Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Greece from 625-600BC

Attic Black-Figure Pottery
This post will look at Greece and the wider Greek world from the years 625BC to 600BC. Firstly a word as to our sources. By and large, the closer we move to the present the better the sources become. Archaeology will shed some light on the period but not much. Archaeology can give information on settlement patterns and occasional destruction levels but it cannot tell the stories of the people who lived at this time. For this we are reliant on later writings from the classical world. Unlike the Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources, at least some of which are near contemporary with the events they describe, we have almost no manuscripts from this era, so most of what we hear will be mediated through the words of later writers. This is not necessarily an issue but it should be remembered.

I must reiterate that I am not a professional historian, or any other type of historian for that matter. There are certainly mistakes and errors in the sources and I may make mistakes in my interpretations of these sources. Mistakes are particularly likely to occur when dealing with years, as the years in the ancient world do not necessarily correspond exactly to our own. Even professional historians have differing opinions on the exact ordering of events at this time, so exact precision is not likely here. Also, a lot of events have only approximate dating anyway, so some historians will place an event in 620 while another might say 610 and the truth is that no one knows for sure, although some opinions are more founded than others. Also, a lot of writers and poets of the time are writing for periods of time. This it can be correct to speak of Mimnermus writing poetry around 620BC but also it is equally correct to say around 610BC.

I will quickly summarise the state of the Greek world in the year 625BC. The Cimmerian threat was receding, as the Lydian kings fought back against the horse nomads. But the rising power of the kings of Lydia would be a threat to the Greek city states in its own right and soon wars would reoccur between them. In cultural terms, poetry continued to grow in importance with Callinus and Mimnermus both writing poetry around this time. Black-Figure pottery was developing and would continue to develop. In Lydia Ardys II was king. In Sparta, Anaxander was the Agiad king and Anaxidamus or Archidamus I was the Eurypontid king. Periander was the tyrant of Corinth while Athens had resisted the attempted tyranny of Cylon and also expelled the cursed Alcmaeonidae.

Corinthian Pottery
However fair he may once have been, when the season is overpast he is neither honoured nor loved, nay, not by his own children.
Mimnermus quoted in the Stobaeus Anthology (written 400’s AD)


Around the year 625BC a poet called Mimnermus. He was from either Colophon or more likely from Smyrna. Few fragments of his work survive but we know that he wrote elegies and some small fragments survive through quotations from later classical authors. He wrote mythological compositions, preserving some mythic traditions that were not mentioned elsewhere (such as Ismene being killed by Tydeus). This is a good reminder that Greek mythology was somewhat fluid. Students of Greek or poetry will find Mimnermus very interesting but for this blog I just wanted to mention him, that his memory might not be entirely forgotten.

Between you and me let there be truth, the most righteous of all things.
Mimnermus quoted in the Stobaeus Anthology (written 400’s AD)


In the year 624 Ardys II of Lydia died and his son Sadyattes became king of Lydia. The Lydian kingdom is important for the Greek world at this time as it was the largest and most organised kingdom that was on their immediate borders. The Ionian city states on the western coast of what is today Turkey had extensive friendly and unfriendly contacts with the Lydian kingdoms. While all of the greater Greek world was culturally significant, most of the early cultural advances were from these Ionian cities.

The Olympics were held this year and Rhipsolaus of Laconia won the stadion race, with Hipposthenes of Laconia winning the wrestling. Hipposthenes had previously won the boys wrestling match in a previous Olympics and would go on to absolutely dominate wrestling in the Greek world for the next twenty years, which is an extraordinary achievement.

Euphobos Plate showing heroes in the
Trojan War fighting over the body of Euphorbos
In 621 the assembly of Athens asked a man named Draco to write laws for them. Athens was growing in size and prosperity and a lot of people were unhappy with the existing state of affairs. The wealthy people were seizing the land of the smaller farmers. The smaller farmers were going into debt and in some cases falling into slavery to try and pay off their debts. This anger led to an attempt to write a formal set of laws and Draco was appointed to carry out this task. We do not know much of Draco or of the laws that he made.

The Athenians were not very happy with the laws that were written as they were felt to be too harsh. The death penalty seems to have been used for a lot of smaller crimes and it did not stop people from being sold into slavery for their debts. Nevertheless it was a great step forward in that now Athens had laws that were erected on posts in public places. Any citizen could read the laws know his rights under them, provided he was literate. Developments like this helped foster a relatively literate culture among the Athenians. Draco was certainly not the first legislator, either in the world or even in Greece, but he was an important step in the history of European laws and politics. He was supposedly exiled by the annoyed Athenians to the neighbouring city state of Aegina, where he died. The memory of Draco, whose name is the Greek for Dragon, survives in English and other languages today. The word “draconian” means high-handed, harsh or even cruel, and thus his laws are remembered.

Jar showing Heracles fighting the Hydra
There are laws of Draco, but he legislated for an existing constitution, and there is nothing peculiar in his laws that is worthy of mention, except their severity in imposing heavy punishment.
Aristotle, Politics 2.1274b, written around 325BC

Around the year 620 Sadyattes, king of Lydia, began a ten-year war against the Greeks of Ionia that was continued even after his death. The Ionians were far from destroyed but the war seems to have gone quite favourably for Lydia. The Cimmerian threat was receding and the Lydian kingdom was growing in strength.

Also in this year the Olympics were held. Olyntheus of Laconia won the stadion race, making it his second victory in the most prestigious race, following his victory in 628. Hipposthenes of Laconia once again won the laurels for wrestling, making this his second victory in the men’s wrestling and his Olympic victory overall.

In the year 619 Sadyattes, king of Lydia, died and his son Alyattes II succeeded him. Alyattes II continued the war against the Ionian Greek cities. It was also around the time of Alyattes II that the Lydian kingdom began to mint coins. It is not clear that coinage was actually a Lydian invention and there is some evidence that the Greeks may actually have begun this practice. The Chinese states of the contemporary Spring and Autumn Period were also experimenting with coinage around this time, although their coins are rather different in shape and size from the coins in the west. The exact truth of this will probably not be determined but it is sufficient for our purposes to say that coinage began to be used around this time and that the Lydians, as the largest kingdom in the region, minted a great deal of coins.

Entrance to the Cloaca Maxima from the Roman Forum
According to the traditional dating, Ancus Marcius, king of Rome, died in 617. His predecessor had been struck down by a thunderbolt and while Ancus Marcius presumably died a rather more prosaic death, he had nevertheless been quite useful for Rome. He had fortified the Janiculum Hill across the Tiber and built the first bridge across the Tiber at Rome, called the Pons Sublicius. This was presumably not a very impressive bridge but it was the first of many bridges to come. This bridge was made of wood and was sacred to the Romans. Its wooden construction allowed it to be dismantled in times of war. A prison was built near the Capitoline Hill, near to the Forum, which later came to be known as the Tullianum or the Mamertine Prison. The river regions down towards the sea were brought within the hinterland of Rome and Ostia was supposedly built at this time to function as the port of Rome. But archaeology suggests that Ostia was rather later than this. As with all the royal dates for Rome, the actual dates are more likely to be about fifty or sixty years after the traditional dates.

After Ancus Marcius had died there seems to have been a time period where the Roman people would decide who they would have as king. The executor of the will of Ancus Marcius was Etruscan called Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. He was descended from Demaratus of Corinth and had moved to Rome to make his fortune, supposedly changing his name from the Etruscan “Lucomo” to the more Latin name he now bore.

In 616 Lucius Tarquinius Priscus had persuaded the people to elect him as their new king and to pass over the sons of Ancus Marcius. It should be noted that the kings of Rome were not hereditary so this was not unusual per se, although as the guardian of the previous kings son’s it might be said that it was unusual for Lucius Tarquinius Priscus to do what he had done. He went on to be a useful king for Rome. He defended them against the Sabines and the nearby Etruscan cities. He also is supposed to have dedicated the Circus Maximus, which was a large flat area between the Palatine and the Aventine Hills. This would be later built into a fully-fledged hippodrome but probably all that was done in this period was to dedicate the ground and have wooden stands erected so people could watch the games. Most useful of all he apparently constructed the beginnings of the Cloaca Maxima, which is in some respects the oldest continually used building in Rome. This began from humble beginnings, as a series of uncovered drainage trenches but which would eventually be covered over to make full sewers, some of which are still used today. While this did not all take place immediately in 616 the dates of the Roman kings are so unclear that I mention all the deeds of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus at once.

View of the Circus Maximus from the Palatine Hill
with the Aventine Hill in the background
Then for the first time a space was marked for what is now the ‘Circus Maximus.’ Spots were allotted to the patricians and knights where they could each build for themselves stands-called ‘fori’ —from which to view the Games. These stands were raised on wooden props, branching out at the top, twelve feet high. The contests were horse-racing and boxing, the horses and boxers mostly brought from Etruria. They were at first celebrated on occasions of especial solemnity; subsequently they became an annual fixture, and were called indifferently the ‘Roman’ or the ‘Great Games.’ This king also divided the ground round the Forum into building sites; arcades and shops were put up.
Livy Ab Urbe Condita (1.31), written about 20BC


Also, in the year 616 the Olympic Games were held, with Cleondas of Thebes winning the stadion, as possibly the only Theban stadion winner in the history of the games. Hipposthenes of Laconia continued his winning streak, winning his third victory in the men’s wrestling.

In 612 Nineveh, the greatest city of the known world, fell to the Babylonians and Medes. This was noted throughout the region and was a shocking fall but the Greeks were not directly influenced by the Assyrians, compared to their trading contacts with the Lydians, Phoenicians and Egyptians. So it is hard to know how this affected the Greeks, save that they would have been aware that a great empire had fallen in Asia.

The Olympics were also held this year. Lycotas of Laconia won the Stadion Race while Hipposthenes of Laconia won his fourth victory in the men’s wrestling. This extraordinary run would continue.
Around the year 610 the war between the Lydians and the Ionians seems to have finished, but further conflicts between them would flare up periodically and the politics of the time were convoluted. In this year Psammetichus I of Egypt died and was succeeded by his son Necho II as Pharaoh. These Pharaohs of the Saite Dynasty would prove very friendly to the Greeks, who provided useful services as traders and soldiers so there would be extensive Greek contacts with Egypt at this time and later.

Greek Pottery
Not much is known to have happened in the year 609 so this is as good a time as any to mention the poet Alcman, who flourished around this time period. Alcman was a choral lyric poet who wrote in the Doric dialect of Sparta. The classical picture of Sparta at this time is of a grim place, ravaged by the Messenian Wars and ever-watchful lest such wars should occur again. This is to some extent correct but Alcman’s poetry shows a more cheerful side to Spartan life, including dancing processions with singing choruses. The many references to Lydia and Sardis led some to believe that either Alcman spent time there, or that possibly he was a Lydian slave who had been brought to Sparta. All of this is conjectured but we can say for certain that even the highly militarised state of Sparta took time for luxury and poetry in this period.

In 608 the Olympic Games were held. Cleon of Epidaurus won the Stadion race. Hipposthenes of Laconia won the men’s wrestling for the fifth time. Including his victory as a boy in the boy’s wrestling event of 632, he had won six Olympic laurel trophies and had dominated the sport for over twenty years. Hipposthenes disappears from history after this but his sporting prowess should be acknowledged.

In this year another Olympic victor disappears from history. Athens was at war with the city of Mytilene on a tiny island connected to the island of Lesbos, near the coast of Asia Minor. When the Athenians attacked, the Mytilenaen general Pittacus challenged the Athenian commander to a duel. As both armies and cities were quite small and relatively evenly matched, the Athenian general agreed. Pittacus was famed for his wisdom and Phrynon was renowned throughout the Greek world as a winner of the Stadion race at the Olympics in 636. The two men fought in single combat to determine the war but the legend states that Pittacus had placed a net under his shield which he brought out during the combat to entangle Phrynon and slay him, thus singlehandedly saving his city with his tricks.

Later statue of Pittacus
When the inhabitants of Mitylene offered to Pittacus the half of the land for which he had fought in single combat, he would not accept it, but arranged to assign to every man by lot an equal part, uttering the maxim, "The equal share is more than the greater." For in measuring "the greater" in terms of fair dealing, not of profit, he judged wisely; since he reasoned that equality would be followed by fame and security, but greediness by opprobrium and fear, which would speedily have taken away from him the people's gift.
Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica 9.12, written around 40BC

Mytilene was so grateful to the wisdom of this general that they appointed him as a lawmaker for their city, although the distinction between lawmaker and tyrant is not exactly clear in this case. His laws are not well known to us but they included the provision that drunkenness was not an excuse for crimes and that crimes committed when drunk should carry twice the penalty. This was a way of curbing the aristocratic class, who were far more likely to get drunk and commit outrages against the general populace. At the same time, if the aristocrats behaved well, it wouldn’t harm them, so it was an excellent way of reforming the city. Legends say that he was a merciful man, who even pardoned the murderer of his son. Pittacus’ reputation for wisdom spread throughout the Greek world and he was known as one of the Seven Sages of Greece. These were a number of individuals who lived around this time, or shortly thereafter, who were famed for their wisdom. Few are remembered today by any but classicists but to the Classical Greeks their words and maxims would have been well known.

Proto-Corinthian Pottery
Not much can be said for the year 607, 606 or 605. This is as good a time as any to mention that Proto-Corinthian pottery was famed at this time and was considered some of the highest quality ceramic ware in Greece.

In the year 604 the Olympic Games were held. Gelon the Laconian won the stadion race. The other victors for this year are not recorded by history.

Not much happens to my knowledge for the years 603, 602 or 601 so now is as good a time as any to speak of Cleobulus and Arion, both of whom flourished around this time. Cleobulus was a citizen of the city of Lindus in Rhodes and may well have been the tyrant of that city. But this is not certain by any means. He was a poet and a traveller, who may have travelled to Egypt and spent time among the wise men of the Egyptians (this is probably a later myth). He educated his daughter Cleobulina well and she would go on to become a renowned writer herself. Not much is known of Cleobulus save that he wrote epitaphs and riddles. But despite the fact that later sources do not speak much of him, we do know that he was accounted among The Seven Sages of Greece. He flourished around the latter end of the 7th century BC so it is sufficient to make mention of him here.

The father is one, the sons twelve, and each of these has twice thirty daughters of features twain; some are white and others are black, and though they be immortal they all perish.
A riddle of Cleobulus preserved in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers, written perhaps around 200AD? The answer is "a year"

Depiction of Arion and the Dolphin
by Albrecht Durer 1514AD
Arion also is supposed to have flourished around this time and was provided for by Periander the tyrant of Corinth. He may have been from the island of Lesbos and he was said to have been a great lyre-player and to have been instrumental in making dithyrambs, which were hymns to Dionysus the god of wine. None of his works survive to my knowledge but there is a striking legend that sees the poet being taken prisoner while at sea, playing his lyre before being thrown into the deep and then being saved from drowning by dolphins. The dolphins had gathered to hear his song and carried him to safety. At first glance, this seems like an entirely frivolous legend but dolphins are notoriously friendly and have been known to save people in contemporary times. So, it is unlikely but it is at the very edge of possibility that the story is true. However, a second glance makes it even more unlikely, as there are legends of Dionysus being captured by pirates and turning the pirates into dolphins. So if a poet who glorified a god was saved by the creatures of that god? Well, it certainly sounds like an almost certain myth but with the very faintest outer possibility that there might be a grain of truth to the story.

Later coin from Tarentum (around 500-473BC)
Possibly showing the legend of
Arion and the dolphins
Periander was despot of Corinth. During his lifetime, according to the Corinthians – and indeed the Lesbians – a very marvellous thing took place, namely the rescue of Arion of Methymna from the sea at Taenarum by a dolphin. This Arion was the finest singer to the lyre then known, and is the first recorded composer of dithyrambs, which he named and trained Corinthian choirs to perform. It seems that he spent most of his life at the court of Periander; but one day conceiving a desire to visit Italy and Sicily, he did so, and some time afterwards, having made large sums of money there, determined to return to Corinth. Accordingly he set sail from Tarentum, chartering a vessel manned by Corinthians, a people whom he thought, of all men, he could trust. But when they reached the open sea the crew conspired to secure his money by throwing him overboard . . . Putting on all his harper’s dress and grasping his lyre, he took his stand in the stern-sheets, and went through the Orthian or High-pitched Nome from beginning to end. Then he threw himself just as he was, dress and all, into the sea. The crew continued their voyage to Corinth; but meanwhile a dolphin, it seems, took Arion upon his back and carried him ashore at Taenarum . . . There is a small bronze votive-offering of Arion on the promontory of Taenarum, consisting of a man upon a dolphin’s back.
Herodotus Histories 1. 23, written around 440’s BC

In 600, Smyrna fell to the Lydians. The King of Lydia, Alyattes II, had attacked it and Smyrna was left in ruins for many years after this. The poet Mimnermus may have died in this battle. The Olympic Games were held this year and Anticrates of Epidaurus won the Stadion race. The other winners are not recorded by history.

Elsewhere the process of colonisation went on apace. The city of Massalia was founded by Greeks from the Ionian city of Phocaea. This was the first Greek settlement in what is now France and would go on to become one of the most significant western colonies. Supposedly the founding was opposed by the Carthaginians but their fleet was defeated and the Greeks founded their city in alliance with the local Ligurian tribe. Massalia would later become the main trading emporium for the Greeks in their trade with the Celts.

Later Greek temples at Paestum
The city of Poseidonia was also founded around this time on the west coast of southern Italy. This name was later changed to Paestum and later to Pesto. Sadly this is not the etymology of the food “pesto”. It was not an important city in antiquity but is known today for some of the best preserved Greek temples of the ancient world. These however would be built much later.

Not in hewn stones, nor in well-fashioned beams,
Not in the noblest of the builder's dreams,
But in courageous men of purpose great,
There is the fortress, there the living State.
The Bulwark of the State, Poem by Alcaeus

Alcaeus of Mytilene also flourished around this time. He was a contemporary of Pittacus and was quite antagonistic to him. He was a lyric poet and famed in later antiquity. He was a soldier of fortune and his brother was a mercenary for the Babylonians (possibly taking part in the siege of Askelon. Strangely, if his brother Antimenides was fighting against the Philistines, Alcaeus boasts in a poem of his slaying a giant slightly over 15 feet tall (or over 4.5 metres). Allowing for no problems in the translation and allowing for a considerable amount of poetic exaggeration it might suggest that the Philistines had a tradition of fielding large warriors in battle. Alcaeus actively participated in the political intrigue of Mytilene at the time and fell afoul of Pittacus, who apparently pardoned him. He would later be a poetic contemporary of Sappho, who was also from Mytilene.

Depiction of Alcaeus and Sappho
circa 470BC
From the end of the world thou hast just returned,
And an ivory-hilted sword hast thou earned,
A sword which is all overlaid with gold,
A magnificent prize for thy labours bold,
Which by Babylon's men was given to thee;
For thou from their troubles thine allies didst free.
Thou slew a royal warrior, a man,
To be five ells tall lacking only a span.
To Antimenides, Poem by Alcaeus

Also around this approximate date the Eleusinian Mysteries began to be formally brought into Athenian life. These were an ancient set of rituals involving processions to nearby Eleusis. There those who were to be initiated into the secrets would fast and be shown secrets that would supposedly change their lives. In exchange they would be sworn to secrecy about what exactly the rituals involved. To this day we are not sure exactly what was done, said or shown at these mysteries. But we have a fair idea, mostly because later Christian writers had no such scruples about revealing the secrets. The rites were connected to Demeter and Persephone, goddesses who were associated with both the harvest and the underworld. There were dances and libations to the dead and possibly hallucinogenic drugs involved. These rites predated this period but only seem to have been formalised in this era. They would continue until 392AD when the Arian Christian Goths destroyed the sanctuary. But the secrecy that was enjoined on the initiates means that the full details of the Mysteries will always remain a mystery.

Attic vase showing the slaying of Nessos
the Centaur, created by the Nessos Painter
Thus the period ends, with more colonisation and founding of Greek cities across the wider Mediterranean world. Lucius Tarquinius Priscus was the supposed king of Rome. Alyattes II was the very real king of Lydia and threatening the Ionian city states, while also being instrumental in the development of coined money. The Seven Sages of Greece were beginning to be active and poets such as Alcman, Arion, Cleobulus and Alcaeus made a name for themselves throughout the Greek world. Heroic feats of sport continued to be enacted every four years at the Olympic Games and the Delphic Oracle made her pronouncements and decided the fate of colonies and thrones. Here is where we will leave the Greeks for now.