralism inherent in the Persian conception of empire comes from Darius’ royal palace at Persepolis, near modern Shiraz in south-western Iran. The central building in the Persepolis palace-complex is a vast columned hall known as the Apadana, usually interpreted as an audience chamber in which the King received foreign delegations. The north and east porches of the Apadana are accessed by long shallow staircases, decorated with panels of relief sculpture depicting delegations from each of the twenty-four different subject peoples of the empire. Each delegation wears highly distinctive local dress, and brings a tributary offering characteristic of their native country: so the Parthian ambassadors are shown bringing a two-humpedBactrian camel (the chief draught animal of the central Asian steppe), while the Indians carry small vessels, probably containing spices or gold dust (see Figure 15). Below each of the four corners of the Apadana were buried silver and gold inscribed plaques, naming the four corners of Darius’ empire: from the Scythians of the central Asian steppe to Ethiopia, from India to the Lydians of western Asia Minor. Along with these plaques were placed symbolic deposits of luxury goods from each of the four corners of the world, although only those from the far north-west of the empire survive (a handful of silver and gold coins from Lydia and Ionia).

The Persepolis Apadana presents a vision of a universal Persian Commonwealth of Nations, a world of diverse cultures and customs united around the person of the Great King. Even at the very heart of the empire, in Iran and Mesopotamia, Persian art and architecture consciously and deliberately reflect this diversity. The royal palaces themselves are architectural hybrids, mingling styles and techniques from various subject cultures. A long building-inscription from Susa, in southern Mesopotamia, proudly emphasizes the far-flung origins of the specialist craftsmen who contributed to the construction of Darius’ palace at Susa: ‘The stone-cutters who worked the stone were Ionians and Lydians; the goldsmiths who worked the gold were Medes and Egyptians; the men who worked the baked bricks were Babylonians.’


Figure 15. Foreign delegations from the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis. Above: Parthians bringing vessels and a two-humped Bactrian camel; below: Indians bringing battleaxes, a mule, and vessels containing spices or gold dust.

Not all of the Great King’s subjects appreciated his multicultural aspirations. The Ionian Greek cities of western Asia Minor, far from being economically exploited by an imperial power, were flourishing under Persian rule. Since the seventh century BC the Ionians had enjoyed a profitable trade in luxury goods with the Saïte dynasty of Egypt, thanks to the existence of a communal Ionian trading post at Naucratis in the Nile delta; after 525 BC this trade received a welcome stimulus from the incorporation of Egypt into the Persian empire. Nonetheless, despite these economic benefits, the Persian-backed tyrannical regimes in Ionia were deeply unpopular, particularly since several of the Ionian cities had enjoyed democratic constitutions before the Persian conquest. In 499BC the Ionian Greeks revolted from Persia with the support of two of the mainland Greek cities, Athens and Eretria. The revolt soon spread to the island of Cyprus, and in the first year of the uprising the Persian satrapal capital in the west, Sardis, was sacked. But once Darius mobilized his Phoenician war-fleet, the Greeks stood little chance. In 494 the Ionian revolt was summarily crushed, and the rebellious cities subjected to horrific reprisals. Miletus, the most populous city of Ionia and the glory of the east Greek world, was wiped off the map: its women and children were enslaved, and the surviving men deported to the Persian gulf.

Next it would be the turn of the Ionians’ mainland Greek allies. A punitive seaborne raid in 490 BC succeeded in torching the city of Eretria, although the Athenians successfully repelled a Persian landing on the coastal plain of Marathon. But this minor Greek victory did little more than postpone the inevitable. Over the following few years, along the northern shore of the Aegean, a broad military road was carved out of the landscape, stretching westward from Persian-held Thrace to the borders of mainland Greece. Finally, in 481 BC Darius’ successor Xerxes gave the order for a huge Persian army to muster in eastern Asia Minor.

In the mid-sixth century, looking back with satisfaction to the long-vanished empire of the Assyrians, the poet Phocylides of Miletus had written that ‘a small and well-governed polis, perched on a rock, is greater than senseless Nineveh’. Now, for the first time, that defiant maxim was going to be put to the test.

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