Monday, 19 February 2018

Paying the iron price: Spartan money

We do not sow! Game of Thrones, HBO, 2016
(... that’s because sowing is the helots’ job)

Welcome to 2018! Our first topic for this year may not actually be a myth. When modern people hear it, they often think it’s a myth, because it sounds pretty daft. But it’s actually pretty plausible that the early and Classical-era Spartans really did use iron spits as a kind of money. It’s just that there are some solid, sensible reasons why they might have done so.

The main piece of ancient testimony comes from Plutarch, a 2nd-century-CE essayist, biographer, and priest:
For first, [Lycurgus] voided all gold and silver coinage, and decreed that they should use only iron; and to this he assigned only a small price for a large weight and volume, so that a value of ten mnai required a lot of storage in the home, and a pair of oxen to transport it. When this was ratified, many kinds of crimes disappeared from Lacedaimon. For who was going to steal something, or take bribes in it, or steal it, or take it by force, when it wasn’t possible to conceal it, to possess it jealously, or even to make a profit by cutting it up? For the red-hot iron was quenched with vinegar, it’s said, so that the hardening took away its usefulness and value for any other purpose, making it weak and unworkable.
Now, Plutarch’s story is certainly distorted. Most of the stories of Spartan exceptionalism that are still popular today -- about the Spartan agōgē, killing ‘defective’ babies, military supremacy, and so on -- were shaped by centuries of myth-making, long after Sparta’s actual heyday. Some of them are pure fiction. Plutarch is one of the most unreliable sources we have for classical Sparta.

So you’d think there’s good reason to raise eyebrows at Plutarch’s story. And yet, there may be a kernel of truth in it. Pre-classical and classical Sparta may have used iron to store value. But it wasn’t a novelty introduced by the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus, and in context, it makes complete sense.

Plutarch’s biggest mistake is that coinage wasn’t invented anywhere until the 6th century BCE, when Sparta’s military dominance was already at its height. That’s when coins were first developed in Lydia, a kingdom that dominated western Anatolia. A few decades later, Greek states like Aegina and Athens started making their own coinage.

Lydia doesn’t have a big public profile nowadays, but there are still two names from ancient Lydia that are pretty famous: king Midas, who really was a historical figure, even if we take it as read that the story about turning things to gold is fictional, and king Croesus, who was famous for being wealthy, and for losing his kingdom in the most ironic way possible, and who still survives in the proverbial saying ‘as rich as Croesus’. (The saying is a bit out of fashion now: maybe it’s better known via the parodic version in Terry Pratchett’s 1988 novel Sourcery, ‘as rich as Creosote’.)

Anyway, by the time coinage arrived in the Greek world, myths of Spartan exceptionalism were well on the way. The oddity of Sparta isn’t that they adopted iron currency: it’s that they held off on adopting coinage for a few centuries, until the 200s BCE. That delay ended up being built into the self-image of later Sparta, which was fixated on nostalgia for a distant past that was largely fictional.

As to the use of iron, rather than silver: it was completely normal to use base metals to store value. Anyone who has ever read the Homeric Iliad or Odyssey (mid-7th century BCE) will have noticed that when people give each other wealth, it’s often in the form of metal household utensils: namely, tripods. These tripods were metal stands used to support braziers and the like. And it’s not just Homer: tripods are a frequent subject of interest in the surviving Linear B tablets from Mycenaean Greece. Homer and the Mycenaeans had a real thing about tripods.

Possibly not the best person to burgle: Herakles gets caught red-handed stealing a tripod from the god Apollo (Attic hydria, Madrid Painter, ca. 530 BCE, Museo Arqueológico Nacional of Spain)

That isn’t because of a fetish, and it’s not because they’re made of valuable materials. (They’re normally bronze: even baser than iron.) It’s because
  1. Metal utensils are fungible. They’re interchangeable commodities which will have a similar use-value and exchange-value everywhere.
  2. Metal utensils don’t degrade, they’re hard to damage, and they’re easily transportable. All of these things make them a hell of a vehicle for storing value.
We do see other measures of value in early Greek history, too, like clothes, barley, and oxen: they had fungibility too, but not all the advantages that metal had. Grain spoils; oxen die. Transporting them poses various challenges. On the other hand, they had other advantages: grain and oxen can produce more grain and oxen. So they were strong measures of productivity, more than ownership.

For stored value, metal tripods were the most prestigious unit. But a tripod is a pretty big object, and they have to come in whole numbers. You can’t buy an item for half a tripod, or a twelfth of a tripod. Tripods are for rich people: they’re the $1000 note of the ancient world. What did people do for smaller values? Did they pay bills in bags of grain? Were there shops that sold trinkets for, say, a hat and one shoe? Could a poor girl have a time-share in a cow as her dowry?

All of those are very feasible. But they may also have used smaller metal utensils. And the leading candidate for the utensil of choice is the spit -- the kind used for roasting things over a barbecue. The value of spits wasn’t just tied up in their metal content: they had potential ritual and social functions, which could make them good not only for storing value, but also for exchanging small values. If bronze tripods were the ancient $1000 bill, metal spits were the ancient payWave.

One of the most important venues that involved a large number of small transactions was the communal sacrifice. One relatively well-off person holds a sacrifice, and to spread the cost, invites a whole community to take part. Everyone likes this idea, because meat was a very small component of the ancient Greek diet: a sacrifice like this is where you get an awful lot of your protein. In exchange for a small payment, each participant gets a share of the meat and settles down with their family for a feast. The result is a combo of religious festival, picnic, and restaurant.

And in that context, what better way of paying the entry fee could there be, than the one metal utensil you’re actually going to need at the event? This function is suggested in the terminology: the Greek word for ‘spit’ is obelos, and in cities that adopted coinage, the word for a small-denomination coin was obolos. We’re a single unstressed vowel reduction away from a definite link.

A ‘handful’ of obeloi at the Numismatic Museum, Athens: could the Spartans have used these as currency?

(The larger unit, the drachmē worth six obols, is often thought to come from a dragma or ‘handful’ of spits. But it could also have an independent origin. Hesychius tells us that drax, another form of the same root, was a ‘handful’ in the sense of a quarter of a xestēs ‘pint’: that suggests a measure of grain rather than a handful of metal spits. See Hesychius δ.2319; similarly LXX 3 Kings 17:12.)

We don’t have 100% certainty (a) that this is how the word ‘obol’ came about, and (b) that when Plutarch reports a story about the Spartans using iron money, the story is actually about iron spits. That’s the theory that we find in some lexicographers, like Zonaras, but there’s no guarantee that they weren’t just guessing. But it does look plausible enough to treat it as the standing theory on the subject.

Even Plutarch’s more limited claim, that the Spartans prohibited silver and copper coinage, needs some careful interpretation. The Lycurgan ban is certainly fictional -- if Lycurgus was ever a real person, he died before coinage was first invented -- but Plutarch reports on another ban of other cities’ coinage in 404 BCE, which could well be historical (Plutarch Life of Lysander 17). Yet it’s a pretty common principle of ancient history that bans like that happened because the practice was actually going on fairly commonly -- that’s why the ban was needed. Moreover we have a report from a 4th-3rd century BCE writer, Dicaearchus of Messana (reported in Athenaeus iv.141c), that when Spartiates brought food contributions to their dining societies (syssitia) they also regularly brought a cash contribution of 10 Aeginetan obols. So even in times when there was a ban on other cities’ currency, Spartans may well have used it on the black market pretty regularly.

There’s no certainty here: we have no guarantees that the obolos ‘small denomination coin’ and obelos ‘spit’ are related, and that the Spartans really did use iron money. They may have simply used other cities’ coinage. But the weaker form of Plutarch’s story has something going for it: that the Spartans may well have used metal utensils to store value, as many people did in archaic Greece; and/or that there was a genuine ban on foreign currency in 404 BCE.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Top posts of 2017

A list drawn up purely for the sake of interest. Salt is popular, it seems. More strangely, so is Homeric textual criticism.
  1. Salt and salary: were Roman soldiers paid in salt? (11 January). Roman soldiers weren’t paid in salt (that’s daft); there’s no evidence they were given a salt allowance (that’s an 18th century conjecture); and salt wasn’t expensive.
  2. West’s Odyssey (20 November). A few notes on the new Teubner edition of the Odyssey, with a list of deleted and bracketed lines as compared with the two other most recent critical editions.
  3. ‘Odysseus is not a hero, he’s a douchebag’ (8 December). Odysseus vs. the Cyclops: weighing up bad behaviour.
  4. Caesar’s birth and death (29 September). Big Julie wasn’t born by C-section, and he didn’t say anything memorable when he was assassinated. It’s possible his supposed last words are a carefully chosen quotation from a Greek Hellenistic-era poem, meant to cast Brutus as wanting power for himself rather than as a tyrant-slayer.
  5. Seven wonders of the world (27 November). The lighthouse of Alexandria wasn’t one of the wonders -- not in antiquity, anyway. The Colossus of Rhodes wasn’t next to the sea. And the most impressive thing about the pyramids, for ancient tourists, may have been the view from the top at midday.
  6. Dying and rising gods: are they a thing? (17 February). No, no they aren’t.
  7. Christmas reminder 2017 (16 December). Christmas didn’t arise out of Saturnalia or Sol Invictus, it was supposed to be on the day of the solstice, and it’s fairly likely to be 200 years older than usually claimed.
  8. Roman plagiarism of Greek gods (30 August). Roman religion didn’t plagiarise Greek religion much. Roman poets did plunder Greek mythology, though. In a sense.
  9. Getting the Iliad right (1 Mar.). When Lindybeige is good, he’s good.
  10. The library of Alexandria: vox populi (7 March). People’s preconceptions about the library. Most of them are artefacts created by Carl Sagan’s reliance on Edward Gibbon.
Also for interest: around 38% of hits come from the USA, 13% UK, 5% Canada, and 4% New Zealand. Also regular visitors, but low-key, are Germany and Ukraine. The most popular OSes are iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod: 42%), followed by Windows (28%), Android (11%), and Mac OS (10%).

Not everything in the world has been insane this year: Internet Explorer users (2%) are heavily outnumbered by Linux users (8%). So there’s that.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Christmas reminder 2017

Happy holidays! Here is your annual reminder that Christmas isn’t actually pagan. Not even a little bit. It’s possible that some present-day customs now associated with Christmas have pagan ancestors. But we can’t even be sure of that: mostly the similarities look like they’re just patterns in the noise of historical data.
The tradition of Christmas was set up to replace pagan worship of the winter solstice. Just as Easter was set up to replace pagan worship of the spring equinox (the actual holidays/festivals were most likely yule and eostre/eostara)
-- social media (does it really matter where?), 9 Dec. 2017
Here’s the long explanation from two years ago. Today we’re just doing an abbreviated version. There’s one update: I’ve now managed to track down an obscure and spurious source relating to Pope Julius I.
  • Christmas isn’t based on Yule, and Easter isn’t based on Eostre. Yule and Eostre both appear in the historical record for the first time in the 8th century CE writer Bede. Christmas was being celebrated at least 400 years earlier (by 354 CE at the latest: see below), and Easter 200 years before that (in the time of Pope Anicetus in the 100s CE).
  • Christmas didn’t replace any Roman holiday, and it wasn’t adapted from one. Saturnalia continued to be celebrated, by Christians, alongside Christmas, for at least a century and probably a lot longer. Brumalia survived longer still. The festival of Sol Invictus on 25 December was confined to a single city (Rome), and it isn’t attested any earlier than Christmas anyway. One source dating to 400 CE explicitly contrasts Christmas with the secular New Year festival. And as for Mithraism, all of its purported similarities with Christianity are fictional and were mostly made up in the 1990s.
  • None of the modern trappings of Christmas can be linked to any Roman festival. Father Christmas seems to originate in a blend of St Nicholas (a Christian saint) and the Christkind, which Luther attached to Christmas in the 1500s in order to discourage the Catholic cult of St Nicholas and his feast day on 6 December. Decorated fir trees are first known in the 1600s. Advent wreaths apparently originate in colonial North America, Advent calendars in 19th century Germany, Christmas cards in 19th century England, and Santa’s flying reindeer in 19th century America. (If you really want to link the 19th century reindeer to the Wild Hunt, or to Cernunnos, you’d better dig up some pretty solid evidence...)
Les Saturnales by Antoine-François Callet (1783): nothing to do with Christmas
  • The 25 December date for Christmas wasn’t based on Saturnalia (that’s 17 December), it wasn’t reported by Hippolytus of Rome in the early 200s CE (that’s a mediaeval interpolation), and it wasn’t determined by the Council of Nicaea in 325 (that’s Easter). It’s possible that it was discussed in a letter supposedly written from Cyril of Jerusalem to Pope Julius I around 349-354 CE, but the only evidence is a very suspicious-looking quotation in a 9th century letter attributed to John of Nicaea: no one really believes that the quotation is authentic (link 1 [see under ‘Z.’]; link 2). The earliest unequivocal evidence for the 25 December date is a catalogue of Christian martyrs’ feast days dating to 354 CE.
  • That doesn’t mean the date was first decided in 354. We know that Christian thinkers had been linking the date of Jesus’ death (Easter) to his conception, nine months before his birth, all the way back in the late 100s CE; and we know that earlier still, in the mid-100s, there was a dispute over the best way to relate Passover (in the Hebrew lunar calendar) to Easter (in the Roman solar calendar). The ‘classical’ canonical date for Easter and the Creation was 25 March. We can’t be absolutely certain that Jesus’ birth was already being observed on 25 December at that time, but we can be confident in tracing the origins of the observance, at least, to the time of the Quartodeciman controversy in the 2nd century.
  • Christmas and the solstice are linked -- indirectly. 25 December isn’t the date of the solstice nowadays, but it was as far as 1st century CE Roman writers were concerned (Columella De re rustica 9.14.12; Pliny Natural history 18.221). Even at that time they were wrong, because the Julian calendar gradually drifts out of synch with the seasons, slowly but constantly. Nonetheless, 25 December was the traditional date, probably because of astronomical records going back to the 4th-3rd centuries BCE: it’s likely that the Julian calendar was designed based on older records from that period. Be that as it may, the solstice isn’t the reason for the date of Christmas: the date of Easter is. (See above.)
  • Note that even though Easter was originally linked to the equinox, and Christmas to the solstice, that doesn’t mean that either of them is based on a pagan solstice/equinox festival. There weren’t any Roman solstice festivals, that we know of -- not until Christmas came along. Contrary to popular belief, ancient religions only occasionally took any interest in solstices. Then as now, it was mainly astronomers that found solstices interesting. (There was another solstice festival, Brumalia, but it’s late. It may well have arisen as a pagan counterpart to Christmas, rather than the other way round: it’s first attested in Tertullian, and it was never very important.)

Friday, 8 December 2017

‘Odysseus is not a hero, he’s a douchebag’

Cyclops cast as a pastoral figure with panpipe: Giulio Romano, Polyphemus (1526-1528, Palazzo del Tè, Mantua)
Only a master thief, a real con artist,
could match your tricks -- even a god
might come up short. You wily bastard,
you cunning, elusive, habitual liar!
-- Odyssey 13.291-3 (trans. Stanley Lombardo)
Modern readers sometimes get quite angry at Odysseus. Maybe this is particularly true for younger readers? I’m not sure. Today’s title comes from a younger reader, anyway: it’s a high school student’s answer in a test, taken from this March 2016 piece by Jane Morris.

And the incident that really gets their goat, more than any other, is the Cyclops story. Won’t someone think of the poor Cyclops? And how Odysseus is so mean for stealing his cheeses? And the Cyclops is so good with his sheep, d’awww! Not to mention the bit at the end where Odysseus is such a meanie, jeering at the Cyclops as he escapes. The Cyclops calls on Poseidon for vengeance, vengeance comes, and I bet at that point a lot of readers are thinking, yeah, see how you like it, douchebag. Justice served!
#MCROdyssey students got to hear from me today that Polyphemus is a great guy (evidence: he looks after baby animals!) and Odysseus is a BAD GUEST (evidence: he eats other people's cheese without asking).
-- Kate Cook, 20 Nov. 2017
OK, fine, it’s a great joke, but this really is the gut feeling for a lot of readers. It’s an interpretation that gets plenty of airtime even in academic journals (subscription required). I can accept that people find Odysseus an unsympathetic character. Personally I find Achilles in the Iliad entirely brutal and horrifying. No problem there.

But the way that this reading completely reverses the moral situation in the Cyclops story -- that is a bit odd. If the Cyclops brutally murders and eats raw several of Odysseus’ companions, then the idea of having genuine sympathy for him seems weird to me. Does eating a cheese uninvited justify popping half a dozen people’s skulls open against a stone wall?

Let’s take it a bit more seriously: here’s what a non-joking version of the ‘Odysseus is a douchebag’ idea could look like.
Yes, the Cyclops is a horrific monster. There’s no real sympathy for him: that’s just comical grotesquerie. But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad guy vs. good guy. It’s a really bad guy, and a sorta bad guy. Odysseus is still a douchebag.
And that’s fine for someone reading the Odyssey without any context. A perfectly sensible reading. But what I want to put to you today is that it doesn’t quite do justice to the story. A bit of context can transform a story’s meaning ...

‘They act surprised that the Cyclops is mad at them for eating all of his cheese’ -- rjmcmullen02, StoryboardThat, March 2017

Hospitality scenes

Hospitality is a Big Fresh Deal in the Odyssey. The main plot revolves around 108 suitors who have invaded Odysseus’ house while he’s away and are trying to coerce his wife into marrying one of them. They are terrible guests. They’re eating the family out of house and home, and everyone is horrified at how they’re abusing their hosts.

Hospitality carries a lot of weight. Good hospitality means you’re a civilised traveller. Abusing the system, though ... that means you are pure evil and you must be destroyed.

Now, Homeric epic makes heavy use of a story-telling tool called type-scenes. A type-scene is a semi-formulaic episode, where a regular pattern of events happens in a regular sequence. For example, there are type-scenes for warriors arming before battle; making ritual sacrifices; recognising someone you haven’t seen for twenty years; battle scenes; and there is a type-scene for when someone welcomes a guest into their home.

But type-scenes aren’t just rigid, formulaic drudgery. They carry meaning. They’re part of a poet’s toolset, not a set of rules, and they can be altered whenever the poet wants. Yes, they could be a tool for improvising, and they could be little more than a mnemonic device for memorising a poem. But they can also send very specific messages.

There are lots of hospitality scenes in the Odyssey: Athena (in disguise) arriving at Telemachus’ house; Telemachus arriving at Nestor’s house; and, later, at Menelaus’ house; Odysseus arriving at Alcinous’ palace; at the swineherd Eumaeus’ farm (in disguise); at his own house (again in disguise); and -- of course -- arriving at the Cyclops’ cave. This isn’t even a complete list. The American scholar Steve Reece has written a whole book about these hospitality scenes (The Stranger’s Welcome, 1993). Reece looks at each scene, outlines the sequence of motifs, and goes into a detailed discussion of each scene.

No rigid rules, but there’s definitely a common pattern. Here are some of the standard motifs that crop up in many of them -- let’s call the guest Oscar, and the host Chuck:
  1. Oscar arrives at the door, Chuck comes to the door and acts as greeter personally
  2. Chuck brings Oscar to a seat without asking any questions
  3. Chuck gives Oscar a good meal and a drink
  4. Only afterwards, Chuck begins a conversation, asking Oscar questions
  5. Chuck offers Oscar a bed for the night and a bath
  6. In the morning, Chuck asks Oscar to stay on longer; Oscar says no, he’s got to go, and everyone’s fine with that
  7. Chuck gives Oscar a present, and offers an escort to his next destination
(Reece’s list is longer than this: he looks at 25 repeated motifs, plus 17 smaller details.) Now, how do Odysseus and the Cyclops stack up against the story of Oscar and Chuck?
  1. Odysseus arrives at the door, but there’s no host to greet him
  2. Odysseus has no one to take him inside; when the Cyclops does arrive, he immediately demands to know who Odysseus is
  3. Odysseus deals with the food situation himself; the Cyclops eats Odysseus’ men
  4. See 2. above
  5. No bed or bath (surprise surprise)
  6. The Cyclops imprisons Odysseus in his cave with a huge rock
  7. Odysseus gives the Cyclops a present; in return, the Cyclops offers him the ‘present’ of eating him last
In the normal pattern, it’s almost always Chuck who’s doing things -- the host is the one who has agency. Oscar is mostly a passive lump, except for the bit where he says he wants to leave. But in the Cyclops story, Odysseus takes on most of the agency. The result is a very warped type-scene. And at every stage, the warping is about the Cyclops, not Odysseus: every time it shows the Cyclops’ failings as a host.

From that perspective, Odysseus’ entering the cave uninvited doesn’t show him being nosy and intrusive, it shows the Cyclops failing to act as greeter. Odysseus eating the Cyclops’ cheeses isn’t about him taking things for granted, it’s about the Cyclops being absent and not playing his part. When the Cyclops demands to know who his guest is, the problem isn’t with the barrage of questions, it’s with the timing. (Nestor asked Telemachus exactly the same questions, word for word, back in Odyssey book 3, but it was fine then -- Nestor had the right timing.) And instead of feeding Odysseus’ men, he feeds on them. Then there’s the ‘gift’ that the Cyclops gives Odysseus -- the biggest topsy-turvy of them all.

A type-scene isn’t just a formula. It’s an integral part of the story’s meaning. It both creates meaning, and acts as a vehicle for meaning. Reading Homer without attention to type-scenes is like watching 300 without being aware that it’s about American politics and Islamophobia. The story will still make sense without that extra knowledge -- but it’ll have a different sense.

If you read the Odyssey without any context, in a vacuum, it makes perfect sense to judge Odysseus as a douchebag. But if you’re learning about the Odyssey in a classroom, I hope you get a more informed view of what’s going on.

Sympathy for the Cyclops taken to the extreme: Polyphemus, complete with sheep, panpipe, and faithful dog, watches his crush getting off with someone else (Antonio Tempesta, ‘Secret canoodlings of Acis and Galatea’, 1606, Met. Mus. of Art). The only thing missing is the cheese. The story of Polyphemus’ hopeless love for the nymph Galateia was a popular theme in Hellenistic-era pastoral poetry: see especially Theocritus Idyll 6, Idyll 11 (complete with wordplay on κώρα meaning both ‘girl’ and ‘pupil’ -- the Cyclops loves his one girl and his one eye, but he doesn’t get to keep either of them).


But wait, there’s more. Hospitality scenes are tied up with a thing called theoxeny, that is, ‘hospitality for gods’. This was a smallish-scale religious celebration where a god was imagined as coming for a visit in person, and the people there would set a place at a table and provide the god with a meal. Kind of like having an imaginary friend over for dinner.

In epic, there are a few places where this is very close to being what actually happens. Athena’s visit to Telemachus in disguise in Odyssey book 1 is one example. One that’s more obviously a religious occasion is Poseidon’s visit to the Aethiopes, mentioned in Odyssey 1.22-26, where we’re told
He had gone to visit the Aethiopes, who are far off, ...
to receive a hekatomb of bulls and rams.
That’s where he was sitting, enjoying the feast; ...
The one that’s most religious in tone is in the Hymn to Demeter, Demeter’s visit to the house of Keleos. And wouldn’t you know it? Demeter’s visit is structured as a hospitality type-scene -- a particularly full version of the pattern, in fact.

The semi-formulaic nature of hospitality type-scenes gives all hospitality in Homer a ritual air. The ceremonious greeting of the guest at the door, the procession to the seat, the seat laid with a blanket or sheepskin, the offering of a meal without small talk, the bath or ritual washing of the cult image ... these are all things that ritual theoxeny and Homeric hospitality have in common. Themes, liturgy, physical paraphernalia, the whole kaboodle.

It may well be that Homeric hospitality is modelled on the religious rite. Bear in mind, we have little evidence that Homeric guest-friendship was actually practised in real life in the archaic period. We have much better evidence for proxeny, an institution that was more like an official consulate than a personal friendship. Guest-friendship is well attested in later times, but that’s probably under the influence of Homer. It could be that theoxeny gave rise to Homeric hospitality, which in turn inspired real-life guest-friendships -- just as hero-cult festivals with sports gave rise to Homeric funeral games, which in turn inspired a few real-life instances of funeral games.

Anyway, what this means for the Cyclops story is that it’s not just about the Cyclops being a bad host. In symbolic terms, his refusal to welcome Odysseus is equivalent to someone committing a pretty horrid form of blasphemy. When the Cyclops tells Odysseus
For we Cyclopes do not pay any regard to aigiochos Zeus
or the blessed gods. That’s because we’re much stronger!
-- Odyssey 9.275-276
-- he’s not messing around. It isn’t a statement of atheism, it’s a statement of religious depravity.

Imagine the Cyclops episode as a theoxeny. A man refuses to take part in the procession or in setting a table for the god, and instead he imprisons the god(!), breaks religious protocol by talking during the quiet bits, kills the god’s companions -- in a real-life theoxeny these would be accompanying cult heroes or minor deities -- only for the god to escape anyway and then put on a display of divine epiphany (Odysseus revealing his identity as he leaves), which the depraved villain can’t even see because he’s symbolically blind.

In that version of the story, it’s a bit harder to see the guest as being badly behaved.

Now, it isn’t as simple as that of course. Odysseus is not actually a god, however much he plays the part of one in this story. It’s arguable that there is a moral lesson for him here after all:
You are not a god. Do not forget it -- or else.
-- Tim Rayner, ‘Odysseus and the Cyclops: mastery, humility, and fate’ (Philosophy for Change, 11 June 2013)
And the portrayal of the Cyclops’ relationship with his sheep is grotesque, but it does carry a kind of sympathy, even if it’s comical and perverse. And modern hospitality conventions are a tad different.

Odysseus dealing with the cheeses is not much different from a modern guest at someone’s house mixing themselves a drink, because the host wandered off to do something else. Still, I’ll understand if people who read the story in a vacuum get a bad impression of Odysseus. I’ll still say the Cyclops is a teeny bit worse, though.
‘Zeus is the avenger of suppliants and guests,
the guest-god. He accompanies respectable guests.’
‘We Cyclopes do not pay any regard to aigiochos Zeus
or the blessed gods. That’s because we’re much stronger!’
And he sprang and reached his hands for my friends,
and he grabbed two, and he dashed them on the ground
like puppies, and their brains flowed out on the earth and wet the ground.
Limb by limb he cut them up and prepared his meal.
He ate them like a mountain lion, and he didn’t leave anything:
innards, and flesh, and bones full of marrow.
We wept, and stretched our hands up to Zeus,
seeing these horrible things. Helplessness gripped our hearts.
-- Odyssey 9.270-271, 275-276, 288-295

Monday, 27 November 2017

Seven wonders of the world

Both the wall of rocky Babylon, a road for chariots,
     and Zeus on the Alpheius have I seen;
and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun,
     and great toil of steep pyramids,
and Mausolus’ terrific monument; but when I saw
     Artemis’ house, racing to the clouds,
those others dimmed. I thought, ‘Look: apart from Olympus,
     the Sun never shone on anything like it.’
-- Antipater of Sidon, in Greek anthology 9.58
The ancient Greeks had lots of lists of seven things. The first one was a canon of ‘seven sages’. That’s the context for the ‘seven wonders’. Another source, spuriously attributed to Hyginus (Fabulae 221-223, 1st century CE), puts lists of ‘seven sages’, ‘seven lyric poets’, and ‘seven wonders’ right next to each other. And our earliest source, the Laterculi Alexandrini (Berlin papyrus 13044v), is partly lost, but enough survives that we can tell it had lists of ‘seven famous men’ and the ‘seven greatest islands’ as well. Seven is a typical number. (Not a symbolic number, mind: there isn’t anything in particular that it symbolises. Just typical.)

Antipater’s poem, above, is the earliest intact list (2nd-1st centuries BCE): (1) the city wall of Babylon; (2) the sculptor Pheidias’ statue of Zeus, in the temple at Olympia, on the river Alpheius; (3) hanging gardens, of uncertain location (usually Thebes in Egypt, a.k.a. Luxor; in one source, Babylon); (4) the ‘Colossus’, an enormous statue of the sun god Helios on the island of Rhodes; (5) the pyramids at Giza; (6) the tomb of Mausollus, or ‘Mausoleum’, at Halicarnassus; and (7) the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

But different lists exist. They shuffle the sequence, they have many substitutions. Pseudo-Hyginus leaves out the hanging gardens, and puts the palace of king Cyrus at Ecbatana in its place.

Let’s not spend time on all of the wonders. Before we look over a select few, I’d better confirm that this post was originally inspired by the recent announcement of a fascinating discovery at the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza: scientists used muon tomography to discover a large void in the middle of the pyramid. It’s a terrific discovery, but I don’t have any special insights myself: nothing I say here has any bearing on it.

‘The Great Lighthouse’, one of the wonders in Civilization VI (Firaxis Games, 2016): +1 to ship movement, +3 gold, and +1 Great Admiral point per turn. If you like that sort of thing.

The lighthouse of Alexandria (a.k.a. Pharos)

The lighthouse of Alexandria doesn’t appear in any ancient list of the seven wonders.

Oh, it existed. It just wasn’t one of the seven wonders.

This is contrary to what you may read in the New Pauly, or the Britannica, or Wikipedia, or the Ancient history encyclopedia. (The Oxford classical dictionary gets it right, though.) If you go and read the sources these encyclopaedias cite -- where they do cite any, that is -- you will find not a single mention of the lighthouse, nor any reference to the island of Pharos that the lighthouse was named after.

Conversely, if you read up on the Pharos -- for example, the description in Strabo 17.1.6, or Pliny the Elder’s Natural history 36.83-- you will find no mention of a list of seven wonders.

Now, this bald statement does need some qualification -- but only a little. Pliny’s description of the Pharos is embedded in an account of a couple of dozen remarkable constructions, of which two or three others are normally considered to be among the canonical seven wonders (the pyramids of Giza, 36.75-76 and 78-82; Pharos, 36.84; hanging gardens of Egyptian Thebes -- not Babylon! -- 36.94; temple of Artemis at Ephesus, 36.95-97). You could call this a kind of a list of wonders, but it’s certainly not ‘seven’ and there’s only a partial overlap with ancient lists of a canonical seven.

The Pharos only starts to creep into lists of seven in the fifth and sixth centuries CE. These late antique and early mediaeval lists are very different from the ancient canon. Here are the earliest appearances of the Pharos in these lists:
  • An anonymous poem in the Greek Anthology (9.656) listing: the palace of emperor Anastasius in Constantinople; the ‘Capitolian hall’ (not hill) in Italy; the ‘Rufinian grove’ at Pergamon; the temple of the deified Hadrian at Cyzicus; the pyramids; the Colossus of Rhodes; and the Pharos.
  • Gregory of Tours, On the course of stars (preface): Noah’s ark; the wall of Babylon; the temple of Solomon; the tomb of a Persian king (presumably Mausollus. who was a Persian satrap); the Colossus of Rhodes; the theatre of Heraclea; and the Pharos.
  • (ps.-?)Bede, On the seven wonders: the Capitolium of Rome; the Pharos; the Colossus of Rhodes; a statue of Bellerophon suspended in air (unknown location); the theatre of Heraclea; a heated bath (unknown location); temple of Artemis.
Why did the Pharos make its way into these late lists? That must surely be because the ancient canon had mostly been destroyed by that time. Only the Mausoleum (destroyed by earthquake in the early mediaeval period) and the pyramids were still standing. The Pharos remained in operation until the 12th century. Now, that doesn’t explain why these lists continued to include some long-lost structures: maybe the Colossus and the temple of Artemis owe their continued presence in the lists to their sheer memorability.

The Titan of Braavos (Game of Thrones, HBO)

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus was a statue of Helios (the sun), made by Chares of Lindos, which collapsed in an earthquake around 226 BCE, less than a hundred years after it was built. It’s popularly imagined as standing astride the harbour entrance at the port of Rhodes. But that’s a complete fabrication, dating to the early modern period.

Even so, that’s how George R. R. Martin imagines it when he parodies it in his A Song of Ice and Fire books -- and if it’s good enough for Braavos, then by golly it must be good enough for Rhodes! Just in case you weren’t sure Martin was taking inspiration directly from ancient Rhodes, we’re told that the Titan is one of a canon of nine ‘Wonders made by man’. The thing is, George Martin does get a bit over-excited about imagining ancient edifices as being really really big.

The Colossus was certainly a jolly big statue. Here are the sources on its size:
  • Strabo, Geography 14.2.5: quotes a poem (presumably 3rd cent. BCE) putting it at 70 cubits, or 32.3 m.
  • pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 223: 90 feet high, or 26.6 m.
  • Pliny, Natural history 34.41: 70 cubits high, or 32.3 m.
  • Philon of Byzantium (ca. 4th-5th century CE; not the same person as the 2nd cent. BCE mechanical writer), On the seven wonders 4: 70 cubits, or 32.3 m.
  • (Pseudo-?)Bede, On the seven wonders: 136 feet, or 40.2 m (if we reckon in Roman feet).
There’s no doubt that 70 cubits was the canonical figure. Ps.-Hyginus’ figures are untrustworthy, as we’ll see below, and Bede had no access to any better information than the ancient sources did. Even if the 70 cubit figure was exaggerated -- which is likely -- the statue was probably still around 30 metres high. For comparison, the Statue of Liberty is 46 metres high (from feet to torch).

The modern harbour entrance at Rhodes is about 150 metres wide. Ancient triremes needed about 12 metres horizontal space (with oars). Even if the statue was getting on for 40 m high, which it wasn’t, its feet could hardly have been more than 10 metres apart. At 32 m, we’re talking more like 8 m apart. And that’s if it’s doing a really good stretch.

So, no.

In actual fact there’s nothing to suggest it was even located at the harbour, let alone standing astride the harbour. The whole scenario is hogwash. Pliny reports that ‘it is a marvel even lying down’, and talks of visitors seeing the places where the limbs became detached and trying to put their arms around one thumb. In other words: when it collapsed, it fell on land.

I’m a pyramid ... but probably not the one you were expecting. A 2nd century CE pyramid at Meroë (modern Sudan), much pointier and shorter than the famous ones at Giza. (Photo by Fabrizio Demartis, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence)

The pyramids

The list of wonders that we get in pseudo-Hyginus helpfully gives sizes for several buildings in the list. The last entry reads:
The pyramids in Egypt where no shadow is visible; 60 feet high.
-- ps.-Hyginus, Fabulae 223
A couple of problems here. First the height; second, the absence of shadows. They’re both wrong. But it turns out that neither of these elements is unique to ps.-Hyginus.

Ps.-Hyginus’ figure, 60 feet, in Roman feet comes to 17.7 m, which is much too small. Then again, Philon’s On the seven wonders (4th/5th cent. CE) gets it wrong too: Philon reports the height as 300 cubits (133 m, converting using Roman feet), and the circumference as 6 stadia (278 m per side). The actual figures for the Great Pyramid are 146 m high and 230 m per side. Philon is at least in the right order of magnitude, unlike ps.-Hyginus ... but it does show that accurate figures for the pyramids’ size were not well known.

Second problem: ‘where no shadow is visible’ (quarum umbra non videtur). A later writer, the 2nd century essayist Lucian, also refers to shadowless pyramids (Toxaris 27). (Later still, so does Cassiodorus, Variae 7.15.4; but Cassiodorus’ list of wonders is based closely on ps.-Hyginus, so he’s not an independent source.)

Now, ps.-Hyginus and Lucian can’t possibly be thinking of pyramids that were shadowless even at sunrise and sunset. That’s geometrically impossible. They must mean pyramids that were shadowless in the middle of the day, especially at midday -- because in antiquity, shadow measurements regularly refer to gnomon readings taken at midday.

In summer, the Great Pyramid is indeed shadowless at midday. But not all year round: only for eight months or so. In antiquity, the earth’s axial tilt was 23.8° (slightly greater than the present-day figure of 23.4°), and the Great Pyramid is at latitude 30.0° N; that means that at the winter solstice, the sun’s midday altitude was 36.3°. (Yes, there’s a rounding error in there.) But the slope of the Great Pyramid is 51.9°. Result: shadow.

It’s futile to go looking for alternative pyramids to suit ps.-Hyginus’ report, because there are no good candidates. Pyramids in present-day Egypt are all in the north, with none south of the Fayum, so the difference in the sun’s height at midsummer isn’t nearly great enough to matter. The Nubian pyramids at Meroë, in what is now Sudan, about 200 km north-east of Khartoum, are much further south -- the sun reaches 49.3° above the horizon in midwinter -- but they still get shadows, because they’re much steeper than the Egyptian pyramids (about 70°, as compared with the usual Egyptian angles of 40-50°). If an Egyptian-style pyramid were built at Meroë, it could easily have no midday shadow all year round; but Nubian-style pyramids are just too pointy.

Besides, pretty much every other account of the pyramids makes it clear that they’re talking about the pyramids at Giza. If there’s anything at all to the claims in ps.-Hyginus and Lucian, they must have been thinking of pyramids that are shadowless in limited circumstances: between the spring and autumn equinoxes, at most, and only in the middle part of the day.

So if this shadowlessness is so limited, why did ps.-Hyginus and Lucian find it so striking? There may be a clue in Philon:
The length of the ascent makes it tiring to travel up there, and standing on the peak makes people’s vision darken when they look down at the drop.
-- Philon (of Byzantium?), On the seven wonders 2
Modern visitors aren’t allowed to go climbing up the pyramids. The penalty is three years in prison, if you’re interested. But ancient tourists could. It seems plausible that looking down 146 m, with no shadows in any direction, could have been disorienting and disturbing. The modern lawbreakers who scale the Great Pyramid every few years don’t get to see this, because they have to do it under cover of darkness.

Further reading

  • Brodersen, Kai 2006 [1999]. Die sieben Weltwunder. Legendäre Kunst- und Bauwerke, 7th ed. Munich: C. H. Beck.
  • Clayton, Peter A.; Price, Martin J. (eds.) 1988. The seven wonders of the ancient world. London/New York: Routledge.
  • Roscher, W. H. 1906. Die Hebdomadenlehren der griechischen Philosophen und Ärzte. Abhandlungen der philologisch-historischen Klasse der königl. Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften 24.6. Leipzig: Teubner. pp. 186-193.

Endnote. Lists of the seven wonders

The earliest list, but incomplete, is in the Laterculi Alexandrini, partially preserved on Berlin papyrus 13044 v (late 2nd century BCE) at column 8. Preserved entries: temple of Artemis, pyramids, Mausoleum.

Antipater, Greek anthology 9.58 is the earliest complete list; the same items appear in a different sequence in Greek anthology 8.177; and an incomplete text, Philon’s On the seven wonders (4th/5th cent. CE) is missing the seventh wonder but is otherwise consistent with the two poems. Wall of Babylon; statue of Zeus; hanging gardens; Colossus of Rhodes; pyramids; Mausoleum; temple of Artemis. Philon breaks off before getting to the Mausoleum. These are the only full lists to include the ‘hanging gardens’, but none of the three mentions its location. Pliny Natural history 36.94 places the hanging gardens at Egyptian Thebes, i.e. Luxor; Strabo 16.1.5 places the gardens at Babylon, specifying that they are considered to be among the seven wonders; Gregory of Nazianzos’s reference to Thebes (see below) may support the Egyptian setting.

Two more lists which are identical to one another (and in the same sequence) appear in ps.-Hyginus Fabulae 223 and Cassiodorus Variae 7.15. Mostly the same as Antipater, above, but they omit the hanging gardens, and include the palace of Cyrus. Only these two lists include the palace of Cyrus. Cassiodorus adds the city of Rome at the end, as an ‘eighth wonder’.

Gregory of Nazianzos, Oration 43.63 (xxxvi.580 Migne) lists six works, of which four or five also appear on the earlier lists: Thebes in Boeotia; Thebes in Egypt (a reference to the hanging gardens?); walls of Babylon; Mausoleum; pyramids; Colossus.

Late antique and early mediaeval sources start to give very different lists, which typically share only two or three items with the ancient lists: Greek anthology 9.656; Gregory of Tours On the course of stars, preface; (ps.-?)Bede On the seven wonders; and many more. For more mediaeval examples see Brodersen 2006.

References outside lists. Diodorus of Sicily’s Library refers to two edifices ‘numbered among the seven most famous works’: the Great Pyramid (1.63.2, 18.4.5); an obelisk at Babylon (2.11.4-5).

Propertius 3.2.17-26 states that the longevity of his poetry is greater than three items conventionally related to the canonical seven: pyramids; temple of Zeus at Olympia; Mausoleum.

Pliny, Natural history 36.64-100, lists numerous ‘wonders’, including three that normally belong to the canonical seven: pyramids (36.75-76, 78-82); hanging gardens of Egyptian Thebes (36.94); temple of Artemis (36.95-97). Elsewhere he describes the Colossus (34.41), in the middle of a discussion of many colossal statues.

Martial, On spectacles 1.1, lists six items of which four normally belong to the canonical seven: pyramids; wall of Babylon; temple of Artemis; altar of Apollo at Delos; Mausoleum; Flavian amphitheatre (Colosseum).

Strabo’s Geography names five items, separately, stating that they belong to the seven: Colossus (14.2.5); Mausoleum (14.2.16); wall of Babylon (16.1.5); hanging gardens of Babylon (16.1.5); pyramids of Khufu and Khafre (17.1.33). He appears to cite the last as two separate wonders.

John Malalas, Chronography 11.16 (279 Dindorf), names the temple of Hadrian at Cyzicus as ‘one of the wonders’.

(I’m sure I’ve missed other isolated references: I’ll admit I haven’t read Kai Brodersen’s book end to end, and I haven’t been able to read Clayton and Price because someone has it out of the library just now.)