Throwback Thursday: The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?

Last month when I reposted Return from the Stars for Throwback Thursday, it went weird and hardly any of you got to see it. I sought enlightenment from support and they told me I was doing it all wrong. I'm trying their way now.

The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?

Originally published on 9 October 2015

Why Homer Doesn’t Matter

Now that’s a heading that nobody should have been expecting from me, given how I go on and on about Homer whenever I have nothing better to do. But I have finished reading The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, and put it down with the feeling that sadly, it failed in what it set out to do: namely to convince skeptics that Homer mattered, that Homer should still be read, perhaps even studied, because he’s relevant to our lives.

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Amun-Ra Sailing Under the Starry Sky

My second favourite profession I would have gone for if I had the choice when I was young? Marine archaeologist.

I just mention this because in the past half-year I was haunting the now closing Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibition of the British Museum which told the story of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, two cities that sank into the Mediterranean Sea (in Aboukir Bay, previously only known to me as the place where Nelson defeated the French). The site is being excavated by the team of Franck Goddio – the marine archaeologist who seems to get to excavate all the best sunken things in the world. (This is envy speaking.)

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A History of The Great Sea

In 2015 it took me an entire year to work my way through The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia, a book I had been very keen to get my hands on. And it is a substantial book but that was not the reason it took me so long; after all, I only recently read The Bible in Spain, all 550 pages of it, in less than a week. So what held me up?

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The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus

Mausolus British Museum
Larger than life statue of Mausolus from the Mausoleum (British Museum)

Halicarnassus, the birth place of Herodotus (nowadays Bodrum, Turkey) was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Mausoleum, a colossal tomb of Mausolus, a Persian satrap and a ruler of Caria (377-353 B.C.). The word mausoleum as used today originates precisely in the name of Mausolus and his tomb.

Halicarnassus, the royal residence of the dynasts of Caria,” wrote the Greek geographer Strabo two thousand years ago. “Here is the tomb of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders, a monument erected by Artemisia in honour of her husband.” (Strabo: Geography, XIV.2)

Mausolus made Halicarnassus his capital and spent a huge amount of money on improving the harbour, fortifying the town and embellishing it with temples, palaces and statues.

 About halfway up the curving slope… a broad wide street was laid out, in the middle of which was built the Mausoleum, a work so remarkable that it is classed among the Seven Wonders of the World. (Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture, II.8)

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The Caldera of Santorini

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The collapsed caldera of Santorini. View from Fira.

“The most expensive lunch I’ve ever had in my life,” is how my husband refers to our visit to the island of Santorini – possibly the most photographed tourist destination on Earth – in the summer of 2013. The lunch in question, ferry tickets included, cost us some four hundred pounds. “But it was worth every penny,” he adds.

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Short Biography of a Boring Author

Today, let’s talk about an author that you all consider ever so boring. By the time you finish reading this, however, you’ll realise he’s an author worth reading.

(At least that’s the theory.)

The Author’s Picture

To begin with, let’s have the author’s picture:

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With a beard like that he’s obviously boring!

The Author’s Short Biography

For my part, what I consider boring… is biographical facts. So I’m going to keep this part short – mercifully we know next to nothing about him.

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Oranges Like Blazing Fire

The oranges of the island are like blazing fire among the emerald boughs,
And the lemons are like the pale faces of lovers who have spent the night crying.

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Chinotto oranges. Photo by Nadiatalent via Wikipedia.

Two widely quoted lines from an obscure poet. If you can name the island this quote refers to, I’m impressed. If you can also name the poet, you know far too much about literature and history – would you be interested in writing a guest post for me?

As for the rest of you, the hoi polloi, the mere mortals 🙂 reading this:

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Soft Lands Breed Soft Men: The Persian Choice

Let’s start today’s post with the one thing we should never start a piece of writing with: a cliché. Today’s cliché is that life is full of choices. None of us can avoid them, although some people make a damn good effort to as they’re painfully aware that by choosing something, they will miss out on something else.  To these people the most of awful thing about choice is the very fact that they have to make one; that maybe none of the alternatives are any good only comes distant second.

To these people then the most fateful word in the world is:

Choice

When it comes to choices in literature, Antigone by Sophocles of course offers itself up for examples of moral choices on a positively indecent scale but I wouldn’t want to spoil your enjoyment in reading it. Besides, you haven’t heard from Herodotus for a while (this is where you all stop reading!) and he too loaded his Histories with plenty of fateful choices. There was, for example, the juicy case of Gyges, the favourite bodyguard of King Candaules and the king’s wife… but we’ll leave that for another time. Instead we’ll read the very end of The Histories, the last chapter of Book Nine, in which…

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The Forgotten Battle (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Most people who took any notice of the Persian wars in their history class would know about the battle of Marathon in the first Persian war and the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the second; maybe, if you were really into it, you’d be aware that in fact there were a couple more battles, that of Plataea and Mycale the year after, that marked the genuine end of the Persian invasion of Greece. But the battle that almost everybody invariably forgets is the battle Artemisium, a sea battle fought simultaneously with the battle of Thermopylae. Yet without holding the Persian navy up at Artemisium there would have been no battle of Thermopylae – nothing would have prevented Xerxes to simply sail his troops round the wretched pass, making its defence wholly pointless. It’s hardly surprising, however, that in the end the battle of Artemisium got entirely overshadowed by the fame of Thermopylae.

So what happened in the forgotten battle at Cape Artemisium?  

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Of the Mani, Manhattan and Alexander the Great

What kind of a book would a chain-smoking former Special Operations Executive officer write? A man who at 18 had thought he had nothing better to do but to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople with a volume of English verse and Horace’s Odes in his pocket? A man who felt equally at home in shepherds’ huts and in aristocratic palaces?…What kind of book?!

And English readers, who know exactly whom I’m talking about, here answer in unison: a travel book, of course.

A travel book, yes. Er… sort of.

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The Labyrinth of Knossos

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Knossos

The archeological site of Knossos, near Heraklion on the island of Crete, was discovered in 1878 and excavated by Sir Arthur Evans from 1900 to 1935. The palace of Knossos was the centre of the Minoan Civilisation and was abandoned towards the end of the Bronze Age. There’s a theory that the Minoan Civilisation collapsed as a consequence of the explosion of the volcano at Santorini, with the ensuing tidal wave destroying the low-lying coastal areas of Crete and volcanic ash falling over the island; there’s another theory that the Minoans’ downfall was brought about by large scale Mycenaean invasion (who destroyed Troy too). Or you can take the two in combination – how the Minoans, weakened by the consequences of the volcanic eruption, were unable to resist the invading Mycenaeans.

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The Destruction of Athens (Best Stories of Herodotus)

It appears that I went like a month without blogging about Herodotus. I don’t know what I’m coming to. All this reading of 20th century literature! It’s time I got my act together, so here we go:

The last episode of the Greek-Persian Wars à la Waterblogged saw the Persians chased away from Delphi by no less personage than the handsome Apollo himself. (No, I don’t mean the one in Battlestar Galactica. I mean the god of the silver bow.)

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The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion

Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die.

Lord Byron: The Isles of Greece

Byron wrote these lines about the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion which he visited during his Grand Tour (carving his name into one of the columns).

The Temple of Poseidon was built in 440 BC, when Athens was led by Pericles. The first temple on the site, dating from the Archaic period, was destroyed by the army of Xerxes during the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC. If you need help to imagine what the temple might have looked like, the Temple of Hephaestus on the agora of Athens was built at about the same time, possibly by the same architect, and is in a much better shape.

Cape Sounion is a promontory on the southern tip of the Attica Peninsula, not far from Athens. You can reach it by coach from Athens taking either the coastal route or an inland route passing by the ancient mines of Laurium (whose silver enabled Athens to build its famous fleet). According to legend, Cape Sounion is the spot where King Aegeus threw himself off the rocks, giving his name to the sea in which he died. Cape Sounion is also famous as the location from which to watch the sun set over the Aegean Sea. There is a path leading down from the temple to the bay below and you can finish your visit with a swim in the crystal clear water. (Shame about the ugly hotel.)

The Arms of Apollo (Best Stories of Herodotus)

The Delphic Oracle had foretold the death of a Spartan king and advised the Athenians “to flee to the ends of the earth” but believed Apollo would take care of Delphi. And now, with a Persian army intent on loot having reached the temple of Athena and the locals having all run away, nothing short of divine intervention could save the Oracle and the treasures of Delphi. But would Apollo save his most famous temple or let it be looted and burned?

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The Battle of Thermopylae: The Heroes & The Villain (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Previous:
The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Part I) 
The Battle of Thermopylae: The Fight in the Pass (Part II) 

First the heroes, of course… the villain can wait!

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The Battle of Thermopylae: The Fight in the Pass (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Previous: The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Part I)

Considering how long The Histories is, Herodotus didn’t spend too long on the description on the actual battle at Thermopylae – a mere two dozen paragraphs or so. Nevertheless, it’s still too long to be quoted in its entirety – especially, if I want to keep my few readers!

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The Battle of Thermopylae: Who, Where, How (Best Stories of Herodotus)

United We Fall…

Xerxes’s army was already on European soil but their Greek opponents were still to determine where and how they should fight them. Or even to ascertain who was willing to fight them. The Delphi oracle – which in hindsight has been accused by some historians of being in Persian pay – advised all and sundry to sit on the fence if they could, told the Athenians to “flee to the ends of the earth” and warned the Spartans that either their city of “wide spaces” would be sacked or “the whole of Lacedaemon shall mourn the death of a king”.

View of the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi
View of the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi

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The Wild Words of Demaratus (Best Stories of Herodotus)

As he began the march into Greece, Xerxes inspected his army and his navy; and much pleased with what he had seen, he wondered how the Greeks would react to his overwhelming power. Therefore he sent for Demaratus, the exiled Spartan king, who was accompanying him on the march in the role of a counsellor:
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Xerxes Weeps at the Sight of His Army (Best Stories of Herodotus)

Ten years passed since Darius’ humiliating defeat in the Battle of Marathon. His son, Xerxes was now king of Persia and he wished to take revenge on the Greeks, especially on the Athenians and the Spartans. But he did not merely wish to take revenge: his  goal was to extend his empire over the Greek mainland and beyond, “as far as God’s heaven reaches”. He aimed at creating the first empire on which the sun never set. (If you ever wondered where the phrase, first used about the Spanish empire, then the British, originated, Xerxes’s comment in VII.8, ie. “the sun will shine on no land beyond our borders” is a good contender.) Xerxes’ speech is also the reason why some historians see the Greek-Persian Wars as a crucial defining moment of Western civilisation; that moment in history in which the Greek idea of freedom (accompanied by the inevitable in-fighting) collided with the Eastern idea of the god-king…
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A Trial of Freedom (Best Stories of Herodotus)

“…you know well how to be a slave but have not yet experienced freedom, nor have you felt whether it is sweet or not. But if you could try freedom, you would advise us to fight for it, and not only with spears, but with axes!” (Herodotus, VII.135)

The Tribute of Earth & Water

Darius I, imagined by a Greek painter, 4th century BC
Darius I, imagined by a Greek painter, 4th century BC. Source: Wikipedia

Having subdued the Ionian Greeks who had rebelled against his rule, Darius I, king of Persia had decided it was time to extend his empire into the Greek mainland. In order to test whether the Greeks were likely to offer resistance or would submit easily, he sent his envoys out to demand a tribute of earth and water – a mark of submission to his rule – from the city-states. (VI.48) Some gave and some did not; but two went so far in their defiance as to throw the Persian envoys into a pit (Athens) and into a well (Sparta) and bid them to take their earth and water from there. (VII.133)
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The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?

Why Homer Doesn’t Matter

Now that’s a heading that nobody should have been expecting from me, given how I go on and on about Homer whenever I have nothing better to do. But I have finished reading The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, and put it down with the feeling that sadly, it failed in what it set out to do: namely to convince skeptics that Homer mattered, that Homer should still be read, perhaps even studied, because he’s relevant to our lives.
Continue reading “The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?”

Herodotus and the Persian Wars

Xerxes, Would-Be Conqueror of the World

Nearly 2500 years ago, Xerxes the Great, King of Kings, the king of Persia who considered himself a god, decided to go to war:

“My intent is to throw a bridge over the Hellespont and march an army through Europe against Greece, that thereby I may obtain vengeance from the Athenians for the wrongs committed by them against the Persians and against my father.” (The Histories, Book VII, Chapter 8)

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The Horrors of Ibiza 1400 AD

Yesterday I revised my views on David Abulafia’s book, The Great Sea. I’m not saying that it’s not boringly written, mind. But having completed nearly 400 pages of the 650, I begin to get used to the relentless crunching out of dates, names and trade goods. If nothing else, some of the more exotic sounding trade goods imported by the Merchant of Prato around 1400 had me busy googling; zedoary and galingale, anybody?
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