Alternate Colors

I am fortunate in my online experience. Not only am I generally identified as a white man, but I have a curated existence and small footprint. I am nevertheless exhausted just as a spectator to the maelstrom. This week the storm again struck the corner of the internet inhabited by ancient history.

Here’s what happened: Dr. Sarah Bond, a professor at the University of Iowa and probably the public historian of the ancient world with the greatest breadth of subjects, published a piece for hyperallergic titled “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color.” In the article, Bond introduces the readers to the issue of polychromy—the idea that the naked marble of the surviving statues was once garishly painted (not to mention literally dressed and armed). She then transitions to how the naked marble came to represent the classical ideal and explores how this standard allows modern prejudices concerning race to be channeled onto the ancient world.

(Not for nothing, but I am reminded of the Carbon Leaf song “The War Was In Color” about remembering wars from black and white pictures.)

Bond’s article is an excellent introduction to this issue and there was some excited conversation on ancient Twitter about the legacy of the controversial Black Athena and a variety of other issues. I was absolutely delighted to see the article (for reasons I will get into below), and driving discussion of this sort is exactly what it should do. Nobody challenged its fundamental assumptions because the ancient Mediterranean was a variegated quilt of cultures and peoples. How these colors were created and looked may be disputed—I once heard a scholar suggest that the fabled Spartan crimson was actually bright pink based on modern efforts to recreate ancient pigment—but the existence of colors is not.

Outside this conversation there were death threats.

People are so committed to their preconceptions that they would rather threaten the life of an academic in an effort to bully and silence her rather than face fundamental truths. But I am not here to “defend” Bond or to chide the bullies, even leaving alone the willful misreadings of her piece. I planned to write this post before reading about the backlash.

One issue with teaching history is that it runs the risk of presenting the past either as something teleological in an endless progressive march to the present or something static. Since there are political agendas that want ancient Greece to be the self-referential origin for western civilization, it is particular susceptible to these caricatures. And yet, even in antiquity, the definitions of “Europe” and “Greece” were constantly in flux. Ionia, the subject of my dissertation, for instance, consisted of communities that were Greek, but were not in Europe. Ancient orators such as Isocrates tended to gloss issues like this when giving speeches, but the seeming dissonance has cast a long shadow, with historians of colossal stature like Rostovtzeff describing them as “fragments of the western world on the fringe of the eastern.” In point of fact, much of Greek “civilization” developed in communication with the Near East and Egypt.

Similarly, scholars have tied themselves in knots trying to explain Alexander the Great’s behavior in terms of race. At issue were his decisions (personally, and with regard to his men) about marriage and whether marrying Greek men with eastern women, either in a simple east-west binary or in a more complicated and totally anachronistic distinction between Indo-European and Semitic populations.

In both examples, the history of these academic debates was driven by or responding to racially-motivated agendas. As Bond makes clear in her article, not all of the scholars were racist but, intentionally or not, their scholarship worked in tandem to support these agendas. The end result is that the statues became marble-white and Greece became singularly European.

Ancient Greece, ranging far beyond the modern national borders, was deeply enmeshed in the ancient Mediterranean and would have had many different shades, not lease because of the historical movement of people and ideas. The variations became even more pronounced after Alexander’s conquests when there were people who were culturally Greek as far east as central Asia. Redefining Greece is nothing new and was, in fact, a fairly standard feature of diplomacy in the ancient world, including one instance when the Judean kingdom claimed kinship with Sparta. The result was successive layers of definitions that bore only a loose connection to history. These were, and are, political agendas.

To come full circle, then, I want to echo Bond’s core point: the ancient world was awash in color, most of which was not white. Art history is not my wheelhouse, but many of the same forces are at work in scholarship on other issues. Greece was not European adjacent to, but separate from, the Mediterranean. Greece was Mediterranean and shaped by continuous movement of people and ideas in trickles and waves, with all of the colors that go along with that.

Alexander, Ephesus, and Plutarch

One category of the legends about Alexander the Great were the omens surrounding his birth. The most calamitous of these was that on the very day the future conqueror was born, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus went up in flames, supposedly the victim of arson. Despite a mundane explanation, the connection to Alexander caused this story to take on a life of its own, and people soon began to say that the reason that the goddess was not home to protect her temple was that she was busy watching over Alexander’s birth.

(Despite Plutarch’s implication that Artemis was there to watch over the newborn, one of her duties was to protect women during childbirth. Our male correspondents say nothing about whether Olympias’ labor when birthing Alexander was particularly difficult, but one wonders.)

According to Plutarch, the magi (sic) in Ephesus rent their clothes, convinced that this was an omen of one destined to conquer Asia was born. More likely, the lamentations were caused by panic at seeing the temple go up in flames and I suspect Plutarch’s mention of “magi” here isn’t connected to actual Persians though there were indubitably those, but rather that he using the term to refer generally to the sacred staff at the sanctuary where at least one of the priests bore the Persian title Megabyxus. Framing the episode this way pushes the vision of Ephesus as Asian and has a way of further magnifying Alexander’s importance.

From Arrian we hear that Alexander exploited the story linking the conflagration with his birth by offering to pay for repairs. The offer was not spurious and would demonstrate his wealth, magnanimity, and piety while binding Ephesus to him. Why the Ephesians rejected the donation is a matter of some debate, but, needless to say, served as fodder for even more fanciful stories.

Here’s the catch: Plutarch, our main source for the story about Artemis and Alexander’s birth, never mentions Alexander’s offer to pay for the repairs at the temple. The absence of any given episode in Plutarch’s life of Alexander is not itself notable. Early on in the work, perhaps by way of preemptive explanation, Plutarch makes a point of saying that he will focus on small events and gestures that have moral value. Nor is it necessarily surprising when an ancient author doesn’t follow up on a topic, but it is somewhat curious for Plutarch to establish the connection between Alexander and Ephesus only to gloss over the period when Alexander was actually there.

I don’t want to speculate as to Plutarch’s purpose in leaving out any mention of Alexander in Ephesus, though there are certainly plausible rhetorical explanations. What interests me in this instance is that the only source among the surviving accounts to mention Ephesus in conjunction with the birth is Plutarch and the only one to mention what he did there is Arrian. Aside from giving me a historiographical headache at the moment, this ought to be a reminder just how constructed are our histories of Alexander’s reign, particularly when it comes to imputing his motivations.

Present, meet past

Let me begin with five loosely bullet points.

  • I am particularly wary of the adages that posit recurring pasts and arguments of immediate pecuniary or political value to studying the ancient past.
  • My dissertation is a regional history of of Ionia in fifth, fourth and early third centuries BCE. The project examines the position of these twelve majority Greek communities on the Anatolian coast and heavy islands in relation to each other and in relation to a series of imperial entities that exerted control over the region.
  • A couple of years ago I got the idea from another scholar on Twitter to set up a Google-alert for the subject of my research. Since then, I have been getting daily updates about bodies washing up on Chios and boatloads of refugees fished out of the sea around the island.
  • A few weeks back, I decided that I am going to dedication my dissertation and, if I reach that point, the resultant book, to the Syrian refugees passing through Ionia.
  • Yesterday, Turkish police raided an illegal factory that was making life preservers from non-buoyant material using child labor. Life preservers that do not float made by refugee child labor. Words cannot express how repellent this is.

Objectivity as a historian is a nice idea, in theory, but is quixotic in practice. One is always going to be influenced by whatever s/he is exposed to. This can be as simple as reading good prose improving the “ear” of the writer to more complex and subtle influences such as the theoretical framework one views the world or his or her moral universe rendering judgement. Frequently, the issues one holds close draws attention to particular details in a source that otherwise would have passed by.

When we think of the connections between the Ancient Near East and the Aegean, it is common to think of the maritime trade routes that ran from Egypt to Phoenicia, Cyprus, the Aegean, and then up to the Black Sea. These routes are critically important for trade and the spread of ideas, but (to my knowledge) were not the usual way to transfer people. Travel by sea was expensive and risky, unless transporting bulk goods. Thus people were often more likely to travel by land. Ambassadors, refugees, and people who aspired to overthrow the Persian King from both the Greek states and the Persian Empire frequently traveled from the Aegean to Syria or beyond and then back by one route: a path that took them from Ephesus or Erythrae (or sometimes another polis), which were connected by road to to the Lydian city of Sardis. There, they picked up the Persian Royal road, which took them the length of Anatolia and then across the Taurus mountains and into Syria, usually to Damascus and from there to anywhere else in the Persian Empire. My source material is usually more focused on people from the Aegean taking this path toward the interior of the Persian Empire, but the road ran both directions.

The constant updates have heightened my awareness and interest in population movements, which is a difficult issue to measure in ancient Greece, and in that it is easy to demarcate (falsely or otherwise) borders between countries or between east and west, but the people don’t care about that. Rostovtzeff described the Ionian communities as fragments of the Western World on the fringe of the Eastern, but that gives the impression of an actual difference on either side. The Ionians were peripheral to Persian and Athenian systems, but throughout the fifth and fourth centuries they also served to link the two together.

A spruced-up variation on these thoughts will appear in the introduction or preface of my dissertation.