Homer and the Greek Renaissance, 900-600BC
Rage Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
What god drove them to fight with such fury?
And all ranks of Achaeans cried out their assent:
Throughout the past 2500 years of western history there has been a tendency on the part of one age after another to go back in time to find something of itself in the past. The quest for collective identity has often taken scholars, artists, intellectuals, philosophers, scientists and others back to that historical point in time in which it all began. For us moderns of the past 500 years, that tendency is strong and it is no accident that we have often found our identity in the world of Classical Greece. There is something about the word "classical" that is indeed appealing. We speak about classical music, a classic film or even classic Coke. By calling something classic we mean that it stands the test of time, or that it is number one, or that in all times and all places it is somehow good.
The ancient Greeks seemed to have placed western society as well as the western intellectual tradition on a footing or groundwork that remains to this day. We take this foundation for granted, for the simple reason that the Greeks of the classical age seemed to have discovered so many things which today matter a great deal. So, although our voyage into the ancient past has begun with the Ancient Near East we now find ourselves on the Attic peninsula, in the heart of the ancient Mediterranean world.
Greek history itself can be broken down into many distinct eras historians break down the past for the simple reason that these eras provide focal points for study and dialogue. In general Greek history can be broken down in the following way:
In this lecture I shall devote my attention to a rather broad expanse of historical time, beginning with Archaic Greece and ending with the creation of Athenian direct democracy during the Greek Renaissance.
Before we begin, we have to ask ourselves a few fundamental questions. If we are about to discuss the Greek Renaissance, then we must first ask ourselves what is meant by the expression "Renaissance." As we all know, the word "renaissance" simply means rebirth a new birth, something perhaps entirely new, a watershed, a turning point, a point at which things changed. For the historian looking at the western intellectual tradition it means primarily a revival of the arts and letters and is usually associated with that period of European history between 1300 and 1500 when scholars and artists in northern Italian city states, Holland, France and England witnessed the rebirth of a golden age. The golden age was, of course, classical Greece. But the term "renaissance," which Renaissance humanists created to describe their own period of light, is a value-charged expression. What this means is that calling something a renaissance implies a value judgment. On the one hand it implies that something before the Renaissance must have died. And Renaissance scholars gave that something a name they called it the media aetis a middle age. Middle of what? Well obviously, middle between the Renaissance and the classical world. The Middle Ages have always gotten a bad rap why do you think they are usually referred to as the Dark Ages? Simple. Renaissance artists were so conceited that they called their own age "like a golden age" anything that came immediately before it must have been somehow bad or dark.
Of course, there has been more than one Renaissance in the past. For instance, we have the Greek Renaissance. And then there's the Carolingian Renaissance of the 8th and 9th centuries and the 12th century Renaissance.
The first important society in the Greek world developed on the large island of Crete, just south of the Aegean Sea. The people of Crete were not Greek but probably came from western Asia Minor well before 3000 B.C. In 1900, the English archeologist, Arthur Evans (1851-1941), excavated Knossos, the greatest city of ancient Crete. There he discovered the remains of a magnificent palace which he named the Palace of Minos, the mythical king of Crete (and so, Cretan civilization is also known as Minoan). The palace bureaucrats of Crete wrote in a script called Linear A and although their language has not been fully deciphered, it is assumed that they may have been a member of the Indo-European family of languages, which includes Greek and Latin.
With an estimated population of 250,000 people (40,000 in Knossos alone), the Minoans traded with the people of the Fertile Crescent. Their palaces became the centers of economic activity and political power. The palaces themselves were constructed with rooms of varying sizes and functions and it seemed as if there were no apparent design (the Greeks later called them labyrinths). Although the Minoans were remarkable for their trade networks, architecture and the arts, their civilization eventually declined. Although historians have not agreed on an exact cause, it has been suggested that a large earthquake on the island of Thera may have created a tidal wave that engulfed the island of Crete. Whatever the cause of their decline, Minoan society was transformed by invaders from the Greek mainland.
How the Greeks settled on the Greek mainland is significant for their future development (see map). Greece is a mountainous country and full of valleys. Greece is also nearly surrounded by water. Hopefully the geographical differences between Greek civilization and that of Sumer or Egypt are apparent to you. Because of their geography, the Greeks were encouraged to settle the land in independent political communities. These communities would soon come to be known as city-states. Each city state or polis had its own political organization and thus was truly independent. The largest and most powerful of all the city-states in the period 1600-1100 was that of Mycenae and this period of time has come to be called the Mycenaean Age.
By the 16th century, MYCENAE was an extremely wealthy, prosperous and powerful state. Archeological discoveries of the area have uncovered swords, weapons and the remains of well-fortified city walls showing that this city-state was indeed a community of warriors. Each city-state in the Mycenaean period was independent and under the rule of its own king. The only time the city-states may have united was during the war with Troy in Asia Minor.
By 1300, the Greek mainland was under attack by ships from Asia Minor and by 1100, Mycenae was completely destroyed. This invasion is known as the Dorian Invasion the Doric Greeks were supposedly tribes who had left Greece at an earlier time and then returned by 1200 B.C. Following the Dorian Invasion Greece fell into its own period of the Dark Ages. For the most part, Greek culture began to go into decline pottery became less elegant, burials were less ornate and the building of large structures and public buildings came to an abrupt halt. However, the invasion and subsequent Dark Age did not mark the end of Greek civilization. Some technological skills survived and the Greek language was preserved by those people who settled in areas unaffected by the Dorian Invasion.
After 800 B.C. a new spirit of optimism and adventure began to appear in Greece. This spirit became so intensified that historians have called the period from 800-600 the Greek Renaissance. For instance, in literature, this is the age of the great epic poets, poets who wrote of the deeds of mortal men as well as of immortal gods. It is also the period of the first Olympic games, held in 776 B.C.
The best though sometimes unreliable source of Greek civilization in this period is HOMER, and in particular, two epic poems usually attributed to him. We don't really know much about Homer. His place of birth is doubtful although Smyrna, Rhodes, Colophon, Salamis, Chios, Argos and Athens have all contended for the honor of having been his birthplace. His date of birth has been assumed to be as far back as 1200 B.C. but, based on the style of his two epic poems, 850-800 B.C. seems more likely. It has been said that Homer was blind, but even that is a matter of conjecture. And lastly, we are not even sure that Homer wrote those two classics of the western literary canon, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The confusion arises from the fact that the world of Homer was a world of oral tradition and oral history. There is evidence to show that Homer's epics were really ballads and were chanted and altered for centuries until they were finally digested into the form we know today 540 B.C. by Pisistratus, a man we shall meet again but in a very different context. We shall assume, as generations before us have done, that Homer was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
In twenty-four books of dactylic hexameter verse, the Iliad narrates the events of the last year of the Trojan War, and focuses on the withdrawal of Achilles from the contest and the disastrous effects of this act on the Greek campaign. The Trojan War was fought between Greek invaders and the defenders of Troy, probably near the beginning of the 12th century B.C. Archeological evidence gathered in our own century shows that the war did indeed take place and was based on the struggle for control of important trade routes across the Hellespont, which were dominated by the city of Troy (see map). About this war there grew a body of myth that was recounted by Homer in the Iliad, the Odyssey and a number of now-lost epics.
According to the more familiar versions of this complex myth, the cause of the war was the episode of the golden apple which resulted in the abduction by the Trojan prince Paris of Helen, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Earlier, most of the rulers of Greece had been suitors for the Hand of Helen and her father, Tyndareus, had made them swear to support the one chosen. So, they joined Menelaus and prepared to move against Troy under the leadership of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae.
After forcing Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to insure fair weather, they set sail for Troy. In the tenth and final year of the war with Troy, Achilles withdrew from the fight in an argument with Agamemnon over possession of a female captive, however, grieved by the death of his friend Patroclus, he rejoined the battle and killed the Trojan leader, Hector.
That, in brief, is the action of the Iliad. The characters we encounter are warriors through and through not just warriors, but aristocratic warriors who considered greatness in battle to be the highest virtue a man could attain. This HEROIC OUTLOOK was composed of courage, bravery and glory in battle and was necessary for a strong city-state in Greek civilization. But these were not self-interested goals alone. Instead, the warrior fought bravely in service to his city-state. We are not talking about patriotism here. Virtue was what made man a good citizen, and good citizens made a great city-state. We shall encounter virtue a great deal in conjunction with the Athenian city-state.
The world of Homer is a world of war, conflict, life and death. In fact, when I think of all the descriptions of war that I have managed to read over the years, none have drawn so clear a picture or image as has Homer. From Book 4 of the Iliad we experience the following:
In the Homeric world of war, men do not have rights, but only duties. By serving the city-state with their virtuous behavior, they are also serving themselves. Indeed, there was nothing higher or more sublime in the Homeric world than virtue. And Homer's epic poems served as the Bible of ancient Greece right down to the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. In fact, an education in the classical world meant the rote memorization of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
Homer's world is a closed and finite world. This is completely unlike our own world which is a mechanical world, governed by mathematics and fixed physical laws. Homer's world is a living world the earth, man, animals and plants are all endowed with personality, emotion and wills of their own. Even the gods and goddesses were endowed with these qualities. The gods themselves could appear at any time and at any place. Although the gods had no permanent relations with the world of men and women, they were interested in their welfare. They also intervened in the affairs of life, as Homer's Iliad makes abundantly clear. In general, the gods were the guides and councilors of mortal men and women. Still, the gods and goddesses often deceived men by offering them delusion rather than reality.
For Homer, the world was not governed by caprice, whim or chance what governed the world was "Moira" (fate, fortune, destiny). Fate was a system of regulations that control the unfolding of all life, all men and women, all things of the natural world, and all gods and goddesses. Fate was not only a system of regulations but a fundamental law that maintained the world. It is Moira that gives men and women their place and function in Greek society. That is, it is Moira that determines who shall be slave or master, peasant or warrior, citizen or non-citizen, Greek or barbarian. It is Moira that fixed the rhythm of human life from childhood through youth to old age and finally death, it was Fate that regulated the personal growth of the individual. Even the gods had their destinies determined by Moira. From the Iliad, the goddess Athena expounds on this principle of Fate to Telemachus when she says the gods may help mortals but "Death is the law for all: the gods themselves/Cannot avert it from the man they cherish when baneful Moira has pronounced his doom."
Given all this, it should be obvious that Greek religion was polytheistic. Homer endowed his gods with a personality and the gods differed from men only (1) in their physical perfection and (2) in their immortality. In other words, gods and goddesses, like men and women, could be good, bad honest, devious, jealous, vengeful, calm, sober, quick-witted or dim. The gods assisted their favorite mortals and punished those who defied their will. Most gods were common to all Greeks but each city-state also had their own patron deity. Gods and goddesses were worshipped in public. But there were also household gods the gods of the hearth specific to each family or clan. The general acceptance of these gods is a sign of a specific culture that arose during the Greek Renaissance, a culture we can identify as "Panhellenic."
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copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis