Posts Tagged ‘Homer’

A Forgotten Battle

July 8, 2018

We ought to know history fairly well. While there may be all sorts of details to be filled in, the broad outlines of wars and revolutions, the rise and fall of empires, great migrations of peoples, etc, must surely be as well known as anything can be. Of course, our knowledge of history largely depends on written records and if no one thought an event was worth recording or if it occurred before the invention of writing, we may not know anything about it. For all we know, all sorts of things might have occurred before anyone was able to make written records. They may be whole cultures we know nothing of.

This article at Sciencemag.org about an forgotten battle in Bronze Age Northern Europe illustrates nicely how little we may actually know about our past.

About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. The confrontation can’t be found in any history books—the written word didn’t become common in these parts for another 2000 years—but this was no skirmish between local clans. Thousands of warriors came together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day, using weapons crafted from wood, flint, and bronze, a metal that was then the height of military technology.

Struggling to find solid footing on the banks of the Tollense River, a narrow ribbon of water that flows through the marshes of northern Germany toward the Baltic Sea, the armies fought hand-to-hand, maiming and killing with war clubs, spears, swords, and knives. Bronze- and flint-tipped arrows were loosed at close range, piercing skulls and lodging deep into the bones of young men. Horses belonging to high-ranking warriors crumpled into the muck, fatally speared. Not everyone stood their ground in the melee: Some warriors broke and ran, and were struck down from behind.

When the fighting was through, hundreds lay dead, littering the swampy valley. Some bodies were stripped of their valuables and left bobbing in shallow ponds; others sank to the bottom, protected from plundering by a meter or two of water. Peat slowly settled over the bones. Within centuries, the entire battle was forgotten.

This epic battle was forgotten until the twentieth century.

n 1996, an amateur archaeologist found a single upper arm bone sticking out of the steep riverbank—the first clue that the Tollense Valley, about 120 kilometers north of Berlin, concealed a gruesome secret. A flint arrowhead was firmly embedded in one end of the bone, prompting archaeologists to dig a small test excavation that yielded more bones, a bashed-in skull, and a 73-centimeter club resembling a baseball bat. The artifacts all were radiocarbon-dated to about 1250 B.C.E., suggesting they stemmed from a single episode during Europe’s Bronze Age.

Now, after a series of excavations between 2009 and 2015, researchers have begun to understand the battle and its startling implications for Bronze Age society. Along a 3-kilometer stretch of the Tollense River, archaeologists from the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Department of Historic Preservation (MVDHP) and the University of Greifswald (UG) have unearthed wooden clubs, bronze spearheads, and flint and bronze arrowheads. They have also found bones in extraordinary numbers: the remains of at least five horses and more than 100 men. Bones from hundreds more may remain unexcavated, and thousands of others may have fought but survived

No one knows if the men who fought at this battle were good men or bad, or why they fought and died. Archaeologists can uncover the bare facts about the battle, how many fought and with what weapons, but they cannot tell us why they were fighting or what issues they thought were important. enough to fight and die over. If any bard composed epic poems celebrating these warriors, we will never hear it. Any oral tradition has not survived. I am not sure if these warriors are any relation to the people currently living in the region. I would guess probably not. No Homer was able to preserve any epic poetry by writing it down, since these people had no knowledge of writing.

On thing is clear, however. This was no mere skirmish between villages or wandering tribes. These were small armies made up of thousands of fighters, which implies a level of political sophistication unsuspected in that place and time.

Northern Europe in the Bronze Age was long dismissed as a backwater, overshadowed by more sophisticated civilizations in the Near East and Greece. Bronze itself, created in the Near East around 3200 B.C.E., took 1000 years to arrive here. But Tollense’s scale suggests more organization—and more violence—than once thought. “We had considered scenarios of raids, with small groups of young men killing and stealing food, but to imagine such a big battle with thousands of people is very surprising,” says Svend Hansen, head of the German Archaeological Institute’s (DAI’s) Eurasia Department in Berlin. The well-preserved bones and artifacts add detail to this picture of Bronze Age sophistication, pointing to the existence of a trained warrior class and suggesting that people from across Europe joined the bloody fray.

Ancient DNA could potentially reveal much more: When compared to other Bronze Age samples from around Europe at this time, it could point to the homelands of the warriors as well as such traits as eye and hair color. Genetic analysis is just beginning, but so far it supports the notion of far-flung origins. DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia. “This is not a bunch of local idiots,” says University of Mainz geneticist Joachim Burger. “It’s a highly diverse population.”

As University of Aarhus’s Vandkilde puts it: “It’s an army like the one described in Homeric epics, made up of smaller war bands that gathered to sack Troy”—an event thought to have happened fewer than 100 years later, in 1184 B.C.E. That suggests an unexpectedly widespread social organization, Jantzen says. “To organize a battle like this over tremendous distances and gather all these people in one place was a tremendous accomplishment,” he says.

There could have been whole kingdoms and empires in the northern Europe that we know nothing about, a whole undiscovered history. I wonder how much unknown history there remains to be discovered in other parts of the world where the people had not yet learned about writing. Perhaps we will never know.

Advertisements

The Myths Really Happened

December 18, 2015

One of the nice things about reading e-books on a Kindle is that a great many books are available either for free or for a very low price because they are older books whose authors are long dead and the copyrights have expired. These low-priced or free books are some of the greatest classics of literature and naturally I have been interested in reading them, particularly the classical Greek and Roman mythological epic such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. Now I have recently come across a pair of news stories that suggest that the backgrounds of these epic poems may not have come entirely from the minds of the writers, that there may be a kernel of fact behind the fiction.

First, there is this interesting article from the Guardian on some recent research about the mysterious Etruscans who lived and ruled in Italy before the rise of Rome. The Romans themselves were not Etruscans but the Etruscans heavily influenced Roman culture. Unfortunately, the written language of the Etruscans remains undeciphered, so little is known of them, except what the Greeks and Romans have written about them.

They gave us the word “person” and invented a symbol of iron rule later adopted by the fascists. Some even argue it was they who really moulded Roman civilisation.

Yet the Etruscans, whose descendants today live in central Italy, have long been among the great enigmas of antiquity. Their language, which has never properly been deciphered, was unlike any other in classical Italy. Their origins have been hotly debated by scholars for centuries.

Genetic research made public at the weekend appears to put the matter beyond doubt, however. It shows the Etruscans came from the area which is now Turkey – and that the nearest genetic relatives of many of today’s Tuscans and Umbrians are to be found, not in Italy, but around Izmir.

The European Human Genetic Conference in Nice was told on Saturday the results of a study carried out in three parts of Tuscany: the Casentino valley, and two towns, Volterra and Murlo, where important finds have been made of Etruscan remains. In each area, researchers took DNA samples from men with surnames unique to the district and whose families had lived there for at least three generations.

They then compared their Y chromosomes, which are passed from father to son, with those of other groups in Italy, the Balkans, modern-day Turkey and the Greek island of Lemnos, which linguistic evidence suggests could have links to the Etruscans.

The latest findings confirm what was said about the matter almost 2,500 years ago, by the Greek historian Herodotus. The first traces of Etruscan civilisation in Italy date from about 1200 BC.

About seven and a half centuries later, Herodotus wrote that after the Lydians had undergone a period of severe deprivation in western Anatolia, “their king divided the people into two groups, and made them draw lots, so that the one group should remain and the other leave the country; he himself was to be the head of those who drew the lot to remain there, and his son, whose name was Tyrrhenus, of those who departed”.

But the latest conclusions may add weight to a rival, apparently more fanciful, theory that links their name to Troy, the “city of towers” and a part of the Lydian empire. The most likely date for the fall of Troy, as described by Homer, is between 1250 and 1200 BC.

Virgil’s Aeneid tells the story of a Trojan prince named Aeneas who fled with his family when the Greeks destroyed Troy. Aeneas led his followers around the Mediterranean until they settled at last in Italy where after many adventures he established a kingdom. His descendants were Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. Virgil wrote the Aeneid in the hope of creating a national epic for the Romans in the same way that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were for the Greeks, and he consciously inserted what might be considered political propaganda justifying the leadership of Rome over the known world, and also the role of his patron Augustus Caesar as the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. This does not mean that Virgil simply invented the plot of the Aeneid. Instead, it seems that he made use of Roman legends concerning the Trojan origins of the Roman people that had been told for generations by combining them into a more unified and coherent story.

aeneasmap

The Romans were not themselves Etruscans. They were clearly natives of Italy, closely related in language and culture to many other people living in south and central Italy. The Etruscans clearly influenced the development of Roman culture and it is likely that they brought the alphabet to Italy, as well as many other elements of civilization. If the recent findings about the origins of the Etruscans from Lydia in Asia Minor, the actual location of Troy, then it is possible that the legends that Virgil drew upon to create the Aeneid are a distant memory of a real migration from Asia Minor to Italy, perhaps by refugees fleeing war and the destruction of their homeland.

But what about Homer? Unlike Virgil who lived at around the time of Christ and so is well known to history, Homer lived at a time when Greece was emerging from a dark age. Not much is known about Homer, even whether a poet by that name ever really existed. Homer’s Iliad tells the story of an dispute between Achilles and the other leaders of the Greeks during the Trojan War and of Achilles’s personal feud with the Trojan prince Hector. The Odyssey tells the story of the Greek Odysseus’s trials as he sails home after the war. It wouldn’t seem likely that these fanciful tales are based on real, historical persons, yet, there really was a Troy, or at any rate a city at the legendary location of Troy. This city was burned down several times and rebuilt, but it is not clear whether the Greek stories of the Trojan War are a memory of an actual siege of the city. Still, there is this story I read in the Independent.

The Odyssey is one of the great works of ancient Western literature, written eight centuries before the birth of Christ and four centuries after the fall of Troy. Generations of classicists have pored over the many lines of Homer’s epic description of the long journey taken by the hero Odysseus to his home island of Ithaca. Now two scholars have found evidence to support the idea that one line, in the poem’s 20th book, refers to a total solar eclipse that occurred on 16 April 1178 BC – the day when Odysseus returned home to kill his wife’s suitors. If true, this would date the fall of Troy itself to precisely 1188 BC.

The idea that The Odyssey refers to a total solar eclipse, when the Moon blocks out the Sun completely, is not new. It was first suggested by ancient scholars, but it was only in the 1920s that astronomers were able to calculate that such an eclipse over Greece around that time could only have taken place on 16 April 1178 BC.

 

Instead of looking at when a solar eclipse occurred in history, as other astronomers had done, they investigated the timing of a new moon, the simultaneous appearance of two stellar constellations in the evening sky, and appearances of the planets Mercury and Venus. All four phenomena are mentioned in The Odyssey which gave Constantino Baikouzis of the Observatorio Astronomico de La Plata in Argentina, and Professor Marcelo Magnasco, of the Rockefeller University in New York, another way of checking the date when Odysseus is supposed to have returned to his home on Ithaca to kill his wife’s suitors.

They calculated the pattern in which these four events occurred, from the references mentioned in The Odyssey, and compared them against patterns gleaned from 135 years of astronomical data – nearly 5,000 days. The result was they found just one date that could have been the fateful day. It was the same 16 April 1178BC that was known to have been a total solar eclipse. “What are the chances of having two different ways of dating the text and both agreeing on the same date? We calculated the chances of these two dates agreeing by chance alone is something like one in 50,000,” Professor Magnasco said.

“Not only is this corroborative evidence that this date might be something important but, if we take it as a given that the death of the suitors happened on this particular eclipse date, then everything else in The Odyssey happens exactly as is described.”

“Under the very large assumption that there was an Odysseus, there were suitors that got massacred, that it indeed took 10 years for Odysseus to get back … yes, in that case the fall of Troy would have happened 10 years before the death of the suitors, thus in 1188BC. The current dating of the destruction layer of Troy VIIa is around 1190 plus/minus a few years.”

Obviously the more fantastic elements of Homer’s tales such the cyclops or the miraculous involvement of the gods, but it is altogether possible that the legends of the Trojan War are derived from a real war and the Iliad from an actual incident in that war. The Odyssey may be a dim memory of actual troubles faced by men returning from this war to find matters at home not as they might wish. Who can tell?

OK, this part was probably made up.

OK, this part was probably made up.

The Birth of Classical Europe

August 9, 2012

 

The Birth of Classical Europe, by Simon Price and Peter Thronemann is the first book in a series, The Penguin History of Europe. This first book covers the beginnings of Western Civilization from the Trojan War to the time of Augustine of Hippo. That is a lot of ground to cover in only four hundred pages, and The Birth of Classical Europe barely skims the centuries of history. Still, these are appropriate endpoints.

 

The Birth of Classical Europe is really not so much a narrative history as a study on how history was used by the Greeks, Romans, and others to establish their place in the world. For the people of classical Europe, the Trojan War was, in many respects the beginning of history, as the first event of consequence that they could date and had any information about. The fact that their information was filtered through the legends memorialized in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and that they did not, in fact, have any real knowledge of the events centuries before their time was irrelevant. Greek cities and families traced their origins to heroes and events in Homer and other myths and any new custom or institution was invariably held to have had its actual origins in the legendary past. Thus, Athenian democracy, which was only fully established in the fifth century, was believed to have been started by Theseus. The Persian invasion was another chapter in the long struggle between East and West. The Romans got into the act too. They believed themselves to be descended from the Trojan prince Aeneas and placed themselves firmly in the mythological history of the Greeks. Even unrelated peoples such as the Gauls and inhabitants of Asia came to view themselves in this context.

If the Trojan War is a good point to begin this survey, than Augustine is the natural endpoint. For by Augustine’s time the rising faith of Christianity had begun to create a new historical context for the people of the West. While the Romans hardly abandoned their classical heritage, they did begin to draw more on the history in the Bible to understand their place in the history and the world. This tendency perhaps reached its climax with Augustine’s greatest work, The City of God, and it may well be said that after him we find the habits of thought we associate with the medieval period.

The Birth of Classical Europe is worth reading in order to get a good bird’s eye view of the formation of our civilization and if it has a fault, it is simply that there is not enough space in the book to give every cultural and historical development its full attention.

 


%d bloggers like this: