Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Aristophanes: Comedian or Social Agitator?

 Aristophanes, known as "The Father of Comedy" and "the Prince of Ancient Comedy was a comic playwright of ancient Athens and a poet of what has been called Old Attic Comedy. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete.  Born in 446 BC, his works, with their pungent political satire and abundance of sexual and scatological innuendo, effectively define the genre today. Aristophanes lampooned the most important personalities and institutions of his day, as can be seen, for example, in his buffoonish portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds, and in his racy anti-war farce Lysistrata.  His plays consistently espouse opposition to radical new influences in Athenian society. He caricatured leading figures in the arts (notably Euripides, whose influence on his own work however he once grudgingly acknowledged), in politics (especially the populist Cleon), and in philosophy/religion (where Socrates was the most obvious target). Such caricatures seem to imply that Aristophanes was an old-fashioned conservative, yet that view of him has led to contradictions.

 Aristophanes has been said to recreate the life of ancient Athens more convincingly than any other author. His powers of ridicule were feared and acknowledged by influential contemporaries. Plato singled out Aristophanes' play The Clouds as slander that contributed to the trial and subsequent condemning to death of Socrates.  

Aristophanes' second play, The Babylonians (now lost), was denounced by Cleon as a slander against the Athenian polis. It is possible that the case was argued in court, but details of the trial are not recorded and Aristophanes caricatured Cleon mercilessly in his subsequent plays, especially The Knights.

Image: Terracotta amphoriskos (flask) in the form of a bird-man, late 5th century B.C.E., Greek Attic, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This extraordinary vase of a bird-man, of high technical quality, is unique among the examples of Attic black-glazed pottery known today. It almost certainly relates to Aristophanes' well-known comedy The Birds (first produced in 415/414 B.C.E.) and may represent the costume that would have been worn by members of the chorus in the fifth century B.C.E.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Mythical origins of the game of knucklebones in the Mediterranean World

Beginning in 5000 BCE, the talus bones of hooved animals (also known as astragali) have been found in higher numbers than other bones and in contexts unrelated to food preparation in archaeological excavations.  Although the astragalus is not entirely symmetric, it is thought these bones were used like dice in games of chance.

Sophocles, in a written fragment of one of his works, ascribed the invention of knucklebones to the mythical figure Palamedes, who taught it to his Greek countrymen during the Trojan War. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain allusions to games similar in character to knucklebones. 

Palamedes was the warrior Agamemnon sent to Ithaca to retrieve Odysseus, who had promised to defend the marriage of Helen and Menelaus. Odysseus did not want to honor his oath, so he plowed his fields with an ass and an ox both hitched to the same plow, so the beasts of different sizes caused the plow to pull chaotically. Palamedes guessed what was happening and put Odysseus' son, Telemachus, in front of the plow. Odysseus stopped working and revealed his sanity.

Odysseus never forgave Palamedes for ruining his attempt to stay out of the Trojan War. When Palamedes advised the Greeks to return home, Odysseus hid gold in his tent and wrote a fake letter purportedly from Priam. The letter was found and the Greeks accused him of being a traitor. Palamedes was stoned to death by Odysseus and Diomedes. According to other accounts, the two warriors drowned him during a fishing expedition. Still, another version relates that he was lured into a well in search of treasure, and then was crushed by stones. 

Although he is a major character in some accounts of the Trojan War, Palamedes is not mentioned in Homer's Iliad but Euripedes and other dramatists wrote plays about his fate. The Greek sophist, Gorgias, penned the "Defense of Palamedes", an oration dealing with issues of morality and political commitment in which he demonstrates how plausible arguments can cause doubt in the acceptance of conventional truths.  Later, the Roman poet Ovid discusses Palamedes' role in the Trojan War in his Metamorphoses and Palamedes' fate is also described in Virgil's Aeneid. 

However, both  Herodotus and Plato ascribe a foreign origin to the game. Plato, in Phaedrus, names the Egyptian god Thoth as its inventor, while Herodotus relates that the Lydians, during a period of famine in the days of King Atys, originated this game.

Two young women playing knucklebones Greek 330-300 BCE said to be from Capua, Italy that I photographed at "The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.

Closeup of one of Two young women playing knucklebones Greek 330-300 BCE said to be from Capua, Italy that I photographed at "The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.

Maidens Playing "Knucklebones" Greek Late 4th or early 3rd century BCE Terracotta that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The maidens are playing an ancient form of jacks, known as astragalus (knucklebones), a game in which five small animal bones were tossed into the air and caught on the back of the hand. The grouping of separate statuettes is almost unknown before Hellenistic times, when artists became fascinated both by the interaction of figures and by the challenge of representing complex poses, such as this crouching stance.

One of Two Boys Fighting Over a Game of Knucklebones 1st century CE Roman copy of 2nd century BCE original from Rome that I photographed photographed at "The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.

Game piece of bone in the shape of a baboon, 332–30 B.C.E., Ptolemaic Period, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Animal ankle joints, anatomically termed astragals, were used as gaming pieces. The knucklebone itself might be carved, or astragal-shaped gaming pieces might be carved from other sources or materials. All were termed astragals, which were used like dice or jacks. 

Terracotta vase in the form of an astragal (knucklebone), ca. 460 B.C.E., Attributed to an artist recalling the Painter of London D 12, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Astragals were popular toys in antiquity. As each side of an astragal is distinctive, what mattered in a game was how the pieces fell. Such games of chance also acquired prophetic or erotic aspects. The poet Anacreon wrote about the astragals of Eros—the dice of Love. It is entirely appropriate that this large example is decorated with a lyre-playing Eros.

Carchemish orthostat at the Gaziantep Archaeology Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dick Osseman. This is one of a set of orthostats, that adorned the Royal Buttress in Carchemish in Gaziantep province. They are from the 8th century BC. The hieropglyphs at this scene bear the names of children of the Country-lord: Malitispa, Astitarhunza, Tarnitispa, Issikaritispa, Sikara, Halpawaki, Yahilatispa. These are two of three people holding knucklebones.


Sunday, February 21, 2021

The psychological cost of warfare in the ancient world

Then said Achilles, "Son of Atreus, king of men Agamemnon, see to these matters at some other season, when there is breathing time and when I am calmer. Would you have men eat while the bodies of those whom Hector son of Priam slew are still lying mangled upon the plain? Let the sons of the Achaeans, say I, fight fasting and without food, till we have avenged them; afterwards at the going down of the sun let them eat their fill. As for me, Patroclus is lying dead in my tent, all hacked and hewn, with his feet to the door, and his comrades are mourning round him. Therefore I can think of nothing but slaughter and blood and the rattle in the throat of the dying." - Iliad 19.226

As some of you know, I am the spouse of a veteran who has suffered from PTSD since service in Vietnam back in 1967-68. Although the psychological trauma suffered by those who have experienced a traumatic event now has a very modern-sounding diagnosis, it is not a recent phenomenon but has been a plague upon mankind, probably since men began engaging in warfare to wrest the territory or possessions from a competing group or avenge the losses incurred in such actions.

Some scholars have proposed PTSD is a modern phenomenon brought on by the use of explosive weapons like IEDs, land mines, or booby traps and the concussions that resulted from their use.  

In her paper, Caesar in Vietnam: Did Roman Soldiers Suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?, classicist Aislinn Melchior admits that concussion is not the only risk factor for PTSD but says it is so strongly correlated that it suggests the incidence of PTSD may have risen sharply with the arrival of gunpowder, shells, and plastic explosives.

"In Roman warfare, wounds were most often inflicted by edged weapons. Romans did of course experience head trauma, but the incidence of concussive injuries would have been limited both by the types of weapons they faced and by the use of helmets," Melchior observes. Melchior also speculates that death was so common in the ancient world that it desensitized many of its residents to the prospect of unexpected death. 

But in his 1999 paper entitled "The Cultural Politics of Public Spectacle in Rome and the Greek East in 167-166 BCE"  Jonathan C. Edmondson points out that when King Antiochus IV introduced Roman-style gladiatorial combats in Syria in 166 BCE, the Syrians were terrified rather than entertained.

"In time gladiatorial contests came to be accepted and even popular, but only after Antiochus had instituted a local variation whereby fights sometimes ended as soon as a gladiator was wounded."

This hardly sounds like people desensitized to death.

Recently, scholars studying cuneiform medical texts left behind by ancient Mesopotamians point to passages describing mental disorders expressed by soldiers and even a king during the Assyrian Period (1300–609 BCE) when military activity was extremely frequent and brutal. The King of Elam is said to have had his mind changed.  Soldiers were described as suffering from periods where they were forgetful, their words were unintelligible, they would wander about, and suffer regular bouts of depression.

I also think scholars dismiss too readily the psychological aspects of PTSD in the ancient world because of their observations that the ancient world was a far more brutal environment than we have now (outside of inner city ghettos).  They point out how people were surrounded by death because of disease, accidents without proper medical treatment, and entertainments that featured the orchestrated deaths of both people and animals.  I propose that observed deaths occurring in a venue where the observer and the participants are separated both by physical barriers and social hierarchy (most human victims were criminals, prisoners of war, "Others" so to speak, or slaves, those whose social status separated them from the vast number of citizens in the audience) are distinctly different when compared to violent deaths of friends, family members, and comrades, your "band of brothers," fighting right beside you in a person-to-person battle scenario.

Furthermore, ancient executions were designed to further distance the audience from the victim through the use of mythological reenactments or by placement outside the city.

"Crucifixions were usually carried out outside the city limits thus stressing the victims rejection from the civic community. Because of the absence of bloodshed out of an open and lethal wound, which evoked the glorious fate of warriors, this type of death was considered unclean, shameful, unmanly, and unworthy of a freeman. In addition the victim was usually naked. Essential, too, was the fact that the victim lost contact with the ground which was regarded as sacrilegious." - J.J. Aubert, "A Double Standard in Roman Criminal Law?" from "Speculum Juris: Roman Law as a Reflection of Social and Economic Life in Antiquity"

We also cannot forget the medical personnel either.  The medical environment of an ancient treatment facility following a major battle was far worse than in a modern field hospital.  Ancient surgeons attempted to treat often thousands of wounded in a relatively short time compared to only handfuls at a time during the Vietnam conflict.  Ancient physicians were surprisingly quite skilled, especially Roman military surgeons, but they had little but herbal compounds (and honey if the Romans listened to the Egyptian physicians) to ward off infections.  Their patients' mortality rate was much higher than the relatively low mortality rate experienced in Vietnam. 

I sometimes wonder, though, if modern scholars think that ancient people just didn't value their lives as much as we do, since they did not shrink from casualties as high as 50,000 in a single military engagement or investment of an enemy city.  But if you've ever looked at some of the poignant grave goods found in ancient burials or studied the reliefs and inscriptions on ancient funerary monuments, I think you will conclude that we are only separated by time, not by our shared human nature.

This post is a condensed summary of a paper I wrote, "Concussion and PTSD in the Ancient World" back in 2013.  You can read the full article at:

Terracotta plate, ca. 510 B.C.E. Greek, Attic, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The weight of the wounded or dead Amazon is beautifully conveyed by the lowered spears and shield carried by her companion.

Terracotta kylix (drinking cup), ca. 500 B.C.E., Attributed to a painter of the Thorvaldsen Group at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sober depiction of a warrior. While his attendant looks on, he discards his shield and helmet and leans on his spear with a pensive, downcast face. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Leda and the Swan: Bestiality in the Ancient World

Leda and the Swan is a story and subject in art from Greek mythology in which the god Zeus, in the form of a swan, seduces or rapes Leda on the same night she slept with her husband King Tyndareus of Sparta. She subsequently bears two children from Zeus, Helen (who later becomes Helen of Troy) and Polydeuces (Pollux, one of the Dioscuri) and two children from Tyndareus, Castor (the other Dioscuri) and Clytemnestra. Castor, being the son of a human male, was mortal while Pollux, being a son of Zeus, was immortal.  But Pollux asked to share his immortality with his half brother so each spent half their time in Hades while the other communed with gods on Olympus.

Their unusual conception was just one of several Greek myths in which Zeus seduced or abducted favored mortals while in the form of an animal.  These other tales included Europa and the bull and Ganymede and the eagle.  

Various classical writers recorded that bestiality was common in "other" cultures. Herodotus as well as Pindar, Strabo and Plutarch alleged Egyptian women engaged in sexual relations with goats for religious and magical purposes – the animal aspects of Egyptian deities being particularly alien to the Greco-Roman world. Hittite law mandated the death penalty for intercourse with animals, excluding horses and mules (violators were instead barred from the priesthood and from approaching the king). Likewise,  the Abrahamic religions imposed the death penalty on both the person and animal involved in an act of bestiality. I always view the creation of a law as something needed to prohibit behavior deemed unfavorable that is actually occurring.  

Plutarch, though Greek himself, and Virgil, too, make similar accusations of bestiality among the Greeks, with Plutarch writing in his "Discourse on the Reason of Beasts" that the Greeks committed "very frequently and in many places great outrages, disorders and scandals against nature, in the matter of this pleasure of love, for there are men who have loved she-goats, sows and mares." 

There is some indication that violent sexual encounters, like other mythological scenarios, were acted out as punitive entertainments in the Roman arena. Nero is supposed to have enjoyed a form of bondage with either male or female partners in which he dressed in animal skins to reenact a wild animal attacking a condemned prisoner as frequently occurred in the arena. Cassius Dio also relates how a prostitute pretended to be a leopard for the gratification of a senator. However, such activity was generally viewed by the Romans as undesirable behavior, much like pederasty. But that did not seem to diminish their appreciation of the myth as Leda and the Swan were popular subjects on ceramics and as inspiration for sculpture as well.

Bronze Roman oil lamp in the form of a swan with either Castor and Pollux or Helen and Pollux emerging from its feathers. The children were fathered by Zeus, who took the form of a swan to impregnate their mother Leda.  Now in the Karak Museum in Jordan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Michael Gunther.

Leda and the Swan (Roman, CE 1-100) at the Getty Villa, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributors Dave and Margie Hill Kleerup

Red-figure Vessel with Leda and the Swan (Greek, Apulia 330 BCE) - Leda with the Swan, as Hypnos enchants her, at the Getty Villa , courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributors Dave and Margie Hill Kleerup.

Red-figure Vessel with Leda and the Swan (Greek, Apulia 330 BCE) - Leda with the Swan, as Hypnos enchants her, at the Getty Villa , courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributors Dave and Margie Hill Kleerup.

Mosaic depicting Leda and the Swan, once the central panel (emblema) of a mosaic floor discovered in the vicinity of the Sanctuary of Aphrodite at Palaipafos, late 2nd - early 3rd century CE, Palaepaphos Museum, Cyprus, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato.

Leda with cupid, Roman, 1st century CE, head from Antonia Minor, c. 35 CE, at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, Italy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Daderot.

Fresco depicting Leda and the swan, from Pompeii, 50-79 CE, Naples National Archaeological Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato.

Reproduction of Leda and the Swan from the Late Hadrianic period courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Mongolo1984.

Leda and Swan, Roman work 2nd century CE after Greek work of the first half of the 4th century BCE, by Timotheus at the Prado Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Caracas1830 (white balance adjusted)

Roman fresco of Leda and the Swan from the Villa Arianna at Stabiae in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato.


Friday, February 19, 2021

Adrastus and the Seven against Thebes

Adrastus was a king of Argos, and leader of the Seven against Thebes. He was said to be the founder of the Nemean Games, had hero cults at Sicyon, Megara, and Colonus, and was depicted in works of art from as early as the 6th century BCE.  Adrastus is mentioned as early as Homer's Iliad,  figures prominently in the poetry of Pindar, and is a main character in Euripides' The Suppliants.

From the lyric poets Bacchylides and Pindar we first hear that Adrastus was the son of Talaus, who according to Apollonius of Rhodes was an Argonaut.  Adrastus was the owner of the fabulously fast horse Arion, who was the offspring of Poseidon and Demeter when they mated in horse form. Adrastus was given Arion by Heracles, and the horse saved Adrastus' life during the war of the Seven against Thebes, when all the other champions of the expedition were killed.

The war of the Seven against Thebes resulted from a quarrel between Oedipus' sons Polynices and Eteocles over the kingship of Thebes, which left Eteocles on the throne, and Polynices in exile. One night, Polynices arrived at Adrastus' palace seeking shelter. He found a place to sleep, but soon after Tydeus, the exiled son of the Calydonian king Oeneus, also arrived seeking shelter, and the two began to fight over the same space. When Adrastus discovered Polynices and Tydeus fighting like wild beasts (or in later accounts when he saw that Polynices wore the hide of a lion and that Tydeus wore the hide of a boar, or that they had those animals on their shields), he remembered an oracle of Apollo that said he should marry his daughters to a lion and a boar. So Adrastus gave his daughters, Argia to Polynices, and Deipyle to Tydeus, and promised to restore them to their kingdoms, beginning with Polynices.

Adrastus proceeded to assemble a large Argive army to attack Thebes, appointing seven champions to be its leaders. These became known as the Seven against Thebes. As foretold by a seer, the expedition ended in disaster at Thebes. All of the champions perished, except for Adrastus who was saved by the speed of his divine horse Arion. Creon, who with the death of Eteocles became the new ruler of Thebes, forbade the burial of the expeditions' dead. Athenian tradition held that Theseus, the king and founder-hero of Athens, assisted Adrastus in recovering the bodies of his fallen comrades.

Ten years after the failed expedition against Thebes, to avenge their father's deaths, the sons of the fallen Seven, who were called the Epigoni ("Afterborn"), marched again on Thebes. Adrastus accompanied them on this second Theban expedition, called the war of the Epigoni. This time (according to Pindar) the omens foretold success for the expedition, but death for Adrastus' son Aegialeus. According to Hyginus, as Adrastus was the only one of the Seven to survive the first expedition, his son Aegialeus was the only one of the Epigoni to die in the second. According to Pausanias, the Megarians said that Adrastus, leading the Argive army home after taking Thebes, died at Megara of old age and grief for the death of his son.

Of Adrastus, Pindar writes "I shall exalt the hero with fame-bringing honors."  He goes on to describe the ill-fated expedition:

"...they led an army of men to seven-gated Thebes, on a journey with no favorable omens, and Cronus’ son brandished his lightning and urged them not to set out, recklessly from home, but to forgo the expedition. But after all, the host was eager to march, with bronze weapons and cavalry gear, into obvious disaster, and on the banks of the Ismenus, they laid down their sweet homecoming and fed the white-flowering smoke with their bodies, for seven pyres feasted on the men’s young limbs."

Adrastus appears in vase paintings as early as the late 6th century BCE. Pausanias reports seeing Adrastus depicted on the Amyclae Throne of Apollo (6th century BCE) and a monument at Delphi dating to the 450s BCE.  Adrastus was found in a scene on a shield strap from Olympia as well.  The hero makes the leap to Etruria and, along with four of the seven champions, appears on an Etruscan gem dated to the 5th century BCE.  Centuries later, Adrastus is described by Virgil in the Aeneid where Aeneas encounters the pale shade of Adrastus in the underworld. Late 4th or early 5th century CE Roman grammarian, Maurus Servius Honoratus, in his commentaries on the works of Virgil, explains the pallor of Adrastus as a result of seeing the deaths of the seven at Thebes.  Thereafter, the phrase "pallor of Adrastus" became a proverbial reference. 

Terracotta pediment from the temple of Talamone (Grosseto), the first closed pediment in Etruria, showing the fate of the Seven against Thebes, 2nd century BCE, at the National Archaeological Museum in Florence, Italy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Nicolò Musmeci

Terracotta pediment from the temple of Talamone (Grosseto), the first closed pediment in Etruria, showing the fate of the Seven against Thebes, 2nd century BCE, at the National Archaeological Museum in Florence, Italy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko

High terracotta Etruscan relief depicting scenes from the myth of the Seven Against Thebes. It decorated the back of the temple of the sanctuary at Pyrgi, 470-460 BCE, National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia, Rome, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato.

Antigone with Polynices' Body by Sebastien Norblin, 1825 CE, Paris, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Art courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This image of a young warrior cutting his hair before battle may reflect a scene in Seven against Thebes, a tragedy by Aeschylus. The seven heroes knew that only one of them would survive battle. Each cut a lock of his hair and tied it to the chariot that would carry home the survivor. This terracotta lekythos (oil flask) was probably made as a tomb gift c. 470-460 BCE. Now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Oath of the Seven Chiefs against Thebes, 1800, by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson, chalk on paper, at the Cleveland Art Museum.

Terracotta amphoriskos (flask) depicting Adrastos in his chariot, Attic, ca. 420 B.C.E. at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Etruscan Seven Against Thebes-themed Ash Urn from Volterra, early 1st century BCE. (PD)