Intellectual detective work sifts fact from mystery in the stories spread across the ancient world by Greek adventurers.
Though not an archaeologist, Fox (Ancient History/Oxford Univ.; The Classical World, 2006, etc.) seems to possess a precise mental catalogue of every significant pottery shard recently surfaced in the Mediterranean and Near East. Equally important, he knows what has not yet been found and acknowledges it, often with anticipation. These objects, along with the excavated sites of ancient habitation, burial mounds, cemeteries and shipwrecks, comprise an extraordinary, if sometimes tentative roadmap of the roving Greeks’ trajectory in the eighth century BCE. They traveled east and west, trading, raiding and sometimes settling in a time of cultural awakening. Virtually illiterate since Mycenaean Era syllabic script had been abandoned 400 years earlier, they adapted a Semitic alphabet around 750 BCE. They took with them, in oral tradition, the epic poems of Homer and the myths in which heroes from a glorious past challenged the gods, performed miraculous feats, won great victories, slew monsters, avenged rape and murder, rescued kidnapped virgins, etc. Tracing the impact of these “travelling stories” throughout the world the Greeks influenced, the author’s acumen shines like a beacon. For example, cults to Heracles (Hercules to the Romans) spread from Asia Minor to Spain; place names attributable to Io, a maiden seduced by Zeus and transformed into a cow, track the migration of those stories eastward from Argos. Fox focuses on the island of Euboea as an origin of the travelers, citing proven links along with tantalizing leads. Throughout, his intellectual discipline is impressive. “Culture-heroes do approximately similar things is different societies,” he stresses, warning against “mistaking parallel stories for causes and origins.” Fox notes that although Homer’s tales were of the distant past, the poet was “often precise” about landscapes and places from his own time.
Heady stuff for those with interest in the subject, but so dense that casual history buffs may fall by the wayside.