Artemisia: Between Greece and Persia

We know little about the life of Artemisia I (early 5th c. BCE – ca. 460 BCE) apart from one event, but that event and her participation in it give us a valuable insight into how Greeks lived at the frontiers of the Persian Empire.

Artemisia was the daughter of Lygdamis I, the first satrap of the city of Halicarnassus under Persian rule. Halicarnassus was a city on the coast of Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, one of many culturally Greek cities on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea in the region more broadly known as Ionia. Like other such cities, Halicarnassus’ population was a mixture of local peoples—mainly Carians from the surrounding mountains, in the case of Halicarnassus—and the descendants of Greek settlers and merchants who had migrated to the Anatolian coast over several centuries. Artemisia’s family was a product of such interactions, as her father, Lygdamis, was of mixed Greek and Carian ancestry, and her mother was from Crete.

Lygdamis passed his power down to Artemisia’s husband, of whom we know nothing else except that he died soon thereafter, and Artemisia herself came to power in his place, probably acting as regent for their young son Pisindelis. Artemisia ruled Halicarnassus as a satrap, or local governor, on behalf of the Persian kings. Her most famous deeds came in this role.

When the Persian king Xerxes mounted his invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, he called upon the Ionian Greek cities to furnish warships for the campaign. Despite Athenian efforts to persuade the Ionians to defect or hold back in the fighting, Ionian Greek ships and their crews participated eagerly in the Persian invasion.

As satrap of Halicarnassus, Artemisia had the responsibility to furnish her share of ships for the fleet, but she went even further, personally commanding her own contingent and serving Xerxes as an adviser during the campaign. The historian Herodotus describes her this way:

She led the forces of Halicarnassus, Cos, Nisyurs, and Calyndus, crewing five ships. Of all the ships in the fleet, besides the Sidonians, hers were considered to be the best, and of all the allies she gave the king the best advice.

– Herodotus, Histories 7.99

(All translations my own)

Herodotus credits Artemisia with an exceptional display of skill and cunning in the midst of the Persian naval defeat at the battle of Salamis:

I cannot say exactly how any other ship, whether Greek or barbarian, did in that battle, but this is what happened to Artemisia and won her even greater respect in the eyes of the king. The Persian fleet was in chaos and an Athenian ship was bearing down on Artemisia’s. There was nowhere for her to flee to since her ship was hemmed in by friendly ships and close to the enemy lines, so she made a decision which turned out very well for her. Pursued by the Athenian, she rammed a friendly ship at full speed. This ship was crewed by the Calyndians and carried not only many Calyndian men but also their king, Damasythimus. I cannot say whether there had been some quarrel between Artemisia and Damasythimus when they were stationed at the Hellespont, or if she had planned to attack him, or if it was just by chance that the Calyndian ship was nearby. In any case, when Artemisia rammed and sank that ship it turned out well for her in two ways. In the first place, when the Athenian captain saw her ship sink one of the barbarians, he thought she was either on the Greek side or was coming over to their side, so he broke off and turned his attention elsewhere, and so she got away. In the second place, even though she was doing harm to his own fleet, she won high praise from Xerxes.

They say that as the king was watching the battle and saw her ship ram the other one, someone by his side said: “My lord, do you see what a good fight Artemisia is putting up and how she has sunk one of the enemy’s ships?”

The king asked it if was really Artemisia and the bystander confirmed it, since he knew the markings of her ship well and assumed that the ship she destroyed must be an enemy. As I said, all this turned out to her benefit, since no one from the Calyndian ship survived to accuse her.

In response to this observation, it is reported that Xerxes remarked: “My men have become women, and my women have become men!”

– Herodotus, Histories 8.87-89

Artemisia displayed similar shrewdness when, after the defeat of his fleet, Xerxes consulted his advisers on how to continue the war in Greece. When the general Mardonius offered to remain in Greece and keep fighting while Xerxes himself returned to Persia, Artemisia offered this advice:

When consulted on the question of what to do, Artemisia said: “Sire, it is hard to give good advice in such a case, but what seems best to me is for you to march home and leave Mardonius and whatever troops wish to remain with him here, if he is willing to undertake this task. If Mardonius is successful and accomplishes what he says he can, the credit for it will belong to you, since he is your servant. If he is wrong and things go against him, it will be no great disaster for you and your house. As long as you and your line endure, the Greeks will often face great struggles, and no one will much care if anything happens to Mardonius, nor will defeating your servant count as a great victory for the Greeks. You, however, will depart having accomplished what you set out to do, which was to burn Athens.”

Xerxes was delighted with this advice, since he had been thinking exactly the same thing. He was gripped with such fear that he would not have stayed in Greece even if all the men and women in the world had recommended it. He thanked Artemisia for her advice and entrusted her with taking his children to Ephesus, since he had some of his illegitimate children with him.

– Herodotus, Histories 8.102-103

Now, Herodotus—a fellow Halicarnassian—may be accused of partiality and playing up Artemisia’s involvement in the war effort, but the kinds of deeds he attributes to her are telling. Artemisia was actively engaged in Xerxes’ war, but she was also politically canny and willing to seize her own advantage when it came. Given the opportunity to demonstrate her utility to the king, she took it and personally led her forces as part of the Persian fleet. Finding herself in a difficult position in battle, she saved herself at the cost of a friendly ship. When consulted for her advice, she told the king what he wanted to hear and was rewarded with an important commission.

Many Greeks were in positions like Artemisia’s when it came to the Persian Empire. Persia was large, powerful, rich, and right at the Greeks’ doorstep. Persia was a huge market both for Greek exports and for the services of Greek artists, crafters, and mercenaries. For all that historians have tended to celebrate the Athenians and Spartans for resisting Persian invasions in 490 and 480-479, far more Greeks worked for the Persian kings than ever fought against them.

The boundary between Greece and Persia was porous. Many people went back and forth across it as their own interests dictated. While modern narratives have tended to paint the division between Greece and Persia in stark terms, the reality was much more gray than black and white. Not everyone who negotiated the space between Greece and Persia did it with the skill and panache that of Artemisia, but she was far from alone.

Image: A modern artist’s impression of Artemisia, detail from “Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis” via Wikimdeia (Maximillianum, Munich; 1868; oil on canvas; by Wilhelm von Kaulbach)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Doricha: Mastering the Art of Cosmopolitanism

There is little we can say for sure about the life of Doricha (sixth century BCE, approximately contemporary with the poet Sappho). Most of what we know about her comes from legends and tales that make her larger than life. Even so, those legends in themselves tell us something important about the world of the Mediterranean in the Greek archaic age.

Doricha was a courtesan (hetaira in Greek) who worked in the city of Naucratis in Egypt. Courtesans were a class of sex workers in the ancient world, but unlike lower classes of sex workers, who provided sexual services in return for fairly standard rates of pay, courtesans offered and expected much more. A courtesan would do more than have sex with a client (although that was part of what she offered); she offered companionship, conversation, artistic performance, and social grace. What she received in return was often not so clearly specified. It could include money, but also gifts of jewelry, clothing, furniture, and food. She might enjoy a house paid for by a client, or even live with him long term. Courtesans often had ongoing relationships with a select few clients, and part of their work was to build the illusion of a purely romantic and emotional relationship around what was at base an economic transaction of pay for services. This was demanding work, and not everyone could do it well. A successful courtesan had to cultivate an aura of mystery and glamour. At the same time, courtesans were exposed to all the same pressures and dangers that women offering sex in exchange for money have always faced in male-dominated societies. Yet for some women, those who were lucky and who were good at their jobs, work as a courtesan offered a path to personal independence and financial security that few other women in the Greek world could claim.

Doricha was both lucky and good at her job. Originally from Thrace, she arrived in Naucratis as a slave being put to sex work by her owner, a Greek merchant from Samos named Xanthes. While working in Naucratis, she met Charaxus, brother of the poet Sappho, who was trading wine from the family’s home on Lesbos to Egypt. Charaxus was so smitten with Doricha that he bought her freedom from Xanthes. (When he got home, Sappho had some choice things to say about how he had spent the family’s hard-earned money on his business trip, bits of which survive in some of the fragments of her poems.) She then chose to remain in Naucratis and keep working as a free woman the trade she had begun as a slave. She became so successful that at the end of her life she wanted to leave a lasting memorial of her wealth. According to a story told by Herodotus, she spent one tenth of her fortune to make a massive pile of iron roasting spits and deposited them at Delphi, the site of the famous oracle, where Herodotus reports that they were still to be seen in his day. (Herodotus, Histories 2.135)

Like other courtesans, she cultivated an intriguing persona to appeal to her clients. This persona included an alias, Rhodopis, meaning rosy-cheeked in Greek, by which name she is better known. (It was not unusual for ancient courtesans to use aliases, for all the same reasons that women today performing as strippers or porn stars do.) This mysterious persona influenced how her life was told and retold in later generations, and a number of folktales became attached to her story. One claims that while she was a slave in Samos, the fable-writer Aesop was at the same time a slave in the same household. While this one is not impossible, the coincidence stretches belief (and it is not even certain among scholars today that Aesop was ever a real person). Other stories are attached to Doricha’s later life and are even more unbelievable.

One popular tale is the earliest known version of the Cinderella story:

They say that one day, when Rhodopis was bathing, an eagle snatched her sandal from her serving maid and carried it away to Memphis. There the king was administering justice in the open air and the eagle, flying over his head, dropped the sandal in his lap. The king, moved by the beauty of the sandal and the extraordinary nature of the event, sent all through the country to find out whose it was. She was found in Naucratis and conducted to the king, who made her his wife.
– Strabo, Geography 17.1.33

(My own translation)

Another popular myth among Greeks held that one of the three great pyramids at Giza was Doricha’s tomb, built for her by the king after her death. (Herodotus correctly points out that this story was impossible as the pyramid actually belonged to the king Mycerinus, who ruled Egypt some two thousand years before Doricha ever got there, but he also documents that it was a tale widely known among Greeks. Herodotus 2.134) Doricha’s life was one that seemed fabulous, bordering on the mythic. Some of that wonder is down to Doricha herself, who certainly seems like she would have been an interesting person to know, but the tales about Doricha also reflect the wider Greek experience in Naucratis.

In Doricha’s day, Naucratis was a newly-founded Greek colony, and a unique one. Over the course of the archaic age (roughly 750-480 BCE), Greek cities founded numerous colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Some of these colonies were large settlements devoted to controlling farmland and producing food, which was a scarce resource back home in Greece, and some colonies either began with or in time acquired a military might that was able to dominate and subjugate the local peoples, but not all colonies were of that kind. Many were small, fairly humble trading posts or Greek immigrant neighborhoods already busy foreign cities and ports. In these colonies, good relations with local people as hosts and trading partners were essential. Naucratis was in some respects like these trading colonies, and one of its important functions was as the official port of trade for Greeks in Egypt. (Herodotus 2.178-9)

Naucratis was also different. It was the only foreign settlement in Egypt officially sanctioned by indigenous kings, and it had begun not as a trading post but as a settlement of Greek and Carian mercenaries in Egyptian service. The kings of Egypt found the Aegean world to be useful recruiting ground for professional soldiers. Greece had all the qualities that powerful states have historically looked for to find mercenaries: it was poor, politically disorganized, and wracked by violence. The result was a large population of experienced fighters who had no stable home or livelihood. Naucratis became not only a place where Greek merchants could bring goods that were in demand in Egypt, like iron, wine, and olive oil, but also a place where Greek soldiers who fell on hard times could go to find ready employment in the Egyptian army.

For the Greeks, Naucratis was the gateway to Egypt and to the possibility of striking it rich, whether as a courtesan, merchant, or mercenary. The tales told about Doricha reflect this sense that Naucratis was a place where amazing things could happen, where one could imagine starting out as a slave and ending up the rich and beloved consort of the king. Most people who came to Naucratis, of course, never had such success, but Doricha is evidence of what was possible there for the talented and lucky. While her story may have been exaggerated over time, it is clear that she managed an enviable rise from low status to exceptional wealth.

Opportunities of this kind were available in the Greek colonies for those lucky enough and determined enough to make the most of them, but making it big in a place like Naucratis required one skill above all: the ability to work across cultural boundaries. Doricha was originally from Thrace. She made her name by serving Greek merchants in Egypt, and at the end of her life she proudly proclaimed her success by making a dedication in the international sanctuary at Delphi, a place frequented not only Greeks but by people of many cultures around the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. The legends about her life imagine her becoming the beloved of the Egyptian king and being commemorated with an Egyptian tomb. All of the other merchants and mercenaries who sought their fortune in Naucratis had to negotiate similar boundaries. Doricha’s life is an example of what could be achieved by those who mastered the art of cosmopolitanism.

Image: “The Beautiful Rhodope in Love with Aesop” via Wikimedia (1780; engraving by Bartolozzi after a painting by Angelica Kauffman)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

The Strange Poetry of an Index

One of the tricks of the trade in academia is: when you pick up a new book, look at the index first. Seeing what terms appear there and which ones have large numbers of references tells you a lot about what the book is about.

I’ve been working on the index to my latest book, a collection of primary sources on the Greco-Persian Wars. Most of the entries are proper names for people, places, and institutions, and their specificity tells you pretty clearly the topic of the book. If you take those out, though, the terms that are left have a strange kind of poetry about them. You could let your imagination wander and dream up some very different books that had these terms in their indices. For your enjoyment:

animals, archers

beer, bees, bread, brick, bridges, bulls

canals, cannibalism, carnelian, cattle, cavalry, chariots, childbirth, clothing, colonies, crown, cuneiform

democracy, diplomacy, disease, dreams

earth and water, earthquakes, esparto, exiles

forgery, fowl, frankincense, frontiers

gifts, goats, gold, grain, guest-friendship

hair, helots, heralds, heroes, hoplites, horses, hostages

incense, ivory

labor, language, lapis lazuli, laws, linen, lions

medicine, mercenaries, merchants, moon, mules, multiculturalism, mummification

oil, ointment, oligarchy, oracles

palaces, papyrus, phalanx, pomegranates, poultry, propaganda

racing, rain, religion, roads

sacrifice, satraps, satrapies, sheep, shields, ships, shipwrecks, sieges, silver, storms, stone

temples, tolerance, tombs, trade, translation, tribute, triremes, turquoise, tyrants

walls, water, wind, wine, wood

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Sappho: Making a Life in Archaic Greece

The poet Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BCE) is among the earliest writers whose work comes down to us from ancient Greece. She is best known for her lyric poetry, much of it on themes of love and longing. (Read some of my translations of her work here and here, or hear a recreated musical performance of one of her poems here.) Her literary works were widely popular in Greece and Rome, and later authors wrote many things about her life, few of them reliable. Much of what we think we know about Sappho’s life is conjecture based on her poetry. Still, even amid this uncertainty, Sappho stands for us as a representative of one of the most important transformative forces in ancient Greek history: the rise of trade.

During the Early Iron Age, a period of Greek history extending from around 1200 to 750 BCE, the Greek world was largely isolated. People lived in small villages of at most a few thousand people. Most people got by at a subsistence level, producing enough for their own needs and engaging in trade outside their own households in only a limited way. Political power, such as it was, rested with an entrenched class of warrior-aristocrats who monopolized control of scarce farmland. This elite class occasionally traded their agricultural surplus overseas for modest amounts of foreign luxuries, but that trade had little impact on the Greek world, and to the extent that it did, it only reinforced the social status of an existing elite. The poetry of this elite is represented by the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which celebrate martial values and the exploits of the warrior heroes that the aristocrats claimed as their ancestors.

Between 750 and 700, this stability was rapidly undermined by the development of new patterns of trade. Greeks began to venture out into the larger Mediterranean more often and more purposefully. The earliest accounts we have from the outside world describe the Greeks as pirates and raiders. Such dangerous ventures were not for the comfortably well off. The first Greeks to try their luck abroad were those who could not survive at home under the dominance of the entrenched aristocracy. Their risky raiding voyages had limited success, but the experience they gained in places like Egypt and the Levant prepared them for more profitable ventures as mercenaries and merchants. By the mid-600s, there was a growing class of successful merchants, artisans, and other professionals in Greece whose prosperity came from their connection to the outside world rather than control of land and who were increasingly agitating against the old aristocracy for a share of political power.

Sappho spoke for this new class of Greeks whose wealth came from abroad. Her brother Charaxus, whom she addresses in a few of her poems, was engaged in trading wine from their home on the island of Lesbos to Egypt. Sappho’s poetry invokes the importance of foreign contacts by using Lydia, a kingdom in Anatolia, as an image of beauty and luxury. Unlike the Homeric epics, Sappho’s lyrics speak of immediate, personal, emotional experiences. Individuals with their own desires and passions emerge as more important than family lines or warlike values.

Sappho’s poetry describes her intense romantic feelings for young women. Although we cannot know for sure to what extent these poems reflect Sappho’s personal experiences and how much is just literary invention, the idea that love mattered was, in its way, a radical thought. Among the landowning class, marriage was mostly a matter of family politics and economic negotiation. Ideally, of course, husbands and wives felt affectionately toward one another, but powerful, passionate love was not something to be sought out or valued. Homer’s heroes have little time for the emotional power of love: Helen is a prize to be fought over like any other piece of treasure, and the suitors who clamor for Penelope’s hand talk of their estates, not their feelings. In Sappho’s day, the Greeks who were making their living in trade could still be perfectly mercenary in their personal relationships, but the idea that love had power and that the feeling of longing for another person was worthy of attention was new and exciting. In much the same way that the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one in the nineteenth century CE brought with it a new interest in romantic love, Greeks in the seventh century BCE whose fortunes no longer depended on controlling land were beginning to think of individual feelings of love as something to value in a relationship.

Like the merchants and mercenaries who sought their fortunes amid the dangers of the unknown world outside Greece, the voices of Sappho’s poems dream that they might have what they long for, that their individual lives and struggles might matter.

Image: “Sappho embracing her lyre” via Wikimedia (Musee des Beaux-Arts de Brest; 19th c.; painting; by Jules-Elie de Launay)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Listening to Sappho

Sappho, like many ancient poets, wrote her poems not to be read on the page but to be sung. We don’t know specifically what her poems originally sounded like when performed, but we know enough about the notes, rhythms, and structure of ancient music to make some reasonable guesses. Here’s a version of Sappho’s first poem (my translation here) performed on a reconstructed ancient lyre by artist Bettina Joy de Guzman.

Sappho fr. 1: to Aphrodite via Bettina Joy de Guzman

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

Myths and Marketing

A lot of people have made comparisons between the pop-culture heroes of today like Marvel’s superheroes or the characters of Star Wars and the heroes of ancient Greek myth. (I’ve done it myself, here and here.) There’s a lot to be said for these comparisons in terms of narrative, but there are also interesting similarities in the way these characters are portrayed visually and sold to an admiring public.

Ancient Greek art went through an extraordinary transformation over a few centuries from the early archaic age (mid-700s BCE) to the high classical age (mid-400s BCE). One of the most telling signs of this transformation was the change in how mythic characters were represented.

Geometric krater, photograph by Metropolitan Museum of Art (found Attica, currently Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 750-730 BCE; pottery; attributed to the Hirschfeld workshop)

Here is a scene from a Greek vase painted around 750. The human figures are highly abstracted with no individual identifying characteristics. We can make out some of what is happening in the scenes. In the upper register, a single figure lies horizontally on a table or bed surrounded by standing figures with their hands on their heads. This scene is generally interpreted as a funeral, with wailing mourners surrounding the deceased. On the lower register, warriors with shields ride in chariots. Still, for as much as we can make guesses about what is going on in these images, the details elude us. Are these generic images or are they meant to tell a story? Are the two registers even related to one another? One possibility is that this image represents the funeral for Patroclus, from the Iliad, with the funeral pyre on the upper register and the games in honor of the dead on the lower, but we have no way of knowing for sure whether that was what the artist intended or not.

Polyphemus amphora, photograph by Sarah C. Murray via Wikimedia (currently Archaeological Museum of Eleusis; c. 650 BCE; pottery; Polyphemus painter)

This image comes from a vase painted a hundred years later, around 650 BCE. Now we have a definite story. A group of men come from the left carrying a long spear to stab the eye of a larger, seated figure on the right holding a drinking cup. Putting all these elements together, it is clear that this scene represents the blinding of Polyphemus, the giant cyclops whom Odysseus and his men got drunk before stabbing his one eye out. The scene is clear enough if you know the story, but reading the image depends on knowing the whole story and seeing the whole picture. The figures within it are not distinctive. If you took any one of the figures out and looked at it on its own, you would have no way of identifying it or guessing what story it came from.

Black figure olpe, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (currently Louvre; c. 540 BCE; pottery; Amasis)

Another century later, the ways of depicting mythic figures had developed into something new. In this vase painting, from about 540, we see figures with distinctive characteristics. On the left a robed and bearded man holds a trident: unmistakably Poseidon, god of the sea. Hermes, the messenger god, approaches him, recognizable from his broad-brimmed hat, his snake-twined herald’s staff, and the wings on his sandals. Athena comes next, indicated by her helmet and spear and the shield she carries bearing her symbol, the owl. Behind her comes Heracles, not so visible in this image but still recognizable from the bow he carries and the lion skin he wears. Even though nothing much is happening in the image—it’s just a line of people—with this combination of characters, we can tell that it is representing the story of Heracles’ ascension to join the gods on Mount Olympus. Each character, though, is distinct. You could take any one of them out of the scene, and you would still know who you were looking at.

Ancient Greek art developed a rich but understandable visual language for identifying important figures from mythology. To understand why this development mattered, we have to think about the Greeks’ place in the larger Mediterranean.

Despite the importance the modern West has accorded to ancient Greek culture, ancient Greece itself was not a powerhouse of the Mediterranean. Greece was a poor, fractious backwater compared with the great centers of wealth and culture like Egypt, Persia, and Carthage. Trade was crucial to the Greeks’ survival, which meant they had to have something to offer that other people wanted. Wine and olive oil were the major commodities the Greek traded overseas, but over time they increasingly began to export their cultural products as well. Greek artisans, poets, musicians, and actors found work throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. The changes in how Greeks depicted myths in their art went along with their expansion into the Mediterranean’s trade networks.

Exporting culture only works if your culture can offer something the market wants. The most valuable cultural property the Greeks had was their mythology. Greek mythology was not a complete and canonical body of work to be exported whole (as I discuss here), but a flexible, malleable set of stories and characters ready to be reimagined and recombined in new and unique ways. This flexibility allowed individual Greek artists and merchants to offer their patrons and trading partners versions of myths that suited the tastes of the local market. Heracles, for instance, went over well in Etruria, and before long Etruscans were creating their own stories about the character (calling him “Herkle”) that no Greek would have imagined. The Amazons similarly found their way into Egyptian literature. Underlying it all was a set of characters (gods, heroes, monsters) with basic identifying characteristics, personalities, and stories. A Persian or Carthaginian picking up a new Greek vase in the market might not know all the myths depicted on it, but it was easy to recognize Athena’s owl or Heracles’ lion skin and begin to put together the story from there.

In a similar way, symbolic attributes have become an important part of how we identify our modern heroes. From Captain America’s shield to Luke Skywalker’s light saber, from the Doctor’s TARDIS to the house crests of Westeros, having a set of easily recognizable symbols helps us identify our favorite characters and stories at a glance. They are also great fodder for marketing merchandise—which is exactly what our ancient Greek counterparts were doing with their mythology, too. Besides being the common cultural property of a far-flung people, Greek myths and their visual representations were a brilliant marketing device that got lots of Etruscans, Romans, Egyptians, Scythians, and others to buy Greek goods.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Myths Are Fanfiction

If you’re like me and a lot of my students, you grew up with Greek mythology. The monster-filled adventures of Odysseus, the (somewhat bowdlerized) philandering of Zeus, the just-so story of Echo and Narcissus, and others were part of my childhood reading. Myths seemed like any other sort of story, with well-defined characters and plots. But there’s something different about mythology. We can’t think of it the same way we think of other kinds of literature. Mythology, in fact, has more in common with fanfiction than with literature as we usually think of it. Greek mythology is one of the best documented and most widely known mythic traditions in the West, so it makes a useful example. When you dig into the primary sources of Greek mythology you find that it is stranger, more complicated, and less cohesive than it seemed when I was a child.

Defining exactly what makes a story a myth can be surprisingly difficult, but if we take as our starting point stories about fictional characters who are larger than life and more than human, we have a good chunk of Greek literature and art to work with. The literary versions of myths that have come down to us must themselves have been based on oral traditions passed down through generations, retold and reimagined in every new performance. There is no canon of Greek mythology. There is no original text that we (or the ancient Greeks themselves) can point to and say: “This story is the correct one; anything that conflicts with it is wrong.”

The nearest thing to a canonical text in ancient Greek culture was the two epics attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Neither of these epic poems was written down until the sixth century BCE, although some version of them circulated orally for hundreds of years prior. These poems were themselves just elaborated snippets of a much broader oral tradition which encompassed the whole story of the Trojan War and its heroes’ return to Greece. There was, however, some collective sense of how the epics ought to go. We know this because of the scandal caused by Peisistratus, the tyrant of Athens, who was accused of tampering with the Iliad by inserting a line to suggest that the nearby island of Salamis ought to belong to Athens. On one hand, the fact that such a minor tweak to the poem caused an uproar suggests a degree of reverence for the text. On the other hand, it is clear that the text could be tweaked. We have no idea how many changes the text of the epics may have gone through over the centuries that went by unremarked because they were less politically dicey.

If the Homeric epics were viewed with a certain reverence by the ancient Greeks, the same is not true of our other major sources of mythic stories. Our knowledge of Greek myth mostly comes from the literary productions of a few particular places and times. These works were regarded as literature, free to be debated, reinterpreted, or ignored. Apart from the oral traditions codified the Homeric poems, these include:

  • Athenian drama, mostly written in the fifth century BCE at a time when Athens was a major economic, military, and political power in Greece, the leader of an Aegean empire known as the Delian League, and wrapped up in ongoing conflicts with Sparta, Thebes, and the Persian Empire.
  • Poetry and prose composed in Hellenistic Alexandria, much of it by scholars working at the Library, which compiled and retold stories from earlier Greek traditions as part of the Ptolemaic kings’ propaganda program celebrating their links to classical Greek culture.
  • Roman poetry of the late republic and early empire, composed at a time when Roman society was in crisis and different factions within the elite were competing for power.

There are significant works of art and literature not from these times that add to our knowledge of Greek mythology, but much of what we know comes from one of these clusters. Each one represents a time of fraught cultural and political tensions, and these tensions are reflected in the literature of the period. Fifth-century Athenian drama often portrays Athens as a place of wisdom and sound democratic government while painting Athens’ major rival Thebes as a chaotic city of violence and tragic folly. Written at a different time and in a different context, Roman versions of mythic stories, such as Vergil’s Aeneid, position the Romans as worthy heirs to the glory of ancient Greece.

The works of these different periods also reflect different literary interests. Athenian comedy often took heroic figures from myth and put them into ridiculous situations for laughs. The Alexandrian authors liked to show off the breadth of their learning by tying together disparate characters and tales into grand narratives, or retelling familiar stories from the point of view of minor characters. The Roman poet Ovid played to the sexual culture of his day by composing a collection of imaginary love letters between famous mythic couples.

All of these variations on mythic tales depended on an audience who already knew the stories and characters that were being referenced. They could also end up representing wildly different interpretations of the same events or figures. Part of the fun for ancient readers and theatre-goers was recognizing familiar stories told in a new way. In this respect, mythology worked the same way fanfiction works today. Whether it’s a passionately rendered love scene between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, a quippy duel between Batman and Iron Man, or the adventures of Aragorn and Galadriel’s secret love child, the fun of fanfic comes in taking the stories we have in common and doing something new with them—sometimes something inspired by the social and political context around us, and sometimes just for the delight of bringing a favorite character back on the stage for an encore.

The fragmentary nature of the literary record from antiquity means that when we try to put together the narrative of a certain character or event from Greek mythology, we are often cobbling together bits and pieces of sources from many different genres, written centuries apart on different continents for widely varying audiences and purposes. The fact that we are able to make any sense out of these stories at all is a testament to how much the ancient Greeks and those who learned their stories loved their myths and enjoyed retelling them. But whenever we deal with mythology—Greek or otherwise—we have to remember that what we are dealing with is a wonderfully strange mishmash of stories, none of it canonical as we understand the term today, but all of it lovingly retold by generations of people who made the stories their own.

Image: Mosaic of Vergil with the muses of history and tragedy, photograph by Giorces via Wikimedia (currently Bardo Museum, Tunis; 3rd c. CE; mosaic)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Shadows of Athens

While the subgenre of mysteries set in ancient Rome already has a number of talented practitioners, ancient Greece is a largely unexplored territory, which makes J. M. Alvey’s Shadows of Athens a special treat. In this book we follow an Athenian playwright, Philocles, whose preparations for presenting a new comedy are interrupted when a dead body turns up on his doorstep. From there the action unfolds both in the theatre—for the show must go on—and in the streets of Athens as Philocles, aided by his family and patron, investigates a shadowy conspiracy that somehow seems bent on both starting a war in the Aegean and cornering the market for leather.

Shadows of Athens is a skillfully handled mystery whose various threads are deftly woven together. The stories of Philocles’ play, his family’s leather business, and the geopolitics of the Delian League all come together in a satisfying conclusion. Along the way, we get some wonderful treats including a fully-staged Greek comedy, a sloshy symposium, and Philocles’ views of both the bustle of the Athenian street and everyday family life. Alvey’s ancient Athens is alive, full of both joy and trouble, and Philocles is a companionable guide to its twisting streets, even as he pieces together the conspiracy that left a dead body in front of his house.

For myself, as a historian, Alvey’s work is a particular treat to read. The book captures the richness and complexity of Athenian life in a specific moment—a generation after the Greco-Persian Wars, as the empires of Athens and Sparta were beginning to tilt toward war—with a liveliness that no textbook or scholarly history can match but with exacting attention to historical detail. It was delightful to be able to pick out details and know which primary sources Alvey was reading (and to recognize a cameo appearance by my dear old friend Herodotus).

I thoroughly enjoyed Shadows of Athens and eagerly recommend it to anyone with a taste for historical mystery looking for something new to pick up.

Image by Erik Jensen

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Just a Happy Little Sea Monster

Wherever you want it to be, there it will be.

Sea monster, photograph by Carole Raddato via Wikimedia (Casa del Drago, Caulonia, Italy; 3rd c. BCE, mosaic)

 

This particular sea monster is in a mosaic from a house in the ancient Greek city of Caulonia in southern Italy from the third century BCE. Ancient depictions of sea monsters like this one often have long, snaky bodies, spiky fins, broad tails, and wings. These various pieces may have been cobbled together in the imagination from scattered sightings of whales, dolphins, sharks, squid, and other large sea creatures.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Alexander and the Sea Monsters

Sea monsters prevented Alexander from building Alexandria. He took a wooden container in which a glass box was inserted, and dived in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew pictures of the devilish monsters he saw. He then had metal effigies of these animals made and set them up opposite the place where building was going on. When the monsters came out and saw the effigies, they fled. Alexander was thus able to complete the building of Alexandria.

– Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-‘Ibar

Translated by Franz Rosenthal

This wild tale about the foundation of Alexandria is cited by the 14th-century North African historian Ibn Khaldun as an example of the ludicrous fictions that some earlier historians had filled their histories with but that had no place in the kind of scientific, rational history he set out to write.

The story as Ibn Khaldun relates it seem to go back to a legend in the Alexander Romance, a highly fictionalized account of Alexander the Great’s campaigns, about a large snake that frightened the workers who were building the city of Alexandria on the coast of Egypt until Alexander had the snake caught and killed. Over centuries of retelling, the hunt for one big snake turned into a struggle against terrible sea monsters.

The story of Alexander and the sea monsters is fiction, not history, as Ibn Khaldun rightly points out, but what a story it is! Wood and glass submarines! Ancient kaiju! Tactical deployment of art! How has no one made a movie out of this already?

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.