Ancient Greece and the Garden: The Ideal Homeric Polis


Ancient Greek garden / Wikimedia Commons


By Dr. Annette Lucia Giesecke
Chair, Department of Languages, Literature and Cultures
Elias Ahuja Professor of Classics
University of Delaware


It is at dawn, the time of new beginnings, that the Phaiakian ship, with Odysseus onboard, draws near to the island of Ithaka. There the spectacular harbor of Phorkys, enclosed by two lofty promontories sheltering it from perilous winds and waves, affords all vessels a ready approach. At the head of the harbor, Homer tells us, is a long-leaved olive tree and a cave, lovely and shaded, sacred to the Naiad nymphs (Odyssey 13.96–112). The cave, itself a marvel, contains bowls and jars of stone in which bees store their honey, looms upon which the nymphs weave precious cloths dyed purple as the sea, and springs whose water flows without ceasing. The entrances to this cave are two, for immortal and mortal separately. Athena steeps all the harbor’s splendor in a thick mist, so that Odysseus will not lapse, in a moment of jubilant weakness, into ill-timed complacency. This seductive landscape is not what it may at first appear; it is no fleeting idyll. Nowhere in Homer is there an unmotivated landscape, natural scenery for its own sake. Lovely though it may be, the natural environment is governed by its own, unpredictable laws. To this extent, the Homeric ideal, which is also the ideal of the nascent polis, entails the manipulation and transformation of the landscape by skilled human hands, by tekhnē. The belief that the inscription of Nature is fundamental to both the physical and moral constitution of the polis would remain prevalent in Greece through the Archaic and Classical periods until the eclipse of Athens and Sparta, the power-poleis, by Macedonia and the replacement of the poleis by the megalopolis.

Ithaca / Wikimedia Commons

Returning to the illusory idyll of the Ithakan harbor scene, each of its features, cave, spring, harbor, and olive tree, is inextricably bound to the utopian “blueprint” revealed elsewhere in the course of Odysseus’ wanderings. The cave had been previously demonstrated an unsuitable habitat for progressive humanity. It is a cave that the brute Cyclopes, existing in a Neolithic Golden Age, inhabit, and a cave that Calypso calls home. Yet both caves would ultimately have hidden Odysseus entirely from the world of the living, sending him instead along the dark and treacherous path to the House of Hades. Though both caves contain signs of industry well known in the human realm, namely weaving and the making of cheese, these enterprises merely constitute traps or lures for unsuspecting mortal prey. Similarly, the cave of the Naiads is not presented as a potentially fitting human domicile, however appealing it may have been to the weary traveler. It can be no coincidence that the Phaiakians deposit Odysseus outside the cave and not inside it. More appropriately, the cave houses only divinities having nothing to fear from the surrounding wilderness. The nymphs’ cave is, to be sure, a site of industry, of weaving and collecting honey, but the nymphs’ products are not meant for human consumption. Mortals do, however, have a “safe” designated point of access to the cave as sanctuary, a regulated locus of interface between mortal and divine. [1] Herein the nymphs’ abode is a far cry from the gruesomely elemental cavern of Scylla. The cave as sanctuary, appearing on an island on the verge of political revolution, forcefully suggests that in the new, evolving social order of the Odyssey, humanity must once and for all leave the comforts of the Earth-womb to the elemental, feminine divine.

The Ithakan harbor’s cave sanctuary, together with its spring, harbor, and olive, ultimately resonates with the ideal represented by the Phaiakian island state of Scheria. Removing his people physically and ideologically as far as possible from the overbearing Cyclopes, Nausithoos, the founding father of the Scherian polis, carefully structured his new settlement with walls, houses, apportioned fields, and sanctuaries of the gods. [2] However, in addition to human constructs such as those issued by Nausithoos, an optimally ordered and equipped city must have at least one abundant spring. The Laestrygonians, who have a city complete with an agora, do possess a spring, but they lack the moral sensibility and intellect required of a model polis. Calypso too has access to abundant waters. Her springs, four in number, water every corner of her hyper-naturally fecund island, but on Ogygia Nature serves only Nature. Agriculture, cooking, washing, and sacrifice, all dependent on water, are unnecessary to her apolitical existence. By contrast, such activities form as integral a part of the Phaiakian technological utopia as they presumably will of the new Ithakan polis. Scheria has a spring along the road outside the city proper and two springs within that provide water both for Alkinoos’ garden and the houses of the citizens. [3] Here Nature serves the populace. The Phaiakians had clearly carefully surveyed their landscape in order to exploit its assets to their fullest potential. Famed seafarers, nausiklutoi andres, the Phaiakians put their harbors to good use, filling them with well-balanced ships. [4] Notably, Odysseus expresses admiration for these harbors while he merely remarks upon the existence of the safe harbors of Goat Island, lying empty due to the Cyclopes’ lack of technological curiosity, and of the Laestrygonian polis, serving solely as a locus of extermination rather than fruitful social intercourse.

In every major respect, Ithaka possesses the physical elements requisite for a polis on the Scherian model, though necessarily less perfect because it is to be an entirely human creation in the “real” world. These elements include not only sanctuaries, springs, and harbors, but also land suitable for cultivation. Ithaka may be a rugged place, but it is still, in Odysseus’ words, a “good nurse of young men.” [5] The land’s agricultural potential is indicated by the presence of the leafy olive growing by the Naiads’ cave. The olive can serve as a shelter, and it is therefore under the tree’s spreading canopy that the Phaiakians deposit the sleeping hero. More important, however, than its protective capacity is the fact that the wild olive can be tamed, cultivated to yield a precious harvest. Bread, wine, and olives were the staples of the Greek diet in antiquity. But the olive had always enjoyed particular distinction. Long-lived and tolerant of arid conditions, the olive had come to symbolize the tenacious, immortal spirit of Greece. Victorious athletes in the games at the Panathenaia and at Olympia, mortals at their most divine, were crowned with wreaths of olive. The olive was the gift of the gods, and more than any other tree or plant, it was “specifically human.” [6]

With respect to the thematic and symbolic framework of the Odyssey, the olive is absolutely central. Odysseus’ homecoming, identity, household, and community core all rest securely on the foundation of the great olive tree that he had carved to form his marriage bed. Removed from the cycles of Nature, this olive has become an artifact sustaining human culture and society. [7] In the course of his wanderings too, the olive more than once saves Odysseus from utter disaster. It is olive wood from which he crafts the stake with which to pierce the eye of Polyphemos. Again as a tool, olive wood appears in the form of an exceedingly beautiful axe-handle. [8] With the axe in question he constructs the raft facilitating his passage to Scheria and, at the same time, precipitating the end of his wanderings. On Scheria, the Phaiakians’ active cultivation of the olive signals to Odysseus, and to Homer’s audience alike, that he has at long last arrived at a place where human, and specifically Greek, values prevail. For instance, it is customary in Homer’s world to anoint oneself, one’s guest, or one’s “charge” with olive oil subsequent to ablutions in order to restore suppleness to skin parched by the Mediterranean sun. This ritual is fundamental to the dispensation of xenia; it signifies the establishment of a special bond. While one of Circe’s handmaids does perform this kindly service, it is only after Odysseus has tamed the witch by force of his sword. [9] Among the peoples of Odysseus’ wanderings, Nausicaa alone offers him a bath and olive oil without compulsion. [10] At home in Ithaka, his washing at the hands of Eurykleia later signifies the absoluteness of his return.

Olive trees on the south coast, Crete, Greece Photo from Kapsali in Heraklion

Only on Scheria and Ithaka is the olive specifically described as growing in cultivation, in the gardens of Alkinoos and Laertes.[11] The descriptions of these two gardens are undeniably linked, as it is solely in reference to them that the poet employs terms designating ‘garden’: kēposorkhatos, and alōē. [12] These are not pleasure gardens but orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens, gardens laboriously planted and cared for, even in the case of Scheria where the climate affords constant productivity. The gardens are remarkably similar in what they contain: apples, pears, figs, grapes, olives, and herbs. Only the pomegranate is a plant grown by Alkinoos and not by Laertes. [13] Where the gardens differ most is in their state of completeness or physical condition. The garden of Alkinoos is a model of order and efficiency:

ἔκτοσθεν δ᾽ αὐλῆς μέγας ὄρχατος ἄγχι θυράων
τετράγυος· περὶ δ᾽ ἕρκος ἐλήλαται ἀμφοτέρωθεν.
ἔνθα δὲ δένδρεα μακρὰ πεφύκασι τηλεθόωντα,
115     ὄγχναι καὶ ῥοιαὶ καὶ μηλέαι ἀγλαόκαρποι
συκέαι τε γλυκεραὶ καὶ ἐλαῖαι τηλεθόωσαι.
τάων οὔ ποτε καρπὸς ἀπόλλυται οὐδ᾽ ἀπολείπει
χείματος οὐδὲ θέρευς, ἐπετήσιος· ἀλλὰ μάλ ̓ αἰεί
Ζεφυρίη πνείουσα τὰ μὲν φύει, ἄλλα δὲ πέσσει.
120     ὄγχνη ἐπ᾽ ὄγχνῃ γηράσκει, μῆλον δ᾽ ἐπὶ μήλῳ,
αὐτὰρ ἐπὶ σταφυλῇ σταφυλή, σῦκον δ᾽ ἐπὶ σύκῳ.
ἔνθα δέ οἱ πολύκαρπος ἀλωὴ ἐρρίζωται,
τῆς ἕτερον μὲν θειλόπεδον λευρῷ ἐνὶ χώρῳ
τέρσεται ἠελίῳ, ἑτέρας δ᾽ ἄρα τε τρυγόωσιν,
125     ἄλλας δὲ τραπέουσι· πάροιθε δέ τ᾽ ὄμφακές εἰσιν
ἄνθος ἀφιεῖσαι, ἕτεραι δ᾽ ὑποπερκάζουσιν.
ἔνθα δὲ κοσμηταὶ πρασιαὶ παρὰ νείατον ὄρχον
παντοῖαι πεφύασιν, ἐπηετανὸν γανόωσαι·

And outside the courtyard near the doors lay a vast orchard (orkhatos)
of four days’ plowing, and around it a fence (herkos) had been run in both directions.
And there large trees grow in profusion,
115     pears and pomegranates and apples bearing bright fruit
and both sweet figs and the flourishing olive.
Never does their fruit spoil, nor is it lacking
either in winter or summer, through all the year, but rather ever
does the blowing Zephyr cause some to grow and others to ripen.
120     Pear after pear mellows, and apple after apple,
also cluster after cluster of grapes and fig after fig.
And there his abundantly productive vineyard (alōē) is established,
on one side of which in a warm spot on level ground
[the harvest] dries in the sun, others, in turn, they are gathering
125     and yet others they trample. And in the foreground are unripe grapes
that have cast off their bloom and others that are darkening.
And there at the bottom of the orchard (orkhos) well ordered herbs
of all sorts grow, green throughout the year.

Odyssey 7.112–128

The garden’s orderliness, mirroring the good order and virtuous constitution of Alkinoos’ household and polis generally, is what makes it so attractive. A fence, herkos, has been driven all around it (περὶ δ᾽ ἕρκος ἐλήλαται ἀμφοτέρωθεν, Odyssey 7.113), and the plantings within are clearly distinguished from one another. There are separate areas for fruit trees and grapevines, and another, adjacent to the grapes, for herbs laid out in beds. Laertes, while neglecting the care of his own person, has spared no effort in tending the plants in his garden. Odysseus tells us so. Still, there is something in the garden that requires an essential repair: the garden wall, so critical for keeping unwanted Nature out, and tamed, subservient Nature in. When Odysseus approaches Laertes’ garden, Dolios and the other servants are nowhere to be seen, having gone in search of stones with which to rebuild the fallen wall:

οὐδ᾽ εὗρεν Δολίον, μέγαν ὄρχατον ἐσκαταβαίνων,
οὐδέ τινα δμώων οὐδ᾽ υἱῶν· ἀλλ ̓ ἄρα τοί γε
αἱμασιὰς λέξοντες ἀλωῆς ἔμμεναι ἕρκος
οἴχοντ᾽, αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσι γέρων ὁδὸν ἡγεμόνευε.

Nor did he come upon Dolios as he went down into the great orchard (orkhatos),
neither any of his slaves nor his sons. But rather
in order to gather stones to be used for the garden wall ( herkos )
had they gone off, and that old man was leading the way.

Odyssey 24.222–225

For the Ithakan community to thrive again, the power of Nature must be securely harnessed. Laertes’ retreat to the garden, which entails the abandonment of his house in town as well as the implicit refusal to resume control of the state, is really not at all surprising given the fundamental importance of securing the land that will sustain the populace. The garden is where eunomia ‘good order’ in the community begins.

Just how precarious such good order can be, and how laboriously wrought, is signified by the end of the Odyssey. Homer’s song does not end as it might have with Odysseus, Laertes, and the faithful servant Dolios sharing a meal as evening falls. Instead, the scene shifts abruptly from that harmonious tableau to a depiction of the swift, citywide course of the news of the suitors’ death. The city cries for retribution, but the cry is not unanimous. Medon, the wise herald, and Phemios, noble bard, address the angered masses in hopes that further violence can be avoided. The suitors, they argue, deserved what they got for their reckless, outrageous behavior towards Odysseus and his household. To their minds, the score had been settled. Of course, this pacifistic counsel does not prevail; such is the force of human emotion. Had Athena not intervened, armed with the oaths of Zeus, all may have been lost, for where discord thrives, community can never gain a secure foothold.

Two things, then, would be fundamental to polis-building in Odysseus’ world: the containment of Nature and the establishment of a system of justice based on an ideology less primitive than “an eye for an eye.” The same is also true of Achilles’ world in the Iliad. Physical containment of the natural world and its potential dangers would have to go hand-in-hand with the constraint of bestial, overly “natural” impulses in humankind. If, as Aristotle states, the polis is to be envisioned as a larger version of the household, Odysseus’ house, built around the enormous, carved stump of an olive tree, exists as a model—one of several—for the societal restructuring to come. [14] In the case of the Iliad, it is the world order portrayed by Achilles’ shield that serves as the model for a social (r)evolution, which is even then being precipitated by the poem’s hero. The importance of the Shield to the fabric of the Iliad cannot be overstated; it is the center and focus of the poem as a whole. The Shield is often read as a poetic device equivalent in function to the similes with which the poem abounds and, accordingly, as a means by which the poet has expanded the experiential world, universalizing the impact of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. [15] Such an interpretation, however, does not give the Shield its due. Vis-à-vis the story of Achilles, the similes are parerga. Like the frame around a painting, similes inform and direct the interpretation of the subject, ergon, they surround. This they do by separating the ergon “from the whole field of historical, economic, political inscription in which the drive to signature is produced,” for “the parergon stands out [se détache] both from the ergon (the work) and from the milieu, it stands out first of all like a figure on a ground.” [16] Though literally embedded within and surrounded by the fabric of the story, a simile’s essence is of the larger context or world in which the story is said to unfold. Still, a simile represents a selective context, as it does not represent the entirety of diachronic experience and must, accordingly, be separate from the ergon’s larger milieu, the larger universe in which it finds itself. The simile, not the story, is parergon. The simile reifies its ergon; it gives the latter meaning. Similarly, without the tale of Achilles’ struggle to find meaning in a world whose values he has seen as empty, set in the Age of Heroes but shaped by the new age in which the Homeric poems were substantially formed, the Shield cannot be understood except, perhaps, in the vaguest terms. It remains a stunning, wondrous object, whose individual embellishments can easily be recognized, but the interrelation of these same embellishments cannot be fully realized without the surrounding frame. The Shield is ergon, and the tale of Achilles, parergon.

Figure 2. Blueprint of the ideal polis. Reconstruction: The Shield of Achilles. Concept by Donald Dunham and Annette Giesecke, drawing by Michael Monahan.

Achilles’ Shield, then, lies at the heart of the Iliad; one might even say that it is the Iliad. The Shield, on which Hephaistos has fashioned the heavens and the Earth, herself embracing two paradigmatic cities, is also a map of utopia (Figure 2). [17] Maps of utopia are, of course, to some extent a contradiction in terms. As utopia is ou-topos, no place, it cannot be spatially located with any specificity. Still, utopia is conceived as a template or blueprint for societal betterment, so it must be possible to envision it in concrete terms. If utopia is a blueprint for social re-organization, it is by definition a human phenomenon located in this world, albeit free of coordinates. Further, utopia as a blueprint for social change can be fully conceived only in comparison with what it is not. A map of utopia must also encompass dystopia. For this reason the City at War is paired with the City at Peace. Functionally and structurally, the Shield’s utopian map corresponds to the narrative of Odysseus’ wanderings, the so-called apologoi ‘tales’, for travel narrative is a form of mapping in that it “transform(s) geographic narrative into discourse.” [18] As Louis Marin notes, travel narrative “is the discursive figure of the image that is itself the selection of relations of elements in the world, the construction of the world in the form of an analogic model that covers over reality with the network of its lines and surfaces.” [19] In this way, Odysseus’ wanderings also map utopia. As coordinates on this map, the places he visits cannot be physically tracked or found by another, yet they provide both positive and negative models, visions of utopia as well as of dystopia.

The Shield, like its textual frame, presents the city as an ideal but goes further in presenting its audience with an image of the ideal city as well. In a classic essay, “Utopia, The City and The Machine,” Lewis Mumford observes that Greek utopias, indeed most utopias from Plato to Bellamy, were “visualized largely in terms of the city.” [20] The form of the city, he argues, was particularly well suited to the formulation of utopian visions because it had “the advantage of mirroring the complexities of society within a frame that respected the human scale.” [21] The city itself could provide “a glimpse of eternal order, a visible heaven on earth, a seat of abundant life,” because it’s implicit order was itself modeled on that of the Cosmos. [22] Mumford does not adduce the Shield of Achilles, but the utopian vision it proffers confirms his findings. Simply put, the main components of the Shield’s iconographic field are City and Cosmos. Thus the rhythmical description of the Shield’s embellishments commences:

Ἐν μὲν γαῖαν ἔτευξ᾽, ἐν δ᾽ οὐρανόν, ἐν δὲ θάλασσαν,
ἠέλιόν τ᾽ ἀκάμαντα σελήνην τε πλήθουσαν,
485     ἐν δὲ τὰ τείρεα πάντα, τά τ᾽ οὐρανὸς ἐστεφάνωται,
Πληϊάδας θ᾽ Ὑάδας τε τό τε σθένος Ὠρίωνος
Ἄρκτον θ᾽, ἣν καὶ Ἄμαξαν ἐπίκλησιν καλέουσιν,
ἥ τ᾽ αὐτοῦ στρέφεται καί τ᾽ Ὠρίωνα δοκεύει,
οἴη δ᾽ ἄμμορός ἐστι λοετρῶν Ὠκεανοῖο.
490     Ἐν δὲ δύω ποίησε πόλεις μερόπων ἀνθρώπων
καλάς.

Upon it he wrought the Earth and the sky and the sea,
both the tireless sun and the full moon.
485     And upon it all the stars, those that crown the heavens,
the Pleiades, the Hyades, and mighty Orion,
and the Great Bear, whom people also call the Wagon
and who both revolves in place and keeps an eye on Orion
and alone takes no part in the baths of Ocean.
490     And on it he wrought two cities of mortal men,
beautiful ones.

Iliad 18.483–491

Hephaistos has fashioned the four elements, earth, heaven, water, and celestial fire, all bound by concentric figured rings. [23] Four major constellations also inscribe the heavens. The Cosmos has established a rhythm of fours, and it is in fours that the subsequently detailed cityscapes unfold. The Cosmos, Nature writ large, is the frame for all human action, the scenery against which the human drama transpires. At the same time, the success of the human endeavor embodied by the polis depends directly upon the success of the populace in establishing boundaries to separate it from the natural environment. Put somewhat differently, the ultimate success of the polis depends on observing the ordering principles of the Cosmos and applying them to the physical and spiritual makeup of the city in an effort to control what is deemed dangerous and unpredictable in Nature. The frame, parergon, exerts a considerable degree of control over its ergon. While the Cosmos is, by definition, a frame for the human endeavor, the Homeric texts reveal deep concern, even anxiety, about the very real danger of being overwhelmed by the force of the cosmic frame. It is for this reason that the Homeric political ideal envisages the creation of an intervening frame through human intellect and technical skill, symbolized on the Shield by the ring of youths and maidens dancing hand in hand “around” the cityscapes, contiguous to the streams of Ocean that run along the Shield’s outer rim. [24] Here collaborative humanity forms a barrier against the elemental.

The Shield of Achilles, from an 1832 illustration / Wikimedia Commons

Not surprisingly, the scenes depicted on the Shield are replete with references, some more overt than others, to limits and boundaries in the world of the polis. Nowhere in the Iliad are descriptions of human interaction with the natural environment more concentrated, and as in the case of the Odyssey, the natural world is not abstractly conjured as a pleasant reverie but as a force to contend with. Human activities in this environment must be mediated by boundaries, physical and otherwise. Starting cartographically at the point of greatest remove from the city center and spiraling gradually inward, we, the audience, behold nomoi ‘pastures’ for cattle and sheep (Iliad 18.587). Pastures constitute Nature inscribed by virtue of human use or presence and not necessarily by the fabrication of physical boundaries. It is in such places, particularly when unbounded, that humanity is most vulnerable, since these are fundamentally wild places, more open to view, certainly, than forests, but still full of potential menace. Such menace descends upon the cowherds in their pasture by the river (Iliad 18.573–586). Two stealthy lions attack and then greedily devour one of their bulls, and, ultimately, nothing the herdsmen or their terror-stricken dogs can do will prevent it. While beyond a doubt a grisly scene, its gore is instructively rivaled by another, which likewise takes place in a pasture, specifically at a watering hole (Iliad 18.520–532). In this rival or “companion” scene, an army of “bestial” men, not predatory animals, sets upon herds and herdsmen alike. Humanity appears particularly susceptible to bestial behavior in wild, unbounded places. As the Shield here and elsewhere vividly demonstrates, human nature or impulse must also be held in check.

Proceeding inward we see a beautiful vineyard heavily laden with grapes (Iliad 18.561), its splendor enhanced by the harmonious song and dance of the harvesters. This is a space in which domesticated plant and human alike can thrive, and it is not once but doubly bounded, by kapetos ‘ditch’ as well as herkos ‘fence’ (Iliad 18.564–565). It should be noted that the slaughtered herdsmen were also singing, but their artful song was not sufficient defense against humanity’s baser instincts. Alongside the thriving vineyard lies a temenos basilēion ‘chieftain’s estate’ (τέμενος βασιλήϊον, Iliad 18.550). Here, as in the vineyard, crops and workers thrive. This too is a bounded place, a piece of land marked off or, more literally, cut off from common holdings. [25] The reaping and binding of grain is finely orchestrated and proceeds without a hitch, a sight that pleases the estate’s owner. Within the chieftain’s estate, apart from the field itself, another ox is slaughtered. But this noble creature falls prey neither to ravening beasts nor bestial men. In this place, where the ideology of the polis prevails, rituals of sacrifice ensure that the ox is duly honored for the precious gift of its life. Meanwhile, in the city’s nearby fields, the fertile land is plowed in measured stages. Inscribed by communal effort, the land will yield its bounty to the populace.

At last the mind’s eye alights on the contours of the Shield’s two cities (Iliad 18.490–540). At least one of them, the City at War, is specifically described as surrounded by a teikhos ‘wall’ (Iliad 18.514). The wall is no less a barrier than a fence around a field or vineyard. Like the herkos, which is defined as ‘fence, wall, barrier’ and ‘defensive armor’, walls serve to separate humanity from the threats of Nature. [26] Significantly, the timeless moment captured by Hephaistos depicts not Nature’s but rather a rival polity’s assault upon the city. The wall, a product of human technical skill, also necessarily serves as a defense against savage and unenlightened behavior. Against such dangers, however, the City at Peace offers another form of defense, the incorporeal yet resilient boundary of justice. As Aristotle vehemently declares, justice is fundamental to the health of the community and the cohesion of the polis:

ὥσπερ γὰρ καὶ τελεωθεὶς βέλτιστον τῶν ζῴων ὁ ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν, οὕτω καὶ χωρισθεὶς νόμου καὶ δίκης χείριστον πάντων. χαλεπωτάτη γὰρ ἀδικία ἔχουσα ὅπλα· ὁ δὲ ἄνθρωπος ὅπλα ἔχων φύεται φρονήσει καὶ ἀρετῇ, οἷς ἐπὶ τἀναντία ἔστι χρῆσθαι μάλιστα. διὸ ἀνοσιώτατον καὶ ἀγριώτατον ἄνευ ἀρετῆς, καὶ πρὸς ἀφροδίσια καὶ ἐδωδὴν χείριστον. ἡ δὲ δικαιοσύνη πολιτικόν. ἡ γὰρ δίκη πολιτικῆς κοινωνίας τάξις ἐστίν, ἡ δὲ δικαιοσύνη τοῦ δικαίου κρίσις.

For just as a human is the best of animals when perfected, so too when removed from law and justice, he is the worst of all. For injustice is most grievous when armed, and humanity is born with weapons to use for prudence and virtue, but which can be used for quite the opposite. Therefore, without virtue he is most unholy and wild, and with respect to sex and food, the basest. And a sense of right is suited for the life of the polis. For justice is the means of ordering the common weal, and justice the judgment of what is fair.

Politics 1253a31–39

Laying down arms and establishing a system of justice sets apart human from beast. The City at Peace signifies an essential harmony not only by the wedding, but also by the “containment” of violent crime within the elders’ sacred circle (ἱερῷ ἐνὶ κύκλῳ, Iliad 18.504). [27] This circle seeks to limit the endless cycle of bloodshed through deliberations centered on boundaries. [28] The elders are gathered here to establish a peirar ‘limit’ to the penalty of revenge or ransom that can or should be exacted for a particular incidence of homicide. Viewed more broadly, their task is to establish legal limits inherent in a system of justice, the only effective means by which to contain the “beast” within.

The magnitude and universality of the concern with establishing boundaries and limits in the Greek world throughout its gradual emergence from the chaos of the Dark Age is evidenced by the traditional, orally-based texts attributed to Hesiod, the bard of Ascra. The degree of thematic overlap between Homer’s Shield and the Hesiodic poems, both the Works and Days and the Theogony, is quite remarkable, so remarkable that it cannot be coincidental. [29] Of the Hesiodic poems, the Works and Dayscontains the most striking parallels to the Shield: this epic is in its entirety motivated by a quarrel—though it is a quarrel over inheritance rather than over the slaying of a man—and focuses on the establishment of justice effected through true rather than crooked judgments. Once again the audience is presented with a paradigm of two cities, the City of Dikē ‘Justice’ and the City of Hubris, corresponding respectively to the Shield’s Cities at Peace and War. The lot of Hesiod’s Iron Age humanity is a difficult one, their existence consigned to toil on an Earth that has ceased to share her bounty spontaneously. Therefore, in the City of Justice tools are employed to cultivate the land, though not in pursuit of violence, so this city flourishes free from famine and grievous disaster. In Hesiod’s words, the City of Justice “blooms,” tethēle, and its people “flower,” antheusin (Works and Days227). Justice, the most effective means by which to limit human behavior, is thus inextricably linked to inscription of the land; in this world, moral and physical boundaries are both necessary and complementary. Justice, as the Theogony reinforces, stems from Zeus and elevates the little that is godlike in humanity. As Aristotle would later affirm, it is Justice that sets apart human from beast and prevents humankind from savaging one another. Contrarily, while the City of Justice thrives, the City of Hubris, steeped in cruelty and outrage, falls victim to famine and plague. It becomes “sterile and poor,” its walls shattered by the ravages of war and the full force of Zeus’ storms. [30]

The dicta of the Shield are as clear as they are profound: the city as an ideal and the ideal city are founded on the containment of dangerous, threatening impulses of and in the natural world. This notion pervades the fabric of the Odyssey, but in the Iliad it seems, at first glance, limited to the ergonal Shield. While it is true that the tale of Achilles is relatively devoid of straight-narrative allusion to the environment, the “secondary” parergonal field of similes, itself activating the Achillean frame, is largely dedicated to it. At least four interconnected groups of prevalent topoi can be identified amidst the plethora of the Iliad’s similes: atmospheric and other natural phenomena, views into the experiences of hunters and herdsmen, the interaction of creatures in the wild, and technical manipulation of the Earth’s produce. [31] For example, Diomedes in his destructive fury on the battlefield is likened to a river, flowing with winter force, that overleaps its banks and, unhindered by dikes and vineyard walls laboriously constructed by human hands, sweeps away everything in its path:

θῦνε γὰρ ἂμ πεδίον ποταμῷ πλήθοντι ἐοικὼς
χειμάρρῳ, ὅς τ᾽ ὦκα ῥέων ἐκέδασσε γεφύρας·
τὸν δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἄρ τε γέφυραι ἐεργμέναι ἰσχανόωσιν,
90      οὔτ᾽ ἄρα ἕρκεα ἴσχει ἀλωάων ἐριθηλέων
ἐλθόντ᾽ ἐξαπίνης, ὅτ᾽ ἐπιβρίσῃ Διὸς ὄμβρος·
πολλὰ δ᾽ ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἔργα κατήριπε κάλ ̓αἰζηῶν·

For he rushed through the plain like a river swollen
in winter, and which, flowing swiftly, has overleapt the embankments,
and neither can closely constructed barriers hold it back
90      nor, indeed, do the walls of the burgeoning vineyard stay it
as it comes on a sudden, when the rain of Zeus falls in abundance,
and many are the lovely works of mortals that are destroyed by it.

Iliad 5.87–92

Torrential rivers, forest fires, earthquakes, thunderbolts, whirlwinds, dense clouds of dust, thick fog, and snow all appear in the world of the similes. These are all phenomena of the natural world that threaten the precarious security of humans and their hard-won achievements, most of which have been geared towards gaining some sort of control over the hostile world that surrounds them. The Homeric perspective, like Hesiod’s, is that “the Earth and sea are full of ills” (Works and Days 101) difficult for humans to endure, particularly as “the Earth bears no creature more feeble” (Odyssey 18.130–131). [32] This same sensibility pervades the similes centering on the lives of those who work the fields, tend the flocks, and range the wilderness in search of prey. Goatherds in the mountains shiver and quickly herd their flocks into a cavern when they spy the ominous approach of a cloud sure to bring ill weather (Iliad 4.275–279). Shepherds fear what dangers may be hidden in a mountain mist (Iliad 3.10–12), likely some predatory beast, perhaps a lion so ravenous that it will stop at nothing to penetrate the folds enclosing their flocks (Iliad 12.299–306). Such men must frequent the vast spaces beyond the city walls, where they have occasion to observe animals in their natural habitat. The sight that recurs in every corner of the wilderness is that of hunter and hunted. Accordingly, nearly all the similes located in the animal kingdom represent predator and prey. [33] Those witnessing the demise of one animal in the jaws of another in the wild would know how easily their flocks, and even they themselves, could be substituted for the predator’s more usual fare. Human prosperity and safety depends on securing the subservience of the natural world, an endeavor bearing inevitably mixed results. As another group of similes demonstrates, humanity is most successful when manipulating things like timber, wool, and metal, which have been derived from the natural environment but are not alive or “immediately” life sustaining. [34]

There are certainly similes in the Iliad that defy simple classification as representations of the overtly hostile aspect of Nature. Here Nature may be viewed as awe-inspiring, beautiful, and even illustrative of phenomena or behaviors in the human realm. So, for instance, the Trojan elder statesmen, feeble in body yet possessing resonant voices, are compared to cicadas whose chirruping carries through the forests (Iliad 3.150–152). [35] Bees and wasps that valiantly defend their young in roadside hives provide a parallel for the stalwart resistance of the Greeks (Iliad 12.167–172). A poppy, weighed down by a glistening drop of rain, illustrates, in poignant contrast, the terrible beauty of a young man’s heroic death and the fragility of human life (Iliad8.306–308). The poppy is merely bent, not destroyed, and the precipitation bearing down upon it will ultimately sustain and nourish it. Such similes abound, varying tremendously in their imagery. They embrace flora and fauna as well as Earth, sky, and sea. Significantly, the similes do not portray a natural world that empathizes with the plight of humanity, nor do they impart any feelings of nostalgia or longing on the poet’s part for a less complicated life in total harmony with Nature. Pathetic fallacy and pastoral leanings await another age. Further, when the natural world mirrors humanity, the reflection is never pure. Reflection and reflected must never be assimilated. Should this occur, the results are invariably devastating. Achilles, when he decides to behave like a lion or wolf “recognizing neither pity nor αἰδώς [aidōs ‘respect for another’],” exemplifies this Homeric precept. [36]

Santorini Volcano, Greece / Wikimedia Commons

the Homeric urban ideal, resting fundamentally on a feeling of “human helplessness” in the face of a natural world filled with dangers and mysteries, was remarkably persistent. [37] Accordingly, the literature of the Archaic and Classical periods is relatively sparing in protracted references to the natural world, and where they do appear, Nature remains at most a frame or scenic backdrop for the human drama. Poetry, particularly “sentimental” lyric, is the genre in which one would most readily expect to find the sustained, passionate reverie of the pastoral dream. However, the pre-Hellenistic, Greek dream world ultimately reveals an essential anthropocentrism. [38] Lyric’s most stunning landscapes are those of Sappho, who, purportedly in her own assessment, “so far surpassed other women in poetry as Homer did other men.” [39] The fragmentary state of Sappho’s soothing words to a heart-broken Atthis does little to detract from the obvious magnitude of her descriptive powers. Here the girl for whom Atthis longs is compared to the “rosy-fingered moon” illuminating the sky and shedding her lovely glow over roses, chervil, and clover in bloom:

νῦν δὲ Λύδαισιν ἐμπρέπεται γυναί́-
κεσσιν ὤς ποτ᾽ ἀελίω
8        δύντος ἀ βροδοδάκτυλος μήνα
πάντα περρέχοισ᾽ ἄστρα· φάος δ᾽ ἐπί-
σχει θάλασσαν ἐπ᾽ ἀλμύραν
11      ἴσως καὶ πολυανθέμοις ἀρούραις·
ἀ δ᾽ ἐέρσα κάλα κέχυται, τεθά-
λαισι δὲ βρόδα κἄπαλ᾽ ἄν-
14      θρυσκα καὶ μελίλωτος ἀνθεμώδης·

But now she is preeminent among ladies of Lydia,
8        like rosy-fingered moon after sunset,
surpassing all the stars; its light extends over the salt sea
11      alike and the fields of flowers;
and the dew is spread abroad in beauty, and roses bloom,
14      and tender chervil and flowery melilot:

Fragment 96.6–14 [40]

Sappho has been said to lose herself momentarily within the frame constituted by her hypnotic simile. [41] This psychic transportation of self would account for the abrupt recollection of, or “reawakening to,” her actual subject, a girl for whom another pines, in the fragmentary lines that follow. Yet, if Sappho does enter the frame, she is quick to retreat from it again. The beloved may in some regards resemble the moon, but she is not, and never will be, the moon. The moon reflects her beauty and suggests the degree to which she sustains the life of the one that loves her, but it does not reflect the whole of the girl’s person. The moon is ultimately more potent, more distant, and “other.” The moon’s distance is not infinite, however, and it is herein that the poet’s ability to harness or limit the powers of Nature resides. As in Homer, the frame must not overpower that which is framed; the framing member’s form and dimensions, the scope of its expressive power, must be controlled. In this fragmentary poem, Sappho has subtly achieved such control by representing the moon as sustaining humanity. The moonlit fall of dew and the bloom of roses, chervil, and clover is not a scene from wildest Nature. Rather, the dew prompts the growth and blossoming of particular flowering plants, all cultivated by the Greeks for specific purposes. Chervil is an herb possessing medicinal properties, and clover a source of honey. The rose, highly treasured in antiquity, was “the only flower to be intensely cultivated” and a regular inclusion in sanctuary gardens. [42] All of these plants, whether growing in gardens or in the wild, were harvested for the fabrication of garlands and wreaths employed in cultic and other ceremonial contexts. [43] Taking these observations into consideration, the simile assumes not a cosmic but a human scale.

setting of Aphrodite’s epiphany (Fragment 2). [44] In answer to a prayer, Aphrodite is summoned from Crete to a holy temple, her own temple, permeated by the scent of incense and surrounded by luscious groves of apple trees. There is a babbling brook, and a thick, soporific, cover of roses, as well as a meadow, swept by warm breezes, where horses graze and flowers grow. This is not merely a sentimental landscape conjured by a painterly and lovesick imagination. Rather, it is a temenos, a sacred space in Nature filled with divinity but inscribed by humankind for the purpose of interaction with the divine. This not a wilderness but a garden that embodies the fertile, life-sustaining essence of Aphrodite.

Judging from the scope of its landscape features, ranging from orchards to meadows for grazing, the temenos Sappho describes is a rural sanctuary. Temenē such as this played a major part in the attempt to realize Homer’s urban ideal. The creation of Greek cities depended on the inscription of Nature, which was accomplished “by claiming a landscape.” [45] One method of inscription was the erection of city walls. Another was the establishment of rural sanctuaries, whereby gods inhabiting the countryside could become fully integrated in the city’s pantheon. [46] Such inscription also marked agricultural land as belonging to the city and separate from the surrounding wilderness, for rural sanctuaries served as boundaries between inside and outside, framed and frame. They also served to separate one community’s arable land from another’s. [47] In other words, rural sanctuaries were instrumental in delimiting civic space as well as in creating civic identity. They served to “structure physical territory” and to “articulate borders.” [48] Rural sanctuaries became loci for intercourse and exchange between the local and the foreign, and they became places where conflict, mainly territorial, could be “repeated and ritualized.” [49] Eventually a range of rural sanctuaries would develop, some expressing the “territorial sovereignty of a city,” others “promoting regional federation,” and still others “suitable for interregional or Panhellenic gathering.” [50] In essence, the construction of rural sanctuaries was an attempt “to impose some beneficial pattern on happenings outside human control.” [51] The process of inscription itself would be laborious yet impermanent. Greece’s premier sanctuary, Olympia, demonstrates the vulnerability of such sacred spaces. Situated in an idyllic valley between the Hill of Kronos and the confluence of the rivers Alpheios and Kladeos, Olympia would be buried to a depth exceeding five meters in sand deposited by the eroding hill and the flooding rivers. These temenē ‘off-cuts’ were, after all, once pure wilderness bearing an indigenous “crop.” Walls or boundary stones would mark their area, and plantings appropriate to the sanctuary’s presiding divinity would replace wild, native flora. Accordingly, oaks were planted for Zeus, laurels for Apollo, olives for Athena, and myrtles for Aphrodite. [52] It is not coincidence that the period in which the Homeric poems and the ideal of the polis took shape was also a time marked by sanctuary building, particularly of Panhellenic sanctuaries, in Greece.

Figure 3. A landscape “of unusual, even startling interest.” Red-figure pelikē: drawing of Side A, Odysseus, Elpenor, and Hermes in the Underworld. The Lykaon Painter, ca. 440 BCE. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Amory Gardner Fund, inv. no. 34.79.

The Archaic and Classical impulse to inscribe the natural world, thereby carefully limiting human interaction with wild Nature, manifested itself in various guises, in the visual arts as well as the literary and tectonic. While almost any painted Greek vase dating from this period can be used to demonstrate such inscription, the painterly Red Figure vases of the High Classical period reveal the full gamut of ideological complexities involved in rendering human figures so as to frame them with, not engulf them in, the natural environment. Depictions of landscape are rare in Greek vase painting, and natural settings, even minimally expressed, are worthy of particular note. It is all the more astonishing when the landscape has been portrayed with sufficient detail to enable the viewer to identify a place or, at least, a distinctive type of place. A vase of pivotal importance to our understanding of the evolution of Greek “landscape” painting, the Lykaon Painter’s masterpiece, is a pelikē ‘storage jar’ decorated, ca. 440 BCE, with images linked to literature, theater, and mural painting. [53] The so-called A-side of the vase depicts Odysseus, the fully corporeal “spirit” of Elpenor, and Hermes (Figure 3). The artist has located these figures on different levels in a rocky terrain rendered graphically by undulating lines of whitish-yellow paint. Hermes, who is striding towards Odysseus and Elpenor, is spatially closest to the viewer. His eyes fixed upon Elpenor, Hermes advances with his right hand outstretched as if to signal the spirit’s appearance to Odysseus. Odysseus himself, sword in hand from the recent sacrifice of two lambs still lying at his feet, sits facing Elpenor, who strains to pull himself out of a chasm in the earth. Surrounding this emerging figure are tall reeds, “their tops waving in the wind.” [54] Their presence, it was noted, must indicate the “proximity of rivers.” [55] The pelikē’s B-side, more hastily rendered and less spatially complex, portrays Poseidon in pursuit of Amymone. This too is a three-figure group, but all three figures rest on a single ground line. Poseidon, the central figure, advances briskly towards Amymone, who is still carries the hydria ‘water pot’ she had come to fill with water. Gazing back at the god who has ambushed her, her right hand raised in alarm, Amymone is in full flight. She appears to have ample cause for concern, as the god’s trident, which he wields, strangely in this context, like a weapon, is less than an arm’s length from her. To Poseidon’s rear, and likewise glancing back at him, is Amymone’s fleeing handmaid. In this scene there is no indication of setting.

Upon the pelikē’s arrival to the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Lacey Caskey described the vase as being “of unusual, even startling interest,” not only on stylistic grounds but also “because it is the earliest and by far the most impressive representation in ancient art of a famous passage in the Odyssey,” the journey to the world of the dead, Nekuia. [56] Prior to Odysseus’ departure from her island, Homer’s Circe reveals that it will be necessary for the hero to travel to the ends of the world and enter the House of Hades in order to consult Teiresias regarding the details of his homecoming. In her words, this meeting will take place at the point, marked by a rock, where Puriphlegethon and Kokytos, a branch of the river Styx, flow into Acheron (Odyssey 10.513–515). It is here that the dread goddess directs him to dig a carefully measured pit and to pour libations around it (Odyssey 10.517–518). After consulting Teiresias, Odysseus sacrifices two sheep whose throats he cuts over the pit. Attracted by the flowing blood, a throng of spirits approach. First among them is that of Odysseus’ comrade Elpenor (Odyssey 11.35–51). The two sit for some time, as Odysseus later recounts, “exchanging regrets, I with my sword held out stiffly across the blood-pool and the wraith of my follower beyond it, telling his tale” (Odyssey 11.81–83). [57] The Lykaon Painter’s fidelity to Homer is indeed remarkable. The only alteration he made to the Homeric scene was the addition of Hermes, a figure who serves to balance the composition and is a logical symbolic addition because he facilitates passage into, and on rare occasions out of, the underworld.

Admittedly, the natural scenery depicted on this vase is relatively minimal. “Sketchy” is how Caskey described it. [58] Still, these few landscape features, rocky ground and stand of reeds, evoke not a general “wilderness” setting but a specific type of place: rocky and very wet. These details are enough to set the stage for the figures, all of them identified with labels, who inhabit the space and who, through their disposition towards one another, define its precise location at the confluence of the underworld’s rivers. Further, for all its sketchiness, the scenery on this vase is at the same time “unusually elaborate.” [59] It is elaborate, at least, when viewed against the full spectrum of Greek vase painting—and Greek art generally—produced prior to or contemporaneously with it, notably excepting that issuing from the Bronze Age island cultures of Minoan Crete and the Cyclades. In the world of Bronze Age Greece it was the Minoans, together with the inhabitants of the Cyclades, who took the lead in producing technically and iconographically sophisticated artifacts in a variety of media, including clay, ivory, stone, precious metals, and paint. Minoan and Cycladic art of the Bronze Age is characterized by a tangible stylistic ease and freedom, a certain exuberance, and an evident closeness to, or union with, the natural world. Octopodes gracefully wrap their tentacles around the surfaces of Minoan vases; stags butt antlers on carved gems; monkeys pick crocus flowers in a Nilotic landscape on painted walls; steatite is transformed into the head of a magnificent bull; and, on the surface of golden seal rings, celebrants, male and female, clutch altar-topping trees that represent an elusive Nature deity. The Minoans and their neighbors in the Cyclades appear to have embraced Nature. To this extent, the great Minoan palaces were apparently left unfortified. [60] No barriers were deemed necessary to deter hostile forces in Nature or other humans who had succumbed to a lower, bestial nature. Human and beast were seemingly on a par, both noble creatures sharing the gifts, as well as the challenges, presented by Mother Earth.

The second half of the fifteenth century, the later Bronze Age, manifested dramatic changes in the Aegean. Mainland Greeks, taking control of Minoan colonies, trade routes, and administrative centers, became the dominant power, and their anthropocentric, often violent or belligerent sensibilities began quite unsubtly to infiltrate Aegean art. [61] On the palace walls at Knossos, humans, stiff, large in scale, and portrayed against schematized backgrounds, eclipsed the older, exuberant naturescapes. In the so-called Corridor of the Procession, for instance, male and female figures bearing gifts or offerings march towards what may be a goddess. Meanwhile, on the Campstool Fresco, robed figures sit frozen, rigidly engaged in an exchange of cups. Images such as these have stylistic parallels in Mycenaean palaces where naturescapes, ebullient or otherwise, are conspicuous in their absence. Here processions, hunters with their dogs, and soldiers armed for battle have won the day. The Mycenaeans did, to be sure, possess an appreciation for Minoan art and for the Minoan artistic sensibility. The “aristocratic” shaft graves at Mycenae and other Mycenaean gravesites were filled with characteristically Minoan objects: animal head rhyta, butterfly “buttons,” a crystal duck, golden goblets depicting marine life and scenes of bull-leaping, seal-rings portraying “vegetable” worship, and the like. However, Mycenaean graves also yielded objects crafted in a Minoan style yet bearing scenes closer to the mainland heart. Such, for instance, are the famous gold ring embellished with a “battle in the glen,” and the delicately wrought “Lion Hunt Dagger” made of bronze inlaid with gold and silver against a niello background. In the end, the evolution, or de-evolution, of representation inspired by the natural world in Bronze Age Greece may best be illustrated by the fate of the octopus, which remained a favorite subject for vase painters. In the hands of Minoan artisans, the octopus veritably defined the shape of the vase it adorned with its strong, far-reaching tentacles. In the twelfth century, octopodes hailing from Mycenaean workshops are all googly eyes and limp tentacles. They float listlessly on the surface of the vase rather than wrap themselves around it. Later in that century, the octopus was reduced to an enervated squiggle, and finally, as Greece plunged into the Dark Age, it disappeared entirely, replaced by an even more basic ornamental repertoire of circles, triangles, and tired wavy lines. A true reflection of an intensifying anthropocentric tendency in the social ideologies of Greece, renewed and committed artistic interest in the natural world would have to await the passing of Alexander and the coming of Rome.

As the Dark Age drew to a close, decorative schemes on vases turned towards abstract geometric ornament applied to increasingly well-proportioned vases in such a way as to reveal and emphasize the structural components (neck, shoulder, belly, and foot) of the vases themselves. [62] Concentric circles and semicircles, together with wavy lines and a limited range of rectilinear motifs, were a favorite. The concern now was with the establishment of control and harmony on the part of a populace wishing to promote order in place of chaos. For those striving for a sense of permanence in a mutable universe, mimesis of unpredictable Nature’s forms would not be a primary impulse. When a recognizable life-form did appear—a rare occurrence on these Protogeometric vases—it was often that most prized of domesticated animals, a long-legged horse with arching neck and spine rendered in a curvilinear hand, standing timidly in, and utterly engulfed by, a field of confining, linear bands. [63]

Greek, Attic terracotta pyxis, Geometric Period, mid-8th century BCE / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Tendencies towards abstraction of animate forms intimated on Protogeometric vases were greatly amplified in the pursuant style known as the Geometric. Around 900 BCE there was a distinct shift from circular to rectilinear ornament, and the desire on the part of the artist to create an ordered design was exceptionally pronounced. The new Geometric vases were covered, head to foot, with registers or bands of repetitive ornaments including meanders, zigzags, triangles, chevrons, checkerboards, and dots, all patterns probably reflecting forms in the natural world but abstracted to a degree that their origins cannot easily, or unambiguously, be traced. The ultimate graphic control over Nature is abstraction. So great was the concern with controlling Nature as Greece emerged from its Dark Age that, after the birth of the Geometric style, a century would pass before recognizable figures drawn from the natural world began to appear with some regularity. The horse reappeared, now notably accompanied by its owner or handler, under bridle or pulling a chariot. Horses and their human masters were joined by a few other life forms, particularly deer or antelope and waterfowl, all of them, like human and horse, reduced to their essence expressed clearly and “simply” as a complex of “rationalized” geometric forms, bereft by abstraction of vital autonomy. [64] Horse and human made a tentative appearance at first, relegated to less than prominent zones, but by the high point of this style, they had shifted to center-stage. Deer and birds, meanwhile, remained relegated to subsidiary zones, their forms endlessly repeating just like the other bands of strictly “inanimate” ornament; they were bound, framed by bands that contained them, and at the same time, they themselves served as frames for increasingly popular scenes of war, hunt, and burial, all scenes reflecting the basic human struggle for survival. Ultimately, the Geometric style could be described as one of hysterical control. If nothing else, it was compulsively obsessive about the establishment of boundaries or limits, thereby reflecting the organizational principles of the nascent polis.

The Geometric style prevailed when the Homeric poems were substantially formed, and it shares with the poems not only a formulaic mentality but also an impulse to create order in human life by striving to impose order on Nature. Admittedly, a few isolated expressions of “landscape” can be found: for instance, two deer rear up heraldically on either side of a tree on a hydriafrom Chalcis, and an Argive kratēr ‘mixing bowl’ fragment depicts a bridled horse that stands on a speckled shore above a field of zigzagging waves, “surrounded” by his rider, a bird, two fish, and a group of spectators. [65] Still, the Geometric is not a style that strove for naturalism of any kind. Natural forms, when they do appear, are consistently limited in type and are methodically abstracted so that they can be controlled, confined, and, consequently, understood. The strict control that gave this style stability would, however, also serve as its undoing, for excessive rigidity ultimately constricts creativity.

As Greek contact with the Near East and Egypt increased, a new painting style developed under the influence of imported objects. [66] This new seventh-century style, the Orientalizing, provided artists with fresh possibilities: polychromy and a reconstituted repertoire of pictorial motifs. Rectilinear patterns yielded increasingly to more pliant ornaments such as intertwined cables, running spirals, “tongues,” rosettes, lotuses, and palmettes. These ornaments were vastly less abstracted than their Geometric predecessors, intended for a consumer base more settled and secure, less threatened by the environment—less threatened but threatened nevertheless, for a palpable concern with creating boundaries to constrain Nature lingers on throughout this period. Animals favored by Orientalizing painters, including the panther, lion, boar, goat, dog, and rooster, which amble rhythmically round and round the vases they embellish, are certainly much more “true to life” than those portrayed by Geometric artists, yet they remain strictly confined to registers, thus prevented from roaming over the picture field. Now too, as in the Geometric style, there is little vacant space; rosettes and other ornaments are sprinkled around and between the strolling herds. Far from being realistic renderings of animals in space, Orientalizing decorative schemes, particularly the best Corinthian, are pure, tapestry-like ornament, an impression enhanced by the fact that beasts drawn from the mythological sphere, such as the sphinx, siren, and griffin, frequently join creatures from the wild.

Heroes derived from the realm of myth would also make an appearance under Eastern influence, and it was their deeds, as well as deeds of more ordinary men and women, that ultimately captured the imagination of both painter and patron, now less attracted to genre scenes focusing on “survival” in the face of menacing Nature than their eighth-century counterparts. This was the case particularly in Athens, where a uniquely dynamic and experimental Orientalizing style was forged. Vases painted in this Protoattic style retain some features characteristic of the Geometric such as multiple bands of decoration, human figures rendered in silhouette but with frontal torso, and a pronounced horror vacui ‘dread of vacant space’, especially in early examples. However, figures, both human and animal, have a more organic appearance, and artists painted them not only in solid silhouette but also in silhouette combined with incision and outline, sometimes filled with white. Bold figured scenes, primarily inhabiting the vases’ prominent belly and neck zones, toy with the limiting authority of the bands that enclose them; a horse’s ear, a hoof, a hand, or a foot may break through such linear barriers. Still, these protective barriers remain, and they separate figured scenes from the registers of ornamental spirals, cables, rosettes, and leaves that constitute their frame. Strikingly, vegetable and other “natural” motifs became stylistically “frozen” both in appearance and in decorative application, while painters strove to render the human (and super-human) form ever more realistically. It is true that the odd chubby shrub or spiky tree appears in Protoattic figure scenes amid the general flutter of filling ornament from which it is sometimes nearly indistinguishable, and in such cases it serves as a sort of “shorthand” indicating that the scene represented is taking place out of doors. Most organic forms, however, would remain confined within ornamental bands or in relatively obscure zones such as those beneath a given vase’s handle or handles, serving in both instances as frames for the figured scenes that dominate the vase’s picture field. As the Greek poleis continued to define themselves spatially, politically, and ideologically, it was evidently perceived that humanity could flourish, human society could continue to evolve, only if Nature were held at bay.

Athens, the polis most confident in individuals to shape their own destiny in an adequately restrained environment, came to dominate the production of vases. Although the Black Figure technique was born in Corinth, it flourished in the hands of Athenian painters who wholeheartedly adopted it as the seventh century drew to a close. It is the Black Figure style that replaced the Protoattic. Characteristic of this style are figures painted in black silhouette enlivened by means of incised linear details and judiciously applied accents of red and white. Though elegant and distinctive, this technique had its limitations, and, as a result, Athenian vase painters created the splendid Red Figure style, which was in full swing by the last decades of the sixth century. [67] The new style involved the drawing of figures in outline and the use of black paint in dilution, whereby pictorial possibilities were greatly enhanced. Figures could more readily move in space and, through hatching and shading, could be given greater depth. In vases of both styles, artists concentrated their efforts on human and divine subjects, and increasingly lifelike figures continued to be framed by severely restricted intimations of the natural world. Ornamental vegetable borders persisted, as did the Protoattic landscape shorthand, and both were prevented from participating in the human activities that were the painters’ focus. [68]

When minimal landscape elements such as trees and boulders appear in the primary picture field, they tend to serve a limited number of representational purposes. On the most basic level, they are employed to set the scene outdoors, but they may also be used to specify a myth, to symbolize abstractions such as victory or immortality, or to serve as attributes of the gods. [69] Thus a burgeoning vine can often be found in depictions of Dionysus, and a serpent-guarded tree appears in illustrations of Heracles’ encounter with the Hesperides. A landscape feature may also set the scene for an everyday human activity; olive trees are a logical and necessary component in scenes of olive picking, and it is helpful for the sea to be included in portraits of fishermen. In all instances, it remains the case that the landscape elements, even at their most “expressive” or extensive are permitted to do nothing more than set the stage for the human drama.

Apparent exceptions to Nature’s confined role include two famous vases, one Black Figure and the other Red. The former, painted by Exekias ca. 530 BCE, represents Ajax crouching to plant the sword onto which he will presently throw himself (Figure 4). On his left stands the armor of Achilles, which, given to Odysseus rather than himself, motivates his suicide. On his right, slightly bent to mirror the disposition of Achilles’ armor, stands a solitary palm. On the second vase, dating to ca. 480 BCE, the Red Figure Kleophrades Painter has illustrated the various atrocities attending the fall of Troy (Figure 5). Here, in a many-figured scene, King Priam, fruitlessly seeking refuge on an altar and cradling his slain grandson in his lap, is savagely attacked by Neoptolemos. To one side of him Hektor’s beloved Andromache heroically attempts to obstruct the hostile assault of the Greeks, and on the other, Cassandra, clutching to the statue of Athena at whose feet she has sought sanctuary, is forcibly removed. Between the tragic scenes representing the death of Priam and the rape of Cassandra is, again, one lone palm. Relatively small, not an imposing natural form, it is dramatically bent to follow the general up-and-down disposition of figures in the scene. Overcome by emotion, we, the viewers, have done what Ruskin cautions we should not and have transferred our own sense of sorrow over Ajax’s suicide and the gruesome murder of Troy’s citizens to the landscape. [70]  Accordingly, both vases are cited as painterly instances of that “pathetic fallacy” in which human emotion is attributed to things that do not possess the capacity for experiencing emotion. [71] The Kleophrades Painter’s tree is said to weep and Exekias’ to be bent in sorrow. However, if we extricate ourselves from the excited state and temporary irrationality occasioned by our own emotional response, other more plausible interpretations present themselves.

Figure 4. Alone in the realm of Nature. Attic black-figure amphora: the suicide of Ajax. Attributed to Exekias, ca. 530 BCE. Collection du Château musée de Boulogne sur mer, inv. no. 558. Photo, courtesy of the Château musée de Boulogne sur mer.

Figure 5. The storm of war. Attic red-figure hydriaIliupersis. The Kleophrades Painter, ca. 500-450 BCE. Naples, Museo Nazionale Archeologico, inv. no. H2422. Photo, courtesy of the Museo Nazionale Archeologico.

It is instructive to bear in mind that there is a fundamental unity of the arts. Thus, for instance, tendencies or trends in painting can likewise be detected in contemporary sculpture and literature. If the painted palms weep and grieve, one would expect to find the natural world communing in the pathos of human life in other artistic media as well. Archaic and Classical sculpture and literature demonstrate nothing of the kind. Even Greek tragedy, a poetic medium designed to elicit pity and fear, yields no examples. [72] The most “pathetically” expressive tragic landscape, that of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, is a harsh landscape ironically and tragically incapable of consoling him. When Philoctetes describes the caves of the desolate isle on which he had been abandoned as having shared his watches and the mountains as echoing responses to his cries (1452–1460), it serves to emphasize the magnitude of the wrong done to him by his compatriots. Nature does not sympathize with Philoctetes, for this Nature is incapable of doing so. Rather, he has been forcibly, and wrongly, driven out of human society and has, as it were, descended to the level of a beast, thereby becoming a part of the environment. Fortunately for Philoctetes, it is not his destiny to live out his days in desolation and solitude. His own spirit, and the noble spirit of Achilles residing in Neoptolemos, elevates him from his debased existence in the natural world and restores him to the human realm.

Although the Philoctetes was composed when Athens was no longer in its prime, the play’s lessons may nevertheless be fruitfully applied to the interpretation of Exekias’ and the Kleophrades Painter’s vases. As he prepares to take his own life, Ajax is not so very different from Philoctetes on the island of Lemnos. Ajax, believing that the Atreidae and Odysseus had stripped him of his honor, deliberately severed himself from his social milieu. He had been denied the prestigious prize of Achilles’ armor, and the resulting fit of madness both revealed his human frailty and robbed him of the possibility for revenge. A life thus dishonored was not worth living. So Ajax, like Philoctetes, finds himself isolated from his social milieu, and when he retreats from society, he too stands alone in the realm of Nature. Exekias’ composition is stunning in its economy and in the emotion it conveys. The painting reveals everything we, the viewers, need to know. At this climactic moment, we see Ajax alone with only one witness, a solitary palm that is, by its very nature, unfeeling. The palm indicates that Ajax has been driven—or has driven himself—out of his circle of friends into the wild. The desolate wilderness is “where” Ajax is physically and psychologically. He is isolated and utterly alone. Meanwhile, the armor standing before him fleshes out the drama before our eyes; it tells us “why.” Nature does not mourn Ajax. This is a human drama played out by a man for an audience of his peers and family. They, and we, experience the weight of his loss.

In the case of the Kleophrades Painter’s painting, the viewer is moved again to compassion, sorrow, and even outrage at the brutality of the Greeks against fellow human beings. The Trojan War, like all wars before and after it, was a terrible thing. War brings out the worst in humanity, humanity’s bestiality. The Iliad demonstrates this fact in no uncertain terms. The solitary palm in the Kleophrades Painter’s composition does respond to the savagery brought against the city, specifically to the violent “storm” of war. The storm-battered palm embodies the war-as-storm metaphor; the palm, like the city, is destroyed as the human beast unleashes its fury. [73] In other words, the palm’s response is “physical” rather than emotional. As Adam Parry remarks, the very existence of the notion of pathetic fallacy depends on a “disconnect” between human society and the natural world. Fifth-century Greeks may certainly have felt more confident and less afraid than their Archaic predecessors in the face of the environment, but they perceived “no awful gap to be bridged between man and nature.” [74] They had not yet forgotten what it was like to feel the constant threat of Nature, and did not long for her influence and presence. Nature was not yet so remote that she was cherished. Neither poet nor painter was compelled to “make contact between himself and nature by attributing his emotions to the latter.” [75] By the middle of the fifth century, vase painters were just bold enough to relax their limitations on Nature somewhat, but they were never so bold, so utterly confident in the supremacy of humankind, as to abandon it completely. It was, however, now safe enough to set the stage for the human drama more elaborately.

The traditional explanation for this heightened sense of security and confidence is the Greek victory over the Persian forces at the beginning of the fifth century. The magnitude of the threat to Greece and the sense of validation in the wake of its victory should not be underestimated. [76] To the Greeks, Persia represented all that was brutal, uncivilized, irrational, and uncouth; Persia was very nearly a violent force of Nature. Among those artists inspired by Greece’s new confidence was the renowned muralist Polygnotos, who hailed from the island of Thasos. Though Polgynotos, whose floruit is dated between 475 and 450 BCE, was apparently also a sculptor, it is his skill as a painter that brought him public acclaim. Polygnotos’ work itself does not survive, but Pausanias’ descriptions of his paintings, remarks in the works of the Elder Pliny and Aristotle, and the evidence provided by contemporary vase painting have given us a reasonable impression of the nature of his work. Polygnotos was an innovator, and Pausanias’ description of his murals on the walls of the leschē ‘clubhouse’ of the island state of Knidos at Delphi reveals just how he broke new ground. Pausanias describes two murals, one representing “Troy captured and the Greeks setting sail” (Ἴλιος ἑαλωκυῖα καὶ ἀπόπλους ὁ Ἑλλήνων, Description of Greece 10.25.2) and the other depicting “Odysseus descended into Hades” (Ὀδυσσεὺς καταβεβηκὼς ἐς τὸν ᾍδην, Description of Greece 10.28.1). [77] A great fan of mythological trivia, Pausanias is interested primarily in the figures populating these murals, but his rambling mythological narratives are interspersed with some invaluable visual impressions. Figures are described as being above or below one another in the picture field. This would seem a small point were it not the case that the vases that are our exemplars of Greek painting prior to the time of Polygnotos were painted in such a way that all figures rest on a single ground line. By placing his figures on different levels, albeit apparently all drawn to the same scale, Polygnotos began to grapple with the problem of perspective and pictorial depth. The painter’s interest in the space inhabited by his figures extended also to defining the setting of their actions in more than abstract terms. [78] Pausanias reports that the Iliupersis ‘destruction of Troy’ contained representations of ships, tents, altars, the walls of Troy, and, most importantly, the sea’s pebbly shore. As for the Nekuia, Pausanias points to the waters of the Acheron with reeds growing in them and filled with shadowy fish. Upon these waters floats the ferry of Charon, and on their banks the souls of the dead stand in throngs. There are rocks too upon which souls can sit in this underworld landscape, and cliffs such as that whose summit Sisyphos, rolling along his rock, is compelled repeatedly to scale. One gathers from Pausanias that, while figures dominated the murals, there were more than just a few token indicators of landscape and that an effort had been made not just to portray the scenes as out-of-doors but in a specific location. Vase painters followed suit, and there are numerous examples of vases decorated in such a way that they reveal Polygnotos’ influence.

Young man with a hetaera, pelike, by Polygnotos, c.430 BCE / Archaeological Museum of Athens

Among the best exemplars of the Polygnotan landscape sensibility reflected in vase painting are the Niobid Painter’s name vase, which is a kratēr now in the Louvre’s collection, and the Lykaon Painter’s aforementioned Nekuia pelikē. The so-called Niobid kratēr depicts over a dozen figures ranging up and down the picture field. One side of the kratēr represents Artemis and Apollo killing the children of Niobe, and the other may depict Heracles’ descent to the underworld. In both scenes the figures’ locations in space are “secured” by a series of undulating ground lines indicating a varied terrain. In addition to the terrain itself, a solitary tree has been employed as a suggestion of landscape. That it is Lydia where the slaughter of the children of Niobe is set would be impossible to fathom from the undulating ground and solitary tree. Knowledge of the story is what makes the identification possible. The Lykaon Painter’s landscape, by contrast, is more expressive. The clump of reeds and deep crevasse in the rocky ground serve to identify the mouth of the underworld, the particular location where Odysseus performed the sacrifice required to lure the dead. The Lykaon Painter had learned his lessons from Polygnotos well. Indeed, this vase is likely a “copy” of Polygnotos’ Delphic Nekuia, no slavish copy but an original distillation. [79] The Lykaon Painter has few rivals in fleshing out and particularizing a landscape. Only the Sotades Painter’s cups come readily to mind: the apple picker reaching high to grasp her prize amid the branches of a dainty tree, Polyeidos with Glaukos in his cavern tomb, and Aristaeus with a serpent lurking in deep grass. [80] The cups in question, two of them fragmentary, have been decorated with scenes painted on a white ground, a technique more readily suited to adapting the diverse painterly effects of mural painting to the small “canvas” of a vase. Ironically, the creamy white paint used by the Lykaon Painter for the various features of his landscape and by the white ground painters as a background would prove to be unstable. The white ground technique quickly ceased to be employed in the fabrication of “masterpieces” and was reserved instead for more purposefully perishable funerary lekythoi ‘oil bottles’. On the Lykaon Painter’s vase, where it was used only for certain details, the white has all but disappeared, and his landscape is visible only upon closest inspection; his bold scheme contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

As inherently unstable and limited in scope as it was, the spatial play within the Lykaon Painter’s composition exemplifies painterly techniques that brought to a head what has been called “a crisis in the art of vase-painting,” because the spatial effects thereby achieved were “deeply at variance with the traditional Greek concept of what constitutes suitable decoration for a pot.” [81] A pot is a solid-walled vessel, and it should look like one. Spatial effects, however, broke down a vessel’s three-dimensionality. For this reason, vase painters used such effects with caution, but even then there was a sense that the proper limit had been, or might have been, overstepped. The Meidias Painter and his followers would seek to remedy this philosophical problem. Theirs was a style that staggered figures over the picture field and employed touches of landscape, but their figures, relatively small and surrounded by agitated swirls of drapery, appear to inhabit an unreal space. That is to say, these petite figurines were staggered less to suggest spatial depth than to cover the entire surface of a given pot ornamentally. In a sense, the old horror vacui that had informed the disposition of ornament on Geometric and Orientalizing vases had brought vase painting full circle. In the vase painter’s eyes, Nature might aspire to serve as a scenic backdrop for the human drama, but it most appropriately remained an ornamental frame, restricted and contained.

As the Homeric poems reveal, the human instinct to curb and control the potential threat of the natural world in the interest of survival would have to be accompanied by efforts to check that which is “bestial” in the makeup of humankind. From such a perspective, extreme emotion and tendencies such as violence, greed, lewdness, and lawlessness were all base, animal traits, proclivities unworthy of Greeks. Among the notable features of Polygnotos’ style was his choice of quiet, reflective moments in the mythological material that served as the basis for his murals as well as his ability to capture in paint the very essence of an individual’s character. For an artist, there could have been no greater challenge than to portray the human spirit or “inner life” without the hermeneutic crutch of “action.” Herein Polygnotos, whom Aristotle describes as agathos ēthographos ‘good at rendering the inner spirit’, was a master, as was the Lykaon Painter. [82] The calm and self-control of Odysseus upon encountering his deceased companion in the latter’s composition is almost uncanny, yet the depth of Odysseus’ emotion, suggested from his posture, is undeniable. For all its intensity, however, this emotion is thoroughly internalized. The same may be observed in the case of Elpenor who, like Odysseus, would have been overwhelmed by grief and joy but who, in full awareness that he has suffered the consequences of his own immoderate indiscretion, nevertheless stands stoically before the hero. In the sublimation of their emotion, both Odysseus and Elpenor are indistinguishable from the god who bears witness to their encounter. By exercising restraint and self-control, humanity could approximate divinity.

t is telling that the Lykaon Painter’s vase is the product of an Athenian workshop and that his Nekuia was inspired by a mural decorating a monument ostensibly erected solely by the island state of Knidos, but likely instigated by the prominent Athenian general and statesman Kimon and his circle. [83] As such the Knidian leschē could serve both as a thank offering for Kimon’s victory over Persia at the Eurymedon River and as a monument to Athens’ position of leadership in the Delian League. [84] Of all the Greek poleis, it was Athens, particularly in its so-called Golden Age, that most closely embraced and approximated the Homeric ideal of a polis-based society secure from the threat of all that was wild, inhuman, and “other.” This, at least, is the testimony of the official ideology displayed and disseminated by Athenian monuments and their imagery. Among these monuments is the Knidian leschē itself, whose walls had been decorated with scenes from the aftermath of the Trojan War: “Troy Captured” and “Odysseus descended into the underworld.” Neither of these scenes is inherently pro-polis, pro-Greek, or pro-Athenian, but both were creatively manipulated by Polygnotos in order to satisfy the wishes and needs of his clientele. Polygnotos apparently broke new ground in substituting a morning-after scene for the more familiar Iliupersis, destruction of Troy; the devastation of Troy and the slaughter or enslavement of its citizen body was not, after all, Greece’s shining hour. The Trojan War was ultimately won through deception, the ruse of the Trojan Horse, and the Greek victory was tainted by sacrilegious crimes that included breach of asylum, rape, and the desecration of temples. Polygnotos obscured all of this by re-focusing and re-casting the Iliupersis so that the Trojans’ barbarian otherness, their breach of xenia, their failure to chastise Paris for his extravagant lust—and therefore their condoning of it—would be uppermost in the viewer’s mind. The Greeks, meanwhile, were represented as merciful, restrained, even compassionate victors in battle waged for the noblest cause, the preservation of the moderate, divinely sanctioned Greek way of life. Recast in such a way, the Trojan War could serve as a paradigm for the Persian War. As for the Nekuia, Polygnotos embellished Homer’s vision by adding Theseus, Athens’ legendary king, as well as mythological personages from whom individual Athenians and member poleis in the Athenian-led, anti-Persian Delian League claimed descent. The Nekuia provided a “mythic-genealogical precedent for pan-Aegean identity and solidarity,” and, together with “Troy Captured,” it promoted “the ancient mythic origins of Athenian commitment and initiative within the larger, collective struggle of the Greeks to defend their ancestral traditions and standards.” [85]

The Greek victory over the invading forces of the massive Persian Empire in the early fifth century was the catalyst for the dedication of the Knidian leschē, and also the catalyst for Athens’ tremendous intellectual and artistic achievements later in the century. Above all, this victory propelled Athens to within virtual striking distance of the Homeric “political” ideal. Realization of Homer’s utopian vision would not have appeared beyond Athens, as its citizens had long evidenced a marked propensity for its dicta in their social structure, system of justice, cults, arts, and the physical disposition of their city. Through the efforts of statesmen such as Solon, Cleisthenes, and their many supporters, Athens had evolved from citadel to city-state and from kingship to democracy. However limited its scope, the importance of this empowerment of the people should not be underestimated. Considering, for perspective, the totalitarian nature of the great kingdoms of the Near East and Egypt, the Athenian democratic venture was truly remarkable. Political empowerment and representation are inextricably linked to the provision of popular access to the law and due legal process. This was clear to Draco, Solon, and Cleisthenes, each in his own right a utopian visionary, and their innovations were all in keeping with Homer’s sense of justice, personal responsibility, and collective decision-making. [86]

It is beyond dispute that the Athenians felt an innate connection to the substance of the Homeric epics; the tradition of the benign and enlightened Athenian tyrant Peisistratos’ call not only for the creation of standard editions or transcripts of the Homeric epics, but also for the performance of the epics in the context of the Greater Panathenaia, the city’s grand festival held to commemorate the day of its patron goddess’s birth, betrays as much. [87] In truth, Athena herself, the symbol and guiding light of Athens, perfectly reflected the Homeric utopian ideology, making her the ideal patron deity for Homer’s City at Peace and for Hesiod’s City of Justice. Born from the head of Zeus, the virgin goddess Athena signified the dominance of male over female, for by swallowing her mother, Zeus fully appropriated that most miraculous and potentially subversive of female powers, the power of generation. The story of Athena’s birth accordingly served as “an ideal paradigm of a social system in which the children are born from the mother but belong to the father.” [88] As Aeschylus’ Oresteia reveals, Athena was the veritable embodiment of Zeus’ justice. [89] She played a leading role in the great battle between the Olympian gods and the Giants who threatened Zeus’ hegemony, and her support of Zeus’ realm would remain unwavering. Hers was a pure wisdom accompanied by technical knowledge, not characteristically female cleverness or trickery. As patron goddess of professional artisans or craftsmen as well as women who worked at home, Athena enabled humankind to control and utilize the natural world. She was the inventor of the plow, the creator of the harness and bridle for horses, the designer of the first ship, and the champion of potters, weavers, and spinners. [90] Fierce and proficient in the art of war, she only drew on her bellicose talents to counter manifest aggression. The olive tree, hardy, noble, and life-sustaining, had been her gift to Athens and, by extension, to humanity. Appropriately, the most sacred cult statue of the goddess in Athens, the Athena Polias ‘guardian of the city’, was carved of olive wood. Both in cult and in myth, Athena was associated with the skilled craftsman Hephaistos who, as the creator of Achilles’ wondrous shield, provided the template for the resolution of the Iliad’s human crisis. In that epic tale, it is Hephaistos who facilitates the resolution of conflict, both among the gods and among mortals. [91] In the city of Athens, the temple of Hephaistos and Athena, built on the low hill that rises up beyond the western edge of the Agora, safeguarded the city’s civic and commercial life while Athena watched over the city as a whole from her grand house on the Acropolis.

Under the watchful eye of Athena and Hephaistos, Athens tamed the beast constituted by Dionysus, the deity, perhaps more than any other, associated with wild Nature. In essence a god of vegetation and of “liquid life,” he was also the god of release and abandon, the great and potentially terrible equalizer who blurred distinctions between young and old, slave and free, male and female, human and animal. In Athens, the wild abandon that once characterized his worship was artfully contained and ritualized, ultimately transformed into dramatic festivals. In the context of theatrical productions, actors could safely become “other”; the theater would prove to be an effective vehicle by which to comment upon or criticize contemporary society and politics while posing little danger of actually subverting or undermining the existing social order. [92]

Both ideologically and physically, the city of Athens corresponded to the Homeric model for the ideal polis. The wild Attic landscape was inscribed and exploited to its best advantage in an effort to ensure the safety and material prosperity of the Athenian people. Great walls surrounded the urban center and secured access, even in times of war, to the port of Piraeus. Outside these walls lay the city’s fields and pasturelands, the sustaining countryside. [93] It was here, outside the walls, that the majority of gardens lay, forming part of farms, gymnasia, and sanctuaries (Figure 6). Whether planted with shade trees, vineyards, or flowers, all of these suburban gardens were ultimately utilitarian, designed to enable and enhance both human endeavors and human relations with the gods. [94] Even the wildest places yielded their natural bounty to Athens. Mount Penteli served as a source for marble; Mount Parnes offered hunters an abundance of wild boars and bears; and Hymettos was reputedly the best pasture for bees. [95Meanwhile, within the city walls, the draining of the swampy area at the north of the Acropolis rendered it the most suitable place for the Agora. [96] Around its central space, a vast array of structures were built including temples, altars, fountain houses, law courts, multi-purpose stoai ‘detached colonnades’, offices of the magistrates, and the meeting hall of the Boulē ‘council’. Filling the spaces between the city’s civic and religious centers was a network of narrow, tortuous streets lined with houses. Judging from their scant remains, these houses essentially conformed to the typical Classical Greek houseplan, based on better-documented and understood archaeological finds at residential sites such as Olynthos. With its nearly impervious exterior façade and room-ringed interior courtyard, the typical house was introspective in the extreme (Figure 7). [97] A refinement of the womb-like cave, the house was a shelter constructed by human hands, consisting of spaces built to conform to human proportions and sensibilities as well as to human needs for security and sustenance in a hostile environment. As such, the house was at once a microcosm of the city and a macrocosm of the human body. [98] Notably, the Classical Greek house contained neither pleasure garden nor horticultural plot, and provisions were made for a separation of the sexes. [99] The female, physically more attuned to the rhythms and mysterious powers of Nature, was kept within the confines of the house while “pure,” wild Nature was excluded. By such two-fold constraint, it was hoped, Nature’s menace would be rendered impotent. As a result, “the monotony of closely huddled houses and buildings within the city walls was relieved only by scattered sanctuary groves or gardens of varying but rather modest size and by the agora which was … shaded by the planting of trees.” [100] Within the city walls, Nature was everywhere held closely in check.

Figure 6. Nature as parergonal frame; beyond the walls of Athens and Piraeus, and beyond the long parallel walls that connect them, Nature tamed resides. The garden districts of Classical Athens. Map after Maureen Carroll-Spillecke, ΚΗΠΟΣ: Der antike griechische Garten (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1989), 29, fig. 10.

Figure 7. Microcosm of the polis. Classical Athenian houses on the Areopagus. Plans after T. Leslie Shear Jr., “The Athenian Agora: Excavations of 1971,” Hesperia 42 (1973): 148, fig. 4. Reprinted courtesy of The American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

To what degree the Athenian polis had achieved dominance over wild Nature is most vividly illustrated by the Acropolis, which “celebrates the breaking of limits, the ready acquiescence of nature to human action, the victory of the polis over everything.”[101] This steep mass of stone in the coastal Attic plain, a natural lookout and bastion, was ideally suited for transformation into the citadel and primary sanctuary of the Athenian people. An erstwhile Mycenaean palace center, the Acropolis entered its classic phase under Pericles, who, by sheer force of character, dominated Athenian politics for some thirty years, from 461 until his death in 429. In the wake of the treaty with Persia known as the Peace of Kallias, Pericles successfully proposed to the Athenians that the Oath of Plataia, whereby the Greeks had vowed not to rebuild temples destroyed by the barbarian host, be nullified. The leading city in Greece, the “school of Hellas,” would have to look the part. [102] The focus of the so-called Periclean Building Program was, quite naturally, the Acropolis, and its centerpiece, its pièce de résistance, was the new temple of Athena, the Parthenon. [103] This venerable building’s complex and much-discussed architectural and iconographic vocabulary is the purest expression of the city’s, as well as its first citizen’s, utopian vision. [104] The architects’ and sculptors’ combination of Doric and Ionic features conveyed the idea of Athens as the divinely sanctioned, restrained, and just hereditary leader of the new Greek pan-Ionian alliance. Within Iktinos and Kallikrates’ marvel stood the massive, chryselephantine image of the goddess Athena. Virgin “mother” of the Athenian people, she appeared here with winged Victory in hand. Through her heroic efforts, the order of Zeus had survived the challenge of the intemperate Giants, and under her aegis, the Greeks had eliminated the threat of eradication at the hands of a vast barbarian horde. According to the Parthenon’s mythology, the Persian Wars were a reenactment of the Battle of the Gods and Giants. They were also shown to be a reenactment of battles between the Greeks and the savage, hubristic forces of Amazons, Centaurs, and Trojans (Figure 8). By linking these various contests and by associating them with Athena’s miraculous birth, prominently illustrated on the eastern pediment, the Parthenon represented Athena and her children as the guarantors of a civilized, patriarchal order and of the preeminent justice of Zeus. All this the sculptors rendered with exquisite and idealized “realism” under the guidance of the great Pheidias. It was Pheidias’ style, the absolute perfection and self-control infused into both the human and divine, which, perhaps more than any other single feature of the temple, lent credence to the Parthenon’s grandiose claim.

Figure 8. Greek versus beast. Relief metope from the Parthenon, Athens. South metope no. 27: Lapith and Centaur. British Museum, inv. no. 316. Photo, © Art Resource.

The thematic content of the Parthenon sculptures, as well as the Periclean Building Program itself, was unquestionably utopian in essence. Quite apart from visually promoting the ideal of a Hellenic world governed by self-restraint, nobility, and equity, the Program was designed to employ Athenians from a wide range of trades in projects of considerable scope so that all of them might share in the national wealth. [105] Still, as Plutarch reports, it was not without controversy that Pericles appropriated the funds from the purportedly pan-Hellenic and anti-barbarian Delian defense league for the adornment of Athens. [106] Had this man, described as a paragon of courage, moderation, and self-possession, gone too far? To those unaware that the Parthenon represented a fiction even at its inception, the truth would rapidly be revealed. It is deeply ironic that the Athenian state itself became increasingly democratic under Pericles while simultaneously infringing upon the sacred and inviolable self-governance, autonomia, of its so-called allies. The adoption of an aggressive imperialistic policy was Pericles’ and Athens’ grievous error, a classically tragic hamartia megalē ‘momentous mistake’, for it would rapidly lead to the city’s and also its charismatic leader’s demise. [107] In its dealings with the other members of the Delian League, Athens demonstrated qualities that it had attributed to others, namely the obsessive aggression of the Amazons, the unrestrained fury of the Centaurs, the unbridled covetousness of the Trojans, and the boundless hubris of the Persians. However lovely a fiction it was in its physical manifestation, the civic mythology of the Parthenon could never be considered noble. This the memory of Melos, whose adult male population was put to death and whose women and children were sold as slaves, at the very least ensures. Ultimately, unlike Homer’s Achilles, Athens was unable to contain the beast within. Had Athens been a city interspersed with pleasure gardens, had it embraced what is inherently benign and nurturing in Nature, in the beast, and in the barbarian, it might have become instead a model of eunomia ‘good order’. In the eyes of posterity, that distinction fell instead to Sparta.

Footnotes

1. Suggested by Hoekstra 1989 in his commentary on Odyssey 13.104–112. The nymphs’ cave on the island of Helios apparently had no provision for cult, thus rendering it a “pure” divine habitation. For a discussion of Porphyry’s provocative Neoplatonic reading of this passage, see Weinberg 1986:32–37.
2. Odyssey 6.7–10.
3. Odyssey 6.292 and Odyssey 7.129–131 respectively.
4. The Phaiakians are described as famed sailors at the following: Odyssey 7.39; Odyssey 8.191, 369; Odyssey 13.166; and Odyssey 16.227.
5. agathē kourotrophos (ἀγαθὴ κουροτρόφος, Odyssey 9.27)
6. Vidal-Naquet 1970:1284.
7. Cook 1995:154.
8. Cook 1995:154.
9. Odyssey 10.360–367.
10. Odyssey 6.218–231.
11. Luxurious olives, figs, pears, apples, and pomegranates are suspended above the head of Tantalus, but his “place” in the underworld is no cultivated garden (Odyssey 11.588–590)
12. The terms kēpos, orkhatos (also orkhos), and alōē, all meaning ‘garden/orchard/vineyard’, may be used interchangeably in keeping with the mixed-planting nature of utilitarian gardens in rural and suburban areas. All three terms are used to describe the gardens of Laertes and Alkinoos. Kēpos (κῆπος): Alkinoos’ at Odyssey 7.129; Laertes’ at Odyssey 4.737 and Odyssey 24.338. Orkhatos (ὄρχατος): Alkinoos’ at Odyssey 7.112; Laertes’ at Odyssey 24.222, 245, and 257. Alōē (ἀλωή): Alkinoos’ at Odyssey 6.293 and Odyssey 7.122; Laertes’ at Odyssey 1.193, Odyssey 11.193, and Odyssey 24. 221, 224, 226, and 336. For gardens in ancient Greece, see Gothein 1909; Carroll-Spillecke 1989, 1992a, and 1992b; and Carroll 2003:1–30. For gardens in Homer specifically, see Ferriolo 1989.
13. The gardens may, of course, also have grown plants the poet has not specifically mentioned. The correspondence of plants is noted in Hainsworth’s commentary (1988:329) on Odyssey 7.115–116.
14. Politics 1252–1253.
15. See, for instance, Redfield 1994:187 and Stanley 1993. Similarly, though with a new spin, Alden 2000:48–73, who represents the Shield as a para-narrative serving as a commentary on the plot of the Iliad and focuses on the issues of fitting compensation and arbitration highlighted in the Shield’s cityscapes and their main-plot associations.
16. Derrida 1987:61. This line of reasoning, together with the quote, is derived from Derrida’s discourse on Kant’s definition of ergon and parergon in the third Critique. Further discussion of textual parerga can be found in Giesecke 2002, where the focus is a highly referential Virgilian text.
17. Historically, the circle is the most common representation of ideal states and social orders; it was “intended both to signify and to assist a redemption of society,” Rowe 1976:207. The Shield that appears in this text is a critical response to those of Willcock 1984:270 (which, when I juxtaposed it to a map of Classical Athens and its extra-mural gardens, led me to the realization that the Shield is Homer’s map of the ideal polis) and van Leeuwen 1912:672. Like van Leeuwen, I thought it redundant to depict Earth at the Shield’s center and felt that the Dance should be relegated to its own ring as representative of human collaborative efforts to contain Nature, examples of which efforts the “landscapes” of the rings interior to it portray. On my Shield, unlike those of Willcock and van Leeuwen, herdsmen and lions have been representationally opposed as they are in constant competition/tension with respect to control over the cattle and sheep. Further, the lions, which Homer describes as attacking the cattle, are represented here as spatially and thematically aligned with the City at War. Neither van Leeuwen nor Willcock included “Sacrifice” in their schemes, and it is included here (in the position that it is) to signify that killing may, if ritualized, take place peaceably and that sacrifice may be a way of reconciling the Cities at War and Peace. On the Shield’s boss, heavenly bodies have been relegated to the centermost position, as they are separate from, “above,” sky and sea.
18. Marin 1984:42.
19. Marin 1984:42.
20. Mumford 1965:3.
21. Mumford 1965:3.
22. Mumford 1965:13.
23. This pattern of fours is observed by Hubbard 1992:28. According to Hubbard, there are four main vignettes within the Cities at War and Peace complex: the wedding, the trial, the city besieged, and the ambush. These images are followed by four agricultural scenes, each selected in accordance with the passage of seasons, and by the dance sequence, in which four sets of participants, dancers, spectators, a bard, and acrobats, appear.
24. As Edwards 1991:200–233 points out, the reconstruction of Homer’s poetic masterpiece is fraught with difficulties arising from the simple fact that the poet is not describing an actual object. While it is the case that realizing a “true” graphic representation of the Shield is beyond the audience’s grasp, Homer’s syntax in describing the various scenes coincides with archaeologically attested representation in concentric bands. As for the dancers, they must necessarily constitute the “outermost” of the earthly images—whether the audience perceives them physically or metaphysically “located”—on the grounds that they are the last group of humans whom the poet describes. In van Leeuwen’s reconstruction (1913:672), they inhabit their own “ring” contiguous to Ocean.
25. The word temenos (τέμενος) ‘a piece of land cut off’, is, of course, lexically bound to the verb temnō (τέμνω) ‘to cut’.
26. See Cunliffe 1963:158 on the applications of the term herkos.
27. In the City at Peace, the elders with whom judgement in this trial rests are described as seated on smoothed stones arranged in a sacred circle. Each arises in turn from his seat when he pronounces his judgement (Iliad 18.503–506).
28. For a discussion of the setting of limits for penalty and compensation, see Nagy 2003:72–87.
29. This is noticed and amply elucidated in Nagy 1990 (especially 53–80), upon which the points in this paragraph are based.
30. For the quote, see Nagy 1990:73.
31. These thematic categories are detailed in Redfield 1994:188–189. Redfield 1994:188–192 also demonstrates how the similes present Nature as a force threatening the security of humanity.
32. πλείη μὲν γὰρ γαῖα κακῶν, πλείη δὲ θάλασσα· Works and Days 101 (West 1978:99 ad loc). οὐδὲν ἀκιδνότερον γαῖα τρέφει ἀνθρώποιο, Odyssey 18.130.
33. Redfield 1994:192. See also Edwards 1993:34–37 on categories of subject matter in the similes.
34. See Redfield 1994:283n60 for a list of these sorts of similes. They include images of women working ivory and wool as well as images of men shearing, cutting wood, and building.
35. I have adopted Kirk’s definition, ‘chirruping’, of the problematic word leirioessan (λειριόεσσαν) here (1985:283–284). As one who lives in a woodland that resonates with the cicada’s voices in the heat of the summer, I find it hard to believe that Homer intended to mock the discourse of the elders, however slightly, by means of this comparison. The song of the cicadas is very, very clear, almost deafening at times. It is stunningly impressive, and it is certainly authoritative. Further, its pitch modulates, progressing to an animated crescendo and then falling again. So too must be the speech of the elders as they observe the bloodshed and heroism at the foot of the walls atop which they are seated.
36. Kim 2000:141.
37. Segal 1963:20.
38. On the definition of “pastoral” and “pastoralism” with reference to verbal and visual discourse, see Hunt 1991.
39. οὔνομα μευ Σαπφώ, τόσσον δ᾽ ὑπερέσχον ἀοιδῶν/ θηλειᾶν ἀνδρῶν ὅσσον ὁ Μαιονίδας, Palatine Anthology 7.15.
40. The Sapphic text and its translation are from Page’s 1955 edition, 87–88.
41. Page 1955:92–96.
42. Thompson and Griswold 1982:14. See also Carroll-Spillecke 1989:2.
43. See Page 1955:91, specifically the note on lines 13–14.
44. For the poem, see Page 1955:34.
45. Cole 2000:481.
46. See Cole 1994:199.
47. Antonaccio 1994:84 is the source of the quote. See also Snodgrass 1991:18.
48. Antonaccio 1994:103.
49. See de Polignac 1994:3–8 for the exchange and interchange aspect of sanctuaries, and see page 13 specifically for the quote.
50. de Polignac 1994:15.
51. Osborne 1994:144.
52. For the demarcation and planting of sanctuary gardens, see Carroll-Spillecke 1989:34–38.
53. For a more thorough discussion of the vase’s iconographic content, see Giesecke 1999a. Descriptive material from that essay has been summarized here.
54. Beazley in Caskey and Beazley 1954:88.
55. Beazley in Caskey and Beazley 1954:88.
56. Caskey 1934:40.
57. The translation here is Beazley’s from Caskey and Beazley 1954:87.
58. Caskey 1934:43.
59. Caskey 1934:43.
60. Evidence of fortifications on Minoan Crete, largely deemed Protopalatial in date, is controversial.
61. I follow Immerwahr 1990:159–160 and 1977, as well as Vermeule 1964 here. For a survey of the arts in the Bronze Age, see Hood 1978, and for fresco painting specifically, see Immerwahr 1990.
62. Surveys of the Geometric Style in Greek vase painting include: Benson 1970; Biers 1987:105–125; Boardman 1998:7–82; Coldstream 1977:25–271; Hurwit 1985:71–124; and Robertson 1975:14–21.
63. On the appearance of “living” forms on Geometric vases, see especially Boardman 1983.
64. In Pollitt’s words, the approach of Geometric artists was to “pare away details which seemed inessential in a form in order to bring out its underlying geometric structures and then to reassemble these structures into a new proportional harmony that was independent of form as it appeared in nature” (1985:98).
65. These examples appear in Coldstream 1977; the Argive kratēr fragment is figure 45b on page 143, and the Chalcidian hydria is figure 61b on page 193.
66. For surveys of post-Geometric vase painting Archaic through Classical, see Hurwit 1985:125–248, Boardman 1998 and 1974, and Robertson 1975:21–33 and 120–139. On the appearance of Oriental influences generally, see Burkert 1992 (especially 9–40).
67. For surveys of the Classical Red Figure style, see Boardman 1975 and 1989, as well as Robertson 1975:214–270, 322–327, and 1992.
68. On natural forms and the border in Greek vase painting, see Hurwit 1977 and 1992.
69. This categorization is Hurwit’s 1991:43.
70. See Ruskin 1906, “Of the Pathetic Fallacy.”
71. See, for instance Hurwit 1991:1–53 and, alternatively, Robertson 1975:234 and 1992:63.
72. This is a reference to Aristotle’s view (Poetics 1452b32) of the emotive responses appropriate to the well-conceived tragedy.
73. The phrase “human beast” is borrowed from Zola 1958 (La bête humaine), but without specific reference to the content of Zola’s work.
74. Parry 1957:5.
75. Parry 1957:5.
76. Pollitt 1985 (especially 100–103), in response to recent efforts at downplaying the impact of the Persian Wars in the development of Greek art, argues for absolute necessity of viewing the wars as a catalyst for artistic achievement.
77. For simplicity, “Troy captured and the Greeks setting sail” will be referred to as Iliupersis, and “Odysseus descended into Hades” as Nekuia in the discussion that follows. The Greek text reproduced here is derived from Hitzig’s Teubner editions of 1896 and 1907 respectively.
78. On the innovations of Polygnotos, see Robertson 1992:180–190, 210–215 and Giesecke 1999a:66–67.
79. See my fuller discussion of this issue in Giesecke 1999a:66–68.
80. Simon 1985:77 describes these as “idyllic landscapes.”
81. Robertson 1992:180 and 133, respectively.
82. ὁ μὲν γὰρ Πολύγνωτος ἀγαθὸς ἠθογράφος, Poetics 1450a27–28.
83. See Castriota 1992:90–132 on the role of Athens in the Knidian project.
84. Castriota 1992:90. It is Castriota’s discussion (1992:90–132) upon which the thematic observations regarding Polygnotos’ Iliupersis and Nekuia are based.
85. Castriota 1992:94.
86. I do not wish to imply that Athens had a monopoly on utopian visionaries. I would count as such all the lawgivers and statesmen who worked to improve the lot of the citizen body of their various poleis.
87. See here Nagy 2002 (especially 7 and 86–98), who notes that Athens, particularly in its celebration of the Panatheneia, played an important role in shaping what would become the definitive “texts” of the Iliad and Odyssey.
88. Arthur 1982:77.
89. See Zeitlin’s discussion (1978) of the Oresteia.
90. For a summary of Athena’s various powers and prerogatives, see Hurwit 1999:17.
91. On the role of Hephaistos in the Iliad, see Stanley 1993:25 and Hubbard 1992.
92. See Cartledge 1997 for the social function of the theater, and Henrichs 1990 on Dionysus between the city and wild Nature or “the country.”
93. The importance of the countryside to the city of Athens is discussed in great detail by Osborne 1987 and Tomlinson 1992, both of which are among the works consulted here.
94. On gardens outside the walls of Athens, see Carroll-Spillecke 1989:passim and 1992:84–101.
95. So Pausanias Description of Greece 1.32.1.
96. On the problem of dating the draining of the Agora, see Tomlinson 1992:51–52.
97. Jameson 1990:183 cites “being invisible to the outside world” as the major aim of the Greek house. For a description of the “typical” Greek house see: Ault 2000, Brödner 1989:298–302, Hoepfner and Schwander 1994, Nevett 1999, Rider 1964, and Wycherly 1978:237–252.
98. This line of discourse was inspired by Agrest 1991:173–195, building on Alberti 1965.
99. As Antonaccio 2000 argues, this separation may have been less architectural than “ideological” or “conventional.”
100. Carroll-Spillecke 1989:82.
101. Scully 1991:65.
102. Thucydides Peloponnesian War 2.41.1.
103. For thorough treatments of the Periclean Building Program, see Camp 2001:72–137, Hurwit 1999:154–221, and Tomlinson 1992:56–61.
104. Works reviewed in constructing this brief thematic summary include Castriota 1992:134–229, Hurwit 1999:154–245, Pollitt 1972:64–110, Robertson 1975:292–321 and 1981:90–130, and Scully 1991:65–97.
105. Plutarch Pericles 12.
106. Plutarch Pericles 12.
107. This is, of course, a reference to Aristotle’s remarks on the factors that “make” a tragic hero. Among them is a hamartia megalē ‘momentous mistake’ (ἁμαρτίαν μεγάλην, Poetics 1453a15–16).

Originally published by The Center for Hellenic Studies under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. From “The Epic City: Urbanism, Utopia, and the Garden in Ancient Greece and Rome”, by Annette Lucia Giesecke (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

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