Despotiko: a goat island and its Sanctuary of Apollo

In late spring 2017 I took the advantage of an invitation (and a lull in marking) to participate in an excavation at Mandra, located on the uninhabited Cycladic island of Despotiko (identified with the ancient Prepesinthos mentioned by Strabo and Pliny). The excavation is directed by Dr Yannos Kourayos (Ephor of Antiquities of Paros) and his assistant Ilia Daifa. Despotiko is accessed normally only via a small boat which sails on a sheltered route from a harbour on the south west of the populated island of Antiparos, which is itself 1.9 km from more substantial Paros.

Fig. 1: The Cyclades; Despotiko


Fig. 2: Despotiko: General view

The sanctuary of Apollo on Despotiko was discovered in 1997 by Dr Kourayos. The ongoing excavations, which started in 2001, have revealed an important sanctuary of the archaic period – one which, remarkably, does not appear to have been mentioned by any ancient literary source. The finds – on display at the Paros Museum – include cult statues, the head of a kouros figure, inscribed shards which attest to the worship of Apollo and Artemis, and an altar inscribed ‘Of Hestia Ithsmia’ (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Finds from Despotiko on display at the Archaeological Museum of Paros: the head of a kouros-figure, inscribed shards, and an altar inscribed ‘Of Hestia Isthmia’.

At the archaeological site there has been excavated a fascinating room containing a drainage system and a bathtub (Fig. 4), which suggest that it was a wash-room for ritual purification before entering the sacred area.

Fig. 4: Room containing drainage system and bathtub.

It is likely that the sanctuary was developed by inhabitants of the vicinity over the course of the archaic period – an era during which certain Parians became wealthy by the export of high-quality white marble, which had a reputation across Greece. Our sanctuary at Despotiko appears to have suffered a sudden and possibly violent destruction towards the end of the archaic period, and it is tempting to believe – as is suggested by Dr Kourayos– that it was razed by the Athenian general Miltiades when he launched his expedition against Paros in 490/89 BC; this may be an indication that the ambitious Athenians were keen to undermine on any communities which were displaying through their activities wealth and piety in a way they saw as challenging to that of the Athenians. The destruction of the sanctuary at this point goes some way to explaining the absence of any account of it from any of our literary sources, including Herodotus.

The sanctuary suffered further destruction and pillaging during Late Antiquity and from piratical raids in the seventeenth century. Efforts are now underway to restore the extant fragments of the sanctuary’s buildings to their original location, and the current excavation programme forms part of this project.

We were involved in the first week of the six-week excavation, so our contribution in the first days involved the clearance of undergrowth, top-soil and donkey dung (Fig. 5). (The offending donkey appears to have done damage to the remains of the sanctuary by toppling over one of the remaining columns of the sanctuary (Fig. 5) when using it as a scratching-post). But there were some exciting finds including an amphora, a six-inch bronze nail dating to the archaic period, and an inscribed shard bearing some legible letters.

Fig. 5: Donkey dung and a general view of the Sanctuary

Spending time on Despotiko gave us also the opportunity also to witness first hand the operation of labour on a goat-island: each day Petros the goatherd would arrive by boat from Antiparos and walk up to his goat-keeping complex (a mandra, from which the name of the site is taken) to release his herd from their pen. The goats would rush down to a field of barley (Fig.6) at had been planted especially for their consumption. It was is an interesting illustration of the use of agricultural resources in the Greek world: the milk, meat, and cheese (Fig. 6) produced through this process are far more highly-valued than is unprocessed barley.


Fig. 6: The goats move down to their barley field; the finished product!

On the way home we took advantage of the opportunity to visit — at the Paros Museum — one of the pieces of the famous Parian Marble, an inscription which lists a chronology of mythical and historical events from the time of the legendary king Kekrops until the third century BC. The other extant substantial fragment is on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The other substantial fragment – brought to England in the seventeenth century – was lost at an English country home: proof that antiquities are sometimes safer on a Greek island than in the hands of the British aristocracy!

Peter Liddel

More epistolary novels (or novellas)?

Along with the letters attributed to Chion (which we discussed in the previous post), the Greek pseudepigraphic letter collections most often referred to as examples of the ‘epistolary novel’ or Briefroman (though ‘epistolary novella’ might be nearer the mark, given their length) are those attributed to two famous Athenians, the statesman and general Themistocles and the tragedian Euripides. Their manuscript history and their fate in early printed editions (the ancestors of our modern texts) shed some light on some of the problems the Ancient Letter Collections project faces, while their content and character illustrate some important characteristics of Greek pseudepigraphic letter collections.

The letters of Euripides form a tight epistolary story, depicting Euripides as a philosopher and sage (as explored in this excellent article by Johanna Hanink); the picture developed appears to respond to Euripides’ portrayal in the biographical tradition. In every case the sender is Euripides, while his addressees are famous historical contemporaries: the Macedonian king Archelaus, in whose court Euripides spent the last years of his life after his exile from Athens (letters 1, 3, 4), Sophocles (2), and the actor/slave Cephisophon, with whom (according to the biographical tradition) Euripides  had disagreements, though in the letter they are on friendly terms (5). There are clear narrative connections made between the letters and across the collection: in the first letter Euripides asks Archelaus to release some men from prison, which he then thanks Archelaus for doing in the third letter, while by the fifth Euripides is living in Macedon at Archelaus’ court. Since the order of the letters is stable in the manuscripts, with all containing the letters in the order 1-5 (the only  exception is a small group of manuscripts which contain only letters 1-3), we can be fairly confident the order can be attributed to the author of the letters. It also suggests that the letters were regarded as a separate work, distinct from Euripides’ plays, which are absent from all 34 of the manuscripts containing the letters.

All the printed editions of the letters of Euripides contain the five letters in the order 1-5, the oldest being the Aldine (1499), but the letters of Themistocles were not so fortunate: there we find extensive reordering in the early printed editions, perhaps because the collection is preserved in a single manuscript (the 9th century Codex Palatinus Graecus 398). The first printed edition of the letters was published in Rome by Caryophilus (1626), but in this edition the arrangement of the letters is different from the manuscript, perhaps due to an attempt by Caryophilus to put the letters in strictly chronological order. Ehringer published an edition in 1629, adopting Caryophilus’ text, but  re-arranged the letters according to the alphabetical order of the names of the addressees. We have Westermann to thank for restoring the original manuscript order in his critical edition of 1857/8, which has been adopted in modern critical editions and translations.  This has allowed us to see some key aspects of the collection’s structure: as Penwill has shown, it has a striking ‘diptych’ structure, where letters 1-12 and 13-21 cover the same events but present very different portraits of Themistocles, first scheming politician then Athenian patriot. It also highlights, however, those letter collections where the original manuscript order has been obscured by editorial re-ordering. We shall explore some such cases in future posts!

An ancient epistolary novel?

One of the most interesting and attractive collections among the Greek letter collections normally labelled as fictitious or pseudepigraphic (i.e. works whose real author was not the one with whom the work is normally associated) is that purporting to be by one Chion of Heraclea (on the Black Sea). A real Chion did exist and was responsible for killing the tyrant of Heraclea, Clearchus, in the middle of the fourth century BCE, but these letters date from the first (or possibly second) century CE.

The letters (17 in number) tell the story of Chion’s journey to Athens to study philosophy with Plato at the Academy. On his way to Athens Chion (anachronistically) meets Xenophon at Byzantium, who happens to arrive there at that time with the Greek army after their long march through Asia Minor, as described in Xenophon’s Anabasis. After five years of study, during which he sends various letters (full of everyday detail, such as 10 to his father, where he reveals he has contributed to the dowry for one of Plato’s grand-nieces), he returns to Heraclea to kill Clearchus. We hear of his plans in the final letters of the collection, the last of which is to Plato, his old teacher.

From the perspective of our project, it’s striking that the manuscripts all reflect the clear chronological and narrative order of the collection (all of the head manuscripts  of the manuscript families and sub-groups contain the letters ordered as 1-17; only a few late manuscripts contain selections from this order, which nevertheless still preserve the order within the selection, e.g. 3-6). This strongly suggests we’re right to read it as a coherent entity, an epistolary novel (or novella), and that its order and structure goes back to the author. The stability of the order of the letters in the manuscripts isn’t found in some other collections, where we also find extensive re-ordering in modern editions. Untangling those re-orderings is also a major focus of our project.

More soon on two more collections which resemble epistolary ‘novels’: Themistocles and Euripides!

Beginning the Project: which collections (and where?)?

The necessary first stage of work for our project on Ancient Letter Collections was  preliminary: which collections should be included in the project? In order to identify definitively the surviving ancient letter collections in Greek and Latin we made use of the databases of both the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and Thesaurus Linguae Latinae. Our search produced a long list of all the ancient Greek and Latin authors up to ca. 500 CE from whom more than one letter survived. We have distinguished those letters that have survived as citations or quotations in literature from those that have survived as collections (only the latter will form the focus of the project).

The list of Greek and Latin epistolographers is long and contains very many interesting examples. One of them is the collection of letters of the Saints Barsanuphius and his disciple Joannes, two ascetic monks of a monastery in Palestine, in the 6th century CE. They acquired great fame for their holiness and many people (ranging from local monks to bishops and laymen) sought them out for spiritual advice. However, the two monks kept themselves in strict seclusion, and communicated with their enquirers only through letters, transmitted by Seridus, the abbot of the monastery. Over eight hundred letters containing their replies have descended to us as a collection through medieval manuscripts, forming an invaluable source of information about early Christianity. The letters may have been collected by Dorotheos, one of the disciples of the two monks. The transmission of the collection of the letters of Barsanuphius and Joannes and the arrangement of the letters in it will be but one of the project’s collections.

From the beginning of February 2016 the main goal of the project has been to research the manuscript tradition of the letters of each ancient collection in turn and trace its roots. For many ancient authors, especially for those who have been well-studied by modern scholars with detailed critical editions, the collection of information about the tradition in ancient collections is relatively easily detectable. However, for some others who the lack an authoritative critical edition, it is necessary to research further into manuscript catalogues for relevant information about the transmission and order of the letters in order to identify the roots of each collection in antiquity.

We’ve begun with Greek fictional and pseudepigraphic letter collections, more on  which very soon!


Research Associate joins the Project Team

Welcome to the inaugural blogpost of the Ancient Letter Collections Project at Manchester!

The project begins on 1 December 2016 and the team is now complete: we are delighted to announce the appointment of Dr Antonia Sarri as the project’s Research Associate. Dr Sarri is an expert in ancient epistolography, papyrology and the transmission of texts. She completed her PhD at UCL in 2011, on literary and documentary papyri from Oxyrhynchus (the transmission of the text of Xenophon’s Anabasis also formed a major part of the PhD). Dr Sarri has worked as Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Heidelberg’s Institut für Papyrologie’s Research Project (SFB 933) on ‘Material Text Cultures‘ – she has a monograph (Material Aspects of Letter Writing in the Graeco-Roman World) in press with De Gruyter (2017). This book examines the development of letter writing conventions in antiquity and sheds light on changing trends in Graeco-Roman epistolary practice over some eight hundred years.

The first task for the project (which will occupy the first month or so) is to to establish the total number of letter collections to be included in the project, as well as gathering and organising the material for the first group of collections we shall examine.

There will be monthly updates on this blog about the project – watch this space!

Ancient Letter Collections Project

We’re delighted to announce that the AHRC is to fund a four-year project at Manchester on Ancient Letter Collections (£500k), co-ordinated by Prof. Roy Gibson (PI) and Dr Andrew Morrison (CI). The project will begin in December 2016.

The Project:

The letter collections of Greco-Roman antiquity dwarf in total size all of ancient drama or ancient epic put together. Yet, unlike epic or drama, they have little visibility as a distinctive area of study. This is due in large part to the fact that no one definitively knows – because no one has thought to ask – how many letter collections actually survive from antiquity. This project will establish for the first time how many such collections survive. More significantly, through diachronic critical review of each collection to survive from the fourth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D., the project sets itself the task of establishing the study of ancient letter collections as a discrete and unified field. Included in that survey are numerous foundational texts of ancient literature and thought, from the letter collections of Plato through those of Cicero and the Christian New Testament to Saint Augustine’s collections in later antiquity. From this survey it will emerge that – like ancient drama or epic – there is significant generic unity across time, above all in terms of formal features, despite differences in content and focus between individual texts.

Alongside the creation of a field of study, it is an important part of this project to establish how ancient letter collections were ordered and read. A good number of surviving ancient letter collections – perhaps the majority – are available only in standard modern editions which have abandoned the distinctive ordering that is found in the ancient manuscripts of these collections. For example, Cicero’s Letters to Friends show a particular ordering by addressee or theme in all ancient manuscripts; but modern editors have re-ordered these letters entirely by chronology, thus obliterating the format in which the letters were read for first 1,500 years of their history. By seeking to establish how each letter collection to survive from antiquity was originally arranged in its manuscript form, we aim to recover, and promote the importance of, distinctively ancient reading practices in relation to letter collections.

The project will result in two substantial books: i) a critical review of each of the c. 70 surviving Greco-Roman letter collections before 500 A.D., and ii) an accompanying synoptic interpretative monograph.
The major component of the critical review is a series of cross-referenced discursive essays. Each essay will include the following information for each surviving letter collection:
a) basic information on authors, dates and other works;
b) total number of letters in the collection and total number of addressees (in the largest surviving version of the collection);
c) a detailed descriptive essay on the main patterns of arrangement visible in the available manuscripts, including key information on the earliest evidence available for an existing collection (and whether the arrangements visible in the manuscripts go back to antiquity or even the author’s hand).
d) an essay-survey of modern editions and short critical bibliography of significant items.
The synoptic interpretative monograph – building on the foundations of the critical review – will look at the field as a whole and ask questions about wider patterns of organization and associated reading practices.

The project will also include lots of impact and outreach activities, one of which will be regular posts on this blog once the project gets under way in December 2016.

Encounter with a Squatting Komast in Athens (aka more on ancient poo)

IMG_0286For a fortnight in April I had the pleasure of a stay at the British School at Athens. As well as digging-in for some serious research time (and eating spinach pies, and tortoise hunting in the garden), I spent an afternoon at the Cycladic Art Museum and their wonderful temporary exhibition, Hygeia: Health, Illness, Treatment from Homer to Galen. Among the many fabulous things on display – including some definitely not for the squeamish – there was this little chap, labelled “Perfume Vase in the Form of a Squatting Komast, 600-575 BC’ (picture below).

IMG_0307Our komast, or ‘reveller’, is about 10 cm tall, and may or may not be naked depending on how you interpret the dots and swirls which cover his body. There are many other examples of similar vases from the Archaic period, thought to have been made mostly in Corinth. Why is he in an exhibition about health and healing? The answer is partly because he’s a perfume bottle, designed to make the body smell nice, but some have also suggested he is squatting to – in non-technical terms – have a poo. In the exhibition, this vase is next to a urinal (amis) from the Athenian Agora. Added to this, excitingly for the linguist, there is a short text scratched across his back and shoulders (drawing below — and of course he was facing forward in the cabinet, so I found myself doing yoga to try to see his back).

The first part the text may be interpreted as χέζει (chezei), the 3rd person singular (‘he’) of a verb which LSJ coyly translates as ‘ease oneself’, found many times in Aristophanes. So the vase is indeed, it would appear, having a poo, and text and object are in concord. But why? This is an oil flask. It this all a joke…? There is however an alternative interpretation: these letters may write instead the word ψήχηι, ‘rub down’, i.e. instructions on how to use the contents of the flask, so something entirely different and nothing to do with excretion at all. Other ways of reading these letters have also been proposed, each inspiring a different story about the writer of the text and their relationship with the pot. It may however be that our komast isn’t actually doing anything surprising at all, but rather sitting, only in a way which is less familiar to the Western Europeans who first commented on such objects when they were published. Squatting for us is perhaps inherently associated with toilet practices, whereas in the original somewhat alien context of the object’s creation this may not have been the case. Here we have a good example of how latent cultural assumptions can be tacitly applied to an ancient object, and can change what we think about that object. This also reminds us how our early Greek texts are not so easy to read as we might think, and how object and text can interact in ways which radically alter what we believe the original scratcher of his message was saying, and why he or she were saying it.


Copyright © 2015 Amy Coker. Not to be reproduced without permission.