Monday, July 26, 2010

Homer’s World

Interior of the Treasury of Atreus

In a previous essay I talked about how Homer’s Epics The Iliad and Odyssey, although among the very greatest of man’s literary feats is not and cannot be used, except in the most general sense as a source for the Bronze Age history of Greece.

This view can be described as the standard view of today although it is possible and is in fact argued that perhaps kernels of actual history can be found in the poems.1

One thing does seem clear the social world described is most categorically NOT the world of the Mycenaean palace culture. How do we know this? We know this because we have impeccable contemporary documents. In this case Linear B tablets written in Greek. Now these tablets are almost always accounts. In other words filing records, of who did what work, who owned what, who got paid what, etc. They are indisputably exceptionally dull. However they are also indisputably entirely germane to telling us what Mycenaean society was like.2 Finally unlike Homer’s epics which were written / composed at least four centuries later the Linear B tablets are contemporary with the society that Homer was once thought to have been describing.3

Some resist the above conclusion with what amounts to statements of faith:

But in fact one wonders whether the very complexity and comprehensiveness revealed by the Linear B tablets may not giving a false impression of what life was really like in Mycenaean Greece.4

The implication is obvious, the above authors want to believe that Homer is describing the Mycenaean period. Of course just how Homer could be describing the Mycenaean period accurately when he lived over 350 years later is ignored. It is important to remember that the end of the Mycenaean period was characterized by massive devastation, mass movements of peoples and depopulation. In other words it was a disaster. To expect Homer to describe this period accurately is just not reasonable.5

Recent attempts like Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War, both film and book, are ultimately not the slightest bit convincing in showing us that the world of Homer’s poems is Mycenaean.6

What the Linear B tablets show is a Palace centered culture in which the Wanax (King) has centralized control over agriculture, aided by a system of bureaucracy loyal to him, who administers the system. Further the tablets reveal that the system was feudal with the bureaucracy assigning land to be farmed. Further there is a system of labour obligations and tribute collection.7 perhaps the most revealing indication of the differences between Homer’s world and the world of the Mycenaean tablets is the following list of the eight most high status positions mentioned in the poems and in the tablets. The poem’s list is on the left hand side the tablet’s on the right.

Anax – Wanax
Basileus – Pasireu (basileus)
Hetairos-Eqeta (hepetes)
Hegetor-Korete (and Porokorete)
Medon-Tereta (Telestas)8

What is notable is the difference between the terms used between the Iliad / Odyssey and the Mycenaean tablets. It should be pointed out that the term Wanax which Homer uses for King in his poems sometimes was soon to pass out of use entirely. Meanwhile Homer uses much more frequently the term Basileus for King and soon it was to take over the function of referring to King among the Greeks which it still has to this day. Interestingly among the Mycenaean’s the term Basileus referred to a bureaucratic individual in charge of stores. All of which indicates a break between the actual world of Mycenaean Greece and the world as described in Homer’s poems.9

In fact the entire Mycenaean system of tribute gathering, trade, legal obligation and the network of officials to collect, administer and finally record assets and tribute (taxes) owed to the king is entirely absent from the poems. In fact Homer’s Kings do not seem to have a functional bureaucracy at their command at all. In fact we learn from the Odyssey that one man keeps a record of all Odysseus’ possessions in his head.10

The Mycenaean King was head of bureaucratic machine and had significant institutional means of enforcing his will. Further the society he controlled had a hierarchy of status' and positions that are not reflected in Homer’s poems. For example It appears that a large segment of the Mycenaean population was en-serfed i.e., partially un-free. In Homer’s world status and position sem to be relatively simple men are free, slave and noble. Serfs of any kind don’t seem to exist in Homer’s world.11

Also in both the Iliad and Odyssey there is mention of assemblies. In the Iliad the soldiers meet and decide issues and the various Kings and warriors like Achilles vie for the approval of the assembly. In fact King Agamemnon seems to singularly lack any coercive means to enforce his will. He relies on persuasion to get his way. And the King is dependent on his pursasive ability in order to win support from the common warrior. No tribute system collected, stored and administered by a coercive bureaucracy enables him to collect tribute or enforce his will. Although the Mycenaean Wanax had such a coercive bureaucracy at his command.12

Thus in the poems:

Hence we should appreciate the fact that the epics mention so many meetings of assembly and council. This reflects a basic reality: an assembly is called, often combined with a council meeting, and public debate is arranged in a polis, army, or band of warriors whenever an important issue requires discussion and decision.

Normally, the leader makes conscious efforts to convince the assembly (hence the great importance attributed, among the leader’s qualities, to persuasive speaking) and, although there is no formal vote, respects the peoples opinion.

The assembly has an important function in witnessing and legitimizing communal actions and decisions, from the distribution of booty to ‘foreign policy’ to the resolution of conflicts.13

In fact this is a world were mere raids for cattle are considered worthy of heroic remembrance by Kings. For example by King Nestor of Pylos. In other words this is a world of small scale warfare and petty Kings and of many raids, small scale piracy etc. Once again it is not the world of the tablets.14

In the case of the Odyssey. Odysseus’ son Telemachus attempts to drive the suitors who are pillaging Odysseus’ wealth while ostensibly wooing Penelope from the palace, by appealing to the Demos or people at an assembly. They refuse to help feeling the matter is none of their concern. The Mycenaean Wanax did not need such an institution and his powers and authority were apparently uncontested legally at least. Such assemblies do not fit into the world of the Mycenaean tablets but they fit into the world of the Greek dark ages; in the period after the collapse of Mycenaean civilization.15

Perhaps the best indication of the difference between the two worlds is the central place given in the poems to gift giving. Unlike the world of the tablets were tribute / taxes are the major sources of wealth, a situation almost entirely absent from the poems along with written record keeping, gift giving is absolutely integral to the economy of Homer’s world.16

Gift giving is not just important for economic reasons but because:

Gift-giving too was part of the network of competitive, honorific activity. And in both directions: it was as honourable to give as to receive. One measure of a man’s true worth was how much he could give away in treasure. Heroes boasted of the gifts they had received and of those they had given as signs of their prowess.17

Just as the Feudal and Bureaucratic nature of the Mycenaean system is absent from poems so is the gift-giving system absent from the tablets.

In fact the need to win over by threats, by bribery and by persuasion etc., means that the Kings in Homer’s world signally lacked the coercive institutions at the command of the Mycenaean Wanax. Agamemnon simply could not order people about he must persuade and this includes the men in his own army who are from his own kingdom. This represents a Heroic age in which each warrior views himself as acting in his own interests and subject to no one’s orders except by a consent that can be withdrawn. Such a situation recalls other Heroic periods like the Viking Age and the ethos of Viking warriors not the palace culture of Mycenaean Greece.18.

Unlike the Mycenaean kings who had at their command a network of institutions to collect revenue in the form of taxes and tribute; kings in Homer’s poems rely on gift giving and much more importantly on the production of their privately held property. The Mycenaean tablets refer to a whole property regime that is entirely absent from Homer’s poems. In the tablets there is a form of state property, mainly of land, the use of which will be granted to individuals in return for services and or taxes / tribute. There are also state owned slaves and serfs and even property owned by the gods. There is also a system by which funds are paid for sacrifices and other services due to the gods.19. In Homer’s poems the situation is quite different.

Property is almost entirely privately owned. Homer’s kings rely on the production of their privately owned estates, state property seems altogether absent. The Mycenaean system of land use seems to be absent. Taxes seem to not exist and neither does regularized tribute of any kind. Religion also seems to be privatized also. Temples seem to be largely absent and no system of state support of religious activity seems to exist.20.

We get a conformation of the lack of any real institutional basis, unlike the Mycenaean kings as revealed in the tablets, for a Homeric kings power from what happened to Odysseus after he returns to Ithaca. There Odysseus is forced to rely almost entirely on personal support for himself in his efforts to reclaim his kingdom. No institutional system either helps or hinders him he must rely on his personal authority and on individuals willing to give him their support.21

Over thirty years ago the British writer / historian Michael Wood starred in the BBC documentary series In Search of the Trojan War. What the show should have been entitled was In Search of Michael Wood’s Critical Faculties, which were conspicuous by their absence in this show. The show was characterized by a gee whiz attitude and tons of romantic glop all centering around the trope that Homer was in his poem’s describing the Mycenaean period. Occasionally, very occasionally, Michael Wood would admit that Homer’s Achaeans were not Mycenaeans, but those moments would pass and the romantic treacle would flow in torrents. From a man who is so critical of things like the legend of Arthur to so fully surrender to a romantic myth is awe inspiring.22

Despite all of Michael Wood’s then and continuing efforts the fact, and it seems indeed to be a fact, is that the world described by Homer is not the world of the Mycenaean tablets. Socially at least the world of Homer is of the Greek dark ages.

Mycenaean Fresco

1. Finkelburg, Margalit, Greeks and Pre-Greeks, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 1-3.

2. Finley, M.I., Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, Penguin Books, London, 1981, pp. 213-232.

3. Finley, M.I., The World of Odysseus, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1978, pp. 144-146.

4. Simpson, R. Hope, & Lazenby, J. F., The Catalogue of Ships in Homer’s Iliad, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1970, p. 9.

5. Finley, M. I., Early Greece, W. W. Norton and Co. Inc., New York, 1970, pp. 58-68, Osborne, Robin, Greece in the Making, 1200 – 479 B.C.E., Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2009, pp. 35-51, Deger-Jalkotzy, Sigrid, Decline, Destruction, Aftermath, in The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age, Ed. Shelmerdine, Cynthia W., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008, pp. 387-415.

6. Wood, Michael, In Search of the Trojan War, Revised Edition, BBC Books, London, 2007. The TV Show can be found at Here. Both the book and TV series show in abundance Michael Wood’s surrender of his critical faculties to romantic tripe.

7. Footnote 2.

8. Finley, 1981, p. 219.

9. IBID, pp. 217-222.

10. Finley, 1978, pp. 51-73, Shelmerdine, Cynthia W., Economy and Administration, in Shelmerdine, pp. 289-309.

11. IBID, Finley, pp. 74-107, Shelmerdine, pp. 289-309, Raaflaub, Kurt A., Homeric Society, in A New Companion to Homer, Ed. Morris, Ian & Powell, Barry, Brill, New York, 1997, pp. 630-633.

12. Raaflaub, pp. 641-645, Finley, 1978, pp. 92-93, 116-120, Shelmerdine, pp. 289-309.

13. Raaflaub, pp. 625-648, at 642-643.

14. Finley, 1978, pp. 108-141, Osborne, pp. 144-146.

15. Finley, 1978, pp. 92-93, Finley, 1981, pp. 199-232, Raaflaub, pp. 633-645, Osborne, pp. 141-144.

16. Finley, 1981, pp. 199-212, Finley, 1978, pp. 61-69, Donlan, Walter, The Homeric Economy, in Morris et al, pp. 650-667, at pp. 661-665, Osborne, pp. 146-149, Raaflaub, 637-638.

17. Finley, 1978, pp. 120-121.

18. Finley, 1978, 142-158, Osborne, pp. 146-149, Raaflaub, 634-636.

19. Finley, 1981, pp. 199-232, Shelmerdine, pp. 289-309.

20. Finley, 1978, pp. 51-107, Finley, 1981, pp. 233-248, Donlan, pp. 649-667.

21. Finley, 1978, pp. 84-88.

22. See Footnote 6. For Michael Wood’s critical treatment of the legend of King Arthur see Wood, Michael, In Search of England, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999, pp. 23-42.

Pierre Cloutier

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