Artemis Leontis on Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins

This is the first biography to tell the fascinating story of Eva Palmer Sikelianos (1874–1952), an American actor, director, composer, and weaver best known for reviving the Delphic Festivals. Yet, as Artemis Leontis reveals, Palmer’s most spectacular performance was her daily revival of ancient Greek life. For almost half a century, dressed in handmade Greek tunics and sandals, she sought to make modern life freer and more beautiful through a creative engagement with the ancients. Along the way, she crossed paths with other modern artists such as Natalie Clifford Barney, Renée Vivien, Isadora Duncan, Susan Glaspell, George Cram Cook, Richard Strauss, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Nikos Kazantzakis, George Seferis, Henry Miller, Paul Robeson, and Ted Shawn.

 Who is Eva Palmer Sikelianos? Please introduce her to us.

Creative, brilliant, and stunning with floor-length red hair, she was an American actor and director who loved women and ancient Greece and forged an artistic alliance with her Greek poet husband Angelos Sikelianos that shaped twentieth-century Greek culture.

The life of Eva Palmer Sikelianos (1874–1952) reads like a novel. She was born into a wealthy New York family. Her father, Courtlandt Palmer, a freethinker trained at Columbia Law School, was from the Palmers of Stonington, Connecticut and her mother, Catherine, a musician, from the Amory family of Boston. Home-schooled among artistic luminaries and business scions, she boarded at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut after her father’s sudden death in 1888. She studied Greek and Latin at Bryn Mawr College.

Throughout her life, Eva was a non-conformist. She seduced Natalie Clifford Barney in Bar Harbor (by Barney’s recollection) and followed her to Paris in the early 1900s. They aimed to create a woman-centered utopia reviving the spirit of Sappho’s Lesbos. Willful anachronism was part of their artistic practice. Eva, immersed in theatricality and Greek sources, devised the hairstyles, dress, music, gestures, scenery, and props for Barney’s performances that played with gender ambiguity.

She pursued another Greek-inspired utopia in Greece when her tempestuous relationship with Barney became unbearable. Dressed in sandals and a tunic she wove for one of Barney’s plays, she traveled to Greece with Raymond Duncan (brother of dancer Isadora) and his wife Penelope in 1906. She met Penelope’s brother Angelos Sikelianos. They married and settled in Greece the next year, giving birth to a son, Glafkos, in 1909. For 25 years, she promoted endangered musical practices, weaving, and handicrafts as forms of resistance to economic domination by the West. With Sikelianos as the public face of the events, she produced and directed two festivals of drama and games in 1927 and 1930 in the archaeological site of Delphi, spending all her money. The Delphic Festivals—expressions of an international modernist Hellenism grounded in the Greek present— used modern Greek expressive means to signal their Greece’s transhistorical survival. They helped popularize the performance of Greek drama in ancient sites in Greece and across the Mediterranean. 

Now deeply in debt, Eva returned to the U.S. in 1933 to raise cash. She directed Greek plays and wove costumes to keep a roof over her head. The struggle to survive broke her health but not her spirit. By the mid-1940s, British and American interference in Greece’s internal affairs had radicalized her politically. She wrote over a thousand letters to politicians and newspaper in protest of American imperialism. The House Un-American Activities Committee listed her name four times on suspicion of campaigning to “disarm and defeat the United States.”

Though denied a visa to return to Greece in 1951, she did eventually return in the spring of 1952 to attend the third Delphic revival, a small festival of drama and part of the “Return to Greece” postwar tourist campaign supported by the American Marshall Plan. There she witnessed her vision for a Greek revival deployed by Greek and American officials to transform Greece into a tourist destination, something she strongly opposed. She suffered a stroke on site and lies buried in the village cemetery of Delphi.

Although best known for reviving the Delphic Festivals, her most spectacular performance was her personal unscripted daily revival of the ancient life. For almost half a century, she performed Greekness in handwoven tunics and sandals in defiance of fashion norms, working to make modern life freer, more authentic, and better.

Why did you write about Eva Palmer Sikelianos? How do you value her achievement today?

 She is an overlooked person of the 20th century, airbrushed from depictions of her era’s cultural attainments. I felt that it was time for someone actually to delve into the sources of her life to piece together her story.

Careful digging yielded enormous returns. I read the Greek translation of 163 of Eva’s previously unpublished letters to Barney published in 1995 and discovered over 600 more personal letters in a library in Athens, including 182 exchanged with Barney. Thus, I learned that her connections to Natalie Barney’s turn-of-the-century lesbian salon ran deeper than anyone anticipated. Studying her official archive, I saw that she was also a bigger player in the Delphic Festivals than previously acknowledged; Angelos Sikelianos deliberately covered over her seminal work. There were more, important unexplored episodes. Her search for alternative, tonalities linked her to Richard Strauss, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Konstantinos Psachos, an expert in Byzantine music, and Khorshed Naoroji, the classically trained pianist from Bombay who sought Eva’s help to recover Hindi music. Through Nairoji, her costuming for the Prometheus Bound became interwoven with Gandhi’s advocacy of khadi in India’s decolonization movement. She was also a missing figure in the genealogy of modern dance from Isadora Duncan to Ted Shawn and Martha Graham. Her legacy shaped Greece’s post-War tourist development.

What do we see when we connect these pieces? Her slight, endlessly determined figure, finding its place as a crucial link in a series of artistic and socio-political endeavors, helps clarify the relationships of tesserae in the mosaic of cultural modernism. With her in the picture, modernism’s mantra to “make it new” (Ezra Pound), which placed ultimate value on novelty, becomes “make it ancient”: a determined effort to renew the modern world by capturing the latent energy in ancient sources as creative ground for expression. This was something many modernists actually aspired to.

Moreover, her presence connects the early twentieth-century search for new artistic forms with a queer temporal sensibility in women’s classical learning. Through Eva Palmer’s performances of the Greeks, we see the anachronistic temporality of other modernist projects which moved not progressively forward toward fulfillment, but backward, into the holes of history, to recover a past that never was in order to suggest an as yet unimagined future.

Sometimes a book needs to be written because a person’s strange life suddenly makes sense. I’ve known about Eva Sikelianos for as long as I can remember. For many years, those Greek tunics and the Delphic Festival pressed unproductively against my brain. I did not have the right frame to process them. In the early 2000s, when I read the 163 letters to Barney, in which they imagine new gender and social roles by going back in time, the anachronism of her untimely aspects suddenly made sense.

The idea that new bodily exercises recycling older aspects, performed habitually with self-awareness, may alter the field of possibilities of a restrictive inherited world is quite current. Many people today believe that identities are not innate to individuals but performed through the vocabularies, gestures, and materials recognized by society. This counter-Enlightenment position was tested by a people in the aestheticist movement of Eva Palmer’s youth. Given a new spin in the late twentieth century by Michel Foucault and some of his interpreters, it became ascendant in the twenty-first. Millions of people today work at being themselves by becoming otherwise. They change their names; cross dress to challenge gender binaries; transition to live and present in alignment with another gender identity; tattoo their bodies; draw on ancient traditions and distant sources to transform their consciousness. They aspire, somewhere, somehow, to change the social order through their alteration of the field of possibilities defining themselves.

My hope is that a textured interpretation of the life of Eva Palmer Sikelianos, who, for the first half of the twentieth century, sustained a conscious practice of living differently while absorbing the shocks and heartbreaks of noncomformity, might serve as a meditation on our times.

You mention several artists with whom Eva Palmer Sikelianos’s crossed paths. Who are some of the other famous people in her story?

Her archival materials cover a lot of ground. We find in them the old upper-class families across the world: the Barneys, Beechers, Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, and Andrew Carnegie in the U.S.; Antonis Benakis and Eleftherios Venizelos in Greece; Rabidranath Tagore and the Naorojis in India. This is a sampling.

In the performing arts, I’ve mentioned Barney’s turn-of-the-century lesbian salon. Sara Bernhardt, Colette, Marguerite Moreno, and Isadora and Raymond Duncan are some of the people she worked with that first decade. Mrs. Patrick Campbell offered her acting work on the condition that she cut her ties with Barney, but she wouldn’t. George Cram Cook, Susan Glaspell, photographer Nelly Sougioutzoglou-Seraidare, filmmaker Dimitris Gaziadis, artist Yannis Tsarouchis, Koula Pratsika, an important figure in Greek dance history, and Aliki Diplarakou Lady Russell, who won the Miss Europe contest in 1930, were part of the Delphi scene. In the U.S., Eugene O’Neill supervised her work on the Federal Theater Project. Artist Katherine Dreier introduced her to Ted Shawn. She corresponded with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois on politics and asked Robeson to play Prometheus in a performance she never staged in Delphi. She was the teacher, friend, and possibly lover of Mary Hambidge, weaver and founder of the Hambidge Center craft community in Georgia, who gave her shelter in the 1930s and 1940s. Greek folklorist Angeliki Hatzimihali was also a dear friend.

She had many connections in the music world. Soprano Emma Calve and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska were possibly her lovers. Natalie Curtis Berlin, a pianist who collected Native American music, was a family friend. She collaborated with Psachos, Greece’s first professor of Byzantine music, and Greek musicologist Simon Karas. Dimitris Mitropoulos stayed in her house near Corinth in 1924 composing music for Angelos’s poetry, and Richard Strauss and his architect Michael Rosenhauer visited her in Delphi two years later while planning to build a music hall on Philopappos Hill in Athens.

Her literary connections begin with Oscar Wilde and continue with Barney, Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, Collette, and Renée Vivien. Playwright Constant Lounsbery and novelist Elsa Barker were longtime friends. In Greece she knew the most prominent writers of the twentieth century: Sikelianos, Kostis Palamas, Nikos Kazantzakis, Kostas Karyotakis, and George Seferis. She corresponded with translators Kimon Frier and Rae Dalven. With Henry Miller she nominated Sikelianos for the Nobel Prize.

She knew all the heads of archaeological schools and many classicists and archaeologists in addition to artists working in the margins of the discipline: Joan Jeffery Vanderopol, Georg von Pscehke, and Alison Frantz. Archaeologist Theodore Leslie Shear was her correspondent on Cold War political matters in the 1940s. Bryn Mawr College presidents, professors, and alumni were her acquaintances, lovers, or good friends, including president M. Carey Thomas, Lucy Donnelly, Virginia Yardley, and Edith Hamilton, popularizer of Greek literature and myths with whom she corresponded about Greek tragedy for over a decade.

So many people, so much material! How did you deal with this embarrassment of riches?

There really is a lot. I visited over 15 archives and libraries in 12 cities in 3 countries on 2 continents.

The archival abundance was especially challenging because much of it was underprocessed. No biographical account existed except the autobiographical episodes in Eva Palmer Sikelianos’s book, Upward Panic. There was not even a reliable timeline of her life to build on. Moreover, access and the organization and contents of archives kept shifting. In one archive, for example, I was given access, then denied it, then given it again to a collection of very personal letters that had been hidden for years. There I found the letters I mentioned earlier. I could not have written a book without those letters. Barney’s own literary executor François Chapon didn’t know they existed. Later I learned that there were 10 more boxes of uncatalogued materials from a later period in Eva’s life.

Every biographer should have such problems!

Besides the challenges of reading and intepreting source materials, selecting was the bigger challenge. There is more material than can possibly fit into a book. To deal with this overabundance, I wrote a detailed chronology to give order to people and events. This is where I map out the historical coordinates of Eva Palmer Sikelianos’s life from birth to death, her burial, and the handling of her remains. I also connect her to many of the people with whom she interacted.

The book I chose to write takes another direction. It brings focus to her life’s work—her body of work and her work shaping her life —as it shifts from one medium to another: from lesbian performances and weaving, patronage of Greek music, staging ancient drama to writing, translating, and political activism in the last phase of her life. I follow the continuities and discontinuities to link Eva Palmer, the stage manager and actor who made Sappho a model of emulation for twentieth-century lesbian identity, with Eva Sikelianos, the director of the Delphic revivals and unconventional dresser who made her life a Greek revival.

Did the source materials present other challenges?

The intimate sources of a person’s life always raise ethical questions in addition to the practical and legal ones of access and permission. On the legal side, who owns the rights and when, where, and how to track that person or entity down. What happens when they are not found? The ethical questions are more layered. We can ask the executors of a deceased person’s work for permission. But what about the wishes of people invested in the person’s legacy? I’m not talking just about people who are now dead. I believe the wishes of anyone living today who has a stake in Eva Palmer Sikelianos’s legacy actually matters. Yet the wishes are many and conflicting.

I struggled long and hard with the question of how to handle the intimate materials. It was not a problem of permission to reveal details of Eva Palmer/Sikelianos’s sexual life. Eleni Sikelianos, Eva’s great grand-daughter and an important American poet, who is her literary executor, wrote in 2005 about her “lesbian theater director great-grandmother.” People heard her grandfather Glafkos express his firm wish that Eva’s sexual orientation should be known and respected. She gave me permission to use every source and to write what I think ought to be said.

Initially, I intended to avoid writing about her intimate relations. I considered them irrelevant to her creative processes. I was trying to get at Eva’s ideas as they expressed themselves publicly in the media of her life and staged performances. As I dug deeper into the sources, I read the many letters exchanged between Eva and Barney and dozens of other women who corresponded intimately with Eva. Some love letters mixed creativity, passion, pain, and despair with deep cultural knowledge about Greek sources and efforts to recreate it. There were letters from Eva’s brother and mother too. Some were especially harsh, belittling her life choices. Her mother wished her to reveal herself yet would not accept her choices.

As I read the archival material, particularly the most personal letters, I sensed just how arbitrary and absurd yet resolutely stigmatizing the social rejection of same-sex orientation has been. At the same time, I observed that Eva’s encounter with the world as a lesbian was inextricably intertwined with her efforts to make herself free and anachronistically ancient. This was true when she cultivated a lesbian life in the company of Barney in the early 1900s and even more true when she “went Greek” after she married Angelos Sikelianos. I chose to disclose those points of intimacy that spoke to the creative process.

So the great loves of her life were…

Natalie Clifford Barney and Greece. Angelos Sikelianos is folded into Greece, and many other women are folded into both great loves. Eva’s correspondence from 1906 to 1907 suggests that she had trouble imagining herself close to Angelos when they first met. She was actually trying to find new footing away from Barney. Yet, in writing Upward Panic thirty years later, Eva made Angelos out to be the love of her life. She grew to love him, I think, but in an expansive way that embraced his dreams and artistic work under the big umbrella of Greece. In her words, she loved “his country, his people, his language, and most of all his dreams.”

She also loved his sister Penelope, and this love is a driving force in my narrative. I guess you will have to read the book to learn how.

You call her “Eva.” How much intimacy do you feel for her?

I use the first name, “Eva,” for a practical reason. Many people in her story share the last names Palmer and Sikelianos. I generally refer to her siblings also by their first names, Robert, May, and Courtlandt, and to Angelos Sikelianos and Penelope Sikelianos Duncan as Angelos and Penelope. The Duncans are Isadora and Raymond, whereas Natalie Clifford Barney is Barney. The reason is not familiarity but to keep my subjects clear, since many people share the last name. Additionally, this spares me the trouble of specifying the maiden, married, or maiden and married, unless there is a point in using these, as in this and the next paragraphs.

As a general principle, I wanted my feelings for Eva Palmer Sikelianos to be irrelevant to the project. This is not to say that I had none or that they did not interfere with the research. I spent many years digging deep into biographical sources. They moved me. There were times when they caught my breath. When I opened the inaccessible dossiers containing over 600 letters for the first time my jaw dropped. Each dossier contained several folders of letters spilling out in loosely bundled stacks, tied with purple, pink, baby blue, and flowered satin ribbons from the time of their receipt. I found traces of tears and mud. The letters absorbed me so utterly that I could do think about anything else. I barely cared about putting dinner on the table. Yet while I was researching and writing, I was also teaching, advising, socializing, and caring for people in my intimate circle. Sometimes I would actually forget “Eva” or be very frustrated that her life always occupied me.

Researching a human subject inspires a certain kind of identification, even attachment, that is different for me at least from other subjects. Eva expressed love, pain, desolation, despair, bias, weakness, doubts, and extreme certainty. I did not always sympathize with her ideas or find her work extraordinary. Since she was a historical subject, I didn’t control her story, as I would have if she were a fictional subject. I compensated by wanting to protect her when things got bad, or to cover for her when she was wrong or just insufferable.

These were some of the feelings I struggled with while writing the book. They may become confused with my using her given name. But my calling her “Eva” is not meant to signal familiarity. I am now as far from knowing “Eva” as I was when I began. But it does solve a practical problem.

What happened in the way you think as a result of writing this biography? Did it change you?

A lot. It changed my thinking about LGBQT culture, as I describe above. This was life changing.

It also changed my attitude to life writing. When I started writing a book about Eva Palmer Sikelianos, a surprising number of colleagues questioned my decision. “You’re not writing a biography,” one person I respect a great deal stated decisively. Several others took time to enumerate why they dislike biographies. Actually, I wasn’t intending to write a biography. Initially, this was going to be a book of essays about Eva Palmer Sikelianos’s work reviving Greek cultural heritage in five media.

But I could not avoid the life-historical research. Classical models offered precedents for personal constructions of dress, behavior, and identity in addition to cultural products. My interest in the former grew. While ideas of Greece take monumental forms in many of their neoclassical manifestations, they are quite liquid in their passage through life. I came to ask: What new shapes do Greek textual and material fragments take when they inhabit people’s daily life? What becomes of both the ancient ruins and the modern person? How did Eva incorporate them in her daily activities? How did they script her life? How did her intense investment in finding the latent life in ruins change over time to become increasingly an art of life?

I now consider the book’s biographical mode to be vital to its contribution. In working to recover the story of a woman whose rich and diverse work in Greece was fitted to the procrustean bed of patriarchal, nationalist, and heteronormative discourses, I honor several decades of biographical writing that studies the gaps in classical scholarship for clues of women invested personally in the study of Greece and other ancient worlds, who had nontraditional careers, lived their eccentric lives mainly in obscurity, and somewhere, somehow, tried to change the social order through their alteration of the field of possibilities defining not just knowledge but themselves.

Why did you feature “ruins” in your title? She was such a creative person!

She was indeed a creative person but also a broken one working in a country associated with ruins on multiple levels. The title plays on the multiple meanings of “ruins”: as an inspiration for creative work, a signifier of financial crisis and decay, and a central feature of Greece—both literal and metaphorical—in modern times.

Eva’s creativity had its source in ruins. She saw the latent grandeur of the Greeks everywhere, and, over the course of half a century, she embraced fragments of the past, giving them new life. This was her attitude before she came to Greece, when she and Barney were imagining an alternative social order for women reconstructed from the gaps in Sappho’s fragments. It became a worldview grounded in materials and practices after she moved to Greece. She saw fragments of the past everywhere: in archaeological sites, museum objects, folk practices, and the modern Greek language. She sought them out and became increasingly involved with them, conversing with people who excavated artifacts for a living or who collected folk survivals, using their discoveries to make new things. Ancient sites and things were a canvas for her creative interventions.

Concurrently, her life trajectory moved from abundance toward ruination. To produce the first Delphic Festival in 1927, she took out loans against the value of two houses. She never recovered the expenses. For the next six years, she experienced the humiliation of avoiding her creditors, whom she could not repay. She left Greece to escape them and also Angelos, who kept asking her for more money. For the next two decades, she depended on the generosity of friends in the U.S. to board her in exchange for her weaving.

With World War II and the Nazi devastation of Greece during the three-year occupation, Eva’s own fall into ruins and Greece’s intersected. From her humble living quarters in the U.U., she read about women and children who were tortured, forests denuded, and villages plundered or totally destroyed. People she loved disappeared. Reading about an economy in ruins and sensing the people’s hardships, she had to rethink the relations between ruins and her advocacy for Greece.

Ruins are a central metaphor for Greece in its modern history, denoting a rift with the past which the present must work endlessly to repair. During the decade when I was researching and writing this book, Greece experienced a huge government debt crisis leading to economic contraction and coinciding with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees, a true humanitarian crisis. Poverty spread, bringing hunger and illness. Neighborhoods were abandoned and fell into ruins, where homeless people now stay. Today’s Greece evokes the Greece of Eva. Meanwhile, imagery from classical ruins has appeared repeatedly in foreign media representations to symbolize the sorry state of the Greek economy. It works to flatten and ridicule current reality by identifying it with—what else—the rift with the glorious past of Greece.

I think that Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins tells a good riches to rags story. It should also generate reflections on the representations and functions of ruins today.

Artemis Leontis is professor of modern Greek and chair of the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Topographies of Hellenism and the coeditor of “What These Ithakas Mean…”: Readings in Cavafy, among other books. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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The first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention. More than 2,500 years ago, long before medieval automata, and centuries before technology made self-moving devices possible, Greek mythology was exploring ideas about creating artificial life—and grappling with still-unresolved ethical concerns about biotechne, “life through craft.” In this compelling, richly illustrated book, Adrienne Mayor tells the fascinating story of how ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese myths envisioned artificial life, automata, self-moving devices, and human enhancements—and how these visions relate to and reflect the ancient invention of real animated machines.

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Illustrations from The Golden Rhinoceros by François-Xavier Fauvelle

FauvelleFrom the birth of Islam in the seventh century to the voyages of European exploration in the fifteenth, Africa was at the center of a vibrant exchange of goods and ideas. It was an African golden age in which places like Ghana, Nubia, and Zimbabwe became the crossroads of civilizations, and where African royals, thinkers, and artists played celebrated roles in the globalized world of the Middle Ages. The Golden Rhinoceros brings this unsung era marvelously to life, taking readers from the Sahara and the Nile River Valley to the Ethiopian highlands and southern Africa. A book that finally recognizes Africa’s important role in the Middle Ages, The Golden Rhinoceros also provides a window into the historian’s craft. Fauvelle carefully pieces together the written and archaeological evidence to tell an unforgettable story that is at once sensitive to Africa’s rich social diversity and alert to the trajectories that connected Africa with the wider Muslim and Christian worlds. The gallery below features a selection of original illustrations commissioned for the chapter openers of the book by artist Roland Sárkány. 

 

François-Xavier Fauvelle is senior fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France, and one of the world’s leading historians of ancient Africa. The author and editor of numerous books, he has conducted archaeological digs in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Morocco.

François-Xavier Fauvelle on The Golden Rhinoceros

FauvelleFrom the birth of Islam in the seventh century to the voyages of European exploration in the fifteenth, Africa was at the center of a vibrant exchange of goods and ideas. It was an African golden age in which places like Ghana, Nubia, and Zimbabwe became the crossroads of civilizations, and where African royals, thinkers, and artists played celebrated roles in the globalized world of the Middle Ages. The Golden Rhinoceros brings this unsung era marvelously to life, taking readers from the Sahara and the Nile River Valley to the Ethiopian highlands and southern Africa.

How did this book come about?

This book came about for two reasons. The first is scholarly. As an historian and archaeologist, I have worked in several regions of Africa (the Horn of Africa, South Africa, and countries on both sides of the western Sahara) and have been lucky enough to visit archeological sites in other places. My research has made me understand that despite the profound cultural differences between these different regions there existed a point of convergence: their participation in a global system of exchange during the Middle Ages. This phenomenon had similar and synchronous effects on several African societies, particularly their participation in religious, economic, political and architectural “conversations” with other powers of the time, notably within the Islamic world. The second rationale behind this book is civic. French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech in Dakar in 2007 where he claimed that “the African has not fully entered into history,” made me understand that there was a severe shortage of works on African history that were both serious and accessible. Some Africanist historians took it upon themselves to respond to this scandalous speech. For my part, what I found scandalous was not that this speech could be delivered, but that it was audible in our society, that there was room for it to be heard. For me, the blame lies with scholars rather than politicians. The Golden Rhinoceros attempts to address this by making what we know about medieval African history available to a large audience.

Is there a method to how you structured the book? 

I have always been very sensitive to the argument of American historian Hayden White. He believed that historians generally narrate history in a conservative way. In my opinion, one of the conservative ways of writing the history of ancient Africa is to write it so that it conceals the characteristics of African societies and the available documentation in order to imitate the history of medieval and modern Europe. I wrote The Golden Rhinoceros to respond to a particular challenge presented by ancient African history: the fragmentary character of the written and archaeological documentation. Thus, this book is organized into small chapters that seek to embrace the fragmentary nature of the documentation by opening “windows,” but without covering up the lacunas, without leading the reader to think it is possible to tell this history in a linear fashion. I have also sought to lay out two different levels of reading: each chapter is followed by a short bibliographic essay that tells another story, that of the documentation.

How did the experiences of ordinary Africans of the Middle Ages differ from their counterparts in Europe?

This is a difficult question to answer because the written sources, primarily Arabic, which were produced outside of African societies, tell us mostly about capital cities, political elites, diplomatic relations, and the buying and selling of luxury merchandise. I have focused the book on these aspects, as they allow us to better observe the agency of African societies. Nevertheless, this approach sometimes opens small windows onto the lives of ordinary people. Take for example this request which was formulated before Sultan Sulayman of Mâli in 1352: a Muslim cleric had come from a village and presented himself before the sultan.  He said that locusts had spoken to him, saying that God had sent them to destroy the harvest because of the oppression reigning in the land. We have here a window, very small but very illuminating, onto the political order and the language in which recriminations regarding power in the medieval kingdom of Mâli were expressed.

What would you like readers to take away from this book?

I would like readers to understand that African societies were not “tribes” frozen forever in their landscape; that their social organization changed over time; that they participated in global exchange; that they created institutions and cities; that they adopted and adapted forms of religion coming initially from the outside, such as Christianity and Islam. That’s the first take away. There is a second: It’s one thing to understand that African societies have a history, it’s another to realize that medieval African societies were the contemporaries of the Islamic, European, Indian or Chinese societies of the period, and that they participated in a larger conversation. It’s why I speak of a medieval Africa that should be seen as part of a global Middle Ages that contained other provinces. For me, from the point of view of an Africanist, the goal is not, in the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty, “to provincialize Europe,” but to conceive of a multi-provincial world in which Africa has its place. Finally, a third take away: I would like for The Golden Rhinoceros to contribute to putting our knowledge of the history of Africa into the current conversation about history; to have it participate in the shared conceptions of world civilizations; and to influence teaching and discussion on the historical trajectories of societies and the methods of the historical discipline.

What did Africa offer during the Middle Ages that other regions did not?

Several very strong singularities should be highlighted. One is that forms of centralized power and the accumulation of prestige, sophisticated systems of exchange, and a cultural and material finesse existed without being accompanied by the widespread use of writing (except in Ethiopia). Another is that although the regions of Africa under discussion were not conquered by Arab armies in the seventh century, many of their societies, in any case their elites, adopted Islam because it allowed them to access a political, commercial, juridical and intellectual language common to the whole Islamic world (the Maghreb, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and Persia). These political elites, as in Mâli for example, invented ways for Islam and local religions to coexist. This coexistence is also found at the level of the linguistic, economic, and technological diversity of African societies: it’s a characteristic of the longue durée in African history, which distinguishes Africa from other regions of the world that became culturally homogeneous to a higher degree when they were integrated into centralized political formations. But far be it from me to promote an angelic vision of African history: we must not forget that several of these societies (the Ethiopian kingdoms, for example) raided their neighbors to export slaves to the Islamic world.

Why do you think the history of medieval Africa has been neglected?

This is a complex question. The Arab authors of the Middle Ages had no problem admiring the political sophistication of the African kingdoms (such as al-Bakrî, who wrote approvingly of Ghâna in the eleventh century) or investigating their history (such as Ibn Khaldûn did for Mâli at the end of the fourteenth century), although the Islamic societies to which they belonged imported massive numbers of black slaves from these regions. In contrast, the slave trade practiced by the Europeans and their American colonies was accompanied by a monstrous ideology that not only negated the humanity of the captives, but also the singularity, and thus the historicity, of their societies. This negation has stealthily managed to install itself in modern mentalities. It lives on in multiple forms, whether it’s coldly saying that Africans have no history, or shutting away African art behind museum showcases with “ethnic” labels which lead one to think that objects produced by Africans reflect unchanging African “souls.” History is a remedy against such beliefs.

François-Xavier Fauvelle is senior fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France, and one of the world’s leading historians of ancient Africa. The author and editor of numerous books, he has conducted archaeological digs in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Morocco.

A. A. Long on How to Be Free An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (according to Epictetus)

How-to-be-free-epictetus-ancient-romeHow to be Free is a book for every place and occasion. I can say this without any pride or self-promotion because the ideas of the book are not my own but those of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and they have stood the test of time. In fact his guide to life, which I translate and introduce here, is more relevant and needful today than at any period in its long and salutary history. I say this because the freedom that Epictetus promises and justifies—freedom to take charge of one’s own individual thoughts and actions—is under attack by market capitalism, commercial advertising, social media, and cyber aggression. By manipulating desires and infiltrating mindsets, these powerful forces are undermining autonomy and personal independence with disastrous results. They are a main cause of the anxiety and depression that oppresses so many people, through the fear of falling short in health, wealth, personal success, relationships, appearance, and status.

Epictetus counters the pressures of the external environment by making a deceptively simple distinction—between things that are up to us (call them U things) and things that are not up to us (call them N things). U things comprise our will and our motivations, our likes and dislikes, our actions and reactions, our feelings and emotions—in other words the essential person that each of us is. N things comprise everything else—the state of the world, the people around us, our work and income, even our bodies because our limbs and physical wellbeing are not absolutely under our direct control. This is a stark distinction. Its value is to highlight the notion that what we want or do not want, what matters or does not matter to us, depends primarily on our own individual decisions, and not what is done to us by others. On this view, it is we ourselves, and not outside forces, that ultimately determine our happiness and unhappiness and condition our reactions.

The freedom that this book seeks to promote has two sides: one side is freedom to act without constraint by external forces, whether people or media pressures or mistaken impressions that we have to react in certain ways; the other side is freedom from disabling emotions and anxieties that inhibit the full exercise of our will and mental capacity. Along with freedom Epictetus emphasizes self-sufficiency and competing with oneself to be as good as possible in facing the challenges of life. Read this book as you approach a cold shower. You will feel great when it is over, toned up and ready for anything.

A. A. Long is professor emeritus of classics and affiliated professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to LifeStoic Studies, and (with Margaret Graver) Seneca: Letters on Ethics. He lives in Kensington, California.

Jan Assmann on The Invention of Religion

ReligionThe Book of Exodus may be the most consequential story ever told. But its spectacular moments of heaven-sent plagues and parting seas overshadow its true significance, says Jan Assmann, a leading historian of ancient religion. The story of Moses guiding the enslaved children of Israel out of captivity to become God’s chosen people is the foundation of an entirely new idea of religion, one that lives on today in many of the world’s faiths. The Invention of Religion sheds new light on ancient scriptures to show how Exodus has shaped fundamental understandings of monotheistic practice and belief. It is a powerful account of how ideas of faith, revelation, and covenant, first introduced in Exodus, shaped Judaism and were later adopted by Christianity and Islam to form the bedrock of the world’s Abrahamic religions.

The title of your book is The Invention of Religion. How is this to be understood? Aren’t there many religions? And have they all been invented?

This is correct. Primal, tribal, and ancient religions go back to time immemorial. We may call them “primary religions.” They are based on experience and are equivalent to general culture; there is no way to conceive of them as an independent system based on rules and values of its own. In my book, I am dealing with “secondary religion” that does not go back to time immemorial but has a definite date in history when it was founded or “invented.” Religion in this new sense is not based on experience but revelation; it is set off from the older primary religion and therefore from general culture, forming a system of its own. The first secondary religion is Second Temple Judaism as it developed during the Babylonian Exile and as it was established around 520 BCE. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam followed its model, as does our concept of “religion.”

If revelation is the distinctive feature of “secondary religion,” how do you explain that all religions know of ways by which the gods reveal their intentions to humankind, such as prodigies, oracles, dreams, etc.?

We must distinguish between occasional and singular revelations. Occasional revelations occur once in a while, refer to specific situations, and address specific recipients. Singular revelations occur once and for all time, encompass the entirety of human—individual, social, political—existence, and address a whole people or group of believers such as Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc. Revelation in this sense is an act of foundation, establishing a “covenant“ between God and men. Whereas primary religions need rituals, attention, diligence in order not to miss the divine intimations and to interpret them correctly—and this is exactly what the Latin term religio means according to Cicero—religions of the new type need memory, codification, canonization of the revealed texts, and faith in the revealed truth, i.e. the covenant. For this reason, Lactance, a Christian, derived the word religio not from relegere, or “to diligently observe,” but from religari, or “to bind oneself.”

“Faith“ is another category that one would assume to be necessary for all religions, not only for Second Temple Judaism and the religions based on or following this model.

In a general sense, yes. But religion based on revelation requires faith in a specific and much stronger sense. Faith in the general, weak sense is based on experience and evidence, i.e. immanent, this-worldly truth. Faith in the new, strong sense is based on revealed truth, which is transcendent and extramundane. This is a truth that cannot be verified by experience and researched, but can only be attested by staying true to the covenant and its laws, even under conditions of suffering. The term “martyr” comes from Greek martys “witness” and means him who by his violent death testifies to the truth of God’s covenant. Faith, truthfulness, and loyalty mean the same (aemunah in Hebrew). This kind of faith does not exist in primary religions and is the exclusive innovation of Biblical monotheism in its post-exilic form of Second Temple Judaism.

The main topic of the book of Exodus, however, seems still to be the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (yitzi’at mitzra’im) and not “revelation” for which there is not even a word in Hebrew.

That “revelation” is the main topic of 2.Mose becomes clear by a careful thematic analysis of the book. The book comprises three parts. Part one (chapters 1-15a) contains God’s revelation to Moses in the Burning Bush, the 10 plagues, and the Miracle of the Sea, revealing his overwhelming power. Part 2 (chapters 15b-24) contains the revelation of the covenant and the closing ceremony. The last part (chapters 25-40) contains the revelation and construction of the Tabernacle, interrupted by the scene of the Golden Calf. Each of these parts contains scenes of revelation, which is thus shown to be the overarching theme. That there is no word for “revelation” in Hebrew is the reason why this new and revolutionary concept is unfolded in form of a lengthy narrative.

Being an Egyptologist, what brought you to venture into the field of Biblical studies and how does your approach as an outsider differ from that of professional Biblical scholars who wrote on the book of Exodus?

My “egyptological” approach to the Bible focuses on the triad of culture, identity, and memory that is typical of Cultural Studies, whereas the approach of Biblical Studies mostly focuses on textual criticism, the distinction of different layers of redaction and composition. According to the Bible, the Israelites fled from Egypt and not from any other country of the Ancient World. This fact alone constitutes a challenge for Egyptology. Egypt seems to stand for something that the Torah is opposing with particular vehemence. A closer reading of the book of Exodus reveals that it is not religion—the Egyptian cult—what is rejected, but the political system of sacral kingship, the king as god and the deification of the state. All the ancient oriental kingdoms share this idea in a greater or lesser degree, but Egypt is the most extreme realization of this idea. Egypt, therefore, represents the world which Israel was to exit—or to be liberated from—in order to enter a new paradigm for which Flavius Josephus coined the term “theocracy,” meaning “God is king” instead of “The king is god,” the principle of sacral kingship. This originally political idea gradually evolved into what we now understand as “religion.”

The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is commonly taken as a historical fact, unlike the events that you subsume under the concept “revelation“ and consequently interpret as religious imagination.

Egyptology tells us that there is no archaeological, epigraphical, or literary evidence of any Hebrew mass emigration from Egypt in the Late Bronze Age, the narrated time. The book of Exodus is not a historical account but a foundational myth, though replete with historical reminiscences and experiences such as the expulsion of the Hyksos, the oppression of Palestine by Egyptian colonization, the Solomonic oppression of his people through heavy corvée—leading to the separation of the Northern Tribes—and finally the annihilation of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 and of the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians 597/87. What is decisive is not the narrated time—”What may really have happened in the 13th ct. BCE?”—but the various times of narration when this myth was first formed and became eventually codified and canonized as the foundational story of Second Temple Judaism. As a foundational myth, the Exodus belongs within the same sphere of religious imagination as the scenes of revelation.

And Moses? The name, Egyptologists tell us, is Egyptian. This seems to be historical evidence after all.

This is true, Moses (Moshe) is an Egyptian name, meaning “born of” like the Greek –genes. Hermogenes would be Thut-mose. There are many attempts at identifying Moses with Egyptian figures bearing the element –mose in their names, none of them convincing. Sigmund Freud made of Moses a follower of Akhenaten, the heretic king, who after this king’s death emigrated from Egypt to Canaan and took the Hebrews along, because Akhenaten’s monotheistic cult of the Sun (Aten) was persecuted and abolished in Egypt. Some even identify Moses with Akhenaten. All this is pure fancy. There is not the least link between Akenaten’s monotheism, which is just a new cosmology, deducing every life and existence from the sun, and the religion founded and proclaimed by Moses, that has nothing to do with cosmology but is based on the political idea of covenant, an alliance between God and his people. The ideas of revelation, covenant, and faith have no correspondents in Egypt nor in any other ancient religion.

In your book you characterize the new religion as a “monotheism of loyalty,” based on the distinction between loyalty and betrayal, and distinct from a “monotheism of truth,” based on the distinction between true and false, which is also typical of the new religion. How do these two forms of monotheism go together?

In my book Moses the Egyptian (1997), I defined Biblical monotheism as based on the distinction of true and false, which I dubbed the “Mosaic Distinction” and described as an innovation that “secondary religions” introduced into the ancient world, where this distinction between true God and false gods, true religion and false religions, was totally alien. After a close reading of the Torah I realized that this distinction only occurs with the later prophets (Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel and others), whereas the Torah, i.e. the books that are truly “Mosaic,” is about the distinction between loyalty and betrayal. This distinction is linked to the concept of a covenant between a “jealous” God, the liberator from Egyptian slavery, who requires absolute fidelity, and his Chosen People that has constantly to be admonished not to “murmur” and not to turn to other gods. The ideas of covenant, loyalty, and faith remain always, even in Christianity and Islam, the cantus firmus in the polyphony of the sacred scriptures and merge perfectly well with the idea of the One true God, the creator of heaven and earth, which is to be found in the prophetic scriptures. The first, particularist distinction concerns the chosen people whose gratitude and loyalty is requested for their liberator, and the second, universalist distinction concerns the idea of God the creator who cares for all human beings and all life on earth.

In some of your previous books you stated a connection between monotheism and violence as implied in the distinction between true and false in religion. Does this connection appear in a different light when the issue is not truth but loyalty?

All “secondary religions” are intolerant, because they arise in opposition to the primary religions before and around them. The “monotheism of truth,” therefore, is incompatible with religions excluded as “false.” This is a matter of logic and cognition. The “monotheism of loyalty,” on the other hand, based on the distinction between loyalty and betrayal, implies a form of violence that is mainly directed against members of the own group who are viewed as apostates or transgressors, as is shown by the “primal scene” of this form of violence, the scene of the Golden Calf. It is this form of violence with which we are mostly confronted today. It is only directed against outsiders if the distinction between inner and outer, apostates and strangers is blurred and all human beings are requested to enter the covenant and obey to its laws, as is the case with certain radical islamist and evangelist groups.

Then intolerance and violence are necessary implications of the Exodus tradition?

Nothing could be more alien to the theology of Exodus. The distinction between Israel and the “nations” (goyîm) that is drawn here has no violent and antagonistic implications. That the nations observe other laws and worship other gods is perfectly in order, because they are not called into the covenant. The only exception is made for the “Canaanites,” the indigenous population of the Promised Land, who must be expelled and exterminated and who are obviously no other that those Hebrews who do not live according to the laws of the covenant. These “Canaanites,” however, are but a symbol for the “primary religion” that Second Temple Judaism, especially the Puritan radicalism of the Deuteronomic tradition, is opposing. We must not forget, however, that it is not hatred and violence, but love that forms the center of the idea of covenant. The leading metaphor of the covenant is matrimonial love and the “megillah” (scroll) that is read during the feast of Passover is the Song of Songs, a collection of fervent love songs. God’s “jealousy” is part of his love.

Jan Assmann is honorary professor of cultural studies at the University of Konstanz and professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught for nearly three decades. He is the author of many books on ancient history and religion, including From Akhenaten to Moses, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.

Seneca on How to Die

Romm“It takes an entire lifetime to learn how to die,” preached Seneca, the famed Stoic philosopher of Ancient Rome. In other words, it’s never too early to begin your preparations for departing this life. Seneca wrote eloquently on the universality of death, its importance as life’s final and most defining rite of passage, its part in purely natural processes and cycles, and its ability to liberate us. In How to Die, James Romm has selected and translated excerpts relating to death and dying from eight different works of ethical thought by Seneca—let it be your handy companion on your journey toward reconciling with the inevitable. Here are five tips from How to Die to ponder as you prepare for what may be the most important task you will ever undertake.

 

Prepare Yourself

“Perhaps you think it is useless to learn something that must only be used once; but this is the very reason we ought to rehearse.”

Have No Fear

“What’s to be feared in returning where you came from? He lives badly who does not know how to die well…. [D]ying fearfully, often, is itself a cause of death…. He who fears death will never do anything to help the living. But he who knows that this was decreed the moment he was conceived will live by principle.”

Have No Regrets

“We consider this earth, with its cities, peoples, and rivers, enclosed by a circle of sea, as a tiny dot, if it’s compared with all of time…. What difference does it make to extend [life], if the amount of added time is little more than nothing?”

Set Yourself Free

“Each of us ought to seek a life that wins approval from others, but a death, from himself.”

Become Part of the Whole

“There are fixed seasons by which all things progress; they must be born, grow, and perish…. There is nothing that does not grow old. Nature disperses these things, all to the same end, though after different intervals. Whatever is, will no longer be; it won’t die, but will be undone.”

Skull

Jörg Rüpke on Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion

In this ambitious and authoritative book, Jörg Rüpke provides a comprehensive and strikingly original narrative history of ancient Roman and Mediterranean religion over more than a millennium—from the late Bronze Age through the Roman imperial period and up to full-fledged Christianization. While focused primarily on the city of Rome, Pantheon fully integrates the many religious traditions found in the Mediterranean world, including Judaism and Christianity. This generously illustrated book is also distinguished by its unique emphasis on “lived religion,” a perspective that stresses how individuals’ experiences and practices transform religion into something different from its official form. The result is a radically new picture of both Roman religion and a crucial period in Western religion—one that influenced Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even the modern idea of “religion” itself. With its unprecedented scope and innovative approach, Pantheon is anunparalleled account of ancient Roman and Mediterranean religion.

In a world where religion is changing its face in rapid and unexpected ways, how is Roman religion, two millennia older, similar?
Rome was perhaps the largest city of the world before the modern period. The religious practices and beliefs of a million people from all over Europe, West Asia, North Africa and occasionally beyond were as varied as religion is in today’s megacities. It is interesting to see how Roman lawmakers and judges dealt with such a situation. And it is even more interesting to see how ‘normal’ citizens understood and used such a religious pluralism. Different gods at every corner, shrines on walls, polemical graffiti, people earning their living by selling religious goods and services, shaven heads or loud music—there is more to discover and learn than the solemnity of the emperor having a bull killed on the Capitoline hill.

Why did you invent a fictitious figure at the start of your history?
Religion is about people claiming to have religious experiences and valuing religious knowledge. There is no religion if everybody thinks that their neighbors addressing a divine being is just ridiculous. But religious experiences or knowledge cannot be simply decreed. To understand the unbelievable dynamics of ancient religion—the invention of statues and monumental temples, to think that gods would enjoy horse races or self-mutilation, etc.—a historian needs to get an idea of what went on in people’s head. We will never know, but we can imagine. Rhea is an avatar to tell us what a woman at the beginning of the Iron Age might have thought. As the basis for these thoughts are archaeological traces of deposits, meals, tombs, hearths, etc. I thought it would be more honest to invent such a speaker and her reflections instead of crediting an attested person without evidence that can be firmly ascribed to them.

How do Judaism and Christianity figure in your book?
I tell the story of nearly a millennium, from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE to the middle of the fourth century CE. From the Roman point of view, Jews show up in the second half of that period only, people calling themselves “Christians” even later, and Muslims are beyond the horizon. Apart from occasional troubleshooting in Judaea or Alexandria, it was only at the very end of antiquity that Jews and in particular Christians are important on a large scale. Before that they were simply a small minority. I tried to balance this. In terms of pages they are overrepresented. In terms of their significance they are massively underrepresented.

What is your favorite god from this large ancient pantheon?
I write about ancient religion, I don’t participate in it! But this was fascinating: ancient polytheism is not about large number of gods or a clear division of labor. It was about empowering (nearly) everybody to arrange and sometimes create their own divine helpers and addressees. If I pray at the end of an interview to Mercury with his quick tongue, to violent Mars and to Silvanus, lord of the endless woods, the interviewer should be careful…

PantheonJörg Rüpke is vice-director and permanent fellow in religious studies at the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Sociological Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany, and has been a visiting professor at the Collège de France, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago. His many books include On Roman Religion and From Jupiter to Christ.

Browse Our 2018 Ancient World Catalog

Our new Ancient World catalog includes a major new history of archaeology—its sites, its discoveries, its practices, a unique anthology presenting the largest collection of legends and folktales from Ancient Greek and Roman life, an examination of the environmental factors that lead to the collapse of Rome’s power, and a new economic history of the Ancient Mediterranean world to name but a few of the many great titles published this year or forthcoming early next.

If you plan on attending AIA/SCS 2018 in Boston this weekend, stop by Booth 103 to see our full range of Ancient World titles and more.

Written by Eric Cline, an archaeologist with more than thirty seasons of excavation experience, Three Stones Make a Wall traces the history of archaeology from an amateur pursuit to the cutting-edge science it is today by taking the reader on a tour of major archaeological sites and discoveries, from Pompeii to Petra, Troy to the Terracotta Warriors, and Mycenae to Megiddo and Masada. Cline brings to life the personalities behind these digs, including Heinrich Schliemann, the former businessman who excavated Troy, and Mary Leakey, whose discoveries advanced our understanding of human origins. The discovery of the peoples and civilizations of the past is presented in vivid detail, from the Hittites and Minoans to the Inca, Aztec, and Moche. Along the way, the book addresses the questions archaeologists are asked most often: How do you know where to dig? How are excavations actually done? How do you know how old something is? Who gets to keep what is found?

Taking readers from the pioneering digs of the eighteenth century to the exciting new discoveries being made today, this is a lively and essential introduction to the story of archaeology.

This unique anthology presents the largest collection of these tales ever assembled. Featuring nearly four hundred stories in authoritative and highly readable translations, this is the first book to offer a representative selection of the entire range of traditional classical storytelling.

Here is the monumental retelling of one of the most consequential chapters of human history: the fall of the Roman Empire. This is the first book to examine the catastrophic role that climate change and infectious diseases played in the collapse of Rome’s power—a story of nature’s triumph over human ambition.

A poignant reflection on humanity’s intimate relationship with the environment, The Fate of Rome provides a sweeping account of how one of history’s greatest civilizations encountered and endured, yet ultimately succumbed to the cumulative burden of nature’s violence. The example of Rome is a timely reminder that climate change and germ evolution have shaped the world we inhabit—in ways that are surprising and profound.

William A. P. Childs on Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C.

Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C. analyzes the broad character of art produced during this period, providing in-depth analysis of and commentary on many of its most notable examples of sculpture and painting. Taking into consideration developments in style and subject matter, and elucidating political, religious, and intellectual context, William A. P. Childs argues that Greek art in this era was a natural outgrowth of the high classical period and focused on developing the rudiments of individual expression that became the hallmark of the classical in the fifth century. Read on to learn more about fourth century B.C. Greek art:

Why the fourth century?

The fourth century BCE has been neglected in scholarly treatises with a  few recent exceptions: Blanch Brown, Anticlassicism in Greek Sculpture of the Fourth Century B.C.; Monographs on Archaeology and the Fine Arts sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America and the College Art Association of America 26 (New York, 1976); and Brunilde Ridgway, Fourth-Century Styles in Greek Sculpture, Wisconsin Studies in Classics (Madison, WI, 1997).

One reason is simply that taste has been antithetical to the character of the century. Thus literary critics disparaged the wild reassessments of mythology by Euripides at the end of the fifth century as well as his supposedly colloquial language, and treated the sophists as morally dishonest.

Socially the century was marked by continuous warfare and the rise of  a new, rich elite. Individuals were as important, or more important, than society/community; artists were thought to have individual styles that reflected their personal vision. This was thought to debase the grandness of the high classic and replace it with cheap sensationalism and pluralism that defied straight-forward categorization.

The age-old hostility to Persia was revived, it seems largely for political reasons, while Persian artistic influence permeated much of the ornaments of the new, wealthy elite: mosaics, rich cloth, and metal work. At the same time Persia was constantly meddling in Greek affaires, which produced a certain hypocritical political atmosphere.

And, finally, Philip of Macedon brought the whole democratic adventure of the fifth century to a close with the establishment of monarchy as the default political system, and Alexander brought the East into the new Hellenic or Hellenistic culture out of which Roman culture was to arise.

Clearly most of the past criticism is true; it is our response that has totally changed, one assumes, because our own period is in many respects very similar to the character of the fourth century.

What is the character of the art of the fourth century?

On the surface there is little change from the high classical style of the fifth century—the subject of art is primarily religion in the form of votive reliefs and statues dedicated in sanctuaries. The art of vase-painting in Athens undergoes a slow decline in quality with notable exceptions, though it comes to an end as the century closes.

Though the function of art remains the same as previously, the physical appearance changes and changes again. At the end of the fifth century and into the first quarter of the fourth there is a nervous, linear style with strong erotic overtones. After about 370 the preference is for solidity and quiet poses. But what becomes apparent on closer examination is that there are multiple contemporary variations of the dominant stylistic structures. This has led to some difficulty in assigning convincing dates to individual works, though this is exaggerated. It is widely thought that the different stylistic variations are due to individual artists asserting their personal visions and interpretations of the human condition.

The literary sources, almost all of Roman date, do state that the famous artists, sculptors and painters, of the fourth century developed very individual styles that with training could be recognized in the works still extant. Since there are almost no original Greek statues preserved and no original panel paintings, it is difficult to evaluate these claims convincingly. But, since there are quite distinct groups of works that share broad stylistic similarities and these similarities agree to a large extent with the stylistic observations in the literary sources, it is at least possible to suggest that these styles are connected in some way with particular, named artists of the fourth century. However, rather than attributing works to the named artists, it seems wiser simply to identify the style and recognize that it conveys a particular character of the figure portrayed. This appears also applicable to vase-paintings that may reflect the styles of different panel painters. There are therefore Praxitelian and Skopaic sculptures and Parrhasian and Zeuxian paintings. Style conveys content.

The variety of styles as expressive tools indicates that there is a variety of content. A corollary of this fact is that the artist is presenting works that must be read by the viewer and therefore do not primarily represent social norms but are particular interpretations of both traditional and novel subjects: Aphrodite bathes, a satyr rests peacefully in the woods, and athletes clean themselves. In brief, the heroic and the divine are humanized and humans gain a psychological depth  that allows portraits to suggest character.

Was the cultural response to these developments purely negative as most modern commentaries suggest?

The question of the reception of art and poetry in the Greek world particularly of the archaic and classical periods has occupied scholars for at least the last two hundred years. It has been amply documented that artisans and people we consider artists were generally repudiated by the people composing the preserved texts of literature and historical commentary. For example, Plato is generally considered a conservative Philistine. Most modern commentators are appalled by his criticism of poetry and the plastic arts in all forms. Yet the English romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries thought Plato a kindred spirit. It was only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the negative assessment of Plato’s relation to poetry and art became authoritative.  However one wishes to assess Plato’s own appreciation of poetry and art, it is eminently clear that he had an intimate knowledge of contemporary art. Equally his criticism of people who praise art indicates that precisely what he criticizes is what Athenian society expected and praised. It does not require a large leap to surmise that Plato is the first art critic with a sophisticated approach though somewhat disorganized. His student, Aristotle, had the organization and perhaps a more nuanced view of art, but it is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that Aristotle was not as sensitive to art as was his teacher.

The fact of the matter is that from Homer on, the descriptions of objects, though very rare, are uniformly very appreciative. For Homer the wonder of life-likeness is paramount, a quality that endures down to the fourth century despite the changing styles and patent abstractions before the fourth century. At least in the fourth century artists also became wealthy and must have managed large workshops.  So the modern view that artisans/artists were considered inferior members of society appears to be a social evaluation by the wealthy and leisured.

In the fourth century BCE Greek artists embark on on an inquiry into individual expression of  profound insights into the human condition as well as social values. It is the conscious recognition of the varied expressive values of style that creates the modern concept of aesthetics and the artist.

ChildsWilliam A.P. Childs is professor emeritus of classical art and archaeology at Princeton University.

Josephine Quinn: The Phoenicians never existed

The Phoenicians traveled the Mediterranean long before the Greeks and Romans, trading, establishing settlements, and refining the art of navigation. But who these legendary sailors really were has long remained a mystery. In Search of the Phoenicians by Josephine Quinn makes the startling claim that the “Phoenicians” never actually existed. Taking readers from the ancient world to today, this monumental book argues that the notion of these sailors as a coherent people with a shared identity, history, and culture is a product of modern nationalist ideologies—and a notion very much at odds with the ancient sources. Read on to learn more about the Phoenicians.

Who were the Phoenicians?

The Phoenicians were the merchants and long-distance mariners of the ancient Mediterranean. They came from a string of city-states on the coast of the Levant including the ports of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Beirut, all in modern Lebanon, and spoke very similar dialects of a language very similar to Hebrew. Their hinterland was mountainous and land connections were difficult even between these neighboring cities themselves, so the Phoenicians were very much people of the sea. They had a particular genius for science and navigation, and as early as the ninth or tenth century BCE, their ships were sailing the full length of the Mediterranean and out through the straits of Gibraltar to do business on the Atlantic coast of Spain, attracted by the precious metals of the west. Levantine migrants and traders began to settle in the Western Mediterranean at least a century before Greeks followed suit, founding new towns in Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, and North Africa. Their biggest Western colony was at Carthage in modern Tunisia, a city which eventually eclipsed the homeland in importance, and under its brilliant general Hannibal vied with Rome for control of the Mediterranean: when Carthage was eventually destroyed by Roman troops in 146 BCE, it was said to be the wealthiest city in the world.

But doesn’t your book suggest that the Phoenicians didn’t even exist?

Not quite! The people we call Phoenician certainly existed as individuals, and they often have fascinating stories, from the Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba, who married not one but two warring African kings, to the philosopher Zeno of Kition on Cyprus, who moved to Athens and founded the Stoic school of philosophy. But one of the really intriguing things about them is how little we know about how they saw themselves—and my starting point in this book is that we have no evidence that they saw themselves as a distinct people or as we might say, ethnic group.

“Phoenician” is what the Greeks called these people, but we don’t find anyone using that label to describe themselves before late antiquity, and although scholars have sometimes argued that they called themselves “Canaanite,” a local term, one of the things I show in my book is how weak the evidence for that hypothesis really is. Of course, to say that they didn’t think of themselves as a distinct people just because we don’t have any evidence for them describing themselves as such is an argument from silence, and it could be disproved at any moment with the discovery of a new inscription. But in the meantime, my core argument is when we don’t know whether people thought of themselves as a collective, we shouldn’t simply assume that they did on the basis of ancient or modern parallels, or because ethnic identity seems “natural.”

So how did the Phoenicians see themselves?

This is the question I’m most interested in. Although there is no surviving Phoenician literature that might help us understand the way these people saw the world, Phoenician inscriptions reveal all sorts of interesting and sometimes surprising things that people wanted to record for posterity. They certainly saw themselves as belonging to their own cities, like the Greeks: they were “Byblians,” or “Sidonians,” or “Sons of Tyre.” But one of the things that I suggest in my book is that in inscriptions they present themselves first and foremost in terms of family: where a Greek inscription might give someone’s own name and that of their father, a Phoenician one will often go back several generations—16 or 17 in some cases. And then Phoenician-speaking migrants develop new practices of identification, including regional ones. We see particularly close relationships developing between neighboring settlements in the diaspora, and between people who are from the same part of the homeland. But we also see new, Western identities developing—‘Sardinian,’ for instance—which bring together Phoenicians, Greeks, and the local population.

And I think we can get further by looking at the evidence for cultural practices that Phoenician speakers share—or don’t share. So child sacrifice rituals seem to be limited to a small number of Western settlements around Carthage, but the cult of the god Melqart, the chief civic deity of Tyre, is practiced by people of Levantine origin all over the Mediterranean. And on my interpretation, Melqart’s broad popularity is quite a late development—in the fifth or fourth century BCE—which would suggest that a sense of connectivity between Phoenician-speakers in the diaspora got stronger the longer people had been away from their homeland. But at the same time, the cult reached out to other Mediterranean populations, since Melqart was celebrated by Greeks (and later Romans) as the equivalent of their own god Herakles.

Politics played a part in the construction of identities as well, and this is particularly apparent in one episode where an attempt seems to have been made to impose the notion of ‘being Phoenician’ on other people. By the late fifth century BCE Carthage was the dominant power in the western Mediterranean, controlling trade routes and access to ports, taxing defeated enemies, and beginning to acquire overseas territory as well, at the expense of other Levantine diaspora settlements. And at pretty much exactly this time they begin to mint coinage, and their very first coins have an image of a palm tree—or, in Greek, a phoinix, which is also the Greek word for Phoenician. It’s hard to resist the impression that celebrating a common ‘Phoenician’ heritage or identity put a useful political spin on the realities of Carthaginian imperial control.

If there’s so little evidence for genuine Phoenician identity in the ancient world, where does the modern idea of “the Phoenicians” come from?

The name itself comes from the Greeks, as we’ve already said, but they didn’t use it to delineate a specific ethnic or cultural group: for them, “Phoenician” was often a pretty vague and general term for traders and sailors from the Levant, there wasn’t a lot of cultural or ethnic content to it. You don’t get the same kind of detailed ethnographic descriptions of Phoenicians as you do of, for instance, Egyptians and Greeks. And the Romans followed suit: in fact, their particular focus on Carthage meant that the Latin words for “Phoenician”—poenus and punicus—were often used to mean ‘North African’ in general.

It wasn’t until the modern period that the idea of the Phoenicians as a coherent ethnic group fully emerged, in late nineteenth century European histories of Phoenicia that relied heavily on new and specifically European ideas about nationalism and natural cultures. This is when we first find them described as a racial group, with an “ethnic character.” And these notions were picked up enthusiastically in early twentieth century Lebanon, where the idea that the Lebanese had formed a coherent nation since antiquity was an important plank of the intellectual justification for a new Lebanese state after the collapse of the Ottoman empire—another story I tell in the book.

A more recent example of this comes from Anthony D. Smith’s wonderful 1988 book, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, which argues that although true nations are a modern phenomenon, they have precursors in ancient and medieval ethno-cultural communities. Among his ancient examples are what he sees as ‘pan-Phoenician sentiments’ based on a common heritage of religion, language, art and literature, political institutions, dress and, forms of recreation. But my argument is that in the case of the Phoenicians at least we are not dealing with the ancient ethnic origins of modern nations, but the modern nationalist origins of an ancient ethnicity.

Is there any truth to the stories that the ancient Phoenicians reached America?

I’m afraid not! It’s an old idea: in the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe argued, not long after he published Robinson Crusoe, that the Carthaginians must have colonized America on the basis of the similarities he saw between them and the indigenous Americans, in particular in relation to “their idolatrous Customs, Sacrificings, Conjurings, and other barbarous usages in the Worship of their Gods.” But the only real evidence that has ever been proposed for this theory, an inscription “found” in Brazil in 1872, was immediately diagnosed by specialists as a fake.

The idea that Phoenicians got to Britain, and perhaps even Ireland, makes more sense. Cornish tin could certainly have been one attraction. There’s no strong evidence though for Phoenician settlement on either island, though the possibility captivated local intellectuals in the early modern period. One of the chapters I most enjoyed writing in this book is about the way that scholars in England concocted fantasies of Phoenician origins for their homeland, in part as a way of differentiating their own maritime power from the more territorial, and so “Roman,” French empire—at the same time as the Irish constructed a Phoenician past of their own that highlighted the similarity of their predicament under Britain’s imperial yoke to that of noble Carthage oppressed by brutal Rome.

These are of course just earlier stages in the same nationalist ‘invention of the Phoenicians’ that came to fruition in the nineteenth century histories we’ve already discussed: stories about Phoenicians helped the British and the Irish articulate their own national identities, which in turn further articulated the idea of the Phoenicians themselves.

Why did you write this book?

One reason was I really wanted to write a book about the ancient Mediterranean that wasn’t limited to Greece and Rome—though plenty of Greeks and Romans snuck in! But there’s another reason as well: “identity” has been such a popular academic topic in recent decades, and I wanted to explore its limits and even limitations as an approach to the ancient world. There are lots of reasons to think that a focus on ethnic identity, and even self-identity more generally, is a relatively modern phenomenon, and that our ideas about the strength and prevalence of ancient ethnic sentiments might be skewed by a few dramatic but unusual examples in places like Israel and perhaps Greece. I wanted to look at a less well-known but perhaps more typical group, to see what happens if we investigate them not as “a people,” but simply as people.

 

QuinnJosephine Quinn is associate professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College. She is the coeditor of The Hellenistic West andThe Punic Mediterranean.

 

A peek inside The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper

HarperHere is the monumental retelling of one of the most consequential chapters of human history: the fall of the Roman Empire. The Fate of Rome is the first book to examine the catastrophic role that climate change and infectious diseases played in the collapse of Rome’s power—a story of nature’s triumph over human ambition. A poignant reflection on humanity’s intimate relationship with the environment, The Fate of Rome provides a sweeping account of how one of history’s greatest civilizations encountered and endured, yet ultimately succumbed to the cumulative burden of nature’s violence. Check out the trailer to learn more.

 

Kyle Harper is professor of classics and letters and senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425 and From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.