Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Richard Miles, Sunday Telegraph, September 20 08

Travelling Heroes is a rare beast among academic books. Not for Robin Lane Fox the narrow path of specialisation; he has spent his long and distinguished career negotiating a broader intellectual highway, and leading a wide range of readers along it.

Lane Fox is ambitious for and demanding of his readership, too. There are none of the over-generalisations or embarrassing stabs at contemporary 'relevance' here that beset so much 'popular' history. Lane Fox believes that his readers are capable of following complex arguments and ingesting diffuse and unfamiliar information.

Travelling Heroes takes us on a dazzling journey through the Mediterranean world of the 8th century BC as we follow in the slipstream of an intrepid and enterprising group of merchants and adventurers from the Greek island of Euboea.

It is they who Lane Fox considers to be the real heroes of the Homeric Age. He evokes the period brilliantly as a world where the imagination could run as free as the nimble craft that propelled these early Greeks from their island home to the farthest eastern and western bounds of that great sea.

As traders, pirates and colonists the Euboeans took the stories that they heard from the diverse peoples with whom they came into contact and the unfamiliar landscapes that they encountered, and wove them into a rich new tapestry of meaning.

They had plenty of good material to work with. For these early Greeks reminders of gods, monsters and other divine beings were embodied in their surroundings, whether it was the lofty peaks that their deities inhabited or the dinosaur bones that they mistook for the remains of defeated giants.

Thus the Jebel Aqra, the mountain that towers over the northern Syrian coastline and that had long served as the meeting-point of a myriad of different Near Eastern religious traditions, would come to be seen by the Euboeans, who established the settlement of Al Mina in its shadow, as nothing less than the 'Olympus of the East', the seat of Zeus, the king of the gods.

According to Lane Fox, it was also here that the gruesome power struggle between the first generations of gods took place, replete with sons castrating their fathers and fathers swallowing their children whole - a tale that would become one of the greatest of the Greeks myths.

Lane Fox then deftly shows how these sacred landscapes were as mobile as the early Greeks who had created them.

As they travelled westwards they would incorporate the new environments they encountered into the same cosmological body of meaning. For instance, the epic confrontation between Zeus and the snake-headed monster Typhon would be played out not only on Jebel Aqra but also on fetid Egyptian marshes, plunging Cilician caverns and on the volcanic island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples.

In Travelling Heroes early Greek myth is inextricably tied to the attempts by these intrepid Euboeans to make sense of the unfamiliar world around them and in particular the geological anomalies that scarred the earth's crust.

Thus, Lane Fox neatly manages to find a way of grounding in the world of the 8th-century-BC Mediterranean, the great Homeric hymns that have for so long floated frustratingly free from the context in which they were created.

Yet despite the seductiveness of this thesis, the shadow of doubt looms as large over Travelling Heroes as the Jebel Aqra did over the ancient settlements.

In striking contrast to the close detail lavished on how the Euboeans might have reacted to the physical landscape, the author's speculation about the nature of their interactions with the local populations is disappointingly one-sided, with the information proffered by the latter being seen merely as raw material from which a resolutely Greek view of the universe could be hewn.

Although Lane Fox is clearly correct in his assertion that soft-focus multiculturalism was not alive and well in Dark Age Greece, the relentless downplaying of the influence that the much older cultures of the Near East had on early Hellenic literature and religion and its transmission through the Phoenicians, will undoubtedly raise a few scholarly eyebrows.

Then there is the question of evidence. In constructing this beguiling image of a Dark Age thought-world, Lane Fox deftly presses into service Hellenistic kings, Roman emperors, Christian monks, Turkish pilgrims, 19th-century Russian travellers and even Gertrude Bell, yet the heroes of the book, our Euboean adventurers, remain ominously silent.

Particularly troubling is the absence of this Euboean sacred itinerary in the work of their great contemporary, Homer, a lack that Lane Fox never quite manages to explain away. Thus, when reading of Euboeans 'brilliantly piecing together the clues of landscape and place names and local stories', one might be forgiven for wondering whether such a eulogy might better serve as a testament to the extraordinary talents of its author than the elusive Greek heroes of this epic study.

From the BBC History Magazine, November 2009
Peter Jones reviews TRAVELLING HEROES: GREEKS AND THEIR MYTHS IN THE EPIC AGE OF HOME By Robin Lane Fox (Allen Lane 514pp £25)

For the past thirty years myth and early Greek literature, especially Homer and his near contemporary, the farmer-poet Hesiod (c. 700 BC), have been in the grip of Orientomania. Brilliant books like /The East Face of Helicon/ by Martin West (All Souls, Oxford) have demonstrated how intimately early Greek stories are entwined with Near Eastern tales such as e.g. /Gilgamesh/. For example, in both /Gilgamesh/ and Homer’s /Iliad /the main heroes Achilles and Gilgamesh are sons of goddesses, with mortal fathers; both are helped by their mothers, who use more powerful gods to support their cause; both heroes are obstinate and passionate, prone to instant decisions; both lose their dearest companions; both are devastated by their loss and take extreme action to try to compensate for it; and so on.

Robin Lane Fox, University Reader in Ancient History at New College Oxford, will have none of it. For him, while there may have been some influence way back in the unrecoverable past, neither Homer nor Hesiod had direct, contemporary hot-lines to Near Eastern contacts. Their poetry, he argues, depended on Greek understanding of the world, not Near Eastern.

There are two main planks to his case. First, Lane Fox shows that (as the pottery record indicates) there were Greeks (especially from Euboea) with very close links to the Near East from the period well before Homer, through extensive trading networks.

Second, he demonstrates (admittedly from extensive later sources) that the Greeks were passionate syncretists, enthusiastic about finding connections between their own customs, myths and gods and those of other cultures, wherever they could. Usually these connections bore no relation to any reality, but that did not matter. Greeks then disseminated these stories of alien gods or customs or people, duly altered to fit Greek assumptions, wherever they went. So the ‘hot-line’ theory is not needed. The ‘alien’ content of the works of Homer and Hesiod is much better explained as derived from Greek travellers who had been to Phoenicia, Assyria, Cyprus, Syria and so on, not directly from Near Eastern sources.

Take the cult of Adonis, the beautiful boy with whom Aphrodite herself fell in love. This can be traced back to Mesopotamian society in 2000 BC. Lane Fox argues that Euboeans would have encountered it c. 950 BC in Cyprus, where it had been brought by Phoenicians, but reckons that it became a feature of Greek culture through Greek Cypriots, who began to adapt it to fit their own assumptions and spread it across Cyprus and other Greek islands into the Greek world in general.

The problems with Lane Fox’s argument are two-fold. Since evidence for early Greek connections with the Near East depends on pottery finds alone, it is impossible to document cultural interaction. Much, therefore, of Lane Fox’s evidence comes from much later sources (‘X would have been the case’ is a constant refrain).

Further, we do not know how Homer learned to recite his poetry, or from whom: the evidence does not exist, because writing was not available at that time to tell us. All we know is that the language and content of oral poetry were constantly changing over the hundreds of years the poems were being handed down the generations before Homer ever lived. Under those circumstances, one is simply guessing about what or who might have influenced whom or when or how or where.

The point is that Martin West’s case for Near Eastern influence is very powerful, nor does Lane Fox deny it. What he does deny is that Homer was working off /contemporary/ Near Eastern material. Given Greek fascination with other cultures, that seems to me entirely possible, perhaps probable, but impossible to demonstrate.

But whatever one makes of Lane Fox’s central argument, this complex, wide-ranging, superbly referenced and good-humoured investigation tells a tale that ranges case by case over the eastern and western Mediterranean, casting imaginative light in all sorts of unlikely places on how cultures crossed the ancient world. He has re-written that story in a way that will have scholars of classical history, anthropology, myth and epic arguing for a long time to come.

Travelling Heroes, By Robin Lane Fox

East to west and back again: an epic of our roots

In his posthumous The Greeks and their Heritages, Arnold Toynbee pronounced that "the crowning evidence that a new civilisation had come to birth is... the adoption and adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet in the eighth century BC for writing Greek".

Here, Robin Lane Fox sets that mighty achievement, the implications of which are with us to this day, in its full East-West context – or contexts. Phoenicians and other oriental peoples, Euboean islanders and other Greek travellers, merchants and settlers, generations of composers and reciters of Homeric epic poetry: all are produced with a sweeping narrative flourish worthy of a cinematographer or screenwriter. But the whole is seasoned and leavened with a wit that only writing can afford.

Lane Fox is "our most widely read historian of the ancient Greek world", according to the dustjacket. Certainly, he is one of our most original, daring and arguably life-enhancing. More than any other historian known to me writing today, he gives "ancient history" its most generous interpretation, emulating if not exceeding his undergraduate teacher Geoffrey de Ste Croix.

His preceding book, The Classical World, was an engaging and enjoyable bite-size feast of mezze from early Greece to the reign of the philhellenic Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138). But in Pagans and Christians (1986) he took the religiously transformed story of Greek history deep into Late Antiquity. Religion – or rather his principled opposition to any fundamentalist version of it – was also the keynote of his excursion into Biblical criticism, The Unauthorized Version (1991).

I give these bibliographical details partly because Travelling Heroes comes ballasted with a huge (50-page, about 1,000 items) and not always quite accurate bibliography, which follows an even huger (65 pages) section of notes. This new book cannot be recommended, as The Classical World could be, as a work for the ordinary general reader, no matter how entertainingly, often brilliantly, written it is. The non-specialist should stick firmly to the main text, which takes off from an image of the goddess Hera airborne in the 15th book of Homer's Iliad. It transports us to and fro, East-to-West and vice versa, from Mesopotamia to central Italy and on to Spain and back, and concludes with a "just-so" story of the author's own hyper-fertile invention.

Which goes like this. "Hipposthenes" (Greek name, "strong in or with horses", but of mixed Euboean-Greek and non-Greek parentage) flourished in the eighth century BC and died a heroic death. Born in the northern Aegean city of Mende (famous later for its wine) in what became Macedonia, he travelled to the islands of Chios and Cyprus, and from there on to Syria, where he acquired a young slave-girl concubine, a sort of Sheheradzade figure. Thence he removed himself to more islands – Crete, Cythera, Ithaca (Lane Fox doesn't buy the new, persuasive theory relocating Homer's Ithaca further west), Corcyra (Corfu) – and through the straits of Messina to Cumae in the bay of Naples, before making his final return via Zancle in north-east Sicily to his paternal homeland of Euboea (that long island, "rich in cattle" literally, athwart Athens's eastern shoreline) to die in battle. Who says romance is dead? Among his other quirks and quiddities along the way, the author – not "Hipposthenes" – shows a strange preoccupation with mammoths.

But Lane Fox can also be very down-to-earth. Underlying the myths (ancient) and romance (his), there is a very serious message about inter-ethnic cultural contact and civilisational change and development. I'd guess it's the desire to put this across that has driven him to publish in a semi-popular form what is at bottom a long-meditated scholarly monograph. Since "9/11" the "clash of civilisations" has acquired a massively renewed topical urgency, and with it has come a renewed interest both in defining what is essentially "Western" and in deciding when, how and why the "West" came into being.

The Graeco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century BCE are one obvious possible big-bang flashpoint in antiquity – a view favoured by, for example, Tom Holland and Anthony Pagden in recent large-vista studies. Herodotus rightly features in both as the very incarnation of an Eastern-inspired but quintessentially Western thinker.

What Lane Fox does is take that story back to the eighth century, to the Phoenicians and Euboeans, and to (among much else) the invention of the alphabet. The Greek inventors of the first fully phonetic alphabetic script, child's play to scribe, could not have done it without the Phoenicians. But their borrowing was problem-solving and creative, far from the merely derivative. That is emblematic, for Lane Fox, of Greek-Oriental cultural interaction as a whole, including the borrowing of "myth" – but not the invention of the Homeric epic.

1 comment: