Drink like a Greek: water cups

Ancient Greeks drank water and wine.  Beer wasn't popular.

Water was collected each morning from springs, wells, and, occasionally, public fountains, and carried back to the home. The most famous spring in Athens was called Kallirhoe. It was a tradition to wash in the waters of Kallirhoe on your wedding day.

Most cups were as normal-looking as modern ones, but some were works of art.  The pictures left and right are of a cup in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  It's the sort of thing you would have found in a wealthy house.

And if you think people took their art seriously back then, check out this cup:

Don't ask me how they got it to stand upright.

Such a strange concept

This review of The Ionia Sanction just appeared in the Sunday Herald Sun, an excellent Melbourne newspaper

SUCH a strange concept — a murder mystery set in ancient Athens — yet it works so well in history buff Gary Corby's second Hellenic mystery, The Ionia Sanction. 
The year is 460BC and Nicolaos, the only investigating agent in Athens, is called on by the city's leader, Pericles, to investigate the suspicious death of an Athenian official. 

But after tracking the killer and letting him slip through his fingers, Nico finds himself on his boss's bad side and desperate to make amends. 

Nico's quest to solve Thorion's murder takes him across the oceans to the Persian Empire. There he runs into his ex-girlfriend, meets the infamous Greek traitor Themistocles and uncovers a Persian plot that threatens to destroy Athens. 

This fascinating book blends historical events and figures with fiction to create a funny, gripping and satisfying mystery you won't be able to put down. 

VERDICT  ★★★★☆ 

It occurs to me people might not know how newspaper reviews come to be.  The simple answer is: I don't have much of a clue myself.  

What happens is Heidi the Publicist, who's extremely good at this sort of thing, sends  the book out to known quality reviewers and then waits to see who's interested.  The first I hear of a review is when Heidi or some other responsible adult lets me know it's out there.  My contribution is absolutely zero, if you don't count writing the book in the first place.  I have no idea what any review is going to say until it appears.  

Reading your own reviews is a slightly nervous process; I read the first paragraph, then I read the last paragraph to see if I'm doomed.  Then with a feeling of relief I read the whole thing; at least three times.

The world's oldest autograph by a famous person

From Olympia comes the depressing news that armed thieves have stolen a pile of stuff from the nearby museum.  I've been waiting for a list of what's lost, but the only description I've seen is "60 or 70 statuettes".  If so, I'm almost relieved.  The statuettes are probably of athletes and gods, and of incalculable value.  But in that same museum is one of my favourite archaeological pieces, and it's not a statuette; it's the ancient equivalent of an office coffee cup.

One of the greatest sculptors of the ancient world, possibly the greatest, and certainly one of the greatest artists in all of history, was a fellow by the name of Phidias.  You might not have heard of Phidias, but you've certainly heard of his work.  Phidias was the guy who made the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the mega-huge statue of ivory, gold and ebony, that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Phidias also made the statue of Athena that went into the Parthenon.  It's given to few men to create one wonder of the world.  Phidias worked on two of them.  (Strictly speaking, it's the Parthenon itself and not the Athena that's the wonder in Athens, but frankly, Phidias was close enough to the action to get a tick there too.)

Back in 1958, when they were excavating the workshop in Olympia, the archaeologists uncovered a broken piece of pottery cup.  When they turned it over, they got a shock, because scratched into the bottom were these words:


They had discovered the personal cup of Phidias.  It's almost impossible to get a decent picture of the writing on it.  In the museum the cup's upright, with a mirror to show the inscription.  Here's a picture from Oxford University.  

If you look closely you'll see letters scratched in white on the base.  The first word is this: Φειδίας

It seems the problem of cups being stolen from the office kitchen stretches back to ancient times.  Phidias probably made the cup himself on a rainy Sunday (when you're the world's greatest craftsman, you can do these things) then scratched his name into it so his co-workers wouldn't make off with his nice cup.  This means two things:

  1. You are looking at a Phidias original, be it ever so humble.
  2. To the best of my knowledge, this is the world's oldest autograph by a famous person.

The value of this thing is beyond imagination.  I don't know what it would fetch in an auction, but to call this piece of broken pottery irreplaceable would be a major understatement.  

The ecclesia, the boule and the prytaneis

I thought I'd have a go at describing the power structure of classical Athens.  Thinking caps on...this is complex.

Sovereign power was held by the ecclesia, and only by the ecclesia.  It was a parliament consisting of every single voting member of the state.  This is what makes Athens the world's first democracy.  Athens was a direct democracy; you didn't elect someone to represent you; instead you turned up to vote for yourself.  Ecclesia remains a word in English to this day and means a collection of churchmen. The church term comes directly from the original Athenian parliament.

There were maybe 25,000 eligible voters.  Obviously they didn't all turn up for every session.  The quorum for a valid vote was 6,000.  On days when there wasn't much happening, they struggled to get enough voters to turn up, so the Scythian Guard would sweep through the agora with a long rope covered in wet paint, to herd the voters to parliament.  Since the Scythian Guard was all slaves, this meant slaves were going around forcing their owners to run the city.

That was the simple bit.

25,000, or even the minimum 6,000 makes for a very large meeting.  To keep things moving, they had a parliamentary management committee called the boule.  Boule means council.  They met at the bouleterion.  Just about every city in Greece had a building by this name.  Even the site for the Olympic Games had a bouleterion.

Everyone in Athens had to belong to one of the ten tribes, which by classical times were purely administrative units.  Every year, 50 men were elected from each tribe to be members of the boule.  That makes a management committee of 500 people.  Clearly the Athenians liked to do things big.  Since the boule set the agenda for the ecclesia, the members of the boule should have been very powerful.  Their large membership and only holding the office for a year kept them in check.

Since boule membership only lasted a year, you could cycle through the entire voting population in 50 years.  Obviously not everyone got a go on that scheme, but the great majority would have.

Because 500 was still too large, they had a management committee for their management committee.  They selected 5 men from each of the ten tribes represented in the boule to form a subgroup called the prytaneis.  So that made 50 men in the prytaneis.  They rotated membership of the prytaneis each tenth of a year.  So if you were elected to the boule, you'd spend 36 days as a prytaneis.

The good news for the prytaneis was, they ate for free -- at public expense -- because they were required to spend their 36 days living in a building in the agora called the Tholos.  The Tholos gets a mention in The Pericles Commission because they were building it at the very moment the book begins.  Most unusually for Athenian architecture, it was designed as a perfect circle.  Members of the prytaneis could call a meeting of the ecclesia -- the entire citizenry of Athens -- at any time.  In effect, the prytaneis could press the emergency alert button.  Which in a few crisis situations they did.

So:  Athens was ruled by the ecclesia of about 25,000 voting citizens.  The ecclesia was managed by the boule of 500 citizens.  The boule was managed by 50 of their number called the prytaneis.

Athens had a very clear distinction between sovereign and executive power.  Much clearer than in modern times, when we tend to mix them up.  Executive power was wielded by the archons for civil matters and the strategoi for military.  Neither had any say (in theory) on what the people decided.  I'll save those for another day or this post will get way too long.

I'm an obvious classical Greek tragic

Apparently I'm an an obvious classical Greek tragic, which I thought was a very funny way of putting it.  I've a feeling my wife will be quoting that for some time to come.  The quote's from a review of The Ionia Sanction, that appeared in The Telegraph in Sydney on the weekend.  The page scan kept on coming out blurry, so here's the text:

WHO reckons ancient history is boring?  Certainly not Australian author Gary Corby, who weaves a gripping whodunit set in classical Greece, 2500 years ago.  

The second of his Hellenic Mystery series, The Ionia Sanction follows on from the first, The Pericles Commission, with clever young Athenian Nicolaos given the job of uncovering a murderer. 

With his tongue set firmly in his cheek, Corby combines real-life and fictional characters in this fun romp, which journeys from Athens to Ionia in the Persian Empire. 

When an Athenian official is murdered, rising statesman Pericles reluctantly gives Nico the job of finding the killer. Nico — who only has a couple of years to prove to his father that he can succeed in his chosen profession before going back to the family's sculpture business — is pragmatic and has no time for philosophers. That's a problem — he has a philosophical 12-year-old brother called Socrates.  

The trail leads from Athens to Ephesus in the Persian Empire, where he finds his girlfriend, the priestess Diotima, an amateur detective whose case is linked to Nico's.  With polite but murderous brigands chasing him and a haughty slave girl, Nico finds himself in the court of the military genius Themistocles, who was once the hero of Athens but now lives in exile and in the pay of Persians.  

While Corby is an obvious classical Greek tragic, he also has a sense of fun and The Ionia Sanction is a real page-turner.  

Chris Herde