Category Archives: Greece
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
The ancient worlds of Greece and Rome have perhaps never been as popular as they presently are. There are numerous television series and one-off
documentaries covering both “big picture” perspectives and stories of ordinary people.
Neaera was a woman from fourth century BCE Athens whose life is significant and sorrowful – worthy to be remembered – but may never feature in a glossy biopic.
Possibly born in Corinth, a place where she lived from at least a young age, Neaera was raised by a brothel-keeper by the name of Nicarete.
Her predicament was the result of her being enslaved to Nicarete. While we don’t know the reason for this, we do know that foundlings were common in antiquity. The parents of baby Neaera, for whatever reason, left her to fate – to die by exposure or be collected by a stranger.
From a young age, Neaera was trained by Nicarete for the life of a hetaira (a Classical Greek term for “courtesan”). It was Nicarete who also named her, giving her a typical courtesan title: “Neaera” meaning “Fresh One”.
Ancient sources reveal Naeara’s life in the brothel. In a legal speech by the Athenian politician and forensic orator, Apollodorus, the following description is provided:
There were seven young girls who were purchased when they were small children by Nicarete … She had the talent to recognise the potential beauty of little girls and knew how to raise them and educate them with expertise – for it was from this that she had made a profession and from this came her livelihood.
She called them ‘daughters’ so that, by displaying them as freeborn, she could obtain the highest prices from the men wishing to have intercourse with them. After that, when she had enjoyed the profit from their youth, she sold every single one of them …
The occasion for the passage from Apollodorus is a court case that was brought against Neaera in approximately 343 BCE. Neaera was around 50-years-old by the time of her prosecution, which took place in Athens.
The grim reality of the brothels of Pompeii
Trafficking and abuse
The circumstances of her trial are complicated, involving the buying, selling, trafficking and abuse of Neaera from a very young age.
Piecing together the evidence from Apollodorus’ prosecution speech, which has come down to us with the title, “Against Neaera”, it transpires that two of her clients, who shared joint ownership of her, allowed her to buy her freedom around 376 BCE.
Afterwards, she moved to Athens with one Phrynion, but his brutal treatment of her saw Neaera leave for Megara, where circumstances caused her to return to sex work.
Further intrigues involving men and sex work saw Neaera eventually face trial on the charge of falsely representing herself as a free Athenian woman by pretending to be married to a citizen.
The charge of fraud was based on the law that a foreigner could not live as a common law “spouse” to a freeborn Athenian. The fact that Neaera also had three children, a daughter by the name of Phano, and two sons, further complicated the trial and its range of legal entanglements.
While we never discover the outcome of the trial, nor what happened to Neaera, the speech of the prosecutor remains, and reveals much about her life. Unfortunately, the speech of the defence is lost.
We do know, however, that the man with whom Neaera cohabitated, Stephanus, delivered the defence. Of course, he was not only defending Neaera – he was defending himself! Should Neaera have been found guilty, Stephanus
would have forfeited his citizenship and the rights that attended it.
Stephanus had a history of legal disputes with the prosecutor, Apollodorus. He also had a history of being in trouble with the law. For example, he had illegally married off Phano – not once, but twice – to Athenian citizens. Shady “get rich quick” schemes motivated such activities, and it seems that Stephanus was adept at using both his “wife” and his “daughter’ for bartering and personal profit.
Another accusation revealed during the trial alleged that Stephanus
arranged for Neaera to lure men to his house, engage them in sex, and then bribe them. And while Apollodorus provides no evidence for such a scam ever having taken place, judging by Stephanus’ track-record, it does not seem implausible.
Reading through the long, complex and damnatory speech of Apollodorus, we risk losing sight of the woman at the centre of it. Caught amid petty politics, sex scandals, and personal vendettas is a woman who becomes peripheral to the machismo being played out in court.
Yet, somewhat ironically, this is the only ancient source we have that records not only Neaera and the life she was forced to lead – but the life of a hetaira from infancy, girlhood, middle-age and, ultimately, past her “use by” date.
Had she not been taken to court as part of the factional fighting of ancient Athens, had she not had her reputation annihilated so publicly, we would have never known about Neaera.
Were it not for Apollodorus and his ancient version of “slut-shaming”, Neaera’s story would have been lost.
But it hasn’t been lost. Somewhere, amid the male rhetoric, her story endures. Unfortunately, her voice is not preserved. All we can read in the speech, “Against Neaera” are the voices of men; her prosecutor and the witnesses he calls to the stand.
Ironically, these testimonies and accusations – so casually introduced in ancient Athens, but received so differently today – emphasise the inhumanity of the sex trade in an antiquity too often and too unthinkingly valorised.
The document known as “Against Neaera” is the only record we have of this (almost) hidden woman. It prompts us to remember. And it’s important to remember Neaera.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the ancient Greek city of Helike and how it disappeared in an earthquake.
It’s a simple enough equation: good soil is the key to good food. And good soil starts with trees.
Alexander the Great conquered a vast empire that extended from Greece all the way to India. However, his ancestors’ fortune was a mixed bag. A new series of studies show the ancient Macedonians may have been struck by one of the earliest environmental disasters linked to human activity.
Ancient sediment records sealed in lakes for thousands of years reveals how logging may have affected erosion, which ultimately destroyed the capacity of the ancient Macedonians to grow food.
More trees, on the other hand, appears to have made soil erosion less susceptible to climate change. The lessons for modern people – and our future prosperity – are clear.
Soil is a kingmaker
Something wonderful happens when rocks, formed in the guts of the Earth, come into contact with air and water: they break down into clays (and other things) to form soils. Because of their ability to store water and nutrients, soils are the food basket of land plants and all the animals that feed on them, including us.
Preserving soil has been the key for success to all past civilisations. Those who lost it would rapidly be precipitated into oblivion. This happened everywhere: the Middle East, Greece, Rome and Mesamerica.
Preserving our soil should therefore be at the centre of our concerns (although it rarely gets a look-in on the nightly news).
Erosion isn’t just a problem because the land loses soil. This soil enters waterways, increasing the sediment load of rivers. This high sediment load harms freshwater and coastal ecosystems, including fish population and, ultimately, us. We therefore need to better understand how climate change and humans shape soil erosion.
Macedonian timber and the first environmental disaster
The chemistry of sediments deposited on lake’s bottom records how the environment changed over hundreds and thousands of years. Recently, we have studied sediments from Lake Dojran, straddling the border between Northern Macedonia and Greece. We looked at the past 12,000 years of sediment archive and found about 3,500 years ago, a massive erosion event happened.
Pollen trapped in the lake’s sediment suggests this is linked to deforestation and the introduction of agriculture in the region. Macedonian timber was highly praised for ship building at the time, which could explain the extent of deforestation.
A massive erosion event would have catastrophic consequences for agriculture and pasture. Interestingly, this event is followed by the onset of the so-called Greek “Dark Ages” (3,100 to 2,850 years ago) and the demise of the highly sophisticated Bronze Age Mycenaean civilisation.
Further to the west, at the crossroads between Albania and Norther Macedonia, Lake Ohrid holds a much longer storyline: an international scientific drilling program is uncovering the past million year of climate and environmental stories locked in Lake Ohrid sediments.
We recently looked at Lake Ohrid on a more modest time scale, similar to the Lake Dojran project: the past 16,000 years.
At Lake Ohrid, there are also signs of increased soil erosion around 4,000 years ago. These results are consistent with previous suggestions of a human role on soil erosion at other lakes in Greece.
Overall, there are clear signs that deforestation and the development of agriculture precedes the Greek “Dark Ages”. While the causal link cannot be established with certainty, this timeline could represent the first negative feedback loop where humans depleted environmental resources, which in turn harmed communities.
Trees can make soil less sensitive to climate change
Lake Ohrid tells us another interesting story: until 8,000 years ago, soil erosion was closely following climate change. During dry and cold periods, erosion was shallow, probably as a consequence of dry conditions; while during warmer periods, higher levels of erosion delivered more sediment to the lake.
Around 8,000 years ago, something interesting happens: trees become the dominant type of vegetation cover. While trees were already abundant in previous warm periods (and less during cold periods), from 8,000 years ago onwards, they overwhelm the type of pollen that fell into the lake and became trapped in the sediment.
This tree dominance has an important consequence for soil erosion: after 8,000 years ago, soil erosion became shallow and remained so, even while the climate continued to oscillate. We can see soil erosion became less sensitive to climatic fluctuations.
We already knew that trees, thanks to their deep roots, help stabilise soil and prevent its loss; what we learn here is that over a certain threshold of tree cover, they also make soil erosion much less sensitive to climate change.
Lake Ohrid provides us with an important lesson, especially as we are increasingly concerned with how our soil and water resources will be affected by global warming. If we want to preserve our soils and rivers (and feed our communities) we need to ensure that enough of our landscape is covered with trees.
Planting trees and forest management should not be a concern for nature enthusiasts only, but for all us – regardless of political inclination – who enjoy eating. Understanding the past is not simply about learning from our ancestors’ mistakes so we do not repeat them, but freeing ourselves from their grip so new paths unfold ahead of us.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
In a time and place that offered few career opportunities for women, the job of the priestess of Apollo at Delphi stands out. Her position was at the centre of one of the most powerful religious institutions of the ancient world. The competing Greek city states had few overarching authorities (political or otherwise), so the significance of her voice should not be underestimated.
Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the Pythia was at the core what we today call a “knowledge economy”. Her role may well have involved the gathering, re-packaging, and distribution of information, with the ultimate intent of providing sound advice on the trivial and not-so-trivial questions of life in the ancient world.
The “Pythia” is the official job title. We know of several women by name who, during the long history of this institution (from ca. 800 BCE to AD 390/91), held that role, including Phemonoe and Aristonike. Indeed, at some stage Delphi became so busy that three Pythias were appointed to serve in the role simultaneously.
The oracle was consulted by the movers and shakers of the ancient world on a diverse range of problems. For the Pythia, this meant the opportunity to comment on a variety of issues of public and individual concern: cult matters, warfare, the relationships between existing city-states, and the foundation of new ones.
Numerous personal questions were also put to the oracle on matters of lovesickness, career advice, child birth, and how to get offspring. So, by all standards, this job was demanding yet also diverse and rewarding — a position powerful enough to change the course of history.
Yet right from the beginning, efforts to deprive the priestess of her power prevailed, particularly in older classical scholarship. Surely a woman, especially one in such a paternalistic society as ancient Greece, could not hold that powerful a position?
Some scholars suggested that the Pythia actually babbled unintelligible gibberish and that her words were later put into beautiful, deep, and meaningful hexameter verse — by male priests.
Yet in our ancient sources there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it was anyone other than the Pythia herself who came up with the responses. To the contrary: she is regularly named as the one and only source of the prophecies delivered at Delphi. There is no word of male priests, beyond those in purely administrative and assisting roles.
Insult by oracle
The position of the Pythia seemed to have entailed the extraordinary opportunity to speak unwelcome truth to those in power.
A Spartan once approached the oracle with the intention of being confirmed as the wisest man in the world. In response to this question the Pythia named another person who was wiser.
The Greek city of Megara allegedly asked the Pythia in about 700 BCE who were the best of all the Greeks, hoping to be named first. The Pythia mentioned two better cities , concluding with the line, “[Y]ou, o Megarians, [are] neither third nor fourth.” Surely, the Megarians did not see that coming!
Cleisthenes, meanwhile, the famous tyrant of Sicyon, asked whether he should remove the cult of the hero Adrastus from the city. He received an oracle that came straight to the point: “Adrastus is king of Sicyon, and you but a common slayer.”
This kind of reality check and straight talk would certainly have upset those with egos accustomed to flattery and agreement.
Of course, it is not always possible to tell whether these and other responses of the oracle were authentic or whether the whole incident was part of later historiographic lore. Yet whatever the case: the fact is that it was a woman who was attributed such a sharp, judgemental voice.
And her voice proved extraordinarily unimpeachable. The Greeks thought that it was the god Apollo who conveyed his superior divine knowledge through the mouth of the Pythia, so the priestess herself was largely beyond reproach. While itinerant seers, augurs, and oracle mongers feature in classical literature as corrupt and unreliable, the position of the Pythia seems to have stood above all criticism.
The job and its challenges
Being a Pythia was not always easy. Several ancient enquirers sought to influence the kind of answer they hoped to get from the oracle. Subtle manipulation in how the questions were put, not-so-subtle bribery, and even an attempt to force the oracle to deliver responses on a non-auspicious day are all on record – as are complaints about unfathomable responses.
For instance the Greek historian, philosopher, soldier, and horse whisperer Xenophon allegedly enquired at Delphi to which deity he should sacrifice and pray so that the military expedition he was about to join would be a success. He was later reprimanded by the philosopher Socrates for having posed a manipulative question. Socrates felt he should have asked whether it would be a success, rather than how.
Cleisthenes was said to have bribed the Pythia to deliver the same response to all Spartan requests at the oracle, no matter the question: to free Athens from the rule of tyrants.
And after a series of spectacular mishaps based on misread oracles, the Lydian king Croesus complained at the Delphic Oracle about having been misled. The Pythia responded that he himself was to blame for his misfortune: He should have interpreted the Pythia’s word correctly.
We also know of several instances in which the Pythia refused outright to respond to a question that, in one way or another, seemed unreasonable.
What did it take to become the Pythia? Was she a local girl from a neighbouring village? Was any kind of training provided to candidates? Or were they thrown in the deep end?
Unfortunately, the ancient sources are silent. The Nobel prize-winning author William Golding in his (posthumously published) last novel The Double Tongue, written from the perspective of a Pythia, sees her as a local girl who was unable to get herself married and so took on that role.
Yet again, this sounds like speculation designed to downplay the position.
The kind of skills required to be successful in the role are easier to reconstruct. The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi served as a marketplace for representatives from all over the ancient Greek world (and beyond) who came for a variety of reasons.
In addition to the oracle, the sanctuary housed regular athletic competitions (the so-called Pythian Games, analogous to the more famous Olympic Games). With its numerous temples and monuments, the site was also a popular tourist destination. All these activities together served to establish a busy hub, where information, news, and gossip of all kinds would have circulated freely.
So perhaps the key to the Pythia’s success was simply to listen closely? There is good evidence to suggest that the fantastic tales of prediction and fulfilment are a matter of the (later) historiographic tradition and that it was mostly quite straightforward questions of everyday life that were put to the Pythia for comment, along the lines suggested by the ancient author Plutarch, who was also a priest at Delphi: Will I win? Shall I marry? Is it a good idea to sail the sea? Shall I take up farming? Shall I go abroad?
If this was indeed the case, it would, more often than not, have been possible to glean the information necessary to answer any particular enquiry from the chatter of those queuing to consult the oracle, to watch or participate in the games, or to take in the monuments. The Pythia may have trailblazed the knowledge economy millennia before the arrival of “big data” and the invention of the internet.
In 1932, the musicologist Wilfrid Perrett reported to an audience at the Royal Musical Association in London the words of an unnamed professor of Greek with musical leanings: “Nobody has ever made head or tail of ancient Greek music, and nobody ever will. That way madness lies.”
Indeed, ancient Greek music has long posed a maddening enigma. Yet music was ubiquitous in classical Greece, with most of the poetry from around 750BC to 350BC – the songs of Homer, Sappho, and others – composed and performed as sung music, sometimes accompanied by dance. Literary texts provide abundant and highly specific details about the notes, scales, effects, and instruments used. The lyre was a common feature, along with the popular aulos, two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer so as to sound like two powerful oboes played in concert.
Despite this wealth of information, the sense and sound of ancient Greek music has proved incredibly elusive. This is because the terms and notions found in ancient sources – mode, enharmonic, diesis, and so on – are complicated and unfamiliar. And while notated music exists and can be reliably interpreted, it is scarce and fragmentary. What could be reconstructed in practice has often sounded quite strange and unappealing – so ancient Greek music had by many been deemed a lost art.
But recent developments have excitingly overturned this gloomy assessment. A project to investigate ancient Greek music that I have been working on since 2013 has generated stunning insights into how ancient Greeks made music. My research has even led to its performance – and hopefully, in the future, we’ll see many more such reconstructions.
The situation has changed largely because over the past few years some very well preserved auloi have been reconstructed by expert technicians such as Robin Howell and researchers associated with the European Music Archaeology Project. Played by highly skilled pipers such as Barnaby Brown and Callum Armstrong, they provide a faithful guide to the pitch range of ancient music, as well as to the instruments’ own pitches, timbres, and tunings.
Central to ancient song was its rhythms, and the rhythms of ancient Greek music can be derived from the metres of the poetry. These were based strictly on the durations of syllables of words, which create patterns of long and short elements. While there are no tempo indications for ancient songs, it is often clear whether a metre should be sung fast or slow (until the invention of mechanical chronometers, tempo was in any case not fixed, and was bound to vary between performances). Setting an appropriate tempo is essential if music is to sound right.
What about the tunes – the melody and harmony? This is what most people mean when they claim that ancient Greek “music” is lost. Thousands of words about the theory of melody and harmony survive in the writings of ancient authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Aristoxenus, Ptolemy, and Aristides Quintilianus; and a few fragmentary scores with ancient musical notation first came to light in Florence in the late 16th century. But this evidence for actual music gave no real sense of the melodic and harmonic riches that we learn of from literary sources.
More documents with ancient notation on papyrus or stone have intermittently come to light since 1581, and now around 60 fragments exist. Carefully compiled, transcribed, and interpreted by scholars such as Martin West and Egert Pöhlmann, they give us a better chance of understanding how the music sounded.
Ancient Greek music performed
The earliest substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus from the Athenian tragedian Euripides’ Orestes of 408BC. It has long posed problems for interpretation, mainly owing to its use of quarter-tone intervals, which have seemed to suggest an alien melodic sensibility. Western music operates with whole tones and semitones; any smaller interval sounds to our ears as if a note is being played or sung out of tune.
But my analyses of the Orestes fragment, published earlier this year, led to striking insights. First, I demonstrated that elements of the score clearly indicate word-painting – the imitation of the meaning of words by the shape of the melodic line. We find a falling cadence set to the word “lament”, and a large upward interval leap accompanying the word “leaps up”.
Second, I showed that if the quarter-tones functioned as “passing-notes”, the composition was in fact tonal (focused on a pitch to which the tune regularly reverts). This should not be very surprising, as such tonality exists in all the documents of ancient music from later centuries, including the large-scale Delphic Paeans preserved on stone.
With these premises in view, in 2016 I reconstructed the music of the Orestes papyrus for choral realisation with aulos accompaniment, setting a brisk tempo as indicated by the metre and the content of the chorus’s words. This Orestes chorus was performed by choir and aulos-player at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in July 2017, together with other reconstructed ancient scores.
It remains for me to realise, in the next few years, the other few dozen ancient scores that exist, many extremely fragmentary, and to stage a complete ancient drama with historically informed music in an ancient theatre such as that of Epidaurus.
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Meanwhile, an exciting conclusion may be drawn. The Western tradition of classical music is often said to begin with the Gregorian plainsong of the 9th century AD. But the reconstruction and performance of Greek music has demonstrated that ancient Greek music should be recognised as the root of the European musical tradition.