Ancient History & Civilisation

III. HOMERIC CIVILIZATION

How shall we reconstruct the life of Achaean Greece (1300-1100 B.C.) out of the poetry of its legends? Our chief reliance must be upon Homer, who may never have existed, and whose epics are younger by at least three centuries than the Achaean Age. It is true that archeology has surprised the archeologists by making realities of Troy, Mycenae, Tiryns, Cnossus, and other cities described in the Iliad, and by exhuming a Mycenaean civilization strangely akin to that which spontaneously takes form between the lines of Homer; so that our inclination today is to accept as real the central characters of his fascinating tales. None the less, it is impossible to say how far the poems reflect the age in which the poet lived, rather than the age of which he writes. We shall merely ask, then, what did Greek tradition, as gathered together in Homer, conceive the Homeric Age to be? In any case we shall have a picture of Hellas in buoyant transit from the Aegean culture to the civilization of historic Greece.

1. Labor

The Achaeans (i.e., the Greeks of the Heroic Age) impress us as less civilized than the Mycenaeans who preceded them, and more civilized than the Dorians who followed them. They are above all physical—the men tall and powerful, the women ravishingly lovely in an unusually literal sense. Like the Romans a thousand years after them, the Achaeans look down upon literary culture as effeminate degeneration; they use writing under protest, and the only literature they know is the martial lay and unwritten song of the troubadour. If we believe Homer we must suppose that Zeus had realized in Achaean society the aspiration of the American poet who wrote that if he were God he would make all men strong, and all women beautiful, and would then himself become a man. Homeric Greece is kalligynaika15—it is a dream of fair women. The men too are handsome, with their long hair and their brave beards; the greatest gift that a man can give is to cut off his hair and lay it as an offering upon the funeral pyre of his friend.16Nakedness is not yet cultivated; both sexes cover the body with a quadrangular garment folded over the shoulders, tied with a clasp pin, and reaching nearly to the knees; the women may add a veil or a girdle, and the men a loincloth—which, as dignity increases, will evolve into drawers and trousers. The well to do go in for costly robes, such as that which Priam brings humbly to Achilles in ransom for his son.17 The men are barelegged, the women bare-armed; both wear shoes or sandals outdoors, but are usually barefoot within. Both sexes wear jewelry, and the women and Paris anoint the body with “rose-scented oil.”18

How do these men and women live? Homer shows them to us tilling the soil, sniffing with pleasure the freshly turned dark earth, running their eyes with pride along the furrows they have ploughed so straight, winnowing the wheat, irrigating the fields, and banking up the streams against the winter floods;19 he makes us feel the despair of the peasant whose months of toil are washed out by “the torrent at the full that in swift course shatters the dykes, neither can the long line of mounds hold it in, nor the walls of the fruitful orchards stay its sudden coming.”20 The land is hard to farm, for much of it is mountain, or swamp, or deeply wooded hill; the villages are visited by wild beasts, and hunting is a necessity before it becomes a sport. The rich are great stockbreeders, raising cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and horses; one Erichthonius keeps three thousand brood mares with their foals.21 The poor eat fish and grain, occasionally vegetables; warriors and the rich rely upon great portions of roast meat; they breakfast on meat and wine. Odysseus and his swineherd eat, between them, a small roast pig for luncheon, and a third of a five-year-old hog for dinner.22They have honey instead of sugar, meat fat instead of butter; instead of bread they eat cakes of grain, baked large and thin on a plate of iron or a hot stone. The diners do not recline, as the Athenians will do, but sit on chairs; not at a central table but along the walls, with little tables between the seats. There are no forks, spoons, or napkins, and only such knives as the guests may carry; eating is managed with the fingers.23 The staple drink, even among the poor and among children, is diluted wine.

The land is owned by the family or the clan, not by the individual; the father administers and controls it, but he cannot sell it.24 In the Iliad great tracts are called the King’s Commons or Demesne (temenos); in effect it belongs to the community, and in its fields any man may pasture his flocks. In the Odyssey these common lands are being divided, and sold to—or appropriated by—rich or strong individuals; the commons disappears in ancient Greece precisely as in modern England.25

The soil might yield metal as well as food; but the Achaeans neglect to mine the earth, and are content to import copper and tin, silver and gold, and a strange new luxury, iron. A shapeless mass of iron is offered as a precious prize at the games held in honor of Patroclus,26 it will make, says Achilles, many an agricultural implement. He says nothing of weapons, which are still of bronze.27 The Odyssey describes the tempering of iron,* but that epic probably belongs to a later age than the Iliad.

The smith at his forge and the potter at his wheel work in their shops; other Homeric craftsmen—saddlers, masons, carpenters, cabinetmakers—go to work at the home that has ordered their product. They do not produce for a market, for sale or profit; they work long hours, but leisurely, without the sting and stimulus of visible competition.29 The family itself provides most of its needs; everyone in it labors with his hands; even the master of the house, even the local king, like Odysseus, makes bed and chairs for his home, boots and saddles for himself; and unlike the later Greeks he prides himself on his manual skill. Penelope, Helen, and Andromache, as well as their servant women, are busy with spinning, weaving, embroidery, and household cares; Helen seems lovelier when she displays her needlework to Telemachus30 than when she walks in beauty on the battlements of Troy.

The craftsmen are freemen, never slaves as in classic Greece. Peasants may in emergency be conscripted to labor for the king, but we do not hear of serfs bound to the soil. Slaves are not numerous, nor is their position degraded; they are mostly female domestics, and occupy a position in effect as high as that of household servants today, except that they are bought and sold for long terms instead of for precariously brief engagements. On occasion they are brutally treated; normally they are accepted as members of the family, are cared for in illness or depression or old age, and may develop a humane relation of affection with master or mistress. Nausicaa helps her bondwomen to wash the family linen in the stream, plays ball with them, and altogether treats them as companions.31 If a slave woman bears a son to her master, the child is usually free.32 Any man, however, may become a slave, through capture in battle or in piratical raids. This is the bitterest aspect of Achaean life.

Homeric society is rural and local; even the “cities” are mere villages nestling against hilltop citadels. Communication is by messenger or herald, or, over long distances, by signal fires flashing from peak to peak.33 Overland traffic is made difficult and dangerous by roadless mountains and swamps and bridgeless streams. The carpenter makes carts with four wheels boasting of spokes and wooden tires; even so most goods are carried by mules or men. Trade by sea is easier, despite pirates and storms; natural harbors are numerous, and only on the perilous four-day trip from Crete to Egypt does the ship lose sight of land. Usually the boat is beached at night, and crew and passengers sleep on trusty land. In this age the Phoenicians are still better merchants and mariners than the Greeks. The Greeks revenge themselves by despising trade, and preferring piracy.

The Homeric Greeks have no money, but use, as media for exchange, ingots of iron, bronze, or gold; the ox or cow is taken as a standard of value. A gold ingot of fifty-seven pounds is called a talent (talanton, weight).34 Much barter remains. Wealth is computed realistically in goods, especially cattle, rather than in pieces of metal or paper that may lose or alter their value at any moment through a change in the economic theology of men. There are rich and poor in Homer as in life; society is a rumbling cart that travels an uneven road; and no matter how carefully the cart is constituted, some of the varied objects in it will sink to the bottom, and others will rise to the top; the potter has not made all the vessels of the same earth, or strength, or fragility. Already in the second book of the Iliad we hear the sound of the class war; and as Thersites flies oratorically at Agamemnon we recognize an early variation on a persistent theme.35

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