1. Of Monkey-Men
and Nestor's Cup
added June 3, 2018
Kinds of Writing
The terms "early Greek writing", "Greek language on an object", "early forms of the Greek alphabet" and "earliest form of Greek writing" require clarification. Those phrases don't necessarily mean the same thing. An alphabet, for example, is a writing system where a symbol represents a single phoneme (a meaningful sound), such as the p in pin or tip. (The p is "meaningful" because if you change the p to another letter, you get a different word: tin, sin, fin, etc.) In that sense, the modern Greek alphabet shows up around 700 BC. It developed originally from the Phoenician alphabet (shown, right) the oldest verified alphabet and the most influential one in Europe, spread by this remarkable seafaring merchant culture throughout the Mediterranean. The Greek, Roman, and Cyrillic (Russian) all developed from Phoenician (others did not: Arabic and Hebrew, for example.)
There was yet another form of writing, a syllabary, used by the Minoan civilization first on the island of Crete around 2000 BC and then in Greece, itself, after the Minoan culture was destroyed (according to one theory) by the eruption of Santorini island (called Thira in modern Greek, the Italian name Santorini --from St. Irene-- was tacked on by the Venetians) 200 km/120 mi SE of the Greek mainland around 1700 BC and everyone picked up and moved to the Greek islands and then the mainland further north and became Mycenean Greeks. There were really two writing systems. One was called Linear A and the other Linear B. The second one, Linear B (shown, right), has been partially deciphered. It is a syllabary; that is, a symbol represents one syllable, like writing the word hello with two symbols. Linear B consisted of 87 signs, each representing one syllable, and the Mycenaeans appear to have used Linear B to record economic matters of interest to the elite rulers but of little interest to their subjects. There doesn't appear to have been poetry or epic literature, at least that we know of. That is a bit of a mystery. Ancient civilizations could indeed produce literature if they wanted, no matter what system they used. There is nothing inferior about the wedge-shaped Akkadian cuneiform writing used to write the Epic of Gilgamesh in 2500 BC. The Myceneans just didn't do it (again, that we know of). Linear B also contains ideograms, pictures with self-evident meaning. (A picture of a dog with an X over it for "no dogs allowed" is such a logogram in the modern world.) The other system, Linear A, has still not been deciphered, so we don't know what it is. An alphabet? - unlikely; syllabary? - maybe, but it's not even certain if it represents the same language as Linear B. Why would they have two? It's also possible that Linear A is related to the older hieroglyphic system used by the ancient Egyptians.
This is an excerpt from "The Alphabet in Italy" by Rhys Carpenter from The American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Oct.-Dec., 1945) pp. 452-464. This is from a much longer article, amply illustrated and fully footnoted. Rhys Carpenter (1889 – 1980) was a highly respected classical art historian and professor of Classical Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College. He was also a professor at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and instrumental in planning American excavations. He argued for dating the Greek alphabet to the eighth century B.C. (i.e. the 700s BC), now consistent with general scholarly opinion. His insight about the importance of pottery in the transmission of literacy to the Etruscans is a valuable one.
THE ALPHABET IN ITALY
To judge from the contents of the Etruscan tombs, it was not until the seventh century B.C. that Etruria became an open market for Greek commerce. The latest student of the material, Edith Hall Dohan, in her extremely competent and valuable study of Italic Tomb-Groups in the University Museum, came to the conclusion that it was during the period 680-650 B.C. that "foreign influence penetrated deeply into Central Italy." This should be the period to which Herodotus was referring when he asserted that the Phocaeans of Asia Minor
...were the first among the Greeks to undertake long voyages; and it was they who disclosed Adria and Etruria and Spain and Tartessos, traveling not in merchant-tubs but in fifty-oared ships.
For nearly a century and a half thereafter, Greek-Etruscan trade flourished without recorded interruption or hostility. Then, in 535 B.C., after many of the Phocaeans had abandoned their Asia Minor home through fear of their new Median overlord and migrated to their twenty-year-old colony of Alalia in Corsica, the Greek infiltration close to the Elba mines and the passage between the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian Sea, aggravated by hybris toward the natives, brought an Etruscan-Carthaginian alliance against them with a navy which the Alalians were able to defeat only at cost of their own men-of-war. The Etruscans conveyed their Greek captives from this engagement to their port-of Agylla below Caere and there stoned them to death; while the doubtfully victorious Phocaeans, correctly appraising the situation, withdrew from Corsicato southern Italy with their families and all the possessions which they could load on their few remaining ships, and founded Velia. Thus ended the Phocaean chapter in the Greek exploitation of the West.
Etruscan ill-will, once kindled against the Greeks, spread to Cumae outside the Gulf of Naples, now the northernmost outpost of Greek trade in the Tyrrhenian Sea. In 524 the Etruscans of Capua, taking with them Dauni and Aurunci tribesmen, made an unsuccessful assault on Cumae, which in turn proceeded to ally itself with the Latin League to defeat the Etruscans at Aricia and break their hold on Rome. Previously, Cumaean contacts had been more with the interior of Campania and extended across to eastern Italy on the Adriatic. It is not until these events of the last quarter of the sixth century that we are entitled to postulate any very direct or very intimate cultural relations between Greeks and Latins.
But Greek trade with Etruria survived these vicissitudes. Continued importation of Attic ware is attested by the contents of the Etruscan tombs; and the strong formative influence of Attic art on Etruscan wall-painting proves how close the contact must have been. The final cessation of relations came with the Persian War and its concomitant Punic-Etruscan alliance against the Greek towns of Sicily, culminating in the crucial naval battle off Cumae in 474 B.C. Thereafter, to its own cultural detriment, the failing Etruscan empire looked north and sought to compensate itself beyond the Apennines, while on the south it wholly abandoned Greece in favor of Carthage which by now completely controlled the Spanish and Atlantic trade. Commercial relations between Etruria and Greece had thus lasted almost precisely two centuries, from ca. 680 to 474 B.C. Early in that span of years the Etruscans had learned the Greek alphabetic signs. Attic influence had come too late to count in this regard. The Phocaeans had arrived early enough; but it was not they who taught the Etruscans their letters. At the start, it was Corinthian pottery which bulked largest in the Etruscan importation of Greek wares (...) Etruscan imitations of Protocorinthian and especially Corinthian are innumerable. Though Greek Protocorinthian almost never carried any written legend, imported Corinthian was copiously adorned with writing. And it is precisely at the turn from Protocorinthian to Corinthian, around the middle of the seventh century, that Etruscan familiarity with alphabetic writing is first attested by the tomb-finds.
[ed. note on the Phocaens:
Phocaea is modern-day Foça on the western coast of Turkey. In ancient times it was an Ionian Greek city. Greek historian Herodotus says the Phocaeans were the first Greeks to make long sea-voyages They founded the modern-day cities of Marseille, in France, Empúries, in Catalonia, and Velia, in Italy. - jm]