A cup Pericles drank from has been discovered

Here's something totally amazing.  A drinking cup has been discovered that probably was used by Pericles, and there's some actual evidence to back up that remarkable claim.  The find is reported in an article from the Greek edition of the International New York Times.  (Many thanks to Irene Hahn for pointing it out to me!)

Yes, we're talking about the Pericles, the greatest statesman of the classical world, from two thousand four hundred years ago.  Here's the cup:

On the left hand side you'll see some letters inscribed.  The article states they are five names.  (I can't read them from that angle, and this is the only picture I could find.)

One of those names is Pericles.  Another is Ariphron.  Now Pericles was a relatively common name back then, but it just so happens that our Pericles had a brother named Ariphron, and Ariphron was an unusual name.  The odds are then that the cup is referring to the Pericles.

As you probably know, it was standard practice at parties in those days to pass around a cup that everyone sipped from.  (And indeed I made use of that little fact in The Ionia Sanction).   It was perfectly reasonable for the happy party goers to commemorate a lovely evening by scratching their names into the cup from which they'd all drunk.  That's what has happened here.

Another possibility is that Pericles, his brother, and three friends were hanging out at a tavern, and the tavern owner later wrote in the names of his famous guests.  I think that less likely though because if the dating on the cup is accurate, then the tavern owner would have to be psychic to know that young Pericles was destined for great things.

On the evidence as stated then, you're looking at a cup that was held and drunk from by Pericles.

Let me run through some questions that I guess people will ask...

Is it for real?  That was the first question I asked myself.  I guess it could be a fake, but if so, carbon dating will expose it pretty quickly.  Likewise, if someone took a genuine ancient cup and scratched in the names, then micro-analysis will show it up for sure.   So I'm assuming it's for real.

Could this be a coincidence?    Yes, but if so then the people who found this thing are the world's unluckiest archaeologists.  I doubt there were so many pairs of men named Pericles and Ariphron that this could be a coincidence.

Could we get Pericles's DNA from this?  No, not a hope in Hades.  The cup presumably was used lots of times after Pericles touched it; I like to think that they washed it between uses; and it's been lying in a grave for a couple of thousand years.

Is that Pericles's handwriting?  Only if he can't spell his own name.  The news report says Pericles was misspelt, and whoever made the error corrected it.  Either that, or Pericles was monumentally drunk.  By the same logic, Ariphron could probably spell his own brother's name.  The author then is one of the other three men.

Whose grave did it come from?  The report says it was a pauper's grave, so definitely not Pericles.  Since it was among grave goods, the deceased must have valued the cup highly.  It may be one of the other three guests kept the cup and later fell on hard times.  Or perhaps the cup was eventually thrown out with the trash and a poor man picked it up?

The Debacle at Tanagra

A few years after Cimon was ostracized, the Athenians faced a minor war at Tanagra. Tanagra was a minor city barely outside Attica. The Spartans had sent an army there and, obviously, the Athenians couldn't afford to have a Spartan force sitting alongside their border like that. The Athenians assembled their army and marched off to beat up the Spartans.

The two armies duly assembled in their lines outside Tanagra, and faced each other, ready to commence the battle, when who should show up but Cimon.

Now Cimon was ostracized, which meant exiled from Attica for 10 years on pain of death. But Tanagra was outside Attica, so Cimon had every right to turn up for the battle. Cimon stepped into the Athenian line, intending to fight as a common soldier.

Suddenly Pericles had a problem. Cimon was the arch-enemy of Pericles in politics, and Cimon was a great soldier. If Cimon displayed outstanding valour in the coming fight, the fickle Athenians might invite him back.

Pericles demanded Cimon go away.

Cimon pointed out he had every right to be there. Cimon also had an underlying motive: Cimon's ostracism had been for excessive friendliness with Sparta. If Cimon, in full view of his fellow Athenians, slaughtered a few Spartans it would give the lie to the indictments against him.

Pericles knew this perfectly well. He insisted that Cimon go away.

Cimon refused.

Things got a teensy bit violent, which is liable to happen when everyone involved in an argument is wearing armour and carrying spears and swords.

The Spartans stood and watched in bemusement while their enemy the Athenians began hacking away at each other. The friends of Pericles were determined to drive away Cimon. The friends of Cimon were equally determined he should remain.

Cimon was eventually forced from the field, after which the officially scheduled battle could commence.

Nicolaos will, of course, find himself stuck in the middle of this debacle. It can't appear for many books down the road, but I'm really looking forward to writing this scene.

Pericles on how allies work together

In these days of NATO and the United Nations, I thought it might be interesting to look at Pericles' view on how well equal alliances work.

This is from Thucydides, book 1, section 141. The Athenians have met to decide whether they should, in effect, initiate a war against the Spartans. If they do, they'll have to fight not only the Spartans but the entire alliance of the Peloponnesian League. Pericles says this about the allies of Sparta:

"...they cannot fight a war against a power unlike themselves, so long as they have no central deliberative authority to produce quick, decisive action, when they all have equal votes, though they all come from different nationalities and every one of these is mostly concerned with its own interests -- the usual result of which is that nothing gets done at all, some being particularly anxious to avenge themselves on an enemy, and others no less anxious to avoid coming to any harm themselves. Only after long intervals do they meet together at all, and then they only devote a fraction of their time to their general interests, spending most of it on arranging their own separate affairs. It never occurs to any of them that the apathy of one will damage the interests of all. Instead, each state thinks that the responsibility for its future belongs to someone else, and so, while everyone has the same idea privately, no one notices that from a general point of view things are going downhill."

There seems to be a general view amongst professional historians that the speeches in Thucydides are not to be trusted, particularly the speeches known as the Melian Dialogue, which could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two about realpolitik. (In fact, they probably did.)

Unlearned me goes against the learned opinion on this. I find it difficult to read something like the above without nodding my head and thinking, yep, that came from an experienced and cynical politician who knew what he was talking about.

The Curse of the Alcmaeonidae

It sounds like the title of a really bad horror movie, but it was a for-real curse that happened in 632BC.

There was at that time in Athens a famous Olympic victor called Cylon. Like many famous people to this day, Cylon assumed that fame in one field guaranteed success in another. He should have consulted with a career advisor, because unfortunately his chosen new life plan was to make himself the Tyrant of Athens.

In his defence, it must be said that Cylon was probably encouraged by his father-in-law, who happened to be the tyrant of a city called Megara, just up the road. Sometimes it can be really tough for a guy to impress the wife's family.

It all went horribly pear-shaped when Cylon gathered together his friends and attempted an armed takeover. He seems to have assumed the common people of Athens would flock to his leadership when they saw what was happening. But when the fighting began, the people of Athens were notable by their absence, and Cylon and his followers had to retreat to the temple of Athena atop the Acropolis. (Not the Parthenon. The Parthenon would not be built for another 200 years.)

Then Cylon managed to escape, leaving his hapless friends trapped inside the temple, to face the consequences of his ambition. By the end of the day, Cylon had set a new record for total leadership FAIL.

Now everyone had a problem. As long as the coup plotters stayed inside the temple, they were safe, because all Greek temples had sanctuary. Anyone who harmed a person under the protection of Athena was looking at some serious trouble. (Cylon's friends were neither the first nor last to rely on temple sanctuary for protection; it was perfectly normal for pursued criminals to make a beeline for the nearest altar.)

Negotiations began between the coup plotters and the archons (city officials). The archons convinced the men to come out, in return for a fair trial. I can't imagine what fair trial the plotters thought would result in them surviving, but presumably they planned to argue it was all Cylon's fault.

There are different stories about what happened next. The most dramatic says the plotters emerged, tied to a rope which they'd fastened at the other end to the cult statue of Athena within the temple, to maintain their connection with the Goddess.

Another version says the archons swore before Athena that the plotters would have sanctuary while the law took its course. Either way, everyone agrees the men were under the protection of the Goddess when they emerged to go to the place of trial, which certainly would have been the adjoining rock of the Areopagus.

Among the archons was a man called Megacles, from the genos (family) Alcmaeonidae (ALC-MAY-ON-ID-AY). When the friends of Cylon were out in the open, the archon Megacles and all the men of his family fell upon them and killed them.

No one cared about the dead plotters, but the men of the Alcmaeonidae had just broken the sacred sanctuary, and that was a big deal. A very big deal.

Megacles claimed (in the rope version) that they'd seen the rope break, meaning Athena had repudiated her protection. But that weak excuse didn't wash.

At once a curse fell upon the family - in Greek, a miasma - and not just upon the men who committed the crime, but upon every member of the family. And not just those living, but every man, woman and child to be born into the family forever after.

This crime was so bad that the Alcmaeonidae were, in fact, eternally cursed.

To expiate the sacrilege, and to avoid a furious Athena from destroying her own city, Megacles and the Alcmaeonidae were expelled from Athens.

Then they dug up the remains of dead members of the family and threw them out too.

That's the way things stayed for 40 years, until Solon the Wise allowed the family to return, because Solon was a weak-kneed, bleeding heart, soft-on-crime wimp. Or so the dissenting Athenians thought as the accursed family walked back in the gates. Nevertheless Athens failed to be destroyed by the Alcmaeonid presence, and things settled down.

Now the Alcmaeonidae were destined to become a driving force behind democracy. Note that the crime for which they'd been cursed was the ruthless slaughter of would-be tyrants.

Eighty years later, a tyrant did manage to take Athens, and the Alcmaeonidae had a very uneasy relationship with him. The family head at the time - another Megacles - married his daughter to the tyrant, which kept the peace for a while, but eventually the Alcmaeonidae were instrumental in removing this tyranny too. Supporting freedom was obviously a family tradition.

Then an Alcmaeonid called Cleisthenes introduced the democratic reforms which led to full democracy 50 years later under Ephialtes. When Ephialtes died, he was replaced by Pericles, who was...you guessed it...an Alcmaeonid on his mother's side.

But it didn't matter how successful the Alcmaeonidae became; whenever a member of the family was put in charge of anything, someone was bound to ask, "But what of the curse?" Even the Spartans raised it when they were dealing with Pericles, 200 years after the crime.

It must be pointed out that the curse on the family was eternal. Which means their descendants living today, of which there must surely be some, are in fact, cursed.