“Momentary Memorials” Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War and Hezbollah, Megan Elizabeth Miller
Crete in the Hellenistic Aegean: Seeing Through the Cretan Mirage, Elizabeth Cummings
Algorithm, Agency, and Potentiality: Reading Constraint-Based Literature, Erin Greenhalgh

“Momentary Memorials” Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War and Hezbollah, Megan Elizabeth Miller



The Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) is a product of its diverse participating factions.  With more than a dozen political, religious, and social parties, the streets of Lebanon became flooded with contradicting political imageries, influencing public perception of the ‘other’ and inciting military action.  Their unique role in Lebanon’s political atmosphere allows such graphics to transcend mere propaganda to become physical sites of memorialization, despite their ephemerality.  Posters exhibiting martyrs, political icons, and spiritual references control viewers’ field of vision and prompt their physical accumulation around the images, much like one would see at a funeral or sculptural memorial. These images give cause for public commemoration.  Though several militias are disbanded at the end of the civil war, Hezbollah gains notoriety for its rapid advancement, made possible, in part, by the party’s media strategies.  Once dominated by images of martyrs, Hezbollah posters begin to memorialize moments in time – their subject matter as ephemeral as their medium.  This thesis is an examination of political poster aesthetics and how such is situated within the larger discourses of art history and graphic design, ultimately arguing for Lebanon’s prominent role as an artistic hub in the Middle East. 

Table of Contents


Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………. 5


1: Posters of the Lebanese Civil War, An Overview (1975 – 1990)………………….. 17


            Lebanese Forces, Lebanese Kataeb Party, National Liberal Party,

            Tanzim, Guardians of the Cedars, Marada, Lebanese Forces


            Lebanese National Movement, Lebanese National Resistance Front,

            Palestinian Liberation Organization, Progressive Socialist Party,

            Lebanese Communist Party, Organization of Communist Action in

            Lebanon, Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party


            Nasserist Movements and Amal


2: Martyrs Among Us: Hezbollah’s Realization in Poster Format …………………….. 51


            Formative Years


            Iranian Influences


            Graphic Experimentation


            Taif Agreement and Post-Civil War Aesthetics


3: A New Middle East: The 34-Day War and Divine Victory Campaign …..….……… 73


            Preliminary Attacks


            34 Days: Hezbollah and Hariri


            A Divine Victory: Memorializing Hezbollah’s Grandeur


Conclusion ……………………………………………………………………………... 83


Bibliography ………………………………………………………………………….... 87



A Brief History of Modern Lebanon and Political Graphics

The most ethereal caress / A dawn, was given / While sleepy West nuzzled to senseless East. / One city just then / One battered, paranoid, schizophrenic city.[1]


Two unidentified men stand next to one another.  The man on the left carries a shovel while his neighbor carries a rifle; both are clad in long trousers and boots.  Above them reads, “Together we liberate.”  Below reads, “Together we build” (Fig. 1).  The two men share an identical stance, both driving the tools into the rubble.  The man yielding a shovel stands as a symbol for Lebanon’s post-civil war reconstruction; his ‘weapon’ digs violently into a pile of bricks.  Similarly, the right-hand figure holds his weapon in a downward position, digging into a desolated Star of David.  In the lower left-hand corner, one sees the unmistakable mark of Hezbollah.  The slogan, then, has two partially juxtaposing meanings.  While the poster’s designer asks his viewers to unite in Lebanon’s rebuilding efforts, he also emits a war cry.  Conflict is not over; rather, Lebanon’s true test of peace, victory, and armistice comes with attentive patience.  Now comes the time where reconstruction is equally important to maintaining stability, through violence if necessary.  However, above all else, one must note that the image of the gun, typically portrayed in an upright, anticipatory manner, is facing downward.  Has it been tamed?  Has the artist domesticated the weapon?  Or is he predicting a future where, despite current renovation, conflict is inevitable and the weapon will be of necessity?  Southern Lebanon was still in need of liberation, a substantial struggle still looming over Muslims in the late twentieth century.  Such ambiguity comes into play when examining the majority of visual culture, particularly in an analysis of political posters in the Middle East. 

This particular imagery was created alongside the 1992 Lebanese elections, a time where after nearly fifteen years of civil strife, the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri heralded a massive post-war reform and, therefore, propaganda campaign.  The term ‘propaganda’ will be redefined in depth in the next chapter of this study, but it is essential to recognize, as Jonathan Crary states in his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep:

[Humans are] swamped with images and information about the past and recent catastrophes – but there is also a growing incapacity to engage these traces in ways that could move beyond them, in the interest of a common future… images [in the broad sense of the term] have become one of the many depleted and disposable elements that, in their intrinsic achievability, end up never being discarded, contributing to an ever more congealed futureless present.[2]


In other words, humans have become so accustomed to their surrounding visual culture that the line between genuine memory and retroactive thought has been blurred, a statement that is incredibly relevant to the production, aesthetic development, and public consumption of political posters throughout the Lebanese civil war, al-Harb al-Lubnaniya.[3]  This thesis will explore Lebanon’s political posters as they affect political atmospheres, which is inevitably tied to the construction of memory, commemoration, celebration, societal reconstruction, and controlled amnesia. 

One conclusion can be made immediately: humans have always and will always consume (in the literal and optical sense) what is in front of them.  The concept is particularly prevalent to the creation, utilization, and disposal of political imagery, which Fawwaz Traboulsi suggests can be implemented as “weapon[ry],”[4] especially in the throes of war.  One must ask, however, what is worth displaying and, therefore, remembering?  How much of this remembrance is within our control?  How much of this remembrance is fabricated by outside bias or supplementation?  The aforementioned poster begins to ask these questions, as do many of the images this study will provide.  Middle Eastern artistic content is as varied in usage, content, aesthetic themes, production, and audience, as there are differences in political and religious ideologies.  As with any design or art historical study, each of these factors plays a significant role in understanding a particular culture or time period.  Such a diverse subject typically becomes far more manageable when one dissects the posters of individual factions; the same, however, cannot be said for Lebanon, particularly in the face of civil war (1975-90) and the rapid development of Hezbollah thereafter. 

According to Zeina Maasri, a leading scholar on political posters and their emergence in Lebanon in the twentieth century, one of the greatest struggles in deciphering the progression of this region’s visual culture is developing a clear definition of propaganda and activist art, if differences between the two actually exist.[5]  In most scholarly analyses, propaganda is defined as an educational system where individuals:

have to be deeply indoctrinated in the values and interests of private power and the state-corporate nexus that represents it… more intelligent members of the community… [are] able to drive a reluctant population into war by terrifying them and eliciting jingoist fanaticism…. The essential function [of propaganda] is to set up and maintain a system of doctrines and beliefs which will undermine independent thought and prevent a proper understanding and analysis of national and global institutions, issues, and policies.[6] 


Here, the term ‘propaganda’ is used derogatorily. This popular definition may suffice for describing the political posters of, for example, World War I and II, Cuban, Chinese, and Soviet Union strategies, Red Scare tactics, and the Cold War[7] the majority of which are developed by a singular organization (the government or elite, educated class) and intended for a singular, usually unified (less educated), public.  This is what I will refer to as the ‘traditional model’ throughout this study.  Propagandistic media generally revolves around a singular aesthetic; however, the concept that one powerful entity manipulates the masses toward one action or line of thought does not describe the multitude of opinions forming the fifteen years of war in Lebanon during the later half of the 1900s.  Here, the traditional propaganda model cannot be utilized; rather, I argue that Lebanese government leaders, militias, religious groups, community voices, and even young generations on social media have developed an original ‘propaganda’ tactic taking the form of graphic activism.  In her book Graphic Agitation: Social and Political Graphics Since the Sixties, Liz McQuiston states that propaganda is “part of the official voice that aims to win votes and set policies; but it is also part of the unofficial voice that protests against the established order or encourages dissent.”[8]  The emphasis on ‘encouraged dissent’ is key.  Rather than an authoritative figure enlisting positive support with graphic aid, several of Lebanon’s political posters revolve around the negativity toward ‘the other’ and historic commemoration of martyrs.  The primary focus of propaganda has, thus, been shifted.  Oftentimes, a poster’s content refers not to a group’s power or strength, but rather to the remembrance of a particular figure or an era of prior dominance.  These concepts will be further discussed in the following chapter.

The phrase ‘political graphics’ evokes an image’s historical significance – its ability to excite, to scare, and to mourn.  In order to grasp an understanding of modern Lebanon and the media being produced means to have a subsequent understanding of the country’s history within a contemporary Middle Eastern context.  The development of visual culture in the country depends heavily on its development as an autonomous state in a region characterized by perpetual conflict.  For the purposes of this thesis, the story begins with the League of Nations and General Henri Gouraud, who, after granting a mandate for Lebanon and Syria into the hands of the French, established the State of Greater Lebanon (Map 1) in September of 1920.[9]  After being nominally ruled by the Ottoman Empire from 1516 to the end of the First World War in 1918, which infamously established Martyr’s Square in Beirut, Lebanon’s first glimpse of its newfound semiautonomy was appealing.[10]  The unified Lebanese Republic was later established by French command in 1926; however, many of its Muslim citizens objected to provisions of the mandate and opted, instead, for an independent Arab state and the annexation of Syria.[11]  Thus, violent anti-French disputes erupted along its coasts.  It has been said that, “while Christian opponents of the mandate invoked the rights of nations to self-determination, Muslim annexationists expressed their opposition to the mandate and the partition of Syria as a necessarily unjust economic, political, fiscal and administrative system.”[12]  This is not to say that only Muslims actively fought against their French commanders; a substantial number of non-Maronite Christians (mainly Greek and Orthodox Catholics) voiced similar desires.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the majority of non-Maronites voted in favor of Syria’s annexation.[13]

A consequence of these differences in political and religious ideologies was a lack of hegemonic authority after France moved the Lebanon-Syrian border eastward, nearly doubling Beirut’s territorial control.  Civil unrest became so great that Lebanon required legislative balance amongst their own population.  Thus, parliamentary seats were appointed according to the country’s 1932 census.[14]  These guidelines, which became a permanent part of modern Lebanon’s constitution, made it such that the President was to be a Christian (based on a 54% population majority), the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’i Muslim, effectively establishing a six-to-five ratio of Christians to Muslims in parliamentary seats.[15]  Since gaining full independence from Western authority in 1943, Lebanon’s political atmosphere has been based on its 1932 ideals. 

Independence only emphasized the country’s reliance on regional and sectarian traditions.  Though the post-civil-war Taif Agreement – which will be discussed at greater length in the following chapters – created an equal governmental appointment system, achieving political authority was, and still is, nearly impossible without support of one’s familial or religious sect.  In her book, Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon, Lucia Volk posits:

To speak of Lebanon and shared national sentiments in one breath will raise eyebrows in certain corners.  Many argue that Lebanon’s most pronounced characteristic is its sectarianism: age-old primordial hatreds between religious groups that erupt into armed conflict with regularity… [eventually,] ‘Lebanonization’ made it into the English dictionary after the last protracted and costly Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991).  It similarly denotes the dissolution of the national fabric in light of religiously based factions, prepared to defend their own against everybody else.[16]


Sectarianism, however, goes beyond political appointment and rears its head in nearly every aspect of modern Lebanon’s public life: schooling, professional careers, literature, visual arts, et cetera.  Because of this, studying the media being produced by designers of differing religious, regional, and political sects is anything but simple, particularly with visual culture from the later half of the twentieth century. 

Despite instances of traditionally propagandistic content, political graphics throughout the Lebanese civil war take on new significance through their unique means of production and references to modern painting, film, book illustration, and other artistic practices in the Arab world.  Though aesthetic genres and stylistic traits of past wartime prints are present, this thesis explores the concept of the Lebanese – and inevitably Palestinian, Israeli, Iranian, and Syrian – political poster as an innovative realm of artistic design relevant to the development of visual culture in the Middle East.  Later chapters of this study reveal how the role of the Lebanese political poster, particularly in the case of Hezbollah posters, has transformed a mass-produced image or slogan into a contemporary war memorial.  In particular, my study will ponder what a member of a Western audience expects these posters to look like and what qualifies them as political art worthy of an international audience.  Furthermore, it is my goal to explore the ways in which political graphics have become supplemented by peripheral influences in order to manipulate individuals.  Chapter One will address the Lebanese civil war poster aesthetics and stylistic influences/continuations from previous wartime posters.  This section will also include an analysis of Lebanon’s deviation from said influences in order to establish original styles and means of production, manifestly initiating an argument for propaganda’s transformation to graphic activism, later for a global audience.  Chapter Two will explore Hezbollah’s formative years and the organization’s graphic experimentation.  This section will include an analysis of post-war reconstruction posters with an emphasis on the juxtaposing “Together we liberate, together we build” framework.  Chapter Three will illustrate Hezbollah’s political and military dominance after the civil war and leading into its 34-Day War against Israel.  This chapter will further examine Hezbollah’s Divine Victory Campaign; I argue, here, that political posters further depart from traditional propagandistic methods toward becoming individual sites of resistance. 

With the availability of the American University of Beirut and Zeina Maasri’s “Signs of Conflict” online archive of civil war and Hezbollah posters, I will be able to reconstruct Lebanon’s just-lived past from an art historical perspective – a topic that is significantly under researched.  I find it most interesting that the contemporary art realm focuses its study on Lebanese artists such as Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, and Lamia Joreige, each examples of individuals that attempt to recall the Lebanese civil war through fictional or fabricated elements.  Raad’s Atlas Group archive project is the topic of extensive art historical scrutiny, but its content is based solely on fictional imageries.  At a time when Lebanon was characterized by citizen amnesia, such works like Raad’s do not attempt to reconstruct an accurate timeline.  Joreige and Zaatari, too, struggle to unravel a mysterious past through the fanciful conglomeration of images, video footage, and text.  In an attempt to question the construction of history, I have decided to work with Lebanese political posters as a means of better understanding Lebanon’s place within art and design history in the Middle East.  Consequently, this thesis is an attempt to decipher a cohesive record of events through the examination of the country’s utilized political graphics, made possible by the extensive online archive published by the American University of Beirut and Maasri.  My study will aim to highlight the transformative quality of Lebanon’s political posters, their only unifying quality being to memorialize, despite differences in subject matter.  The Lebanese civil war has been subject to much scholarship, but seldom has this research been conducted in the field of art history.  It is my hopes that this thesis has provided a basis for further research on Lebanese political posters and their existence as ephemeral memorials.  Further, the following pages provide a platform for readers to appreciate political poster imagery and its inscription within a modern Lebanese social context and revolutionary discourse.


                  [1] Mishka Mojabber Mourani and Aida Yacoub Haddad, “New Year, 1979” in Alone Together, (Karachi: Kutub, 2012), 49.

                  [2] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, (New York: Verso, 2013), 34.

                  [3] Fawwaz Traboulsi, introduction to Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War, by Zeina Maasri, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), xvii.

                  [4] Traboulsi, introduction, xviii.

                  [5] Maasri, Off the Wall, 4.

                  [6] Noam Chomsky, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, (New York: Seven Stories, 2002), 12, 39.

                  [7] Maasri, Off the Wall, 35.

                  [8] Liz McQuiston, Graphic Agitation: Social and Political Graphics Since the Sixties, (London: Phaidon, 1993), 28.

                  [9] The region that was once Syria was divided into four states per the League of Nations: Greater Lebanon, Aleppo, Damascus, and the Alawi state.  The 1920 establishment of Greater Lebanon included the provinces of Mount Lebanon, north Lebanon, south Lebanon, and the Bekaa Valley. Traboulsi, Modern Lebanon,75-80.  

                  [10] Ibid.

                  [11] Traboulsi, Modern Lebanon, 75-80.

                  [12] Ibid.

                  [13] Ibid.

                  [14] Ibid, 81.

                  [15] Ibid.

                  [16] In her book, Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon, Lucia Volk explains why several Arab states have failed to establish “strong” nations.  She argues that many Arabs have remained too attached to their families or “clans,” which many refer to as tribal or “sectarian.”  The author posits that such dedication to one’s family gets in the way of one’s utmost dedication to their country and sense of national pride.  Lucia Volk, Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon, (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010), 2.

Momentary Memorials 1

Figure 1, Together we liberate, together we build, poster for the 1992 Parliamentary Elections. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5: 2012, 172.

Momentary Memorials 2

Map 1, French Mandated State of Greater Lebanon with French administrative units in Blue, 1924, Stanford Journal of Archaeology, <http://web.stanford.edu/dept/archaeology/journal/newdraft/garnand/figurepage.html>. Accessed 30 May, 2014.

Chapter One


Posters of the Lebanese Civil War, An Overview (1975-1990)


To Beirut …

From the Soul of her people she makes wine,

From their sweat, she makes bread and jasmine.

So how did it come to taste of smoke and fire?


                                                                        The Lebanese Songwriter, Fayrouz[1]


One can argue that there are as many definitions of propaganda as there are opinions in the world.  The most poignant question is whether political posters produced during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) adhere to any of these definitions, considering the term often comes with pejorative undertones.  If so, which definitions are worthy?  If not, what distinguishes Lebanese posters from other warring images?  One conclusion can be made immediately: the fifteen-year-long war was far from two-sided; more than a dozen active fronts and political parties were involved in Lebanon’s media outburst during the civil war, each with its own religious, administrative, and sectarian influences.  Such is not the case in an examination of propaganda outside of Lebanon.  Situated in the heart of the Middle East, Lebanon exists to the north of Israel where its borders, particularly its southern, were continually challenged and redrawn (Map 2).  With more than a decade of civil strife, the country’s geographical, political, and cultural attitudes were prone to dramatic transformation.  This reality left the war-stricken Lebanon privy to a multitude of political poster aesthetics, contrary to conventional propaganda.

When one authoritative group is delivering a message to a broad public, such propagandistic content has connotations of deceit.  The figure that holds power has the task of manipulating people according to his own political stance.  Here, the key term is ‘manipulation.’  In order to penetrate an entire society, methods of deception can, and often do occur, leading to a “perpetual emotional subjection" to the leader’s decisions.[2]  Here, one recalls the Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels’ nineteen Principles of Propaganda, all of which aim to dictate, control, and deceive people.  Principle One and Seven state that “propaganda must be planned and executed by only one authority” and that such authority must have “credibility [that] alone determine[s] whether propaganda output should be true or false.”[3]  To paraphrase, the background, intelligence, authority of the singular propaganda executor determines whether the public is in need of factual or devious imagery.  Such definitions deem propaganda a transformative device where the authority and prestige of one individual or predetermined sanction transforms that which the public thinks and respects.

Consider, for example, the September 8, 1961 Time Magazine cover illustrating Nikita Khrushchev (fig. 2).  The stern-faced politician graced every American newsstand, standing amid a flaming, desecrated landscape, perhaps suggesting the country’s eminent doom under communist rule.  Feeling it was their duty to take all necessary measures against the Soviet Union, the United States government commissioned the magazine cover, striking fear into the American public.  Rather than displaying an image condoning the strength of the U.S. armed forces or public unity, the Kennedy administration communicated a fabled and exaggerated potential for destruction.  Similarly, a prolific poster titled, Is This Tomorrow (fig. 3), from the Catechetical Guild Educational Society of St. Paul, Minnesota exhibits the violent struggle against communism in America.  With a burning flag and violent, perhaps even grotesque, figures struggling against communist soldiers, the poster embodies Red Scare tactics and the conventional propaganda model: that which is provided by an authoritative voice as viable, even if slightly deceitful, educational material.[4]  Both of these particular images, thus, derive their significance from the manipulation of character and emotion, in this case, within an international arena.  Political posters such as these provide viewers with an understanding of a singular authority and one’s place within a generalized public, particularly one branded by fear.

Such is most certainly not the case when examining political posters in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon during the throes of civil war.  Instead of a definitive ideology being forced upon individuals – I say forced to emphasize the political image’s ceaseless presence in the daily lives of citizens – Lebanon exhibits more than a dozen differing factions and their desires to promote a unique cause to a distinct group.  As such, the population lacked any unified ideology.  In this case, propaganda does more than disseminate biased ideas according to a singular voice.  Lebanese posters must be examined as constructs of communication, redefining propaganda as a deliberate attempt to shape public perceptions and manipulate understanding.  These posters are unique in that they exhibit this manipulation, but in a boundless exchange of differing ideas – a concept seldom acknowledged in the scholarship of political posters elsewhere.  What follows is an examination of the civil war’s opposing parties.  Here, I argue that Lebanese political posters (throughout and directly following the civil war) transcend the aforementioned definitions of propaganda and must be valued as graphic activist works and ephemeral memorials.  The issue of contextualization is apparent when studying this region; not only does each party actively announce their political positions, but each also does so through the unique activist design, thus showing viewers how different cultural contexts affect the implementation of information and generation of opinions, though based in the same timeframe.  Political poster production in Lebanon does not adhere to that of the rest of the world, specifically to that of the West.  This will be made apparent through an art historical examination of the civil war poster production and Lebanon’s active warring fronts.

In April of 1975, Phalangist gunmen ambushed a bus in the Ayn-al-Rummanah district of Beirut, killing as many as twenty-seven of its Palestinian passengers.[5]  The Palangists, however, claimed that this action was no more than a rebuttal to a guerrilla attack on a church in the same district; such were the somewhat ambiguous clashes that prompted the civil war.  Soon thereafter, Syrian troops made their way into Lebanon, ultimately with the intent to restore peace and “curb the Palestinians.” [6]  Not much later, in reprisal for a Palestinian attack, Israel launched their invasion of southern Lebanon, taking full swing in June of 1982.  It is not until September that U.S., French, and Italian troops arrive in Beirut, further adding to the diverse population residing in Lebanon during the mid- to late-twentieth century.  City streets were rapidly engulfed in opposing imagery, telling the world that the country did not quite fit within the confines of traditional propagandistic methods; Lebanon’s visual culture was (and still is) influenced by authoritative voices, wealthy individuals, prospering artists, and young, computer-savvy individuals alike.  Over and above this, each poster’s supporting faction was able to define a clear aesthetic according to their intended viewership – a concept to be valued by a global audience.  Divided according to their relative political and religious affiliations, these parties are as follows.


Lebanese Front (1976), Lebanese Kataeb Party or Phalange (1936), National Liberal Party (1958), Tanzim (1969), Guardians of the Cedars (1975), Marada (1967), and Lebanese Forces (1976)


The Lebanese Front is recognized as a coalition of mainly Christian groups, including leaders of the dominant Christian Maronite and left-wing Lebanese nationalist parties and corresponding military organizations.  This included the primary figures Camil Chamoun (Christian president of Lebanon from 1952-58), Pierre Gemayel (prominent leader in opposition to the French mandate and father of Bachir and Amine Gemayel, both of which obtained a presidency in the 1980s), Suleiman Frangieh (president of Lebanon from 1970-76), and other prominent intellectual figures.  In short, the Lebanese Front favored a “neutral position” with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict.[7]  Consequently, the front maintained a strong opposition to the Palestinian forces residing in Lebanon, believing each was a threat to the country’s wellbeing and sovereignty.  With the help of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and South Lebanon Army, the Kataeb Party, National Liberal Party, Marada Movement, Guardians of the Cedars, and Al-Tanzim formed a joint military command that rapidly gained notoriety during the formative years of civil war.

            As such, the Lebanese Front was influenced by the 1936 establishment of the Lebanese Kataeb Party (LKP or Phalange), led by Pierre Gemayel until his death in 1984, thus playing a significant role during the first half of the civil war.  Formed as a right-wing Lebanese nationalist party, the Phalange faction was modeled after the Spanish Phalange and Italian Fascist parties and consisted of young Maronite individuals.[8]  Since its formation, the group had strongly opposed the infiltration of any foreigner into Lebanon and continually advocated for Lebanese independence at any cost.  The Lebanese Kataeb Party, the Lebanese Front and other subsequent parties, revolved around a uniformly anti-communist, anti-Palestinian ideology and actively objected to that which was associated with pan-Arab principles.  The coalition acknowledged Lebanon as a Maronite country in association with the social, political, and economic ideals of Western Christianity.  In order to guarantee their followers basic human rights and freedoms, the Kataeb Party and Lebanese Front strived for the decentralization of religion – a goal which inevitably developed a distinct propaganda aesthetic, enormous public following, and subsequent military factions. 

            Founded in 1958 by president Camil Chamoun, the National Liberal Party (NLP) operated under similar philosophies.  With pro-Western political views and a predominantly Christian membership, Chamoun’s son formed the NLP’s first military wing, the Numur (Tigers), which experienced violent conflict, ultimately leading to its termination in 1980.  Thus, many of its prominent figures were absorbed into the Lebanese Forces.  Similarly, the small organization, Tanzim, formed in 1969 by former members of the Lebanese Kataeb Party, actively resisted the dispersal of Palestinian forces within Lebanon.  In 1977, however, Tanzim split in two, prompting many of its soldiers to join the Lebanese Forces.

            Two years prior to Tanzim’s dissolution, the Guardians of the Cedars was established in alliance with the Lebanese Front and Lebanese Forces on the eve of civil war.  This group is considered to be “right-wing and ultra-Lebanese-nationalist”[9] to the point of violent hostility to Arabism, ultimately calling for the expulsion of Palestinian forces and refugees.  Also associated with the Lebanese Forces under the command of Bashir Gemayel, and in collaboration with the leaders of their associated factions, was the Marada organization, consisting of Maronite partisans in northern Lebanon.  This alliance was, however, obliterated after the death of their leader’s son at the hands of Kataeb extremists in 1978.[10]  Nonetheless, the Lebanese Forces, in collaboration with the aforementioned supporting militias, rapidly gained support throughout the formative years of civil strife, particularly from Israeli soldiers on the southern border with Lebanon.[11] 

            Such an enormous and influential right-wing faction inevitably sought a unique poster aesthetic to promote their accomplishments and warn others of their strength.  The rise in civil conflict prompted such groups to form their political identities through the public dispersal of posters, further emphasizing the lack of stylistic unity intrinsic to Lebanon.  For example, an early poster of the Lebanese Kataeb Party illustrates eight cedar trees.  As the national symbol of Lebanon, the cedar graces the country’s flag and coat of arms, and was inevitably adopted by such parties who viewed themselves as the groups advocating most for Lebanese independence and regional, Anti-Arab dominance.  In Arabic, the poster reads, “They died for Lebanon to live” (fig. 4), referencing the deforestation and exploitation of the cedar’s wood by outside forces.  As such, the poster refers to the exploitation of land and resources by unwelcome Palestinians.  Furthermore, the number eight refers to rebirth and resurrection in a biblical sense; Christians believe that the 8th day provided a new beginning after the creation week.  Members of the Lebanese Front, Lebanese Forces, Kataeb Party, and other subsequent factions adopted this number to refer to Lebanon’s regeneration after the expulsion of Palestinians.  Each tree also exhibits a different set of numbers inscribed in their trunks referencing the names and dates of deceased Maronite leaders. Below the cedar trees reads, “the martyrs of Kataeb,” where Kataeb is used as both a noun (in terms of the party as a whole) and adjective (that which describes the type of soldier); it must also be noted, however, that there is no word in the English language for the position of the Lebanese soldier, as the word stems from the Arabic verb “to kill.”

            Another prominent Kataeb poster, titled 44 Years in the Service of Lebanon (fig. 5), exhibits a portrait of Pierre Gemayel, the subject only revealed due to the poster’s publication on the front page of the ‘Amal’ newspaper in 1980.  The artist, Pierre Sadek, illustrates Gemayel as a somewhat indistinct silhouette, his profile covered by two versions of the Lebanese flag: one with splashes of blood and a pointed, geometric cedar tree, and the other a more customary rendition, emphasizing the dualistic symbolism of Lebanese tradition and the implementation brute force when the nation’s sovereignty is threatened.  This not only highlights the habitual use of cedar tree imagery in anti-Arab, posters, but also accentuates the prominence of portraiture throughout the civil war – a subject that is also stressed in Lebanese book illustration and news sources.

            Here, one must reference a series of posters exhibiting Bashir Gemayel as president and sheikh.  In one Kataeb poster simply titled The President Bashir Gemayel (fig. 6), the Maronite leader stands before the Lebanese flag; those viewing such posters are aware of his power and loyalty to Lebanon.  Another similar poster titled 14 September (fig. 7) depicts Gemayel’s portrait as a holy vessel, surrounded by the sanctified glow of what would be Christ above.  As he sheds a protective, perhaps omnipotent, glow over the silhouette of Lebanon below him, viewers understand Gemayel’s position as not only president, but inevitably sheikh and religious administrator as well.  He is infallible.  The designer, simply known as Raidy, illustrates Gemayel as having transcended the human realm in order to cast his grace or supremacy upon the Christian citizens below; this romanticized refinement is a necessary response to the grotesque events unfolding beneath him.  The date 14 September commemorates the assassination of this primary figure and, consequently, his ascension into heaven. 

In an examination of the stylistic innovations of each right-wing poster, it is necessary to mention graphic continuations from previous, particularly Western, political posters.  One image immediately comes to mind, that titled Our Lebanon needs you, YOU (fig. 8), also created by Pierre Sadek in 1983.  While the traditional cedar tree has made yet another appearance, Bashir Gemayel is now exhibited in the likeness of J.M. Flag’s 1917 Uncle Sam poster (fig. 9), or that of the British Lord Kitchener (fig. 10) made three years prior, both adhering to traditional propaganda models in order to recruit soldiers for World War I.  In each of these renditions, the viewer is confronted with the merciless expression of a prominent leader; similarly, each figure aggressively extends a finger toward the public, emphasizing the importance of the individual and his allegiance to other recruited men.  The word ‘you’ is stressed in each of these posters to convince individual citizens of their potential for political or military contributions – a topic later nullified, as will be discussed in the following chapter.  Created for the Lebanese Forces, the Gemayel rendition appropriates this Western poster genre, but transforms it within the civil war context; however, instead of stating that the government or military specifically need recruits, the poster’s text affirms that Our Lebanon – the people’s Lebanon – is in need of nationalistic support.  This is where Lebanese political posters deviate from any traditional definition of propaganda.  Though incorporating before seen imagery, such right-wing posters emphasize the way propaganda has been transformed by “the complex forms in which power is articulated and perceived and the way political discourses are constructed, whether through hegemonic or counter-hegemonic means.”[12]  In this case, the recurrence of the cedar tree and adoption of Western poster aesthetics makes right wing posters fall within a hegemonic discourse.  The aforementioned American and British posters contain a unilateral message intended for their entire countries, respectively.  Such unilateral content is, however, missing from posters in Lebanon; though the posters actively promote loyalty to one’s political or religious leader, they do so only for a singular, fragmented audience.  In the broad sense of the term, activist art refers to works that are inherently aligned with social movements.  Political posters, then, must be thought of as physical manifestations of “currents of thought.”[13]  Additionally, these images denote only the beginning of portraiture and activist content in Lebanese civil war media, which further deviates from the traditional propagandistic model as exhibited in leftist and radical organization posters.


Lebanese National Movement (1969), Lebanese National Resistance Front (1982), Palestinian Liberation Organization (1964), Progressive Socialist Party (1949), Lebanese Communist Party (1924), Organization of Communist Action in Lebanon (1970), Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (1932)


The Lebanese National Movement (LNM) is one of the more heterogeneous parties grouping both leftist and nationalist parties under the direction of Kamal Jumblatt in 1969.  While challenging Maronite dominance, the LNM favored Lebanon’s active role within the Arab-Israeli conflict and supported Palestinian resistance in its liberation struggle, shown through the party’s active operation with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).  The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and subsequent evacuation of the PLO from southern Lebanon and Beirut, however, led to the LNM’s dissolution.  Nonetheless, the party is said to have been incredibly active during the formative years of the civil war (1975-82), consisting of and supported by such organizations as the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), Organization of Communist Action in Lebanon (OCA), Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the Arab Socialist Baath Party, all of which embodied a pan-Arab nationalist outlook and exhibited an original poster aesthetic.[14] Such leftist positions strove for the revival of a unified social and geographical entity within the Arab world while opposing those who challenged their liberation and resistance struggles.  As such, the aforementioned socialist parties gained both military and financial support of the more radical leftist movements, many of which adopted communist ideologies.  Not only did these groups actively contest against Maronite dominance, but each also supported the Palestinian resistance in its liberation struggle – even if that meant leading military operations against Israel in southern Lebanon or violently contesting Syria’s 1976 intervention in Beirut.[15]  Such parties include the Organization of Communist Action in Lebanon (OCA) founded in 1970, the Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF) founded in 1982 after the Israeli invasion, and the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) founded in 1924 and initially linked to the Syrian Communist Party.  Though internal conflict led to many of these factions’ dissolution, each contributed to the poster wars taking place in Lebanon’s once cosmopolitan streets. 

            The establishment of more radical, left-wing factions and militias led to greater experimentation in poster genres and stylistic traits.  While it can be argued that no active organization in the civil war adhered to a particular or predetermined aesthetic of production, leftist designers sought artistic individuality and did not attempt a unified genre.  It must also be noted that the production of such posters was, most typically, voluntary on this side of the spectrum.  Oftentimes, many of the country’s more renowned artists, Rafic Charaf, Omran Al-Kaysi, Nabil Kdouh, Paul Guiragossian, and the aforementioned Pierre Sadek, worked for a given faction on their own prerogative.  Zeina Maasri points out that, although their contributions were sporadic and appeared typically in periods of heightened conflict when their canvases were not selling as rapidly, Lebanon’s trained artists made up the majority of poster stylization due to the “absence of academic training in graphic design," a reality synonymous with the “movement of political activism among Arab artists in the late 1960s.”[16]  Over and above this, one recognizes that such posters held no cohesive genre due to the variety in established artists’ contributions, each with their own recognized style.  Maasri states:

Quite typically, a painting or drawing would be made by the artist before it was adapted into a poster, whereby the text would be sidelined to the designer’s artwork.  Essentially, the artists in the most part did not really dwell on the design process of a poster but rather offered their artwork to be published in a poster format.  Artists developed posters based on their own artistic preoccupations, which in many cases incorporated their political concerns, not only in the subject matter but also at the level of the visual form.  These artist explorations were contemporaneous with a general undercurrent of modern art in the Arab world in search for a relation with its locality and history.[17] 


The search for identity through visual media is inextricably linked to the regional political and cultural factors that each artist experiences.  With the decline of French colonial power over the region, inhabitants sought imagery that embodied nationalism and steered the Arab people toward a more unified future.  This initiated somewhat of a visual awakening in a region experiencing several decades of cultural and stylistic homogeneity, during which “Western tradition, rather than experimentation, was the guiding principle.”[18]  Such explorations are, thus, particularly pronounced in the posters that illustrate the Palestinian struggle and politico-religious unanimity in the region.  In a PSP poster titled, The Mountain’s Victory (fig. 11), Omran Al-Kaysi combines traditional calligraphy, collage, and oil painting in poster format to commemorate the martyrdom of founder Kamal Jumblatt.  In the foreground, one sees a machine gun inscribed with symbolic references to Jumblatt’s leadership and service; behind the weapon is an abstract expressionist-like wall, alluding to one of Al-Kaysi’s paintings under the same name.  However, the English translation of the title is insufficient.  The text above the mountainous scene describes not victory as a noun, but that which is used as an Arabic verb; the title, thus, is not necessarily possessive, but emphasizes the action of being victorious.  Subsequently, the text below the machine gun references a poetic verse about the pride and honor bestowed upon the mountainous region.  The mountain is given anthropomorphic connotations; it is referred to as a man and a prideful one at that.  The verse is repeated calligraphically within the machine gun alluding to both Jumblatt’s authority and quite literally, the act of “holding honor in the neck of the gun.”  Over and above this, it becomes apparent that artistic ingenuity has made its way into the political poster realm for the first time, fusing traditional Islamic calligraphy, poetry, painting, and collage. 

Paul Guiragossian’s poster series for the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) is likewise worthy of exploration.  Another highly acclaimed artist, Guiragossian had already been creating posters for several years prior to the onset of the civil war.  In conjunction with the Assembly of Cultural Media and Committees in Support of Liberating the South, the artist strongly opposed Israeli occupation and produced posters to voice this concern, several of which look eerily similar to drawings in a sketchbook.  With red wash paint and ink, Guiragossian illustrates the ambiguous heroes of war – the dynamic workers laboring for a common cause.  In such works as Let Us Unite Our Efforts in the Liberation Struggle (fig. 12) or Two Years of National Resistance  (fig. 13), the posters “hold more aesthetic qualities of a painting than those of a poster.”[19]  Unlike a traditionally propagandistic or promotional poster, Guiragossian’s designs unfold an intimate bond to a political cause, producing artwork that eclipses the mere functional requirements of a political poster.  It is evident that the artist’s primary occupation is with illustrating a personal perspective through an unconventional medium; the mass production and widespread viewership is simply a bonus.  Further, one must note that these particular pieces do not exhibit specific political figures, but portray the artist’s impression of his leaders’ likeness.  This can be compared to the aforementioned mystical representation of Bashir Gemayel.  In the case of leftist posters, artists such as Guiragossian were not concerned with portraiture that is spiritual or romantic; they were, instead, interested in a more “sophisticated aesthetic representation”[20] that is purposefully vague.  Perhaps such artists would argue that the identity of a left wing hero is irrelevant as long as the leftist public is united.  Individualism did not matter as long as the public resisted unwelcome occupation.  This message is achieved through Guiragossian’s implementation of sweeping brushstrokes and ambiguous subject matter – adhering to the artist’s exclusive style.  This, however, is not the only leftist designer who appropriates his own previous work in poster format.

It is evident that artists, illustrators, designers, and calligraphers alike were aware of other cultures’ historical poster development and adopted various aesthetics within a twentieth-century Lebanese context.  While Al-Kaysi experimented with elements of Abstract Expressionism, artists such as Rafic Charaf designed several posters after encountering posters made by the Cuban-based Organization of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL).  Comparable to Pop Art aesthetics forming throughout the 1960s, the OSPAAAL artists designed posters in support of liberation struggles all over the world and grew a keen interest in that of the Palestinians.[21]  With this newfound interest, the organization sided with more of the left wing movements throughout the civil war, spreading their brightly colored, Warhol-like prints throughout the region and consequently influencing the work of local artists.  One LCP poster titled Against Imperialism and Zionism (fig. 14) illustrates Kamal Jumblatt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Lumumba, Che Guevara, Ho Shi Mihn, and Tanios Chahine in colorful, animated rows.  Each leader has been placed on an equally significant plane, showing its Lebanese viewers that Jumblatt, like the other prominent figures, reins supreme over his people; such posters maintain a straightforward message and composition while being visually intriguing.  In her writing, Zeina Maasri states that this eccentric Pop aesthetic “held connotations of leftist politics of that era.  In Lebanon, it meant not only Marxist politics but signified other forms of anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist struggles, which articulated revolutionary liberation struggles with Arab unionist quests.”[22]  Other left wing parties, thus, adopted this graphic rhetoric not for propagandistic purposes, but to highlight and glorify the lives of Kamal Jumblatt, leader of the SSNP Antun Saadeh, Mussa al-Sadr, and others. 

Equally effective to the OSPAAAL-inspired LCP posters is a work titled The Assault of Saida is an Assault on the National Resistance (fig. 15), by Omran Kaysi.  Exhibiting the subject matter and calligraphic content of one of his paintings, the artist intertwined Qur’anic symbolism and his own artistic flair in a poster opposing Israeli occupation in the mid-1980s.  Perhaps referencing Mohammad’s horseback journey across the heavens, Kaysi paints a neon pink horse floating across the print.  Above the creature is a masked, winged figure carrying a calligraphic textile marked with discombobulated fragments of the Star of David.  Here, it becomes possible that the suspended figure is not the Prophet, but is instead a grotesque representation of an unwelcome Israeli citizen.  Arabesque graphics adapted from the canvas provide a degree of uncertainty in the poster format, especially when traditional poetic calligraphy and folk tales are produced in the political realm.  This provides an example of a political poster that experimented with graphic abstraction.  Such ambiguity is prominent in many Lebanese civil war posters, particularly those associated with Arab nationalism and the resistance to Israeli occupation – a concept that also branches out into the posters for the Amal Movement and Nasserist Parties.


Nasserist Movements (Independent Nasserist Movement and Socialist Arab Union) and the Amal Movement


The third and final section of this chapter discusses the civil war appearances made by two front running Nasserist movements and the formation of the Amal Movement thereafter.  Founded in 1958 by Ibrahim Koleilat, the Independent Nasserist Movement (INM), also referred to by the name of its military wing, Murbitun, similarly embraced a pan-Arab nationalist outlook alongside the aforementioned leftist factions.[23]  Also in support of the socialist projects of Egyptian president Gamal Abd el-Nasser, the INM fought beside the LNM with a majority Sunni membership.  Many of the organization’s posters implemented portraiture, but, again, not in the same mystical, transcendental fashion as the right-wing, Bashir Gemayel imagery.  In a Murabitun poster titled, Shallom (fig. 16), the third Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, is depicted in a black and white photograph.  Along with his pipe, al-Sadat wears a black eye patch in the style of Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan (a figure infamous for this enigmatic trend).  Additionally, the poster exhibits the Egyptian president in a tall top hat á la Uncle Sam.  The juxtaposition of the Israeli eye patch and American flag denotes the designer’s knowledge of Western postmodern art and the comical method of defacing a traditional photograph or romantic canvas with external references.  The movement’s leftist position and opposition to Israeli occupation meant that mocking Israeli leadership, and subsequent American support, was a common motif in their graphic language until the party’s dissolution in 1985 at the hands of the PSP and Amal Movement.

The other prominent Nasserist Movement, the Socialist Arab Union, established its own unique poster aesthetic – a recurring subject throughout the Lebanese civil war.  While operating in Syria during the 1970s, the organization held a close relationship to the Socialist Arab Union in Egypt and adopted similar leftist prospects, including its wartime support of other pan-Arabic factions.[24]  One poster titled, A Green Memory in Days of Drought (fig. 17) exhibits lush, animated trees in commemoration of Gamal Abd-el-Nasser’s birthday.  The ‘bubbled’ calligraphy pays tribute to Nasser’s passing while denoting him as one of the many celebrity martyrs during the 70s; while still upholding references to Pop aesthetics, this poster stands as another early precursor to the martyr memorialization soon to bathe the streets of Lebanon.  Thus, the examination of the poster, The Martyrs of Struggle Against the Zionist Enemy (fig. 18) is necessary.  Still referencing floral symbols of growth and renewal, this poster illustrates what historian Dana Bartelt refers to as “photographic images employ[ing] layers of complex symbolism and yet, at first glance, appear[ing] simple and straightforward.”[25]  Similarly, graphic designer Yarom Vardimom writes that the sociopolitical undertakings in graphic design, while being “generally critical... [they] naturally deal with new and local symbols and their relationship to the culture’s previous symbols.  Symbols of Middle Eastern society’s distress are pictures of bereavement, violence, and religious ritual.”[26]  With an emphasis on the term ‘ritual,’ it must be argued that such political posters stand as sites of memorialization, despite their ephemeral context.  The action associated with societal ‘ritual’ is ever present in the process of reminiscence. 

This poster ideology is extended to that of the Amal Movement, its name coming from the phrase Afwah al-Muqawama al-Lubaniya (AFWAJ), literally meaning ‘hope’ in terms of Lebanese “resistance detachments.”[27]  Established in 1975 by Shi’i cleric Imam Mousa al-Sadr (from the military wing, Movement of the Disinherited), the Amal Movement embodied this detached resistance by calling for social equality, with the majority of its focus on Lebanon’s conflicted south.  With a predominantly Shi’i membership and in close conjunction with the aforementioned Nasserist Movements, Amal endorsed Syria’s 1976 intervention and officially supported the Palestinian, despite later clashes with the PLO and Murabitun.[28]  Additionally, the movement took part in the resistance against Israel’s presence in Lebanon, an operation that allowed the group to form very brief alliances with other leftist parties, particularly with the PSP and Hezbollah.  These alliances, however, came to an abrupt halt upon al-Sadr’s 1978 disappearance.[29]  Political posters, thus, portrayed a left wing resistance while furthering the design of war hero memorials after their leader’s mysterious departure.  In his book, Pity the Nation, Robert Fist reiterates, “Murdered [he] may have been, but who could deny [his] potency now?”[30]  His face was not to be forgotten. 

As an interesting allusion to previously mentioned rightist prints, posters such as It is the Lebanese Movement Towards the Better (fig. 19), adhere to some of the qualities of right wing portraiture, though much less enchanting or outlandish in nature.  Illustrating the faces of al-Sadr and Lebanese Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, this poster is one of the first examples seen of realist portraiture infused with traditional calligraphy and graphic symbolism.  The calligraphic title refers to an excerpt from Mithaq Harakat al Mahroumin (the charter of the Movement of the Disinherited) as written by al-Sadr four years before his presumed death.  A bird in flight, perhaps referencing the flight of the deceased’s soul and/or the Prophet Mohammad’s ascension, supplements the image.  Birds, particularly doves, have been linked to the notion of martyrdom, especially within more radical leftist organizations. 

Another Amal poster titled Be Prepared For Them With All Your Force (fig. 20), exhibits artist Rafic Charaf’s familiarity with Pop art characteristics, traditional calligraphy, and religious symbolism, all of which are intertwined in the poster format.  The red horse pictured near the bottom of the print alludes to its significance in Qur’anic passages.  His ability to carry the Prophet Mohammad across the heavens refers to the Amal Movement’s ceaseless strength; at all costs, they strive to be ruthless and stringent against their enemies.  The title, it is known, comes from a Qur’anic verse, showing that the Lebanese artist was first and foremost concerned with the presence of religious remarks in his individual aesthetic.  The political affiliation is subpar.  Here, one sees how such proud, vivid imagery took to the streets with an intensity previously unbeknownst to the political poster arena.

            This chapter has so far provided a brief discussion about both right and left wing poster aesthetics, offering a starting point for the remainder of this thesis’s examination of post-war graphics, principally those of Hezbollah, following its formation in 1982.  It is my hope that this chapter has delivered a broad overview of Lebanon’s graphic language during the formative years of war, of which several concepts will bleed into Hezbollah media and post-war ‘reconstruction’ imagery.  In the following chapter, I do not provide examples of differing factions; rather, I attempt to unravel the significance of individual parties’ civil war poster series as contemporary martyr memorial in a time and region characterized by perpetual unrest.  Artists in need of a creative outlet assumed the role of political activist by transforming the traditional view of poster as propaganda to that of individual sites of remembrance and resistance.  The idea that Lebanese civil war media falls under the realm of a unilateral aesthetic is a delusion; instead of an authoritative figure preaching his stance to a greater, typically unified public, Lebanese posters and their stylistic genres are as diverse as their designers, thus creating a critical distance from traditional modes of propaganda.  Despite instances of propagandistic content (i.e. the Lebanese flag and quotes from political speeches), political posters created throughout the civil war are more aligned with artistic individualism than with graphic autonomy – a case prominent in political posters in the Western world.  This chapter stands as an argument for Lebanon’s implementation of activist media, providing a platform for which fleeting memorials are recognized.  Sectarian ties prompt dozens of individuals, already with their predetermined political and religious affiliations, to create works for a specified audience.  As such, activist graphics on the streets of Lebanon adopt the part of modern memorialunified aesthetic of Lebanese patriotism; it is a divided nation for a reason.  In this multi-headed war, political graphics, though ephemeral, stand as locations of individual strife, remembrance, and commemoration.


                  [1] Fayrouz as quoted in Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon, by Robert Fisk, (New York: Antheneum, 1990), 92.

                  [2] Zahera Harb, Channels of Resistance in Lebanon: Liberation Propaganda, Hezbollah and the Media. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011), 8.

                  [3] Leonard W. Doob, Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1950), 422-428.

                  [4] Maasri, Off the Wall, 7.

                  [5] Fisk, Pity the Nation, 170.

                  [6] “Lebanon Profile,” BBC News, 4 Apr. 2014, Accessed 17 July 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14649284

                  [7] Maasri, Off the Wall, 25.

                  [8] Fisk, Pity the Nation, 52.

                  [9] Maasri, Off the Wall, 25.

                  [10] Ibid., 26.

                  [11] Volk, Memorials, 207.

                  [12] Maasri, Off the Wall, 16.

                  [13] Charles A. Beard and Alfred Vagts, “Currents of Thought in Historiography,” The American Historical Review, (1937): 460.

                  [14] Maasri, Off the Wall, 26-29.

                  [15] Traboulsi, Modern Lebanon, 194-198.

                  [16] Maasri, Off the Wall, 40.

                  [17] Ibid.

                  [18] Wijdan Ali, “Modern Arab Art: An Overview,” Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World, (1994): 73.

                  [19] Maasri, Off the Wall, 42. 

                  [20] Ibid.

                  [21] Lincoln Cushing, Revolucíon!: Cuban Poster Art, (San Francisco: Chronicle, 2003), 10.

                  [22] Maasri, Off the Wall, 45.

                  [23] Maasri, Off the Wall, 28.

                  [24] Maasri, Off the Wall, 28.

                  [25] Bartelt, Dana. Both Sides of Peace: Israeli and Palestinian Political Poster Art, (Raleigh, NC: Contemporary Art Museum, in Association with U of Washington, 1997), 13.

                  [26] Ibid.

                  [27] Fisk, Pity the Nation, 238.

                  [28] Fisk, Pity the Nation, 86.

                  [29] Al-Sadr was an Iranian Shi’i cleric with familial ties in Lebanon.  He moved there in 1959 when he was appointed a leading cleric position in southern Lebanon. He then disappeared in 1978 while visiting Libya, the topic of which continues to be a mystery.

                  [30] Ibid., 93. 


Momentary Memorials 3

Map 2, Philippe Rekacewicz, Map of Lebanon with changes in Israeli occupation denoted in stripes, Published Feb. 2000, Accessed on 30 October, 2014, .

Momentary Memorials 4

Figure 2, Nikita Khrushchev TIME Magazine Cover, 8 Sep. 1961. 

Momentary Memorials 5

Figure 3, Is This Tomorrow, Catechetical Guild Educational Society of St. Paul, Minnesota, 1947.

Momentary Memorials 6

Figure 4, Kourkin, They Died for Lebanon to Live, Lebanese Kataeb Party, Wassim Jabre Collection, 1976.

Momentary Memorials 7

Figure 5, Pierre Sadek for the Atelier d’Art, 44 Years in the Service of Lebanon, Lebanese Kataeb Party, Karl Bassil Collection, 1980.

Momentary Memorials 8

Figure 6, Artist unknown, The President Bashir Gemayel, Lebanese Kataeb Party, Zeina Maasri Collection, c. 1980.

Momentary Memorials 10

Figure 7, Raidy, 14 September, Lebanese Kataeb Party, Zeina Maasri Collection, c. 1982. Momentary Memorials 10

Figure 8, Pierre Sadek, Our Lebanon Needs You, YOU!, Lebanese Forces, Zeina Maasri Collection, c. 1980.

Momentary Memorials 11

Figure 9, James Montgomery Flagg, I Want You for the U.S. Army, Library of Congress Lithograph Collection, 1917.

Momentary Memorials 12

Figure 10, Alfred Leete, Join Your Country’s Army, London Opinion Magazine, 1914.

Momentary Memorials 13

Figure 11, Omran al-Kaysi, The Mountain’s Victory, Progressive Socialist Party, Zeina Maasri Collection, 1984.

Momentary Memorials 14

Figure 12, Paul Guiragossian, Let Us Unite Our Efforts in the Liberation Struggle, Lebanese Communist Party, Zeina Maasri Collection, 1982.

Momentary Memorials 15

Figure 13, Paul Guiragossian, Two Years of the Lebanese National Resistance, Cultural Council of South Lebanon, Zeina Maasri Collection, 1984.

Momentary Memorials 16

Figure 14, Artist unknown, Against Imperialism and Zionism, Lebanese National Movement, Progressive Socialist Party Poster Archives, 1977.

Momentary Memorials 17

Figure 15, Omran Kaysi, The Assault on Saida is an Assault on the National Resistance, Zeina Maasri Collection, 1985. 

Momentary Memorials 18

Figure 16, Artist unknown, Shallom, Independent Nasserite Movement (Murabitun), Zeina Maasri Collection, 1979.

Momentary Memorials 19

Figure 17, Artist unknown, A Green Memory in Days of Drought (Commemoration of Gamal Abd-el-Nasser’s Birthday), Arab Socialist Union, Zeina Maasri Collection, 1979.

Momentary Memorials 20

Figure 18, Artist unknown, The Martyrs of Struggle Against the Zionist Enemy, Arab Socialist Union, Zeina Maasri Collection, 1980.

Momentary Memorials 21

Figure 19, Nabil Kdouh, It is the Lebanese Movement Towards the Better, Amal Movement, Hezbollah Media Office Archive, 1980.

Momentary Memorials 22

Figure 20, Rafic Charaf, Be Prepared For Them With All Your Force (Qur’anic Verse), Amal Movement, Zeina Maasri Collection, c. 1985.

Chapter Two


Martyrs Among Us: Hezbollah’s Realization in Poster Format


And say not of those who are slain in God’s cause, “they are dead”: nay, they are alive, but you perceive it not.


Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:154[1]


            In the midst of the Lebanese civil war, political posters dominated the public sphere.  While buying groceries, families were confronted with a least a dozen differing messages and slogans; when walking to school, children were bombarded with ambiguous, symbolic, and oftentimes violent imagery.  This became the norm in Beirut, the Beqaa Valley, and, particularly, in southern Lebanon where tensions between bordering Israel and flourishing radical militias were most noticeable. Such conflicting media characterized the 1980s and 1990s; Lebanon’s citizens inevitably grew accustomed to this eclectic urban aesthetic as their country held no prospects for a unilateral objective in the near future.  The development of various left and right wing organizations, as mentioned in Chapter One, introduced the region to a heterogeneous way of seeing.  While political imageries have flooded city streets throughout the majority of historical wars, the Lebanese civil war was first to establish poster genres that transcend propaganda.  Such posters, though significantly under researched, have gained notoriety for their individualism.  Concepts of graphic activism and martyr memorialization become widely utilized themes, specifically with regard to the more radical leftist groups active during the later years of the civil war – a topic that will be further analyzed in this chapter.  


Hezbollah’s Formative Years

The Arab world witnessed an immense uprising of Shi’i politics throughout the twentieth century, particularly in the 1970s and immediately following the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  In his book, Hezbollah: A Short History, Augustus Richard Norton suggests that young Shi’i men, at the time, felt “alienated from old-style politics and were attracted by new political forces.  The promise of radical change could only have been irresistible to a community whose ethos emphasized its exploitation and dispossession by the ruling elites.”[2]  This prompted younger Shi’i generations to flock to the civil war’s more radical “secular opposition parties,”[3] specifically the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP), the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, and the Organization for Communist Action in Lebanon.  It must be noted, however, that the leadership of these parties was predominantly Christian, inciting a need for a political movement characterized by Islamic sectarian ties.  Thus, Hezbollah, literally meaning ‘Party of God,’ was born.  Norton states,

Of the three distinctive trends preceding the emergence of Hezbollah in 1982, several secular parties, as well as the reformist Amal movement, retain a significant following.  As the armed Palestinian presence grew stronger [in Lebanon], many young Shi’a found their place in one or another of the guerrilla fighter organizations… Hussein Nasrallah, a brother of Hasan Nasrallah, a founding member of Hezbollah and its famous secretary-general, is a life member of Amal.  When the two groups were at each other’s throats in the late 1980s, Hussein was on the front lines confronting his brother… In Lebanon political support is conditional and political loyalty sometimes has a short shelf life… Even if Israel had not launched its invasion of southern Lebanon, the young would-be revolutionaries among the Shi’a would have pursued their path of emulating Iran’s Islamic revolution.[4] 


Undoubtedly, the Israeli invasion only furthered their direction, providing a context for Hezbollah to flourish.  Thousands of young men were selected for religious education with a curriculum designed according to the al-Najaf and Karbala seminaries in Iraq.  It was in a Baalbak splinter seminary where the adolescent Hasan Nasrallah learned of the expelled Ayatollah Khomeini.  Here, the future Hezbollah secretary-general adopted a revolutionary outlook that prompted an “antipathy toward Israel,”[5] an undying loyalty to Iran and Khomeini, and a steadfast commitment to make changes in his home country.  An immediate goal was to infiltrate the Amal movement in hopes of reforming it from within.  With no success, young Shi’i rebels negated “Amal’s de facto secularism”[6] in order to establish themselves according to an Islamic system of law and to do so quickly during heightened years of civil conflict.  To these budding revolutionaries, the only solution was to fight under the banner of Islam: “We have seen that aggression can be repelled only with the sacrifice of blood, and that freedom is not given but regained with sacrifice of both heart and soul.”[7]  Hezbollah’s notorious emphasis on martyrdom, and inevitably, memorialization is what followed.

            For the purposes of this thesis, my examination of Hezbollah’s martyr posters revolves around the idea that there are not only several different kids of martyrs, but also that each is remembered differently in the poster format.  The party’s political posters are informed by martyrdom that is not fixed, but is instead responsive to larger political and historical narratives.  As Lucia Volk defines in her book, Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon, “the word martyr comes from the Greek martis (from the verb “to remember”) from which early Christian leaders derived the term martirium to describe the deaths of persecuted members of their faith.”[8]  Initially coming from a verb, the word stresses action; the process of remembering is far from removed or static.  It become apparent that memorializing one martyr is entirely different from the same process of another, again deviating from any traditional propagandistic custom.  Rather than uniting a population with pride, Hezbollah’s followers are driven together by posters that take the form of ephemeral memorial; political posters being produced in Lebanon at the time became individual sites of remembrance and ‘holy’ commemoration.  Much like cemeteries and sculptural war memorials, Hezbollah’s political posters transformed the two-dimensional picture plane into a physical space provoking strong emotional responses, all while teaching the viewer about radical Shi’i discipline and sacrifice.  While adopting many of the aesthetic characteristics of Iranian Revolution posters, Hezbollah’s media offices created a community of the deceased, which became a “template, or cognitive map" for the community of the living.[9]

            In a poster titled Jerusalem… We Shall Come (fig. 21) one sees the lavish and vibrant Dome of the Rock, basking in the heaven’s glow.  Though its splendor is visible, it is still slightly out of reach; one is forced to view the Dome from a distance and through a circular window or screen.  The divine building, and the gratification that comes with obtaining it, is shrouded in the banner of Islam and stands as Hezbollah’s prize upon the defeat of the Israelis.  After the 1982 invasion, the party needed a unifying political goal; defeating Israel and collecting their sought-after winnings (land, architecture, politico-religious followers, etc.) was of the utmost importance.  Images of the Dome of the Rock, designed in vivid color, told both its fellow Shi’i citizens and their opponents that it was only a matter of moments before Jerusalem and its most prized cultural landmark was captured by Hezbollah extremists.[10]  Thus, Hezbollah’s media office established itself as a dauntless force not to be reckoned with.  Even before publishing their first graphic martyr memorial, the organization and its military wing, the Islamic Resistance, had made its mark on the streets of Lebanon; the group already had a determined goal and enough loyal sectarian followers to support their formative years and rapid advancement as a military and, later, administrative superpower.  The very initial focus was not on remembrance but about promises and progression. 

            This phenomenon, however, was short-lived.  Hezbollah’s media campaigns were the subject of “surprise and amazement in terms of [their] technical execution and diffusion, for [their] mastering of the aesthetic expertise and professional know-how of a modern advertisement industry.”[11]  Over and above this, the organization collected large endorsements from the Iranian government, their funding opportunities allowing for Hezbollah’s media offices to contract independent artists and commissioned young up-and-coming designers.  In less than five years, the party was able to brand itself with the design of its own coherent logo, based on that of the guards of the Iranian Revolution (Pasderan).  Again, the party’s Iranian influences are ever present.  The logo exhibits a raised fist and rifle.[12]  Even non-native viewers were aware of Hezbollah’s coordination and preemptive prestige.  In addition to this emblem, the Party of God discovered the importance of unique militia marketing; varied political posters were already characteristic of the civil war, but Hezbollah took the symbolic poster to new levels.  No longer were political prints only meant to discredit the ‘others;’ Hezbollah imagery was mass-produced to provide physical places of worship, memorialization, grief, and education for any and all eyes.  The group “has been active in building and consolidating an Islamic milieu among its Shi’i constituency, in which the politics of culture, religion, and resistance collide into an inseparable, meaningful whole.”[13]  In such posters as In the Sea of Martyrdom Until We Arrive at the Shore of Victory (fig. 22), the Islamic Resistance is deemed as spiritually-driven, perhaps even graceful, acceptors of a martyr’s fate; the pictured figures knew what was coming, accepted it as necessary, and are forever memorialized by their portrait publication.  Dozens of Shi’i Muslims in Lebanon would flock to such posters to show their gratitude and pray for the figures’ safe ascension into Allah’s realm.  Further to this, those viewing the poster were aware of the figures’ names and methods of sacrifice, but more important than this, the public was aware of their heightened status as a religious martyr in connection with Hezbollah.  Thus, the five stoic faces transcend into their afterlife, ethereal selves, each adorned with an identifying headband similar to the aforementioned poster’s portrayal of the Islamic banner.  Their individual identities are no longer as important as their new lives amongst the clouds.  Though subject to vandalism, disposal, and simply being blown away, these ephemeral images were intended as nomadic memorials, as physical locations where Hezbollah’s cause was contemplated.

            In a similar poster titled Martyrs of Badr al-Kubra Operation (fig. 23), artist Adel Selman exhibits the photographic portraits of seven martyrs floating above three gravestones marked with the Star of David.  Out of the upper right-hand corner stems a shining weapon, perpetually aimed at the graves.  Here, the message is clear; even in death, Hezbollah would sustain a watchful eye over the Israelis; even after death, Israeli soldiers were the enemy.  Lucia Volk notes that a cemetery’s design is characterized by “repetitious epitaphs and repeated gravestones, which highlights the communal aspect of the dead.”[14]  In this case, the gravestones are cracking and disheveled.  Furthermore, while the Star of David was once viewed as mere religious symbol, the image later connoted the Israeli army – a force that has since been demolished in Hezbollah’s eyes.  In similar imageries, Israel only exists within quotation marks; the Party of God refused to acknowledge its existence.  In the design of this particular poster, Hezbollah successfully destroyed any sense of Israeli pride and assumed the posture of victor, a trend that will continue in political posters even after the 1990 ceasefire. 


Iranian Influences

             As mentioned in Chapter One, Lebanese political posters both appropriate and deviate from external historical references.  This is also the case with Hezbollah posters, though any graphic continuations typically stem from their close encounters with Iranian posters during the 1970s.  Imageries of Khomeini, bustling city streets, and the Islamic banner are prominent and left lasting impressions on radical Shi’i designers.  In a poster titled The Shah’s Exile and Khomeini’s Return (fig. 24), artist Hasan Isma’ilzadah imitates the traditional Iranian coffeehouse paintings to portray the end of the Revolution and the importance of narrative storytelling.  In the upper right-hand corner, the Ayatollah hovers over his people, Qur’an in hand, as a reminder of his former exile and triumphant return home.  Below him are crowds of demonstrators, executioners, and mourners, showing the beginnings of graphic massacre – a poster genre that Hezbollah enthusiastically adopts.  Immediately prior, during, and after the Revolution, Iranian posters provided a visual documentary of the historical events as they unfolded; images were inherently current and constructed a national narrative about contemporary circumstances.  Though ephemeral, Iranian graphics jumpstarted the Shi’i aspects of the Revolution “above all others in order to forward the newly formed government’s claims to religious authority and political legitimacy.”[15]  Furthermore, such imageries reference historical figures in order to justify current, often violent events – a topic ever present in Hezbollah’s martyr memorial posters. 

            In an Iranian poster called Blindfolded Soldier Shot at Gunpoint (fig. 25), a blindfolded Iranian soldier stands with a gun pointed at his chest; behind him stands Imam Hussein, waiting to escort the sacrificial combatant to a heavenly paradise.  To the left of the Imam stand three unidentifiable figures.  Without heads, the viewer understands that they, too, are martyrs that gave their lives along with Hussein at the Battle of Karbala circa 680 CE.  Also known as the Grand Sacrifice, this historical event provokes annual commemoration and the continued tradition of martyr sacrifice and its artistic documentation.[16]  As in the aforementioned Guiragossian posters, the individual identities are less important than honoring Shi’a bravery and loyalty as a whole: “The enemy abstracted into a faceless aggressor devoid of any human traits, a death machine, is a recurrent portrayal of the Israeli army by the local factions in resisting [them].”[17]  The vivid red and green colors in this particular poster become symbolic of the martyrs’ spilled blood and the promise of acceptance and renewal once in their transcendental kingdom, respectively.  Furthermore, this poster foreshadows the horror and bodily mutilation that appeared in Hezbollah posters during the later years of the Lebanese civil war, primarily in late 1982 when Israel pushed past their southern occupation to infiltrate West Beirut.  Now characterized by hundreds of suicide bombings and far too many casualties to accurately count, Lebanon’s Shi’i citizens required physical places to mourn and to educate younger soon-to-be revolutionaries.  The civil war was left greatly undocumented, the events of which not taught in schools.  Thus, posters became educational tools for young generations.  One sees that Hezbollah’s posters become increasingly brutal while still referencing strong spiritual ties; the images were at once memorials and schools of thought. 


Hezbollah’s Graphic Experimentation

In a poster titled The 2nd Commemoration of the First Martyrdom Operation in Jabal’Amel (fig. 26), an anonymous designer depicts the young martyr Ahmad Kassir proudly floating over the rubble and disfigured bodies that once inhabited Beirut.  Here, the architectural ruins, shrapnel, and bodily remains are indiscernible from one another, showing its viewers the utter destruction of war, specifically when Hezbollah claims its victory over Israel.  Below the demolished structure reads, “The first in the reign of heroism, the pioneer of martyrdom operations, the happy martyr Ahmad Kassir ‘Haydar’; the destroyer of the headquarters of the Israeli military governor in Sour.”[18]  Not only is the young man “happy” with his sacrifice, but the poster’s text also anchors its theme and subject matter into Hezbollah’s aesthetic discourse; the man is young, successful, politically and religiously righteous according to his sectarian leaders, and emblematic of extreme leftist objectives.  Posters such as this situate Hezbollah amongst Lebanon’s other forerunning factions while simultaneously providing individuals with a site for communal mourning.  In her article, “Violence, Trauma, and Subjectivity: Compromise Formations of Survival in the Novels of Rawi Hage and Mischa Hiller,” Julia Borossa states:

Psychoanalytic theories of trauma are closely linked to mourning and owe much to Freud and his colleagues… They maintain that the effects of loss, whether worked through, repeated, or foreclosed, remain as a scar on the psyche.  However, this scarring, in all the particularity of its detail and texture, is also what, under certain ethical conditions, may broaden an understanding of the universal.[19]


Put more simply, there is an enormous range in aesthetics and subjectivities depicted in Hezbollah posters that not only allow the public to cope, but also provide viewers with the capacity to situate said graphics into a broad understanding of their religious, political, and social identities. 

Hezbollah’s vast pictorial vocabulary provides a platform for further aesthetic experimentation, despite its indubitable Iranian influences.  One must note that Hezbollah visuals are not solely based on external stimuli, but are unique in their radically violent portrayals of success.  Rather than portraying a majestic spiritual leader watching over his followers, as mentioned in reference to the late Bashir Gemayel in Chapter One, Hezbollah posters further deviate from traditional propaganda by assuming the role of victor at any and all costs; the presence of mutilated masses in such a poster only highlights the party’s dominance and collective following.  Historian Olfa Lamloum states that

Hezbollah’s distinctive dramatization of politics is no accident.  The reasons behind it are firstly historical… resistance to the Israeli occupation became central to the organization’s discourse and political activity and it grew convinced of the strategic importance of images as visual proof of its military exploits… The comparative freedom of the press enjoyed in Lebanon during the civil war, as well as the prevalent custom of using iconography to mark political territory, encouraged all political forces [Hezbollah most of all] to employ these forces.[20] 


Hezbollah’s media offices supersede the expected Islamist poster rhetoric and propaganda by being aesthetically comparable to public memorials and activist art, in other words, by being both accessible and portable.  By “freedom of the press,” Lamloum refers to the vast array of poster authors, including amateur designers; many posters may have been defaced or immediately torn down, but individual designers expressed their political interests just as easily.  Lebanon’s streets were canvases for everyone.  As activist works, these posters transform the urban landscape into an arena for socio-political change.  Viewers generally expect Hezbollah’s campaigns to align with the rest of “Lebanon’s prolific political mediascape,”[21] but instead, they assume the position of an authoritative ‘we’ that are victorious over a autonomous ‘they.’  Here, Hezbollah dehumanizes the enemy in political posters thereby concretizing “hostile traits”[22] as being intrinsic to Israel/the ‘other.’  This concept will persist as Hezbollah posters become that much more graphic as Israel withdraws from Beirut and South Lebanon near the end of the civil war.

            In a poster dating from 1985, five martyrs are displayed over gallons of blood dripping from the Dome of the Rock.  Below their portraits is a pair of hands holding an AK-47 rifle.  The commemoration of Jerusalem Day “not only shows solidarity with the dispossessed Palestinian people, but above all, summons viewers to the struggle of a Muslim umma deprived of its holy site.”[23]  Titled A Constellation of Martyrs of the Islamic Resistance, in the Western Bekaa (fig. 27), the poster claims Jerusalem as the Qibla (direction of prayer) of the mujahideen (guerilla fighters traditionally against non-Muslim forces), its emancipation being Hezbollah’s ultimate jihad.  It must be noted; however, that the term jihad does not simply refer a religious battle, but instead stems from the verb ‘to strive’ or ‘to exert.’  To these radically leftist Shi’i Muslims, the visual representation of martyrdom and overwhelming political authority stems from this term and the concept of orthopraxy.  As Zeina Maasri states, “blood is an overwhelming protagonist in the narrative of martyrdom, referring to self-sacrifice.  It is portrayed in a grotesque exuberance, a literal visual expression of a bloodbath.”[24]  There is an undeniable focus on the violent action required in achieving its religious and geographical victory; these horrifying representations are a necessary precursor to Hezbollah’s post-war election and reconstruction posters which eventually move past the depictions of headstrong, unrestrained death toward the illustration of Hezbollah as divinely undefeated and responsible for Lebanon’s restoration.  The goal is, once again, to present Lebanon, specifically Beirut, as the “Paris of the Middle East,” deeply engrained in the concept of cosmopolitanism and “chic” poster aesthetics. [25]


Taif Agreement and Post-Civil War Aesthetics

After nearly fourteen years of civil strife, Lebanon’s parliamentary leaders, still assigned according to the original 1932 census, met in Taif, Saudi Arabia to endorse a Charter of National Reconciliation– ultimately transferring much of the president’s authority to the Lebanese cabinet and giving its Muslim representatives a greater voice.[26]   The agreement reiterated much of the 1926 Constitution and the 1943 National Pact, yet agreed that parliamentary seats were to be equally distributed amongst Muslim and Christian representatives; accordingly, the Document of National Accord prompted a discussion of armistice, formally ending the civil war in October of 1990 and the dissolution of all militias, with the exception of Hezbollah.[27]  With the post-war elections on the horizon, the radical Shi’i group refused to disband in hopes of reforming the Lebanese government from its interior.  Hezbollah, though without their military wing on the accord of the Taif Agreement, was successful in this endeavor, winning twelve out of the 128 parliamentary seats in the 1992 elections.  As such, Hezbollah gained even more notoriety on a global scale as being an authoritative and influential governmental entity – a topic ever present in its graphic portfolio.  After so many years of civil war, Hezbollah leaders were to formulate a new set of goals to enhance their political, rather than military, prowess.[28]  The organization’s posters were, thus, in need of transformation. 

In the aftermath of civil war, Lebanese citizens are said to have been suffering “a pervasive mood of lethargy, indifference, and weariness” or “collective amnesia.”[29]  Scholars have also noted, however, that there were still groups involved in widespread production and “circulation of war memories, as private citizens and civic institutions produced art, films, novels, and academic symposiums to discuss the reasons and outcomes”[30] of the war and ways to better Lebanon’s future.  A poster titled In Confrontation with the Israeli Occupation: March 1978-1994 (fig. 28) depicts the Lebanese silhouette in white, though no longer connected with Israel, which has been expunged. While southern Lebanon and the washed-out Israel are still depicted behind barbed wire, the northern half of the country bursts forth from its confines; from the top stems three green leaves.  Though Israel’s silhouette is still beneath the wire, therefore rendering it incapable of progression or reconstruction, one understands that Lebanon’s streets are surged with prospects of renewal.[31]  This particular poster was designed by Imad Issa, a prominent designer associated with the Cultural Council of South Lebanon whose poster aesthetics greatly influenced Hezbollah’s post-war graphics.  As such, concepts of reconstruction and the potential for renewal under new leadership are fundamental. 

An untitled Hezbollah poster dating from the early 1990s portrays Ayatollah Khomeini looking down upon his Lebanese Shi’i followers (fig. 29).  The pictured Hezbollah soldiers walk away from the viewer toward a setting sun, their path being uncovered by the deceased’s angelic wings.  Though one figure still carries his weapon, his comrades have abandoned their rifles on their trek into the horizon.  White flowers also fall from the sky, symbolic of Lebanon’s newfound, notably momentary, peace and rebirth.  Here, concepts of romantic painting and traditional Islamic calligraphy reappear; Hezbollah emphasizes a return to the splendor of pre-civil war Lebanon.  This poster served as a physical site for memorialization (albeit a memorial for a past time), further deviating from propaganda as it reconstructs historical splendor to achieve the same in the future.  The term activist does not refer to violent artistic campaigning, but, instead, to a vigorous demonstration of social change and nation-wide renovation.  This aesthetic trend continues in Hezbollah posters throughout the rest of the twentieth century, after which the party rapidly progresses to the declared terrorist organization it is today.  Before gaining such a title, though, the group was again confronted by Israeli troops in July of 2006.[32] 

As discussed, the post-war era observed the consolidation of Hezbollah’s domination over resistance activities in Lebanon – a concept that translates into the party’s media production.  I argue that these images transform in both public perception and artistic design according to Lebanon’s competing political discourses and national imaginaries.  While its posters initially aimed to establish the group as a feared military assembly, they developed into a series of ephemeral memorials.  As physical sites of remembrance and commemoration, Hezbollah posters during the mid-1980s gained recognition as meeting places for radically left-wing Shi’i communities, and inevitably as sites of revolutionary education and resistance.  Thus, Hezbollah posters diverge from traditional definitions of propaganda, further than the preceding civil war factions examined in Chapter One.  From this poster genre stemmed Hezbollah’s post-war reconstruction efforts, while still maintaining a degree of public fear; though the war was formally over, Hezbollah still needed to uphold its reputation as being inherently aggressive.  Maasri states such posters “are determinedly counter-hegemonic from the purview of a transnational political context dominated by US and Israeli political, military and discursive power.”[33]  Put more simply, the organization has constructed a visual identity within the Lebanese context in efforts to affirm not only political, but also cultural belonging to its environment.  This outline is key to understanding the products of Hezbollah’s media offices during and directly after the 2006 war against Israel – the topic of discussion in the following section of this study.


                  [1] “Al-Baqarah (The Cow),” Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, University of Southern California, Accessed Sept. 21, 2014. < http://www.usc.edu/org/cmje/religious-texts/quran/verses/002-qmt.php>.

                  [2] Norton, Augustus R. Hezbollah: A Short History, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007), 15.

                  [3] Ibid.

                  [4] Norton, Hezbollah, 16-17.

                  [5] Ibid., 31.

                  [6] Ibid., 32.

                  [7] Ibid., 38. 

                  [8] Volk, Memorials, 30.

                  [9] Ibid., 25.

                  [10] Jerusalem is considered to be the third holy city for Muslim practitioners after Mecca and Medina. The Dome of the Rock is a historical pilgrimage destination. In fact, Jerusalem is considered to be the first qibla before Mecca adopted this purpose.

                  [11] Maasri, Zeina. “The Aesthetics of Belonging,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5.2 (2012), 154.

                  [12] Typically found in yellow, red, or green – colors commonly found in the Lebanese flag and Coat of Arms – Hezbollah’s logo is a stylized representation of an assault rifle. The weapon is subsequently paired with several other objects including a globe, sword, book, tree branch, and the organization’s name (Party of God) in Kufic script. Further, the logo reads, “They shall be triumphant,” alluding to the organization’s self-supposed victory against Israel in southern Lebanon. Ibid., 169.

                  [13] Maasri, “Belonging,” 155.

                  [14] Volk, Memorials, 25.

                  [15] Various authors. “The Graphics of Revolution and War: Iranian Poster Arts.” U of Chicago Special Collections Library, n.d., accessed Sept. 30, 2014. .

                  [16] Caroline Rooney and Rita Sakr, The Ethics of Representation in Literature, Art, and Journalism: Transnational Responses to the Siege of Beirut, (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013), 123.

                  [17] Maasri, Off the Wall, 106.

                  [18] Maasri, Off the Wall, 50.

                  [19] Julia Borossa, " Violence, Trauma, and Subjectivity: Compromise Formations of Survival in the Novels of Rawi Hage and Mischa Hiller" in Rooney and Sakr ed., Ethics of Representation, 122.

                  [20] O. Lamloum, “Hezbollah’s Media: Political History in Outline,” Global Media and Communications 5.3, (2010), 354.

                  [21] Maasri, “Belonging,” 155.

                  [22] Maasri, Off the Wall, 101. 

                  [23] Maasri, “Belonging,” 163.

[24] Ibid.

                  [25] Maasri, “Belonging,” 185.

                  [26] Regula Kaufmann, Antoine Laham, Jonas Loetscher, and Arnold Luethold, “National Reconciliation,” (DCAF, 2009), 6.

                  [27] Traboulsi, Modern Lebanon, 224.

                  [28] Zeina Maasri notes that Hezbollah “did not abandon the ideal of an Islamic state; it nevertheless acknowledged that it is not to be achieved by force but rather through a democratic process if a majority of the Lebanese are in favor of the Islamic state model. This has been repeatedly voiced by Hezbollah leaders.” Hezbollah has not pushed for an Islamic state since its inception into Lebanon’s political system; the focus was, instead, on elections and “legislative role in the Lebanese parliament.” Maasri, “Belonging,” 174.

                  [29] Volk, Memorials, 107.; Sune Haugbølle, War and Memory in Lebanon, (New York: Cambridge, UP, 2010), 101.

                  [30] Volk, Memorials, 107.

                  [31] Many Shi’i individuals, particularly those associated with Hezbollah, refer to “Israel” as existing only within quotation marks.  This is to say the country lacks validity after Hezbollah’s supposed victories over the Israeli people in the mid-2000s. It is necessary to note the significance of these marks and the common Shi’i Muslim’s belief in Israel’s nonexistence as a legitimate state.

                  [32] Amos Harel and Avi Isacharoff, 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 29.

                  [33] Maasri, “Belonging,” 178.

Momentary Memorials 23

Figure 21, Artist unknown, Jerusalem… We Shall Come, Hezbollah/Islamic Resistance, Zeina Maasri Collection, 1984.

Momentary Memorials 24

Figure 22, Artist unknown, In the Sea of Martyrdom Until We Arrive at the Shore of Victory, Hezbollah/Islamic Resistance, Hezbollah Media Office Collection, c. 1985. 

Momentary Memorials 25

Figure 23, Adel Selman, Martyrs of Badr Al-Kubra Operation, Hezbollah/Islamic Resistance, Zeina Maasri Collection, 1987.

Momentary Memorials 26

Figure 24, Hasan Isma’ilzadah, The Shah’s Exile and Khomeini’s Return, Iranian, University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center, 1979. 

Momentary Memorials 28

Figure 25, Artist unknown, Blindfolded Soldier Shot at Gunpoint, Iranian, University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center, 1981.

Momentary Memorials 28

Figure 26, Artist unknown, The 2nd Commemoration of the First Martyrdom Operation in Jabal’Amel, Hezbollah/Islamic Resistance, Zeina Maasri Collection, 1984.

Momentary Memorials 29

Figure 27, Artist unknown, A Constellation of Martyrs of the Islamic Resistance, in the Western Bekaa, Hezbollah/Islamic Resistance, Hezbollah Media Office Collection, 1985.

Momentary Memorials 30

Figure 28, Imad Issa, In Confrontation with the Israeli Occupation: March 1978-1994, Cultural Council of South Lebanon, Zeina Maasri Collection, 1994.

Momentary Memorials 31

Figure 29, Adel Selman, Untitled, Hezbollah/Islamic Resistance, Hezbollah Media Office Collection, 1989. 

Chapter Three


A New Middle East: The 34-Day War and Divine Victory Campaign


If you want to judge if a party is Lebanese enough, let me say we take up arms and fight against the occupation of our land, is that Lebanese enough?  …Its destiny is manifested in our motto: ‘Death to Israel.’[1]


Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah Secretary General


            With its guns temporarily put aside, Hezbollah’s struggle for political prestige was of immediate concern.  After winning several parliamentary seats, the organization was able to establish itself as a political superpower with an even more menacing military wing lurking in the background.  Israel’s 1985 partial withdrawal from Lebanon left Amal content with suspending most of its resistance activities, leaving Hezbollah the only, and therefore most progressive, party to gain further prestige “at the expense of the other organizations, especially on the Left.”[2]  This reality left Israel shaken, but alert. 


Preliminary Attacks

In April of 1996, the Israelis bombed Hezbollah bases in Southern Lebanon, Beirut, and the Bekaa Valley, striking a UN base in their conquests.  This event and Hezbollah’s retaliation are known as Operation Grapes of Wrath.[3]  Israel’s intent was to undermine popular support among the Lebanese Shi’i Muslims, as well as to “prompt Syria to reign in the organi[z]ation.”[4]  Hezbollah’s rapid advancement after the civil war was nowhere near close to its end, its vast political presence provoking Israel’s complete withdraw from Lebanon in May of 2000, six weeks before their Hezbollah-prescribed deadline. 


Hezbollah and Hariri

Despite nearly five years of ceasefire after Israel extracted its troops, the early months of 2005 were riddled with chaos.  Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri, was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut, his death to be understood in “the context of his status as the focus of Lebanese opposition to Syrian authority,”[5] thus sparking anti-Syrian rallies throughout Beirut.  Consequently, the Anti-Syrian alliance led by Saad Hariri won control of parliament in Lebanon’s 2005 elections; not much later four pro-Syrian generals were charged with the murder of Rafic Hariri earlier the same year.  This prompted the beginning of Hezbollah’s presence in the Hariri case and fortified the organization’s distrust of Israel, saying that the former Prime Minister’s tribunal “[was] in league” with the country to the south.  Those accused of taking Hariri’s life are members of Hezbollah, urging other Shi’i revolutionaries to kidnap two Israeli soldiers as a way of mocking their military.  As an older brother teases his younger, Hezbollah kept Israel in a headlock, causing the latter to grow furious; in July of 2006, Israel decided to invade Lebanon once again, initiating the 34-Day War.  To Secretary General Nasrallah, the killing in Qana was a godsend.  As Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff state in their book, 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon,

Once again the Arab public, large sections of the Lebanese citizenry, and, to a certain degree, even the international community lent their support to Hezbollah.  The American networks provided wide coverage of the killing – as they had not done for years with event connected with Israel.  Israel had been missing from American TV screens since the United States went to war in Iraq.  Now, because of Qana, Israel returned to prime time.[6]


This phenomenon was possible, in part, because of Hezbollah’s massive poster and billboard campaigns.  Images of the party’s violent behavior overwhelmed the streets of Lebanon once again, showing that Lebanese poster production, specifically in regard to Hezbollah, exists on a cyclical timeline; the party’s initial posters exhibited the party’s formation, later being subsumed by its violence.  Then, Hezbollah posters revolved around the “together we build, together we liberate” slogan after the civil war.  Consequently, posters during Hezbollah’s reconstruction period portrayed the cosmopolitan grandeur that was to be Lebanon’s future under Hezbollah’s political, military, and culturally dominating reign.  Not much later, however, the country and its political posters experienced a relapse in violent, wartime imagery. 


A Divine Victory: Memorializing Hezbollah’s Grandeur

The 34-Day War against Israel took place at a moment of heightened internal conflict when the focus was not only on preventing Israel from occupying Lebanese territory, but their foreseen “success in the battlefield was also framed as deterring further US hegemony in the region with the latter’s alleged project for a ‘new Middle East,’” involving the abolition of Hezbollah in Lebanon.[7]  Thus, Hezbollah’s political posters adopted a multilingual purpose.  Now published in Arabic, French, and English, many of the party’s graphics were accessible by a global audience; its newfound viewership gave the organization all the more motivation to assume the role of victor, spurring Hezbollah’s Divine Victory poster campaign and subsequent artistic enthusiasm.   It is important to note that the designer of this poster campaign did not define himself as a member of the organization, rather a mere individual in support of its conquests.  Hezbollah’s creative director, Mohammad Kawtharani had never met Nasrallah, but produced posters based upon a few customary guidelines provided by the secretary general himself. 

In a poster series titled Our Air. Our Earth. Our Water. With Fire is Defended. (fig. 30-33), Hezbollah uses Arabic and English to announce their triumph in the 34-Day War against Israel.  The widespread announcement of this event meant that the posters were able to reach a public “beyond the confines of H[e]zb[o]llah’s assumed Shi’i constituency.”[8]  Their graphic language was capable of hailing the Lebanese population as a whole, assuming a national victory, situating Lebanon within a global landscape.  An article in Newsweek International referred to Hezbollah’s poster aesthetic after the civil war as being “straight to the point.”[9]  While Islamist posters were once known for their “densely impenetrable Arabic, peppered with quotes from the Qur’an,” Hezbollah posters produced for the Divine Victory Campaign emit a clear and singular message; the party is akin to public knowledge and demands.[10]  In this particular poster series, one sees a simplified slogan pasted onto an even more simplified image; whether it be tanks on the ground, UH-60 helicopter attacks in the air, war ship bombings over water, or missile launches exploding with fire, Hezbollah showed that it was the dominant party over all elements.  These 34 days may have been characterized by chaos, but it was a chaos that existed on Hezbollah’s accord.  As Lara Deeb writes in her article “Exhibiting the ‘Just-Lived Past’: Hizbullah’s Nationalist Narratives in Transnational Political Context,” such posters simultaneously “drew people into ‘the Resistance community,’ delineated that community’s boundaries, and articulated a particular narrative of Lebanese nationalism and the position of Lebanon in the Middle East vis-à-vis Israel.”[11]  The process of creating a political narrative in the poster format is of a “dual nature.”[12]  On one hand, such posters were meant to appeal to an internal Lebanese public; the goal was to gain solidarity with Hezbollah’s political and military mobilization.  On the other, Hezbollah posters produced during the 34-Day War were successful in reaching an “external, transnational audience,” earning the group and its visual culture notoriety on a global scale.[13]  One of the most striking aspects of this campaign is its being crafted explicitly for a broad public, particularly a foreign one.  While Hezbollah strives to reach the Lebanese masses, it too attempted to employ text and imagery that was readable by Western populations, specifically the United States, as it is often held responsible for Israel’s attacks in Lebanon.  Thus, Hezbollah posters deviated from the intention of political graphics produced by the various factions throughout the civil war, and even further from Western definitions of propaganda.  Instead of poster imagery being meant to reach a smaller, distinct crowd, as discussed in Chapter One, Hezbollah posters thrived on their global display.  Over and above this, posters designed in conjunction with the Divine Victory Campaign of 2006 were not necessarily focused on inciting national pride, but were instead concerned with declaring absolute victory.  Manifestly, Hezbollah posters were still physical sites of memorialization, but no longer for martyrs.  In order to move forward with their political and military domination, the party had to memorialize successful conquests under Hezbollah’s reign.  There was no need to commemorate martyrs when Lebanon as a whole was worthy of memorialization in company with Hezbollah’s grandeur.  The aforementioned poster series memorializes particular moments of armed accomplishment.

As such, a poster titled You Are Our Crowning Glory, You Are God’s Men, With Whom We Can Accomplish Victory… And We Have Been Victorious (fig. 34), represents remembrance as a means of moving forward valiantly.  Two soldiers, clad in camouflage, stand with their machine guns pointed toward the horizon.  Upon further examination, it becomes apparent that the men were guarding Lebanon’s southern border with Israel; their weapons are positioned to kill the oncoming enemy.  The poster speaks of national protection as well as the necessity in being vigilant.  Israel’s 2006 attack did not come as a surprise; this poster told its viewers that Lebanese citizens, thus, should not be surprised by future confrontations; with Hezbollah’s watchful eye, there was no need for Lebanese citizens to fear their southern border.  Despite the figures’ guns being raised, the Arabic slogan beneath the image alludes to Hezbollah’s already achieved victory; Hezbollah soldiers are the last standing.  These are “God’s Men” with whom Hezbollah and the Lebanese Shi’i population as a whole can achieve victory.  One must also note that, unlike the previous political posters studied in this thesis, the heroes face away from the viewer.  Again, their individual identities do not matter; their allegiance to Hezbollah’s cause makes them worthy of memorialization.  This poster stood as a site for the national commemoration of Hezbollah’s presumed victory in the 34-Day War.  “The photograph in which [the soldiers] appear carefully stages them as disciplined, courageous men belonging to a military institution that has taken upon itself the duty of safeguarding the nation.”[14]  Hezbollah’s culture of resistance was continued, warranting public mobilization and reestablishing the ideal of the ummah (Islamic community) in the twenty-first century, especially among other Shi’i revolutionaries. 

In her research, Zeina Maasri argues that political posters produced during the civil war provided sites of symbolic struggle; I would further this argument by stating that Lebanese, particularly Hezbollah, posters were always, to some degree, ephemeral memorials.  In the case of the aforementioned print, Hezbollah alluded to their previous martyr posters, but transformed the topic to adhere to the 34-Day War and self-declared Divine Victory.  By doing so, Hezbollah’s political posters of 2006 blurred the line between historical/commemorative narratives and the construction of the future; the latter cannot exist without the memorialization of the former.  In her book Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon, Lucia Volk states,

Political elites in Lebanon build memorials after war and tragedy to exercise their power of world making.  In particular, memorials have played an important part in creating shared values and meanings in a society marked by cultural and political divisions.  In creating commemorative narratives, political elites have sought to transcend competing narratives of division and hatred… some political elites chose to remember [history] as a means to validate national identities.[15]


The public played an important role in bringing these sites to life through image memorialization, despite their transitory existence.  Such posters offered Lebanese viewers a physical space to learn, commemorate, and construct their futures as a unified community – options that were made possible, if not enforced, by Hezbollah.  The images provided somewhat of a pilgrimage destination to those willing to follow the party’s Islamic path of resistance.  Much like a communal gathering at a mosque or funeral, these posters generated public observance and commemorative action, making each a momentary monument.  As Deeb reiterates, “contemporary warfare includes battles over the representations and meanings of ‘current events’ and the just-lived past, over the images of parties to the conflict on a transnational stage, and over broader spheres of cultural production and meaning making.”[16]  It is within this framework that one understands the impact of political posters on redefining sites of history and memory, as well as propaganda, within a Lebanese context.


                  [1] Hasan Nasrallah, Nicholas Noe, and Nicholas Blanford, Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayed Hasan Nasrallah, (London: Verso, 2007), 221.

                  [2] Traboulsi, Modern Lebanon, 230.

                  [3] Norton, Hezbollah, 84.

                  [4] These attempts were; however, unsuccessful as a result of the horrible slaughter of more than 100 displaced civilians in Qana; Israel only managed to further stir Hezbollah’s hatred. Ibid.

                  [5] Norton, Hezbollah, 127.

                  [6] Harel and Isacharoff, 34 Days, 167.

                  [7] Maasri, “Belonging,” 154.

                  [8] Maasri, “Belonging,” 150.

                  [9] Peraino, Kevin. “Winning Hearts and Minds; the New War in Lebanon is a Propaganda Battle – And Hezbollah is Coming Out on Top. Some Tips From a Master.” Newsweek International. 2 Oct. 2006. Accessed 27 August 2014, < http://www.newsweek.com/winning-hearts-and-minds-111623>.

                  [10] Ibid.

                  [11] Lara Deeb, “Exhibiting the ‘Just-Lived Past’: Hizbullah’s Nationalist Narratives in Transnational Political Context.” Comparative Studies in Society and History. 50.02, (2008), 370.

                  [12] Ibid.

                  [13] Ibid., 374.

                  [14] Maasri, “Belonging,” 150.

                  [15] Volk, Memorials, 37-38.

                  [16] Deeb, Exhibiting, 396.

Momentary Memorials 32

Figures 30-33, Artist unknown, Our Air. Our Earth. Our Water. With Fire is Defended. Series of four posters from the Divine Victory campaign, Hezbollah Media Office, 2006.

Momentary Memorials 33

Figure 34, Artist unknown, You Are Our Crowning Glory, You Are God’s Men, With Whom We Can Accomplish Victory… And We Have Been Victorious, Divine Victory campaign, Hezbollah Media Office, 2006.


Though aesthetic genres and stylistic traits of past wartime prints are present, this thesis has explored the concept of the Lebanese civil war political poster, stemming into that of Hezbollah, as an innovative realm of artistic design relevant to the development of visual culture in the Middle East.  I have attempted to approach this subject as a neutral party that seeks to analyze the posters’ aesthetic genres and significance within a greater art historical and design discourse.  As such, this thesis has argued that Lebanese political posters, particularly those produced by the Party of God, established physical sites of memorialization – a topic that transformed alongside the viewer’s political, military, and social experiences.  Despite their fleeting existence, Lebanese political posters sought to establish a community of commemoration, often inciting public action, resistance, remembrance, and education.  These images provided the foundation for Lebanon’s historical reconstruction and future nation building.  Such images brought to the fore memories of violent clashes between Christian, Druze, Sunnis, and Shi’i Muslims alike, the reasons for such clashes only now being remembered with visual aides.  The online poster archive at the American University of Beirut and the recently rediscovered Hezbollah Media Office archive have allowed me to regenerate a period of Lebanese history characterized by lacking documentation and public amnesia.  Hezbollah was one of the few Lebanese political parties that maintained an archive of all of their printed posters, which the party kept in large archival albums.  This thesis has been an attempt to shed light on the development of these posters during and directly following the Lebanese civil war and how such a collection is situated within the discourse of historical and political design – a topic significantly under researched from an art historical perspective.

I have selected certain posters for this study to highlight the diversity in civil war ideologies and the corresponding designers that have established Lebanon, once again, as a country with rich artistic/design history.  Over and above this, this thesis aimed to critically redefine political propaganda as that which revolves around action and practice, the two primary notions of Islam.  As such, I have argued that the political posters being produced during and directly following the civil war deviated from traditional propaganda in that they were not created by a consolidated elite for a unilateral population, thus challenging the way such posters were perceived by American and European spectators.  The posters designed by more than a dozen active political and religious factions in the civil war were immediately telling of Lebanon’s divergence from traditional propaganda definitions, that which has been established by figures such as Noam Chomsky for a Western audience.  Because Hezbollah strived to attain a transnational viewership, one notices that the party deviated further from traditional propagandistic methods, which sought to undermine independent thought and prevent an understanding of global issues.  It is misleading to think that such posters were not supplemented by external influences and aesthetics, but they were undeniably linked to specific rising conflicts and the construction of visual identities intrinsic to Lebanon. 

Hezbollah visuals have become infamous for their ability to prompt public commemoration of martyrs and Lebanon’s grandeur under the organization’s reign. I have argued that such posters transcend their two-dimensional boundaries to become physical sites of education and memorialization.  Citizens gained a sense of community from crowding around these urban images and taking part in collective remembrance.  I have examined Lebanese political posters as artistic artifacts that are incredibly telling of the country’s diverse population and lacking political (and religious) cohesion.  In this analysis, it is ever clear that political graphics produced throughout the last few decades should be studied and appreciated for their individual contributions to Lebanon’s image wars.  Manifestly, the posters displayed by the Lebanese civil war and Hezbollah created an alternative culture of propaganda and memorialization.  To reiterate Jonathan Crary, [Humans are] swamped with images and information about the past and recent catastrophes – but there is also a growing incapacity to engage these traces in ways that could move beyond them, in the interest of a common future… images [in the broad sense of the term] have become one of the many depleted and disposable elements that, in their intrinsic achievability, end up never being discarded.[1]


The posters’ presence on the streets of Lebanon means they were inevitably seen; it is their content that provoked communal gathering and physical commemoration. 

            The first chapter of this study aimed to provide a broad overview of the participating fronts in the Lebanese civil war and the poster genres of each.  In this examination I have argued that such images are proof of the country’s lacking unified aesthetic.  Instead, each party and organization produced political graphics that aligned with their specific goals, histories, and intended audiences, allowing readers to understand Lebanon’s dismissal of Western propaganda techniques.  Here, the emphasis was often placed on the memorialization of political figures and historical martyrs. 

            The second chapter illustrated the formation of Hezbollah and the civil war’s concluding events.  With Hezbollah’s establishment there appeared a poster genre revolving around post-war reconstruction efforts and the party’s rapid advancement as both a military and political superpower.  In this chapter, I stated that artists and graphic designers momentarily set aside violent imagery to focus on Lebanon’s prosperous future.  This phenomenon was, however, short-lived.

            The Israeli invasion of 2006, the topic of discussion in Chapter Three, incited the return of aggressive resistance graphics.  I have argued that this period of time was characterized by Hezbollah’s dominance, particularly within Lebanon’s visual culture.  The Divine Victory campaign published images in both the poster and billboard formats to promote its Shi’i customs, denounce Israel’s legitimacy, educate young revolutionaries, and to memorialize specific moments of the organization’s splendor. 

As such, this study has aimed to highlight the transformative quality of Lebanon’s political posters, their only unifying quality being to memorialize, despite differences in subject matter.  The Lebanese civil war has been subject to much scholarship, but seldom has this research been conducted in the field of art history.  It is my hope that this thesis has provided a basis for further research on Lebanese political posters and their existence as momentary memorials.


                  [1] Crary, 24/7, 34.




Ali, Wijdan. “Modern Arab Art: An Overview,” Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World, 1994.


Bartelt, Dana. Both Sides of Peace: Israeli and Palestinian Political Poster Art. Raleigh, NC: Contemporary Art Museum, U of Washington, 1997.


Beard, Charles A. and Alfred Vagts. “Currents of Thought in Historiography,” The American Historical Review, 1937.


Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. New York: Seven Stories, 2002.


Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso, 2013.


Cushing, Lincoln. Revolucion!: Cuban Poster Art. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2003.


Deeb, Lara. “Exhibiting the ‘Just-Lived Past’: Hizbullah’s Nationalist Narratives in Transnational Political Context.” Comparative Studies in Society and History. Issue 50.02., 2008.


Doob, Leonard W. Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1950.


Fisk, Robert. Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon. New York: Antheneum, 1990.


Harb, Zahera. Channels of Resistance in Lebanon: Liberation Propaganda, Hezbollah and the Media. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.


Harel, Amos and Avi Isacharoff. 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon.New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.


Haugbølle, Sune. War and Memory in Lebanon. New York: Cambridge, UP, 2010.


Kaufmann, Regula, Antoine Laham, Jonas Loetscher, and Arnold Luethold, “National Reconciliation,” (DCAF, 2009), 6.


Lamloum, O. “Hezbollah’s Media: Political History in Outline,” Global Media and Communications Issue 5.3, 2010.


Maasri, Zeina. “The Aesthetics of Belonging.” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication. (5.2), 2012.


———. Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009.


———. “Signs of Conflict: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Accessed June 18, 2014. < http://www.signsofconflict.com/>.


McQuiston, Liz. Graphic Agitation: Social and Political Graphics since the Sixties. London: Phaidon, 1993.


Mourani, Mishka Mojabber and Aida Yacoub Haddad. “New Year, 1979” from Alone Together. Beirut: Kutub, 2012.


Nasrallah, Hasan, Nicholas Noe, and Nicholas Blanford. Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayed Hasan Nasrallah. London: Verso, 2007.


Norton, Augustus Richard. Hezbollah: A Short History. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007.


Peraino, Kevin. “Winning Hearts and Minds; the New War in Lebanon is a Propaganda Battle – And Hezbollah is Coming Out on Top. Some Tips From a Master.” Newsweek International. 2 Oct. 2006. Accessed 27 August 2014. .


Rooney, Caroline, and Rita Sakr. The Ethics of Representation in Literature, Art, and Journalism: Transnational Responses to the Siege of Beirut. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013.


Traboulsi, Fawwaz. A History of Modern Lebanon. London: Pluto Press, 2007.


Various authors. “Al-Baqarah (The Cow),” Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, University of Southern California, Accessed Sept. 21, 2014. .


Various authors. “Lebanon Profile,” BBC News, 4 Apr. 2014, Accessed 17 July 2014, .



Various authors. “The Graphics of Revolution and War: Iranian Poster Arts.” U of Chicago Special Collections Library, n.d., accessed Sept. 30, 2014. .


Volk, Lucia. Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.


The Influence of Language: Belief in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fictional Mythology and The Lord of the Rings, Jay Bennett




Studying the works of J.R.R. Tolkien inevitably leads to a question of belief; that is, the question of whether readers actually believe in the fictional world and how that experience of belief generates meaning. Much of the scholarship on fantasy literature is interested in this question, beginning with Tolkien’s own discussions of “Secondary Belief” in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” The existing criticism has succeeded in establishing a lexicon of terms that describe how a work of fantasy conveys meaning. These works of scholarship provide an answer to the implicit question that arises when reading fantasy: “If a story takes place in a fictional world completely foreign to my own, how can I take away any meaning that is applicable to real life?” To provide an answer, critics often allude to The Lord of the Rings to create their own generalizing terms and concepts that can be applied to any work of fantasy or to the genre of fantasy more broadly. Although a comprehensive understanding has been established regarding how fantasy generates meaning through belief, there is an incomplete application of these ideas to Tolkien’s fictional works. Gary Wolfe, for example, uses The Lord of the Rings and other works of fantastic literature to argue that fantasy must create a sense of “deeper belief” in the mind of a reader in order for that reader to extract any valuable meaning from the story. He does not, however, explain exactly how Tolkien’s work evokes “deeper belief.” This thesis will briefly summarize some of the existing concepts and terminologies surrounding fantasy literature, and then demonstrate exactly how Tolkien’s works of fiction (specifically The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion) inspire belief to fulfill the roles of fantasy that have already been determined.

Tolkien creates an entire belief system rooted in the fictional creation myth found in the posthumously published writings that constitute The Silmarillion. Though The Silmarillion was not available to the public until after his death, Tolkien had written the vast majority of the stories within it before writing The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, and the belief system that governs his fantasy world is most readily apparent in the first three sections, “Ainulindalë,” “Valaquenta,” and “Quenta Silmarillion.” These sections chronicle the creation of Eä, Tolkien’s fictional universe, by Eru Ilúvatar, called the One, and the Ainur, lesser gods of Eru’s creation. The belief system that I will attempt to define (both by its origins in The Silmarillion and by its workings in Tolkien’s later stories) is ultimately what allows readers to recognize the meanings of Tolkien’s stories that are applicable to the primary world, or the world in which  readers actually exist.  

The first section of the thesis, “Language, Sub-Creation, and Secondary Belief,” will examine Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and related criticism that establish rhetoric to describe how fantasy evokes belief and thereby creates meaning. The second section, “J.R.R. Tolkien: Philologist, Catholic, and Family Man,” will look at Tolkien’s biography, particularly his religious and academic upbringing, in an attempt to discover the real-life inspirations that ultimately develop into the belief system of Tolkien’s fiction. The third section, “Tolkien’s Universal Creation Myth,” will argue that Tolkien’s creation myth is simultaneously indicative of Christian beliefs, as John Gough argues in his essay “Tolkien’s Creation Myth in The Silmarillion – Northern or Not?,” as well as pagan beliefs, making the creation myth of The Silmarillion an expression of Western belief in general. The fourth section, “‘Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy’ – The Creation of Eä,” will provide a textual analysis of Tolkien’s fictional creation myth and attempt to reveal some of the aspects of his belief system that are evident within. The final section, “Song in The Lord of the Rings,” will demonstrate how Tolkien uses song in The Lord of the Rings to reveal his belief system to his readers and will connect the trilogy to the larger context of The Silmarillion.  In order to begin to understand the belief system in Tolkien’s fiction, let us first examine a brief scene from The Lord of the Rings

In the beginning of The Return of the King, the third novel of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the hopes of the free peoples of Middle-earth hang by a thread. The army of Rohan, led by King Théoden and Aragorn, has defeated the treacherous wizard Saruman’s host of fighting orcs known as Uruk-hai at the Hornburg, Rohan’s defensive stronghold in the valley of Helm’s Deep. But a greater evil remains in the east. Sauron’s hordes of orcs amass for an imminent strike at Minas Tirith, the capital city of Gondor and the last major stronghold of men.[1] Frodo Baggins, the hobbit charged with the task of destroying Sauron’s Ring of Power, creeps ever closer to Mount Doom in the heart of Sauron’s fiery domain of Mordor, the one place where the Ring can be destroyed. If Sauron should, however, discover the Ring-bearer and reclaim his Ring, the destruction and enslavement of mankind is all but guaranteed.

The remaining members of the Fellowship (those originally appointed as Frodo’s guards but separated from him – i.e. Aragorn, the elf Legolas, the dwarf Gimli, the hobbits Merry and Pippin, and Gandalf the wizard) ride with King Théoden, his nephew Éomer, and his guard of Rohirrim back to the Hornburg from Isengard. In Isengard, Théoden and his captains retreated with Saruman only to be met with malice and attempts to infect their minds with hexing words. Afterwards, Gandalf and Pippin break off from the company, riding hard for Minas Tirith to muster what defenses they can. Nazgûl, the dark servants of Sauron, have been spotted flying overhead, scouting the land. “Many hopes will wither in this bitter Spring,” laments Aragorn as they prepare to ride under cover of darkness (The Return of the King 50). Shortly after they depart, one of Théoden’s rear guard gallops to the front of the company to warn the king of an approaching contingent of foreign cavalry, riding hard to overtake the Rohirrim. King Théoden calls a halt at once, and his riders about-face to confront the strangers, spears brandished in a defensive formation. 

The sinking moon was obscured by a great sailing cloud, but suddenly it rode out clear again. Then they all heard the sound of hoofs, and at the same moment they saw dark shapes coming swiftly on the path from the fords. The moonlight glinted here and there on the points of spears. The number of the pursuers could not be told, but they seemed no fewer than the king’s escort, at the least.

When they were some fifty paces off, Éomer cried in a loud voice: ‘Halt! Halt! Who rides in Rohan?’

The pursuers brought their steeds to a sudden stand. A silence followed; and then in the moonlight, a horseman could be seen dismounting and walking slowly forward. His hand showed white as he held it up, palm outward, in token of peace; but the king’s men gripped their weapons. At ten paces the man stopped. He was tall, a dark standing shadow. Then his clear voice rang out.

‘Rohan? Rohan did you say? That is a glad word. We seek that land in haste from long afar.’

‘You have found it,’ said Éomer. ‘When you crossed the fords yonder you entered it. But it is the realm of Théoden the King. None ride here save by his leave. Who are you? And what is your haste?’

‘Halbarad Dúnadan, Ranger of the North I am,’ cried the man. ‘We seek one Aragorn son of Arathorn, and we heard that he was in Rohan.’

‘And you have found him also!’ cried Aragorn. Giving his reins to Merry, he ran forward and embraced the newcomer. ‘Halbarad!’ he said. ‘Of all joys this is the least expected!’

(The Return of the King 50-51)


This scene exemplifies what Tolkien terms “eucatastrophe” – a turn of events that delivers a character from seeming harm or danger, resulting in the release of pent up fear and emotion on the part of the reader. Tolkien argues that eucatastrophe is the highest function of fantasy literature, akin to tragedy in drama. In The Return of the King, Tolkien describes the Dúnedain as they ride up to King Théoden’s host as “pursuers,” “dark shapes coming swiftly” with the reflection of the moon in their spears. The pent up anticipation is voiced by Éomer’s cry, “Halt! Halt! Who rides in Rohan?” Already set on edge, readers are further encouraged to imagine these newcomers as foes. The white hand held up “in token of peace” is reminiscent of the white hand of Isengard that adorned the Uruk-hai’s battle standards, a parallel that leaves readers uncertain about the identity and intent of these newcomers. Suddenly, with Halbarad’s reply, “Rohan? Rohan did you say? That is a glad word,” the reader realizes that perhaps the approaching riders are some unanticipated ally, confirmed by Aragorn’s embrace and line, “of all joys this is the least expected!” Readers release their held breaths and rejoice in the knowledge that another small force for good has taken up arms in defense of the realms of men.

            However, there is much more to this scene than the literary device eucatastrophe, the physical experience of relief in fantasy literature that Tolkien defined and implemented throughout his work. The text also implies a restored unification between the Rohirrim and the Dúnedain. The Dúnedain are direct descendants of the Númenóreans who settled Gondor, while the Rohirrim are distantly related, though considered inferior in lineage. Cirion, the Steward of Gondor early in the Third Age, granted the lands of Rohan to Eorl the Young and his kin after they rode to the aid of Gondor in the Battle of Celebrant when the Easterlings (wicked men from the east) attempted to invade Gondor. Since then, however, a lack of communication and the ailing mental health of Denethor, the current Steward of Gondor, have resulted in an uncertain alliance between the two largest realms of men. This eucatastrophic scene, where the kin of the rightful King of Gondor join with the Rohirrim for a single cause, therefore symbolizes the reunification of free men across Middle-earth, a necessary event for the ultimate defeat of Sauron.

            Although the history of Rohan and Gondor is unfamiliar to all but the most devoted Tolkien fans, the text of The Return of the King makes apparent that these two groups of men come from different cultures and harbor a certain amount of mistrust towards one another. Part of what makes Tolkien’s work unique is that he grounds almost every interaction between differing peoples in centuries and even millennia of invented history. The texts containing Middle-earth’s history are available for those who are inclined to seek them out, but what is truly remarkable about Tolkien’s work is that one does not need to read the historical texts to understand the complex relationships at work. In this case, the relationship between the Rohirrim and the Dúnedain is understood, even if the historical details are unknown. Aragorn’s inspiring acts of valor in defense of the Hornburg and the people of Rohan directly leads Théoden and Éomer to put aside their mistrust and accept his kin from the north. Gimli points out the differences between the groups of men by saying, “they are a strange company, these newcomers… Stout men and lordly they are, and the Riders of Rohan look almost as boys beside them; for they are grim men of face, worn like weathered rocks for the most part, even as Aragorn himself; and they are silent” (The Return of the King 52-53). The “grim” faces and “silence” of the Dúnedain suggest that there are reservations among the men, and it is understood through the text that the soldiers of Rohan and the Rangers from the North maintain an unstable trust in one another at best.

In fact, the mistrust of outsiders is part of the larger culture or belief system at play in Tolkien’s work. The members of the fellowship encounter similar suspicion when they first meet the elves of Lothlórien and the men of the Riddermark. Other examples include Beorn’s initial mistrust of the Dwarves in The Hobbit, Frodo and the other hobbits’ mistrust of Aragorn when they first meet him in Bree under his pseudonym “Strider,” and Treebeard’s misgivings upon finding Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest. All of these relationships eventually turn into steadfast friendships, and Tolkien seems to imply something about how trust is earned and maintained.

The mistrust that dwarves and elves have toward one another is particularly revealing of Tolkien’s belief system. Unless they have poured through the dense texts of The Silmarillion or the appendices to Tolkien’s other works, readers are not aware that elves and men were created by Eru Ilúvatar, the mightiest and first god in Tolkien’s legendarium, while the dwarves were created by Aulë, one of the Valar (lesser gods originally created by Eru Ilúvatar), who is the “master of crafts” whose “lordship is over all the substances of which Arda is made” (The Silmarillion 27).  Eru Ilúvatar first commanded Aulë to destroy the dwarves, as they were not in accordance with his designs, but he ultimately took pity on the disheartened Aulë and allowed the dwarves to live.

Then Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility; and the Dwarves shrank from the hammer and were afraid, and they bowed down their heads and begged for mercy. And the voice of Ilúvatar said to Aulë: ‘Thy offer I accepted even as it was made. Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices?... They shall sleep now in the darkness under stone, and shall not come forth until the Firstborn have awakened upon Earth… But when the time comes I will awaken them, and they shall be to thee as children; and often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice.’

(The Silmarillion 43-44)


In this story, Tolkien reveals more than just the origin of elves or dwarves. He sets up a complex relationship between the two whose foundation lies in the very traits that his gods embody. The elves take after Eru Ilúvatar – wise, immortal, and just – conscious of all living things and the symbiotic relationship they share. Dwarves are also like their maker, concerned with their own works and obsessed with the treasures of the earth to the fault of greed. It is clear from this passage that dwarves and elves, “the children of [Eru’s] adoption and the children of [his] choice,” are destined to harbor a certain amount of loathing toward one another. Yet one can also infer this from The Lord of the Rings, recognizing the physical differences as well as the differences in values that the two races have. The rocky relationship between elves and dwarves is a great example of how Tolkien’s belief system can be directly defined using The Silmarillion, yet the same belief system can be implicitly understood by reading  The Lord of the Rings.

            The origin story of elves and dwarves is a small part of the larger narratives of “Ainulindalë,” “Valaquenta,” and “Quenta Silmarillion,” the first three parts of The Silmarillion that make up the creation myth of Arda, Tolkien’s world. Like the tale of Aulë and the dwarves, the creation myth in its entirety provides more than just an origin story. It sets up an entire belief system and moral structure. As John Gough writes in his essay, “Tolkien’s Creation Myth in The Silmarillion – Northern or Not?,” Tolkien “wanted to provide, through his own English works, the kind of epic, mythic literature that already existed in Greek, Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian, Finnish, and Romance languages” (Gough 2). This “mythic literature” that Tolkien used as inspiration functioned not only to provide religious explanations for the origin of the world, but also to establish an understanding of morality through the use of metaphor. Tolkien’s creation myth, reminiscent of many cultures’ religious texts, is no different. The Silmarillion establishes a belief system that governs the events in Tolkien’s other works. This belief system is implicitly understood by readers of The Lord of the Rings, and is particularly apparent in the songs and idioms that Tolkien’s characters reference. The belief system at work in Tolkien’s writings is similar enough to the general beliefs of western culture, particularly the moral beliefs of Christianity, that readers will recognize it as relevant to their lives and readily suspend disbelief to accept the impossibilities of Tolkien’s stories, or as Wolfe puts it, engage in “deeper belief.”

Despite his efforts, Tolkien was unable to publish the writings in The Silmarillion during his lifetime. Arne Zettersten writes that “Tolkien was… of the firm opinion that these two large books should be published together” in the chapter “Fantasy: For Children and Adults,”  which is part of  J.R.R. Tolkien’s Double Worlds and Creative Process (Zettersten 185). Tolkien’s desire to publish The Silmarillion along with The Lord of the Rings is a testament to the vital role that these early writings play in the formation and understanding of his later work. He clearly believed that access to The Silmarillion could help illuminate the meaning or meanings of The Lord of the Rings. But because The Lord of the Rings achieved international renown without the benefit of The Silmarillion alerting readers to Tolkien’s belief system, we may infer that the same belief system is implicitly recognizable in the trilogy. However, understanding exactly how The Lord of the Rings creates meaning, how it inspires “deeper belief,” requires an analysis of the early writings in The Silmarillion, in which the elements of Tolkien’s belief system are initially established.

The general consensus from scholars such as Gary Wolfe, R.J. Reilly, C.S. Lewis, and even Tolkien himself is that literature that foregrounds the impossible, in the way that fantasy does, illuminates certain concepts in a way that realistic literature cannot. In other words, by bluntly presenting the impossible as ordinary, works of fantasy force the reader to reexamine and question everything they assume to be true in the story, even the realistic aspects, and perhaps come away with a new perspective on a concept they previously thought they understood. However, before readers of fantasy can reevaluate concepts that are ordinarily considered axioms, they must actively believe in the fantastic work. Belief, after all, is a mental exercise, and one can choose to believe in something he or she knows to be false in order to access a more profound truth of meaning.

In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien structures the impossibilities of the story according to the belief system that he created in the The Silmarillion. They are logical in their own way; there is meaning behind the magic. Even without reading The Silmarillion, readers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit easily understand the structure and logic of Tolkien’s belief system. Laced throughout Tolkien’s exhilarating tales of grandeur and wonder are metaphorical lessons, similar to religious parables. Also similar to religion, readers can take comfort from the stories and their implications and are encouraged, to some extent, to actually believe in Tolkien’s world of impossibilities. This genuine experience of belief illuminates the thematic significance of the fantastic work in the eyes of the reader. The creation myth in The Silmarillion lays the foundation for readers to engage in what Gary Wolfe terms “deeper belief” and Tolkien himself calls “Secondary Belief,” a necessary process for readers to recognize the meaning in any work of fantasy. Let us look in more detail at the terminology that critics have created to understand how a work of fantasy creates meaning, a process that begins, as Tolkien himself argued, with the manipulation of language.


Language, Sub-Creation, and Secondary Belief


The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power – upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.                                             

(Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 133)


Tolkien revealed much of his perception and intent with regard to his own work in the 1947 essay “On Fairy-Stories,” first published in his book Tree and Leaf and since collected elsewhere. Tolkien created his own definition of the fairy-story, one that identifies the manipulation of language as the defining quality of fairy-tales rather than as an adherence to a certain type of plot. He was also wrestling with the literary methods used by authors of fairy-stories to create meaning that he would ultimately emulate in his own works of fiction. When writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien knew that he was doing something different than the traditional authors of fairy-tales, but still viewed his work as a kind of contemporary fairy-story that engages readers in the same way that traditional fairy-stories do. As R.J. Reilly writes in his 1963 essay “Tolkien and the Fairy Story,” “I believe that the genre and meaning of the trilogy are to be found in his essay on fairy stories” (Reilly 137). In this essay, Tolkien most clearly delineates what he believes is the source of meaning and literary value in a work of fantasy literature or, because the genre did not exist as such at the time, a work of literature that takes place in the impossible realm of “Faërie.”

It all begins with language and its manipulation. By relying on language to comprehend and communicate the information our senses perceive, we inevitably allow for the possibility of altering that language and thereby altering our comprehension. When an artist or writer engages in this type of manipulation, he or she is performing what Tolkien terms “sub-creation.” All artistic works result from sub-creation, manipulating the mediums by which we perceive reality in order to create meaning; yet works of fantasy foreground the process of sub-creation and call attention to the fact that the axioms of reality are purposefully misconstrued. If the author successfully presents the impossibilities of his or her story as part of a logical structure that will ultimately reveal some meaning, then the reader temporarily accepts the clear manipulations of reality and engages in what Tolkien calls “Secondary Belief.” With the reader in this state of mind, a work of fantasy creates meaning in a way that a work of realistic literature cannot, at least not to the same degree. Secondary Belief temporarily removes the reader from reality and, therefore, allows him or her to more objectively observe and analyze the primary world, or the world in which the reader actually exists. In Tolkien’s literary canon, The Silmarillion is the preeminent work of sub-creation and establishes a belief system for The Lord of the Rings; a belief system founded on the manipulation of language, which encourages readers to engage in Secondary Belief.

The fluid nature of language, the endless meanings and possibilities that arise when putting words together, is the keystone of Tolkien’s fantasy work. Well known as a philologist, Tolkien’s language takes on a magical capacity for creation. The most obvious manifestation of Tolkien’s reverence for the power of language is the meticulous care with which he crafted his own fictional languages, most notably the elven dialects of Sindarin and Quenya. In his fiction, languages other than Westron, or the “common speech,” are generally imbued with mystical properties. Many elven words contain healing powers; ancient dwarven phrases can be used to open secret mountain gates; and merely uttering the language of Mordor will fill listeners with a sense of hopeless dread. As Reilly points out, the languages of mythical creatures in The Lord of the Rings are somehow indicative of the traits that those creatures exhibit. For example, “the Ents… the great trees of the Third age, are among the oldest living things. They speak to the hobbits in a language as old, as slowly and carefully articulated, as the earth itself. And when Tom Bombadil speaks, it is as if Nature itself – nonrational, interested only in life and in growing things – were speaking” (Reilly 139). Of course, by ascribing literal magic powers to the languages of Middle-earth, Tolkien is implying that the languages, or language more generally, of our world contain a related abstract power.

With regard to language it seems to me that the essential quality and aptitudes of a given language in a living monument is both more important to seize and far more difficult to make explicit than its linear history. So with regard to fairy stories, I feel that it is more interesting, and also in its way more difficult, to consider what they are, what they have become for us, and what values the long alchemic processes of time have produced in them.

(“On Fairy-Stories” 130)


Tolkien argues that it is not the evolution or “linear history” of language that is worthy of study, but rather the intrinsic “quality and aptitudes” of language – which implies language contains power or even a consciousness – that influence a given society. Like language, stories and tales should be studied with regard to their effect on culture rather than their origin. Language and stories are constantly in flux, subject to the “long alchemic processes of time,” and a fable thousands of years old may have magically, as though through the chemical processes of alchemy, taken on an entirely new meaning.

However, the passage of time is not the only way language takes on new meanings. Writers actively manipulate language to alter our perceptions.

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar.

(“On Fairy-Stories” 133)


Human perception (“the incarnate mind”), language (“the tongue”), and stories (“the tale”) are inherently coeval. To alter one is inevitably to alter the others. Therefore, to actively alter language is a kind of “spell or incantation” because it has the power to alter human perception. Simply by changing an adjective, one can provide “another view,” and participate in the “speech of mythical grammar.” All writers manipulate language to alter their readers’ perceptions to some extent. Nonetheless, while an author of realism must rely solely on devices such as vivid detail, exaggeration, or repetition to highlight an aspect of their story and thereby apply meaning to it, the author of fantasy can use language to alter the very foundations of human perception and afterward present familiar concepts to be reexamined. Consider, for example, the Ents in The Lord of the Rings. By making a tree walk, talk, and recite poetry and by delving into the conscious mind of a tree and revealing all of its fears and hopes, Tolkien forces his readers to reevaluate their understanding of nature. This manipulation of language, and subsequently of stories and perception, is the process of sub-creation.

            In a successful work of fantasy – that is, a work of fantasy that both evokes Secondary Belief and conveys meaning to the reader – the sub-creation is carried out swiftly and logically. Obviously, a realm of immortal beings, dragons, wizards, and rings of power disturbs our sense of real-world logic, but following the reader’s initial acceptance that the story will take place in a setting of impossibility, the rest of the magic in Faërie must remain plausible. As Gary Wolfe writes in his 1982 essay, “The Encounter with Fantasy,” “the further we progress in a fantasy narrative, the less we expect in the way of new impossible marvels; once the ground rules have been laid, a deus ex machina in fantasy is as intrusive as in any other kind of fiction” (Wolfe 226). In other words, the author of a work of fantasy cannot use the fact that magic exists in his or her story to justify a plot twist or solution to a problem presented in the narrative that violates the reader’s sense of belief in the fantasy world. The impossibilities in Faërie must adhere to a recognizable structure, outlined in the beginning of the narrative, so that each instance of magic is logical to the reader.

            In The Lord of the Rings, the Great Eagles of the Misty Mountains play a part that exemplifies how Tolkien avoids interposing a new impossible marvel, yet uses the constructs of his belief system to move the story along. When Gandalf is imprisoned by Saruman on the top of the tower of Orthanc, it is Gwaihir the Windlord, “swiftest of the Great Eagles,” who delivers him from captivity (The Fellowship of the Ring 314). Though it would be easy to argue that this is a deus ex machina in Tolkien’s story, the conversation that Gandalf has with Gwaihir reveals it to be something rather different. “‘How far can you bear me?’ I said to Gwaihir. ‘Many leagues,’ said he, ‘but not to the ends of the earth. I was sent to bear tidings not burdens’” (The Fellowship of the Ring 314). Gwaihir is not merely stating that he can only fly Gandalf so far; he is defining his role in the events of the trilogy more broadly. Just as the Ents exhibit similar traits to the trees they personify – slow to speak and decide on a course of action, as well as hesitant to involve themselves in the conflicts of others – the eagles behave in a way that we could reasonably expect sentient eagles to behave. They are not simply allied with men because they can talk and fear the destruction of Sauron. Rather, they are a prideful race that maintains their autonomy, only directly involving themselves in the affairs of men and elves and wizards when they feel it is absolutely necessary. And even then, Gwaihir does not fly Gandalf to Rivendell where he is desperately needed, but drops him in the nearby realm of Rohan, saying that he was “sent to bear tidings not burdens.” In other words, the eagles’ role in Middle-earth is that of a messenger or observer. They cannot directly influence the fate of the free peoples of Middle-earth, but nevertheless they provide valuable information and a kind of indirect counsel. Perhaps Tolkien is commenting on the value of eagles, or nature more generally, in the primary world. But more concretely, he is plugging the eagles into his belief system, assigning them a part to play in the larger narrative, as well as highlighting something fundamentally true about real world eagles through the personification of his eagle characters. Readers may be frustrated that Gwaihir will not simply fly over Mount Doom and drop the ring in from above, but in the context of Tolkien’s belief system, and his logical application of impossibilities, we understand that this cannot occur.

To read a work of fantasy is to put your trust in the author, to follow him or her blindly into an unfamiliar world with the assumption that whatever you find there will somehow become meaningful and applicable to the primary world. Wolf describes this trust as an “implied compact between author and reader – an agreement that whatever impossibilities we encounter will be made significant to us, but will retain enough of their idiosyncratic nature that we still recognize them to be impossible” (Wolfe 224-25). This “implied compact” manifests into Secondary Belief, or what Wolfe terms “deeper belief in the fundamental reality that this world expresses” (Wolfe 232). The “fundamental reality” of a work of fantasy is its meaning, its theme, its motif, its significance that the reader can take away from the fantastic realm and relate to the primary world.

            Interestingly enough, the meaning conveyed by a work of fantasy almost always deals with something ordinary or familiar. “Fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting” (“On Fairy-Stories” 167). By taking a commonplace object or concept and placing it in a fantastic world, we are able to examine it with a new perspective. The manipulation of language in a work of fantasy manipulates the perceptions of the reader and allows him to view a whole array of familiar objects and concepts in a completely new light. Tolkien calls this result of Secondary Belief “Recovery.”

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining – regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity – from possessiveness… This triteness is really the penalty of ‘appropriation’: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them.

(“On Fairy-Stories” 165-66)


Tolkien argues that one of the most valuable experiences that a reader can take away from fantasy literature is Recovery. If we go long enough without altering or examining our perceptions of the world, we begin to become overly familiar with the objects that we regularly observe, and we ascribe a possessive mentality to these objects and concepts. “All things become blurred by familiarity; we come to possess them, to use them, to see them only in relation to ourselves. In doing so we lose sight of what the things really are, qua things – and ‘things’ here includes people, objects, ideas, moral codes, literally everything. Recovery is a recovery of perspective” (Reilly 144). Engaging with fantasy forces the reader to temporarily alter his or her perspective, and to reevaluate even the simplest of objects, perhaps realizing something new.

            In his 1955 essay “The Dethronement of Power,” C.S. Lewis discusses Tolkien’s concept of Recovery and directly relates it to The Lord of the Rings, which he describes as a myth:

The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the “veil of familiarity.” The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it real meat. If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book [The Lord of the Rings] applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly. I do not think he could have done it in any other way.

(Lewis 15-16)


In addition to describing the clarity with which we can rediscover something in a fantastic world, Lewis explains that the process of Recovery extends beyond tangible objects to include more complex moral or mental concepts, such as “good and evil, our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys.” A very real and influential agency is applied to indefinite human ideas in The Lord of the Rings. Consider Boromir’s desire to use the Ring as a weapon against Sauron. Readers who have come to appropriate the concepts of good and evil might naturally assume that good people can use evil means to enforce a greater morality. But when they see Boromir attempt to take the Ring forcefully from Frodo, driven mad by its influence, they are forced to reevaluate their perspective and ultimately develop a more profound and accurate understanding of good and evil. Perhaps that understanding is that good people are easily enticed by evil, or that evil deeds done for the sake of virtue will ultimately lead to ruin. Whatever the realization may be, this scene then becomes a commentary on any number of historical events, from the use of the atom bomb to the modern argument over whether or not means of mild torture are acceptable if we believe it will save lives. This scene from The Lord of the Rings does not feign to provide an answer to such complex moral issues, but rather encourages readers to approach such issues with a clear understanding of good and evil, unappropriated and recovered from years of practical application. Reilly also identifies concepts in The Lord of the Rings that are rediscovered through Recovery:

Applying the theory of Recovery to the trilogy, then, we rediscover the meaning of heroism and friendship as we see the two hobbits clawing their way up Mount Doom; we see again the endless evil of greed and egotism in Gollum, stunted and ingrown out of moral shape by years of lust for the Ring; we recognize again the essential anguish of seeing beautiful and frail things – innocence, early love, children – passing away as we read of the Lady Galadriel and the elves making the inevitable journey to the West and extinction… We see morality as morality.

(Reilly 145)


Indeed, there is a literal power that surrounds many abstract concepts in The Lord of the Rings, concepts such as friendship, love, mercy, and pity, as well as the ever permeating influence of hate and a lust for power. By engaging in the Secondary World, the reader is able to recover a non-egocentric awareness of the concepts presented in the work of fantasy. 

The final two results of Secondary Belief are “Escape” and “Consolation,” which Tolkien admits “are naturally closely connected” (“On Fairy-Stories” 167). “In fact, Escape brings about Consolation as its end or effect” (Reilly 146). Tolkien is aware of the rhetoric surrounding “escapism” and the fact that many critics have condemned fantasy on the grounds that it is “escapist.” Regardless, he vehemently maintains that “Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories” (“On Fairy-Stories” 167). He refuses to admit that Escape is a negative function of the fairy-story. In fact, he claims quite the opposite: that Escape is a necessary rebellion from reality, and critics of fantasy who use this word to discredit the genre “are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter” (“On Fairy-Stories” 168).

Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.

(“On Fairy-Stories” 168)


Though Tolkien is not so pessimistic that he believes life is akin to imprisonment, his metaphor is well taken. Using the imagination to escape for a time from the confines of reality can be not only enjoyable, but also beneficial. It offers “a kind of satisfaction and consolation” in a world of “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death” (“On Fairy-Stories” 173). The tragedies of everyday life can be more optimistically and energetically confronted if one has the opportunity to Escape to a more idyllic world for a time. “This kind of solace or respite is necessary; it is not refusal to face reality, it is a time needed to regroup one’s forces for the next day’s battle” (Reilly 147). The constant bombardment of negativity and hardship can be detrimental to one’s desire to achieve, even his or her desire to live. Escape is a healthy and effective solution.

            Although there are a variety of consolations that can result from Escape, the primary Consolation, and one that cannot be equaled in any other literary genre, is “the Consolation of the Happy Ending” (“On Fairy-Stories” 175).

Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of the Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of the fairy-tale, and its highest function.

(“On Fairy-Stories” 175)


Just as works of tragic drama end in an epiphany and death, the eucatastrophic fairy-story ends in a “sudden joyous turn,” where all that seemed lost is suddenly redeemed or saved (“On Fairy-Stories” 175). In both cases, the reader is aware of the inevitable ending. To continue Tolkien’s drama analogy, we see that eucatastrophe functions in The Lord of the Rings in much the same way that tragedy functions in Romeo and Juliet. The prologue to Shakespeare’s play tells us that the two lovers will ultimately die, yet the audience is still struck by grief when they do, just as readers of The Return of the King know that Gondor will not fall to the hordes of Sauron in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, yet the courage and camaraderie of men still produces “joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (“On Fairy-Stories” 175). This joy is the preeminent Consolation of the fairy-story, its most important function.

            The concepts inherent in Secondary Belief (Recovery, Escape, and Consolation) are closely aligned with Tolkien’s belief system that is outlined in The Silmarillion and apparent throughout The Lord of the Rings. The importance of Recovery, the regaining of a clear perspective that identifies an object or idea as apart from oneself, is reiterated in Ilúvatar’s decision to spare the Seven Dwarf Fathers created by Aulë. Once the dwarves came into being, Ilúvatar, as a symbolic representation of wisdom and morality, recognizes the importance of preserving their right to autonomous life. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the malevolent Melkor attempts to appropriate Arda and the creatures that inhabit it as his own. He stands as an example of the dangers that arise when one forgoes, or refuses to engage in, the process of Recovery. Ilúvatar exemplifies the opposite: the value of Recovery and the wisdom gained by it. Not only are there many examples of Consolation in the form of eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s fiction (Gandalf’s deliverance from the tower of Orthanc thanks to Gwaihir the Windlord comes to mind, as well as the scene of the Dúnedain overtaking the Rohirrim that has already been discussed), but the idea of Consolation is associated with the literal power that Tolkien ascribes to abstract moral decisions or evaluations. Concepts such as faith and hope, camaraderie and courage, bring about Consolation and eucatastrophe as a kind of natural result.

            Now that we have defined some of the terminology that is used to describe the workings of fantasy literature and looked at the general methods that fantasy authors implement to create meaning, let us more closely examine Tolkien’s specific belief system, beginning with its origins apparent in his biography.


J.R.R. Tolkien: Philologist, Catholic, and Family Man

Before we come to the analysis of Tolkien’s writings, some description of his upbringing and professional life can help us begin to understand the belief system that ultimately governs his fictional world. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, now called the Free State Province of South Africa. His father, a banker by profession, died of rheumatic fever when Tolkien was only three-years-old. After the death, his mother Mabel took him and his younger brother Hilary to Birmingham, England to live closer to members of their extended family (Carpenter 27). Tolkien began exploring the English countryside around Birmingham at a very young age, the very landscapes that are thought to have inspired much of the topography of Middle-earth and Tolkien’s other fictional realms, including his Aunt Jane’s farm Bag End – the name used for the Baggins’ home in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Carpenter 113).

            Mabel Tolkien initially took on the responsibility of educating her two sons, Ronald (as he was known to the family) and Hilary. Ronald Tolkien proved to be a very gifted student from an early age, showing particular interest in the study of language and botany (Carpenter 29). He would wander the countryside drawing landscapes and identifying plant-life, and he was taught the rudiments of Latin at an extremely young age. His fascination with both of these disciplines became a life-long passion, and evidence of his extensive studies is continually displayed in The Lord of the Rings. His love of language is evident, not only from the numerous fictional languages he invented for his world, but also from the use of language as the substance of magic that we saw in the previous section. His love of botany is apparent throughout the series, but particularly in the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring in chapters such as “The Old Forest,” “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” and “Flight to the Ford.” While many readers grow frustrated with the slow pace and lack of action in these early chapters, they seem necessary to explain what is at stake should the quest to destroy Sauron’s ring fail. Tolkien devotes almost half of the first book to painting a picture of Middle-earth as serene, the Shire as a fertile little Eden devoid of hardship and evil. Without this initial set-up, the fear of Sauron’s triumph would not be as potent. There would not be as much to lose in the eyes of the reader.

            Similar to language and botany, religion played a crucial role in the development of Tolkien’s world. The discord between Tolkien’s English Protestant relatives and his Roman Catholic relatives led to religious tension that featured prominently in his life. His mother converted to Roman Catholicism after the death of his father, a decision that greatly upset her Baptist family (Carpenter 31). After Mabel’s death in 1904, when Tolkien was just 12-years-old, his guardians continued to push Catholic beliefs on him. He remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life, and his wife Edith even converted from Protestantism to marry him, against her family’s wishes.

            Though Tolkien was undeniably a sincere supporter of the Catholic faith, he was interested in many religious beliefs, archaic as well as contemporary, and much of his interest in religion can be attributed to his fascination with language. His grandson Simon Tolkien recounts an amusing anecdote on his website in which the elderly Ronald expresses his discontent with the liturgical reforms implemented by the Second Vatican Council:

I vividly remember going to church with him in Bournemouth. He was a devout Roman Catholic and it was soon after the Church had changed the liturgy from Latin to English. My grandfather obviously didn't agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but my grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right. 

(Simon Tolkien, “My Grandfather”)


Tolkien’s faith was founded on language itself as much as the translated teachings and values of Catholicism. In his view, changing the language that the religion was originally expressed in is akin to changing the beliefs of the religion itself. Just as the Latin language played a part in the development of Tolkien’s belief in the tenets of Roman Catholicism, Tolkien’s implementation of language in his fiction encourages his readers to engage in Secondary Belief in his fictional world.

In his early adolescence, while studying Latin and Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien began recreationally creating fictional languages with his cousins, such as Animalic, Nevbosh, and Naffarin. Tolkien would continue to create fictional languages throughout his life. Sindarin and Quenya, the two primary languages of the elves in Tolkien’s fiction, are so widely developed that they now function as languages, extensive enough for conversation and studied by some Tolkien enthusiasts (“Tolkien’s Languages”). The very concept of belief is interdependent with language in Tolkien’s mind, and, as we have seen, the magical or supernatural elements of Tolkien’s work rely entirely on the manipulation of language.

            In 1911, Tolkien joined a party of twelve that hiked from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen across the Swiss Alps. He later wrote in a 1968 letter to his grandson Michael, “The hobbit’s (Bilbo’s) journey from Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains, including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods, is based on my adventures in 1911” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #306). Part of the immersion that readers feel when reading Tolkien’s work can be attributed to that fact that many of the elements of his stories are inspired by true events and observations. In this case, the “glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods” is indicative of a memorable scene in The Hobbit from the chapter “Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire.” Bilbo’s crossing of the Misty Mountains feels like a non-fiction adventure story (other than the encounter with goblins and Gollum) because it was inspired by just such an expedition. “Then [Bilbo] looked forward and could see before him only ridges and slopes falling towards lowlands and plains glimpsed occasionally between the trees… he still wandered on, out of the little high valley, over its edge, and down the slopes beyond” (The Hobbit 61). Here, Tolkien is not allegorizing the Alps as the Misty Mountains, but rather using real experiences to make the Misty Mountains feel more authentic and believable to his readers.

            Similarly, the towers of Orthanc and Barad-dûr in Tolkien’s fiction seem almost historical, rather than lavish elements of a work of fantasy, because Tolkien’s descriptions of them were largely based on the 16th century tower known as Perrott’s Folly and the Victorian tower of Edgbaston Waterworks that he lived near as a young teenager (Birmingham Heritage Forum). These realistic aspects of Tolkien’s fantasy help to highlight the magic in his work and suggest that the fantastic elements deviate from reality with a purpose in mind other than amusement or entertainment.

            In October of the same year as his expedition through the Swiss Alps, Tolkien began studying at Exeter College, Oxford. He graduated in 1915 with first class honors in English Literature and Language. Following his graduation, Tolkien enlisted in the British Army as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was involved in multiple assaults on German strongpoints and trenches, and many of his fellow soldiers and former school companions were killed in the war. In October of 1916, Tolkien’s battalion assaulted the German Regina Trench. Tolkien himself came down with trench fever caused by lice and was discharged from service in November of the same year (Carpenter 93).

            Many Tolkien fans have pointed to his service in World War I and the fact that Tolkien wrote much of The Lord of the Rings during World War II to argue that the trilogy is an allegory for the wars of Europe, particularly the Second World War. Just as Bilbo’s trip across the Misty Mountains was inspired by Tolkien’s trip through the Alps, even though Misty Mountains are not intended to represent the Alps, Tolkien’s experiences with war undeniably influenced his work, but he repeatedly denied any allegorical interpretations of The Lord of the Rings. “I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #131). Tolkien denounces “intentional allegory,” that is, a story designed to have one specific interpretation related to a real event. But he admits that dealing with fantasy requires the use of “allegorical language.” Without condemning The Lord of the Rings to a single interpretation of allegory, Tolkien allots for the use of language and descriptions in his fiction that are perhaps reminiscent of real European wars, though this is only to heighten the verisimilitude of his stories, not to suggest a parallel between them and any specific event in history. 

            While recovering from illness and serving hospital and garrison duties back in England, Tolkien began writing The Book of Lost Tales and The Fall of Gondolin, the first works to chronicle the complex fictional myths that describe the creation of Arda and the initial tales of the immortal elves who were the first to inhabit the continent of Middle-earth. These tales were constantly edited and expanded until after his death, when Tolkien’s son Christopher finally published them in The Silmarillion.

During these garrison duties, Tolkien was able to spend much of his time with his wife Edith. After her death in 1971, he recalled in a letter to Christopher an episode where she danced for him in a clearing of the woods nearby Roos:

I never called Edith Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, and I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.

(The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #340)


            Tolkien admitted that his tale of Beren and Lúthien was inspired by this event, and he even had the names “Beren” and “Lúthien” engraved on his and his wife’s tombstone. Tolkien’s invocation of Mandos (his own fictional god of Death and Doom) demonstrates the authentic belief that Tolkien had in his own fictional world. He saw Middle-earth in Europe and Europe in Middle-earth, which helped establish a connection between the primary world and Tolkien’s fictional Arda for his readers.

            Following the war, Tolkien had a number of academic jobs working for the Oxford English Dictionary, the University of Leeds and Pembroke College at Rawlinson, and as Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford. He was an avid member of the Inklings, an informal literary discussion group that also included C.S. Lewis. During this time, Tolkien worked with E.V. Gordon to produce “A Middle English Vocabulary” and a new edition of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” both of which are still referenced today. He also wrote The Hobbit and drafted preliminary editions of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s 1936 lecture titled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is widely recognized as the first argument for studying the Anglo-Saxon poem for its literary merits, rather than as a linguistic and historical document (Carpenter 143).

Despite all of his scholarly exploits and his constant work on his own fiction, Tolkien remained an extremely devoted father and husband. He had three sons and a daughter, and famously illustrated cards from “Father Christmas” for his children during the holidays that contained stories of adventure and wonder (Tolkien, The Father Christmas Letters). Throughout his drafting of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien would constantly send manuscripts to his youngest son, Christopher, who was stationed in South Africa and who maintained an extensive correspondence with his father regarding the creation of the trilogy. After his father’s death, Christopher went on to compile and publish many of Tolkien’s manuscripts and writings.

Tolkien’s upbringing, professional life, and enthusiastic role as a father reveal some key features of the belief system he implemented in his work. Specifically, that Catholic morals provide a basis for the morality in Tolkien’s work, that belief and language are interrelated, that exploration and travel are enlightening enterprises, and that devotion to one’s family and kin is a fundamental part of goodness.

Of course, the belief system in Tolkien’s writings is altered, or perhaps not necessarily altered but enhanced by magic, which allows Tolkien to explore abstract concepts in terms of their direct influence on the events of his stories. We saw this in the previous explication of Tolkien’s concept of Recovery. Seemingly minor good deeds in Tolkien’s work end up influencing the course of history. The most readily available example of this influence is the decision to spare Gollum. When Gandalf recounts the previously unknown gap in the Ring’s history in the chapter “The Shadow of the Past” of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo remarks that it is a “pity” that Bilbo did not kill Gollum when he had the chance, that Gollum “deserves death,” to which Gandalf replies:

Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.

(The Fellowship of the Ring 85-86)


As it turns out, Bilbo’s decision to exercise mercy and spare Gollum is crucial to the success of the quest to destroy the Ring of Sauron. Without Gollum, Frodo and Sam would never even have managed to gain access to the scorched and desolate land of Mordor, the only place the Ring can be unmade. What is more, Gollum’s lust for the Ring saves Frodo from being subdued by its influence. At the very last moment, standing above the fires of Mount Doom, the one place the Ring can be destroyed, Frodo instead decides to keep the Ring for himself. The infuriated Gollum leaps on him, bites his Ringed finger off, and stumbles into the fire to be destroyed along with the One Ring of Power. The influences of evil are too great for any individual to overcome. No one is capable of willingly destroying the Ring, but seemingly insignificant acts of mercy and kindness often wield a power to overcome evil in a way that no one at the time could anticipate.

            Tolkien’s beliefs outside of his fiction can be summed up in much the same way. He believed strongly in a god who took part in the lives of mortals, though his influence remained unseen and unclear. It is impossible to predict how the powers for good will shape mortal life when a small act of kindness is committed, but in Tolkien’s world, a subtle improvement in the affairs of humankind is always the direct result of an act of individual goodness. Alternatively, acts of wickedness and greed are immediately rewarded, and therefore evil will always remain a more enticing course of action. In order to continue examining the belief system that dictates the events of The Lord of the Rings, let us next evaluate the religious implications of the creation of Arda, and the roles of the gods that shaped Tolkien’s world.


Tolkien’s Universal Creation Myth

John Gough’s essay “Tolkien’s Creation Myth in The Silmarillion – Northern or Not?” focuses exclusively on “Ainulindalë,” the first chapter of The Silmarillion, and argues that Tolkien’s creation myth is indicative of Roman Catholicism more so than the Norse and Celtic mythologies so often ascribed as his inspiration. Although the manner in which the universe was created in The Silmarillion shares a number of similarities with Catholic beliefs, the mythology that follows and the completion of Arda by numerous gods who descend into the world, is much more indicative of pagan beliefs.

Gough writes that “the Norse creation myth and Tolkien’s clearly share no common ground” (Gough 7). The primary observation supporting this claim is that Tolkien’s creation myth addresses the creation of something from nothing, the filling of a matter-less void, and Norse mythology does not. In Norse mythology, when creation begins there is already the Tree, Yggdrasil, a fiery realm called Muspelheim to the south, and an icy realm of mist to the north, called Nifelheim. “In the Norse myth there is no beginning from nothing” (Gough 6). The concept of a single omnipotent being that can create substance from emptiness is fundamental to Christian doctrine and, as Gough points out, to Tolkien’s creation myth.

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not Void.

(The Silmarillion 15)


However, there is a fundamental difference between traditional Christian doctrine and Tolkien’s creation myth, namely that the Christian God created the entirety of the heavens and the earth independently, whereas Ilúvatar created the Ainur and then invited them to assist in the shaping of his grand “theme.” The role of the Ainur is more closely aligned with Greek, Norse, and Celtic mythologies. “Thus it came to pass that of the Ainur some abode still with Ilúvatar beyond the confines of the World; but others, and among them the greatest and most fair, took leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it… and therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World” (The Silmarillion 20). Among the Valar are Melkor, who seeks constantly to undo and mock the work of the others, and his brother Manwë, the greatest of the Valar in authority who hold dominion over the skies. Although elves and men were created by Ilúvatar himself as the greatest part of his theme, others of the Valar created much else on Arda. Ulmo, the Lord of Waters, shaped the oceans and the seas; Aulë, the master armorer and craftsmen, created the landscapes of continents and the dwarves to dwell in the mountains he shaped; Oromë, the Lord of Trees, created much of the wildlife in Arda; and Melkor, ever meddling, created demons known as Balrogs to serve him and orcs in mockery of the “Children of Ilúvatar,” elves and men.

Gough addresses this digression from Christian belief by writing, “Tolkien extends the orthodox Christian view of creation by allowing the Ainur to be subcreators” (Gough 5). By writing off the role of the Valar, Gough is brushing aside the fact that polytheism is inherently non-Christian. It seems rather that Tolkien blends the orthodox Christian view of creation with other mythologies by allowing the Ainur to shape specific parts of his world.

Gough’s choice of the word “subcreators” is an interesting one here, as Tolkien himself has argued that people, artists and writers, are the ones who engage in “sub-creation.” For Tolkien, art itself is a means of sub-creation that mimics and honors the creation of the world according to Catholic doctrine. His fictional works are, to some extent, a form of devotion meant to capture and reiterate the implications and meanings of divine creation. In this sense, his creation myth is certainly Christian in intent, or promotes morals that are most readily identified as Christian. However, the direct involvement of many diverse gods in the affairs of mortals presents a significant deviation from Christian belief. 

            Gough’s second argument is that Tolkien’s creation myth and the Christian tradition of creation foreground the foundation of morality through the fall of a divine being: Satan in Christianity and Melkor in Tolkien.

But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.

(The Silmarillion 16)


Gough argues that Norse mythology does not “show any sense of morality” until post-creation tales of “the warriors’ code of valor, honor, and truthfulness” (Gough 7). He instead likens the fall of Melkor to the fall of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Tolkien wrote in a 1951 letter to Milton Waldman, an editor for London publishers who admired Tolkien’s work, that The Silmarillion “is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.”

With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife. This desire… has various opportunities of ‘Fall’. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, - and so to the Machine (or Magic).

(The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #131)


Tolkien’s description of “Fall” and the motives that bring it about are directly applicable to Melkor. When Melkor interjects his own melody into the theme of Ilúvatar, he is attempting to “interweave matters of his own imagining,” or act upon his “creative… desire which seems to… be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life.”  As a result, he “wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation,” rebels against Ilúvatar, harbors a growing “desire for Power,” and ultimately uses “the Machine (or Magic)” to implement his will. Therefore, Gough is correct in comparing the fall of Melkor in The Silmarillion to the fall of Satan in Paradise Lost. Both divine beings ultimately fall from grace because of their desire to create according to their own free will. The fall, however, is fundamentally concerned with the establishment of morality, and, as we have already seen, Tolkien’s sense of morality is undeniably linked to the Catholic tradition. The shortcoming of Gough’s argument is instead a failure to recognize that the whole of Tolkien’s creation myth, particularly the shaping of the land and the wars waged by the Valar, draws on pagan beliefs to establish a sense of mysticism in nature and an interactive relationship between mortals and gods.

While Gough admits that Norse mythology greatly influenced Tolkien’s later works (he rightly points to the similarities between Odin and Gandalf, the Nordic names of the Dwarves, and the influence of Beowulf on the character Smaug the Dragon), he argues that the creation myth itself is fundamentally Christian. Though the creation of the universe chronicled in “Ainulindalë” shares many similarities with Catholic doctrine, Gough fails to address “Valaquenta” and “Quenta Silmarillion,” the second and third sections of The Silmarillion. It is crucial to note that “Valaquenta” and the beginning of “Quenta Silmarillion” are a continuation of Tolkien’s creation myth. The very first sentence of “Quenta Silmarillion” is “It is told among the wise that the First War began before Arda was full-shaped, and ere yet there was anything that grew or walked upon earth” (The Silmarillion 35). Clearly the process of creation does not end with “Ainulindalë.” Before any life other than Eru Ilúvatar and the Ainur existed, when Arda was still in flux of form, the Valar waged war upon it, creating great works only to have them cast down by Melkor.

The creation myth in The Silmarillion was influenced by every piece of mythology that Tolkien was familiar with, and this accounts for more literature than most people ever read. The moment of creation, the filling of the void, and the establishment of morality through the fall of a divine being are reminiscent of Christian doctrine, while the continued active creation of Arda by the Valar (notably the “Two Trees of Valinor,” Telperion and Laurelin, that wax and wane in a mirror image of each other leading to the establishment of time) is clearly aligned with pagan, and particularly Nordic, beliefs. Therefore, Tolkien’s creation myth should not be thought of in terms of “Northern or Not,” but rather as a universal creation myth that evokes belief in the entire Western tradition. His belief system contains elements from many cultures’ mythologies, but is simultaneously unique and can only be accurately understood through explication of his writings, independent of arguments about inspiration.


“Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy” – The Creation of Eä


The completeness of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world is astounding. The stories that take place there range from mythological battles between the immortal Valar to simple tales about humble hobbits who adventure across the countryside. In Tolkien’s writings, readers discover an intricate web of histories and myths that span thousands of years, chronicling the conflicts of warring peoples, as well as personal fables of love and valor, all with a level of detail that is comparable to a history textbook. The immersive nature of Tolkien’s world makes it that much easier for readers, perhaps unconsciously, to draw parallels between Arda and the primary world and to experience a true feeling of belief in the fantastic realm. But the sheer volume of material is not the only aspect of Tolkien’s work that inspires Secondary Belief. As previously discussed, the creation myth and the early tales of Middle-earth chronicled in The Silmarillion set up a belief system that is at work in the rest of Tolkien’s fiction. These early writings reveal the foundation of a culture, or multiple cultures, that characters are a part of in his most famous work, The Lord of the Rings. Three fundamental concepts within this culture are the immediate and alluring benefits of evil deeds, the moral implications of tampering with the autonomy of sentient beings, and the magical influence of song. 

            The Silmarillion contains five distinct parts: “Ainulindalë,” “Valaquenta,” “Quenta Silmarillion,” “Akallabêthe,” and “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” “Ainulindalë,” tells of the creation of Eä, the universe, or “the world that is” in Quenya, one of the many fictional languages that Tolkien created for use in his legendarium. Eru, the One, who is also known by the name Ilúvatar, begins by creating the Ainur, “the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made” (The Silmarillion 15). Ilúvatar then begins weaving together a “great theme” in the form of a song. The Ainur contribute harmonies to this great theme, and the result is the creation of the universe and the world Arda, where before there was only “the Void.”  But the “mightiest” of the Ainur, Melkor, deviated from the music to create his own “loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated” song that “had little harmony” (The Silmarillion 17). This introduces tension and disharmony into the world, and all of the evil and destructive forces on Arda are the result of Melkor tainting Ilúvatar’s theme.

            Melkor’s interjection and disruption of the theme of Eru Ilúvatar is the first indication in the larger narrative of Arda that evil acts have immediate and readily apparent results, making them more enticing than acts of goodness that are subtle and obscure in their influence. Tolkien’s identification of Melkor as the “mightiest” of the Ainur further indicates that evil is more brutishly powerful than good. In the very creation of Tolkien’s world, he establishes the workings of morality that are ultimately exemplified in the symbol of the Ring created by Sauron, a servant of Melkor. Simply putting it on promises immortality, power beyond reckoning, and, even though the wise know of its treachery, simpler minds are convinced that they could wield the Ring and use its power to perform virtuous acts. In fact, Melkor’s interjection into the theme of Eru Ilúvatar and Boromir’s attempt to take the Ring from Frodo by force are both indicative of the same belief regarding good and evil.

To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, and he had a share in all the gifts of his brethren. He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar. But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.

(The Silmarillion 16).


The original two spaces in Tolkien’s creation myth are the “dwelling of Ilúvatar,” a heavenly realm where the gods reside, and the “Void,” or the empty firmament that the musical theme of Eru Ilúvatar fills with substance. In this scene, Melkor grows impatient with Ilúvatar for leaving the Void empty and wanders through it in search of the “Imperishable Flame,” a symbolic representation of the power to create life. As Melkor’s impatience grows, he becomes more and more desirous to take matters into his own hands and fill the Void with his own creations. Melkor’s intentions seem genuine, to bring life into a lifeless world, but his impatience and desire to rule over that life corrupt him, and he begins to “conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren,” thoughts of domination and evil.

            Boromir’s actions in The Lord of the Rings mirror Melkor’s tainting of Ilúvatar’s great theme. He is subject to the same corruption as Melkor. This is not due to laziness or simple repetition on Tolkien’s part, but is rather an indication of how Tolkien views evil and presents it in his stories. Toward the very end of The Fellowship of the Ring, Boromir attempts to convince Frodo to bring the Ring to Gondor to use as a weapon against Sauron:

True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted. We of Minas Tirith have been staunch through long years of trial. We do not desire the power of wizard-lords, only strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause. And behold! in our need chance brings to light the Ring of Power. It is a gift, I say; a gift to the foes of Mordor. It is mad not to use it, to use the power of the Enemy against him. The fearless, the ruthless, these alone will achieve victory. What could not a warrior do in this hour, a great leader? What could not Aragorn do? Or if he refuses, why not Boromir? The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!... I do not say destroy it. That might be well, if reason could show any hope of doing so. It does not. The only plan that is proposed to us is that a halfling should walk blindly into Mordor and offer the Enemy every chance of recapturing it for himself. Folly!           

(The Fellowship of the Ring 322)

When reading Boromir’s appeal, one cannot help but admit that there is logic in his request. The men of Gondor have fought and died for thousands of years to keep the forces of Mordor at bay, to protect Middle-earth, to keep harmonious places like the Shire safe from violence. It is their great hour of need. The forces of Mordor greatly outnumber them and threaten to annihilate their entire civilization. And when an object that could give them an advantage over their enemy is discovered, the rest of the free world refuses it to them and devises a plan that’s most likely outcome will deliver the Ring back to Sauron, ensuring their destruction.

            Yet Boromir reveals the folly in his argument when he identifies himself as the savior of men. He desires safety for his people, but underneath this claim is a clear desire for power, just as Melkor wished to fill the Void with life, to bring beauty into the empty world, but his true aim is to rule over his creations and “be a master over other wills” (The Silmarillion, 18). If Boromir succeeded in taking the ring, his fate would mimic that of Melkor, setting out to serve but harboring a growing lust for power that would ultimately lead him to treachery.

            These scenes suggest not only that evil is appealing by nature, but also that the foundation of evil is a will to hold dominion over others. After the creation of Arda, the Ainur behold it with a sense of wonder, and many opt to descend into it, to “be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs” (The Silmarillion 20). Among the Valar who descend into the world is Melkor.

And he feigned, even to himself at first, that he desired to go thither and order all things for the good of the Children of Ilúvatar, controlling the turmoils of the heat and the cold that had come to pass through him. But he desired rather to subdue to his will both Elves and Men, envying the gifts with which Ilúvatar promised to endow them; and he wished himself to have subjects and servants, and to be called Lord, and to be a master over other wills.

(The Silmarillion 18)


The fall of Melkor and his descent into evil are the results of his desire to rule others. Arda is a “gift” that Ilúvatar crafts for his “Children,” Elves and Men. Although the Children of Ilúvatar are part of his grand theme, offshoots of his thought, he intends to give them dominion over Arda after its completion and to let them rule as they see fit. The Valar, other than Melkor, share this desire and descend into the world in order to prepare Arda for the arrival of the Children of Ilúvatar.

But when the Valar entered into Eä they were at first astounded and at a loss, for it was as if naught was yet made which they had seen in vision… [They] perceived that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it. So began their great labours in wastes unmeasured and unexplored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten, until in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the vast halls of Eä there came to be that hour and that place where was made the habitation of the Children of Ilúvatar… When therefore Earth was yet young and full of flame Melkor coveted it, and he said to the other Valar: ‘This shall be my own kingdom; and I name it unto myself!’”

(The Silmarillion 20-21)


The creation of Arda is a selfless act, designed to be the dominion of the Children of Ilúvatar, and the virtuous gods delight in the free will afforded to Elves and Men, while Melkor thinks only of bending their wills to his own.

Aulë’s creation of the dwarves is another example of morality in terms of honoring other beings’ free will. Ilúvatar stops Aulë from destroying the “Seven Fathers of the Dwarves,” by saying “dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices?” (The Silmarillion 44). Even though Ilúvatar is displeased that another creation was made against his will, he recognizes that once the dwarves are established as autonomous beings, it is not his place - not even he, Eru, the One - to take away their right to live freely.

            In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron’s initial forging of the Ring is also indicative of the relationship between morality and interfering with free will. When the Ring is brought before the council in Rivendell, Elrond relates the story of its creation:

Many eyes were turned to Elrond in fear and wonder as he told of the Elven-smiths of Eregion and their friendship with Moria, and their eagerness for knowledge, by which Sauron ensnared them. For in that time he was not yet evil to behold, and they received his aid and grew mighty in craft, whereas he learned all their secrets, and betrayed them, and forged secretly in the Mountain of Fire the One Ring to be their master. But Celebrimbor was aware of him, and hid the Three which he had made; and there was war, and the land was laid waste, and the gate of Moria was shut.

(The Fellowship of the Ring 202)


Sauron feigns friendship with the Elves of Eregion and the Dwarves of Moria by revealing to them secrets of craft that allow them to make rings of power. But Sauron learned the nature of the rings that belonged to the Elves and the Dwarves and forged one in secret that would give him power over the others. Again, it is the desire for influence over others that ultimately leads to evil and destruction in Tolkien’s world. This desire is the reason that evil entered the world at all, the reason for Melkor’s fall, and it continues to be the reason that malevolent forces, such as Sauron, plague Arda with their influence.

            Beyond the explanation of the origins of morality in The Silmarillion, it is clear that music and song are inherently linked with creation in Tolkien’s world. The matter and substance of the universe were crafted in song, and hearing was originally the sole sense of perception in the halls of Eru Ilúvatar.

But when they [the Ainur] were come into the Void, Ilúvatar said to them: ‘Behold your Music!’ And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it. And as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew. And when the Ainur had gazed for a while and were silent, Ilúvatar said again: ‘Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added.

(The Silmarillion 17)


The very fabric of the universe in Tolkien’s creation myth is composed of song. The world is described in the same terms as the music that created it: fluid and fluctuating as it “gathered power and had new beauty” (The Silmarillion 16). When the Ainur look upon the world, it begins to “unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew.” The existence of Arda is like one big symphony, rising and falling as the Valar create and Melkor destroys, and the music continues until “the end of days.”

            Music is not only a means of creation, but a means of preservation, and ultimately destruction, as well. In the first chapter of “Quenta Silmarillion,” “Of the Beginning of Days,” the Valar arrive in Arda and begin their work preparing it for the arrival of the Children of Ilúvatar. They create many great works in Middle-earth, and there is a time of peace and harmony known as the Spring of Arda. But Melkor spends this time gathering dark servants to him, spirits and Maiar who are “of the same order as the Valar but of less degree,” and he “came forth suddenly to war, and struck the first blow, ere the Valar were prepared” (The Silmarillion 30/36). Middle-earth is left in ruin, and the Valar flee to create a new domain called “Valinor,” all save Ulmo, the lord of waters. Ulmo rarely comes to Valinor, “unless there were need for a great council,” and dwells instead in the “Outer Ocean” (The Silmarillion 40).

In the deep places he gives thought to music great and terrible; and the echo of that music runs through all the veins of the world in sorrow and in joy; for if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth… And thus it was by the power of Ulmo that even under the darkness of Melkor life coursed still through many secret lodes, and the Earth did not die.

(The Silmarillion 40)


Arda is again depicted as a living entity, and the songs of Ulmo compose the essence of life flowing through its veins. Melkor failed to permanently condemn Middle-earth to darkness and ruin because Ulmo continued to provide sustenance deep in the ocean, where Melkor could not gain access, in the form of song. He kept hope alive so that the Valar could ultimately retake Middle-earth from Melkor and resume their work. This passage also indicates that there is a balance of “sorrow and joy” in the sustaining songs of Ulmo, suggesting that music comprises not only life in Tolkien’s world, but also death and grief. It is a cycle, just as the joyful water that spouts out of “the fountain that rises in the sun” initially came from the “wells of sorrow unfathomed.”

            In fact, this cycle of life and death, of creation and destruction, is also a fundamental part of the great theme of Ilúvatar that created the universe. Immediately after the music of the Ainur travels out into the void and fills it with substance, Tolkien writes, “never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days” (The Silmarillion 15). Music will ultimately un-make the universe just as it was made. Music is the substance of existence, as well as the force of ultimate destruction in Tolkien’s mythology. In The Lord of the Rings, songs are used for a number of functions, primarily to actively record history, but also as a means of prophecy and a source of hope.


Song in The Lord of the Rings

            The Lord of the Rings contains references to many of the past events that are found in The Silmarillion, most often in the form of song.[2] In Tolkien’s world, songs function to both chronicle past events and actively record history as it unfolds, creating a fantasy world that appeals to our sense of historical completeness and an inestimable future. In addition to alluding to the history of Arda within Tolkien’s fiction, songs also function as prophesies, and this use of song indicates Tolkien’s belief that language is the cornerstone of magic.

            When Aragorn leads Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin to Rivendell through the wilderness, the five travelers take refuge in the ruins of a forsaken watchtower. Even the “burned and broken” watchtower on Weathertop, which we learn was used in days of old by the Dúnedain to watch for evil forces coming down from the north, is itself an indication of this world’s rich history (The Fellowship of the Ring 228). Aragorn tells the four hobbits that “it is told that Elendil stood there watching for the coming of Gil-galad out of the West, in the days of the Last Alliance” (The Fellowship of the Ring 229). Merry asks who Gil-galad was, and Sam replies with a song:

            Gil-galad was an elven king.

            Of him the harpers sadly sing:

            the last whose realm was fair and free

            between the Mountains and the Sea.


            His sword was long, his lance was keen

            his shining helm afar was seen;

            the countless stars of heaven’s field

            were mirrored in his silver shield.


            But long ago he rode away,

            and where he dwelleth none can say;

            for into darkness fell his star

            in Mordor where the shadows are.

(The Fellowship of the Ring 229)


This song is about events chronicled in the fifth and final section of The Silmarillion, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” This brief section describes events that led to and are included in The Lord of the Rings. It recounts the “last alliance of elves and men” that besieged Sauron for seven years in his fortress of Barad-dûr at the end of the Second Age (The Silmarillion 294). Elendil and the famous elf-warrior Gil-galad were slain by Sauron. “But Sauron also was thrown down, and with the hilt-shard of Narsil Isildur [Elendil’s son] cut the Ruling Ring from the hand of Sauron and took it for his own” (The Silmarillion 294).

Sam learned these verses from Bilbo Baggins, who Aragorn tells us must have translated them from “the lay that is called The Fall of Gil-galad, which is in an ancient tongue” (The Fellowship of the Ring 229). Very early in the story of The Lord of the Rings, we see three indications of a world with a rich past: the once tall watchtower that has been reduced to rubble, the song celebrating the life of a fallen elven king, and the “ancient tongue” that is no longer spoken by the peoples of Middle-earth.

            Atop Weathertop, the hobbits want to learn more about Gil-galad, but Aragorn does not think it wise to speak of the noble elf’s death at the hands of Sauron while the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths who serve Sauron, are hunting them. “‘No!’ said Strider interrupting, ‘I do not think that tale should be told now with the servants of the Enemy at hand. If we win through to the house of Elrond, you may hear it there, told in full’” (The Fellowship of the Ring 235). This statement from Aragorn, or Strider as he is called in the beginning of the trilogy, is significant for two reasons. The first is that the reader gets a sense of the function of magic in Middle-earth. It is implied that the travelers could give strength or knowledge to the Nazgûl by recounting the fall of Gil-galad. Language and tales do indeed contain magical properties in Middle-earth, as simply speaking in the language of Mordor will cause the world to darken and any listeners to be filled with a sense of dread.

The second reason that this quote is significant is Aragorn’s reference to Elrond and his house as a kind of library or storehouse of histories and tales. Aragorn agrees to tell the hobbits another tale, the tale of Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel, but admits that “it is a long tale of which the end is not known; and there are none now, except Elrond, that remember it aright as it was told of old” (The Fellowship of the Ring 235). The elves are immortal beings, and Elrond is over three thousand years old. He fought alongside Elendil and Gil-galad in the siege of Barad-dûr. Aragorn’s description of him suggests that Elrond plays an important role as a guardian of the world’s histories. The “house of Elrond,” or the elven city of Rivendell, contains volumes and volumes of histories and tales. This storehouse of history and knowledge is what attracts Bilbo to Rivendell, who also serves as a keeper of tales in Middle-earth, as he spends his last years recounting his own adventures and translating ancient texts into the common tongue. It is clearly an honorable practice in Middle-earth to record and retain the histories of past ages. The common adage, “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” is particularly true for the inhabitants of Middle-earth. Without the knowledge of how Sauron and other treacherous entities were overcome in the past, the free peoples of Middle-earth cannot hope to defeat them again. Just as the songs of Ulmo kept life sustained during the dark age of Melkor’s reign, the songs of Middle-earth’s people contain a knowledge that is necessary to resist the forces of evil.

 Tolkien also uses songs in his fiction to continue the tradition of recording history. His characters compose songs about events that have recently occurred in the novels. Frodo and Sam both write verses about Gandalf and his fall in the Mines of Moria as they rest in the elven land of Lothlórien (The Fellowship of the Ring 424-425). Aragorn and Legolas take the time to compose a song about Boromir after he is slain by the Uruk-hai along the river Anduin, even though Merry and Pippin are captured, possibly injured or even dying. They decide that it is prudent to compose a song in Boromir’s memory before running off to try to save the two hobbits. The two sing of the West, North, and South Winds, asking for tidings and lamentations for the fallen Boromir. But Gimli says, “you left the East Wind to me… but I will say naught of it” (The Two Towers 23). The East Wind comes from Mordor, and the free peoples of Middle-earth do not look to it for wisdom or guidance. The influence and powers of song are apparent in this scene, both in Aragorn and Legolas’ decision to delay their rescue mission to compose a song for Boromir, and in the group’s fear of evoking the East Wind for the harm or misfortune it might bring. The very wind is personified in their songs, and it seems that a connection between people and the powers of nature can be achieved through verse.  

The two lay Boromir in one of their boats with his arms and armor and send him down the great waterfall of the river, “but in Gondor in after-days it long was said that the elven-boat rode the falls and the foaming pool, and bore him down through Osgiliath, and past the many mouths of Anduin, out into the Great Sea at night under the stars” (The Two Towers 22). The process of recording history in song is alive and well within The Lord of the Rings, not just as a means of understanding the past, but also as a kind of gift to the future. There is even the suggestion that future myths, such as the mystique surrounding Boromir’s funeral boat, will tell of the events in The Lord of the Rings. The continuing process of recording history through song serves to set the stories of Middle-earth within a world that has an origin but no foreseeable ending, a world that is constantly creating its own history, just as the primary world.

            Despite the efforts of characters such as Elrond and Bilbo, elements of histories are lost and tales are forgotten. As Aragorn said of the tale of Beren and Lúthien, the elven princess who forsook her immortal life for her love of the mortal man Beren: “it is a long tale of which the end is not known.” However, these gaps in the known history of Arda do not render it an incomplete world, no more than the burning of the library of Alexandria renders our culture incomplete. Instead, the gaps in histories and songs suggest that knowledge has been lost, but can be rediscovered. After the assault on the Hornburg, Gandalf tells King Théoden that the Ents have gone to war against Saruman.

The king was silent. “Ents!” he said at length. “Out of the shadows of legend I begin to understand the marvel of the trees, I think. I have lived to see strange days. Long we have tended our beasts and our fields, built houses, wrought our tools, or ridden away to help in the wars of Minas Tirith. And that we called the life of Men, the way of the world. We cared little for what lay beyond the borders of our land. Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places and walk visible under the sun.

(The Two Towers 197)


The knowledge of the existence of Ents, and of the natural force that they represent, had been lost to the Rohirrim and was considered mere legend by the men of the Riddermark. This knowledge was lost until, of course, the Ents come marching out of the forest of Fangorn to flood Saruman’s stronghold in Isengard. As Théoden says, “the songs have come down among us out of strange places and walk visible under the sun.” The mystical power and influence of songs permeates the lives of all the peoples of Middle-earth, not just the immortal keepers of history such as Elrond.

Similar to the forgotten songs that come to life before Théoden’s eyes, many songs in The Lord of the Rings also function as prophesies. The most significant is the prediction of the return of the rightful king of Gondor, which had been ruled by stewards since the line of Isildur was driven into exile at the beginning of the Third Age.

            All that is gold does not glitter,

            Not all those who wander are lost;

            The old that is strong does not wither,

            Deep roots are not reached by the frost.


            From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

            A light from the shadows shall spring;

            Renewed shall be blade that was broken:

            The crownless again shall be king.

                                                (The Fellowship of the Ring 298)


The predictions of this verse are fulfilled in The Return of the King when Aragorn assumes the throne of Gondor. However, even songs of prophesy are not necessarily destined to occur. The Ents, for example, have a song that tells of the return of the Entwives, the females of their kind. The Ents are in a period of mourning for their species as the disappearance of the Entwives means that no new Ents have been born for some time. Though the Ents live longer than almost any other creature in Middle-earth, they fear that their species is coming to an end. There is hope in the form of a song that tells of the return of the Entwives, but as Treebeard says to Merry and Pippin as he marches to war against Saruman:

I should have liked to see the songs come true about the Entwives. I should dearly have liked to see Fimbrethil again. But there, my friends, songs like trees bear fruit only in their own time and their own way: and sometimes they are withered untimely.

(The Two Towers 106)


Treebeard laments that the predictions in songs do not always come true. Although the fulfillment of prophesy is part of the function of magic in Middle-earth, the world that Tolkien presents would seem unrealistically whimsical if every event foretold in a song came to be. Instead, it falls to the singers and listeners to actively fulfill the predictions made in song. But even so, some songs “are withered untimely,” their predictions never come to fruition, and the balance of joy and sorrow in Ulmo’s songs applies to the songs of mortals as well.

            In Tolkien’s world, songs have an underlying power of magic. Some are prophetical, some historical, and some simply celebratory, but all songs in Arda contain elements of wisdom that are of use to the characters in Tolkien’s stories. This wisdom ranges from trivial matters, such as Bilbo learning not to be so uptight in The Hobbit when the Dwarves sing “Chip the glasses and crack the plates!/ Blunt the knives and bend the forks!/ That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates,” to serious methods of understanding the world such as the Entish song that lists and describes every living thing on Middle-earth (The Hobbit 16).

            In addition to exerting literal influence in Tolkien’s world, song is one of the most effective mediums through which Tolkien reveals his belief system and induces Secondary Belief in The Lord of the Rings. Not only do songs imply a historically complete world, referencing events of the past and recording events of the present, but they also reveal the values and dogmas of his characters, and more broadly, the cultures of Middle-earth. Tolkien’s use of song, from the foundation of creation to the memorializing of fallen characters, encourages readers to recover a new perspective on the role of song in the primary world. We believe in Tolkien’s world and in the power of songs there, and that belief translates to understanding that is applicable to real life.



            The Music of the Ainur in Tolkien’s creation myth establishes the significance of song as the tangible foundation of his world, and Ulmo’s music within the sea sustains the life of Arda during the darkest periods of Melkor’s reign. Yet readers of The Lord of the Rings sense the influence of song even without a direct knowledge of the role music played in Tolkien’s stories of creation. Tolkien’s entire belief system is this way: evident in the creation myth of The Silmarillion, yet understood through the text of The Lord of the Rings. Even though a direct knowledge of the stories within The Silmarillion is not necessary for readers to experience Secondary Belief, the existence of The Silmarillion is necessary for The Lord of the Rings to effectively exhibit a belief system that is understood, if not articulable, by its readers.

            The consistent application of Tolkien’s belief system, from the origins of Eä through the events of the Third Age, is part of the reason that readers readily engage in Secondary Belief in Tolkien’s world. We see how quickly a desire to do good can turn to malicious intent in the fall of Melkor, and, much later, in Boromir’s attempt to take the Ring by force. We see the corruption that occurs when one attempts to rule over others in Melkor’s wars against the Valar, as well as Sauron’s forging of the Ring. And we see the influence of song throughout. Don Elgin describes these tenets of Tolkien’s world as part of a “philosophical belief” that is evident throughout Tolkien’s work. They go beyond literary devices, and Tolkien’s strict adherence to them within his fiction can help us understand the sudden explosion in popularity that The Lord of the Rings experienced in Tolkien’s later life.

            The Lord of the Rings is the second-best selling novel ever written, with over 150 million copies sold to date (Wagner). The majority of copies sold were purchased during the height of Tolkien’s fame in the 1970s. But why was there a delay of about 15 years between the publication of The Lord of the Rings and the height of its popularity? The answer, I believe, is that western culture found itself in need of the kind of optimistic belief system that Tolkien presents in his work.

            The early 1970s was a time of pessimism and doubt. The growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the oil embargo of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) and the resulting energy crisis, and the Watergate scandal had left the western world, and particularly the United States, in a state of mistrust toward their leaders and uncertainty in the future. Tolkien’s stories were a refreshing Escape, to borrow Tolkien’s use of the word, from the negativity and cynicism that many people, especially the younger generation, felt at the time.

            In his book The Comedy of the Fantastic, Don Elgin discusses the sudden surge of interest in Tolkien’s work that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s: “the work [The Lord of the Rings] exhibited a unity of theme and form which arose from a consistent critical theory and philosophical belief which Tolkien had outlined earlier in his essays, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ and ‘On Fairy-Stories.’ Such consistency stood in marked contrast to the kind of pessimism and self-mockery characteristic of the experimental and/or existential novels which had been predominant at the time” (Elgin 32). The “critical theory” and “philosophical belief” that Elgin refers to in Tolkien’s works of scholarship is the same quasi-religious belief system that Tolkien establishes in his fictional creation myth. For many young adults coming of age in the 1970s, The Lord of the Rings was so appealing because they recognized, likely subconsciously, a structure of faith that provided a sense of moral consistency and clarity. They took comfort in Tolkien, applying the ideas of his belief system to the primary world.

            Toward the end of the trilogy, after Sauron’s assault on Minas Tirith, Gandalf convinces the remaining Captains of the West to march on the black gates of Mordor in an attempt to draw Sauron’s attention away from Frodo and Sam who are inching ever closer to the fires of Mount Doom. He points out that this is their best hope of destroying the Ring and stripping Sauron of all his power. Yet it would not bring about the end of struggle in Middle-earth.

Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

(The Return of the King 171)


This passage is particularly indicative of Tolkien’s belief system and reveals part of the appeal that that system had for young people in the 1970s. Though evil can never be entirely removed from the world, and when one source of immorality falls it will inevitably be replaced by another, it is the responsibility of those who recognize injustice to act so that future generations “have clean earth to till.” During a time when people felt that there was so much wrong in the world that it could never be set right, it was comforting to think in these terms; that each generation has their own evils to confront, but virtue can be upheld if we each “do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set.” It is a unifying notion, a uniting belief, and The Lord of the Rings brought people together when there was so much dividing them. Tolkien’s fiction doesn’t engage readers in Secondary Belief simply by presenting a world of logical magic, as Wolfe has argued, but by establishing a logical and evident belief system that can be understood, if not identified, by reading any of his fantasy works. The evidence that Tolkien created an entire set of moral evaluations, just as he created an entire world, is in our culture’s history, and his works will continue to stimulate belief as long as we keep returning to them.


Works Cited


"Birmingham Heritage Forum." J.R.R. Tolkien. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.


Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. Print.


Elgin, Don D. The Comedy of the Fantastic: Ecological Perspectives on the Fantasy Novel.

Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985. Print.


Gough, John. "Tolkien's Creation Myth in The Silmarillion - Northern or Not?" Children's

Literature in Education 30.1 (1999): n. pag. Print.


Lewis, C. S. "The Dethronement of Power." Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien's

The Lord of the Rings. Ed. Neil David Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo. Notre Dame [Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1968. N. pag. Print.


Reilly, R. J. "Tolkien and the Fairy Story." Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien's

The Lord of the Rings. Ed. Neil David Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo. Notre Dame [Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1968. N. pag. Print.


Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine, 1982. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine, 1982. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Two Towers. New York: Ballantine, 1982. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine, 1982. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. Print.


Tolkien, J. R. R. The Father Christmas Letters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Print.


Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher

Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Print.


Tolkien, J. R. R. "On Fairy-Stories." Poems and Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. N.

pag. Print.


Tolkien, Simon. "My Grandfather." Simon Tolkien - JRR Tolkien. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.


"Tolkien's Languages." The Tongues of Middle-Earth. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.


Wagner, Vit. "Tolkien Proves He's Still the King." Thestar.com. Toronto Star, 16 Apr. 2007.

Web. 10 Mar. 2014.


Wolfe, Gary. "The Encounter With Fantasy." Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader. Ed. David

Sandner. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. 222-35. Print.


Zettersten, Arne. J.R.R. Tolkien's Double Worlds and Creative Process: Language and Life. New

York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.


[1] For the sake of clarity, I will adopt Tolkien’s language to describe elements of plot and setting, though critics have argued that it reads slightly sexist at times to the modern reader - e.g. referring to the realms of “Men.”

[2] Song here is used generally to include any form of verse in The Lord of the Rings, such as the poems of Treebeard, as all of the verse in the trilogy is sung or spoken by a character.


Crete in the Hellenistic Aegean: Seeing Through the Cretan Mirage, Elizabeth Cummings


From a geographic perspective, the island of Crete in the south of the Aegean was well-positioned to engage in the rapidly expanding trade networks of the Mediterranean that flourished in the wake of the death of Alexander the Great. Ancient literary sources tell us that these maritime routes through which goods flowed were often plagued by pirates, roaming independently of any hegemonic rule. On the basis of Polybius, the most popular (modern and ancient) theory is that Hellenistic Crete was a center of this pirate activity. Powerful ruling cities, like Rhodes, attacked Crete in the 3rd c. BC with the professed intent to destroy any pirate threat housed there. The mirage that Crete is an island full of pirates, liars, and greedy citizens has continued into modern scholarship. This “Cretan Mirage” has perpetuated the stereotypes of ancient Crete and marginalized it within studies of the Hellenistic period. Paula Perlman first proposed that the “Cretan Mirage” was at work in the depictions of the First Cretan war (Perlman, 1992, 151-153). Here, I go further to suggest that the “Cretan Mirage” has blinded scholars to other valid arguments about Cretan history and economics during the Hellenistic period. First, I will place Hellenistic Crete within its broader Aegean context, and, using archaeological and literary data, I will then compare the political and economic position of Crete to another major economic power in the Aegean, Rhodes. Finally, through a close examination of Crete’s role in the Mediterranean-wide trade, I will argue that the “Cretan Mirage” is, in fact, a mirage. Crete was not solely inhabited by pirates, its people were not purely liars and full of greed. Rather, Crete was very much like any other island in the Aegean. I will also argue that Crete’s economic success and impact on the Aegean was similar in many ways to Rhodes’. This conclusion should encourage a reevaluation of the political and economic struggles that characterize the Hellenistic Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean in the 3rd and 2nd c. BC.


Reviewing Modern Scholarship on Crete

There is an endemic marginalization of Crete in modern scholarship. In the index to Peter Green’s seminal book on the Hellenistic period, From Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age, there are eight references to Crete and/or Cretans:[1] one depicts Cretans as liars, five highlight Crete only in terms of its pirates or piracy, one discusses a Cretan inscription on Orphism, and the last is written in relation to the Roman takeover of Greece. By comparison, the nearby island of Rhodes has 124 references – almost an entire column to itself in the index.[2] Smaller Delos, a commercial port in the middle of the Aegean, has 36.[3] This is not only found in Green’s history, however.  In Graham Shipley’s book, The Greek World After Alexander (323-30BC), the index lists three references to Crete generally, with a note directing the reader to investigate Crete further through referencing “particular places” and tellingly “piracy”.[4] The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World mentions Crete twice: once to note that Crete had no economic change during the Hellenistic period and once to note Crete’s small contribution to the wealth of material culture found in Greece.[5] Lastly, Blackwell’s A Companion to the Hellenistic World provides a much more rounded view of Crete, but this more recent resource still lacks an in-depth full chapter on Hellenistic Crete.[6] These resources exemplify the current attitudes in general works towards Hellenistic Crete, wherein the majority is focused upon the piracy of Crete, or perhaps more generally, its negative reputation. Primarily, they show the exclusion of Crete from broader topics – such as the general history and economics of the period. It is important to note that these general works may leave out Crete due to the difficult source material, since it is incomplete and not easily found or dealt with, and the lack of secondary scholarship. Even so, I will argue that a more prominent reason for the exclusion is due to the marginalization of Crete within ancient Greek thought and the influence of the “Cretan Mirage”.[7]

Due to the reliance on literary sources, namely Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, and Strabo, the discrepancy between ancient and modern conceptions of piracy, the misconception of Crete’s mercenary economy, and the influence of the “Cretan Mirage” on interpretations of archaeological data, Crete has been disconnected from the mainstream history of the Hellenistic World and effectively marginalized. As a result, scholars who come across Crete within their research tend to perpetuate the stereotypes of the “Cretan Mirage,” which depict Cretans as greedy, lying, pirates. The main focus of this thesis is to examine the evidence for both the marginalization of Crete within scholarship and the perpetuation of the “Cretan Mirage,” as well as to evaluate the archaeological evidence for an alternate perception of the history of Hellenistic Crete.  Using the following chapters to contextualize Crete within the Hellenistic Aegean, outline broad economic theory, consider a case study on Rhodes, and analyze the literary sources and archaeological evidence, I will dispel the “Cretan Mirage” and postulate that Crete was an important economic force in the Hellenistic Aegean, like the neighboring island of Rhodes, and that this success contributed to the slanderous reputation it has in ancient literature.



[1] Peter Green, Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 208, 302, 306, 449, 558, 592, 656, 675.

[2] Ibid., 962.

[3] Ibid., 943.

[4] Graham Shipley, The Greek World After Alexander (323-30 BC) (New York: Routledge, 2000), 552.

[5] Glenn Bugh, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 90, 151.

[6] Andrew Erskine, ed. A Companion to the Hellenistic World (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003); See Susan Alcock, Jennifer Gates, and Jane Rempel, “Reading the Landscape: Survey Archaeology and the Hellenistic Oikoumene,” in A Companion to the Hellenistic World, ed. Andrew Erskine (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 367-71.

[7] These phenomena are described by Paula Perlman in “Kretes aei leistai? The Marginalization of Crete in Greek Thought and the Role of Piracy in the Outbreak of the First Cretan War," in Hellenistic Rhodes, edited by Vincent Gabrielsen (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1999), 132-61. See also Chapter 4 on Hellenistic Crete on page 48.


The Hellenistic Aegean: A Broader Perspective

The story of the Hellenistic Mediterranean is one of war, profound cultural transformation, ideological shifts, territorial flux, economic ebbs and flows, and political dominance. From the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC until the Ptolemies lost control of Egypt to Rome in 31 BC, this period of history was change in essence.[1] As Alexander lay dying in Babylon, he had only one true heir to the throne: his Macedonian wife Roxane’s unborn child, unfit to claim the massive empire Alexander would soon leave behind.[2] With no one to inherit his position at his death, a dispute began over ownership to the lands of Macedonia, Egypt, Persia, and mainland Greece. So began the Wars of the Diadochi, in which several of Alexander’s relatives and most successful generals waged war and used political strategy to conquer regions.  It was not until 276 BC that there were three distinct successor kingdoms with solid control over territories.[3] The Ptolemies ruled Egypt, the Antigonids held Macedonia, and the Seleukids controlled Asia. The fighting would not end there, however. Alexander’s lasting influence impressed upon his generals the absolute necessity of regional dominance, imperial expansion, and monarchical hierarchies.[4] Dynamic hegemonic political strategies would continue to move borders for the next three centuries, finally ending when Rome incorporated Greece into its own empire.

The development of these kingdoms is only a piece of the larger interplay of change with which Greece was dealing at this time. Alexander had stretched Greece’s borders from the mainland to India, as north as Macedonia, and south to Egypt. As part of this growth, Alexander founded cities in Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Media, Baktria, and a few in Egypt.[5] War, booty, land, and opportunities for class advancement called tens of thousands of Greeks away from their homelands.[6] This movement of people and goods set the stage for the Hellenistic Aegean to turn into an ancient ‘superhighway,’ and provides an opportunity to analyze the economic status of individual regions and their interactions with other regions.

In the opposite direction, these empires opened trade routes, which allowed people from Ionia, Southwest Asia, and Egypt to immigrate and travel to Greece, bringing with them new ideologies, religions, languages, traditions, and material culture. Furthermore, even as the Wars of the Diadochi settled, these trade routes continued to be immensely valuable for military and economic purposes. Each kingdom relied heavily on imports such as foodstuffs, pitch, wood, slaves, and metals. There are several cases in the Hellenistic period where these hegemonic kings would go to great lengths to protect these interests or gain monopolies to control them.[7] From a military perspective, gaining key islands or footholds in the Aegean allowed kings to station garrisons, dispatch diplomatic relations, or successfully maintain supply lines.[8] Politically, it is important to understand that though the Ptolemiaic, Antigonid, and Seleukid kingdoms were large-scale entities, the Aegean was home to smaller players that had a notable impact on trade and commerce in the region. Within the Cyclades, the city of Delos became an important religious center and middle-ground for merchants and military ventures because it connected the Ionian coast, mainland Greece, and the northern Aegean (see Map 1). Further to the south lay wealthy Rhodes. In addition to creating its own hegemonic sphere and vast trade network, Rhodes also possessed one of the most advanced navies in the Aegean, likened to that of Athens in the Classical period.[9] This navy placed Rhodes on a similar military level to the larger kingdoms, allowing it to participate in larger-scale political issues. Rome was also a key factor, especially beginning in the 2nd c. BC, because of its growing influence on Greece and the Aegean impacted military operations, trade, and treaties.

Crete 1

Map 1: Greece and Asia Minor

It is within this context that one can begin to paint a picture of general political and economic issues of the Hellenistic Aegean that will greatly influence the entire Mediterranean region. Significantly, mainland Greece and Macedonia were under the rule of Antigonos Gonatus (from 277/271 BC until his death in 239 BC) and were not, by any means, equivalent to a united Greece.[10] Many Greek cities were full of rebellious intentions and were still vying for independence. This tension was exacerbated by the newly founded Achaean League (280 BC) and the Aetolian League, both of whom tirelessly attempted to rid Greece of Macedonian domination.[11] Polybius describes the twelve members of the Achaean League as so unified and determined in their goal that he says, “in general there is no difference between the entire Peloponnese and a single city except that its inhabitants are not included within the same wall,” though Peter Green debates whether or not this is a reflection of Polybius’ bias as an Achaean man himself.[12]

Green also states that in Greece during the early 3rd c. BC “the uneasy tension between local autonomy and Macedonian lordship continued, further complicated by the Ptolemies’ hostility to Antigonid expansion in the Aegean . . .”[13] While the Ptolemies allied themselves with Sparta and any other anti-Macedonian entities on the mainland, they also were fighting the Antigonids for control of the Aegean through naval superiority – an economic necessity as well as a political defense mechanism. [14] It was at this point that Antiochus II of the Seleukids allied with Macedonia in 261 BC and began to fight the Ptolemies in the Second Syrian War.[15] Meanwhile, by the beginning of the 2nd c. BC, independent Rhodes began to become extremely wealthy through trade due to its position at the “intersection of all the major Mediterranean shipping routes, from Egypt, Cyprus, and Phoenicia to the Aegean and the Black Sea, as well as Italy and North Africa.”[16] This wealth helped it build its immense navy, which it used to support different superpowers to increase its own growing sphere of influence. In the southern Aegean, Crete had a strategic central position for many of these maritime routes. This discussion of the 3rd-century politics illustrates the types of power shifts that were common in this period in the Aegean – a constant back and forth between large kingdoms with support from smaller entities. 

It is important to examine the different types of material evidence from the Hellenistic period in order to clearly understand the implications of each type. Archeological evidence, particularly, can provide information that we cannot glean from the literary evidence. Even though there is much inscriptional evidence, there is a comparative lack of contemporary literature for the period, meaning we must understand Hellenistic culture, societal structure, militaristic strategy, and ideologies through archaeological data. With a resurgence of academic interest in the period after Alexander’s death, there is a wealth of new scholarly theories, recently published archaeological investigation, and more detailed analyses into our literary evidence. Scholarly interest funnels money into programs and departments, allowing for research opportunities and providing for a restructuring of the world’s previous understanding of the Hellenistic period. The material evidence is growing so rapidly that interpretations accepted even twenty years ago are revised rapidly. Glenn Bugh stated in the introduction to the Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World (2006) that “[The Hellenistic period] can no longer be called a neglected or discredited field, certainly not among the increasing number of scholars who have taken up the cause. . .”[17] I would agree, and go even further to state that this field is the one with the most potential for breakthroughs, since scholars must combine literary and archaeological evidence. However, the complex history of the Hellenistic kingdoms gives just a small hint towards the difficulties of attempting to assign definite dates to evidence. Furthermore, there are a multitude of ancient languages to deal with in the literary and epigraphic evidence, due to the lasting effects of Alexander’s empire. While most Classicists are well versed in Greek and Latin, the languages of the Near East and Asia are outside their usual training. Perhaps Andrew Erskine describes the study of 323 BC – 30 BC best in this way:

The body of evidence is growing all the time. A satisfactory narrative may be elusive but the variety and richness of the source material gives the historian the chance to confront other questions and issues . . . The challenge lies in combining all this evidence, material that often pulls in different directions.[18]


I will begin by discussing the evidence that is most relevant to a study of the Hellenistic Aegean. These include literary, epigraphic, and coin evidence, as well as an evaluation of transport amphora. By highlighting the specific attributes and interpretation issues of each, I hope to organize a base from which to more completely contextualize the Aegean. Following this discussion, I will focus on the role of regional analysis within a broad overview of economic theory from the Hellenistic period, for both are crucial to a well-rounded understanding of the Aegean and of Crete its historical context.


            As mentioned above, contemporary literary sources for the Hellenistic period are limited. Additionally, most of the literature proves difficult to gain any specific regional information from, as they tend to be broad historical narratives. Very little has survived to modern times, and what has survived is fragmentary. Of all of the authors that may be mentioned in an analysis of Hellenistic literature, it seems that Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, and Strabo are the richest sources.[19] Each work is a product of the author’s approach to their topic and influenced by the historical context in which it was written, so an examination of each of these authors is necessary gain an awareness of the possible limitations of their utility.  It should be noted that this discussion will be about historical narratives, instead of poetry or philosophy texts. Though useful in other contexts, poetry and philosophy cannot provide much in terms of interpretation of specific events, dates, and broader economic theory.

To begin, Polybius of Megalopolis is the best historian we have for the period between 220 and 146 BC, due to the fact that the first five of his forty books are intact and that he was writing about contemporary events.[20] Born around 220 BC, Polybius was raised in an aristocratic Achaean family and he soon rose to be commander of the Achaean League.[21] Although he was quite familiar with Roman generals because of his position, he was deported to Rome in 170 BC to be examined for anti-Roman sentiment. It was there that his career as a historian would take off.[22] He traveled extensively, visiting Africa, Spain, and Gaul, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and perhaps Rhodes, which most certainly would have given him sufficient perspective on Roman conquest to write his main work. The Histories is focused on the rise of the Roman Empire (both in general and in Greece) and how its glory was so swiftly attained.[23]  His approach to history was one of pragmatism and realism. In Polybius’ own words:


For we can get some idea of a whole from a part, but never knowledge or exact opinion. Special histories therefore contribute very little to the knowledge of the whole and conviction of its truth. It is only indeed by the study of the interconnection of all the particulars, their resemblances and differences, that we are enabled at least to make a general survey, and thus derive both benefit and pleasure from a history.[24]


Therefore we can take into account that Polybius most certainly desired to tell the truth of history, in its entirety. Many scholars believe that he fails quite frequently to keep to that personal goal. However, we must also understand that any historian must write to an audience – in this case it is debated whether or not that audience was primarily Roman or Greek.[25] Furthermore, it seems that Polybius was quite fond of calling upon Tyche, god of fortune, as a source of constant explanation when events have no reason or meaning.[26]This is an interesting footnote, due to his wish to be as rational as possible. Keeping in mind as well that he was an “individual, an Arcadian, a Greek, a former soldier and statesman,” as well as highly influenced by the Roman Scipio, his biases will sometimes be focused in those directions.[27] As for his credibility, his sources are sound. The only other issue found in using Polybius exclusively is that 35 of his books in The Histories are fragmentary (even if some of those books are mostly intact). Polybius, then, remains our most contemporary, complete, relatively straightforward, and least biased source, despite the few issues mentioned above.

            Diodorus Siculus was born in 90 BC in the Sicilian town of Agyrion, and he probably died there as well.[28] He spent most of his life traveling and spent thirty years on composing the Historical Library, a monumental history of the world up to his time in the 1st c. BC.[29] This work originally comprised of forty books - as in the case of Polybius – though there are some who believe that the work was originally forty-two books, with Diodorus skimming the work down in order to create a more idealized historical narrative.[30] It is clear through all of the scholarship on Diodorus that he was highly influenced by his sources, especially those of Ephorus and his contemporary, Livy.[31] The variety in his sources, his rational take on history, and his continuity – all make Diodorus’ work a valuable rarity in ancient literature. Unfortunately, much of this work has been lost, but his books 17-20, which are focused on the Hellenistic period’s militaristic incidences, survive.[32] However, it would seem that most modern scholars avoid using the Historical Library. As to why that may be, the answer could lay in his confusing use of multiple sources - Ephorus, Timaeus, Hieronymus of Cardia, Polybius, and Posidonius - creating for what some call an “unintelligible farrago”.[33] In 1993, Peter Green even goes so far as to remark that “Diodorus . . . is a third rate compiler only as good as his source: This makes him, at times, of great value, but not on his own account.” Furthermore, Green scathingly remarks that he will not create “another imaginative analysis of [Diodorus’] chronological inconsistencies and synthetic rhetoric.”[34] However, there has been a recent resurgence in using Diodorus as a viable resource, and this is because scholars have begun to reject these negative stereotypes, which riddle 19th century works on his Historical Library. As Kenenth Sacks states, “a recent study of Diodorus' writing style reveals that he was no simple copyist of his current main source, but rather that he possessed sufficient independence of mind to rewrite narrative in his own words.”[35] He is our only consistent chronological source, providing continuity from the Persian wars through the wars of the Diadochi, and even more bits and pieces throughout the end of the 4th century.

            Finally, Strabo of Amasia is a Classicists’ familiar friend. He lived from approximately 64 BC through 23 CE (at least), and in that time his main work of history was his Geography, in which he intended to “represent the world as a whole, rather than individual regions in microcosm.”[36] We have all but book seven of his Geography, though the work as a whole was meant to be a sequel to Polybius’ Histories.[37]  His sources are varied and sound, his work influential and respected, and Strabo remains one of our great resources for the Hellenistic period. To create such a work, he traveled extensively. In his own words:

I have travelled westward from Armenia as far as the regions of Tyrrhenia opposite Sardinia, and southward from the Black Sea as far as the frontiers of Ethiopia. And you could not find another person among the writers on geography who has travelled over much more of the distances just mentioned than I. [38]


Not only was he well traveled, but he was well educated - taught by the best Greek teachers an aristocratic family could provide. [39]According to Dueck, Lindsay, and Pothecary, there are two ways to analyze Strabo: a regional examination, or a thematic one, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.[40] Regionally, we can understand Strabo as he recounts his Geography in terms of areas divided culturally, ethnically, politically (the distinctions of which will be further explained below) and as a more objective historian. If we use the thematic approach, one can understand Strabo as more subjectively present in his narrative with boundaries of culture and polities crossing continually.[41]

 Interestingly, it would seem that although Strabo is providing a history that is broad enough to include many different cultures, his overall view of those cultures is still quite influenced by the Classical ideal of Greeks versus ‘barbarians’. Eran Algamor puts Strabo’s view in these terms: “As a person raised in the Hellenic tradition and imbued with its set of values, he adopts the classical ethnic dichotomy, and mostly rejects Hellenistic revisionist attitudes, which tried to adapt the old division to the changing ethnological realities.”[42] This is important to keep in mind while using Strabo as a source for the Hellenistic Aegean, as during this time period the Aegean would have seen more foreigners than it ever had before; immigrating, trading, and offering themselves as mercenaries. For a region with so much variation, Strabo’s viewpoint may not have been the same as those living in that area, and this is a crucial point to recognize.

Epigraphic Evidence

Inscriptions are by far our most prolific source for the Hellenistic Aegean. Inscriptions provide insight into what was thought important enough to record in stone, including evidence for individual honors, details of economic and political transactions between cities, and local and regional politics. This epigraphic data gives a surprising amount of detail on the everyday lives of those living in the Hellenistic Aegean. Inscriptions detail various topics, such as temple accounts, Greek city assemblies and council decrees, and royal letters and decrees.[43] Most inscriptions found by archaeologists have been reused as building materials, so many original contexts cannot be reconstructed exactly.[44] We are also limited by the fact that most of our urban inscriptional evidence is fragmented.[45] When scholars try to reconstruct the pieces which are fragmented, often times they do so through using the formulaic building blocks of most honorary epigrams, which are generally correct.[46]

Arguably even more problematic than reconstructing missing words for a certain inscription is determining the date at which it was written. If we cannot assign a date or time period for the information given, then it is impossible to understanding its true meaning. We cannot use the information out of context. Often times, scholars use the style of the writing of Greek found in order to determine the inscriber of the inscription, and then use that information to approximate date that the epigraph was written.[47] To do so, someone must learn the writer’s precise stylistic method for inscribing each letter, and all of that writer’s unique and minute stylistic details. From there, the scholar must scour inscriptional records to find the closest match to the style of the writer in question – it is here where another person may have published that same writer’s other inscriptional work, perhaps with a date through archaeological context or upon the stone itself.[48] This entire process is called the ‘study of hands’.[49] Though this method may seem to have too much subjectivity to be precise, it is relatively accurate. In fact, newly created computer systems,which use mathematical algorithms, may completely remove human error, allowing for the most complete connections to be made between the various works of a single stonecutter.[50]

However, even with these issues, inscriptions give us information that can tell us clearly about populations, interactions, and transactions between poleis and even regions. They can also tell us what kinds of things people were honored for – recording the causes for a city to give thanks or celebrate. The valuable information given to us is well worth the difficult and often variable translation process.

Numismatic Evidence

When studying the Hellenistic Aegean, numismatics, or the study of ancient coins, is an important one.  One of the most useful ways of interpreting finds of coins in this period are by looking at commercial connections between regions and highlighted by those patterns of monetary exchange. For instance, Panagopoulou sees that “the respective distribution of the Antigonid silver issues predominately reflects local preferences in transactions.” [51] For Panagopoulou, this means we can use numismatics to infer who was trading with whom, although even here we must have caution, because direct trade is not always the reality. It may be that one person trades with another, who then continues trading with the same coin, leading to the coin transferring hands between several poleis and between several states without direct contact. But if a coin makes it far enough, an implication can be made about the value of the coin, or its importance to the market, because of its high circulation throughout a large geographical region. Cities could also create their own coinage under the sovereignty of a ruler, or under their own sovereignty. This independent unregulated coinage continues throughout the Hellenistic period through to the Roman period, where Romans placed a state of controlled coinage upon Greece.[52] Often, if a polis was large enough and/or independent they would create their own coins, resulting in localized monetization. We must not think that the production of coins is as it is today however. Thomas Martin states that

…the numismatic, historical, documentary, and literary evidence uniformly fails to support the idea that there was an operative in the classical Greek world a strongly felt connection between an abstract notion of sovereignty and the right of coinage which implied the necessity to enforce a uniform monetary circulation.[53]


Unregulated coins mean that we get “fashion coins”, which are often misleading for attempting to piece together a chronology of power shifts within regions. Andrew Meadows discusses the lex Seyrig’s impracticality in light of these “fashion coins” – an outdated academic law within numismatics which argues that “no state issued coin in its own name if it was ruled by another.”[54] Meadows rejects the lex Seyrig, citing several examples where states would independently create coins while under another’s rule, and then create “fashion coins” minted with the faces of monarchs who may have previously ruled the region, because the coinage itself was worth enough or prized enough that it was worthwhile to replicate it. It is only in conjunction with other evidence or detailed analysis that we can tell which coins are fashion coins, and thus move forward with a correct chronology.  

Transport Amphorae

The Hellenistic Aegean was actively engaged in commerce, and trade routes that cross through the region were paramount for political entities and their hegemonic goals. Commercial interactions between cities in this region are clearly demonstrated by the distribution of transport amphorae; these ceramic indicators can tell us where items came from, who was using them, and possibly what was being traded. Each city had their own ‘brand’ of transport amphora, in that the shapes, clay, and stamps upon them were unique to their location of origin. They could be used to transport wine, oil, grain, dried figs, gourds, firewood or virtually any commodity that could fit within its wide mouth.[55] Mark Lawall urges caution in equating discovery of amphora to a direct connection between its origins and the newfound location, however. “Rhodian stamps at Carthage do not themselves indicate that any Rhodian merchant, or even non-Rhodian ship originating at Rhodes, ever landed at Carthage,” he claims.[56] This is due to indirect trade – either on account of strictly economic, socio-economic, or cultural reasons. For example, offloading mixed cargo through several ports, re-filling and re-exportation, movement between estates or for military operations, and private merchants will shift the reality of amphorae locations.[57] Lawall concludes by saying that “only on a case-by-case basis is it possible to explain chronological and geographical patterns of distribution.”[58] It can seem very enticing to use amphora to make broad assumptions of trade interactions, though we must remember that these items were not simply one-time use, one-time function, nor had one-time movement. These dynamic pieces of material culture had unique individual stories. The key is to use all pieces of evidence available from the amphorae.

The fabric, or material from which the amphorae are made, can significantly challenge our perceptions of where these amphorae originated. Using petrographic analysis, archaeologists can now determine the exact source of sand or clay that was used to make the amphora. Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and Stavroula Apostolakou recently used such methods to source amphorae from two sites on Crete (Mochlos and Pyrgos-Myrtos), indicating that the clay used to create them was from the area of ancient Hierapytna on Crete – now labeled East Cretan Cream Ware (ECCW).[59] Information using such scientific technology can then show that even in cases where it would be impossible to identify sources through provenience, stamps, or other missing identification markers, we can still discover the source of the amphorae.

More information can be gleaned from transport amphorae than simply the movement of goods, however. John Lund has used amphorae evidence found in Egypt to provide a rough estimate of the average output of Rhodian wine trade, and then extrapolates that information to estimate climate variability.[60]  He concluded that the economy of Rhodian wine was in flux, creating ebbs and flows that can then tell us much about the economic situation for Rhodes and its trade partners. He also discussed how regional climates should be “regarded as one of the ‘engines’ that kept the inter-regional trade going’.[61] Such research does, of course, have its limitations, but it is a testament to the many different ways creativity in the field can lead to new conclusions. Even Lund admits, in the study above, that “the main conclusion to be drawn from this chapter is that we still have a lot to learn about the modalities of wine production and trade of Rhodes.”[62] Many other recent studies use amphora stamps to indicate broad patterns of trade. Amphora stamps and petrographic analysis are the two most reliable ways to determine the origin of an amphora.[63]

Stamps are not, however, always as clear as they may seem. Lawall, again, challenges us to think beyond stamps and their broad conclusions or insufficient data:

The over-emphasis on amphora stamps has meant that . . . the only significant amphora publications from Rhodes are the local stamps. Was Rhodes a transshipping center with a similar mix of sources as pre-230s Athens? Or was Rhodes more of an importing-exporting center, like nearby Ephesos? . . . The choice for historians of Hellenistic economies – whether they are ‘historians’ or ‘archaeologists’ – is clear: either remain bogged down in the current pessimistic stalemate blaming lack of the necessary data, or exploit the existing data to form new questions, propose new models, and, ultimately, begin to organize and understand the myriad developments that comprise Hellenistic economic history.[64]


It is with this challenge in mind that transport amphorae can continue to be used to extrapolate enough data and interpretations to expand our knowledge of the Hellenistic Aegean.

Regional Analysis

Economically, the Hellenistic Aegean is characterized by interactions on ‘local’, ‘regional’, and ‘interregional’ levels. Evidence for these transactions comes from finds of coins, transport amphorae, ancient literature and inscriptions.[65] “Greece is made up from many different landscapes,” writes Graham Oliver, “intra-regional variability must be given greater emphasis. A more localized focus will highlight the immediate problems that were presented to a community.”[66] As Gary Reger points out, the ability to distinguish each of these levels is of paramount importance when constructing an argument for economic policy, trade, and political interactions. According to Reger, there are three types of overlapping regions, which can be used to later ascertain the separation of larger regions: geographic, ethnic, and political.[67] Geographical regions can be determined based on features such as mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, coastlines, and other land features that could divide people. These landmarks also impact how easily trade and interactions can be between different areas – it is much easier to walk across a valley to speak to a neighbor than to scale a mountain. Often times, these geographies impact subsistence, which impacts culture.[68] For example, subsistence patterns will influence traditions of food, occupations, placements of households, tool use, and much more. Ethnic regions may vary from the geographical regions, though they are linked. These ethnic regions are defined mostly by “bonding with place,” a process which takes place over long periods of time. In this regional type, the people are the most important distinction – their shared religions, food, language, and family traditions.[69] These regions, while resembling political unities, are not quite the same as the third type of region. In the Political region, the actions taken by the people determine the extent of its borders. One might define a political region by looking at judicial/legal systems, taxes, currency, and other governmentally ruled pieces of society.[70] Reger notes all three of these types are interconnected – eventually ending the section saying that “it will rarely if ever be possible to draw sharp lines on the ground” to indicate these borders. They are constantly changing, shifting, and moving.[71] Oliver likewise states that “geographical and political boundaries can be punctuated and transgressed, necessarily so if we are to trace the movement of commodities. Nor should interests in the economy operate only at the level of the polis or kingdom.”[72]

Using a regional approach, as I will apply to the study of Crete, enables us to better understand how kingdoms and individual polities interact, particularly from an economic standpoint. Theories of who is politically most likely to trade with another region, which regions are closest in terms of cost of travel, which regions have beneficial resources to trade, and other such markers of economic movement are useful tools to examine the dynamics of the Hellenistic Aegean. “If one is to understand economic processes in diverse Hellenistic worlds,” Graham wrote, “then one must be aware of the complex variety of micro-regions which make up such worlds.”[73] It is with this in mind that the basis for an understanding of economics in the Hellenistic Aegean can be attained.


Studying the economics of the Hellenistic Aegean can provide information about cultural specifics, such as types of imports, exports, trade relations, and about what people considered to be valuable. Furthermore, this time period challenges ancient economists to think more broadly and more in depth about how to analyze material evidence in terms of economics. Zofia Archibald highlights this in the opening chapter of Making, Moving, and Managing, wherein she says that “this is the period in which significant changes occurred at macro and micro levels, which allow us to study the interplay of local, regional, and inter-regional connections.”[74] It is through all of the evidence that has been explained above that regionalism can be applied to ancient economic theory. However, there is some debate as to what ancient economies looked like and how they should be interpreted. There are two schools of thought on this topic – traditional and dynamic.[75]

The traditional view is the most prevalent when discussing ancient Greek economics. The main premise is that Greece still put merit in a status-distributive (or Homeric) type of profit gain, rather than a market economy.[76] According to this school of thought, it was ‘immoral’ on an individual level to pursue a profession focused on obtaining wealth through production, but instead one should build a wealth base on his natural environment or opportunistic ‘Homeric’ warfare. [77] Furthermore, this view names Greek economics as ‘primitive’, since there is no forward thought towards increasing production to then increase profit.[78] The point, then, of an ancient economy was stability. According to Alan Samuel:

All [Aristotle’s] reasoning is based on the fundamental assumption that stability in society is a good, is achievable, and is the basic aim of all political and economic arrangements. Thus the designation of self-sufficiency as the chief good. It is so because self-sufficiency is the circumstance which will most surely produce stability. . . There is certainly no sense at all that the system calls for, or that Aristotle has any interest in, what we would call growth or progress.[79]


Green agrees with his view, citing examples of the lack of Hellenistic innovation, and going so far as to say that “the prejudice against commerce ran very deep”. [80] This traditional view has been held for quite some time, however. In 1973, I. Finley put forth his view on attempting to study ancient Greek economics: “. . . they in fact lacked the concept of an ‘economy’, and, a fortiori, that they lacked the conceptual elements which together constitute what we call ‘the economy’”.[81] It was through this distinction then, that authors like Green and Samuel have come to the modern conclusion that the economies of ancient times could not be as complex as they are today. Rather, these ‘economies’ (if one can call them such, according to Finley) were simply byproducts of ancient attempts at subsistence, or stability. While there is merit and perhaps some Classical period evidence for such modes of existence, the Hellenistic period seems to demand more than this traditional approach.

            In a direct response to Finley’s viewpoints, John Davies wrote that there has been a “continuous undercurrent of determined deconstruction of the Finley model as static, simplistic, useless and retrograde”.[82] This is the start to understanding the dynamic model – moving past Finley’s outdated information and forward with new evidence and thinking. Zofia Archibald defines the dynamic economy approach as a reinterpreting of the complex activities that reside within ancient economies through the use of non-linear dynamics and ‘Complexity science’.[83] These models can then lead to more thorough research into specific ancient situations where complex factors may be working in conjunction to produce economic realities of which scholars were previously. The dynamic model is also attempting to be more intersectional, allowing for many different kinds of methods to have a say. Davies explains:

 “The discourse on ancient economies is becoming lively, even ebullient, it knows what it does not like, is busy absorbing interpretative concepts drawn from adjacent disciplines such as economic anthropology or systems analysis, but does not yet know which models will run best on the layouts of the economies of antiquity, which are becoming every year more complex and diverse.”[84]


It is through the lens of the dynamic model that evidence for Hellenistic Aegean economies will be presented, as it is much more applicable to this period than the traditional view. With the constant flux of the Hellenistic kings, the wave of changing ideals and values, and a newfound broader world, a traditionalist view leaves much unanswered.

            With an understanding of the theories on ancient economics, one can continue on to the physical evidence that will contextualize the role of economy in the Aegean. Davies provides an acceptable starting place to begin the discussion:

All one can do is to start from human needs and from the effective demand for those needs to be satisfied, to trace the flows of goods and services generated by that pattern and level of demand, to superimpose them where the main flows and main nodes are, (and conversely where the interactions are feeblest), and then – and only then – attempt to identify what ambitions, or ideas and attitudes, or transaction costs, or fiscal or governmental interventions, impede or help the flows.[85]


 This formula can streamline any economic discussion within the Hellenistic period, and if followed, will provide scholars a base upon which to create their arguments. To start from human needs, Gabrielsen makes an argument for monopolies as facilitators of commercial progress – the needs being trade interests (be it wood products, foodstuffs, etc.). There is some debate, however, as to the political struggles of the hegemonic kingdoms were large economic drivers, for in many ways these kings created a net loss of life, harvest, and stability. These issues could be interpreted as mainly negative, or as the start of eventual Hellenistic decline. Largely connected to the traditional view of economics, Gabrielsen makes an attempt to move away from this perspective, along with Archibald and Davies, by stressing the positive economic factors of warfare and hegemonic struggle. He makes an argument for the “specific way in which states and private economic actors entered into profitable partnerships: the establishment of monopolies or monopoly-like arrangements.”[86] Gabrielsen notes five different kinds of ancient monopolies, though the ‘Natural Monopoly’ was perhaps most easily applicable to the Hellenistic kingdoms. ‘Natural Monopolies,’ which were based on an overwhelming cost advantage resulting from expansion, created systems with constantly moving borders. In conjunction with the movement of these borders, different economic interests needed to be protected. Gabrielsen brings up a prime example when he considers the case of Kallatis, Byzantion, and Rhodes in the middle of the 3rd c. BC. Kallatis wanted to create a monopoly through use of its neighbor’s resources, wherein Byzantium (a supporter of “free trade”) declared war immediately to protect its own interests. Roughly thirty years later, Byzantium had procured its own monopoly on fishing and slave industries within the Bosporus straights, controlling all of the fiscal and commercial passage through this area. Rhodes, now the naval protector of the Aegean and a free trade activitist, declared war on Byzantium. This move was an intentional strategy to promote Rhodes’ interests as well as the interests of her allies in the north. By removing Byzantium and reestablishing free trade, Rhodes continued to hold its position as a supreme economic powerhouse of the region.[87] These types of power plays happen throughout the Hellenistic Aegean, largely influencing other economies throughout the Mediterranean.

            In addition to monopolistic interest, another way to see economic flows in the Aegean is, as mentioned above, transport amphorae and ceramic evidence. Essential to daily life throughout Greece, ceramics primarily dominate as the utility for which to transport and store foodstuffs.[88] In a case study highlighting archaeological evidence for the argument that agriculture and trade were the primary economic activity of Greece, John Lund uses Eastern Sigillata A fine ware to more intimately define the variety of ways in which ceramic assemblages can be of use. The geographic distribution implications of this fine ware can be applied to other cases, even those of transport amphorae – as distributive trade patterns are a broader economic phenomena.[89] Lund found that Eastern Sigillata A fine ware was a connected market to agriculture. Furthermore, he found that its distribution “must have had a considerable economic importance at a local – if not regional – level.”[90] Such a statement suggests that a thriving ceramic industry will also indicate a thriving local economy, and that the two are inextricably linked.

            The Aegean creates these small pockets of regional variance naturally with its many islands and seafaring peoples. For trading between islands, the mainland, and the Ionian coast, ships were essential. Some of our best information on ships comes from Rhodes, due to its naval superiority at the time. Using Rhodes as the focal point for trade routes, Gabrielsen claims it would take five days to sail from Byzantium to Rhodes and ten to sail back. From the Black Sea, nine and a half days would be needed. Rhodes to Alexandria would take three and half days, while it would take four days to sail from Athens to Rhodes.[91] Climate was a large factor in these sailing times, as was the type of ship that was attempting the journey. Rhodes had some of the best ships at this time period with its large navy and even larger export trade, but even the best ships can turn into shipwrecks on the rocky coasts of Greek islands during a terrible winter storm.[92]  Shipwrecks have recently become popular archaeological endeavors, as we now have the technology to locate and excavate more of these unfortunate pieces of the past. Amphorae from wrecks have been found originating from Rhodes, Samos, Knidos, Chios, Thasos, Paros, Kos, Herakleia, Chersonesos, Sinope, and Corinth, along with many more amphorae whose origins are still unknown.[93] This information alone is quite useful, let alone an investigation into their contents. Using the evidence that the majority of Hellenistic Mediterranean wrecks found have been small, Gibbins makes the claim that tramping – “the speculative and small-scale contractual transport of goods along coastal routes, often within an established economic region” – may be the main form of maritime commerce.[94] If this was the case in the Hellenistic period, it would mean that goods were moving much more frequently, changing hands at every port. Developing theories as to where material goods originated from – who was trading with whom – could be much more difficult.

Piracy and Pirates

            Related to the topic of ships is the topic of those who were at the helm. According to Gabrielsen, pirates were central to maritime trade.[95] Piracy during this period was defined, according to de Souza, as “any form of armed robbery or plundering involving the use of ships” - an all-encompassing type of definition.[96] Of course, using this definition makes it difficult to tell the distinction between a naval battle and a ‘pirate’ raid – for robbery and plundering are often part of warfare. In fact, this distinction was so fluid that within the ancient literature ‘pirates’ were often simply on the opposing side of the narrator. Polybius, for instance, describes the Aetolians as pirates - despite the fact that Aetolians would view themselves as honored warriors.[97].

Semantics aside, if pirates were depleting resources, killing men, plundering goods, and creating chaos, would they not be negatively impacting commerce? There is a convincing argument against piracy as an antithesis to economic growth, however, including the point that pirates would want to stimulate commerce in order to further their own economic interests.[98]  It seems that pirates stimulated commerce through providing slaves and other goods for the market, while also offering a form of employment when other forms were not available. Though the Hellenistic period was full of warfare and strife, de Souza makes the claim that pirate activity did not escalate during this time. Instead, the frequency at which pirates were used as scapegoats to elevate levels of prestige or substantiate claims of naval supremacy increased, creating more references to piracy in the literary record.[99] Unfortunately, the means to detect the physical presence of pirates, or their impact, remains elusive. “Whatever our literary sources might claim, the contribution of piracy to the economy of any place in Antiquity is unknowable,” writes de Souza, “because it cannot be detected.”[100] With the multitude of literary evidence, however, it is clear that pirates played a large part within the mindsets of the Hellenistic period.


[1] Glenn Bugh, “Introduction,” The Cambridge Companion, xix-xxii; Erskine, A Companion, 2; There is some debate as to exactly when the Hellenistic period ended and when the Roman period began, depending on how one defines Rome’s influence and level of control. 31 BC is the traditionally accepted date, which I will use here.

[2] Winthrop Adams, “The Hellenistic Kingdoms,” The Cambridge Companion, 28-30; There were other claims to the throne through Alexander’s bloodline, though none were quite as legitimate as Roxane’s unborn child.

[3] Green, From Alexander to Actium, 134; There is some difference in dates here for the end of the wars of the Diadochi. David Braund ends this period in 281 BC with the Battle of Koroupedion and the murder of Seleukos (David Braund, “After Alexander: The Emergence of the Hellenistic World, 323-281,” A Companion, 33.), though Graham Shipley, along with Bugh and Green, attributes the new period after the wars to the takeover of Macedonia by Antigonos Gonatas (Shipley, The Greek World, 107.).

[4] Green, From Alexander to Actium, 187.

[5] Richard Billows, “Cities”, A Companion, 198.

[6]Shipley, The Greek World, 57.

[7] See Vincent Gabrielsen “Profitable Partnerships: Monopolies, Traders, Kings, and Cities,” in The Economies of Hellenistic Societies: Third to First Century BC, ed. Zofia Archibald and John Davies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 216-50.

[8] Gary Reger, Delos. Regionalism and change in the economy of independent Delos, 314-167 BC (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 20-6.

[9] Vincent Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy of Hellenistic Rhodes (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1997), 85.

[10] Peter Green, The Hellenistic Age: A Short History (New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2007), 136-37.

[11] Ibid, 71.

[12] Polybius, Histories, 2.37.7-38

[13] Green, The Hellenistic Age, 70-71

[14] Green, From Alexander to Actium, 147.

[15] Ibid., 148.

[16] Ibid., 378

[17] Bugh, “Introduction”, 6.

[18]Andrew Erskine, “Approaching the Hellenistic World,” A Companion, 4.

[19] Green, From Alexander to Actium, xix; There are many contemporary authors which have been lost to us, including Douris of Samos, Hieronymus of Cardia, Poseidonius, Phylarchus, Timaisos of Tauromenion, and authors from the period of Alexander as well, Aristoboulos of Kassandreia, Kallisthenes of Olynthos, Kleitarchos, and Ptolemy I of Egypt. See also Erskine, “Approaching the Hellenistic World”, 5-6.  

[20] Green, From Alexander to Actium, 269.

[21]Jeffrey Henderson, “Introduction”, Polybius’ The Histories ed. Jeffrey Henderson, Trans. W. R. Paton, Revis. Frank W. Walbank and Christian Habicht (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), xii.

[22] F. W. Walbank, A Historical Commentary on Polybius (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 3.

[23] Ibid., 4-5

[24] Polybius, 1.4.11-1.6.2, 15, trans. W. R. Paton (1922-27).

[25] There are three differing views put forth on Polybius’ intended audience: Peter Green states that “Despite polite genuflections to his Roman readers, he was really aiming at Greeks.” (Green, Alexander to Actium, 271); Henderson says that “It was aimed at Roman readers, a clear sign that Romans were able to read Greek, but that the author also had a Greek audience in mind.” (Henderson, Polybius’ The Histories, xv); F. W. Walbank believes that “Usually, however, it is not clear to what particular audience Polybius is directing his frequent didactic observations on the advantages that will accrue from reading his work. . .” (Walbank, A Historical Commentary on Polybius, 7). I am inclined to believe Walbank, due to the possibility that Polybius’ could be trying to please several audiences without alienating either, although Green and Henderson have the benefit of more recent investigation and compelling arguments.

[26] For instance, Henderson, “Introduction”, xxiv – xxv; Walbank, A Historical Commentary, 17.

[27] Green, Alexander to Actium (1993), 273. One of Polybius’ sources is also Zeno, a Rhodian historian with an exaggerated sense of Rhodian excellence – this will also account for some of Polybius’ bias. See Perlman, “The Marginalization of Crete,” 133.


[28] Peter Green, Diodorus Siculus, Books 11-12.37.1: Greek History 480-431 B.C., the Alternative Version (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 3.

[29] Ibid., 4-7.

[30] Catherine Rubincam, “How Many Books Did Diodorus Siculus Originally Intend to Write?” The Classical Quarterly 48.1(1998): 233.

[31] Ibid., 230.

[32] Michel Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to The Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 7.

[33] Robert Drews, “Diodorus and His Sources”, American Journal of Philology 83.4 (1962): 383-92.

[34] Green, Alexander to Actium, xix; It should be noted that Green recants this argument in his later book Diodorus Siculus, x, xiv, wherein he states that “. . . Diodorus, properly examined, turns out to be a rational, methodical, if somewhat unimaginative, minor historian, who planned on a large scale, and was quite capable of seeing major faults and inconsistencies provided he lived to correct them. . . Here I must take refuge . . . in Walt Whitman’s cheerful apophthegm: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.’”

[35] Kenneth Sacks, “The Lesser Prooemia of Diodorus Siculus” in Hermes, 110.4 (1982): 434.

[36] Daniela Dueck, Hugh Lindsay, and Sarah Pothecary, ed. Strabo’s Cultural Geography: The Making of a Kolossourgia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1.

[37] Dueck, Lindsay, and Pothecary, Strabo’s Cultural Geography, 1.

[38] Strabo, Geography, 2.5.11, C117, in Daniela Dueck’s Strabo of Amasia: A Greek Man of Letters in Augustan Rome (New York: Routledge, 2000), 15-16.

[39] Dueck, Strabo of Amasia, 8.

[40] Dueck, Lindsay, Pothecary, Strabo’s Cultural Geography, 3-4.

[41] Ibid., 4.

[42] Eran Algamor, “Who is a Barbarian? The barbarians in the ethnological and cultural taxonomies of Strabo.” in Strabo’s Cultural Geography, 54.

[43] John Davies, “Hellenistic Economies” in The Cambridge Companion, 76.

[44] John Ma, “The Epigraphy of Hellenistic Asia Minor: A Survey of Recent Research (1992-1999)”

American Journal of Archaeology 104.1 (2000): 100-01.

[45] Ibid., 99.

[46] Arthur Woodhead, The Study of Greek Inscriptions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 74.

[47] Stephen Tracy “Dating Athenian Inscriptions: A New Approach,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 144.1 (2000): 69.

[48] Ibid., 69-70.

[49] Ibid., 76.

[50] See Stephen Tracy and Constantin Papaodysseus, “The Study of Hands on Greek Inscriptions: The Need for a Digital Approach,” American Journal of Archaeology 113.1 (2009): 99-102; 100% accuracy was observed in a study of 23 inscriptions with 6 hands, spanning a time period from 330 BC to 140 BC, pp. 113.

[51] Katerina Panagopoulou, “The Antigonids: Patterns of a Royal Economy,” in Hellenistic Economies, ed. Zofia Archibald, John Davies, Vincent Gabrielsen, and Graham Oliver (New York: Routeledge, 2001), 244.

[52] Andrew Meadows, "Money, Freedom, and Empire in the Hellenistic World," in Money and its Uses, ed. Andrew Meadows and Kirsty Shipton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 53.

[53] Thomas Martin, Why Did the Greek Polis Originally Need Coins?” in Historia, 45 (1996): 257.

[54] Ibid., 55.

[55] Gary Reger, “The Economy,” in The Cambridge Companion, 337-38.

[56] Mark L. Lawall, “Amphoras and Hellenistic Economies: Addressing the (Over)Emphasis on Stamped Amphora Handles,” in Making, Moving, and Managing, ed. Zofia H. Archibald, John K. Davies, and Vincent Gabrielsen (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2005), 193.

[57] Ibid., 194.

[58] Ibid., 194.

[59] Vogeikoff-Brogan and Stavroula Apostolakou, “New Evidence of Wine Production in East

Crete in the Hellenistic Period” in Transport Amphorae and Trade in the Eastern Mediterranean: Acts of the International Colloquium at the Danish Institute at Athens, September 26-29, 2002, ed. Jonas Eiring and John Lund (Athens: Tameio Archaeologikon Poron kai Apallotrioseon, 2002), 418.

[60] John Lund, “Rhodian Transport Amphorae as a Source for Economic Ebbs and Flows in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Second Century BC,” in The Economies of Hellenistic Societies: Third to First Century BC, ed. Zofia Archibald and John Davies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 289-90.

[61] Ibid., 290.

[62] Ibid., 289.

[63] Reger, “The Economy,” 338.

[64] Lawall, “Amphoras,” 216.

[65] Gary Reger, “Interregional Economies in the Aegean Basin,” in The Economies of Hellenistic Societies: Third to First Century BC, 368-89.

[66] Graham Oliver, “Regions and Micro-regions: Grain for Rhamnous”, in Hellenistic Economies, 140-41.

[67] Reger, “Interregional Economies,” 371-72.

[68] Ibid., 374.

[69] Ibid., 374.

[70] Ibid., 377.

[71] Ibid., 378.

[72] Oliver, “Regions and Micro-regions,” 141.

[73] Ibid., 153.

[74] Zofia Archibald, “Markets and Exchange: The Structure and Scale of Economic Behaviour in the Hellenistic Age,” in Making, Moving, and Managing, 1.

[75] Interestingly, in addition to both the traditional and dynamic views on economy, there is also the ‘substantivist’ and ‘modernizing’ positions. Both views discussed above are within the ‘modernizing’ position, wherein contemporary economic theories are applicable to ancient times. The ‘substantivist’ position holds conversely that ancient economies were so different from our own that modern theories are not applicable. See Archibald, “Markets and Exchange,” 3.

[76] Green, Alexander to Actium, 363.

[77] Ibid., 365.

[78] Alan E. Samuel, From Athens to Alexandria: Hellenism and Social Goals in Ptolemaic Egypt (Lovaini: Studia Hellenistica, 1983), 1.

[79] Ibid. 26-27.

[80] Green, Alexander to Actium, 365.

[81] Moses Finley, The Ancient Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 21.

[82] John K. Davies, “Hellenistic Economies in the Post-Finley Era,” in Hellenistic Economies, 13.

[83] Zofia Archibald, “Markets and Exchange,” 7-8; See Archibald’s example of Shawn Graham’s systematic survey of brick manufacturers in the Tiber valley, wherein it was found that the “role of key players, who acted like ‘hubs’ or junctions in the network, was correspondingly far greater than that of individual agents on the periphery, and thus their presence or absence could have disproportionate significance in the history of the network as a whole”. Archibald brings up the potential that this survey could have for applications in ancient economics – quite important when looking at the dynamic model of economic theory.

[84] Davies, “Hellenistic Economies in the Post-Finley Era,” 14.

[85] Ibid., 22.

[86] Gabrielsen, “Profitable Parnerships,” 219.

[87] Ibid.,  223-24

[88] John Lund, “An Economy of Consumption: The Eastern Sigillata A Industry in the Late Hellenisitc Period,” in Making, Moving, and Managing, 233.

[89] Ibid., 240; See subheading “Distribution mechanisms”.

[90] Ibid., 244.

[91] Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy, 71-72.

[92] Ibid., 85.

[93] David Gibbins, “Shipwrecks and Hellenistic Trade,” in Hellenistic Economies, 276.

[94] Ibid., 294.

[95] Vincent Gabrielsen, “Economic Activity, Maritime Trade and Piracy in the Hellenistic Aegean,” Revue de Etudes Anciennes 103.1-2 (2001), 221.

[96] Philip de Souza, “Who are you Calling Pirates?” in Rough Cicilia: New Historical and Archaeological Approaches, Proceedings of an International Conference Held at Lincoln, Nebraska, October 2007, ed. Michael Hoff and Rhys Townsend (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013), 43.

[97] Polybius, 4.6.1, trans. W. R. Paton, (1922-27); Philip de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 74.

[98] Gabrielsen, “Economic Activity,” 221.

[99] de Souza, “Who are you Calling Pirates?” 45; Gabrielsen, “Economic Activity,” 222.

[100] de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, 60.



Rhodes: A Case Study

            Rhodes is an island of approximately 544 square miles, and is located just below modern day Turkey in the eastern Aegean (see Map 1). During the Hellenistic period, Rhodes was a major economic force in the Aegean: it possessed the best navy in the region and it became very wealthy – it reached the height of its power in the 3rd c. BC. Hellenistic Rhodes is comparatively well documented as a polity and, as a result, it has been the focus of scholarly studies of the political/economic trends, maritime trade, and piracy in the Aegean. This chapter will discuss the political unity of Rhodes, evidence for Rhodes’ commercial contacts (especially its wine trade), and lastly, its role as ‘policeman of the seas’ in the 3rd-century Aegean. These specific aspects of Hellenistic Rhodes were chosen because they are points of comparison and relation to contemporary Crete, and by examining them it is hoped they will provide insight into the latter’s position in the Aegean during this period. 

            While the political unity of Rhodes and its ability to maintain a wide sphere of political influence will be investigated more thoroughly below, ancient historians suggest how the Hellenistic polis was perceived in antiquity. Diodorus Siculus states that Rhodes was a state with substantial power and was viewed favorably by other Greeks during the 3rd c. BC:

The city of the Rhodians, which was strong in sea power and was the best governed city of the Greeks, was a prize eagerly sought after by the dynasts and kings, each of them striving to add her to his alliance. . . In fact she advanced to such strength that in behalf of the Greeks she by herself undertook her war against the pirates and purged the seas of these evil-doers. . .[1]


It is worth noting that Diodorus is claiming that Rhodes maintained the best political system at this time, especially since there were many other cities with equally excellent systems. Polybius shows Rhodes as an important sometimes-ally of Rome, but also as guarding their independent status for reasons of commercial gain:

For the policy of Rhodes had been so little by sentiment, that although that state had from nearly a hundred and forty years taken part in the most glorious and finest achievements of the Romans, they had never made an alliance with Rome. The reason of their action in this respect should not be ignored. It was this. As they wished none of the kings and princes to despair of gaining their help and alliance, they did not desire to run in harness with Rome and engage themselves by oaths and treaties, but preferred to remain unembarrassed and able to reap profit from any quarter.[2]


Modern scholars tend to take a favorable view of Rhodes by portraying it as a small island struggling to maintain its independence in the midst of larger powers. In this vein, Green states that “Rhodes, with her benevolent naval aristocracy and her famous maritime laws, nevertheless held out against the dominant pattern of Hellenistic kingship, and preserved much of the old classical Greek pride and civic intransigence.”[3] It is perhaps due to an overreliance on such ancient literary sources that this ‘idealized’ image of Hellenistic Rhodes has been perpetuated in modern scholarship. Vincent Gabrielsen puts forth a theory on Rhodes’ extremely positive image in the historical record, saying that “the Rhodians certainly deserve credit for elevating their city-state to such an admirable position. And no less credit is due to them for their persistent endeavours to conserve, and even heighten, the image of their country as an immaculate polis . . .”[4] Gabrielsen cites three examples where the Rhodian image was embellished by ancient historians: Polybios’ view on two Rhodian historians, Diodorus Siculus’ “eulogy of Rhodian power and prosperity” in his causes of Macedonian aggression, and Polybius’ citation of Roman and Rhodian collaboration for “nearly one hundred and forty years.”[5] Hans-Ulrich Weimer takes this position a step further when he calls ancient accounts of Rhodes “political propaganda” that “cannot serve as a reliable guide to the aims and principles of Rhodian policy.”[6]

Historical Background

            During the Late Classical period, Rhodes was allied with Sparta from 412-395 BC.[7] From here, Sparta maintained control of Rhodes until it then became a member of the Second Athenian Confederacy in 378 BC. However, it soon rebelled from Athens in the Social War of 357 BC.[8] After a period of brief independence, the Carians dominated Rhodes until 323 BC and the death of Alexander.[9] It was not until they repulsed Demetrius Poliorketes of the Antigonids, at the ‘Great Siege’ of Rhodes in 306/305 BC, that they had earned their independent status.[10] From there, Rhodes developed fairly quickly into a major naval power.

How the island came to be strong enough to repel the Antigonid forces of Demetrius, however, is the key to understanding Rhodes’ rise from simply being independent to becoming a commercial superpower. Ioannis Papachristodoulou has said that “the study of the regional organization of the Rhodian state . . . has an important contribution to make to our understanding of what can rightly be called the “Rhodian miracle” of the Hellenistic period.”[11] This ‘miracle’ was the synoikism of the island’s three largest poleis in 408/7 BC[12] - Ialysos, Camiros, and Lindos - which led to a cohesive unification that allowed Rhodes to build a political framework to support its success. The reasons for the synoikism are not known, though there are two main theories: Berthold mentions that it may be linked to Athenian raids after Rhodes defected, while Christopher Mee and Ellen Rice postulate more commercial reasons.[13] Once unified, it is clear that Rhodes was not a democracy. Rather, it has been likened to an aristocracy, or at the very least, to having a republic-like structure.[14] Rhodes was unified by oligarchs, and the power structure after the synoikism was largely influenced by the euergetism of its upper class. Arguably, this was a part of the “infrastructure on which Rhodes’ political and economic success relied” – as was the case in most Hellenistic societies.[15] This meant that Rhodes was dependent on its aristocracy and the wealth of its aristocracy. It could not have succeeded without the maintenance of aristocratic wealth.

            For the most part, however, Rhodes attempted to stay politically neutral in wider world. This was primarily motivated by economic interests, but also to avoid military confrontation as much as possible.[16] Such a policy was largely successful until 160 BC, when the Rhodians became entangled in Roman policy.[17] This general policy of neutrality can be seen in the events leading up to the ‘Great Siege’ – wherein Rhodes attempted to avoid supporting the Antigonids in a conflict between the Antigonids and Ptolemies. According to Weimer, Rhodes had nothing to gain from an alliance with either side, it did not want to have political ties it could not sever, and it wanted to firmly hold onto its autonomy.[18] Thus, when negotiations and a Rhodian attempt at neutrality failed, and the Antigonids sent Demetrios Poliorketes to attack Rhodes, their resistance became a symbolic stance against hegemonic power.[19] After withstanding the siege, the Rhodians used the funds from Demetrios’ abandoned siege weaponry to build the Colossus, a giant victory monument that would stand to demonstrate Rhodes’ wealth, power, and prestige.[20] Rhodes had gained a reputation as a major power, and such public proclamations as the Colossus were crucial to developing its reputation as the defender and liberator of the Aegean islands.

            This stance of neutrality does not necessarily equate to a lack of desire for hegemonic growth. As Sheila Ager has demonstrated, “Rhodes' ambition was not just for peace per se, but rather a peace in which she could profitably pursue her own interest.”[21] The Rhodians’ involvement as mediators in the Byzantium trade wars, the First Macedonian War, the Syrian Wars, and the Cretan Wars all have the pretense of peace but end in the promotion of Rhodian interests.

Beginning in the 3rd c. BC, Rhodian hegemonic aims can be seen quite clearly, and its image as a benefactor in the region should be viewed as propagandistic.[22] By the end of the 3rd c. BC, Rhodes had the nearby islands of Karpathos, Chalce, Syme, Megiste, Kasos, Nisyros, Telos, and Saros within its political domain.[23] Although these islands are relatively small and of little strategic importance, their incorporation into the Rhodian political sphere are a sign of the progress Rhodes had made on its hegemonic aims. Furthermore, from 200-168 BC Rhodes had significant economic power over and political ties within the Cyclades.[24] For Rhodes, having strategic control in the Cyclades allowed for greater protection of their merchant vessels. Rhodes also used finances to protect its interests and to increase its influence in the Aegean. For example, the Rhodians loaned 140,000 drachmas to Sinope in order to prevent a siege by Mithridates, primarily to ensure that Rhodes’ commercial connection to the Black sea was not lost.[25] Mithridates decided against attacking the city, which, with Rhodes’ aid, would have been well equipped to rebuff his efforts.

The Rhodian Economy

For a period of about eighty years after the ‘Great Siege,’ we know little about events on Rhodes.[26] When Rhodes does reappear in ancient literary sources, it seems to have gone through a period of swift economic and political growth. Evidence of the power and position of Rhodes comes from the accounts of the many kings and poleis that came to their aid after the earthquake of 227/8 BC. So much aid was given that Gabrielsen suggests that the Rhodians were “determined to capitalize on the catastrophe, managed by means of diplomatic dexterity to extract material and financial aid amounting to far and above the extent of the actual damage: in this case, disaster became the occasion for improvement”.[27] Berthold rightly emphasizes the economics of the situation, which went beyond simple the diplomatic “voluntary tribute” to Rhodes, when describing the donors:

 All these states were involved in the economic activities of Rhodes, and many were dependent on it to some extent for imports and the shipping and marketing of exports. . . there was probably also a general fear in the international banking community of a widespread financial crisis should the Rhodian economy be seriously disrupted. There are in fact few more impressive signs of the extent of the Rhodian economic influence than the reaction to the earthquake and the seeming ease with which the Rhodians elicited the simultaneous support of the ever-contentious Hellenistic powers.[28]


From all of this evidence, it is clear that Rhodes had become an economic powerhouse in the Aegean by the second half of the 3rd c. BC. This position was largely the result of its involvement in merchant marine which was the largest in the Hellenistic world and, since the fourth century, Rhodian products were traded throughout the Mediterranean, particularly wine and oil, as well as grain.[29] Berthold stresses that the majority of Rhodian trade was done by Rhodian merchants, which gave them physical control over their own interests, and allowed their profits to skyrocket by avoiding middlemen.[30]

Located at a prime position in the eastern Aegean and with good harbors, Rhodes is well-situated as a stopping point on north-south routes along the Ionian coast and east-west routes from the Near East to the central Mediterranean.[31] Rhodes’ excellent location meant that it was also able to profit by taxing incoming and outgoing merchants who would use their ports to continue on their trade routes. Polybius states that “the harbour-dues in former times were farmed for a million drachmae,” and it is approximated that at two percent tax, fifty million drachmae in goods must have passed through Rhodes’ harbors.[32]

Banking was another important form of profiting from complex trade interactions for Rhodes.  Rhodian merchant-moneylenders, private treasurers, and even public moneylending entities loaned, donated, and invested money to other merchants and citizens.[33] Such an emphasis on banking shows an opportunistic mindset, because debt would accrue power for the lenders, lenders would invest money back into Rhodes’ interests, and its growth would benefit its prestige.

Archaeological evidence for the Rhodian trade can be found throughout the Aegean. Rhodian transport amphorae have been found at almost every major Hellenistic site, especially Athens, Delos, and Alexandria.[34] Furthermore, perhaps less significant but still related, are finds of Rhodian coins all over the Mediterranean in circulation as wide as their transport amphorae.[35]  Nicholas Rauh has demonstrated how the distribution and ratios of Rhodian amphorae handles to other non-Rhodian amphorae illustrate the flow of goods between Rhodes and other areas.  Using this method, for instance, he concludes that the Rhodian wine trade dropped significantly, though not drastically, at the end of the 2nd c. BC in the Aegean (through evidence of lessened Rhodian amphorae ratios to non-Rhodian amphorae), perhaps due to competition from Kos, Knidos, and Kaunos.[36] We can also tell by amphorae distributions that Alexandria was a huge importer of Rhodian wine in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, due to the huge numbers of stamped handles found there (as well as literary evidence that plainly substantiates the claim).[37] With upwards of 80,000 handles from Rhodes identified in Alexandria, John Lund theorizes that the Rhodians and Ptolemies may have been trading wine for grain increasingly throughout the 2nd century.[38] David Gibbins is highly skeptical of identifying an upward trend in Rhodian wine using only amphorae handles, though that does not mean that Gibbins denies that Rhodes had a remarkable “mercantile dominance”.[39] This is a case where caution needs to be taken when looking at only amphorae stamps, but it is clear that Rhodian products were intensively consumed in Egypt and other places in the late 3rd and early 2nd century BC.

            Despite difficulties in assessing the absolute volume of Rhodian exports, maritime trade clearly would not have been so successful without the Rhodian navy. After the decline of the Ptolemaic navy in the mid-3rd century, Berthold claims that “[Rhodes was] the only one that possessed the capability of rapidly launching a considerable force and manning it with a constant supply of highly skilled sailors”.[40] They had small ships, skilled citizen sailors, and enough financial stability to grow a fleet so powerful that Rhodes would come to be known as the ‘protector of the Aegean.’ Gabrielsen claims that the powerful aristocracy of Rhodes is behind the upkeep of this navy, not only in leading/funding the ships as a trierarchs, but also in supplying the manpower to run them.[41] Through the hegemonic growth discussed above, the Rhodian navy could be stationed throughout the Cyclades and Dodecanese, effectively allowing them to dispatch ships quickly and with the full amount of force against any threat.[42] The objectives of the Rhodian navy were multifaceted: to protect the island of Rhodes, to protect any citizen maritime trade interests, to lend protection to allies in times of need, and lastly, the most intriguing objective – to protect the Aegean from pirates.[43]

Rhodes and Piracy

            Piracy in the Aegean, as mentioned above, was a phenomenon that could cost an economic powerhouse like Rhodes quite a bit of money. Stolen goods, lost ships, the death of skilled sailors or merchants, and loss of their reputation as a sea power were all at stake for Rhodes, should piracy undermine their efforts. Even before the ‘Great Siege’ by Demetrios Poliorketes, the Rhodians were dedicated to suppressing piracy in any form. They dispatched warships of citizen soldiers after the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC to escort merchant vessels after rumors of pirates at Piraeus, and also used armed merchantmen to defend cargo vessels against pirates on their way to Egypt.[44] Furthermore, references to the Rhodians fighting with the Tyrrhenians – Etruscan pirates who attacked ships along the trade route between Greece and Italy - are found in an inscription from Rhodes dated to 305 BC, wherein three Rhodian brothers were killed.[45] The Rhodians also fought Illyrian pirates in 220 BC, according to Polybius.[46]  Primarily, however, Rhodes is known for their defense of the Aegean from Cretan pirates, which will be discussed more fully in the next chapter. Keith Fairbank calls the Rhodians the “pirate police of the Mediterranean”, though Green notes that they were “in the business of eradicating piracy only when it conflicted with official monopolies.”[47] Green implies here that Rhodes often used the protection of the Aegean against piracy as a means to protect their monopolies and other economic interests – a far cry from an altruistic model that is adopted by ancient historians.[48] Indeed, Rhodes protected merchant vessels from pirates in Piraeus and from the Illyrians, and when one analyzes the treaty between Hierapytna and Rhodes after the First Cretan War, it is clear that the Rhodians benefited economically from such actions.[49] There is also evidence that Rhodes  even created a market out of protection against piracy – Gabrielsen states that Rhodes “nearly managed to monopolize the protection market by making the supply of phylake (‘protection’) to paying customers both a top-ranking objective and the specialty of her fleet.”[50] Indeed, the Rhodian fleet was made to combat the fast and light ships of pirates through its own speed and efficiency.[51] Berthold tells us that “Shouldering the burden of policing the Aegean, though motivated by self-interest, could only enhance Rhodes’ already brilliant reputation among the smaller communities . . .”[52] And so it did. Of course, being a protector for the good of all would have complimented their ongoing personal propaganda, and a display of force and wealth could never hurt.

This prestige allowed the Rhodians to build trust in a variety of smaller entities, and historians would remember them throughout time as the wealthiest in the Aegean, best governed of the Greeks, protectors of the innocent, and eradicators of pirates. This reputation is crucial to understanding literary accounts of the First Cretan War, when there was a general agreement that Rhodes should eliminate the ‘Cretan’ pirate threat from the southern Aegean. Arguably Rhodian propaganda was so entrenched that no ancient historian would speak ill of such a decision, and, perhaps as a direct result, very few modern historians would either.


[1] Diodorus Siculus, 20.81.2-3, trans. Francis Walton (1957).

[2] Polybius, 30.5, trans. W. R. Paton, (1922-27); There is some question here as to the validity of Polybius’ statement on an alliance between Rhodes and Rome, as it is known they frequently maintained formal interactions since at least 306 BC. For more information see Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy, 23.

[3] Green, Alexander to Actium, 378.

[4] Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy, 19.

[5] See Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy, 19-25.

[6] Hans-Ulrich Weimer would even go so far as to call it the “Rhodian Mirage”; See Hans-Ulrich Weimer, “Early Hellenistic Rhodes: The Struggle for Independence and the Dream of Hegemony”, in Creating a Hellenistic World, edited by Andrew Erskine (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2011), 124.

[7] See Christopher Mee, and Ellen Rice, “Rhodes,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 4th ed.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Richard Berthold, Rhodes in the Hellenistic Age (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 62, 76.

[11] Ioannis Papachristodoulou, “The Rhodian Demes within the Framework of the Function of the Rhodian State,” in Hellenistic Rhodes Politics, Culture, and Society, ed. Vincent Gabrielsen et al. (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1999), 43.

[12] Ibid., 27.

[13] Richard Berthold, “Fourth Century Rhodes” Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte 29:1 (1980): 34. Berthold draws this motivation for the synoekism from a single inscription found at Lindus in approximately 408, though even he notes that it is “slender evidence”. Mee and Rice, however, postulate that the decision was made for reasons “probably commercial rather than military”. See Christopher Mee and Ellen Rice, “Rhodes.”

[14] Berthold, Rhodes, 39-40.

[15] Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy, 36.

[16] Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy, 75; Berthold, Rhodes, 12, 80; Sheila Ager, “Rhodes: The Rise and Fall of the Neutral Diplomat” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 40 (1991), 11.

[17] Ager, “Rhodes,” 11.

[18] Weimer, “Early Hellenistic Rhodes,” 127.

[19] Ibid. 127-28.

[20] Berthold, Rhodes, 80.

[21] Ager, “Rhodes: The Rise and Fall of the Neutral Diplomat,” 13.

[22] Ibid., 27; Ager mentions that the Rhodians were using “emotional propaganda” to attain Greek sympathies when making a stance against piracy, the sincerity of which she doubts.

[23] Ibid., 41.

[24] Weimer, “Early Hellenistic Rhodes,” 135; Gabrielsen has some reservations on using the Cyclades as an example of  Rhodian ‘hegemony’ due to his stance that the “available evidence defies chronological precision and offers few, if any, of the marks of a formal ‘hegemony’, as it was earlier practiced by the Antigonids and especially the Ptolemies.” This distinction seems to be one of the definition of the term ‘hegemony’. Here I am using the term to mean having a substantial political influence upon a region, and/or directly controlling the region, while attempting to expand such influence or control. Thus, no matter the scale of Rhodian ‘hegemony’, without a doubt much smaller than the Antigonids and Ptolemies, I would claim that their political sway over the Cyclades is substantial enough to warrant the term. See Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy, 56.

[25] Berthold, Rhodes, 93-94.

[26] Berthold, Rhodes, 61.

[27] Gabrielsen, Naval Aristocracy, 76.

[28] Berthold, Rhodes, 93.

[29] Green, Alexander to Actium, 378. Although wine, oil, and grain were their main exports, they also exported fruits, honey, grapes, olive products, fish, and minerals – see Berthold, Rhodes, 47.

[30] Ibid., 48.

[31] Gabrielsen states that “the island enjoyed commercial contacts with the Near East, Asia Minor and the Aegean, the Black Sea, and Carthage”. See Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy, 74.

[32] Polybius, 30.31.12, W. R. Paton, (1922-27); Berthold, Rhodes, 53.

[33] Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy, 82-83.

[34] Nicholas Rauh, “Rhodes, Rome, and the Mediterranean Wine Trade 166-88 BC,” in Hellenistic Rhodes: Politics, Culture, and Society, 50.

[35] Berthold, Rhodes, 50. Although it is not clear if a correlation between Rhodian amphorae handles ratios and Rhodian coinage locations has been explored as of yet, but such a study would be fascinating in terms of researching market origins.

[36] Rauh, “Rhodes, Rome, and the Mediterranean Wine Trade 166-88 BC,” 166,179; It is worthwhile to mention that the decline in Rhodian wine is debated, and also that Rhodian wine exportation may have even risen, while trade in specific areas may have decreased. Of course, such are the limitations of amphorae statistical analysis – refer back to Ch. 2. John Lund agrees with the acknowledgement of a decline, though in more general terms. See John Lund, “Rhodian Amphorae in Rhodes and Alexandria as Evidence of Trade,” in Hellenistic Rhodes: Politics, Culture, and Society, 187-203.

[37] See Diodorus, Historical Library, 20.81.4.

[38] Lund, “Rhodian Amphorae,” 201-202.

[39] Ibid., 293.

[40] Berthold, Rhodes, 43.

[41] Ibid., 100, 107.

[42] Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy, 43.

[43] Ibid., 45; de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, 48; Berthold, Rhodes, 42-43.

[44]de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, 49; Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, 20.82.2, trans. Francis Walton (1957).

[45] de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, 50; Berthold, Rhodes, 98.

[46] Polybius, Histories, 4.16.6-8; Berthold, Rhodes, 98.

[47] Keith Fairbank, “The Strength of Rhodes and the Cilician Pirate Crisis” Studia Antiqua 6 (2008): 87; Green, The Hellenistic Age, 78.

[48] See Chapter 2 on literary sources, page 10.

[49] For a more detailed description of this treaty, see Chapter 4 on Crete, page 50.

[50] Vincent Gabrielsen, “Rhodian Associations and Economic Activity,” in Hellenistic Economies, 166.

[51] Gabrielsen, The Naval Aristocracy, 86.

[52] Berthold, Rhodes, 99.


Hellenistic Crete

            With a firm background in the use of literary sources, archaeological evidence, piracy, and Rhodes, I will now discuss the evidence for politics, economy and society of Hellenistic Crete. First, I will describe the literary sources highlighting Polybius’, Diodorus’, and Strabo’s specific views on Crete. Next, a full explanation of the “Cretan Mirage” and Paula Perlman’s alternative view on the reasons for the beginning of the First Cretan War will provide the necessary introduction to the marginalization of Crete in modern scholarship. Using the evidence for the “Cretan Mirage”, an analysis of the archaeological evidence for Cretan commerce will follow. A brief history of 3rd and 2nd c. BC Crete, and Cretan pirates, will lead up to a comparison of Crete and Rhodes, allowing for the final conclusion: the “Cretan Mirage” facilitated a disregard for interpreting Cretan commerce as significant, Crete in the Hellenistic period was nearly as economically successful as Rhodes, and its maritime success led to the slandering of the island and its people by ancient and modern authors.            

Sources and Evidence for Hellenistic Crete

            Modern investigations into ancient Crete have focused on the Minoan period of the island (2000-1500 BC), a time period that has captured the mind of scholars for over a century with its massive palaces. As the island moved from prehistory to history, one might expect our knowledge of Crete to increase, but this is largely not the case.[1] For the Hellenistic period, the best documented pre-Roman era, our main literary sources are Polybius, Diodorus, and Strabo, who offer intriguing snippets about Cretan mercenaries, the general war torn nature of the island, or moments when Cretan generals provided aid to larger military ventures. While these references are somewhat helpful, they tend to be colored by the author’s particular bias, and so scholars must rely on other means in order to gain information on this island (see below).

            When analyzing these sources for Hellenistic Crete, there are two crucial points to keep in mind. First, the literary sources are not Cretan. This means we are subjected to an outsider’s perspective in all the cases for literary accounts of Hellenistic Cretan history. Second, arguably, the island of Crete had been on the fringes of the Greek civilization since the end of the Late Bronze Age. Not quite integrated into mainland Greece due to its distance (approximately 187 nautical miles from central Crete to Athens) and too big to be part of the Cyclades, Crete seems to have occupied a liminal space for most ancient Greeks. Thus, while Cretans were acknowledged as Greeks, they were seen as slightly outside the ancient Greek norm.

The earliest source we have for Hellenistic Crete is book 4 of Polybius’ Histories.[2] While discussing the differences in the character of men during battle, he states: “the Cretans both by land and sea are irresistible in ambuscades, forays, tricks played on the enemy, night attacks, and all petty operations which require fraud, but they are cowardly and down-hearted in the massed face-to-face charge of an open battle. It is just the reverse with the Achaeans and Macedonians.”[3] This is only the first of many one or two line appearances of Cretans in Polybius, but already there is an obvious tone of disapproval. In other ways, however, this image is slightly terrifying. One can imagine Cretans as guerilla fighters, using their “tricks” and “fraud” to catch the unsuspecting by surprise. Either way, this is no positive account of Cretan war tactics. Either they are cowardly or frightening – neither can bode well. Later, while comparing the constitutions of different entities to Rome’s, in the most commonly cited excerpt by modern scholars, Polybius states:

Their laws go as far as possible in letting [the Cretans] acquire land to the extent of their power, as the saying is, and money is held in such high honour among them that its acquisition is not only regarded as necessary, but as most honourable. So much in fact do sordid love of gain and lust for wealth prevail among them, that the Cretans are the only people in the world in whose eyes no gain is disgraceful.. . . owing to their ingrained lust of wealth they are involved in constant broils both public and private, and in murders and civil wars, they regard this as immaterial. . .[4]


This version of the typical Cretan is quite blatant in its bias. Such mercantile behavior was held as uncivilized because of the ancient Aristotelian view on economics – wherein possession or acquisition of material wealth not stemming from private landownership was a sign of immoral character or a similar disconnection from ideals of Greek ethnicity.[5] Most scholars agree that the motivation for Polybius’ bias was contemporary relations between Crete and Aetolia; the latter were the archenemies of the Achaeans.[6]  Crete was known to have dealings with the Aetolians and as a proud Achaean, Polybius’ had plenty of reason to slander the Cretans.  He may have even been using a Rhodian source for his sections on Crete, which would also shed light on his bias, as Rhodes and Crete were at war twice in the Hellenistic period.[7] In doing so, Polybius creates a universal image of the ‘bad’ Cretan – one that is difficult to believe. Crete, dotted by one hundred poleis from the Archaic to Hellenistic periods[8] and geographically separated by mountain ranges, would inherently develop a multitude of cultural difference between regions (see Map 2).[9]Susan Alcock notes that “the uneven physical topography and irregular shape of the island also contributed to the delineation of certain natural divisions and zones.”[10]

Crete 2

Map 2: Elevation map of Crete.

The fact that they were “engaged in . . . civil wars” most likely had something to do with their regional differences.  As we have no idea of the scope and duration of these ‘civil wars’, aside from a few epigraphic references, this situation is not uniquely Cretan in the Hellenistic period. Although Polybius’ statement on wars in Crete is likely an exaggeration, Hellenistic Greece was full of similar events. One may only look upon events such the mass government reform and murder of previous rulers after the death of Antigonus Doson in the Peloponnese in 221 BC for prime examples. [11]

            Diodorus Siculus provides a similar description of Cretans when they attacked Siphnos:

The Cretans, putting in at Siphnos, assaulted the city and by intimidation and deceit gained admission within the walls. Having pledged their word to commit no wrong, but acting with customary Cretan faithlessness, they enslaved the city, and after sacking the temples of the gods (set sail) for Crete, laden with their spoil. Swiftly the gods inflicted upon them the penalty for their transgressions, and the divine power signally dealt with their impiety in unexpected fashion. . . [12]


According to Diodorus, Cretans are “faithless”, and impious.[13] Thus, when they are destroyed in the night by a gale that ripped their ships apart, it is only the justice of the gods. Any narrative of war is interesting in terms of demonizing the opponent and then rejoicing in their failures – here, even more interesting, is how the Cretans used “intimidation and deceit” to gain entrance to the city. From a victor’s point of view, perhaps if a Cretan had told this story, they may have utilized “clever” or “resourceful” ways to enter this city, or would have been called “brave” or “fierce” in terms of their entrance. It is the consistent use of such negative language to describe the actions of Cretans during the Hellenistic period by ancient historians that created the “Cretan Mirage.”[14]

            Strabo also participates in this demonization of Cretans when he discusses Crete in the tenth book of his Geography.[15] Although he was not as anti-Cretan in his discourse as Polybius and Diodorus, perhaps due to his greater distance in time and space, or perhaps due to his focus on cultural and regional distinctions within his work[16], he says that:

In regard to Crete, writers agree that in ancient times it had good laws, and rendered the best of the Greeks its emulators, and in particular the Lacedaemonians[17] . . . But later it changed very much for the worse; for after the Tyrrhenians, who more than any other people ravaged Our Sea, the Cretans succeeded to the business of piracy; their piracy was later destroyed by the Cilicians; but all piracy was broken up by the Romans . . .[18]


Therefore, even from a less biased source, it was known that Crete “changed very much for the worse,” and that they were committed to piracy in the minds of Greeks.[19] Aside from Strabo’s commentary on this historical change, most of his account consists of descriptions of individual Cretan cities, their constitutions, and their societies. The way in which Strabo takes the time to individually describe Knossos, Gortyn, and Kydonia exemplifies the very idea that these poleis were distinct. He even says “Of these peoples, according to Staphylus, the Dorians occupy the part towards the east, the Kydonians the western part, the Eteo-Cretans the southern; and to these last belongs the town Prasus, where is the temple of the Diktaean Zeus; whereas the other peoples, since they were more powerful, dwelt in the plains.”[20] Strabo seems to be highlighting a regional concept of Crete – at least their distinct polities, if not their cultural differences.[21] The warfare between the Cretans may have more to do with this, perhaps, than their “ingrained avarice” in Polybius’ account.

            Epigraphic evidence is in many ways more informative about Cretan society, as they are from Crete, than ancient historical accounts. It provides arguably more ‘neutral’ evidence and is much more plentiful, in the form of treaties, honorary degrees, and oaths. In particular, the Itanos Oath and an Honorary Decree from Athens to Eumaridas in Crete describe Crete’s interactions with other poleis, its economic prosperity, and its broader reputation.[22] The Itanos Oath provides an excellent example of the aims of the oligarchical government of Itanos on Crete, and their expectations of their citizens.[23]  It says: “I will [not] betray [any] of the citizens / nor any of the belongings of the citizens. [And] I will not provoke an assembly or [conspiracy] for the harm of [the city] or of the citizens, nor will I associate with anyone [else] who / [wishes] to do any of these things . . .”[24] According to Michael Austin, this oath was needed in Itanos at a time when the body of citizens was growing in the 3rd century, and it acted as a safeguard against new citizen uprisings.[25] Itanos is located at the most eastern point on Crete (see Map 3), an area from which we have quite a bit of commercial evidence.[26] These types of citizen oaths are not uncommon on Crete. Another example of a citizen oath can be found at Dreros, though instead of peace between citizens, it encourages conflict between two communities.[27] In some ways, however, Spyridakis found that the Dreros oath, which pitted Drerians against Lyttans, is “less diabolical” than some Athenian oaths against Thebans, which delineates specific violent means to be taken against the enemy.[28] Unlike Polybius’ perception of Crete, it would seem that governments are attempting to moderate conflict between cities – just like any other Greek city.

            Another decree from Athens dated 217/16 BC honors the Cretan Eumaridas of Kydonia:

Since Eumaridas both previously, / and at the time when Bucris overran the countryside and carried off to Crete a large number of the citizens and of the others from the city, performed many great services for the people and contributed money from his own pocket. . . and (since) he undertakes to show every care to ensure the preservation of good relations between the people (of  Athens) / and all the inhabitants of Crete; . . . be it resolved by the people, to praise Eumaridas son of Pancles of Cydonia, and to crown him with a gold crown according to the law because of his goodwill.[29]


It is clear that there were good relations between Eumaridas and Athens, if not also between Athens and Kydonia (see Map 1 and 3).[30] de Souza notes that Bucris may be Aitolian, and Aitolians and Cretans are known to have contact during this time – and thus “it is no surprise to find the Athenian captives being disposed of in Crete.”[31] It may be that Eumaridas is being bought-off in the tradition of Hellenistic euergetes, but positive relations between Athens and Cydonia are documented in the late 4th century BC, lessening the probability that such an arrangement is being made.[32] Even more surprising, however, in comparison to the image of Cretans as pirates given by ancient sources, is that a Cretan has rescued victims of pirates instead of being a pirate himself. This inscription suggests that not all interactions between Cretans and other Greeks were negative, and that that Polybius, Diodorus, and to some extent, Strabo, are presenting a stereotype rather than a reality.           

The “Cretan Mirage” and the First Cretan War

The “Cretan Mirage” is the idea that Hellenistic Crete is represented in both ancient literature and modern scholarship as piratical, uncivilized, greedy, war-torn, immoral and full of liars and thieves. This image was nurtured by Polybius and perpetuated by anyone who used him as a source. For instance, the “Cretan Mirage” has influenced modern scholars to the point that some have attempted to use Polybius and his successor ancient historians to interpret various new kinds of evidence about Hellenistic Crete, which leads very problematic results (see below).[33] One of the largest perpetuations of this mirage involves the First Cretan War between Rhodes and Crete in 205 BC.

The First Cretan War is traditionally presented as a response to a Cretan pirate attack on various Aegean islands, resulting in Rhodes declaring war on the inhabitants of Crete. Diodorus Siculus states that it began in this way: “With a fleet of seven ships the Cretans began to engage in piracy, and plundered a number of vessels. This had a disheartening effect upon those who were engaged in commerce by sea, whereupon the Rhodians, reflecting that this lawlessness would affect them also, declared war upon the Cretans”.[34] Modern scholarship continued to see Crete at fault in this situation, though Paula Perlman presents an alternative view. In her article, “The Marginalization of Crete in Greek Thought and the Role of Piracy in the Outbreak of the First Cretan War”, Perlman states the following:

Diodorus’ account of the outbreak of the First Cretan War probably depends upon Polybius, who in turn relied upon a Rhodian source or sources, most importantly Zeno’s history. To be sure, Polybius criticized Zeno and his fellow Rhodian Antisthenes, for their patriotic exaggeration, but it is unlikely that Polybius, whose hatred for the Cretans is evident throughout his history, would have scrutinized his Rhodian sources for an anti-Cretan bias.[35]


She argues, convincingly, that the reason for First Cretan War was not piracy, but rather was economically driven. Perlman’s argument is a complex one that utilizes a variety of evidence and is highly critical of ancient authors’ account of Hellenistic Crete. She begins with the argument that there are no good sources that tell us about the end of the First Cretan War, and therefore we have no concrete evidence of how Rhodes actually defeated Crete.[36] The only source for the end of the war is possibly the treaty between Rhodes and Hierapytna – where it is clear that Rhodes maintained a dominant position in the negotiations.[37] It provides for the deployment of Hierapytnian mercenaries and/or armies when Rhodes demanded, the suppression of piracy whenever Hierapytna saw it, as well as the use of the Cretan city’s harbor and navy bases.[38] Such an alliance is very beneficial to a power such as Rhodes, and quite limiting to Hierapytna’s pursuit of its own interests. This, however, is not concrete evidence for Rhodes’ victory. Perlman’s next point is that Crete was traditionally viewed by ancient Greeks as a “distant and remote place,” where Cretans are “morally ill-equipped to fight as hoplites,” and when they do fight, it is “devious and underhanded.”[39] She then goes on to explain that previously, piracy on Crete was used to explain new settlement patterns from the Classical period to the Hellenistic period, where the Classical period displayed isolated poleis in the uplands, and the Hellenistic period displayed a movement towards the coastal regions with much more interaction with other poleis as a result of more people becoming pirates and needing the harbors.[40] She argues then that piracy was not a good explanation of this development – rather, it was increased material prosperity related to trade and commercial activities that led to population growth and the desire to occupy coastal areas. Furthermore, inscriptions provide solid evidence for Crete’s involvement in maritime trade on a much larger scale than previously recognized, which may be one source of the prosperity that led to the new settlement patterns.[41] These inscriptions are treaties and tax agreements between poleis, which, among other incentives, provide for the facilitation of goods through isopoliteia, or multiple citizenship rights.[42] Finally, she argues that Rhodes was a maritime power with the boldness to attack in order to protect their economic assets – as happened with Byzantium – and they had a bold propaganda strategy to back up their reasoning for attacking anyone who stood to threaten their hold on them.[43] Part of Perlman’s argument is that instead of viewing Cretans as pirates, one should accept that Crete had “legitimate maritime interests and probably upon occasion legitimate reasons to appeal to force in support of those interests. The reputation of the Cretans may be in part attributable to their conceptual marginalization, and the ancient tradition concerning Cretan piracy should be considered in that light.”[44]

These points together compel a new picture of the First Cretan war, wherein Crete is no longer a threat through piracy to Rhodes, but rather Crete becomes a threat to Rhodes through their commerce. Perlman pushes us to question our sources, reevaluate the evidence that has been provided, and look for new evidence as it arises. She writes that “it is hoped that this exercise will serve to . . . shed some light both on the role of ethnic stereotyping in Greek historiography and on Rhodian commercial interests and policy.”[45] Her analysis of the First Cretan War opens the door to analyze Crete more broadly, not just in regard to the First Cretan War, but also in terms of the Hellenistic Aegean.

            Trusting Polybius as a contemporary source on Hellenistic Crete is an understandably strong desire among modern historians. Yet, as Perlman has shown, trusting is harmful to our overall understanding of the Hellenistic period, and especially to Crete. The “Cretan Mirage” colors the limited non-literary evidence easily, encouraging modern historians and archaeologists to read new evidence with an old mindset, instead of interpreting it with fresh eyes. Furthermore, one cannot argue against a contemporary historical source – one can, however, be critical of the account and attempt to identify bias within it by comparing the information with other available evidence. For instance, Cretans most assuredly had a large mercenary force, and piracy was definitely committed by some Cretans, but the frequency of such activities and the proportion of the population they involved must be challenged. Only when the “Cretan Mirage” is recognized can new evidence can translate into new theories, which can then change the view of Hellenistic Crete.

Evidence for Cretan Commerce in the Hellenistic Period

In 1999, Angelos Chaniotis stated that “with the exception of timber, there is no evidence for substantial export of any products of the economy of the uplands – or of Crete, for that matter – before the Imperial period.”[46] Such was the scholarly opinion on Cretan commerce in the Hellenistic period only 15 years ago. While he notes that trade activity increased during the Hellenistic period on Crete, he cites a lack of evidence “for a long-distance trade with local products, for local manufacture, for Cretan merchants, and – more important – for the display of private wealth which characterizes big and small Hellenistic poleis.”[47] In making this argument, he uses primarily inscriptions and literary sources, the continuity of subsistence economies, and some Cretan treaties to discuss economic trends in Crete from the Archaic through Hellenistic periods. Notably lacking, however, in the corpus of Chaniotis’ work on Cretan economies are references to archaeological evidence. While his overall conclusion that the economy of pre-Roman Crete is characterized by subsistence farming is likely, the addition of archaeological data provides a much broader picture.

First, there is considerable data for the economy in the Hellenistic period from finds of Cretan ceramics as objects of trade.  In an analysis of the East Cretan wine trade, Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and Stavroula Apostolakou investigated the ceramic assemblages of Mochlos, Pyrgos Myrtos, Trypetos, and Agios Nikolaos (see Map 3). Through the use of petrographic analysis, they found three local types of transport amphorae, all of which are made of a fabric they coined East Cretan Cream Ware (ECCW).[48] They found, in fact, “substantial evidence of a significant production of local transport amphoras in East Crete from the third century BC.” This indicates that this region during the Hellenistic period was producing enough surplus wine or oil to justify making vessels to export it. Furthermore, ECCW amphorae have been found in Egypt.[49] With a production center and a distribution destination, the evidence is growing for East Crete as a larger economic force than has been recognized. These sites, especially Trypetos, also produced finds of non-local imported amphorae[50]- from Rhodes, Cos, Knidos, and Corinth - all suggesting a larger scale of commercial importation than is previously acknowledged.

There is another form of Cretan ceramic that has been found in Egypt, called the Hadra Hydria.[51] There are two distinct forms: White Ground Hydriae, and Clay Ground Hydriae.[52] While the White Ground variety has been found only in Egypt, the Clay Ground type is found all over the Mediterranean, including from Alexandria to Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus, Athens, Eretria, South Russia, Turkey, Cyrenaica, Italy, and Thera.[53] .[54] Such a distribution indicates a far greater level of contact between local production and larger networks of exchange than a primarily agrarian-based economy or piracy would otherwise have allowed.[55]

In his only reference to material culture, Chaniotis minimizes the role of Hadra Hydriae saying that “the importance of the export of Cretan ‘Hadra vases’ to the islands’ economy should not be overestimated.”[56] He and others argue that mercenaries brought the Clay Ground vases with them to Egypt as personal possessions.[57] While there were many Cretan mercenaries stationed throughout the Hellenistic world, the idea that there is only a “second-hand market” in Hadra Hydriae, especially the Clay Ground type, is quite unlikely. If this were the case, then their ubiquity and distribution would be dependent upon each mercenary group carrying a multitude of Hadra Hydriae with them, and then selling them or redistributing them when they arrived at different ports. Furthermore, even if a mercenary were to bring items with him while participating in warfare, it is unlikely that the quite large and cumbersome Hadra Hydriae would be a part of his personal cargo (see Fig. 1).[58]

Crete 3Crete 4

Fig. 1: Two Hadra Hydria. The Hadra on the left stands at 36.7cm in height and 24.9cm in width, while the Hadra on the right stands at 46.7cm in height and 26.1cm in width.


One justification of the mercenary-distribution argument is that the vessels were used as prizes, similar to those used in the Panathenaic games, and that they may have been reused later as burial urns.[59] Peter Callaghan states that “No Clay Ground hydria . . . bore specifically funerary scenes on its surface and thus there is no proof that they were ever primarily intended for the use to which they were ultimately put.”[60] Although this is true, this argument can easily be flipped to state that there is no evidence that only vases marked with funerary scenes were intended to be used as funerary urns (and, in fact, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary). While it is easy to assume that mercenaries brought some goods with them around the Mediterranean, there is no direct evidence that these vases arrived at their final destinations via mercenaries. What would such evidence even look like within the archaeological record? A far better explanation for the distribution pattern of Clay Ground Hadra Hydriae removes mercenaries from the picture and instead credits Crete with an economy like any other region of the Mediterranean that produced a ceramic vessel that was widely traded. It is the ‘Cretan mirage’ and the more plausible theory of the White Ground Hydriae that resulted in the somewhat far-fetched assumption that mercenaries were the engines of trade in these Cretan products during the Hellenistic period.

Numismatic evidence is a largely untapped resource for determining the extent of the Hellenistic Cretan economy. Coin evidence shows a large increase in the amount of Cretan coins during the 3rd century BC being produced at Kydonia, Gortyn, Phaistos, Knossos, and Lyttos (see Map 3).[61] According to Manolis Stefanakis, the evidence suggests that Cretan coins only circulated outside of Crete during the Hellenistic period.[62] Coins from Crete have been found at Delos, Kythera, and at the Athenian Agora (see Map 3).[63] In the 320s B.C., Cretans opened their mints and began to overstrike coins - primarily Aiginetan staters.[64] They appear to have operated on a “reduced Aiginetan standard” in order to “cover the 5% cost of melting and restriking.”[65] At around this time, a decree from Gortyn was released, stating that “one must use the bronze coinage which the city has issued; one must not accept the / silver obols. If anyone accepts (the silver obols) or refuses to accept the (bronze) coinage or sells anything in exchange for grain, he shall be fined five silver staters.”[66] This decree implies both that there was significant commerce occurring to issue such a statement and that a polis might regulate coinage used in local markets. Through the use of the Aeginitan standard and the discovery of Cretan coins outside of Crete, it seems that Crete is engaging in large trade networks. It is unclear exactly what was being traded, the quantity of the items being exchanged, and how these items may have reached their find spots, however. As Reger states in his discussion on regionalism and trade, common currencies are indicators and represent a “candidate for a region” that may be a trade partner.[67]

Crete 7

Map 3: Crete with significant archaeological sites.

            Stefanakis attributes this “outburst” of coin circulation with “returning mercenaries, commerce, or military disturbances in the Aegean”.[68] It could also, however, be due to new commercial enterprises, a larger scale of production, or many other factors not related to piracy and/or mercenary profit as the driving forces the Hellenistic Cretan economy. This is not to deny that mercenary work may have been an economic motivator for some aspects of Cretan society, but rather that it is likely that there were more factors at play. An example of how Hellenistic economies worked at a local level can be seen in the archaeological data from the site of Trypetos. Located in east Crete near Itanos, it was an autonomous polis, issuing her own coinage from the 3rd to mid-2nd c. B.C, when it was destroyed (see Map 3).[69]

The excavation was primarily directed at studying domestic organization and attempting to discern the social and political organization of cities in Hellenistic Crete.[70] It was found that in a sample of three housing spaces, two contained oblong houses with a “low value of openness”, while the third, Cluster E, had a “high value of openness” and accessibility to the street.[71] Artifacts found in this last cluster, including a stone perirrhanterion (wash basin), a lekane (ceramic basin), a stone gourna, stone tools, loomweights, and pithoi (storage jars), as well as its accessibility and openness, resulted in the interpretation of Cluster E as having a commercial function.[72] Using petrographic analysis, it was found that either at Trypetos or in the immediate vicinity, there was a site associated with wine production.[73] Along with examples of a possible Trypetos type of amphora, there were also Hierapytnian, Coan, Rhodian, and Corinthian amphorae found in Cluster E – and all of these samples date to approximately the late 3rd or early 2nd c. B.C. [74]  Across the street in Building C, there was an olive press, signaling the local production of olive oil. These finds combined other similar archaeological data from Trypetos to provide evidence of daily economic activity that is typical of most Hellenistic towns (e.g., Halieis in the Argolid). The local production of a Trypetos transport amphora is clear evidence on the part of the city to engage with intra-regional trade networks. The town was clearly connected to local and Aegean maritime trading routes as shown by the Hierapteran amphorae and the amphorae from Cos, Rhodes, and Corinth.  Such small-scale production as the wine amphora of Trypetos may also provide a better understanding of Cretan commerce, which was clearly not restricted to the uplands agrarian model Chaniotis claims for Crete, nor to piracy.

The archaeological evidence from Crete clearly illustrates larger scale inter-regional commerce than has been previously acknowledged by scholars. The ceramic evidence of ECCW and Hadra Hydria, the numismatic evidence of a larger output of Cretan coinage and its circulation beyond the island in the Hellenistic period, and the site of Trypetos all hint at, if not confirm, the island-wide variation of commercial activity. Crete, and particularly eastern Crete, maintained a thriving economy that participated in and influenced the exportation of various goods across the Greek world. This commercial activity was diverse in its material goods as well as in its various maritime trade networking agents – both intra-regional and inter-regional. The impact, while unnoticed by most modern scholars, would not have been unnoticed by ancient merchants.

(Dis)Unity: A Brief Note on Cretan Politics

After 323 BC, when Alexander the Great died, Crete was largely ignored by his successors.[75] Although our sources are fairly limited on Hellenistic Crete, we can reconstruct a basic history up to the Roman conquest. After Alexander’s death, the next major recorded historical event was the First Cretan War between Rhodes and Crete in 205-201 BC.[76] Rhodes, the pirate police force of the Aegean, the protectors of the innocent, the strong and able maritime power, declared war on Crete on the grounds that seven Cretan ships were “engaging in acts of piracy” and plundering “no small number of vessels.”[77] According to Diodorus, “the Rhodians made war on the Cretans recognizing that it was only a matter of time before the Cretans harmed them.”[78] Such an act looks to be preemptive, and because Rhodes’ stance on piracy was strict, it could be seen as a chance to prove their naval superiority while gaining popularity throughout the Aegean for quelling pirates.[79] This war ended with a treaty between Hierapytna and Rhodes.[80] This was the first of two Cretan wars with Rhodes. The second Cretan war lasted from 155-153 BC, also fought over issues of piracy.[81]

            Crete’s documented external relations during the Hellenistic period include profitable relations with Egypt, Athens, Aigina, the Peloponnese, and even Rhodes, many of which began in the Classical period.[82] Ptolemaic relations were especially prevalent, because having a foothold in Crete, whether military or economic, would be crucial to relations with the rest of the Greek world. As Spyridakis explains, “The Hellenistic despots of the East, ruling over multitudes of non-Greek subjects, were vitally interested in securing the services of Greek colonists, administrators, and soldiers for the consolidation of their power. . .”[83] Relations with Rome began in 189 BC, when it was arbitrating between the Cretan cities of Kydonia, Gortyn and Knossos.  Even if it was not an explicitly commercial relationship, Rome interacted with Crete in the role of a neutral mediator in order to maintain peace in the region.[84] The archaeological evidence does not support piracy as an enormous sector of Cretan commerce. If they had a successful maritime trade network, however, this may have accounted for the literary sources attribution of Cretans as “mercantile” and “greedy”.

            In contrast to Rhodes, Crete was largely unable to unify its many poleis during the Hellenistic period. The epigraphic sources we have from Crete point to many treaties between and alliances against other Cretan poleis, but the closest that Hellenistic Crete ever came to political unity was expressed in the existence of the island-wide “Koinon”. A koinon is an agreement between polies to act as a unit in governmental affairs, where each poleis has representatives and makes decisions regarding common issues. S. Ager states that “the Koinon of Hellenistic Crete was a somewhat looser structure than other federations, and this impression is reinforced by what little we know of the vicissitudes of the Koinon's history.”[85] Apparently, if Gortyn and Knossos, the largest poleis of Hellenistic Crete, were at peace or allied, the Koinon would exist.[86] If they were at odds, the Koinon fell apart.

Politically, Hellenistic Crete was dominated by three main bodies of political power, and headed by the three poleis at various times. Mainly, Gorytn controlled Lyttos, Arkades, Ariaian, Kyrtakinia;  Knossos controlled the larger poleis of Praisos, Itanos, as well as seventeen smaller entities; Phaistos, controlled Metala and Polyrhenia (see Map 3).[87] Hierapytra was also an important player, taking over the territory of Praisos in 145 BC, destroying Itanos, and gaining economic clout throughout the rest of the Hellenistic period.[88] These political spheres changed rapidly over time due to rivalries between each of these groups. Gortyn and Knossos are an excellent example. Ager highlights the fighting between these dominant poleis above, though in the Oath of Dreros, Gortyn allied with Knossos against Lyttos.[89] Similarly, Kydonia and Polyrhenia fought frequently over the lands of the Temple of Diktynna.[90] Spyridakis gives a multitude of reasons for Cretan conflicts, including the control over sanctuaries, violations of treaties, land owndership, resource control, and the hegemony of Cretan poleis.[91] When the Ptolemies had substantial control over cities or regions, according to Spyridakis, Crete saw peace, but the death of Ptolemy Philopater lead to “antagonistic” Eteocretan states.[92] Such internal political strife, though not uncommon in the Hellenistic world, would have facilitated the negative stereotypes on Cretan piracy.

Cretan Pirates

As noted above, ancient literary sources and modern historians repeatedly state that Hellenistic Crete was full of pirates. When the modern reader hears the word “pirate,” connotations of bands of sailors with no government attachments come to mind – they rape, pillage, plunder, and otherwise wreak havoc upon the coastal towns that they can reach by ship. Perlman uses modern international law to define piracy as “an act of violence committed upon the high seas or upon land by descent from the sea that would be felonious if done ashore by one not acting under the authority of a politically organized community”.[93] Such a definition works well in the context of modern states and governments, because it is usually clear who may be working as pirates and who is sanctioned. Indeed, it is also useful when analyzing Crete and its pirates – in order to determine if piracy was indeed happening at the society-wide level that is implied by the ancient sources. In short, was ‘piracy’ occurring when Cretan cities were at war, and these “pirates” are only labeled as such by the defending party? Both de Souza and Gabrielsen discuss ‘piracy’ in the context of legitimate warfare and conclude that the ancient definition of piracy was not as clear as our modern one.[94]  War was often followed by plundering the town and surrounding areas in ancient times - a legitimate right for victors after the defeat of the enemy – and would look very similar to acts of piracy under other circumstances. Indeed, even the language of piracy is difficult to ascertain, as de Souza points out in attempting to distinguish between banditry and piracy. “Ancient Greek has two common words which can be translated as pirate, ληστης (leistes) and πειρατης (peirates). . . There is only one word in Greek which means a pirate, not a bandit: καταποντιστης (katapontistes), which translates literally as ‘one who throws into the sea’. . . It is not a commonly used word in Greek literature. . .”[95] de Souza claims this distinction between bandits and pirates is important because during the Hellenistic period many words loosely meaning pirate are used

typically to refer to acts of maritime armed robbery which meet with [Thucydides and Polybius’] disapproval, for one reason or another, but the variety of contexts in which they employ them, ranging from the aristocratic raiding of Homeric times to seaborne plundering on behalf of the Hellenistic kings, are a strong warning against simply placing all such references under the heading of ‘piracy’, and assuming that they had an unchanging, negative image in the eyes of contemporaries.[96]


When viewing Polybius, especially, this information is crucial. In all cases where piracy is invoked, one must critically engage with the context of the event. Who would gain from labeling the opposing forces as pirates? For example, one may look at Polybius’ bias in Nabis of Sparta’s interactions with Crete, when he states that “he took part in piracy with the Cretans; he filled the Peloponnese with temple-looters, robbers, murderers. . .”[97] This may indicate an alliance of Sparta and one or two cities of Crete, or that Nabis may have hired Cretan mercenaries, and they then proceeded to infiltrate the Peloponnese. Again, this is not to deny that true piracy existed – of course, it must have – but rather, to question what kinds of activity are meant each time an ancient author discusses piracy.

de Souza discusses this topic thoroughly and explores the impact of labeling the enemy as pirates. He says that “. . . it was generally expected that an expeditionary force would not only carry out coastal raids and attack ‘enemy’ shipping . . . but might also extort money from supposedly allied coastal cities and maritime traders”, and therefore anyone who was aware of these raids could use the incident to slander their opponent.[98] This political tactic was used in several cases in history. Two examples that de Souza notes are when Philip II labeled the Athenians as pirates in an attempt to sway the Greek poleis to gain support for his warfare against the Athenians, and when the tyrant Alexander of Pherai who used a fleet of “pirate ships” to defeat the Athenians.[99] The latter resulted in Xenephon recording his actions in history as nothing more than a lawless pirate – though he was obviously much more.[100] Furthermore, de Souza agrees that the powerful kingdoms and poleis could improve their image through the guise of suppressing piracy, using it to further their aggressive hegemonic aims, as is argued in the case of Rhodes above.[101] Returning to the work of Paula Perlman. she argues that if Rhodes had an interest in attacking Crete for their own hegemonic aims, slandering them as pirates in order to attack them would be no new tactic.[102] History would then record Crete as piratical, instead of acknowledging the clear evidence for economic success that has been evident from the discussion above.[103]

Moreover, it seems nearly impossible to prove in the ancient record that pirates were at work. What would piracy look like in the archaeological record? An attempt to find Cretan pirates in the archaeological record comes from the site of Phalasarna. It is located on the west side of Crete, situated on the coast near Cape Grambousa (see Map 3, above.). Called a harbor town, excavator Elpida Hadjidaki has labeled this Classical and Hellenistic site as a “famous Cretan pirate nest”.[104] Mentioned by both Polybius and Strabo, Phalasarna was known as the most western port of Crete, and Strabo uses it as a reference point within his Geography.[105] Excavators discovered a large fortification wall that enclosed the harbor, and that there may have been two lines of fortification walls extending southeast, to protect the land east of the town (see Fig. 2).[106] Large structures deemed of significant importance were an “artificial closed harbor”, a “throne possibly dedicated to Poseidon”[107], a sandstone quarry, and a few fortification towers, one of which was round.[108]    

Crete 8

Fig. 2: The site of Phalasarna.

  The preliminary report of this site is mostly speculation, as the excavated material had not been fully analyzed, and Hadjidaki relied primarily on the literary evidence of Phalasarna to direct her interpretations of the above structures. The excavation of the round tower, however, did put forth interesting questions on the defense of the city, as the tower looks different from other harbor towers known in the Hellenistic period.[109] Once a final excavation report of Phalasarna came out in 1990, however, it was noted that this round tower was most likely a cistern, not a defense tower or fish tank.[110] The evidence for this is debatable. Frost and Hajidaki postulate that the blocks leading into the channels would have allowed for rainwater collection and that a cistern would be useful in a pirate town where it could resupply ships and hold out during periods of siege.[111]

This information is, of course, based on the assumption that the town was a pirate nest. After the cistern, the “artificial closed harbor” is the next most significant find. In the final report, it was re-interpreted as a “brackish lagoon”, with no connection to the main harbor.[112] Frost and Hajidaki believed that the Romans and Marcus Antonius’ campaign destroyed Phalasarna in the mid-2nd century,  when they were clearing the seas of pirates.[113] This is serious speculation. If one looks clearly at the evidence, there could be a variety of conclusions that may be drawn other than piracy. The most obvious conclusion that comes to mind, when one eliminates the literary sources and looks mainly at the archaeological evidence, is that this site was a commercial harbor. Frost and Hadjidaki disagree with this, claiming that there was no evidence of commercial activity, that the harbor was not large enough to facilitate the movement of merchant vessels, and that the fortifications of the harbor would indicate more violence than a port of trade.[114] The lack of commercial evidence – that is to say, pottery, coins, and loom weights – however, may be due to the incomplete nature of the archaeological record or the incomplete nature of the excavation. de Souza even points out that “agriculture, trade in stone, commercial links with nearby Polyrrhenia and later Egypt, and the service of local mercenaries overseas, are all attested in some form [at Phalasarna], and seem to provide adequate explanations for the city’s relative prosperity.”[115] Such is the danger of accepting Cretan piracy wholesale. The “Cretan Mirage” effectively blinded these excavators to interpretations other than the mainstream conceptions of Hellenistic Crete.

There are so many references to it, and our evidence so incomplete, however, that it is impossible to claim Crete was free of any form of piracy. Instead it is the pervasiveness of the image that can be addressed – why were all Cretans branded as immoral or pirates? First, is it possible that some areas of Crete were participating in the Hellenistic hegemonic race, like its neighbors Rhodes, the Ptolemies, the Seleukids, and the Antigonids did? As seen above, warfare and piracy were related in terms of plundering and attack. Or were these ‘pirates’ actually individual regions/cities protecting their economic interests in the Aegean? There is strong evidence for Cretans’ connections with many entities in the Aegean, and, just as the Rhodians, they may have needed protection. Or did the lack of unity and the marginalization of Crete in the public eye lead others to believe that Cretans operating outside of the island of Crete were automatically pirates? After all, if there was no central political organization (as the marginal perception of Crete would attest), no Cretan marine force could be legitimate. Thus, they would be pirates. At this point, it is impossible to prove any of these claims. There is evidence that Cretans may have been slandered profusely though the label as ‘pirate’, as de Souza and Perlman  made clear.[116] In light of such claims, these are options that scholars may investigate as an alternative to the stereotypical, marginalized Cretan.

Rhodes and Crete: A Comparative Analysis

Hellenistic Rhodes, as investigated in the case study in Chapter 3, was clearly an economic and political power during the Hellenistic period. It engaged in substantial inter-regional trade that brought its products all over the Mediterranean. The island was also a stopping point on trade routes, which allowed it to profit through taxation of marketable goods and services. Politically unified, it could stand against the forces of Demetrius Poliorketes. The literary sources place Rhodes at the top of the moral ladder as a protector of free trade and a destroyer of pirates. Politically savvy through its mediation of potential military conflicts, it could also support the best navy in the Aegean (after the fall of Ptolemaic naval power) when it needed to protect its interests. When the earthquake that damaged the Colossus struck the island, Greek poleis and kings rushed forth to help – enough so that Rhodes was able to make a profit off of such a terrible disaster. In many ways, Rhodes was the golden child of the Hellenistic period – autonomous, wealthy and politically connected. It was located in the correct place, ignored by or allied to the larger kingdoms, and was able to navigate successfully the constantly changing political atmosphere through strategic alliances or neutrality.

As we’ve seen, ancient literary sources marginalized Crete to the most dramatic degree as greedy, unorganized, murdering, lying, dishonorable, cowardly pirates and mercenaries. Crete’s allies are few and far between, according to the sources – not many would come to the aid of Crete. However, much of this beleaguered image can be explained away as part of the “Cretan Mirage”. In essence, our evidence points to more trade than is acknowledged, and there is even evidence that Cretan economic activity and prosperity spiked during this period.  Despite the fact that Crete did not unify completely, it did have larger unifications that were powerful in their own right – such as the cities of Gortyn, Knossos, and Hierapytna. The connections to the mainland by various Cretan polies may be relatively few, but they are large powers such as Athens and the Ptolemies.

Was Crete really that much different from Rhodes? Yes and no. In 205 BC, Rhodes attacked Crete in what is now understood to be the First Cretan War. This attack on the pirates of Crete, I believe, is evidence that Crete was on a very similar level as Rhodes in the Hellenistic period. Threatened by its rising prosperity, Rhodes needed to protect its hegemonic aims and goals, as well as its economic ties through ensuring that Crete did not rise completely to its level. Later, Rome would do very much the same, under the guise of piracy.


[1] The exceptions to this statement seem to be book 10, chapter 4 of Strabo’s Geography, which is entirely dedicated to Crete, as well as book 6, chapter 46 of Polybius’ Histories. For references to Crete in general, see Polybius’ Histories 13.6, 5.63-65, 6.45-46, 18.54, 33.4, 15.3, 16.1, 17.1-5; Diodorus Siculus’ Historical Library 33.4, 31.37-38, 48,45; Strabo’s Geography, 10.4, trans. H. L. Jones (1917).

[2] See Chapter 2 on Polybius in the literary sources section, page 10.

[3] Polybius, Histories, 4.8.11, trans. W. R. Paton, (1922-27).

[4] Polybius, Histories, 6.46, trans. W. R. Paton, (1922-27).

[5] Refer back to Chapter 2, on economic theory, page 22.

[6] Stylianos Spyridakis, Ptolemaic Itanos and Hellenistic Crete (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), 40. Spyridakis also mentions Cretans allying with Nabis of Sparta (Polybius, Histories, 13.8). Nabis was a tyrant whom the literary sources tell us was brutal to the extreme, and even if this is an exaggeration, he nonetheless began to attack Messene (Sparta’s long-time ally) and attempt to take control of the Peloponnese.  Any Achaean would find this character notorious. See also Polybius’ personal background in Chapter 2 on literary sources, page 10.

[7] Perlman, “The Marginalization of Crete,” 133; See also the “Cretan Mirage” section below, page 49.

[8] See Paula Perlman, “Crete” in An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis: An Investigation Conducted by the Copehagen Polis Centre for the Danish National Research Foundation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1144.

[9] Reger, “Inter-Regional Economies,” 373-74. A more in-depth discussion of how Crete displays these regional differences can be found in the Cretan Politics section below, page 59-60.

[10] Susan Alcock, “Three ‘R’s’ of the Cretan Economy,” in From Minoan Farmers to Roman Traders, ed. Angelos Chaniotis (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1999), 177.

[11] See Green, Alexander to Actium, Chapter 18 “Antiochus III, Philip V, and The Roman Factor, 221-196 [BC]”, 286-311. This chapter illustrates the civil war, murder, and political upheaval of the middle of the Hellenistic period in Greece.

[12] Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, 31.45, trans. Francis Walton (1957); See also Chapter 2 on Diodorus Sicululs in literary sources, page 12.

[13] Diodorus also mentions Crete in a negative light in 18.20, and 27.3; See Chapter 2 on literary sources and Diodorus Siculus, page 12. Diodorus was influenced heavily by his sources, and Polybius particularly.

[14] See Perlman, “The Marginalization of Crete,” 137-38.

[15] See Chapter 2 on Strabo in literary sources, page 13.

[16] See the discussion on Strabo’s personal background and focus for the Geography in Chapter 2, page 13. One might argue that highlighting regional differences facilitates stereotypes, though here Strabo seems to avoid too much blatant negativity.

[17] Lacedaemonians were from Lacadaemonia, the region under the direct control of Sparta. Sparta, according to Strabo, used laws of the Cretans in the Archaic period, as Cretans were famous as lawgivers in that period.

[18] Strabo, Geography, 10.9. trans. H. L. Jones (1917).

[19] Strabo was probably using Diodorus and Polybius as source material here, and his description of Cretan pirates is very similar. This shows the strength and enduring nature of the Cretan pirate stereotype.

[20] Ibid., 10.6, trans. H. L. Jones (1917).

[21] Refer back to regionalism in Chapter 2, page 20.

[22] William Dittenberger, ed. Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum (Syll.), “Itanos (Crete): oath of loyalty to the state (third century),” 526; Austin, The Hellenistic World, Inscription 108, 206-07; Dittenberger, ed. Syll., “Oath of Dreros in Crete (c.220?),” 527; Austin, The Hellenistic World, Inscription 109, 207-08.

[23] Dittenberger, ed. Syll., “Itanos (Crete): oath of loyalty to the state (third century),” 526.

[24] Ibid.,

[25] Austin, The Hellenistic World, 207.

[26] See below section on Cretan commerce, page 52.

[27] Dittenberger, ed. Syll., “Oath of Dreros in Crete (c. 220?),” 527, lines 1-136.

[28] Spyridakis, Ptolemaic Itanos,41.

[29] Dittenberger, ed. Syll., “Athens honours Eumaridas of Cydonia in Crete for rescuing victims of Aetolian pirates (217/16),” 535.

[30] Perhaps Athens even had good relations with more than one Cretan or city during this period as hinted at by the use of the word “preservation” (διαμένειν).

[31] de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, 67.

[32] Ibid., 67, fn. 93. There is another inscription honoring Eurylochos of Kydonia for ransoming Athenian prisoners, similar to Eumaridas in 320 BC.

[33] See the below section on Pirates and Hadjidaki, “Preliminary Report of Excavations at the Harbor of Phalasarna in West Crete” American Journal of Archaeology 92:4(1988): 463.

[34] Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, 27.3, trans. Francis Walton (1957).

[35] Perlman, “The Marginalization of Crete,” 133.

[36] Ibid., 136-37

[37] Austin, The Hellenistic World, 216.

[38] Ibid., 213-16.

[39] Perlman, “The Marginalization of Crete,” 138.

[40] Ibid., 139-40.

[41] Ibid., 145.

[42] Ibid., 145, fn. 33. She lists as examples the isopoliteia treaty between Hirapytna and Arcades, the alliance of Gortyn and Hierapytna with Priasos, the isopoliteia treaty between Hirapytna and Priasos, the alliance between Gortyn and Lappa, the alliance between Eleutherna and Aptera, the alliance and treaty between Lato and Hirapytna, the peace treaty, alliance, and isopoliteia treaty between Lyttos and Olous, and the peace treaty, alliance, and isopoliteia treaty between Lato and Olous.

[43] Ibid., 152-53; See Polybius’ Histories, 4.8.11; See also Chapter 3 on Rhodes, page 31.

[44] Perlman, “The Marginalization of Crete,” 153.

[45] Ibid., 133.

[46] Angelos Chaniotis, “Milking the Mountains” in From Minoan Farmers to Roman Traders, 210.

[47] Ibid., 210-11

[48] Vogeikoff-Brogan and Apostolakou, “New Evidence,” 417-18.

[49] Ibid., 426.

[50] Ibid,, 417, 421.

[51] Philip Callaghan and R. E. Jones, “Hadra Hydriae and Central Crete: A Fabric Analysis” The Annual of the British School at Athens 80 (1985): 2.

[52] Ibid., 1-2.

[53] Ibid., 2. Due to the White Ground being found only in Egypt, it was assumed that these must be Egyptian vessels. Along with similarities in the vase shapes, slips, as well as fabrics, it was determined that a study to test the chemical compositions of the clay was needed in order to verify the origins of these Hydriae. It was found that they were indeed of Cretan origins, particularly from the region of Knossos.

[54] Brian Cook, Inscribed Hadra Vases in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1966), 7 n.3.

[55] Chaniotis, “Milking the Mountains,” 181-211.

[56] Ibid., 184.

[57] Ibid., 184; Also see Philip Callaghan “The Trefoil Style and Second-Century Hadra Vases” The Annual of the British School at Athens, 75:1(1980): 35.

[58] Hadra Hydria are quite large for such mobility, see Fig. 1.

[59] Ibid., 35.

[60] Ibid., 35.

[61] Manolis Stefanakis, “The Introduction of Coinage in Crete and the Beginning of Local Minting,” in From Minoan Farmers to Roman Traders, 257; Ruth Westgate, “House and Society in Classical and Hellenistic Crete: A Case Study in Regional Variation” American Journal of Archaeology 111:3 (2007): 432.

[62] Stefanakis, “The Introduction of Coinage,” 248.

[63] Ibid., 248-49.

[64] Ibid., 257, 59.

[65] Ibid., 261.

[66] Dittenberger, ed. Syll., “Decree of Gortyn on the use of bronze coins (mid-second half of third century)”.

[67] Reger, “Interregional Economies,” 386.

[68] Ibid., 259.

[69] Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, “Domestic Assemblages from Trypitos, Siteia: Private and Communal Aspects,” in STEGA: The Archaeology of Houses and Households in Ancient Crete, ed. Kevin Glowacki and Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan (Athens: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2011), 411; Westgate, “House and Society,” 432.

[70] Vogeikoff-Brogan, “Domestic Assemblages from Trypitos, Siteia: Private and Communal Aspects,” in STEGA, 410.

[71] Ibid., 415-16.

[72] Ibid., 416. The other two types of houses in Cluster A and B2 were found to have been indicative of  houses with dining activity in them.

[73] The hesitation in the distinction between attributing the wine production to Trypetos solely comes from the unclear results of the petrographic analysis. The results indicated that the ceramics were definitely made in the region of Trypetos and Petra, though it is unclear as to which may have produced the vessels. See fn. 61.

[74] Vogeikoff-Brogan and Apostolakou, “New Evidence,” 425.

[74] Ibid,, 417, 421

[75] Scott Gallimore, “An Island Economy: Ierapetra and Crete in the Roman Period,” (PhD diss., University of Buffalo, 2011) 7.

[76] Berthold, Rhodes, 62-63; de Souza, “Who are you calling pirates?” 47.

[77] Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, 27.3. See also Chapter 3 on Rhodes, page 31.

[78] Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, 27.3.

[79] See Chapter 2 on Pirates, page 28; See also Chapter 3 on Rhodes, 39.

[80] Austin, The Hellenistic World, 213.

[81]Angelos Chaniotis, War in the Hellenistic World: A Social and Cultural History (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 11.

[82] Stefanakis, “The Intorduction of Coinage,” 256; Dittenberger, ed. Syll., “Athens honours Eumaridas of Cydonia in Crete for rescuing victims of Aetolian pirates (217/16),” 535; Spyridakis, Ptolemaic Itanos, 70; Brice Erickson, Crete in Transition: Pottery Styles and Island History in the Archaic and Classical Periods (Athens: American School of Classical studies at Athens, 2010), 281; de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, 85.Though there is no written evidence of fair relations with Rhodes, Rhodian ceramics have been found at Trypetos and other sites, which may indicate a certain level of positive relations.

[83] Spyridakis, Ptolemaic Itanos, 69.

[84] Gallimore, “An Island Economy: Ierapetra and Crete in the Roman Period,” 11.

[85] Sheila Ager, “Hellenistic Crete and the ΚΟΙΝΟΔΙΚΙΟΝ” The Journal of Hellenistic Studies 114:1 (1994), 2.

[86] Ibid., 2-3.

[87] Spyridakis, Ptolemaic Itanos, 48, no. 35.

[88] Gallimore, “An Island Economy: Ierapetra and Crete in the Roman Period,” 12.

[89] Dittenberger, ed. Syll., “Oath of Dreros in Crete (c. 220?),” 527, lines 1-136; Austin, The Hellenistic World, 208.

[90] Spyridakis, Ptolemaic Itanos, 54.

[91] Ibid., 55-58.

[92] Ibid., 55.

[93] Perlman, “The Marginalization of Crete,” 137, fn. 22.

[94] Gabrielsen, “Economic Activity,” 223; de Souza, “Who are you calling pirates?” 43-44.

[95] de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, 9.

[96] Ibid., 12.

[97] Polybius, Histories, 13.8.1-2.

[98] de Souza, “Who are you calling pirates?” 45.

[99] Ibid., 45.

[100] Ibid., 45; Xenephon, Hellenica, 6.4.35.

[101] See Chapter 3 on Rhodes, page 35, 39; de Souza, “Who are you calling pirates?” 45-46.

[102] See page 53-54.

[103] See the previous section on Cretan Commerce, page 54.

[104] Elpida Hadjidaki “Preliminary Report of Excavations at the Harbor of Phalasarna in West Crete” American Journal of Archaeology 92:4 (1988): 463.

[105] Strabo, Geography, 10.4.2, 13.                                                 

[106] Hadjidaki, “Preliminary Report,” 464.

[107] It should be noted that the throne was attributed to Poseidon due to the fact that Phalasarna was “a maritime city”. Ibid., 464.

[108] Ibid., 463-64.

[109] Ibid., 473.

[110] Frank Frost and Elpida Hadjidaki, “Excavations at the Harbor of Phalassarna in Crete: The 1988 Season” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 59:3 (1990): 516.

[111] Ibid., 517.

[112] Ibid., 525. The former “artificial enclosed harbor” was not interpreted as a second harbor due to the lack of seashells found (an indicator of a connection to the sea) and because the space between the wall and acropolis would not have allowed ships to pass through it. 

[113] Hadjidaki, “Preliminary Report,” 463.

[114] Ibid., 463.

[115] de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, 59.

[116] de Souza, “Who are you calling pirates?” 45-46; Perlman, “The Marginalization of Crete,” 133; See page 53-54.



            Through investigating the source of bias in ancient historians, re-examining the archaeological evidence, applying economic theory, understanding political strategy, and using a bit of interpretation, the “Cretan Mirage” has been dispelled. It is not true that Crete was piratical in essence – rather, these ancient people and their poleis are as dynamic and opportunistic as any of the other Greek poleis during the Hellenistic period. Crete’s many cities were operating on the Aegean trade network, building their economic power, spreading the culture and goods of Crete to other Greeks. It had the connections, the economic clout, and the material production to be a major competitor to Rhodes, and Rhodes attacked Crete for these reasons. Mirages such as the “Cretan Mirage” are dangerous within scholarship, because they are difficult to detect, and they impair the ability of researchers to objectively analyze the past. In this instance, piracy played a large role in the mirage. Our modern understanding of what pirates are and what they do are not the same as ancient notions of piracy. Piracy was used against Crete to slander its reputation and all but erase it from Hellenistic history. I would like to end by again quoting Polybius, as he was correct in this aspect:

For indeed some idea of a whole may be got from a part, but an accurate knowledge and clear comprehension cannot. Wherefore we must conclude that episodical history contributes exceedingly little to the familiar knowledge and secure grasp of universal history. While it is only by the combination and comparison of the separate parts of the whole,—by observing their likeness and their difference,—that a man can attain his object: can obtain a view at once clear and complete; and thus secure both the profit and the delight of History.[1]





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Algorithm, Agency, and Potentiality: Reading Constraint-Based Literature, Erin Greenhalgh


In “Algorithm, Agency, and Potentiality: Reading Constraint-Based Poetry,” I explore the complexities of reading texts that are constrained by algorithms and computer code. I focus on two types of literature: Oulipo and contemporary computer-generated poetry. I begin by discussing the intellectual history of Oulipo and its main characteristics. Because Oulipo shares many key traits with contemporary computer-generated poetry, these types of literature can be used to read each other. I then analyze how the role of the author is obscured in The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed, a book of poetry written by the computer program Racter in 1984, and Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de poémes, Oulipo’s seminal work. Using examples from contemporary computer-generated poems by authors including Stuart Moulthrop, Oni Buchanan, and Jason Nelson, I next discuss the reader as being placed on a spectrum of agency in which they have more or less control of the output of the work depending on how tightly the author controls the work’s potentialities. Finally, I explore ways to close-read constraint-based poetry, taking into account the work’s awareness of itself as a poem and as a program. I argue that in order to read constraint-based literature with confidence and nuance, scholars must acknowledge the complex relationship between the computer, the author, and the reader. 

“Here we find ourselves, nose to nose as it were, considering things in spectacular ways, ways untold even by my private managers…Well, have we indeed reached a crisis? Which way do we turn?”

–Racter, 1984


            Since the invention of digital computers, people have experimented with computer-generated writing. In 1952, the inventors of the world’s first digital computer, the Manchester Mark I, programmed the machine to generate love poetry (Wardrip-Fruin 163). In 1984, U.S. programmer William Chamberlain published The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed, a book of poetry written by a computer program. The book is full of strange and fascinating short poems, stories, and even dialogues between Chamberlain and the program named Racter, which is short for raconteur, or storyteller. Many of the poems are astounding in their appearance of sentience. “More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity. / I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber. / I need it for my dreams,” writes Racter, and a chill may go down the reader’s spine. How could a computer write such poetry? In his introduction to the book, Chamberlain says that Racter is “the most highly developed artificial writer in the field of prose synthesis” at the time. The program could conjugate verbs, print singular and plural nouns, assign gender to pronouns, and use “syntax directives” to string words together coherently (Chamberlain n.pag.). He subtitles the book “A Bizarre and Fantastic Journey into the Mind of A Machine” because it appears that Racter has a mind of its own and plenty to say. 

            It is no coincidence that around the same time as computers and computer-generated poetry were gaining momentum, literature focused heavily on algorithm and constraint began to emerge. Founded in France in 1960, Oulipo, short for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or “The Workroom of Potential Literature,” was the first literary form to strive for precise, algorithmic writing, valuing constraint and craftsmanship over inspiration. Raymond Queneau, one of the group’s co-founders, authored Oulipo’s seminal poem, Cent Mille Milliards de poémes, or “One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems.” This work is a collection of ten sonnets, written so that any line of the same number (for example, line number two of the first poem and line number two of the second poem) can be exchanged for any other to create a new sonnet. All in all, there are one hundred thousand billion—1014—possible sonnets that can be formed (Motte 200).

            In this thesis I examine the relationship between computer-generated poetry and Oulipo. I begin my discussion with Racter’s The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed and Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de poémes and then move to the work of more contemporary digital poets like Stuart Moulthrop, Oni Buchanan, and Jason Nelson. I refer to both Oulipian and computer-generated poetry as constraint-based works. When I refer to computer-generated poetry, I refer to poetry that is in some way dependent on an algorithm and a computer program to run. These texts may be created from programs that can combine vocabulary with syntax rules, as is the case with Racter, or they may display or manipulate text previously inputted by an author.

            Works such as The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed demonstrate the problematic nature of reading constraint-based work. Critics argue over whether computer-generated poetry like Racter’s is in fact poetry, and, if it is poetry, how to go about reading it. Some have argued that computer-generated poetry is entirely removed from any authorial intention, and, therefore, one cannot read it as a poem written by a human. Readers expect that thought motivates the words they read. Therefore,  "to call something a poem or even a text is to say, among other things, that the words, phrases, lines, or sentences have not been arranged in this way by chance but have been produced by a person with certain intentions” (Juhl 6). Thus, the argument goes, a computer-generated poem is neither a poem nor a text at all. Others, however, take a more nuanced view and argue that a computer-generated poem is indeed a poem and can be interpreted as such. However, reading computer-generated poetry is not as straightforward as reading poetry written by a human author. Computer-generated poetry draws attention to the “overriding need for an alternative set of literary terms for the interpretation of computer-generated poetry” and “the need to focus on the object of interpretation (on what the poems are) but on the interpreter” (Emerson 47). In addition, “interpreting or reading (computer-generated or digital) texts should not be wholly based on the author’s intentions but neither should it wholly disregard the author’s intentions for the sake of treating the text as a series of material marks that must be experienced” (Emerson 57). Computer-generated poetry invites us to examine the computer, the work itself, the author, the reader and the complex relationship between them.

I argue that reading constraint-based literature complicates issues of authorial intent and of readers’ interpretation. Writers of constraint-based works function more similarly to programmers, and the act of programming is an act of intention. Depending on how they construct the work, the author-programmer has varying degrees of control over the final form of their work. Readers find themselves on a spectrum of agency where they have more or less control over the meaning of the work, depending on how tightly it is controlled by the author.  In a time when computers are ubiquitous and the literary landscape is shifting to include more work that is algorithmic, combinatorial, and collaged, learning to read constraint-based literature with confidence is crucial.



The Historical and Intellectual Context of Oulipo

            In order to read and interpret both Oulipo and computer-generated poetry, it is necessary to examine the historical and intellectual context that shaped Oulipo. In 1960, François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau founded Oulipo. Both heavily engaged in mathematics, they wanted to create a group that would devote its efforts entirely to creating literature that was structured and constrained, whose basis was algorithm and the quantifiable properties of language. For inspiration, Lionnais looked to Queneau contemporary work, the unusual Cent Mille Milliards de poémes. This work, constrained by the sonnet form and able to create an almost unimaginable number of other sonnets, captured Lionnais’s attention and formed the basis for the Oulipian project. The mision of Oulipo, according to Queneau, was “[t]o propose new ‘structures’ to writers, mathematical in nature, or to invent new artificial or mechanical procedures that will contribute to literary activity: props for inspiration as it were, or rather, in a way, aids for creativity” (51). With a view of literature that was markedly different from any other literary methods of the time, such as Surrealism or Dada, Oulipo was born. 

Raymond Queneau’s concurrent interests in both literature and mathematics influenced his creation of Cent Mille Milliards de poémes and Oulipo. Born in Le Havre, France in 1903, Queneau was an inquisitive child and a voracious reader. He studied at the University of Paris and completed his degree in philosophy in 1926 (“Biography”). Though he studied the humanities, Queneau’s ideas about writing were greatly influenced by his fascination with science and mathematics. He nurtured a love for the subject even though he did not excel at mathematics courses at university. Throughout his life, he frequented scientific and mathematical lectures and joined the Société mathématique de France in 1948 as well as the American Mathematical Society in 1963 (Ferraro 132). Even as an amateur mathematician, Queneau collaborated on publications and published an article of his own in the Journal of Combinatory Theory in 1968 (Ferraro 132). Combinatorics, which is the enumeration of the possibilities of different combinations of discrete objects, was a key area of Queneau’s interest (Bose). Throughout his life, Queneau infused his works with mathematical concepts and structures. His writing was “animated by a powerful attention to form, and that nature of that form is rooted in mathematics” (Motte 201).

However, before integrating these mathematical concepts into heavily-constrained poetry, Queneau found inspiration in the Surrealists. After Queneau graduated from university, he spent a year in military service in Algeria and Morocco, and when he returned in 1928, he married Janine Kahn, whose sister was married to Andre Breton, the founder of the Surrealist movement (Campbell-Sposito). The Surrealist movement captivated Queneau during the late 20s, and his experience with the Surrealists shaped the eventual creation of Oulipo. 

Surrealism arose partly as a reaction to Realism, the dominant mode of writing at the time, which sought to depict life as it was. According to Breton, this detailing of mundane moments “clearly seems... hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement…. It is this attitude which today gives birth to these ridiculous books, these insulting plays” (Breton 6). In his first Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton cites the opening passage from Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment as a “school-boy description” of “the empty moments” of life (7). For Breton, there was nothing refreshing in the faithful description of a room or a scene in which all details were present as they were or would have been in real life. What Breton and the Surrealists sought was art that would elevate the audience beyond the “reign of logic” and restore a sense of childlike imagination and freedom (Breton 8). Surrealism became a way of combating what the subject matter of contemporary literature: “clarity bordering on stupidity, a dog’s life” (Breton 6). Its aim was to find some imaginative truth that would ultimately restore the writer and reader’s sense of humanity.

Surrealism was also heavily influenced by the politics of the time. The chaos of World War I still loomed in the public’s mind, and with it came radical ideology. Communism, for example, rested upon the desire for revolution. In the mid 1920’s, Andre Breton and other Surrealists signed the Surrealist Manifesto: The Declaration of January 27, 1925. In this incendiary document, the men seemed to be positioning themselves as part of a highly political movement, using literature and poetry as a means to a specific end. The first declaration states brazenly, “[w]e have nothing to do with literature; But we are quite capable, when necessary, or making use of it like anyone else” (qtd. in Nadeau 240). Surrealists portrayed themselves as warriors dedicated to show society its flaws. The final declaration states, “Surrealism is not a poetic form. It is a cry of the mind turning back on itself, and it is determined to break apart its fetters, even if it must be by material hammers!” (qtd. in Nadeau 241). The 1925 Declaration outlines the Surrealist belief that there was something critically wrong with society, and that Surrealism was a “formal warning to Society” that it would soon undergo a revolution (Nadeau 240). This idea of revolution partially aligned with the communist idea of revolution. Society, which was corrupt and stratified under capitalism, should seek justice and equality in a system where everyone was equal. It was to be the pinnacle of society’s evolution. However, Breton never fully aligned himself with communism, which never in practice produced the utopia its theory promised.  Breton never became a dominant figure in the politics of the time. Though he supported Leon Trotsky and disapproved of Stalin, he never took any political action because “the problematic nature of communism…stemmed from its willingness to rely on traditional power structures, which Breton abhorred. In this sense, revolutionary politics could never achieve the true intellectual independence and freedom of poetry” (Taminiaux 64). The communist ideal never yielded any fruit of freedom or equality. Instead, it simply became a tool for powerful leaders to oppress people and to make the subversive and radical commonplace and oppressive.

Though their 1925 Manifesto threatened violence, Breton and his followers were more interested in creating radical works of art than effecting radical political change. Breton believed that the literature of the time was not fulfilling its purpose, which was to renew within the reader a sense of childlike imagination. "[T]he first mission of surrealism was thus to locate its own fight at the level of language” (Taminiaux 55). Breton’s tools of revolution were not the hammer and sickle; his “material hammers” were pen and paper, and his fight was for a radical literature. Communism, however, was influential for Breton because “it was first of all the stuff that dreams are made of” (Taminiaux 66). Communism promised a utopia in the imagination. It was, in essence, a dream. But Breton, who was highly influenced by Sigmund Freud’s work on dream analysis and the power of the unconscious mind, asks: “Can’t the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life?” (Breton 10). Essentially, “for Breton, the fascination of communism stemmed from the profound love of elsewhere (ailleurs), an essentially poetic notion that implied the sense of the unknown and of what could only be imagined because of its utmost remoteness” (Taminiaux 66). Breton’s Surrealism was not concerned with the details of everyday life, which he believed constrained imagination and creative impulses. Breton’s Surrealism was founded on the idea that the secrets of great literature were hidden in a man’s subconscious, and that the Surrealist method of writing would dredge these thoughts from the depths of a man’s mind, where he might find other worlds in which to revel.

Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism” details his conceptions of the ideal art-making process. A writer, for example, should begin by creating “a monologue consequently unencumbered by the slightest inhibition and which was, as closely as possible, akin to spoken thought” (Breton 17, italics his). This spontaneous writing takes on an “extreme degree of immediate absurdity” (Breton 18, italics his). The goal of surrealist art is to bring into the light “the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of a dream, in the disintegrated play of thought” whose absurdity is childlike and liberating (Breton 19).  Through this automatic process, the artist can access the parts of himself that he suppresses. Indeed, Breton admits that he was “completely occupied” with Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis and dream interpretation, which Freud had newly developed in the late 1890s and early 1900s (17).  Like Freud, Breton believed that “if the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them” (Breton 9).  Through the process of creating art without thinking, one may seize the “strange forces” that shape one’s conscious reality.

Queneau participated in many Surrealist activities, such as psychoanalysis, but he distanced himself from Breton and the Surrealists by the '30s and desired to be part of an entirely different method of meaning-making. Queneau regarded Breton’s project as

A kind of escape toward exotic mental regions, apparently foreign to those where common sense prevails, insofar as they are for this reason a source of delectable strokes of inspiration, but such that what is revealed there is only what one brought oneself…In other words, if all wandering brings one back to places one already knows, why not take the places one knows as pretexts for wandering? (Leiris xx)

In Queneau’s eyes, Breton’s search for truth in exotic mental regions of the unconscious was misguided. The artist may find strange and seemingly nonsensical images there, but they contain in fact only the artists most intrinsic emotions. How can the artist interpret the unconscious without bringing images from the conscious to the unconscious and back again? Queneau and Oulipian writers did not find it productive to seek creative energy elsewhere but in the conscious mind, and “instead of relying on a sacrosanct inspiration supposedly coming from the depths, he [Queneau] absorbs what he sees when looking lucidly around himself” (Leiris xxii). While Surrealists focused on making art that formed from subconscious spontaneous thought, Queneau was more interested in work that was consciously planned. In other words, Queneau favored calculation over inspiration, he “locate[d] the creative impulse within the artist rather than without” (Motte 195).

Oulipian believed that creating art under constraint was the only way to truly free and empower artists. Where Surrealism emphasized letting writing flow from an inspiration beyond the writer's immediate control, Oulipo adamantly asserted that inspiration stifled creativity (Motte 194). Queneau was also concerned with dynamics of power in this so-called inspiration: “[F]or if inspiration is to be amorphous, haphazard, and ill-defined, there will need to be an arbiter of inspiration, for someone to declare when inspiration actually and truly visits the artist” (Motte 194). Andre Breton clearly fills this role of arbiter in Surrealism. Oulipo is skeptical of this type of control, which seems to be motivated by power instead of art. The constraints of Oulipo are rigid, formalized, and well-defined, and they eliminate the danger of one man calling the shots as to what constitutes true inspiration or not.  Oulipo also dislikes Surrealist ideas that texts can be created by chance, by the random flow of the subconscious. For Queneau and the Oulipians that followed him, “chance plays no role in artistic creation. Here, Queneau is perhaps motivated by his idea of the omnipresence of structure, by his conviction that even the most amorphous text is governed by a set of formal rules” (Motte 196).  Every text, every work of art, functions according to some set of rules, and by understanding this “omnipresence of structure,” the artist can learn to control the structure and work with it instead of against it.

The Characteristics of Oulipo

            Just as Surrealism is categorized by automatic and subconscious writing, Oulipo is organized around key characteristics, though they differ greatly from Surrealism. First, Oulipians foster an attitude of craftsmanship when creating works. Oulipo is short for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle – “The Workroom of Potential Literature. Why use the word “ouvroir?” “Because,” Queneau tells us, “it intends to work” (Motte 51). Oulipians wanted to distance themselves from the romanticized inspiration that captivated the Surrealists, and thus identified themselves as artisans, not artists. They believed that working with a constraint takes discipline and control, whereas more “inspired” methods of art, like Surrealism, allow the author to sit back and create without thought or effort.  

The second characteristic is, quite obviously, constraint. Constraint can operate on various levels within a text. One could write a text with the constraint on the level of the letter, such as an anagram, where letters in a word or phrase are rearranged to create new words, or a lipogram, where one letter is left out (Bénabou 44). Georges Perec’s La Disparition or The Void is a famous example of a lipogrammatic text. The whole 300-page novel is written without the letter “e,” which is an even more common letter in French than it is in English. Constraints progress through the phoneme (single sound unit), syllable, word, syntagm (a string of words that form a larger syntactic unit), sentence, and finally paragraph level (Bénabou 44-45). Since language is inherently a system guided by rules, Oulipians acknowledge that all writing follows some sort of structure, but they also believe that “writing under constraint is superior to other forms insofar as it freely furnishes its own code” (Bénabou 41). Before one even starts writing, if they know what constraint they will use, they know a key feature of their text, and they have the first step in going about the creating it.

            The third tenet of Oulipo is potentiality, which is highly related to constraint. Oulipian Jacques Bens describes a potential work as “a work which is not limited to its appearances, which contain secret riches, which willingly lends itself to exploration” (65). Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de poémes is a prime example of potentiality. Though it would appear that the work consists of only 10 sonnets, its “secret riches” are revealed when the reader explores the possibilities of combinations available from the 10 original sonnets. A work of potential literature provides plenty of opportunities for the reader to interact with and explore the work. Potentialities are what the author creates by crafting the work, and it is the reader's place to make potentialities solid. Constraint is key in creating potential works, because constraint creates the framework from which potential variations of a work emerge.

            Finally, while Oulipians are seriously concerned with creating interesting works of literary value, they also have the goal of creating works that are playful. Queneau says that Oulipo is amusing: “At least for us it is”  (Queneau 52). He calls some of the algorithms and constraints used to create works “diversions,” but he does so facetiously (52). He reminds critics of Oulipo that many mathematic achievements “sprang in part from that which used to be called ‘mathematical entertainments’, ‘recreational mathematics’” (Queneau 52). Intellectuals may amuse themselves with conceiving and implementing constraints, but this does not mean that the constraint will not yield profound and interesting work. Along the same sentiment, François Le Lionnais says in the First Manifesto of Oulipo: “When they are the work of poets, entertainments, pranks, and hoaxes still fall within the domain of poetry. Potential literature remains thus the most serious thing in the world” (28). The author of an Oulipian work offers the work as “a game, as a system of ludic exchange between author and reader” (Motte 20). The reader must be prepared to take the work seriously as a work of literature, but they also must be prepared to have fun with it.

Oulipo and Computer-Generated Poetry: Understanding the Role of the Author

            Oulipo shares many of its key traits with computer-generated poetry, which makes it natural to compare the two. The language Oulipians use to describe their work is distinctly computer-related. Computer-generated poems depend on algorithms contained in their code, and in Oulipo, each work “freely furnishes its own code” (Bénabou 41). The code dictates and constrains the way a work operates, and this constraint leads to potentialities. In the case of computer-generated poetry, potentialities emerge when the computer generates or combines text in random and unexpected ways or provides multiple opportunities for combination. In addition, computer-generated poetry often shares an attitude of playfulness, as many works take the form of interactive interfaces or games.

            Because Oulipo and computer-generated poetry share so many characteristics, readers encounter similar problems with reading these two types of work. In this section, I will focus on Racter’s The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed and Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de poémes as works that exemplify the difficulties of reading constraint-based text. Reading a poem from Cent Mille Milliards de poémes is just as disconcerting as reading a poem generated in the Racter program. In both cases, the reader may feel like there is no meaning or intention behind a work that is randomly generated.  

Racter’s poetry in The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed disquiets readers because they struggle to grasp the idea of a computer masquerading as human. From this perspective, computer-generated poetry may appear disingenuous. When we encounter lines like “A tree or shrub can grow and bloom. I am always the same. But I am clever”, at first we believe that a sentient being must have written the work, but when we find that it is simply a computer following the rules of an algorithm without thinking at all, without feeling at all, we feel tricked (Racter n. pag.). Emotional lines are simply produced by chance, not by an author's attempt at empathy or higher meaning. More strange is that Racter appears to be aware of how uncomfortable its writing makes readers. Racter’s closing words in the book appear as if the computer understood itself as a computer, and as if it understood the difficulties in reading computer-generated poetry: “Here we find ourselves, nose to nose as it were, considering things in spectacular ways, ways untold even by my private managers…Well, have we indeed reached a crisis? Which way do we turn?” (Racter n. pag.). The problem, posed by a computer, is unsettling and difficult to solve.

Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de poémes also makes readers question whether they have reached a crisis. Though readers may be comfortable reading Queneau’s 10 original sonnets, other combinations of lines feel less like poems and more like arbitrary combinations of lines. If Queneau himself did not put together a certain set of lines, how can one be sure that the combination means anything? If readers encounter the stanza, “Those snaps of Pisa's tower are bound to please/ any diner chooses escargots/at five o'clock he rests in his marquise/where Galileo once took pots to throw,” how can they be certain that the references to the related phrases “Pisa’s tower” and “Galileo” in the same stanza are not just a coincidence (Rowe)? Given the randomness of the line combinations and the reader’s own doubt, it would be easy to dismiss Queneau and Racter altogether as something that seems like poetry but is not. These texts leave critics wondering: “Will all texts in the future be authorless and nameless, written by machines for machines? Is the future of literature reducible to mere code?” (Goldsmith n. pag.). However, when we examine Racter’s poetry in The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed and Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de poémes, it becomes evident that the answer to this question is a firm no. As these two works show, the author is not absent, but obscured. One can envision the author more like a programmer who collaborates with the computer to create a text.     

            The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed portrays a simplified version of how the work was written, hiding the role of human thought in its creation. The cover advertises the work as “The first book ever written by a computer,” and Chamberlain himself portrays Racter more as a sentient being than a machine in his introduction. However, he disguises the fact that he himself, along with a colleague, Thomas Etter, authored the program’s code, and that he had to sort through massive amounts of output in order to compile a book so full of witty and philosophical musings as The Policeman’s Beard. It is not as if Racter simply generated the content of the book in its complete and finished form. Compiling Racter’s output took a great deal of curating, and in this way The Policeman’s Beard should be read as more of a collaborative project between Chamberlain and the computer. Chamberlain also claims that Racter produces writing “that is in no way contingent on human experience,” but he misinterprets (or perhaps exaggerates) Racter’s abilities.  Chamberlain and Etter inputted the program’s entire lexicon. They selected diction they thought would be interesting for Racter’s vocabulary. They also programmed the way that Racter combines words, giving the program its witty character and quirky voice. The fact that Chamberlain selected from Racter’s output the question, “Well, have we indeed reached a crisis?” indicates not that Racter is aware of the conundrum of machine writing, but that Chamberlain himself is aware (Racter n. pag.). Placing this section at the end of the book is Chamberlain’s way of emphasizing the problem, and it subtly indicates just how much Chamberlain was involved in the creation of the book. Though Chamberlain lauds Racter’s role in creating the text, The Policeman’s Beard is a testament to what humans can do in coding programs that create interesting work and in arranging and interpreting this computer-generated text.

            Reading The Policeman’s Beard and Cent Mille Milliards de poémes requires us not only to re-think the role of the author, but also the reader. Chamberlain functions as a programmer, and then he functions like an editor who reads and reviews work for publication. His role as an author includes the roles of programmer and reader. In Cent Mille Milliards de poémes, Queneau functions like a programmer as well, building the rules that will allow his work to run. Queneau then steps out of the process and lets the reader take the role of author, building his or her own poem from the lines he provides. These new ways of thinking subvert the ways that readers, writers, and scholars traditionally approach and make sense of a text. In an age when more and more works are created via “word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming,” the role of the writer, the programmer, and the reader collapses. In creating a work, writers must be sensitive readers, sifting through information and selecting that which stands out. They must also be programmers, coding a work to function according to certain rules (Goldsmith). Readers, as in the case of trying to read the poems from Queneau’s work, become writers themselves, generating text, arranging it into something cohesive and meaningful. The ability “to question and tear down such clichés and reconstruct them into something new, something contemporary, something—finally—relevant empowers both readers and writers” (Goldsmith n. pag.). 

The Oulipian Project vs. Contemporary Computer-Generated Poetry

            Though in this thesis I spend a great deal of time exploring the relationships between Oulipian works and contemporary computer-generated works, it bears discussing some ways in which the two differ, because while Oulipo in many ways anticipates computer-generated poetry, it is a different project. One feature that sets Oulipo apart from computer-generated poetry is the quality of craftsmanship. Warren Motte explains that the word ouvroir meaning “the workroom” “is etymologically related to the word ouvrer, ‘to work,’ in the sense of ‘working’ a given material: wood, copper, stone” (9). The Oulipian project values the artisanal process, a process that is physical, labor intensive, and, importantly, analog. Oulipians devise and implement algorithms by hand, and they value the intense discipline it takes.

            Does writing constraint-based work on a computer diminish a sense of craftsmanship, since the algorithm is implemented automatically by the computer program? Imagine if Georges Perec had written La Disparition by using a computer program to generate text without any e’s. His linguistic feat would seem much less difficult. Imagine instead that Perec created the program that could sift out any words with e’s in them and create a text that made good sense. Though he was not actually writing the text directly, the fact that he created a computer program to write such a text is laudable. Raymond Queneau lists craftsmanship in his characteristics of Oulipo, but he says, “this is not essential. We regret having no access to machines: this is a constant lamento during our meetings” (51). If Oulipians had had access to the kinds of digital computers that proliferated in the '80s, or better yet, the computers around today, perhaps Oulipo would have developed differently. However, Oulipo is not dead, as members continue to join and write without the aid of computer programs. Though some Oulipian works make use of a computer, the act of creating and implementing constraints without the use of a computer remains a key feature of the Oulipian project.

            Another feature that distinguishes Oulipo from computer-generated poetry is the fact that Oulipo is, at its core, more concerned with the constraint than the work. Because potentiality is crucial for Oulipians, a work does not have to be realized in order for it to be considered Oulipo. Lionnais sums up the Oulipian goal: “to discover new structures and to furnish a small number of examples” (qtd. in Lescure 39). Developing an algorithm or a type of constraint would be enough, and another writer could come along at any time and create an example of the constraint manifest. In computer-generated poetry, the goal is reversed. Most authors I will discuss seem to have a particular output in mind and then devise a program that will produce this output. Programs are specific to the works they create, whereas in Oulipo the work is specific to the constraint. In some ways, the Oulipian project sees farther than contemporary computer-generated poetry, which focuses on the poem as an isolated event rather than specific instance of a large, general structure.

Understanding the Role of the Reader: Spectrums of Agency

In a previous section, I introduced the idea that computer-generated poetry allows writers to become more like programmers and readers to take on more characteristics of writers. However, the reader does not always take on characteristics of a writer in an all-or-nothing manner when they engage with a constraint-driven work. In the following section, I explore how constraint-driven poems place the reader within a spectrum of agency. Depending on the work, the reader may have a fair amount of control over the final form of the work, or they may function more like an observer than an active participant. In other words, the reader has more or less control over the potentialities of the text, depending on how tightly the author controls them.

On one end of the spectrum are works whose outputs are tightly controlled by the author and whose algorithms yield a small range of potentials. The reader’s options of ways to interact with the text are limited, and they have little control over the final output. Stuart Moulthrop’s “Reagan Library” is a good example of a poem on this end of the spectrum. “Reagan Library” builds a text-world in which the reader slowly experiences the work. When the reader begins the text—perhaps “game” would be a more appropriate term here—they land on a page that displays paragraphs of text and a digital image. 

Algorithm 1

The content of the image is unclear, as is the meaning of the text. This first page is a world without context. The reader can manipulate the image by swiping left or right with the mouse, rotating the image as if the reader were at a fixed point in the center of a circle and spinning slowly around. Within the text, certain words or phrases contain links. Clicking on the links leads the reader to another page of the same format, only with different text and a different image. As you click through various links, an image of the world slowly emerges. Landmarks repeat in the digital images, and the reader can begin to construct a map of their surroundings. Similarly, phrases are repeated between pages of text. Links are not entirely predictable, and it is possible to end in the same scene as you started or visited at one point in your explorations. Each time you land in a scene you have already visited, the text differs slightly, and is a bit more cohesive. In this way, the landscape and the story slowly emerge in the course of the reader’s exploration.

Reading the text, by way of moving back and forth between different landmarks, is an act of patience in which the reader has little agency. The reader gets a feeling of blindness, especially when they first begin reading the piece, because their perspective is severely limited. Only by taking their time to scroll through each landscape, read the text, and follow the links does the reader slowly get a sense of scene and story. In “Reagan Library” there is no flipping or scrolling back to previous scenes in order to re-read. When the user lands on a page they have already visited, they are essentially re-reading the page, but some of the text has changed. In many cases it is impossible to say what was previously on the page and what has been changed, since presumably the reader has visited many pages before revisiting one, and because certain phrases are reused on different pages to describe different scenes. The reader’s only real agentive act is clicking on different links. By clicking, the reader travels through the world.

“Reagan Library” is a text-world of limited potentialities and, therefore, limited agency. Moulthrop’s program is designed to let the reader know how much of the world they have explored and how much they have yet to discover. On each page, there is a single colored square at the end of the text. Each time you revisit a page, another square appears. In my experience I could make the program generate no more than four squares per page. When I encountered four squares, I knew it was time to go complete other pages. Moulthrop also gives the reader cues by occasionally noting what percentage of the text the reader has encountered so far. While there is some doubt as to how accurate the percentages are (there is one page where the cue reads, “75% of readers believe these statistics”), the numbers do seem to correlate with the amount of text one has gone through (Moulthrop). Moulthrop limits potentialities as the reader goes along, in the end creating a text that will not change, and whose path you can now predict from the links. Once the reader responds to these cues, it is only a matter of time before they navigate the whole work by doing nothing more than clicking on hyperlinked words at random. The reader cannot control the output of the program but comes to understand that their role is the role of observer and explorer rather than active participant.

On the other end of the spectrum are digital poems like Oulipoems by Millie Niss and Martha Deed. Oulipoems contains six works that are all directly influenced by the Oulipian project. “Poggle” and “The Electronic Muse” are two poems within Oulipoems that give the reader tools with which to build their own poem. “Poggle” functions like a poem-creating game. The reader is given a set of tiles with words or phrases on them and must click on the tiles to create a poem before the timer expires. The reader can only click on tiles that are adjacent to each other. The words in the boxes are randomly (or semi-randomly) presented by an algorithm, and the reader must then interact with this constraint to create a poem. The reader could generate a poem that is more or less nonsense, or with careful planning they could generate something of interest. Whatever they generate, it is important that the work takes the form of a tool with which the reader can create something, which is very different from the act of exploring a world in “Reagan Library.” 

Algorithm 2Algorithm 3

“The Electronic Muse” follows the same principle as “Poggle” but gives the reader different tools. In this work, the reader’s goal is to generate a poem. They can generate lines by clicking a drop down menu and selecting a voice, such as Shakespeare, Anne Sexton, or Dick and Jane. A line is then generated in the poem space that takes the voice of whomever the reader selected. This program actually gives the reader a high degree of freedom. Unlike in “Poggle”, which provides heavy constraint, the reader can manipulate the lines generated in “The Electronic Muse” in a number of ways. They can use arrow buttons to select a line and move it up and down in the poem, and they can delete lines they do not want. They can also add vocabulary to a current style. The result is a line that is a hybrid style; it takes on characteristics of the source style, the reader, and Millie Niss as the author. It is interesting to consider whether “The Electric Muse” and “Poggle” should or even could be considered poems themselves, or whether the poem that the reader creates is the real poem. Niss and Deed’s works function like programs that the reader interacts with to create their own work. In this sense, the reader is less like a reader and more like a user. Perhaps the term “wreader” could also be applied in this situation. The term, used by digital poet Jim Andrews, cleverly picks up on the double role that the reader of a digital poem like “Poggle” fills. They must read and interpret the program and then create their own work based off of it. The reader is heavily involved in the output of the work. 

Of course there are many works that fall in the middle of the spectrum, somewhere between being a program and being a traditional poem. The Mandrake Vehicles written by Oni Buchanan is a good example of such a text. There are three “vehicles” in this text, all formatted in the same manner. I focused my analysis on the first installation. Using the numbers on the top of the page, the reader can move through the seven pages, which actually function more like phases, of the vehicle. The reader first encounters a page with a block of poetic prose. Click on the “next page” button and certain letters grow in size and disappear, leaving the text with many holes and making it only vaguely readable. On the next page, letters trickle down and fall from some words onto others. Some letters attach to other words while most fall to the bottom of the page, arranging themselves into new poetic words at the bottom: “rilles orrery ballet oasis tryst typhoon when plangent sea nettles radishes haunt askew” (Buchanan 4). From the text with many holes in it, a new poem is created by removing all the spaces. This same process continues: letters grow and fade out of the poem, letters trickle down to create a list of words at the bottom, the poem forms from recombining letters still in the poem-space. The result of the process is a block of text that is carefully distilled down to one poem, and then another, shorter poem via a series of intermediate steps.

Algorithm 4

Buchanan’s work at first appears to allow the reader limited agency. The sequence of pages and text on the pages is the same every time you view it, so it is quite easy to get a handle on the work. Like an actual book, you can flip back and forth between pages to see how the process happens and to re-read. Like in “Reagan Library,” the reader can explore the world of the poem but does not have a direct role in crafting the world except by clicking to advance to the next page. However, Buchanan created a subtle feature that allows readers more room to play with the work. During sequences of animation where letters disappear or trickle out, there is a stop/play function, where the reader can stop the change in mid-process and look more closely at the change at any given point. The reader could potentially take screen shots of the poem at any point in the animation and create readings of the screenshots. Slight changes in time could lead to subtle changes in meaning. Thus, the poem contains more potentialities than it seems to at first. It is possible that no two people could stop the poem at the exact same point, giving rise to nearly infinite subtly different images and interpretations.

If we examine Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes based on the spectrum of agency, is it clear that the reader has a high degree of control over the final product. Interestingly, the amount of agency the reader has varies on the format of Queneau’s work. Reading the work in book form, the reader can easily manipulate the work physically. The book consists of ten pages cut into fourteen strips of paper, each containing one line. The reader can flip through the strips of lines until they find a combination they like, and then they can focus on pertinent lines by means of a separator page that holds extra lines out of view. Though this format is somewhat clunky, in that the reader sometimes feels like they are swimming through slips of paper, it gives the reader a high degree of control over the work. They can flip back and forth between sonnets, choosing to change only one line at a time if they wish. It is easy to return to an earlier sonnet by simply flipping to the same configuration of lines. It is almost like reading a traditional book, except that each line is its own page.

The reader’s agency and the focus of the work changes when Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes is presented in a digital format. Given the use of constraint and the sheer number of possibilities of combinations, it is no wonder that Queneau’s work has been reformatted for a digital interface. One reader created a flash application to view the work, criticizing the fact that the book format

Naturally inclines the reader to favor ten of the sonnets as being more naturally paired, just by the particular distribution of lines. What’s more, the very first one of those sonnets is invariably the most ‘natural’ one, as it is the first one any reader reads, and the only one that is at all easy to read without fumbling through a small forest of sonnet-shavings. (Dow)

In the application, the user can create new sonnets by hovering their cursor over a line, which then spins until the reader removes their cursor.  In contrast to the book format, it is much easier to generate poems quickly. However, there is little precision, and it is impossible to return to a particular combination once you run your cursor over the lines. This is especially frustrating if you stumbled upon an interesting combination and accidentally moved your cursor over the poem. In this format, the reader can read individual sonnets, but it is hard to keep track of them or compare them since the poem changes with the slightest touch. The goal of this type of interface seems to be more to demonstrate the potentiality of the poem rather than to dig into its meaning in any particular combination. The author points out that he does not speak French, and thus cannot read the lines of the sonnets as they are, so for him the goal is certainly not semantic meaning (Dow). Indeed, the application creator programmed a sonnet counter into the application, so that the emphasis rests on numbers of sonnets generated, not on any particular sonnet. Readers who interact with this type of digital application have more control over the number of poems they can generate but less in control of the content of specific poems.

Algorithm 5

            Because I cannot read French, I consulted a second digital version of Queneau’s work that places the reader on a similar level of agency as the book format does. On this site, the reader can choose to start on one of the original 10 poems, or he or she can begin with a random combination of lines. The French lines accompany the English translations, and the translator devotes the bottom of the page to translation notes. Buttons on the left of the poems allow the reader to switch just one line at a time or to randomly shuffle the lines. 

Algorithm 6

This interface is perhaps the best for readers who want to do a close reading because it gives them a high degree of control over how they combine lines. It is much easier to create a readable poem since the reader does not have the worry about managing many tiny strips of paper. However, the sense of potentiality is diminished in this interface, because, unlike in the book format, the reader cannot see an array of lines at once, and, unlike in the Flash application, the reader has no easy way of counting how many poems they have encountered. Agency fluctuates with each format, causing the reader to experience Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes differently depending on where they view it.

Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes and The Mandrake Vehicles help us re-think what it means for a text to occupy a digital space and what it means for a text to be interactive. It is a common conception that digital works are necessarily more interactive than conventional, print works. If we take “interactive” to mean that the reader has more agency, we know from an examination of works like “Reagan Library” and the Flash application of Queneau’s work that this is not the case. The digital interface may simply be a way to present algorithmically created or displayed text. In this format the act of clicking functions very much like turning a page, and is interactive only in the sense that it is necessary to the act of reading the work. Queneau’s work in print format certainly does entail turning pages, but the reader has to more actively turn pages in order to create their own poem from Queneau’s lines. It should be noted, however, that the amount of agency a reader has is in many cases entirely up to them. While some works like “Poggle” demand creativity, the reader could abdicate his or her agency by clicking random tiles and making an entirely random poem. The beauty of Oulipo and contemporary computer-generated works is that they occupy a space of tension between randomness and order, algorithm and intention, and the reader who acknowledges these tensions and learns to work with them will certainly get the most out of the work, whether it is in print or digital format.

Reading for Meaning: Poetic and Algorithm Awareness

            If the reader’s first task when confronted with a computer-generated poem is to interpret the level and type of interaction with the text, then the second task is to read for the work’s meaning. But just as constraint-based poetry is slippery in the ways it makes the reader respond to and interact with the work, it is also slippery in the levels of meaning it contains. As with the Racter poetry, the reader may at first assume that since text is generated, at least in part, by a computer, it has little semantic value, because a computer cannot “mean” anything when it generates text. The reader could leave the text alone or choose to approach it with a different assumption: the text refers to itself. It is often quite easy to read computer-generated poems in this way, because when it is impossible to decide what certain words or phrases refer to, one can assume that the words refer to themselves. In fact, this is a tactic that can be used to analyze almost any poem, computer-generated or not. Opaque language can always be read as a commentary on language itself. However, many computer-generated poems contain words, phrases, or themes that are deliberately self-referential. Constraint-based poetry can be self-aware on two levels, one of algorithm and one of language. Many are aware of themselves on both levels. In addition, their awareness of themselves as program or poetry plays an integral part in their discussion of other subjects and themes.

            Moulthrop’s “Reagan Library” is full of phrases that point to the work’s awareness of being a computer-generated poem, and it explores the relationship between humans and computers. Moulthrop answers questions the reader asks as they explore the work. When the reader searches for cohesion and questions why they can find little, the text soothes them with the affirmation that yes, “this sentence is out of order,” but that it is not a problem with the computer; readers cannot “reconfigure their browser” to make things clearer. In this world of computer-generated potentialities, “it is hard to go too far” (Moulthrop n. pag.). Later, the text echoes itself: “This sentence is out of order. Change your head” (Moulthrop n. pag.). The slightly altered echo of the previous phrase gives the reader an answer that makes sense of the work. The readers should not reconfigure their browsers to make sense of the poem; rather, they should change their head. Moulthrop offers more clues as to how the reader can go about this. In many sections, the narrator describes scenes from his childhood or his interaction with the digital landscape. Then he sneaks in lines like “my processor hurts” (Moulthrop n. pag.). Here, Moulthrop personifies a component of a computer at the same time as he automates the narrator. Perhaps Moulthrop means to indicate that the human head and computer processor are interchangeable, or even more interestingly, that they are essentially the same thing.  In order to interpret Moulthrop’s poem, in which “some of the language is randomly generated, [and] some of the language is not randomly generated." the reader should then envision the mind similar to a processor, a piece of machinery that has the necessary circuitry to execute logical operations (Moulthrop). Moulthrop’s language bears interesting similarities to the epilogue Raymond Queneau included in the print version of Cent mille milliards de poèmes. It is a quote by Alan Turing, the father of modern computing. The epilogue reads, “Only a machine can appreciate a sonnet written by another machine.” This quote implies that perhaps computers are the only things that can appreciate computer-generated poetry, or that a human is a type of computer. At the very least, perhaps only a person who understands the complex relationship between computer and humans can understand computer-generated poetry.

            Like “Reagan Library,” “Concatenation” is work in which lines are reiterated to build subtly different meanings, but unlike Moulthrop’s work, “Concatenation” alludes much more subtly to itself as a program. “Concatenation,” part of a series called Generative Poetry by digital poet geniwate (sic), plays with the mutability of language and its ability to take on various different meanings. “Concatenation” is a poem that falls on the same side of the spectrum of agency as “Reagan Library” in that the reader can explore and observe the work, but they have little control in the program’s output. The reader first encounters a poem space with phrases in red letters on a green background peppered with faded red letters. Click on the poem space and the phrase changes. Sometimes the words are clustered together in the space, sometimes they are spread apart, and sometimes letters are simply scattered across the space. “Concatenation” is at once a poem about poetry and about war. In fact, war and language are conflated in phrases like “mothers teach the grammar of war” and “the world is a spelling mistake” (geniwate).  However, this conflation is complicated by the algorithm of the poem, which randomly displays one of the lines in the poem’s database each time the reader clicks. Particularly interesting is when a line is iterated and reiterated in a slightly different form than an original line, much like in “Reagan Library.” When I read “Concatenation,” I first encountered the phrase, “words bombs are scattered” and then later on, “scattered bombs are words” (geniwate).  Finally, this line appeared: “scattered words are bombs” (geniwate). Given that most lines are in fixed form and tend to reoccur if the reader clicks through the poem enough times, it is likely that geniwate wrote these lines before inputting them into the program. Nevertheless, the permutations of these words and phrases are displayed in random sequence by the program, and they yield subtle differences in meaning. The first version can be interpreted as an image of both words and bombs being scattered over a community. Language can be just as oppressive as physical violence; their combination implies total control and violence in every form. The second iteration of the phrase says that the bombs scattered are in fact words. This could mean that violence is a form of language, and that the dropping of bombs is a message to the victims. Finally, the last instance is the converse of the previous phrase, this time meaning that the words are in fact bombs, and that language is a type of violence. Taken together, all three phrases complement each other. What is more, the relationship between language and violence is strengthened with each iteration of the phrase. It is like computer-generated anaphora, adding nuance and emphasis each time a phrase is repeated and reworked. Each line in “Concatenation” takes meaning in relation to the phrases that come before or after it. “Concatenation” as a title also carries a double meaning. On a general level, it indicates the combination of a series of things. In this case, meanings are concatenated in the process of clicking through the poem. On another level, “concatenation” is a phrase used by programmers to denote the combination of different data types. In geniwate’s work, the term could be interpreted as a nod to both the literary and technical aspects of the poem. Through the poem, individual phrases are concatenated, violence and language are linked, and poetry and programming are tied.

Algorithm 7

The same subtle awareness of the work as a program can be found in Oni Buchanan’s The Mandrake Vehicles, though this work focuses on the process of creating poetry and explores language in many forms. Each page of the work is meant to highlight its connection to other pages and to illustrate the process of one version of the work morphing into the next. Buchanan says in her introductory notes that Vehicles is informed by the mandrake plant itself, which has “a rhizomatous root structure, meaning that the plants themselves are all connected underground by horizontal subterranean stems shooting off from the vertical root of each individual plant” (Buchanan). Indeed, in Vehicles each page is connected by an animation which shows the morphing process in motion and which also shows how words and pages are connected to each other in unexpected ways. Words and phrases within the various stages also subtly point to this idea of process and organic connection. In the first installation, the first page contains a block of poetic prose describing a mandrake being pulled from the ground: “—was it—of surface, liminal, for first there was a layer, first, a membrane of dust to host the infinitesimal rupture” (Buchanan 1). This page is just the beginning; a “membrane of dust to host the infinitesimal rupture” will lead to the discovery of a complex structure and interconnectivity beneath the surface of this prose block. After a series of transformations, the work settles into the form of one concise poem, whose first line begins with the word “winnowing” (Buchanan 7). This word perfectly describes Buchanan’s process. From a block of beautiful, solid prose, words and letters are carefully organized. Though they may be beautiful in themselves, they are extra and do not serve the final poem. The last poem is more beautiful because the reader has seen what has been winnowed out.

            Buchanan’s attention to language runs through the whole work, creating a poem that provides a simple aesthetic pleasure. Buchanan uses the digital interface to emphasize words and the relationships between them. In the work’s intermediate stages, select letters trickle down to form their own words at the bottom. They are words not found in the original page and which may or may not have significance to the current page, but which are beautiful in themselves. Delicious care is taken in the crafting of these words: “rilles orrery ballet oasis tryst typhoon hewn plangent sea nettles radishes haunt askew tolling” (Buchanan 4). These words are tied together by a series of alliterations, first the “r” sound morphing to and “ay” sound morphing into “t” sound that loosely connects the series from “tryst” to “tolling.” In her introductory notes, Buchanan explains that these words are “made of scales of the same heavy letters that will form the next poem, but they create the ‘could-have-been’ words which exist only as unselected entities.” These “could-have-been” words are an interesting way to describe the potentialities hidden in the Vehicles. There could be potentially hundreds of other poems springing from these “detrius words,” but in order to convey what Buchanan wishes to convey, they must be discarded (Buchanan). The animation that shows the letters trickling out the poem and assembling new words illustrates Buchanan’s thought process as she crafts the Vehicles. The digital interface is crucial, as no such dynamic illustration of process would be possible on a printed page.

            Where The Mandrake Vehicles is concerned with earnestly exploring the work’s transformation, Jason Nelson’s “This is how you will die” is a poem concerned with making an absurd game of poetry and the poet himself. Filled with scribbly lines and morbid humor, “This is how you will die” is poem modeled from a slot machine in which the reader can spin the wheel and receive a facetious prophecy about his or her death. 

Algorithm 8

The work is in some ways like Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes in that the reader can make new works from different combinations of lines. Of course, Nelson’s work contains far fewer possible combinations than Queneau’s, and the reader basically gambles to see what the fate of the poem (and their own fate) will be, whereas the reader has much more control when reading Cent mille milliards de poèmes. Nelson’s work is built on playfulness and general disrespect. The reader may encounter lines like “The police fight crowds for your blood, collected in rusted communion plates,” which communicates a disregard for anything sacred (Nelson). Under the umbrella of this disregard, Nelson mocks art an scholarship. One fortune reads, “Your body is mistakenly sent to an Ohio medical school, and used for slice practice…and sales of your previous poetry book are still not enough to pay for lunch” (Nelson). This line is one of several that simultaneously pokes fun at and bemoans the fate of the contemporary poet whose work is underappreciated and undersold. Expressing a related sentiment are lines like “Your death is reported by tenure-seeking academics as being suspiciously modernist” (Nelson). Here Nelson depicts the stereotypical ravenous scholar who will over-analyze anything for academic recognition. Through lines like this and the interface of the slot machine itself, Nelson makes it clear that “This is how you will die” stands counter to so-called “Great Art,” and that those who fall prey to the desire to make or criticize Great Art miss the point. In some ways his goal is similar to the Oulipian goal of being artisans instead of artists, not wishing to make works that were built on romantic fallacies such as inspiration, but working with the aleatory and absurd. However I doubt Nelson would categorize himself as a craftsman. If anything he is a satirist, using an algorithm of randomness to poke fun at serious topics and serious people.

            Though Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes contains references to itself as an algorithmic work, it is much harder to read for content than any of the poems I have so far discussed because of the sheer volume of possibilities. In reading the poem, one simply does not know where to begin, and certainly not where to end. To attempt a reading, I used Rowe’s website, which was the easiest way for me to manipulate the text. One question that arises in reading is whether one should read a single poem as a unit of meaning on its own, or whether one should read several poems together. When you begin to look at the text this way, as a collection of collections of poems, the possibilities really are infinite. Since I determined earlier in this thesis that Queneau’s work as displayed on Rowe’s website gives the reader a high degree of agency, I decided to take advantage of that agency and to craft a poem myself, switching out lines until I found something that felt cohesive:

So now the bard spurs iambs and trochees

And sniffs the smoke that sets his nose aglow

            He’d much to learn despite his four degrees

We always hope to keep ourselves so-so


            The Parthenon horse is shivering in the bise

            Your mind turns more and more to gloom and woe

            For death casts piles of shit on pedigrees

            Most people like to read the words they know


            The genealogist finds every blot

            To cease from scratching parchment he cannot

            You can’t quote Virgil in a limousine


            Oh reader thinking thus your heart will lock

            You cannot number off each ploch and pock

            Clear from the start the ending is foreseen. (Rowe)

In creating this poem, I picked lines that dealt with writing, reading, scholarship, and history, topics that Queneau furnished for me. This poem comments on the writer as one who, though learned, cannot know everything, since “he’d much to learn despite his four degrees.” I also picked the line “death casts piles of shit on pedigrees” because it echoes themes in Nelson’s “This is how you will die.” These ideas taken together say something about the powerlessness of the author, whose knowledge is never enough to create a flawless work or a work people will want to read, since “most people like to read the words they know.” In the last stanza the poem addresses the reader who is also in a state of powerlessness, since they “cannot number off each ploch and pock.” Here the poem points to itself, aware that the reader cannot account for every line combination in Cent mille milliards de poèmes. They are too many to read and explore. The last line of the poem is interesting, seeming at first to contradict the line before it. How is the reader unable to number off each poem yet able to foresee the ending? It makes more sense to interpret that the ending is foreseen by Queneau and by Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes itself. The poem’s algorithm foresees the poem’s and the reader’s fate, a fate of endless potentials where no amount of learning is quite enough to pin them all down.


            In this thesis I have discussed how Oulipo and computer-generated poetry share traits of constraint and potentiality. They complicate the role of the computer, the author, and the reader, and they demand that the reader be more attentive to where they stand in relation to the work. So where do we go from here? I believe that those who learn to read constraint-based works will be more sensitive readers of traditional works. Readers who acknowledge their role as both a passive observer and an agent of a text will read with more energy and more sensitivity. For example, if a student has trouble grasping the meaning of a poem, he or she should play with it, cut it up, rearrange it, and then reassemble it. When he or she realizes reading can involve the use of the creative eye of a writer, more opportunities for understanding will open up to them.

Furthermore, constraint-based poetry can help us be more open to other types of literature from which readers and academics have typically shied away. Methods like collage, pastiche, and repurposing seem radical in contrast to the traditional image of the lone writer and his inspiration. Then again, so did Oulipo when it first began. However, Oulipians did not see their project as anything revolutionary, and neither should we. In the Second Manifesto of Oulipo, Lionnais argues that “if the Oulipo suddenly ceased to exist… in the long run, everything would return to normal, humanity eventually discovering, after much groping and fumbling about, that which the Oulipo has endeavored to promote consciously” (31). Oulipian characteristics are foundational the way literature has been and will be made. Lionnais argues that in the natural process of the evolution of literature, Oulipian writing would inevitably emerge even if there were no Oulipians to consciously promote it. Constraint is an underlying characteristic of language, and those who know how to work with constraint will be powerful writers.

Today, constraints of code and algorithm also facilitate the ways we view and access content. Readers who are aware of the ubiquity of constraint will be more receptive to works in which constraint is crucial to the work, whether it be the constraint of a text-generating program or the constraint of using another’s words to express your own ideas and emotions. Just as creating algorithm-based work filled Oulipians with the desire and energy to write, constraint will have an empowering effect on contemporary authors and readers:

Far from this "uncreative" literature being a nihilistic, begrudging acceptance--or even an outright rejection--of a presumed ‘technological enslavement,’ it is a writing imbued with celebration, ablaze with enthusiasm for the future, embracing this moment as one pregnant with possibility. (Goldsmith)

The goal of literature has always been to make meaning, and works in the tradition of Oulipo and computer-generated poetry celebrate making meaning in an unconventional way. What is more, they celebrate works that are “pregnant with possibility” of new works, of works generated from works, of an endless cycle of creation.

Works Cited

Bénabou, Marcel. “Rule and Constraint.” Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature. Trans. Warren F. Motte. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1986. 40-47. Print.

Bens, Jaques. “Queneau Oulipian.” Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature. Trans. Warren F. Motte. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1986. 65-73. Print.

"Biography" Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition Ed. Frank Northen Magill. Salem Press, Inc. 1997 eNotes.com 15 Sep, 2013

Bose, Raj C. “Combinatorics (mathematics).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014. Web. 20 March 2014.

Breton, André. “Le Manifeste du Surrealisme (1924).” Manifestos of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan P., 1969. 5-34.

Buchanan, Oni. "The Mandrake Vehicles: First Installation" Electronic Literature Collective, Volume Two. Ed. Laura Borrás, Talan Memmott, Rita Raley, and Brian Stefans. Electronic Literature Organization, Feb. 2011. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. .

Chamberlain, William. “Behind The Policeman’s Beard.” The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed. By Racter. New York: Warner Books, 1984. Print.

Chamberlain, William. “Introduction.” The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed. By Racter. New York: Warner Books, 1984. Print.

Campbell-Sposito, Mary. "Canis Major: Introducing Raymond Queneau." The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Review of Contemporary Fiction. 1997. HighBeam Research. 15 Sep. 2013 <http://www.highbeam.com>.

Dow, Gordon. "100,000,000,000,000 Sonnets." By Raymond Queneau. N.p., 2002. Web. 02 Nov. 2013. .

Emerson, Lori. "Materiality, Intentionality, and the Computer-Generated Poem: Reading Walter Benn Michaels with Erin Mouré's Pillage Laud." English Studies in Canada 34.4 (2008): 45-69. ProQuest. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

Ferraro, Alessandra. "Writing and Mathematics in the Work of Raymond Queneau."Mathematical Lives. New York: Springer, 2011. 131-36. Print.

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