Ancient History & Civilisation


The Archaic Greek World

In Mainland Greece, the Archaic Age was a time of extreme personal insecurity. The tiny overpopulated states were just beginning to struggle up out of the misery and impoverishment left behind by the Dorian invasions when fresh trouble arose: whole classes were ruined by the great economic crisis of the seventh century, and this in turn was followed by the great political conflicts of the sixth, which translated the economic crisis into terms of murderous class warfare… Nor is it accidental that in this age the doom overhanging the rich and powerful becomes so popular a theme with the poets

E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), 54–5

The close personal association of the upper classes at this time was a tremendous force in promoting the lightning swiftness of contemporary change; in intellectual outlook the upper classes seem scarcely to have boggled at any novelty. With remarkable openness of mind and lack of prejudice they supported the cultural expansion which underlay classical achievements and much of later western civilization. Great masses of superstition and magic trailed down into historic times from the primitive Dark Ages… That past, as exemplified in the epics, was not dismissed in its most fundamental aspects, but writers, artists and thinkers felt free to explore and enlarge their horizons. The proximate cause, without doubt, was the aristocratic domination of life.

Chester G. Starr, The Economic and Social Growth
of Early Greece, 800–500BC (1977), 144


Homeric Epic

So Priam spoke, and he roused in Achilles the desire to lament his father: Achilles took his hand, and pushed the old man gently away. And the two of them remembered: one wept aloud for Hector slayer of men, crouched before the feet of Achilles, but Achilles wept for his own father and then, too, for Patroclus…                                                                                         Homer, Iliad 24.507–11

Travelling in Greece, Hadrian stopped at its most famous oracle, Delphi, in the year AD 125, and asked its god the most difficult question: where was Homer born and who were his parents? The ancients themselves would say, ‘let us begin from Homer’, and there are excellent reasons why a history of the classical world should begin with him too.

It is not that Homer belongs at the ‘dawn’ of the Greeks’ presence in Greece or at the beginnings of the Greek language. But for us, he is a beginning because his two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are the first long texts in Greek which survive. During the eighth century BC (when most scholars date his life), we have our first evidence of the use of the Greek alphabet, the convenient system of writing in which his epic poems were preserved. The earliest example at present is dated to the 770s BC and, with small variations, this alphabet is still being used for writing modern Greek. Before Homer, much had happened in Greece and the Aegean, but for the previous four centuries nothing had been written down (except, in a small way, on Cyprus). Archaeology is our one source of knowledge about this period, a ‘dark age’ to us, though it was not ‘dark’ to those who lived

in it. Archaeologists have greatly advanced what we know about it, but literacy, based on the alphabet, gives historians a new range of evidence.

Nonetheless, Homer’s poems were not histories and were not about his own times. They are about mythical heroes and their doings in and after the Trojan War which the Greeks were represented as fighting in Asia. There had certainly been a great city of Troy (‘Ilion’) and perhaps there really had been some such war, but Homer’s Hector, Achilles and Odysseus are not historical persons. For historians, the value in these great poems is rather different: they show knowledge of a real world, their springboard from which to imagine the grander epic world of legend, and they are evidence of values which are implied as well as stated. They make us think about the values of their first Greek audiences, wherever and whoever they may have been. They also lead us on into the values and mentalities of so many people afterwards in what becomes our ‘classical’ world. For the two Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, remained the supreme masterpieces. They were admired from their author’s own era to Hadrian’s and on to the end of antiquity, without interruption. The Iliad’s stories of the Trojan War, the anger of Achilles, his love for Patroclus (not openly said to be sexual) and the death of Hector are still among the most famous myths in the world, while the Odyssey’s tales of Odysseus’ homecoming, his wife Penelope, the Cyclops, Circe and the Sirens are a lasting part of many people’s early years. The Iliad culminates in a great moment of shared human loss and sorrow in the meeting of Achilles and old Priam whose son he has killed. TheOdyssey is the first known representation of nostalgia, through Odysseus’ longing to return home. Near its end it too brings us an encounter with pitiable old age when Odysseus comes back to his aged father Laertes, tenaciously at work among his orchard of trees, and unwilling to believe that his son is still alive.

The poems describe a world of heroes who are ‘not as mortal men nowadays’. Unlike Greeks in Homer’s own age, Homer’s heroes wear fabulous armour, keep open company with gods in human form, use weapons of bronze (not iron, like Homer’s contemporaries) and drive in chariots to battle, where they then fight on foot. When Homer describes a town, he includes a palace and a temple together, although they never coexisted in the world of the poet and his audience. He and his hearers certainly did not take his epic ‘world’ as essentially their own, but slightly grander. Nonetheless, its social customs and settings, particularly those in the Odyssey, seem to be too coherent to be the hazy invention of one poet only. An underlying reality has been upheld by comparing the poems’ ‘world’ with more recent pre-literate societies, whether in pre-Islamic Arabia or in tribal life in Nuristan in north-east Afghanistan. There are similarities of practice, but such global comparisons are hard to control, and the more convincing method is to argue for the epics’ use of reality by comparing aspects of them with Greek contexts after Homer. The comparisons here are plentiful, from customs of gift-giving which are still prominent in Herodotus’ histories (c. 430 BC) to patterns of prayer or offerings to the gods which persist in Greek religious practice throughout its history or the values and ideals which shape the Greek tragic dramas composed in fifth-century Athens. As a result, to read Homer is not only to be swept away by pathos and eloquence, irony and nobility: it is to enter into a social and ethical world which was known to major Greek figures after him, whether the poet Sophocles or that great lover of Homer, Alexander the Great. In classical Athens in the late fifth century BC, the rich and politically conservative general Nicias obliged his son to learn the Homeric epics off by heart. No doubt he was one of several such learners in his social class: the heroes’ noble disdain for the masses would not have been lost on such young men.

Homer, then, remained important in the classical world which came after him. Nonetheless, the Emperor Hadrian is said to have preferred an obscure scholarly poet, Antimachus (c. 400 BC), who wrote on Homer’s life. By beginning with Homer we can correct Hadrian’s perversity; what we cannot do is answer his question about Homer’s origins.

If the god at Delphi knew the answer, his prophets were certainly not giving it away. All over the Greek world, cities claimed to be the poet’s birthplace, but we know nothing about his life. His epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were composed in an artificial, poetic dialect which suited their complex metre, the hexameter. The poems’ language is rooted in the dialects known as ‘east Greek’, but a poet could have learned it anywhere: it was a professional aid for hexameter-poets, not an everyday sort of spoken Greek. It is more suggestive that when the Iliad uses everyday similes, it does sometimes refer to specific places or comparisons in the ‘east Greek’ world on the western coastline of Asia. These comparisons needed to be familiar to their audience. Perhaps the poet and his first audiences really did live there (in modern Turkey) or on a nearby island. Traditions connected Homer, in due course, with the island of Chios, a part of whose coastline is well described in the Iliad. Other traditions connected him strongly with Smyrna (modernİzmir) across from Chios on the Asian mainland.

Homer’s dates have been equally disputed. Many centuries later, when Greeks tried to date him, they put him at points which equate to our dates between c. 1200 and c. 800 BC. These dates were much too early, but we have come to know, as their Greek proponents could not, that the Homeric poems did refer back to even older sites and palaces with a history before 1200 BC. They describe ancient Troy and they refer to precise places on the island of Crete: they allude to a royal world at Mycenae or Argos in Greece, the seat of King Agamemnon. The Iliad gives a long and detailed ‘catalogue’ of the Greek towns which sent troops to Troy; it begins around Thebes in central Greece and includes several place-names unknown in the classical world. Archaeologists have recovered the remains of big palaces at Troy (where recent excavations are enlarging our ideas of the site’s extent), on Crete and at Mycenae. Recently they have found hundreds of written tablets at Thebes too. We can date these palaces way back into a ‘Minoan’ age (c.2000–1200 BC) in Crete and ‘Mycenaean’ palace-age in Greece (c. 1450–c. 1200 BC). In fact, Thebes, not Mycenae, may now turn out to have been at the centre of it.1 In this ‘Mycenaean’ age Greek was being quite widely spoken and written in a syllabic script by scribes who worked in the palaces. In this period Greeks were also travelling across to Asia, but not, as far as we know, in one major military expedition. Thanks to archaeology, we are now aware of a long-lost age of splendour, but it was not an age which Homer knew in any detail. The Iliad’s ‘catalogue’ is the one exception. Even so, he only had oral stories and after five hundred years they had retained none of the social realities. A few Mycenaean details about places and objects were embedded in poetic phrases which he had inherited from illiterate predecessors. The formative years for his main heroic stories were probably c. 1050–850 BC, when literacy had been lost and no new Greek alphabet existed. As for the social world of his poems, it is based on an age closer to his own time (c. 800–750 BC): the ‘world’ of his epics is quite different from anything which the archaeology and scribal writing of the remote ‘Mycenaean’ palaces suggest.

Nowadays, scholars’ dates for Homer himself vary between c. 800 BC and c. 670 BC. Most of them, myself included, would opt for c. 750–730 BC, and certainly before the poet Hesiod (fl. 710–700 BC): at least we are almost certain that the Odyssey was later than the Iliad, whose plot it presupposes. But was there one Homer or two, one for each poem? What we now read has probably been tidied up and added to in places, but at least there was a monumental poet at work. The main plot of each epic is much too coherent for them to have evolved as a sort of ‘people’s Homer’, like a snowball over the centuries. Professional reciters, or rhapsodes, did continue to perform the poems in archaic Greece, but they certainly did not create the bulk of them. Unlike Homer, in my view, these reciters had memorized what they performed: they had learned from a text which went back to the main poet’s lifetime. I do not believe that Homer himself wrote out his epic: he was, I think, a true oral poet, the heir to other illiterate poets before him. However, he was the first real ‘epic’ poet, the one who concentrated his very long songs on a single guiding theme. His predecessors, like his lesser followers, would have sung of one episode after another without Homer’s gift for large-scale unity. We may even have the plot of one such oral poem before Homer which gives a central role to the hero Memnon from dusky Ethiopia. If he was originally in it, the earliest known Greek heroic song would be about a hero who is black.

During the eighth century the new invention, the alphabet, began to spread in the Greek world. It was not invented in order to write down Homer’s great poems, but it was used (possibly by his heirs, and during his lifetime) to preserve them. They were so good that there was a future profit in a text of them. If so, much of what survives is probably the dictated version of the poet himself. The poems are very long (15,689 lines for the Iliad, 12,110 for the Odyssey), but they are unlikely to have attained this length only during his hours of dictation, undertaken to preserve them. They were also too long to be composed for performance at a banquet, as they require two or three days’ listening. Arguably, they were first composed for a festival (later Greek festivals are known to have set aside several days for poetic contests, even in Hadrian’s day2). As they survive, they do not address any one family of patrons or any one city-state. A big festival would fit this general ‘Panhellenic’ aspect very well: perhaps a Homer who was known to be a prize-winner was given a free run at one such festival, without rival competitors.

The two epics, the first big Greek poems, do touch already on luxury, freedom and justice. Homer does not use the later Greek word for ‘luxury’ (truphē), nor any word which disapproves of it. Rather, he enhances his grand epic world with descriptions of luxury palaces of gold, silver and bronze. He tells of wonderful silverwork from the Levant, slave-women skilled in working ivory, necklaces of amber beads, textiles and dozens of fine robes, a precious store of value. The treasures of the nobles’ clothes chests have perished, but otherwise we can fit some of these luxuries (but not the fantasy palaces) to our increasing archaeological record, especially to items found in contexts of the ninth and eighth centuries BC. Homer’s heroes and kings are not ‘corrupted’ by luxury: they fight unforgettably in mortal combat for honour, and like Odysseus they are capable of practical, everyday work with their hands. The luxuries around them are individual items of wonder. It seems that Homer and his hearers are not living in the lap of luxury ‘nowadays’ and taking it for granted in an effete royal world.

Individual luxuries are very attractive to the women portrayed in the poems: the amber necklaces are particularly tempting. When sold as captives, the women can be luxuries too, costing as much as twenty oxen. But in general, the poems represent women with a courtesy which is quite different from the small farmers’ grudging view of women in the near-contemporary poetry of Hesiod. In the Odyssey, Penelope and Odysseus really do express their love as a reunited married couple; the great sorrow of Laertes, Odysseus’ father, is the previous death of his wife. It is quite untrue, then, that Greeks never imagined that a man might love his wife or that ‘romantic love’ in the Greek world is always the love of one man for another. Homeric epic is a touching tribute to good marriage. Hesiod, too, does recognize the value of a good wife, rare though she is, but it is he, not Homer, who describes the first-created woman, Pandora, the inadvertent cause of hardship and sickness for all mortal men ever since.

Freedom is also a crucial value for the participants. Once, in a supreme moment, Hector looks forward to the time when freedom will be celebrated, the ‘mixing bowl of freedom’, no doubt filled with wine, will be set up and Troy will be ‘free’, with its enemies defeated. By contrast, there is the ‘day of slavery’ which takes away most of a man’s powers.3 ‘Freedom’, therefore, is a ‘freedom from…’: from enemies who will kill and enslave a community, and from ‘slavery’, the condition of absolute subjection in which men are bought and sold like objects. In Hesiod’s poetry, too, slaves are assumed to be a part of the Greek farmer’s way of life and a wide range of Greek words describes them. We cannot point back to a time before the classical age, when slavery, the ownership of other human beings, did not yet exist among the Greeks.

The heroes, often kings themselves, may complain about a king or leader, but they do not long to be ‘free’ from monarchy. They take for granted their own freedom to do much as they please before their own people. Nobles might be enslaved and sold by an enemy, but they are not worried about being ‘enslaved’ to another noble’s will in their own community. Nor are they concerned to uphold free speech for everyone in that community or to grant an equal freedom to people outside their class. No public assembly casts votes in the epic world; no meetings occur by right, whether or not a king or noble wants to summon one. In the Iliad, when Odysseus rallies the Greek army he speaks gently and respectfully to the kings and ‘people of eminence’. When he finds a man of the people, who is typically ‘shouting’, he pushes him with his staff and tells him firmly to sit down and attend to his betters. When insolent Thersites dares to insult and criticize King Agamemnon, Odysseus thumps him with his sceptre and brings out a bruise on this ugly, misshapen and unheroic free-speaker. The audience of soldiers bursts into ‘sweet laughter’ at the sight, although they are also ‘vexed’: what they are ‘vexed’ at is the ugly man’s outspokenness and all the trouble, not at the way in which the hero has hit him.4The epics present the unchallengeable dominance of a heroic aristocracy. They were not composed as a reaction to a real world in which this dominance was being contested.

Nonetheless, justice is a value in its world too, exemplified by the distant ‘Abioi’, a ‘just’ people to the north of Troy to whom the god Zeus looks away for respite from the Trojan War. Paris’ theft of fair Helen, Menelaus’ wife, is an unjust affront to hospitality and eventually the gods will punish it. In the Odyssey, the gods explicitly prefer justice to human wrongdoing; in the Iliad, Zeus is said to send down violent autumn storms to punish ‘men who use violence and give crooked rulings in the public meeting places, and drive out justice’.5 Once only, we see a human process of justice in action, and, however we understand its action, it points to possibilities other than a hero’s autocratic will. In the eighteenth book of the Iliad, Homer is imagining for us the wonderful scenes which the craftsman-god Hephaestus is working onto the shield for Achilles. In one part of it, two contestants are shown disputing over the ‘recompense’ to be made for a dead man. The people cheer them on and have to be held back by heralds. On polished seats of stone the elders sit and join in the process. ‘Two talents of gold lie in the middle for whoever speaks the straightest judgement among them.’6

The details of this scene of justice remain mysterious and are therefore disputed. Are the contestants arguing over whether or not a price has been paid for the killing of a man? They are said to wish to reach a conclusion from a ‘knowledgeable man’, but what, then, are the elders doing in the process? It seems that Homer describes the elders as holding the ‘sceptres of heralds’: is it the elders who then rush forwards and give judgements ‘one after another’? But if so, who is the ‘knowledgeable’ man? The people seem to be cheering on either party: are they, perhaps, the group who will decide by their shouts which elder is the ‘knowledgeable’ one and has given the best judgement? The contestants would then have to accept the opinion of the people’s favoured speaker. He in turn would receive the ‘two talents of gold’ on display in the middle of the meeting.

There is no single king in this scene and so it reads like Homer’s invention on the model of something seen in his own non-monarchical lifetime. A murder was a spectacular event, of obvious concern to people at large. The people’s presence and noisy participation are certain here, in the oldest surviving scene of the giving of justice in Greek. Homer’s audience would surely recognize the details, but one achievement of the next three centuries was to be the bringing of this process under written law before juries who would consist of ordinary people. As we shall see, the ‘two talents’ were duly removed from the middle of the proceedings, in Athens and many Greek cities and also, at least in theory, from the judicial process at Rome.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!