The cup of Nestor and the history of ancient Ischia

by Claudia Grillo

The cup of Nestor and the ancient Ischia 

In the eighth century BC the Greeks, skilled sailors, they moved around the Mediterranean in search of new places in which to found cities. In particular, the settlers from Euboea arrived in the Italian peninsula and were the first to found settlements there destined to grow and create the splendid reality of Magna Graecia.

La coppa di Nestore e la storia dell'antica Ischia


The first center founded was Pithecusa, the current Ischia. On the origins of this first name so particular there are so many theories: for a long time it was said that it was a derivation of the term pithekos, which in ancient Greek means "monkey“: A term used by the Greek colonists to define so derogatory the indigenous inhabitants of the island. In fact, most likely, the answer is in the vases which are located within the Pithecusa Museum: the word also meant "Jar" or "large vase" and it was attributed to the Ischian population, which was distinguished by its own ability to make very large containers.

The Hellenic past of Ischia is testified by important literary sources, but it was the archaeological excavations to provide a much more precise historical picture. The German archaeologist Giorgio Buchner he took an interest in the site and in 1952 began the excavation work which had fortunate results especially in the Lacco Ameno area. Here, in fact, a large necropolis re-emerged with its rich and surprising funeral objects. Why surprising, you ask? Because instead of weapons, swords, helmets and shields, as one would expect in the tombs of an ancient society of warriors, mainly ceramic vases have re-emerged. A society of warriors, therefore, but also of skilled, industrious and wealthy artisans. 

Coppa di Nestore

The cup of Nestor

A small ceramic cup was found in the tomb of a child, today kept in Archaeological Museum of Pithecusae: became famous under the name of cup of Nestor.
At first glance it might not arouse particular curiosity: it is in fact small and would not stand out from other artifacts, were it not for a inscription in verse, preserved on one side. Nothing extraordinary, you say?

Well, it is one of the older evidence of written Greek language, one of the earliest examples of how the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet and used it to fix their own words. We are, we remember, in the first half of the eighth century, at the very moment in which they are being formed the Iliad e the Odyssey as we know them today. For centuries and centuries, in fact, the aedi sang the sagas of the great heroes at the courts of the lords, but only in this period did some Homer choose to tell about the fatal wrath of Achilles and the human and multiform soul of Odysseus, selecting the songs that would have become immortal, precisely because they were put in writing.

An alphabet for poetry

Our cup therefore takes on a fundamental value and helps to answer a question that scholars have been asking for years: because the Greeks began to write? And the answer is among the most beautiful: to write poetry.
The first written attestations are in fact in verse, just like Nestor's cup which reads like this:

"Νέστορος [εἰμὶ] εὔποτον ποτήριον
ὃς δ 'ἂν τοῦδε πίησι ποτηρίου αὐτίκα κῆνον
ἵμερος αἱρήσει καλλιστεφάνου Ἀφροδίτης "

"I am the beautiful cup of Nestor,
who will drink from this cup
immediately the desire of Aphrodite with the beautiful crown will take him "

From the inscription we understand that the cup was used during the symposia, the moments when it was typical to give in to the intoxication of wine and celebrate the pleasure ofEros through poetry.

Who is Nestor?

The Nestor owner of the cup could be the famous mythical hero character of the Iliad, and this hypothesis would be supported by a passage describing a cup of extraordinary dimensions that belonged to Nestor, or it could be a common man with a somewhat high-sounding name, lived in Ischia more than two thousand seven hundred years ago.

Claudia Grillo

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