I Fear Them When They Bear Gifts

The iconography of an interview with a Russian official

When Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (Сергей Викторович Лавров) was interviewed by Keir Simmons of NBC News this past week, his overall belligerence when discussing meetings between Presidents Trump and Putin (Дональд Джон Трамп, Владимир Владимирович Путин) during the G20, including references to kindergarten and trips to the bathroom was hardly unexpected.

Lavrov and his underling Sergey Kislyak (Сергей Иванович Кисляк) are perhaps best known here for their inappropriate-seeming Oval-Office meeting with Trump, during which they shared many chuckles with him, and he shared state secrets with them.

Kislyak, long seen by US intelligence as a spy and recruiter of spies for the country—which the Russian Federation naturally hotly denies—found himself at the center of a scandal due to his perceived chumminess with the Trump campaign and administration. Apparently, even seen through the lens of Russian ethics this violated norms enough to force him to tender his resignation this week. Indeed, as an American, I no longer possess the status to denigrate Russian moral standards, since at least for Kislyak, there were consequences.

Lavrov, despite his participation in the White House yuckfest, seems to not be going anywhere, at least for the time being. Rarely cordial in such interviews, his exaggerated testiness in this one is understandable in light of his having to bid one of his top officials and fellow Sergey adieu due to the optics this smug representative of the US press was rehashing yet again.

Nonetheless, even without the perspective provided by all of this specific context, a truculent, sarcastic interview given by a Russian official is very much par for the course, as I’ve already suggested. What struck me instead was the statuette placed on the table between interviewer and interviewee.

Although it’s strangely difficult to pin down solid information, this dimly lit, heavily curtained location appears to be a room within the The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation in Moscow (Министерство иностранных дел Российской Федерации, MFA).

In this oppressively monochrome environment, with unremarkably dressed men, and vague patterns, this one thing stands out, even silhouetted as it is in the filtered light of the sheer-draped window. A trio of human figures, posed dramatically within a triangular composition can be made out.

Although I’ve lengthened the process of semiosis here, the work was instantly recognizable to me: it’s a miniature of Laocoön and His Sons. The hero’s name is Λαοκόων in Ancient Greek. The statue is also called The Laocoön Group (Gruppo del Laocoonte in Italian), Pliny the Elder simply calls it The Laocoon (Loacoonte).

The sculpture it is based on is a massive marble one, unearthed in Rome in 1506 and thereafter displayed in the Belvedere Court Garden of the Vatican itself likely a copy of a Greek original lost to the ages. Napoleon Bonaparte did have it taken to the Louvre for a time, as he did with many works he admired during his reign. Some such spoils were repatriated, others remain in Paris. The Papal rights as the original looters of Laocoön and His Sons were upheld.¹

This appears to be the same work praised by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History of 77 AD as a masterwork (In Latin the author is Gaius Plinius Secundus, and his work is Naturalis Historia). Standing at around six feet, seven inches tall, the piece is made of at least seven interlocking pieces of marble—the total number is in doubt as some pieces are missing, and some have been restored—despite Pliny’s description of it as carved from a single piece (“ex uno lapide eum […]”). However, Pliny’s attribution of the piece to a trio of Rhodian artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodoros (Ἁγήσανδρος, Πολύδωρος, Αθηνόδωρος), is generally accepted. It is considered one of the finest examples of Hellenistic baroque sculpture—that is, while it is not from the Baroque period, but long before, it marshals many of the same formal elements to create a sense of motion, drama, and grandeur.

Indeed, since its excavation (as well as prior to its inhumation, according to Pliny) it has been admired by many, particularly artists, for its impressive virtuosity. Michelangelo Buonarroti was one of the first, if not the first, even going to the dig site to view the piece, which influenced him profoundly in his later work, including the Slave sculptures on the tomb of Pope Julius II, as well as several of the Ignudi and the figure of Haman in the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

It became an icon both of artistic excellence, as well as of human agony, particularly the rendering of Laocoön’s face, with its contorted features meant to reflect not just his own physical pain, but also the despair caused by the deaths of his two sons, which he ineffectively attempts to stay. The image of his eyes frantically peering heavenward in search of divine aid echoes through many a Passion of Christ and the martyrdoms of innumerable saints.

A number of copies of the work were made, beginning with Baccio Bandinelli’s commission by Pope Leo X, completed in 1525, and which now resides in Florence’s Ufizzi Gallery (Galleria degli Uffizi); every major art museum in Europe has one today. Woodcuts and small models also proliferated throughout the West, further expanding the piece’s influence among artists notably including Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, and William Blake.

In the 18th century, miniature versions were created, probably both in Italy and in France, in gilt bronze, and based on the predilections of the Russian Empire at the time, I’d imagine the one still extant in the MFA is French, and dates from this era.

One of the reasons we can date this one is the position of Laocoön’s right arm. When the piece was unearthed by the Italians, this was one of the sections that was missing. A contest was held to imagine the pose of the arm and reconstruct that portion of the statue. Michelangelo was alone in thinking it should be bent back, others feeling the position should be more heroic, pulling the serpent away and breaking out of the composition’s triangularity.

In 1906, a marble arm was found by Ludwig Pollak, an Austro-Czech classical archaeologist, antiquities dealer, and museum director, in a builder’s yard near the find site of the statue. He found it stylistically similar to Laocoön, and presented it to the Vatican Museums, where it sat in a warehouse like the lost Ark of the Covenant for nearly five decades. Finally, someone tried this arm, finding that the drill holes for a metal connecting post between the two sections aligned perfectly. As can be seen in the marble version above, the restored arm is bent, in the position Michelangelo predicted. The work the Russians possess shows the older, incorrect arm position.

So who is this Laocoön dude, and why have things gone so badly for him and his sons? He is part of the story of the Greek conquest of Troy, though he is not mentioned by Homer. A priest of Poseidon, he is one of the two Trojans who argue against taking a certain giant wooden horse built by the Greeks inside the city gates. The other is Cassandra (Κασσάνδρα), doomed to see what the future holds but to be believed by no one when she spoke of it.

In Virgil’s (Publius Vergilius Maro) Aeneid, Laocoön speaks the famous lines:

Equo ne credite, Teucri
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.

Do not trust the Horse, Teucrians,
Whatever it is, I fear the Danaans even when they bear gifts.

Teucrians and Danaans are Homeric collective names for the Trojans and Greeks, respectively. Although the stories vary, Athena, siding with the Greeks, typically sends a pair of serpents (which recalls Hera’s intended fate for Herakles) to punish Laocoön when he strikes the horse with his spear, and advocates for it to be burnt. For the Trojans (and Greeks), sons existed to give honor to their fathers’ names—providing them a small bit of immortality—so going after them is a pretty serious dick move. Even today, it smacks of Mob tactics, if nothing else.

When the snakes reach the trio, the Aeneid relates:

Ille simul manibus tendit divellere nodosperfusus sanie vittas atroque veneno, clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit: qualis mugitus, fugit cum saucius aramtaurus et incertam excussit cervice securim.

As he reached out his hands to tear at the coils, his hairband soaked with gore and black poison,
He then also raised dreadful cries to the heavens: like the bellowing of a wounded
Sacrificial bull that flees, shaking from its neck an ill-struck axe.

This section interestingly mirrors the description of Strife at the entrance to Hades also in the Aeneid: “[…] frenzied Strife,/ Her snaky tresses bound in a gore-smeared band.” (“[…] Discordia demens/ vipereum crinem vittis innexa cruenti.”). A vitta, which I’ve rendered as “hairband”, and “band” (since the inclusion of “tresses” made “hair” implicit in the latter case), is an element of priestly attire made of white woolen cloth, and its pollution with dark gore and venom would have been a striking image to the Romans. Other translators have used chaplet or fillet to translate the term, but I find these so archaic as to carry no meaning for the modern reader.

As an allegory, the death of Laocoön is ambiguous: was he punished for acting against the gods, or for being right? He presents a figure similar to Prometheus in this regard.

And now we return to the meaning of this statuette in the context of the interview. Is it there to cast the Russians as those who speak truth “though the heavens fall”, or as a warning to those who would tell a truth that is unpopular?

The reality is that the Russians probably saw no significance in placing this statue within the scene of the Foreign Minister’s interview other than as pure ostentation: something old and gold to display the power and wealth of their nation, caring about classical myth almost as little as we.


  1. Photograph by Livio Andronico, 2014.

Apocalypse BC

The downfall of Bronze Age civilization (LBAC Part 1)

Wrath: O muse, sing that of Achilles Peleus’ Son:
Accursed, it brought countless troubles upon the Achaeans,
And untimely cast many stout souls to Haides,
And made those heroes prey for both dogs
And vultures; thus did Zeus fulfil his will.

The sack of Troy, once thought largely a matter of legend, did happen according to the current consensus of historians and archaeologists, although it’s still not entirely conclusive. In fact there seem to have been at least three separate confrontations between Greek peoples and Trojans which were later conflated and mythologized in various ways with the Iliad (Ἰλιάς) mainly focusing on the last of these. I’ve translated that work’s this first line, above, to be true to the original, which begins with μῆνιν (anger, rage, wrath), and, I believe the name of the hero is given as a patronymic, Πηληϊάδεω ᾿Αχιλῆος, (literally, “son of Peleus Achilles”) as was common in the ancient world. While the word order is a bit stiff, it gives the proper weight to the ideas. Homer’s “text” was actually an oral tradition from a time when the Greeks, rather than not yet having learned writing, had actually forgotten it—a Dark Age.

Emily D. T. Vermeule, classical scholar and archaeologist, sums the case for the war’s historicity:¹

[T]he possibility that the Trojan War was [a Greek engagement] with an Anatolian dynast in his walled castle at the height of the early Mycenaean age must at least be considered. Since a fifteenth century Hittite drew a sketch of one of these Achaian warriors in full battle dress and plumed helmet and since one of them dropped his sword (was buried?) as far north as Smyrna, their presence in western Anatolia is not just philologically demonstrated but physically established.

There is additionally a contemporary account from the Hittites who ruled most of eastern central Anatolia (modern Turkey) about a conflict occurring among their neighbors to the west that also seems to correspond to the Trojan War. In the Tawagalawa letter, written by Hittite king Hattusili III, warfare is described with some placename correspondences, summed up in Letters from the Hittite Kingdom, thus:²

The Lukka Lands mentioned in the text are classical Lycia, and Wilusa is Ilios/Troy.

The linguistical problems of matching later Homeric Greek versions of words with the centuries-older languages of the region is highlighted by the fact that Tawagalawa is thought to be a Hittitization of the Greek Etiokles (Ἐτεοκλῆς), via a reconstructed Mycenaean form *Etewoklewes. He is also named as the brother of the king of the Ahhiyawa/ Ἀχαιοί/ Achaeans—one of the collective names for the Greeks used by Homer. The placename correspondences are Wilusa/ Ἴλιος/ Ilios, Lukka/ Λυκία/ Lycia, Taruisa/ Τρῳάς/ Troas.

Homeric Greek in itself is problematic: it’s a literary dialect of Archaic Greek containing elements of Ionic, Aeolic, Attic, Arcadocypriot, and even a smattering of non-Greek languages. Mycenaean Greek was written in syllabic/ ideographic Linear B, while Hittite used a cuneiform with similar features, but the systems are otherwise completely unrelated. Syllabaries are also not ideal for representing highly vocalic Indo-European languages, which both Hittite and Mycenaean Greek are; reading both reminds me of trying to decipher kana-ized English. Take Mycenaean e-re-pa-to for example: old as the word is, when you normalize the spelling, you get the very recognizable elephantos.

The survivors from the Trojan side dispersed, some say settling Europe, tying into national origin myths from Rome to Britain, which, on the other hand, seems to lack archaeological foundation. As to the Greeks, the palatial centers as well as many other towns and villages of the Mycenaeans were abandoned and no further monumental stone buildings constructed. Wall painting disappeared, and, since there was no longer a redistributive economy to keep records of, Linear B writing also fell into disuse. The population declined, vital trade links were lost, and the organization of the state with kings, officials, and armies vanished. O Brother, Where Art Thou? isn’t far from the mark in transposing Odysseus’ wanderings to the depression-era South.

I only recently ran across the term Late Bronze Age collapse (LBAC). I had heard of the Greek Dark Ages, the Fall of Troy, the Exodus (the historicity of which has not been established, but this would be the context it would fit into), and even the battles between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples, which put an end to the New Kingdom, but I hadn’t realized the extent to which these events were connected. This cultural cataclysm included the Near East, the Aegean Region, North Africa, the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek Dark Ages are reckoned to have lasted some 300 years, but many of the civilizations affected simply never recovered.

The extent to which the cultures in the area were in contact in the Late Bronze Age (LBA) was something else of which I was not aware. As Eric Cline³ has pointed out, even civilizations that were not in direct contact were ever more than three steps removed from contact with one another in this network. Basically they could all both send and receive goods to one another.

How do we know? Lots of ways: first there is the presence of goods from these civilizations in one another’s lands, as I’ve made brief mention of already. There are too many such examples to catalogue here, so I’ll discuss one I found quite striking concerning a fresco found in what was an Egyptian port city called Peru-Nefer (modern Tell ed-Dab’a).

The reconstruction shows that it’s a scene of bull-leaping, similar to that found in the great palace of Knossos in Crete. In addition to the distinctly Minoan motif, this particular type of fresco, called buon fresco, painting done with pigments dissolved in water on a thin coat of still-wet plaster, itself originated in Crete, so artisans from the island had to have either worked on this one, or, at a minimum, trained those who did. Indeed, there seems to have been a craze for Minoan frescoes in the ancient Levant, as they appear in several locations in Egypt and Canaan, including what’s now known as Kabri in Israel, Alalakh in Turkey, Qatna in Syria, as well as Dab’a in Egypt.

Furthermore, a site called Mari in what’s now Eastern Syria, has yielded more than 25,000 clay tablets inscribed with Akkadian text, including a wealth of documentation of ancient trade. Sadly, it is known to have been pillaged by looters during the present civil war while archaeologists have looked on helplessly. Cline elaborates on the find:

The archives included records of trade and contact with other areas of the Mediterranean and Near East, with specific mention of unusual items that were received. We also know from these tablets that gifts were frequently exchanged between the rulers of Mari and those of other cities and kingdoms, and that the kings requested the services of physicians, artisans, weavers, musicians, and singers from one another.

Included among the exotic imported objects recorded in the tablets at Mari were […] weapons made of gold and inlaid with precious lapis lazuli, as well as clothing and textiles […] The items had traveled a long way from Crete, acquiring what is now known as “distance value,” in addition to the inherent value that they already held because of the workmanship and the materials from which they were made.

So what happened to this early global trade network? The Sea Peoples have been something of a bogeyman for the collapse. Often sited in making this claim is a desperate letter King Ammurapi of Ugarit wrote to the King of Alashiya (an ancient regional name for Cyprus):

My father, behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka? … Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.

Note that kings of the time often used familial terms in addressing their allies—using father, he is likely simply calling the king his elder. As to the Sea Peoples, not much is known about them—even the term used for them was made up by French archaeologists. What is known is that they seem to have been quite warlike: the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Canaanites, The Cypriots, and others were said to have fallen to them. When they turned toward Egypt, an inscription of Ramesses III names them and their depredations:

The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were on removed and scattered in the fray. No country could stand before their arms, from Khatte, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya on, being cut off at [one time]. A camp [was set up] in one place in Amor. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjekker, Shekelesh, Denye(n) and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting “Our plans will succeed!”.

Note that most kings did not know how to write, with an official scribal class doing most of that work, but the inscription was ordered by Rameses III and written in his voice. Also, Khatte (Hatti) is Anatolia under the Hittites, Qode is in the southeast of modern Turkey, Carchemish is in the north of modern Syria, and Arzawa is in western Anatolia. Other inscriptions use these and other names, for a total of nine, for which there are some more-or-less conjectural correspondences:

  • Peleset: Philistines
  • Tjekker: Teucrians (a Trojan group)
  • Shekelesh: Sicels (Sicilians)
  • Denyen: Danaans (a Greek group)
  • Washesh: Oscans (an Italic tribe)
  • Eqwesh: Achaeans
  • Lukka: Lycians
  • Shardana: Sardinians
  • Teresh: Tyrrhenians (Etruscans)

There are many theories about the origins of these tribes and what spurred them into action, from migrations driven by famine, to invasion in a quest for wealth. The Egyptians won a Pyrrhic victory against the Sea Peoples, with Ramesses declaring:

They are capsized and overwhelmed in their places. Their hearts are taken away; their soul is flown away. Their weapons are scattered in the sea.

Those he did not destroy, he claims to have settled in Canaan under the crushing yoke of his rule. But as I mentioned, the victory came at a high cost: the New Kingdom was over, and a decline known as the Third Intermediate Period began.

Nonetheless, the archaeological record seems not to jibe well with Ramesses’ account. Although many cities in the region were destroyed in this period, invasion doesn’t seem to account for all of them—the evidence seems to show some as rebellions, plagues, or natural disasters. A further sign that the Egyptian claims may be overblown or misinformed comes in the fact that the Greeks appear both as invaders and invaded, as do the Trojans.

The Bronze Age, obviously, was fueled by the metal of the same name, an alloy of copper and tin. Copper was abundant, with an important center for its production being Cyprus, from which our word copper descends, and for which one etymological analysis says that the Mycenaean ku-pi-ri-jo originates with the Sumerian word for the metal, zubar. To get from zubar to Κύπρος, consider first, a confusion with kubar, Sumerian for “bronze”, second, υ shifted from an ancient [u] sound to the classical [y], and last, the addition of the Greek masculine gender suffix, -ος. The Mycenaean form seems to have had an -ios ending, which marks a masculine genitive, so “of copper”, which seems to have been later dropped, as now Κύπριος means someone from Cyprus.

Tin, on the other hand, was hard to get—there was some, but not a lot in northern Anatolia, Cornwall, which was an important source later, is pretty far away, so most of it seems to have been brought from what’s now Afghanistan. Carol Bell observed:

The strategic importance of tin in the LBA was probably not far different from that of crude oil today. The availability of enough tin to produce […] weapons grade bronze must have exercised the minds of the Great King in Hattusa and the Pharoah in Thebes in the same way that supplying gasoline to the American SUV driver at reasonable cost preoccupies an American President today!

Handily if you run short on tin, there’s another, plentiful metal you can substitute to make bronze. Unfortunately, that metal is arsenic. What’s great about arsenical bronze is that weapons and armor manufactured using it actually take on several improved properties: arsenic acts as a deoxidizer, so castings are less porous and more ductile, and the capacity for work hardening is also increased, so better cutting edges can be created. Furthermore it can be given an attractive silver-colored surface.

The downside is of course that arsenic is categorically toxic. Most copper ore already contains arsenic, and smelting it vaporizes much of whatever is present as arsenic oxide. Ötzi, the Alpine ice-mummy, was carrying a nearly pure copper axe-head and had high levels of copper and arsenic particles in his hair, and so seems to have been involved in smelting. Copper and bronze smiths would often end up with chronic arsenic poisoning, causing peripheral neuropathy, a symptom of which is a weakening of the legs and feet. This may be the dark truth behind ancient myths of lame smiths, with Hephaestos being a paragon of the type. Start the large-scale manufacture of arsenical bronze and one can imagine the results: in addition to being even worse for metalworkers, anyone touching the finished product would also start to feel the effects of the metal’s toxicity. Copper arsenate, another compound of the same metals, has been used as an herbicide, fungicide, insecticide, rodenticide, and slug poison, but has been banned for many uses because it is also highly carcinogenic.

One of the factors often overlooked in the fall of Rome, which precipitated a more familiar Dark Age, was lead poisoning. The Romans found lead a wonder metal, using it in plumbing, makeup, and even as a flavor enhancer in their wine. The very word plumbing derives from Latin plumbum, “lead”, which also provides its chemical symbol, Pb. Before you start feeling superior, you should remember that we thought it was great to use in plumbing and paint, as well as to burn in our fuel until quite recently, and that’s with a much greater scientific understanding of the situation. It was one of the first times corporations had clear scientific evidence of deleterious effects and chose not to act until forced to do so. And our problems are not over; lead in the pipes was also the problem in Flint.

Bronze was on the way out. During the Dark Age, edged weapons of iron came into widespread use: by 900 BC, almost all weapons in grave goods were made of iron. Indeed some claim that the upheavals of the collapse had to do with an escalation of weaponry, including use of iron, or of bows with increased range.

Then as now, earthquakes were a constant danger over much of the region: there are 16 active faults known today. Some theorize an earthquake swarm, a sequence of seismic events over a large area. Just to the left of the famous Lion Gate in Mycenae the sharp rise in the ground is actually the shearing from a fault running through the site.

There were also extended periods of drought in the area, which would be pretty difficult for these early agrarian societies to deal with. Sites like Copán (in modern Honduras) seem to have suffered a similar fate—cities based on agriculture can rapidly expand their populations, but they are also very susceptible to dips in farming productivity. Disruptions in the supply of food mean that people have to leave urban areas and “live off the land” instead; returning to a subsistence hunting-and-gathering lifestyle.

While Egypt continued to limp along after the collapse, Greece came back stronger than it ever had been. After the 800s BC writing reappears in Greece, now adopting the Phoenician alphabet rather than Linear B, a system much better equipped to describe their language, and one much of the world still uses some form of today. Indeed, the vacuum left by the downfalls of some of the civilizations in the area was what allowed others to rise, including the Phoenicians, the Etruscans, the Romans, the Persians, the Israelites—the groups we think of as the wellsprings of Western civilization.

The apocalypse has haunted our species’ imagination however—a fall from a past Golden Age to one with diminished capacities and humbler hopes, or the end of all things: the Deluge, the End of Days, the Second Coming, Ragnarǫkkr, Frashokereti. No doubt for those trying to survive through those years of tumultuous destruction and catastrophic change, it was a grim struggle. But the arc of history, it seems, was toward the good. So if we are in the apocalyptical times that some suggest, perhaps it will represent an opportunity for some eventual betterment.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2: Whither the Wanax?

Part 3: The Luwian Menace


  1. From “‘Priam’s Castle Blazing’: A Thousand Years of Trojan Memories”, Troy and the Trojan War, John Lawrence Angel, Machteld Johanna Mellink, eds., 1984.
  2. Hoffner & Beckman, 2009, my emphasis.
  3. In his 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which is now on my reading list. The image is also after one of his.