Construction Workers Uncover Important Ancient Greek Wine Cup

Pericles' alleged wine cup (photo via Ta Nea)
Pericles’ alleged wine cup (photo via Ta Nea)

Traditionally known as the “first citizen of Athens,” Pericles was a lover of art and literature, and a driving force behind the Parthenon’s construction. Now, archeologists in the modern Greek capital claim to have discovered the statesman’s wine cup, according to the Greek newspaper Ta Nea.

Twelve fragments of the two-handled, black-glazed, 5th-century skyphos were uncovered six-and-a-half feet beneath the soil by construction workers digging the foundation of a building located — ironically — on Sparta Avenue. If real, Ta Nea notes that it would be “the first tangible evidence of the daily life of one of the most famous personalities of history.” (Aside from a few statues of the bearded Athenian, the main reason we know about Pericles’s life is because the historian Thucydides detailed his conquests during the Peloponnesian War.)

Bust of Pericles (image via Wikipedia)

So what makes archeologists think the cup is real? One of its fragments is engraved with six names, including Arrifron — the moniker of Pericles’s grandfather and brother. “The name Arrifron is very rare,” said A. P. Matthaiou, secretary of the Greek Epigraphic Society. “The mention of [Arrifron] over that of Pericles on the surface of the vase makes us 99% confident that they are the two brothers.” That would make the vase the first object on which Pericles’s name has been discovered in full, as previous references have only appeared in part.

The inscription of the name Aristides also points favorably to Pericles having used the cup. Aristides was a politician who acted in Athens between 488 and 478 BCE, while Pericles led the city-state from 460 BCE to his death from the plague in 429 BCE. The cup dates between 480 and 465 BCE, when the two might have interacted in a social setting such as a symposium or tavern. As men commonly drank from the same skyphos, it’s possible they would have carved their names onto the cup as a token of their meeting.  “[He] certainly was dizzy from the wine as it is clear that whoever wrote the name of Pericles made a mistake initially … and then corrected it,” Matthaiou said.

Inscriptions on Pericles' alleged wine cup (photo via Ta Nea)
Inscriptions on Pericles’ alleged wine cup (photo via Ta Nea)

It’s always a little magical when archeologists turn up objects that place such mythic figures in real time and space, breathing the same air and walking the same ground we do today. In some ways, though, the Pericles cup sounds too good to be true. It seems miraculous that 2,500 years after the orator’s death, one out of 12 fragments of an ancient cup just happens to contain six complete names evidencing a life that has evaded archeologists for centuries. You can make up your own hypothesis as to whether the cup is a historical artifact by seeing it in person, when it goes on display at Athen’s Epigraphical Museum this fall.

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