Homer's Eutopolis: epic journeys and the search for an ideal society *.
In looking at the Homeric poems from a utopian vantage point, I am making a series of assumptions that will necessarily influence my argument significantly. First, it is my opinion that there was a Trojan War--or wars--dating to the thirteenth century BCE and that there is accordingly a historical core to the poems. (4) Further, I believe that the Trojan saga was handed down orally from generation to generation, being creatively "re-fashioned" with every re-telling, and that Homer represents the culmination of the oral transmission. (5) In my view, Homer would have been a poet trained in the oral tradition who, either himself or via a scribe, recorded the poems in writing. For the Iliad, the date of composition generally agreed upon is 750 BCE, while the Odyssey, it is thought, was composed somewhat later.
The dating of the poems is a critical point because the eighth century was a time of tremendous change and evolution in the Greek world, both socially and politically. Greece had only just emerged from the so-called Dark Age, roughly 1150-800 BCE, a period in which the art of writing had been lost, in which monumental architecture (or anything that could be considered "art") was no longer produced, and in which, generally speaking, people in the Greek world seem to have been reduced to a more or less nomadic, subsistence sort of existence. The end of the Dark Age brought with it a budding social consciousness and a desire to define "what it meant to be Greek" (Hurwit 83). The eighth century saw the re-introduction of the alphabet, now borrowed from the Phoenicians, the organization of pan-Hellenic institutions such as the Olympic Games and the Delphic oracle, active colonization, and, most critically for my purposes, the emergence of the polis (city-state) as a distinct form of social organization. (6) If it is indeed the case that the Homeric poems are likewise products of this very-formative eighth century, it would stand to reason that the social conditions in which the poems took their ultimate form should somehow be reflected in the fabric of the poems themselves.
Current research on the oral tradition and the mechanics of oral poetics has demonstrated that "in preliterate societies, collective memories of the past are preserved beyond a period of roughly three generations only if they are important to the present" (Raaflaub 628). (7) Therefore, if traditional stories are to persist they must somehow, simultaneously, be contemporary. An epic poet would not, however, want his heroic society to appear too modern as this would likewise impede the credibility of the saga; efforts would be made to preserve traditional elements in the story and to give its social background a convincingly antiquated cast (Redfield 35-39). The social background of heroic poetry needed, then, to be "modern enough to be understandable, but archaic enough to be believable" (Raaflaub 628). Following this line of reasoning, the society represented in the Homeric poems should be regarded as rather closer to that of Homer's own time than to that of the Trojan War. The traditional view of the content of the Homeric epics is that their exclusive focus is an individualistic, Bronze Age warrior aristocracy with its aspirations and ideals. (8) The People, it was thought, are all but invisible and their voices seldom heard. However, as the archaeological and linguistic record of early Greece became ever more complete, age-old assumptions about the temporal locus of the Homeric poems came increasingly into question. (9)
There is relatively little archaeological evidence from the Early and Middle Bronze Ages to prepare scholars for the wealth and power of mainland Greece manifested by finds dating to the late seventeenth century BCE; no truly monumental architecture or evidence of notable wealth has been found dating earlier than this period. It is clear, however, that by the Late Bronze Age the mainland Greeks were a force to contend with. Most notably, this is the period to which the two grave circles at Mycenae, the city ruled by Homer's King Agamemnon, belong. (10) About a century and a half after the completion of the later of the grave circles, which dates roughly to 1450 BCE, the wealthy resident warrior aristocracy directed their energies towards erecting a massive, defensive circuit wall around the Mycenean acropolis and building a palace, together with various subsidiary buildings, therein. Other fortified palace complexes were also built on the mainland in the Late Bronze Age; they include Athens, Tiryns, Thebes, and, perhaps most critical for the archaeological record, Pylos, the fabled palace of Nestor, Homer's wisest elder statesman. Destruction of the palace at Pylos by fire around 1200 BCE fortuitously preserved over a thousand clay tablets inscribed in Linear B, a syllabic script adapted to Greek from its original, non-Greek usage by the civilization of Bronze Age Crete. The so-called Pylos tablets were discovered by American archaeologist Carl Blegen in 1939 when he unearthed Nestor's fabled palace; more Linear B tablets were found at Mycenae in 1952 and at Thebes in 1964. The tablets themselves are nothing more exalted than detailed inventory lists or, put differently, "notes" on personnel, production and assessments, "yet their contents provide our clearest picture of the organization and workings of a Mycenean kingdom" (Pomeroy 28). What the tablets reveal are the "day-to-day administrative details of a highly regimented production and distribution system" (Pomeroy 28). The great palace complexes have been described as veritable "factories where all sorts of craftsmen--potters, bronzesmiths, goldsmiths, carpenters, bowmakers, carders, spinners, weavers, and perfume makers--worked" under the close supervision and regulation of a wide-spreading network of bureaucrats (Fine 24). "At the head of these organized 'states' stood the king, wanax, whose powers, civil, military, and religious," were arguably absolute as well as hereditary (Fine 25). Next in rank, it seems, was a man called lawagetas, "leader of the people," whose office is usually interpreted as military, as commander of the army. Noteworthy among the lesser officials was the pasireu. The title of pasireu, the linguistic predecessor of the Homeric basileus, was given to numerous persons who appear to have been governors of sorts "in charge of affairs at the town or village level" (Pomeroy 29). As the material record further reveals, the Mycenean elite was extremely wealthy and warlike. They traveled far and wide establishing trading posts, engaging in piracy, and serving as mercenaries throughout the Mediterranean. There was most definitely a Mycenean presence at the so-called Palace of Minos at Knossos on Crete; indeed the consensus has long been that Knossos fell to and was subsequently governed by the Myceneans. There is unequivocal evidence too that there was a Mycenean presence in the Troad, and the kingdom of Ahhiyawa, very likely Homer's Achaea (mainland Greece), appears prominently as an aggressive power in contemporary diplomatic records of the Hittite king. It is certainly possible, if not probable, that at the height of their power Bronze Age Greeks launched an expedition or expeditions against Troy herself. Evidence from various destruction levels does not preclude it, and if the reasons for hostilities were not dynastic, control of the Hellespont would appear to have been a compelling inducement. (11) Homer's world had been found--or had it?
There is undoubtedly a Bronze Age stratum in the Homeric poems. Artifacts like the boar's tusk helmet (Iliad 10. 261-5), tower shield (Iliad 7. 219, 11. 485, and 17. 128), and silver-riveted sword (Iliad 2. 45, etc.) are relics of the Bronze Age and are unlikely to have been in use in the Dark Age or thereafter. The Homeric poems also demonstrate linguistic phenomena that predate and/or are contemporary with the Linear B tablets and that were maintained because they performed a useful compositional, thematic, or welcomingly archaizing function. It is likewise the case that an aristocratic, warrior elite dominates the actions of the poems, but whether or not Homeric society is in fact predominately Bronze Age has increasingly come into question.
This dramatic shift in the perception of society and temporality in the Homeric poems was precipitated by the groundbreaking scholarship of M.I. Finley, most notably in his works The World of Odysseus and Economy and Society in Ancient Greece. Finley argued at length and persuasively that the Iliad and Odyssey present what is primarily a post Bronze Age society. Among the cultural, post Bronze Age "red flags" in the Homeric poems detected by Finley and his numerous successors are the following: the knowledge of iron working and the proliferation of iron weapons; a post-palatial system of landholding; cremation as a primary form of burial; the transportation-only use of chariots; the importance and recurrence of assemblies of the People; and, most troublingly for traditionalists, the relative impotence, as well as the sheer numbers, of "kings," wanakes and basileis. Any reader of the Iliad will observe that Agamemnon, while commander-in-chief of the expedition to Troy, is not actually able to assert himself over Achilles or the rest of Greek contingent. At the same time, Odysseus's triumph in Ithaka is achieved in the main by a display of overwhelming force and cunning rather than his political position (Osborne 150). Indeed it has been noted that political influence in the Homeric poems is reliant upon an individual's "social standing", "rhetorical abilities", and "personal charisma" rather than, necessarily, holding the office of ruler (Osborne 150). Further, the succession of kingship is far from clear. Thus, for instance, Odysseus has succeeded his father Laertes in the kingship, but in Odysseus's absence, Laertes, having chosen what is tantamount to exile, has no say whatsoever politically; political activity has, in fact, ceased altogether. Meanwhile Telemachos, Odysseus's son, has not automatically assumed his father's position, nor is he assured of this position if his father should ultimately fail to return. (12) What emerges from the Homeric poems is, accordingly, not the picture of a typical, dynastic, absolute kingship. Power is not firmly in the hands of a single ruler.
The general fuzziness of details regarding the true nature of Homeric kingship, as well as the other cultural red-flags mentioned above, corresponds much more credibly to the changeable conditions of the Dark Age and the opening of the subsequent Archaic Period. The Dark Age brought with it the disappearance of "centralized political and economic organization" along with that of the palaces; "the powerful kings and their small armies of officials, scribes, and workers that supported the elaborate redistribution system were gone forever" (Pomeroy 43). The villages and territories formerly under the control of the Mycenean palaces did, however, continue to be "governed"--"protected" might be a better word--by basileis. These were not kings but rather chieftains, most likely the heads of the most powerful families in a given region. Their precarious position depended on the consent and support of other local chiefs who served as a council of "elders." It is likely too that as populations grew and administrative duties became more complex, the chieftains deferred increasingly to their councils. The ever more powerful council eclipsed the power of the chieftains, who were themselves replaced by elected magistrates. In the course of the eighth century BCE, the chieftainship would disappear almost everywhere in Greece, and where the office of basileus was retained, it was transformed into a magistracy almost exclusively religious in nature.
The transformation and hegemonic de-evolution of the chieftainship went hand-in-hand with the birth and development of the Greek polis, or city-state. Naturally, one would be hard pressed to find an equivalent of the fully evolved polis of classical times in Homer's works as the polis itself existed only in embryonic form in the middle of the eighth century. Still, the existence of poleis in Homer cannot be overlooked. In the words of the Greeks themselves, "the polis consisted not of houses, stone walls, timber, roads, and dockyards, but of men. The city state ... was an idea, the equivalent of a particularly intense communal or corporate spirit" (Hurwit 73). (13) From a historical, anthropological and archaeological perspective, one would define a polis as "a geographical area comprising its city and its adjacent territory, which together make up a single, self-governing political unit" (Pomeroy 84). Put somewhat differently, the polis is "a community of persons, of place or territory, of cults, customs and laws, and capable of (full or partial) self-administration (which presupposes institutions and meeting places)" (Raaflaub 630). The Iliadic Troy and both the Odyssean Ithaka and Scheria readily fit these various definitions, ancient and modern alike. Homer does not, however, use the word "polis" in these instances alone; in fact, "polis" (and its synonym, astu) pervades the fabric of the Homeric poems. It has been observed that "for Homer and his audience the polis is regarded as the typical form of human community" (Luce, "The polis," 3); Homer has no word for "village." Where the Homeric polis differs most from the classical is in the "informal and somewhat rudimentary nature of its political organization and legal system" as well as its relative lack of interest in or awareness of the notion of citizenship (Luce, "The polis," 15).
The tremendous significance in Homer of the polis, this new and evolving form of social organization, is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the fact that the "dramatic setting" of the Iliad is a town besieged, which "makes the question of a city's fight for survival fundamental" (Scully 2). In the Odyssey too the critical situation that textually and conceptually frames the hero's wanderings is the grievous, looming threat to the very existence of a civic entity, the polity once governed by Odysseus on the island of Ithaka. In the twenty years that he has been absent, the city of Odysseus has progressively ceased to function in anything but the most rudimentary way. No assemblies have been held, and no individual or group of individuals has stepped in to govern, even temporarily, in Odysseus's absence. As a result, lawlessness, as exemplified by the outrageous behavior of Penelope's suitors and those who willingly attend them, is rampant. Further, it is due to the suitors and their unchecked behavior that the resources of the land are being rapidly depleted. In short, the situation on Ithaka is reminiscent of the post-palatial and pre-polis organizational chaos in the Dark Age.
Interestingly, Homer remains tantalizingly vague about the constitution or political organization of Odysseus's city both before and after its reorganization; this is something about which the poem's audience is left to speculate. (14) The Odyssey focuses instead on the process by which the hero is equipped to undertake the societal reorganization that is so desperately required. Homer, not unlike like Thomas More in his Utopia, employed the literature of travel as a vehicle by which his "political" imagination, "assisted by fiction, [could] freely roam" (Schaer 4). Scholars have argued that the wanderings of Odysseus represent the redefinition of what it means to be a hero in the post-palatial world and/or that they symbolize an historical process of enlightenment achieved through de-mythologizing--and therefore more completely understanding and controlling--the workings of the natural world. (15) There is ample textual support for both of these readings, but both of these widely accepted, or at least acknowledged, readings fail to provide a complete answer to a fundamental question that arises at the beginning of the poem. The proem, formal opening, of an epic poem is programmatic; it reveals the themes of greatest import. The Odyssey's proem reads as follows:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Tell me, Muse, of a man of many ways, who far and wide was driven to wander, when he had sacked Troy's hallowed citadel. He saw the cities and came to know the sensibilities of many peoples, and many were the pains his heart suffered at sea, as he struggled for his life and the homecoming of his companions. (Odyssey 1. 1-5) (16)
Homer states in the outset that Odysseus is a man of the greatest intelligence and endurance, and as such, he is the ideal person to travel extensively and gather information of an "ethnographic," socio-political nature. (17) But why precisely, one wonders, does the poet introduce his hero to many cities and many societies? The intelligence Odysseus gathers will certainly be of the utmost importance to him if and when he achieves his own nostos, homecoming. Upon his return, he will find not only his household but also his city in shambles, and equipped with the knowledge of other cities, other societies of people, divinities, or monsters that he has encountered in the course of his protracted travels, be will at long last have what it takes, physically and intellectually alike, to restore everything to order. However, it would be imprudent at best to assume that the restoration would not involve a major reorganization. A leader absent for some twenty years could not honestly expect to step in precisely where he left off. This is the fatal mistake Agamemnon makes in Aeschylus's tragic trilogy the Oresteia; upon his return to Argos after a ten-year absence as the leader of the Greek contingent at Troy, Agamemnon fails to heed the elders' advice that he make inquiries regarding the fidelity to himself of his former citizens. As a result of his failure to gather this information, Agamemnon walks directly into the lethal bath prepared for him by his unfaithful wife Clytaemnestra, who, in his absence, had become acting regent of the city. Homer's Agamemnon, like Aeschylus's, is not remarkable for the power of his mental faculties, but Odysseus is. When Odysseus returns home and subsequently reorganizes his city, his aim will presumably be to do so in the best possible way, to create the best possible society. To this endeavor Ithaka's pre-Trojan War political "state" is not germane; again, it would be imprudent to try to turn back the clock, and it is now utter chaos that is Odysseus's starting point. Homer's purpose would then, at least to some significant extent, be to present his audience with the picture of what constitutes an ideal society via the encounters that will inform and guide the hero's new political settlement. The Odyssey must, in turn, be considered utopian. Further, it would not seem inappropriate to view Odysseus's reorganization as a metaphorical, mythological re-enactment of Greece's historical evolution from the order of Mycenean palace-based society through the chaos of the Dark Age to a polis-based society.
What Odysseus's polis at home in Ithaka should not strive to emulate is fairly plain. The outstanding example of an a-political, dystopian society, or rather "group," is the island of the Cyclopes and its inhabitants:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 110 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 115 The land of the insolent, lawless Cyclopes did we reach. They, trusting in the immortal gods, neither plant crops with their hands, nor do they plow; rather, everything grows without sowing and cultivation, wheat, barley, and grapevines which yield 110 wine full-bodied, nourished by Zeus's rain. For them there are neither deliberating counsels nor precedents of law; rather they inhabit the peaks of lofty mountains in hollow caves, and each makes his own law over his children and wives, and they do not regard one another. 115 (Odyssey 9. 106-115)
Homer is at pains to inform his audience that these monsters do not practice agriculture; they leave almost everything in the hands of the immortals. Their form of habitation likewise demonstrates no ability or desire to create order out of natural forms, to separate themselves from the natural and animal world, for they make their homes in caverns hollowed among the peaks of the high mountains. The Cyclopes also have no institutions and no meetings for counsels. There is no body of law, divinely ordained or otherwise, that governs the Cyclopes' behavior; rather, each one creates laws for his own wife and children. Guest friendship, xenia, which was so much part of the "civilized" Greek "way" that its breach precipitated the Trojan War, is certainly not a concept for the Cyclopes. A host would never eat his guests. Indeed the Cyclopes' entire existence may be described as insular, as they care nothing about each other nor, apparently, are they curious about much apart from what readily presents itself on their island. There is an island of great fertility and heavily populated by goats in what would seem tantalizing proximity to their island, yet they lack the necessary navigation skills to avail themselves of the endless potential thereof. They could never even fathom that this is an island ripe for settlement, which is precisely how Homer describes it (Odyssey 9. 130). To give them some credit, they are apparently quite good at making cheese and keeping track of the sheep on their own island. Nevertheless, it is evident that the Cyclopes lack "all forms of communal or non-tribal organization" (Scully 4). Technology, commerce, and communication, all of which the polis fosters and which are the veritable underpinnings of civilization, are nowhere in evidence among them. Accordingly, the Cyclopes have nothing positive to offer Odysseus in terms of progressive social organization. Adopting their lifestyle would entail a massive step backwards to a time before humankind had emerged from the cave. Thus it was, Aristotle affirms, that people lived in the unenlightened times of old (Politics 1252b).
There are, of course, other groups or individuals encountered by Odysseus who likewise provide a negative or impractical example of social organization. The Lotus Eaters, for instance, are seemingly benign and content enough with their way of life, but their existence is in a sense unreal; it is not a vital, productive life, because it is passed in a drug-induced haze. Theirs "is actually the illusion of happiness, a dull vegetation, as meager as an animal's bare existence, and at best only the absence of the awareness of misfortune" (Horkheimer and Adorno 63). Further, to succumb to the temptation of the lotus would be nothing short of "a regression to the phase of collecting the fruits of the earth and of the sea, a stage more ancient than agriculture, cattle-rearing and even hunting, older, in fact than all production" (Horkheimer and Adorno 63). It can certainly be argued that the Lotus Eaters exemplify a basic sort of utopia, but a society in a continually vegetative state has nothing other than the danger of its strong, purely hedonistic appeal to "offer" Odysseus, whose intentions are clearly progressive rather than regressive. Odysseus wisely resists the temptation of this illusory happiness.
The existence Circe offers the Greeks is no more practical or progressive than that of the Lotus Eaters. Under Circe's spell, Odysseus's men lose their physical humanity and become part of the animal kingdom. This divine intervention "recalls them to an idealized prehistory" and "not only makes them animal, but--like the idyllic interlude of the Lotus Eaters--brings about, however delusive it may be, the illusion of redemption" (Horkheimer and Adorno 70). Again, the Greeks cannot move forward if they seek solutions for their current difficulties in what is equivalent to their past, in this case a quasi-idealized past. Similarly, the lifestyle of the goddess herself is one to which the Greeks could never profitably or realistically hope to aspire. Hers is a life in primordial harmony with the natural world, with both plants and animals; being a goddess, Circe can control her environment with just a bit of magic. In this respect, her existence is not unlike that of Calypso, who, feeling no threat at all from the natural environment, lives in a cave surrounded by forests, traditionally regarded as nature at her most intimidating, as well as by meadows, fountains, and vines burgeoning with grapes, all representative of nature's pleasurable bounty. (18) The security of a human settlement, by contrast, would necessitate a substantial, intrusive curbing of nature via the creation of physical boundaries, and the most critical or basic aspect of the polis is to provide security for its citizens. For issues of security it is not a magical paradise to which Odysseus can look for a model.
Impressive fortifications are certainly part of the vision Homer presents of Scheria, the island paradise of the Phaiakians. Their exceptionally well-ordered city will prove to be the only positive model that Odysseus encounters. It is true that Aeolus and the Laestrygonians have cities; however, the former practices and fosters incest, while the latter are cannibals. Homer doesn't provide much more information about their cities than these unenlightened details. By contrast, Scheria, upon which the poet veritably lavishes detail, is everything these cities are not. On the way to the Phaiakian king's palace, Odysseus beholds the harbors, walls, and meeting place of the city (Odyssey 6. 261-67); this is clearly a well-developed polis. With its harbor and ships, this city, unlike the loose society of Cyclopes, is at least theoretically open to, rather than sequestered from, the larger world. The city's meeting place, agora, by the temple of Poseidon, "provides orderly social, political, and economic communication within, and the city's walls make distinct this order within from the world outside" (Scully 5). In terms of social or political organization, the king, Alkinoos, is no true king in the sense of a monarch holding sway on the basis of heredity. Rather, as Alkinoos himself says, he is one of thirteen men with the same title, basileus, who hold power as leaders of the people (Odyssey 8. 390-1). It is true that he is the most powerful of these and that his position is inherited, but his preeminence is precarious. He is really primus inter pares, and his status is based at least as much, if not more, upon personal accomplishment and reputation as on family. Just how well the wise Alkinoos (whose name means "strength of mind") has ordered his polis is directly reflected by the order within his neatly fenced garden, which includes both a vineyard and extensive orchard (Odyssey 7. 112-31). It would appear that the good "politician" must also be a good gardener.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Odyssey closes, and Odysseus's re-settlement of his polis is completed, in the garden. As an unmistakable sign of his return, Odysseus must visit his father in his garden and must recall, and in a sense relive, their planting of the garden's orchard together (Odyssey 24. 336-44). The establishment and existence of the polis depends on the containment of nature. It is only after reorganizing or reclaiming the garden that Odysseus can hope to make peace with the families of his wife's slain suitors and legitimately resume the position of civic leader. It might be argued at this stage that the hero's slaying of the suitors and the concomitant execution of a number of handmaids are not actions befitting a utopian venture. However, Homer makes it abundantly clear that the suitors and handmaids are eminently deserving of punishment. It can be no coincidence that the poet applies the same epithets to the suitors as he does to the Cyclopes. Both are repeatedly described as utterly insolent, lawless, and brimming with hubris. (19) The suitors may not always appear to be equally heinous, but the undeniable fact remains that all of them readily assisted in the plotting of Telemachos's murder (Odyssey 4. 673). For this the motivation was completely selfish; each wished to possess Penelope and the household of Odysseus. No consideration of decency would stand in their way. The handmaids whom Odysseus condemned to hanging were likewise guilty of grievous wrongdoing. They had abused Penelope and slept with the suitors (Odyssey 22. 417-25). In other words, the handmaids had prostituted themselves for the suitors' amusement, and Homer gives no evidence of their compulsion to do so. It is worthy of note that Homer is careful to point out that the singer and herald, both of whom had also served the suitors, were deemed blameless and spared because they had been forced to submit to the suitors' will (Odyssey 22. 340-60). As for the use of violence itself, even Thomas More's Utopians availed themselves thereof in order to preserve the integrity of their own social order when it was deemed absolutely necessary. Wars are undeniably waged and criminals executed in what is the archetypal literary utopia.
Having survived and successfully navigated the extreme challenges presented by a decade's worth of nomadism and, metaphorically speaking, having first survived the end of the Heroic Age as prefigured by the collapse of Troy, Odysseus ultimately finds himself in a position equivalent to that of the historical, eighth century Greek. As a man faced with organizing a civic and administrative unit after what might be described as a period of "Dark Age" unsettlement and chaos, he has all too much in common with those at the forefront of the societal changes inherent in the fashioning and evolution of the polis. Via Odysseus's many adventures, Homer, together with his audience, has explored the relative deficiencies and excesses of a variety of "settlements." It is clear that the model for Odysseus's ideal settlement is the polis of the Phaiakians. They alone practice agriculture and viticulture. They alone build temples for and worship the gods. Theirs is a walled, well-organized, architecturally differentiated city with a just and progressive system of government. Of course, the Phaiakians are also particularly close to the gods. Deities physically attend their feasts, and it is due to the bounty of the gods that the Phaiakian crops evince a preternatural fecundity with no dependence whatsoever upon seasonality. Further, the existence of the Phaiakians is all but free from difficulty and stress. Theirs is a life and lifestyle to which mortals can aspire, but which they can never actually achieve. All of this explains why Scheria has been viewed by some scholars as the "first surviving Utopia in European literature" (Ferguson 14). Neither Odysseus nor Homer's audience could ever hope to approximate the Phaiakians' closeness to the gods; however, the Scherian civic organization can be emulated, and one expects that this is what the wise Odysseus--and Homer's audience--will do. The fact that Homer does not expound the new Ithakan constitution is a testimonial to his genius as a storyteller and as a political thinker. He relies instead on the formidable power of suggestion. It is thus that he can most fully engage his audience in the act of polis-building.
As a tale set at a polis besieged, the Iliad, like the Odyssey, clearly concerns itself with "the city"; however, where the Odyssey focuses on fashioning an ideal polity, the Iliad is centered on the definition of the ideal citizen. (20) In order to bring this notion into focus, one need merely look at the two most heroic, or larger-than-life, human actors in the Trojan drama. These are Achilles, the foremost warrior among the Greeks, and Hektor, the Trojan prince and staunch defender of his city. In their dealings with others, it will become clear what values the citizen of a thriving polis must hold. The Iliad opens with a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, the leader of the Trojan expedition. The quarrel is over a prize of honor, a young woman whom Agamemnon has decided to take from Achilles although she had been awarded to the latter by the collective armed forces as a symbol of his preeminence in war. Symbolically stripped of the honor that it should not be possible for a single individual to "remove," Achilles withdraws from the war effort. This promotes the Trojan effort of defense and leads to the death of countless Greeks. From the standpoint of social responsibility, removing himself from the fray and becoming a veritable island unto himself (ultimately participating in next to none of the activities that mark one as human--such as eating and sleeping) is the wrong thing to do. Homer makes this apparent on many levels but most vividly in likening Achilles to polis-destroying fire:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] As when smoke, rising, reaches the wide heaven from a city ablaze, and the wrath of the gods has incited it, to all it brings toil and inflicts sorrows upon many, thus did Achilles bring toil and sorrow upon the Trojans. (Iliad 21. 522-25)
In the sub-human cruelty to which he eventually sinks in response to grief over the death of his dearest companion, he is the polar opposite of his all too human, family-oriented, Trojan counterpart, Hektor. Likewise influenced by the concerns of one who has been raised in a shame culture, Hektor struggles with the issue of what constitutes virtue and honor. Concern for himself, however, readily gives way in the face of concern for others, for his family and for the welfare of all the citizens of his polis. Hektor is the beloved, compassionate city defender; his very name, likely a shorted form of Ekhepolis ("city-holder/defender"), casts his role in an unmistakable light. (21) He is the very life-blood of the city, and his death is inextricably linked with the fall of Troy. The city flourishes and falls with him. Hektor's personality and convictions are "an example of the real-time infiltration of the new ethics of the polis," of a concrete social consciousness (Jaeger 121). In order to redeem himself in the new world order and achieve a meaningful greatness therein, Achilles must move significantly closer to the humanity of Hektor. This he does in the poem's climactic scene. It is only when he is able to forgive his friend's slayer--who happened to be Hektor--and have compassion for the latter's father, that he reaches truly heroic heights. The individualistic heroic code of old is proven irrelevant and outdated in the Iliad. A new heroism of social responsibility has emerged. The Achilles who emerges at the close of the poem is an individual suited to be a leading citizen in the sort of social order he has, until then uncomprehendingly, carried with him on the emblem of his shield.
Depicted on the shield is the Cosmos: the heavens, the constellations, the sun, and, at its very heart, the earth. The central tableau, the image of Earth, is dominated by a fully animated representation of two beautiful cities (poleis kalas, Iliad 18. 490-91). Here the prominent position of the cities in the picture field is an unambiguous signifier; the polis lies at the heart of the human experience. Further, the shield's cities and their inhabitants convey a message of the greatest importance. A wedding and its attendant festivities open the description of the first city. Simultaneously, a very different event is taking place, namely a court trial for murder in the agora, place of meeting. This proceeding is one in which the people, in addition to the judges, have a significant voice, for both the accused and the accuser are at pains to sway their opinion with their arguments:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 500 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 505 The people were gathered in the place of assembly. There a dispute had arisen, and two men were contending over the penalty for a man who had been killed. The one promised full requital stating his case to the people, but the other refused to accept anything. 500 Both were eager to refer the decision to an arbitrator; and the people voiced their approval of both, as supporters on both sides. But the heralds held the people in check, and the elders were seated on seats of carved stone in the sacred circle and held in their hands the scepters of the loud-voiced heralds. 505 With these in hand they leapt to their feet and cast judgment in turns, and in their midst lay two talents of gold to give to that man amongst them who should utter the fairest judgment. (Iliad 18. 497-508)
Clearly, the meting out of justice in this blood feud, traditionally a family matter, has been taken out of the hands of the individual. This system of justice has advanced immeasurably beyond that of the Cyclopes, where each is the law unto himself; it is more institutionalized and democratic too than what is believed to have existed in Bronze and Dark Age Greece. In fact, the concern with justice here is so pronounced that the court vignette concludes with the statement that the judge whose pronouncement is deemed the fairest will receive a substantial reward of two talents of gold.
It is at this point that the poet turns his attention to the second city. This is a city at war, and its juxtaposition to the "city of justice" is very striking. We, the audience, are not told the reason for the conflict, and the solution chosen is not peaceable arbitration but rather a show of force. What is at stake for the army besieged is nothing less than what they love most, their wives and their children (Iliad 18. 514). One imagines that, if captured, their fate cannot possibly be better than that of the innocent herdsmen who were treacherously slain, flocks and all (Iliad 18. 520-29). The ensuing battle is gory almost beyond belief. Strife and Tumult have joined the fray, and deadly Fate, her flowing garments smeared with blood, drags both the dead and the wounded through the seething masses (Iliad 18. 535-40). Then the poet seems abruptly to change his focus to things less painful. He describes the plowing of fields, the making of wine, the herding of flocks, and, in conclusion, the rhythmic and joyous dancing of youths and maidens (Iliad 18. 541-fin). With this dance the parade of earthly images has come full circle, for it was with a wedding dance that the cityscapes commenced. What is represented here are the realities, joys, and necessities of daily life, all of which, in their earthly fragility, will fall victim to the ravages of war if violence is the method chosen to deal with a dispute.
Ironically, and importantly, it is over a wedding, and a subsequent illicit union, that the Trojan War began. Such was the beauty of Helen that men enough to man a thousand ships were easily assembled, for her numerous suitors had sworn an oath to support whomever she selected if a crisis were to arise. So it was that the best and bravest of Greece came to the assistance of her legal consort Menelaos in an effort to bring Troy to her knees, for Paris, Helen's seducer and abductor, had refused the resolution of the conflict by diplomatic means. It is true that the gods' interference saw to it that diplomacy would fail, but the gods in Homer rarely, if ever, cause something that the human actors in this drama would not themselves have occasioned. In the midst of all this, surrounded everywhere by the screams of the dying, is Achilles. To this war he has lost not only Briseis, the measure of his valor, but also Patroklos, the person whom he loved most. His first response is to become rage incarnate, to sink lower than beast and veritably combust into elemental fire. He becomes the Lord of Death himself. Thus Homer's proliferation of underworld imagery unmistakably renders him. (22) Accordingly, when Troy's aged King Priam makes his perilous journey to the underworld of Achilles's camp, it is Hermes, the Psychopompos ("conveyor of souls") that takes the lead. The challenge facing Achilles is tremendous. In order to save himself in any meaningful way and rise to truly heroic heights, he must climb far from the depths to which he has fallen. On his arm--on his shield--he carries the model for the path he will ultimately choose, as well as the path he will, at least for the present, reject. The matter of Briseis, which entails making amends with Agamemnon, and the matter of Patroklos, which in turn entails making peace with the father of his friend's slayer, are resolved not with continued hostilities but via an exchange of words, by diplomacy. It is true that Achilles will return to the fighting around him, but he will do so a greater man, a man who has shown himself to be worthy of belonging body and soul in the city of justice.
The journey of Achilles is a search for higher meaning and justice in a rapidly evolving world. It is true that Achilles is goddess-born and accordingly functions on a level elevated somewhat above that of other mortals. He can certainly be more assured of divine assistance when he needs it. Nevertheless, his spiritual quest is one that has a direct bearing on the lives of his audience whether ancient or modern, for just or ethical behavior is bound to remain among the leading concerns of humanity in its eternal quest for betterment. Much the same can be said of Odysseus, whose many travails have brought the ultimate reward of wisdom commensurate with creating an ideal society; the quest of Odysseus too has remained relevant throughout the ages. What Homer created is a "paradigm for seeing and talking about the world" and for exploring the role of humanity in it (Dougherty 6). More specifically, the Homeric poems present the view that the polis, the social order in formation at the time the poems were composed, "represents civilization, progress, community, justice, and openness [while] not to live in a polis means primitiveness, isolation, fragmentation, lack of community, and lawlessness" (Raaflaub 648). As succinctly put by Aristotle, the polis is an institution that "came into being in order to foster life but exists for the purpose of promoting good living" (Politics 1252b 31). (23) Although he was consulted as the authority on religion, philosophy, and pre-(or mythological) history, Homer was neither a philosopher nor a historian. He was a poet with a grandiose vision of and for humanity, a eutopian vision realized in the embrace of the polis.
* This article is an expanded version of a paper presented at the 2002 Annual Meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies in Orlando, Florida. I wish to thank Donald Dunham, Lyman Tower Sargent, the anonymous referees of this journal, and my audience in Orlando for their invaluable criticism.
(1.) In the course of this discussion, "Heroic Age" and "Bronze Age" will be used interchangeably. The term "Mycenean Period" refers to the Bronze Age in mainland Greece specifically, and the adjective "Mycenean" describes mainland Bronze Age culture and civilization.
(2.) It is not my intention to argue here that the Iliad and Odyssey should be classed as formal literary utopias but rather that the works are utopian in nature and that they are manifestations of a contemporary utopian propensity. As Sargent (8) argues: "Although the word utopia and the literary genre resulted from the book now known as Utopia by Thomas More, the phenomenon long predated the book." The definition adopted here of utopianism as "social dreaming" is likewise Sargent's (15). The utopian content question itself is a natural appendage to the "Homeric Question," for determining the purpose of these epics is surely as weighty a scholarly concern as their authorship and dating.
(3.) Pradeau (83) applies the tag of utopian "pretext" and "hypo-text" to Plato's Critias, specifically the Atlantis myth.
(4.) The most detailed and, at the same time, most readable summary and evaluation of the evidence regarding the historicity of the Trojan War is still, in my view, Michael Wood's In Search of the Trojan War.
(5.) On the workings of oral poetics and the "identity" of Homer, see the persuasive arguments of Nagy, who continues to re-evaluate and re-synthesize the fundamental work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord. Both Homeric Questions and Greek Mythology and Poetics have heavily influenced the perspective adopted here.
(6.) For a discussion of the emergence of pan-Hellenism at this time, see Nagy (Greek Mythology, passim and Best of the Achaeans, 7-8) and Osborne, especially 70-156. The latter contains a succinct description of the Greek Dark Age, the eighth century, and Homer's place in "history."
(7.) For a sweeping history of scholarly advances towards gaining an understanding of orality and the oral tradition with bibliography, see Foley.
(8.) I am using the word "traditional" loosely as describing those who remain unconvinced by the groundbreaking work of Finley in the last century.
(9.) In a classic essay, Morris outlines this progression in Homer-scholarship. A very full discussion of Bronze Age and Dark Age material in Homer can be found in Luce (Homer, passim).
(10.) Grave Circle A, which dates roughly to 1600 BCE, was unearthed in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann, the notorious businessman turned archaeologist, who devoted the latter part of his life to proving that Homer's tales were based on fact--that the wind-swept Trojan plain and Mycenae rich in gold actually existed. What Schliemann found were six graves containing seventeen adult burials. Grave Circle B, discovered in 1951 and dating to roughly 1450 BCE, contains twenty-four graves, all but three of them multiple burials. The grave circles were apparently the burial sites of the Mycenean rulers, their family, and their retainers, and together they yielded evidence of astonishing wealth. The graves contained gold and electrum death masks; ornate, inlaid bronze swords and daggers; gold pins and diadems; delicate ivories; and elaborate vessels made of faience, gold, silver, and carved stone.
(11.) The authoritative work on Mycenean Greece remains that of Vermeule, and the outline presented here is based thereon. The picture of the Myceneans as traders and marauders is fleshed out by Immerwahr, who was also consulted.
(12.) These examples, all recounted by Osborne, are derived from Finley's fuller discussion (Early Greece 84-86).
(13.) Hurwit cites the poet Alkaios, the tragedian Aeschylus, and the historian Thucydides (73 n.3).
(14.) One cannot help but surmise that the mystery surrounding both the Ithakan constitution and the physical location of the dystopian and eutopian societies encountered by Odysseus in his travels influenced the shape of Thomas More's own utopian discourse.
(15.) The former argument underlies the text of Whitman and the latter that of Horkheimer and Adorno.
(16.) All translations of ancient texts are my own. The translations provided here are not intended to emulate Homer's poetry in any way. Rather, my intention has been to render in English each line and each word therein as literally as possible for the purpose of supporting the arguments in this essay.
(17.) In The Raft of Odysseus, Dougherty explores the notion of Odysseus as ideal "ethnographer" and the Odyssey as a direct reflection of the colonizing spirit of the eighth century.
(18.) For a particularly elegant discussion of humanity's urge to contain nature, see Hunt, especially 1-30. A good discussion of the division between a settlement and the countryside in the process of polis-formation, see Edwards.
(19.) These adjectives are, respectively: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Hubris, in the Greek sense, means not so much "pride" as the failure to recognize the traditionally sanctioned limits placed on human behavior in one's interactions both with the gods and with one's fellow human beings.
(20.) The recent, important work of Dean Hammer (The Iliad as Politics, passim) in which the Iliad is presented as a political drama (and Homer as a political thinker), strongly supports this notion. Hammer focuses on Homer's concern with defining the relationship between the individual and his or her community in that poem as a reflection of real-time politics in the middle of the eighth century.
(21.) For this derivation of "Hektor," see Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, 146-7.
(22.) On the progressive transformation of Achilles, see Whitman 181-220 and King 1-49.
(23.) Aristotle's wording is as follows: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. It is worthy of note that Aristotle employs the word "eu" in the phrase "good living," the same "eu" that, together with "ou," is inherent in the naming of More's Utopia. There are certainly other words in Greek to denote "good," "just," "noble." and so forth.
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Annette Lucia Giesecke is Associate Professor of Ancient Greek and Latin and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Delaware. Her recent publications are in diverse areas, including Greek and Roman epic, Greek tragedy, intertextuality in Greek and Latin poetry, Greek and Roman painting, Roman architecture, and manifestations of utopianism in Greek and Roman literature, art, and architecture.
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|Author:||Giescke, Annette Lucia|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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