Ancient History & Civilisation

Epilogue: myth, history and archaeology

By founding more than seventy cities among the barbarian tribes and sowing Asia with Greek magistrates Alexander conquered its undomesticated and beastly way of life.

Plutarch, Moralia 328e

Alexander persuaded the Sogdians to support their parents, not to kill them, and the Persians to respect their mothers, not to marry them….
A most admirable philosophy, which induced the Indians to worship Greek gods, and the Scythians to bury their dead and not to eat them.

Plutarch, de Alexandri Magni Fortuna aut Virtute 1.328c

We can never quite get away from the Greeks’ high opinion of themselves, what they thought they had brought to the rest of the world – ‘barbarian’ because it talked ‘bar-bar-bar’ and not Greek – and how much it owed them. And their own history obliged many of them to pretend that Alexander was really a Greek who pursued Greek moral aims. Strabo was, uncharacteristically, more honest about Greek influence in the east: ‘we regard the Scythians as the most straightforward of men and the least prone to mischief, as also far more frugal and independent of others than we are. And yet our mode of life has spread its change for the worse to almost all peoples, introducing among them luxury and sensual pleasures, and, to satisfy these vices, base artifices that lead to innumerable acts of greed. So then, much wickedness of this sort has fallen on barbarian peoples also, on the nomads as the rest’ (Strabo 301).

In this epilogue I want first to consider briefly what role Greek myth-making took in their recreation of history, since it was very real to the main actors in our story and they took their gods and heroes seriously. We saw in Chapter 2 what a Homer might make of conflict and contact with easterners in the Bronze Age (see pp. 50–51), but Homer is exceptional in succeeding to bring into his narrative both real royal families and the families of gods and heroes, interacting in the interests of the Greek people, even if not of all of them, all of the time. And he is composing and writing four or five hundred years after the ‘events’, drawing on oral traditions about both history and myth which must have been very flexible, and involving a deliberate Greek invention of an ‘Age of Heroes’. It is easy to overestimate the degree to which he was influenced by eastern models of stories of gods and humans. There are some very telling parallels with eastern myth-history but for the most part the parallels are slight or even accidental. The ancient world was not as big as we might think, and there was good if not full awareness of how foreign neighbours behaved and how their poets entertained them and recorded the ‘history’ of their kings and gods.

More than most ancient peoples, it seems, the Greeks lived with their gods and heroes embedded not only in their religious practices, but in their politics and everyday life, without being dominated by priestly classes serving despotic rulers. This flexibility allowed much local invention to explain both natural and political issues. The ready equation of a prominent mortal with a hero was but one aspect of this. When the ‘tyrant’ Peisistratos marched on Athens in the mid-6th century BC he travelled in a chariot accompanied by a woman dressed as the goddess Athena – more than adequate credentials, and using a chariot as a processional vehicle rather than aggressively (the Greeks of the day did not fight from chariots).483

Going east, the Greeks in the Black Sea area soon accommodated their experience of steppe warriors to their own view of the possibility and behaviour of warrior-women in the east – the Amazons – no little helped by the fact that nomad women could fight beside their menfolk, and maybe by the common lack of facial hair among Asiatics.484 There was even a late story of Alexander meeting Amazons.485 For the monsters that guarded the gold sought by the Arimasps they had their own version of the griffin monster.486 The Black Sea coast became a setting for Greek myth – Iphigeneia becoming a priestess in the Crimea before being rescued by Orestes, Jason mounting a whole expedition to Colchis (Georgia) to win both the golden fleece (how gold was got from the rivers of the Caucasus) and Medea. Odysseus’ travels as told by Homer are full of mythical dilemmas but seem really to chart exploration of various western waters in the days of colonization.

In Asia Minor old Hittite monuments could give rise to stories of mythical thrones, even a Niobe turned to stone.487 Cyprus was rich ground since Greeks had been active there since the end of the Bronze Age, and it was easy to place the birth of a very oriental goddess like Aphrodite on, or just off, the island. The Greeks colonized not only the lands where they settled but also those they had simply visited or heard about with their mythological nexus, abetted by the skills of artists and poets whose works seemed very accessible at all levels of society. Myth scenes are commonplace on everyday objects, and the stories and even lines of the plays staged in Athens became common property; soldiers who had perhaps sung in the chorus in Athens could regale their captive mates in Sicily with recitals of Euripides.

The Caucasus was where Zeus had staked out Prometheus, a punishment for stealing fire for man, and where Herakles rescued him from the daily attentions of Zeus’ eagle tearing out his (immortal) liver. A locale was no doubt pointed out, but so it was also for the same episode yet farther east, in the Hindu Kush,488 and we are faced with Greek myth-making intruding into areas which have been our concern in the chapters above. The Greek world was circumscribed by an ‘Ocean’ allowing no knowledge of what lay beyond, but real Greeks had already, perforce, crossed that barrier, and Herodotus’ knowledge of what lay beyond was more than mere hearsay. Greeks captured by Persians had been humanely resettled by their captors in Bactria, a country not so unlike Greece, even in its suitability for viniculture. This is probably why at the end of the 5th century Euripides knew of Bactria as the place whence the god Dionysos had come, to wreak his vengeance on poor Pentheus in Thebes. Dionysos, as god of wine, could readily be accommodated in the east, and he was exceptional in the Greek pantheon for his universal interests. Soon (about 400 BC) a quite persianized Dionysos could appear in Greek art [152], mounted on a camel, attended by his maenads and Persian dancers.489

Dionysos was an important figure in the east. He was held to have conquered the world, persuading mankind about the values of wine, and to have been particularly successful with the Indians. Local associations were found, as we have seen; and ‘the habit of the Indians to go to battle to the sound of drums and cymbals and in dappled costumes’ (Arrian, Indica 5.9–10). The figure of the god himself does not appear much in the east rather than many other figures and scenes, maenadic rather than of satyrs, and there is much broadly Dionysiac imagery and decoration. The contrast with Herakles is interesting. The latter’s image could be used for an eastern deity or hero, Persian Verethagna or Indian Vajrapani, and was otherwise also very common in varieties of his usual classical form all over the area we have discussed, even without any obvious associations with local gods.

The appearance in art and worship of other Greek gods was a matter for the Indo-Greek states and conducted much as it had been at home together with the traditional imagery, notably on coins, where, however, local considerations could promote some original iconography. Aphrodite and figures related to her would certainly have helped inform both images and behaviour, such as we have seen in the Indian adoption of the more exotic and flimsy styles of Hellenistic jewelry as a substitute for dress. Nudity was no novelty in eastern art; however, total physical realism certainly was, such as that which is peculiar to Greek art from the mid-5th century on, and unlike the treatment of figures in any other of the early arts of the urban world. Aphrodite may have derived much from comparable eastern figures, like Astarte, but the oriental sex goddesses were never allowed to look seductive with such fully realistic treatment – nor were other human figures, unless they were clearly the creations of Greek artists. It was something that the rest of the world remained blind to or deliberately shunned.490

152 Athenian red-figure vase showing Dionysos in Persian dress riding a Bactrian camel. Accompanied by dancing Persians and women with tambourine and fan. About 400 BC. (London, British Museum E 695. After Furtwängler)

At the end of the last chapter I remarked on the possibility that Sasanian art contributed to western depictions of the Alexander Romance. It may not be inapposite to remark that the east’s interest in western subjects and arts did not stop with the advent of Islam. The Persians were ready enough to adopt Alexander stories (‘Iskander’ to them) in their arts and there are fine paintings of Alexander on his campaigns as well as in his romantic adventures. The relationship did not end with antiquity. In Shah Jahan’s 17th-century Red Throne room at Delhi there were Italian pietra dura plaques depicting the story of Orpheus, charming wild animals with his music.491 The theme had appeared in Persian art earlier, where a ruler might be shown in the peaceful company of wild animals, yet the classical iconography of Orpheus seems not to have carried east in earlier centuries. We do find, however, a Renaissance bronze plaque with the theme, dated c. AD 1600 or later, from Afghanistan (153).492 The classicism of the Renaissance seems to offer an unexpected coda to our story of Mediterranean arts, stories and peoples in Asia.

153 Netherlandish bronze plaque showing Orpheus charming the wild animals. From Afghanistan. About AD 1600. (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum EA 1995.3)

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