Remembering Thermopylae – ARGHHHH


Right. Long time, no blog. But this one is going to be a heartfelt post that may well put some noses out of joint. But it needs saying.

The Greek government is issuing memorial coins for the battle of Thermopylae, on the 2500th anniversary.* Just a glance at the choice of images got me thinking, and then a colleague’s post about it dragged me back to my blog.

Some aspects of these coins are striking – the choice of event, and the choice of imagery.

The battle of Thermopylae was a defeat which changed exactly nothing in its immediate aftermath (though not everybody grasps this). Potentially it delayed the Persian invasion by a few days. So why not commemorate the battle of Salamis a few weeks later, the naval victory of an alliance of Greek state against a superior naval invasion force, which arguably was the crucial turning point in the war? In fact, the invasion was finally forced to retreat after the battle of Plataea a year later.

A number of reasons for choosing Thermopylae all the same come to mind, and almost all of them make this an angry and anxious blog post. Before I launch into all that, it’s worth noting that Thermopylae grew in the collective memory very soon after these events, and not least because the Spartans invested in publicising the battle as a heroic sacrifice, and we have to assume that this version of events played a role in the political rhetoric in the decades that followed. This was also the time when Herodotus turned the event into a gripping story of Greek defiance against overwhelming odds which has had such staying power.

But the choice of Thermopylae is rather more troubling at this point in time:

  1. Nationalists so love snatching a glorious defeat from a victory. Nationalism doesn’t work without a sense of glorious victimhood, and no amount of winning can change that. This makes a legendary defeat with no discernible benefits to anybody a better choice than actual victories.
  2. There is a class aspect to this (as Christy Constantakopoulou has pointed out). Thermopylae is cast as the sacrifice of 300 noble aristocrats – nobody ever seems bothered with the 700 brave men of the city of Thespiae who stayed to die with them, let alone the helots – Spartan serfs – forced to come on campaign. The naval battle of Salamis was essentially won by the rowers, which means citizens who couldn’t afford armour. Even in antiquity, this made a difference to how these battles were remembered, but there is something not quite right today when we focus on the idle aristocrats who sent the smallest force they could get away with and then invested heavily in PR to turn a defeat into heroics.
  3. Last but not least, there is the troubling link between Thermopylae specifically and white supremacist ideology. Persian War memories have always lent themselves to notions of a few heroic superior Europeans saving civilisation from the dark hordes of the East. This narrative has grown over the millennia, although it just doesn’t stack up. But ever since the film 300 came out, at a time when US anxiety about the Muslim world was rising, and illegal wars depended on ‘East vs West rhetoric’, various troubling notions about White superiority and a certain manly heroism (combined with the homoerotic aesthetic of Nazi classicising ‘art’) have become even more closely linked with the memory of Thermopylae specifically.

What is shocking is that the choice of imagery on these coins seems to tap into exactly this recent tradition. If the Greek government assumes that this will sell more coins, it is almost certainly correct. There will be a big market for these, particularly the memorial €10 coin whose sole purpose is to be a collectors’ item.

Let’s just look at the iconography of that coin. On one side, we have a man with naked torso, helmet and shield. The inscription on the shield identifies him as Leonidas; the spears around him indicate a battle scene. Obviously, no Spartan would ever have gone to war without proper protective armour: this is the look of the movie 300 (or Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name). You might argue that it is based on the fifth-century statue of a man with helmet and shield from Sparta which is popularly known as ‘Leonidas’ (its posture makes clear that it was part of some kind of fight scene, and that it isn’t meant to be a portrait). But even if the basic features are similar, the special emphasis on the muscular torso points to a different reference point.

There doesn’t seem to be a high resolution image of the reverse of the coin, but suffice to say that it opposes Persians and Greeks, using very different images from different contexts. The Greeks, dynamic and aggressive, are taken from mythical fight scenes on vases (the detail is not clear enough to say more), while the Persians are based on images of nobles or ceremonial body guards at court – standing still in their full regalia, clearly not ready for a fight – and that’s exactly as we are meant to see them in that stereotypical split between vigorous, manly west versus effeminate, ineffective easterners.

Just looking at this, the one thing I am thinking is that this 2500-year anniversary of the Persian Wars comes at a really bad time all round. I assume that I am not done ranting about it.

UPDATE (15/02/20): Looks like the link to the film 300 is going to be quite explicit.
Gerald Butler who played Leonidas in the film will be at the anniversary celebrations.

*Technically next year, because there wasn’t a year zero, but frankly, there are more important things to worry about.

Image credits:

With thanks to Christy Constantakopoulou for alerting me to this. Her post got me to write this, but of course, the opinions and errors in this blog are all mine!

Posted in Cinema, Current events, Europe, Greece, Inventing the Past, Peloponnese, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Ben-Hur (2016) – a few first thoughts

160909-ben-hur-2016-posterWell, I could hardly not go and see the new movie version of Ben-Hur which opened today. Films set in the ancient world, if they are successful, such as Gladiator (2000) and 300 (2007), make a difference to how people think about the ancient world, and if you want to teach students ancient history, you have to have a sense of what might have influenced their imagination. That, and I love films set in the ancient world. Most of the time.

This will need a bit of thinking and probably another viewing before I can make up my mind a bit more clearly, but I thought I’d post a few thoughts that occurred to me immediately. Of course, when I watch a film set in antiquity, one part of my brain is constantly preoccupied with spotting details – good ones (writing tablets and papyrus scrolls on the desk… wait… what exactly do we know about Roman desks?) and bad ones (stirrups…. OK… insurance issues… but what’s that? Trousers… wait, what? Trousers?!! What’s with everybody’s trousers?) and possibly clever anachronisms  (bust of Augustus. OK. But next too him- is that  Vespasian? And if so, is that choice intentional?). But while detail spotting is fun, I wouldn’t recommend getting obsessed about that too much. It just spoils thinking about various other things, and, obviously, enjoying the story.

Lew Wallace, Ben Hur (1880)

So let’s start with the story. Let’s be clear about this: Ben-Hur (2016), just like the monumental Ben Hur (1959) and Ben Hur (1925) are based on a pretty bad book, Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur. A Tale of the Christ (1880). The book is mostly sold in abridged form, and if you have read the whole thing, you will know why. It’s a mix between almost unbearable preachiness and an overwrought, not very logical story, which suggests a very devout knowledge of the Bible, but an incomplete knowledge of antiquity, mixed with some hefty orientalism.

Ben-Hur (2016) abridges the story and takes out most of the more outlandish detours which take the hero to various locations in the Roman Empire, turning him, eventually, into both an eminent Roman and a very rich man. In this new version, we are mostly in Jerusalem, with a short interlude at sea, representing Ben Hur’s five years as a galley slave. We lose one bit of the original I rather like, where Ben Hur saves the Roman commander Quintus Arrius, who adopts him as his son, giving him freedom, status and  a completely new and legitimate identity.   The new version strands him somewhere on the eastern Mediterranean coast as soon as he finally manages to free himself, and we are back in Jerusalem in no time. This saves a lot of complicated exposition, but they never quite manage to explain properly how a man who is recognised as an escaped galley slave, and still remembered for the crime for which he was convicted, can actually get to compete in that all-important chariot race.  The story ends up being a bit thin, but it sort of zips along nicely and doesn’t get boring at any time.

One thing I always want to think about when watching a film set in antiquity is what idea of the ancient world is actually represented in the film. Usually, there are some contemporary parallels in script writers’ and directors’ heads: after all, somehow there has to be something we can relate to.  I think in this one, they haven’t quite made up their mind about how to deal with the Roman Empire and their more or less oppressed subjects, the Jews.

We are given to understand that Judah Ben-Hur is the member of a wealthy, fairly assimilated family which tries to make the best of life under Roman rule, despite the fact that they do not have the same religion. At the same time, there are the Zealots – fanatics who seem to be causing a lot of trouble, such as sabotage and assassinations. And in this version (not in the earlier ones), it’s a false suspicion of collaboration with those Zealots which causes Ben-Hur’s family’s downfall, although they are clearly against rebellion. There are some scenes where Ben-Hur’s plight reminded me of Muslims who have to deal with suspicion because of the acts of fundamentalist terrorists who kill in their religion’s name – and I am pretty sure that this informed part of how this story was presented here. But at the same time, modern politics and a long tradition of how we are supposed to see the situation in the Roman province of Syria/Palaestina, based on the Gospels, means that such an association could never be played out completely.  So the Zealots are also represented as a kind of social liberation movement, and the whole idea becomes a bit muddled.

The Romans are of course oppressive occupiers, especially once the splendidly creepy Pontius Pilate appears on the scene. Romans can be given all sorts of different kinds of image, depending on the context and the source material – but go to Palaestina c. AD33, and their role is clearly defined by 2000 years of Christian tradition. We have a few scenes which paint the typical actions of an occupying force, but there were two less usual details which struck me. One was a montage showing Romans fighting, ruthlessly, in forests, deserts, snowy mountains and various places, representing their cruel quest for world domination all at the same time. The other was the emphasis on the Romans’ use of Jewish grave stones for the building of the Hippodrome. We see protest when they take the stones from a cemetery outside the city. Later on, those stones are clearly visible in the wall of the finished building. And just to drive the message home, they are designed a bit like Jewish grave stones from the turn of the 20th century, quadratic Hebrew script and all. Here we are given a not-so-subtle suggestion to contemplate similarities between Roman occupation and the Holocaust, with its camps where tomb stones were used as paving slabs.

And then there is  Jesus. This marks a return to focusing on that part of the ancient world around  Jesus or the earliest Christians – a genre very fashionable in the 1950s. The ‘new wave’ of ancient world films following the success of Gladiator (2000) was initially not interested in Christians at all, but just a bit later, Mel Gibson rode the new swords-and-sandals wave back to the Gospels, so to speak, with The Passion of the Christ (2004). This apparently spawned a whole genre of made-for-mega-church-consumption films, which essentially retell biblical stories with some claim (more or less justified) to historical accuracy in terms of setting and context; and there are apparently many more than those which did get to mainstream cinemas (e.g. The Nativity Story 2006).

Ben-Hur (2016). Rodrigo Santoro as philosophical Jerusalem carpenter

Ben-Hur (2016). Rodrigo Santoro as philosophical Jerusalem carpenter

Ben-Hur 2016 is trying to do justice to the Christian intent of the original book. You really would have to change the story completely if you didn’t, but still I was wondering until halfway through the film whether they’d somehow leave it out anyway. Of course, following The Passion of the Christ, it is clear that there is a huge market for Jesus films, and there is even a poster for Ben-Hur which is not shy to remind a devout audience of Mel Gibson’s film (not a poster I have seen in the UK anywhere!). At the same time, they are clearly trying to keep on side the audience who is not interested in Christian themes and who has mainly come for the chariot race. Thus, it is quite possible that some might not even recognise the mild-mannered carpenter in two early scenes as Jesus – his lines only vaguely stick to gospel script and while he does not quite deviate from the standard iconography, the visual cues are not overly obvious, either. At the same time, people who know the Gospels better might ask what on earth he is doing there working as a carpenter in Jerusalem all along (not a mistake the 1950s film would have dared make, surely).

Ben Hur (2016). Jesus - more iconographic, this time.

Ben Hur (2016). Jesus – more iconographic, this time.

There are a few moments where the films cleverly ‘dog whistles’ to the part of the audience which still gets the Christian tradition, without overloading the film for those who don’t. For example, at one crucial moment people carrying palm branches are seen walking through the city (we do not see Jesus on his donkey) – enough to tell those in the know that this is five days before the Crucifixion without having to disturb anybody else with biblical detail. Of course, those in the know might ask how a triumphal entrance into the city might make sense, if Jesus had been living there all the time already! All that fairly subtle hinting at the Christian story falls by the wayside once the chariot race is out of the way, Jesus is crucified, and Ben-Hur is converted. That part of the story races past almost as if they were faintly embarrassed about it, and actual religious conversion is expressed in images, while what we hear is talk about finding personal happiness and giving up fighting the Romans the old-fashioned way. In 2016, it’s a lot harder to merge a heroic adventure story with an unapologetically Christian message than it was back in 1959 (and even then it seems a bit awkward!). I am not sure this film has found a way that works, but I found the awkwardness of it all rather amusing.

Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim, with Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur.

Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim, with Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur.

That said, I think they have done a better job at drawing some of the characters, especially the Roman antagonist Messala (although his family backstory and main motivation is rather unconvincing), and until the last ten minutes or so, the story remains reasonably entertaining. And Morgan Freeman is effortlessly cool, even if he seems completely misplaced in the scenery. After playing God quite so often, doing heavy lifting as Deus ex Machina and narrator is evidently a bit of a doddle for him.

And the chariot race? Not bad. But even a lot of CGI cannot make this look better or more gripping than the 1959 version. Not even close.



Posted in Cinema, Inventing the Past, Religion, Roman Empire | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sing me, Lord Chilcot, of the wrath…

During this Edinburgh Festival, non-stop from 8th to 20th August, hundreds of volunteers read the whole Chilcot Report on the decision to go to war in Iraq. The event’s producer said:

“[The report] wasn’t expected to be read. The establishment didn’t expect anyone to read it. Rather like the Latin bible, it’s not for the public, it’s to be shelved away. And yet it has been read here.”

The Chilcot Report in its entirety...

The Chilcot Report in its entirety…

This idea really struck me. Somehow, through the act of performing it, reading it out loud, during a festival, the whole record of a bureaucratic exercise takes on an epic character. It becomes a story, with its heroes (perhaps) and villains (too many, it seems), and a story which we becomes ours to judge and to relive.

It reminded me of the ancient Greek tradition to recite whole epics during festivals, particularly the Iliad which, in its more poetic way, is equally a story of a very misguided war which took a lot longer than anticipated and caused a whole lot of misery all round, and for much longer than intended.

It, too, seems far too long to be performed in any sensible way, and yet, it was done, over and over, and sometimes, people still dare to embark on that venture nowadays. Last year, a performance of the whole epic (in translation) in London took 15 hours to perform. You can still catch it all online (until 21st September 2016). If you want to get a sense of what it would have been like in Greek, here are five mesmerising minutes in the original.

But can we really compare the report of an enquiry with the most sublime poetry? Of course, I am sure Lord Chilcot would not be upset to hear that his prose doesn’t really compare in quality. But the question is rather what it means to perform such a narrative (in whatever form!) for hours on end, and what readers and audiences get from it.

One aspect of reading the Chilcot report was, of course, bringing it out into the open – and making a point about the fact that it matters to all of us, that we should know about what happened. In the case of the Iliad, of course, it was a story everybody knew, and which would hold few surprises for most listeners. Many would know where exactly in the story the performance had got to if they arrived in the middle of the performance and heard a few lines. But I think there is a lot more to the Chilcot reading. Because if you just want to let people know about the content, reading it all aloud in a certain venue is not the best way of going about it. The performance does something different. It is a kind or reliving, participating, thinking ‘what if’, even if –or exactly because – we already know how the story ends (very much how ancient tragedy would have worked as well).

As Rupert Goold, the director of the Almeida Iliad project last year, put it in a tweet:

160823 tweet

The Iliad, with all its heroics (see an infographic of heroic death tolls and graphic killings here), is still a complex investigation of war. Of course it tells us the stories of the great heroes, it has exciting fight scenes, explosive egos, and quite a few laughs. But it was almost certainly assembled from verses and whole passages which were accumulated and honed over centuries – with many, many people shaping specific episodes and verses over and over, modifying, adding, improving, long before the whole story was written down as one epic. Centuries of thoughts about war shaped the story – from jingoistic grand tales about incredible warrior feats to the many sadnesses, disappointments and deprivations of war, even among those who will (we know, although we don’t see a triumphant end in the epic), eventually win.

Sleep and Death carry away the dead Sarpedon, with Hermes watching over them. Sixth century Attic crater by Euphronius.

Sleep and Death carry away the dead Sarpedon, with Hermes watching over them. Sixth century Attic crater by Euphronius.

Like Chilcot’s painstaking investigation, the Iliad often homes in on what seems like tedious details, and those details are important. The battles may read like blood-and-guts action scenes  in an 18-rated movie, but they also keep a tally of the names of the fallen – perhaps it’s partly trophy hunting for the heroes (armour is usually stripped from the dead, even in the thick of battle), but during the epic, the long list of the fallen (254 names, and many other deaths mentioned) leaves no doubt about the cost of war.  And sometimes, there is a chance to stop for a while and contemplate the death of comparatively unimportant participants and their importance to their loved ones at home, e.g. Simoeisius or the sons of Phaenops (5.151-7).

“Now he (Diomedes) went after the two sons of Phaenops, Xanthus and Thoön, Full grown both, but Phaenops was stricken in sorrowful old age nor could breed another son to leave among his possessions. There he killed these two and took away the dear life from them both, leaving to their father lamentation and sorrowful affliction, since he was not to welcome them home from the fighting alive still, and remote kinsmen shared his possessions.”

Like parents of those fallen in war today, Phaenops may have asked why the Greeks went to war in the first place, and whether the outcome was worth it. And his story, and those of others, would make others think as well. Trying to give an answer can, arguably, become a frustratingly long story as well.

In ancient Greece, war was never far away, and when it happened, it was personal and close-up to many. Most free men, and many of the slaves, too, would have experienced action personally at some point in their lives. A re-telling of the war story, a repository of war experience from many angles, was always poignant. For most of us, today, war is a lot less personal, even if our own government decides to wreak havoc somewhere overseas, but, through TV screens, at the same time, war is never absent from our living rooms. How do we deal with that?

Perhaps we need a new war epic for our own time, to help us sort out our thoughts about wars, how they come about, and what horrible damage the leave behind – and especially, to make us think, through these stories, how we personally relate to those events. And I think such an epic ought to be big, and unwieldy, and full of many episodes, digressions and detours, looking at war from many different angles, from the jingoistic to the horrific and the desperately sad. Lord Chilcot does not quite strike me as the muse to inspire poetry to last, or the poet to channel centuries of war experience – but the idea of performing his collection of different perspectives, all 284 hours and 456 minutes or 2.6 million words of them, in their entirety, seems like an interesting reminder that sometimes, long stories need to be told, even though few, if any, will sit through the whole tale.


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Caster Semenya and women at the Olympics

I just came across this excellent article about gender and Olympic disciplines or competitive sport more generally, starting with the case of gold-medal winning runner Caster Semenya who has faced so much controversy over whether she should be allowed to compete as a woman:

It made me think of the many conversations about the ancient Olympics I have had over the years. One difference that is easy to point out, and to feel a bit smug about, is the fact that women were completely banned from the whole area during the days of the festival – all but one, that is, namely one priestess of a nearby sanctuary.

Here is what Pausanias (5.6.7-8) says:

As you go … along the road to Olympia , before you cross the Alpheius river, there is a mountain with high, precipitous cliffs. It is called Mount Typaeum. It is a law of Elis to cast down it any women who are caught present at the Olympic games, or even on the other side of the Alpheius, on the days prohibited to women. However, they say that no woman has been caught, except Callipateira ….

Callipateira was a widow who disguised herself exactly like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son Peisidorus to compete at Olympia. Peisirodus was victorious, and Callipateira, as she was jumping over the enclosure in which they keep the trainers shut up, revealed too much of her body. So her sex was discovered, but they let her go unpunished out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son, all of whom had been victorious at Olympia. But a law was passed that for the future trainers should strip naked before entering the arena.

Bronze statuette of a (probably Spartan) woman runner, C6th BC.

Bronze statuette of a (probably Spartan) woman runner, C6th BC.

There were competitions for women, too, but at a different time altogether. And, characteristically for ancient Greek sources, we hardly hear anything about them (Pausanias gives an overview in two paragraphs, 5.16.2-3). There was  only one discipline, namely running 5/6 of the length of the stadium (men ran the whole length of just under 200m). Only unmarried girls could compete (so the oldest were probably rarely above sixteen), and they were divided in races for three age groups.

So there was a sports competition for women in Olympia, but well segregated, with far fewer spectators, and it is unlikely that many cities far from Olympia would have found it worthwhile to send competitors – this was almost certainly a much more a local affair. Similar competitions may have happened elsewhere, for example in Sparta, and may have played a role in determining eligibility (or marketability, to be blunt) for marriage.

I have to admit that I often avoid thinking about ancient Greek attitudes to women. I mostly work on areas of history which, when recorded by men in a male culture, hardly ever even feature women, such as politics, war, and scholarly pursuits. This can’t reflect reality: women did not play great roles in public life, but we have to assume that writers report events as they thought they should have been, not necessarily as they were – and to them that meant without female contribution. It’s not as if that problem is entirely unknown even today, of course: women are still written out of history, and online at least, angry men actually work hard to keep it that way.

One thing we must never do is to look at this past and use it to feel smug about ourselves. Yes, things are better, and women can be spectators and athletes at the Olympics. But the closer I look, the more I realise how far there is still to go. There are the simple almost commonplace issues of women’s achievements not being rated as high as men’s, or women being defined by the men around them.

And then, there is Caster Semenya, whose 800m win this week predictably re-opened the debate about sport and gender – in fact plenty of commentators hardly focused on

Caster Semenya of South Africa, qualifying for the 800m final, Rio 2016.

Caster Semenya of South Africa, qualifying for the 800m final, Rio 2016.

anything else but the question of what to do with a woman who has too much natural testosterone for a ‘proper’ (hence more feeble) woman. This is why I was so struck by  the excellent article which prompted this piece – because it did not just point out the usual ways in which women are put in their place (firmly behind men, of course), but started to question some of the basic assumptions behind differences between female and male sports.


There is surely no question that there are, on average, physical differences between men and women, e.g. in terms of average height and strength, but, as the article points out, the way in which competitions have been divided by gender does not necessarily make good sense in every discipline. Those fairly standard differences aren’t necessarily the most relevant ones in all kinds of sports. For example, I never understood why women didn’t compete with men in ski jumping, which, for a long time, meant women were not competing at all (one competition for women was finally included in Sochi 2014). In this case, it can hardly be about body type and the usual physical advantages men might have in terms of strength or height, since among the men, the best competitors are often rather smaller and more slight than average anyway.

Things become even more complex at a point where it is increasingly clear that gender is not a simple binary thing, as Caster Semenya was forced to demonstrate amid a lot of very public humiliation. What do these gender differences actually mean, in terms of success? We also have to consider (as this NY Times piece points out) that other successful athletes have genetic advantages which more or less make them very exceptional (think of seven-foot basket ball players!). So why is Caster Semenya’s ‘deviation’ from the ‘norm’ apparently so particularly offensive, especially since the advantages of natural testosterone in women are not even entirely clear?

For a while, the runner was even banned from her sport, as too ambiguous, but this did not mean that she would have been allowed to compete with the men: too much man for the women’s race, not man enough for the men’s? So, what is going to happen to athletes whose gender (or, more crucially here, sex, in terms of actual physical differences) is not clearly defined as one or the other, and those whose gender identity does not match (some of) their physical characteristics? Will such people be allowed to compete, and as what? And where might they go to the toilet? We don’t threaten to throw unwanted participants or spectators over cliffs any more these days, but frankly, the media coverage of Caster Semenya these last few years has not been much better.

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Olympic Superstars – ancient and modern

Some of yesterday’s papers (for example the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph) have a report that Michael Phelps has just beaten a 2167* year-old record which had been held, for all that time, by Leonidas of Rhodes, who won victories in three

Usain Bolt, putting his island state on the map in 2015 (200m race).

Usain Bolt, putting his island state on the map in 2015 (200m race).

contests (Stadion race, c. 200m, double stadion race (diaulos), c.400m, and hoplitodromos, a race with some items of armour, especially a shield) in four successive Olympics, namely in 164, 160, 156 and 152BC. In a way, as a particularly successful sprinter, Leonidas is perhaps better compared to Usain Bolt, who is hoping to win, for the third time, three Olympic gold medals in the 100m and 200m sprint as well as the 400m relay. But to equal Leonidas, he’d have to do the same again in 2020, and this seems quite impossible at today’s standards for sprinters.


When you want to compare modern athletes with ancient Olympic victors, only gold medals are relevant: there was no such thing as silver or bronze medals: only winning counted, and the idea that taking part is the most important aspect of the Olympics is a distinctly modern idea, dating back to the re-invention of the games in the late 19th century.

The BBC has a very respectable article on Leonidas of Rhodes (how many news organisations manage that?!), which even namechecks not just serious modern scholars but also ancient sources (Pausanias! Philostratos’ Gymnasticus!). I am not sure I’d agree with Paul Cartledge that Rhodes was ‘a bit on the fringes’, as the BBC quotes him – for a good part of the Hellenistic period Rhodes was a state very much at the centre of politics and trade, managing to keep some independence from the large powers which developed around the Eastern Mediterranean after the conquests of Alexander the Great (Strabo the geographer’s appraisal of Rhodes, about 150 years after Leonidas, paints a picture of a magnificent, wealthy city and island state: Strabo 14.2.5-13).

Nevertheless, the dates of Leonidas’ victories are remarkable, too: Rhodes was in a tricky situation at the time, because it had lost the trust of the new rising power, namely Rome. Soon after a decisive victory over Macedonia in 168 BC, perhaps in 166BC, Rome made Delos a new free centre of free trade, apparently taking considerable income from Rhodes as traders moved their activities to the tiny island in the Cyclades. Whether the real damage of this measure was already making an impact so soon or not, Leonidas was securing significant prestige for a state which had just experienced a humiliating and ultimately damaging rebuff from Rome, which had turned its back on its former ally in a rather ruthless fashion. Since Michael Phelps is from the USA, still considered the one remaining super power, the effect of his many victories is of course rather different. But we all know that there is plenty of politics in Olympic victories today as it was then. The success in sport usually does not change history, but even small events at the Games may bolster the confidence of states which feel under threat from larger powers, or inspire special holidays when a very small country feels that it has suddenly been put onto the map: in this respect the effect of ancient Olympic victories was probably not so different. Whether it is Rhodes or Ukraine, Olympic victories matter to states in difficult times.

What sparked my interest in this story, however, is that so many of the stories about the most impressive athletes of antiquity come from Pausanias’ Description of Greece (read much more about it here). Good travel guides have the best stories, and as Pausanias takes us through the sanctuary of Olympia, filling almost two of his ten books, he gives us a sense of a place full of memories. When he visited, perhaps in the 170s AD, the Olympic Games looked back on a history of well over 900 years. Ever since the early fifth century BC (probably earlier, even), Olympic victors were allowed to set up monuments to their own successes, and therefore, a visitor wandering through the sanctuary was faced with an impressive mix of works of art, often statues by the most famous artists, famous names and inscribed poems (some by famous poets) and many stories of the heroic feats of the best sportsmen from the whole Greek world, around the Mediterranean, throughout those many centuries. Almost all funny or impressive anecdotes you might hear about ancient sportsmen (and yes, always men) come from Pausanias books V and VI, and Leonidas is mentioned as ‘the most famous runner’ in 6.13.4.

Model of the ancient sanctuary of Olympia, as Pausanias saw it, including some monuments to give an impression (there would have been many more!)

Model of the ancient sanctuary of Olympia, as Pausanias saw it, including some monuments to give an impression (there would have been many more!)

The Perseus website has a nice selection, based on Pausanias and other ancient sources, but here is a favourite of mine, telling the story of Pulydamas of Scotussa. He won one Olympic victory in Pankration in 408 BC. Pankration was a rather brutal mix of wrestling and boxing, with virtually no holds barred – one ancient sport which was (perhaps wisely) not revived for the modern Olympics. The ancient legends about Pulydamas suggest that he was a bit too eager to work on his own reputation as a strong man. I trust that Michael Phelps is not about to embark on some impossible feats just to emphasise his unusual abilities even further….


The story of Pulydamas of Scotussa (Pausanias 6.5.1, slightly abbreviated)

The statue on the high pedestal is the work of Lysippus**, and it represents the tallest of all men except those called heroes …: Pulydamas the son of Nicias, was the tallest of our own era. …

Marble copy of a bronze athlete statue by Lysippus. The original may well have stood in Olympia (NOT Pulydamas!).

Marble copy of a bronze athlete statue by Lysippus. The original may well have stood in Olympia (NOT Pulydamas!).

Others have won glorious victories in the pancratium, but Pulydamas, besides his prizes for the pancratium, has to his credit the following exploits of a different kind. The mountainous part of Thrace, on this side the river Nestus, which runs through the land of Abdera, breeds among other wild beasts lions … These lions often roam right into the land around Mount Olympus, one side of which is turned towards Macedonia, and the other towards Thessaly and the river Peneius. Here on Mount Olympus Pulydamas slew a lion, a huge and powerful beast, without the help of any weapon. He was inspired to this exploit by an ambition to rival the labours of Heracles, because Heracles also, legend says, killed the lion at Nemea.

In addition to this, Pulydamas is remembered for another wonderful performance. He went among a herd of cattle and seized the biggest and fiercest bull by one of its hind feet, holding on to the hoof in spite of the bull’s leaps and struggles, until at last it put forth all its strength and escaped, leaving the hoof in the grasp of Pulydamas. It is also said of him that he stopped a charioteer who was driving his chariot onwards at a great speed. Seizing with one hand the back of the chariot he kept a tight hold on both horses and driver.

Dareius [the Persian king …] heard of the exploits of Pulydamas and sent messengers with the promise of gifts and persuaded him to come before his presence at Susa. There he challenged three men of his elite bodyguard to fight him—one against three— and Pulydamas killed them. Some of these exploits | are represented on the pedestal of the statue at Olympia, and others are mentioned in the inscription.

But Pulydamas … was fated to perish through his own might. For Pulydamas entered a cave with [some] companions. It was summer-time, and, as bad luck would have it, the roof of the cave began to crack. It was obvious that it would quickly fall in, and could not hold out much longer. Realizing the disaster that was coming, the others turned and ran away; but Pulydamas resolved to remain, holding up his hands in the belief that he could prevent the falling in of the cave and would not be crushed by the mountain. Here Pulydamas met his end.


*not 2168, as some papers have it: there was no year 0, so if you add up years from BC all the way to now, you always need to subtract one year!

** Lysippus was one of the most famous sculptors of antiquity, active in the second half of the fourth century. Pulydamas’ victory was in the 93rd Olympiad, in 408BC. If Pausanias’ identification of the artist is correct, the statue was set up some time after the success, perhaps as a memorial sponsored by the otherwise obscure city.

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On the Freedom to Travel and Unified Continents

I admit it. When it comes to politics I will always remain a dreamer. I put it down to the fact that I grew up so close to the Iron Curtain, and that 1989 was the most formative year of my life, certainly politically speaking. Everything seemed possible, borders opened, people seemed to understand each other better. Even the horrible consequences, such as the wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia, could never quite dampen my optimism  (I  recently wrote about this for the My EU Story Facebook page)

It may seem like a Brexiteer’s worst nightmare, but there was a time – after travelling to Syria and to Dura Europos on the Euphrates, which what was, for a time, the eastern border of the Roman Empire, and then visiting Hadrian’s Wall within just over a year (in 1994/5) – when I was wondering whether one day, we’d be able to have some kind of border-free union around the whole Mediterranean. I admit to that dream, although that might mean that you’ll never take me seriously again. I am not apologising for my 1989-inspired optimism. I’d love to have more of that still around, to be honest. Looking back at that now just shows how much the world and its outlook has changed since then, and not for the better (though perhaps for the more realistic).

A model for an expanded border-free zone? Rather unthinkable right now...

A model for an expanded border-free zone? Rather unthinkable right now…

My experience of seeing borders opened and travel made easier seems reflected in this passage from Aristeides’ Praise of Rome, written probably sometime after the middle of the second century AD:

Now it is indeed possible for Greek or non-Greek, with or without his belongings, to travel easily wherever he wants to go, just as if passing from fatherland to fatherland. The Kilikian Gates hold no terror, and neither does the narrow, sandy route to Egypt which runs through Arab country, nor inaccessible mountains, great stretches of river or savage barbarian tribes; but for security it suffices to be a Roman, or one of those under your [i.e. Roman] rule. Homer speaks of an ‘Earth common to all’, and you have made it come true. You have measured the whole inhabited world, you have spanned rivers with all kinds of bridges, and cut through mountains to make way for traffic. You have filled deserts with posting stations and you have made all areas accustomed to a settled and orderly way of life. Aristeides or. 26.100-1.

Of course, the similarity of sentiment is superficial, and the context is quite different. Aristides is talking about the danger of bandits, name-checking a few areas which had once been notorious. He was also a member of a very exclusive and often well-travelled provincial (and increasingly imperial) elite which was, by this point, certainly benefiting from the Empire, and this speech is written to flatter the imperial rulers (to the extreme, and to the point of tediousness, it has to be said).

These roads had been made peaceful by conquest – as Tacitus has it, Romans ‘make a desert and call it peace’. And Tacitus didn’t say this in his own voice: the famous quote is part of an (almost certainly invented) speech by Calgacus – a defiant (still) free Briton who can’t stomach the idea of being ruled by those continentals who have unified all of Europe. Here is a Roman historian painting the first Euro-Sceptic Brit, so to speak, and foreshadowing  Shakespeare’s notion of a glorious island fortress against a threat from the continent , and a long tradition of island mentality, also reflected in recent Brexit rhetoric.

To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence.
(read the speech here: Tacitus Agricola 30-32).

Tacitus, a Roman senator himself, was able to think about the Roman Empire from a different perspective, reminding us that this peace was enforced and bought with a high price by many of the subjected peoples. Thus we get the exploitation of provinces and the resulting hatred of tax collectors (usually local private contractors who did the dirty work), as seen in the Gospels, arbitrary harassment from Roman troops (e.g. in Lucian’s Ass story, at ch. 44, with a provincial who, unwisely, fights back), and, very differently in each province, questions of how the culture of the conquerors fitted in with local customs and ways of life.

At the same time, it has to be said, without over-romanticising, that such a long period of peace and relative prosperity for most regions around the Mediterranean, from the late first century to the late second, is still an astonishing historical anomaly. Some time after the conquest, many people in the conquered provinces probably could name something the Romans had done for them, even those who weren’t members of the extremely privileged, well-connected elite, such as Publius Aelius Aristeides (to give him his full three Roman citizen’s names).

In that post-1989 optimism I thought we’d easily beat that long period of peace, and without the nasty side of conquest and occupation, too. But it’s looking rather less likely now.

Still – every time I cross a border and notice the abandoned check points, I feel like celebrating, and composing an extravagant lengthy eulogy (though hopefully never one quite so tedious as Aristides’ offering to Rome).

I think we don’t celebrate abandoned border posts, achieved without conquest, near enough – but if you feel as I do, here is a glorious collection of pictures which do just that…

… and here is one of mine.

The drive-through border between Estonia and Latvia. Before 1989 an interior border between Soviet provinces which was almost impossible to cross.

The drive-through border between Estonia and Latvia. Before 1989 an interior border between Soviet provinces which was almost impossible to cross.



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What’s a person’s REAL name?

As Iceland is playing another game in the European championship we shall yet again see the international media struggle with Icelandic names. The typical newspaper article talks of say, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (Sigþórsson) or Aron Gunnarsson, and then just call them Sigthorsson and Gunnarsson in all following instances throughout the article. This is normal practice for people with first names and family names, but of course, that’s not quite how Icelandic names work.

As somebody who studies ancient Greece, I am always a bit chuffed to be reminded that there is one small island holding out where most people still have one personal name, followed by a patronymic (father’s name), ending in –son or –dottir. And while we take it in our stride that people just have one name when we talk of Socrates, Plato or Pericles, somehow everybody finds it hard when even trying to imagine the same for contemporary people who we watch playing football on TV.

Icelandic football players with father's names on the back of their shirts

Icelandic football players with patronymics on their shirts

Of course, the Icelanders aren’t helping, with their fathers’ names on their shirts as if they were normal surnames. Imagine that there had been a football match involving Greek philosophers, wouldn’t we find it odd to find ‘Sophroniskou’ on Socrates’ shirt, ‘Aristonos’ on Plato’s, and ‘Nicomachou’ instead of Aristoteles? And in Iceland, you would address people formally with their one personal name and, famously, the Icelandic phonebook (sample page here) also lists people by their main personal names (which look like ‘first names’ to us).


While in the 21st century, Icelandic names seem so unusual the media doesn’t know how to handle them (and Icelandic people themselves adapt them for the outside world), for long stretches of history the idea that a person had one personal name, distinguished by the name of their father, home town, profession, etc., was the normal practice for peoples speaking Indo-European languages (and many other people besides). Many of today’s surnames still reflect these habits in past centuries. In the ancient world, it seemed odd to the Greeks that the Romans had two or three names, including at least one all family members shared. Most Romans had a first name (praenomen), e.g. Gaius, a family name (nomen gentile), e.g. Julius, and most had a kind of additional nickname, which could be personal or run in the family (the cognomen), e.g. Caesar.

It is not clear how the Romans got to this state of affairs. In the region around Rome we find family names among (non-Indo-European) Etruscans and Latin-speakers as early as in the seventh century BC. Perhaps the Romans learned the custom from the Etruscans, or families were so important in their society that those names developed around social structures. At the end of antiquity, the custom disappeared again in western Europe, until it was invented again in medieval northern Italy, and then spread around the world (though this is not the only part of the world where patrilinear family names were used traditionally – e.g. in China).

When the Greeks first encountered the Romans, they certainly found Roman names puzzling. Plutarch reports a very learned (and wrongheaded) debate about which of those three names was the real name of a Roman.

Poseidonius thinks to confute those who hold that the third name is the Roman proper name, as, for instance, Camillus, Marcellus, or Cato; for if that were so, he says, then those with only two names would have had no proper name at all. But it escapes his notice that his own line of reasoning, if extended to women, robs them of their proper names; for no woman is given the first name, which Poseidonius thinks was the proper name among the Romans. Plutarch, Life of Marius 1.2.

In many cases, there was no good answer to this question. Today, we might think that on the whole, first names are our more personal name, while the surname is used in polite and formal contexts. But as far as we can tell, Roman usage was more complicated, and different choices of a ‘main name’ or different combinations of two out of the three could be used, depending on context, uniqueness of name, and various other factors. If you thought that first name terms are a minefield in the modern ‘Western’ World, think again.

For a while, Greeks really seem to have thought that the praenomen was the best way of translating Roman names into a Greek one-name mode, and some Greek historians (e.g. Polybios, who really should have known better, having lived in Rome for years in the 160s and 150s BC) stubbornly talk about Titus, Marcus or Quintus instead of giving full names. The problem is that most Romans shared about fifteen or so common first names, so this often leaves us guessing who might be meant, as if reports about current politics would all be written about David, George or Michael: most people involved are not quite uniquely called Boris or Theresa, and there are rather too many Jeremies. Thus, early Greek attempts to talk about Romans using just one name was definitely a more impractical misuse of a foreign naming system than modern newspapers’ use of Icelandic patronymics.

Bust of Plutarch

Possibly a portrait Plutarch (Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus), found at Delphi, where he was a priest.

And just as Icelandic footballers seem to be happy to adapt their names to more widely used naming conventions, in the end, Greeks came round to the Roman habits as well. As the Romans conquered the Greek-speaking East of the Mediterranean, influential Greeks were able to acquire Roman citizenship. This considerable privilege came with three Roman names, usually adopting the first two from the powerful Roman who had managed to give you citizen status. There were various ways of adapting Greek names, but the most common one was to take the first two names of the Roman benefactor, and use the traditional Greek personal name as the cognomen. Thus, Plutarchos son of (probably) Nikarchos, whom we have already seen engage in a discussion about what the ‘real’ name of a Roman might be, was himself Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, and his son Autoboulos Ploutarchou would have been Lucius Mestrius Autobulus: a Greek name for their Greek lives at home, and three Roman ones for the whole Empire.

Moving between different naming conventions may be tricky, but in the end, it’s possible to adapt names for different contexts, occasions and places.

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Why Boris should have remembered the Ostracism of Hyperbolus

UK Politics is just too distracting these days. Today we arrived at a point where both main parties are in the middle of differently shambolic leadership contests. These last few crazy days have brought to mind quite a few ancient parallels (read this excellent post by Caitlin Harris, one of our MA students, on voters’ remorse).

And then this happened:  Michael Gove, formerly Brexit-campaign right-hand-man of Boris Johnson decided to run for the leadership himself, and may well have teamed up, in some way, with Theresa May (the other front-runner) to prevent Boris Johnson from gaining his long-held dream of becoming leader of the Conservative Party.

I think this is an apt moment to look back at the story of the ostracism of Hyperbolos.

The ancient Athenians had developed this wonderful method of getting rid of politicians who got too big for their boots (just how much would you wish for that option now?!), called Ostracism (after the ostraca, potsherds, used for voting). Plutarch gives a good summary of the procedure and some of the problems with it. Once a year, the assembly could vote on the question whether anybody might need to be removed (ostensibly for posing a danger of trying to become a tyrant). If the assembly decided that somebody should be removed, an ostracism was held: everybody could write the name of one politicians they wanted to get rid of on a potsherd and submit that as a voting slip. If more than 6000 were submitted, the politician with the most votes had to go into exile for ten years. Only one politician could be thrown out in any given year.

Potsherds (ostraca) with politicians' names, used in ancient Athenian ostracism votes.

Potsherds (ostraca) with politicians’ names, used in ancient Athenian ostracism votes.

This worked well for the Athenians from c. 487BC to 417BC. Quite a few people were ostracised. But the current farce in the Tory party reminds me most of the very last ostracism, held sometime between 417 and 415 BC. This was the ostracism of Hyperbolus.

At this time, Athenian politics was increasingly polarised by two ‘big beast’ politicians – Alcibiades and Nicias. Both made quite a mark on Athenian history in the following years. At this point, they were rivals, with Alcibiades pursuing an aggressive policy which would soon reignite war with Sparta, and Nicias as the advocate of the peace agreement Athens had concluded with Sparta in 421BC, the Peace of Nicias, which still bears his name.

Potsherd with the name of Hyperbolus, son of Antiphanes. Presumably one of the ballots which sent Hyperbolus into exile.

Potsherd with the name of Hyperbolus, son of Antiphanes. Presumably one of the ballots which sent Hyperbolus into exile.


Hyperbolus was probably himself a proponent of a more aggressive Athenian foreign policy at this time. In any case, he argued for an ostracism: his hope was presumably that one of the two most prominent politicians would have to go – either he would be rid of a rival on his own side, if Alcibiades was exiled, or the argument for peace would be seriously weakened, if Nicias had to go. This looks like a win-win situation for Hyperbolus (the whole story is in Plutarch, Nicias 11)

What really happened, however, was that this scheme did not go to plan. There was one thing both Alcibiades and Nicias could agree on, and that was that they needed to get rid of Hyperbolus (See Plutarch, Alcibiades 13.4). They campaigned together against their opponent, and Hyperbolus was ostracised as a result. One should also note, that even in exile, Athenian politics eventually caught up with him, and he was murdered when the shockwaves of an impending oligarchic coup in Athens reached Samos, where he had settled (reported by Thucydides 8.73 – who was not a fan -, see especially 8.73.3) .

I think that Boris Johnson might have done well remembering his Classics a bit better.

PS: isn’t Hyperbolus a brilliant name for a politician? The name is related to the word hyperbole, which now means exaggeration (and had similar meanings in ancient Greek as well). Hyperbolus’ parents, choosing the name, probably thought of the ‘good’ meanings of the ancient Greek word, literally ‘throwing beyond’, so somebody who excels or achieves beyond others. But in the context of the story, ‘overdoing it a bit’ seems a better association.

Posted in Current events, Greece, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to make history historical…

Yesterday, an entirely farcical event took place on the Thames in London, as a stunt by the Brexit campaign, designed to highlight the concerns of fishermen, turned into a scuffle carried out with water hoses, sound systems and rude gestures. Soon, twitter and news sites referred to a ‘naval battle’.

Today, I came across this map.

Naval battle of the Thames. A skirmish in the great Brexit debate of 2016.

Naval battle of the Thames. A skirmish in the great Brexit debate of 2016.

It is entirely without source – a Google reverse image search reveals that somebody very cleverly photoshopped  new captions into this map of the battle of Lowestoft (1665), and did so while the event was still going on. But I could not find anybody who used the picture with reference to a source, so the wit who came up with this will have to remain unnamed.

What struck me about it is how historical this ridiculous event looks if you choose to present it in this manner. Does the presentation alone change the meaning of an event? Not on the first day, of course. Today the mismatch between what happened and the serious presentation makes this a brilliant joke. But what would it look like with a bit of distance? Can historians confer gravitas where none is deserved?

It also makes me realise how much I am used to seeing these maps. I ‘grew up’ as an ancient history student consulting the wonderful battle maps in Kromeyer & Veith’s atlas of ancient battle fields (1903-1931, marvel at it here), a work so legendary that as students, we all heard the story that one of the authors (Georg Veith) was beaten to death by shepherds on the site of the battle of Zela (67BC): surely the most historical of historians’ deaths  (Wikipedia knows the story, too).

Wikipedia* in particular tends to have very beautiful battle maps like this (cf. the battle of Lowestoft, see above). They are usually accurate enough as well: forgive me if I resort to stereotypes for a moment, but the Wikipedia editors’ demographic skews heavily towards people who might be fans of battles while also taking details very seriously.  Such maps confer a certain authority – not least because like all maps, they fudge uncertainties, and  they really do make it a lot easier to explain what happend in a battle.

I use such maps for teaching, too, for example this one of the battle of Salamis, a version of which turns up in somewhere in my lecture slides.

Battle of Salamis - map courtesy of Wikipedia

Battle of Salamis – map courtesy of Wikipedia

Of course, nobody would doubt that the battle of Salamis was a proper battle. But what about other events? Does it matter if you start calling an event a battle, start writing the battle account, and ultimately, perhaps, draw the  map, too?

How often did my ancient sources make that choice… or not?

I am looking at you, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon…

*in a blog post full of Wikipedia links I have to declare my hand. Of course, as academics, we have to keep telling students over and over that you can’t reference Wikipedia in an academic context (and you really can’t). But of course I use it, and I bet most of my colleagues do, too. Just not as actual historical evidence or proper scholarly argument – because it isn’t.




Posted in Current events, History, Inventing the Past | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Why we should all get our roofs from Sparta*

Work on my Peloponnesian League book is finally starting to happen, so it’s time to dust off the blog again. I hope odd little things like today’s discovery will go here.

At the moment I am working on what might be the trickiest bit: figuring out what may have happened in the sixth and seventh century that made Greek cities start collaborating in the Peloponnese. There is hardly any written evidence, so it’s all about piecing things together from whatever is available.

This is how I came to spend a few hours today on roof tiles, specifically roof tiles from the ancient sanctuary in Olympia. Whether they really tell us anything about politics in the sixth century Peloponnese is something I have  yet to decide. But here is today’s chance find:

The oldest temple of Olympia is the Heraion, built around 600 BC – stone base, mudbrick walls, wooden columns and a nice terracotta roof in a Laconian style – the kind of roof they also used for temples in Sparta at the time.

Heraion at Olympia

Temple of Hera (Heraion) at Olympia – look closely: the three standing columns are all a bit different.

This building went through a few changes over time. As the wooden columns were rotting away, they were replaced, one by one – starting in the sixth century, just decades after the temple was built, until, in the second century AD, only one wooden column was left, and duly reported in Pausanias’ Guide to Greece (5.16.1). Pausanias, however, reports a much more intriguing story about the temple.

I must not omit the story told by Aristarchus, the guide to the sights at Olympia. He said that in his day the roof of the Heraeum had fallen into decay. When the Eleans were repairing it, the corpse of a foot-soldier with wounds was discovered between the roof supporting the tiles and the ornamented ceiling. This soldier took part in the battle in the Altis between the Eleans and the Lacedaemonians (Paus. 5.20.4).

I’d like to think that this was somebody Pausanias actually met, rather than an older guide book, so nobody ever even looked inside the ancient roof between c.400BC,when the battle took place, and sometime in the second century AD, over 500 years later.

But there is more about that roof: many tiles and roof decorations were excavated in the sanctuary. Looking at this material, the experts** conclude that apart from a few repairs, the original roof, with the original roof tiles, stayed on that building until c. AD300. That roof lasted 900 years and survived several earthquakes, while underneath it the temple was more or less rebuilt in a different material.

So, who wouldn’t want to hire a Spartan* roofer?

Leonides selling roofs

Irresistible (thanks to Rob Marshall)

*Laconia really. Or perhaps a Laconian-style roof made in Elis. No way of knowing.
** Joachim Heiden, who studied every single roof tile found in the sanctuary (how?!) concluded this based on the material.   [Heiden, J. (1995), Die Tondächer von Olympia, Olympische Forschungen 24 (Walter de Gruyter: Berlin, New York), 68].

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