Flights of ancient fancy

Flying in the Ancient World

As published in Omnibus (first delivered at a Classical Association Conference on 1st April 1999). 

Already in the 5th century BC, flying was in the air...

The subject of ancient aeronautics has, surprisingly, been largely neglected by ancient historians. We know that ancient engineers developed impressive technologies for building, water-carrying, naval and military purposes, which required a practical understanding of natural forces and how to exert control over them. Greek and Lain texts provide a lot of information about ancient ideas on techniques and principles of flight. Although it is commonly supposed that all ancient accounts of flight are no more than fantasy, at various periods the Greeks and Romans were clearly preoccupied with turning that fantasy into reality. However, travel by air or sea would have presented a perilous prospect: ‘caelum ipsum petimus stultitia’, laments Horace (Odes 1.3.38) ‘in our folly we head for the sky itself’. Nevertheless, intrepid explorers and adventurers regularly braved long ocean voyages. Others, it seems, persisted in investigating the possibility of flight.

Descriptions of flying in ancient literature refer predominantly to birds or to gods. In Homer and Virgil, winged deities and spirits throng the flight-paths of the ancient Mediterranean. Flying inspired a host of metaphors, like Homer’s ‘winged words’, and ‘wings of song’. Metaphors of poetic flight evoked literal images of ocean and earth – images grounded in the poets’ actual experiences. The importance of keeping in mind the physical reality of Greece was stressed by the one time Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, E.R. Dodds, who asked: ‘How shall [we] enter into the concrete experience of Greek culture, material or literary, with no experience of the soil and landscape that gave it birth?’ The vista of land and sea, apparently so near and yet so far, is familiar to anyone who ascends Mt. Etna or Parnassus, and might offer a strong inducement at least to dream of taking wing. Frequent and often detailed depictions of flight in ancient art and literature tell us how ancient aviators sought to turn that dream into reality.

The history of aviation proper begins with the attempt by the father-and-son team, Daidalos and Ikaros, to fly from Crete to Sicily. The story of their flight was widely told in antiquity. What underlies the legend? The Cretan Daidalos represents a figure of craftsman or inventor. As in the case of ‘Homer’, Daidalos came to represent a series of specialist practitioners over many centuries, inspired by contact with the Near East. Their accomplishments elicited reactions of wonder and admiration, and the name ‘Daidalos’ was specifically attached to feats of technical wizardry. So, in the Greek imagination, the palace at Knossos became the labyrinth designed by Daidalos; the Minotaur was the offspring of an artificial bull made by him; and an oft-repeated theme told of statues coming alive and walking, so lifelike were the figures of human beings sculpted by him.

Daidalos was famed above all for the wings he fashioned from feathers and wax for himself and Ikaros in their bid to fly from Crete. The Cretan connection gives us a clue to the historical background. It was the Cretans who, as early as the 2nd millenium B.C., took the lead in adopting sail technology from the Egyptians, and according to Thucydides (1.8), Minos of Crete was the first man to establish a maritime empire. Daidalos’s wife was named Naukrate, ‘mistress of the sea’, and the invention of the sail was attributed to Daidalos himself (Paus. 9.11.2-3). The harnessing of wind-power for purposes of sea travel was clearly a genuine technological breakthrough, and it was only a matter of time before the principle of sail-power was applied to air travel. A vase-painting from the 6th century B.C. captures Daidalos en route to Sicily – a destination with recurring significance for ancient aeronautics. Daidalos’ flight fired the imagination of aviators ancient and modern, but his successful design of wings eluded future generations despite det­ailed attempts at reconstruction, such as on the Roman panel of the 2nd century A.D. from Villa Albani and in Ovid’s famous description (Met.8. 189 f.):

He laid the feathers in a row, beginning with the smallest, short following long to form a curve…Then he tied them middle and bottom with string and wax, and, so fastened, he arched them slightly to imitate real birds’ wings…When the finishing touches had been put on his work, the craftsman himself balanced his body between the two wings and hung poised, beating the air.

The fate of Ikaros, who fell into the sea and drowned, was bound to dampen enthusiasm for such high enterprise. But in the 5th century B.C., a surge of interest in human inventiveness led to a renewed study of aeronautics, which is reflected in the way flight it a dominant theme for Athenian playwrights. Daidalos himself featured in satyr-plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles and was the central character in plays by Aristo­phanes and Euripides. Flying was in the air…But the fate of Ikaros was also a warning of the dangers of human beings failing to keep their feet on the ground: ‘cleverness’, warns a Euripidean chorus, ‘is not wisdom’.

Aristophanes enjoyed poking fun at scientists and inventors, and those who tried to fly were ripe targets for being brought down to earth with comic ridicule. The very idea of bringing men on stage sporting artificial wings was irresistible. In his Birds of 414 B.C., he has the two heroes set off to found a new city in the sky, and the chorus is made to represent all kinds of birds. They make a convincing case (Birds 785-97) for the practical usefulness of wings:

Never need a Patrocleides, sitting here, his garment stain;
When the dire occasion seized him, he would off with might and main
Flying home, then flying hither, lightened and relieved, again… (tr.B.B. Rogers)

With wings you could avoid boredom, tiredness and hunger, obey a pressing call of nature, even take the opportunity to dally with an old girlfriend while her husband sat with VIPs in the front row of the theatre! Eventually the heroes them­selves come on stage with wings attached, and later (lines 1305-11) the Her­ald warns them to expect an influx of new citizens – all requiring wings! Not only were must there have been wings everywhere on stage, but cratefuls of spares as well. Between rehearsals, chorus members could hardly have resisted testing out their aerodynamic properties on the slopes of the auditorium.

But the emphasis on wings as the means to flight suggests that actual attempts at flight may have suffered from attempting to emulate birds too closely. Mere possession of wings is no guarantee of successful flight. Experimental attemps to fly with wings have continued into recent times. There are several recorded instances from the Middle Ages which suggest a useful analogy with ancient attempts. The most likely outcome is exemplified by the enterprising attempt by an 11th-century Arab scholar called Al-Djawahiri, who climbed onto the roof of a mosque with two large wings made from wood fastened to his body. Launching himself into the air, he plummeted to the ground and died instantly. Other would-be fliers were luckier. Several accounts survive of Giovanni Danti, who was dubbed the ‘Daidalos of Perugia’. In 1498 Danti provided a memorable spectacle by using wings to fly across the main square of Perugia from a high bell-tower, suffering no more than a broken leg when he crashed onto the roof of the church opposite.

No ancient Athenian seems to have attempted a similar feat in the agora, perhaps because there were no buildings high enough to launch themselves from. Adventurers were more likely to head to the suburb of Kerameikos with its multi-storey tenement-blocks. We hear of a building there called the Tall Tower, a place where would-be fliers could risk breaking more than their legs: in Aristophanes’ Frogs (134) when Herakles recommends that Dionysos jump from there, the latter exclaims “But I’d smash up a good pair of brains!” Most would-be flyers would choose to adopt a less precipitate approach. For instance, Lucian’s Ikaromen­ippus learned to fly gradually, jumping from progressively higher and higher points:

I first tried out the wings by jumping up and down, working my arms and doing what geese do, lifting myself along the ground and running on tiptoe as I flew. When this method began to work well, I experimented more boldly. I climbed up the acropolis and dropped down the cliff right into the theatre. When I had flown down without mishap, I tried out greater heights, taking off from Parnes or Hymettus, flying to Geraneia, and then up to Acrocorinth, over Pholoe and Erymanthus, clear to Taygetus. (Loeb, chh.10-11)

Others will have been put off sooner by the painful consequences. The physician who composed the Hippocratic treatise On Fractures, dated to around the end of the fifth century, actually specifies a class of patients as ‘those who have made a jump from a high place’. He goes on to describe in gruesome medical detail the kind of injuries sustained through their foolhardiness (On Fractures, Loeb Ch.11.1-5):

They come down violently on their heel, get the bones separated, with extravasation from the blood vessels since the flesh is contused about the bone, so that swelling and severe pain result.

To try to fly by flapping with artificial wings is in fact an aeronautically unsound procedure, prone to result in fatality. However, Greeks had one regular opportunity to experiment with such flying devices without keen regard to safety. The annual event at Leucas called the Criminal’s Leap was described thus by Strabo (Loeb Ch. 10.2.9):

It was an ancient custom among the Leucadians, at the annual sacrifice in honour of Apollo, for a criminal to be flung from an outpost of rock for the sake of averting general misfortune. Wings and birds of all kinds were attached to him to lighten the leap by their fluttering. A number of men were stationed all round below the rock in small boats to haul the victim in and make haste to escort him outside their borders.

It must have been like bungee-jumping without a bungee. It was only fair that the criminals who found a way of surviving the Leap were sent into exile and not killed. The obvious thing to use in these circumstances would be not wings, but a parachute of some kind. A Persian innovation, the parasol, made this a real option: the North Doorway at Persepolis has a relief carving illustrating a splendid example. Parasols became a fashion accessory in classical Athens, and one was solemnly paraded at the women’s festival of Skirophoria. In The Greek Myths Robert Graves traces a connection between this custom and the story of Skiron, the jolly giant on the cliff who commanded passers-by to wash his feet, then kicked them into the sea. When Theseus came by, it was Skiron’s turn for the high jump. Graves suggests that Skiron (whose name could in origin be taken to mean ‘parasol-man’) may have attempted a slow descent by exploiting the wind-resistant properties of a linen membrane stretched over a rigid framework: in other words, a hang-glider.

Because most such experiments led nowhere, the ancients tended to believe that asking someone to fly was demand­ing the impossible. Nero’s demands in this respect exemplified his tyrannical megalomania. We learn from Dio Chrysostom (Discourses 21.9), that if Nero ordered someone to fly, that man would undertake to do it, and for a considerable time he would be maintained in the imperial household in the belief that he would fly. Such imperial caprice meant that fatal experiments continued, and Suetonius (Vit. Caes. 6.12.2) succinctly describes the grisly result of one such attempt made at a Neronian banquet: “At his very first attempt, ‘Icarus’ fell to earth next to the imperial couch, spattering the emperor with his blood”.
































Flying in the Ancient World

Part 2: Flying Machines


The notion of manned flight did not come entirely out of the blue. Nature provided ready exemplars of flying creatures. The birds are our teachers, noted the 5th century B.C. polymath Democritus, because from them men have learned how to build and how to sing. Their ability to fly might be riskier to emulate, but Democritus was well aware that physical danger was a great stimulus to inventiveness: after all, he noted, the danger of water had encouraged human beings to learn how to swim. Athens’ ‘golden age’ embraced the notion of skills that could be mastered through systematic instruction. Flying was potentially a skill for which various mechanisms might be sought and found.


The construction of artificial wings (discussed in the previous issue) was only one of the aeronaut­ical tech­niques investigated in antiquity. In view of the numerous tales about the abduction of virgins by gods in the guise of animals, we should not be surprised to find some con­sid­­er­ation by would-be aviators of the use of winged creatures. The idea of an animal on which human beings could fly may have stemmed from the actual use of the horse for riding on and pulling chariots, which for most Greeks would have been the experience most akin to flying. Such methods of land travel were readily extra­polated to air travel. Euripides dramatised the flight of Bellerophon and his fall from the winged horse Pegasus. This was parodied in Aristophanes’ Peace of 421 B.C., where Trygaios arran­ges to fly to heaven not on a horse, but on a decidedly unheroic dung-beetle.


The staging of these scenarios illustrates how, in this technically-minded period, the reality of a flying-machine had come a step closer with the develop­ment of mech­a­nical stage-devices, Greek mēchanai (whence ultimately we get our word ‘machine’). Theatre audiences might now see actors susp­end­ed in mid-air, whether in the guise of a deus ex machina in Euripidean tragedy, or a practitioner of high-flown sophistry with his head literally in the clouds. In Peace, the actor was literally hoisted in the air on a mechanically-operated giant wooden beetle. But what goes up must come down, as the philosopher Heraclitus said (well, almost). Eventually the actor playing Trygaios has to break through the mask:


     I’m shit-scared, and I’m not joking now.

Hoist-operator, please concentrate! –

The wind’s whistling around my belly-button

and unless you’re careful I’ll be feeding the beetle myself!


Not only do we find such machines in the theatre, but increasingly on the battlefield. The creation of artillery devices raises the question of a possible military application for flying. (One of the main promoters of technological innovation has always been the military industry, whether in promoting technology of making spears and helmets, constructing 5th-century Athens’ war-fleet, designing space-rockets or fighting ‘Star Wars’). The limitations of ancient aeronautical technology would have made control of the air a far-fetched military aim, but its usefulness as an adjunct to naval warfare could be, and was, imagined. In Aristophanes’ Frogs, it’s proposed to put Kinesias (a man well-known for his gravity-defying dithyrambs) to good use by attaching him to a fellow-aviator so that, airborne, they might bombard the enemy fleet with the ancient equivalent of mustard-gas:


Euripides. If Kleokritos was fitted with Kinesias-shaped wings and became airborne above the ocean –

Dionysos. It would look hilarious, but what would be the point?

Euripides. They could carry vinegar-pots and during a sea-battle could spray the enemy in the eyes.


Curiously enough, a 5th-century vase-painting presents the glorious sight of a winged warrior in full armour flying high over a battleship (fig.).


Flying would have offered particular advantages for the most intractable aspect of ancient warfare, the breaking of sieges. In fact, events in the Peloponnesian War foreshad­owed advances in siege-engineering, and in 399 B.C. a contest promoted by Dio­n­ysius I of Syracuse even led to stirrings of rocket technology: machines such as catapults and ballistas were developed so that heavy project­iles could be propelled for long distances. Thus it was in Sicily, the island where Daidalos once came to land after his flight from Crete, that the technology of flight took a step further forward.


Meanwhile, across the strait in South Italy, a Pyth­ag­orean inventor in Tarentum called Zopyrus was shortly to invent a manually operated missile-firer called a gastraphetes. Pythagorean interest in flying may be traced back to the sixth-century sage Pythag­oras himself, who according to one account was on one occasion seen at the same hour in places miles apart – proof to his followers that he must have discovered how to fly. We know that Pythagoras’s most famous follower and admirer Empedocles (again a Sicilian) experimented with hollow vessels filled with air. Since he died by falling into Etna’s crater trying to in­spect the volcano’s interior, we might suppose that he was experimenting with a hot air device which failed to achieve a controlled descent. Another Pythagorean, Plato’s friend Arch­ytas, experi­mented with a unique flying mechanism: his mechanical wooden dove seems to have worked using steam-pressure, and the record of the event has the ring of an eye-witness report:


Among many other distinguished Greeks, the philosopher Favorinus, a scrupulous researcher of ancient records, has stated most positively that Archytas made a wooden model of a dove with such mechanical ingenuity and art that it flew. It was finely balanced with weights and propelled by a current of air generated inside it. I will quote Favorinus’ own words since it seems so hard to believe: Archytas of Tarentum, an inventor among other things, built a wooden dove which flew, but after coming to land did not take to the air again. (Aulus Gellius 10.12.8-10)

In the end, however, ancient flying machines never really took off. The idea of guided airborne vehicles remained in the province of fantasy, inspiring one of the most popular legends told about Alexander the Great during the Middle Ages:


When Alexander wished to preside over the air, he had the rather good idea of seating himself, so as to be carried up, on strong flying griffons, holding roasted meats aloft on his sword. The griffons, smelling the food above their heads, pressed upwards in order to eat. When Alexander had risen very high and wished to descend, he turned the meat down below the griffons’ mouths. They, still wanting the food, flew down to try to seize it, and bore Alexander, unharmed and without danger, back to earth. (Giovanni da Fontana, Metrologum).


Military machines were used in battle with spectacular success by Alexander the Great and his successors, and subsequently by the Romans. Later generations marvelled at the wondrous men who invented such mēchanai. In expressing his admiration, the 12th-century author Kekaumenos came close to coining the title of a cinematic account of early aviation: “Those extraordinary men who compiled works on fighting machines and designed battering-rams and mangonels and many other devices…” Clearly the ancient equivalent of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines!




About Armand D'Angour

Fellow and Tutor in Classics, Jesus College Oxford.
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