In this week’s episode of Two Friends Talk History, Zofia is joined by Dr Sam Ellis, a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at the Chair of Ancient History in the University of Mannheim where his project focuses on the use of language to legitimise political power in the Greek polis. Sam is an expert in the language of tyranny in antiquity and the study of monocratic power in the Greek polis from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period.
In this episode, we explore how the language used to frame the actions of sole rulers has created a construct of ‘tyrant’ that remains with us today.
Greek attitudes towards tyranny are the topic of this week’s podcast. It may surprise listeners to hear that these attitudes changed over time; from the early stages of the Greek polis (the city-state), the ruling aristocracy ruled as a group over the citizen body, with the eventual rise of some aristocrats into positions of sole-rulership in the mid-7th century BCE.
These early sole-rulers tended to have popular political support and were generally viewed favourably among the citizens.
We discuss the Peisistratids of Athens in the podcast, one such family, whose founder, Peisistratus, was popularly received by the people for setting up law courts and investing funds into public projects like water fountains and religious buildings. The charismatic leadership of a sole-ruler could spur a relationship of political control through public support that rewarded the ruler with many types of honours. As we discuss, these types of relationships were precarious and could turn into tyrannicide, as was the case of the assassination of Peisistratus’ son, Hipparchus (brother of the sole-ruler, Hippias). The assassination was carried out by Harmodius and Aristogeiton and remained a famous story replicated across visual media for centuries afterwards.
The Syriskos Painter’s stamnos, ‘Death of the tyrant Hipparchus’, 475-470 BCE (and illustration of actions); Roman copy of Aristogeiton and Harmodius sculpture.
The inspiration for the episode art was the sculptural pair of tyrannicides, originally commissioned by Antenor after the establishment of Athenian democracy. It was taken as war booty during the Persian Wars in 480 BCE, then returned after the fall of the Persian Empire by one of Alexander’s generals-turned-king. The sculpture was so famous that it inspired Roman copies, of which several survive; the most famous of which is in the National Archaeological museum of Naples.
To learn more about the language, metaphors and stereotypes of ancient tyranny, check out the episode here:
You can get in touch with Dr Ellis on the Universität Mannheim website here, or you can follow him on Academia.edu. Sam is also on Instagram & Twitter @SamEllis1993. Seriously, check out his Instagram. The photos are stunning.
If you would like to check out some of Dr Ellis’ publications:
Ellis, S. (forthcoming). ‘Legitimising sole power in the Greek polis: A New Institutionalist approach’ in M. Canevaro & M. Barbato (eds.) New Institutionalism and Greek Institutions, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Ellis, S. (2021). ‘Greek Conceptualisations of Persian Traditions – Gift-giving and Friendship in the Persian Empire’, Classical Quarterly 71.1,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 77–88.
Ellis, S. (forthcoming). Review of C. de Lisle (2021). Agathokles of Syracuse: Sicilian Tyrant and Hellenistic King. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Bryn Mawr Classical Review.
For further reading:
Brock, R. (2013). Greek Political Imagery: From Homer to Aristotle. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Luraghi, N. (2013). The Splendors and Miseries of Ruling Alone. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH.
Börm, H. (ed.). (2015). Antimonarchic Discourse in Antiquity. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
This week on Two Friends Talk History, Zofia interviews Dr Elke Close about Polybius, an Achaean statesman, teacher, and historian from the Hellenistic period. Polybius was active in Megalopolis at the tail end of the period of Greek independence following the wars of the Hellenistic kings and the rise of the Roman empire. His surviving text, Histories, has provided scholars with unparalleled evidence for the social and political changes that led to the changing balance of power in the Mediterranean in the second century BCE.
From the introduction of Polybius’ Histories, we are told of the weight and significance of his treatise for readers to understand the rise to power of Rome, while synthesising the events more broadly around the Mediterranean.
But all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner, but making this the beginning and end of their labour, have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for political actions is the study of History.
His aims are outlined, and through his unique position as Achaean statesman and hostage in Rome, Polybius had intimate access as a teacher and client to one of the most powerful Roman families, the Cornelii Scipiones. Due to his proximity to power and usefulness, Polybius rode shotgun on several watershed moments of the Republic.
To keep my sanity and to take some art breaks during this time, I am making colouring sheets that are free to print, share and enjoy. I will be uploading printable PDFs here, and posting images to my social media pages. Since we are all staying in doors for the good of the realm/humanity, we might as well fill some of that time having some fun and learning about ancient art and archaeology!
Everyone who has grown up on Disney will feel strongly about these characters and how they imagine they can or should be re-imagined. This is a bit of fun and I selected the mash-ups that made the most sense to me.
If you are an educator, practitioner or just curious about these or any of my other work, please feel free to get in touch!
For anyone who has had to go to Mykonos on their way to Delos, I’m sorry. Mykonos in the modern period has been blessed with Instagrammable vistas, from its white-painted walls with brightly coloured doors, to the overpriced meals, it is every social media influencer’s dream. However, when one is traveling to the nearby island of Delos, a brief stay in the tourist labyrinth awaits.
Thankfully my time in Mykonos, while conducting field work, was brief. To ensure we would be able to catch a ferry crossing to Delos, we planned a day and a half in this little seaside area. With ferry tickets and a frappe in hand, my colleague and travel buddy Ms King and I, set off to the sacred island of Delos!
Legendary birthplace of the ancient world’s deadliest twins, Apollo and Artemis, the island was a sacred site well into antiquity. A historically important trade hub for merchants crossing the Aegean, Delos was a crucial point for the exchange of ideas, art, goods and slaves. The island of Delos itself drew many cults from across the ancient world. Of particular interest to me were the several temples to Serapis and Isis located fairly high up the hill. These newcomers to Delos were part of the expanding religious landscape of the island in the Hellenistic period.
Delos’ sanctity was ensured during the Peloponnesian wars when under oracular guidance the island was required to divest itself of the dead. That is quite uncommon. As is the case now, communities are very connected to their dead. Disturbing graves and reburying the remains on another island seems extreme. Under the guidance of the Delphic Oracle, and just like Disneyland, all of your prayers could be answered; but you couldn’t die or give birth on Delos any longer.
Various leagues were created and centered here to deal with military and political threats, the Delian league during the Persian Wars, and the Nesiotic League during the wars of the Successors of Alexander the Great. It is at this point, during the 3rd century BCE that the island was in the hands of the Ptolemaic Empire and the influence of the Alexandrian kingdom, and its gods was most pronounced on the island.
With more temples to Egyptian gods in one city anywhere outside of Egypt, save Rome, Delos is an interesting location to try to understand the ways in which religious integration occurs and the role in which the urban landscape is a factor.
In 167/166 BCE Delos’ political fortunes changed with the growing influence and meddling in the Aegean of Rome, the island was handed over to the Athenians, who expelled the Delians. As a Roman free port, Delos benefited from the Italian aggression towards competitor cities, until an enemy of Rome sought to disrupt the Republic’s income by sacking the little holy island full of people making money from slaves. The Mithradatic Wars had two waves of destruction in Delos, coming to a head in 69 BCE.
No longer the safest outpost for ensuring Rome’s transportation of slaves and non-human trade goods, Rome made the southern Italian city of Puteoli the new port-de-jour. With that decline and depopulation Delos turned into a relic.
The temples of Isis and Serapis in Delos are built across several phases and interestingly took different forms while they thrived. One associating itself with a more ‘authentically’ Egyptian-style, and another with a more Hellenic-Alexandrian form, they co-existed though not always in perfect harmony.
It was a perfect day to explore this incredible UNESCO World Heritage site, and as I continue with my research, it is always an enriching experience to go to these spectacular sites with my research questions in mind. After a decade passing since my last time here, much remained the same, but due to increased interest in the cults of the Egyptian gods and their relationships with Hellenic and Italic deities, the deities I study tend to get highlighted! The archaeology museum was equally worth the trip to see, with excellent mosaics and gorgeous statues.
This spring, my friend and fellow St. Andrews colleague, Dr Briana King, and I traveled to Greece for fieldwork in our studies. With intersecting interests, Briana and I were able to plan a truly spectacular trip and gain new insights into our own research questions as well as each other’s work. Through careful budgeting and receiving funding through several pathways, we were fortunate to achieve quite a lot in two weeks. We began our fieldwork in Cyprus, to investigate the earliest sanctuary site of Aphrodite!
With a long history reaching back into the Neolithic period, Cyprus has seen waves of cultural and political change throughout its recorded history. Annexed in 295/4 BCE by the Ptolemy I Soter (the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty), it remained within their dynastic control for 250 years. Though Cyprus still retained semi-autonomous government with the Boule (council), Demos (popular assembly) and the Gerousia (council of ancient Boomers). This continued until it was annexed by Rome in 58 BCE during the dynastic struggles between Cleopatra VII and her siblings, and settled into Roman hands following the civil war with Octavian and Antony. Cyprus would fall into the hands of several other powers over the next two thousand years (the Arab caliphate, the French and Venetians and the Ottomans), until today where it currently remains divided by Greece and the occupied portion under Turkey.
Cyprus’ place-names have popped into my studies for years came from this island. Unsurprisingly, due to the proximity to Egypt (a straight line to Alexandria) and the political fortunes of Cyprus, there was several connection-points with the Egyptian gods which I hope to explore further in my research.
The goddess of many names: the sanctuary of Aphrodite
Starting in Cyprus was very important to Briana’s research: Paleopafos is the OG Aphrodite cult site where she was worshiped in the form of a black stone (below left). The Sanctuary of Aphrodite, barely visible on the archaeological site, requires some imagination to envisage what it could have been like. Set atop a higher elevation, the site would have commanded an impressive presence on the landscape and awarded visitors with a stunning view out to the sea.
A rose by any other name…
While Hesiod called Aphrodite ‘Cyprus-born’ around the 8th c. BCE, the goddess was not called that in Cypus until the 4th c. BCE. The significance of place-names for her identity can be seen in inscriptions where is called ‘the Golgian or Paphian’ from her sanctuaries at Golgoi and Pafos. A city’s prestige could be significantly enhanced by a notable sanctuary or cult site. You can see below some interesting details about the places or priorities associated with the goddess of Cyprus.
“Kyprogenes- Cyprus born goddess; Potnia Kyprou – the mistress of Cyprus Akraia – the goddess of promontories; Pontia, Einalia – the marine goddess Ourania – the heavenly goddess; Pandemos- goddess of all Egcheios – the goddes with the spear; Kourotrophos – the goddess patron of infants “
Figurines found across the island, and spread to other Mediterranean cities, show ongoing development in the iconography of the Great Goddess of Cyprus. Theories range about their uses, whether they are images of early forms of Aphrodite, her priestesses, companions for the dead or talismans for fertility or the afterlife.
She certainly glowed up though.
As Aphrodite’s form changes over time, you get gorgeous examples like the Aphrodite from Soloi (right) which has that sexy contrapposto!
For scholars and history nerds, these places are important and aren’t normally on a tourists’ itinerary. Cyprus is known for its beaches, boardwalks and boating which we briefly explored. Though this isn’t my topic of expertise, it was really cool to experience it with someone who has a passion for Aphrodite scholarship, like mine for Isis!
With Google taking on a merry-go-round of routes through the hills and ostrich farms, we eventually arrived at Nicosia to visit the archaeological museum. It had a substantial collection of beautiful things
With the archaeological site of Salamis inconveniently closed, we checked out a few other interesting locations in Cyprus! A brief walk along the promenade along the sunny boardwalk in Limassol.
What surprised me about Paphos is that it was like a tiny hot British town plunked in the middle of the Mediterranean. Walking around, the signs were in English and I didn’t hear an ounce of Greek being spoken. The archaeological site was worth a wander, but if I was looking for Greek culture and a trip away from the UK, it was eerily like being back in Britain.
Neopaphos & the Tombs of the Kings
Some unexpected surprises along the way included the rental car with no working headlights and the incredible discovery of a late-night delivery of the best souvlaki and Greek salad of my life. With a lot of terrain covered over a weekend, there is still a lot left to explore there and worthy of a solid return trip.
The close of a new decade is an inevitably reflective time. The last time the decade turned, I was in my twenties finishing my undergraduate degrees in Vancouver. It feels like a memoir’s worth of writing could barely sum up the last ten years, so I will stick to just one year. 2019 was possibly the most had some of the biggest highs and lows I have gone through in my academic and personal life. Perhaps it is fitting then that at the end of this decade, it was time to go through another life-changing gauntlet of challenges and opportunities.
Travel and Fieldwork
It was a big year for fieldwork. Luckily, that is my reason-d’être for travel. I discovered a few years ago that travelling with a question in your mind makes the whole experience richer and satisfying when you can answer those questions. When I started researching Isis and the Egyptian cults, it became quite consuming and fortunately for me, dispersed throughout most of the Roman Empire. This has been a blessing in most cases, and this year, with one of my dearest friends, we were able to combine forces and research topics to do fieldwork together across much of Greece.
Germany! Mainz and Frankfurt
In January, I popped over to Germany for a weekend to go check out the temple of Isis in Mainz. This site was excavated during the building of a shopping mall, which sits on top of it. A shared temple with Magna Mater, this city had some really great archaeological museums and things to explore. I used to travel alone a lot more, and scooting off for a few days on my own was a lot of fun.
My recent post about Padua highlighted some of the things that made it a delicious visit to one of my favourite countries, but for me, one really lovely part of the trip was getting to spend time around the kitchen table with the family of a dear friend. I miss that part of family life a lot as an ex-pat. I love spending time with the families of friends, feeling the warmth of their love and bonds of family, even doing normal things like grocery shopping and having a cup of tea.
Greece and Cyprus
Travelling together for a few weeks was a blast and we covered a lot of ground. Laying down groundwork for a future co-publication, hopefully, we learned a lot about each other’s research and where it intersects! Greece is a country that formed mythical impressions in our minds from studying these places over so many years, and getting the opportunity to drive to many sites here together was a dream come true.
With some careful planning and Jedi-level budgeting, Briana and I crushed it: Nicosia, Paphos, Palaepafos, Limassol, Mykonos, Delos, Thessalonike, Philippi, Amphipolis, Vergina, Dion, Volos, Nemea, Mycenae, Corinth, Athens, Epidaurus, Pella, Marathon, Nafplio, Sounion and Eleusis!
With so many beautiful locations, and fascinating material culture, I will definitely be posting some cool snaps and historical tidbits about these places in 2020.
Italy: Roadtripping and the Aeclanum Excavation
For the first time since I started going to Italy to try and learn new skills (excavating or public archaeology), I had the good fortune of jointly renting a car with several friends for the duration of our time there. Liberating and exhilarating would be the best summary of that experience. We were able to finally see some of the surrounding areas of Passo di Mirabella, which are incredibly beautiful. I am so grateful for the time I was able to spend with these ladies trying incredible foods, splashing around in creeks, going to ruins and museums and feeling a bit like a kid again!
Launching a graphic novella in Italy!
Vita Romana: at the baths of a Aeclanum was launched this summer in Passo di Mirabella. It was a labour of love that I am super proud of. Completing a project like this was exciting, and working with Ambra Ghiringhelli and Josef Souček- two creative and talented scholars- was so rewarding! With Vita Romana we learned a lot of things about a collaborative creative process, and it would be really cool to work on other stories about Roman daily life!
For the first year in my life, making art was a significant component of my earnings. I still make silly fun things ( #ImSorryChris ) for myself, but between small commissions, selling posters, paintings in Mariachi, and my public archaeology work this was my most successful year as an artist!
Our west coast wedding
One fateful day in the summer of 2017 I proposed to my husband, over a beer in front of the Pantheon in Rome. After a week on holiday of trying to find the perfect moment and location, everything went wrong. Comically wrong. After a cringe-worthy number of failed attempts, the end result was after a week of nearly asking Chris to marry me, I just went for it with a spontaneous and slightly rambling proposal.
Two years later we had our big day in Vancouver, surrounded by friends and family in a gorgeous location, we tied the knot. As a testament to how ridiculous I am and how accommodating my husband is, I insisted on sneaking in all sorts of archaeology and classics-themed elements into the wedding.
We were touched and grateful to have family members and friends from all over the world who joined us for the wedding. My new family, from the UK, got to explore the province I love so much.
With hot and sunny weather August weather, the guests were subjected to volcanic heat during the ceremony! It was a truly happy day, and absolutely impossible without the support of my mom, sisters (Alex and Anaise), father and my tribe of women warriors, mothers and friends. It felt like all these hearts and minds got me to where I am today, pursuing the things that I am most passionate about, married to a wonderful, brilliant man who enriches my life while I chase my dreams.
Following the wedding, there was no rest for the wicked with escape rooms to solve, babies to cuddle and some wee excursions to spend some time with my family. In a exciting opportunity to come to the Sunshine Coast by a private sea plane! We were over the moon to be invited to this beautiful area and hang with my super lovely aunts and uncles. Spending time with friends and loved ones this summer was so restorative and the best part of the whole time in Canada.
Upon our triumphant return to the United Kingdom, we had the ultimate penthouse wedding reception with our incredible community of friends, coleagues and family. It was marvellous.
Manchester & Liverpool
Drawing this year to a close, we decided that connecting with some of our friends who made their way up to celebrate at our reception would be the best way to spend some free time (lol, free time) this winter. We had a magic weekend in Manchester with some beloved friends and colleagues I met in 2013 during our Masters! Manchester is unarguably one of the coolest cities in the UK. It’s got the architectural edge and multi-culturalism that reminds me of Vancouver. With a quick afternoon trip to Liverpool to do some research, we got to cross that city off the list as well. It is always such a pleasure spending time with our pals in Manchester.
As a little treat for ourselves, Chris and I wanted to spend a week in Belgium. Having visited about two years ago to the day, we were stoked to stay with our lovely friends and colleagues in Leuven. The talented Dr Close (Hellenistic History Instagram) and her lovely partner Stijn.
New Year, Who Dis?
It’s hard to believe all of these things happened within the last 12 months alongside school, work, project work at Aeclanum and so on. Like a last grasp at the hectic-life that used to signal to me that I was working hard enough, if I was too busy to blink, surely it meant I was working as hard as possible. Working hard, but perhaps, not working smart. This year was a kind of awakening. For many years I believed I had some sort of super-human ability to multi-task and problem-solve, whatever else was going on in my life, I could get it done. Whatever ‘it’ was. I would just sleep less, or socialize less, or work during other work…the mind boggles how all this made sense. What I discovered, rather late, was that this balancing act wasn’t balanced at all. It was a very typical high-achiever’s cocktail for burnout. Even projects and activities that gave me great pleasure, if they were not my thesis, then it had to go. Coinciding with moving house, this fall was all about starting anew and positively.
This year I am trying something new and sustainable: in life, in art and school, I will pare everything down to a focused and balanced year ahead.
The last 12 months have been eventful, with a lot of life changing things on the horizon to be excited about. In a few short days, I will be heading off for a third (more lengthy) season in the Roman town of Aeclanum, (near modern Mirabella Eclano, Italy). The last year was incredibly formative for me, as I was privileged enough to work on developing materials with the site directors of Aeclanum from the University of Edinburgh and the Apolline Project for public outreach for the Open Day, as well as ongoing learning materials for children to engage with archaeology in schools.The opportunities to share this work are blooming into new areas for me professionally with a lot of creative directions to pursue.
My first dig
Ten years ago, before I knew what I wanted to with my life, I applied for the opportunity to work on a three-month salvage excavation in Poros, Kefalonia. This excavation was organised in collaboration with Simon Fraser University and the Ephorate in Kefalonia. One family in Poros, the Metaxas family, made an incredible impact on my time there. They were strong advocates for this dig, working with the local government to see that the archaeological site was excavated before it was robbed or destroyed once it became apparent that there were tombs located there.
It was a project born out of a local passion with an aim to start documenting and publishing the rich history of the area, which had been under occasional excavation for decades with very little making it into the public record. By the time of our arrival, there was evidence of looting, so speed was of the essence and the local archaeologists worked with a ragtag bunch of undergrads to excavate and document the human remains and small finds.
The scientific processes are the same for a salvage dig as a normal one, but the elements that are the focus of the excavation tend to be revealed and in peril, so acting quickly and documenting as much as possible is the priority. Our team worked on the excavation during the day and in the evenings would have classroom time and readings, even the odd Greek lessons. Even on the rainy days where the schedule entailed 8 hours of pottery washing, it was still brilliant to be part of.
The antiquity of the necropolis was evidenced through artefacts which represented multi-period usage on the site for burials, an ancient garbage dump (large amounts of broken pottery and animal bones), and fluted columns and architectural blocks from some unidentified building structure.
Excavation in Pronnoi
The excavation work was productive for getting the half-exposed burials out in time before the winter rains began to set in, though occasionally, flash rainstorms would flood the side of the mountain with us on it. The pithoi were interesting tomb-types that were repurposed from containers for bulk storage of grains or other items to a burial container. Once the ceramic vessel was broken up, a body was interred in a flexed or crouched position, and grave goods were added. The vessel was placed around them with fill, but could be accessed again, if another body was to be added to the burial at a later date.
The status of the publication of the finds from the dig is unknown to me, so to avoid getting in trouble, I have made a few artistic renderings of some of the standout artefacts:
Gorgon head, amber.
Corinthian, silver coin.
Lyre player, pottery sherd.
From atop the hill we excavated the necropolis, you could see across the valley with stunning views inland and out to the sea. Putting myself in someone’s sandals from 2,500 years ago and looking out across the same seas they did was a moving experience. Having studied Humanities texts and Art History prepared me in a large way for I was able to see how much more I need to understand before the study of Archaeology or Ancient History. Linking this site in my mind to the Homeric kings and events from the Iliad and Odyssey was only natural, since it was on our reading list, but the chronology of the material culture certainly aided the visualizing of the Bronze Age culture.
Searching for Bronze Age HeroesThe antiquity and long habitation of the region was visible in another area, Tzanata, 3 km east of Poros in the Eleios-Pronnoi municipal region, which had a preserved tholos tomb, or ‘beehive tomb’. This type of tomb has a dome-shaped chamber (like a beehive cut in half), an entrance passage (dromos) and a doorway (stomion) covered with 1-3 lintel blocks. These monumental structures would be buried underground, though accessible, as there could be multiple burials over long periods of time.
The nearby environs of Poros were home to a Bronze Age tholos tomb, which has been dated to around 1400 BCE. This tomb, excavated by Lazaros Kolonas in 1991, contained several sequential burials that could suggest a common lineage.
While significantly smaller than the most famous tholos tombs of Mycenae, it certainly showed comparable architectural features and represented elite participation in the monumental funerary building of the Bronze Age Mediterranean. Finds in the archaeological museum of Argostoli (temporarily closed) reveal golden grave goods from the Mycenaean cultural influence. Included in these finds were carved gemstones a seal that has been interpreted as ‘royal’ were discovered in the tomb. The proximity to Pylos, among other Bronze Age kingdoms of the area, provide parallels chronologically for local elites of Pronnoi having a similar kind of rule over the area by virtue of using similar funerary cultural practices. However, little is known of this site as the excavation reports remain (I believe) unpublished. If further work has been done on this site, it would open up a lot of interesting questions about the position of Kefalonia within Bronze Age trade and indeed, later into the Classical period.
Suffice it to say, my time spent in Poros, Kefalonia, was fundamental in shaping the direction of my studies and career plans. While I have not been back since 2008, the richness in history, the warmth of the community and beauty of the island is still deeply felt. I am making plans to return and investigate the current findings of the area and reunite with the incredible people who made it such a memorable experience for me.
“To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world”
– Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays”
The concept of ‘the flâneur‘ is an old one that has recently entered my mind as my PhD research is starting to intersect conceptually with my artistic experiences within ancient city spaces. As someone who feels that you need to walk a city to really experience it, I also believe to really see a city, it helps to sketch it; not the whole thing, and not just its monuments, but small details and elements. The 19th century French symbol of the flâneur is relatable to me for that reason.
For the flâneur, one interacts within urban spaces through engagement (in painting or writing) and observation, but still remains apart- both a performer and spectator. The lesser-known ‘flâneuse’ is the female chronicler of urban life in the 19th century, figures like Virgina Woolf, as discussed in this article, are part of the underespresented presence of female urban explorers. As a modern female explorer of ancient urban spaces, creating a space to discuss, share and engage with these ideas and locations in the public sphere is important to me.
Additionally, this concept resonates for me, as an archaeology student and artist, because it embodies more than a spirit of adventure and making art, but also a spirit of understanding and trying to piece together the urban landscapes that have developed and disappeared over time.
Since my first trip abroad, in 2002, the drive to sketch and take in everything that I could has formed an important part of appreciating a significantly bigger world than I knew. Sketches from my earlier books explored famous portraits and statues the likes of which I’d only ever seen in Art History courses.
This initial exposure provided me with access to masterpieces in galleries that were unlike the art I could see with any regularity in Canada. Sketching from paintings was a lot of fun and I felt so fortunate to see the images, but my first visit to archaeological sites in Greece and Italy really affected what I wanted to draw.
Visiting many sites in the Mediterranean over the last 10 years, I was able to sit and breathe in these ancient cities by focusing in on the shapes and forms of the stone, lines of sight, and views between one temple to the streets or the valleys below. My curiosity directed me to explore artifacts and material culture that were used to adorn Greek, Etruscan or Roman buildings and the individuals who navigated through them.
From Observer to Preformer
The most inspiring pieces of art in the world were at my fingertips (sketchbook and pen tip), but my shyness about drawing in front of strangers took a few years to overcome. Ironically, the simple act of drawing in public would lead to some of the most interesting encounters with fellow travellers, curious children and tour groups. I have found the quiet study of the place you are in, or artifacts in front of you, signals something unspoken to other people which is inviting.
Over time I developed my own sense of style. I could explore patterns and elements taken from brick designs, patterns of lace on Dutch merchant collars, hairstyles of Roman and Greek elite women, and not worry what the person hovering over my shoulder thought.
Much of what made this passion for drawing more appealing was the utility of having something free and enjoyable to do with the many hours you spend while traveling to get to the place you are going. Waiting to cross the sea on a ferry or idle at a train station on my way to a new city, provided me a good amount of time to reflect on my sketches.
This reflection began to take greater shape and purpose once I started to do postgraduate research. Having questions and a focus of study in my mind affects the way I approach the ancient city spaces around me. It focuses my vision, but also encourages me to think on the connections between the visual elements across the Mediterranean. You don’t need to travel all over the Mediterranean to realise there is a shared visual culture being used with an incredible exchange of ideas and styles at play, but it was helpful to visualize the scope.
It began to create a tapestry of experiences (passive and active) in my mind of ancient art and the interconnectedness of ancient communities that had risen and fallen many centuries ago. I remain inspired to learn more and document it in a way that is meaningful to me and hopefully others. By saving a small piece of my experiences in a sketch or painting, I am starting to develop ways in which these small illuminations of incredible places and artifacts can be used to share the benefits of the study of Archaeology and Ancient History.
There is something breathtaking about the shores, mountains and harbours around Lesbos. Mithymna is a gem of a town, with all the fine features you hope for as a tourist destination, but a significant amount of history is embedded in every corner. As one of the largest Greek islands, and the nearest to Turkey, there is a remarkable amount of cultural fusion and warmth that shaped my experience of living in Mithymna (Μήθυμνα / Molyvos) for several months, some years ago.
While being housed during the spring months in Mithymna, I explored the winding cobblestone streets, photographed dangling flowering plants and occasionally sampled the vibrant restaurant scene at the harbour.
These elements, along with adorable roaming stray cats and dogs (some of whom we adopted), formed idyllic scenes that made it a beautiful and tranquil location to study some Byzantine History and Reception Studies (in effect, the study of modern interpretations of the ancient world) during my undergraduate degree.
What a draw for a historian!Like many ancient city centres, Mithymna has a foundation story whose characters possessed the very names of the location – in this case, Mithymna (daughter of a mythical son of the god Helios) who was married to the personification of Lesbos. Hard to prove, so I’ll take the Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World’s word for it.
The history of Mithymna is actually the stuff of legends, literally. The Bronze Age warrior Achilles was said to have breached the fortifications of Mithymna due to the amorous machinations of King Peisidikis’s daughter.
The city fell to the Achaeans, as the events of the Illiad take place not far away across the water (you can see Turkey from the shores of Mithymna).
Mithymna had been an important location in the Classical period as it was caught between the Athenians, their ally, and the Spartans throughout the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE). To and fro, the balance of power shifted from Athens to Sparta, and back again throughout the war; and smaller allied cities were caught in the fight, or served as proxies for the conflict. Mithymna and Mytilene had a solid rivalry throughout this conflict and beyond, which I will go into when I post about Mytilene. But for the time being, some dark business went down during this three decades long war, and Mithymna and Mytilene had some serious issues to work out afterwards.
Remaining significant throughout the Hellenistic period, Mithymna played politics as it was captured by Macedonian forces and Persians, with tyrants ousting and aligning themselves with the conflicting superpowers when they gained control of the island cities. With the division of Alexander’s brief empire by his successors, King Lysimachus and later Ptolemy would control the island. With the influence of the Ptolemaic ruler, my academic obsession, the cults of Isis and Sarapis were introduced and worshiped.
Which brings us neatly to the Roman period.
Sprinting through so much history, I can barely touch on how many fascinating moments in ancient history in which Mithymna has played a part, but one of the elements which leaves a physical trace, which I was thrilled to see, was the Roman archaeological remains dispersed throughout the city.The formal alliance between Rome and Mithymna was dated by an epigraphic source to 129 BCE. The Roman poets and writers spent many words to describe the quality and superiority of Mithymnian wines.
While staying in Mithymna, I was fortunate enough to meet a local archaeologist who gave us a small tour of the closed excavation.
At that point, they had a great deal of pottery and many interesting rubbish dumps from the Roman period. It appeared that they were producing pottery, and likely distributing the wines in vessels made at this centre.With the political upheaval in the 5th century AD of the western half of the Roman empire, Lesbos fell into the orbit of political authority from the Byzantine power-base of the eastern empire. This orientation affected the flavour and practices on the island as Christianity became the prevalent belief system and religious power throughout the empire. Thank you for reading my blog!
Athens and Hadrian’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated.
The special place Athens held in the minds of the Romans, due to their history and influence in the Mediterranean, was significant. But more broadly, it was the artistic, scientific and cultural accomplishments of the Hellenic people which the Romans were ravenous for.
Building designs, architectural elements, literary styles (poetry and playwriting) and painting techniques, were all introduced to Romans after several having enslaved and looted the Greek cities of Corinth and Epeiros. The goods were paraded in long processions into the city of Rome exposed many for the first time to the finer things Greek culture had to offer.
The legacy of this influx of Greek art into the Roman landscape and cultural sphere meant that those wealthy enough to possess these items were also possessed by them. The drive to collect, copy and emulate the high art of Greece was strong. As with art, literary and other cultural trends were brought in and filtered up the social hierarchy of Rome.
Farenese -style Herakles replica
As Rome took over politically and militarily, they brought in droves of Greeks into the capital city, though most initially were slaves. These slaves could be highly educated teachers, artisans, courtesans, writers and labourers. Fashionable aristocratic households increasingly required high-quality Greek tutors for their children, which would obviously influence the tastes of their students. Eventually, we end at a point where the Roman elite were importing tutors from Greece to educate their sons and daughters in the language, philosophical and rhetorical practices.
Isis Pelagia – Museum of Egyptology Turin – 2016
The impact of Roman tastes in art can be seen in the photos above and below. A topic unto itself, is the Roman art trade – something which I am very interested in! However, as an example of what it actually meant to have a powerful empire capture and integrate Greek art and ideas into their own is highlighted through these works. As Italian families grew wealthier through empire building, they could afford the purchase of fine works of Greek provenance, or an Italian-made replica. The above examples, cargo from shipwrecks, illustrate the ocasional hazard of transportation.
Even in their fractured states below, the Roman copies show an exquisite attention to detail and rendering of Greek styles. The costs for commissioning works such as these and their transport must have been a sizeable investment!
Crouching Venus – Museo Nazionale Romano – 2015
As mentioned in the previous post, Greeks in Rome could achieve incredibly high status and impact the values and development of future emperors. One such student was the Emperor Hadrian. Educated in the literary traditions of Greece, with notable emphasis on the visual arts, Hadrian was exposed to an appreciation of Greek culture which resulted in exquisite building projects we can see today.
A Roman copy of the Discuss Thrower (Discobolus) – Museo Nazionale Romano 2015
The influence of the ‘Romance of Athens’ on Hadrian, can be seen in his politics and building programme. Hadrian instituted a Panhellenion, and made Athens the capital city of this assembly of the Greek city-states, under Roman rule. This assembly was perhaps an attempt to hearken back to the period of a unified Greece emblematic of the 5th century BCE, their classical heyday. For political expedience and cohesion this move makes sense, but there is also an element of romanticising or idealising the Classical period of Greece by Hadrian, the philhellene (lover of Greekness).
The emphasis of Roman investment into the architectural landscape of Greece had a political motivation behind it. The Romans were basically carrying on the policy of Hellenistic eugeritism.
Having control over powerful former empires and influential cities enriched Rome’s cultural and political capital. Affixing their brand, sometimes directly over-top of a pre-existing architectural and social spaces in this ancient city, allowed them to write themselves into the history of Greece – a history which no one could deny was impressive and marked the most important events in the collective consciousness, often blurring between myth and reality.
Temple of Olympian Zeus toppled column – 2016
Temple of Olympian Zeus (the Olympieion)
I have been lucky enough to have a few encounters with this temple, and it never fails to impress. The massive and intricate Corinthian capitals and fluted columns are familiar examples of what people expect when they go to archaeological sites of the Mediterranean. However, these columns speak to the Roman habit of embeddingtheir brand on to the architectural landscape of Greece as it linked itself into the story of pre-democratic Athens.
Corinthian topped-columns -2016
The temple was built on the foundations of a pre-existing sacred outdoor sanctuary and temple to Zeus. The previous temple structure, built in around 520 BCE by the tyrant co-rulers of Athens, Hippias and Hipparchus, had commissioned a more monumental temple than had existed previously under their father, Peisistratus. They demolished their father’s temple, and set to the task of building a more magnificent temple.
However, their lofty building programme would remain unfinished. The young tyrants were ousted after a salacious and political scandal turned Athenian sentiment against them. In a series of ‘Telemondo’-esque unrequited love triangle developments, Hipparchus coveted Harmodius, who was already Aristogeiton’s lover. Insinuations and insults abounded on all sides, leading to the two lovers murdering Harmodius and later being killed themselves. Hippias was ultimately overthrown in a Spartan-supported coup, and made way for the democratic government in Athens to take shape.
Temple of Olympian Zeus – 2016
Simply fascinating narrative, you may say. Well, this series of events and all of the moral meaning read into it over time influenced how closely linked the sacred space was with these shameful tyrants. Thucydides and Aristotle discuss these events, with the impression that such massive building projects are vainglorious and lead in turn to loss of fortune and hubris.
Hubris, which brings us to the next phase of the history of this temple – the Olympieion. Whilst Hadrian set to work in the 120s CE on rebuilding the supermassive temple to Olympian Zeus, which was completed and dedicated in 131 CE. Hadrian, who at times was believed to call himself ‘Olympian’ had an altar to himself installed here as well.
Leads on to wonder who precisely was being worshiped here?
The Arch of Hadrian
This arch is not the triumphal sort you see in Rome, where the Emperor or senate would commission for the arch for an impressive military victory, but rather, this arch was an honorific from the Panhellenes or the Athenians themselves.Situated next to the Olympeion, the Arch of Hadrian has quite a few stylistically complex elements and details which are exemplary of Athenian architecture done in a Roman-style. Created from solid Pentelic marble, Corinthian capitals atop pilasters among other features, are representative of architectural imagery in Roman wall painting. There were sculptures in the central niche, it has been suggested, which were of Hadrian and Theseus. This is not such an odd paring when you consider the inscriptions.
The inscription towards the Acropolis (below) states “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus”, who was part of the mythical founding. The other side facing the Olympeion reads, “This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus”. These inscriptions denoted the physical and symbolic relationships of the Athenians; their glorious mythical past and their Roman present were delineated by this liminal space.
This, like other examples of eugeritism (benefaction), is how the reciprocal relationship worked. It was expected that they offer honours to Hadrian in this fashion, but that did not necessarily mean everyone was happy with the Romans having control in Greece.Hadrian’s Library
Situated in the Roman Agora, on the north-slope below the Acropolis, Hadrian’s library would have been a richly decorated and comfortable centre of intellectual pursuits. The great classics of Athenian theatre were housed in this, perhaps the greatest, of Hadrianic homages to the city that he loved so much.
Inner-east wall under reconstruction – 2008
East-facing outwards – 2016
West-facing outwards – 2008
The artistic elements that still remain betray Hadrian`s tendency to construct archaising monuments. A mixture of Pentelic marble, and Karystos marble and was comprised of many rooms – one of the most luxurious buildings in Athens. It may be hard to imagine given the images you see, but this ruin held gilded ceilings, painted walls, statues and a hundred columns of Phrygian marble according to the Pausanias.
Library Complex – 2008
Library Complex – 2016
The complex overall had decorative features and spaces for elite academic pursuits. Perhaps Hadrian wanted to re-invest in Athens, renew it as the cultural and intellectual capital of the Mediterranean, supplanting the position which Alexandria had held for centuries with its Great Library.
Tower of the WindsOne of the key buildings in the Roman Agora of Athens, which continues to impress tourists on the north side of the Acropolis, is the Tower of the Winds. As with the other buildings in Athens, it was built of that familiar Pentelic marble into a twelve-meter high clock tower. The building had just been restored with the scaffolding removed before I arrived, which was excellent timing to see a very ornate and beautiful ‘horologion’, or timepiece.
The building we see today, as in all things, is not complete. In antiquity, it would have been topped with a bronze (possibly) weathervane of Triton that would tell a passerby the direction the wind was blowing. If this seems irrelevant to modern viewers, we should always try to take into account that every piece of technology available at the time was as good as could be hoped for. In the seafaring culture of the Hellenes (Greeks), any advantage or extra measures taken for the weather and time was a useful tool.
The Doric GatewayThe Roman Agora shows another product of the Italic investment in the city of Athens. Marking the entrance to the west of the Agora, it bears a dedication to ‘Athena the Originator’, not unlike the other monuments in Athens. However, the Roman gifted through the generosity of Julius Caesar and his son, the Emperor Caesar Augustus.
Indulging me for a moment, let’s unpack that inscription. Augustus’ ascension followed Julius Caesar’s death, a surprise adoption, which ultimately led to Augustus’ years’ long civil war to wrestle control over the Roman Republic. As Augustus defeated his competitors, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, and thousands of Italian dead from both sides of the conflict, he sought to rebuild and polish his image. Further discussion about the impact and persona of Emperor Augustus will follow, but for now, you can rightly imagine, feelings were mixed among the survivors of the war and the purges which followed. Families loyal to the losing side were eliminated and embraced dependent upon their willingness to acquiesce to Augustus.
Part of the importance of smoothing over relations rested in the image he tried to sell, was to gain legitimacy.
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