Another Lovecraftian Revelation c/o Dimitri Nakassis

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Categories: Ancient, Modern

I grew up thinking that guff about the ancient Greeks being uniquely rational, creative, free, and so on was as dead as Theosophy. The writers who influenced me as a child, like Peter Connolly or L. Sprague de Camp, either ignored it or mocked it, and none of the teachers and books which influenced me at university took it seriously. But I am watching a talk by Dimitri Nakassis on “Orientalism and the Myceneans” and I am coming to a horrid revelation.

He shows that since the first decipherment of the Mycenean palace archives in 1952, there has been a very strong Anglo tradition of explaining that the Myceneans were not really proper Greeks even if they spoke Greek, worshipped some of Homer’s gods, and grew grapes and barley. He lists a surprising number of scholars who have published things to this effect within the past 30 years, and traces it back to Moses Finley who said and wrote things like:

never in the Greek world proper (that is, excluding such basically alien societies as Ptolemaic Egypt) do we find palace complexes, archives, or a palace economy like the Mycenaean. Because the Greek language survived, many Mycenaean terms lived on, too, but it is a mistake to assume that, where institutions are concerned, their meanings remained essentially unaltered … The most striking thing about Myceaean society is that it was not Greek. Some members of that society spoke and wrote the Greek language … But the civilization was not in any significant or proper sense that which we know as Greek

in the 1950s. Moses Finley was a thoughtful scholar, but this one time he encountered new data which did not match his model, and he resorted to the No True Scotsman fallacy: “the Myceneans may have had kings and bureaucrats, but that just shows that they were not REAL GREEKS.” And Dr. Nakassis points out that this allowed believers to map an east-west dichotomy onto an early-late dichotomy, where the west and Iron Age is free and creative but the east and Bronze Age are tyrannous, static, and doomed to be replaced by its opposite.

For about ten years I have been wondering why the study of early Greek warfare relies so heavily on literature and fine art and neglects artefacts and inscriptions. There are thriving traditions of classical scholarship which classify bronze swords and iron spearheads, and reconstruct the wars of little cities on Crete and provincial governors in Egypt using broken inscriptions and scraps of papyri, and historians working on the period after Alexander rely heavily on these kinds of evidence, but the best-known specialists in earlier Greek warfare focus on the Great Writers. The recent book on Greek linen armour, for example, carefully works through Plutarch and Strabo but not all the temple inventories which list leather and linen body-armour or the site reports where bronze fittings from these armour must appear.

And as I watch Dr. Nakassis’ video, the clouds on the Antarctic plateau are opening and I wonder if I see what I think I am seeing … could the decision to marginalize these kinds of evidence be because some scholars had a fixed belief that administrative records were not properly Greek or western? The romantic idea of Greek exceptionalism was established before scientific archaeology started to give another picture, and always focused on vase paintings, sculpture, and Great Writers.

I am not sure, I am not thinking very clearly right now and I have not read the books which Dr. Nakassis has found. But I am sure that it is easier to banish a habit of thought than a piece of knowledge. And for good or bad, I do my best to learn the truth even if what I learn may be unsettling.

Edit 2020-12-02: Also, to spell out one of the things Dr. Nakassis left implicit … in the 19th and 20th century, many German-speaking and English-speaking scholars took it upon themselves to declare that some native speakers of Greek born within 50 miles of the Aegean were not real Greeks. The 19th century romantics who declared that the Greeks of their day were a bunch of Slavs and orientals while the true spirit of Pericles had migrated to Munich were doing the same thing as Moses Finley … and the same thing as the colonial governments that put themselves in the business of telling indigenous people whether they were really Bantu or Haida. And the quotes which he found reminded me of Peter Green’s words from 1976 that “Modern Europe owes nothing to the Achaemenids. The civilization … is almost as alien to us as that of the Aztecs” (quoted in Past Approaches, Future Prospects p. 39) and lo and behold, in 1967 Moses Finley declared in The New York Review that “without Homer and the Greek Tragedians, without the Greeks and what they have meant to western civilization, the Bronze Age palaces would rank in intensity of interest with, say, the Aztec or Maya ruins.” If you choose which cultures to study based on what you think they contributed to your own, you choose to ignore most of what they can teach you.

4 thoughts on “Another Lovecraftian Revelation c/o Dimitri Nakassis

  1. Andrew Hobley says:

    Exactly right. I define my “Proper X Culture” by what seems to me to be right, which is totally based on my prejudices. After all, my argument could run “Only those in Hellas are Greek; Spartans may be sort of Greek, but not as Greek as proper sophisticated Athenians; only Athenians of the 4thC BC are Proper Greeks, 3rdC BC ones are degenerate.” Lets just settle for “Only those Athenians who lived between between 450 and 400 BC with houses within 500 meters of the Acropolis are proper Greeks”. [For the avoidance of internet doubt I believe none of that!]

    I’m always amused when people contrast ‘civilised Greeks and Romans’ and ‘Barbarians’ as to the Greeks the Romans WERE barbarians as non-native Greek speakers. Hm, ‘Q- What did the Greeks do for us? A – Encourage a myopic view of humankind”. Discuss.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Yes, someone like L. Sprague de Camp can read Aristotle on natural slaves and how people from northerly lands like modern Austria are brave but brainless, or Juvenal on those decadent eastern Greeklings, and learn “wow, smart people are very clever at justifying their own prejudices and finding reasons that their own culture is the best.” And Homer and Hesiod are full of complaints that in the old days men were men and women were women and people today are weak-limbed and bad-hearted. Thessalians and Cretans and Athenians were not the same kind of Greek, but Apulians and Veronese are not the same kind of Italian. Big groups of people are complicated, because they are people not characters in a morality play.

  2. Andrew Hobley says:

    My favourite ‘When men were men’ quote is from Hitchhikers Guide the Galaxy; talking about the great days of the Galactic Empire “… when mighty star ships plied the skies, men were REAL men, women were REAL women, and small green furry things from Alpha Centuri were REAL small green furry things from Alpha Centuri.”

    Of course you don’t get quotes like that any more 🙂

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Aristophanes’ Frogs is pretty funny too: “man, none of the kids these days can write a proper tragedy like the good old tragedians who died :checks notes: last year! The only solution is to descend to Hades and get one of the good old tragedians to write us a new one!” And Xenophanes has a verse about how if horses could write poems their gods would have manes and four legs.

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