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FIRST ANCHOR BOOKS EDITION, JULY 2004

Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Cahill

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States

by Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 2003.

Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

THE HINGES OF HISTORY® is a registered trademark belonging to Thomas Cahill.

This page constitute an extension of this copyright page.

Endpaper: “Symposium,” Tomba del Tuffatore, lastra nord, 480 B.C., Paestum, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, © foto pedicini

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Nan A. Talese/Doubleday edition as follows: Cahill, Thomas.

Sailing the wine-dark sea : why the Greeks matter / Thomas Cahill.—1st ed. p. cm.—(Hinges of history ; v. 4)

Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. Greece—Civilization—To 146 B.C. 2. Civilization, Western—Greek influences. I. Title. DF77.C28 2003

909’.09821—dc21 2003050725

eISBN: 978-0-307-75512-4

Book design by Marysarah Quinn Map art by Jackie Aher

www.anchorbooks.com

v3.1

“Symposium,” Tomba del Tuffatore, lastra nord, 480 B.C.

“Symposium,” Tomba del Tuffatore, lastra nord, 480 B.C.

To

MADELEINE L’ENGLE

and

LEAH & DESMOND TUTU

and in memory of

PAULINE KAEL

mentors and models of life and art

The heart within me never changes toward you so beautiful

One can achieve his fill of all good things, even of sleep, even of making love …

—HOMER

Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily form from any natural thing, But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make Of hammered gold and gold enamelling To keep a drowsy Emperor awake; Or set upon a golden bough to sing To lords and ladies of Byzantium Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

—WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

CONTENTS

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

INTRODUCTION

The Way They Came

I: THE WARRIOR

How to Fight

II: THE WANDERER

How to Feel

III: THE POET

How to Party

IV: THE POLITICIAN AND THE PLAYWRIGHT

How to Rule

V: THE PHILOSOPHER

How to Think

VI: THE ARTIST

How to See

VII: THE WAY THEY WENT

Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian

The Greek Alphabet

Pronouncing Glossary

Notes and Sources

Chronology

Acknowledgments

Photo Credits

Index

Illustrations

About the Author

Acclaim for Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

The Hinges of History

Other Books by This Author

INTRODUCTION THE WAY THEY CAME

Demeter’s hair was yellow as the ripe corn of which she was mistress, for she was the Harvest Spirit, goddess of farmed fields and growing grain. The threshing floor was her sacred space. Women, the world’s first farmers (while men still ran off to the bloody howling of hunt and battle), were her natural worshipers, praying: “May it be our part to separate wheat from chaff in a rush of wind, digging the great winnowing fan through Demeter’s heaped-up mounds of corn while she stands among us, smiling, her brown arms heavy with sheaves, her ample breasts adorned in flowers of the field.” Demeter had but one daughter, and she needed no other, for Persephone was the Spirit of Spring. The Lord of Shadows and Death, Hades himself, the Unseen One, carried her off in his jet-black chariot, driven by coal-black steeds, through a crevice in the surface of Earth, down to the realms of the dead. For nine days, Demeter wandered sorrowing over land, sea, and sky in search of her daughter, but no one dared tell her what had happened till she reached the Sun, who had seen it all. With Zeus’s help, the mother retrieved her daughter, but Persephone had already eaten a pomegranate seed, food of the dead, at Hades’s insistence, which meant she must come back to him. In the end, a sort of truce was arranged. Persephone could return to her sorrowing mother but must spend a third of each year with her dark Lord. Thus, by the four-month death each year of the goddess of springtime in her descent to the underworld, did winter enter the world. And when she returns from the dark realms she always strikes earthly beings with awe and smells somewhat of the grave.

H ISTORY MUST BE learned in pieces. This is partly because we have only pieces of the past— shards, ostraca, palimpsests, crumbling codices with missing pages, newsreel clips, snatches of song, faces of idols whose bodies have long since turned to dust—which give

us glimpses of what has been but never the whole reality. How could they? We cannot encompass the whole reality even of the times in which we live. Human beings never know more than part, as “through a glass darkly”; and all knowledge comes to us in pieces. That said, it is often easier to encompass the past than the present, for it is past; and its pieces may be set beside one another, examined, contrasted and compared, till one attains an overview. Like fish who do not know they swim in water, we are seldom aware of the atmosphere of

the times through which we move, how strange and singular they are. But when we approach another age, its alienness stands out for us, almost as if that were its most obvious quality; and the sense of being on alien ground grows with the antiquity of the age we are considering. I first came in contact with people of another time and place in the sayings, stories, and songs my mother taught me when I was little. These were pieces of an oral tradition, passed on to her by her mother, who died before I was born, a countrywoman from the Galway midlands. So many of the words were strange to someone growing up in twentieth-century New York City: “When you’ve harrowed as much as I’ve ploughed, then you’ll know something”; “You never know who’ll take the coal off your foot, when it’s burning you”; “Every old shoe finds an old sock.” I had been to a farm once but had never seen harrow or plough in use, I knew what coal was but had never been warmed at an open coal fire, I surely knew what shoes and socks were but nothing of the archaic courting practices in the Irish countryside. My mother explained patiently that this last was meant as a hilarious sendup of old maids and their prospects. The sexual aspect of the imagery she doubtlessly left me to work out for myself. But her waves of words had a sort of triple (and simultaneous) effect: first, the experience of coming into contact with alien lives through the medium of the words they had left behind; then, an acknowledgment of the humanity I shared with these strangers from another time and place; and, last, the satisfying thrill that concentrated, metaphorical language can give its listener—the electric sensation at the back of the neck announcing the arrival of the gods of poetry. It is through such wisps of words and such tantalizingly incomplete images that we touch

the past and its peoples. When I attended a Jesuit high school in New York City and was taught to read Latin and ancient Greek, I had my first scholarly taste of the strangeness of other ages. In Homer’s gods and heroes and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses,1 I discovered the fleeting reflections of what was once a complete world: Odysseus putting out the giant’s single eye, enormous in his forehead and balefully glistening; Niobe’s many children, struck dead one at a time by the arrows of Apollo and Artemis, as Niobe stood by helpless, in mounting hysteria, finally consumed by insensate despair. Nothing like their plights had ever happened, or would ever happen, to me. I would never encounter a cyclops or be hunted by Apollo, but I could nonetheless feel as their victims felt: I could take on Odysseus’s twitching anxiety in the face of an unbeatable enemy and the hopelessness of terminal captivity in the service of a monster (even if I had as yet but scant experience of being someone’s employee); I could resonate with Niobe’s heartsickness, fevered attempts to protect her children, and catatonic despair. I too had known impossible opponents; I too understood how much a mother loved her children.

T

Just around the corner from my school was the Metropolitan Museum of Art—which I discovered without the help of the Jesuits, who were verbal but not visual. There, in the old gallery of classical art, I first saw the faint traces of paint on the classical marble statuary and learned that the eyeless bronzes had once been fitted with lifelike irises. There I saw an accurate model of the Parthenon with its excited and boldly colored frieze of gods and heroes. I came to understand that ancient Greece had not been a collection of tasteful white marble statues but a place on fire with color. I made the connection between these astonishing figures that now lived along Fifth Avenue and the brilliant colors of Homer’s metaphors: “the wine-dark sea,” “the rosy-fingered dawn.” I had, without knowing it, put the literature in a context. I tell you these things now because my methods of approaching the past have scarcely

changed since childhood and adolescence. I assemble what pieces there are, contrast and compare, and try to remain in their presence till I can begin to see and hear and love what living men and women once saw and heard and loved, till from these scraps and fragments living men and women begin to emerge and move and live again—and then I try to communicate these sensations to my reader. So you will find in this book no breakthrough discoveries, no cutting-edge scholarship, just, if I have succeeded, the feelings and perceptions of another age and, insofar as possible, real and rounded men and women. For me, the historian’s principal task should be to raise the dead to life. To keep a sense of how fragmented are the materials we are dealing with, I have set a story

at the head of each chapter, such as the story of Demeter with which this introduction began. These fragments, which we usually call “myths,” are pieces of the elaborate mythology of the Greeks, a mythology woven from many sources over the course of Greece’s (largely unknowable) prehistory and with many adumbrations of sights and sounds still to be found faintly in our own world. (In Demeter’s story, for instance, the attentive reader may catch dark prefigurings of the Christian Mother of Sorrows and the novenas—penitential nine-day cycles—commemorating her pain at the loss of her magical Child, who rises from the grave in late March or early April.) These fragments also give the reader another way of approaching the material in the body of the chapter, another dark glass to look through. At times, however, the fragments I lay out for your inspection may seem not to fit well

together, as if they were stray pieces from separate puzzles. In such cases, I would counsel patience. There are moments when a large enough fragment can become a low wall, a second fragment another wall to be raised at right angles to the first. A few struts and beams later, and we may have made ourselves a rough lean-to in which to take momentary shelter from the contrary buffetings of raw history. But it can consume the better part of a chapter to build such a lean-to; and as we do so the fragment we are examining may seem unconnected to the larger whole. Only when we step back can we see that we have been reassembling something that can stand in the wind.

HEIR ORIGINS LIE in mystery. Who the Greeks were to begin with and where they came from are matters obscured by the thick mists that envelop our understanding of prehistoric

Europe. Without written records, we must make do with the clues that linguistics and archaeology can offer. The likelihood is that the mounted warriors who rode into the valleys

of Greece in the middle of the second millennium B.C. had their origins in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas. Gradually, these aggressive equestrians made their way southwest through the Balkans till they reached the rugged peninsulas, striated with mountains not unlike their mountains of origin, and the volcanic isles and inlets of the Aegean Sea that would serve as their permanent home. The language they spoke was a cat’s cradle of Indo-European roots, which means that their speech betrayed their distant links to other bellicose bands—the haughty Aryans of India; the rocklike Slavs with their great joys and even greater sorrows; the crazy Celts of Galatia, Central Europe, Gaul, Britain, and Ireland; the icy, relentless Germans and Vikings—who before and after them ride out of the dim north to terrify and subdue farming cultures unprepared to do battle with armed men on horseback. Of the indigenous farming folk they encountered we know even less, save that they worshiped not sky-dwelling Zeus of the thunderbolts but the fecund Earth herself, source of their bounty—“the earth that feeds us all,” as Homer will call her. The primeval presence of Greece’s aboriginal natives may still be sensed in stories, such as Demeter’s, of the annual death and rebirth of the natural world. However woeful their clashes with the Caucasians may have been, farmers and invaders became in time one culture, united in language, religion, and custom. There are hints in archaeological strata uncovered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of how this unified culture might have come to be. At Cnossos in north-central Crete, the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans found the long-abandoned capital of a civilization he dubbed “Minoan” (after the legendary King Minos), a court of graceful buildings designed to withstand earthquakes and shelter sophisticated living. Brightly colored frescoes give us entrance to a strange world of long- haired, lightly clad Minoans, beardless men in belts and codpieces, women in skirts and corsets that leave the breasts exposed, naked young acrobats of both sexes who sportingly somersault over the backs of bulls. The Minoans had the rudiments of a written language, known to scholars by a few fragmented examples and called Linear A.2 So far as we can tell, the writing is pictographic and syllabic, like the writing of the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians, but the symbols seem to have been employed only to make inventories that kept account of the Minoans’ extensive commercial endeavors, never for more literary purposes. The symbols almost certainly do not represent Greek, for the Minoans were the acme of an indigenous culture that worshiped the Great Mother. They flourished from about 2000 to 1400 B.C., at which point they were destroyed, why or how we can’t be sure but probably in the overflow from a stupendous volcano on the isle of Thera (modern Santorini), which lies just north of central Crete. This island, which before its catastrophic eruptions was much larger, may well have given rise to the legend of the lost “continent” of Atlantis. The discovery of the Minoans in the early 1900s had been preceded by other discoveries that electrified Europe. In the 1870s, Heinrich Schliemann, a self-made German businessman and Barnum-like promoter, declared that he had discovered the remains of ancient Troy, the city described in the Iliad as besieged for ten years by Greek forces who are finally able to destroy it through the famous ruse of the Wooden Horse. Schliemann discovered as well a horde of treasure, which he proclaimed to be “the treasure of Priam,” king of the Trojans. He decked out his slinky Greek-born wife in the ancient trinkets, photographed her, and proclaimed her a dead ringer for Helen of Troy. Even if the “treasure of Priam” belongs to a

period that predates the setting of the Iliad by a millennium or more, there is general consensus that Schliemann did indeed discover Troy just where it ought to be—on the coast of Asia Minor at the entrance to the Hellespont (today the Dardanelles). Though the discovery of Troy won the biggest headlines, Schliemann’s more important discovery—at least from the point of view of understanding Greek origins—was his unearthing of shaft graves in the area of Mycenae in the northeast Peloponnese. Here Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces at Troy, had ruled; and here, according to legend, he had been slain on his return from the war by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Once again, the irrepressible Schliemann overshot, claiming that the graves contained the soldiers of Agamemnon and even the legendary king himself, masked in gold. “I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon,” said Schliemann. Though both mask and graves proved to have been fashioned centuries before Agamemnon and the Trojan War, the find yielded much information about the gradual marriage of Greek invader with indigenous farmer.

Long before Agamemnon had ruled, his ancestors, buried in the shafts—“there in the tomb stand the dead upright,” Yeats had written of similar Bronze Age burials in Ireland—showed themselves to be typical Indo-European warriors, tall, bristling with weapons, in love with precious metals and their display, but already in their symbolic pottery and jewelry adopting the native cult of the Mother Goddess. The ruined court of this Mycenae of the Heroes likewise shows admired borrowings from the general layout of Minoan architecture, if somewhat less grand and graceful and far more fortress-like than its exemplar. The language

of the Mycenaeans was an early form of Greek, as became clear once the written code called Linear B was cracked, revealing a pictographic-syllabic set of markings, a language of accounting derived from Linear A but full of Greek roots and proper names. This writing system would be lost to the Mycenaeans after the tenth century B.C. in a “Dark Age” of Greece we know little about. (Eventually, the Greeks would require a new form of writing that could sustain not only commercial but literary needs.) But in the culture of protohistoric Mycenae, as in other parts of Greece, invader and native were coming together, “language mixing with language side-by-side,” as Homer puts it in the Odyssey. So much so that when the curtain rises on the historic period, there is no longer any way of separating these influences, for by 800 B.C. Greece, once a patchwork of conflicting identities (only a few of which we can identify today), emerges from its prehistoric shadows as a diverse but unified world.

1 The Metamorphoses—a long narrative poem of pithy, sensuous episodes—was slipped to us by a teacher who seemed to understand how deadly was the assigned Latin curriculum for junior year, which consisted entirely of political speeches by the polysyllabic Cicero on topics that could only induce stupor.

2 According to a recent and controversial study, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess by Kenneth Lapatin, Sir Arthur and his “restorers” may themselves have created these frescoes or at least enhanced them considerably, as well as set up a veritable factory of “Minoan” objects for export. The English archaeologist was indeed an eccentric straight from the pages of Evelyn Waugh, both punctilious and batty, but was he capable of wholesale deception? No doubt much scholarly ink will be spilled before we can be sure of the truth of this matter. Whatever the final consensus (which might be difficult to reach, given the considerable investment that museums and private collections throughout the world have in objects that came to them under Sir Arthur’s imprimatur), Linear A will remain part of the valid archaeological record, as will influential elements of Minoan religion and architecture, since examples of these have been uncovered at sites with no link to Sir Arthur.

I THE WARRIOR HOW TO FIGHT

Zeus, who controlled rain and clouds and held in his hand the awful thunderbolt, was Lord of the Sky and greatest of the gods, but not the oldest. He and the eleven other Olympians—the gods and goddesses who dwelt in the heaven at the top of Mount Olympus, Greece’s highest mountain—had been preceded in their reign by the elder gods, the Titans, whom they had overthrown. The Titans had been formed by Father Heaven and Mother Earth, which had existed before any of the gods, having emerged from the primordial Chaos, whose children, Darkness and Death, had given birth to Light and Love (for Night is the mother of Day), which made possible the appearance of Heaven and Earth. Zeus, son of the deposed Titan Cronus, was perpetually falling in love, wooing and usually raping beautiful women, both immortal and mortal, who would then give birth to gods and demigods, complicating considerably family relations on Olympus. Hera, Zeus’s wife and sister, was perpetually jealous, scheming to best one rival after another with cruel retribution. But all the goddesses, even the virginal ones, were prone to jealousy; and it was this fault that helped bring on the Trojan War—which began, like Eve’s temptation in Eden, with an apple. There was one goddess, Eris, not an Olympian, whom the gods were inclined to leave out of their wonderful celebrations, for she was the Spirit of Discord. True to her nature, when she found she had not been invited to the wedding of King Peleus with the sea nymph Thetis, she hurled into the Olympic banqueting hall a single golden apple with two words on it, tēi kallistēi (to the fairest). All the goddesses wanted to claim it, but the three most powerful were finally left to fight over it: the cow-eyed goddess Hera, the battle goddess Athena—the child of Zeus who had sprung from his head —and Aphrodite, whom the Romans called Venus, the laughing, irresistible goddess of Love, born from the foam of the sea. Zeus wisely declined to be judge of this beauty contest but recommended Paris, prince of Troy, who had been exiled as a shepherd to Mount Ida because his father, King Priam, had received an oracle that his son would one day be the ruin of Troy. Paris, Zeus averred, was known as a judge of female beauty (and of little else, he might have added). The three goddesses lost no time appearing to the astounded shepherd-prince and offering their bribes, Hera promising to make him Lord of Eurasia, Athena to make him victorious in battle against the Greeks, Aphrodite to give him the world’s most beautiful woman. He found for Aphrodite, who gave him Helen, daughter of Zeus and the mortal Leda. There was one small complication: Helen was married to Menelaus, king of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon of Mycenae, Greece’s most powerful king. But with Aphrodite’s help, Paris was able in Menelaus’s absence to spirit Helen away from her home and bring her to Troy. When Menelaus returned and found out what had happened, he called on all the Greek chieftains, who had previously sworn an oath to uphold Menelaus’s rights as husband should just such a thing as this occur. Only two were reluctant—shrewd, realistic Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who so loved his home and family that he had to be tricked into signing up for the adventure; and Greece’s greatest warrior, Achilles, whose mother, the sea nymph Thetis, knew he would die if he went to Troy but who joined the Greek forces in the end because he was fated to prefer glorious victory in battle to a long life shorn of pride. Thus did the many ships of the Greek kings, each vessel bearing more than fifty men, set sail for Troy in pursuit of a human face, Helen’s—in Marlowe’s mighty line, “the face that launched a thousand ships.”

H OW DIFFERENT in feeling the Judgment of Paris from the Sorrows of Demeter. If the earlier story is genuine myth, dramatizing recurrent, inexorable tragedy at the level of cosmic nightmare, the later seems a sort of old-fashioned drawing room melodrama about the

characteristic foibles of male and female, in which matters spin monstrously out of control and end in tragic farce. If Demeter takes us back to an agricultural way of life that imagined Earth and its manifestations as aspects of maternal nurturing, the strident gods of Olympus, challenging and overthrowing one another, males always primed for battle and sexual conquest, females seizing control only by wheedling indirection, are projections of a warrior culture that set victory in armed combat above all other goals—or at least seemed to, for there are always, deep within any society, dreams that run in another, even in a contrary, direction from its articulated purposes. But first let’s examine the obvious: the visible surfaces of this bellicose society of gleaming metals and rattling weapons. The Mycenaean world that Schliemann discovered was the world of Agamemnon and his

predecessors, the world sung by Homer in his two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, set, so far as we can judge, in Aegean Greece of the twelfth century B.C., an age I have called “protohistoric” because a cumbersome form of writing, Linear B, was then in existence, though usable only for accountants’ ledgers. The stories of this age, however, were preserved as oral poetry by wandering bards and written down only much later when a far more flexible form of writing came into currency that permitted the recording of epics of massive length and graceful subtlety. The Iliad begins not with the apple and the goddesses but with a far more earthly contest—

between Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, and Achilles, the preeminent Greek champion. The Greek fleet has been long since beached on the Trojan shore and the army of the Greek chieftains is wearily besieging the well-fortified city, which has been able to withstand its assaults for nine years. But brilliant, unbeatable Achilles—whom Homer immediately calls dios or “noble,” a word whose Indo-European root means “godlike” or “shining like the divine stars”—has left the field of battle in outrage at his treatment by haughty Agamemnon. For Agamemnon has commandeered Achilles’s concubine, a girl Achilles won as war booty. Agamemnon feels justified in taking Achilles’s concubine because he has had to accede to the unthinkable and give up his battle-won concubine. Her father, Chryses, priest at a nearby shrine of Apollo, called down his god’s wrath upon the Greeks— whom Homer calls “Achaeans,” “Argives,” or “Danaans,” depending on the needs of his meter. Homer’s audience would already have known the details of the story, so they would not have been the least disoriented as he begins thus, summarizing the conflict between the two men, a conflict with fatal consequences for Greeks and Trojans alike:

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end. Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed, Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

What god drove them to fight with such a fury? Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto. Incensed at the king he swept a fatal plague through the army—men were dying and all because Agamemnon spurned Apollo’s priest. Yes, Chryses approached the Achaeans’ fast ships to win his daughter back, bringing a priceless ransom and bearing high in hand, wound on a golden staff, the wreaths of the god, the distant deadly Archer. He begged the whole Achaean army but most of all the two supreme commanders, Atreus’ two sons, “Agamemnon, Menelaus—all Argives geared for war! May the gods who hold the halls of Olympus give you Priam’s city to plunder, then safe passage home. Just set my daughter free, my dear one … here, accept these gifts, this ransom. Honor the god who strikes from worlds away—the son of Zeus, Apollo!”