The man in the sarcophagus
I’ve written about needing an aristocrat in my novel The Very Wolf for plot purposes. What I mean by that is really two things. There was a mechanical need to have someone who could go right to the very top of the social tree and do some sleuthing that drives the plot forward. In Pontos that meant I needed someone rich, male and best of all extremely posh. I gave him a name, Datames, after a brilliant but compromised Satrap of Cappadocia.
The other thing I needed was someone to question some of the more… problematic stuff my other point of view character got up to, and for that matter the whole city of ancient Sinope. I wanted someone to pose questions about the ethics of what’s going on, someone who was both an insider and an outsider to this world. I realised that Datames might be just what was needed, and his roots in the more Persian part of Pontos could help with that.
Except compared to being a Greek from Athens we don’t have much insider perspective on that identity. As I wrote last time, no writing from ancient Pontos survives. We know how Romans and Greeks felt when Pontian aristocrats turned up for meetings in “Persian attire”. We don’t how the Pontians felt about it, or why they did it, or even what “Persian attire” really means here.
We know from tiny scraps that have been found that the Persian language took a very different turn in Anatolia than in the rest of the Iranian world, and was written with the Greek alphabet. We know that Anatolian religion was developing differently to Zoroastrian worship elsewhere. While Datames might not be 100% Greek, he’s not straight-up Persian either.
But there are things that survive from this world that tell us a lot about how these people understood the world and their place in it. They’re just not letters or books.
The Altıkulaç Sarcophagus was made about 250 years before the events of The Very Wolf. So about 160 years before Sinope is conquered by the Kingdom of Pontos. It’s from much further West in Anatolia, but it was made for a young man from the kind of family that threw their lot in with the first King of Pontos and were still in charge in Datames’ time. At not too much of a stretch, the guy inside could be Datames’ great-great-great-great grandfather.
Certainly, Datames would look at it and see someone recognisably his ancestor, and someone whose claims to power and status informed his claims to the same.
So… let’s look at the Altikulac Sarcophagus, using the questions I suggested yesterday, and see what it’s saying about who made it and how they wanted it to be used.
This sarcophagus is made of limestone, and it’s a big piece of rock: the man inside it is about 5’ 7”. It’s been hand-carved and hand-painted. It would have taken a very, very long time to make, and it’s one of a kind. It’s incredibly precious. It’s an important and rich man’s final resting place. Because it’s such fine work he must have commissioned it long before he died, so this is what he personally wanted to be buried in.
It’s in amazingly good condition, if you leave aside the damage done by a bulldozer when it was dug up by grave robbers in the late 20th century. It still has all its coloured paint, which is extremely rare in something this old (just before Alexander the Great). Why? It was buried in a tumulus and forgotten about. Which tells us a few things: the grave didn’t remain in use and it was forgotten about soon after it was interred. Plus at this time burial was common in Western Turkey where this was found, but not the default in other parts of the Achaemenid Empire (there are taboos around corpses and earth burial in Zoroastrian belief). So… was the man inside Zoroastrian, a Greek pagan… or something else?
The sarcophagus is full of stories. On each panel, the same young man in Persianate dress (easily identified by his prominent nose) goes hunting boar, goes to war with Greeks, and then combines his two interests by hunting Greeks. He is wearing elaborate armour and fine clothing, and in one panel he’s accompanied by a friend of similar status and in another he’s followed by a henchman on foot. These are scenes from a wealthy young man’s life, the life the man in the sarcophagus enjoyed before he died. He’s been presented in quite traditional poses used on a lot of Greek plastic art, but his Persian clothes have been very carefully documented in a way that rarely happened in that tradition. His armour, headdress and knife – his akinaka – mark him out as defiantly posh and Persian. It was probably commissioned by him from a local craftsman working in the Greek tradition.
The short and unhelpful answer to the question of whether this is for pubic display or not is that it depends. We don’t know enough about the burial rites and beliefs this man’s family followed. It could be that this sarcophagus is so elaborate because surviving members of the family might visit the tomb on specific days to pay their respects. That happened in the Greek world, and it’s likely that was the idea here. Alternatively, it may just be elaborate because it’s to show respect for the deceased alone. One thing is for sure: here is a man who dresses Persian but is buried according to non-Persian beliefs. Why? Lots of possibilities, but my favourites are; that he really believed in Hades rather than the afterlife of his Persian ancestors; that this was all done for the locals, and he had no strong beliefs or; that he was a Greek dressing Persian.
Let’s just take a pause here. Confused yet? Feeling like the labels “Persian” and “Greek” may not be up to the job? Good, good… My plan is working… <evil laugh>
I think it’s fair to say that in art history terms, this sarcophagus is from the uncanny valley. It’s so familiar, so like Greek sarcophagi of the period and yet… There’s something blocky and bold about it. There’s too much life in there, full of cheeky little birds in trees and extra foliage. The figures in profile somehow feel right but the three-quarters profiles don’t, even though they’re finely done. In fact, all the faces seem like an uneasy compromise between naturalism and something much brassier. The landscape is far too prominent, and the hills are stylised, almost like clouds. Trees burst out of the sober frame around the picture. Yes, it’s kind of Persian, particularly those hills and horses, but it’s also… something else. Something cartoonish, maybe. It reminds me of lots of things, but it isn’t exactly like anything. What we have here is what used to be called “Greco-Persian” art. It looks both East and West, but really it’s something all its own. It fuses both those two art traditions with older indigenous Anatolian things – Hittite, Assyrian, Lydian, Lycian… What we’re looking at in this piece of art is the birth of a new perspective on the world, a new culture. He might be striking a similar pose as cavalrymen on classical Greek reliefs, but his clothes, his intense and blocky features and the wildlife around him remind me of the exuberant carvings of Nemrut Dag and Arsameia.
This sarcophagus solves the problem of grief and loss, certainly for the man’s relatives but perhaps also his own sadness about the way his life turned out. It also solves the problem of creating a memorial to someone important. It possibly even solves the problem of burying someone without actually burying them (his body wouldn’t have technically been in the ground, but stored in a vaulted chamber). It’s a piece of art that walks several rather fine lines, between celebration and sadness, life and death, and several cultures, faiths and traditions. It’s got poise as well as passion.
When it comes to distractions, this for me is where this sarcophagus gets really interesting. It wants you to look at this young man as a healthy, dominant warrior, going about his business with a magnificent horse and a lavish panoply of armour. The reality was that the skeleton found inside tells us this man died in his late twenties, and he had lived with crippling injuries for years beforehand. Many of his major bones on one side were smashed, so he probably came off his horse either hunting or fighting, ironically enough. There’s no indication what eventually killed him, and we likely don’t know the full extent of his injuries. We can see that his bones were not reset successfully and remained misaligned for the rest of his life. He was a man suffering great pain, unable to ride or hunt, who died before his time but not in glorious battle. The thing of which he was proudest – and, we can infer, which his society valued most about him – was what ruined his quality of life and possibly ended it.
I look at this sarcophagus and I think it’s beautiful. I’m excited by the amount of life on it compared to, say, the Alexander Sarcophagus of a few years later. It feels personal and in love with the world, which literally comes bursting out of the frame that’s been put around it. I also acknowledge that I am intrigued, because here is something that contemporary popular culture, and a lot of political comment, would say is impossible: that someone could feel Persian and Greek and borrow things from both those parts of himself to make something creative and beautiful. So it’s exotic to me, but perhaps not in the usual sense of that word. Finally, I am deeply moved by the sad reality behind this man’s monument. There’s something awful about the fact that he still celebrated the thing that cut his life short and caused him so much pain, and that must have created a lot of emotional conflict in him.
I was starting to get a sense of what it meant to be born into an aristocratic family with this story to tell, its roots and claim to power in the old Persian Empire, but enthusiastically part of the world around it, one that venerated wilderness and nature. You as an individual and as a family would need to steer your own spiritual path between many religions. You would come from a romanticised tradition of nobility and knighthood familiar to anyone who’s read the Shahnameh. Your status would rest on reciprocal bonds within your clan and between you and your social inferiors. You would try to be a generous, liberal but decisive overlord.
You’d also have access to all the conversations being had in the Greek speaking world about power, virtue and citizenship, and you would need to hold your own in those conversations as the world became ever smaller and more intertwined. You could easily find yourself running two scripts at times, caught between the values that made your family rich and powerful and the ones of peoples you have conquered.
And sometimes, the things demanded of you by your family and tradition and duty would come into conflict. Maybe they’d come into conflict with your own ideas, or your best interests. Occasionally, the things that the world wanted you to be could actually cause you terrible pain and loss.
Horrible, life-limiting injury is an important thing to write about. Living with a disability is an important thing to write about too. I knew I wanted to address the impact war had on young men in antiquity, and of trying to live with its consequences. But because living inside a very powerful and large body was something I wanted to explore with Datames, I didn’t feel like the physical damage to the skeleton in the sarcophagus was quite where I wanted to go. But what about the emotional scars of battle? I already knew that Datames was a sensitive and introverted guy who did not find much purpose in beating people up. The tension between his dashing warrior outside and goofy, nerdy inside began to take a tragic turn.
There was another brilliant tension this sarcophagus highlighted for Datames. Say this sarcophagus was in Datames’ family tomb in the Scylax Valley instead of the far West of Anatolia, and that the man inside it is his ancestor. It’s a huge source of pride to him that he comes from such illustrious stock, and it’s why he’s rich and powerful in his own society. He needs to remind everyone of those ancestors. But there’s no getting round the fact that the guy on the tomb is stabbing a Greek in the eye with a lance. That, rather than playing draughts or composing music, is how he decided to be preserved for posterity. Now his several times great-grandson is supposed to be the liberator of the Hellenes. The aristocrats of Pontos must have all had some work to do reconciling their Greek and Persian ancestry during the wars with Rome, even if in the day to day it felt completely natural.
Datames hasn’t really needed to worry about how Greek he is until the events of this book, because he is rich and privileged and in charge and doesn’t need to explain himself to anyone. It’s only now that he’s caught up in a conflict framed as liberating Greeks from Romans that he’s started to wonder. Am I Greek enough? If I am Greek, why do I see the world in a slightly different way to some of the people around me? At the same time, he knows he’s not his ancestors or his Eastern neighbours. Datames does a lot of soul-searching throughout my book about who he wants to be, and the objects in his life reflect that process.
It’s not just the objects, though, but how he uses them. He grows beards and shaves them off, changes in and out of trousers, holds court in gardens and eats dinner on couches, all in an attempt to balance fitting in, standing out and saying something authentic about himself.
One of the hardest things for any historical fiction book to do I think is to get a sense that the past had a history too, a hinterland, and that it is constantly in the process of turning into something else.
In my long years studying culture, I’ve come to think of it as a living organism, not an object on a shelf. It adapts, it hybridises. And sometimes bits die.
Objects, and even the identities and cultures that produce them, aren’t static. What your grandad thought was a really cool picture of him kebabbing a Greek in the eye is now a major source of embarrassment at dinner parties.
Datames is an inheritor of a way of life at a crossroads. He’s deeply traditional, paternalistic, a bit of a snob, because he likes being Lord Datames. But he’s also a man of his times, excited by contact with new ideas and new peoples. His background gives him the confidence and the tools to treat foreigners with tolerance, but he has no sense whatsoever their crazy ideas about elections and monogamy should apply to him. He believes that the creative spark in us is divine, and his life is a creative fusion of languages, foods, festivals and ideas.
But above all he’s a human being doing what was, for all its bling and magnificent trousers, a dangerous, complicated and duty-bound job, as the man in the sarcophagus can tell us.