|Papyrus fragment of |
poem by Archilochus
Archilochus quoted in the Stobaeus Anthology (written 400’s AD)
This post will look at Greece and the wider Greek world from the years 650BC to 625BC. 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 640 while another might say 630 and the truth is no one knows. Also, a lot of writers and poets of the time are writing for periods of time. This it can be correct to speak of Archilochus writing poetry around 660BC but also it is equally correct to say around 648BC.
|Later sculpture of Archilochos|
I find that this period of Greek history is rather poorly treated by historians. So many histories make a brief mention of the Greek Dark Ages before giving a cursory mention to Homer and Hesiod, maybe a brief nod to some of the developments in Athens and Sparta and then dive straight into the Persian Wars. It is as if the Greeks of Marathon sprung into being fully-fledged, like the fully grown and fully armoured Athena springing to life from the cloven head of Zeus. This is not the case and the classical Greeks owed much of their culture to developments in the Dark Ages or Archaic periods. I think the real reason why this period is so seldom studied is that it has no overarching storyline to it. Each state or city has its business and a chronology of the period can devolve into disconnected stories without a narrative. Bearing this in mind, I will try and describe the period as accurately, but also as engagingly, as I can.
|Clay toy from Attica 7th century BC|
Around 650 BC the Lelantine War drew to a close, as described in the previous blog on Greece. It had been fought for over five decades by Chalcis and Eretria on the island of Eubeoa and was won by Chalcis? Or maybe it was won by Eretria? No one is really sure. But the two sides had fought themselves to insignificance. Cleomachus of Thessaly had won glory for himself by fighting on the Chalcidian side but not much else changed as a result of the war.
|Later ruins from Himera in Sicily|
In the year 648 some people believe the Second Messenian War started. This has been dealt with in a previous post. The dates of this war are very open to speculation but we have spoken of it previously so I will not write about it twice. In the Olympic Games that year the pankration was added to the games. This was a kind of wrestling but allowed boxing as well and, like Greek boxing, was quite a vicious sport that only disallowed biting and eye-gouging. In this Olympic Games Gyges, or possibly Gylis, of Laconia won the stadion race. Myron, the tyrant of the Sicilian city of Syracuse won the chariot race, meaning that he owned the team, not that he raced himself. Crauxidas the Crannonian won the equestrian race. Lygdamis of Syracuse won the newly instituted Pancratium contest and was supposedly a giant of man. It is unusual that the Gyges and Lygdamis were both Olympic winners this year, as they were the Greek names of the Lydian and Cimmerian rulers at that time. Perhaps there was substantial Asian influence on Greece at the time or perhaps there is major confusion in the sources.
At these games, a pancratium contest was added, and the winner was Lygdamis of Syracuse. Lygdamis was massive; he measured out the stadion with his feet, in only six hundred paces.
Eusebius’ Chronicle, written around 330AD
|Image from NASA showing eclipse path in 648BC|
There is nothing in the world unexpected, nothing to be sworn impossible nor yet marvellous, now that Zeus the Father of the Olympians hath made night of noon by hiding the light of the shining Sun so that sore fear came upon mankind. Henceforth is anything whatsoever to be believed or expected.
Let not one of you marvel, nay, though he see the beasts of the field exchange pasture with the dolphins of the deep, and the roaring waves of the sea become dearer than the land to such as loved the hill.
Archilochus quoted in Aristotle Rhetoric 95-97 written around 330BC
Purpose ye to sit in peace though the land is full of war? … And let every man cast his javelin once more as he dies. For 'tis an honourable thing and a glorious to a man to fight the foe for land and children and wedded wife; and death shall befall only when the Fates ordain it.
Callinus quoted in the Stobaeus Anthology (written 400’s AD)
In 644 the Olympic Games were held but by the small city of Pisa rather than the traditional game organisers from the small city of Elea. The Stadion race was won by Stomas of Athens.
|Greek Pottery from c.640BC|
|Greek Pottery from c.640BC|
Livy Ab Urbe Condita (1.31)
In 640 The Olympic Games were held once more, with Sphaerus the Laconian winning the Stadion race and Cylon of Athens winning the longer Diaulos race. We shall hear more of Cylon soon. I am not sure if the Pisans still held control of the Olympic Games or if the Eleans had taken back control at this point. In cultural affairs, around this time Peisander of Camirus, a city in Rhodes, wrote an epic poem about the labours of Heracles, fixing their number at twelve and enshrining the story and image of the ultimate Greek hero firmly in the consciousness of the Greeks. Sadly, the epic does not survive. Around this time we have the record of the earliest Greek explorer, albeit kind of accidentally. Colaeus of Samos was supposedly blown off course around this time and was the first Greek that we know of to pass the Straits of Gibraltar (known to the Greeks as the Pillars of Heracles) and travel the Atlantic Ocean. He did not go very far, merely as far as the city of Tartessos and he brought a large cargo of metal back to the city of Phocaea, where they dedicated a tenth of their huge profits to the gods in thanks for their safe travels. It is important to mention that these lands were very much occupied at the time and the Greeks were also following in the footsteps of the Phoenicians in trading with these lands.
|Figurine of Astarte from Tartessos in south-western|
Spain. Possibly Phoenician in origin
Herodotus Histories: 4:152, written around 440BC
In 636 the Olympic Games were held and the stadion was won by Phrynon of Athens, who would later go on to be an Athenian general. Alternatively, someone with the same name would later go on to become an Athenian general.
|Vase from Tartessus region in south-western|
Spain. Possibly Phoenician in origin
Cylon of Athens, the winner of the diaulos race in 640, had married a daughter of Theagenes, the tyrant of the nearby city of Megara, and had supposedly received a prophecy from the Oracle at Delphi that he would be able to seize control of the city of Athens during a festival of Zeus. Bolstered by the prophecy Cylon and his followers seized the Acropolis in Athens hoping that the city would acknowledge Cylon as a ruler of the city. The attempt to install a tyrant failed however. The Athenian people fought back and besieged the followers of Cylon on the Acropolis. Eventually the besieged ran short of food and water, knowing their cause was lost, hid in the temples, with Cylon and his brother making their escape.
|Greek votive figure |
from 7th century BC
The people seem to have executed Cylon’s followers on the advice of Megacles, who held the position of Eponymous Archon (the year was named after him). Megacles was a member of the powerful aristocratic family of the Alcmaeonidae and while the Athenians followed his advice in slaying the suppliants, they afterwards regretted this. The Alcmaeonidae were held to have committed a great sacrilege and to have been cursed by the gods. The entire family was banished from Athens in recognition of their sin and even the tombs of their ancestors were exhumed and placed outside the city limits. The curse of the Alcmaeonidae would return to haunt Athens for generations after, as each generation sought to return and reclaim their ancestral rights.
The Athenians who were charged with the duty of keeping guard, when they saw them at the point of death in the temple, raised them up on the understanding that no harm should be done to them, led them out and slew them. Some who as they passed by took refuge at the altars of the awful goddesses were despatched on the spot. From this deed the men who killed them were called accursed and guilty against the goddess, they and their descendants.
Thucydides 1.126, written around 400BC
|Skeletal remains of (possibly) Cylon's supporters|
Photo taken from here.
|Later ruins from Selinus in Sicily|
Around 630 the city of Cyrene in Libya was founded by Battus, who led a colony from the island of Thera in the Aegean. There are a number of myths and legends surrounding this first colony of the Greeks on the African continent but all that we can firmly say is that there was a Greek colony founded there around this time. Around this time the Greek city of Selinus was established on the south-western coast of Sicily, facing across the sea towards Carthage. While new cities were being founded, Trapezus, a city later known as Trebizond or Trebzon, was destroyed by the Cimmerian invaders around this time but was later rebuilt by the Greek colonists. Around this time, once again, an exact date is not possible, the Bellerophon Painter and Lion Painter were active in producing pottery in Attica. They were beginning to use the technique known as Black-Figure pottery, which would go on to be the predominant style of vase-painting for a number of decades.
|Later ruins from Cyrene in Libya|
Herodotus Histories 4.159, written around 440BC
In 628 the Olympic Games were held, with Olyntheus of Laconia winning the stadion race and Eutelidas the Lacedemonian winning the boys wrestling and boys pentathlon. There was a boys pancratium held this year but this was probably too violent even for the ancient Greeks so this was discontinued. Deutelidas of Laconia won this first and only competition. Perhaps, as it was never held again and thus his record was never broken, Deutelidas is the most successful athlete ever? Possibly not. There is not much more that can be said about this year.
In 627 Cypselus of Corinth, who had forced his way to becoming tyrant of Corinth, died. His son Periander succeeded him. While the tyrants were by their nature above the rule of law and had no clear traditions about succession, many tyrants did in fact hand over their rule to their sons.
|Greek Pottery from c.640BC|
The period may not have seen much happening compared to other twenty-five year periods, but it still saw what is arguably the first named European astronomical observations and exploration, as well as a coup attempt, murder and ritual curses in Athens; a city which now re-emerges into history. Such was the state of affairs in the Greek world in 625BC.