Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The hanging gardens: ‘seven wonders’ postscript

Eight months ago I wrote a post on the ‘seven wonders’, as canonised in several ancient lists. I pointed out that the make-up of the list changed over time; that the lighthouse of Alexandria wasn’t in the ancient canon; that there’s no reason to imagine the Colossus of Rhodes stood at the harbour (and it certainly didn’t stand astride the harbour); and that the pyramids are described as ‘shadowless’ in two sources, possibly because ancient tourists were impressed at the shadowless view from the top in the middle part of the day.

I also committed my share of blunders. In particular, I pointed out that the extant lists of seven wonders that mention the gardens -- Antipater, Greek Anthology 8.177, and Philon -- do not tell us where the hanging gardens were. But I blithely ignored several sources that do tell us the hanging gardens were at Babylon.

The hanging gardens as imagined in Lego by ‘Brickman’, Ryan McNaught (‘Let’s go build’ exhibition, Te Papa, Wellington, Dec. 2017. Photo by T. Schaefer.)

This is just a short note to correct that blunder. (I’ve also annotated the older post with some corrections, leaving my blunders present but stricken out.)

Greco-Roman sources

First, here are the extant sources that state that the hanging gardens counted among the ‘seven wonders’:
  • Megasthenes (C. 4-3 BCE) or Abydenus (C. 2 CE). Megasthenes’ Indica book 4, reported by Abydenus’ History of the Chaldaeans, reported in turn by Eusebius in the Armenian text of the Chronika. Translations: p. 19.13-17 Karst; p. 39 Petermann; pp. 55-6 Aucher Ancyranus. Citation of Megasthenes at p. 41 ed. Petermann (mistranslated in Karst).
  • Antipater of Sidon (C. 2 BCE), Greek anthology 9.58.
  • Strabo (C. 2 CE), Geography 16.1.5.
  • Greek anthology 8.177 (date unknown).
  • Philon (C. 4-5 CE), On the seven wonders.
Abydenus-Eusebius and Strabo don’t give complete lists of seven wonders, but they do count the hanging gardens among the seven.

Antipater, Gk. anth. 8.177, and Philon don’t specify locations for the gardens, but Megasthenes(-Abydenus-Eusebius) and Strabo do. They tell us the gardens were in Babylon. So do three other sources. Here’s a complete list of sources that report a location for the hanging gardens:
  • Berossus of Babylon (C. 4 BCE), Chaldaean histories book 3, reported in Josephus Against Apion 140-141 and Jewish antiquities 10.225-227Babylon.
  • Megasthenes (C. 4-3 BCE), Indica book 4, reported in Josephus (C. 1 CE), Jewish antiquities 10.225-227 (= FGrHist 715 F 1a); and with Abydenus (C. 2 CE) as an intermediary source, in the Armenian texts of Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica 9.41 (= FGrHist 715 F 1b) and the Chronica, p. 19.13-17 Karst = p. 39 Petermann = pp. 55-6 Aucher Ancyranus (citation of Megasthenes at p. 41 ed. Petermann) — Babylon.
  • Diodorus of Sicily (C. 1 BCE) 2.10.1-6Babylon.
  • Pliny the Elder (C. 1 CE), Natural history 36.94Thebes (i.e. Luxor), Egypt. (Possibly also reflected in Gregory of Nazianzus (C. 4 CE), Oration 34.63, who lists six remarkable places and buildings including ‘Egyptian Thebes’.)
  • Quintus Curtius Rufus (C. 1 CE?), History of Alexander 5.1.31-35Babylon.
  • Strabo (C. 2 CE), Geography 16.1.5Babylon.
The earliest sources, Berossus and Megasthenes, do not survive. But they are probably the most important sources. Berossus came from Babylon and wrote about his home city. Megasthenes lived shortly after the time of Alexander and wrote extensively about his travels to the east. But they’re not the only possible sources. Diodorus cites Ctesias for his description of the wall of Babylon (2.8.5), another of the seven wonders in Antipater’s canon. Ctesias was a Greek doctor who worked in the Achaemenid Persian court around the time of Herodotus (late C. 4 BCE): it’s possible he wrote about the hanging gardens as well. As for Pliny’s testimony, I think we can all agree to disregard it as an aberration.

And here’s one last list of sources, this time on the story of the gardens’ origin. See above for links.
  • Megasthenes-Abydenus-Eusebius — the gardens were built by the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (C. 6 BCE) as an adornment for his palace.
  • Josephus, Jewish antiquities 10.225-227 citing both Megasthenes and Berossus, and Against Apion 140-141 citing just Berossus — the gardens were built by Nebuchadnezzar II, with the appearance of mountains, to please his wife who was a Mede (i.e. from northern Iraq).
  • Diodorus — built by an Assyrian king (which suggests C. 7 BCE or earlier), at some point later than the legendary Semiramis (Shammuramat), in order to please one of his concubines, who was Persian and missed the mountainous countryside of her home.
  • Curtius Rufus — built by an Assyrian king to please his wife, who missed seeing groves and forests.

The hanging gardens as imagined in Minecraft by ‘lonestarr86’. (‘I only know what these are because of Sid Meier[’s Civilization games].’ -- noseonarug17)

... or Nineveh?

Stephanie Dalley has made an alternative argument that the gardens were actually at Nineveh. This is in her book The mystery of the hanging garden of Babylon (Oxford, 2013). Nineveh is some 440 km to the north of Babylon, at modern Mosul. The evidence is circumstantial -- there is no direct testimony supporting it -- but that is not to say that it is weak.
  • The references to Nebuchadnezzar that Josephus attributes to Berossus may have been inserted by an intermediate source.
  • The theme of homesickness is not one that is seen in Babylonian or Assyrian literature, and therefore likely to be a spurious Greek addition.
  • Some parallels to Berossus can be found in Babylonian epigraphy, but that is not the case for the hanging garden story.
  • The ‘mountainous’ appearance of the gardens as described by Josephus and Diodorus is typical of Assyrian gardens, as shown by illustrations of gardens in bas-relief panels found at Khorsabad and Nineveh. Babylon, by contrast, is flat.
  • Nebuchadnezzar’s citadel at Babylon was 13 metres above the level of the river Euphrates, making hands-free irrigation impossible.
  • Nineveh had an excellent canal system.
  • Sennacherib is known from epigraphic evidence to have built a garden irrigated by a canal at Nineveh.
  • Dalley interprets a difficult passage on an inscription from the time of Sennacherib (early C. 7 BCE) to mean that he had access to so-called ‘Archimedean’ screws, used for raising water by applying horizontal force.
I am impressed by Dalley’s argument, but it’s not all plain sailing:
  • You can sway between Nineveh or Babylon depending on whether you think the point of the gardens is to be typical for their location, or to be an exceptional reminder of a faraway place. The Greek sources firmly opt for the latter. They specifically state that the gardens were so striking because of Babylon’s flatness, and the point of the story about the king’s wife or concubine is that she missed the hills of her home.
  • Much of Dalley’s argumentation is designed to cast Nineveh as a possible location, rather than to make Babylon impossible. For example, the ‘Archimedean’ screws. If Sennacherib did have access to Archimedean screws (which is perfectly plausible), that doesn’t mean they didn’t also exist at Babylon. The Greek sources unhesitatingly put screws at Babylon, as Dalley herself points out: Strabo refers to a screw (kochlias) used to raise water from the Euphrates, and Philon refers to water being raised by a spiral engine (kochlioeidōs ... ton helika tōn mēchanēmatōn). This tells us nothing about the location of the gardens.
  • In a similar vein, absence of reference to gardens in Babylonian inscriptions doesn’t mean absence of gardens. We can’t expect a perfect match between Berossus and epigraphic evidence. (It’s not as though we have direct testimony linking the hanging gardens to Nineveh, either.)
  • Dalley has overlooked Megasthenes’ testimony. Now, she does posit a Greek intermediate source between Berossus and Josephus, to explain why Josephus’ story features Nebuchadnezzar, which Dalley regards as spurious, without committing to calling Berossus a liar. I suspect if she had been aware of Megasthenes, she’d certainly want to identify him as that vehicle. Megasthenes wrote about Nebuchadnezzar’s western campaigns (so Josephus tells us), which are certainly fictional, and the link between the gardens and Nebuchadnezzar also appears in Megasthenes as reported by Eusebius. It looks pretty likely that it really was Megasthenes that introduced Nebuchadnezzar into the story. But that doesn’t mean that the gardens weren’t at Babylon: it means that Diodorus and Curtius Rufus, who make an Assyrian king the star of the story, didn’t draw on Megasthenes. They’re independent evidence putting the gardens at Babylon.
The idea of homesickness as a Greek literary motif is the one really cogent argument against Babylon: it shows that the Greco-Roman testimony is heavily fictionalised. That carries a lot of weight.

On the other hand, if we’re deciding to disregard every scrap of testimony, why imagine any hanging gardens at all? What Dalley has shown, to my mind, is that it’s very possible the hanging gardens were completely fictional, and that the idea of them was inspired by Assyrian gardens. The choice is between that, and the gardens of Babylon being a real thing. I’m still leaning towards the latter, because of the independent lines of testimony from Berossus-Megasthenes-Josephus-Eusebius, Diodorus, Curtius Rufus, and Strabo. Either way, it doesn’t look like any Greek list-maker ever included a specific garden at Nineveh in the Greek canon of ‘seven wonders’.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Not ‘the oldest written record of the Odyssey’

The Odyssey is in the news this week. The media are reporting the discovery of ‘perhaps the oldest preserved written piece of the Homeric Epics that has come to light’ (‘ίσως το παλαιότερο σωζόμενο γραπτό απόσπασμα των Ομηρικών Επών που έχει έρθει στο φως’: press statement, Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports, 10 July 2018). It was found at Olympia, one of the most important religious sites of the Greek world, and the original home of the Olympic Games.

An extremely interesting fragment of the Odyssey -- but nowhere near ‘the oldest record’

The discovery is certainly important, and quite unusual. It isn’t written on papyrus, like most literary texts. It isn’t a verse inscription on stone, of which we have many. It’s a clay tablet. This was never a common writing medium in the Greco-Roman world. Its use for this tablet, and for this text, is something quite unique. The research project The Multidimensional Site of Olympia, led by Dr Erofili-Iris Kollia, head of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Ilia, deserve congratulations on their exciting discovery.

But the most widely repeated claim -- that it’s the oldest copy of the Odyssey ever found, or even that it might be the oldest -- is dead wrong. The tablet misses out on being the oldest existing copy by some 700 years.

Dr Kollia, regrettably, has also had her name mangled in the media. (The Washington Post calls her ‘Kolia Erofili-Irida’.) This is partly because the Ministry’s own press release misspelled her name in Greek, and partly because automatic translation tools have difficulty with possessive forms of Greek names.

This was a really sloppy press release, and Reuters was negligent to disseminate it so gullibly.

The most responsible handling of the story by any news outlet in the world, as far as I can see, is by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. They realised that the thing about the date was untrue and contacted the Greek embassy in Rome about it. The response was that the tablet was the earliest copy of the text on a hard material. In a similar vein the Süddeutsche Zeitung casts it as the oldest inscription containing verses from the Odyssey. This might sound plausible, but it’s pretty obviously a case of someone scrambling for an excuse. Because the very earliest copy of any part of the Odyssey is incised on a 5th century BCE potsherd. ‘Potsherd’ means it’s a hard material. ‘Incised’ means it’s an inscription.
Some news sources that have spread the false info from the press release: the BBC; the Frankfurter Allgemeine; The Guardian; Le Monde; The New York Times; The New Zealand Herald; Reuters; Time; The Washington Post. Some outlets that give a report with reduced misinformation: Archaeology.org; La Repubblica; Science Alert; Smithsonian.com; Die Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The text

Since there’s intense interest, here’s a transcription and translation. I’ve made them from the photograph that has been circulated in the press. Underneath is a version of the photo with the letter shapes highlighted. In my transcription the square brackets don’t represent edges of the tablet, as they normally would, but the edges of the photograph.
7    [κ]α[λη τε μεγαλη τε περιδρομοϲ ην ρα ϲυβω]-
      τηϲ
8    αυτοϲ δ’ αμφι ϲυεϲϲιν αποιχομενοιο
      [α]νακτοϲ
9    νοϲφιν δεϲποινηϲ και Λαερταο γ[εροντοϲ]
10  ρυτοιϲιν λαεϲϲι και ετριγκωϲεν αχερ[δωι]
11  ϲταυρουϲ δ’ εκτοϲ ελαϲϲε διαμπερ[εϲ ενθα]
      και ενθα
12  π̣υκνουϲ και θαμεαϲ το μελαν δ[ρυοϲ]
      [α]μφικεαϲϲαϲ
13  [ε]ντοϲθεν δ’ αυληϲ ϲυφεουϲ δυοκ[αιδεκα]
      ποιει ...

      [There was a f]i[ne and large enclosure which the swineh]erd
      and he himself, around the pigs during his lord’s absence,
      independently of his mistress and the o[ld man] Laertes,
10  surrounded (them) with quarried stones and pear (wood);
      and on the outside he drove stakes [this way] and that in a mesh,
      densely and close-spaced, [s]plitting the core (or: the bark?) of the t[ree];
      and on the [i]nside of the yard he made twe[lve] pigsties ...
-- Odyssey 14.7-13


The tablet doesn’t require any changes to the standard text of the passage. It does have a couple of differences from the standard text, but they’re clearly errors:
  • The tablet omits a verb in line 8, making lines 7-10 a bit of a jumble: it changes δείμαθ’ ὕεσσιν ‘(which) he built for the pigs’ into δ’ ἀμφὶ σύεσσιν ‘and around the pigs’.
  • In line 10 ἐθρίγκωσεν, ‘he surrounded’, the tablet changes the aspirated θ to unaspirated τ. This is uninteresting from a textual point of view, but very interesting phonologically. It shows that either the scribe or the person who dictated the text was aware of the classical pronunciation of theta, as in tin. In the Roman era, when the tablet was written, θ was regularly pronounced as in thin, just like in modern Greek.
But the standard text is secure: we’ve got ancient commentaries and a 3rd-4th century CE papyrus (no. 28 in West’s edition of the Odyssey, P. Rylands 53 fol. 13r) which both favour the standard text over the version in the tablet. Not to mention, the standard text actually makes sense.

The date

A complete list of ancient copies of the Odyssey -- not including this tablet, of course -- can be found in the introductory material to the recent edition of the Odyssey by M. L. West (2017), starting at page xxvii, headed Exemplarium antiquorum fragmenta (‘fragments of ancient copies’). There are something like a hundred that are older than the 3rd century CE, the date of the Olympia tablet.

The very oldest is a potsherd found at the Greek colony of Olbia, modern Ukraine, dating to the 400s BCE, which has Odyssey 9.39 written on it: ‘a wind bearing me from Ilios put me ashore among the Kikones’. Very evocative: to me it suggests someone who feels a long way from home. (Catalogue details for the potsherd: Trismegistos.org; SEG 30: 933.)

Some news outlets realised the claim was dubious and softened it.
“If this date is confirmed, the tablet could be the oldest written record of Homer’s work ever discovered in Greece,” the culture ministry said.
... notwithstanding the fact that the softer claim is contradicted by the article’s title. Greece is not a good source of ancient papyri: too damp. The vast majority of our ancient copies of the Odyssey have come from Egypt, which has much better conditions for preservation.

Even an expert might well think the tablet is the oldest copy discovered in Greece -- I did at first. But then I am no expert on papyri. Even that would be an error, though. One of the two oldest papyri found in Greece, the Derveni papyrus, found in Thessaly Macedonia and dating to ca. 340-320 BCE, quotes a line with a variant of Odyssey 8.335 (P. Derv. col. xxvi line 4). It’s possible that isn’t meant to be an Odyssey line: it could be from an Orphic poem that happens to resemble the Odyssey line closely. Even aside from that, we’ve got a bunch of Hellenistic vases that quote lines from Homer, collected in a 2013 dissertation by Dr Maria Nasioula -- as Prof. Vayos Liapis has pointed out in a reply to his own post on Facebook. (I owe thanks to Dimitri Nakassis, again, for alerting me to Vayos Liapis’ post and Maria Nasioula’s dissertation.)

The tablet

What about the purpose of the tablet? Why clay? ‘The Philological Crocodile’ has posted a suggestion that it’s a votive offering made by a rhapsode. That seems very plausible, given the find location at the temple of Olympian Zeus.

It still poses some mysteries. Votive offerings with verse inscriptions are normally stone, or some object of personal significance. Also, the writing on this tablet is frankly sloppy: the lines are uneven, the line divisions and many letters are scrawled. If I had paid a scribe to make a votive offering for me and this was the result, I would not be happy. The choice of passage is also curious: why should the description of Eumaeus’ stockyard be apt, regardless of what kind of offering it is? I’m interested to see what ideas anyone has about these questions.

Miscellaneous misinformation

There’s a fair amount of other misinformation floating around in the news reports on this tablet -- some coming from the press release, some from Wikipedia, some from other half-remembered sources. Briefly:
  • In the passage on the tablet Odysseus does not address ‘his lifelong friend Eumaeus’, as the BBC and some other sources have put it. It’s a description of Eumaeus’ farm, and Eumaeus is Odysseus’ slave.
  • The Odyssey does not date to the 11th century, and even the 8th century is a push. ‘The eighth century date is more often stated than argued for’, as Barbara Graziosi has memorably put it. The mid-7th century is a more likely date.
  • While there was an oral epic tradition, that does not mean that a fluid Odyssean narrative was floating around waiting for someone to write it down and turn it into a canonical form. First, we can’t be sure when it was written down: there’s no guarantee that the seventh century date involved a transcription event. Second, the Odyssey feeds on many legendary narratives, including an Oresteia narrative and an Argonautica narrative, of which either, or more probably neither, may have existed in epic form. We can’t know that the story of Odysseus’ homecoming would have been at all recognisable in a hypothetical period prior to those influences.
  • There is no evidence that the Greek alphabet was invented to write down Homer: that’s a fringe theory, and scarcely any Homer scholar outside the University of Wisconsin believes it.