Jennifer Tobin—Staff report

Where does our concept of the Seven Wonders of the World come from and how has this list of marvels changed since ancient times? Associate Professor of Classics and Mediterranean Studies Jennifer Tobin enlightens Whitman community members on Thursday in a lecture titled "The Creation of the List of the Seven Wonders of the World: The Uses of Thaumata." Tobin is the author of the books Black Cilicia: A Study of the Plain of Issus during the Roman and Late Roman Periods (Oxford, BAR International Series 1275, 2004) and Herodes Attikos and the City of Athens: Patronage and Conflict under the Antonines (J. C. Gieben, 1997). She teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


What is the origin of the Greek word thaumata and how is it related to the Seven Wonders of the World?

The word thauma (plural thaumata) is one of several ancient Greek words conveying the notion of wonder or amazement. Rather than wonder generated by something heard or learned about secondhand, thauma often conveyed the idea of wonder as elicited by something seen. As early as the 8th century BCE, in the works of Homer and Hesiod, we find a correlation between wonder and vision. This is most easily understood in the commonly occurring formula thauma idesthai, "a wonder to behold." When Homer uses these words, the focus of wonder is a created object, such as the chariot and armor of Rhesus [in The Iliad or], the dress of Aphrodite [in The Odyssey], rather than a natural phenomenon. Such awe-inspiring works are most often divinely created, although some are acknowledged by Homer to have been made by the hand of man. Thus our earliest examples of thaumata in Greek literature are manufactured objects whose wondrousness is experienced through sight.

How soon after Homer did the concept of the Seven Wonders appear?

The notion of the Seven Wonders of the World developed some 500 years after Homer, sometime in the third century BCE, but as was the case with the earlier poet, in this later period wonderment and amazement were firmly attached to the act of seeing. Although many authors writing about individual monuments on the list of Seven routinely referred to them as wonders, θαύματα, the list itself was most commonly termed as the ἑπτὰ θεάματα, literally, the Seven Sights. A theama, a sight or spectacle, frequently described a visual display which gave pleasure, and the noun is derived from θεάομαι, to gaze upon, often with a sense of wonder. Therefore, the term Seven Sights in essence refers to "Seven Visual Wonders." By the fourth century CE, the ἑπτὰ θεάματα, the Seven Sights, came to be more typically known as the ἑπτὰ θαύματα, the Seven Wonders—visual miracles that struck amazement in the beholder.

Where did the first list of the Seven Sights or Seven Wonders come from?

The notion of the Seven Wonders seems to have been a product of the Hellenistic world (the period between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and that of Cleopatra, 32 BCE), although the author, precise date and location of its creation are not known. Alexander's conquest of the East resulted in an unprecedented phase of geographical and scientific knowledge, as reports of the strange new world he and his troops were dominating began filtering back to the Greek and Macedonian homeland. The era that followed his death in Babylon in 323 BCE witnessed profound change for the Greeks and Macedonians as the traditional boundaries of the Greek world now stretched eastward to Egypt, Persia and India. Bumping against new languages and customs, strange terrains and monuments, these Greeks must have experienced feelings of rootlessness and a profound sense of cultural dislocation. I argue that the creation of the list of the Seven Wonders aided in this quest for cultural identity, serving to situate the Greeks and their achievements within this new multicultural world. The earliest complete list of Seven Wonders is found in a poem dating to around 125 BCE. The poet, Antipater of Sidon, lists the following: The Walls of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.


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