I’m over a quarter of the way through Travelling Heroes: In the Epic Age of Homer and I’m enjoying the immersion in the details of the eastern Mediterranean in and around the eighth century B.C., but I’m starting to worry about his presentation and use of evidence. This is a tiny example, but it crystallized my worries, so I’m going to share it, and if you think it’s nitpicking, well, LH is nitpicking central.
In chapter 6, “Up to Unqi” (Unqi being an Aramaic name for the north Syrian plain around the Orontes), Lane Fox describes the sea route up the coast and the evidence for Greek contact with the locals, and on page 91, in a discussion of the ancient port at Ras Ibn Hani, he writes:
What, then, did the Greeks call the settlement which they found by this harbour? At [nearby] Ras Shamra, texts and statues show the honours accorded to El, father of the gods. Ras Shamra’s later small settlement and the nearby Ras Ibn Hani were surely the site which Greeks later knew as “Betyllion” (their version of the Semitic phrase “bait-El” or “House of El”). They noted Betyllion for its natural harbour, namely the “White Harbour” which we can still admire and which had been the port since Ugarit’s Bronze Age. We can therefore understand why Betyllion’s “natural” harbour is described as the first staging-post for the Roman emperor Trajan when he set out from Rome to join his troops in Syria for their fateful campaign into Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in AD 114-17.24 He had landed at ancient Ugarit. The correct location of Betyllion is important for different reasons, not because it was a Greek settlement but because it has become involved in a major topographical puzzle about Greek contact further north and also because the name (“house of El”) confirms that Canaanite-Phoenician culture never entirely died at the site.
Now, the first warning bell was that word “surely,” which tends to mean “I can’t document this so I’ll wave my hand and hope you don’t look into it too closely.” I was also curious about that odd name Betyllion. So I went to his footnote 24 and found: “Jo. Malalas, Chron. 11.3 (ed. J. Thurn, 2000, 205); Frost (2001), 61-74.” Malalas! Another warning bell: the guy wrote in the sixth century A.D., which is certainly “later,” but 1,400 years is quite a lot later when you’re trying to retrieve a place name. Well, thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can actually see that passage of Book XI in the 1831 Dindorf edition, and what do we find? Not “Betyllion” but Bytyllion—or, to be more exact, Βυτυλλίου in the Greek text and Bytyllii in the Latin translation at the bottom of the page (both are in the genitive case). But perhaps this is corrected in Thurn’s modern edition? No, thanks to “Search inside the book” at the Amazon listing, we can see that Thurn too has Bytyllion. (I checked with other sources, too, like the Barrington Atlas, and they all had Bytyllion.) The only conclusion I can come to is that Lane Fox changed the form to fit his thesis and neglected to mention the fact.
This is not good. I presume he intends “Betyllion” to represent a Greek Βητύλλιον (with eta), and it’s true eta and iota were pronounced identically by Malalas’s day, but that doesn’t mean you can just substitute one for the other. So his sentence “Ras Shamra’s later small settlement and the nearby Ras Ibn Hani were surely the site which Greeks later knew as ‘Betyllion’ (their version of the Semitic phrase ‘bait-El’ or ‘House of El’)” can be deconstructed as “Ras Shamra’s later small settlement and the nearby Ras Ibn Hani might have been the site which Greeks fourteen hundred years later knew as Bytyllion, but which I prefer to think of as ‘Betyllion’ because then I can better make it fit the Semitic phrase ‘bait-El’ or ‘House of El’, which I need for my theory.” Sure, all this stuff is speculative anyway, but I prefer the speculation up front rather than swept under the rug.
Incidentally, that other reference in the footnote, Frost (2001), is Honor Frost, “Two Cypriot Anchors,” in Larissa Bonfante and Vassos Karageorghis (eds.), Italy and Cyprus in Antiquity: 1500-450 BC (Nicosia, 2001); I can’t access the book, but this review says it “uses the similarity between seventh century anchor-stocks from Cyprus and Italy as a device for entering into a discussion of Bronze and Iron Age anchors, their use in sanctuaries, and the relationship between cult space, towers, and sea-travel,” which doesn’t sound like it relates to the things that bother me—but if you have read the article and are aware of something that bears on this stuff, please share.