Homer and history (part 2)

In the previous blog post, I discussed the historicity of the epic world described by Homer and have tried to provide you with information regarding the scholarly debate on the topic. Homer provides an unending source of discussion and debate. Our main focus is on whether or not the Homeric epics can be used as a source of historical enquiry. Some scholars, as we have seen, claim that the epics are too much of a mixture to be valuable in any other way than as a product of literature. Others are less pessimistic and believe that, yes, the Homeric epics can be used as a source of historical enquiry.

If one answers in the affirmative, as I do, the question becomes: for which historical period can we use the Homeric epics as a source? We have already seen that the idea that the epics wholly reflect the situation in the Bronze Age has been heavily criticized since at least the 1950s and is no longer seriously maintained by most academics. The few that do are exceptions. They include the late Ione Mylonas Shear, who wrote Tales of Heroes: The Origins of the Homeric Texts (2000), in which the author emphasized the “Mycenaean” elements of the Homeric epics (read the review by Jonathan Burgess here). Another author is Joachim Latacz, who wrote Troy and Homer: Towards a Solution of an Old Mystery (a 2004-translation of the German book of 2001). Latacz is well-known for having his subject run away with him and reviews of the book have generally not been kind; here’s one by Joshua T. Katz.

If you have read Henchmen of Ares, you know that I go into quite some detail on the historicity of the Homeric epics in the prologue. Put very briefly, it is clear that some elements of the epic poems date back to the Mycenaean Bronze Age. The political geography, with a powerful king at Mycenae, and a conflict in north-western Asia Minor, seem to fit with what we know about the Late Bronze Age. Furthermore, many of the names in the Iliad and Odyssey, such as Achilles, also belong to the Late Bronze Age. We don’t encounter people named “Achilles” in the historical period until after the Homeric epics have been in circulation for quite some time.

But as far as institutions are concerned, the Iliad and Odyssey owe next to nothing to the Bronze Age. This was already pointed out, as we have seen, by Moses Finley in his The World of Odysseus(originally published in 1954; second edition, 1978). During the Mycenaean era, Greece consisted of a number of small kingdoms that had a large bureaucracy. We find no trace of this bureaucracy in the Homeric epic. Writing is only mentioned once in a way that makes it appear extraordinary, in the story of Bellerophon told in book 6 of the Iliad. There is no evidence for the economic specialization that we know now was an important aspect of the Mycenaean palaces. There are no countless slaves working away at producing oil or fabrics in Odysseus’ palace.

The mode of fighting in the Homeric epics is also wholly different from what one might expect from a state-society like the Mycenaean kingdoms. The Homeric heroes are leaders of smallish warbands; raiding and piracy were common activities for them, as demonstrated by the lying stories of Odysseus. Hans van Wees has examined the nature of warfare in the Homeric epics and found them to be very similar to the style of fighting employed by tribesmen on Papua New Guinea; see, for example, his Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (2004), pp. 153–156 and 160–162, as well as plates XIV–XVII. This was the type of warfare that Homer was familiar with; for the Iliad, he simply made everything larger and the armies more numerous, while leaving the rest more or less the same.

Most of the architectural features – such as distinct temples for the gods and the structure of the kingly palaces – only have their equals in the archaeological records of the eighth and seventh centuries BC. Jan Paul Crielaard wrote an important paper, “Homer, history and archaeology: some remarks on the date of the Homeric world’, in his edited volume, Homeric Questions: Essays in Philology, Ancient History and Archaeology, including the Papers of a Conference Organized by the Netherlands Institute at Athens, 1993 (1995), pp. 201–288. In this article, he shows definitely how many of the elements described by Homer can only belong to Homer’s own age, i.e. the late eighth or early seventh century BC, based mostly on a survey of the relevant archaeological evidence.

This conclusion shouldn’t surprise us. When Homer composed his poems, he was working in an oral tradition, basing himself on a story that may very well have been passed down through the centuries, with roots extending back to the Mycenaean era. But he had no real idea what Mycenaean society was like. He may have seen ruins of the lost Age of Heroes, but there was no way for him to reconstruct what life was like back then. Like all writers and artists of Antiquity, he would have placed his story within the context of his own world, a world familiar – and therefore relevant – to himself and his audience.

The latter point cannot be overstated. The ethos espoused in the Homeric epics was the same ethos that (high-ranking) Greeks and – later – Romans adhered to. This Homeric legacy is an important aspect of J.E. Lendon’s book Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (2005), and is something that I also used to tie Henchmen of Ares together. For the Homeric epics to have survived through the ages and to have been held in such high regard, they must have been considered relevant to contemporary audiences. For this reason, if for nothing else, they must have largely been the products of Homer’s own time.

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