dark ages

That the pre- Homeric Greeks were busier than we thought shows in their myths, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IT is in the sleepy Turk­ish bor­der prov­ince of Hatay, much tra­versed by for­eign cor­re­spon­dents seek­ing a quiet back door into Syria, that the ad­ven­tur­ous Robin Lane Fox be­gins his star­tling ex­ca­va­tion of the early Greek past. To be more spe­cific, it is in the slightly raff­ish Al-Mina dis­cotheque, ‘‘ hith­erto un­men­tioned in schol­ar­ship’’ de­spite its im­pres­sive, newly painted fres­coes of Egyp­tian, Greek and Le­van­tine myth­i­cal fig­ures and its prox­im­ity to one of the key arche­o­log­i­cal sites of the an­cient Near East.

Lane Fox, a fig­ure equally fa­mous in each of his pro­fes­sional roles, as Ox­ford’s pre-em­i­nent clas­si­cal his­to­rian and as the vet­eran gar­den­ing colum­nist for the Fi­nan­cial Times , here re­veals him­self as a daunt­less, near-ob­ses­sive trav­el­ling the­ory-builder, pre­pared to scale ev­ery moun­tain and trudge through ev­ery rub­ble-strewn ruin in his quest for clues and in­spi­ra­tion on the ground.

Most clas­si­cists are con­tent in their li­braries, buried in the de­tails of their texts. But there has al­ways been a flam­boy­ance to Lane Fox. He first ex­ploded on to the lit­er­ary stage with a bravura life of Alexan­der the Great, pub­lished be­fore his 30th birth­day. Then came a sub­tle sur­vey of the tran­si­tion from pa­gan to Chris­tian be­lief sys­tems in the an­cient world, and a highly un­ortho­dox study of the bib­li­cal tra­di­tion.

His over­view of an­tiq­uity, sim­ply ti­tled The Clas­si­cal World , ap­peared to great ac­claim three years ago: it was an ac­ces­si­ble, con­tem­po­raryflavoured can­ter through the glory days of Greece and Rome. Lit­tle in th­ese pre­cur­sors hinted at the sweep and swing in the book that was to come.

What, in­deed, is Trav­el­ling He­roes ? A man­i­festo, a work of spec­u­la­tive his­tory, a de­tec­tive story set in the ar­chaic era, a mazy Mediter­ranean trav­el­ogue? All th­ese things but, above them all, Lane Fox aims here to in­ves­ti­gate a way of think­ing, to show how myths can travel and help voy­agers make sense of the worlds they find.

Un­til quite re­cently, the stan­dard ver­sion of the an­cient Greek past ran in clear-cut fash­ion: there was an early, golden age, the age of palaces in Crete and Myce­nae, then a long de­cline, an era of dark­ness, when writ­ing van­ished and murky si­lence fell. That dark epoch is re-cre­ated here and re­ceives a new his­tory at Lane Fox’s hands.

He am­pli­fies the lat­est finds of Mediter­ranean arche­ol­ogy, teas­ing out the dis­cov­er­ies and sug­ges­tions of his col­leagues and bring­ing be­fore our eyes a new and name­less set of epic voy­agers: the trav­el­ling he­roes of his ti­tle, whose am­bigu­ous path­ways through time and across ocean weave the pat­tern of his tale.

They lived in Euboea, the long, thin is­land shield­ing the west­ern Greek main­land. Tell­tale signs of their ad­ven­tures are strewn far and wide across the an­cient world in the form of frag­mented pot­tery, and brief traces of their pas­sage can be dis­cerned in those twin foun­da­tion texts of clas­si­cal Greece, the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey . But the best proof of their wan­der­ings lies in the myths and leg­ends that criss-cross the Greek world and bind gods and men in a seam­less web of nar­ra­tive.

This web Lane Fox un­picks in his bid to catch the traces of th­ese Mediter­ranean pi­o­neers and to record their var­i­ous en­coun­ters and the logic be­hind their tales.

First, he writes, they met with fresh myths in for­eign lands, which they promptly as­sim­i­lated into their worlds of thought: ‘‘ They then be­lieved that they had found again spe­cific items in th­ese very same myths as they con­tin­ued to travel even fur­ther across the sea. Par­tic­u­lar myths thus be­came lo­cated like a song­line across the en­tire span of their trav­els.’’

This is an in­trigu­ing ex­plana­tory scheme, for al­most all Greek lit­er­a­ture ra­di­ates with aware­ness of far-off, ex­otic places and dra­matic re­ports about them.

Lane Fox starts with one of the ear­li­est, most puz­zling ex­am­ples of this pat­tern: an episode near the out­set of the Iliad, when the Greek army is ad­vanc­ing to­wards Troy. So many sol­diers are on the move that they make a crash­ing sound, like the noise of swans ‘‘ round the stream of Cayster’’ or the thun­der of Zeus when he flails the ground where the gi­ant Typhoeus lies im­pris­oned ‘‘ in Arima’’, the poet tells us cryp­ti­cally.

From this point and for hun­dreds of tightly writ­ten pages Lane Fox trav­els in mythol­ogy and in ge­og­ra­phy, un­cov­er­ing the tan­gled links be­tween proto-Greek ex­plor­ers and for­eign civil­i­sa­tions: the re­main­ing traces of Euboean mer­chants in the shadow of the Le­van­tine Mt Ka­sios, the early Greek pres­ence around the Nile delta and the coasts of Cyprus, the first colonies and trad­ing posts in the Bay of Naples and Si­cily.

Clas­si­cal arche­ol­ogy has not been stand­ing still

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