Friday, May 31, 2019


Dwayne A. Meisner, Orphic Tradition and the Birth of Gods. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xii, 318. ISBN 9780190663520. $85.00.

Reviewed by Luc Brisson, Centre Jean Pépin (UMR 8230, CNRS-ENS Paris-PSL) (

Version at BMCR home site


As is indicated by its subtitle, this book deals with theogony, that is, the origin of the gods, in Orphism. The task is complicated: there are several versions of this theogony, which were composed at various dates, and contain three kinds of elements: mythical, allegorical, and ritual.

The first chapter is entitled, quite naturally, "Introducing Orphic Theogonies"; the second, "The Derveni papyrus"; the third, "The Eudemian Theogony and Early Orphic Poetry"; the fourth, "The Hieronyman Theogony"; the fifth, "The Rhapsodies", and the last "Dionysus in the Rhapsodies", a subject on which the author had completed a Master's thesis (Dionysus' mysteries).

This work is impeccable from the viewpoint of erudition, with regard both to primary sources and to secondary literature. Radcliffe Edmonds has, moreover, reviewed the manuscript. Since Dwayne A. Meisner seldom takes sides and contents himself with setting forth the positions of various scholars, it is hard to challenge any given point in his exposition. I will therefore merely emphasize a few controversial questions that I consider essential.

The debate on Orphism has changed over the last decades as a result of important discoveries: that of the Derveni Papyrus in 1962, of the bone tablets from Olbia (1978), and of gold leaves that have been found in the Mediterranean basin since the 19th century. In fact, the only one that can, without the shadow of a doubt, be described as "Orphic" is the Derveni Papyrus. This papyrus contains a philosophical commentary, of great allegorical virtuosity, on a poem attributed to Orpheus that takes up and severely criticizes Hesiod's Theogony. However, scholars have sought to identify influences foreign to the Greek world in this commentary. Basing himself on the discovery of the Hurrian-Hittite Song of Kumarbi in 1946, M. L. West, the editor of Hesiod's Theogony, detected an influence of this text and of the Babylonian myth of creation Enûma Eliš on the Hesiodic myth. He then applied this method of interpretation to Greek philosophy,1 and to the Derveni Papyrus, where he was followed by Burkert, Betegh and Bernabé.2 In addition to invoking the influence of other mythologies of the Near East, Faraone and Teeter have supposed that an Egyptian influence also played a role. I lack the necessary competence to discuss the reality of these influences, but I would like to express my disagreement on a specific point.

The partisans of Hittite influence, taking as their model Kumarbi, who swallows the genitals of An, will translate:

αἰδοῖογ κα[τ]έπινεν, ὃς αἰθέρα ἔχθορε πρῶτος. (DP XIII, 4).
He swallowed the phallus of … which ejaculates in the ether first (…)
πρωτογόνου βασιλέως αἰδοίου, (DP XVI, 3)
… the phallus of the first born
According to this translation, Zeus (5th generation) swallows the phallus of Ouranos (3rd generation) which has been amputated by Kronos (4th generation).

This translation considers αἰδοῖον as a noun = phallus. In this case, one fails to understand why Zeus would have waited for a generation to swallow the phallus of Ouranos. Yet if one considers that αἰδοῖον is an adjective meaning "reverend", and if it is attached to a masculine singular noun, θεόν or δαιμόνα, which would have been in the preceding verse that is not quoted in the Derveni Papyrus but can be assumed on the basis of the Rhapsodies, one obtains a clear, simple translation:

He (= Zeus) swallowed down the reverend one (Phanes), who was the first to leap forth into ether [and not: "which ejaculated in the ether"]
… of the first-born king (Phanes), the reverend one.
The point is not to deny all Oriental influence on ancient Greece, but to have recourse to this type of interpretation only when it is based on indisputable textual and archaeological bases, on pain of lapsing into a speculative trend.

The religion of Mithra and the influence of Egyptian mythology are good examples of this. In both cases, however, it should be noted that this influence implies a considerable reinterpretation whether of the god Zurvan or of the religion of Isis (see Plutarch's magnificent De Iside et Osiride). Indeed, there is every reason to believe that Orphism was a part of that nebula of beliefs and votive rituals that developed on the margins of the civic cults: its goal was no longer the welfare of the city, but the salvation of the individual. One can therefore not speak of a specific church or sect, but of persons similar to the "preachers" or North America who, starting out from a religious trend, develop an independent interpretative and cultic movement.

The interest of the Derveni Papyrus resides in the fact that a few verses of a theogonic poem of the Hesiodic type, corresponding to a Hymn to Zeus, are accompanied by an allegorical commentary and associated with a cult. While that commentary refers to Heraclitus, it does not seem to be prior to Plato or to Aristotle; rather it belongs to a Stoic milieu in which Heraclitus is no longer the proponent of universal flux (as in Plato and Aristotle), but instead the philosopher of the Logos.

Subsequently, we find ourselves in a Neoplatonic context, since our information depends on the testimony of Damascius. After enumerating the principles and orders that play a role in the procession of the philosophical system he defends, Damascius seeks the points of agreement with various theologies among others, Orphic (The Rhapsodies, Hieronymus and Hellanicus, Eudemus).

Here is what Damascius says about the version of Eudemus:

The theology that is recorded with the Peripatetic Eudemus as being by Orpheus is silent about the entire intelligible world, since it is completely ineffable and unknowable by means of discursive thinking or through narrative. Eudemus begins with the principle of Night, from which Homer too begins …. (De principiis, §124, transl. S. Ahbel-Rappe modified)
It seems that this is the oldest version of the Orphic theogony: the one that is commented upon in the Derveni Papyrus, the one mentioned by Aristophanes in the Birds, and the one that must have been know to Plato and to Aristotle, although there seem to be have been several of these versions that began with Night.

We then move on what the author calls the Hieronyman theogony, which Damascius presents as follows:

The theology according to Hieronymus or Hellanicus, even if the latter is not the same personage, is as follows.

It is impossible to identify Hieronymus and Hellanicus, and even to know whether they are the same person. The author in question might even be Jerome the Greek (and hence may be a pagan). Yet it is better not to take sides. It remains curious to observe that Chapter 4 is entitled The Hieronyman Theogony, without any explanation. It should be noted that Athenagoras attributes a similar theology to Orpheus. It seems, moreover, that the beginning of this theogony results from an attempt to establish agreement between several theogonies:

In the beginning, he says, there were water and matter, from which earth was coagulated, and these he establishes as the first two principles, water and earth, the latter as capable of dispersion, and the former as providing coherence and connection for earth. He omits the single principle before the two, since the fact that it not even mentioned shows its ineffable nature. (De principiis, §123bis, transl. S. Ahbel-Rappe modified)
This first part of the theogony might well be a mere adaptation of the allegorical exegesis of Zeno of Citium: "Zeno also says that, in Hesiod, chaos is water, out of which mud is formed by condensation; and out of this mud the solid earth is formed by concretion" (SVF I.104, p. 29.17-19 = Schol. ad Apoll. Rhod. I.498). By placing water at the origin, this theogony makes "Orpheus" agree with Homer (cf. Aristotle, Metaph. N.4, 1091b4 ff.), while by interpreting chaos as water, it reconciles "Orpheus" and Homer with Hesiod.

From this mixture comes Chronos (Time), who is described in these terms:

… and it is a serpent with the heads of a lion and a bull grown upon it, and in the middle the countenance of a god and it has wings on its shoulders, and the same god is called "Ageless Time (Chronos)" and Heracles. And Necessity is united with it, which is Nature that is Adrasteia, stretching the arms of its bimorph body throughout the entire cosmos, touching he very boundaries of it. I think that this is said to be the third principle that functions as their substance, except that they represent is as male-female in order to show that it is the generating cause of all things. (De principiis, §123bis, transl. S. Ahbel-Rappe modified)
This description of Chronos seems to be inspired by the Mithraic personage Zurvan akanara, represented, in the guise of Aion, on a relief from Modena. This personage plays a primordial role in the pantheon of pre-Zoroastrian Iran and in Mithraism. Mithraism was introduced into the Roman Empire at the beginning of the Christian era. It underwent a large-scale expansion during the 2nd and 3rd centuries of our era, before disappearing from the 4th century. Now, since the testimonies concerning the theogonies of Hieronymus and Hellanicus and the Rhapsodies never go back beyond the second half of the second century, the renewal of Orphism, attested by these two theogonies, can be dated to the end of the 1st or the beginning of the 2nd century BCE. I would be inclined to think that the beginning of this version was added to the Sacred Discourse in 24 Rhapsodies, although the author does not seem to share this view. Except for this initial episode, the version of the theogony reported by Athenagoras roughly corresponds to that of the Rhapsodies.

The theogony of the Rhapsodies constitutes the most important testimony on Orphism that has come down to us. It has been handed down by Neoplatonists, who wished to establish an agreement between the philosophies of Pythagoras and Plato, which they identified with what can be found in Homer, Hesiod, and more fundamentally in Orphism and the Chaldaean Oracles. One can, of course, debate the anachronism of the Neoplatonic interpretation; nevertheless, this interpretation is extremely rich, insofar as it provides an idea of the process by which the various divinities originated in a theology inspired by a previous interpretative trend of Platonism, namely Middle Platonism.

This concordist effort raises an important problem for the Neoplatonists, who nevertheless agree in acknowledging three Nights and three Ouranoi. One should note, moreover, the incredible interpretation of castration as the limit between the intelligible and the sensible.

The book ends with Dionysos in the Rhapsodies. Reference is made to the attack on Dionysos by the Titans, who cut him into pieces and eat him by chewing him up, and are reduced to ashes by Zeus; human beings are born from these ashes. We are here in the context of an allegory that explains the appearance of the body of the world, the seven planets, and the body of human beings. It should be noted, moreover, that as far as mankind is concerned, this myth leads to the prohibition of suicide, and hence of the destruction of his body by mankind, since this body has as its origin the subliming vapor (αἰθάλη) that rises from the body of the Titans, who were thunderstruck by Zeus after having eaten the body of Dionysos. Whatever one says, the term αἰθάλη is a technical term proper to the alchemists, among whom Olympiodorus probably belonged.

It will be understood that despite these few critical remarks, I consider that this book is an excellent introduction to the various versions of the Orphic cosmogony.


1.   West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (Oxford , 1971); criticized by G. S Kirk, 'Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient', Classical Review 21 (1974), 82-6.
2.   W. Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. English tr. by M. E. Pinder and W. Burkert (Cambridge, MA, 1992), and Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture (Cambridge, MA, 2004); G. Betegh, The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation (Cambridge, 2004); A. Bernabé, 'The Derveni Theogony: Many Questions and Some Answers', Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 103 (2007), 99-133.

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Diane J. Rayor, William W. Batstone (ed.), Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations, 2nd edition. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. 428. ISBN 9781138857803. £32.99.

Reviewed by Neil W. Bernstein, Ohio University (

Version at BMCR home site

This collection of translations by various hands updates and expands the first edition, published in 1995.1 The translations remain, in the words of the editors, "filtered through the translator's individual insight" (xxx). Some of the translators have published books of original English poetry and contribute versions that demand to be considered as creations in their own right. Others have followed the original text more closely, though that does not necessarily mean that they have paid less attention to creating a poem that commands a contemporary reader's attention. W.S. Anderson's introduction remains the same as in the first edition, and shows its age.

The translations themselves sometimes gloss obscure names and concepts, as in Quartarone's versions of Propertius, for example. At other times, the translator has mirrored the text's demands on its original readers' learning, as in Peter Anderson's version of Catullus 64. Batstone's well-chosen, economical endnotes provide a valuable resource for students and instructors to draw on. As in any edited collection, the quality of the contributions varies; they range from workmanlike renderings to the remarkably sensitive work of Anderson, Deutsch, and Lombardo. Instructors who want to introduce these strange, impassioned poems to a contemporary audience now have a valuable resource.

I have only a few quibbles with the book's presentation. The introductions to the different authors, never longer than two pages, are far too brief. The comprehensiveness of Batstone's notes certainly remedies much of this lack. This format, however, requires pulling relevant introductory information from a lemmatized commentary; instructors and students alike may balk at this prospect. "[desunt versus]" (p. 26) won't make sense to the Latinless readers for whom this book is presumably intended, and isn't explained in the notes.


A new translation of Catullus by Peter Anderson replaces the earlier edition's versions by Jane Wilson Joyce. It adds further items that did not appear in the earlier volume, in particular poem 64, Catullus's masterpiece on the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Anderson's version is generally more accessible to undergraduates than the previous version. The translation of the second poem begins: "O sparrow, my love's sweetheart / to play with you, to hold you to her breast". By contrast, Joyce's earlier version went for allusive wit, beginning "Passer Noster: / Our Sparrow, Which Art in Heaven."

Anderson leaves the terms pathicus and cinaedus of poem 16 untranslated (though carefully glossed), presumably out of a pedagogical commitment to precision regarding a different culture's linguistic and sexual mores. It was obviously not out of concern about obscenity in a book that has plenty of f-bombs to go around. The slang has been updated: febriculosi / scorti (6.4-5), for examples, becomes a "skanky slut." Anderson shows particular skill at varying English rhythms to give some sense of Catullus's diverse meters. The nervous rhythm of his version of poem 63, the Attis, conveys the sense of Catullus's unusual choice of galliambics. The italicization of "she" at its introduction at line 8 conveys the unexpectedness of the shift in the speaker's gender.

New to this edition is poem 64 in Anderson's masterful translation. The rhythm is as slow, the diction as learned, and the register as high as the original; the song of the Parcae is rendered with particular elegance. Anderson's version also endeavors to match the erudition of the original poem, and so includes kennings such as "Erycina" and "Cecrops' city". The reader who knows the poem in Latin will be impressed by Anderson's considerable achievement, while the student reader will be grateful for Batstone's helpful explanatory notes.


Rachel Hadas presents a Tibullus in rhyming couplets, which has been only lightly edited since the previous edition. The choice of form presents the risk of an occasional lapse into Gilbert & Sullivan, as at, e.g. "I am both general and private here. / Let greedy men be wounded – I don't care" (1.1.75-6). Maltby's Tibullus commentary might have been included among the suggested readings.2


Helen E. Deutsch's translations have been revised from the first edition. These versions achieve powerful effects through their restraint and compression. The opening of 1.3 will serve as an example: "Picture Ariadne, lying limp on a barren beach, / Theseus's ship departing in the distance." Lorina Quartarone contributes six new translations, but in a more prosaic mode, as in the following example: "No need for Leucippus's daughter Phoebe to inflame Castor's desire with adopted refinement" (1.2.15).


Elizabeth Young contributes a new Sulpicia and "Garland of Sulpicia." Young gives her speaker a direct and emotionally compelling voice. Her liberal use of em-dashes may remind the contemporary reader of Emily Dickinson's similarly brief, confessional poems. "If ever I've done anything in my short life / more foolishly and with more regrets— I confess it" (3.18.3-4). Young's translation replaces the first edition's versions by Mary Maxwell and Rachel Hadas, the latter again in rhyming couplets like her other versions of Tibullus. Batstone leads the reader expertly through the history of scholarly hypotheses regarding Sulpicia's identity and authorship.


This edition adds two more poems from the Amores to the previous one.3 The translators, John Svarlien and Diane Arnson Svarlien, use mostly iambic meter with occasional dactyls to great effect. Their amatory Ovid uses a conversational tone full of contemporary clichés. Thus their Dipsas advises her protegée to handle her wealthy client as follows: "Coax and cozen him down the garden path. He won't guess what hit him / if you honey-coat his bitter pill" (1.8.103-4). Ovid's narrator displays the translators' characteristic wit as he is made to wonder: "What if our forebears had forborne to bear?" (2.14.9). These features contribute to the student reader's ability to distinguish Ovid from the other elegists on the level of phrase and sentence, as well as in terms of argument and subject matter.

The volume's editors note that they commissioned some new poems for the second edition in response to requests by reviewers and instructors. Should a third edition be commissioned, this reviewer would find some of the Heroides a useful addition to the generous selection of Amores presented here.


The second edition includes three more of Horace's odes than the first; Stanley Lombardo's elegant versions otherwise remain unchanged.4 As in Lombardo's versions of Latin epic, this Horace passes easily through a variety of registers. Horace on the subject of love sounds like a thoroughly modern man: "I have lived my life, kept in shape for girls" (3.26.1); "We've had a long truce, Venus, / and now you're mobilizing again" (4.1.1-2). The tone can become terse and grave where appropriate: "Done. A monument more lasting than bronze" (3.30.1). The Roman Odes occupy an appropriately elevated register: thus Juno promises that she will "allow [Romulus] / to enter the halls of light, to drink nectar / sweet, and to be inscribed among / the quiet ranks of the gods" (3.3.33-6).

Horace's gnomic statements are notoriously difficult to render credibly for contemporary audiences, who tend to be allergic to the form. Lombardo faces the challenge with steadfastness of purpose. The conclusion of the consolatory 1.24 well expresses the nature of the problem facing all translators: "It is hard. But endurance makes more bearable / what it is unnatural to change."


1.   Diane J. Rayor, William W. Batstone, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995.
2.   Robert Maltby, Tibullus: Elegies. Cambridge: Francis Cairns, 2002. Reviewed in these pages at BMCR 2004.02.01.
3.   Many of the Svarliens' translations of the Amores have also been published on Diotima (
4.   Lombardo has since published a complete Odes: Stanley Lombardo (trans.), Horace: Odes with Carmen Saeculare. Introduction and Notes by Anthony Corbeill. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2018.

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Martin Eckert, Die Aphrodite der Seefahrer und ihre Heiligtümer am Mittelmeer: archäologische Untersuchungen zu interkulturellen Kontaktzonen am Mittelmeer in der späten Bronzezeit und frühen Eisenzeit. Münster: LIT, 2016. Pp. x, 589. ISBN 9783643135100. €79,90 (pb).

Reviewed by Alan Johnston, Institute of Archaeology, University College London (

Version at BMCR home site

This substantial volume aims at shedding new light on those cults of, or associated with, Aphrodite in which there is evidence of participation by seafarers. The introduction, among other matters, outlines the criteria used in the selection of the 172 sites included in the catalogue, basically those within reasonable distance of the sea, and of late Bronze Age to early Hellenistic date, when syncretism of cults becomes frequent. The introduction takes up 70 pages, the catalogue 320 and further discussion and conclusions 140.

The introduction ranges widely over topics associated with seafaring and Aphrodite, from the efficiency of brailed sails on square-rigged boats (perhaps underestimated here) to the treatment of non-locals in port and the criteria for judging the nature of a site as a cult place. A methodological approach that privileges the details of each cult site and then turns to comparisons among them is chosen.

The catalogue includes cults of Aphrodite known from either textual evidence or archaeological material or both. The texts are placed on the verso, commentary on them and archaeological evidence on the recto, each with a separate series of footnotes, though there is a hiatus during a passage where landing-places and harbours on Cyprus are listed, and the system is abandoned half-way through the treatment of the Cypriot sanctuaries. The texts are mostly given in the original, with translations randomly into English, German or French.

There follows a section offering an overview of the major female deities found in areas ranging from Mesopotamia via Egypt and Anatolia to Greece, together with their male 'consorts'. Matters arising on the catalogue are then discussed in the Conclusions, where the main themes are the depth of Phoenician input into Aphrodite cults, the sexual and aggressive nature of (armed) Aphrodite and her predecessors, the lack of pig bones in the relevant sanctuaries, and the hunter-gatherer origins of an aggressive female deity and her transition through the millennia.

While this is a tasty menu, there is much that is difficult to savour, and a review cannot cover it all. There are major defects in both the text and its presentation, the latter seemingly out of the author's control. The book is well illustrated, but it is rare that a text figure appears on the relevant page; references to the illustrations are sporadic; cross-references in the text are virtually absent; there is no index. The system of having ancient texts and commentary on verso and recto breaks down, so that they become up to fifteen pages out of kilter; strategic placement of illustrations could have obviated most of this discord.

Referencing is at best poor; references tend to be clumped together, so that it is normally unclear which statement in the text goes with which reference. There is a mix of styles too—normally 'Bloggs 1989' but sometimes 'BCH 1989 232-40'. Statements like BCH opines a view (429) (rather than Baurain opines) suggest that these notes are little more than the author's aides-memoire ('contra' appears often with no further clue as to the character of the objection), with odd numbers and lettering and one simple 'Mitteilungen 2012' that should have been deleted from the submitted version. Extensive use of unusual or rare abbreviations (which occasionally escape this reviewer), with no listing, will not help the more general readership of the book who seem to be the target of some full page colour illustrations, including a Cycladic figurine and the Artemision Zeus, and very lengthy texts concerning various Aphrodisian adventures, almost all to be dated after the stated Hellenistic cut-off point for the material under discussion. In addition, many observations in the text require references not obviously contained in the bibliography presented.

The methodology outlined in the initial chapters is followed to an extent; restrained responses are given to a range of the topics mentioned above, after suitable discussion of the evidence, and a peroration asks for more evidence to be found. However, one aspect certainly does not get such treatment: while a Greek pot does not equal Greek presence, any whiff of a Phoenician does constitute at least a way-station. This includes all place-names derived from the root phoin-, most mythological foundation legends (e.g. Seriphos), presence of murex shells (Gytheion), and the location of a temenos of Aphrodite near the port (e.g. Aegina, which 'may have had a Phoenician settlement' [467]). This alternative methodology provides a Phoenician trade-route from the Saronic Gulf through the Corinthian Gulf and on to Italian shores, deliberately avoiding Cape Malea, although here the alleged early and important presence of Aphrodite on Kythera seems to have been temporarily forgotten.

An avenue that is patiently explored is the genesis of the armed Aphrodite, well attested in the Greek world; Eckert argues for an origin in the Near Eastern 'powerful goddess' with overtly sexual aspects, a successor to the 'divinities' of hunter-gatherers, before human females were relegated to familiar roles in sedentary communities. The section on 'pre-Aphrodites' is largely concerned with this aspect, though includes other deities who at some point have a marine connection. The topic of 'sacred prostitution' emerges here, and later in the book is given yet another treatment, with the addition of a slew of ancient texts; Eckert treats it carefully, without the total distrust held by others. The requirements of sailors coming to port have some relevance here (e.g. at Lokroi), though the notion that sex (with whoever?) on board ship was tabu because all ships were feminine is odd; not on the good ship Venus, but sex on the beach. Or on Acrocorinth?—a long haul for the storm-battered.

Regarding the catalogue, which Eckert admits is not an ideally bounded collection, one would have been better off with a list of Aphrodite sanctuaries not included because of their distance from the sea; as land-locked Psophis and Orchomenos make the cut, it is difficult to imagine any that don't (see my comments on Axos below). The resumés of architecture and finds are generally useful, especially for the German reader. Beyond typos and poor referencing, some corrigenda and addenda are needed (Eckert's catalogue numbers):

1.1. There is no evidence that Portus Veneris (Vendres) ever had a Phoenician settlement. The bilingual bronze text from Pech Maho is confused with a Greek text from Emporion.
1.11. The corpus of inscriptions of Lokri, by Lavinio del Monaco, is missing; it would have confirmed the attribution of the Marasa temple to Aphrodite and shown that there are no assured Ionian dedications (and 'Ionian' cups in the West are generally not of Ionian provenance).
1.12. Aphrodite's name is not preserved in the dedication to Basilis at Satyrion.
1.13. Capo, not Cabo Colonna.
2.4. The dioruktos at Leukas is surely the canal between mainland and island.
2.9. Mythology does not place the Phoenician founding of Thebes in the eighth century.
2.23. Kainepolis is not on Cape Matapan.
2.24. There is no evidence of a Phoenician harbour at Gytheion.
2.31. While indeed Scranton does not go into details of any Classical remains at Kenchreai, he does say how scrappy they were.
2.43. Wrong translation of IG II2 2798 on Aphrodite Hegemone at Athens. While the temple of Ares in the Agora is architecturally Classical, it is of course a Roman incomer.
3.1. Palaiokastro is near the east, not west coast of Kythera, and the 'Babylonian dedicatory inscription' was cut on what seems a plain Cycladic marble bowl.
3.4. Axos is included in the catalogue, but then on 470 it is judged to be too far from the sea, 20 km, to be a sailor's sanctuary.
3.5. Kommos is described at length, not because of Aphrodite, but because of the strong Phoenician connections c. 900- 750 BC. These later in the volume become a 'Phoenician period', but the overwhelming proportion of pottery discovered is Cretan. A SM dating of temple A rests on just one bowl fragment. Lamps are very rare in the pre-classical levels. Using 'readings' from the Phaistos disc is always a bad sign.
3.9. The citing under Aegina of a Chian kantharos dedicated to Aphrodite at Naukratis is confusing.
3.16. The reading of the text on the roof tile from Histria is apargma, not agallma.
3.24. The harbour sanctuary of Emporio scarcely 'überblickte' the harbour itself. Eckert has not noted the more recently discovered graffito dedication to Apollo. The slave's dedication can hardly have been of the cult statue. Lion's paw architectural mouldings are a commonplace in the archaic period in the area, by no means specifically 'Kybelian'.
3.27. Samos is not in the Southern Sporades. The cheekpiece, Abb. 73, is not 'undatiert', as it belongs with the frontlet(s) dated c. 830-810 BC.
3.28. The Zeytintepe sanctuary at Miletus has only one dedication by a woman and one by a non-Greek individual (see Ehrhardt, Milet V, 3, 37).
3.31. Kos is scarcely a Spartan foundation.
3.33. A footnote (237, n. 89) regarding Rhodes illustrates typical problems; after the plethora of Aegyptiaca of the seventh century 'Im 6. Jh began der griechische Einfluss zu überwiegen; anekdotische Geschichte des 4. Jhs. spiegeln die Versuche der Griechen wider, die Phönizier von der Insel zu vertreiben'; no reference for the latter, most curious phrasing for the former.
3.36. For Naukratis Eckert erroneously follows the course of the river posited by the American team. There is no pottery of the first half of the seventh century, and that from the Aphrodite sanctuary is more or less contemporary with that from Apollo's. The dedications to Aphrodite Pandemos, all of the late Archaic period, are from the cult site in or near the Hellenion.

Cypriot sites, published already in corpore by Webb, Karageorghis (J.) and Ulbrich are competently treated, though at 4.11 (Amathous) Eckert misses entirely the Attic pottery published by Martin Robertson. Missing, inter alia, are the volume of imported pottery by Gjerstad and several of the volumes edited by Stampolides, such as Eastern Mediterranean; Cyprus, Dodecanese and Crete 16th-6th centuries B.C. (1998).

Although literary texts and translations are cited in full, inscriptions are often merely given a reference without text, and often an outdated one; the example from Pharsalos (168), another scarcely coastal site, cited from Roehl, IGA, has at least three later publications, as noted in LGPN III under Dawon, and there are two for the sailors' texts at Pili (42) = Grammata in Akrokeraunia. Citation of texts is otherwise tolerable, though Greek does not use ':' and an added 'not' in the translation of Athenaios on p.152 is curious.

Coins, too, fair badly; the Aeginetan standard is used widely after 458 B.C., pace 195, n.29; coins are omitted in the discussion of Aphrodite at Knidos, and their appearance in Greece is given far too early a date (523, n.170).

Among the solecisms I note extensive mismatches of colony and mother-city in the list on p. 62, as well as (57 and passim) 'Barrington' as the editor of the Atlas. The overall bibliography, despite citation of two publications of 2016, is somewhat outdated and omits important material.

Forays into symbolism are dubious; the double-axe by the ship on the British Museum LG krater from Thebes is said to signify a goddess's epiphany—as in all other appearances on LG pots? And while the lotus flower has significance in the Near East, it surely loses it by the time of its omnipresence on sixth century Greek pots, if not before.

More generally, there are many places in the text where one leaps from millennium to millennium or century to century; Eckert would probably justify this by his reasonable assertion, rather late in the day on p.397, that 'popular religion' can go underground and emerge centuries if not millennia later, but the reader is continually confused. This is a selection of comment, but gives a suitable taste of the problems with this volume. The overall aim is admirable, the execution deficient in virtually all respects save for some sections of useful reportage and thought-provoking speculation, which, however, a reader would have difficulties in finding.

[For a response to this review by Martin Eckert, please see BMCR 2019.07.08.]

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Thursday, May 30, 2019


Milette Gaifman, Verity Platt, Michael Squire (ed.), The Embodied Object in Classical Antiquity. Art History. Oxford; Boston: Association for Art History, 2018. Pp. 196 [397-591]; 119 p. of plates. ISBN 01416790.

Reviewed by Jesús Muñoz Morcillo, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) & Universidad de Salamanca (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Embodied Object in Classical Antiquity is a special issue of the Journal of the Association for Art History (Vol. 41.3). It is the result of a conference organized by Jennifer Trimble at Stanford University in April 2015. The conference itself was one of a series of events called "The New Antiquity: Art + Archaeology Now" launched at the University of Chicago by Verity Platt, Richard Neer, and Jaś Elsner.

The book discusses artistic depictions of inanimate items that engage in human body experiences; it follows a new research approach in archaeology and visual studies with a focus on phenomenological hermeneutics; it employs different methods such as cognitive archaeology, Actor-Network-Theory (ANT), and material culture studies. As a whole, it is an interesting contribution to the so-called "sensory turn" in Classics. Some of the authors (e.g., Ruth Bielfeldt, Michael Squire, Elsner, and Platt) collaborated as editors in recent projects: Sight and the Ancient Senses (Squire) and The Frame in Classical Art (Platt and Squire). In these editorial projects, the approach to classical aesthetics was to some extent comparable to the contextual-based methods presented in the book under review. Here, the authors deserve particular praise for the work's short but clear, theoretical frame, a selection of interrelated contributions, and a diachronic argument on the hermeneutic potential of analyzing ancient works of art as embodied objects.

Most papers concern the relation between human engagement and art objects within their original context. The "Introduction" presents the theoretical frame, the current state of research, a first case study, and a short overview of the edited articles. In opposition to the romantic contemplation of ancient art popularized by John Keats' poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the authors introduce their materialistic vantage point: the embodied experience of a fifth-century BCE bronze hydria whose handle is shaped like a female figure. This figure holds two libation bowls whose function becomes evident when liquid is being poured from the hydria. After mentioning the articles of their co-authors, the editors argue that questions of embodiment are relevant across all cultures and periods.

Most of the case studies here included stem from religious or domestic contexts. Reflecting on Petronius' Cena Trimalchionis, Ruth Bielfeldt discusses the significance of converting bronze statues into domestic tray- and light-bearers. Milette Gaifman deepens her phenomenological approach from the "Introduction" when she analyzes the handling and form of the libation bowl (phiále) and its change of meaning, depending on the material context. She stresses the intermediary character of the handle, following Georg Simmel's Prinzip des Henkels and Jacques Derrida's deconstruction of Kant's párergon. The latter is also cited by other authors such as Richard Neer and Patrick R. Crowley. Neer deals with the question of transgressive embodiment processes. He focuses on sculptures and crafted objects that incorporate amber as a metaphor for fire, or even fire as part of the iconographic meaning process and functionality (e.g., horse frontlets with eyes of amber and ivory, or archaic marble lamps with head decoration) and thus embrace a "wonderful" dimension. Verity Platt analyzes the epistemological significance of unfinished paintings (imperfectae tabulae) described in Pliny's Natural History as revealing a discourse of the unfinished as a visualization of "corporeal connections" between the artist and his work. From a diachronic perspective, she quotes Walter Benjamin's thesis of the "work as the dead-mask of its conception," comparing ancient with modern seemingly unfinished works of art such as Albrecht Dürer's "Salvador mundi," Michelangelo's sculpture of St. Matthew, or the "sketchy" finish of Venetian painters such as Titian in his late period. In contrast to Pliny's assumptions of incompletion as a symptom of the artist's death, those painters tended to have a pedagogical intent. Platt is the only author to give an explicit, albeit rather short, account of ecphrasis (p. 503). From the Greek Anthology, she mentions ecphrastic poems on Aphrodite that evoke "the tension between presence and absence." Other authors such as Neer also quote ecphrastic texts, but the book does not follow a systematic approach in this regard.

No fewer than three papers concern the embodied object in funerary contexts. 1 Michael Squire focuses on the ambiguity of Greek gravestones (funerarystélai) from the fifth and late fourth centuries BCE. He analyzes them as bearers of ontological questions and mediators between the disembodied dead and the sensory body. Jaś Elsner and Patrick R. Crowley concentrate on embodiment phenomena related to Roman and Early Christian sarcophagi, respectively. Elsner's main interest concerns the finished and unfinished portraits of the three-dimensional reclining statues carved on the lid of the sarcophagus and their relation to the reliefs on the box. His article includes interesting connections to Verity Platt's text on unfinished art (see pp. 561-563). Finally, following an iconological approach, Crowley decodes the visual and literary sources for the recurring iconography of "Doubting Thomas."

The book may be divided into three sections: the introductory explanation of the theoretical frame, four case studies concerning the religious and societal implications of embodied art as well as the limits of this phenomenon, and three case studies that deal with the idea of embodiment in relation to bodily absence, revealing the ambiguities of funerary art. Throughout the book, connections between the articles give rise to a critical dialogue that may lead to new knowledge and research ideas.

For example, the frequent use of terms such as "entanglement" and "embodied object" throughout the book suggests that the theoretical frame is primarily indebted to the ANT and phenomenological embodiment theories 2. The editors also note that their own embodied concept is based on Bruno Latour's Resembling the Social, an Introduction to Actor-Network- Theory. They seek to put the ANT, recent studies in cognitive archaeology, and material culture studies "into conversation with a longer tradition of phenomenological approaches to the visual arts grounded in the work of Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Martin Heidegger" (p. 405). It is, however, Ruth Bielfeldt's detailed theoretical frame that describes Husserl's and Merleau-Ponty's embodiment concept as an "event experienced by and through our living bodies" (p. 422). Bielfeldt's discussion is informed by the idea that the human body is its own, first embodied object (Merleau-Ponty) and that external objects are part of bodily sensations (Husserl). She also introduces the contingency of the physical body (Körper) in opposition to the transcendental body (Leib) so that our own human body experiences every example in art as a historical, not as a transcendental, entity. With this theoretical description of the embodied object, the author describes the "embodied history" of anthropomorphic tools as if they were slaves, beginning with Homer's first mention of servants as automata. From this point of departure, Bielfeldt centers on three interrelated "pieces of evidence": a literary passage from Cena Trimalchionis, a wall painting from Pompeii, and a group of bronze anthropomorphic lampstands, also from Pompeii. The literary passage is a source for understanding the multi-layered embodied meanings of Roman material culture in terms of the object-human relationship, i.e., the intimacy with the object: "[b]y physically embodying himself in his candelabrus [sic], Trimalchio opposes his social objectification" (p. 428).

Despite differences between the general theoretical frame of the introduction and the concrete references to Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in Bielfeldt's case study, the book contains a central argument. All the authors understand the "embodied object" as the relationship between bodies, things, and the environment. In doing so, they abandon outdated notions of primitive expression in ancient art.

The book is a significant contribution to current scholarship in art history and archaeology. The consistent treatment of the idea of embodiment—contrasting art with aesthetics and with philosophical and political observations—is of special value for further research. Equally innovative is the use of photomontage and visual reconstructions as knowledge-instruments that present works of art as embodied objects in what we think was their original context and purpose. On the other hand, the case studies limit themselves to objects that function within a religious or domestic context. The analysis of art in the public sphere—such as monuments, public buildings, or large works of art (e.g., triumphal arches, temples, or obelisks)—from the vantage point of embodiment theories remains to a great extent a desideratum of research. A shortcoming of the book seems to be the lack of reflection on ancient materialism. Atomistic and Epicurean positions in particular are overlooked, although those positions were present in ancient intellectual circles and produced new conceptions of beauty and pictorial agency as an embodied experience of art. 3 Indeed, many references to the Stoa in the book can be understood as ideas with Epicurean origin. For example, Platt's analysis of týpos as a non-Platonic tradition of image making does not need to go back to a Stoic model of perception at all, but rather to an Epicurean one. Indeed, in the Letter to Herodotus Epicurus defines týposas a mental model (§ 35) and as a physical impression (§ 49).

In general, it would also be very useful to extend the theoretical approach of embodiment to other ontological conceptions, such as Aby Warburg's idea of Bilderfahrzeuge ("vehicles of images") or Bredekamp's Bildakt theory on imagines agentes. John Dewey's emphasis on sensory exchange between beholder and the environment as the basis of aesthetic experience would have been helpful for this book as well. Some of its case studies would have benefited from a more specific theoretical frame making it possible to overcome the historical contingencies of bodily experience and allowing works of art to answer many other questions beyond their original context. Similarly, the explanation of works of art in their original context on the basis of literary sources could also take into consideration the ecphrastic tradition with its rhetorical peculiarities. This approach would have granted, for instance, more consistency to Richard Neer's interpretation of the Homeric formula thaũma idésthai for describing crafted objects.

The book was produced with care. While there are no significant typos, it should be pointed out that most Greek terms are transcribed without any diacritic marks and without indicating long vowels. This is unusual for classical philologists and could produce some terminological confusions.

Despite these points, The Embodied Object in Classical Antiquity is undoubtedly a valuable piece of scholarship. Specialists in the fields addressed by these essays will find inspiration in many of them. Finally, the volume as a whole makes an essential contribution to our understanding of embodiment as an essential part of art experience in ancient times.

Authors and titles

Milette Gaifman Verity Platt, "Introduction: From Grecian Urn to Embodied Object"
Ruth Bielfeldt, "Candelabrus and Trimalchio: Embodied Histories of Roman Lampstands and their Slaves"
Milette Gaifman, "The Greek Libation Bowl as Embodied Object"
Richard Neer, "Amber, Oil and Fire: Greek Sculpture beyond Bodies"
Verity Platt, "Orphaned Objects: The Phenomenology of the Incomplete in Pliny's Natural History"
Michael Squire, "Embodying the Dead on Classical Attic Grave-Stelai"
Jaś Elsner, "The Embodied Object: Recensions of the Dead on Roman Sarcophagi"
Patrick R. Crowley, "Doubting Thomas and the Matter of Embodiment on Early Christian Sarcophagi"


1.   See also the section Embodiments of the Immaterial by Gaifman commenting on libation bowls as gifts to the dead (p. 460).
2.   The term "entanglement" is borrowed from Ian Hodder's Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things (2012).
3.   The absence of a materialistic or an atomistic aesthetical approach in the volume is notable even if the editors briefly refer to Jane Bennett's book Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things or to Stephen Greenblatt's bestseller The Swerve in a general sense. Regarding Greek materialism and the agency of images beyond antiquity, see Bredekamp's Der Bildakt (2015), especially pp. 30-32, 321-324.

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Donnie N. Wang, Before the Market. The Political Economy of Olympianism. New directions in the humanities. Champaign: Common Ground, 2018. Pp. xiv, 192. ISBN 9781612299006. $30.00 (hb).

Reviewed by Reinhard Pirngruber, Austrian Academy of Sciences (

Version at BMCR home site

Unusually for a monograph on the Ancient Greek economy and the mentalities and ideologies into which it was embedded, Before the Market's main concern is on the lesson such an investigation holds for the present. Its central concept is Olympianism, one of three dominant cultural belief (or truth) systems prevailing in Ancient Greece (the others being Polisism and Oeconomism); throughout the book the beneficial potential of adhering to Olympianism's values and ideals for our contemporary global society is emphasized. In Wang's definition, Olympianism is based on "the distinctive idea that human identity ought to be constantly fashioned through collaborative and reciprocal action"; its main feature is that it "stimulates robust, dense, rhizomic social relations" (p. 9). Moreover, Olympianism is characterized as "a social configuration that rejects the logic of the market", that achieves "a unique property system that fulfills many desirable ends that include safeguarding subsistence, augmenting independence, and bolstering service", thus engendering "the material conditions for an egalitarian and horizontal society" (p. 23).

Before the Market is divided into two parts, the first four chapters being dedicated to Olympianism's political economy, and Chapters Five and Six to the underlying cultural system. The first chapter explains the concept and gives an overview of past research. Chapter Two focuses on ownership, in particular of land against the backdrop of prevailing ideals of equality and egalitarianism. Wang highlights the centrality of concepts such as kleros and temenos in actual economic life and on the ideological plane. She also provides a discussion of impoverishment and debt bondage of small-scale farmers. In the second part of this chapter, attitudes towards jointly held assets ("the commons") and obligations—notably the liturgical system—are discussed in detail. Chapter Three is dedicated to Homo faber, the autonomous labourer, be he farmer or craftsman, embedded in a web of "exchange between dignified, equal members who relate to each other on the basis of love and trust" (p. 80). Monetization and the commodification of skills through market forces brought about a fundamental weakening of this class, eroding social cohesion. Moreover, this development brought about increased reliance on slave labour. The very brief fourth chapter touches on the subject of the relationship between democracy and the polis, postulating that the exclusionary mechanisms against women, foreigners and slaves so strongly in evidence in Classical Athens bear witness to a dramatic shift in the city's cultural fabric and a "betrayal" of Olympianism's legacy. The second part of the book contains two chapters, the former being dedicated to the question of social identity. Central practices discussed are the agon and the symposion. The latter is said to foster horizontal relationships within the community, while the former serves to assert individual identity in a communal setting. Aspects tackled in this section are internal conflict resolution, service to the group and peer-to-peer relationships. Chapter Six is devoted to the role of subaltern groups in the Greek Olympian system, especially women, the poor and foreigners. Against the grain of much past and current research, Wang makes a case for a larger scope of these groups in political discourse, and a less despised position than conventionally assumed; in part due to a prevailing belief system imbuing the world with sacral transcendence (pp. 10-12).

Unfortunately, the book's central flaw resides in its peculiar narrative structure centered on the lessons its analysis holds for the contemporary world. In the quest for giving urgency to her agenda, Wang contrasts the positive Olympian ideals with 'realities' spawned by an exclusively negatively connotated market system inhabited by homo economicus "who constantly lives in a state of hostility and rivalry" (pp. 50-1): ownership is "socially extractive," the extractive class being endowed with "economic entitlements that suck in rent, interest, surcharge (from enclosing resources), and profit (from exploiting labor)" (p. 91). Human intelligence is "instrumentalized for the pursuit of abstracted utility at the price of collective well-being" (p. 57), and legal-juridical process is equated with the "use of force and bureaucratic procedure by the state" (p. 39). The lopsidedness of such an account is, however, not the only (or even central) problem here. Even graver weighs her disregard of a wealth of economic and sociological literature pertinent to the book's core theme, as questions of social identity, cultural values and the generation of trust have come to play an important part in recent research.1 A particularly striking example is the importance given to homo economicus in Wang's narrative (pp. 50-2). Even as a heuristic tool, this concept has largely run its course, as statements (by economists!) such as "it is anything but prudent to let Homo economicus be the behavioral model of the citizen" make clear.2 Consequently, it clearly cannot bear the weight it is given in Wang's discourse where it epitomizes the market and all its failures.

The shortcomings just described are all the more unfortunate as Wang identifies a hitherto neglected but potentially fruitful area of research capable of significantly modifying current assessments of the Ancient Greek economy. The variables put to the fore by her approach—questions of social values and moral standards as well as of social identities and individuals' decision-making processes—are neither easily discerned in our sources nor conventionally brought to bear on social and political-economic matters by standard economic approaches. Moreover, some of her discussions (in particular in the book's more felicitous second part) shed new light on well-known passages from various sources, among which the Homeric epics take pride of place. A case in point is Wang's treatment of the Thersites episode, which she takes as an illustration of the considerable potential impact of actions of non-aristocrats in political discourse (pp. 145-53).

Yet overall, Before the Market fails to convince the reader. It values polemical black-and-white thinking (the 'market' vs. Olympianism) over a clearly argued demonstration of both the shortcomings of current approaches and the novel insights to be gained by her own approach. Important matters are only adumbrated or left aside. Both Polisism and Economism are briefly dealt with in the introduction, but by and large merely serve as antipodes to Olympianism, rather than being analyzed as belief systems in their own right. Consequently, neither the question of the bearers of her three belief systems nor the interdependence of the latter nor the issue of current actualizations of a belief system's normative (and time-independent) precepts are given due weight in Wang's account. This pertains e.g. to the adaptation and transformation of social values and moral standards chiefly associated with Olympianism under the rising influence of Polisism and Economimism. Moreover, lingering beneath the surface of Before the Market is an uneasy narrative of decline that sees the replacement of one rather idyllic value system by two others that are less positively connotated. To sum up, while Wang shows a promising way forward, she does not succeed in realizing its potential.


1.   Two recent monographs on these issues are G. Akerlof and R. Kranton, Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-being . Princeton University Press 2010, and S. Bowles, The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute For Good Citizens. Yale University Press 2016. For the Greek world see now D. Lewis, 'Behavioural economics and economic behaviour in Classical Athens.' In M. Canevaro et al. (eds.), Ancient Greek History and Contemporary Social Science, Edinburgh University Press 2018, pp. 15-46.
2.   Bowles, op. cit., p. 2. The context of this quote is a call to abandon the concept both in scientific discourse as well as in applied social politics. For further critical assessments of homo economicus see the references given in R. Pirngruber 2017, The Economy of Late Achaemenid and Seleucid Babylonia. Cambridge University Press 2017, p. 12 and n. 22. See also the prudent discussion in A. Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States. Princeton University Press 2016, pp. 16-18.

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Constantinos Paschalidis, The Mycenaean Cemetery at Achaia Clauss near Patras: People, Material Remains and Culture in Context. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2018. Pp. xxiv, 510; 277 pp. of plates. ISBN 9781784919191. £90.00. Contributors: Photini J.P. McGeorge and Wiesław Więckowski

Reviewed by John K. Papadopoulos, UCLA (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Bronze Age Achaia, with its numerous cemeteries and settlements, has not received as much attention as other parts of the Mycenaean world, yet its importance, appreciated long ago by Emily Vermeule, cannot be underestimated. The region played a pivotal role in the westward movement of Greeks to the Italian peninsula and Sicily, both in the Bronze and Early Iron Age: after all, the first western Greeks were Mycenaeans, or, as they were known in Homer, "Achaians."1 Moreover, Achaia never boasted a Mycenaean palatial center, and, as such, it offers a different paradigm of a non-canonical Mycenaean trajectory that continues to be understudied.

Against such a backdrop, the publication of an important cemetery in this region is cause for celebration. There is a good deal to commend this volume. It is a solid presentation and discussion of the Mycenaean cemetery at Achaia Clauss, near Patras, which was in continuous use from the Late Helladic (henceforth LH) IIIA1 period to the end of LH IIIC. The cemetery was excavated from 1988 to 1992 by Thanassis Papadopoulos (no relation to the reviewer) under the auspices of the Athens Archaeological Society. A total of 15 chamber tombs were located and excavated, adding considerably to those already known from the pre-World War II excavations at the site by Nikolaos Kyparissis, who excavated a dozen tombs. The present monograph is a revised and updated version of the author's doctoral dissertation at the University of Ioannina, written under the supervision of Papadopoulos.

The volume begins with a Prologue by the excavator, Emeritus Professor Papadopoulos, followed by a Preface and Acknowledgements by Paschalidis, together with a chapter summary. Chapter 1, entitled "Mycenaean Period in Achaea" (the region appears as Achaia on the title page),2 is a brief, yet fairly comprehensive, survey of sites in Achaia, together with an even briefer and less comprehensive history of research. The focus is squarely on Mycenaean remains; earlier Bronze Age and later Early Iron Age material remains are not dealt with. Over a hundred sites in the region preserve Mycenaean material culture, located both on the coast and in the mountainous regions of the province. Paschalidis argues that the settlement associated with the cemetery is the neighboring hill-top of Mygdalia Petrotou, excavated since 2008 by Lena Papazoglou-Manioudaki and Paschalidis. This site appears to have been founded in the transitional phase from Middle Helladic III to LH I, and was inhabited continuously to the end of LH IIIC.

Chapter 2 provides a detailed description of the 15 tombs, beginning with their architecture, and the clustering and overall deposition of the finds within. For each tomb Paschalidis goes on to present the chronological sequence of the burials, and he also presents, wherever available, summary information of the age and gender of the deceased (for which, see below), and the grave-goods associated with each interred individual. The chapter is illustrated with black-and-white archival photographs of the graves, interspersed with a few color photos, together with good quality plans, elevations, and sections. The only thing that is really missing is a good topographical plan of the entire cemetery. The topographic sketch of the Achaia Clauss tombs in Figure 11 (p. 16) leaves a lot to be desired. The short Chapter 3 (pp. 124–128) deals with the general area of the graves, the nature of the bedrock into which they were cut, their manner of construction and any related structural problems, as well as the layout of the cemetery. Much of this discussion, which is vital, could have been incorporated into Chapter 2, either as an introduction or conclusion (or both).

Chapters 4 ("Catalogue of the Finds from the Cemetery") and 5 ("The Finds from the Cemetery. Analysis") present the cultural material, the grave-goods associated with the deceased. The former chapter is a complete catalogue of all the small finds; the latter presents a full analysis of the material, focusing on typology and comparanda, arranging the objects according to the material from which they were made: pottery, bronze, bone, stone. Both chapters are provided with excellent color photographs, and drawings of equally high quality (although not all of the material is drawn). Drawings of small finds other than pottery—weapons, implements, jewelry—are more limited, especially beads of semi-precious stone, glass/faïence, etc., as well as the more common terracotta spindlewhorls, beads, or buttons.

The analysis of the material in Chapter 5 begins with a full account of the shapes and decoration of the pottery, beginning with the closed shapes (stirrup jars, alabastra, amphorae, jugs, lekythoi, handless globular jars, piriform jars/krateriskoi, flasks, collar-necked jars/stamnoi, a feeding bottle, ring-shaped vases, and ending with the bird askoi), before analyzing the open shapes (cups, spouted mugs, multiple vases, kylikes [which are rare], dipper [rarer still], deep bowl or skyphos [equally rare], kalathoi, and the solitary tripod bowl). There are many items of interest here: among the closed shapes is the feeding bottle (pp. 401–402), which, as Paschalidis cogently argues, was an "invalid cup," rather than a baby feeder, as it was found associated with an adult male.3 Among the open vessels is the idiosyncratic multiple or composite vessel or "quadruple kernos" E13 (Π 14043), decorated in an idiom very un-Mycenaean (it is moot, however, whether this is an open or closed vessel).

The analysis of the bronze objects begins with weapons (Naue II sword, one dagger, and spearheads), followed by tools (knives, a sickle and sickle-like knives, razors, tweezers, and needles [and fragments thereof]), and then various ornaments (rings and bronze vases). The knives of Achaia Clauss, whenever clearly associated with an individual, belonged with males, whereas in many other cemeteries in Bronze and Early Iron Age Greece they are found with both males and females.4 The bone objects include pins (whether fasteners for clothes or shrouds or hair pins) and a solitary comb. The only stone objects are a single whetstone and a small lump of stone pigment, a natural coloring substance. Other small finds, of various materials, are more ubiquitous ("spindlewhorls, beads, or button" of various types, seals [of stone or glass], beads [stone, including cornelian, and glass], and a terracotta figurine). This last category, together with all the small finds other than pottery, may have better been classified under clay or stone or glass, or even, together with various bronzes, as jewelry.

Chapter 6 discusses the funerary customs. It begins with primary inhumations, especially those on the floor of the chamber, followed by inhumations in pits, and, interestingly, the only cremation in the cemetery, that of a 30-year-old male. Various cleansing practices of the Mycenaean and post-Mycenaean period at Clauss are then discussed (including pyres and covering the dead with lime), followed by funerary offerings in primary burials, the positioning of the offerings and their relationship to gender, child burials, and, interestingly, four double burials of mothers and children, which add to the growing number of such tombs throughout the Greek world,5 followed by secondary burials or relocations. There follows an important and often overlooked occurrence, what Paschalidis refers to as the legal looting of the dead,6 described (p. 464) as a "random series of incidents, but an established process." The final subheadings of this chapter include the reconstruction of the funerary ritual, the ceremony of burial, and after the funeral.

The circumscribed Chapter 7 is entitled "The People and Society of Clauss: Overview of the History of the Cemetery." It deals with six chronological phases of the cemetery, and ends with an epilogue that discusses the years after the end of an era. For Aegean prehistorians, history ends not with the collapse of the Mycenaean palatial system in LH IIIB, but with the close of the LH IIIC period.

Chapter 8, entitled "Bioarchaeological Approach to the Human Remains from Clauss" is short, and divided into two parts, the first, on the only cremation in Tomb N (by McGeorge), the other on the bones from an ossuary found in alcove I in the excavations of 1991, and the human remains in Tombs Λ, Ma, Mb, and N excavated in 1992 (by Więckowski). How and why the bioarchaeological material was thus divided between two specialists is never adequately explained, and arguably the only serious shortcoming of this volume is the fact that the full account of the bioarchaeological remains by McGeorge, from all tombs (A–Θ and K), was not complete at the time of publication (to be published in a forthcoming monograph). This is to be regretted, as the population of the cemetery, the reason why the tombs were built in the first place, is not presented together with the tombs and their material furnishings, thus prioritizing objects over people. This said, Paschalidis was careful to provide critical details of some of the bioarchaeology, particularly gender and age at death, throughout various parts of the volume and this has greatly added to the discussion of burial customs and certain classes of material. The volume ends with tables of data presented and a bibliography.

As the primary publication (albeit partial, as it lacks the full account of the bioarchaeology) of archaeological data, this volume will quickly take its place as the repository and discussion of an important cemetery in the northwest Peloponnese, in a part of the Mycenaean world that never boasted a palatial center. The excellent illustrations will serve generations of scholars interested in various aspects of Mycenaean material culture.


1.   E.T. Vermeule, "The Mycenaeans in Achaia," AJA 64, 1960, 1–21 (an article curiously absent from Paschalidis' volume); J.K. Papadopoulos, "Magna Achaea: Akhaian Late Geometric and Archaic Pottery in South Italy and Sicily," Hesperia 70, 2001, 373–460; see especially 434–448 for the Bronze Age.
2.   The spelling of Achaia/Achaea is not the only editorial and grammatical infelicity of the volume, which would have benefitted from a more careful editorial hand.
3.   A topic fully discussed in Debby Sneed's recent doctoral dissertation, The Life Cycle of Disability in Ancient Greece, University of California, Los Angeles, 2018.
4.   In places as far afield as Athens and Epirus (Liatovouni), see A. Douzougli and J.K. Papadopoulos, "Liatovouni: A Molossian Cemetery and Settlement in Epirus," Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 125, 2010, 1–87; J.K. Papadopoulos and E.L. Smithson, Agora XXXVI. The Early Iron Age: The Cemeteries, Princeton, 2017; see especially 962–965.
5.   For the phenomenon, see M.A. Liston and J.K. Papadopoulos, "The Rich Athenian Lady was Pregnant: The Anthropology of a Geometric Tomb Reconsidered," Hesperia 73, 2004, 7–38.
6.   A term coined by C. Paschalidis and P.J.P. McGeorge, "Life and Death in the Periphery of the Mycenaean World at the End of the Bronze Age: The Case of the Achaia Klauss Cemetery," in E. Borgna and P. Càssola Guida (eds.), From the Aegean to the Adriatic: Social Organizations, Modes of Exchange and Interaction in Postpalatial Times (12th to 11th Century BC), Rome, 2009, 79–113.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019


Stefanie Samida, Die archäologische Entdeckung als Medienereignis. Heinrich Schliemann und seine Ausgrabungen im öffentlichen Diskurs, 1870-1890. Edition Historische Kulturwissenschaften, 3. Münster: Waxmann Verlag, 2018. Pp. 300. ISBN 9783830937890. €29,90.

Reviewed by Barbara Patzek, Universität Duisburg-Essen (

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This study aims to transfer the Schliemann controversy—concerning his unwavering belief in archaeology as proof of Homer's historicity ("Homergläubigkeit")—to a new and less contentious level by going back to its sources, i.e., the impression the debate made on contemporary public and academic opinion. Samida claims that this controversy was in essence initiated by Schliemann himself, seeking public acknowledgement through the negotiating powers of the media of his time—the press, museums, and historical societies. Schliemann's until now mostly unpublished correspondence with editors of various newspapers and journals serves as evidence for his skill in popularization and as support for Samida's main proposition that the academic recognition of field archaeology, and thus prehistoric archaeology, as a new and practical part of academic historical research, was empowered by Schliemann's popular archaeology and the intellectual antagonisms it aroused.

The volume is divided into nine chapters, the last offering a critical edition and transcription of Schliemann's correspondence with German and (some) British publishers, dating from the 1870s and 1880s, and its continuation by Rudolph Virchow after the death of Schliemann in 1890. A collection of short biographies, a list of Schliemann's articles for the "Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung," an ample bibliography and list of sources round out this well written and edited and thought-provoking study.

The first chapter introduces media research, a branch of sociology that, until now, has dealt with the formation of popular knowledge in natural sciences by the 20th century media. Generally, this is an enquiry into how the media addressing the non-specialized public transform abstract knowledge into concrete, comprehensible, and simplifying popular language. By this they accentuate the significance of science for society, entice public discourse and, in turn, create a new but communicative boundary between the scientific community and the public. That implies, as Samida underlines—relying on Michael Hagner1—that public discourse has its share in the process of scientific innovation, especially regarding the new and practical sciences of the late 19th century.

The second and third chapters present the historical background to Samida's proposition that the relatively late academic recognition of prehistoric archaeology in the early 1900s is the result of the growing popularity of field archaeology. Rudolf Virchow and Schliemann are marked out as its pioneers, Virchow for his scientific expertise, his interest in physical anthropology, and his media-awareness, Schliemann for communicating with experts of different fields of human and natural sciences and for his meticulous, mostly photographic, documentation of almost every item he excavated. These traits of objectivity, ignored by most of his critics, are seen as the roots of the historical method that distinguishes field archaeology from its classical counterpart, here understood as art history devoid of historical method. Chapter 3 offers glimpses into the media history of the 19th century, an age known for its scientific progress, an expanding press, and an increasingly literate and information-seeking society. Important German and British papers that reported on Schliemann and archaeology are introduced, ranging from daily newspapers to journals and periodicals, responding to both an intellectual and more general group of readers. The increasing frequency of these reports in the second half of the 19th century serves as proof of the growing interest in archaeological discoveries.

Chapters 4 and 5, together with the correspondence in chapter 9, document and analyze Schliemann's interactions with the press and his critics. Samida traces how he put his person in the center of highly dramatized excavation reports, borrowing from the first-person diary style of adventure and travel literature. Meant to provide authenticity and induce identification with the hero of the tale, the reports were often enhanced by historical romance about Homer and the monuments and a narrative that, in some cases, went far beyond what really happened. This undoubtedly was savored by his readers, and accordingly, Schliemann tirelessly touted this public appeal to publishers, who often, to his dismay, maintained a certain reserve. Criticism, the correspondence shows, was met with personal enmity and the astounding, frequently reiterated conviction that the sheer visibility of things was evidence of truth. Schliemann went so far as to imply that his critics, envious of his successes, deliberately lied and that the truth would come to light ("Die Wahrheit kommt immer ans Licht" p. 87) since the public would know that common sense at any time outwits academic censure. But, as chapter 5 documents, most of Schliemann's critics did not question the significance of his discoveries. Instead, they questioned his preconceptions that did not distinguish between myth and history, nor between material culture and history, insisting on the need for clear criteria. Alexander Conze, for example, in his short, still readable, notice on the Trojan excavations from 1874, disapproved of Schliemann's style but praised him for uncovering a hitherto unknown material culture, which Conze then analyzed by visual criteria, describing stylistic features that allowed comparison with possible contemporary neighbors in Anatolia and the Aegean.2 Noting the arrogant language of this and similar retorts, Samida argues them away as mere products of the borderline the media had created between the public and an academic community that had to defend its authority. This, in my opinion, oversimplifies and politicizes anew the divide between Schliemann and established (classical) archaeology—this time in defense of the outsider. In my reading, Schliemann's critics simply drew attention to the rule of scientific fact-checking that Schliemann violated by appealing to general—i.e., "visible"—truths that could not be corroborated by reasoning. On the other hand, there is considerable plausibility in Samida's proposal that Schliemann's popular imagery inspired innovation in archaeology and its hermeneutics of material culture. But the question still remains as to how these ideas, expressed in everyday practice and observation, finally translated into the general theory of material culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A very short chapter 6 compares Schliemann's methods of excavating and of publicizing with those of the excavators at Olympia and Pergamon, the two contemporary German excavations that were of national interest and received ample press-coverage. Chapter 7 turns to the vast media attention Schliemann's sudden death produced, laying the groundwork for his myth. Chapter 8 in summary argues rightly that we should avoid the popular divide between the self-made man and the academic and without doubt include Schliemann in the history of modern science.

This book is strong on media research in describing Schliemann's deliberate actions to manifest himself as one of the few media stars of the 19th century. The book falls short on convincingly assessing Schliemann's place in the history of archaeology and his merits in opening archaeology to historical research, which, in my opinion, are due to the author's intentionally obscuring the different objectives of scientific discourse and public opinion-seeking. Consequently, this book can be read in two ways: either as one further apology for Schliemann's erratic methods of historical identification and, implicitly, the shortcomings of the debate about excavating Homer's Troy by seeking public applause instead of academic discourse. Or, it can be recognized as an interesting contribution to the "material turn" in historical scholarship ("Dingwissenschaft").


1.   Michael Hagner: Ansichten der Wissenschaftsgeschichte, in: id. (ed.): Ansichten der Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main 2001, 8-39.
2.   In: Preußische Jahrbücher 34, 398-403.

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Arlene Allan, Hermes. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. 214. ISBN 9781138805705. $140.00.

Reviewed by Bärbel Ruhl, Marburg (

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Arlene Allan has worked on Hermes previously and has now published a new overview of the deity in the series "Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World." Allan's aim is to introduce the multi-faceted and fascinating god Hermes, the Roman Mercury, and to give an overview of his wide reception from Hellenistic times to the present. On the first pages (i-xviii), Allan provides useful lists of ancient authors, abbreviations, conventions, a map of the Peloponnese, and a genealogical table.1

In her introduction, Allanpoints out that Hermes became necessary as an intermediary after Prometheus had fallen out with Zeus (Hesiod, Theogony 535–57) and thus, the lines of communion (and communication) between mortals and gods were seriously damaged. Hermes is among the oldest of the gods in the Greek pantheon, first appearing in inscribed tablets from three Bronze Age sites (Pylos, Thebes, Knossos; ca. 1100 BC). Allan suggests that the name Hermes might derive from 'herm' or 'herma, a derivation assumed since the earliest studies on the origin of herms.' More recent etymological dictionaries, however, indicate that this view must be rejected: the origin of the name is prehellenic, but we have no further knowledge about the language and the meaning of the term.2 Hermes has multiple epithets and epikleses, some geographical, others genealogical.3

Describing the images of Hermes, Allan starts with wooden posts held in place by a pile of stones and continues with the herms, which according to some scholars were allegedly created by Hipparchos in the late sixth century at Athens.4 But there are no examples identified (with certainty) as representations of Hermes, and the oldest known herm dates already in the first quarter of the sixth century. The anthropomorphic representations developed, as Allan points out, from an older, bearded god to a youthful, beardless Hermes with kerykeion, chlamys, and petasos.

The Homeric Hymn to Hermes is one of the important sources of the myth of Hermes, but Allan refers to additional sources, among which are relatively few stories in which Hermes plays a leading role. However, Hermes also appears in numerous stories about other gods and heroes, and the vast majority of these depict Hermes intervening as Zeus' representative. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes, moreover, provides an example of one form of worship offered to Hermes,and there are no fewer than forty poetic epithets and cult titles used of Hermes in the Fourth Homeric Hymn.

There is but one known civic festival celebrated in his honour throughout the Greek world – the Hermaia, a competitive athletic (and possibly musical) festival for boys under the age of eighteen, perhaps most famous at the town of Pellene in Achaia. Hermes was nevertheless an important member of many civic pantheons, and we do hear of his worship at several publicly funded celebrations in conjunction with one or more of a city's deities. As Allan points out, we find the greatest number of sacred sites and local festivals of the god in Arkadia. There is broad variation in the forms of his worship with some sites dedicating temples and others merely honouring a simple Herm with dedications. Hermes becomes the divine connector, the conduit and conductor operative within Zeus' cosmos, bringing together sender and receiver, beginning and end. He is the god who enables transmission, transition, transaction, transformation, and even transgression.

In the main section Allan explores the deity in terms of the key themes of Talents (pp. 21-38), Transmissions (pp. 39-52), Transitions (pp. 53-68), Transpositions (pp. 87-102), Transcendence (pp.103-121), and Translations (pp.122-141). Allan has identified five key talents of Hermes' divinity: metis, stealth, creativity, wit, and propriety. This means that Hermes is clever or sharp thinking. A trickster, he is able to move through space in a stealthy manner. He has creative potential, and with his cleverness he can make others laugh. In using all these talents, however, he works in the capacities granted him by Zeus. Allan illustrates the theme of Hermes' "Transmission" using the written sources, which describe him as Herald, Leader of Dreams or Messenger, Interpreter, Instructor, and Orator. She likewise explains Hermes' involvement in "Transitions" through written and material sources. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes, for instance, depicts Hermes as a divine guide, who finds his way without assistance of any kind. In addition, he was a "protector of property," which is also attested by the herms' placement in front of temple portals and at entries to private dwellings. His function as a guardian and protector of youth—he oversaw training, contests, and maturation processes—also falls within the area of transitions.

In the chapter "Transaction," Allan describes Hermes' function as the god of the marketplace. She correctly points out that there are more important tasks attributed to Hermes than transactions concerning money. Even if this function applies to Hermes Agoraios, the Roman Mercury more often appears as the trading god. Figure 4.3 does not show a fourth-century Hermes, but a later Roman Mercury. The purse as an attribute of the god does not appear before the third century BC and is found on Gallo-Roman, Greco-Roman, and mainly Imperial Roman representations of Mercury. Under "Transpositions," Allen lists Hermes' aspects as thief, trickster, wordsmith, bringer of dreams, and game player, all of which appear in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. Another important skill that Hermes possesses is the ability to cross boundaries and to transcend obstacles, which Allan makes clear in her chapter "Transendence." Hermes is Zeus' delight and networker and becomes the Olympian expert in the art of creating relationships.

Finally, in the chapter "Translations," Allan describes the counterparts of the Greek Hermes in the West, the Etruscan Turms and the Roman Mercury, as well as the counterparts in the East, the Mesopotamian and Egyptian 'Hermes.' The Roman cult of Mercury is associated with trade, and in the Augustan times, Mercury receives the additional function as bringer of peace. Also, in the South and East, the counterparts of Hermes are not exactly the same. The cultures that adopted Hermes always added aspects of important local deities to him, and native deities could also adopt the attributes of Hermes, such as Nebo in Hatra/Iraq.

After Allan explains the different functions of Hermes in detail and vividly in the main section, she dedicates two chapters to the post-antique occurrence of Hermes and Mercury. In Chapter VIII, "Transformations I" (pp.145-165), she discusses the different facets of Hermes during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Hermes did not remain the god of former times, but became a mixture of the allegorical Hermes; the Roman astrological, magical, and alchemical Mercury; and the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistos. One important aspect of the ancient Hermes that remained was his eloquence.

In the last chapter "Transformations II" (pp.166-186), Allan presents the reception of Hermes through the present. The god has always exerted a special attraction on artistic culture, and he appears as a motif in Tiepolo, Rubens, and Botticelli. In modern times, he has become an important figure in PlayStation 3's God of War III and has found his way into poetry, literature, videos, TV, and comics. Hermes lives on, not only in art and literature, but also in philosophy (hermeneutics), psychology, and etymology. The book ends with a list of further reading and a bibliography.

Allan succeeds in categorizing and illustrating the many and varied aspects of Hermes/Mercury to the reader. She has comprehensively searched the ancient literary sources for references to this deity and presents them clearly. Despite the brevity required by the series "Gods and Heroes," she has managed to show the different facets of the God Hermes from his childhood on. The book is recommended for all who want to learn about Hermes and Mercury and are interested in the figure's reception from the Middle Ages to the present day.


1.   The ithyphallic goddess Orthanes, the offspring of Hermes and a nymph, is omitted from Hermes' family tree; see Phot. s. v. Ὀρθάνης.
2.   R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden 2010) 461-462; H. Frisk, Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg 1960) 561-564; P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque: Histoire des mots (Paris 1968-1974) 373-374.
3.   'Imbramos' is given as example for a genealogical epithet, but this presumed goddess does not exist on the island of Imbros. For further reading see B. Ruhl, Imbros. Archäologie einer nordostägäischen Insel (Marburg 2018) 106-107.
4.   I. Trianti, "Αρχαϊκές Ερμαϊκές Στήλες," ArchDelt 32, 1977, 116–122. The Hipparchos-theory was developed in the 1930s by J. F. Crome, "ΙΠΠΑΡΧΕΙΟΙ ΕΡΜΑΙ," AM 60/61, 1935/36, 300–313.

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Antonia Sarri, Material Aspects of Letter Writing in the Graeco-Roman World, 500 BC-AD 300. Materiale Textkulturen, 12. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. viii, 388. ISBN 9783110426946. €79,95.

Reviewed by Celia Sánchez Natalías, Universidad de Zaragoza (

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This impressive book is the fruit of Antonia Sarri's post-doctoral research carried out between 2012 and 2015 at the University of Heidelberg, where she was a member of the group Materiale Textkulturen and worked with the project A02 "Antike Briefe als Kommunikationsmedium". The volume seeks to analyze "the material, format and other visual details in ancient letters" (a perspective usually overlooked by scholars), while also providing "an overview of the changes in the trends of letter writing from the classical Greek world to the Roman Empire" (p. 1). Although the project that Sarri sets out for herself is ambitious in scope, the book is an overwhelming success in its analysis of the materiality of letter writing and the diachronic evolution of the practice throughout Antiquity from 500 BCE until 300 CE.

This book has two main parts: a monographic study and three appendices. The study is divided into four chapters that address the following subjects: (1) the evolution of letter writing in Antiquity; (2) the available evidence for analyzing this genre; (3) the layout and format of ancient letters; and (4) means of authenticating letters. The monographic study is followed by three indispensable appendices that provide evidence for the claims made in the first portion of the book. The first appendix is lengthy and deals with the use of archives and dossiers to collect letters, while the second turns to the dimensions of fully preserved letters and the third to letters by multiple authors. In this review, I will focus my attention on the most salient aspects of the book's four principal chapters.

The first chapter is dedicated to the evolution of epistolary culture throughout Antiquity. Logically enough, Sarri begins by delineating exactly what constitutes a "letter", a concept the author continues to nuance throughout the chapter. In Antiquity, a letter could range from private communiqués to official or administrative documents. While letters have historically been classified in different corpora according to their contents, we often cannot draw clear lines distinguishing one epistolary genre from another. Furthermore, letters in Antiquity proved to be a pliable technology whose formats and uses continually evolved to better meet the needs of particular times and places. Beginning with a basic distinction between official and private letters, the author uses the earliest literary and archaeological evidence to lay out origins and evolution of letter writing. She makes the suggestive argument that the use of letters was perceived in different ways based on a given polis' system of governance: in monarchies and oligarchies letters were valued for the privacy that they offered, whereas in democracies this same feature was branded as a dangerous form of secrecy that contrasted with democratic forms of assembly.

The second portion of the first chapter provides an in-depth analysis of the various Greek lexemes related to epistolary practice, including ἐπιστολή, ἐπιστολογράφος, ἐπιστολαφόρος, ἐπιστόλιον and γράμμα, pp. 16-24 (there is no such discussion of Latin terminology). After drawing a distinction between literary letters (which were copied in Antiquity and preserved in medieval compilations) and non-literary letters (which have been preserved in their original form), Sarri focuses particularly on an important subset of literary epistolography: private letters. Starting in the Late Republic with Cicero's correspondence, such letters came to be viewed as part of a larger literary culture. Indeed, collections of private letters began to circulate as popular reading material, in large part because such compendiums offered readers good models for the letters that they themselves wrote to establish and maintain networks and relationships with members of the Roman elite. Sarri closes the chapter with a diachronic linguistic analysis of epistolary style from Archaic Greece to the Roman Empire. This analysis yields valuable observations about the shifting reflections of spoken language in this form of written discourse: in the fifth century, letter writers could use the vocative in their prescript to refer to the recipient (a reflection of oral discourse), while by the end of the fourth century only the dative is used in letter openings (p. 40). Also of note is Sarri's discussion of the various ways that Latin formulae influenced the language of Greek letter writing (pp. 49-50)

The second chapter focuses on the material evidence for letter writing and is divided into two sections. In the first, Sarri offers an analysis of the chronological and geographical distribution of the available evidence, which is conveniently and clearly summarized in tables 1-3. Unsurprisingly, Egypt plays a leading role in this section due to the thousands of documents preserved there. Here, the author provides an extremely valuable discussion of the preservation patterns of papyri and ostraca while taking into account climate (i.e. the high humidity in the north and near the Nile delta) and the depth at which papyri were discovered. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to the various materials used in letter writing: lead, papyrus, ostraca, wood and parchment. Sarri discusses the relative availability of these materials throughout the Mediterranean, the processes for their manufacture, and their use. Finally, she lays out each material's advantages and disadvantages, a discussion which largely revolves around questions of flexibility (i.e. foldable versus not foldable) and hence confidentiality versus openness.

In the third chapter, Sarri focuses on two questions that have largely been ignored by previous historians: the formal characteristics of letters (i.e. format) and the layout of the text (what epigraphers call ordinatio). The first section of chapter 3 (87-113) provides a diachronic overview of the evolution of letter formatting in Antiquity. Sarri begins with Archaic Greece when authors opted for rectangular formats in which lines are parallel to the long edge. Although we know that Greeks in this period used wooden tablets for writing letters, the archeological record has only preserved letters written on lead tablets. Among other pieces, Sarri discusses the anomalous SEG 53, 256 at length: this Athenian letter dated to 370/369 has an unusual upright format (i.e. lines run across the short edge) and was rolled up from bottom to top (more normally letters were rolled from side to side). While Sarri suggests that this letter "may have been influenced by the layout of long prose texts" (p. 90), I would argue that this format may better be explained by the nature of the text itself: if Bravo and Wolicki are correct 1, this text should be primarily identified as a defixio rather than a letter, in which case such manipulation of the object would be normal practice.2

Due to the vast number of papyrus letters from Ptolemaic Egypt, the author is able to provide a solid analysis of the three principal formats used in Hellenistic letters: transversa charta (a rectangular sheet with the writing following the long edge against the papyrus fibres), the Demotic style (oblong, very narrow sheets of papyrus used by the locals before the arrival of the Greeks) and pagina (a tall, thin sheet on which the text runs parallel to the papyrus' fibres). Sarri's analysis of the gradual change from transversa to pagina is particularly fascinating: previously papyrus had been used in Athens for writing literary texts, but as Alexandria replaced Athens as the center of Greek cultural life and papyrus became more readily available, this material was also preferred for writing letters over more traditional materials (wooden tablets and lead). From Alexandria the fashion of writing letters in the pagina format spread throughout the Greek speaking world and to Rome (see pp. 105-107).

The second part of chapter three turns to the layout, that is the arrangement of text in the writing space. The most important developments are already seen in the Hellenistic period, when authors began to differentiate different portions of their letters by various means. Accordingly, certain sections were separated by blank space (e.g. opening addresses and farewell greetings), while other sections were characterized by quick or cursive scripts (e.g. dating formulae); furthermore, certain parts were relegated to certain spaces such as the external address, which is always found on the document's verso.

The fourth and final chapter is especially attention grabbing. Here Sarri takes on the complicated issue of how ancient letters were authenticated, which, contrary to popular belief, was not simply done with stamps or seals. Sarri begins the chapter with a discussion of the various classes of authors and makes a distinction between the professional scribes and individual authors who wrote on behalf of close friends and family members. Authors can be sorted into these two categories according to a number of factors: explicit references in the texts, the paleographic analysis of letters in a given archive as well as the identification of a second hand in the farewell greeting. Sarri argues that this final case provided various advantages: while on the one hand it was considered a sign of the author's respect towards the recipient to finish the letter him or herself, more importantly by adding the farewell in their own hand, authors were authenticating and certifying the content found in the previous portion of the document (according to Suetonius, Augustus dated his own letters, even including the hour).

The second part of chapter four considers larger questions surrounding the change of hand in farewell greetings. In my opinion, this fascinating section is certainly one of the book's strongest. "Hand shifting" in letters is a relatively frequent aspect of epistolary practice that has not received adequate scholarly attention. While hand shifting could certainly be an important means of authenticating a letter, Sarri masterfully demonstrates how in certain cases previous editors have misunderstood the phenomenon: often what is nothing but a shift in a single author's style has been misconstrued as a change of author. In her analysis of a range of documents, Sarri deploys a panoply of forensic methods, such as calligraphic analysis (i.e., letter shape, size, proportion, etc.), density of the ink, letter inclination, presence or absence of abbreviations, use of punctuation, orthographic errors and textual layout in order to show that many texts that were thought to have two different authors really only had one.

To conclude, I want to highlight the innovative and fresh approach that this book brings to the topic of letter writing in Antiquity. It will be of great use and interest to specialists and generalists alike. This book, which is almost completely free of errata, must be praised for the excellent quality of its photographs, whose high resolution allows the reader to follow Sarri's transcriptions of the texts that she discusses throughout the book. In short, Sarri provides a praiseworthy study of Greco-Roman letter writing that not only sheds new light on the formal and material aspects of ancient epistolary practices, but also provides new data that will serve the larger body of scholars interested in literacy and literary culture in Antiquity.


1.   Bravo, B. & Wolicki A., 2016. "Un katadesmos du banquier Pasiôn (SEG 53, 256)" BCH 139-140: 211-236. In her preface, Sarri notes that work on this book was completed in 2015, which means that she was unable to consider Bravo and Wolicki's analysis.
2.   As Sarri points out, defixiones and letters are closely linked given that the first "might have been regarded as letters to the underworld" (p. 73). If we turn to the corpus of Greek and Latin defixiones, there certainly are numerous parallels with respect to medium, format, layout, folding, etc. The way that SEG 53, 256 was rolled, for example, is paralleled by the Latin defixiones AE 2004, 1024, DTAud 217-223, 229, etc. (= Audollent, A. 1904. Defixionum Tabellae quotquot innotuerunt tam in Graecis Orientis quam in totius Occidentis partibus praeter Atticas in corpore inscriptionum atticarum editas Paris.)

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