Transcribe your podcast

Thank you for listening to the Rest is History. For bonus episodes, early access, ad-free listening, and access to our chat community, sign up at restishistorypod. Com. That's restishistorypod. Com. Hello, everybody. Now, could there be a better way to spend Father's Day than by watching the great Tom Holland on stage dressed as Anne Boleyn? I didn't know he was going to be dressed as Anne Boleyn. That's very exciting. So listen, Tom and I will be performing at Hampton Court Palace, and it's very soon. It is on Sunday, the 16th of June. And if you hurry, and I really do mean hurry, there are a handful of tickets left. What we'll be doing is we will be discussing the shocking and gruesome and colorful and thrilling stories of the Tudas. Now, we will be telling the story through six executions. So we've chosen the six best Tuda executions and the way in which they open open up all kinds of stuff about the Tudas. The producers I read in the copy that Theo has given me are convinced that they will get me to dress up as Henry VIII. I would not hold your breath. I mean, Thomas Cromwell, maybe.


Henry VIII, I don't know. Anyway, listen, it's Tom and me on stage delving into the stories of the terrible Tudas. We'll be at Hampton Court Palace. Amazing venue on Sunday, the 16th of June. We can't wait to see you. So get your tickets at therestishistory. Com.


If you're Father is always regaling you and anyone who will listen with the same old facts about Churchill or Napoleon, why not get him? And let's face it, you are present.


Father's Day is just around the corner, which is very exciting for those of us who are fathers or have fathers. And a happy coincidence, Tom, what an extraordinary coincidence it is. The Rest is History book is just out in paperback.


And what makes that coincidence very happy is that the book is packed to the brim with the most colorful, bizarre, fascinating historical questions that you may well never have thought to ask, like what was the most disastrous party in history? Which British politician plotted to feed his lover to an alligator? Why was a Brazilian Emperor mistaken for a banana? Fascinating questions all, Dominic, are they not?


Very good, Tom. It is sure to make your next family outing much more entertaining for all involved, and it is available in bookshops everywhere now. If only he hadn't taken it into his head to dig in a sleepy backwater village for Troy's walls and somehow found them. If he hadn't knelt in the dirt all day with beautiful Sofia, chipping away crust from the tiles of Priam's palace, from bracelets that had once circled the slim wrists of princesses. If he hadn't proven that his dream was graspable, that the stories he loved were fashioned in the high style, not to escape the world, but to remember it, a tribute to the dead, to the dead bright ones whose gestures, vivid as they are in song, were doubtless in the flesh, more dazzling. So that was a poem about Heinrich Schliemann by the American poet, Carl Davis. Right there, Tom, you have this sense of the dead bright ones more dazzling, more terrifying in the flesh than they were in reality. And as that poem suggests, Schliemann's great Fame. We ended the last episode by talking about this German archeologist who is famous for having, in inverted commas, discovered Troy.


His Fame is bound up with the idea, isn't it? That the stories we talked about last time are true. That there was a Trojan war, that there might have even been a wooden horse, that there was a Helen of Troy. So we tease this at the end of the last episode. Let's get into it. Who is Heinrich Schliemann, probably the most famous archeologist who ever lived?


Schliemann, he was the son of a Lutheran pastor who got caught up in a sex scandal.


Oh, no.


And so the young Heinrich was impoverished and humiliated but discovered that he had an incredible aptitude for languages and ended up a fabulously wealthy businessman. He is a product of Germany at its most expansionist, self-confident, but also insecure. He's a fascinating figure. And Schliemann would later claim that back when he was a child in Mecklenburg in East Germany, Dominic, he had been reading about Troy and Helen as a seven-year-old. This is probably not true. Schleman is brilliant at creating his own mythology, ironically enough. He's a great monstrous figure of high achievement, high ambition, almost Vagenarian character, or maybe even the Kaiser.


Oh, no. I can't believe you're bad-mouthed in the Kaiser.


But he's not always 100% truthful. Helen is a obsession for him. And just as the Greek heroes go and search for Helen, so does Schleeman. And this obsession is so great that in 1869, he's been married to a Russian woman. Russian was one of his many languages, and he'd been working in St. Petersburg. He divorces her, and he decides that he'd like a real-life Helen to replace her. And so amazingly, he employs a Greek Archbishop, basically to pimp him a suitable Helen. And the Archbishop finds one in the form of a 16-year-old Greek girl who's called Sophia, who is the Saphia that was the name checked in that poem that you read. And Schleman has specified that she has to be poor and she has to be educated. And so he interviews her and asks her to recite Homer, and Saphia does. And so the marriage goes ahead. So he has his own Helen in the form of Sofia. The following year in 1870, he goes to the Northwestern corner of what is now Turkey, where tradition placed the site of Troy. And he starts He's excavating a hill called Hisalik. And he's there for two years.


And in 1872, he announces that he has found a burnt city, which he identifies with the very Troy burnt by the Greeks. And then the following year in May, he finds a spectacular hoard of gold and silver. And among this hoard, there's a great collection of jewelry, which he calls inevitably the jewels of Helen. She even tells this story about how Sophia had been with him, how she had carried the jewels from the site where they'd found them in her skirts. This is, again, not true. Sophia had been in Athens at the time. But what Schleman then does is to dress her up in the jewels and to say that he has found the treasure of Priam, the king of Troy. It's absolutely brilliant. He seems to have discovered Helen of Troy. Now, Helen, of course, was only one of two sisters who were hatched by Lida, their mother. We talked about this, Dominic, in the previous episode, how Lida was raped by Jesús in the form of a giant swan and gave birth to Helen, who was Jesús's daughter, and gave birth to Clitimnestra, who was the daughter of Lida's mortal husband, in Darius, the king of Sparta.


We talked as well about how Clitimnestra married the elder brother of Menelaus, who was called Agamemnon. Yeah. And Agamemnon is the king of a Greek city called called Mycena, where Clitumnestra rules as the queen. And so Schleman, having, in his opinion, discovered Troy, discovered the jewels of Helen, having proven that Helen had actually existed, the obvious target For his next excavation would be Mycena, the city ruled by Agamemnon, where Helen's sister, Clitumenestra, was queen. So that's what he decides to do. There's a problem with this because Greece is now an independent state, so it's not Lord Elgin conditions where he could just turn up and do it. So in 1874, he heads to the Pelipanese, which is a Southern bit of Greece.


Yeah, the Southern peninsula.


And he heads to Mycena, which is in the northeast corner of it, set among mountains. And he starts this completely illegal dig, and the Greeks close it down. So Schliemann gets around this problem by giving a massive bang to the Greek Archeological Society, who then decide, Yeah, that's great. You can go ahead. And so he starts excavating in this site. And I think there's no question that just as at Troy, he was looking for Helen. So in a sense, at Miocene, Schliemann is looking for certainly Agamemnon, the king there, but also his wife, Clitamnestra. Because although Clitamnestra is not as celebrated as Helen, she, too, like Helen, is a figure of incredible potency in Greek mythology and particularly in literature.


Blood stained figure, Tom.


Blood stained figure, yeah. So although Clitamnestra is not as celebrated as Helen of Troy, I mean, she is a significant figure in Greek mythology, and particularly in the literature of democratic Athens in its fifth century century BC heyday. And she is the dominant figure in one of the supreme literary achievements of ancient Athens, which is a series of three plays by a tragedian called Aeschilus. And Aeschales was a veteran of the Persian Wars. He'd fought at Marathon, he'd fought at Salamis. Every year, he would enter a play for the annual contest that the Athenians staged in honor of Dionysus, and he would always win. And eventually, he got killed. According to tradition, he was very bald, and an eagle is supposed to have dropped a tortus on his head, mistaking his head for a stone.


Why would that kill you more likely if you were bald than if you had a normal head of hair?


Because the eagle thought that his bald head was a stone.


Okay, fair enough.


So, yeah, just tipping you off there to beware of eagles carrying tortises, Dominic.


Yeah, thank you.


And he's commemorated as one of the giant figures of classical Athens. And the play that describes Clitum Nestra's relationship with Agamemnon in the most detail. It has to be said the most bloody detail was called the Agamemnon. And it was part of this trilogy, as I said, that in 458 BC, won the top prize. And just as Homer, when he introduces Helen, takes for granted that people will know who Helen is. So to a degree, Aeschylus is able to take for granted that people will know who Clitamnestra is and who Agamemnon is and what the backdrop to their story is. So I think before we continue with our account of what Schleman finds in Mycena, we should perhaps just go into the details of who Clitamnestra is and what the family is that she's married into. Because it It has to be said, it is probably the most nightmarish collection of in-laws that anyone could possibly have.


Tom, who are Agamemnon's forebears?


Agamemnon's great grandfather is a guy called Tantalus, who is the son of Zus, and He hosts the gods for a great banquet. Basically, just for the bounce, he cooks his son, a boy called Pelops, and serves him up in the banquet to see whether the gods will be able to tell his trick. The gods all do find this, but one of them, Demeter, because she's lost her daughter, Persephone, to the god of the Underworld, is very depressed. So she nibbles on the feast and eats Pelops' shoulder. The gods are incredibly angry. They bring Pelops back to life. They give him a shoulder made of ivory, and they put Tantalus in the depths of hell, where he's surrounded by water which he can't drink and by grapes which are always out of reach.


He's being tantalized, Tom.


Yeah, so he's tantalized. Pelops, his son, we've actually already mentioned him. He's the guy who founds the Olympic Games, and he gives his name to the Peloponese, the island of Pelops. He has won the daughter of the king of Olympia by cheating. He's entered a chariot race with this king, and the king King's charioteer has been bribed by Pelops to replace the axel with wax so that the wheels go bouncing off, the king gets killed. And after the race, the charioteer approaches Pelops for his reward, and Pelops tells him basically to bog off. So the charity curses Pelops. So that's two layers of curses. We've got Tartarus and we've got Pelops. Pelops has various children, two of whom are called Atreus and Thaïsdi's. And Atreus and Thaïsdi Thiestes kill one of their half brothers because they want him out of the way. And Pelops is furious about this, as he would be, and exiles them. And they go off to Miocene, conquer it, and they both rule it. But Atrius wants Thiestes out of the way. And so following in the footsteps of his grandfather, he takes Thiestes' children, cooks them, puts them in a dish, and gives them to Thiestes for dinner.


And Thiestes, because he's not a god, doesn't realize what he's being served, so goes ahead and eats them. And after he's eaten them, Atrius brandishes their heads and hands and feet, has a good laugh about it. And of course, Thiestes is, to add insult to injury. Not only has he eaten his own children, but he has to go into exile because he's guilty of cannibalism.


Yeah, he's the real victim in all this. Very sad. Yeah, completely.


He's obviously very cross about this. He goes to Delphi, the Oracle of Apollo, and Apollo offers him some terrible advice. So Apollo says that what he should do to get back at Atreus is to disguise himself and to rape his own daughter.


His own daughter?


His own daughter. So he does this. The daughter doesn't realize who the rapist is. What?


She didn't recognize her own father.


Because he's disguised.


That's the point. A hell of a disguise.


Anyway, continue. She gives birth to a son who she calls Augustus, and she's so traumatized by the fact that this boy is the son of rape that she exposes him on the mountainside, where, as always happens in these stories, he gets rescued by shepher. Always the way. And by a long process of improbable coincidences, he ends up as the foster brother of Agamemnon and Menelaus in Mycena because they are the sons of Atreus. So there is Atreus. He's got his two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, and he's got Augustus, who is the son of the brother who he has treated so appallingly. In due course, Augustus discovers his true paternity and kills Atreus, and he drives Agamemnon and Menelaus out of Mycena, and they go to Sparta. And this is when Menelaus manages to win Helen. So I said in the first episode, Menelaus doesn't have a palace to take Helen to. This is why.


Because he's in exile.


He's in exile. And this is also when Agamemnon marries Khaitamnestra. So you have these two brothers who are married to the two sisters.


It's going to be a quiz at the end of this episode.


Agamemnon and Menelaus then lead an army, kick Augustus out of Mycena, and they seize control of it. And that is the state of play when Helen is abducted by Paris.


So they're They're back in situ. They are back in Mycena.


They're back in situ. I mean, it's complicated. Greek murderous stories of cannibalism and incest always are. But basically, there's been a lot of very, very bad behavior. And it means that Agamemnon and Menelaeis have inherited three generations' worth of monstrous behavior by their forebears. So they are operating under a terrible curse, and particularly Agamemnon is, because he is now, with the death of Atreus, the head of the family. He is the king of Mycena. Now, as king of Mycena, he proves a brilliant king. He establishes Mycena as the most powerful state in the whole of Greece. He is described by Homer as Anax Andron, Lord of men, wide ruling. This is great for Clitumenestra. She's queen of the most powerful man in Greece. They have various children, of whom the eldest is a daughter called Iphigenia. Then they have another daughter called Electra, and they have a son called Areste. Euskadi's. Then the abduction of Helen happens, and Agamemnon, like all the other Greeks, is obliged to help Menelaus get Helen back. All the Greek forces gather at a place called Aoulis, which is north of where Athens is on the Coast. Agamemnon goes out hunting, and he's hunting this deer, and the deer takes refuge in a grove that is sacred to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt.


Agamemnon goes in and he kills the deer. And Artemis is furious about this.


She sends bad winds, doesn't she?


So the fleet can't leave. Exactly. And the Greek fleet is stuck in Aulis. And having been to Aulis, there's a massive cement works there. So it's not a place that you would want to be stuck at all. Agamemnon is told by the soothsayer who is accompanying the Greeks that... There'll be so many children killed in this story. He's told the only way that the winds will change is if you sacrifice your own daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis. And Agamemnon knows, Clitamnestra will not allow this to happen. She's devoted to her daughters. And Agamemnon tricks Clitamnestra by saying, We're going to marry Iphigenia to Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors. And Clitamnestra and Iphigenia are thrilled about this. And so Clitamnestra brings Iphigenia to Aoulis. And when she arrives there, Iphigenia is seized and she is sacrificed, and the winds promptly change. And Agamemnon and all the Greeks are able to sail off to Troy. And Clitumenestra is left completely distraught, and not just distraught, but set on revenge. And so while Agamemnon is in Greece, she decides that she will shack up with the one man who is pledged to eternal enmity to Agamemnon, which is Augustus.


Yes. So that for those people who haven't been making notes. So Augustus is Agamemnon's cousin, who was himself the son of his grandfather, is also his father. That's right, isn't it? Yeah. He slept with his own daughter, and he has now shacked up with Cliton Nestre.


In Mycena.


In Mycena. And she has just seen her own daughter sacrificed by her husband, who is this bloke's cousin. Yeah.


In due course, what happens is that Troy falls and watchtowers are lit and the blaze of the watchtowers are seen in Mycena. Cliton Nestre knows, therefore, that Agamem Agamemnon is coming back. So this is where Aeschylus' great play begins, the blaze of the watchtowers, the news Troy has fallen. And to begin with, it seems as though Cliton Nestor is overjoyed by this. She says, Wonderful. My husband is coming back. Can't wait. Agamemnon comes back. He's driving a chariot. Behind him is a daughter of the king of Priam called Cassandra, who had been much loved by Apollo, and Apollo had given her the gift of prophecy. But Cassandra had then turned Apollo down. And so Apollo had cursed her by saying that although she had the ability to see the future, no one would ever believe her. And Agamemnon has seized her and made her his concubine. So I mean, Agamemnon really is asking for trouble. He's killed his own daughter, he's deceived his wife, and he's now returned with a slave girl in tow. But Clitim Nesta pretends to be absolutely thrilled. She says, I've been tending the home fires. I've been completely faithful. Lovely to have you back.


Absolutely brilliant. And look, I have all these wonderful purple robes. Why don't you enter the palace stepping onto these robes? And Agamemnon is nervous because he knows that this is the thing that might anger the gods, and so he's reluctant. But Clitamnestra urges him and urges him. And finally, he says, Okay, I will. And so he steps onto the robes and goes inside. But before he's gone inside, he asks that Cassandra be well looked after. Cassandra addresses the chorus, addresses the watching people. Because she has the powers of prophecy, she knows what is going to happen. She says, Oh, my God, Agamemnon is going to be killed. Then she who vanishes into the palace. In Aeschylus' play, you hear, screams, Agamemnon crying out. Then Cleiton Nestre comes out, covered in blood. Yes, this is my work, and I it. To prevent flight or resistance foiling death, I cast on him as one who catches fish, a vast voluminous net that walled him round with endless wealth of woven folds. And then I struck him twice. Twice, he cried out and groaned and then fell limp. And as he lay, I gave a third and final blow, my thanks for prayers fulfilled to zeus.


So falling, he belched forth his life with cough and wretch there, spurred from him bloody foam in a fierce jet, and spreading, spattered me with drops of crimson. Rains and Raine. Just for good measure, Cassandra, too, has been murdered. And then who should come out of the palace but Augustus?


So he's been there the whole time?


He's been hanging out the whole time. Claims it was his plan, celebrates his vengeance, And he and Clitam Nesta say, Brilliant, we're now going to rule in Agamemnon's place. Clitam Nesta says, This was vengeance for the murder of Ipah Geniah. So brilliant. And that is where the play ends.


But of course, that's just the beginning this huge cycle of vengeance, which people who are familiar with Greek tragedy will know, because their children, their surviving children, decide that they are going to get revenge on their own mother. It's nice, isn't it?


I mean, it's a terrible situation to be in, isn't it? Your mother's killed your father. And not only that, but you have Apollo, the God of Prophecy, who is not a God you want to ignore, basically telling you to go and kill your mother. So this is the second play, the Libation Bearers, it's called. Aresties, the son of Agamemnon and has gone to Delphi. And Apollo has basically said, You have to go and kill your mother. And so he does that. He kills Augustus and he kills Clitumenestra. But to kill your mother is the worst of crimes. And there are very, very ancient divinities, older than the gods on Olympus, who lurk in the depths of the Earth, whose role it is to punish those who break the natural order. And there is no greater crime against the natural order than to kill your own mother. The moment Arestes has killed Plight of Nestre, these terrible monsters appear, and they're called furies. They have snakes for hair, they carry whips, they're monstrous and loathsome in appearance. And Arestes has no choice but to flee them. And so this seems to be his fate, that for the rest of his existence, he will be pursued by these furies with their whips.


And this is what is happening in the In the third play, The Humanities, which in Greek means The Kindly Ones. It opens with Arestes. He snatched a brief moment to consult Apollo again because Apollo has put the furies to sleep. This gives him the chance to give them the slip, and Arestey's heads for Athens. The furies are snoring, and the ghost of Clitumnestra appears. Clitumnestra is the only figure who appears in all three of these plays. The furies head to Athens to get Arestes, that's their job, and they corner Arestes there. And Arestes begs Athena for help, and Athena appears, and she introduces something very It's awful and radical, something that Greece and the world, till that moment, had not seen, which is a courtroom.


It's the world's first courtroom trial. Yeah.


So Athena says, This is what we're going to do. We'll get a jury. We'll get various more mortals who will decide whether arrestees should be let off or not. The furies don't like it, but they accept it. They can't argue with Athena. At the end of the trial, the jury is hung. So the casting vote is with Athena, and she says, I'm going to let him off. And the furies are absolutely indignant. But Athena says, You've got to accept it, that we're going to have this new legal order. We can't have people committing crimes and then being chased by monsters with whips. This This is no basis for a stable civic society. So from this point on, we're going to have law courts and all this thing, but you can be the guardians of it. And by doing that, you will be showing how kind you are, which is why henceforward, you will no longer be called the furies, but the humanities, the kindly ones. That's where the name of the play comes from. It's a brilliant maneuver by Aeschylus because basically, he's saying that these ancient epic cycles of bloodshed and revenge, which have been rippling through generation after generation after generation, it has stopped and eased, not just in Athens, but in an Athens that has the institutions of democratic government.


So the story symbolizes the transition from a world of blood feuds and vengeance passed down the generations to one in which a law court, so in this case, it's the Areopagos, isn't it? The elite.


Hill of Aries, yeah.


The elders of Athens, so they are judging cases. So that's what the story is dramatizing, is that right?


I think it is dramatizing an idea that the old world of epic violence has faded and been succeeded by a better order. But it's obviously specifically making Athens and its democracy look good. Specifically, there have been all these convulsions in Athens, the frameworks of democracy in the process of being set up and revised. And Aeschales is basically saying that this quite novel legal framework, rather than just having been invented recently, actually reaches back to the legendary age of Agamemnon and so on. So Escalus himself said that his plays were slices cut from the great feast of Homer. It's a perfect example of how these figures, like Helen, like Clitum that they can be used by writers to channel understandings of revolutionary processes within Greek society and to tame it. It opens up the obvious question, which really Schliemann is trying to answer, which is that, is that what Homer did? Just as Aeschylus is using Homer and adapting it, was Homer doing the same? Was he taking much older stories and adapting them? If he was doing that, then is it possible that Klytom Nestra and Helen were actual real people? Schleeman, to his own satisfaction, has proved that Helen was a real person.


But now that he's arrived at Mycena and he's had permission from the Greek government to excavate there, his goal is to try and see whether Klytom Nestra and Agamemnon are also real. And that's his goal.


Let's find that out after the break and find out at last, the history behind the mystery. Welcome back to The Rest is History. This corpse very much resembles the image which my imagination formed long ago of wide-rolling Agamemnon. So you may remember that at the beginning of the episode, we talked about how Heinrich Schliemann, having been to Troy, has got permission to excavate at Mycena. And this is the telegram that he sent in 1876 to a Greek newspaper once he got to Mycena and got to work. And this was later abbreviated. It was condensed to the sentence, I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon. And if you're at all familiar with ancient Greece and with archeology and stuff, you will no doubt have seen that image of the gold mask, which is now, if you Google Agamemnon, the gold mask is what comes up, and that is generally taken as Agamemnon's mask, even though there's no evidence, of course, that it was. Or was it, Tom?


So there's a difference between Mycena and Troy. Troy had been forgotten about. Nobody knew where it was. People always knew where Mycena was, and people had already begun excavating there. As early as In the early 1700, a Venetian engineer had gone, and he had removed all the debris that had slid down the mountain and buried Mycena. Actually, Lord Elgin had gone there. The gateway into Mycena, it's called the Lion Gate. It has two images of lions over it, although actually, they're not lions, they're lionesses, which is appropriate, bearing in mind that it was the home of Clive of Nestra. He wanted to take that back to the British Museum as well, but he couldn't because it is enormous. Mycena is built out of the most enormous stones. And so even the Greeks were impressed. They called it cyclops. The cyclops are the giant one-eye monsters who were supposed to have built it. So it's not as though Schliemann is dealing archeologically with entirely virgin territory when he starts digging there in 1876. But he does have a nose for the incredible find. And what he's done is that just to the right of the lion gate inside the great walls of Mycena, he's found a circle of stone slabs.


And within it, there's a series of weird, upright stones. And some of these have relief sculptures. And Schliemann, the moment he finds these, he says, Brilliant. I found the tombs of Agamemnon and Cassandra. So he's immediately identifying his archeological finds, with the stories that he's read in Aeschales and so on. But even better, he finds these very, very deep shaft graves beneath the tombstones, and he excavates these. And in each of these tombs, he finds, He finds bodies. Sometimes he finds treasure. He finds all kinds of stuff. And some of the bodies are wearing masks. And it's in the final shaft that he finds the famous mask, the one of gold, which is always called the face of Agamemnon. But the thing is that this isn't actually what Schleman meant by the face of Agamemnon. When he lifted the mask, the face beneath it crumbled, so he didn't know what that face looked like. But there was another one in another tomb. So when he was talking about the face of Agamemnon, what he actually was referring to was not the mask, but to a head that had survived, a skull that had survived. And he did a drawing of it, and it appeared in the book that he published about his excavations at Mycena.


And it looks like E. T.


That's 3,000 years old, right? Or however many thousand years old. How old is it?


Well, it's actually older than Schleman thought, because Schlemen thought that it was dated around 1250 BC, which is the date of the Trojan War, but it's actually about 400 years older than that. So even if Agamemnon had existed, it wasn't Agamemnon. This gets discovered in the wake of Schlemen's finds, because basically in the wake of Schliemann, archeology begins to professionalize itself. Over the course of the 20th century, academic archeologists come to feel really embarrassed about the idea that you're going to these places to look for legendary figures. It's a bit like archeologists going to Palestine, start to feel a bit embarrassed about the idea that they're looking for biblical sites.


Or if you ask an archeologist about King Arthur, they sigh and they look very miserable because you're trying to make it too interesting. You're having too much fun, and they want to suck the life out of it.


But also, of course, in the wake of the Second World War, there are further reasons, which is that the emphasis on Helen being white and golden haired and Agamemnon as a great ruer of men, this had been very strongly eulogized by Nazis, among others.


Of course, I forgot. The Nazis thought that the ancient Greeks were good Arians, didn't they?


Yeah. So there was a definite sense that looking for these legendary figures of Greek myth was incipiently Nazi. And also the other thing that happens is that the language used by the Mycenaians, what's called Linear B, gets cracked. And people can start reading what is on all the burnt tablets that have been found at various cities like Mycenae across Greece. And it opens up a world not of homeric warriors, but of bureaucrats. And you get records of farmers and potters and weavers and so on. And there's nothing about golden haired warriors, chariots or anything like that. And this contributes to a sense after the Second World War, that it's somehow politically the wrong thing to do, not just to emphasize on Homeric warriors, but on the very idea of warriors.


That's exactly as it is with the Vikings, right? It's all about multicultural trading links and rethinking gender roles.




And celebrating migration. Actually, what everybody is itching to say is, what about the stuff about smashing people's heads in with axes? Where's all that? That's the fun stuff.


Well, I mean, most obviously, the fact that you've got these enormous fortifications built out of colossal giant cyclopean boulders. And so there's a wonderful book on this whole process by a scholar called Cathy Gear about the way that Mycena has been understood. And she quotes a very distinguished scholar who says that the citadels, Mycena and other such cities, served as symbols of the exaltet status and the power of their rulers rather than as fortresses. And that even though these fortresses are marked by cycles of destruction and rebuilding and then destruction again, that actually this is due to earthquakes and not to violent conflict. In a sense, it's standing the whole Schliemann-esque idea that he has found evidence for the Trojan War on its head. There was no Trojan War. The Mycineans were not brutal warlords. It was all international trading and bureaucracy and weaving and so on. But it has to be said that I think the pendulum on that has swung back pretty hard, that '60s idea that ancient peoples were all about beads and things.


You're not building those big walls just for fun. You're building them because there are some other people over the other hill who want to kill you.


Right. And so Cathy Geer, again, quotes another scholar responding to this idea that the marks of destruction in Mycinean cities were caused by earthquakes. She said, Yeah, right. The building of massive cyclopea walls is not a useful response to an earthquake. Of course, she's entirely true. And what has been happening, I think, over the past decades... I mean, it's not exactly saying that Schliemann was right, that he had found the Troy that was destroyed by the Greeks in the Trojan War, but that it is all rooted in a much more solid foundations of historicity than perhaps people had thought about 40 or 50 years ago. And one of the key influences on this is that a whole load of texts from an empire to the east of Troy in what's now Turkey called the Hittite Empire. Loads of these have been found, and they're being translated. The translation is ongoing. And it portrays a world of great power politics that actually does seem to meld with the idea of there having been a Trojan war. And it does suggest that perhaps Troy is a buffer state between the empires of the Hittites and the empires of the Akiwau, which might be the Akeians, which is the name Homer gives to the Greeks in his epics, and that maybe that was what was going on.


I think also, archeology has demonstrated that the portrayal of Greek Kingdoms in Homer does map on to the evidence from the Bronze Age. It does seem to be an authentic record of which cities were significant, which ones weren't. We know from the tablets that these Kingdoms were ruled by a man called a Wanax, and that's not so far from Homer's word Anax. So you can see where the derivation of Agamemnon's title as Anax Andron, the ruler of men, that it might have come authentically from the Bronze Age. So that's the men.


Yeah, what about the women? Yeah.


What about Helen?


Because the women at the core of our story, having taken into account Schliemann and also the developments in academic thinking about all this, Tom, Where are we with Helen and with her sister, Clytam Nestre?


By far, the most readable and enjoyable study of how Helen herself might have been rooted in memories of how women in the Bronze Age, Bronze Age Queens might have lived is Bethany Hughes's book on Helen of Troy, which I mentioned in the first episode. She makes her case at the opening of her book. Because Helen is such an alluring figure of fantasy, because she dazzles as she goes, she can make it hard to see women of substance who walked through the Bronze Age palaces of the Eastern Mediterranean. But ongoing archeological and historical projects demonstrate that these women were prominent and significant. I think she absolutely makes her case about that. By going through the evidence and looking specifically for evidence of queens, I mean, women like Helen and Clitumnestra are not apparent in, say, the fifth century BC. That's the whole point of Aescaus' play, that the age where monstrous women like Clitumnestra could sway the destiny of a state. But that is long gone in the past. But if you look back to the evidence in the Bronze Age, I think you do find that Queens did have a elevated role. So Bethany induces all kinds of evidence.


So Bethany is making the case specifically for Helen, and I think she does induce fascinating evidence for how the traditions that are told about Helen might have originated in authentic Bronze Age practices. But just looking at it slightly broader before we zoom in on Helen, So looking at Mycena, for instance, the home of Clitumenestra, it is absolutely clear from the archeology that women were present in the citadel, and also that just as Clitumenestra is portrayed in Homer and in Aescalus, they lived in unsegregated ways. So Agamemnon and Clitumenestra could absolutely be imagined going into the bathroom together as Aeschylus portrays them.


We know that because their artifacts are found together and they're buried together, things like that.


Well, there's one room in particular in Mycena where there's evidence of weaving. So that is a marker of women But there are also arrow heads there. Oh, right. Okay. So that suggests the mixing of male and female going on. And as you say, also, there is no segregation in death. So these shaft graves excavated by Schliemann, there are female bodies as well as male bodies. Although the women don't have masks. They have strips of gold diadems on their heads. And broadening it out to look at some of the things that you get in Homereic Epic. So the idea that the abduction of women might be a cause for war, there seems to be evidence for that in some of the Hittite tablets. There's definitely evidence for high-ranking women being used as diplomatic tools or trading chips. They're commodities to be passed from Great King to great kingdom. If you think of the passage that I read about Clitamnestra weaving this voluminous shroud that traps Agamemnon so he can then be butchered. He gets hacked to death in the bath. You also have, Helen is described in the Iliad as, embroidery a great purple robe. And of course, very famously, Penelope, the wife of Adisius, while she's waiting for her husband to return, she's weaving and then unpicking her cloth all the way to try and keep her suitors at bay.


And this image of great women at the head of weavers, of servant girls. This, again, there's absolutely evidence for this in the tablets that have survived from the Bronze Age palaces like Mycena. And so Linear B, it's It's much more like Chinese or hieroglyphs. It's not an alphabet. The image for a woman is you have two dots for a breast, you have arm sticking out, you have what's clearly a skirt, and you have what seems to be a curl of hair. For a man, it's a straight line. He's had his hair cut. For a woman, it's a curve, like it's a braid or something. All of this seems to gel with what you get in Homer, the portrayal of great women and their ranks of servants. Now, what about Helen herself? This is the evidence, among lots of other evidence, that Betnyad uses for the memories of Helen being rooted in Bronze Age ideals of beauty. We talked about how Helen is described as Xanthée. Golden Head. Golden Head or Red Head, perhaps. Bethany points out that on the island of Thera, the great volcanic eruption.


Yeah, modern day Santorini.


That set a tsunami overwhelming Crete, which is one of the theories for where the story of Atlantis came from. And it buried these frescoes a bit like Pompei. And there are lots of portraits of aristocratic women on it. Most of them, they have dark hair, but there are people with lighter hair. She points out that there is one in particular who has red hair. These are women close to the image of a deity, and that this woman is closest to the deity. Most of the mortals don't wear a necklace. The necklace seems to be a symbol for a God, but this particular mortal, the one with the red hair, she is wearing a necklace. Perhaps there's a implication there that to have red or golden hair is somehow seen as a marker of semi divine status. It's a fascinating theory. We described how Helen is always described as being white, like the shell of the egg from which she emerged. And lots of white lead oxide has been found, which seems to have been used as cosmetics. So to quote Bethany, the overall effect is mesmerizing. Women made up in this way have great impact.


They become walking effigies. Their faces take on the appearance of a mask. Their painted bodies move from the natural to the supernatural. So again, very, very potent. And I think that, I mean, obviously, it's not conclusive, but it's It's interesting enough, I think, to satisfy the yearning that, oh, no, I've always wanted it to be true.


So what all that is suggesting is that the portrait of Helen, it's not saying that somebody called Helen existed, no, but it's basically Basically saying, the portrait that you get of a golden haired princess, very powerful. She lives in a world of servants and weavers. She moves through the palace. She's wearing white makeup to whiten her features.


Yeah, and she might be used as a chip in international relations.


Yeah, she might be sent away, or there might be some breakdown in negotiations in which possession of her becomes a political controversy. And also, she wears a necklace that suggests that she might end up occupying a position that has a hint of the divine about it. And that's what Helen is ultimately representing. So when the story first begins to its first listeners, because, of course, it's an oral tradition, isn't it, with these stories, initially, to the first listeners, she would be an immediately recognizable figure as a Bronze Age queen.


The thing is, we haven't really done an episode on the historicity of the Trojan War, generally. But there is no question that there are fragments of language and of authentic elements of the Bronze Age world preserved in Homer. I think the idea that the portrayal of Queens, so like Helen, like Clite Amnestra in Homer, that that preserves a memory that is true to the Bronze Age palaces, I think is not beyond the bounds of possibility.


What about as we move towards the end, what about this idea that, I guess, a lot of feminist critiques have advanced? I mean, there's this huge trend, obviously, now, in fiction and literary fiction for rewriting the Greek myths and rewriting them, often women writers who are rewriting them from a female's perspective, maybe giving female characters more agency or talking about the sexual violence that they suffer and all that thing. Where do you think Helen and Clita Nesta stand? Because clearly for the Greeks who heard those stories, they were very unsettling figures. And you could, of course, argue from our perspective that if you're a woman listening to that, presumably you're very conscious of the way in which they are objectified, their sexuality is seen as something dangerous and deadly, and that that is the beginning of a tradition that runs right through Western literature and is a baleful tradition.


Well, I think that, I mean, Clive to Meister certainly has agency. I mean, she butchers her husband in the bath And Helen also has agency. Actually, the post classical tradition of casting her as a victim of rape denies her the agency that she has. If she decides she's fed up with Menelaus, she's going to take her golden treasure and go off and hitch up with Paris. I think that Clitum Nestre is clearly seen as a monstrous and terrifying figure, but she completely dominates Aeschylus's tragedy. I mean, she is by far the most powerful figure within it. You could say that that is an expression of the the nightmares of Aeschylus's audience, because in Athens, women don't have any form of political power, but they do have a role as mediators between the state of Athens and the gods. And Clitumenestra might serve as a warning of what happens if women ignore that role. I mean, Greek tragedy is full of very, very powerful women. And it does seem that the power of those women is a expression of anxieties that are inherent.


These are women who've got above themselves. Is that basically what you're saying?


I don't think it's above themselves. It's the notion that the proper order of things, as the Athenians of the century BC understand them, that it threatens catastrophe and disaster. That's why the cycle of revenge and bloodshed that Cliton Mester is involved in, the fact that it is settled by the virgin figure of Athena, who is, of course, herself, female, but in the context of Athens, it's so important because Athena is indisputably powerful, but she's not killing people and overthrowing them, although traditionally she always has done. But it's a very specific vision of the role that women and men should play. I think with Helen, she's incredibly powerful. She is terrifying, and it's the quality of all the heroes in Greek myth that they are powerful. Socrates, I think, is putting his finger on something very significant about those myths when he says that beauty is more powerful than strength.


Yeah, I think he's right. So thank you for that, Tom. That was absolutely fascinating. Loads of things that we can come back to, maybe in the rest of his history. So the Trojan War, the story of Schlemen, Greek gods, and Greek heroes, more generally. And on that bombshell, we will see you next week. Bye-bye.