Pithekoussai: Ancient Greek Colony of Nestor’s Cup

Europe’s First Greek Settlement: Pithekoussai

Celebrated for its thermal springs and verdant landscapes, the volcanic island of Ischia—located in the Bay of Naples—harkens back to the Mycenaean era when it was part of a wide network of Tyrrhenian settlements that traded extensively with the Mycenean Greeks. Although now known for its tourist trade, Ischia—called Pithekoussai during its Greek days—was the first Greek settlement in all of Europe. Enterprising pioneers primarily from the Greek city-state island of Euboea (present-day Evvia) founded the colony in the mid-eighth century BCE naming it Pithekoussai.

But how did the Greeks arrive at that name? In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder claims that Pithekoussai was named for its numerous pithoi (large terracotta amphoras) which were more common there than in neighboring Iron Age sites. Others insist that the word was derived by the Greek pithekos meaning ape or monkey. Situated on what was then the western-most boundary of the Mediterranean, why was the island named after monkeys? To be sure, there are none nor have there ever been any monkeys in the area. But the notion of monkeys on a combustible island comes from Greek mythology when Zeus transformed naughty forest creatures into monkeys banishing them to a remote volcanic island. Still others surmise that its name may come instead from the Greek word pithekizo which meant “to monkey around” and may have been a term used derisively by mainlanders to refer to the speculative and profiteering Greeks, who originally hailed from the Athens environs, several hundred miles away.

Hailing from the Euboean cities of Eretria and Chalcis, although Euboeans were the island’s most populous settlers, the Corinthians had a presence in Pithekoussai as well. Yet the Greeks had company on the island. Excavated in the burial sites of the area is a population that is often overlooked when considering colonial settlements—the indigenous people. Based on Italic artifacts found there, speculation had been that the female natives of the community intermarried with the settlers. The theory was that the natives had no say in their culture except by virtue of marriage within the colonial community. But the assumption that the indigenous people were passive and subservient to the colonials has since been debunked. Instead, it has been affirmed that the Italic community were active and vital members working alongside the settlers in Pithekoussai. In fact, extensive trading between the natives and the colonists may have forged their relationship and acted as a chief impetus for setting up the colony in Pithekoussai in the first place.
Indeed, Italic people of the Tyrrhenian region likely lived in the area from the Bronze age onwards, though to date there is no written record of their story. It should be noted that writing was becoming more common around the time the island was being colonized with the Greeks leading the vanguard from the fifth century BCE and beyond. Perhaps, it is because of these inscribed records that we have an historical bias in favor of the influence of the Greeks in the region. That being the case, the Greeks were not Pithekoussai’s only settlers. It is now known there was a sizable establishment of Phoenicians in Pithekossai as well. Indeed, experts believe that the Greek, Phoenician and native communities may not have only worked together on the island but lived together as well, developing a multi-cultural settlement.

Excavations of burial sites in the area have found the population to be both ethnically and culturally mixed with a populace that was more multi-layered than previously thought sporting a hodgepodge of Italic, Greek and Levantine ethnicities. It is interesting to note, that in the eighth century BCE, the notion of ethnicity was a fluid and evolving concept. Some believe that it was not until around the fifth century BCE that the Greeks began defining themselves vis a vis everyone else. Further, it may have been the colonizing experience in and of itself which advanced their notion of Greek identity with language forging their bound as a Hellenistic people. The word “barbarian” comes from the Greek word “barbaroi,” which meant babbler and was an onomatopoeic term which labeled foreigners as ‘bar-bar’ speakers. Derisive and mocking to those who spoke a language other than some dialect of Greek, the word was relatively uncommon until the fifth century BCE; becoming more and more popular once the Greeks began colonizing and were exposed to a plethora of languages other than their own.
Which begs the question, why on earth would settlers from as far afield as Euboea—a sea-faring island to the east of Athens—or even further afield as Phoenicia—present-day Syria, Lebanon and Northern Israel—be interested in colonizing an island that was on the outer western limit of the Mediterranean? In order to answer this question definitively, it is important to understand what was occurring at the time. Ancient Greece, never known for its arable land, was experiencing a farmland shortage that was becoming pronounced during the population explosion of the Archaic Age. It was because of this scarcity that colonizing other areas from the eighth through the sixth centuries BCE became fashionable to the intrepid ancient Greeks. But why the Phoenician expansion? Renowned for their trading and navigating acumen, the Phoenicians—a much older civilization—were not to be outdone by the upstart Greeks. Indeed, by the time the Greeks entered the picture the Phoenicians had already expanded their empire around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years boasting Carthage (modern day Tunisia) as their biggest colony. Some now believe that it was the Phoenicians themselves who first settled Pithekoussai with the Greeks trailing behind by a few hundred years.

Although the rich fertility of Pithekoussai’s volcanic soil was desirable to the settlers, even more alluring to the Iron Age colonists were its ample iron ore reserves. In the eighth century BCE, iron was the new bronze and the adventurous settlers were willing to travel far and wide for their current metal of choice. Because of its protected, well-positioned harbor along with its vast resources, trade networks were bountiful in Pithekoussai. The island traded heavily not only with their mainland neighbors of Campania, Apulia, Etruria and Latium but also with the Near East and Carthage, amongst others. Throughout Greek settlements, Pithekoussai was recognized as having the widest range of objects from the farthest reaches of the Iron Age Mediterranean.
Today, chief among Pithekoussan objects of interest is a seven-inch cup, originally fired on the island of Rhodes and dated to around 750 BCE. Battered and diminutive, at first glance this artifact is unimpressive, but upon closer inspection an engraving can be found that has sparked no small amount of interest in the academic community. The etching, believed to have been scribbled in Pithekoussai around 725 BCE, is not only the earliest example we have of Greek writing, more compelling still is that this is the first example we have of Greek poetry. Two of the three lines of text are in Homeric hexameter and refer to Nestor, a character from Homer’s Iliad:

“I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway Desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.”

Ironically, the earliest recorded evidence we have of Homer’s epic hymn is in the form of a sexual joke. The cup’s humble size is in contrast to Nestor’s cup in the Iliad (11.632-637) which is enormous and too heavy to lift:

“Anyone else would hardly have been able to lift it from the table when it was full, but Nestor could do so quite easily.”

On the one hand, it was a play on words as the cup’s modest size is in direct contrast to Nestor’s cup in the Iliad. On the other hand, it was a bawdy quip as the reference to Aphrodite bespeaks. The fact that Greeks living in the eighth century BCE on the edge of Magna Graecia could jest about the Homeric legends testifies to how deeply ingrained, even prosaic, Homer’s narratives must have been.

Undeniably, the Iliad was originally composed as an oral hymn, to be sung or recited, possibly as early as 1200 BCE with its written format believed to have been penned anywhere from 725 BCE to 634 BCE. But as a result of this discovery of an etching on this obscure cup in the backwaters of ancient Greece, some scholars now argue that the date of Homer’s poem must be pushed back for knowledge of his verses to be as common as this cup attests. Sadly, in contrast to its amusing engraving this cup has a more sobering epilogue; it was discovered in the grave of a ten-year old boy offered by his father in a funeral pyre. Doubly tragic is that the young lad, who was in death its final recipient, would never know the adult delight the cup’s inscription signified. Alas, the ancients were used to death inching up and making itself comfortable in the unlikeliest of places. The somber conclusion of this cup’s destiny is a reminder that in the Greek world omnipresent death was humor’s dark companion.
Companionable death is the subject for another noteworthy Pithekoussan artifact fashioned at roughly the same time as Nestor’s cup. Considered to be the oldest painted krater in all of Italy, the images on the vase read like a tale from what must have been an all-too common narrative on the seafaring shores of the Mediterranean—a shipwreck. “The Pithekoussai Shipwreck” begins with the image of a capsized ship followed by the figures of sailors in various stages of either swimming or sinking. Of the latter, one sailor—appearing lifeless—is floating on the water. Another sailor’s head is between the jaws of a gargantuan fish. The story’s conclusion ends with a colossal fish standing on its tail demonstrating the enormity of his human feast to one and all.
Could this narrative have also come out of Homer’s epics as some have speculated? As can be expected from a seafaring people there is much about shipwrecks in the Homeric epics. Below are a few key passages which paint a picture close to what is depicted on the krater. One such scene is in the Odyssey after Zeus hurls a thunderbolt at the ship: “All the crew were swept overboard…..,for the god denied them their homecoming” (Odyssey 14.305-13). Then in the Iliad, Achilles mocks Lykaon (one of Priams’s sons).

“Now lie there among the fish…your mother will not lay you out on the bier and lament for you…. and fish rising through the swell will dart up under the dark ruffled surface to eat the white fat of Lykaon” (Iliad 21.122-7).

In another scene from the Iliad, Skamandros (the River god of Troy) taunts Achilles:

“I shall wrap his body in sand, and pile an infinite wealth of silt over it, so the Achaeans will not know where they can gather his bones, such is the covering of mud I shall heap on him.” (Iliad 21.316-23).

Because shipwrecks were common in the ancient world, death by sea was a demise most dreaded by the ancient mariners. The horror of not being buried and properly mourned by family on the one hand and becoming a feast for fish on the other is aptly portrayed in both the Pithekoussan shipwreck krater and the ubiquitous Homeric epics demonstrating, once again, death’s hovering presence in the ancient world.
Which brings us to the fate of Pithekoussai. In a booming land of plenty with a population boasting ten thousand at its zenith in 700 BCE, why was this plucky Greek settlement not better known? While it was the rich volcanic soil that initially lured the Greeks and Phoenicians to settle the island of Pithecusae, the reason for its demise may also lie in the soil’s combustible origins. According to geographer and historian Strabo (64 BCE to 24 CE), severe volcanic and earthquake activity impacted Pithekoussai’s acclaim leading one classical scholar to term it “the lid of a cauldron.”

While geographic activity was harmful to trade, others speculate that political reasons relating to the growth of Cumae on the Italian mainland may have contributed to Pithekoussai’s downfall as well. Nevertheless, an exodus ensued and Pithekoussai’s bustling trade was eventually transferred to neighboring Cumae. Most historians agree that by 500 BCE the settlement of Pithekoussai was all but destroyed by a volcanic eruption of Mount Epomeo, the island’s largest volcano. Perhaps in a fitting Homeric denouement, discovered in a funeral pyre, the fiery fate of Nestor’s cup foreshadowed the incendiary collapse of the once burgeoning land from which its famed inscription had sprung.

Pithekoussai, Ancient Greek Colony of Nestor’s Cup” Read the original publishing at Ancient Origins


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