The Archaeologist / Louis Godart
thursday, 30 december 2004
Academician of the Lincei.
Published in “Il Giornale dell’Arte”, July 2002, with the title “Where were the Columns of Hercules”.
Sergio Frau has been attending the world of archaeology for decades and is now a reliable witness to the ancient history of the Mediterranean. The book he has recently published, the Pillars of Hercules. An investigation, launches a revolutionary theory: the famous Pillars of Hercules, associated in the collective imagination of the West with the rock of Gibraltar, must be moved towards the bottleneck between Sicily, Malta, Libya and Tunisia. It is there that the ancient Greeks would have placed the western borders of their world.
The horizon of the oldest Greeks (from Homer and Hesiod to Herodotus) would thus be limited to the seas that surround them and that, as Sergio Donadoni points out, unite them to their colonies, leaving the western Mediterranean to the Phoenicians. It is only in the Hellenistic age, after the great conquests of Alexander the Great in the East, that the Greeks, to maintain the centrality of their civilization, would have moved the famous Pillars of Hercules to Gibraltar.
Frau’s investigation, conducted with rigor, is fascinating; his book forces anyone to rethink, in the light of these unexpected conclusions, many of the certainties concerning the ongoing studies.
I tried to do this for the Minoan-Mycenaean world.
For years there has been talk, even inappropriately, of the “Minoan and Mycenaean colonization” in the seas of the western Mediterranean. Rivers of ink have been spent on the Mycenaean presences in the Aeolian Islands, Lazio, Campania, Sardinia and even Spain. Actually in those areas were found ceramics and also some finds that undoubtedly come from the Aegean environments. It is therefore clear that during the second half of the second millennium a.C., some traders linked to the Aegean states of the eastern Mediterranean have, in some way, frequented the coasts of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the island of Sardinia itself. These findings could lead us to reject Frau’s hypothesis, considering that the western Mediterranean was really frequented by the Greeks since the dawn of history.
Now from the study of the thousands of tablets in linear B, the writing of the Mycenaean Greeks deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952, and from the analysis of Oriental texts, especially Egyptians, some interesting elements emerge.
First of all, in the lists in our possession, there is no place name that can refer, with a minimum degree of credibility, to a toponym located west of the Strait of Sicily. The clumsy attempt, made by some, to consider that the locality of Metapa could evoke Metaponto, foundered when a simple philological approach could determine that the city in question was a simple village of Mycenaean Messinia in the Peloponnese.
Secondly, it should be remembered that, although there are Aegean finds west of the Channel of Sicily, there is not the slightest trace of a Minoan or Mycenaean settlement in the territory of the western Mediterranean.
Thirdly, in the light of eastern documents and also of Egyptian texts, it seems indisputable that the palatial trade, first Minoan and then Mycenaean, took place exclusively in the eastern Mediterranean. After the conquest of Palestine by the armies of the great pharaohs of the eighteenth dynasty, the Aegean states became the privileged interlocutors of the Pharaonic power and proceeded to convey, from the Syrian-Palestinian coast to the Nile valley, the goods that landed in Syrian ports.
From this panorama it is clear that the Mediterranean West was totally alien to the Aegean palatial penetration. Only a few frightened and poor merchants have, at best, crossed the channel of Sicily to offer on equally poor markets products of Minoan or Mycenaean origin.
For the Aegean populations of the Bronze Age there is therefore no doubt that the bottleneck between Sicily, Malta, Libya and Tunisia divided the Mediterranean in two. The political and economic interests of the Aegeans were all concentrated in the Eastern Mediterranean. The West was a poor and unknown land, culturally backward, alien to the great expansion that had already brought, starting from the sixteenth century a.C., on the coasts of Asia Minor, as in Miletus, the first Greek colonists.
Sergio Frau’s conclusions are therefore admirably combined with these findings dictated by philology and archeology. Our gratitude is acquired to an author who has not been afraid to reread with a new and enthusiastic eye the old legends of the Mediterranean.