Τη γλώσσα μου έδωσαν Ελληνική
Το σπίτι φτωχικό στις αμμουδιές του Ομήρου.
Μονάχη έγνοια η γλώσσα μου στις αμμουδιές του Ομήρου.
Sirtaki by Igor Moiseyev ballet:
· “Lords of the Sea/The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy” by John R. Hale
· ‘The Learned Banquettes” by S. Douglas Olson. Series of dinner parties in which guests quote extensively from Greek literature. The work is amusing reading and of extraordinary value as a treasury of quotations from works now lost.
What makes the ancient Greeks worth studying is that they are sufficiently like us to be comprehensible but sufficiently unlike us to be worth making the effort to understand. It may be a common theme among enthusiastic modern supporters of the Classics that the Greeks and Romans were very much like us (and that they therefore legitimate the present). Most academics, on the other hand, prefer to emphasize how different and simultaneously how similar they were. The culture of – say – pharaonic Egypt is, despite its fascination, beyond the grasp of all but a few specialists, whereas ancient Greece and Rome are both inside and outside our ken.
Let me explore just one example. A crucial factor in this pattern of “similarity and difference”, and one with tremendous resonance in the early twenty-first century, is money. As I argued some years ago in Money and the Early Greek Mind (2004), the pivotal position of the Greeks in world culture stems largely from the fact that the sixth-century polis was the first society in history (with the conceivable exception of China) to be pervaded by money. Coinage was invented towards the end of the seventh century BC, and spread rapidly in the Greek city-states from the beginning of the sixth. Did not the Babylonians, for instance, use silver as money well before that? On any sensibly narrow definition of money, no they did not.
This new and revolutionary phenomenon of money itself underpinned and stimulated two great inventions in the Greek polis of the sixth century, “philosophy” and tragedy. “Philosophy” (or rather idea of the cosmos as an impersonal system) was first produced in the very first monetized society, early sixth-century Ionia, and – even more specifically – in its commercial centre Miletos. The tendency of pre-modern society to project social power onto cosmology (for example, “King Zeus rules the world”) applies to the new social power of money. And the following description applies equally to money and to much of the cosmology of the early philosophers: universal power resides not in a person but in an impersonal, all-underlying, semi-abstract substance.
But the relationship of money and tragedy is no less striking. Tragedy was created shortly after the introduction into Athens of coinage. This – though it has no place in the voluminous literature on the subject – seems to me one of the most important facts about tragedy. Greek myth is, of course, largely pre-monetary, but in tragedy it is shaped by the new all-pervasive power of money. It is not only the obsession with money of some tragic tyrants (Oedipus, for example) that I have in mind. An entirely new feature of money is that its possession renders unnecessary in principle all pre-monetary forms of social relationship: reciprocity, redistribution, kinship, ritual, and so on. Money allows you to fulfill all your needs. It provides the power to increase itself. And it tends to promote predatory isolation. Hence the focus of much Athenian tragedy on the extreme isolation of the individual – from the gods and even (through killing) from his closest kin. I know of no precedent for this in literature, certainly not in the pre-monetary society depicted in Homer. This horrifying possibility is embodied in the figure of the tyrant (turannos), who in historiographic, philosophical and tragic texts characteristically kills his own kin, violates the sacred, and is much concerned with money as a means of power. The word “hero”, the preoccupation of so much critical literature on the subject, barely occurs in Athenian tragedy, but turannos (or some form of that word) occurs over 170 times.
Money is so desirable and powerful that some people will do anything for it. Moreover, there is no limit to its accumulation or to the desire to accumulate it. All this is familiar to us, but it was new to the Greeks, who can therefore help us to look afresh at the singularity of money. The unlimitedness of money is described disapprovingly by the sixth-century BC sage Solon and later by Aristotle, and it is brought to life in Aristophanes’ Wealth. This wonderful comedy is (almost certainly) the earliest surviving text on economics, a subject that thereafter has become less entertaining. It describes the homogenizing effect of money (everything happens for its sake) and its omnipotence; and a rapid dialogue reveals that – whereas one can have enough sex, or loaves, or music, or dessert, or honour, cakes, or manliness and so on – money is different: if someone obtains thirteen talents (a lot of money), he is eager for sixteen, and if he obtains sixteen he swears that life is unbearable unless he obtains forty. What, we may add, would have been the point in Homeric society of accumulating a million of those prestige items that embody wealth, such as tripods? Money is different. It isolates the individual, and is unlimited.
But it is not only in tragedy that myth was influenced by money. The most obvious instance of a myth about the (disastrous) unlimited homogenizing power of money is Midas transforming everything by his touch into gold. Consider also the myth of Erysichthon, a full version of which can be put together from a few sources (notably Callimachus and Ovid). Erysichthon cuts down a sacred grove to make himself a banqueting hall and is punished by being made insatiable. No food is enough – whether from land, sea, or air – to satisfy him. He is driven to sell his daughter in marriage, from which she returns to him, and the process is constantly repeated. In the end he eats himself. This myth contains a unique combination of unusual features: the transformation of nature into product, selling to obtain food, and eating the self. The constant return of the daughter from marriage excludes progeny (the future). The Greeks had a myth for many of our central concerns, and here is one for global warming: exploitation of nature produces pathological insatiability, the unlimited need for a source of income that sacrifices the future, and self-destruction.
The Greeks had money but not capitalism, in which constant innovation is a precondition for survival, and in which accordingly – as Marx and Engels famously put it – “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”, producing an age of “everlasting uncertainty and agitation”. Here constant intense desire for novelty means that new fashions and ideas “become antiquated before they can ossify into custom”. Even this we now simply take as part of nature. In Graeco-Roman antiquity, by contrast, investment, and techniques of production and marketing remained crude and relatively static, and a poetic genre, for instance epic, could remain fundamentally the same for a thousand years.
And yet, after two-and-a-half millennia, money remains isolating, unlimited and homogenizing. The Greeks were struck and sometimes horrified by this. Aristotle maintained that using money to make money is – in contrast to other forms of economic activity – unlimited and unnatural. And so he would be equipped to understand the novelty contained in the following typical observation, from a recent textbook of economics. “International financial flows hold out the promise of liberating a country’s rate of investment from the limitation imposed by its savings.”
This liberation is just one element in a universal deregulation or “unlimitedness” that has in the last generation changed the world. This has involved the destruction of limits of all kinds: limits on the movement of capital (once controlled by nation-states); limits articulating cultural space, with the result that a Holiday Inn in Minneapolis is now exactly the same as a Holiday Inn in Mombasa (money homogenizes); limits on the salaries-cum-bonuses that the money-controllers pay themselves; limits on the gap between rich and poor (an unlimitedness that makes common purpose impossible). It has also destroyed the limitation of speculative price by any internal relation to its financial or artistic product (investing in junk bonds is essentially the same as investing in junk art, and done by some of the same people).
Aristotle might also recognize the concomitant deregulation of the subject, the liberation of signs from the limits imposed by reality. The myth of Midas marked the replacement of money as a means of exchange by money as the primary but strangely unreal object of aspiration. Aristotle cites the myth to illustrate the nonsensicality of money, the arbitrariness of the monetary sign; and so he would be equipped to understand the claim that money has now been joined (or even replaced) in the unlimited realm of hyper-reality by the images purveyed by media and advertising.
Greeks of the classical period were anxious about the potentially unlimited scope and power of money, and this anxiety contributed to their explicit privileging of limit over the unlimited, especially but not only in metaphysics and ethics. For instance Plato in the Philebus states that limit should control the unlimited, and that the introduction of limit brings safety in countless spheres, notably in health and music. Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics that “bad is of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans surmised, and good is of the limited”. This persists into the Pythagorean and Platonist philosophies that remained popular throughout antiquity.
But these Greek ideas are not confined to philosophical texts. If I was forced to characterize the outcome of Aeschylus' Oresteia in a single abstract formula, I would call it the victory of limit over the unlimited, in various respects that include the limitation of the potentially unlimited cycle of revenge and of the potentially unlimited accumulation of wealth. Among the ancient Greeks there is what I call a culture of limit. By contrast, our culture is characterized by hostility to closure (limit) in various spheres: economic, metaphysical, conceptual, narrative and others.
This opposition is related to an opposition in basic forms of life. For the Greeks, the realm of freedom (economic and ethical) was stable self-sufficiency; and this determined the manner in which they (or at least those whose voices have survived) reacted to the unlimitedness of money. But we react to it in a manner determined by the fact that for us the realm of freedom is constant exchange. “Metaphysical categories”, wrote Adorno, “are not merely an ideology concealing the social system; at the same time they express its nature, the truth about it and in their changes are precipitated those in its most central experiences”. The same is true of the modern theoretical hostility to metaphysics, the postmodern fetishization of fragmentation, depthlessness, and indeterminacy, and its sublimation of the universe of free-floating images.
The postmodern devotion to abolishing “Western” (that is Greek) metaphysics would be illuminated by considering the economic conditions of its genesis. Just as our politico-economic discourse assumes the maximization of earning and expenditure (even of borrowing) by groups and individuals alike, so our theoretical discourse is hostile to all forms of closure. But to turn again to global warming, which our own culture of the unlimited makes it so difficult for us to confront. The myth of Erysichthon lacked a central element of our own contemporary predicament, that is our knowledge that our actions will cause our self-destruction. For this we look to tragedy, Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes. During the siege of Thebes, the chorus implore King Eteokles not to go out to fight his own brother. But he is compelled to do so by his father Oedipus' curse, which doomed the brothers to divide up their inheritance with the sword. He rejects the possibility that he can be saved by ritual or helped by the gods, and rushes out for the mutual fratricide. As he does so, he claims that the curse is telling him to put kerdos (selfish gain) first, death afterwards (kerdos proteron husterou morou).
This implies that kerdos, in this case the inheritance, is worth dying for. Kerdos has replaced honour as the one thing more powerful even than the desire for life. Here is the typical tragic individual, completely alienated from the gods and from his closest kin. A mysterious and terrifying power of pre-monetary myth, the curse, has been adapted to express a new mysterious and terrifying power, the unlimited isolating passion for individual gain, more powerful even than the instinct for self-preservation. With global warming the unlimitedness and conscious self-destructiveness of money reaches a logical conclusion. We are still, now as a species, under the curse of Oedipus.
What did the Greeks have with which to combat this horror? The original ending of the play is, it seems, lost, but its last extant authentic words indicate – in contrast to Eteokles' rejection of ritual – the founding of a ritual for the whole polis. The polis had communal ritual to save it from unlimited individual greed, but we do not. Such (fragmented) rituals as we do have tend, like ancient Greek ritual, to sustain existing myths and patterns of belief. But they may also, in contrast to their ancient function, serve the agenda of the unlimited. Our contexts of powerful decision-making tend to be ritualized – by reassuring familiarity of dress, seating arrangements, syntax, tone of voice, body language and so on. And ritualization tends to foster the unconscious formation of “group-think”. How can politicians continue to assume the desirability of unlimited economic growth that is patently inconsistent with preventing global warming? One small but unremarked factor is the power of ritualization, now and in the past, to efface inconsistency of belief. A meeting on economic policy or to plan the expansion of aviation is ritualized, and ritualization generates and confirms its appropriate beliefs and decisions. On the Titanic as we are, we should be ridiculing not the rearrangement of the deckchairs but the formal dress and reassuring protocols of the captain’s table.
In the final year of the First World War, the Presidential address to the Classical Association was given by Gilbert Murray, then Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford. He was, unsurprisingly, gloomy. The “horizon looks dark” for classical studies, he said. And he ended with an attack on “the enemy”, he “who has forgotten that there is such a thing as truth, and measures the world by advertisement or by money . . . whose innermost religion is the worship of the Lie in his Soul . . . . From him and his influence we find our escape by means of the Grammata into that calm world [of the Greeks], where stridency and clamour are forgotten in the ancient stillness”.
Some thirty-five years later, after the Second World War, Murray gave a radio broadcast in which that view of Ancient Greece as a refuge from the present had been transformed into Ancient Greece as inspiration for the future. “The old Hellenistic world had three great aspirations”, he observed. “It aimed at a hellenizing or humanizing of the brutal world; it longed and strove for Homonoia, Concord, between community and community, between man and man; lastly, it proclaimed a conception of the world as One Great City . . . .” And he urged support for what he called “the same aspirations . . . at work in the modern world”, especially through the work of the United Nations. American readers may be pleasantly surprised to learn that, despite his pessimism about Europe, “there is waiting across the Atlantic a greater Rome which may at the best establish a true world peace, and will at worst maintain in an ocean of Barbarism a large and enduring island of true Hellenic life”.
This was broadcast in 1953, the year in which British and American secret services – well below Murray’s radar – replaced the democratically elected government of Iran by a dictatorship that, though savage, was favourable to the British and American oil interest, thereby initiating a new world order. This was called “Operation Ajax”, a name not alas symptomatic of true Hellenic life but inspired by the household cleansing liquid.
The politics of Gilbert Murray now seem as loftily unrealistic as does his political and cultural ambition for Hellenism, and not only because of his tendency to overlook the shortcomings of ancient Greek society. But he was the last prominent proponent of the idea that Hellenism has implications for every sphere of life, including politics. And this I cannot help admiring. Did not Pericles say, in the supreme expression of the culture of ancient democracy, the funeral speech reported by Thucydides, that the Athenians “regard the person who does not participate in politics as useless”? Can the understanding of the ancient past still contribute, as it did for Murray, to an active engagement with the present?
We cannot use the systematic Greek respect for limit to subvert the systematic unlimitedness of our own self-destructive culture. But the Greek culture of the limit provides a place that allows us to see the oddness, the historical contingency of the lethally limiting unlimitedness in our economy, social practices and theory. Hellenism is one of a number of precious resources – a way of being, understanding and perceiving – that can help to liberate us from the homogenized sensibility of our hyper-monetized, atomized and self-destructive culture of the unlimited.
[This is a version of the Presidential Address to the Classical Association, delivered in Glasgow earlier this year. ]
Richard Seaford is Professor of Greek Literature at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Reciprocity and Ritual: Homer and tragedy in the developing city-state, 1994, and of a commentary on Euripides’ Bacchae, 1996.
July 8, 2009
Stolen Beauty: A Greek Urn’s Underworld
CERVETERI, Italy — Italy’s biggest prize in the war against looting antiquities went on view recently at the Villa Giulia in Rome.
Italians didn’t seem to care much.
The prize is the notorious, magnificent sixth-century B.C. red-figure krater by the Greek artist Euphronios, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art lately returned: the “hot pot,” as Thomas Hoving, the former Met director who bought it in 1972, mischievously took to calling it. A show of recovered spoils at the Quirinale in Rome last year became the pot’s homecoming party, after which it was rushed, like a freshly anointed Miss Italy, off to an exhibition in Mantua, appropriately enough about beauty.
Now it’s ensconced at the villa, its new permanent home, in a bulky glass case with odd little Christmas lights. Maybe overexposure explains why this didn’t strike Italians as particularly big news. The media mostly gave the event a pass. The gallery was empty the other afternoon.
A new book may help revive interest. “The Lost Chalice: The Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece,” just published by William Morrow, makes a first-class page turner out of the stolen krater’s travels from ancient Greece to Etruscan Italy to New York and then back here — and of the travails of another work also by the sublime Euphronios, a kylix, or chalice, which was looted from the same spot here in Cerveteri, a town northwest of Rome.
Vernon Silver, a 40-year-old American journalist and a doctoral student in archaeology at Oxford, wrote the book. “This is the whole illicit antiquities trade writ small,” he said a few days ago. “The two works started out in the hands of the same Greek artist, 2,500 years ago, ended up going through the same shady Italian dealer by different routes to America, one the public route, the other underground, and both end up back here in Italy.”
The tale is one neither Met officials nor Italian authorities will be pleased to find so conscientiously recounted. It turns out that balls were dropped and that plenty of other shenanigans transpired on both sides, even before the Met (obviously without trying too hard to check the facts) paid $1 million, an unprecedented sum at that time, for what was the finest example of painted pottery by the greatest known vase painter of ancient Greece. The museum’s story was that the krater, illustrating the Homeric tale of the death of Sarpedon, Zeus’ son, belonged to a Lebanese collector. But rumors instantly started circulating that the pot had been looted. Italian police began hunting for evidence in Cerveteri, the former Etruscan city of Caere, known for its ancient tombs. (Etruscans collected Euphronios the way that Gilded Age Americans collected Rembrandt.) Not coincidentally, modern-day Cerveteri is famous for its tomb robbers.
Mr. Silver returned one sweltering day last month to the patch of countryside on the edge of town where, late in 1971, a lookout watched while five tombaroli, as tomb robbers are called here, stuck poles into the wet earth until they struck something underground. They tunneled some 15 feet down and came upon a complex of ancient burial chambers. They knew they had hit pay dirt when they unearthed painted pottery, broken but (all things considered) mostly in tip-top condition.
The man who bought the loot from them later passed it along to a restorer in Switzerland, who repaired the pots before they were sent on to a dealer, who in turn approached the Met. It wasn’t until reading in the newspapers, months later, how much the museum had actually paid for the Euphronios krater that the robbers realized that they had themselves been bamboozled.
The site today is thick with prickly brush, yellow broom and purple malva, a picturesque ruin, scented by wild mint and fennel. It isn’t hard to figure out why the robbers looked here. Local superstition had it that the place was haunted by a demon, so tombaroli steered clear for eons. Looting-wise, it was virgin territory.
“This is also a place where you find things just lying around in plain sight,” Mr. Silver said. “So it was obvious that something might turn up.” At that moment, resting in the dirt near Mr. Silver’s foot, was a shard of ancient pottery with traces of paint still on it. A second piece lay beside it.
The demon ended up being an ancient sculpture of a gnarly monster, buried along with other stone sculptures. To cover their tracks, the looters filled in the tunnels, after which hasty Italian investigators bulldozed the grounds in a curious rush to uncover the ransacked tombs. It became impossible after that to reconstruct how the works had lain when the tombaroli found them.
“Had someone properly excavated the site,” Mr. Silver said, “we could have learned so much more about the Etruscans.”
But the looters did bring to light the krater, which millions of people then saw at the Met, where for decades it was the centerpiece of the ancient-vase collection. Much of what Italian authorities fished out of the ground afterward, lesser finds, ended up in Cerveteri’s small archaeology museum, which even now keeps strangely mute about the looting.
The silence is even more striking at the Villa Giulia, where not a word about Cerveteri accompanies the newly installed krater. Museum authorities insist that the arrangement is temporary. They say the work will move to a display of artifacts from Cerveteri that they’re preparing in the villa.
Meanwhile, the krater is divorced from the spot where the looters discovered it, not to mention from its Greek origin. A Greek pot sold to an Etruscan buyer and stolen from an Italian site and ending up in New York, it has become a Greek pot in a Roman museum dedicated to Etruscan art, displayed now alongside other artifacts recovered from American museums with labels identifying not the archaeological legacy of these objects but the institutions that gave them back. What matters to the Italians, it would seem, is not simply straightening out the archaeological record. It’s also providing cautionary tales for prospective collectors in the illegal antiquities trade via trophies like the krater.
As for the kylix that Mr. Silver also writes about, it shattered a few years ago when dropped by a Swiss policeman after a raid on the Geneva warehouse belonging to Giacomo Medici, the Roman middleman who bought the hot pots from the looters and passed them along to Robert Hecht, the American dealer who sold the krater to the Met. Today the kylix remains in pieces behind locked doors in a fake Etruscan temple on the grounds of the Villa Giulia. Occasionally, a visitor will try to peer through the keyhole, oblivious to what’s inside.
If any doubts remain about whether the Euphronioses were really looted, by the way, Francesco Bartocci is still around. So far as he knows, he’s the last survivor among the tombaroli. He acted as the lookout. A farmer by trade, now 70, he lives in a modest house in Cerveteri. He was standing on his patio in sandals, T-shirt and baggy trousers when his wife emerged from the cellar, lugging a pitcher of homemade olive oil and a plastic bag full of broken pieces of ancient pottery that she explained had turned up when the patio had recently been repaired.
“They’re everywhere,” she said about the potsherds, before asking if Mr. Silver might wish to take the bag off her hands. (No thanks, he said.)
“They stole a whole lot of money from me,” Mr. Bartocci declared when asked about Mr. Medici (not a relative of the aristocrats, if you were wondering) and Mr. Hecht. “But what was I supposed to do? I was a thief like they were.”
He shrugged. The job was his only stint as a looter, he wanted to make clear: “I’m a farmer, not a tombarolo, but I had a truck, a three-wheeler, which they needed because there was so much stuff to cart away.”
In this region where looting has long been an open profession, and where there’s even a store selling reproductions of ancient pots cheekily called the Metropolitan Museo, Mr. Bartocci is hardly ashamed of what he did.
“I’m proud,” he said. “I’m sorry the vase went to America and that I didn’t make more money.” He laughed. “But I’m honored to be associated with something so great.”
And now he’s glad to hear the Euphronios is back in Italy.
“But not in Cerveteri,” he added. “We don’t have an adequate museum here. It would be too dangerous. Somebody might steal it.”