Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Volcano Day

‘Pompeii ... we’re in Pompeii! And it’s Volcano Day!’
Doctor Who, ‘The fires of Pompeii’ (2008)
Warning: this blog post is wrong!

After I posted it, the archaeologist Sophie Hay alerted me to an article, Abdy 2013, which entirely tears out the rug from the central piece of evidence discussed here. The coin which I refer to as ‘minted no earlier than September 79 CE’ actually comes from an earlier issue. The inscription, illustrated and reported below as containing the phrase Imp XV ‘(recognised as) general 15 times’, actually reads Imp XIIII ‘general 14 times’, and there is no PP at the end. The poor state of preservation of the coin misled some very skilled numismatologists ... and I am no numismatologist.

Coin struck from the same reverse die as the coin found at Pompeii. In the case of the Pompeii coin it was originally thought that the number after IMP must be XV, because the capricorn’s tail would block any longer number. In this better preserved coin, however, notice that the XIIII actually crosses the tail. According to Abdy 2013, the Pompeii coin actually dates to July or August 79 CE. (Source: Abdy 2013, Plate 18)
I shall leave the post up, unedited, as a monument to my capacity for being completely wrong!

-- PG, ca. nine hours after post first went up


The eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 CE, which wiped out the city of Pompeii, is famously recorded in an eyewitness report by Pliny the Younger, Letters 6.16. Pliny tells the story of how his uncle, Pliny the Elder, the famed collector of facts, factoids, and oddities, launched a rescue expedition, in the course of which he died from causes apparently related to poor respiration.

Let’s talk about the date of the eruption. According to mainstream tradition, it happened on the 24th of August, 79 CE. This is the date Wikipedia reports, and the date that appears in every edition of Pliny’s Letters. Wikipedia also adds a caveat, ‘(probable)’, and has a substantial section devoted to doubting the date. Still, it leaves a final impression that the evidence is inconclusive. Readers will probably come away feeling free to go on quoting the date as 24 August -- maybe with a ‘(probable)’ warning at most.

In fact the evidence is entirely conclusive: the 24 August date is very definitely wrong. It’s just that among all the discussion, it may be difficult to see what the really decisive piece of evidence is. That’s also the case in the only academic discussion that the Wikipedia discussion cites, Rolandi et al. 2007. Rolandi et al. present loads of information, but their aim isn’t to weigh up which piece of evidence is the most important. But here’s a hint: it’s not the one in the headline of the article (‘the southeast tephra dispersion’). Judging from the Wikipedia article, it looks like it isn’t easy for a layperson to make out the smoking gun amidst the clouds of volcanic sulphur.

The really decisive piece of evidence is this: a coin, which was found in a hoard belonging to victims of the eruption, and which was minted no earlier than September 79 CE.

That’s the one item of evidence that points unambiguously to a later date for the eruption. Everything else is supporting evidence. Climate conditions and the locations of pyroclastic fall deposits; textual evidence in manuscripts of Pliny’s letter; food items found at Pompeii; styles of dress found on the bodies of the dead ... those things are all well and good, sure. But they’re all secondary to the direct and nearly explicit evidence of that coin. They’re helpful to the extent that they make the coin’s evidence more plausible, not because they’re more important than that coin.

(For similar assessments see Beard 2008: 17-19; Lazer 2009: 79-80. They mention all the other evidence, but like me, they both conclude that the coin is ‘[m]ore clinching’ (Beard); ‘This contentious issue may well have been resolved by the ... silver denarius’ (Lazer). If you want another second opinion that’s easier to get at, you can also try this 2013 blog post by ‘Roma Invicta’.)

The traditional date

The traditional date comes from Pliny. Here’s the relevant bit in his letter:
erat Miseni classemque imperio praesens regebat. nonum Kal. Septembres hora fere septima mater mea indicat ei apparere nubem inusitata ...

(My uncle) was at Misenum, on duty in command of a fleet. On the ninth day before the kalends of September, at roughly the seventh hour, my mother pointed out to him that an unusual cloud was appearing ...
-- Pliny, Letters 6.16.4
‘The ninth day before the kalends of September’ is a standard Roman way of reporting the date. The ‘kalends’ were the first day of the month, so the ninth day before that (counting inclusively) was the 24th of August.

Pointing at the coin isn’t going to be enough: we also need to account for Pliny’s testimony. If he says it was the 24th of August, that’s always going to be more explicit than a coin, right?

Well, this is where the manuscripts come in. Looking at actual surviving manuscripts of Pliny shows that it’s extremely unlikely that nonum Kal. Septembres is what Pliny actually wrote. Most manuscripts of Pliny are pretty incoherent about the date, and only one manuscript gives a nice clear-cut text that actually makes sense, and that’s the one that reads ‘24th of August’. Some other manuscripts read novem, which could be either ‘nine’ (‘nine days before the Kalends of September’), which would be an unusual phrasing, or more probably an abbreviation for November, Novem(bres). It may well be that confusion between Novem(bres) and novem has produced nonum (ninth); the phrase hora septima ‘at the seventh hour’ could be responsible for the introduction of Septem(bres).

Realising that this piece of testimony doesn’t actually have much of a leg to stand on is an important component of this argument. It’s still not the decisive point, though. The manuscript readings just remove evidence for the 24 August date; it’s the coin that proves the eruption didn’t happen on 24 August.

Mount Vesuvius looms over the remains of Pompeii

Weighing up the evidence

Here’s the break-down of reasons for doubting the 24 August date, and the different ways in which each reason matters. I’ll give the evidence in the order that Wikipedia mentions it:
  1. Manuscript readings in Pliny Letters 6.16.4 show that the traditional date is poorly supported. They are not in any sense contrary evidence: they don’t disprove the 24 August date. Their role lies in making the positive evidence for 24 August decidedly weak.
  2. Evidence of heavy clothing found on casts of some eruption victims is mildly supportive of an autumn date. This is very far from compelling, since there are plenty of other explanations (there’s always variation in seasonal weather; the people were fleeing their homes, and may have planned for being without shelter). But it is mildly interesting supporting evidence for doubting the August date. Not remotely in the same league as the next two items, however ...
  3. Archaeological finds of autumnal crops, including fruits, hemp, etc., suggest an autumn date for the eruption. These are historically the reason why the traditional date was first doubted, by Carlo Maria Rosini, who excavated Pompeii in the late 1700s. They were decent evidence, and somewhat compelling, but not quite strong enough to counter the Pliny manuscripts that do read ‘24th of August’. Now that stronger evidence has come along, these finds are demoted to being high-quality supporting evidence.
  4. The coin mentioned above, found in 1974, and with a detailed argument published in 2006 by Grete Stefani, director of the Office of Excavation of Pompeii. This coin is the first unambiguous evidence that Pompeii was not buried before September at the very earliest. It is clear-cut, absolutely decisive, and extraordinarily difficult to refute.
  5. Dispersal of pyroclastic deposits. An article published by Rolandi et al. (2007) relies on seasonal wind patterns to argue against the August date. As with item 2, above, this isn’t decisive (I’m not aware of a place that has no variation in seasonal winds ... but then, I live in Wellington), but it is still interesting supporting evidence.
The Wikipedia article demotes the most compelling piece of evidence to fourth place, and devotes more than half of its discussion to the least compelling ones, items 1 and 5. It’s not surprising people are confused.

On the other side we have the evidence in favour of the 24 August date:
  • Pliny Letters 6.16.4: though the manuscript tradition is inconsistent, we do have the date 24 August supported there. Just not strongly.
  • Cassius Dio 66.21.1 states that the eruption took place ‘in the very time of summer-waning’, or late-summer/early-autumn. This would normally put the event between ca. 6 August (the setting of the constellation Lyra, to Pliny the Elder Natural history 18.59) and 25 September (the autumn equinox). Well, it’s consistent with the 24 August date, at least. On the other hand, Cassius Dio also reports that the eruption was preceded by omens of giants stalking the countryside and flying overhead (66.22.2) ...
Yeah, these points are pretty weak. They certainly don’t stand up to the overwhelming evidence of the coin, and the supporting evidence from archaeological finds of seasonal crops.

The coin

Two coins of emperor Titus, one (top) showing Titus recognised as imperator (‘general’) fourteen times, the other (bottom, outlines enhanced) the coin discussed by Stefani 2006, showing Titus recognised as imperator fifteen times, and therefore dating no earlier than September 79 CE.
Top: Heads side reads Imp Titus Caes Vespasian Aug PM, ‘Gen(eral) Titus Caes(ar) Vespasian(us) Aug(ustus), p(ontifex) m(aximus).’ Tails reads TrP VIIII Imp XIIII Cos VII PP, ‘Tr(ibunician) P(ower) 9th time, (hailed as) gen(eral) 14th time, cons(ul) 7th time, f(ather of his) c(ountry).’
Bottom: Heads side same as above. Tails reads TrP VIIII Imp XV Cos VII PP, ‘Tr(ibunician) P(ower) 9th time, (hailed as) gen(eral) 15th time, cons(ul) 7th time, f(ather of his) c(ountry).’
The bottom coin is the important one. It was found in 1974 next to the so-called House of the Golden Bracelet, along with about 200 other coins that victims of the eruption took with them as they fled. No, it’s not the most beautiful coin ever designed. Titus has quite the neck there, doesn’t he? But it’s neatly unambiguous: as the inscription on the tails side says, when it was minted (or, arguably, just about to be minted), Titus had been recognised as imperator (‘general’) fifteen times.

How does it have a bearing on the date? It’s because we know that as late as 8 September 79 CE, official Roman documents were still referring to Titus as imperator for the fourteenth time. In particular, the emperor’s own office was still calling him imperator for the fourteenth time on 7 September.

This is not something that can be chalked up to news travelling slowly: changes in who was emperor and the emperor’s status were circulated around the empire very promptly. For example, we have papyri from Egypt reporting on new emperors within a month or so of their taking the position. And Pompeii is a lot closer to Rome than Egypt is. And with a coin, you also have to add in extra time for it to be minted and get into circulation and into someone’s purse.

The documents in question are two inscriptions. One is a military diploma found in Egypt dating to 8 September (line 17: a(nte) d(iem) VI Idus Sept(embres)); that could be blamed on communication delays between Rome and Egypt. The other is much more compelling: it is a letter on a bronze tablet sent from the office of the emperor himself and dating to 7 September (line 16: dat(um) VII Idus Septembr(es)). So unless we’re going to argue that the emperor’s own secretarial staff had somehow forgotten there had been a fifteenth acclamation as imperator, we have absolutely rock-solid evidence that Pompeii was still unburied when the letter was sent on 7 September.


Endnote

As noted at the beginning of this post, this post is wrong! The coin highlighted as the central piece of evidence here was misidentified, and the misidentification was only realised in 2013. See Abdy 2013, and some further details at the beginning of this post.

References

  • Abdy, R. 2013. ‘The last coin in Pompeii: a re-evaluation of the coin hoard from the house of the Golden Bracelet.’ Numismatic Chronicle 173: 79-83.
  • Beard, M. 2008. Pompeii. The life of a Roman town. London: Profile Books.
  • Borgongino, M.; Stefani, G. 1999. ‘Intorno alla data dell’eruzione del 79 d.C.’ Rivista di studi Pompeiani 10: 177-215.
  • Lazer, E. 2009. Resurrecting Pompeii. London/New York: Routledge.
  • Rolandi, G.; Paone, A.; Di Lascio, M.; Stefani, G. 2007. ‘The 79 AD eruption of Somma: the relationship between the date of the eruption and the southeast tephra dispersion.’ Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 169: 87-98.
  • Stefani, G. 2006. ‘La vera data dell’eruzione.’ Archeo 206: 10-13.
  • Stefani, G.; Borgongino, M. 2007. ‘Ancora sulla data dell’eruzione.’ Rivista di studi Pompeiani 18: 204‑6.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Greek contempt for archers

Vain archer! trusting to the distant dart,
Unskill'd in arms to act a manly part!
Thou hast but done what boys or women can;
Such hands may wound, but not incense a man.
Nor boast the scratch thy feeble arrow gave,
A coward's weapon never hurts the brave.
-- Alexander Pope, The Iliad 11.493-8
(inspired by Homeric Iliad 11.385 and 388-90)
In the Iliad, these words are spoken in battle by the hero Diomedes, straight after he has been injured by an arrow. It's not surprising he's cross. The question is whether his animus against archers is typical. Did the Greeks despise archers?

Heracles shooting arrows: sculpture from east pediment, temple of Athena Aphaia, Aigina, ca. 500-480 BCE. Glyptothek, Munich (source: Wikimedia.org)

Spoiler alert: it's pretty much a myth. It's not quite simply flat-out false: it's at least true that different weaponry kits did have certain social implications. But it definitely wasn't a case of 'swords good, bows bad'. The position of archery in ancient Greek perceptions of warfare isn't a matter of moral character, and it doesn't have its roots in aristocratic prestige. It's about economic practicalities and material costs.

Yes, ancient sources will occasionally set archers in opposition to hoplites -- that is, spear-warriors, like the Spartans in the film 300 -- but if you read those sources in context, they're never quite that straightforward. In the Iliad passage, above, Diomedes' critique of archery comes in the context that an archer has just successfully beaten him in combat. Of course he's cross at archers!

Some relatively experienced people fall for the myth too. Here's one writer who should know better:
When the hoplite dominated Greek warfare, archers were generally looked down upon as men who lacked the bravery to engage in hand-to-hand combat. A fairly typical utterance is 'the measure of a man is not archery; rather he who stands fast in his rank and gazes unflinchingly at the swift gash of the spear [is a brave man]' (Euripides, Heracles, 190-192). This attitude may have existed as early as the Lelantine War if the evidence for the ban on missile weapons during this conflict has any value. The attitude probably developed even further with Greek exposure to foreigners such as the Persians and Scythians, who used the bow and not the spear as their principal weapon.
-- Iain Spence, Historical dictionary of ancient Greek warfare (2002), p. 59
Spence treats the status of archery as purely a moral thing, and that distorts things badly. First, an incidental correction: Spence's Euripides quotation comes from Heracles lines 162-4, not lines 190-2.

1. Says who? Spence treats the sentiment as 'typical'. This requires forgetting that the speaker in the play, Lycus, is no ethical paradigm: he's unquestionably a villain, a usurper and tyrant, who wants to murder Heracles' family unjustly, for no reason other than just to be a complete bastard. He is not typical.

2. Fair and balanced? Haha, no. Picking out Lycus' testimony is a really really bad case of cherry-picking. Spence cites Lycus' words at 162-4, but neglects to mention lines 188-203, where Amphitryon answers Lycus' claim and rejects it completely. Amphitryon speaks of a hoplite as someone who is 'slave to his arms' and to his neighbours in the battle-line. He also argues that archery is tactically superior. That doesn't mean that's Euripides' own verdict on the subject, of course! But it does show that it's tendentious to call Lycus' words 'a fairly typical utterance'. Amphitryon, the good guy of the scene, gets the last word.

3. The Lelantine War. Spence's second piece of evidence is a treaty according to which archery was supposedly banned during the Lelantine War. Even at the best of times, the Lelantine War poses historiographical problems. It's a very early war, and our earliest testimony about it is nearly 200 years later than the war itself. Evidence for the supposed archery ban is weaker still -- so weak that it undermines the story more than it supports it. The earliest sources for the war, Herodotus and Thucydides, make no mention of any ban. The ban only appears in Polybius and Strabo, another few centuries later. And Strabo's testimony makes it clear that the alleged treaty wasn't about archery, but about all forms of ballistic missile -- and at the time of the war, that would have included spears as well as bows! In other words, this supposed treaty banned both of the two weapons most commonly associated with aristocratic warriors. In the present day, consensus is that the ban was almost certainly invented by Polybius' and Strabo's source, Ephorus of Cyme, a historian who wrote ca. 350 BCE, some decades after Herodotus and Thucydides. Why did Ephorus come up with the story? Well, in light of Strabo's reference to all missiles rather than bows and arrows, Wheeler (1987) suggests that Ephorus' concerns were probably not about archery at all: he may have been thinking of early 4th century BCE developments in large artillery.

Odysseus slaughters the suitors: illustration by John Flaxman, 1805 (photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported))

In 5th century BCE sources it is possible to detect a less high regard for light-armed troops than for hand-to-hand hoplites. That's not really about archery, though: it's more to do with the class connotations of being a hoplite. Hoplite arms were very expensive -- much more expensive than being a slinger, or what the Greeks called a peltast (peltastēs), that is, a javelineer. Hoplites were more prestigious because they were richer; light-armed troops were proles. It wasn't about archery itself, it was about economic class. That didn't stop 5th-4th century combatants from recognising the advantages of ranged warfare (see for example Xenophon Anabasis 3.3.6-10). In the late 5th century, throughout the Peloponnesian War, whenever hoplites came into conflict with light troops, the hoplites consistently got massacred if they didn't have support from their own light troops or cavalry. The first ever time that a band of Spartan hoplites threw down their shields and surrendered unconditionally in a land battle was when they were utterly trounced by an army consisting of archers, peltasts, and slingers. It's hard to argue with success.

I wonder if people are tempted to see hoplites of the Classical period as successors to Homeric heroes. Well, in a way: there's a certain continuity in their armour. But not in their tactics. Hoplites fought in phalanxes; Homeric heroes fight in melee (or if they do fight in phalanxes, it's far from obvious). And they don't use their spears in hand-to-hand combat, as Classical hoplites did. They throw them. Homeric heroes are all warriors-at-a-distance.

Now, that's not to say that Achilles is a peltast. Iliadic combat is in a kind of in-between state. At the time of the Iliad, in the second quarter of the 7th century BCE, Greek warfare saw a transformation in the use of spears: pictorial depictions show a transition from soldiers holding multiple spears, evidently for throwing, to a single spear, evidently for hand-to-hand combat. There are hints of the same transition within the Iliad: in combat, spears are always thrown, but when Patroclus is arming for battle he takes two regular spears rather than Achilles' one special ultra-heavy spear (Iliad 16.139-144; the special spear appears again at 19.387-391); and it's only through divine intervention that Achilles gets to have two spear casts at Hector (22.273-277). Patroclus' two spears sound like peltast javelins; Achilles' one special spear sounds a bit more like a hoplite weapon.

Be that as it may. Spear-throwing is relevant -- it would have been banned under the mythical Lelantine War treaty, remember -- but it's archery that we're here to talk about.

Archery was prestigious, not contemptible. Do we really need to spell out that the supremacy of Heracles and Odysseus in battle was largely thanks to their prowess in archery? Or that archery is key to winning the Trojan War in Sophocles' play Philoctetes? Or that one of the most revered gods of the Greeks, Apollo, was an archer god? Or that among aristeiai in the Iliad -- that is, setpiece scenes where a Greek hero excels in battle and goes on a rampage -- one of the outstanding heroes is an archer, Teukros? (a.k.a. Teucer; the brief aristeia is at Iliad 15.442-483, with an arming scene unusually at the end, 478-483.) Or that the greatest warrior at Troy, Achilles, is laid low by an archer? Or that in Archaic depictions of sympotic scenes, when aristocratic homes have weaponry hanging on a wall as decoration, that weaponry will typically be shields, swords, and bows, and only rarely spears?

'Teucer', by Hamo Thornycroft, 1881 (photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)). (Backdrops can be deceiving: this statue is 2.4 m high!)

No matter how many positive icons I mention, it'll just never be enough, it seems, to dispel the idea that the Greeks despised archers. Because one particular archer outweighs them all in the popular imagination: Paris. Other characters in the Iliad really have it in for him. Diomedes' rant, at the start of this post, is aimed at Paris. And here's how Paris' brother Hector addresses him at one point:
Hector berated him when he saw, using harsh words:
'Wretched Paris! Beauty specialist, woman-crazy seducer,
if only you had never been born, that you had died without marrying!
I genuinely mean that: it would really have been much better
than to be a disgrace and have others roll their eyes at you. ...'
-- Iliad 3.38-42
And so on. Later, Paris' wife Helen scolds him for not being on the battlefield (3.427-436); further on Hector and Helen both lambast him at the same time (6.325-353); and then of course we get Diomedes' rant in book 11.

Other characters' loathing of him is so marked that he seems to have become iconic of all archers. Even within the Iliad, other archers like Teukros and Meriones should show that Paris is no model. And neither Hector nor Helen reproaches him for being an archer. It's only Diomedes that does that, and of course that's because he's just been beaten. In fact, Hector is very complimentary about Paris' abilities in combat (even if Paris wasn't good enough to stand up to Menelaus in a spear-duel in book 3):
In answer shining-helmed Hector addressed him:
'You oddball! No man who is reasonable
would ever dishonour your action in battle: you're a sturdy guy!
It's that you give up willingly, or you're unwilling. That's why my heart
grieves in my spirit, when I hear shameful things about you
from the Trojans, who have long suffering on your account. ...'
-- Iliad 6.520-525
Archery is one of his virtues, not a flaw. It's how he beats Diomedes; one day (not in the Iliad), Achilles himself will become another victim. Paris is so unconquerable with his favoured weapon that one day (again, not in the Iliad), the Greeks will have to bring in another archer specially, just to get rid of him: Philoctetes, armed with the bow and arrows of Heracles himself.

Actually the most damning thing said about archers in the Iliad has nothing to do with Paris. It's about the Locrians, mainland Greeks led by Aias son of Oileus:
Now, the Locrians were not there with great-hearted Oileus' son:
for their heart did not stand fast in close battle,
for they didn't have bronze horse-haired helmets,
and they didn't have circular shields and ash spears;
but in the bow and fine-spun sheep wool (i.e. slings)
they trusted when they came to Ilios. ...
-- Iliad 13.712-717
Not sturdy enough to be there with the front fighters -- sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? (Note, incidentally, how being in the front line involves using a spear? That ain't how people use spears in the Iliad...) Yet even here, the narrator recognises that it's more about tactics than about prestige. Of course you don't put slingers in the front line. Once again, it's hard to argue with success --
... As a result, with those (weapons)
they would break through the lines of the Trojans by shooting.
-- Iliad 13.717-718

References

  • Van Wees, H. 1994. 'The Homeric way of war: the Iliad and the hoplite phalanx.' Greece & Rome 41.1: 1-18, 41.2: 131-155.
  • Wheeler, Everett L. 1987. 'Ephorus and the prohibition of missiles.' Transactions of the American Philological Association 117: 157-182.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Did Thales predict a solar eclipse?

In the late afternoon of 28 May 585 BCE, a total solar eclipse took place over central Anatolia. It is widely believed, almost certainly rightly, that a reference to this eclipse appears in Herodotus:
A war went on between the Lydians and the Medes for five years. The Medes often beat the Lydians, the Lydians often beat the Medes. There was even a night battle, of a sort. They were evenly matched in the war, and when there was an encounter in the sixth year, during the battle it happened that day suddenly became night.
-- Herodotus 1.74
Herodotus, writing about 160 years after the event, goes on to tell us that the Lydians and Medes were so impressed by this that they got two external arbitrators to broker a peace treaty between them, with marriage ties.

What are we talking about, exactly?

Even at this point, there's room for endless quibbling:
  • Where did the battle take place? It's often thought to have been at the Halys river (the modern Kızılırmak), but that's just a guess based on the fact that the Halys was an important natural boundary to Lydian territory.
  • Which eclipse was it? Several other candidates have been proposed. For the record, the 585 BCE eclipse is by far the best choice. Here are maps from Gautschy 2012 showing the path of the moon's shadow for each of the eclipses that have been proposed: 30 Sep. 610; 18 May 603; 28 May 585; 21 Sep. 582; 16 Mar. 581. Note that e.g. '-584' = 585 BCE. The path of the moon's umbra (path of totality) is shown in red; surrounding lines indicate magnitude 0.9, or 90% totality; 0.8; 0.7; and 0.5. Around 600 BCE there's about 2° uncertainty in longitude -- ΔT, as the astronomers call it -- and this is reflected in the multiple bands of red, for the possible paths of totality. The trouble is that while the competing eclipses would have been visible, not one of them would have produced significant dimming. Hughes (2000) has calculated that, based on human perception of ambient lighting, anything less than a 3 point change in the sun's apparent magnitude may go completely unnoticed unless you happen to look directly at the sun and directly observe that it is partly hidden. And, Hughes goes on to show, this corresponds to an eclipse of magnitude 0.937 or greater -- that is, concealing 93.7% of the sun. (Remember that stellar magnitude is a logarithmic scale.) None of the other four eclipses achieved better than magnitude 0.7 -- a change in the sun's brightness of only 1 point of magnitude. The dramatic dimming associated with total eclipses is very sudden, and only happens within about four minutes of totality.
Graph from Hughes 2000, showing eclipse magnitude (= α/2) versus brightness (sun's apparent magnitude). Coloured elements are added by me, with approximate figures for eclipse magnitudes as seen in north-central Turkey based on Gautschy 2012.
  • Was it actually a solar eclipse? Herodotus says 'the day suddenly became night' (τὴν ἡμέρην ἐξαπίνης νύκτα γενέσθαι). He uses the same phrasing about the same battle at 1.103, and when talking about a different incident in 480 BCE at 7.37. The trouble is, there was definitely no historical eclipse corresponding to the incident in 7.37. Herodotus uses slightly different phrasing at 9.10 ('the sun became dim in the sky', ὁ ἥλιος ἀμαυρώθη ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ), and that could conceivably be a mag. 0.6 eclipse on 2 October 480 BCE -- except that a 0.6 eclipse wouldn't produce significant dimming. And none of these are remotely as clear as Thucydides' descriptions of partial solar eclipses on 3 August 431 (Thuc. 2.28; mag. 0.88) and 21 March 424 (Thuc. 4.52; mag. 0.71), or a lunar eclipse in the wee hours of 28 August 413 (Thuc. 7.50; total).
But let's leave all that for now, because it's just good old debate and no one's in any danger of serious misunderstandings from it. The thing that makes Herodotus' eclipse famous -- we'll take it for granted for now that it was an eclipse -- is that he also tells us that it had been predicted beforehand by Thales, a Greek sage.

Herodotus' report

Herodotus isn't the only source to tell us that Thales predicted an eclipse. But all the other relevant sources are very probably derived entirely from Herodotus, with some distortions along the way. So they're not independent: they have very little corroborative value, if any. Still, here they are, for what they're worth, in chronological order:
Clement, in particular, indicates that an important lost source, Eudemus of Rhodes (4th cent. BCE), was simply based on Herodotus. The only hint of independence here is in Cicero, who states that Astyages was on the Lydian throne at the time of the incident: in Herodotus, Astyages' father Cyaxares was still around. In other respects, unfortunately, Cicero's report is terse and vague.

The upshot is that we depend entirely on Herodotus for an account of what Thales actually predicted. So let's take a look at what Herodotus actually says:
τὴν δὲ μεταλλαγὴν ταύτην τῇ ἡμέρης Θαλῆς ὁ Μιλήσιος τοῖσι Ἴωσι προηγόρευσε ἔσεσθαι, οὖρον προθέμενος ἐνιαυτὸν τοῦτον ἐν τῷ δὴ καὶ ἐγένετο ἡ μεταβολή.

Thales of Miletus had advised the Ionians in advance that this transformation would happen, setting this year as a boundary, in which the change did in fact take place.
-- Herodotus 1.74
'Setting this year as a boundary'? This is not a report of someone predicting that an eclipse -- or whatever it was -- would happen on a specific day. What Herodotus actually claims is that Thales predicted in which year this 'transformation' would occur. To call that 'predicting an eclipse' is a colossal stretch.

How could Thales have predicted an eclipse anyway?

The simplest customary answer to this question is: he must have discovered that solar eclipses come in Saros cycles, just like lunar eclipses do.

A Saros cycle is a period of 223 lunar months which governs all eclipses, both solar and lunar. This period is determined by three simultaneous periodic movements of the earth-moon-sun system (the moon's orbit relative to the sun, the moon's orbit relative to the stars, and orbital precession) which which come very close to coinciding with one another after 223 lunar months.

In other words: if you have an eclipse at t = 0, you will have another eclipse at t = 18 years, 11 days, 7 hours, and 42 minutes. (Subtract one day if that period includes five leap years.) A Saros series doesn't last forever, because those periodic movements I mentioned aren't perfectly regular -- but it's pretty close: it will last for 1230 to 1550 years. Plenty long enough for ancient astronomers to notice it!

And, indeed, long before Thales came along, the Babylonians had already discovered the Saros cycle as it relates to lunar eclipses. So, hey, it's obvious: Thales must have discovered that solar eclipses follow the same cycle, right?

And that would be absolutely completely dead wrong. Here's why. A lunar eclipse is when the earth casts its shadow on the moon. As a result, the eclipse is visible from anywhere on that side of the earth. A solar eclipse is when the moon casts its shadow on the earth. As a result, the eclipse is only visible on that part of the earth which happens to be shadowed by the moon.

The solar eclipse of 8-9 March 2016, as viewed by the NASA-NOAA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). (source: Space.com)

If you see a solar eclipse at the start of month 0, it's possible to see another eclipse 223 months later. But, because the Saros cycle isn't perfectly regular, you'll only see the second eclipse if you move south and west far enough to compensate for that irregularity, and for the fact that the end of the lunar month will fall 7 hours and 42 minutes later in the day. Solar eclipses may happen every 223 months, but there's absolutely no possible way for an ancient astronomer to have seen them every 223 months.

But wait, not so fast. If the 223 month period means that each eclipse is 7 hours and 42 minutes later in the day, that'll eventually wrap round, right? After three Saros cycles, you'll get another eclipse that's 23 hours and 7 minutes later -- pretty close to 24 hours. Put another way, you'll get an eclipse that's 53 minutes earlier in the day. That could be a realistic way to see solar eclipses! And in fact Greek astronomers had a technical term for this period of three Saros cycles, 669 lunar months or 54 years and 32 days: they called this period an exeligmos.

But wait again: yes, the exeligmos cycle was known to Greek astronomers -- 500 years after Thales' time, mind -- but to predict an eclipse on 28 May 585 BCE using the exeligmos cycle, you would need to have observed the eclipse one exeligmos earlier on 26 April 639 BCE. Unfortunately, that eclipse never got as far as Thales. Sunset intervened. The eclipsed sun set below the horizon while the moon's shadow was still over Estonia. Eclipses before that are even worse: the earlier in the exeligmos series you go, the earlier sunset puts an end to the eclipse.

This is why many people who have faith in Thales -- or rather, Herodotus' vague and poorly described version of Thales -- tend to opt for other eclipses. The 28 May 585 BCE eclipse is actually pretty hard to predict. But as we saw earlier, none of the rival candidates would have darkened the sky noticeably.

No one has any good theories on how Thales might have predicted the 28 May 585 eclipse. The astronomer Miguel Querejeta (2011) has rejected two leading candidates, and one of the targets of his criticism, Couprie (2004), rejects several more.

One thing is certain: there were no genuine techniques in Thales' time for predicting solar eclipses. Genuine predictions didn't start to emerge until around the 4th century BCE in Babylonian astronomy, and the 3rd century CE in Chinese astronomy (Steele 1997, 1998). The simple reason is that solar eclipses are really sodding hard to predict: because they are very localised, they require an awful lot of very precise observations, and observations of them are very tightly constrained by the geographical location of the observer.

We'd better not go too hard on Thales, though. He may not have predicted an eclipse -- and there's not much reason even to think he did, given how vaguely Herodotus describes his 'prediction' -- but he was a creature of his time. Like all Greek thinkers until the late 400s BCE, he imagined the earth as a flat disc: he believed the earth was like a wooden disc floating in water, as Aristotle and other later writers report (Couprie 2011: 63-7; see Thales frs. A.14, A.15 Diels-Kranz). On the other hand, we have testimony suggesting that he did get some things right. We have (1) two reports that Thales explained the light of the moon as the moon being illuminated by the sun (fr. A.17b D-K; p. Oxy. 3710, col. ii lines 38-43); (2) one report that he explained solar eclipses as being caused by the moon screening the sun (fr. A.17a D-K); and (3) one report that he discovered the periodic nature of eclipses and how 'they are not always exactly equal' (fr. A.17 D-K). What does the last of these mean? Maybe the fact that the Saros cycle isn't an integer number of days. He was no eclipse-predictor, but if half of these reports are true, he was not half bad as an astronomer.

References

Monday, 10 April 2017

Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned?

'Nero, and the burning of Rome', by M. de Lipman. Illustration in H. Sienkiewicz, Quo vadis (Philadelphia, 1897).
The impartial page of history informs us, that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
-- Dr Peter Crompton, campaigning for election in Liverpool in 1820, reported in Memoirs of the life of the Right Honourable George Canning (1828), p. 293
Nero fiddled while Rome burned ... say this in public nowadays, and you'll have a horde of angry purists clamouring at your gates to tell you how wrong you are. (Actually, based on past experience, it's more likely to be a hoard.)

By the way, the sentiment is a lot older than 1820. It's just that this appears to be the earliest occurrence of the exact phrasing, 'Nero fiddled while Rome burned'. Earlier writers came up with similar ideas, just not the same wording --
                                   and like thee, Nero,
(I'll) play on the lute, beholding the towns burn:
wretched shall France be only in my name.
-- Marlowe and others,1 Henry VI part 1 (ca. 1591-1595), Act 1 Scene 4
I have a fiddler heard him (i.e. Nero), let me not
see him a player ...
-- Anon., The tragedy of Nero (1624), Act 3 Scene 3
1 Yes, really. No, it's not a conspiracy theory. Shakespearean scholars have long suspected that the Henry VI plays were collaborations, but three stylometric analyses now point independently to Marlowe, specifically, as responsible for most of Part 1 -- perhaps along with others. See Craig's chapter in Shakespeare, computers, and the mystery of authorship (2012); Segarra et al. in Shakespeare quarterly 67 (2016) 232-56 (subscription needed); and The new Oxford Shakespeare: authorship companion (2017), pp. 513-17. The work of Arefin et al. in PLoS ONE 9.10 (2014) suggests that Marlowe may have been involved in a wide range of plays, maybe more active as a collaborator than as an independent writer. The new Oxford Shakespeare takes a more radical line, assigning Henry VI part 1 to Nashe (Act 1), Marlowe (most of Acts 3 and 5), and an anonymous other, with Shakespeare's role reduced to adapting their play in the mid-1590s. I won't stick my neck out that far, but Marlowe's role appears to be beyond doubt.

These and other earlier references were gathered by Mary Francis Gyles in an excellent article, '"Nero fiddled while Rome burned"', which appeared in 1947 (here's an open-access copy).

So, is it completely mythical, as the modern-day purists will insist? Well, in a sense, yes. But there are also senses in which it is most definitely not a mere myth. A true answer has to be more nuanced. Here's mine:
  • In the letter, it is of course trivially false: the Romans didn't have fiddles. (They did have a thing called a fidicula, 'a small lyre', but Gyles shows that there's no evidence linking that specific word to Nero.)
  • In spirit, though, 'Nero fiddled while Rome burned' is precisely what the surviving evidence tells us.
  • However, that evidence is almost certainly flawed.
So it's not literally true, it's probably not metaphorically true either, but there is a kind of truth to it. The thing that is true is that it is a very ancient myth: a form of it existed within a few years of Nero's death, maybe even during his lifetime.

'But I am aware that I must compete with those who sang at the burning of Troy. My song must be greater, just as Rome is greater than Troy!' Peter Ustinov as Nero (Quo vadis, 1951; YouTube link).

Wait, what? '"Nero fiddled while Rome burned" is what the evidence tells us'? -- but ... surely there are loads of popular accounts telling us that there's no evidence of this! Surely no one on the internet would lie?

Well, yes, in fact there is plenty of evidence. Provided that we forget about literal fiddles, and pay attention to the underlying idea: being frivolous when a desperately urgent problem is at hand.

Here is that evidence, warts and all. There are three pieces of testimony: they are Tacitus (writing ca. 110-120 CE), Suetonius (ca. 120-140 CE?), and Cassius Dio (ca. 211-229 CE).
Though these measures [Nero's response to the fire] were populist in nature, they proved ineffectual, because the rumour had got around that at the very time when the city was in flames, he had gone onto the stage in his home and sung the Destruction of Troy, representing the evils of the present with a disaster of antiquity.
Viewing this conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, he rejoiced in 'the beauty of the fire', as he put it. He sang the Sack of Ilion in his usual stage costume.
While everyone else was in this state, and many were even leaping into the fire itself because of their suffering, Nero climbed up to the top of his palace where the best view of the burning was, put on his gear for kithara performances, and sang the Sack of Ilion -- or so he called it; obviously it was really a 'sack of Rome'.
There's good agreement here, though Cassius Dio can't be regarded as independent of the earlier two. We have to substitute an ancient concert kithara for the modern violin, but that should have been obvious all along. (For that matter, Gyles' article suggests that the proverbial 'fiddling' doesn't come from the musical instrument, but from the fact that he was 'fiddling' in the sense of lollygagging.)

The upshot is this: the story is strongly supported by ancient testimony.

You won't get this impression from a lot of recent accounts of the 'myth'. Most of them aren't even aware of Suetonius and Cassius Dio. And when they bother to mention Tacitus, they often misrepresent him.
The myth is busted, however, when one realizes that the violin wasn't invented for another 1,500 years after the fire... In other words, it's impossible that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. ... To the contrary, Nero actually did take immediate and expansive measures to provide relief for his citizens.
If Nero played anything, it would probably have been the cithara, a heavy wooden instrument with four to seven strings2 -- but there is still no solid evidence that he played one during the Great Fire. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Nero was rumored to have sung about the destruction of Troy while watching the city burn; however, he stated clearly that this was unconfirmed by eyewitness accounts.
The closest instrument to the violin available at the time was the cithara but there is no concrete evidence that Nero was idle during the fire or that he started it. In fact, ancient historians agree that he reacted in a manner befitting an emperor ...
'No solid evidence', my eye. To be clear: Tacitus calls the story rumor, which can mean 'report, word heard on the grapevine' as well as 'a rumour'; but he certainly doesn't take the trouble to dismiss it, nor does he 'state clearly' that it was unconfirmed. Ancient historians do not 'agree that (Nero) reacted in a manner befitting an emperor'. Instead, these 'mythbusters' selectively focus on the bit of Tacitus immediately before the relevant passage, and ignore the relevant passage as though it meant nothing.

(By the way, Nero's kithara certainly wouldn't have had 'four to seven strings'. Think a dozen or more. It's questionable whether any real kithara ever had only four strings; if they ever did, it was at least 800 years before Nero's time.)

'So the Senate wouldn't pass my plans, eh? Wouldn't let me build my New Rome? But if the old one is burnt, if it goes up in flames, they will have no choice! Rome will be rebuilt to my design! Brilliant! Brilliant!' The Doctor sets fire to Nero's plans for New Rome ... and accidentally gives the emperor an alternative idea. (Doctor Who, 'The Romans', 1965; YouTube link)

The catch, as a select few of the cleverer mythbusters realise, is that Tacitus tells another story about Nero's actions during the fire, separately from the fiddling story, which is inconsistent with parts of the story as told by Suetonius and Cassius Dio. Tacitus mentions earlier in Annals 15.39 that Nero was out of town at the start of the fire; that he returned to Rome once it was already well under way; and that, once there, he started relief efforts for the people who had suddenly become homeless. And that's when he tells us that these relief efforts didn't do him any favours because of the fiddling story.

That doesn't mean that there's no evidence of the myth. As we've just seen, there is evidence to support the myth.

As it happens, though, there is good reason to doubt the evidence. In the first place, Suetonius and Cassius Dio are not reliable writers at the best of times: Suetonius was basically a gossip columnist, and Dio was happy to accept the word of gossips. Both of them insist that Nero was personally responsible for the fire. In Dio's case, he just wanted to watch the world burn --
After this, (Nero) desired what must always have been his prayer: to destroy the entire city and realm during his lifetime. For example, he had called Priam wonderfully blessed in that respect, since he had witnessed his homeland and empire being destroyed.
Now, when someone only ever reports insanely evil stories about a ruler's misdeeds, you can bet there's an agenda. That by itself gives loads of reason for doubt.

Tacitus is more reliable, and also more cautious. He repeats that there was a report of Nero staging a performance of the Sack of Ilion, but he doesn't go so far as to say it actually happened. In addition, Tacitus' claim that Nero was out of town at the start of the fire is inconsistent with Suetonius' and Cassius Dio's claims that he was personally responsible for starting the fire.

Really what it looks like is that Nero got really, really unlucky in the PR game. He was known for performing live concerts; he did compose a poem that Juvenal calls a Troica, or story of Troy (Satires 8.221); it may well be that this was remembered after the fire. Moreover, Nero used the occasion of the fire to claim an enormous amount of land in the middle of the city for a very large imperial palace. This made it easy for conspiracy theorists to imagine that he had wanted the fire to happen.

By choosing facts selectively -- rather like the modern accounts I've quoted above -- it was perfectly possible for enemies to concoct a story where Nero himself started the fire, and where he revelled in the destruction by performing a lyre concert, something that he was already known for.

For us, the fact that we can clearly see how the story may have come about allows us to be very sceptical of Suetonius' and Cassius Dio's ridiculous story of a man who just wants to watch the world burn. But at the same time, it is entirely legitimate and true to state that the story that 'Nero fiddled (or rather played the lyre) while Rome burned' is an ancient one, and one that was widely believed even at the time of the fire.



I'll just close with an extract from Henryk Sienkiewicz' novel Quo vadis (1895; English translation 1897), which helped cement this 'myth' in the modern mind -- perhaps most memorably in the 1951 film, in which Peter Ustinov sings about Rome's destruction so abysmally badly.
Somewhere, below there in the darkness, the people murmured and grumbled. Let them murmur. Ages would pass, thousands of years would go by, and men would remember and glorify the poet who in such a night sang the fall and burning of Troy. What was Homer, yea, what was Apollo, with his lute? None could be compared to him. Here he raised his hands and striking the strings he quoted the words of Priam:
'Oh nest of my fathers, Oh precious cradle!'
His voice in the open air, against the roar of the flames and the distant murmur of the multitude, seemed week, abrupt, and feeble. The sound of the accompanying instruments was like the buzzing of flies. But senators, officers, and Augustales gathered together on the aqueduct, bowed their heads and listened in rapturous silence. ... In reality he was not moved by the destruction of his Capitol, but his delight over his own words caused his eyes to fill with tears. He dropped the lute with a clatter at his feet, and wrapping himself in his robe stood as if petrified, like one of those statues of Niobe which adorn the court of the Palatine. A storm of applause succeeded. But the multitude in the distance answered it by howling.
- H. Sienkiewicz, Quo vadis (Philadelphia, 1897) part 3 ch. 4

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Off limits: these theories aren't for debunking (not here, anyway)

Initiation scene at Eleusinian Mysteries. Left: Demeter is shown sitting on the sacred kistē (basket) containing secret initiation paraphernalia. The basket is wound about by a snake. Demeter looks back at Persephone, who is holding a burning torch. Right: thronōsis scene. An initiate, veiled, sits on a ramskin; a priestess, approaching from behind, holds a burning torch close to his hand. (Relief on a Roman-era sarcophagus from Torre Nova; composite image)

Not all modern myths about antiquity come from misunderstandings. People at the centre of the academic discipline, too, sometimes come up with theories that I for one regard as 'myths', in the popular sense of theories that are widely believed but untrue. Some of these people are tenured professors in university departments, surrounded by eminent colleagues.

Sometimes these theories go unrefuted by their peers, in spite of or maybe because of their idiosyncrasies. In these cases, I won't be doing any kind of debunking. This is partly out of professional respect, but mainly because of the limitations of blogs. Even if I am dead sure that these theories are untrue, this isn't the right place to do so -- unless I'm just supporting an existing published refutation. The right place is in the pages of an academic journal. The catch is that writing an academic article is generally a tad harder than debunking myths in a blog, even if some blog posts involve nearly as much work and research.

A debunking in an academic journal requires, or should require, an absolutely masterful command of both the primary evidence and the modern scholarship. Now, for some topics, that's actually achievable in a blog format. For example, I think this post on irrational numbers covers all the relevant testimony in existence, and there won't be any real controversy among specialists in the field. For some topics I have to settle for a lower goal: I can cite ancient testimony about broad beans as well as anyone, but that doesn't mean my coverage of the epidemiology of G6PD deficiency is good enough for a journal. Yet here, again, I don't think there'll be any controversy among scholars of ancient religions.

And then there are topics that are controversial, and which have no dedicated counter-arguments in scholarly journals. (Or at least, not yet.) These are the ones I've decided not to touch.

This policy decision came about after I had already done a fair amount of work on one of the topics I'll mention below. I think I have the broad outline of a compelling debunking of it. But
  • the principal living proponent deserves some professional respect;
  • there is no dedicated debunking of the idea in any academic publication;
  • what would be the point of doing the one and only debunking, if it's in a place that can't realistically be cited by any future studies?
So I won't offer any comment on the following theories. But I will offer them up in their authors' own words. I think they don't have enough support to stand up. You judge them on their own terms, and see what you think:
  • Do you get a sense of what evidence they are relying on? If so, do they deal with that evidence in a balanced fashion, or selectively?
  • What competing theories can you think of? How would you expect the authors to deal with those competing theories?

Drugs at Eleusis

The ancient testimony about Eleusis is unanimous. Eleusis was the supreme experience in an initiate's life. It was both physical and mystical: trembling, vertigo, cold sweat, and then a sight that made all previous seeing seem like blindness, a sense of awe and wonder at a brilliance that caused a profound silence since what had just been seen and felt could never be communicated: words are unequal to the task. Those symptoms are unmistakably the experience induced by an entheogen ...
-- Carl Ruck, Sacred mushrooms of the goddess. Secrets of Eleusis (Berkeley, 2006) p. 14
(Note: the above is rephrased from Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck, The road to Eleusis: unveiling the secret of the Mysteries (1978), chapter 3, also by Ruck.)

Suggested bibliography:
  • Burkert, W. 1983. Homo necans. The anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth. U. of California Press. (Orig. publ. in German as Homo necans, 1972.) pp. 265-293.
  • Richardson, N. J. 1974. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 344-348.
  • Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 2003. 'Festival and Mysteries: aspects of the Eleusinian cult.' In: Cosmopoulos, M. B. (ed.). Greek mysteries. The archaeology and ritual of ancient Greek secret cults. London: Routledge. pp. 25-49.
  • Walcot, P. 1979. Review of Wasson et al., The road to Eleusis. Greece & Rome 26: 104.

Fossils and mythical monsters

Herakles (left) fights the monster Kētos (right) to rescue Hesione (centre). (Corinthian black-figure kratēr, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Monsters of Greek myth were perceived in the popular imagination and portrayed by artists either as huge beasts or as giant humans. The artist of the Copenhagen vase has opted for the latter. The Perseus vase and the Copenhagen vase therefore illustrate the two branches of mythical interpretation of monsters. But the unparalleled depiction of the Monster of Troy as a large fossil animal skull on the Boston vase points to a natural basis for the two branches of monster and giant images in art and literature. Here is powerful evidence that fossil remains of prehistoric animals influenced ancient ideas about primeval monsters!
-- Adrienne Mayor, The first fossil hunters. Paleontology in Greek and Roman times (Princeton, 2001) p. 163
Suggested bibliography: I know of none, other than Mayor's own book.

Herakles and Kētos: here, Kētos is depicted as he usually is, as a giant snake's head attached to a fish's body. (Caeretan black-figure vase, Stavros S. Niarchos collection)

The alphabet was invented in order to write down the Iliad

Homer's floruit falls within the first half of the eighth century [BCE]. He is pehaps an exact contemporary of the adapter [of the Phoenician alphabet]. At the very least, he lived within fifty years of the invention of an idiosyncratic writing that cocks the ear to fine distinctions of sound and is used in its earliest remains to record hexametric verse. If the alphabet was fashioned to record the poet Homer and no other, we can account for the coincidence in time. If we believe that the adapter restructured Phoenician writing not in order to record Homer specifically, but in order to record 'hexametric verse in general,' meaning a poet or poets of whose existence and achievement all memory has been lost, we must admit that at the same time, or within a generation and a half at most, the new writing was also used to write down Homer.
-- Barry Powell, Homer and the origin of the Greek alphabet (Cambridge, 1991) p. 221
Suggested bibliography:
  • Graziosi, B. 2002. Inventing Homer. The early reception of epic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 90-98.
  • Svenbro, J. 1993. Phrasikleia. An anthropology of reading in ancient Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (Orig. publ. in French as Phrasikleia, 1988.) pp. 26-43.
  • Van Wees, H. 1994. 'The Homeric way of war: the Iliad and the hoplite phalanx.' Greece & Rome 41: 1-18 and 131-155, at pp. 138-146.

You too can own a 'Nestor's cup' coffee mug! Only NZD$27.85 plus shipping from Zazzle. Just be aware that line 1 contains a very doubtful supplement.

The Mahābhārata was based on the Iliad

I have, in effect, been attempting to prove that the author(s) of the Mahābhārata, based on their fervor for the Homeric epics and interest in other mythological figures such as Heracles, utilize very diverse Greek sources and put them into play in very versatile and creative ways all throughout their story built around the massacre of the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas. ... We are not talking about minor details, motifs, or loose elements. The creative genius behind the work is articulated from within an extensive blueprint inspired by the one which underlies the Iliad. Accordingly, those chronological frameworks, situations and characters are changed or inverted at will, and, amongst numerous other possibilities, some stories are embedded in larger, more central ones or components of all sorts are mixed to form fascinating amalgamations.
-- Ferdinand Wulff Alonso, The Mahābhārata and Greek mythology (Delhi, 2014) pp. 446-447
Suggested bibliography:
  • Watkins, C. 1995. How to kill a dragon. Aspects of Indo-European poetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Entire book, but esp. pp. 12-27.
  • West, M. L. 2007. Indo-European poetry and myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Entire book, but especially pp. 19-24.
Heroes take part in bow contests to win a bride. Left: Arjuna shoots at a fish's eye to win Draupadi (source: a 19th century edition of the Mahābhārata). Right: Odysseus shoots through twelve axes to win Penelope (source: Ulysses (1954), starring Kirk Douglas).