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Researching Ancient Greeks Podcast
Episode: 1
April 19, 2024

In this first episode of Ever Thought About...? we spend some time with Professor Jeremy McInerney to discuss the amazing breadth of his research. From investigating cattle in ancient Greece to understanding the concept of ethnicity in the ancient Mediterranean to exploring hybrids such as centaurs and pegasi, Professor McInerney's work reveals just how flexible and meaningful research in Classical Studies can be.

00:00:04 Prof. McInerney
You may end up being a family that's living in a house, in a small village, and most of your land is under cultivation for wheat or for rye, and you've got olive groves and you've got fruit trees. You may have one cow out the back who you occasionally use at the plough. I don't think that there's a huge amount of pastoralism in the heart of the Greek city. But this is where I do think we continue to have practices and cultural responses that are conditioned by our earlier history. We carry the past in our present.
The past is never over. It's still with us.
00:00:52 Kathy
This is Kathy. And you're listening to “Ever Thought About...?”, created by undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. We hope to bring you exciting episodes about the diverse research undertaken around campus. Sit down with us as we chat with Penn professors about the work they've dedicated their lives to.
In this first episode, we explore research on classics with Professor Jeremy McInerney.
Jeremy McInerney is a professor of classical studies here at Penn and a member of the Society for Classical Studies and the Archaeological Institute of America. He has excavated in Israel at Corinth and on Crete here at Penn, he teaches Ancient Greek History, Greek World After Alexander, Religion and the Polis, among other courses. Professor McInerney's research interests include topography, typography and historiography, and he has authored many commentaries, translations, journal articles and books, most recently Ancient Greece: A New History. Welcome.
00:01:45 Prof. McInerney
Thanks very much, Kathy.
00:01:47 Kathy
Just to start us off, could you talk a little bit about how you came to be interested in ancient Greece and the classical world?
00:01:53 Prof. McInerney
There's a boring answer, and there's a slightly more interesting one. I'll start with the boring one. I had a really old-fashioned education, started doing Greek and Latin at about the age of 11.
And I just always loved the ancient world and ancient history, and I never actually found anything I liked more. So I've sort of stayed with what I've been doing for 50 years or more.
The more interesting one is that I had a crusty old Jesuit priest. He was about 80 years old when he taught me. He'd come to class smoking a cigarette and taking the last drag right before he walked into the classroom and then flicking the bud out the window. I mean, stuff that you- you can't do that today. He was old school.
As I reflected over the years about his teaching, there were things about him that I came to appreciate. He loved the ancient world and he loved it purely and passionately and without apology. So I think universally the key both to my education and to anyone's education is to find the teachers who have passion and who have excellence because of their mastery of the material, whatever the field is. If you feel that you're taking something from a person who loves this passionately and for whom it matters, that's the secret to getting a great education, in my opinion.
00:03:15 Kathy
That's a perfect segue actually into why you believe Ancient Greece and Classical Studies matters.
00:03:22 Prof. McInerney
Yeah, the days are gone when you could pass off a question like that with a kind of superior, snotty, patronizing remark like “the Greeks and the Romans are the basis of Western civilization”. Every one of those statements is problematic in many, many, many ways.
For me, all history and the study of the past and of other societies or all of these are valid, and what marks the Greeks and the Romans as having a peculiar relationship to us is one that I've now begun to think of as being almost like a family relationship with your grandparents. I do seriously believe that the Greeks and the Romans are part of the cultural DNA of modern society.
It's a complicated relationship, but I think that a society that gave us great thinkers and great philosophers and great architecture deserves some merit.
And I think that if you're speaking English now and participating in this dialogue by listening to it and perhaps asking questions of it, then you're part of a cultural phenomenon that traces its roots back to the Greeks for better or for worse. You can't say it's a direct link, but we find ourselves in a world where we do have certain commonalities of culture, and part of those, some of those commonalities have deep, deep roots.
I'd like people to study all ranges of history from all places, but particularly to have a sense of the history that goes back through the European countries and back to the Mediterranean, but doing it with a really open mind. You know, the example I often use is that when people were asked that sort of question as you asked a minute ago, in the old days, they'd say things like, well, all Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato. But you know, you go to Plato and Aristotle, and they have very little to say about slavery and what they have to say is pretty offensive and pretty inadequate.
00:05:29 Prof. McInerney
It's worth thinking about what it means to read the classics from the 5th and 4th century, to read Plato and Aristotle, and to know that society owns slaves as well, and in fact, some people have argued that society could only have existed in the form that it did because it relied on slave labor. So this idea of inheritance is sometimes trotted out as if it's unproblematic. I do believe there's an inheritance, and I think it's a deeply troubling one.
00:06:02 Kathy
Could you talk a little bit more about the Greeks and the contradictions? Those of us who don't have experience in any classical history will still probably think of Athens as the founder of democracy, right? And yet, if I remember correctly, Athens had hundreds of thousands of slaves, right?
00:06:17 Prof. McInerney
Yeah, yeah, you're right. The theme of contradiction is a really important one. I think that it is worth looking at a society that both develops the idea of democracy and the idea of enfranchising men, not women, but men from basically every class and every economic group - but at the same time, actually owns slaves and relies upon them to give people the free time to pursue leisure activities, and in fact, to participate in the democracy. That's a strange contradiction, but it's a part of the way the Greeks operate. And I think that is, you know, an inheritance that we have from them.
00:06:59 Kathy
What would you say is one of the, or a few of the good things that we've inherited? As you say, you know there's architecture. You know, our buildings in DC very closely resemble those in Athens. What else, you know, less tangible inheritances do we have to thank the Greek and Romans for?
00:07:05 Prof. McInerney
Right, right. Sure. Sure. I'm not a scientist. I'll preface the answer with that. But what I'm always struck by is that in terms of scientific inquiry, the Greeks have virtually no tools, and yet they came up with interesting scientific theories, including, you know, astronomical theories. They, in one period, were able to actually calculate the circumference of the earth based on measuring the distance between Alexandria and a town in southern Egypt, and equating that with the angle of a circle and the shadows formed by a stick stuck in the ground. If the sun was directly overhead and it cast no shadow, but in the second town it did cast a shadow, you could measure the distance of that and then multiply it by the distance between the two towns. Now that's an incredibly elegant experiment, and it’s science performed with two eyeballs, or actually four eyeballs, two people and a stick, right? So that to me is quite remarkable. I mean atomic theory - the idea that, you know, the universe is made-up of these tiny indivisible particles - that's developed by Democritus and Leucippus in the 5th century. So the power of observation and the willingness also to dispute, to argue about these things, to argue about the nature of the cosmos - this is an extremely vibrant community in terms of intellectual inquiry and that I do find quite remarkable. It's not totally original. The Greeks are intimately tied into knowledge systems and cultural systems that have their roots in the ancient Near East.
It would probably be impossible to imagine Greek astronomy without thinking about the Babylonian astronomy that comes before it. I think what we're really finding now is that Greece is part of a much larger story around the eastern Mediterranean, and rather than emphasizing what's separate, what's distinct and what's unique-
00:09:29 Kathy
What makes Greece special?
00:09:31 Prof. McInerney
Yes, exactly. The emphasis now is on what do the Greeks do with knowledge and cultural processes and practices that they've been exposed to by contact with other people.
00:09:41 Prof. McInerney
So it's a story which places now a great deal more emphasis on networks and on connections and on acculturation. In other words, you know, what do we have in common? What do we share, not what makes the Greeks separate, different, and perfect.
00:09:56 Kathy
At the time of the ancient Greeks in their life, do you think they believed that they were something special and different? Would they have anticipated?
00:09:56 Prof. McInerney
Yeah. It's a great question and I do believe there's a very concrete answer. I think there's an absolute turning point, and it's the Persian Wars because it seems to me that before the Persian Wars, in the 6th century BC and even before that, the Greeks are very open to interacting with people of other cultures and very clear about the fact that places like Egypt are much older and that their culture is, you know, worthy of special respect because of its sheer age. The turning point to me is the Persian Wars.
00:10:39 Kathy
When they win.
00:10:39 Prof. McInerney
When they win and they don't expect to win, if you're a Greek and for years you're hearing the great king is bringing an army, you've gotta-
00:10:46 Kathy
The great king would be-
00:10:46 Prof. McInerney
Be the Persian king. Yeah. You've gotta be quaking in your boots thinking, “Well, it's all over by the shouting, you know. What do we do now?” But they win.
And I think there's evidence in the culture immediately after the Persian Wars to show that the way the Greeks processed that unexpected victory was to say, hey, we're pretty special.
00:11:09 Kathy
The gods love us.
00:11:10 Prof. McInerney
00:11:10 Kathy
This was the gods’ doing.
00:11:11 Prof. McInerney
This is the gods’ doing. The gods did not want the Persians to win, and so the gods whacked them. And next to the gods came us, the Athenians. That's certainly how Herodotus presents it.
One of the big changes, it's sort of an easy marker for this, is that up until that time the term “barbaros”, barbarian, had largely meant somebody who I can't understand because their speech sounds like blah blah blah, blah, blah, blah blah. They're talking through their beards. But after the Persian Wars, the term very quickly takes on this supremacist overtone - that Greeks always fight and defeat barbarians, in other words, inferiors. So yes, I think by the 5th century, dramatically and quickly, the Greeks are turning their unexpected victory into a source of reflection on what it means to be Greek. And unfortunately, the answers to that are not universally sweet and lovely. Some of the answers to that are actually triumphalist and racist.
00:12:15 Prof. McInerney
Yeah, that stops everyone in their tracks.
00:12:17 Kathy
A heavy note to-
00:12:19 Prof. McInerney
00:12:19 Kathy
No, no. Right. So how do we get these emotions and these feelings from what? What data do we have for this?
00:12:28 Prof. McInerney
Sure. That's a great question. Some of the material culture will give you a record of it. So for example, we're pretty sure from the archaeology that a lot of material that was up on the Acropolis, which had been torn down and burnt by the Persians was ritually buried as a way of preserving it for all time.
And some of the column drums from an earlier version of the Parthenon, which was in the process of being built at the time that the Persians sacked the city, some of those leftover bits - that detritus from a building site, if you will - was actually built into the north wall of the Acropolis.
And if you're down in the marketplace ever after, and you look up, the first thing you see is a wall that actually commemorates the sack done by the Persians. So when we get literary evidence that says the Greeks all swore an oath saying they wouldn't rebuild in the aftermath of the Persian Wars, we can see that they seem to have taken that pretty seriously, and that what they did build was regarded as sacred and it was a commemoration of this impious, this blasphemous attack done by the Persians on their territory.
00:13:52 Prof. McInerney
So these are the kinds of things that people use in answer to your question, how do we know? We’re largely drawing inferences, and many of these are inferences based on the material culture. And then the detectable changes in the literature as well. You know, we've got literary sources like Herodotus telling us about the war.
We've got the plays by Aeschylus. That play that I mentioned, The Persians, is one of the very few plays that actually deals with contemporary events. Now that's a very significant change. Up until now, if you'd gone to the theatre in Athens and even after this most of the time, if you went to the theatre during a religious festival and you saw a play, it was normally a story that was drawn from deep antiquity from like the Trojan War, from the behavior of the gods and so forth.
But in The Persians, we're getting contemporary events when the play’s first produced. It's only seven and eight years after the Greek victory. So I can guarantee there are people sitting in the audience who can basically, you know, nudge their neighbours and say I was there.
00:15:00 Kathy
I fought that one.
00:15:01 Prof. McInerney
I fought that war.
00:15:03 Kathy
I am the hero. I am the Hercules that you saw three years ago.
00:15:04 Prof. McInerney
I am the hero. Exactly. And that's a really profound change. If you stop producing all of your plays as Shakespeare, you know, Richard the 3rd and Hamlet and so forth, and all of a sudden the next day, all of the shows on TV and all the plays that you see are based on your life now.
00:15:15 Kathy
00:15:27 Prof. McInerney
It means that this society is willing to look at itself and to say, hey, you know, we're kind of up there with the gods and with the heroes.
00:15:36 Kathy
So it's tracking these changes through these literary changes and also looking at the material culture together that gives you this picture.
00:15:37 Prof. McInerney
Yes. Yeah, yeah. I've always read the 5th century, this really climactic period, as being like a two-edged sword. On the one hand, what amazing confidence.
00:15:54 Kathy
00:15:55 Prof. McInerney
Arrogance, and that's the thing. When confidence becomes arrogance, that's the other side. That's the other part of the sword, right. It's both extremely confident and it's extremely arrogant.
00:16:06 Prof. McInerney
And you know, I'm inferring this from something like temple architecture, but there's a particular vessel, a wine jug. And on one side, it's got a Persian who's wearing the soft clothing of a Persian. Let me just see if I can paint a verbal picture of this. The Persian is standing there, bent forwards with his hands up in the air, as if he's about to brace himself against a wall, or as if he's saying “no no, please don't”. And on the other side of the jug, marching towards him, is a Greek who is naked and who is holding his penis.
And you know, it's really interesting to see what people have done with this vase, because a very fine scholar who I otherwise admire, I think, got it completely wrong saying, “Oh, this is just a bit of comic humour. There's nothing serious here.” Whereas I went online to see if there were any discussions of this. And I found just some Joe Blow in England. A blog site. No, no offense to anyone doing blogs or podcasts, and I think he got it absolutely right. He said “Oh. This vessel basically conveys the message from the Greeks. We bodied the Persians.”
00:17:19 Prof. McInerney
And that's it in a nutshell. So once again, you know, if you ask why study the Greeks, I think there's something interesting to be gained by having a kind of distance.
Like you know, no Persian was harmed by anything that I say right now. Read the Greeks because it'll give you an idea of where some of the ideas that we take for granted originated and they were wrong then and they're wrong now. So it's not an elevation of the Greeks because of some superior or secret knowledge that I'm suggesting, rather that it's an opportunity to think critically outside of our own context for a while, and to get a little bit of distance.
00:18:00 Kathy
The history back then is not like how we do research now. So now we have peer reviewed journals and it takes five years to get your research done and written up and approved and finally published. So how is it different? What is the actual doing, the history that you're doing when you're reading Herodotus or interpreting what he's saying?
00:18:12 Prof. McInerney
Yeah, yeah. Right. Essentially what you try to do, I think, is to read not one historian or one source in isolation, but to read a whole range of them to get a sense of not the historian, but historiography. In other words, how do all of these historians write, and what are the developments that go on? To give you an example, there was a very controversial but very brilliant Greek historian in the early part of the 20th century called Enoch Powell. And Enoch Powell argued that to get to what we consider history, there are two major steps that have to be taken. One is that the person doing the recording has to say, why did this happen? In other words, what are the causes? So if you're not asking, what are the causes, you're not really writing history.
And then the second step, according to Enoch Powell, is that eventually someone has to say I'm going to deal with contemporary events where there are still witnesses that saw this happen. That's actually what history means in Greek originally. It's an inquiry and asking why did it happen?
00:19:25 Kathy
I had a question that popped into my mind when you were talking and then it disappeared.
00:19:30 Prof. McInerney
It's interesting to compare though, just to sort of round off on this question about authenticity and reliability. You know what you're really exposing is that the difficulty for people from a science background coming to what we do in the humanities, and particularly in history, is that history sort of straddles.
You want it to be scientifically accurate. You want it to be verifiable, you want it to be true, but in fact most of the time it's actually interpretive. The truth is, it’s usually not so simple, and it's usually never pure, and that's what historians are grappling with. This is why I insist that history is a humanities discipline. You know, it'd be lovely if we could measure the number of people who died of the plague. And it's wonderful if you can specify exactly what virus caused the plague, and that may be accurate, and you may be able to verify it by looking at the pulp in the teeth of the bones that have been excavated. That's great, but the social consequences of the plague, how widespread it was and how it affected Athens,  that's an interpretive position.
00:20:33 Kathy
And that actually reminds me of the question I was going to ask at the time which you kind of already touched upon, but it was: what questions would you say historians can answer that scientists cannot? And then what questions do you think you really need both, you know, interpretive history as well as hard and fancy machine science?
00:20:34 Prof. McInerney
Ah, OK. Right. Wow. Yeah, actually, when you raise this, I'm thinking about some work being done by a colleague of mine who I think we both know. Cam Gray, our late-antique and Roman historian, who in recent years has become really involved in the study of the environment in the ancient world and in thinking about particular episodes like droughts and plagues and earthquakes. And he's looking at it from the point of view both of the hard scientific data and also looking at it in terms of the social impact. If there is a massive earthquake and you know, half the cities in Asia Minor fall down, that's going to have a big flow on effect in the social life and in the, you know, the lived experience of people for years afterwards. Short of saying 50 people died in this earthquake, the raw scientific data doesn't shed a huge amount of light on that. It's when you go on to say the crops failed for five years or people decided to relocate from that location to a big city, that's when you start to be able to see the flow on effect of these natural disasters.
Raw data is one thing, but it's always the interpretive step which involves the human analyst and where you're moving beyond any kind of scientific perfection. You know that it's not 100% accurate. It's got to be interpretive, and that's the area where, for me as an historian, the information becomes interesting.
I mean, you know, just to get back to the plague in Athens, as many of you listeners will know, there's a major plague that breaks out in the second year of the Peloponnesian War. And it comes back a year later.
And so the city in Book Two is absolutely horrifying. Thucydides has been, you know, well trained and used some of the new Hippocratic medical writers and their writings. And so he will give you exact descriptions of what a body looks like and smells like when it's suffering from the plague. And he'll tell you about the blisters they get. And he'll tell you about the bad breath, alright?
So you're getting as close to scientific data, although it's actually a literary description, because it's not until we get, you know, evidence.
00:23:05 Kathy
It's not as scientific as you can get from an electronic medical record.
00:23:07 Prof. McInerney
Just about, exactly. But of course one of the things that we wanted to get in Greek archaeology for years has been actual, concrete evidence.
00:23:17 Kathy
Well, how would you find a body with the spoils and such that?
00:23:20 Prof. McInerney
Because we found a cemetery in Athens on Plutarch St where the material found in the graves dated the graves to the very last quarter of the 5th century BC.
00:23:34 Kathy
Right around the time of the pivot.
00:23:35 Prof. McInerney
Right around the time and you know, often when it comes to vases and vase shapes and decoration, you can get within 10 years of its manufacturing date. It's the chronologies of that. So we've got, you know, these graves and scientifically it's possible to extract DNA from the pulp found inside teeth if the jawbone is still largely intact, and if there has been either a- now I'm going to step into scientific stuff here. So don't all call in and tell me I’m wrong. But if there's been a viral infection or an outside body that's infected the body, it will leave markers there in that particular DNA. And that's what's being used to identify the plague in Athens as a version of typhoid. Alright, so that gets us a bit of scientific data and then we've got the literary account to help us with that.
And then for me the questions, and I haven't really explored this as far as I should and I want to, but if you are going to argue that the plague decimated Athens and that this visual we get of an absolute hellscape of bodies being dragged out for burial and people even sticking their own relatives’ dead bodies on other people’s funeral pyres, taking dead bodies off a funeral pyre when that started to burn so that you could stick your own relative’s one on there. I mean, just absolutely horrific.
But the question for me is if Athens collapsed completely in those two years, how come it didn't lose the war?
00:25:16 Kathy
I thought that their enemies were fleeing because they saw Athens, you know, falling apart, dying. Is that not true?
00:25:23 Prof. McInerney
There's no actual account of what the enemy does during this time, but I would have thought you would have sent a couple of boats and said, do you guys want to talk about surrender because there's no way you're going to last this.
00:25:35 Kathy
If what Thucydides was reporting was true that Athens was truly falling apart, as an enemy, you would want, you would be like-
00:25:36 Prof. McInerney
Yeah, yeah.
00:25:41 Kathy
Like, hey, you guys.
00:25:42 Prof. McInerney
00:25:43 Kathy
So then you're questioning now?
00:25:44 Prof. McInerney
I'm concerned about the whole episode to tell the truth. And yet, you know, Thucydides was an Athenian general, so you know he's connected to the top echelons. It's not as if he's getting security reports that say everything's fine, don't worry. You know, he's gonna know. Some of his descriptions have the vividness of an eyewitness description. And yet we get the plague and then the plague is over and that's it. We move on to the next stage. Does that create some questions about the reliability of that episode?
And then as you do more of a literary analysis, and this is why I insisted history is a a humanities discipline, the works of history are literary works, you then ask: well, where does this account of the plague occur within his larger narrative? And the answer is it occurs immediately after the funeral oration by Pericles, which is this famous description of how wonderful it is to be an Athenian living in the democracy.
00:26:46 Kathy
Fall in love with Athens.
00:26:48 Prof. McInerney
Fall in love with Athens. He gestures towards the Acropolis and says all of you who remain. You should gaze upon the power of Athens and you should fall in love with the city.
00:27:00 Prof. McInerney
And so you've gone from Athens, you know, the shining city on the hill to Athens, this outdoor cemetery of dying bodies and people behaving badly. And I can see the literary effect of that. But there is a part of me that wonders, was this all done for literary effect? Athens, the good and beautiful. Athens, the old and decrepit or the, you know, the dead and dying, for effect. So, you know, that qualifies the way I read it in terms of its historical value.
00:27:33 Kathy
Returning to the 21st century now, how do you, as a historian, decide what you are going to research?
00:27:40 Prof. McInerney
I'm often guided by what are the things which I see in a particular culture that I find really weird and that I don't understand. For example, the most recent work I've been doing has been about hybridity. Now that's a concept that is in danger of becoming absolutely meaningless from everything from political science to literature. You'll find people who are working on the concept of hybridity. And what it normally means is 2 things that come from different areas. So Nigerian girls learning Kung Fu, French chefs adopting Vietnamese cuisine, that's hybrid. Big deal, okay, like I like fusion cooking but, you know, I don't find there's anything vastly relevant about that. So I'm noticing that hybridity is this concept that could be dangerously broad and meaningless.
And yet, when I come back to the Greeks, I find a culture that is totally impregnated with hybrid images, that everywhere you go there are centaurs that blends the man or the woman and the horse.
00:28:41 Kathy
There are female centaurs?
00:28:42 Prof. McInerney
There are female centaurs.
00:28:44 Kathy
I did not know that.
00:28:44 Prof. McInerney
There are female centaurs. They're not just monsters. I mean, we know there are plenty of monsters in the Greek world. You know, bodies that are male from the waist up and that are snakes down below. Yeah, that's a monster. Right. And it's a hybrid. But there are some hybrids that are actually quite lovely. If you take a horse and stick a pair of eagle’s wings on it, you get Pegasus.
That's not a monster, but it is a hybrid. So that led me to ask, well, you know, why do you have hybrids in the 1st place and what cultural work is being done for the Greeks? What are they thinking through either in terms of anxieties or concerns?
00:29:20 Kathy
Most recently, you published a textbook, “Ancient Greece: A New History”. What drove you to write this comprehensive survey about Ancient Greece? And what did you do differently in your textbook?
00:29:31 Prof. McInerney
First of all, I wanted to include a lot of material culture so that I was actually showing people vases and temples and sights. I wanted to make it visually rich. I was actually approached by about three different publishers around the same time, but the one that I finally went with - the English publisher Thames and Hudson, it's published here by Norton - I couldn't believe the number of illustrations, photographs, drawings, maps, everything they had. It just looked beautiful. So I partly went with them because Thames and Hudson has this great image library, so that was one thing.
The second thing was I wanted to make it really up to date. I was a grad student in in Greece back in the late 80s, early 90s when I was working on a dissertation, and I had literally visited virtually every major archaeological site in Greece. And I was back then as a professor in 2013 at the American School, visited sites once again with all of the students. And I was astonished at how much really good work had been done over the course of the 25 years since I'd been there as a student. Greek archaeology had really kind of leapt forward into a new century, a whole new generation of really well trained Greek archaeologists.
And so I really wanted to make the work as contemporary and up-to-date as I could. And so if you look at some of the photos in that book, you'll see sites that were still buried under the ground in the 1980s and 1990s. There's one, there's a cemetery at Phaleron, which was actually first discovered around 1900, but it was left buried. They went back to it just after 2010.
And now you know the photographs in the book are amazing. These are photos from the Department of Culture in Greece, where you've got aerial shots showing lines of dead bodies lined up for burial and the marking in the soil is the rust that was left by the shackles that were around their wrists when they were buried. Now I never even knew that that existed when I was a student in Greece, and now I could not only read about it, I could show a fantastic photograph of it to say this is a violent society and, you know, we don't quite know who these people were, but here are the theories.
And I could lay that out. So I was trying to show the current work that's going on and also, this is the third answer. I wanted to get away from the, you know, this is the story of this war. And this is a story of this war. And then there's another war, which to me was inadequate. I wanted to try to get under the surface a little bit and say, you know what, why did the Greeks have so many temples? What's the key to Greek religion? Why do they always sacrifice cows?
00:32:12 Kathy
You have a whole book on cows.
00:32:13 Prof. McInerney
I have a whole book on cows. Well, back in the day when I was a student, I was out by Marathon with a bunch of friends. We saw this straggly old decrepit cow poking around in a field at Marathon, and my friend Kevin jokingly said “Oh look, you know we found the bull of Marathon wrestled by Theseus.” But seriously why do the Greeks have such an interest and mania for cows and cow sacrifice when it's not good cattle country? Ancient cattle were a lot smaller. There‘s a fantastic German historian called Walter Burkert. His argument was that we still have practices and habits, cultural habits and practices that are inherited from when we were hunters and gatherers. I tried to refine that thesis and I've argued that it's not what's left over from us as hunter-gatherers. And the way I did this was to look at hunter-gatherer societies and see whether they actually do sacrifice. And the answer is they don't.
But rather it's from when we became pastoralists and we domesticated cattle. Think about it like this. In a domesticated herd, every year your cows produce calves, right? When you've got a herd, and let's say you've got ten of these. You don't need ten male calves. You only need one. Now the female calves, the heffers, you want to hang on to because they are breeding stock. But every year your herd is producing an extra number of males that are not necessary for the vitality of the herd, and in fact can be a bit of a danger cause as they start to get teenaged, they start to misbehave and they can do damage.
00:33:58 Prof. McInerney
So I think it's actually a part of herd management that we get used to the idea of regularly slaughtering our animals. This led me to doing a lot of reading in African Studies because a number of African societies do this.
What happens is we end up becoming gods to our herds. We decide who lives and who dies. I think it's a three-legged entanglement. It's gods, humans and cattle all combined together. We actually feed the gods because they sniff the smoke and they say that smells damn good. That Kathy, she's making a good sacrifice. I like that- sorry, I just hit the microphone- you know, I like that woman. She's doing the right thing by us.
But at the same time, we've also got a large animal that's just been slaughtered, butchered and barbecued. What are you gonna do?
00:34:49 Kathy
00:34:50 Prof. McInerney
Dinner time. And it's not just for you. You invite the whole family so the entire community, going from the family to the clan, to the municipality, whatever.
That we as a commune, we are bound together by our commensality by the fact that we eat together, and at the same time it makes sense. The way we run our herds. And it also links us to the gods, because it's a pious activity that makes them happy as well. So it's an entire nexus of cultural practices.
00:35:22 Kathy
To wrap up our discussion, Professor McNerney shared his favorite aspect of the classical world.
00:35:28 Prof. McInerney
My favorite aspect of Greek culture is from the northwestern part of Pakistan and the border with Afghanistan, where briefly, a culture flourished that was heavily influenced by the Greeks, who followed Alexander, but was also influenced by earlier Persian practices and also practices from local people, including also Chinese who'd come through the Western passes down into this area, and you have, I think, one of the great early melting pots of world civilization.
And if you look at the material that's produced from there, they have statues of Buddha that look like Apollo. And so you're either getting, you know, local artists who are being trained by Greeks or Greek artists who are saying, yeah, I can do this for you. He's not going to look like the little fat Chinese guy that, you know, some of you think what it looks like, but.
00:36:24 Kathy
I think he was still Indian at this point, right?
00:36:26 Prof. McInerney
Probably at that point, yeah. And I'm just suggesting there's this one little pocket at the western extremity of South Asia. I've always thought that in this region of Gandhara, no single group could dominate.
I don't think any one single group was numerous enough to actually say, well, you know, 75% of the people here are Greek. Therefore we're Greek and we'll just ignore the other 25%. It was an absolute mixture of different people, from further east, from further north, indigenous people from their people coming from the West in different waves and phases and I think it produced something quite beautiful.
00:37:05 Prof. McInerney
Can I finish off with a coin?
00:37:07 Kathy
Yes, please.
00:37:07 Prof. McInerney
Since we've been talking about different bits of evidence, one of the Greek kings, who established a small principality in this area of Gandhara was a man called Menander. He converted to Buddhism and he became, in fact a Buddhist sage. He became Milinda in Buddhist writing. But when he was a king, he was thinking about this relationship between Greek culture and local culture, and even Buddhist ideas, Vedic ideas, ideas expressed in Prakrit and various other local languages. He minted a coin and on one side there is a head that looks like a Greek king wearing a helmet. And it says around the edges of it: Menandro, which means a coin of Menander. Menandro basileos, the king Dikau, the just king. On the other side, it says Milinda Maharajasa Dakamasa, which is essentially “King Menander the just” but written for an Indian audience whereas the other side is written for a Greek audience. And the beauty of that is the two sides both understood the same message expressed in their language.
In other words, culture can link and unite and speak as much to people as it can, in other circumstances, represent the imposition of a culture by one on another. But it's where the blend is even that I think you get really lovely cultural creations.
00:38:41 Kathy
One thing we discussed afterwards was how to get involved with classics research. Professor McNerney had this to say.
If you're a Penn student, you can always come see some faculty members and they're always happy to help people get started. Aside from that, there are plenty of good books and you can start with Edith Hall’s Introducing the Greeks.
And with that, I would like to sincerely thank Professor McInerney for chatting with us as our first guest. Thanks for tuning in and we'll see you next time.