Lattara: Crossroads of Conversation

With Lascaux and Morbihan, we explored prehistory in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Eras respectively. Now we are dealing with protohistory: that is, the transition from prehistory to history. We started out with the nomadic hunters of Lascaux in western France, evident from the copious depictions of animals inside the cave dating back 17,000 years. Then we marveled at the megaliths of the hunter-gatherer peoples of Morbihan in northern France (ca. 3000 BC). Now we are moving to the very south of France up to the time of 600 BC, where we find a Mediterranean seaboard of interspersed colonies.

The “major step” in this transition was the foundation of Massalia (now Marseille)by the Phoceaen Greeks in 600 BC. Lattara (now Lattes) was one of the settlements that sprung up alongside Massalia along the Mediterranean. Soon a whole network of communities covered the entire southern part of France.

What makes Lattara interesting to me is the size and location. First, Lattara was fortified on the edge of a peninsula within a space of about 8 acres. Not much breathing room. People were close, and judging by the number of huts crammed into the town, people were very close. Daily interaction and conversation with other human beings must have been habitual. Although this might seem like a recipe for disaster (think of your last family reunion, times 100), this daily exchange of ideas probably resulted in new innovations. Like a stone that travels hundreds of miles from the mouth of a river to its delta, the more that ideas get passed back and forth, the more they are refined and useful. Moreover, in such a small community, individuals were able to specialize further in crafts, so that the one informs the other and techniques improve. As we look at Lattara, we see not just a tribe or a village, but the beginnings of a city—a civilization.

Furthermore, in addition to having these intramural (literally within the walls) conversations, Lattara also offered its people trans-cultural interaction. Lattara was a port town, a natural crossroads frequented by travelers and traders. And what these people did when they stopped was more than business transaction—they did what we all do when we go someplace foreign and meet new people—they exchanged stories.

I suppose it is no wonder then why perhaps the greatest philosophical dialogue in the western tradition takes place in a port town. The famous Athenian interlocuters do not stand atop the Acropolis, though that might make for a rather distracting scenery; instead, Plato’s Republic begins as Socrates heads down, away from the center of Athens, to the port of Piraeus. What’s more, Socrates is going there precisely for religious reasons—to pray. What begins as a religious exercise for Socrates ends in a profound exploration of the various functions of the city as an analog for the human soul.

Although we cannot say exactly, based on archeological evidence, what types of conversation took place, we can reasonably infer that Lattara offered its inhabitants both the possibility and the probability of engaging in storytelling—a ritual as old as humanity itself.

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