Ancient History & Civilisation


Greece and the east: beginnings

Eastern origins

The Greeks came from the east.10 Their language belongs to the group known as Indo-European, whose original home was probably somewhere in Central Asia, to account for terms that seem to betray an appropriate shared way of life and for the links with languages of the Indian subcontinent. They entered Greece from the north, more probably from the upper Balkans and Black Sea area than from across the Bosporos ‘bridge’ from Anatolia. They found a country peopled by folk who boasted a strong Neolithic/Early Bronze Age tradition, which also had clear links with the east, probably most directly across the Aegean Sea. And to the south, on the island of Crete, there flourished the remarkable ‘Minoan’ civilization, indebted both to the east and Egypt, its people probably at first from Anatolia – not Greek. Of all the peninsulas dropping into the Mediterranean from the north the Balkan/Greek was the least promising agriculturally, relatively small (compare Italy, Spain), and it obliged the inhabitants of its southern extremity (‘Greece’), if they had ambitions, to look overseas for places to settle or trade, while as a ‘homeland’ the geography was so diverse and divided that ‘Mycenaen Greece’ barely became a nation, rather than a consortium of independent kingdoms, and never again afterwards except at the dictate of Macedon or Rome. Whatever the character of the Greeks’ genes, their new home was their greatest challenge, and the way they met that challenge determined much of the history of the western civilized world thereafter, and no little of the eastern.

In the Bronze Age the Greeks established kingdoms, from south of Mount Olympos, which was the natural northern boundary of their land and thus deemed to be the home of their gods, who are commonly so located (compare Valhalla), to the southern tip of the Peloponnese. They built castles (like Mycenae, Tiryns) and they crossed the Aegean. The presence of Greeks settled on that coast is attested archaeologically and from Hittite texts of about 1300 BC referring to Ahhiyawa (Achaea, the Greek name for Greece) and the Greek city at Millawanda (Miletus). There are even texts which some scholars relate to a conflict at Troy.

The Greeks went on as far as Cyprus, where we recognize them also for their language, because they had learned from the Minoans of Crete how to write – Linear B, the script deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris, whom I was lucky to count as a friend. They took over the Minoan world by around 1350 BC, but were themselves displaced less than two centuries later by other Greeks from the north, traditionally the ‘Dorians’, in circumstances that involved something more than force of arms (famine, disease?), and which effectively destroyed all the sophistication of the Mycenaean/Minoan world. It reduced Greece to a land of farmers and pastoralists, not knights, its writing forgotten. Behind the Greeks, north of Olympos, other people of related origin and language, but one not intelligible to the Greeks, occupied the upper part of the Greek peninsula and lower Balkans – Macedonians and Thracians, the latter with closer links to Anatolia. Thus it was until the 9th century BC, when some Greeks began to look east again, even beyond Cyprus, where ‘Cypriot-Greeks’ had devised a new syllabic script for the Greek language by around 1000 BC, strictly for local use. One result of the move beyond Cyprus was to be the creation of a new system of writing, alphabetic, also for the homeland Greeks, based on the Syrian Aramaic alphabet (itself adapted from the Phoenician), rather than the syllabary (b-a-b-a, rather than ba-ba), which continued long for the language in Cypriot-Greek. Alphabetic writing was to become the preferred mode in much of the civilized world.11

In the arts the new culture of Greece cast off the colourful naturalism of its Bronze Age past, and adopted Geometric styles of decoration, determined by the ruler and compass, inspired by the domestic arts of weaving and carpentry, an idiom of Europe but never there developed with the same precision and feeling for composition. Their towns were smaller but some were able to admit big, if relatively unsophisticated architecture, like the ‘palaces’ on the Euboean Straits (Lefkandi, Amarynthos). And by now all the Aegean islands and many new cities on the coast of Anatolia (Smyrna, Miletus, Ephesus) and offshore islands (Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes) were no less Greek than the homeland, so that the focus of the Greek world was as much the Aegean Sea as the southern Balkan peninsula.

Their exploration west was in the interests of finding trade or new homes, a form of ‘colonizing’, however the term is defined; and in parallel the Phoenicians were also exploring west but not provoking any serious competition with Greeks. In the west the Greeks met relatively unsophisticated peoples and, whatever the effect may have been for Greece, they undoubtedly transformed their lives, bringing them the profits of trade, soon a monetary economy, literacy, and a narrative art of great social potential, as I have already observed. Their fortunes to the east, their aims and achievements, could not be more different, yet the same Greeks are involved.

Greeks going east

It was the Euboeans, who have been mentioned for their precocious palace-building, who can first be identified as the Greeks with a presence on the east Mediterranean coast, just as it was to be the Euboeans who led Greeks in the 8th century to explore and settle in the western Mediterranean – and, indeed, in the northern Aegean beyond Mount Olympos. They are identified from their pottery, and since this criterion is of considerable importance for our subject in this early period it deserves some explanation.12Pottery serving the needs of eating, drinking, cooking and storage was also for the Greeks often a medium for decoration of varying degrees of sophistication, only approaching the luxurious in the later archaic and classical periods. But at all times the decoration betrays both origins within the Greek world and date, and in this the Euboean of the 9th/8th centuries BC was no exception.

At this time pottery was seldom if ever carried for its own sake, as it was later, by way of trade, for its attractive appearance if not as a luxury product. Instead it accompanied the folk who were best used to it, and so is a marker of their presence, especially when found in quantity. Isolated pieces could get anywhere, any time. It was pottery for the table, and especially for the almost ritual practices involved in drinking (in the symposium), that attracted the craftsman and on which he displayed his skills and betrayed his homeland preferences. An interesting criterion for us, apart from our ability to identify where in Greece the pottery was made, is the contrast with the east. Generally, the drinkers of the west and the Greek world drank watered wine – or at least wine is a principal marker of society at all levels. They drank in quantity, from large cups necessarily supplied with handles and feet; this had applied even in the Bronze Age. The easterners drank beer from large vessels via a straw or tube, or stronger drink in much smaller quantities, from small bowls and cups which are handleless and footless, balanced on the fingers; and they were more used to metal vessels, even of precious metal. In the Greek archaic period (6th century BC), when they were becoming more conscious of the east, the Greek potters copied eastern metal cup shapes, but necessarily made them larger, and with handles and feet, to create the most familiar of all decorated Greek pottery forms – the kylix.13 The distinction is fundamental and long lived – Omar Khayyám’s accompaniment to ‘a book of verses underneath the bough, the jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou’ was a small handleless bowl held easily in the palm of the hand, as shown on many an eastern painting, not a handled and footed goblet as in Europe. Centuries later the same contrast in drinking vessels is seen, from small handleless eastern cups, to big cups and saucers for tea-drinking.

So, while Greeks abroad might make use of local cooking and storage wares they were likely to carry their own drinking cups, as peculiar to their personal way of life as might have once been an Englishman’s pipe in an environment of chewing tobacco or hubble-bubbles. And when we find a mass of Greek pottery from the 8th century BC at sites in Syria it is the cups that betray their presence, as well as, moreover, similarly shaped cups made locally, in Cyprus and perhaps Syria, to serve their special needs, and decorated in styles which compromise between the local and the Greek, the latter being dominant – the multiple brush pattern is Greek, the concentric circles within on an unpainted ground, Cypriot.

The high road to the east from the Mediterranean lay along the lower valley of the River Orontes in Syria, on past Antioch and Aleppo to Mesopotamia. The area had known Mycenaean Greeks in the Late Bronze Age, and was probably visited by them, to judge from finds near the coast (Sabouni) and farther inland (Alalakh). On the coast, at Al Mina, Greek pottery is found already in the 9th century BC but becomes prolific only from the second quarter of the 8th century, and remains so to after the Assyrian invasion (which went on to Cyprus), and to the end of the century. At that point the Euboean states (Chalcis and Eretria) fell out with each other, in the so-called ‘Lelantine War’, and the connexions with Al Mina become more with the East Greek world. The site maintains some Greek connection thereafter until Hellenistic times. In early days it is hard to judge its function – no doubt a busy entrepôt for trade with central Greece, taken over by East Greeks in the 7th century after the collapse of Euboean primacy there and in the homeland. That Greeks were the prime occupants is clear from the finds: overwhelmingly Greek pottery of the types and functions that local production could not meet – notably the Greek handled and footed drinking cup, and including cups of Greek type made in the east especially for Greek use – a prime indicator of Greek presence. That Greek pottery could be of interest per se to any easterner, for its Geometric decoration, is highly improbable. Only later did Greek potter-painters (notably the Athenian) begin to produce very elaborate and figure-decorated wares that might attract any customer.14

But there is other record of early Greek presence in the area, from eastern texts – as pirates, in sea battles and as coastal raiders who are dealt with by the Assyrians in 712 BC, with their leader Yamani (‘the Greek’) fleeing to Egypt. Their probable presence (i.e., much pottery) had spread also, up to Tarsus in Cilicia, which had ultimately to be dealt with by the Assyrians. There were Greek mercenaries too along the Levant coast in the 7th century. Just south of Tel Aviv, at Mesad Hashavyahu, what seems to be a Greek mercenary camp of the 7th century has been excavated, and another perhaps, at Tell Kabri inland.15 By this time Greeks had been busy establishing ‘colonies’ for various purposes in Italy; in the east, however, they could not expect to be allowed any comparable independence of behaviour, since their neighbours were powerful heirs to long-established cultures of some sophistication. But they were tasting the east, and in depth, and in these centuries the arts and general culture of Greece take on an orientalizing flavour which will determine the future of Greek art. Soon Greek objects and, we can be sure, Greeks themselves became very familiar along the whole eastern coast of the Mediterranean.16 For the easterners’ attitude to the newcomers we are rather at a loss, apart from the Assyrian records’ mention of their mainly hostile or disruptive activity. The Assyrians called them Yavana, a term with long currency and far to the east.17

This diffusion of Greeks and their influence brought them close to Near Eastern powers, in Syria and Assyria, but also to the Phoenicians, a seagoing power like the Greek, and a people with whom the Greeks would have much to do, although more in their western colonizing adventures than at home, since Greeks and Phoenicians were jointly or at least simultaneously exploring the west from the 9th century on, as in the Carthage area.18 The Phoenicians operated from a few rich ports on the Levant coast (Byblos, Tyre, Sidon) rather than more extensive mainland territories, like the Syrians. They had learned an alphabetic script, which the Syrians then adapted for a language (Aramaic) which was to spread rapidly through the east and become the official language of the Persian Empire, and whose alphabet was adjusted by the Greeks during the 8th century BC to serve their own language.

The ‘orientalizing revolution’ in Greek art had started in the late 9th century – notably in Crete, which seems not represented among the Greeks who went east, and suggests that some easterners may have gone west too. Other early eastern finds, as in Euboea, show eastern goods from various sources arriving, probably in this case in Greek hands, but in Crete it seems more likely that craftsmen too were involved, to judge from the very idiosyncratic character of early archaic Cretan art,19 not much shared by Greeks to the north, and with far more to do with Cyprus and Syria (and Urartu, beyond) than Phoenicia. Phoenician arts owed more to Egypt than Assyria, and some, notably the mass production of minor objects and scarab seals in ‘faience’ (glazed composition), and a few metal and perfume vases, were copied in Greek workshops (in Rhodes and Ionia to the north). But, for all the complexity of the following centuries of Phoenician (‘Punic’ in the west, at Carthage) and Greek (then Roman) relations in the west, Greek presence in the Phoenician homeland, apart from a few mercenaries, remained of somewhat less moment than their early presence farther north in Syria.

There are, however, other areas east of Greece, in Anatolia, whose seaboard had long been at least partially Greek, where intercourse with the foreigner was of growing importance, and where, soon, a new eastern power would call for all the Greeks’ skills in diplomacy and negotiation, ultimately to be resolved on the battlefield. The kingdom of Lydia, its capital at Sardis, was the closest to the Greek coastal cities, and in many respects dominated them without occupying them, since Lydians were not seagoers and may for long have been relatively indifferent to their maritime neighbours. The relationship can be illustrated by two case studies – the coastal cities of Smyrna and Ephesus.

Lydia’s capital was at Sardis, not too distant from the sea, but the Lydians seem at first to have had little interest in the coast or in the opportunities it might offer for yet more sources of wealth – Sardis was built on a river (Pactolus) in which gold dust flowed. However, the Greek cities on the coast were busy places. They looked inland to areas which they readily embraced into Greek myth-history – a Greek characteristic that I shall have to address at the end of this book but which will often recur. So, in the coastal mountains they could identify or find inspiration for Greek heroines turned to stone (Niobe), and see images of gods and kings in what were in fact old Hititte reliefs.20 Positive hostility towards the Greeks on the part of the Lydians, and no doubt provoked by the Greeks, appears by the end of the 7th century. This was the time, oddly enough, when Greeks of the area were inventing coinage (struck metal) with Lydian gold and some apparently Lydian devices, in effect creating a monetary economy for their neighbours and themselves, and ultimately for all the west, for all the world [2]. In this respect at least we can suspect an interest of the Lydians in their neighbours and their potential. Early Greek Smyrna (the site of Bayraklı) had been occupied from the late Bronze Age on [3]. It lay beside a good harbour, to the north of Izmir, the modern city that recalls its name. It was excavated by British and Turkish archaeologists after World War II (the writer among them), who found good evidence both for the monumentality of many of its buildings, among the earliest of the true Greek Ionic style, and for its fall, documented in passing by ancient historians. The site is a low hill and one might expect the crown of the hill to be its acropolis, but at Smyrna it forms the top of a massive siege mound built by the Lydians so that they could take the city simply by walking over its walls – an eastern military stratagem.21 The site revived slowly in antiquity until it was replaced by Hellenistic Smyrna, a bastion of Greekness until 1922.

2 Gold coin from Halicarnassus. The device is a stag, inscribed in Greek ‘I am the sign [sema] of Phanes’. Early 6th cent. BC.

3 Reconstruction of the city of Old Smyrna (Bayraklı). 6th cent. BC.

Farther south, at Ephesus, the Greeks had a different experience of the Lydians. In the mid-6th century Croesus, of fabled wealth, was on the Lydian throne and apparently friendly to the Greeks, if only intermittently. The Ephesians were building a new temple to their goddess Artemis, which was to be the biggest in the Ionic style for that period and for long afterwards, lavish with relief sculpture and presenting an aspect of a sea of tall columns with elaborated capitals and bases, and with inscriptions on the column bases which tell that Croesus himself contributed to the construction. I think there must be a strong suspicion that he was a major promoter and patron of the site, for all the Greekness of its architecture and sculpture. So the Lydians were by then decidedly friendly, even seeming to court the Greeks, with gifts also to the big Apollo sanctuary at Didyma (near Miletus), while Croesus was generous also to Greek sanctuaries in the homeland, sending rich offerings to Delphi. It has been suggested, with some conviction, that Lydian patronage of the Greek cities of Ionia was a deliberate instrument of policy and even an encouragement to them (notably at Miletus) to develop trade with Egypt through the foundation of Naucratis in the Nile delta at the end of the 7th century, and probably also to explore the Black Sea shores.22 The Lydians were not seagoers, but Croesus had imperial aspirations, which were to lead to his downfall and the arrival of the Persians on the shores of the Aegean. So we have perhaps to view these ‘east Greeks’ as already to some degree ‘orientalized’, at least in their allegiances. Certainly, their Artemis of Ephesus seems as much an eastern goddess as a Greek one for her form and function, and from the beginning dedications to her have a strong eastern flavour and even provenience, from Central Asia,23 while later, under the Persians, local Anatolian non-Greek gifts are directed to her.

Throughout this period growing Greek infiltration from along the coasts of Anatolia proceeded, in areas long before visited by them but now settled. Caria, home to Herodotus, was heavily hellenized. In Lycia (southwest Anatolia) a Greco-native kingdom developed embracing much Greek in its arts, blended with native styles which recall even the Hittite in some respects. And so on to the east, to Cilicia, where we pick up the story that started at Al Mina in the 8th century BC, when there is a substantial Greek presence also at Tarsus. Part-Greek Cyprus lay offshore, and its Greekness is evident from the names of many of its local kings in the 7th century, while Greek presence and enterprise were already permeating much of the seas and coasts of this corner of the Mediterranean.

Turning far north, into the Black Sea, we find that Greeks had been approaching the area already with, again, Euboean foundations along the north coast of the Aegean, and an Ionian interest in the sea’s east coast, in modern Georgia, ancient Colchis, which offered a route straight on to the Caspian Sea.24 In the 7th century they were exploring the western and northern coasts of the Black Sea, and planting colonies, as neighbours to the Scythians of the south Russian plains. This was their first really close contact with the Asian peoples of the steppes. The Scythians were a branch of the Asian nomads of whom we shall hear much more (as the ‘Saka’), but they had settled north of the Black Sea, without too much adjusting of their non-sedentary culture. The Greeks appreciated their wealth, and their corn. Greek arts were very unlike the Scythian, but the eastern people took to them and Greeks were soon busy making precious objects for the Scythians, adjusting their style often to Scythian taste. Thus, on the gold mirror from Kelermes [4],25 we see a local myth – the Arimasps fighting the griffins who guarded Asian gold – and tucked into the base of one of the segments, a small animal figure executed wholly in the Scythian ‘Animal Style’, quite non-Greek. Moreover, on another mirror from the same find is a button bearing a ‘Rolltier’ of a type most familiar in steppe art.26 Later, we find that the Persians faced the Scythians in the north, but turned back, while the Greeks continued to help furnish grand Scythian tombs, which display a blend of the steppe style of the nomads with a degree of monumentality. This is a very special corner of Greek intrusion into Asia, strongly localized and distinctive – also distinct from their other experiences of western Asia farther south, which we have considered. It is worth dwelling on as a good example of Greek adaptation to the interests of Asians.27 Conspicuous are the examples of studies of Scythians at ease, rendered in a purely Greek classical idiom: seated at a feast [PL. II], even suffering dentistry – subjects quite foreign to steppe art.28 Gold quiver covers are decorated with Greek heroic, even Homeric scenes, as well as an important Greek innovation that was much taken up in Asia, a god or goddess shown with florals rather than legs below the waist, here with animal attachments and holding a decapitated human head [5],29 exceptional later versions of which we shall find farther east. Beside these are many objects purely Greek in decorative style and subject, but of types current in the northeast rather than the Greek homeland, like the pectoral and comb [PL. I].30 The god Dionysos, as ever, is not far away, but on a plaque showing one of his maenads with a cup seated on a lion [6]31 we see that she has under her Greek dress a thick-sleeved jacket of nomad type – well wrapped up, and also to be recalled later in Asia [PL. XXXI].

4 Electrum-plated silver mirror from Kelermes including a scene of the Arimasps attacking a griffin, a Goddess of Animals and a coiled creature in nomad style. (St Petersburg, Hermitage Museum. Diam. 17 cm)

5 Gold plaque from Kul Oba. A winged goddess with leonine extremities holding the severed head of a satyr (?). (St Petersburg, Hermitage Museum)

6 Gold relief of a maenad holding a cup, wearing Greek over nomad dress, riding a lion, from the Bliznitsa tumulus. (St Petersburg, Hermitage Museum. Drawing, author)

Colchis (modern Georgia) has more in common with Greek practices in Anatolia, as one might expect, but there are many features and forms of local type but Greek style and subject (mainly animals) [7],32 and here the Persians were to be in occupation also.

And finally, yet farther south again, in Egypt (not in Asia, so playing no part in this story) we have seen that Greek enterprise could have been triggered by Lydian interests. From the later 7th century on the east Greeks, and some mainlanders (from Aegina), had been allowed to establish themselves in a port of trade at Naucratis, as far up one of the arms of the Nile as big ships could go, and a promising trade with Egypt, carefully regulated by the Egyptians, would continue to flourish, through Egypt’s ‘Persian period’ until the end of the 4th century BC when Egypt itself became ‘Greek’/Macedonian and the city of Alexandria was founded. The placing of Naucratis leads me to wonder whether it was not to enable most easily the collection and export of salt, which was locally accessible and plentiful from the natron deposits close by, for pickling fish, a mainstay of the Mediterranean diet, also being at all periods a major attraction for trade and a necessity for life in growing populations.33

7 Gold plaque from a torque, featuring lions attacking bulls. From Vani, Georgia. (Tbilisi Museum. After DCAA)

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