Seven Against Thebes (9)


The Heroic Age ended abruptly, as we already noted, in the twelfth century B.C. Ancient scholars calculated this on the basis of the genealogies of ancient clans, and modern scholars arrive at a similar date, though they use different data and methods to make their calculations. Both ancient and modern scholars agree also that the cause of the fall of that age was not a natural cataclysm, but an invasion of tribes which in the twelfth century moved from the north of Greece all the way to the extreme south of the Peloponnesus, from where they even reached the island of Crete; and all along the way they destroyed all centers of civilization. These were Doric tribes. In Greek mythology, as we already mentioned, the invasion is known as the Return of the Heraclids, since Doric rulers claimed descent from Heracles. (This is why the king of Doric Spartans had the ashes of Alcmene, mother of Heracles, moved to his country).

But here the question which we had asked already returns: Greeks believed firmly that a great Heroic Age once took place; but what basis do we have to claim that it was the twelfth century which saw its destruction?

We owe an answer to this question to just one man: Heinrich Schliemann. In love with ancient Greek myths, especially those which had been immortalized by Homer, he devoted his life to proving that they weren’t a fantasy, but a reflection of actual facts. Beginning in 1870, over the course of thirty years, Schliemann conducted great excavations in places famed by great myths. He showed that in all those places there had once existed great palaces, full of treasures and objects of art, populated by rich and powerful men; the lifestyle of those times was totally different from that of the classical Greeks; and it all came abruptly to an end in the twelfth century.

The largest and most impressive palace of those times was in Mycenae. It is located in Peloponnesus, in a country known as Argolis. The rulers of Mycenae, the myths tell us, ruled over many surrounding countries; this is why we now call the Heroic Age "the Mycenaean Period". But besides Mycenae, many other centers flourished at the time; many are mentioned later in this book, but for now three must be named: Tiryns, in Argolis, clearly visible from Mycenae; then Pylos, on the Western coast of Peloponnesus; and Knossos, on Crete. True, magnificent palaces had been built in Knossos in earlier times, also, but it remained an important center in the Mycenaean period as well. Schliemann’s excavations – and those of his successors, since work has continued down to present time – allow us to propose the following rule: every locality in Greece which plays a role in mythology also preserves remains of a flourishing cultural center from the Mycenaean period.

The arriving Dorians destroyed Mycenaeans. All castles fell – even though the walls of many had been built of rocks so large that the succeeding generations refused to believe that they had been built by the hand of man; stories were told that they were built by Cyclops instead. The Mycenaean states collapsed. All major tombs were plundered by the raiders. All life in Greece returned to primitive, barbarian norms. No one built large palaces or castles anymore. The tradition of mural painting was broken off. The art of making fine gold, silver and bronze jewelry was lost. Several centuries of darkness had to pass before there arose the first stirrings of a new high culture, which in time we have come to call The Classical.

But the Dorians have not destroyed everything. Some remains of the Mycenaean glory have survived, both on the surface and underground; and the simple folk who’d lived in the simple huts at the feet of the grand castles, too, has survived. It is these people who have preserved from generation to generation the memory of the notable events of the ruling Mycenaean houses, which had fought each other for land, power and women. And the songs which had once been sung in the halls of the kings also proved more durable than stone or bronze; passed from mouth to mouth, they traveled down the centuries. Heroes grew to match gods, and fragments of Mycenaean history, wrapped in myth and poetry, became immortal, like pre-historical petrified plants.

In Thebes also the memory of the past remained alive – both thanks to legends and the castle’s remains. Walking towards the house of Simmias, the plotters passed the foot of the Cadmean hill. At that time there stood upon Cadmea many large new buildings, but people still pointed out fragments of some ancient walls and associated them with stories of the great events of the Heroic Age. Nowadays, it’s the other way around. Thebes is only a small town and its houses are packed closely on the entire top of the Cadmean hill. It’s difficult to excavate here: one would have to knock down half the town in order to get to the layers beneath. Only from time to time, when some digging work must be done, can one excavate a bit of the ancient ruins which run deep below the present street level.

Despite these difficulties, the Greek archeologist Antonios Keramopoulos, by digging whenever an opportunity presented itself, managed to excavate many-thousand-year old remains in the center of the city. Gradually, between 1906 and 1921 he uncovered a network of rooms, corridors and courtyards which had once been part of a large palace complex. The biggest of these rooms may have been a kind of throne room, while others, smaller, may have served as the apartments of the court ladies, as many small feminine decorations found throughout seem to suggest. There even remained small fragments of wall painting; it had portrayed women in long dresses advancing in a ceremonial procession, perhaps to offer a sacrifice to a deity. Similar paintings – in content and technique – had been found in the ruins of Mycenae and Tiryns. This alone suggests that the palace on Cadmea dates to the same period and that it is therefore Mycenaean. It’s also clear that the palace had been destroyed by a violent fire: there is a very thick layer of ashes on the palace floors.

At first, it was difficult to determine how large an area the complex had occupied. Keramoupulos himself suspected that all other traces of the palace had been wiped out from other sections of the hill by the subsequent construction, but, in 1937, another Greek archeologist, Spiridon Marinatos, determined on the basis of a series of small findings that the Mycenaean palace had once occupied the whole hilltop and even descended down its slope in a series of terraces. It was, in other words, in its time an impressive complex, one of the largest in the Greece of Heroic Age. Who built it? Who ruled here? Was the terrible fire the work of the same Dorians who destroyed other Mycenaean palaces of the time?

In connection with the last question, some doubts quickly arose. Certain evidence seemed to suggest that the fire predated the destruction of the Mycenaean world by some two hundred years. It seems to follow that, unless the great fire was an accident, then Cadmea was destroyed in one of the wars between Mycenaean princes. Did the ancient myths preserve tales of a war against Thebes? Yes: the myths tell the stories of two famous expeditions of seven princes against Thebes; of these, the second culminated in a capture of Cadmea. But we also find in the myths a story that the palace on Cadmea was once destroyed by the lightning of Zeus. In any case, both archeological data and the ancient myths told us that a great catastrophe touched Thebes at the peak of the Mycenaean age.

In 1921, the last year of his excavations, Keramopulos found, in one of the corridors, great amphorae, which had once been used to preserve oil and wine. Pottery is the most common object found in archeological excavations, but these amphorae became a cause of great excitement: over twenty of them featured inscriptions in some kind of a script. It was a strange script, quite unlike anything ever seen in later Greece, and no one was able to decipher it. But it was soon recalled that as early as 1900 the English archeologist Evans had found on Crete, in the palace of Knossos, hundreds of clay tablets covered with short inscriptions; their letters looked just like the letters now found in Thebes!

Since remains of this script had been found in two distant centers of the same civilization, the suspicion arose that the script was shared by all Mycenaeans; and since it was the Heroic Age, if we could only decipher the script would we not be able to learn the truth about the world in which the great myths had been born? Not everyone agreed. Some claimed that the script was really only known on Crete and that the Mycenaeans of the mainland did not know it at all; and the amphorae prove nothing because they had been brought to Thebes from Crete.

Was it possible to reject this claim? Yes, by quoting the story of the tablet from Alcmene’s tomb. The grave certainly dated to Mycenaean times and the bronze tablet was covered with a script which no one in Classical Greece could read; its letters appeared similar to Egyptian, which is why it was then dispatched for decipherment to Memphis. Now, looking at the clay tablets from Knossos, and the inscriptions on the amphorae of Thebes, it was easy to see how an unpracticed eye could mistake some of the letters for Egyptian hieroglyphs; after all some of the signs are really no more than drawings of objects: it is easy to make out heads of horses, pots of various shapes, an ear of wheat, the silhouette of a man, another of a woman, the horns of a goat, an arrow, a sword, a spear, a tripod, a chariot, a wheel – and many others. Of course, even their similarity to their Egyptian counterparts is only superficial; and most letters from Knossos and Thebes are either lines or combinations of lines; there are about eighty of them, and it is thanks to them that the script is called, somewhat prosaically, “linear B”. (The name “linear B” comes from the fact that on Crete there had once existed a similar script, older and more primitive; it is called “linear A”).

At any rate, it is easy to understand and forgive the Spartans, who, at a loss, turned for help to Egypt. But for us the tablet from Alcmene’s tomb is proof – an indirect proof, of course – that linear B was used during the Mycenaean period not only on Crete, but also on the mainland. Haliartus, where the supposed tomb of Alcmene had been located, was in the Mycenaean period a rich settlement, just like several other localities on the plane surrounding Lake Copais. It is not surprising that the memory of the tomb survived so many centuries following the fall of the Mycenaean world. In the whole of Greece ancient Mycenaean cults survived and many Mycenaean tombs were thought to be the burial places of famous heroes.

Several score years have passed since 1921, when Keramopulos discovered in Cadmea the famous amphorae with mysterious inscriptions. Today no one doubts that Mycenaeans had their own script because many fragments of it have since been discovered on the Greek mainland. What is more, we can now read linear B. The heroes have spoken. Are the texts of these ancient inscriptions in any way similar to what the Egyptian priest Chonouphis read in the tablet from Alcmene’s tomb?


Andrew W. said...

Sir G, this translation is amazing! I hope to be a better commenter in the new year, although commenting on the translations seems just rude! Anyway, I hope you have a happy new year and a prosperous 2010.

Sir G said...

Hello Andrew

Sir G said...

Hello Andrew

Very glad you are enjoying it, and very glad the website finally allows me to comment on my own blog to say this) --

i have wanted to say that I am sure that what you are enjoying is not my translation, but the little of the original that I have managed not to lose while translating...

this is one of my favorite books -- it feels like a leisurely walk with your favorite uncle (who happens to be both a classicist and a hobbyist philosopher). unlike English academic writers, this uncle does not flee from big questions (bios theoreticos, anyone? the meaning of tradition, the legendification --if you will- of the past, etc.); unlike German academics, he does not obfuscate such questions and drown them in logorhea of difficult but, in the end, pointless words.


me... I am enjoying Proust now (as you already know)

happy new year

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