The Nestor's Cup of Ischia

coppa di nestore

The link that has united Ischia to the cultivation of vineyards is an ancient one and knows its fundamental passage 2700 years ago, in the first quarter of the 8th century B.C., when the island became a protagonist in the history of western culture. In fact, it was around 785 B.C. that a group of inhabitants from the island of Euboea in Greece arrived on the shores of what is now Lacco Ameno. In search of new lands in which to settle, they founded Pithecusa, which constituted a bridgehead of the colonisation of Magna Graecia. Greek settlement in the South was a phenomenon that had a profound influence on the economic, political, cultural and human history of future Italy, particularly that of the South. The Greeks, in fact, brought a wealth of knowledge, which spread to the countless cities founded between Sicily and Campania, and from there to the indigenous populations, who had constant relations with the newcomers.

It ranged from agricultural, building and craft techniques to forms of government, artistic, religious and philosophical concepts. This is not the place to go into the details, but it is necessary to recall at least the revolutionary turning point constituted by the invention and introduction of the alphabet, a very convenient and absolutely successful technique of communication, which, starting from the Greek colonies, and precisely from the one founded on Ischia, spread immediately, to be adopted by the Etruscans and then by the Latins and then by Rome.

The excavations carried out impeccably for over 40 years by archaeologist Giorgio Buchner and his collaborators, and the study of the artefacts found, have made Pithecusa an indispensable point of reference for those concerned with Western Greek history. Today, the finds are on display at the Museum of Pithecusae, located in the municipality of Lacco Ameno. Visiting the museum, one can see how active the new colony was. In fact, it houses artefacts documenting the production of ceramics and metalworking, and evidence of trade with the entire Mediterranean basin (Magna Graecia and Greece, Etruria, Spain, Carthage, Egypt, Syria).

The island of Ischia, in fact, offered natural resources (clay deposits, plenty of timber, fresh water) that were skilfully exploited: it is no coincidence that, even after Pithecusa lost importance, following the foundation of the colony of Cumae, on the coast facing the island of Ischia, there is evidence from the Hellenistic period (IV-II BC) of interesting production of ceramics and metalwork. C.) interesting Pithecusan productions of tableware and amphorae for transporting wine, which archaeologists have found in many sites in Italy and elsewhere, testifying to a still significant craft and commercial activity. The vine, in fact, was a central element of agricultural production in the motherland, and the Greeks who migrated to the West brought it with them, along with the ritual customs associated with it. Thus, in the grave goods found in tombs there is no shortage of

the craters, i.e. the vessels in which water was mixed with wine (which, in fact, was not drunk pure);
the oinochoai, jugs in which pure wine was placed on the symposium table (and with an oinochoe full of wine the pyre on which the corpse was burnt was extinguished, according to the cremation ritual, reserved for adult Greeks, not for children and slaves);
the cups (skyphoi, kotylai) in which the mixture was drunk.
In fact, the moment of the symposium – as the gathering around the wine-filled crater that followed the actual banquet was called – was an essential convivial and social event for the males, in which they conversed, improvised verses, attended musical and dance performances, and played games among the guests, both of physical skill and intelligence.

Well, a tomb in the necropolis of Pithecusa has yielded an artefact that encapsulates all these elements. It is a small cup made in Rhodes, dated to the end of the 8th century BC, on which one can read a graffito arranged on three lines, certainly executed in Pythagoras (as evidenced by the particular shape of some of the letters used). The text, made with sure handwriting, is in verse (iambic metre and epic hexameter) and reads: ‘Nestor’s cup was certainly good for drinking from, but whoever drinks from this cup will immediately be seized by the desire for the well-crowned Aphrodite’.

This is an exceptionally important find, for several reasons: the verses of the ‘cup of Nestor’ (as it is now known) represent one of the oldest documents of Greek alphabetical writing that has come down to us, and the earliest known fragment of poetry from Homer’s time, preserved in its original draft (and not handed down through papyri, codices, etc. written at a later time, as is usually the case), contemporary with the composition of the verses.

The short poem is jocular: it establishes, in fact, a comparison between the real cup possessed by the Greek hero Nestor (made of gold and very heavy), of which the Homeric poems speak, and the modest kotyle that bears the verses. This, however, has the power, according to the unknown author of the text, to make whoever drinks from it fall in love with Aphrodite herself.

The cultural implications are therefore remarkable: these are probably verses composed precisely during a symposium (some propose that it was the result of a game, whereby two or more guests drew up the text in a sort of ‘poetic challenge’), and in any case they testify to the profound familiarity that already at the end of the 8th century BC. C. one had, in a distant colony in southern Italy, not only with writing (used in this case for non-practical and commercial purposes), but also with what is one of the cultural cornerstones of Greekness, the Homeric poems, precisely.

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