Homer and history (part 1)

My recent blog posts on the Sea-Peoples and Mycenaean warfare have created a bit of a stir among certain readers who believe fervently that I am wrong, based largely on the fact that they hold the Homeric epics to be accurate documents for the situation in the Aegean during the Late Bronze Age. When I say, based strictly on available empirical evidence – Linear B tablets, iconographic data, archaeological remains (see also here) – that there is little or no proof for the continued use of shields in the thirteenth century BC, or that warriors back then used little or no armour, they don’t believe me. After all, the heroes of the Iliad are “strong-greaved Achaeans”, clad in bronze cuirasses and metal helmets.

Heinrich Schliemann supposedly set out on his explorations and excavations of Troy and Mycenae with the express purpose of proving that the world of Homer’s heroes really existed. When he made his amazing discoveries, it was shown that there had been an entire civilization that had existed before the epoch of the Greek city-states. Arthur Evans later discovered the remains of an even older civilization – which he dubbed “Minoan” – on the island of Crete, fully blasting open the distant civilized past of the Aegean and paving the way for enthusiasts to believe that Homer’s Age of Heroes had indeed once existed.

But as the Mycenaean and Minoan cultures were studied in more and more detail, it became clear that while superficially similar, there were also many differences. For a long time, scholars remained hopefully that the decipherment of the Mycenaeans’ system of writing – Linear B – would yield evidence of a kind of proto-Iliad. When Michael Ventris finally deciphered this syllabic script, it revealed only bureaucratic information, such as inventories. There was no proto-Iliad anywhere to be found, even though they did prove that the Mycenaeans spoke an early form of Greek and already worshipped most of the gods of the Olympic pantheon in the thirteenth century BC.

Most scholars now realized that the Homeric epics were not accurate reflections of the Bronze Age, creating even more debate for an already hotly-disputed topic. Moses Finley, in the 1950s, published his World of Odysseus, in which he emphasized that one had to look at Homeric institutions in order to date the epics themselves. Back then, knowledge of the Dark Ages (the Early Iron Age) was imperfect, and Finley argued that Homer’s world probably reflected the conditions of the ninth century BC. Archaeological research has since then revealed much more about the Dark Ages and it is now obvious that Homer probably lived around 700 BC – perhaps slightly earlier or, more probably, slightly later. Many other scholars – historians, classicists, and archaeologists alike – weighed in on the debate to try to answer one of the most pivotal of Homeric Questions: which period, if any, is reflected in the Homeric epics?

In 1986, Ian Morris published a seminal article on the topic in Classical Antiquity 5, with the title “The use and abuse of Homer”. He summarizes the main problem well in the opening paragraph (pp. 81–82):

In the last thirty years, historians have generally concentrated attention on the institutions found in the poems and on the question of to what stage of early Greek history (if any) they belong. The problems arise from the general agreement on three points – first, that the poems were oral composition; second, that they reached substantially the form in which we have them in the course of the eighth century BC; and third, that they purport to describe events taking place in the thirteenth century BC. These assumptions, all of which are accepted here, have given rise to a very wide range of opinions.

If you don’t want to delve too deeply into the topic of Homer and history, you may find Morris’s article more than sufficient. He provides a detailed overview of the discussions on the topic since the 1950s and his conclusions have generally found wide acceptance among academics. His conclusions on pp. 127–128 are worth summarizing:

[The point of this article is] to establish what value the Homeric poems have for the study of early Greek society. To answer this question, three fundamental aspects of the poems must be understood: what they are, and why, and for whom they were written.

The poems themselves are considered “examples of oral poetry frozen in writing. As such, Homer is a source for the social history of the eighth century BC.” With regards to the second and third questions, Morris states that “it has been suggested that these were aristocratic and polemical texts […]. As source material, the poems can be used only with the greatest care. They describe a particular elite viewpoint.” A key remark is the following: “The eighth-century aristoi may or may not have believed that their own society actually functioned along lines similar to Homers; but they wanted it to.”

Morris makes an important observation on p. 127:

Using the poems as a direct source for social history will be a matter of sieving and sifting for elements we feel are the implicit assumptions of the poet and audience. As with any source, when in doubt we can ask the questions cui bono; if a feature has no obvious ideological value by its mere appearance in the text and no obvious value as an archaizing or distancing effect, we might assume that it is something that was simply taken for granted in the eighth century. […] For the poems to succeed as ideological tools at all, much in them must have been acceptable to everyone.

Ian Morris thus offers a critical view on the use of Homer as a source of historical enquiry. Further research has shed more light on the topic. In particular, Hans van Wees has done much to reveal the ideological importance of Homer in his Status Warriors: Violence and Society in Homer and History(1992). His later work has seen further refinements; he enthusiastically embraces the Homeric epics as sources for Homer’s own time. At this point, more than twenty years after the publication of Status Warriors, I think it is fair to say that Hans van Wees’s reconstruction has become the most widely accepted as far as Homeric ideology and warfare is concerned, even if many scholars still retain some healthy scepticism or retain some of Morris’s reserve.

Ian Morris suggests that Homer offers a good source of information for the archaeologist, especially about the formation of the archaeological record and the importance of ideology. The Homeric epics are part of the social and political changes of the second half of the eighth century BC. In his words (p. 128),

it was only in the later eighth century that the embattled aristocracy felt the need to put these links with ‘their’ heroic past to such polemical use. Homer fits into this pattern as an example of ideology playing an active role and reflecting back and influencing changes in the structure of society. […] Homer is a priceless source for our understanding of the eighth century BC, but the relationship of what he describes to the living societies of the eighth century is a subtle and complex one, and one that requires a sympathetic and careful approach from the historian.

Homer offers a valuable source of information not for the Bronze Age, but for his own time. The reception and use – and abuse! – of Homer by later Greeks and Romans provide us with valuable insight into the thoughts of those ancient peoples. In part two of this blog post, I will go into a bit more detail regarding my own ideas and give some further references.

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