Strabo, Geography (8:3.7) “… There is a Pylos before Pylos. And there is even another Pylos (farther down the coast)… ” Part 1: Syntactical and Lexical Analysis

Strabo, Geography (8:3.7) “... There is a Pylos before Pylos. And there is even another Pylos (farther down the coast)... ” Part 1: Syntactical and Lexical Analysis: Click to ENLARGE

Problem of Pylos how many Strabo 3

And click here to read the article on Pylos in its entirety:

Center for Hellenic Studies Harvard
Over the centuries, ever since Homer reputedly composed what we now know as the fabulous Epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, debate has never ceased to rage over the location of the “Homeric” location of the fortress of Pylos. In fact, Homer himself (if he was indeed the author of these Epics) was himself never able to quite make up his mind where Pylos was located, although he was convinced it was located on the western coast of the Peloponnese. So he naturally hedged his bets, and gave us our choice of three possible sites for Pylos. Fair enough.

However, when the Linear B tablets from Pylos and elsewhere were finally deciphered after 1952 by Michael Ventris and his esteemed colleague, Prof. John Chadwick, et al., it was discovered that Pylos was in fact a Mycenaean fortress city, much like its metropolis (“mother city” or capital, if you like), Mycenae. The site of the excavated Mycenaean fortress of Pylos is shown on the map above as being co-incidental with the location of the modern Greek city of Pylos (furthest south on the map above). So instead of squabbling over the “true” location of ancient Mycenaean Pylos, as so many ancient Greek, Renaissance and even modern authors have done over the millennia, I shall leave that debate for greater lights than I am, and simply accept on faith that the Mycenaean fortress of Pylos is located where most archaeologists today claim it is, at modern Pylos. On the other hand, since I am no archaeologist, and Rita Roberts, my esteemed colleague here on our blog, is one, I expect that she can shed some light on this matter, which is quite beyond my expertise.

What then is the purpose of this post if not to establish “once and for all” the true location of Mycenaean Pylos?  Quite clearly, that it is not my intent at all. What I intend to demonstrate here, through lexical and syntactical observations based on actual texts from ancient Greek authors, runs as follows:

[1] That Pylos or as it is called in Mycenaean Linear B, Puro, was an actual Mycenaean settlement, regardless of where anyone believes it was really located, at any of the three assignable sites on the map above, or elsewhere. Since my discussion is not in any way intended to be archeological in nature, I leave the issue of its actual location to the archaeologists, as I have already stated. The problem of the location of Pylos is not our problem here. In fact, it is a not a problem at all, just a red herring. I shall address the question its putative location in the next post, but I warn you not to expect much of the conclusion(s) I reach, being the incurable doubting Thomas I am. To read the Wikipedia article on Pylos, its history, ancient and modern, and the excavations there, click on this photo of the Bay of Pylos:

Bay of Pylos Sfaktiria
[2] I will begin with lexical definitions of Mycenaean Linear B Puro, otherwise known as Pylos, presumed site of the Palace of Nestor, in ancient Greek, and all words in Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (1986), to eliminate any ambiguity over the actual meaning of the word Pylos itself & then
[3] proceed with syntactical considerations, both of which will make it abundantly clear just what Pylos is supposed to mean, or more to be point, to be. 

[2]Lexical Considerations:

Unfortunately, there are those whose knowledge of Greek, ancient or modern, is so deficient that they believe that Pylos means or somehow must mean, “gate”. But nothing could be further from the truth. The ancient Greek words for “gate” as found in Liddell & Scott, are illustrated here:

Lexicon Pylos Liddell & Scott 1986
However, when anyone who is a serious Greek linguist is asked to provide scholia on the possible interpretations of the name of (the town of) Pylos, he or she is bound to raise several very sound objections to such a simplistic interpretation (of the town’s name), as I myself have done here: Click to ENLARGE

There is a Pylos before Pylos Strabo Georgraphy 8 3 7
One glance at this table of 5 possible definitions for the word Pylos, and we can see right away that we are up against several possible interpretations. Literalists will of course insist that Pylos must mean “gate” and absolutely nothing else, since it appears as such twice in this chart. However, to do so is to cut too thin a razor line, for in ancient Greek, most words (vocabulary) are, if anything, open to multiple interpretations, at any of the concrete, semi-concrete and abstract levels, or all of them. All definitions for Pylos are either concrete or semi-concrete, given that a town or district name falls more readily into the second category. What makes matters worse is that the name Pylos itself is either masculine OR feminine, but – and here is the crunch – masculine only in Mycenaean Greek, which obviates against its meaning merely a “gate”.  Matters are further complicated by the fact that the other entry in the masculine [5] = gateway, is more abstract than [1] or [3]. Whenever ancient Greek flounders around between different genders (here, masculine and feminine), and different endings for one gender, in this case, for [3] & [5], we can be sure that the word itself is equally open to multiple interpretations. Pylos is a prime candidate for this scenario.

[3] Syntactical Considerations:

Sadly, for the literalist, things become far messier when we turn to consider the implications for the “meaning” of Pylos (and Pylos alone, not the other variants on the word) taken strictly in syntactical or, if you will, grammatical context. Resorting to the good old technique of reductio ad adsurdum, if we insist on defining Pylos as “gate”,  here is what we end up with, taking a few examples onlhy from my discussion above:

[1] There is a gate before a gate.  And there is even another gate.

What is wrong with this?  Plenty. Had Strabo meant to say that, he would have written this: esti pylos pro pyloio pro pyloio. But he did not. He states that there is a Pylos before Pylos. And then, in an entirely new sentence, which emphatically and dramatically cuts it clearly off his first two allusions to Pylos, he mentions the third. That second sentence sports no fewer than three (3!) emphatic Greek particles, ge, men & kai, to make it completely transparent to anyone with a sound knowledge of ancient Greek that he means to put as great a distance as he possibly can between the first two allusions to Pylos and the third. And here I am referring to distance defined spatially in geographical terms. Strabo was neither an architect nor a builder. He was a geographer.

The difference between the actual meaning in ancient Greek of his two sentences and the literal sentence, esti pylos pro pyloio pro pyloio = There is a gate in front of a gate in front of a gate is as plain as the light of day. No ancient Greek author of any true merit would ever make the unconscionable mistake of justapositioning the simply concrete, in this case, the position of two gates, one immediately in front of the other, with the abstract, where, in this instance, Strabo is unequivocally referring to geographic, topological distances, and great distances, at that. In fact, I would venture to say that no Greek author in his right mind, ancient or modern, would ever employ a phrase as clumsy as esti Pylos pro Pyloio pro Pyloio, since Greek is a language which instinctively eschews awkward syntactical constructions, lending even greater preference to the periodic style than even Latin.

But there is even more here than first meets the eye. Strabo, who is after all writing around the time of Christ, some 800 years after Homer and over 1,200 years after the fall of Mycenae, does somethingextremely peculiar. He uses the archaic Mycenaean + Homeric genitive for Pylos no less than 3 times in a row, and he does so not only consciously but without compunction. In his own day and age, no Greek writer in his right mind would ever even dream of using the archaic genitive. But Strabo does, and he hammers it home. The reason is obvious: he is specifically and unequivocally referring to the Mycenaean settlement of Pylos, even though he like all latter-day ancients had no idea whatsoever of where Mycenae had once been located. Though he really made a valiant effort to at least pinpoint the potential location(s) of Pylos and failed, he did try. And that alone speaks volumes to his professionalism as an ancient historian and geographer. The fact that he knew Pylos definitely existed implies that he also knew Mycenae did too. Mycenae was not merely a legend to the ancient Greeks. Homer mentions both Mycenae and Pylos several times in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. No ancient Greek author of real merit after Homer was going to question the judgement of the great bard on such matters, since they all knew perfectly well he was much much closer in time to the Trojan War than they could ever possibly hope to be. And so they trusted him implicitly. Before the twentieth century, most historians believed that the Trojan War was a myth. Heinrich Schliemann shattered that myth in one fell swoop in the 1870s. So if the Trojan War is not a myth - and we now know it definitely is not - then by the same token neither are the Mycenaeans themselves mythical figures, nor are Mycenae and Pylos mythical cities. Both were as real as Sparta, Corinth and Athens were much later on. Both have been completely excavated. Strabo, by using the archaic genitive three times in a row, rams this point home point blank.

One final point we cannot overlook: the masculine definition above for Pylos as a gate never allowed for the use of the archaic genitive, for the simple reason that this word was never an archaic Greek word. So once again, the evidence mitigates heavily against interpreting the archaic genitive Pyloio as a gate.
[3] OK, so here, if we take Pylos as meaning “gate”, then Strabo would appear to be saying: drove their swift horses from Bouprasion to the gate. Why on earth would anyone have to make use of horses, let alone, swift horses, to drive from Bouprasion to (presumably) its own gate? Ok, ok, some other gate. But which other gate? A professional geographer the likes of Strabo would never tell us someone drove swift horses from one place (settlement) to another (settlement), without mentioning the name of the second one. At any rate, coupling a toponym with a concrete noun like “gate” once again violates every precept of elegance in Greek prose, which the ancients prized above all else. The interpretation is thus absurd, not necessarily to our minds today, but most definitely to the mind of an ancient Greek author of the stature of Strabo.

[4] “... and those who inhabited the gate...” Must be termites, I guess.

[5] “... the last city of the sandy gate...” This is so uproariously funny as to require no further comment, unless of course, you like to build your fortifications and their gates out of sand.

[7] & the most side-splitting of them all, “... ambitious rivalry toward a gate in their country...”, which the dative of interest demands. Need I say more? If anyone wishes to challenge me to do so, I can and I will. The textual evidence against Pylos as meaning “gate” in the context of the Iliad or Strabo or any other ancient Greek mentioning Pylos as a toponym is overwhelming. It is in fact decisive. Case closed.