Pithekussa: the oldest Western Greek colony

Since the ninth century B.C. the Greeks from the continent, Aegean Islands and Ionia (present Turkey West coast), following the same Mycenaean routes, resumed moving west and founding new colonies in Sicily and in the South of Italy. These early colonies, within a century multiplied all over the Western Mediterranean reaching Sardinia, Corsica, France and the Iberian Peninsula.

Most certainly cities such as Syracuse (now Siracusa), Massalia (today Marseille), Akragas (now Agrigento), Taras (today Taranto), Nicea (now Nice), Neapolis (today Napoli), Emporion (now Ampurias), are widely renown as having very old Greek roots, nonetheless the oldest Greek colony is a small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea: Pithekussa.


Is here that in the beginning of the eighth century B.C. the early settlers came and founded initially an emporion and then a real colony. According to Strabo’s Geography these sailors and merchants came originally from both the two main poleij of the island of Euboea: Chalcis and Eretria as they found good soil and also gold mines on the island. The former characteristic is true belonging the island to an active volcanic area, the latter is to be considered a legend, probably sort of propaganda to enhance the number of settlers, or simply to magnify the gestae of the early settlers when sending news to their hometown. Actually, the settlers found this location suitable being its size large enough to sustain a community as well as not too wide to be defended.

Having been founded in cooperation by these two poleij is a very useful detail when trying to date the colonisation, because these two πολεις became enemies in the end of the eighth century B.C. and fought a long lasting war (Lelantine War) which gave no significant success to Chalcis and destroyed Eretria: consequently this joint colonisation project must have been planned and taken place before the Lelantine War.

Archaeological evidence corroborates this dating, as a ceramic cup found in an eighth century B.C. tomb bears an extraordinary inscription:

The cup of Nestor may have been certainly pleasant to drink from,

but who drinks from this cup immediately will be taken by the desire of Aphrodite by the splendid tiara

This is the oldest epigraph ever found in the Western Mediterranean Greek colonisation area, and both its syntax and style are quite sophisticated and mature for its age. The irony of the inscription (hinting to some aphrodisiac powers of the beverages it could have contained) and the literary reference to a precise detail of a minor Iliad character Nestor King of Πυλος confirm the degree of erudition of some island’s inhabitants in the eighth century who, by then, could not have been just sailors using it as a stepping stone. Soon the settlers expanded to another smaller neighbour island, Aenaria, just between Pithekussa and the continent.

The island was naturally endowed with argillaceous soil, which in those days was a very important resource for the island’s ceramic manufacturers: lots of pottery made on Pithekussa was exported to the continental Italy, especially in Etruscan areas. Moreover, this was probably the etymology of the island’s name: pithos (vase); although according to another – minor, though – etymology the island’s name would come from pithekos (monkey).

The settlers lived in harmony with the indigenous population – the Ausones – as they were good farmers and bartered their produces with any kind of utensil that the Greeks were so skilled at producing. The artisans of Pithekussa were also famous goldsmiths and worked the iron imported from the Etruscan Tuscany.

Later the population left the island to move to the main land. Actually this was the most common way the Greek settlers used to move along their colonial travels: they used to find little islands nearby the continent and settle down, then once they had gained enough knowledge of the site and its mainland surroundings, made friends with – or defeated – the indigenous population, they moved to the continent that could offer a wider and richer area for cultivation (mainly cereals, olive and vine) and sheep farming. Also many artisans and ceramists moved to the continent and opened shops even in many Etruscan areas.

Thus the barycentre of the Euboean colonisation shifted a few miles to the mainland and namely to Κυμη (Cuma), that is considered officially the first colony of the Western Greek colonisation, as Pithekussa and Aenaria had a relatively short life as settlements and did not became a real polij. According to Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, Cuma then founded more cities, Δικαιαρχαιας (Dichearchias), Παλεπολις and Νεαπολις.


In present days Pithekussa is named Ischia: a renowned tourist destination in the Gulf of Naples, Aenaria (now Procida) is a small fisherman island recently developing some tourism, Cuma still retains its Greek name and belongs, together with Dichearchias (now Pozzuoli) to the outskirts of Naples the metropolis that lies and where Palepolis and Neapolis used to be.

Subscribe Social Bookmark

On Paganism and Hellenism etymology

Further to the latest Mary Beard’s post regarding a modern pantheistic religion apparently reborn in Greece and to the consequent interesting remark by Philip A. Harland on pagan rituals I wish here to add some of my findings as to the etymology of the root pagan and its implications and relations with Hellenism.

According to the most diffused etymological explanation pagan derives from Latin paganus: literally inhabitant or dweller of a little countryside village (pagus). Pagus itself comes from the root pag- meaning to tie, to bind, to join or to unite, which in later Latin would give pangere meaning to secure, to make steady.


However another etymology theory wants pagan as deriving from Greek παγος which means hill, mount-top or cliff, coming from the very same root of Αρειος Παγος (the “Hill of Ares”). This interpretation is based on the assumption that the παγος was in a particular separate position compared to the rest of the city, and this particularly because of the characteristics of the landscape: higher and secluded.

This was a place where families of the rural area used to gather either for religious purposes or to escape from invasions and ransacks so often happening in those days – thus with time this became the centre of villages’ life. As this soon developed into an unplanned usual urban layout choice Pagus began to be used to identify the village and its surrounding area and Pagans its inhabitant, partly also to distinguish them from the soldiers.

As Christianity broadened, Pagans were named the idolaters, partly because the villagers of the rural areas were the most reluctant to conversion and the very last to abandon their creed and also because the only one way to escape from the persecution of the Christian Roman Empire was to retire in small countryside village and keep lurking and practising the ancient cults, sacrifices and rituals.


What is also interesting to add is that in Later Antiquity (around the III-IV centuries of our era) the word Paganism was also expressed as Ηλληνισμος, Hellenism started being almost an equivalent term for Paganism in that age, since the Greek language was able to convey numerous and diverse pantheistic ideas and concepts within many different areas of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. Actually during the said period Ηλληνισμος may have meant also Greek culture, as well as Ηλληνες were sometimes named the pagans. Nonetheless, considering that the two concepts – i.e. Greek culture and Paganism – are very much different, the explanation resides in the evolution of the idea from a Greek culture and life style to a Pagan creed and ritual. This evolution is principally due to the incredible power of expression and diffusion of Greek language, culture, rhetoric, philosophical doctrines during the Constantine Age in the Eastern Mediterranean Empire, where Christianity was still far to be accepted and where the old gods were still vastly worshipped and their rituals still performed if not multiplied. Thus Greek language, through its flexibility, became a sort of Esperanto of Eastern Paganism, by which old local myths and indigenous gods could be translated in order to gather more worshippers even – and above all – from far and secluded Middle East districts of the Roman Empire.

Later, as Greek became also the official language of the Byzantine Empire, the pagan holy sites and the pagan sacred personalities were creatively re-tranlsated and re-converted in order to suit the new and widely diffused religion: Christianity.

Subscribe Social Bookmark

King Asoka a spiritual monarch in the Hellenistic age

The expedition of Alexander in India opened the doors of Far East to Greek culture. Although The Great could not reach the Gange, as his troops were tired and dissatisfied, and even though later on his successors, the Seleucids monarchs, lost the conquered territories in less than a century the bridge between the cultures had been laid down. Most certainly one of those who contributed in building this transcultural exchange on the Indian side was Asoka, probably the greatest Indian ruler of III century B.C. being his dominion vast and including huge Indian territories among which also the present Bengali, Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Asoka belonged to the Maurya dynasty, grandson of its founder Chandra Gupta and son of Bindusara, and known as the good monarch of Pataliputra. Several diverging stories about this king have been found in the Divyavadana, the Asokavadana, the Mahavamsa and similar writings all narrating the story of a merciless king who embraced Buddhism and completely changed his attitude becoming an illuminated monarch. Apparently in the beginning of his kingdom Asoka invaded Kalinga (currently Orissa state, India), but the awfulness of the war, the sufferings of his soldiers and citizens and even the remorse felt for the defeated enemy (later on he apologised for the Kalinga war and reassured its population he would have never pursue any other expansion) were the final push for Asoka to a major change in his character as he had a pivotal role in extending Buddhism through India and the Hellenistic world..

But what Asoka (or Ashoka) is renowned for is the numerous inscriptions that he has spread all over his kingdom, as Asoka dedicated most of his life trying to transfer the application of Buddhist doctrine to the administration of his immense realm. This is a wonderful epigraphic treasury, mainly based on edicts issued by the monarch half way between decrees and sermons. Asoka’s edicts are essentially issued in order to enact the reorganization process he was carrying out based on new moral principles. He strongly aimed at generating within his borders a harmonious community. Asoka after having embraced Buddhism, follows the rules of Dharma that recommend virtue and meditation and consequently he rules and concomitantly preaches the new doctrine. He proclaimed his belief in ahimsa, non-violence and supported tolerance of all faiths. Some inscriptions also refer to the Ionians (this is the way all Greeks and non Greeks of Anatolia and Middle East were named by Indians) and some also refer to old diplomatic relations with Greek kings, started with Chandra Gupta and Seleukos and followed by Antioch II, Ptolemy II.

His inscriptions in a certain sense express the ideal self-proclamating and philanthropic Hellenistic monarchy characteristics as Asoka self-assumed the title of Devanampiya Piyadasi i.e. Beloved of the Gods He Who Looks On With Affection. Moreover in both Hellenistic and Asoka’s monarchy justice is the main issue and the monarch super partes is expected to rule it. Nevertheless the two monarchs’ inspiration is different, for in the Greek world what is supposed to guide the monarchs is reason alone, whereas Asoka rules in full accordance and respect of faith. Hellenistic kings never set their minds to create true proselytises, but used religion principally to legitimate their appointment.


Asoka used to write his edicts without using the mannerist language we are used to find in ancient royal proclamations. His personal tenor witnesses his very peculiar and articulated personality. As all preachers Asoka is often drifted away by tedious repetitions and an overly doctrinaire tone; he frequently refers to his efforts and achievements not for self praise sake, but more likely to show to his citizens/adepts the results of a true commitment to Buddhism. Asoka seems very keen in being a wise and just monarch and to administer his country as what Romans would have called a pater familias. Asoka was in fact also scrupulous as to the enactment of his decrees. His administration was consequent to his edicts, as state resources were used for public works, judicial reforms, cultivation improvements, building residencies, network of wells and roads. In order to verify the state of art of his projects Asoka personally used to perform recurrent scrutiny visits and encouraged his functionaries to do as well.

Asoka’s decrees have been excavated in numerous locations in India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan. His edicts were written on rocks at the margins of his kingdom and on columns along the main roads and where as many pilgrims as possible could be assembled and read them. Their weight is about 50 tons and they can reach the height of 15 metres; initially (as only few capitals have survived) they used to be capped by a lion or a bull or a horse. Their main language – and sometimes the sole – is Brahmi script that is the earliest post-Indus corpus of texts and the root of all Indian and Southeast Asia scripts. Nonetheless the edicts found in the eastern part of the kingdom are written in a proto-Magadhi, very likely the administrative language of Asoka functionaries. As to the decrees issued in western part of India they are in Sanskrit. Two inscriptions of Alexandria of Arachosia, found nearby Kandahar (South Afghanistan) in the 60s are very interesting examples of Asoka thought. Some of them are in Greek and Aramaic; somehow this testifies the strong will of the King Piodasses (as the Greeks called him) to enlarge the influence of his doctrine also among the Greeks and Iranic people by also exchanging ambassadors. Asoka issued this bilingual edict on the sects preaching charity and modesty. His 13th Rock Edict witnesses that he tried to spread Buddhism to the realms of Antiochus II, Ptolemy I, Antigonus, Alexander of Epirus and Magas of Cyrene. The most diffused religions in that age were the Sramanas, Brahmins, Ajivakas and Jains; and he preached that all religions cease from self eulogise and criticism of others. And it is important to note that the Greek word for sect is diatribe which means school of thought or philosophical, as well as the Greek word for tolerance and harmony is eusebeia (piety). Very likely the Greek philosophers of Arachosia, a city located in the very border of both Asoka kingdom and the Hellenistic world, are those who have somehow translated the Asoka credo and diffused it in the Middle East together with He convened a Sangha Council at Pataliputra in order to establish the true nature of Dharma practice and to banish those who would not adhere to it. Following this Council, he decided to extend his missions – involving also his son, Mahendra and his daughter Sanghamitra – to other countries, which included the Anatolia and Ionian Greeks, Ghandar, Kashmir, Himalaya, Mysore. Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia and Sumatra.


Asoka died in after thirty-seven years of sovereignty. By reading Asoka’s edicts it seems quite unambiguous that the myths about this wise and just monarch are a reality and definitely allow Asoka to be considered one of the greatest illuminated monarchs of the ancient world. Although it is hard to establish the actual effectiveness of Asoka’s government, unquestionably his edicts must be considered a significant gift to the progress of a more spiritually based political system and individual introspective attitude, as in politics Asoka was convinced that state’s major task was to truly defend and support the welfare of its citizens and in ethics Asoka preached and encouraged generosity, tolerance and mutual respect.

(omissis)… King Piodasses made known the doctrine of

Piety to men; and from this moment he has made

men more pious, and everything thrives throughout

the whole world. And the king abstains from killing

living beings, and other men and those who are

huntsmen and fishermen of the king have desisted

from hunting. And if some were intemperate, they

have ceased from their intemperance as was in their

power; and obedient to their father and mother and to

the elders, in opposition to the past also in the future,

by so acting on every occasion, they will live better

and more happily.

Subscribe Social Bookmark

Love and romance in the ancient Greek literature

Many characters and stories of the archaic Greek literature are still alive in our imagination. Epic battles and travel adventures have portrayed us authentic heroes on both sides of winners and defeated, nonetheless we must note that love and romance play a minor role in this literature. Certainly the farewell between Hector and Andromaca – one of the most beautiful pages of Iliad – or the love of Kalypsó for Odysseus are romantic episodes, although they are principally used to enhance the tragic climax and/or magnify the power of will of the hero rather than to describe a love story the way we would expect nowadays.


Undoubtedly Sappho’s poems or Alcman’s nocturne are verses of unimaginable power and love. Nonetheless is during the Alexandrine period that love becomes a major theme of poetry and also – something rather new – novel. In these centuries a new sensibility and attention are devoted to romance, affections and love. Love for the beloved, for the nature, for family members and even for pets is often praised in long and somewhat tedious descriptions (εκφρασεις). The Alexandrine authors mostly loved small compositions like idylls and epigrams, nonetheless in the very same period some long novels and poems were produced like Alexandra, Phenomena and the Argonauts.

Several revolutionary changes had happened in those days: the freedom of poetry from music – which for centuries had been inextricably tied together; and a wider alphabetisation among the Greek world together with the enlargement of the borders after the conquest of Alexander, which had opened a larger audience to the novel productions. Under these circumstances the Greek fiction and romance novel developed amazingly quickly as a new and successful genre. In the beginning these romantic novels kept an historical (or semi-historical) framework and background, while the tale itself was a sort of written transposition of Menander’s New Comedy’s stories and themes. Therefore an amiable combination of history, religion and myth were all subdued by the main theme i.e. love, that always triumphed on anything and won any adversity. It is also interesting to observe that in the beginning, the early authors – in spite of their success – wrote under pseudonyms, most certainly to avoid the critics from the academics.

Several were the sources of inspiration for these fiction and romance novelists: many recurring themes have also Assyrian, Syrian, Jewish and Egyptian roots. However these themes gave birth probably to the very first fiction and romance novels of the ancient literature.

Ninus Romance, within an historical framework is a love story with happy ending between an Assyrian King and his beloved.

The story of Joseph and Aseneth, narrates the love and religious conversion of the Egyptian spouse of Joseph.

The Dream of Nectanebo, based on the prophecy of the demise of Nectanebo II (359-342 BC), the last native ruler of Egypt is filled with both romance and destruction as the story exploits this dual nature of the goddess with which Petesis (the protagonist) falls in love. He is attracted to the girl, but the affair will eventually lead to his destruction. Sesanchosis is a fiction story based on the historical character of King Senworset I of Egypt.

The Oracle of the Potter into which a prophecy looks forward to a golden age, when a good daemon or king will come as a source of evil to the Greeks, and reduce the upstart city by the sea (i.e. Alexandria of Egypt) to a place where fishermen dry their nets and thus revealing dissatisfaction in Egypt with the Greek-Alexandrine administration.

Later on during the Roman Empire – Heliodorus of Emesa with his Aethiopica, Longus with his Daphnis and Chloe and Virgil with his Aeneid, followed these forerunners helping to pave the way to modern romance and fiction novels.

Love themes take over also epic-poetry as probably the first and best description of passions and sufferings caused by love in a true romantic guise is found in the Argonauts of Apollonius Rhodius, where for the first time love, and not action, is the main theme of the epic poem. The desperation and the incredible love of Medea for Jason, as no obstacle can stop Medea from her obsession towards her beloved, are portrayed in such a deep and new way, that neither Euripides had reached nor Virgil’s Aeneid would later succeed to imitate. The impact of Apollonius representation of love and the pathos he expresses could easily pass for modern romance literature:

Her heart fell from out her bosom,

and a dark mist came over her eyes, and a hot blush covered her

cheeks. And she had no strength to lift her knees backwards or

forwards, but her feet beneath were rooted to the ground; and

meantime all her handmaidens had drawn aside. So they two stood

face to face without a word, without a sound, like oaks or lofty

pines, which stand quietly side by side on the mountains when the

wind is still; then again, when stirred by the breath of the

wind, they murmur ceaselessly; so they two were destined to tell

out all their tale, stirred by the breath of Love.

Subscribe Social Bookmark