Greek Islands

How do you find your perfect Greek island? Simple - ask the expert, Dana Facaros.

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The World’s Oldest Computer - an excerpt from Greek Islands

Engineers often wonder why, if those ancient Greeks were so clever, poncing about in sheets and holding symposiums- how come they never applied all their mathematical and scientific smarts to anything practical? The answer, of course, is that they did, and a clue at just how advanced they were was provided by the accidental discovery, in 1900, of a Roman ship off the coast of the little island of Antikythera that went down on the 22nd day of the ancient Greek month of Mounichon, in the first year of the 180th Olympiad (5 May, 59 bc). It was sailing from the island of Rhodes, laden with booty for Rome. Now you might ask: how is it that anyone could even begin to know the precise date of a 2,000-year-old shipwreck? Pinpointing even the century of finds is more often than not just an archaeological guessing game. The answer is that part of the booty from Rhodes included the world’s first computer, and its timekeeping mechanism was stopped forever when the ship went down.

The wreck was discovered by sponge divers, who after sheltering from a storm off Antikythera, decided to donned their weighted belts to see if its seabed might in fact shelter a sponge or two. Instead they were startled to see a man beckoning to them—a magnificent 4th-century bc bronze statue known as the Ephebe of Antikythera (one of the celebrities of the National Archaeology Museum in Athens). The Greek archaeological service was notified, and sent down a small warship to haul up the bronze and marble statues, vases, and glass—the world’s first underwater archaeological dig. One of the items they found was a lump; as the months passed and the sea mud dried, a wooden cabinet about a foot high was revealed. This quickly deteriorated on contact with the air, leaving a calcified hunk of metal that broke into four bits. Archaeologists were astonished to see that they belonged to a mechanical device inscribed with ancient Greek script.

At first dismissed as a primitive astrolabe, the Antikythera Mechanism, as it was known, soon proved to be much more complex. In 1958, a young British historian of science, Derek de Solla Price, was allowed to examine it and recognized it as an astronomical computer, which, by its setting, was made on the island of Rhodes in 82 bc. The days of the month and the signs of the zodiac were inscribed on bronze dials, with pointers to indicate the phases of the moon and position of the planets at any given time, operated within by a complex mass of clockwork: bronze cog wheels with triangular teeth, connected to a large four-spoke wheel (the most prominent part visible) driven by a crown gear and shaft, which probably had some kind of key for winding. A moveable slip ring allowed for Leap Year adjustments and alignments. As far as anyone can judge, it was last set by the Roman sea captain on the day his vessel went down. He may have been bringing it to Rome on the special order of Cicero, who knew of the ‘future-telling astronomical device’ from his school days in Rhodes. ‘It is a bit frightening to know,’ concluded Derek Price, ‘that just before the fall of their great civilization, the Ancient Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought, but also in their scientific knowledge.’ The next similar device to be noted anywhere was in 11th-century India, by the Iranian traveller al-Biruni.

The Poet’s Hideaway

The ancient biographer Philochorus mentions that Euripides had an estate on Salamis and wrote in a cave facing the sea. In the 5th century bc this retreat from society was judged as rather unusual behaviour, but Euripides was by all accounts an unusual man.

Born into the landed middle class during the great triumph over the Persians, Euripides served in the Peloponnesian War, and lost his fortune, through expensive political posts and contributing to the war effort; what money remained he spent on books – he was the first Greek to accumulate a private library. He was considered the greatest poet of his age (some 18 plays have survived), yet he won only four first prizes. No one was quite sure what to think of his work. Where Aeschylus and Sophocles maintained a level of restraint and dignity in their characters, Euripides’ are full of passion; he broke sexual taboos, and refused to idealize anyone. He loved women (at a time when most men wanted to lock them up at home) and made them his special study, most famously Medea.

Idealistic, but deeply troubled by his times, Euripides wrote truths that disturbed his contemporaries’ basic assumption about society, the state, their gods, and themselves. He loathed their wars; the rich and the great rabble of Athenian democracy infuriated him, and he, in turn, infuriated them even while they hung on his words. They took out their frustrations by mocking him and even beating him up, until he took refuge in the court of Macedonia, where he died the next year, in 406 bc. Yet a century later, the playwright Philemon wrote: ‘If I were certain that the dead had consciousness, I would hang myself to see Euripides.’

After Euripides’ death, his writer’s cave became a tourist attraction that was visited well into Roman times. In 1994, archaeologist Yiannos Liolios, finding that the cave at Peristéria matched the ancient inscriptions, began investigations that soon yielded artefacts going back to the Neolithic period. Ancient votive offerings suggest that the cave was identified as the lair of Kychreus, the man-snake. Then, in 1996, Liolios proved that it was also the retreat of the great tragedian, when he came across an archaeologist’s dream: a wine cup with Euripides’ name on it, left behind by the poet 2,380 years ago. To find the cave, keep your eyes peeled for an obscure signpost in Peristéria, follow the dirt road as far as you can in your car, and then continue on foot.

© Dana Facaros