The resting places of giants

A name that’s cropped up quite a lot in this blog so far is Pausanias, a Greek from Asia Minor, who toured old Greece at the height of the Roman Empire (mid 2nd Century AD) and left us a description of what he saw. For my research project Pausanias is an invaluable source because he provides more details by far than any other ancient author  about the monuments that could be seen in the cities of Roman Greece. He is highly selective in what he talks about – his interests lie very much with things that were believed to be either very old, were of deep religious significance or both. This means he says next to nothing about the large numbers of Roman period statues that were erected in public spaces under the Empire and which are well-known from the surviving inscriptions and archaeology. Still, it’s fascinating to think about the ways that these new monuments must have jostled for space with the antiquities that Pausanias does describe. Exploring the interplay meaning between different types of monument – religious, political, ancient and new – is one of the main concerns of my project.

Pausanias’ work is an extensive description of the the Roman province of Achaea, which is roughly equivalent to southern and central modern day Greece and the heartland of Greek culture in the Classical period – the area where the great and famous poleis of Athens, Corinth, Sparta, Argos and Thebes could all be found. It’s clear from his work, however, that he had travelled widely beyond that country. He must have been in Rome because on two occasions he mentions how impressed he was with Trajan’s Forum. He was also clearly familiar with many of the Greek cities on the west coast of Asia Minor – the area he seems to have come from – and he makes occasional digressions to talk about them. One of his most fascinating digressions, and one that I’ve been reading again with some interest in writing my article on the tomb monuments of Roman Greece, concerns some extraordinarily large human skeletons he claimed to have seen.

Near the beginning of his work Pausanias describes the island city of Salamis, which lies to the west of Athens, just off the coast, near where the Greeks had their triumphant naval victory over the Persians in the early 5th Century. Salamis was the birthplace of the Ajax, one of the heroes of the Trojan War and this causes Pausanias to remember visiting Ajax’s tomb near Troy. (Ajax had killed himself near the end of the Trojan War in shame after a bout of insanity which had led him to try to kill his fellow Greek heroes – at least in the most well known version of the story preserved in Sophocles’ play). Pausanias tells us how the sea had washed away part of the tomb so that it was possible to enter it.

Myron's Discoboulos
Myron’s Discoboulos

He had been shown the remains by a local guide who had pointed to the skeleton’s kneecaps as an indication of how big it was. Pausanias tells us that the kneecaps were as big as the discus thrown by boys in the ancient Greek pentathlon. From surviving ancient discuses and representations of them Adrienne Mayor (on whom more presently) has estimated that these knee-caps must have been around 15cm wide! The picture of the famous ancient discoboulos (discus-thrower) statue gives an idea how big the discus thrown by adult men was. After a brief internet search I discovered that an average adult male kneecap nowadays is about 4.5 cm wide. So if Ajax was perfectly proportioned, as all Greek heroes of course were, he would have been more than three times as tall as an average man! At least, that is what Pausanias and his guide seemed to believe….

This excursus on Ajax’s grave leads Pausanias to tell us about several other remarkable heroic skeletons he knew of. On an island called Lade, off the west coast of Asia Minor oppposite the city of Miletos, he had seen the bones of a hero called Asterios, which were over 10 cubits, or 4.5m tall. He also discusses colossal human remains of a hero at a place called “the Doors of Temenos” in Asia Minor and those of a hero whose rib cage had fused together in a remarkable way, in another city in the same region. And Pausanias isn’t the only Roman period author to discuss such marvels. Philostratos, writing slightly later in the early 3rd Century AD discusses no less than seven tombs where giant skeletons could be seen, or parts of the Mediterranean where such remains were common, in his dialgoue “On Heroes”. Philostratos’ discussion also includes the tomb of Ajax, whose skeleton he says was 11 cubits, or neary 5m tall. He also tells us that the Emperor Hadrian – that lover of all things Greek – had visited the tomb and had paid for it to be rebuilt.

These remarkable accounts naturally give rise to the question what exactly were the Roman period Greeks seeing when they visited such remains? A theory that has been put forward by Adrienne Mayor in her book The First Fossil Hunters is that these were bones of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. Mayor doesn’t only discuss these heroic graves but also a wealth of evidence for people in ancient times interpreting fossils as monsters and mythical beasts. These ideas have also featured in Tom Holland’s BBC4 documentary Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters. I must confess that so far I’ve only browsed in Mayor’s book but I do find it an extremely attractive and persuasive idea that the heroic skeletons of Pausanias and Philostratos were really the remains of extinct creatures from millions of years ago. What really fascinates me, however, is thinking about the ways that the stories invented to explain such bones might have been created.

Details in the literary accounts hint at the way that these traditions had been shaped through human agency. The story of Ajax’s kneecap, for instance, in the way that erosion had opened up the tomb, on first consideration reminds us of the way that fossils today are still uncovered by the sea on beaches. That is how a certain online encyclopaedia accounts for the story. However Pausanias’ explicitly tells us that the remains weren’t simply lying exposed to the elements but were actually inside a tomb that it was possible to enter. And the structure he saw must have been a predecessor of Hadrian’s building because Pausanias explicitly comments on it being in a dilapidated state. If the remains had originally been uncovered by the wind or sea had they perhaps been moved by the locals to a more impressive and convincing resting place?

Furthermore, even though Pausanias focuses on the kneecap he doesn’t actually say that that was all there was to see of Ajax. If this was nothing more to the skeleton than a kneecap it’s hard to see how this was enough to convince Pausanias – or anyone –that these really were the remains of a human-looking hero. If, on the other hand, there was more preserved than simply a part of the leg – or even if there was more of the leg than just the kneecap – then it is curious how the remains of a prehistoric animal could be thought to look anything like basically human in form.

For none of the examples mentioned by Pausanias or Phiostratos do we hear that the remains were either very fragmentary or didn’t look quite human. It would have surely been more natural to think that remains of dinosaurs or prehistoric beasts belonged to one of the many monsters that appear in Greek mythology – griffins, sirens, chimeras and so on – as the Greeks, indeed do often seem to have interpreted such remains. If the bones of Ajax, Asterios and the others really were animal or dinosaur fossils I wonder if they might not have been rearranged in some way to look more human for visitors. I’m reminded of the skeletons of the two “centaurs” that have  created by combining human and horse remains and which have are on display in two different American museums. The intention here isn’t to deceive, but rather to provoke a response and challenge viewers to think about how we make sense of buried remains. The artful placement of bones in antiquity could, however, have been carried out with rather less innocent motives.

"The Centaur of Volos" at The University of Tennessee-Knoxville's John C. Hodges Library
“The Centaur of Volos” at The University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s John C. Hodges Library

What we really need to understand these supposedly heroic burials properly, of course, is some archaeological evidence but sadly, so far none of these graves has been discovered. Two fossilised bones have been discovered at two different Greek sanctuaries, confirming that such remains were venerated in Greek culture. Pausanias too comments on seeing individual bones of monsters or giants in sanctuaries. Archaeologists, however, have yet to discover a prehistoric fossilised skeleton interred in an ancient Greek tomb. Personally I would find the discovery of Ajax’s Hadrianic tomb, complete with fossilised prehistoric remains, one of the most exciting discoveries imaginable in Classical archaeology.

For my the purposes of my research these stories of gigantic human remains open up all sorts of interesting questions – questions about the way that the Roman period Greeks thought about and related to the distant heroic past and about how they used monuments and physical remains to make that past relevant to the present. For a start these sources make me wonder if people reading the Homeric epics in Roman times really tended to visualise the heroes of the Trojan War – Achilles, Hector, Odysseus and the rest – as enormous giants striding across the battlefield.

It is also fascinating to think about how these sources attest to a desire on the part of the Roman period Greeks to physically touch and handle what they believed to be the remains of their ancient heroes. In Greek religious thought heroes were semi-divine beings whose super human deeds brought them closer to the world of the gods. Indeed they were often believed to have at least one god as a parent. The cults of the heroes are sometimes compared to those of the later Christian saints. Was the handling of heroic bones described by Pausanias and Philostratos done in a spirit of veneration (as in the case of saintly relics) or simply out of morbid curiosity?

Closer to my own interests are questions about the ways in which possession of such remains could be used to stake a claim to prestige and status in the world of the Empire. Last time I discussed examples of cities in Greece in the Roman period making rival claims to possessing the tombs of the same hero – a clear sign that at least one of those claims had been made up. It seems fairly clear that the stories of colossal skeletons belonging to heroes must also have been invented. Again Pausanias gives us direct evidence that cities were making competing claims to possession of heroic bones.

He proudly boasts of how he had challenged his guides at the Doors of Temenos that the bones they had shown him could not possibly be those of the giant Geryon because he knew that Geryon was buried at Gadeira (modern day Cadiz in Spain). The point of the story is to demonstrate that Pausanias was far too well travelled and educated to be taken in easily. It is, therefore all the more surprising that he goes on to say that when his guides immediately changed their story and now told him that these were actually the bones of a hero called Hyllos he was all to happy to believe them! An extra layer is added to this particular story because Philostratos also mentions the gigantic remains of Hyllos, but he places them in a completely different city. It seems from these stories that local tour guides in antiquity were, like their modern counterparts, often all to ready to tell visitors the sort of stories that they wanted to hear.

Making up stories about giant skeletons wasn’t new to the Greeks of Roman times. Some of you might know the famous story told by Herodotus in which the Spartans in the mid 6th century BC, in answer to an oracle from Delphi, brought the bones of the hero Orestes back from the land of their enemy to Tegea to their own city. Herodotus, writing a century later, tells us that the skeleton was reputedly 7 cubits (3.15m) tall and buried in a coffin, a detail which suggests that these remains (if anyone had actually really seen them) must have been fairly complete.

Still, it is striking that the vast majority of such stories are found in Roman period authors. Even the other well-known story of the Athenians recovering Theseus’ colossal remains, though set in the 5th century BC is actually told by Plutarch who wrote in the 1st century AD. There is, as we saw last time, also an abundance of evidence from the Roman period for cities in Greece making competing claims to possession of heroic tombs. In Greece itself, none of these tombs is reported as containing visible human remains but it is clear enough that we are dealing with the same phenomenon. Being able to actually display a hero’s bones was an obvious way of making such claims seem more credible. If Greece had less heroic skeletons than Asia Minor, perhaps that was the result of different geological conditions and different rates of survival of fossilised remains in the two areas. I’m looking forward to learning more about such issues from reading Mayor’s book properly.

I suggest that it is not merely a coincidence of survival in the sources that we have more accounts of such remains in Roman times but that this represents an increasing interest in heroic burials at this time. The argument I’m developing in the article I am working on is that in the Greek speaking eastern half of the Mediterranean, and in Greece in particular, it became increasingly common under the Roman Empire for cities to advertise possession of  tombs of mythical and legendary heroes in order to compete for prestige and status.

Next time I’m going to be looking at how exactly the invention of heroic tomb monuments in Roman Greece might have come about. If these weren’t genuine heroic tombs then what were they? I’ll also be thinking about why cities were so clean to stake claims to heroic remains and about who stood to gain most from inventing such stories.


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