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Sunday, August 5, 2012


1200-479 BCE

- Jonathan M. Hall; Blackwell Publishing 2007

Chair of Classical Studies, Prof of History – U. of Chicago

               As with Osborn's book, Greece in the Making, this book is a scholar's work, in this case an American, setting out to frame the same period as Osborn, and doing a much better job of it. Hall even begins with discussing the nature of history itself as Osborn does, but taking more time in explaining himself.


               Prof. Hall says the English word "history" is a word whose ancient root meaning was revived in lectures and a resulting book by Edward Hallett Carr in 1961.

               AUTODIDACT: Here's the interesting bit: Carr was a premier Marxist historian of the history of the Soviet Union who lived in the West.

               HALL: In a series of lectures which turned into a book entitled What is History? Carr returned to the Greek root word: "historia" whose original meaning is "inquiry," and proceeded from there to take on the purpose of history as a discipline: Is History the relation of past events, Or the relation of evidence as a result of inquiry? Why is the distinction important?

               AUTODIDACT: For one, people like the Autodidact can only read secondary sources, such as this one, because the Autodidact cannot read ancient Greek. Any secondary source which compiles the evidence and presents it is a story nonetheless. (One loves a good story.) So does that make it "history" commonly understood as "what happened," or does that make it a novel woven from evidence commonly understood, as an interpretation from a particular point of view?         

               A Marxist would present it as evidence supporting a theoretical historical premise that the story of humanity is that of a set of tribes/ classes in perpetual conflict. A "Queer Theory" historian would present it based upon sexual orientation/ gender. A "Structuralist" would present it in the context of deconstructing its parts to discern the fundamental attitudes, beliefs and perceptions. And the list goes on. The discussion is delightful and enlightening, with "light" being the central theme here, easily understood by both objectivists and relativists as meaning two completely different things.

               (One can, like the Autodidact, dissolve into laughter, then keep reading, or close the book at least to violently empty the contents of one's stomach.)

               HALL: mentions an historian who was a relativist, generally or relatively speaking at least, who studied modern history and grieved that ancient and medieval historians could be more certain of their subject, but then consoled himself with the thought that their certainty springs from irreparable ignorance of their subject. See?! Why is there not an acknowledged Humor School of History?! Call it the "Posthum(or)ous School."

               Because we can't reconstruct the dim past with anything like a complete understanding of what it was really like, so guesswork is all there is to fill in the gaps, and that guesswork has to be subject not only to consistency with the evidence, but one's existential circumstances (never mind one's conscious philosophical bent) that underlie all of one's thinking about the subject; which means there has been an explosion of ways to interpret, which means certainty is out the door.

               But this is not a futile exercise, unless one confuses certainty with dogma, or can't tell the difference between evidence and theory. And then one must ask, historian or not, do we HAVE to understand it exactly like it was?

               Or do we want to use as much of it as we can find out, to find out as much as we can about ourselves??


               Understanding Archaic Greece, the world that was precursor to the Spartans at Thermopylae; the Parthenon; Themistocles and the Battle of Salamis; the Delian League, Thucydides and Herodotus, Socrates and Aristarchus and Plato and Anaximander and Zenon; the decisive Battle of Plataea, the Athenian expedition to Syracuse; Aristotle; Alexander the Great; the Hellenic Age; the explosion of discoveries and theories that lay dormant (relative to Europe) for a thousand years until the European Renaissance; the American Revolution produced by men who could read Greek and Latin and produced what we call the oldest existing democracy; and the expansion of Western Civilization that has spread to every corner of the globe and dominated it to cause even the other, much older, civilization centered on China, to kowtow to it or, at least, to assimilate it in order to survive.

               These are the cumulative reasons to read as much as one can about a time we cannot fully know. The overarching interesting thing about the Greek Dark Age: there is evidence:

               It runs consistently enough to trace general developments across centuries in a panorama that can both be corroborated and which, the more one looks, the more it looks familiar, very familiar. This is in other words, a reflection not only on human nature, but a study of what happened when it first happened. That is to say, it was the Iron Age begat of the Bronze Age born of the Neolithic; in scale beggaring the modern use of the term to distinguish the Enlightenment from the Industrial from the Modern from the post-Modern which are simply, at best, really just epochs which doesn't grab the attention publishers would prefer, nor provide the self importance to which writers aspire, and so the silly dilution of the term.

               Between the two, recognized from all evidence as so fundamental as to call them "Ages," not epochs or fads or any sort of change less than starkly different; as affecting all of us and everywhere, and, hence, a beginning of history (Iron Age) however dimly seen enough to define the new Age as a place where things we recognize happened "for the first time"; an evolution that both narrowed the possibilities of humanity forever and widened its chances. And it is at the approximate juncture of the Bronze and Iron ages that the Great Collapse of the Archaic Greece occurs.

               Moreover, one must ask, are we now the way we are because they first set the path as they emerged from catastrophe, or is it something in our very nature that makes us now like they were then?

               HALL: The World that collapsed in Greece around the year 1200 BC, MYCENAE, has no written record except for those found and only deciphered lately (ca. 1950) and that language tells us only about transactions of the royal houses and little else. It was a language of records, with 60 ideograms and 89 signs; cumbersome and, given the royal houses were the only source of demand for it, of limited need of people who could read & write it, and absolutely of no use to the rest of the people. Nevertheless they tell us things not only of what happened before, but during the Great Collapse.

               It didn't happen all at once. Those on the Greek mainland suffered devastations before Mycenae itself collapsed. There are records of putting up a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth to stop whoever it was that had set Thebes and other cities to the north of it aflame in a maelstrom of destruction the Mycenean center of power itself managed to withstand for a few more decades.

               During these years the walls of the city itself were strengthened – evidence from arch digs, not from literary sources – and the writings themselves become fewer – meaning fewer transactions with other cities. Where Mycenae in former times had traded and thereby communicated with the other civilizations of the Levant, including Egypt – by the 13th BC such trade has stopped. Mycenae is fighting for its life. Then the wall is breached and someone pours into the Peloponnese and wipes out what had once been your basic standard kingdom; in design more feudal than centralized.

               So, if archaeology can't tell us, what are we left with?

               Fortunately, we're studying History here, so there are other paths, for instance following the DNA of language; dialects and spellings along with archaeological evidence.

               AUTODIDACT: History is great, ain't it? Nothing stops it. You look at what one line of evidence suggests, but when it is stopped by a lack thereof, you aren't necessarily. Because you can look elsewhere. That is why Historical research will never be outmoded. For all its faults, it is the only discipline that is looking at the whole table where pieces – albeit those not already fallen from the table for the rest of Time, as well as those which we do not yet recognize as pieces  - are scattered. Even in the scattering History is compelled to find the pattern and the pattern is the thing.

               HALL: There is no consensus on who it was that did all this. The Dorian Invasion used to be the standard explanation but archaeological finds have challenged this, too. And it didn't happen all at once, but it seems to have happened in waves that went on for about a century and a half to ca. 1050.

               There is the theory of the "Sea Peoples. " Remember, the destruction was not confined to Greece, but the entire Levant. Even Egypt. Two successive Pharaohs claimed victory over them in what the evidence suggests was apocalyptically desperate. Other civilizations, including the Bronze Age Greeks, were not victorious and so they were overwhelmed. So in Greece an entire way of life collapsed so completely as to create a Black Hole in the history of a civilization that Homer and his legatees described as so well organized that it had once launched "a thousand ships" for the sake of a broken marriage and of course, pillage, murder and power.

               So, in the absence of archaeological evidence, what? You take a look at the DNA. In this case the DNA is still indeterminate biologically, possibly forever, because DNA deals with things on the scale of Carbon 14 dating – by centuries if you're lucky, millennia if you're not. But there is another DNA, the DNA of Language.

               Dialects and colloquialisms. The way people talk and inscribe.

               The evidence indicates a movement of people, who were not settled, into areas where people had been. There is some evidence that these Sea Peoples were not a single people but many, extending from central and northern Greece to Italy to Sicily. Admittedly that seems a stretch. What was it – some sea mafia of which we have no evidence no artifacts, nothing but a couple of inscriptions in Egypt?! Hey, stranger things have happened, and we have only the barest of evidence on the whole eastern Mediterranean for that period anyway. We know that there were seafaring people in the Late Neolithic Age; guys in animal skin canoes crossing from island to island trading and mingling; and the idea of a sea-based culture raiding, killing, raping, plundering and occupying isn't so farfetched when we have much more recent documented examples such as the Vikings.

               And there are historians who argue that the Collapse was internal rather than external, an explanation the Autodidact finds less appealing simply because too many other things were happening along the same lines elsewhere; other civilizations were collapsing about the same time, such as the Hittites, as well as just barely holding on, as in Egypt.

               And there are multi-layered arguments involving economics problems and eco-problems which have yet to coalesce. For instance, it appears that the polar ice caps were retreating, according to one set of data, drawing the jet stream north, drawing rains north, causing arid conditions causing crop failures causing economic distress causing displacement of peoples causing collapse of the higher structures of organization precipitating your basic anarchy. But there are also theories that use evidence to argue the ice caps were instead advancing, causing a mini-Ice Age causing crop failures, etc.

               AUTODIDACT: Either of these explains mass displacement among peoples somewhere sufficient to cause them to invade the Levant in waves. One hopes more evidentiary research will be published on the subject, but the results are pretty clear, whatever it was, and the inquiry here for the Autodidact is not only what happened, but more importantly, to understand why what happened "next" –Classical Greece - happened next. And eco-explanations, the "Guns, Germs and Steel" approach, can be more specifically explained with actual events.

               The Autodidact can, for instance, provide another for instance in a later episode, the Roman Empire. It can be argued that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire through the pressures of "barbarian invasions" beginning in the 6th Century AD actually were caused by the Han Empire in China sending armies against the Hsiung-Nu barbarians in Mongolia and driving them west in the 1st Century A.D, causing a long knock-on effect that displaced tribes from there clear to the English Channel on the other side of the planet 400 years later.

               HALL: uses language more precisely as well, though he does not forego the evidentiary burial sites and pottery comparisons that Osborn dwells on, and which are discussed in the meditation on Osborn's book. Rather, let us look here at what Hall does differently, which is to trace words not only to trace the tribes of Archaic Greece through and after the Collapse: the Ionians, the Achaeans, the Laconia's, and others, but he examines the use of words as they are used from Homer forward in order to get at what someone meant when he said something about someone, for instance, the word Basileis.

               Basileis has heretofore been used generally to mean King, but since World War II that meaning has been examined further. Being on the other side of the European Dark Age from the Greek Dark Age, the term "king" we generally recognize has an entirely different and inappropriate application as regards the structure of power that emerged into the Classical period of Greece. (Should one call it the Classical Age? There is certainly reason to do so, given the explosion of new human precedents it set for the next 2,000 years). Balsileis refers to a type of power that emerged from the Collapse, when the Greeks had to start over and figure almost everything out for themselves on their isolated hilltops. Elsewhere ( see From Citadel to City State et al here),  we've discussed the idea of the "Big Man", a chief recognized for his acknowledged influence, luck, bravery, and/or cunning, and HALL discusses this as a possible precursor to the more developed leadership paradigms in myriad forms that developed as a result of isolated communities becoming less isolated, but each adhering to their organizational inventions from the desperate, shadowy past of the Dark Age nevertheless. From this word, and from how others as well are used in the texts, HALL pursues a path of inductive analysis of the emerging society into the 7th century BC where things have by now become more stable. The Greeks are seafaring again in noticeable numbers, and populations grow, expand, move about and of course try to organize themselves in a competition of commerce, survival, etc. but they are tribally guided by the way they think about themselves – which in Greece is by no means uniform because there is no actual "Greece" beyond comparison with outsiders, "barbarians." They are instead a collection of "poleis" with their own distinct theories of organization which are disseminated across the Mediterranean with the establishment of new cities. They are seafaring just as the Phoenicians – today's Palestinians, formerly Jacob's Canaanites and David's Philistines – but with a single vast difference. The Greeks didn't just settle communities for trade – they came to stay and they saw themselves as distinct from the poor sods they settled among.

               So, the Basileis refers to a fundamental dynamic that is based on community recognition of authority rather than Divine Providence, though not necessarily distinct from Divine Provenance. As time went on tribal leaders justified their positions based on lineage back to mythical figures, such as Heracles (Latin – Hercules). But this claim by provenance was not ipso facto accepted for purposes of an established aristocracy. Instead, you still had to earn it one way or another, among your community. What later developed were offshoots with varying degrees of accepted authority running the gamut from the Spartan Kings (and there were always 2 of them) to the Athenian aristocracy who seem always to have been vying for power with nothing settled on one man for a generation or even a family for more than a few.

               This wasn't the case for no reason. Enter the lawgivers. In more than one community, for instance Solon of Athens and Lycurgus of Sparta; we're talking 8th to 7th Centuries BC here, poleis were given virtual constitutions. We know about them because they worked. And you didn't just have constitution-makers, you had men who set down laws, such as Draco of Athens and Philolaos who gave laws to Thebes. And these laws and constitutions themselves seem to have evolved from evidentiary fragments of very specific criteria for very specific events, such as not only a murder, but a type of murder, for instance, involuntary. The old myths include instances of gods descending upon a situation and, rather than passing judgment, imposing a time out on the participants and then tell them to figure it out themselves. Which they did, one by one, polis by polis. And over time perhaps, because of the growing complexity of precedents and resulting ambiguities when a situation arose that was theretofore unanticipated, perhaps the polis' confusion reached critical mass and someone stepped in to reboot the system by setting out a legal course more flexible and therefore longer lasting by its usefulness in more situations.

               Sound familiar?

               The Autodidact found this book and bought it along with Osborn's, and found it gratifylingly re-readable, highly recommends it. The Study of Archaic Greece is necessarily only about the structures of society because the evidence allows only for that at this stage in the record, notwithstanding the inferences of the literature which, though not entirely preserved from the period, is nonetheless perpetuated in form arguably still containing the seeds of its provenance. And Hall takes full advantage of that and the physical evidence to provide us a platform that makes broad sense. And you can tell what is sensible deduction by the amount of surprises to the contrary that analysis admits.

               So HALL proceeds through the centuries to 479 BC, a date less of convenience than of absolute and universal recognition that THINGS CHANGED. He discusses the nature or power and he begins to zero in on Athens because, if there was ever a laboratory for political science, that was it. And it is the structure of power that provides clues not only to what happened, but how what came after managed to come after.

               AUTODIDACT: This study of Archaic Greece thus pauses in favor of other diversions such as  returning to the place we began in college, so to speak, in order to know it for the first time (yes, shameless rip-off of T S Elliot);  that is, into the Main Event of Classical Greece and its offspring, the Hellenic Age; the progenitors, the much  better known history; the thought, and the cumulative results thereof.


               We live in an era where the competition of ideas is more intense than in Classical Greece only because of the speed of transmission and the change in demographics. But the Western heritage of Classical Greece – made possible because it had to think for itself after undergoing a thorough catastrophic collapse, is still spreading. The inundation is less violent only in scale, and no less epochal in its transformative renaissance as the infusion of Western thought – born in Greece – reaches around the World which a Greek first posited as being round.

               In the West we are however still fighting out a problem posed, particularly in the United States.

               I speak of the two perspectives on which our culture rests: Judaism and Greek Humanism; the one an amalgam of ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian theocracy structured to provide a stable societal reference and requiring blind obedience to unquestionable myth; the other its absolute antithesis requiring critical thought, respect for opposing points of view, and an epistemological imperative that is diametrically opposed to the mindless acceptance of fact by authoritarian fiat.

               That battle is being fought by proxy just now in the Islamic World where, unlike Mormons who are American and therefore "ruled by the moral philosophy of the dollar," do not yet have an economy incorporated that will stabilize it in order to perpetuate theocratic plutocracy.

               It is so odd that Christianity, which was after all the invention of a Greek – St Paul – managed to combine elements of both, or subvert the one in favor of the other depending upon one's point of view. But the battle lines are drawn between Theosophy and the offspring of Greek Philosophy – Science – right here in the United States. The one demands unquestioning faith, the other ignores that religious fascism at its own peril. Lessons of the Greeks have been lost no less than those of the Jews in this struggle, and the one seeks actively to destroy the other, while the other proceeds as if politics were beneath it.

               Curiouser and Curiouser.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their root in Greece."

Percy Bysshe Shelley

            GREECE IN THE MAKING  1200-479 BC – Robin Osborne (2nd edition 2009)

         If you pick up this book and you're NOT matriculating at some higher institution where actual learning is offered, you will instantly have to assess just exactly how interested you are. If you ARE matriculating, this is NOT the sort of thing you can read the night before the final. This is the Autodidact's idea of an historical survey that doesn't invite you in and doesn't give a damn if you stay.

            It is a political history that, like a legal argument, lays a basis of facts. Unlike a legal argument, it lacks the passion of a contentious attorney trying to get the defendant (reader) "off," at least it didn't get the Autodidact off, but hey i did get a little excited here and there, which was clearly not the author's intention, kind of like a very mediocre blind date: reader and author polite to the door and relieved when it finally closes and the excruciating anticipation has turned into exhausted relief. So, enough with the confusing sarcasmic(?) intendres.

" a very few moves one finds oneself back with the political writings of Aristotle and the practice of democracy at Athens."

            It was written to take the traditional and archaeological evidence and fit those into a contextual theme that is never really set forth clearly, but the journey to the last page is fascinating nevertheless. And it really has little to do with anything before the 9th Century BC, despite the title. It's hard to teach the politics of a time that has virtually no written record, and going bak as faras the 9th BC is a stretch which is why so much archaeology is thrown in. It's all a preface, really to the 7th BC and what happened after that because, despite the lack of real contemporary records even then, it is less difficult to extrapolate events of that time which were nevertheless only recounted in later centuries.

            Professor Osborne teaches at Cambridge in the UK. He has written a number of other books on ancient Greece and Rome. Other professors had apparently been consigned, but failed to fulfill, the task of a broad, detailed analysis of what can be known politically about Archaic Greece. Either the Department elite thought he did a good job, or everybody was relieved that someone finally did it, for the Autodidact's edition is the book's 7th reprinting,

            Some rather spare charts and tables of information are so distilled as to be completely arid, but there are others which are thorough and impressive. There are maps with dots all over which are particularly helpful if you like counting dots; maps on a scale that presupposes the reader already knows exactly where the author is talking about; and some maps which are actually very useful. Osborne doesn't spell most Greek names the way the Autodidact is used to and that gets annoying (Puts me in mind of Churchill's statement of Americans and British being two peoples separated by a common language, except here it's two languages). He names a lot of places which presupposes one has another book that does contain maps this book should have contained. There are also dozens of photographic illustrations of pottery and statuary that are helpful along the way, unfortunately none of them in color. For all these perhaps publisher, editor, and the market for this sort of thing may be at least equally at fault.

            So, then, this book is an historian's attack upon pre-history; a wrestling match of intellect against myth, an extrapolation based on thin facts about long vanished hands; a cold, deadening dissection of ancient poetry, and an exhaustive reflection on what one really cannot know.

            And that is why the Autodidact couldn't put it down. It was like having a ringside seat at the fights. Who would win? The Indefatigable Scholar, or the Ineluctable Mysteries?

             What strikes about Osborne's book is his refusal to accept anything at face value, and his refusal to say that his analysis is final. History, he says, is not dogma, nor fossilized, but fluid and the Greeks seem to have understood that. Before they invented history, they had mythology and legend to explain the past, and oracles to predict the future. But Osborne points out that mythology was used politically to justify political agenda, and oracles were bribed to produce the results the political powers wanted.

            Wow! Being an oracle was tricky business; kind of like being a Rating Agency on Wall Street after the Crash of 2008. The concept is pretty much the same: you're predicting things for the people who are paying you to predict what they want to hear. Perhaps Moody's, Fitch and Standard & Poor could have shown a bit more intelligence by hiring a delirious woman and some poets??

            For the Autodidact the fascination part comes from this historian's appreciation of the importance of his subject, i.e., why Ancient Greece?

            1: it is the beginning of history: In the Classical age Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and others wrote down versions of what happened not based on "God Done Tole Me to Do It" – as with the Old Testament - but actually asked questions, wrote not long after events, and presented different versions to compare them and see which ones might be the most accurate; and

            2: it is the beginning of Western Civilization: institutions, philosophy, technology, i mean, c'mon, People! It's Ancient Greece, forgodsakes!

            Osborne proceeds into the 7th BC where the political forms of government in Greece take recognizable shape: the totalitarian, oppressive warrior state of Sparta that was unopen to change but very effective in pursuing its group interests; as against the Athenian tyrranies based upon oligarchic family affiliations, which proceed into the 6 BC in a dustcloud of constant political competitions that evolve into Athenian Democracy. The other city states, among them Thebes, Corinth, Argos, Megara, are all working through their own political realities, too.

            He maps the expansion of Greek settlement around the Mediterranean basin from the Black Sea coast to North Africa to Italy and Sicily by comparative analysis of pottery and statuary, and Osborne indicates which Greek city states may have been the origin of which settlements.

            He examines the uses of religion and mythology and tradition as something no less malleable to political purposes among the ancient Greeks than it is today. The point here is that Greek mythos was fluid, used to suit a purpose, to provide an interpretation that would lend itself to political agenda. One has to ask were the Archaic Greeks actually religious, or was it a matter of cynical lip service for the rich and powerful, and the ones who wanted to be rich and powerful, to manipulate religion to their own purposes? The answer is a resounding YES.

            Autodidact: Not so different from the Big Churches in America, their television stations, and their control of political donations and voting blocks.

            And when written Greek is newly synthesized from borrowed forms, it is the first of what would become an explosion of literature; that is to say, stories. In later Archaic Greece you also don't have digs turning up carved prayers to the gods, but announcements for the people, e.g., laws, lists of group members, little shards of pottery that were used to mark which way one was voting!

            Osborne: He analyzes the traditions of political stories of what actually happened in Greece before 479 BC in the fragments that are left – references found in stone carvings, pieces of pottery referencing (at the time) well known stories, names, events.

            And he approaches the writers who were the legatees of this period – Herodotus, Thucydides and others in succeeding centuries, pointing out the revolutionary beginning and persistent continuation thereafter of critical thought, in however imperfect form, without which objective history might not now even be known or practiced.

            In the end Osborne summarizes again what he has set out to do, to explain the overwhelming importance of Ancient Greece to the West and, hence to the planet.

            His Epilogue unexpectedly turns to George Orwell's 1984 and the job of the main character Winston Smith, which is to comb through prior newspaper articles for claims and predictions that no longer square with current facts and political agenda, to destroy and rewrite them. What?? OK, so there is a lot of evidence that Greeks made claims, some of them in stone, to proclaim their glorious whatever, or justify why they didn't do something glorious (blaming the gods was the custom), or rewriting traditional stories to suit them in making alliances with others, etc.

            Osborne's point: history cannot be set in stone, but must be revisited constantly, with careful objectivity, to avoid wholesale propaganda holding sway. That is to say, history needs tenure, dammit!

            Well, if you're reading this book, you already are aware of the stupidity, cupidity, and cynicism that runs throughout political processes in history. And you're reading an academic just trying to finish the damn book the publisher asked him to do, the one your colleagues promised and then failed to write, and then get on with the ancient history that is really more your turf, old man.

            Nevertheless, Jolly good, jolly well done!

            It was a great time and you were cheap, but you weren't easy, and you've left me a lot to think about and compare with the next books which the Autodidact hopes will cover the course material he was supposed to have read before he even opened this one.

            That still leaves the question of what made the Greeks our intellectual ancestors, and that should have been the final unhesitating thrust of Osborne's book and it really is, he just doesn't pound the table about it as he should.

            It has to do with what happened as a result of all this chaos and maneuvering and being Greek. It has to do less with great piles of stone in Western capitals that mimic Greek architecture, nor with the evolution from pottery to Tupperware, nor with the chaos that is democratic government, nor with Italian Hercules movies and their offspring (gladiator movies). All of these are of course important, especially for Hollywood, politicians and DuPont.          

            And to his credit Osborne does express it toward the end. It has to do with the way the Greeks came to think. Because that is the way Western Civilization now thinks.

            In other words, how we see the world.
            Shelley was right. We are all Greeks.

FROM CITADEL TO CITY STATE; The Transformation of Greece, 1200- 700 BCE – Carol G. Thomas & Craig Conant; Indiana University Press, 1999

"We shall return to the place where we began... and know it for the first time." – T S Eliot

          When it was mostly over, the people who were still alive were huddled on hilltops.

          What had happened? The clues found in one place seem belied by the lack of clues in another, and taken together, what has been dug up, drawn, categorized, photographed, measured, preserved, inspected and reported from that time - after more than a century of digging - only perpetuates argument.

          Archaeologists examine structures and inventories. Historians survey the evidence, peer into the words written centuries later for any vestige of an explanation because there are no words written from that time to settle the quandary. No one wrote anything down. They couldn't.

          There had been those long ago who could read and write, but they were gone. The memory of them, the memory of writing itself, was gone.

          It was not as if all their forebears could read and write. There had been scribes for that who had served the palaces that were now empty or completely destroyed. But it is from that discovered and (in 1952) deciphered writing that we know something of what was lost and what was not. When the palaces disappeared what was left were the traditions and stories, gods and goddesses, some of which survived and some of which did not, but all of which were completely reliant on word of mouth around fires in these lonely places shut off from one another. This was a time when centuries of progress suddenly had halted. Ahead lay centuries of rebuilding. And it was not only this rocky mountainous place that had suffered.

          The clues cluster around the decades before and after 1200 BC with the collapse of Mycenae, the seat of kings; the burning of Thebes and the sudden disappearance of Greek trade across the seas that had been expanding since the Neolithic Age 3,000 years before. By this time the Great Pyramid was already 1,800 years old.

          Around the eastern Mediterranean there are similar signs of collapse. The Hittite Empire, challenger to Egypt itself; the palaces of Minoan Crete; the expanding web of Phoenecian merchants across the waters as far as the Black Sea and North Africa; all of it was simply gone or so stunted as to present a picture based not on evidence but on its sudden disappearance. It seems as if the only kingdom left standing at all was Egypt and Egypt itself was weakened, near mortally wounded.

          The Bronze Age was over and in its place the Iron Age was hardly a shadow of what had once been. But in this place where mountains and the sea confined and divided these last outposts of survivors, the devastation was especially severe.

          This was the beginning of the Dark Age of Greece.

          But it is a focus of so much curiosity because of what happened afterwards. Classical Greece, the Age of Pericles and Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, the Battles of Marathon and Salamis, Thermopylae and Plataea, and the rise of Alexander the Great, all of these did not spring like Athena fully developed from the head of Zeus. So we must begin here.

           If we cannot know yet what happened around 1200 BC, we can begin to piece together what it was about this dark devastated land afterwards that it was able to rise from the ashes and not only that: but to generate a sunburst of civilized light from a time of utter darkness - to transform itself from a backwater edge of the Ancient civilizations to found a New one; to become the father of Western Civilization itself.

This is the implied question for the Autodidacts in his taking up Thomas and Conant's book 


           Which takes us back to the beginning of the Greek Dark Age. Thence, using 6 archaeological sites, both famous and obscure, they take us through what can be known about the 500 years that proceeded through the illiterate darkness to the beginning of the literate which they define as the real end of the Dark Age. Each site illustrates a period from the mysterious collapse of the patient to its waking from coma, and then through slow recovery, as if from near total amnesia, to create a new/old identity.

          These sites are, in order, Mycenae, Nichoria, Athens, Lefkandi, Corinth and Ascra.

          At first blush it might seem as though they are somewhat in the wrong order; beginning with Mycenae, of course, but Athens is not at the logical end?

          And what was Nichoria? Today it is a hilltop south of the site of Corinth and west from Mycenae. Ascra? Today it is only a place of farms near a town in Boeotia (north from Athens). Lefkandi, on the island of Euboea (east from Athens), is an ancient site situated between two less ancient cities – themselves now mere dig sites  - who fought a very famous war over the plain between them; the plain where the Lefkandi site was, by then, already abandoned. Well, The Autodidact is game, or at least willing to see what this is all about and so, on to Mycenae:

          The palace at Mycenae must be a magical place and i should like to see it. The Lions Gate; Perseus, Agamemnon and Iphigenia, Menelaus and Helen; the Trojan War, Clytemnestra and Elektra; a horror story of wars, regicide, infanticide and struggles for power, with the great overseas expedition of war against Troy, a war over which even the gods became divided. With all this bad karma, Mycenae itself fell into decline. These stories are what drove men in the 19th Century to seek it out and dig it up and the world was astonished to find that the stories had some basis in reality. Mycenae was real.

          Around 1200 BC - the authors dwell only on what can be known, what can be handled and observed  -  Mycenae went into steep decline, its fortifications were strengthened but ultimately proved insufficient - against whom? And Mycenae was reduced within less than century to just another hilltop enclave of shepherds, hunters and gatherers eking out a living in a place whose archaic stories would, nevertheless, continue to be told even after more than 3,000 years.

          The collapse of Mycenae is evident but it is also here a metaphor of what happened in the rest of Greece. For quite a while it was generally supposed that there had been an invasion called the Dorian Invasion; peoples from what is now the Balkans or even from beyond there, who swept down burning and looting in a maelstrom of havoc and destruction, but the evidence from across Greece does not seem to bear this up completely. If it was an invasion, it took awhile. Not everything was burned to the ground, some places were left standing. But it is still agreed that, whatever it was, it affected all of Greece in a general collapse that left the survivors on their hilltops without organization except what they could build for themselves; with each place left to redevelop its own brand of politics – the word sprung from the Greek polis which connotes a locality unto itself with its own structure and its own way of doing things. And one of these places was Nichoria.

          Nichoria was such a hilltop. The digs there have uncovered a slowly reorganizing community that may have devolved with the fall of Mycenae into just a seasonally occupied place between 1100 and 1000 BC. It was a gathering of a few families or groups of families. The site illustrates that in the early Dark Age community was not necessarily formed from trade or agriculture, but from defensible positions with available water and woods and fields where people could scrounge food during the day and retreat back uphill at night.

          What is interesting is what it tells us about the origins of such Greek poleis after the fall of the great Bronze Age kingdoms. There were huts, then there were some wooden buildings larger than one would need for a single family unless that family was predominant, and there are signs of religious rituals: animal bones and hearths suggesting more than just your basic diningroom. Nichoria is the bridge of survival between Mycenae and the other sites; a place where the nadir of the Dark Age was lived out by wandering groups looking for a safe place after their traditional "digs" had been destroyed. But there were other places that do not show signs of destruction, though they do show signs of severe depopulation.

          Such a place was Athens. The story here picks up in the years around 1000 BC. The archaeological finds show continued settlement right through from before the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms. It isn't hard to see why. One need only look at the Acropolis which predominates the skyline even of the modern sprawl surrounding it. For invaders looking for loot and some vicious fun, there would have been a whole lot of easier places to overrun.

          By the late 11th and into the 10th century BC Athens was in fact attracting population. There is evidence of trade from across the sea in the direction of Phoenecia and Anatolia (present day western Turkey). But Athens was hardly immune notwithstanding its favorable position for defense and its access to the sea. Its 10th Century waxing devolved into its own long waning, though it was never completely abandoned. Why? By the 9th Century it was suffering the rigors of decline, hardly able even to control the countryside around it. Things had changed again.

          Meanwhile, in other places, there were opportunities. Populations that had shrunk in some places from the 13th Century into the 11th, swelled in others, such as Athens, but this may have been simply through flight from danger. There was no single thread of continued growth in the Dark Age, but fluctuations that, overall, show slow resurgence, however sporadic in the short term and in specific locations. These short term fluctuations are quite evident in the archaeological site at Lefkandi.

          It is a site about midway along the west coast of the long island of Euboea, across the narrow straights from the Greek mainland and Attica where Athens stands. Lefkandi was burned like so many other settlements in the 13th Century down into the 11th BC, and its history after that is spotty. For one thing, there is quite a bit of modern settlement now which makes digging problematic, but digging began in the 1960's and continued into the 1980's to reveal a place that rose and fell and rose and fell many times, and was across the 11th and into the 10th Centuries BC a place where landowning families held sway. When the landowners were in the ascendant, the community seems turned in upon itself. Then things change. Instead of a dull farming settlement, Lefkandi has transformed to a place of seafaring and trade. Its history is beset because of where it is: on a fertile plain where other communities wanted a piece of the action; a place of contention and repeated destruction. But it is not the rises and falls of Lefkandi that make it interesting. There are plenty of examples of that elsewhere and, even by Archaic standards, Lefkandi seems never to have been much more than a hamlet by the sea, but it was from time to time quite a precocious hamlet. Its precociousness lies in what seems to have happened there.

          In the 10th Century there was brief blaze of trading out of proportion to what had been before. Artifacts discovered show an amazing increase in foreign-made wares and, more interestingly, pottery, and bronze and iron wares made in Lefkandi appear elsewhere, from Syria to Italy. But even that is not the most interesting bit.

          For with this trade there was an evident exchange of something else through Lefkandi at which you are staring right now. It came from Phoenecia. It was not a warmed over version of the old "Linear B" language of the Mycenean Bronze Age. That was long gone. It was not original to the Greeks. They learned it from Phoenecian seafaring merchantmen. But it didn't require that the Greeks speak or write Phoenecian, instead it was used to make Greek sounds and then Greek additions were added to that alphabet to help make more Greek sounds. Originally a means of recording transactions and inventories, much as the old "Linear B" had been used, and as the Phoenecians seem to have used it, the Lefkandians and their fellow Euboeans made a different use of it.

          And because of that, it became the beginning of a new way of transmitting not only records of trade, but the old stories and the old mythology in poetic form which, in turn, would transform into something entirely new in times to come. It would be carried across the sea with the men who traded and, as populations in Greece expanded, with emigrants to new places. And as they carried it from place to place, so it carried them across succeeding generations in an expansion of Greekness; Greek ideas, Greek curiosity, Greek influence.

          This expansion could not have happened had things not got better and, with it, recovery of populations which in turn led to pressures upon the old poleis whose agricultural production eventually could not sustain all the people, nor bear the political pressures of the old established order who owned the land against the burgeoning pressures of the new who didn't. Something had to give and it appears that those pressures were first felt and dealt with in Corinth as it grew into the 9th and 8th Centuries BC.

          The site of Corinth occupies an area that was geographically blessed. Where other cities had to contend with a shortage of tillable ground, Corinth occupied a hilltop surrounded by it. The polis is situated on the southeast shore of the Corinthian Gulf which opens into the Adriatic Sea to the west. The Corinthian Gulf is bordered east of Corinth by the Isthmus of Corinth, the land bridge between mainland Greece and the Pelopponese, and east of that lies the Saronic Gulf which opens on the Aegean Sea. In the 8th Century Corinth, like much of the rest of Greece, underwent a population explosion with the improving continuity of life through increased agricultural production and the reduction in disruptive wars. Where Lefkandi's tiny seafaring population may have led the way in the Greeks regaining their sea legs, Corinth took advantage of its geography and growing population to trade abroad to both east and west – to Italy and Sicily, to Anatolia, Syria, the Black Sea, Crete, Cyprus and Phoenecia in the east – and to export its own people.

          Syracuse in Sicily, as well as other cities both in Sicily and on the Italian mainland date from this period. What sorts of people were driven to leave by the population growth? Favorite sons, who might complicate another sibling's inheritance forced to embark for new horizons; small landholders driven off their land by debt; sailors, craftsmen, and adventurers with nothing to lose all set out across the water, each for his own reason, but all driven by the same hand of hope in face of circumstance.

          This was not colonization, however, by any modern standard. These voyages were ventures into marketing, with settlements to be established where food could be grown near to good anchorages. So, not only was Corinth relieving population pressures, it was building its own markets. Goods flowed back and forth. They were also transported from the Levant and Egypt, and Corinth itself developed an export trade, especially pottery that seems to have been all the rage around the Eastern and Central Mediterranean for about a century. It turns up in archaeological digs as far away as northern Italy in Etruscan ruins, in Egypt, Syria, and along the southern Black Sea coast. This business was a successful pattern nor was it uniquely Greek.

          The Phoenecians had been doing the same thing already for a long time. The difference, however, was this: the Greeks were not simply setting up shop here and there. They were carrying their culture with them and expanding, predominating over the locals among whom they settled, having babies and raising families, building Greek temples and Greek cities, holding Greek games, writing and reading poetry in the new Greek language. It wasn't just for contracts anymore. It is not as if Greekness was a nation or in any way thought of as united a the time, but culturally Greekness was congealing. Without the development of written Greek it is arguable there could not have been a Greece to defeat the Persian Empire (and Greece was not even united in that war).

          There had been Greeks sailing the Aegean for centuries. Even in the Dark Age, there were Greeks – Ionians – who had migrated back and forth between Anatolia and the mainland. But now the old lines of travel across the Aegean were full of ships, and Greek ships were sailing further afield both east and west. It was, according to Thomas and Conant, the End of the Greek Dark Age as the 8th Century exploded with commerce and people. So, why do they not stop with the examination of 8th Century Corinth? Why do they go to Ascra?

          Ascra is, like Lefkandi, nothing more than a hamlet, but it is not by the sea. It is well west of Athens and north of the Corinthian Gulf. In the 8th century BC it is just a small farming community, conservative, home to few seafarers, and that profession is frowned upon even in the 8th Century, by the stodgy landholders. It is described as a "hole of a place." Hardly inviting. There is nothing remarkable about it, no great structures, it was not a polis, and likely just another small, dull village within the orbit of a polis:

"a miserable hamlet, bad in winter, sultry in summer, good at no time."

          Its location was only verified recently when someone bothered to go looking for it and there is nothing left except the ruins of a tower that was built centuries later, but the title of the chapter about Ascra is "The End Product of the Dark Age."

          By the description of the place, it could as well have represented the Beginning of the Greek Dark Age, except for someone who lived there, a man named Hesiod.

          Hesiod was a farmer, but he was also a writer. Without him no one would care where Ascra is, nor would this book have mentioned it. Take it into account, however, that is because he lived there, and wrote the Theogony and Works and Days, that it is not only included, but the authors use it as the defining End of the Greek Dark Age.

          Though the authors end here, there is plenty of Pre-Classical Greek time left to 479 BC and the defeat of the Persians, but that is not a criticism of this book. Its point is to cover a period that is difficult by its very nature to explain, but they perform an admirable task in opening doors onto the darkness. They do not overload the reader with minutiae and hopefully the Autodidact has not given too much away to satisfy any reader's ongoing curiosity. It is a good read and of proper length with few words wasted.

          And its virtue is this: if you are curious, they will point you to further questions, but they will not phrase them for you or give you anything more than what others have postulated and what others have found.
          Which is why The Autodidact recommends it as he sets it down and gleefully proceeds into the 6th century BC, hell bent to find out what happens next.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


– ADRIENNE MAYOR  (Princeton University Press – 2010)

               In the blurb on the back leaf of the cover it says: "The Poison King is a gripping account of one of Rome's most relentless but least understood foes." It should, i think, have added "...least understood that is by anyone after the 18th century." There are illustrations of busts preserved from the period of the last century BC, and apothecary ware from as late as the 18th century, and literary references to Mithridates from the Middle Ages onward that indicate great parts of the story of Mithridates were well understood by those literate in the Latin classics.
               The Autodidact has been increasingly astonished at the breadth of learning and the availability of ancient writings that survived and were widely taught among the literate classes of Europe for nearly 2,000 years (and that are still accessible if one has the perseverance and the desire).
               The Poison King is neither simply a resurrection of things already archived, nor is it an arcane revisionism published to advance a career. The author clearly has a passion for the subject and a democratic enthusiasm to spread the word. For Mithridates was something like a Peter the Great of his age; taller and immensely strong, broadly educated, endlessly curious, boundlessly energetic right to the end of his 70+ years of life; indefatigable and resolute, mercilessly ruthless and with equally, politically astute, qualities of mercy.
               In an age of horseback, dirt roads, and slow sailing ships, he managed a massacre of at least 100,000 Romans living and working around the Aegean basin on a single day, a feat achievable only by complete surprise to a Roman republic that was already the predominant political entity across the Mediterranean! He defeated two Roman generals and their legions sent to subdue him, and escaped the third, Pompey the Great, who had theretofore subdued Spain and went on to subdue virtually all of the Middle East to the edges of Iran thus virtually doubling the size of the Roman Empire.
               It was also because of his hatred of Rome, and its uncompromising response to him, that the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece to Parthia, were colored into the map of Rome's dominions. But it was not simply Mithridates' ambitions, nor his hatreds that the Autodidact comes to understand were the driving cause of Rome's acquisitions. The Mithridatic Wars were the final response of the Helenized world, the world that Alexander the Great created, to the Roman threat.
               The Helenic World reached into Italy itself with the Greek colonies that predated Alexander by several centuries. Mithridates' time was the last century BC, two centuries after Alexander and a time when upstart Rome was in the final decline of its Republic; before the Caesars, and after its titanic struggle across a century of war with Carthage for control of the western Mediterranean: the time when Hannibal roamed the length and breadth of Italy at will and massacred whole Roman armies sent against him, and Roman and Carthaginian navies fought battles the size of which would not be seen again until the Battle of Lepanto and the Spanish Armada more than thirteen centuries later.
               Mithridates' kingdom was Pontus on the Black Sea coast of what is now Turkey. It was part of an Helenic system of kingdoms in which murder by poison was a political norm and the ruling classes were perpetually in danger from their own kinsmen. Brother killed brother, wives killed husbands, mothers murdered their own sons. From a young age Mithridates was well aware of the rules of the game that had few rules and so he separated himself from the palace of his father, fearing his own mother's  hedonistic and greedy ambitions, and set out to explore the kingdom he would inherit if he lived. He and a tight circle of friends travelled the land, explored, slept on the ground and hunted for their food and made alliances with local commanders, mapped the treasure houses his father had built, and studied poisons the better to resist them. He went far afield. He made allies of the wild tribes of the Anatolian mountains, the Caucasus, and even the universally feared Scythian nomads of what is now the Don River basin of Russia.
               His kingdom and the Black Sea basin were a source of grain and metals, including gold, for the Mediterranean world. It had been rich in resources since the Greeks settled Ionia and the southern Black Sea coasts, and so his father's kingdom was immensely wealthy. Curious the matter of gold, which can be traced back to Egypt whose mines bribed foreign potentates across not only centuries, but millenia, and made of that land a place of fabled riches; and so too Pontus on the Black Sea. There may in fact still be hoards of treasure sitting in the blackness of undiscovered caves in Turkey that have escaped 2,000 years of robbers, adventurers and explorers.
               Mithridates was well educated and his life was marked it seems for greatness. He was born on the night of a great comet. A lightning bolt marked his forehead as an infant when it struck his cradle. In fact celestial events, including a white hot asteroid streaking into the ground between his army and that of a Roman general before they closed battle, make his life seem something preordained, a series of celestial events he capitalized upon in memorial coins and statues and carvings the better to legitimize himself with the common folk who were a political element he seems never to have forgot. These sorts of things happened throughout his life and while not scientifically verifiable, they are too often corroborated to be dismissed out of hand.
               His study of poisons was extensive and lifelong. He concocted 'Mithridatium", an antitoxin – for obvious reasons. There are stories of his taking the antitoxin every day of his life and stories of his entertaining dinner guests by taking deadly poisons and surviving them; not only a neat parlor trick, but an advertisement to anyone thinking of trying ot poison him. The existence of the concoction is well documented, but the recipe was lost – perhaps- in his final defeat (and whether he was finally defeated is also a point of argument)!
               Apothecaries in the Middle Ages, and even into the 18th Century, had only to provide jars embossed with pictures from Mithridates' storied life to advertise concoctions they sold.
               One of the Roman generals, Lucullus, who chased Mithridates futilely across the length and breadth of Anatolia, captured much of Mithridates' treasure as Mithridates continually retreated before him. One of these treasures was likely the Antikythera Mechanism: a device with gears for calculation of celestial time – including solar and lunar eclispes – which caused such a sensation in the 1990's for its very modern and accurate engineering (2,000 years after its manufacture!). The likelihood of its Mithridatic provenance is the location and age of the ship that went down in the Aegean in a storm mention of which is found in ancient sources.
               When Pompey returned to Rome for his triumph he paraded the Mithridatic wealth he had captured. The procession lasted four days and is estimated by scholarly estimates to have been about one thirtieth of the actual total wealth Pompey captured – and this after Lucullus had stripped Anatolia of everything he and his greedy legions could find years before.
               But the ultimate prize that Pompey wanted to parade before Rome was absent – Mithridates himself.
               Did he die as the stories say or was his death just another of Mithridates' brilliant ruses?
               Ms. Mayor adds a section in her book of her speculations which are exciting but still within the bounds of learned skepticism. Did Mithridates give his daughters poison in the tower of Pantikipaion and then have his trusted bodyguard slay him? There is good reason to believe that Pompey did not in fact find the proof of Mithridates' death he so badly wanted. What happened to Hypsicratea – his last and perhaps greatest love – an Amazon from the Russian steppe who went into battle with him?
            What is perhaps most remarkable is the list of sources for this story. Half the educated Roman world, the eastern half, did not speak Latin as the lingua franca, but Greek, much as the Europe of the 18th century spoke French as the language of civilization. And, whether in Greek or in Latin, the story of Mithridates was perpetuated across the centuries of Roman domination even though he was Rome's most feared enemy after Hannibal himself. Say what you will about that; that it was Rome's lack of complete censorship, or alternately that glorifying a great enemy was proof of Rome's greater greatness; there was still enough truth – and mystery – for centuries of accepted legend and now for discerning scholarship to dissect and reassemble. If history is written by the victors, it betrays itself, but the Autodidact does not subscribe to that gross misunderstanding of what history tells us.
               Throughout the book Ms. Mayor catalogs the texts that are still about for scholars to explore, and more intriguingly the texts to which those texts refer which no longer exist.
               The Autodidact, while essentially ignorant of the true scope of the loss of ancient texts – who regularly finds his blood pressure and sense of justice outrageously violated at the thought of Roman legions burning the Library of Alexandra 2,000 years ago -  is nonetheless ready to weep at the loss he does appreciate. But he also appreciates the perspicacity of disciplined scholars such as Ms. Mayor who can extrapolate from what we still have.
               And he owes Ms. Mayor a debt for opening more doors for the Autodidact to walk through when he chooses.