“The Greeks who dispute most the Athenian claim to antiquity and the gifts they say they have received from the gods are the Argives” (Pausanias 1.14.2 – mid 2nd Century AD)
The city of Argos in Roman times is a fascinating and perplexing place. The city had been the setting for some of the most famous of all Greek myths. It was the birthplace of Perseus, the hero who beheaded the gorgon Medusa, the place from which the so-called Seven Against Thebes set out to conquer that city, the city of Agamemnon, the king who had led the Greeks against the Trojans, to bring back his brother Menelaos’ errant wife Helen. In the Archaic period – the formative centuries of Greek culture from say the 8th to the 6th centuries BC, when these myths were taking on their canonical form – Argos was indeed one of the most important poleis (cities) of Greece. By the height of the Roman Empire, however, that was all far in the past. Argos hadn’t been a major player on the political stage since the 5th Century BC, when it had been eclipsed by Athens and Sparta.
When Pausanias visited Argos in the 2nd Century AD it seems from his description that the city was undergoing something of an identity crisis. In my last two blog pieces I’ve talked about the subject that I’m exploring in an article I’m currently working on – the invention of supposedly ancient tomb monuments in cities throughout Greece in the period of Roman rule. It’s well known that the culture of Greek cities under the Empire became rather backward looking – old cults were revived, aged monuments were restored and local elites placed increasing emphasis on their (claimed) descent from great historical figures. These were all ways for cities to compete for prestige and status. With Roman emperors like Hadrian and his successors deeply enamoured of Greek culture, advertising Greekness in these ways could lead to real concrete benefits: tax concessions, the right to host important festivals, benefactions by the emperor himself. One of the key arguments I’m making in my article is that against this background the invention of ancient tomb monuments was far more widespread than has been recognized up to now. Any self-respecting Greek city of the 2nd Century AD could show visitors tomb monuments in its central public places that were supposed to belong to illustrious figures from the mythical or distant historical past. I’ve already given some of my reasons for thinking that a lot of these tombs must have been invented, not least because we know of so many instances where multiple cities made claims to be the resting place of the same hero. I also believe that the habit of making up such monuments reached its peak under the Roman Empire. At the end of my last piece I said that this time I would consider the question of how such monuments might have come to be invented and Argos is an excellent place to consider that question.
Pausanias, who provides our best evidence for the monuments that could be seen in Roman Greek cities mentions no less than 29 tombs of mythical or legendary individuals within the built up centre of Argos. Argos claimed to possess the graves of, among others, Prometheus, the titan who had stolen fire from the gods to give to mankind, Deianeira, the second wife of Herakles, Ariadne, the princess who Theseus had rescued from the Minotaur and Helenos, one of the sons of king Priam of Troy. Most of these burials were in or around the agora, the main civic square of the city. The head of the gorgon Medusa was also supposed to be buried somewhere on that square and Danaos, the founder of the city had his tomb there, which is mentioned by Strabo as well as Pausanias. The incredibly high number of heroic tombs at Argos– just over a fifth of the total for all of the cities of Greece together in fact – is already enough to cause alarms bells to start ringing that some of them might not all have been what they were purported to be. Fascinatingly Pausanias also provides direct evidence that many of the claims made of these tombs must have been made up.
At Argos, far more than for any other city he visited, Pausanias took a sceptical attitude toward the stories his guides told him. His description of Argos is peppered with phrases that hint at disbelief such as “they believe [such and such]”, “if [such and such a story] really is true” and even at one point “even the Argive guides have noticed something wrong with their story, though they still tell it”. I’ve counted no less than thirteen such references in his discussion of the city. Whenever another city made a claim to possession of the same tomb as the Argives – as was the case for the tombs of Prometheus, Deineira, Helenos and another hero called Hyrnetho – Pausanias favoured the claim of the other city. Pausanias even managed to disagree with what the Argives told him about a monument commemorating the death of the Hellenistic king Pyrrhos in the city (yes the one who gave us the phrase “pyrrhic victory” after the tremendous losses he’d accrued in winning his earlier military encounters with Rome). Pausanias couldn’t get away from the fact that Pyrrhos had been killed at Argos while attacking the city (a local woman had thrown a tile from a roof at his head) because it was too well known. He could, however, and did disagree with the Argives about where exactly in the city the great general had been cremated and then buried.
Perhaps the reason he was so suspicious of what he was told at Argos is that he had first-hand knowledge that at least some of the stories the Argives told about their monuments and history were made-up. He describes how the tomb of Ariadne had come to be identified when a temple of “Cretan Dionysos” in the city was been rebuilt and the workmen had discovered an earthenware coffin. In the most well-known version of the myth, after rescuing Ariadne from the Minotuar, the Athenian hero Theseus, in a bizarre fit of absent mindedness, had left her behind on an island where she was rescued by Dionysos and became his wife. A temple to the god of wine and extatic abandon was therefore an appropriate location for her grave. Pausanias tells us that an Argive man called Lykeas was responsible for making the identification. Now, all we know about this man, is what can be gleaned from a few mentions of him in Pausanias’ work but he was clearly a local poet, and apparently an expert on local folklore and history. There is some reason, based on the word Pausanias uses to describe him, to think that he was a guide of the sort that Pausanias himself describes speaking to elsewhere. He may therefore have still been alive when Pausanias visited the city which would mean that this grave at least had been “invented’ fairly recently.
We can imagine the scene. No doubt, some ancient skeletal remains had been discovered in trenches being dug for the reconstruction work. A crowd had probably gathered to marvel at the wonder just as people flock to archaeological sites in city centres today. A discussion must have arisen about just whose grave this was when Lykeas, that renowned local authority on Argive myth and legend, appeared and declared that this was the grave of no less a figure than Ariadne herself. A gasp of awe, a murmur of approval and a new local tradition was established. We can’t know who was actually buried at the site – it has not yet been discovered by archaeologists – but the truth is, neither could Lykeas or the Roman period Argives. In all probability it belonged to someone from a much more recent historical period than the distant bronze age/dark ages when whatever seeds of truth there are to the Greek myths had been sown. It may well have belonged to some local individual whose name had already become forgotten by Roman times. But, then as now, it was far more satisfying to identify tombs of the ancient dead as belonging to the famous and powerful, rather than to entertain the possibility that they might have to remain anonymous. We need only think of the recent excitement at the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in a Leicester car park or the desire to link the tomb recently excavated at Amphipolis with Alexander the Great.
So, I’m not claiming that the Greeks of the Roman period actually went to the trouble of building new monuments and pretending that they were ancient tombs. They didn’t need to. It was far easier to attach stories to existing monuments, whose original meaning had become lost in the mists of time.
Also at Argos Pausanias gives two examples of pairs of tombs of heroes having the same name being buried next to each other – two women called Hypermnestra and two men called Linos. Now it seems highly unlikely to me that the Argives of earlier times really would have buried people together simply because they had the same name. A rather more plausible scenario is that in the course of time people had forgotten exactly which Hypermnestra or Linos was buried at a given spot and to satisfy rival interpretations a compromise was reached in which it was decided that actually they were both buried there, with some nearby monument, conveniently old and obscure, being reinterpreted as one of the tombs. At the city of Megara Pausanias tells us about three different heroes buried beneath political buildings. We can almost hear the Roman period Megarians saying to themselves “Didn’t so-and-so, our great hero, have a tomb somewhere in our city centre?” “He must have. Our ancestors wouldn’t have deprived him of such an honour! But where…….?” “That council house is very old, I expect they buried him under that!”. On Salamis Pausanias reported a “sacred secret” that the hero Aiakos was buried underneath an altar at which he was worshipped. You have to wonder if this was such a secret why it was being told to visiting tourists. I suspect that the altar was probably a genuinely ancient monument and that at a suggestion made at some point that Aiakos was probably buried underneath had come to be accepted as fact. After all, who was going to dismantle a deeply sacred monument to find out if he really was?
There are, of course, countless parallels of stories becoming attached to places and monuments in this way throughout history. (If you have any personal favourites I would be very glad to hear them so please do post a comment below). The one that springs instantly to my mind, however, is modern day Athens where at least two separate locations have been identified as “the Prison of Sokrates”, neither of them on much more than fairly flimsy evidence and a large dose of wishful thinking.
But to return to Argos – where did all this fabrication of monuments and invention of local legends get the city? Well, although Pausanias tells us the city was deliberately competing with Athens (see the quote with which I began), we can be sure that Argos didn’t really come close to achieving the same level of status and prestige as that city. In the 2nd Century AD Athens was thought of throughout the Mediterannean as the capital of Greek culture and was an important centre of learning (philosophy and rhetoric) and artistic production. Argos, however, certainly did not miss out on the renewed economic prosperity enjoyed by much of the Empire in the mid-second century or on the favour of the Philhellene emperors.
Archaeological knowledge of the site is rather fragmentary (perhaps a subject for another blog) but there was quite a bit of construction work at the time – as there was throughout the Greek east. Many of the older buildings on the agora were spruced up, the city received a colossal bathhouse, impressive remains of which still stand, and Hadrian paid for the construction of an aqueduct to improve the city’s water supply. Pausanias might not have been too impressed with the stories the Argives told about their monuments but the ruler of the Empire was perhaps more of a soft touch when it came to their assertions of mythological greatness.
Not one of the twenty nine tombs mentioned by Pausanias has as yet been discovered at the site, unless the so-called Hypostyle Hall (a 5th C BC council-house type building on the Agora) really was the so-called Palinthos where Danaos was buried, as has been rather tentatively suggested. Intriguingly, however, excavations have revealed several tombs of members of the local-elite in the very same spaces where these heroic burials were supposed to have stood, dating to the Roman period. In my next piece – and for now my last piece on tomb monuments – I’ll consider how such new, Roman period public burials and supposedly ancient graves might have been connected and have might drawn on each other for meaning.