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