The Lion Gate was the main entrance of the Bronze Age citadel of Mycenae, southern Greece. It was erected during the 13th century BC in the northwest side of the acropolis and is named after the relief sculpture of two lionesses or lions in a heraldic pose that stands above the entrance. / Wikimedia Commons
The Minoan Civilization
Archaeological site Minoa on Amorgos, general view / Wikimedia Commons
I’m going to talk to you today about the beginnings of the Greek experience as far as we know it, and I should warn you at once that the further back in history you go the less secure is your knowledge, especially at the beginning of our talk today when you are in a truly prehistoric period. That is before there is any written evidence from the period in which you are interested. So what we think we know derives chiefly from archeological evidence, which is before writing — mute evidence that has to be interpreted and is very complicated, and is far from secure. Even a question such as a date which is so critical for historians, is really quite approximate, and subject to controversy, as is just about every single thing I will tell you for the next few days. These will be even more than usual subject to controversy even the most fundamental things. So what you’ll be hearing are approximations as best we can make them of what’s going on.
We begin our story with the emergence of the Bronze Age in the Aegean Sea area. That appears to have taken place about 3000 B.C. I think these days they date it down about another century to about 2900. Precision is impossible; don’t worry about that. And what we find, the first example of a Bronze Age — and I use the word civilization now for the first time, because before the Bronze Age — there is nothing that we would define as civilization. Civilization involves the establishment of permanent dwelling areas that we call cities, as opposed to villages. Agricultural villages will have existed all over the place in the late Stone Age, in the Neolithic Period, as it is known. But there is a difference and the critical difference is that a city contains a number of people who do not provide for their own support. That is to say, they don’t produce food. They need to acquire it from somebody else. Instead, they do various things like govern and are priests, and are bureaucrats, and are engaged in other non-productive activities that depend upon others to feed them. That’s the narrowest definition of cities.
Of course, with cities we typically find a whole association of cultural characteristics, which we deem civilization. Well, that’s what we see for the first time in the Aegean area on the island of Crete. That civilization was uncovered by the archaeologists right at the beginning of the twentieth century. Sir Arthur Evans, an Englishman, was responsible for the major work that has revealed that civilization. He was captivated by it, he — at one point I think he convinced himself that he was a descendant of the kings of that civilization. But in any case, he named it. He named it after the legendary King of Crete who appears in Greek mythology by the name of Minos. So he referred to that civilization as the Minoan civilization. When we use the word Minoan we mean the civilization whose home is Crete. It spread out beyond Crete because the Minoans established what we might want to call an empire in various parts of the Mediterranean, and it starts with Crete. It is a Bronze Age culture, and it is the first civilization we know in the area.
What we find in the Minoan civilization — I mean the main place we can learn about this civilization was the city of Knossos, located on the northern shore of Crete where a great palace complex was discovered and is available. By the way it’s an absolutely beautiful site, a great tourist site; you can see quite a lot there. Anyway, when you examine that site and draw the conclusions that are inevitable from examining it, and, also I should have said, all of the Minoan settlements, you realize that they look and seem very much like older civilizations that have grown up in the Ancient Near East. The real sort of typical home of the kinds of things were talking about is Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, the Tigress, Euphrates Valley, which spread out beyond Iraq and went up into Syria and neighboring places. It, too, was very similar to the civilization, but apparently a little bit newer in the Nile Valley in Egypt, about which we know a great deal more than we know about the Minoans because, as you know, in the nineteenth century, scholars discovered how to read the languages that were written in Egypt and in Mesopotamia. So, they were able to develop something approaching history for the period we’re talking about.
That is not true for Crete because, although they had a script — and we have available to us tablets with those writings on them — to this day no one has deciphered the language written by the Minoans. Therefore, we don’t have that kind of knowledge. So barring that, nonetheless, what we see reminds us very much of these ancient Bronze Age early civilizations. So, this will be significant as we talk about how the Greeks differed from them, which gets us to the Greeks. The Minoans are not Greeks. Strictly speaking, what do we mean when we say somebody is Greek? We mean that his native language, not one that he’s acquired subsequently, but the one that he learned as a child, was Greek, some version of the Greek language. These are linguistic terms. But of course, the people who spoke them, especially in the early years, tended to be part of a relatively narrow collection of people, who intermarried with each other chiefly, and therefore developed common cultural characteristics. So of course, the language is only a clue. When you speak about Greeks you will be speaking about something more than merely the fact that they spoke a certain language.
In the nineteenth century, there was a lot of talk about races. There were people who spoke about the Greek race, or similar races, for quite a long time in the science of anthropology and subjects like that. It’s been determined that those terms are inappropriate. They suggest there is something in the genes that explains the characteristics of particular people; that is certainly not true. So let’s understand each other. We’re talking about a culture when we’re talking about the Greeks, which is most strikingly signified by the language that is spoken.
The way we can reason things out from the evidence we have suggests that Greek-speaking peoples came down into the area around the Aegean Sea, perhaps around 2000 B.C., about a thousand years later than the emergence of the Minoan civilization at Crete. And again, I think these days they tend to down date it by another century or so, so it might be around 1900 B.C. We really don’t know very much about these early Greek settlers. We begin to know more about three or four hundred years down the road, when there appear buildings and settlements in the world later inhabited by the Greeks, as we know, to which we give the name Mycenaean.
Mycenaean Language and Writing
Left: Phaistos Disc with Linear A script from Minoa, Right: Tablet with Linear B script from Mycenae / Wikimedia Commons
That derives from one site in the northeastern Peloponnesus called Mycenae, and the name is given because in the poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the leading Greek king, the man who is the leader of the expedition to Troy, is Agamemnon, who was king of the Argolid region and his palace and his home are at Mycenae, and that’s why we call the entire culture, the Bronze Age culture, running from about 1600 to perhaps as late as 1100, but perhaps not so late. That’s what we mean when we speak about the Mycenaeans and the Mycenaean Period. And please keep in mind that they are Greek speakers; and we know this with confidence, something we didn’t know at the beginning of the twentieth century, because written evidence is available on a bunch of clay tablets that were accidentally baked in some conflagration in these places.
The same thing is true of Knossos in Crete, and perhaps a few other sites in Crete. Not at the same time, but the reason we have any written evidence at all is that there was some kind of conflagration that produced a fire that baked clay into pottery. In the normal course of events, clay dissolves and disappears, and any message on it is erased. In other words, this was not meant to be a record to be left for the future. It was an accident. These things that we discovered were meant for a practical usage in ways that I will tell you about in a little while. So, anyway, that writing — let me back up a step. When Evans found writing at Knossos, he found two — well, he actually found seven, but only two that turned out to be significant — two kinds of script. I shouldn’t even say script; that sounds like he’s writing a nice cursive line. There were two kinds of writing. Because he couldn’t figure out what they were, he called one Linear A and the other Linear B, because he could tell by careful analysis that they were different, and he could tell which pieces belonged to which.
Linear A is earlier and it is associated with and it is clearly the language used by the Minoan kings at Knossos and other places. Linear B resembles Linear A, but it is clearly different and later, and one reason we know that comes mostly from stratigraphy, but we can also tell because it’s a much simpler script, but by no means simple. These are not alphabets; these are syllabaries, every symbol represents a syllable; in other words, typically two letters rather than one. That’s a nice step over having loads, and loads, and loads of symbols representing lots of things which is true more of Linear A than Linear B, but it’s still — we’re talking about something approaching sixty symbols in a syllabary and when you think about how hard it is to learn to read when you’re only using twenty-six symbols, and how few Americans do learn to read, which I keep reading in the paper — it’s not an easy thing. It’s not a simple matter. Imagine what it would be like if you had to learn about sixty such things? Well, of course, what follows from all of that is that ordinary people did not.
What we learn ultimately from our decipherment of Linear B — which I’ve just skipped over, which was done in the 1950’s by a brilliant young architect, who loved solving problems of this kind, he was able to discover that this was an early form of Greek and that he could essentially make out what it said. At first there was doubt and controversy, which has completely gone away, as more and more examples of this writing have become available and scholars are now able, by and large, to be confident that they know what these things say. So, the fact that this was a Greek script that was available in the Mycenaean Period tells us very confidently that the Mycenaeans were Greeks. But of course, a lot was known about these Mycenaeans well before the syllabary was deciphered.
It’s worth saying a word about that, because I want to undermine any great confidence that you may have and what you can believe that scholars tell you, because we keep finding out how wrong we are about all kinds of things. I would say, if you walked into the leading universities in the world, there would probably be Germans in the 1850’s and you went to the classics people, and you said, “well, you know Homer wrote about these places, Mycenae and other places, can you tell me where that was?” They would say, “You silly fellow, that’s just stories, that’s mythology, that’s poetry. There never was an Agamemnon, there never was a Mycenae, there isn’t any such thing.” Then in 1870, a German businessman by the name of Heinrich Schliemann, who had not had the benefit of a university education and didn’t know what a fool and how ignorant he was, believed Homer, and he said he wanted to look for Troy. So, he went to where people thought Troy might be and he began digging there, and before you know it, he discovered a mound filled with cities, which he believed was Troy. And after the usual amount of scholarly debate, there seems to be no doubt that it was the City of Troy. So having succeeded with that, he thought well, now that I’ve seen Troy, how about Mycenae? Off he went to the northeast Peloponnesus to the site where he thought it might be, Mycenae, from Homer’s account — I wouldn’t be telling you this story, and you know the outcome. He found it and it was the excavation of the site of Mycenae which was soon followed by the excavation of other sites from the same period that made it possible for people to talk about this culture, even before they could read the script.
The Citadel, Farmland, Burials and the Oil Trade
Mycenae Citadel grave circle / Wikimedia Commons
The culture is marked by some of the following features. Let’s take Mycenae, which is maybe the best example of the whole culture. Certainly, it’s a perfect model for what we’re talking about. What you have to begin with is a town or a city, or a settlement of some kind built on top of a hill, and it’s usually intended to be a formidable hill, one not easily accessible to anybody who comes walking along, a place, in other words, that would make a very nice fort, a citadel. That’s, indeed, what we find at Mycenae. On that citadel, on that strongly, rocky fort or citadel, they built what we now identify as the royal palace, the palace of the king. That was, I should point out, maybe about ten miles from the sea. Now, not all Mycenaean sites are so far from the sea; some of them are closer, but what it’s important to say is that none of them are right on the sea. They’re always back some few miles. The reason for that I think is that the early times in which these civilizations arose saw all kinds of dangers coming, and the most — the swiftest, the least suspected, the one that could come upon you overnight came from the sea.
People who came by land you would be hearing rumblings about down the road from villages that were spread out, but if somebody comes in from the sea on a ship, you may find them there in the morning and you don’t know what’s what. So the idea for security and safety, they built their estates far from the sea, but not far because as we shall see the Mycenaean civilization was a commercial one that relied for its wealth upon trade and that meant trade by sea, more than by land. The citadel is always surrounded by farmland, and, of course, you cannot live in ancient society if you are not surrounded by farmland, because the food that comes from the soil is essential for life, and you can’t count on trade to provide it to you with any security. Later on when times are more secure, there’s trade for grain as well for everything else, but when you’re settling a place in the first place, you can’t rely on somebody bringing it to you. You’re going to have your own people working it, and bringing it up to you themselves. So, the citadel and the farmland surrounding it, make up fundamentally the unit which is the Mycenaean kingdom.
The first thing that Schliemann found when he dug at Mycenae was this remarkable circle of graves, which were shafts dug straight down into the soil, and they are referred to, to this day, technically as shaft graves, and then in other places not very far from that main hill, they found even more remarkable burials, what we call beehive tombs. Just imagine a huge beehive, in which let’s say, the center of the inside of that might be as much as fifty feet high or more, and these were built of extraordinarily huge, heavy stones and very well worked too. Here’s the marvelous thing. The reason he had to uncover it was that beehive tombs, like everything else, were buried. This wasn’t just the results of centuries of neglect, it is clear that they were built in order to be buried. That is to say, it was some kind of a big religious thing going on here, where the king — it was obviously a royal thing because the cost of it was so enormous; nobody else could afford a tomb of that kind. So, here was a royal tomb closed forever and yet built at a fantastic expense and enormous kind of labor.
The same is true in a general way of what we find in the royal palace up on top of the hill at Mycenae, and so what is perfectly clear is the people who ruled these places were enormously powerful, at least locally, and wealthy. Even if you imagine that slaves did the work, you would need a hell of a lot of them, over a long period of time, and you had to feed them, if nothing else. So, we are talking about a wealthy group, and of course, the thing that struck Schliemann almost amazingly was that in the circle of graves that we’ve been talking about, he found all kinds of precious things buried. The most striking of which were death masks made of pure gold on the remains of the body, but also jewels, and implements, and weapons of very high expense. That’s what, of course, makes it clear they were royal; by the way, there are only a few of these graves over a large period of time. So, you must imagine these are successive kings who are being buried in this, what must have been, sacred soil. So, that makes it clear we’re talking about a wealthy civilization, at least in which the rulers are wealthy, and in which the rulers, of course, are very powerful.
What we learn, both from archaeology and from references in the Linear B tablets is that they engaged — these cultures engaged in trade to a significant degree. You find Mycenaean elements, tools, other things, pottery particularly of a certain kind, all over the Mediterranean Sea. You find it in datable places and that’s why we can give this some kind of date, such as in Egypt. The Mycenaeans had regular trade with Egypt. We find Egyptian things in Mycenae and vice versa, and also presumably, much of it must have gone into Mesopotamia; some of it went all the way to the Western Mediterranean. This was a civilization that was not shut in on itself, but was in touch with the entire Mediterranean region. The major thing they seem to be selling were aromatic oils in little vials. Think of them as some combination of oil and perfume. I better say something about oil in the ancient world, so that you get a grip on what’s going on here.
The ancient Greeks had no soap. Think about that for a moment. That’s a problem, isn’t it? Yet, they wanted to get clean and so what device they used was to take oil, typically olive oil, spread it on themselves, then get a scrapper, a metal scrapper, and scrap off the oil with it what was underneath the oil. And then finally, they would take their bath and out they would come and be clean. Now, oil is a wonderful thing; olive oil is a great thing. In certain forms you eat it. The olive itself, you use it to cook with as oil; some people just put oil on their salad. I, myself, can’t stand it but — the point is — but that’s not all. If you get oil, crush the oil from the olives that come down from the trees, that’s a nasty smell that it has. So if you’re going to use it for this purpose, it’s not going to be good by itself. You’ve got to put some nice perfume onto it, in order for it to be useable, just as your soap would be pretty horrible without any perfume on it. So it looks as though what the Mycenaeans did — Greece is filled with wonderful olive trees and so they obviously took the oil from those olives. I’m sure they sold it in various forms, but one of the most popular was for this purpose.
Everybody in the Mediterranean wanted it for the same reasons, and obviously these Mycenaean sites had access to what they needed. It looks like, by the way, that they got much of the perfume from areas outside of Greece. Some of the best of it came from northeast Africa, as a matter of fact. You remember the Queen of Sheba from the Bible? I say that, but I shutter to think how many of you have read the Bible, but anyway, she was so rich as to attract the interest of King Solomon, because that’s where those wonderful, fine smelling things, frankincense and myrrh, and stuff like that was available — useful for this purpose. So they had to import that to make their goods as saleable as they wanted and so on. So you have trade with the Mediterranean and most especially the eastern Mediterranean, because that’s where the older, more sophisticated, more civilized cultures were and that’s where wealth was too, compared to what was out in the west. So, that’s also the pattern of trade.
Cultural Unity, Agriculture, Religious Authority
Mycenaean fresco of farmer / Wikimedia Commons
What you see is a kind of cultural unity, first of all, within the Mycenaean world itself. It is evident that these different Mycenaean towns, all throughout the Greek world, on both sides of the Aegean Sea, were in touch with each other. One of the things that’s interesting about that is you can see pottery styles that you can hardly tell whether they came from one end of the Mediterranean or another, if they’re of the Mycenaean variety, because it was a single culture. I don’t mean there were no local variations, but there was this general unity. I’m going to contrast that with the situation in Greece after the fall of the Mycenaean world, and I was going to say not just in the Mycenaean towns themselves, but over the entire Aegean Sea and indeed across the Mediterranean. In the years of the Mycenaean Period, roughly from 1600 to 1100 or so B.C., you are dealing with a largely unified culture. What is it? What do we talk about the world like these days? What’s the cliché? Globalized world; it was a globalized world, except it was a little piece of the globe. But they didn’t really know or care about very much outside of the Mediterranean area.
In the respects that I have spelled out, and I mean chiefly the fact that they were engaged in commerce and industry to some degree and that they were a trading people and that they were in touch with one another and so on, they were already similar to the civilizations that came before them in the ancient Mediterranean Near East. In those places, in Egypt, the Pharaoh, and in Mesopotamia at first individual city states were ruled in the same way as everybody else I’m going to be talking about now, by somebody who is a king, a monarch, a one-man ruler who is the warlord, commander of the armies, who has the control of the power in the state, but more than that, all the economic activity that we find — and our best example of what I’m about to say is in Mesopotamia — in the cities of Tigress-Euphrates Valley. The ruler there, from his palace, assisted by vast groups of bureaucrats directed the economy of his land entirely and fully. Agriculture was overwhelmingly the activity, the most important activity of the people of that area, of any area.
So, we have evidence that the king doled out seed for planting, instructed people just exactly when to plant, where to plant, what to plant there, when to fertilize it if they did. In Mesopotamia they usually didn’t need to because the richness of the soil and so on. In other words, you have a degree of centralized control of true, monarchical power, of a wealthy monarchical power. Already the model is there in Asia. Again, I want to say it’s the same but in a special way in Egypt, because in Egypt the whole Nile Valley — because I think of the nature of the Nile Valley — became totally centralized, under the rule of one man, the Pharaoh, and he commanded the whole thing. It took longer for anything like that to happen in Mesopotamia, although it ultimately did. When we get, for instance, down to about 1750 B.C. in Mesopotamia, Babylonia, which is at that point the dominant kingdom of the area, King Hammurabi has just about the same power as a Pharaoh would in Egypt.
It’s also worth pointing out that these rulers had full religious authority for their rule. In the case of the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Pharaoh was himself a god, and insisted on being worshipped in that way. In Babylonia, for instance, and this I think was typical, Hammurabi was not a god, but as we know, thank God, by the great steely that he left, which is now in the Louvre. The law code of Hammurabi is available to us and there’s a preface to it in which he basically explains why you should obey the rules that he now is laying down for you. And his answer is because the top god of our world, Marduk, appointed me in that place and I’m doing what he wants me to do, and if you cross me you cross him, and that’s bad news. That’s a rough translation. So, this is very important. You have a full monarchy in the sense that both — we in America talk about the separation of church and state, that is a very rare and unusual thing in the history of the world. The normal situation in cultures pre-civilized and civilized as well is for there to be a unity between religious things and non-religious things, and all of that to be ruled by a single individual who is the monarch of that territory with religious sanction as well as through his power, and through the legitimacy of his descent. That’s the normal human way of living.
You should always be aware, I think, about how peculiar we are. We are the oddballs in the history of the human race, and anybody who follows our pattern, and it’s important to realize that because there’s nothing inevitable about the development that has come about to be characteristic of the world. When we find people challenging it, I think they have the bulk of time and human experience on their side when they say you guys got it wrong.
Society and Economy
Mycenaean tablets (Linear B script) detailing palace inventory / Wikimedia Commons
Let me say something about the nature of the society and economy that we find in the Mycenaean world revealed both by the archaeology and by what we learn in the records provided by Linear B. The remains and records of these strongholds make it clear that the political organization was an imitation of oriental monarchy. The sovereignty — the sovereign at Mycenae rather, and at Pylos, another important site for the period, and at Thebes, which was another one, was somebody that the tablets refer to as the Wanax, and that is the same as a later Greek word which drops the “W” at the beginning, anax. As we shall see that word in later times means some powerful individual, but it doesn’t mean what it means here, the boss, the single monarchical controller of everything. He held a royal domain that belonged directly to him, which was very significant in size and wealth. He appointed bureaucratic officials; he commanded royal servants and he recorded royal goods, which by the way, most of the tablets are inventories, lists of things that exist in the palace that belonged to the king. There are other things that have to do with instructions that the king is sending out to people from the palace.
There is no reference, in any of the tablets — I don’t know how much we can make of that because the tablets limit themselves to such limited kinds of things that maybe it doesn’t prove anything, but in this case, I think it does. There is no reference to law. There is no reference to some objective or anything other than the king himself in the administration of justice. One scholar says, “It is natural to infer that the king, all powerful controller of the all seeing bureaucracy, possessed supreme authority also in the region of lawmaking and law enforcement. An omnipresent bureaucracy with its detailed and all encompassing records gives the clearest picture of the power exercised by the centralized monarchs of the Mycenaean Age.” The records discovered at Pylos here are particularly interesting. They cover only one part of a year and yet they carry details of thousands of transactions in hundreds of places. These files, as we might call them, are both sweepingly inclusive and penetratingly minute.
For instance, bronze is allocated to different places for the manufacture of arrowheads or swords, with a note telling how many smiths in each place are active and how many are not. Cretan sheep are enumerated to the amount of 20,000. I’m sorry, that’s not right. I don’t want to get this wrong, 25,051, and we learn that in a Cretan village, two nurses, one girl, and one boy are employed. We are told how much linen is expected from a place called Rion. What is the acreage of the estate of a man called Alektruon? What a guy name Dounias owes the palace? The answer is 2200 liters of barley, 526 of olives, 468 of wine — I hope you remember all this; fifteen rams, one fat hog, one cow, and two bulls. We even learned the names of two oxen owned by Terzarro: Glossy and Blackie. The records make it perfectly clear that the kingdoms of Pylos and Knossos were bureaucratic monarchies of a type unexpected in Greece, but in many ways similar to some contemporary and earlier kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean. It is very unlike anything we associate with the Greeks, or anything that ever again existed in the Greek world, and that’s really the point I want to make. Although these people are Greeks, they are ruling a culture which is thoroughly different from the one we will be studying for the bulk of the semester. So like the eastern states, you have a powerful ruler who is a warlord. There is a palace economy, there is a script, there is a bureaucracy, and there is collectivized agriculture under the central control of the economy. That economy and that society go forward and flourish for, as I say, about 400 years maybe — perhaps about 400 years.
Theories about the Fall of the Mycenaean World
Golden burial mask discovered by Heinrich Schliemann / Wikimedia Commons
Then a bunch of terrible things obviously begin to happen that shake the security of this society, and ultimately bring it down. Roughly speaking, about 1200 B.C., we hear of general attacks that are going on around the Mediterranean against the various civilizations of which we know. Egypt experiences a number of attacks from the outside world. Chiefly what we hear about is in the area of the Nile Delta, right there on the Mediterranean Sea. Among those attackers, there are others besides — there are attackers from Libya, we hear, but there are also attackers that are simply called from the sea; the sea people attack. At roughly the same time the dominant empire in Asia Minor, Anatolia, is run by a people who are called the Hittites, who have been there for hundreds of years in security and are now suffering assault. We know that because they also have a writing which we can read, and it speaks of it as well as the archeological remains that show destruction.
Similarly, attacks are going on against the kingdoms of Syria and of Palestine, which — it’s always hard to know what that piece of land should be called at any particular moment, but I call it Palestine because one of the sea peoples that attacked the Nile around 1200 in Egypt are called the Pelest, and most scholars suggest that is the same name as came to be the name for this region when they ruled it, called Palestine. And you will remember that when the Bible talks about this, it refers to a people called the Philistines. These are thought to be all the same people. So since they ruled it until — what’s his name, Samson took them out with the jawbone of an ass. I think it’s proper to call it Palestine at that moment. Cyprus, likewise, suffers from these attacks, and so far west as Italy and Sicily are under attack. Something is going on. The question, of course, is what scholars have disagreed about and continue to disagree about, because the evidence simply will not permit any confident answer, but I ought to just mention a few of the theories that have been tossed around, a few among many, many, many.
One that seems to be in fashion these days, although you never know how long the fashion lasts, is: internal uprisings that somehow these monarchical areas, when life got tough, the people must have risen up against them. I think this reflects hopeful Marxist wish fulfillment rather than any reality, but that is not what poor people have done in history. If you look at revolutions, revolutions come typically when things are getting better and the people don’t like the fact that they don’t have more than they already have. But, in any case, that’s one theory. Earlier theories — it’s wonderful to have scientific theories that you can use to handle these problems, which you cannot demonstrate any fact for whatsoever. I’m being a bit strong, but not too much. The one theory made some investigations of earth spores, hoping to find — what do you call that stuff that floats around and makes you sneeze? Pollen. So as a result, they said there were droughts in these areas throughout that period and that caused tremendous unhappiness and discontent.
Other people have suggested climatic shift. I keep waiting for somebody — I think the time is right for somebody to come up with a theory and explain it by global warming. Also we know that the island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, called Thera, blew up in a most enormous kind of an explosion at some point back there in prehistoric days, and one theory is it was the explosion on Thera that caused so climatic trouble, that it can explain what went on here. The trouble is, you just don’t know when that explosion took place, and since there are several periods in this general area that we’re talking about now, in which something big happened, some great change takes place, it turns out different people want to have their explosion at different times. It’s like a moveable feast; you put your explosion where you need it at any particular moment. I am making light of it and I think it’s somewhat justified, because the evidence is just so scanty. It’s just that I think it’s fun to play the game these guys do, but we shouldn’t take it too seriously.
Now, let’s go back to a theory which has at least got the virtue of being very old, although hardly anybody believes it anymore. That is, the theory that what happened in the Mycenaean world, let’s forget what was happening elsewhere, was the result of a movement of tribes, of ethnic groups who were outside the Mediterranean region, say at the beginning of this period and say in 1600, but who pressed into it. Usually, the picture is that they are coming from the north or the northeast and pressing down into it. I have to believe that whoever came up with that theory for the first time was aided in coming to it by thinking about the end of the Roman Empire, when something precisely like that did happen. These Germanic and other tribes, who were largely located north and northeast of Europe, came down — I should say not Europe, but the Roman Empire — came down and ultimately destroyed it by invasion. And of course, there are more theories about the fall of the Roman Empire than there are about the fall of the Mycenaean world.
Anyway, connected to all of this was a very interesting Greek myth, which speaks about the return of the Heraclides. They are the sons of the mythical hero Hercules, who was a Peloponnesian figure, and the story goes that the sons of Hercules were expelled from the Peloponnesus and then promised that they would come back a hundred years later and conquer it. And so they did come back hundred years later and conquered it, and since — this is the link that explains the old story in historical Greek times, let us say the fifth century B.C., the people who inhabited the Peloponnesus were mainly speakers of the Greek dialect called Doric. It was thought that Hercules’ sons and Hercules being Peloponnesians no doubt spoke Doric too, and so this was referred to as by scholars in the nineteenth century, not by the ancient Greeks, as a Dorian invasion. In other words, another kind of Greek. The Greeks who lived in the area before the fall of the Mycenaean world, what were they called? Well, Homer gives us several names for them, but three stick out for me. The most common and the most widely used was Achaeans, another one is Danaans, and a third one is Argives. Argives comes from the fact that they rule over the land Argos in Greece.
The one that has some clout historically is Achaeans, because in the records of the Hittite kings, there are references to people — I’m trying to think, I think they’re called, I want to get this right, but I don’t remember whether this is the Egyptian or, something like akhaiwashaa, unless that’s the Egyptian form. Anyway they are called by names that sound something like that; one among the Hittites, one among the Egyptians and it’s so easy. Given the fact that the letter “w” dropped out of the Greek language between the Mycenaean Period and the Classical Period, you could easily imagine that these people were referred — referred to themselves as achaiwoi, and when the “w” drops out they areachaioi, which is what Homer calls them. So, the idea here is that the original Greeks who came in, were what we call Achaeans and that when these disturbances came and if the Dorian theory is true, Dorians either killed them all or dominated them, possibly intermarried with them, but dominated them and washed away, wiped out the use of the Achaean language and imposed their own Dorian language upon it.
Supporting such an idea, among other things, is that if you go to the mountains in the center of the Peloponnesus where it’s awfully hard to get to, there is a region called, well, actually beyond those mountains, on the northern shore, is a place called Achaea, where the people are Achaeans. So, the theory might well be that they were driven away from their old homes in the southern Peloponnesus, and went up to the northern Peloponnesus. Then there are the people in the mountains of Arcadia who also don’t speak the Doric language, and maybe they were driven up there to escape. So those are the things that helped people decide that the Dorians may really have been the sons of Hercules, who actually invaded and that what we find after the fall of the Mycenaean world in Greece are some of the following things — things that were not typically found in the Mycenaean world.
First of all, iron weapons, not bronze ones. A kind of a pin used to hold your cloak together, called a fibula, unknown in the previous period. The building of buildings in the shape of what the Greeks called a megaron, a rectangular center, which has a hearth in it, a front porch, and a back porch which will be the style in which Greek temples are built in the historical period. That appears for the first time after the fall of the Mycenaeans. We know that the Mycenaeans buried their dead by inhumation, those great tombs, those great graves, and even the common people outside them are buried in graves; whereas, in the historical period, these people were cremated rather than buried in the world of Homer. That’s what we see. So, the idea that was put forward in the nineteenth century was that the Dorians who were a less civilized, tougher, meaner, harder fighting people assisted by the use of iron and in their weapons which were superior allegedly to the bronze, came down, defeated the Achaeans, imposed themselves on them where they could and drove them away where they couldn’t, and that explains how things went.
That has been attacked and is largely not believed these days for a whole lot of technical reasons that I don’t want to trouble you with right now. I do not think we can believe that simple story as it stands. It is too simple and there are too many things that it doesn’t account for and there are too many things would suggest that it’s not correct. However, I am not sure there is nothing in that story, and here I really am influenced most strongly by my colleague, professor Jerome Pollitt, now retired, who was our History of Art and Archaeology guy. He has a notion that is very nuanced and sophisticated and it appeals to me quite a lot. He suggests that there were, indeed, Greek tribes from the north who spoke Dorian dialects, who came down during this period attempting to come into the richer and better settled world of the Mycenaeans. They didn’t come down and then go away for hundred years and then come back, but rather they came down in waves of tribes and families, and so on, exerting gradual pressure, pushing in when they could, retreating when they couldn’t, and so on. For this I think there’s a very good — whether or not you accept the Dorian idea — I think we should find attractive the idea that if there was an external invasion, it came in this way over a period of time, a century or two with success and then retreat, not having success, flight, all that kind of stuff going on.
Because the Mycenaean centers all reveal for that stretch of time that they’re scared. The proof of it comes from strengthening their already quite strong walls in almost all the sites that we see, and also — this is a very important fact. If you’re expecting to be attacked and besieged, as all these citadels would be by an invader, you would want more than anything else a water supply, but they didn’t necessarily have good water supplies in such circumstances. So, we see the building of water holders in these places; there’s a very striking one. The next time you go to Mycenae don’t miss the cistern that was dug in the mountains, on the hillside, within the walls at that period. It’s deep and you better take a flashlight because it’s as black as it can possibly be. But they spent a lot of time, energy, and money on being sure that they would have a supply of water to hold them for a long siege. I think that that indicates that something of the kind is going on.
Then we see that when this culture comes to an end, it is accompanied by people fleeing, getting away from the Mycenaean world. Some of them only go so far as Athens, which had the good fortune somehow of not being destroyed, one of the few important Mycenaean places that is not destroyed. So, for some reason it was safe in Athens and some fled to Athens. Others had to keep going and settled on the islands of the Aegean Sea. For others, it was necessary to go further and to settle the west coast of Asia Minor, which, indeed, this is a great period of Greek settlement on the west coast of Asia Minor. Then it looks like there came a moment where there was a final blow, where whatever was attempting to overthrow these cities and this civilization succeeded, but it was not the same in every place. The fall of Pylos is generally thought to be around 1200 B.C.; Mycenae itself may be fifty years later, and other places later than that. I think it’s very important to notice that some of these places that were big in the Mycenaean world were entirely abandoned and not settled again by the Greeks. Buried, lost, people didn’t even know where they were, that’s extraordinary. That only happens when something very, very large drives people away from an inhabited site. So, here is where Jerry Pollitt’s analogy to the fall of Rome seems so very appealing. That is, more or less, what did happen in the Roman world and I don’t see anything that’s suggested it couldn’t happen in the Greek world at the time we’re talking about.
Results of the Fall
Phoenician alphabet on tablets / Wikimedia Commons
I suppose the most important aspect of all of this for our purposes are the results of all of this, and they were tremendous. You have the destruction completely of the Mycenaean Bronze Age culture. Greece never sees anything like it again. This is not the way it was in the ancient Near East. This is not the way it was in Egypt. There you see continuity for a very, very long time. The Greek world has this tremendous discontinuity. It’s like the door slams and you got to go into a new room. Among the things that are lost for a long time, there is writing. There is no writing in Greece from let us say 1100 or so on until the middle of the eighth century B.C., rough date 750 and then the writing that they do have is completely unrelated to the writing that was lost. They get it from a different place. The letters, the design of the writing comes, in fact, from Asia, probably from — almost certainly from Phoenicia, the land that is now called Lebanon and the language that was for that script was Semitic language.
Hebrew is close to what’s going on there, but they don’t take the language. They borrow the characters from what had been already something quite close to an alphabet and had only a relatively small number. I forget the exact number of the ones in the Semitic alphabet, but we’re talking about roughly twenty-five. I mean, you’re into the ballgame for an alphabet such as ours. The Greeks borrow that with typical Greek innovation. They do the big step of inventing vowels so that now you don’t have to remember anything. You can read every sound that is made, and they produced their alphabet. But their alphabet has got nothing to do with Mycenae; this is a new thing altogether. The Greeks are totally illiterate from around 1100 to 750. Another characteristic of these years, which scholars refer to as the Dark Ages, just as they do the years after the fall of the Roman Empire — dark for two reasons. Dark, in the most obvious way, because we don’t have any writing, no record of them. We can’t see. It’s dark. The other, dark, in the sense of gloomy, not good, bad; this is a hard time, a poor time, a wretched time, a miserable time. These are dark times. So, that’s what is meant by the term, Dark Ages, and that’s what does follow the fall of the Mycenaean world.
Part of the story is that that old connection that the Mycenaean world had with the Mediterranean in general, most particularly, with the East stops, we don’t find in the excavations we make of Greek towns in the Dark Ages — we don’t find implements, jewels, goodies, anything from Egypt or Mesopotamia or anything like that. Nor by the way, do you find Greek things in those places. The Greeks are isolated during this period. Of course, everything I’m saying is somewhat exaggerated. I’m sure there must have been individual exceptions to everything, but we’re talking about the overwhelming reality.
Not only are the Greeks as a whole cut off from the rest of the world, but Greece itself, which used to be an area of easy exchange, where people could go from one place to the other and did, localism now comes into the picture. The unity is broken. It’s again like — I hope you know something about the early middle ages where places were simply cut off one from the other and there were no roads kept or made, and just going from one village to another was a strange and dangerous thing, because nobody was in charge. Things were completely out of control. That’s the way things clearly were in the Greek world. For instance, you can see pottery, which used to have this, remember this largely unitary quality. You can tell if you’re at all experienced with it very easily, if you go — let’s say to the year 900 B.C. You can tell if a pot comes from Athens or it comes from Pylos, or — not Pylos it was probably out of business — Thebes or someplace else because they have their local characteristics which are perfectly obvious. This suggests that they’re not seeing each other’s goods; they’re not trading them. They’re simply working within their own very narrow ambit. That’s the kind of a world that is being created.
Something less easy to say confidently, but probably clear, I think, is the whole legacy of Mycenaean culture is really lost, not fully though. There is always something that we call folk memory that has a recollection of the distant past which may have truth to it, but may not, or it may have only an element of truth to it, and it’s always very hard. What comes back in this form is usually what we call legend, and anybody, who rejects legend across the board as simply being invention, is just dead wrong. Anybody who tries to use it as an accurate account of what really happened is no less wrong. Some place in the middle is where the truth is, and it’s hard to find. But in any case, what we find are a number of units in the Greek world. Call them towns for the sake of argument, sounds too urban, but call them that. Small, that means to say small in extent, few people, because the population surely went down, since the capacity to grow food, to distribute it, that whole system that depended on the existence of a central palace and a strong king running everything, running production, running distribution, it’s gone. You know that doesn’t come back. When that’s destroyed, you’re in terrible shape.
So, the population surely dropped, and all the evidence we have supports that. So, what you have are small, poor, weak units, and that’s a miserable situation. Now, they have no choice, they cannot rely as human beings typically do on just doing what your parents did, just inheriting a tradition that functions, that works, that keeps you going. They couldn’t do it. The survivors had to figure out a new way to do things and they didn’t do anything new in a hurry. This all came hard and at the cost, I’m sure, of a lot of human life and a lot of misery. But what comes out of it is something different.
We do know that certain memories lasted. The Greeks always thought there was an earlier age. The Greeks of the classical period always thought there was an earlier age that was much better than the age in which they lived, an age in which men were heroes. They were bigger, they were stronger, they were tougher, they were faster, they were more beautiful, they lived longer. Those were the great old days and then there’s us, we, poor miserable wretches. That’s the picture that the Greeks carried with them. The legends, just stories from generation to generation, changed, and molded, but nonetheless, retaining certain elements of the earlier tradition. Then, finally, we have to believe, there’s no escaping, I think, that there was another thing that provided for memory, something we call the epic tradition.
When we get to Homer we will find a highly developed epic poetry and once we come to grips with the fact that it was orally composed and recollected poetry, then you will get some idea of the length of time that must have been involved in the creating of it — we’ll turn to this when we get to the Homeric issues. Once you realize that there are clearly accurate depictions of aspects of the Mycenaean world that show up in those poems, which appear to have been written down for the first time, perhaps around 750 B.C. or so, then you must realize there had to be an epic tradition, a poetic tradition of the same kind that goes back all the way to the Mycenaean Period. I think we must remember that there were people creating and repeating, and working out, and changing a poetic tradition that started in the Mycenaean world and lasted for the rest of Greek history.
The legacy from the Mycenaeans to Greek civilization later is very limited. But what there is, is very important and no part of it is more important than the Homeric poems themselves. But if we look at the society that emerges, this Dark Age society that emerges from the ancient world of Mycenae, what you have is a rare human experience. The creation almost of a clean slate, even more so I would argue than the disruption that it came after the fall of Rome, because there’s one big difference. The fall of Rome did not destroy one of the most important tenacious and significant aspects of the old culture, the Roman Catholic Church, which remained and became the central fact for the new culture. There’s nothing like that in the Mycenaean world. We are really talking about something that’s almost entirely fresh. The Greeks had no choice but to try to find their own way, uninfluenced as Mycenae was influenced by Mesopotamia and Egypt; uninfluenced by anything-starting from the lowest possible place and having to make a living, and to go forward, and to shape a world which was their own because there wasn’t anything else to guide them.
The Importance of Homeric Poems
Greek vase scene of the Fight Over Patroklos / Wikimedia Commons
[The topic of Homer is one] that asks the subordinate question: was there a real world that Homer’s poems refer to? If so, what world was it? Was it the world of the Mycenaean Bronze Age? Was it the world that succeeded that Bronze Age that we call the Dark Ages? Was it the world in which tradition says Homer himself lived, the transition first to the Archaic and then to the Classical Period, the period in which we think about the dawn of the polis? That really is the question we are wrestling with and, of course, behind it all is this idea: can we seek any historical information from Homer’s poems at all? It would be a terrible blow to me and everybody else in the field if the answer was “no,” because just about everything we have to say about this period between the Bronze Age and the emergence of the polis — most of it involves inferences from our understanding of what the Homeric poems tell us.
But I think we need to take a hard look at what we can do, and I thought it would be worthwhile reading a sentence from each of the introductory paragraphs that we provide for you in the problem packet to show you the range of opinion that is pretty representative of what scholars think or have thought on the subject. Moses Finley says, “If, then, the world of Odysseus is to be placed in time as everything we know from the comparative study of heroic poetry says it must, the most likely centuries seem to be the tenth and the ninth, that is to say what we call the Dark Ages.” Anthony Andrews says, “It may be that the epic tradition had at some stage used as a model for the army before Troy, an idealized version of some of those bands of colonists who settled the coast of Asia Minor in post-Mycenaean times.” And if you look at the whole story that he tells, that really means quite soon after the fall of the Mycenaean world, probably maybe a century earlier than what Finley suggests.
A.M. Snodgrass says, “I offer this as a further argument against the existence of a historical, Homeric society.” There isn’t anything to be found in what Snodgrass says. Ian Morris writes, “The balance of probability seems to be in favor of a consistent basis to the society of the poems derived from Greece in the eight century B.C.,” which would be at the end of the period we’ve been talking about, the transition to the world of the polis — Homer’s own time when he lived and wrote. And finally, Barry Strauss says, “Ironically, the more Homer exaggerates, the more authentic he is as a representative of the Bronze Age.” So, what do we do? Well, all of these are learned and clever men, but I don’t think that they’re all equally right. But what I should also report to you is that I think there is a widespread consensus among most people that study the subject. That doesn’t mean that consensus is correct. Not all of these opinions are shared by the same number, by no means, of scholars. Some of them are far out. I would say the one that says you can’t learn anything from this is an outlier. The notion that this is about the Mycenaean world is an outlier, and then I would say the largest consensus is something like Finley’s consensus, but people verging in both directions from that.
What you’ll hear from me is essentially that consensus point of view. It strikes me as being better supported than the others, but we really have to keep an open mind because in this prehistoric period, you have to be very modest about what you think you know about it. Almost everything is inference and judgment, and very little is anything that you want to call proof. With those warnings, let me tell you sort of what I think most people think about this. First of all, if we want to know about the Dark Ages, what sources do we have available to us? And of course, I’ve already mentioned the poems of Homer turn out to be a very large source for what most people look to. Secondly, there are legends that the Greeks told about their early history, which come down to us in later sources and they are available to us to use as sources. A great question is, should we use them at all, and if we do how carefully should we use them and so on?
This is a good time for me to make a confession, so that you’ll know how to judge what I say [here]. Prior to the late eighteenth century when German scholars began to look at the Homeric poems specifically, very, very carefully, and then really very, very skeptically, they made all sorts of suggestions that the poems we have are really not to be thought of as the work of a single poet, Homer, who wrote them both out together. But who began to divide them up into early and late elements, which I thought drove the field of classics insane for about 100 years, while folks argued about the unity of Homer, the unity or not the unity of one of the poems and so on. But it began a critical study of the poems for the first time and critical methods were applied to history for the first time ever, really, in the early nineteenth century and thereafter. And it became common to reject any ancient story that wasn’t really nailed down very, very firmly by some device.
To take a skeptical view — and a very interesting example of how things changed, if you look at people, say an Englishman writing about Ancient Greece in the late eighteenth century, they tell the story of the early days based upon the legends as though the legends were reliable information to some degree. When you get to say the middle of the nineteenth century and the work of the great English historian of Ancient Greece, George Grote, he begins his story in 776 with the Olympic Games. He does tell you all about the legends first, but he puts them aside and says they’re just legends — now let’s talk history, and he doesn’t begin that until the eight century B.C. And so there is this critical school that says, “I won’t believe anything unless it is proven to me.” At the other extreme, there’s me, the most gullible historian imaginable. My principle is this. I believe anything written in ancient Latin or Greek unless I can’t. Now, things that prevent me from believing what I read are that they are internally contradictory, or what they say is impossible, or different ones contradict each other and they can’t both be right. So, in those cases I abandon the ancient evidence. Otherwise, you’ve got to convince me that they’re not true.
Now, you might think of this as, indeed, gullible. A former colleague of mine put the thing very, very well. He spoke about, and I like to claim this approach, the position of scholarship to which we call the higher naiveté. The way this works is, you start out, you don’t know anything, and you’re naïve. You believe everything. Next, you get a college education and you don’t believe anything, and then you reach the level of wisdom, the higher naiveté, and you know what to believe even though you can’t prove it. Okay, be warned; I’m a practitioner of the higher naiveté. So, I think the way to deal with legends is to regard them as different from essentially sophisticated historical statements, but as possibly deriving from facts, which have obviously been distorted and misunderstood, misused and so on. But it would be reckless, it seems to me, to just put them aside and not ask yourself the question, “Can there be something believable at the roof of this?”
And just to give you some small defense of that approach, I always like to ask students, “Suppose we didn’t have a single historical record, no newspaper, no diaries. You know nothing totally reliable for what happened in the latter part of the eighteenth century in America.” Would we know anything about what happened? Of course, we would. We would know that there was a revolution; it was against Great Britain. I’m sure we would know that the French assisted in that. I am certain we would know that George Washington was the commander of our forces in our battle. Those are easy. There’s no getting around reading those things, and then it gets to be more interesting as we speculate. We would know as a fact that George Washington threw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River, except that it’s impossible. So, we would dismiss that one. We would be told that he was very honest and told his father he chopped down a cherry tree, which would be baloney, but we would be told that too. But I think we would be told also very many true things, which came down to us. So, the hard job would be to select among these legendary things, to see what fact can be found, and it will never be easy or deadly certain. But that’s what I’m talking about here.
Finally, there is the source that people who are skeptical most like to believe because it’s tangible. I’m talking about archaeology, which is the discovery, examination, and evaluation of material evidence, which is not in writing, the actual remains of places where they lived, the implements that they used and so on, and so on. And the beautiful thing about that is you actually have it. It’s objective. It’s an object. It’s not something that somebody imagined, but you shouldn’t derive as much confidence from it as a lot of archaeologists like to, because it’s only a thing until you say what it means, until you put a date on it, until you try to understand what it really is, what its function was, who brought it there, who left it there. All those things have to be reasoned out from all the evidence, all the information you can get. So there’s an astonishing amount of speculation involved in establishing this apparently rigorous objective technique. We certainly need to use it and we need to use it as carefully, that’s my point, as we use everything else. But it is indeed very valuable in studying a world before our time, always.
The Society Described in Homer’s Poems
olympulsives.50megs.com / Creative Commons
[I] mentioned how important the poems are. So, we need to take a look at the question of what they are, and how we know about them, and so on. I mentioned to you that the Iliad and the Odyssey were known in the Western world continuously from the time that they were made available. So they were known and they were very important in the minds of those people who knew about it, but I also mentioned last time the impact of Schliemann’s excavations, which turned everything around. The hyper-skeptical point of view taken by scholars in Europe in the nineteenth century was eroded very sharply by the discovery of places that really convinced pretty much everybody that there was a Troy, and that there was a Mycenae. And so the stories couldn’t have been simple inventions, and that began a new phase in the story. And, again, to repeat what I said last time, there were certain stunning physical resemblances between what Homer said and what we could see. The palaces were like the palaces that he described. The world that they lived in was a world in which bronze was used for implements, and weapons, and such, not iron, and that squared with what was found in Mycenae, what was found in the Mycenaean world, namely bronze implements and fundamentally not iron ones.
Sometimes there were interesting little problems that emerged and one of those has to do with the use of chariots in warfare. Well, Homer has his heroes using chariots and we know that chariots were used in warfare in the Bronze Age around the Mediterranean Sea. We have hard evidence of that in Egypt, in Asia Minor, and in the Tigris Euphrates Valley. So, you would say, well, that’s another place where Homer got it right, except for the fact that we also know how chariots are used in warfare and the closest analogy, I think, is to think of chariots as tanks. You know, one famous tactic is — if you have an infantry force coming forward, you send tanks in it to break up the line of the infantry, so that you can defeat the infantry in that way. And apparently that is the way you use chariots in ancient Bronze Age warfare. You would send the chariot racing toward the line of infantrymen and the usual outcome was the infantrymen would panic in the face of being charged by these things, and you would break their line and give the other side an opportunity to wreak havoc with their army. Well, what do the Homeric heroes do with their chariots? They use them as taxicabs. Achilles or Patroclus, or whoever is on his chariot, is driving. He is riding from the ships or wherever he is from the camp to the battlefield. He might pick up a missile of some kind, a spear typically, and fire it at somebody as he goes by. This would be a drive by killing, but then when he really gets to where the action is he hops off — now we’re going to have some fighting.
The implication I think is that the memory of chariot warfare back in the Mycenaean days lingered; it was captured in the poetry that goes back — the bits of the poetry that goes back to the Mycenaean period. But how they were used was forgotten, and so the poets in the subsequent years then thought, “How would I use a chariot?” — never having seen a chariot fight in a battle, and that’s the outcome. Finley, particularly, makes a lot of this as being rather indicative of how he pictures the poems to work. There are sort of legitimate memories, some of them going way back to the Mycenaean period, but which may be misremembered in some significant detail. And then, of course, there’s lots of stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with the Mycenaean period. His view is much, if not most, of what we are told about the Homeric world comes, as he says, in the tenth and in the ninth centuries.
One other thing that he doesn’t mention but I think is worth mentioning. Many a scholar are very reluctant to admit that there’s any Mycenaean stuff here, although they cannot fail to concede that some of the physical implements that are found at Mycenaean sites are precisely like what Homer says. But I think you can go a little bit beyond that. Some scholars have pointed out that in Book II of the Iliad in the section that we call, “The Catalog of Ships,” the poet lays out just exactly how many warships came to Troy from Greece, and just exactly how many came from each town. And the names of the towns that are listed in that catalog of ships, first of all, are all legitimate in the sense every one of them we know did exist in the Mycenaean Period. And perhaps no less significant is that there are also towns listed there that are Mycenaean towns, which disappeared after the Mycenaean Period. In other words, they couldn’t just have named towns that used to be Mycenaean, but were still around, so that’s why they knew them. No, some towns had disappeared, but the names of those towns show up in the catalog of ships. There’s just no way to explain that except to say that catalog of ships goes back to the Mycenaean Period.
The differences between what we find in the Homeric poems are also very illuminating, differences between that and what we know happened after the fall of the Mycenaean world. For instance, one of the most striking things that you find in cultures, anthropologists and archaeologists live off this, is what they do with dead bodies. Now, in Mycenae, it’s obvious; they bury them in the ground as most of us do. The graves in the circle, the shaft graves, and then the beehive tombs for the big shots, and even outside in the countryside, we find graves which have bones of people in them. But we know that the Greeks in Homer don’t do that. The Greeks in Homer incinerate the bodies of the dead. You remember theIliad ends with the actual cremation of the bodies of the relevant people. So, that’s a very significant difference. That memory had simply died out and it helps us to remember too that the tombs that we have seen now, they didn’t see. Whoever was writing the poems of Homer, whichever poets were contributing to that over the ages after the Mycenaean Period, they hadn’t seen those Mycenaean sites. They were buried.
There are also differences, sometimes, in the shape of weapons that we find in the Greek World after the Mycenaean Period compared to what are described in Homer’s poems. I’m sorry. Homer describes certain of these weapons, which don’t fit what we find in the ground. And here’s another critical element in the story. We know that the Mycenaeans, or at least some small number of them could write, because we have the Linear B script, which we can read. There is no clue that there is such a thing as writing in the Homeric poems. There’s one very abstruse clue where somebody seems to know something about it, but fundamentally it’s an illiterate society and that is a major difference between the world of Homer and the Mycenaean world. Some other differences: Homer’s kings, if you just see how they live, what they do, what their wives do, how they are treated by their fellow noblemen, they are, in a relative sense, very weak, very short on power and really quite poor compared to these Mycenaean kings, the results of whose work and lives we see at places like Mycenae.
Remember, I tried to emphasize how rich you would have to be to undertake the building of the temple, to undertake the construction of one of those beehive tombs. You had to be very confident because it was going to take a long time, a fantastic amount of labor, a tremendous amount of money to do that. There is no evidence in Homer that anybody had that kind of wealth or that kind of power. What do the queens in Homer do in their spare time? Or maybe it’s not their spare time, maybe it’s their regular time. Well, one of the things that they do when the Homeric heroes refer to their wives — there are really only two places that they seem to be associated with. One is the bedroom and the other is the loom. What these ladies are doing is weaving cloth. Now, that’s not what queens do. I’m sure the Mycenaean queens didn’t do that, but it’s very, very interesting that that is what the Homeric queens do. Well, how are we to explain the discrepancies that are so great between these worlds? And the answer that almost everybody now accepts without argument is that these poems were created orally, and passed on orally. That they were not written down, so that what we have in the poems of Homer reflects centuries of bards passing on bits of the poem, or the poem in various versions, being always creative. I mean, any bard, if by analogy we know about bards in the modern world, we have some evidence on that.
Millman Parry, a Harvard scholar back in the twenties, went to Yugoslavia to live in the mountains and the backwoods, and he lived with people who still had these bards around who created sort of epic narratives of considerable length, but nothing resembling Homeric length, I must say. Nothing that long, but long enough in which they would tell the same stories in verse and music, and you could recognize the story as you went from bard to bard. But every bard added and subtracted things to suit his own talents. That’s the idea of the game, and then Parry demonstrated by careful scholarship of the Homeric poems, that that is the way the Homeric poems were. I want to use the word stitched together, because in the Ancient Greek world the people who sang, recited, created the poems of the Homeric epics were called rhapsodes, and that means stitchers of songs. So, what you have to imagine is sometime back, I would argue, in the Mycenaean Period, somebody began making up one of these songs, telling the story of Greeks going to attack the city of Troy. And that for centuries thereafter, different rhapsodes repeated it but elucidated it, illuminated it, extended it, changed it, tried to improve it, sometimes they added stuff. They were alive in the tenth century. Some of them were alive in the ninth and certainly some of them were alive in the time of Homer in the eighth. So that what we have before us, is that kind of product and that will explain both the similarities and the differences, and that is what underlies our interpretation of how the poems got to be what they were.
So, what is this world like that emerges from the world of Homer? We don’t have to make up our minds in advance whether it was a real world or a completely fantastic one, but at least let’s see if we can describe what world it looks like. And I’m going to focus my attention on what you might call the political side of that society as it reveals itself in the poems. We hear about key individuals, and the last time I mentioned to you two words, I think I did, but I’ll mention them again this time. The head of the expedition to Troy, Agamemnon, the sort of generalissimo of that expedition is calledwanax. When you drop the “w” as later Greek dialects did, it becomes anax. He, so far as I know, and I think I’m not forgetting, he is the only human being referred to in the poems in that way. There are, however, many an individual in the poem who is referred to as a basileus, the plural is basileis, which is normally and regularly translated as king, and that’s right. For instance, in historical times when the Greeks referred to the great King of Persia, who was a real king and a powerful figure, a king in every sense, the word they used for him was basileus. But we quickly see that the people referred to as basileus in Homer are not like the great King of Persia. They are much lesser figures. I’ll come back to that in just a moment.
The Mycenaean kings we know, thanks to the Linear B tablets, were referred to, the singular once again is wanax, and the plural is wanaktes. But in Homer the term is reserved for Agamemnon or for gods, but not for any other human being. And that raises the question, why is Agamemnon wanax? And that, I think, we have to understand as being because of his function in the situation, namely there is a multi-city invasion of Troy being carried on by these Mycenaean Greeks. Agamemnon has been chosen as the generalissimo and that is what gives him, temporarily, the title of wanax. I would imagine and I’m very confident that after the war of Troy, if Agamemnon had been allowed by his wife to live for more than a few minutes after he set foot at home, he would no longer be called wanax, but would be called basileus like the other rulers of their local towns. You remember I suggested that in the Linear B tablets when there was a reference to abasileus, he’s clearly well below the wanax and some scholars suggest, in a persuasive way, I think, that these basileusmay have been village chieftains but that’s as high as they got. But it’s very interesting that when you get to historical Greece, as we shall see, there are no wanaktes but there are, at least according to tradition, basileis. But no basileushas anything like the clout that the Mycenaean kings did, and of course we don’t hear of any of them who have even the temporary special power that Agamemnon has. No human being is referred to as wanax in the period of historical Greece.
The kings, when we see them in Homer, do not have a bureaucracy, do not have scribes. How could there be scribes? They didn’t know how to write. There are no inventories. These are not rich guys with fantastic quantities of stuff that has to be cataloged and inventoried. The kings, by our standards for kings, are really very poor. What do they do in their spare time or in their time in general? They, themselves, engage in agriculture. I don’t mean they dig in the ground, but they supervise it; they think about it. They are like people who are in charge of a plantation, their own plantation, I mean. So, that’s one of their activities. You cannot imagine the great kings of Mycenae doing that. They would’ve had all kinds of subordinate officials taking care of that. Another thing that these kings are seen to do, which is in a way even at a lower level, is to be herdsmen. Again, not themselves out there with the goats and the sheep, but they are referred to as having these herds and having to cope with them.
Another very popular, I would say the most popular activity among the kings, was piracy. That’s what they brag about. Achilles, my God, what a king he is! He sacked 24 cities. Why do you sack a city? To steal what they have and, well, there are all kinds of wonderful examples of people in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some stranger comes, this is in theOdyssey, and they ask him, “Sir, are you a pirate?” And he says, “No, no, I’m not a pirate,” just like they asked, I mean, “Do you come from Chicago?” He wasn’t insulted. “No, I’m not a pirate, but I could’ve been, of course. We understand that.” And then later on in the story that Homer tells in the Odyssey, Odysseus himself is such a newcomer. He’s taken to the beautiful city on the island of Scheria, Phaiacia, and is treated with great respect as you’re supposed to in the Mycenaean world. But after dinner, they do what they do to amuse themselves. They have athletic contests and they ask Odysseus to participate. And he says, “No, no, I’m too miserable and wretched,” and the guy says, “Oh, you must be some kind of a merchant.” And Odysseus says that that was a black remark. Those are fighting words. You can’t call — we know Odysseus himself is a basileus — him a merchant. Pirate, sure, but merchant, no.
Another thing that is interesting is that when you look at the burials of Greeks in the post-Mycenaean period, in the Dark Ages, there’s nothing resembling those grand tombs and the wealth that’s buried in them for the dead. You find that the tombs of noblemen are very much the same one as the other. You’re struck by the equality from the standpoint of riches of the dead nobility. No great distinction and no great riches either. You’re dealing with a poorer world and a world that doesn’t have this kind of outstanding monarchy. So, one of the things I think we learn is that the Homeric world of the kings, the role of the kings, the wealth of the kings, the power of the kings, the place of the kings is not taken from the Mycenaean period. If it’s describing anything that’s real, it’s describing very clearly a post-Mycenaean world in those Dark Ages that we have been talking about.
Another thing that crops up is that in the Iliad and the Odyssey, you get a very clear picture, really of what is the political structure of each society. And by the way, you must keep in mind a very important difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey; the Iliad takes place at Troy. None of these noblemen, none of these kings, none of these heroes is back home in his own town ruling it. He is at war and he is serving under a commander, and so the behavior of these people towards one another is not precisely like what it would be. And here you see in the Odyssey is what it would likely be, and the place where you see it is back in Ithaca when Odysseus is there or when we’re taken to see what’s going on. I think that’s a very important distinction to make, but even when they’re at Troy and in this sort of non-typical situation, we still see the same institutions working, the same relationships being present as would be present at home, although you have to watch out for the difference. What do I mean? How are decisions made? Does the king simply say, “Do it,” and it gets done? Nothing like that. The king has got important powers. Agamemnon as the chief out there in theIliad, he can call a meeting of the assembly, I should say of the council, but he’s not the only one who can. Any nobleman who wants to can say, “We ought to have a council,” and then that council will come together and do whatever business they wish to do.
The council, however, is limited to noblemen, to these basileis. Ordinary soldiers do not attend, and that’s one of the things I think we must grasp immediately. The key line in the society of the Dark Ages appears to be certainly not between monarchy and everybody else, but between nobility and commoners. That’s the really important, serious line — certainly politically and in other ways as well. There is, however, in Homer, an assembly that consists of the men, in the case of Troy of course the fighting men who are there, but who are not basileus. But also in the home, at home, the men of fighting age and condition. They are the only ones who matter. Of course, as in all of the rest of Greek history, women are excluded from the political realm, and of course, well, I’ll just leave it at that. But so, too, there’s obviously an age limit. You have to be of an age to be a fighting man. It’s not necessarily defined for us. It depends, could have been 18, could have been 20. In Athens, in classical times it was 20.
Let me just remind you of some events that show you how these things work. Remember, the Iliad starts because of a quarrel and the quarrel emerges from the fact that the Greeks are busily being killed by a terrible plague that has struck them. They say, “We got to find out what’s happening?” They always assume that if something like that happened, it was some god or gods who was angry with them. So, they get a seer who goes and is persuaded to try to find out what’s happening. And he finally does ascertain that Apollo is angry with the Greeks because Agamemnon took a maiden from her father, and that father was a priest of Apollo. And so when this is ascertained, Achilles, the biggest, bravest, strongest, fastest hero on the Greek side, intervenes and says, “Well, look, why don’t you give back the girl and then Apollo will stop killing us and everything will be okay?” Agamemnon gets furious with Achilles and he says, “No, I’m not giving back my girl. I’m the boss here,” as Edward G. Robinson used to say. How many of you ever heard of Edward G. Robinson? Just raise your hand, please. Good, put me in my place. It gets worse every year for me.
And Achilles then speaks up and really lets him have it, chews him out, tells him what a bozo he is, and, you know, the very important thing is this. How can you do that if this is a king? And the answer is: you can do that because you’re both kings. There is nothing out of line in the sense of violating some kind of a real rule of the society, but it’s not typical, and especially since Agamemnon has this position as the boss, the most kingly of the kings. That’s a word that Homer uses of him, basileutatos, the most kingly, and that’s because of his position. So, Achilles is not doing anything sort of illegal or unconstitutional, but he’s doing something that’s really out of line from a normal point of view. And finally Agamemnon says, “No, I’m not going to give back my girl, but I’ll tell you what, I will give back my girl if I am given the girl you took from a different Trojan, and that’ll be fine. I’ll have your girl and you won’t have any.” So now, Achilles really blows his top and from the quarrel, and finally when he says, “Okay, if that’s what you’re going to do to me, I’m taking my armor and I’m going home.” And off he goes, and he sulks in his tent for the next nine books, and this turns out to be a serious problem for them.
But, what you learn from that is that the way that important decisions are made, even in this army, is by discussion among the basileis, among the noblemen, and you will try to reach a consensus about these things, and in an extreme odd situation like this, it would have to be that they would have to do what the commander says. And probably back home there would be the implication that if you can’t work things out among them with consensus, probably the king has some weight. But what we have to remember is he can’t give orders to anybody typically, although Agamemnon can get away with it on this expedition. Well, that’s one story.
Another story that we’re told is that soon afterwards also in that same place in the Iliad, a dream comes to Agamemnon, because, you know, this is their tenth year. They’ve been trying to take this city for nine years. It’s almost as bad as Iraq and the soldiers are tired of all of this. If we can’t take the city, we ought to go home and there’s a lot of spirit that says we ought to go home. And so a dream comes to Agamemnon. The god says to him, “Here’s what you need to do. You need to try the spirit of your men, and in that way to inspirit them to carry on until victory. So, what you should do is to get up and speak to your soldiers, and say that you’re never going to take Troy. You might as well pack up and go home, and then they’ll say, ‘No, king, no, we receive to do that. We insist on staying. We’re going to re-up and do another term, and we’re going to take the city.'” So, Agamemnon says, “Great, I’ll do that,” and he calls the troops together to battle, and he makes his little speech. I wish I could reproduce the Homer. I didn’t take it along with me, but the essence of it is a great roar and rumble emerged as the troops turned and began racing back to the ships to get the hell out of there.
Just to carry on some of the highlights, that tells us a lot about the society. So, as they’re roaring back, suddenly Odysseus, the slyest, the cleverest, the smartest of all of the Greeks, he goes racing among the troops who are heading back and he grabs one, and Homer says when he came to a gentleman, a basileus, he would say, “Sir, you are making a mistake. You don’t understand the game that Agamemnon is playing,” and he explains it to him, and the guy says, “Oh, okay.” When he comes to one of the common sort, he says, “You bloody imbecile, get the hell back to where you belong.” That’s a rough translation and everybody finally grabs enough of them and the thing turns around, everybody goes back and sits down. And up steps one man. Homer describes him as the ugliest man in the entire army. So you get a clue as to what we’re supposed to think about him, and he makes a speech which denounces all of the basileus, Agamemnon ahead of any of them. He says, “We ordinary soldiers have had enough and we would like to go home.” And up steps Odysseus and blasts him with his scepter, smashes him across the back, leaving a welt that could be seen by the entire army, and tears came to the eyes of this guy.
Are we supposed to feel sorry for him? Well, the next lines in Homer say that one soldier popped up and said, “Of all the great things Odysseus has done for us here, that was the greatest, to shut up a big mouth idiot like Thersites.” Well, what Thersites had done that was wrong, of course the poet and Odysseus didn’t like his policy suggestion, but he had no right to speak at all. The only people who could speak in the council or in an assembly were the noblemen, the basileis. So, he had crossed the line as an ordinary soldier. To rise and to say anything was a violation of the culture, and that’s one of the places where you see where this sharp line exists. They just take orders, but the gentlemen don’t just take orders. They can argue and sometimes they can win the argument. So, what you see in this very brief and inadequate account that I’ve given you is that we really, in spite of the fact that we have basileis, and even in this case an anax, we really don’t have a proper monarchical tradition.
When we think of monarchs, single rulers, we think of Hammurabi and we think of the kings of Persia, and we think of Louis XIV. We do not think of what we have here, which is a bunch of noblemen who are essentially equal, and the differences between them don’t come from birth or rank as between them, but from wealth and power that they happen to possess. It is, rather, not a royal society but an aristocratic society. I think that’s the main message and it is the matrix of all future political ideas and arguments in the Greek world that comes after this time. I think you need to understand that what the Greeks in the historical period — once we start having written records by the Greeks themselves, the thing that is the standard position — what is this thing on the computer when you fall back to a position? What do you call that position? What is it? Default, that’s right. Good, the default position in Greek political theory is aristocracy; that is the normal thing. A very good example of that is what I’ve been telling you; that’s really what happens.
And here’s another thing, if you go to the end of the Greek story, when you think about political theory, there’s Plato, and when he lays out the ideal society in his view, in the Republic, we find there are multiple rulers. And these, of course, turn out to be the winners of the Jeopardy contest playoffs. But it doesn’t matter. There’s never one king. It’s always a group of people that is the best government, and they will be the best. In this case defined chiefly by their intelligence, but other things too. Well, anyway in this case, in Greek political thinking the aristocracy of birth is the default position. Anybody who wants to argue for a different kind of political arrangement will have to make the case uphill against all tradition. I hope that you’ll have that in the back of your head when we get to the story of Athens and the invention of democracy, because it was off the wall from the perspective of Greek tradition.
Of course, anybody from time to time, there are individuals who thought that monarchy might be a fine thing. They ran against something that was regarded with much more hostility by the Greeks. When they’re through and had reached their peak, their notion of monarchy is something fit for barbarians, but not for Greeks. A free man may not live under a monarchy, and the roots of that, I think, are visible in Homer. In passing, I just want to say that Homer, of course, is the basic text, the basic document for all Greek thinking in every area that you can imagine throughout the rest of Greek history. Over time, it becomes not the only one, but it never ceases to be the best known, the most influential, and the most powerful. If it were a religious document primarily we would speak of it as the Greek Bible, but it isn’t. Well, some examples, later on in history there’s a quarrel between Athens and Megara as to who controls the island of Salamis. They decide to call in an arbitrator. So, they call in the Spartans, and the Spartans say, “Okay, we’ll decide,” and they decide that it belongs to Athens. Why? Well, if you look at the catalog of ships in Homer’s Iliad, the island of Salamis had its ships lined up next to the island of Athens. Ballgame. You have to realize how potent this is.
Ethics and Values
Detail from a red-figure krater representing the duel between Diomedes and Aeneas. 490-480 BC. With the aid of Athena, Diomedes attacks and wounds Aeneas, who is supported by Aphrodite. / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Well, let me turn to another aspect of the story of Homer and how the poems play into Greek society. I want to talk to you about the ethics and values that emerge from the reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I mentioned religion and so we should take a look first at the gods. We are talking, first of all, and remember about a multi-deity society. Polytheism is what we’re talking about. That is true of all of human societies that we know anything about down to the earliest possible exception, I suppose; well, it depends what you think is earliest. You could say the Hebrews are the earliest, pure and simple, but depending on how you date biblical things, there’s an outside chance that an Egyptian pharaoh in the sixteenth century B.C., I think, might have claim to have some such state. But otherwise, there is no such thing. So, this is a polytheistic society with heroic characteristics. That is, this kind of aristocratic outfit, aristocracy of birth, which is legitimized by heroic behavior on the battlefield.
Now, one of the things the Greeks believed, as we discover from a poem written by one of their major poets, is something so far as I know unique to the Greeks. They claimed that they were of the same race as the gods, and I really don’t know of anybody else who made that claim. And so you will hear Homeric characters referred to by epithets, Homer, part of the technique of passing on oral poetry is by having epithets attached to the rulers to help with the meter. Some hero will be called dios, meaning godly, god-like, diotrephes, reared as a god, isothesos, equal unto a god, and there are others as well. Now, mind you, notice these are not people referred to as god-fearing or lovers of god, no. They are just about equal to the gods according to these terms. Now, that on the one hand is this extraordinary claim that the Greeks make. They did make amazingly powerful claims for human beings as opposed to divinity, compared to any society that I know anything about. This is part of the arrogance that is characteristic of the Ancient Greeks, but at the same time, and right away at the beginning we’re getting to such a very Greek thing, a Greek characteristic. At the same time that he is this great thing almost like a god, he is also not a god in the most crucial way possible. Gods do not die. Men die.
The mortality of the human being is a reality and it’s of the greatest significance and importance, and of course men are not as strong and as powerful as the gods. And indeed, as we shall see, well, the tragic view of life, which the Greeks invent and which characterizes their culture, is there right at the beginning in the Iliad and the Odyssey. It says that at the same time as man is a remarkable, marvelous creature capable of all sorts of amazing things, even unto being almost like the gods, he is nonetheless mortal and dies, and he doesn’t have the power that the gods do.
And what do you do about that? Well, it’s interesting, I think, to compare the Greek way of dealing with this human problem that we all have, the problem of death. How do we deal with the fact that we will die? Well, there’s what I like to call the Eastern solution that you find in many an Eastern religion and philosophy that says that man is, in fact, nothing. He is dust. He is dung depending on which story you listen to. So, of course you’re going to die. Who cares? Why should you care? You were nothing to begin with; you’ll be nothing when you’re finished. Relax. Then there is what I would characterize as the Christian solution. You’re worried about dying? You need not die. If you are a good Christian and you do all the things that you need to do to be a good Christian, you will not die. You will have personal immortality. So that’s how you get around that problem. No need to worry if you’re doing things right. Well, somehow Christians continued to worry and we have a millennium of them killing each other about how you’re supposed to worry about these things. But if you can accept the purity of the statement I just made, it is at the root of the thing you have a solution.
But the Greek tragic view does not take either of these routes, which I regard as a relatively easy escape from the problem compared to the way the Greeks got stuck. Man is great and they keep saying so. He is important. He is capable of great things. He is of the same race as the gods, and at the same time his life is short and death is final, and death is bad. I ought to say a word about death, in order to comprehend what the Greeks thought. You know, different peoples have had different ideas about them. Sometimes the notion is that it is just terrible for everybody with actual pain and suffering, and others have a notion of a wonderful kind of a heaven in which marvelous things happen to you, sometimes spiritual, sometimes physical depending on the religion. But for the Greeks, as I think for quite a few other people in the ancient world, death was nothing in the worst sense of the word. You just went somewhere and there was nothing. There was darkness. There was nothing at all.
Some few people who had sinned terribly and earned the wrath of the gods would, indeed, be tortured in some special and typically Greek, interesting way. You remember Tantalus. He had done a terrible thing and there he stood forever with his feet in the water below, and above him a tree with grapes hanging down, and dying of thirst. And every time he went down to try to sip some of the water, the water receded, and anytime he reached up for the grapes, the grapes were pulled back. That is a Greek idea of hell, where you got to keep trying and you always lose. So, that’s the picture and you have to realize that death is a bad thing. In the Odyssey, Odysseus has reason to go down to Hades, and while he’s down there he comes upon Achilles who has died. And he says, “Well, it’s good to see you, Achilles. Say, you look fine. You must really be doing okay down here. I know that you are a judge down here and much respected. So, looks like you’ve beaten the rap.” And Achilles says, “Odysseus, don’t say a word to me about the virtues of death. Better to be a serf, the lowest serf on the earth, than to be a king in Hades.” Now, that’s as bad as it can possibly be. The great Achilles, respected still in the afterworld would immediately turn it in to be a complete nobody on earth. So, it’s very important. They faced without any real retreat the reality and the negative character of death, even as they refused to reject the significance of life or of mankind. That is what I mean when I speak of the tragic view, and it’s very important.
It seems to me we can eliminate that a little bit by comparing it with various modern approaches to the same sorts of problems. We haven’t gotten rid of those problems yet, in spite of modern medicine. We live, still, I think in what might be called the Age of the Enlightenment. That is the dominant sort of paradigm of what life is all about, at least in the Western world and a good deal more of it where the West has had an influence. At the core of it is a belief in progress, something that was essentially not present among the Greeks. Progress in the eyes of the philosophers of the eighteenth century, though they would have been very angry to hear me say this, was something like the equivalent of the Christian hope for immortality. The hope of the Voltaires of this world was that they could make the world better constantly by their efforts, and this would be rewarded in a kind of a way, because progress in the future after they were gone would redound to their credit for having brought it about. And that in some sense they would live on in this society which they had improved and made a better thing.
Philosophers busts / Wikimedia Commons
Another aspect that is very important in this sort of enlightenment approach is individualism, that the core of everything is the single individual person. As we shall see, this is very different from the Greeks. Now, the Greeks were very much concerned individuals and this is especially true of the democrats in Athens. But even their most potent spokesman and leader placed the goals, and achievements, and everything else of an individual behind something that they thought was more important, which was the community at large, which, in historical times was the polis. Well, that’s not the way it is with the modern world and that’s not the way it comes out of the enlightenment, the individual is the ultimate. The enlightenment, if you go back to its routes in the seventeenth century with the likes of Hobbes and Locke — what is the ultimate place you go to? It is the rights of individuals. You may not stamp out the rights of individuals. They are inherent in everything. Either you believe, as our founding fathers said that we were endowed with them by our creator. They didn’t say God because, of course, the Enlightenment thinkers were not so sure they believed in God, but they still seemed to believe in something they wanted to call a creator. Or if you didn’t believe in God, this was just a natural right. Nature gave each individual the right to life, liberty, property, and nobody could take these away legitimately.
The Greeks had no concept of natural rights, or of rights that human beings were given by the gods. That is a very important difference that was, you had to act in such a way as to make life possible and decent, and for the Greeks that always meant being part of a decent community, the polis. But the modern world, to get back to that, to this Enlightenment world, individualism and a key aspect to that is hedonism. That is to say, it is legitimate and proper to search for pleasure, for each individual to attempt to please himself however he can. And it turns out that if you could take it to our own day, there are no limits pretty much to what he can do to gain pleasure. I would argue that there is a direct line from the Enlightenment philosophy to nihilism, that is to say a philosophy that says there are no limits to what human beings may do. What turns out to be the practical fact is that he who has the power and the will to do what he wants will be able to do so, and he who has not will be forced to suffer whatever the powerful impose on him. And this is seen by the original nihilists as a good thing. What’s his name, Nietzsche, of course, said, “Some of us are better than others. Some of us are supermen, and it is quite wrong and wicked for us to be treated as though we were ordinary fellows, and therefore do not tie us down with these ridiculous codes of ethics, and morals, and other things which are simply the weapons by which the weak hold down the strong.” This was an interesting idea, but it wasn’t new. There’s a Greek in the fifth century who says the same thing.
There is no definition of goodness for this modern approach, no definition of happiness. Each individual decides for himself what is good, what is happy. What it really does is to evade the question that I’m talking about. Is this all okay? If we’re all going to die then does it really mean that we should just do the best we can at anybody’s expense while we’re alive? Is that a satisfactory outcome? Will we indeed be happier, better off while we’re alive? If we do that, the Greeks would have said, “That is stupid and absurd to think for ten seconds you’ll realize that’s no good.”
The Greeks on the other hand had a powerful belief in the dominance of chance. They accepted, again, what is a very modern idea now, that in fact there is no divine force or divine forces who oversee what happens to mankind on earth. But, rather, things happen simply in a random way according to no particular rule and that’s the way it is. It is not virtue or merit that determine the quality of your life. It is chance, and there are several places in the Iliad and theOdyssey that emphasize that point.
That leaves the Greeks with something like this question. In the light of human mortality, the disinterest of the gods, the chanciness of life, what can man do to achieve happiness and immortality? Because he still doesn’t feel happy about his mortality. Though he accepts that this is a problem, it’s something that he still hankers after. It’s inevitable that people should, and part of the answer is very Homeric. It is the heroic ethic. At a certain place, I think a couple of places in theIliad, Achilles answers the question, “Why did you come here to fight at Troy?” We know the legend says that Achilles was told before he came that if he did not go to Troy and fight in that war, because his mother was a goddess, he had partial divinity in him, he would be immortal. He would never die. But, on the other hand, he would not be great and famous. His memory would not be carried forward into the future. If he went to Troy, he would die, but his memory as the greatest of the Achaeans would be immortal forever. Well, you know the choice he took and you know that it turned out to be right. We still know about Achilles, don’t we? And when we’re all gone, people will know about Achilles. So, we should take the Greeks very seriously on that score.
Sometimes he’s asked, “What made you come here in spite of that?” and his answer was, “Well, when my father sent me here, he told me a number of things that I’m supposed to do, but the most important of these was the Greek words, aien aristeioi, always be the Best. The best doesn’t mean morally the best in anything like our sense. It means the greatest, the strongest, the ablest, the most admired. That is what you want to be. Well, you can only do that if you are in a contest. You can only be the best if somebody is not as good, and the Greek word for that kind of a contest isagon, and so it’s fair to think about the Greeks, I think it’s very necessary to think about the Greeks as having a particularagonal society, a society filled with competition, in which if not everybody, lots and lots of people are constantly striving to be the very best, whatever the definition of best is in the context that’s relevant. Now, I guess I’m out of time. So, I’ll pick up the story next time with the story about this heroic ethic and the impact that it has on Greek society.