Author Archives: peterliddel

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


Manumission and Sexuality in Ancient Greece, and a Friendly Visitor to Manchester

This week we bid farewell to our friend and colleague Deborah Kamen. Professor Kamen, of the University of Washington, Seattle, was our Simon Visiting Professor in Ancient History. Taking time out from her sabbatical at the American Academy in Rome, we had the pleasure of her company for a fortnight, during which she offered us a wonderful array of contributions.

Professor Kamen, Visiting Simon Professor of Ancient History, November 2014

Kamen’s work is characterised by its readiness to tackle broad-reaching, interdisciplinary, questions in a critically-informed way, and its re-assessment of the role of groups traditionally perceived as peripheral. Her publications have concentrated on slavery and status in classical Greece; her work on slave-prostitution, manumission, slave agency and slave invective constitutes an important contribution to the history of non-elite groups in classical Athens. Her most recent major publication is Status in Classical Athens (Princeton University Press, 2013), which has been heralded by Professor Sara Forsdyke (Michigan) as an ‘important contribution to scholarship’. Kamen challenges the widely-held belief that questions of status in classical Greece can be reduced to the tripartite division between citizens, metics (resident foreigners), and slaves, a division which is predicated largely upon the high valuation of citizen-male-oriented civic and political freedoms. The book has wider implications, too, leading its readers to ask whether Greek thought (about status, and other subjects too) was as binary as it is presented by modern scholars.


While she was with us only for a short time, she made great contributions to our teaching and research, and, admittedly we worked her very hard. She gave a lucid and informative lecture to our first-year students on slavery in archaic Greece, introducing them to sources, scholarship, and problems with the topic. Deborah and I co-taught an MA core module on Greek epigraphy, with Deborah introducing and opening up discussion of three epigraphic documents important for research into status and status-dynamics in ancient Greece; this was followed up by a Friday-morning seminar for our graduates and undergraduates. Last but not least, Deborah gave our Research Seminar an excellent paper, entitled ‘Prostitutes, maidservants and slave boys: manumission and sexuality in ancient Greece’.  Sex with slaves – including slave-prostitutes, beloved maidservants, and attractive slave boys – was commonplace in ancient Greece. Deborah explored  the role that sex and sexuality played in who was freed and why, drawing on inscriptions, literary texts, and legal evidence. In particular, she drew upon the texts inscribed upon the ‘Manumission Wall’ at Delphi, which documents the manumission process of several hundreds of slaves, many of whom were freed through the process of a fictive sale to the god Apollo. The evidence of these records strongly suggests that sexual relations may well have played an important role in the selection of individuals for liberation.Her paper went down a treat with the audience, and after the paper and she was joined for dinner at Zouk by 18 colleagues and postgraduates.

Thank you, Deborah, for all your work while you were here; we look forward to seeing you again soon!

Epic and Tragic Performances: What’s On

Upcoming Performances

Emma Griffiths offers some news on forthcoming performances of tragedy…

If you want Greek tragedy, 2014-2015 promises to be a bumper year. As well as regular productions by As part of a classical education, I’d encourage you to see as many productions of drama as you can: many theatres offer cut-price tickets for students. If you want Greek tragedy, this one promises to be a bumper year. As well as regular productions by the Oxford Greek Play, London Festival of Greek Drama etc, there are some major productions scheduled. The National Theatre’s  ‘Euripides’ Medea‘ starring Helen McCrory is now available to a wider audience  – the NT live scheme is screening performances in cinemas, including the Printworks NEXT MONDAY. The Barbican in London has announced that Oscar-winning actor Juliette Binoche will play Antigone in March of next year, and, closer to home, a version of Antigone by Pilot Theatre opens in Derby on FRIDAY. Roy Williams’ translation transfers the action into a modern setting with his heroine ‘Tig’ confronting authority and her own personal demons. The production will tour and move to Stratford next year.

Tune in next month for thoughts on The Lightning Child at the Globe, dramatisations of the Odyssey and a gender-reversed Hamlet…

Emma Griffiths

Epic and Tragic Performances, Ancient and Modern (part 1)

Epic and Tragic Performances, Ancient and Modern

Emma Griffiths reflects on some resonances between ancient and modern in contemporary performances of epic and drama.

Earlier this year a group of students came with me to see Simon Armitage’s new play Last Days of Troy. After the show, conversation touched upon many subjects (Was Paris completely naked under that sheet?  Was Priam really in ‘Only Fools and Horses’?), including the ethical issues raised by the story, the relationship between ancient and modern, and the problem of creating satisfying drama from epic poetry – Sophocles’ plays may have been described as ‘scraps from Homer’s banquet’, but the Greek tragic playwrights tended to focus on small, discrete episodes from the Trojan War, With this in mind, it seemed like a good point to take stock of some of the productions I’ve seen this year, and reflect on how each play has informed my own view of the ongoing dialogue between ancient and modern worlds – this is part one.


ClAH students at The Last Days of Troy

ClAH students at The Last Days of Troy

Last year, I gave a talk for the School’s programme of WW I events, looking at mud. We’re familiar with images from the trenches, where the mud sucked down men and animals, but my focus was on an equally deadly, literary mud: In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles rages over the death of Patroclus, and we see the only genuine threat to Achilles in the poem so far – the river Skamander prepares to overwhelm him – it will pour forth such a stream of mud that Achilles will be obliterated, forgotten and deprived of glory.

Juxtaposing this passage with the imagery of the trenches, my talk explored ideas of glory, heroism and the dangers of nature which characterise much modern understanding of the First World War. It’s well known that classical literature had an impact on a generation of men who were inspired to fight in 1914 (see Elizabeth Vandiver’s excellent book, Stand in the Trenches, Achilles), but ideals of glory derived from the Iliad cannot incorporate this threat of nature overwhelming civilization – my question for the audience was this, ‘If the powers-that-be had really known their Homer, and had really understood the warnings about the power of nature, might reports from the trenches have given them pause? Might the war have ended sooner or differently?’

Discussions with the audience after the talk provoked some lively debate about modern education and Homer’s intentions, before eventually  we came to ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ – has the final scene of poppy fields ever been bettered as a visual image to provoke tragedy in the midst of comedy?  This final point, about translating history and epic poetry into a dramatic form, with its limitations and new potentials, was clear in my mind as I went straight from the talk to the cinema that evening. This rare trip out on a school night was to see the RSC live broadcast of Shakespeare’s Richard II at a central Manchester cinema.  For the record, I should say that I love the immediacy of live theatre, and I was initially sceptical about the idea of seeing a live production beamed into a cinema – would the popcorn, and strange lighting make this seem more like seeing ‘Star Wars’ rather than gut-wrenching, tear jerking Shakespearean tragedy? I was also hesitant about seeing this particular play, because I saw Kevin Spacey’s version many years ago, and came out completely unmoved and rather confused.  However, I was lucky enough to see David Tennant as Hamlet at Stratford, so I was willing to trust his Shakespearan credentials.  And it was magnificent. Yes, you miss the spine-tingling buzz of being in the theatre, but on the other hand, you have more comfortable seats and the benefit of close-ups.  Seeing a play in a cinema is a completely different experience, but once you accept it for what it is, it’s wonderful. I have nothing but admiration for the minds who conceived and executed this programme of live broadcasts – it was flawless.

As for the production itself – amazing. Tennant was a terrifying and tragic king, Henry Bollinger was both plausible and a monster, and there wasn’t a single weak performance in the play. During the interval there was an interview with Jane Lapotaire, returning to the stage after a long illness, which provided a perfect example of the love and intelligence that goes into producing theatre. Although the play stayed with Shakespeare’s words and period costumes, it was a wonderful model for how drama can touch a modern audience without the need for explicit modernisation.

Go to the next post for some news on forthcoming productions of Greek drama…


In the first week of September, scholars from Sydney to Cairo converged on Manchester for heady talk about papyrus fragments. Kate Cooper reports on the John Rylands Research Institute’s symposium, From Egypt to Manchester, Unravelling the John Rylands Papyrus Collection.

Robeta Mazza explaining the so-called ‘last supper amulet’ (P Rylands Greek Add. 1166) to Campbell Price: