Roman Argos – heroic tombs and an identity crisis

“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)

Reconstruction Model of the Agora of Argos (2nd C AD) - Argos Museum
Reconstruction Model of the Agora of Argos (2nd C AD) – Argos Museum

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.

The remains of the Roman bathhouse at Argos
The remains of the Roman bathhouse at Argos

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.

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6 thoughts on “Roman Argos – heroic tombs and an identity crisis

  1. Thanks, this is interesting. I wonder why you think that Lykeas himself might have made the identifications when Pausanias clearly identifies him as a poet (ὡς δὲ Λυκέας ἐποίησεν) and there’s every reason to believe that he’s already working in a city rich with local traditions that have been circulating and being reproduced and altered for centuries. My own impulse would be to assume that most of the identifications relayed by Pausanias are the product of folk memory and talk rather than the invention of learned poets. That is, I wonder if you’re focused too much on the text as producer of tradition instead of a product of tradition.

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    1. I would have replied sooner but it’s been a busy couple of days. You’re right that Pausanias says that Lykeas was a poet. He also uses the word “exegetes” which he uses for guides at other Greek cities. Lykeas seems to have been a poet who’d written a work (or works?) to do with local Argive mythology and history. What Pausanias says about the discovery of Ariadne’s tomb in the shrine of Cretan Dionysos is:

      “It was afterwards called the precinct of the Cretan god, because, when Ariadne died, Dionysus buried her here. But Lykeas says that when the temple was being rebuilt an earthenware coffin was found, and that it was Ariadne’s. He also said that both he himself and other Argives had seen it.”

      So there was no knowledge in Argos that Ariadne was buried at the site before the discovery of the coffin. Lykeas himself was also an eyewitness to the discovery. I’ll admit I’m reading between the lines a bit but the presence of a learned authority on local myth and history at the scene of the discovery, together with the fact that it is Lykeas who then reports the interpretation that this was Ariadne’s tomb makes me very suspicious that he had a guiding hand in leading the Argives to that interpretation.

      You are completely right that at a city like Argos there would have been plenty of myths and legends circulating orally for centuries. Poets like Lykeas certainly would have been drawing on these traditions. However, such people can also play an instrumental role in creating a canonical version of a particular myth – just think of what Virgil’s Aeneid did for the story of Aeneas.

      There’s plenty of evidence that the cities of Greece in Roman times were paying increased attention to their ancient myths and legends and repackaging them for tourists, for the Roman authorities and to compete with one another. The fact that Argos had a local poet writing about its local stories would certainly fit this broader trend and the fact that Pausanias uses the same word for Lykeas that he uses for guides elsewhere is a clue – not proof, I admit – that Lyceas was indeed active in the Roman period. In any case, the fact that the Argives had so many grave monuments of mythical figure in their city centre and the fact that Pausanias explicitly points to their competition with Athens for cultural preeminence are, I believe, very good reasons to think that lots of these tombs had been made up, and fairly recently. While historians generally talk of such things in terms of communal identity – and are right to do so – I am also interested in thinking about who the driving force behind the invention of such monuments might have been and I think that local elites (like Lykeas) must have played a big role. More on that in my next blog piece!

      So, I’m not disputing that many of the legends Pausanias reports at a city like Argos were the product of long traditions, my point is that it was in Roman times that changed cultural circumstances produced a desire to invent monuments that could be attached to those traditions. I think, if anything, previous scholars have been too inclined to suppose that any of the beliefs and customs Pausanias tells us about must have passed down unchanged from Classical and Archaic times.

      Incidentally, another indication that Argos was trying just a bit too hard to reinvent itself in order to appeal to Rome is that Pausanias also reports seeing a statue of Aeneas in the agora. It’s hard to imagine it had been set up before the 2nd century BC and was, more likely, much more recent.

      I hope that this goes some way to answering your question and to addressing your concerns about my interpretation. I found your comment very useful and would be glad to hear any more thoughts you might have on this subject.

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      1. Thanks! I wouldn’t say that I have ‘concerns’ about your interpretation, I was just pushing back a bit in what I meant to be a collegial fashion.

        It’s an interesting situation. Lykeas, in writing local myth-history in epic, is in some ways following a tradition as old as Eumelus of Corinth, the archaic poet of a Korinthiaka, but I think that it makes sense to put Lykeas into a Hellenistic or Roman context.

        I wouldn’t agree with you that “there was no knowledge in Argos that Ariadne was buried at the site before the discovery of the coffin.” How in the world could we know that? All that Pausanias does is report Lykeas’ aition. Stronk says in Brill’s New Jacoby that:

        “Jacoby’s remark (FGrH 3b, Noten, 41 n. 27) that ancient Greek mythological tradition does not preserve any direct link of Ariadne to Argos or even the Greek mainland is disputable (cf. also Jacoby’s own remarks in FGrH 3b, Kommentar, 59): in Nonnos’ Dionysiaka , the war between Perseus and Dionysos (accompanied by his bride Ariadne) is related: in 25.104-110 Ariadne is said to have been killed by Perseus’ spear, but in 47.664-7 she is killed by Perseus flashing Medusa’s head. Jacoby refers to Meineke, who believes that this tradition goes back to Euphorion (c. 270-c. 210(?) BC) and is, therefore at least Hellenistic.”

        So there’s that, for whatever it is worth (not a lot, I’d say). The other thing is this bit from Pausanias (2.23): “Now even the guides of the Argives themselves are aware that their account is not entirely correct. Nevertheless they hold to their opinion, for it is not easy to make the multitude change their views.” This suggests to me that the driving force of these traditions are NOT members of the local elite like Lykeas.

        I’m being purposefully difficult here. But I am generally concerned that if we try to identify the driving force of local traditions we are almost always bound to come up with “the local elite” and then to identify their members with names of people that we happen to know from literary texts, i.e. Lykeas. I suppose it’s an insuperable problem.

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      2. And once again. I hope I didn’t sound too defensive – I definitely took your initial comment to be meant in an encouraging way. One of the reasons I set up this blog is to try to get feedback on my ideas and your comments are very useful to me, particularly the Jacoby reference. I would say that even if the connection between Argos and Ariadne had a fairly long history – and I like the idea that it did – that doesn’t mean there was any actual monument to Ariadne before Roman times. And the discovery of an earthenware coffin that needed interpretation still sounds to me like the Argives had no idea that Ariadne was buried there until they made that discovery and decided she must be. I see your point about attributing everything to “the local elite”. In many ways it isn’t a completely satisfying explanation for what was going on. I do think, however, that it’s an advance on the tendency seen in a lot of scholarship to just explain things in terms of “identity” or Greek/Roman relations without thinking too much about potential divisions within the local community. My next piece will be more about these local elites. I’d be very pleased to hear your thoughts on that too.

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