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Bronze men: reading Herodotus on 'the sea of Greeks'

Christopher Parmenter

New York University

In Herodotus 2.152, the exiled Psammetichus, erstwhile warlord in the Nile Delta, receives a prophecy from the oracle at Buto: “vengeance would come from the sea, whence bronze men would appear.”  Shortly thereafter, Psammetichus recruits a crew of shipwrecked Ionian and Carian pirates to help retake his kingdom.  The tradition of raiders in the Delta is well established by the time of Herodotus.  Odysseus tells two pirate tales in Egypt (Od. 14.246-316; 17.424-44), and when Herodotus disputes the Cypria’s account of Paris and Helen in Egypt (2.113-16), he seems to participate in an ongoing discussion.  Contemporary Egyptian and Near Eastern imperial sources, more concerned with issues of land empire than the sea, consider these maritime travelers annoyances, whose access to the sea and its resources is integral to their identity as outsiders.  This paper argues that in this outsider, maritime identity becomes part of a vague and incipient sense of the physically ‘normal’ in Archaic Greece.  As early as the eighth century, visual and literary sources from the still indeterminate ‘Greek world’ begin to normalize the the bodies of bronze-armed, sea-borne raiders as natural (cf. Lissarague 2015).  The bodies of their landlocked enemies are not.  If Herodotus’ fabulous Egyptian and Assyrian ethnographies—presenting Greek as normal and non-Greek as ‘Other’ (Hartog 1988)—date to the mid-to-late fifth century, the seeds of his thought date long before (cf. Skinner 2012).

Gunter (2009) and Kim (2009) argue that the administration of Near Eastern empires facilitated the development of distinct regional identities based on tribute or craft production.  Both of these practices are visible in Herodotus’ accounting of Persian tribute (1.192, 3.89-97).  This imperial stereotyping extends over borders.  Take how Assyrian and Egyptian sources tend to characterize the people they call ‘Ionians’ (cf. Braun 1982a, 1982b, Haider 1996, Rollinger 2001, Luraghi 2006, Gunter 2009, Moyer 2011, Hale 2013). We find, for instance, the Assyrian chronicle of Sargon II complaining about incursions by the “Iaman who live beside the sea” (Lie 1929 no. 20-21).  Three hundred years later, the matching customs stelai of Naukratis and Thonis/Herakleion prescribe export duties for products carried on the “sea of the Greeks” (von Bomhard 2012, Villing n.d.a, n.d.b).  Ezekiel, listing the products brought to Tyre by merchants of different nationalities, remarks that the Iavan arrive with a cargo of bronze cauldrons and slaves (27.13).  These texts ranging from the seventh to the fourth centuries BCE imagine a traffic in metal and bodies over the sea—enslaved and free, peaceful or threatening—and this traffic is given an ethonym: Ionian.

As a case study for the naturalization of the bronze-armed Ionian body, I will look at two archaic stamp seals from Mediterranean contexts—Delphi and Kourion, Cyprus—that juxtapose bronze-clad hoplites and zoomorphic creatures in Nilotic settings.  A glazed stone scaraboid of likely Cypriot origin found at Delphi (inv. no. 31231; publication Perdrizet 1908) depicts such a scene, juxtaposing two zoomorphic bipedal figures holding weapons, in a hostile stance, against a single human figure wearing Greek-style armor.  The scene takes place against a Nilotic backdrop of papyrus, trees, and antelope.  Likewise, on a cubical steatite seal from the archaic precinct of the sanctuary of Apollo Hylates outside Kourion, Cyprus (inv. no. St. 841; publication Arwe 1982), a single hoplite in profile faces frontal-faced demons, vegetative imagery, and animals.

I argue that these seal depictions repurpose Assyrian and Egyptian appellations of Ionians as “Yaman who live beside the sea” (cf. Moyer 2011).  In their strong periods, the Assyrian and Egyptian state systems group seaborne raiders and merchants together under the appellation Ionian Yaman, and the Ionians accept this title.  When Herodotus in the mid to late fifth century comes to depict Egyptians as a landlocked people of the past (cf. Vasunia 2001), he reverses the language.  It is the peoples of the great empires of the eastern Mediterranean who are ‘Other.’  With Herodotus, as it were, Ionians write back.

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Ethnicity and Identity

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