Macedonia: From bad to worse

The White Tower of Thessaloniki, Macedonia, Greece. Photo (cc) dun­godung.

I’ve been read­ing the let­ter to President Obama signed by vari­ous clas­sical schol­ars regard­ing the claims over Macedonia, It’s about 50% suc­cess­ful in my case. It’s got me tak­ing the Macedonia prob­lem much more ser­i­ously, but I couldn’t sign the letter.

Criticising prom­in­ent pro­fess­ors when you’re job-hunting is a very bad idea. Nonetheless as far as the archae­ology of eth­ni­city goes it’s poor. The simple equa­tion of lan­guage with eth­ni­city, which the let­ter fol­lows, has been given a thor­ough kick­ing in other areas of archae­ology. Worse, even if the archae­ology was right, it would still be a bad argu­ment to say Greece’s claim to Macedonia rests on the ancient Macedonians being Greek. To show this I’ll con­duct a little thought experiment.

Let’s say for the sake of argu­ment that next year there’s a sur­pris­ing find in Thessaloniki. A marble tab­let from a temple dat­ing to 350 BC is found. To everyone’s sur­prise the table is inscribed with Cyrillic let­ters rather than Greek, and the lan­guage is a vari­ant of Bulgarian. Would that mean Greece would have to hand over Macedonia to its north­ern neigh­bour?
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Being a citizen


Of all the civil­isa­tions of antiquity, the Egyptian seems to me to have been the most pleas­ant. The excel­lent pro­tec­tions which desert and sea provide for the Nile val­ley pre­ven­ted the excess­ive devel­op­ment of the spirit of hero­ism which must often have made life in Greece hell on earth.

Otto Neugebauer — The Exact Sciences in Antiquity 2nd Edition, page 71.

In ancient Greece to be a cit­izen was to be a sol­dier. Marching along­side your fel­low cit­izens was a priv­ilege as was as a duty. But march­ing to where? The thing that sol­diers exist to do is fight, so ideally to be the equal of the men who have gone before you you’re going to want to have fought in one battle. The money gained from booty is another wel­come bonus. There’s also the mat­ter of skills. If you’ve been prac­tising some­thing it’s nat­ural to want to try it out for real. So what ancient Greece had was a lot of men who prob­ably wanted a minor fight.

Making things worse, unlike Egypt, Greece never really uni­fied from within. This meant that find­ing an enemy to fight was a lot less effort for the Greeks than the Egyptians. There were peri­ods of divi­sion in Egypt, but ulti­mately the Nile val­ley mean that war­fare would have to be pretty much one-dimensional. The Greeks on the other hand could sail away in a tri­reme and fight over all sorts of dif­fer­ent coasts or islands.

So one of the reas­ons war was com­mon in ancient Greece was that it was polit­ic­ally and eco­nom­ic­ally reward­ing as well as being easy to indulge in if you were a major power. It was built into the social sys­tem that to be mil­it­ar­ily suc­cess­ful was the mark of a man. Thankfully we live in more enlightened times where a politi­cian would never be enriched by a cyn­ical war.

Seven Wonders II: The Parthenon

Athens, Parthenon

I said in the pre­vi­ous entry that the seven won­ders would be a per­sonal choice. There are plenty of reas­ons why the Parthenon wouldn’t make the list. It’s hardly intact, espe­cially given the sli­cing of the monu­ment to ship parts of it to west­ern Europe. It’s not the biggest Greek temple, nor the old­est. It’s not the holi­est. It was built with money extor­ted from other Greek states, sup­posedly for guar­an­tee­ing free­dom. Arguably the ancients didn’t see it as the greatest Greek site either as it wasn’t on the canon­ical list of the seven won­ders of the ancient world.

None of that mat­ters. This is the apo­gee of architecture.

One of Jostein Gaarder’s favour­ite phrases is that the Parthenon was built without a single straight line. There are many optical effects built into the temple. One is that the sty­lob­ate, the plat­form the temple sits, on rises slightly in the middle so that, viewed from a dis­tance, it appears flat — or pos­sibly just clear of rain­wa­ter. The columns are angled slightly inward to avoid look­ing splayed. They’re also built with a slight bulge, pos­sibly to stop them look­ing con­cave. The tech­niques weren’t new, but it’s where they were all put together to cre­ate some­thing amazing.

It might be explic­able for conquered peoples to adopt the archi­tec­ture of their con­quer­ors, but the Romans did the oppos­ite, tak­ing the design of the Greek temple and mak­ing it their own. The Parthenon embod­ies this idea which sur­vived the Roman con­quest and has since spread around the world. It’s not just found in Europe but also in the New World and Asia. Any place with pre­ten­sions to inter­na­tional prestige will in some way or another have build­ings which employ Doric columns as an echo of the façade of the Parthenon. The Parthenon is a won­der because its image rep­lic­ated by aris­to­crats mak­ing the Grand Tour cre­ated the archi­tec­tural lan­guage to describe prestige.

Estimate of the dove population of ancient Greece reduced by one

Greek Dove
Greek Dove. Photo (cc) Kristie’s NaturesPortraits.

Scientifically speak­ing a neg­at­ive res­ult is as import­ant as a pos­it­ive res­ult. Nonetheless while pos­it­ive res­ults which no-one expec­ted are pub­lish­able, neg­at­ive res­ults — which people would have expec­ted if they’d thought about it a bit — are dif­fi­cult to get published.

As an example, I’m look­ing at con­nec­tions between ancient Greek con­stel­la­tions and the Greek cal­en­dar. One nice cor­rel­a­tion is that the dove migra­tion sea­son in Greece starts about the same time that the con­stel­la­tion Columba, the Dove, rises in the morn­ing sky for the first time. It’s par­tic­u­larly neat because doves tend to fly at night, so as Columba took to the skies, so did the doves. It would have slot­ted nicely into my model. There’s a small problem.

Columba is Noah’s Dove and wasn’t inven­ted till AD 1679. Not only that, but if you read Aratus’s Phaenomena, which is a descrip­tion of the sky dat­ing from the 3rd cen­tury BC, he goes on at great length how there’s no con­stel­la­tion in that region. Unlike mod­ern con­stel­la­tions, the Greek con­stel­la­tions were fig­ures not regions and not all stars were thought to be in con­stel­la­tions. Some were con­sidered amorphoi or unformed. If I’d really been awake I wouldn’t have needed to look up the con­stel­la­tion, as there are already doves in the ancient Greek sky. The Pleiades are, among other things, doves. That’s what the name means.

It’s sur­pris­ing how spe­cific the ancient sources are about which stars are in con­stel­la­tions or not. It raises the ques­tion of whether con­stel­la­tions named in ancient texts exis­ted in more archaic times, because stars don’t have to be in a constellation.

Did ancient Greek women sunbathe?

6th Century BC, Athenian black-figured neck amphora with Satyrs
6th Century BC, Athenian black-figured neck amphora with Satyrs. Photo (cc) Mary Harrsch.

I thought the answer was no. There’s a reason for this and it’s due to the proper place of a good woman. For the Greeks a chaste woman would remain in the house as much as pos­sible. This wasn’t always pos­sible, women could have duties out­side the house like get­ting water from the local foun­tain, but in the ideal world the Greek woman would be at home attend­ing to her duties there. One of the phys­ical effects of this is that a woman who was at home wouldn’t be exposed to sun­light so much and so a good woman would be con­sid­er­ably more pal­lid than her hus­band. In the photo above we can deduce some­thing of the pos­i­tion of the woman being temp­ted by the satyrs in that des­pite this being black-figure ware, the pig­ment for the woman’s skin is pale. In this period men are in black when they appear on pot­tery, emphas­ing their tan.

Flute girl
Black-figured mas­tos Cup with Young Woman play­ing the Pipes Greek made in Athens 520–510 BCE attrib­uted to Psiax. Photo (cc) Mary Harrsch.

The fig­ure right is another woman. She’s a flute-girl and there’s a couple of con­clu­sions we can draw from this fig­ure. She’s dark so she must be out­side a lot and there­fore not the sort of girl you’d take home to meet your par­ents. She’s an aulêtris, a flute-girl. These would ply their trade in the streets of a Greek city. Their pub­lic pur­pose would be to play for enter­tain­ment, but the real­ity was that they were paid for addi­tional ser­vices dur­ing the course of the symposium.

A lot of the pot­tery from Athens is expli­cit about this, as are many plays. But you didn’t have to have a flute to be a pros­ti­tute in ancient Greece. There was a lot of grad­a­tion in the mar­ket. The Hetaira were expens­ive cour­tes­ans val­ued for their con­ver­sa­tion as much as their bod­ies. At the other end of the scale were the por­nai who eked a liv­ing at the edge of town. There are descrip­tions of women who worked by the grave­yards on the roads into town. For many women in the ancient world life was miserable.

So what about sun­bathing? I didn’t think it would hap­pen. If being out­side is a state­ment about your moral char­ac­ter then pale skin is surely more desir­able. Even if you were a woman who worked out­doors wouldn’t paler skin make you more fash­ion­able? I was flip­ping though Courtesans and Fishcakes for inform­a­tion on ancient depli­ation for grue­some reas­ons, when I found this frag­ment from Xenarchus:

For there are young ladies here at the brothels who are most amen­able, ladies you are not banned from look­ing at as they sun-bathe with bare breasts, stripped for action in semi-circular ranks; and from among these ladies you can select whichever one you like: the, fat, tall, short, young, old middle-aged and past it. Much bet­ter than going through the adul­ter­ous busi­ness of a lad­der against a wall and tip­toe­ing about, or climb­ing in under the vent below the roof, or smug­gling your­self in under a pile of straw.

To some extent this con­firms what I thought, the chaste woman being hid­den away inside and the whores out­doors, but I was sur­prised to read about the top­less sun­bathing. The top­less bit I under­stand, it’s about put­ting the goods on view, but why sun­bathe if that’s going to give you an undesir­able tan?

In mod­ern terms it’s a pleas­ant way to spand an after­noon, but these women would be unlikely to be in this situ­ation from choice. If they’re weren’t work­ing, then you’d expect them to be put to work spin­ning whilst wait­ing from a cli­ent. It’s the brothel own­ers who have put them out on dis­play. By doing so the ladies are get­ting tanned and which surely makes then vis­ibly cheaper. Where’s the sense in this?

I think part of it might be due to the eco­nom­ics and part due to the law. The law laid down the max­imum cost of a pros­ti­tute, which was two drach­mas for a night. This kept the women within the price range of the typ­ical skilled Athenian worker who could earn between a drachma and two drach­mas a day. This may sound like the woman’s skills were val­ued, but she would have been a slave and the owner would take his share of the fee. The pres­ence of price con­trols sug­gests demand was high, so tan­ning would not dam­age the value of the slave and may have had another legal benefit.

Greek law had strict and dire pen­al­ties for people found guilty of adul­tery. The quote above shows the sub­ter­fuge neces­sary to see another man’s wife. The stand­ard of evid­ence in Greek law was also aston­ish­ingly low. Some legal speeches which sur­vive boast of hav­ing no evid­ence other than hearsay. In this light a tanned woman would be help­ful as it would prove her legal status. Her pos­i­tion in Greek soci­ety would be vis­ible in her skin.

This may be all old hat to any­one who stud­ies ancient pros­ti­tu­tion, but it struck me how much the act of sun­bathing has changed. Anyway I can recom­mend Courtesans and Fishcakes, but it’s a grim­mer read than Trying Neaira.

The Antikythera Mechanism


A paper on the Mechanism appears in tomorrow’s Nature. In brief what it is these days is a rather unim­press­ive look­ing lump of heav­ily cor­roded metal. I have a photo of it some­where, but it’s a very bad blurry photo which doesn’t do justice to its lumpy unim­press­ive­ness. Fortunately Wikipedia has this much bet­ter photo.

Antikythera Mechanism
The Antikythera Mechanism in the National Museum, Athens. Photo from Wikipedia.

The reason why it’s news is that there’s been a lot of painstak­ing work to try and see bey­ond the cor­ro­sion, and its proven spec­tac­u­larly suc­cess­ful. The mech­an­ism has been examined using X-ray tomo­graphy, which is where X-rays are used to build up a cross-section of a sub­ject slice by slice without phys­ic­ally pulling the sub­ject apart. The res­ults are con­firm­ing that Greek tech­no­logy could be stag­ger­ingly soph­ist­ic­ated.
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Mystery of ancient astronomical calculator unveiled


A press release on the Antikythera Mechanism, see the next entry for comment.

Antikythera Mechanism
The Antikythera Mechanism. Photo from Wikipedia.

An inter­na­tional team has unrav­elled the secrets of a 2,000-year-old com­puter which could trans­form the way we think about the ancient world.

Professor Mike Edmunds and Dr Tony Freeth, of Cardiff University led the team who believe they have finally cracked the work­ings of the Antikythera Mechanism, a clock-like astro­nom­ical cal­cu­lator dat­ing from the second cen­tury BC.

Remnants of a broken wooden and bronze case con­tain­ing more than 30 gears was found by divers explor­ing a ship­wreck off the island of Antikythera at the turn of the 20th cen­tury. Scientists have been try­ing to recon­struct it ever since. The new research sug­gests it is more soph­ist­ic­ated than any­one pre­vi­ously thought.
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