Sunday 27 April 2014

From Tarsus to Wales: the earliest Greek in Britain?

I felt excitement when the Director of Excavations at the Vindolanda Fort on Hadrian’s Wall told the press this week of his optimism that new Latin texts may be discovered there during this summer’s dig.

But no Latin text found in Britain could make me as happy as the texts which must be amongst the very oldest written here in ancient Greek. I recently came across a reference to these,[i]  and begged Dr Emma Bridges, who lives in York, to take this photo (right). They are two silvered bronze plaques with letters inscribed by boring little holes through the metal surface. 

Ocean &Tethys, mosaic in Gaziantep, Turkey

They were both dedicated by a man called Demetrius. One is dedicated ‘to the gods of the governor’s residence’ and the other reads ‘To Okeanos and Tethys Demetrius [set this up].’ 

The Ocean and Tethys dedication made me absurdly happy. Here, in ancient Greek, a man two millennia ago prayed to two Greek sea-divinities either to thank them for a safe voyage to Britain or to request a safe return sailing. My longstanding intuition that almost everything important about the ancient Greeks was a consequence of their intense relationship with the sea here receives vivid confirmation.

red points to Demetrius' home town
Even more excitingly, this Demetrius is very likely to be the Demetrius of Tarsus invited to dinner near Delphi by the biographer Plutarch in 84 AD and a star of the biographer’s dialogue On the Cessation of Oracles. A native of a sophisticated Greek port city in Turkey, this Demetrius is a grammarian (and he is indeed portrayed as slightly pedantic) who can quote Homer, Plato and Euripides at length, and is an expert on the cult of Apollo in his native city. 

Demetrius' destination
Demetrius tells Plutarch’s philosophical party that he was sent from Tarsus to Britain by the Emperor Domitian, asked to conduct research into druidism on an island, almost certainly Anglesey. He describes the druids’ theological interpretations of various natural phenomena including lousy weather and a meteorite shower. But  on his British travels he may have visited the Romans’ York HQ and made the dedications to his host’s household gods and to his own pagan divinities.

Druids still meet on Anglesey
I have visited York and Anglesey. This summer, on a journey via Turkey, I hope to visit Tarsus, where Antony met Cleopatra. It was where Saul/St. Paul the Apostle was born, into a Jewish family, two or three decades before the pagan Demetrius. I shall probably be travelling by air and will need to pray to a winged god like Hermes, or Iris the Rainbow, rather than Ocean and Tethys. 

But in the Turkish sunshine I will think of Demetrius, and his researches into comparative religion on the sheep-rearing, partly Welsh-speaking island. It will almost certainly be raining there.

[i] Had I taken the OCR GCSE Classical Civilisation course in the last few years I would have been introduced to them as a matter of course! Yet more proof of what an excellent subject Class Civ. is!

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