Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Bronze Age collapse

The full version of Chris Gray's study of the two seminal works of ancient Greek literature will soon be available from the CPGB's website in pamphlet form. Here we begin a two-part abridged version

Some of the earliest Athenian legends - those of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur - present a picture of mainland and Aegean Greeks subject to a ‘thalassocracy’ (maritime rule) exercised from Crete. At some stage in the 15th century BCE the Greeks gained the upper hand over this Cretan power and established themselves at its chief city, Knossos.

How and why this early Greek civilisation collapsed is still not as yet fully understood. The likelihood is that a combination of factors was involved. From around 1200 BCE onwards a series of upheavals and destructive conflicts occurred in the Near East. Greece, the Aegean islands, Crete, Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria and Egypt were all affected - in Egypt the events are known as the irruption of the ‘Sea Peoples’. The rulers of the Egyptian and Assyrian empires succeeded in driving off the invading forces, but elsewhere numerous existing power centres were destroyed - including all the major Mycenaean sites. At some stage in the succeeding centuries a fresh wave of Greek settlers, the Dorians, moved southwards into the Peloponnese and the southern Aegean, prompting additional movements among their forerunners, Aeolians and Ionians, who as a result gained possession of almost the whole Anatolian littoral southwards from the Troad.

This period of catastrophic upheaval is well analysed by Robert Drews in his book The end of the Bronze Age (1983). Drews runs through the various factors put forward in explanation of these events - earthquakes, migration of peoples, the spread of iron-working, drought, internal contradictions of Mycenaean, Hittite and similar class societies - and concludes that, while certain of these may have played a part in the catastrophe, the principal cause was a fundamental change in the pattern of warfare, which made the chariot-based armies of the existing powers vulnerable as never before (more on this below).

Two events that loom large in early Greek legend were, it appears, part of the ‘catastrophe’: viz, the attack on Thebes and the sack of Troy. The Hittite royal archives, a major source for contemporaneous societies, show an inter-state system with a number of ‘great kings’ - the Egyptian pharaoh, the Hittite monarch, the king of Assyria or Babylonia, and the ‘king of Ahhiyawa’. The name ‘Ahhiyawa’ equates with one of the names Homer uses for the Greeks - ‘Akhaians’ (Latin spelling: Achaeans). The exact location of the ‘king of Ahhiyawa’ of the archives is not known, but it could well have been Thebes. The attack on Thebes took place some years before the expedition against Troy, which forms the background of the Iliad; the Trojan expedition was led by the ruler of Mycenae, Agamemnon, according to tradition, but it assembled at Aulis, the port of Thebes.

These events were remembered particularly by succeeding Greek generations as evidence of the martial splendours of that age. They were well aware that their own societies did not match the grandeur of those of their ancestors; consequently they were keen to retain the memory of the great feats of those days. As a result a whole series of poems emerged, the so-called Epic Cycle, of which the Iliad and the Odyssey were only the most popular and best known.

Did the Trojan War really happen?

Alert readers will have noticed that the last two paragraphs assume a historical event called the Trojan War. We cannot prove that there was such an event, but evidence has been steadily accumulating which points to the conclusion that there was. Excavations at the site from 1988 to 2002 show that the city was much larger than previously thought. Manfred Korfmann, who directed the excavation, writes that:

“It appears that this city [Troy VII or VIIa, violently destroyed around 1180 BCE] was, by the standards of this region at that time, very large indeed, and most certainly of supra-regional importance in controlling access from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and from Asia Minor to southeast Europe and vice versa. Its citadel was unparalleled in the wider region and ... unmatched anywhere in south-eastern Europe. Troy was also evidently attacked repeatedly and had to defend itself again and again, as indicated by repairs undertaken to the citadel’s fortifications and efforts to enlarge and strengthen them.”[1]

The greatest discovery in the recent excavations was the uncovering of a large ‘lower city’ surrounded by a defensive ditch: this increases the size of the city overall by some 15 times.

If we turn to the Iliad itself, we find it agrees in a number of areas with the Hittite and Egyptian records. The city known as (W)Ilios (the ‘w’ is the Greek digamma, which occurs in the language of the Linear B tablets, but later dropped out of the classical language) is paralleled by references to ‘Wilusa’ in the Hittite archives. One of Homer’s names for the Greeks is ‘Akhaioi’; another is ‘Danaoi’, corresponding with ‘Danaya’ in 14th century BCE Egyptian documents.

In the Hittite archives, there is a record of an agreement between the Hittite king Muwattali II (reigned c1295-72 BCE) and a ruler of Wilusa called Aleksandu (this name recalls the alternative name of the Trojan prince Paris: Alexandros). There is, further, a letter from another Hittite king, probably Hattusili III (reigned c1267-37 BCE), to the king of Ahhiyawa, which declares that Wilusa was at one time a bone of contention between the two monarchs. Denys Page prints the full text of this, the so-called ‘Tawagalawa letter’, in his History and the Homeric Iliad. The exact date of the letter is disputed.[2] Further correspondence, this time from the king of the Ahhiyawa, centres on the islands of Lemnos and Imbros, off the coast of the Troad: it appears that the Hittite monarch is claiming these islands: the Akhaian monarch protests that they belong to him.[3]

There is more evidence in the Hittite archives, but the above gives some indication that the western Anatolian littoral was an area in which something of a power struggle developed between the Hittite empire and its successor states and Greek communities to the west. The empire in the second half of the 12th century BCE was under threat, and its control over these satellite regions was tenuous; a power vacuum emerged, which the aggressive (if equally threatened) Mycenaean Greek states tried to fill. If we elevate the Iliad to the status of a historical source we find that the Hittite empire has already disappeared, and Troy is assisted by a coalition of local states.[4]

The same second book of the Iliad also contains a section, known as the ‘Catalogue of ships’, which records the Greek contingents taking part in the expedition against Troy.[5] This list is effectively a political description of the Greek world in the era before the Dorian invasions and Ionian colonisation along the Anatolian west coast and its associated islands. The Catalogue is headed by the Boiotian contingents, including “those who held lower Thebes” - an expression suggesting a situation where Thebes has already fallen to hostile forces. Central Greece comes next, followed by Athens; next come the Argives, led by Diomedes, followed by Mykenai, Korinthos and other places subject to Agamemnon, the Lakedaimonians under Menelaus (Agamemnon’s brother), and the Pylians under Nestor. Arcadians are mentioned, but, since their community is landlocked, Agamemnon provides them with shipping. Then we have Elis, and various territories to the north and west of the Peloponnese divided between Meges and Odysseus, followed by the Aitolians, and the Cretans under Idomeneus. Miletos gets a mention, along with Rhodes and various south-eastern Aegean islands; finally we have Thessaly (including Achilles’ troops), plus KhalkidikÄ“, and also people who seem to be the Messenia’s (later subject to Sparta).

The list pointedly leaves out any reference to the major north-eastern Aegean islands of Lesbos and Khios, likewise the Ionian cities of Anatolia such as Smyrna and Kolophon, which shows that these places were not part of Greece when the list was drawn up. Just as there are major gaps, so there are also places included which are quite insignificant in the subsequent history of Greece. Scholars have tended to view these places, and indeed the whole catalogue, as fictitious, but in 1993 a Linear B tablet was discovered by accident in Thebes, leading to the unearthing of some 250 tablets indicating that the Theban rulers were in control of an extensive territory. Interestingly, the tablets refer to a place called Eleon, which is mentioned in the catalogue, when it lists “those who held Eleon and HylÄ“ and Peteon”.

As emphasised above, nothing can be proved, but the occurrence of one or more Greek expeditions against Troy begins to look more and more likely as the real historical background to Homer’s Iliad.

Greek epic poetry

We know that there were Mycenaean bards. There is a picture of one playing a lyre in Rodney Castleden’s Mycenaeans (2005). This comes from the throne room at Pylos, and fits in with the picture of heroic age courts in the Odyssey, where the elite are entertained by such minstrels as PhÄ“mios and Demodokos. Moreover, there is a considerable overlap between the language of the Linear B tablets and that of the Homeric epic. One of the links is the sound represented by the Greek ‘digamma’ - our ‘w’. Way back in the 18th century English scholar Richard Bentley showed that there were numerous Homeric lines that did not scan properly, but whose correct scansion followed the insertion of a digamma in the appropriate place, for example: Oude ti pōsapha (w)idmen hopōs estai tade (w)erga.[6]

The correct scansion is lost if you remove the digamma, because then the final ‘a’ of sapha and the final ‘e’ of tade would elide, with the loss of two short syllables: reinsert the digamma, however, and the correct scansion is restored.

Unfortunately we do not know precisely when the Greeks abandoned the digamma, only that by the classical period it had dropped out. Nonetheless, lines of the above form show that when they were composed the digamma was still being pronounced, hence they are early in date.

This increases the likelihood that Greek poets in the period immediately following the sack of Troy began composing and reciting a number of stories connected with it, which, when combined, established the Trojan Cycle.

The particular method of composition used was lost with the spread of literacy and the emergence of written poetry, including epic, and it was not until the first half of the 20th century that scholars became aware of this ancient form. Credit here is due to the American scholar, Milman Parry, and his assistant, Albert Lord. Parry and Lord carried out research in what was then the kingdom of Yugoslavia, recording native singers who sang their heroic ballads while accompanying themselves on a gusle, a one-string fiddle. The method of composition is not dependent upon any written text: each performance is potentially unique, because the poet uses set themes and phrases to build up the line, employing them impromptu in the performance or recital itself. Hence the repetition of formulary phrases, a feature of oral epic, as described in detail in Maurice Bowra’s Heroic poetry (1964). Just as in non-European traditions, European folk epic shows many such phrases.

The Trojan Cycle

If we take the poems of the Trojan Cycle in supposedly historical order, we arrive at the following eight works:

1. Kypria (11 books). This covers the judgement of Paris, the abduction of Helen, the marshalling of the Akhaians, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigeneia, at Aulis to procure a favourable wind, and the course of the Trojan War down to the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles.
2. The Iliad (24 books). The wrath of Achilles and its consequences, down to the death and funeral of Hektor.
3. The Aithiopis (five books), from Hektor’s funeral to the death of Achilles, by Arktinos.
4. The Little Iliad (four books), describing the contest for the arms of Achilles and the construction of the Wooden Horse. Odysseus wins the arms but gives them to Achilles’ son. He is also credited with the wooden horse ruse.
5. The Sack of Troy (‘Iliou Persis’) (two books) by Arktinos.
6. The Nostoi (‘Returns’ or ‘Homecomings’) (five books) describing the post-war fate of Diomedes, Nestor, Neoptolemos (Achilles’ son) and Menelaos.
7. The Odyssey (24 books) - Odysseus’s homecoming.
8. The Telegoneia (two books), which continues Odysseus’s adventures until his death. Variously attributed to Kinaithon of Sparta and Eugammon of Cyrene.

As is evident, the Iliad and the Odyssey are by far the longest of these works: the Iliad is a poem of some 16,000 lines and the text of the Odyssey runs to over 12,000.

Homer and the Rhapsodes

Whereas, even in antiquity, there were those who held that the composers of the Iliad and the Odyssey were different people, nobody seems to have accused Homer of not being in some sense the author of the Iliad. But who was Homer and when and where did he live?

The establishment of the oral tradition reopens the whole question of Homer’s date, since the argument that the poet cannot but be the product of a society with writing falls, meaning that a late (eg, 8th century BCE) date is not necessarily demanded by the evidence. Even so, we need to take into account the traditions associated with Homer’s birthplace, as expressed in the rhyme concerning the seven cities claiming Homer as a native:

Smyrna, Khios, Kolophon, Ithakē, Pylos, Argos, Athēnai,
hepta poleis marnanto sophēn dia rhizan Homērou.[7]

This was imaginatively translated by Thomas Heywood in 1546 as:

“Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged his bread”
(incorporating the tradition that Homer was a beggar).

George Thomson (in his time a member of the CPGB) gives a similar list of towns or locations - Khios, Smyrna, KymÄ“, Ios, Kolophon, Argos, Athens.[8] Given that the dialect of the poems is Ionian with an admixture of Aeolic, the most likely area is the north-eastern Aegean, with Smyrna as possible birthplace and Khios as later base of operations.[9] The article in the Everyman encyclopaedia on Smyrna (Izmir) gives the date of its foundation as around 1000 BCE, so that gives a useful terminus ante quem or earliest possible date. The city was captured by nearby Kolophon in 677. If the hypothesis of a move to Khios by the ‘sons of Homer’ (see below) is correct, then we would appear to have a likely terminus post quem: ie, Homer’s life falls somewhere between 1000 and 677 BCE. That still leaves a huge chronological range.

As Martin Bernal notes, “The ancients tended to put Hesiod before Homer and to place them both between 1100 and 850 BC, in any event definitively before the first Olympic Games in 776.[10] Scholars today tend to reverse the order. They place Homer between 800 and 700 BC and Hesiod some time around the latter.”[11]

Bernal, dismissing the argument based on the date of the introduction of the Greek alphabet, declares himself ready “to accept as a working hypothesis the Classical and Hellenistic consensus that Hesiod predated Homer [and] that the former flourished in the 10th century and the latter around the turn of the 9th.”[12]

In my view one might just as well argue for a date for Homer somewhere between 950 and 750 BCE. The matter is irresolvable: you pays your money and you takes your choice. Whatever the truth of the matter - and Homer will not sue us for libel if we get it wrong - the important thing to remember is that versions of the poems differing in detail were still being performed down to the date of publication of the written texts which we now have (that is to say, as late as the 6th century BCE).

As creator of the Iliad, Homer no doubt acquired an immense reputation throughout the Greek world and, as a result, was able to establish or take over what amounted to a kind of minstrels’ guild, which became known as the HomÄ“ridai or ‘sons of Homer”. Its headquarters were on the island of Khios. It was the members of this organisation who were instrumental in the formation and perpetuation of the poems of the Epic Cycle throughout Greece. They became known as ‘rhapsodes’ (literally ‘song-stitchers’ - rhaptein means ‘to stitch’). This was in fact an excellent description of their modus operandi, which involved the stitching or interweaving of a number of separate themes to form one song or chant. As experienced professionals operating within the oral tradition, they must have had a certain degree of freedom as to how they set out their material, especially after the death of their most illustrious fellow-minstrel, Homer. Furthermore, they were here doing what Homer himself did: it is unlikely that Homer worked completely de novo on any of his compositions, even the Iliad; what he did was to give the work a certain form.

The Iliad: military background

As we have seen, the Iliad does not set out to give a complete account of the Trojan War, merely a part of it, and that only in relation to its central hero, Akhilleus (Achilles). Despite that, the descriptions of battle incidents in the Iliad are of some interest in so far as they reflect fundamental tactical changes which we have already touched on.

Robert Drews asserts that chariots became important militarily from around 1700 BCE onwards.[13] These chariots were two-man vehicles, with a driver and an archer armed with a composite bow (a weapon later magnificently exploited by the Huns and Mongols). Chariots, remaining out of range of archers fighting on foot, could fire arrows at will into infantry formations. This development may itself have led up to the establishment of Troy VI soon after 1700 BCE. Battles thereafter were dominated by opposing chariot forces. The only counter was increased infantry mobility - maybe it is no accident that Achilles is called podas ōkys (‘swift-footed’).

Eventually, at the beginning of the 12th century BCE or thereabouts, it was discovered that mobile archers, or infantry armed with javelins, were an effective counter to the expensive chariot forces employed by the great Near Eastern states. It was this discovery which led to the upheavals associated with the movement of the ‘Sea Peoples’, as discussed above. The chariot remained a high-status vehicle, but thereafter tended to be used principally as a battle taxi, which is the usual pattern in the Iliad. The chieftains ride to battle in chariots, but then dismount and fight with spears and swords on foot. There were corresponding changes in armaments and weaponry: the great rectangular shields used by the Mycenaeans gave way to round shields,[14] and greaves (leg armour) went out of fashion. Also around 1200 BCE there appeared in the eastern Mediterranean a new kind of two-edged sword, immensely powerful for cutting and slashing.[15] By about 900 BCE such swords were regularly made of iron.

This last military development was ultimately an important factor in the emergence of the classical Greek city-state (polis) and its accompanying relative democratisation - the so-called ‘hoplite revolution’.

As Drews writes, “The kind of solidarity required in the Iron Age was, with rare exceptions, unnecessary and therefore unknown in the Late Bronze Age, since prior to the Catastrophe [the movement of the ‘Sea Peoples’] a king’s subjects were amply protected by the king’s chariots and chariot runners. The military revolution that occurred in the Catastrophe was thus a prerequisite for the social and political changes that made the world of the Iron Age so different from that of the Late Bronze Age.”[16]

Certain reminiscences of Mycenaean-style armaments occur in the Iliad. Probably the most obvious is the continual reference to “well-greaved Akhaians” (euknÄ“mÄ«des Akhaioi). There are also several references to the Mycenaean body shield, the sakos: eg, Iliad vi, 117; vii, 219 (the same words appear at xi, 485 and xvii, 128); xi, 32-5 (Agamemnon’s shield is described as amphibrotÄ“n - ‘man-enclosing’ - even if it is evidently round); xiv, 403-20; xv, 645; xx, 281. Then there is the celebrated boar’s tusk helmet of x, 261-5, examples of which have been found at Mycenaean archaeological sites; this helmet is used in a night attack because it does not reflect light.[17]

The social viewpoint of the poems

The early Greek epic is court poetry, as exemplified in the Odyssey by the performances of the bards, PhÄ“mios and Demodokos. Consequently we should expect the poems to uphold the point of view of the ruling class, and indeed that is what they do. One could go further and say that the aim and object of the poet is to bring about the necessary cohesion among the ruling class - not primarily vis-à-vis those who are being ruled, for that is there already, but regarding relations within the ruling class.

The subject of the Iliad (which should really be called ‘the Akhilleid’, but the traditional title indicates the poem’s pre-eminence in the cycle - ‘the tale of Troy’) is the quarrel between Agamemnon and Akhilleus (Achilles) and its consequences. The Greek force attempting to lay siege to Troy has been carrying out raids on neighbouring communities, in the course of which various women have been captured and distributed among the leaders. One of these women, Khryseis, whom Agamemnon has acquired as a consort, is the daughter of a priest of Apollo. The priest comes and asks Agamemnon to return his daughter, but Agamemnon refuses. The priest then prays to Apollo, who sends a plague down on the Greek army. (All this, by the way, is quite plausible historically: the Greeks would have had difficulty supplying a force of 100,000 or so fighters and would likely have been driven to “live off the country” to some extent. Likewise disease was an ever-present danger in all pre-modern wars, often more dangerous than the human enemy).

The Greek prophet, Kalkhas, interprets the plague as sent by Apollo and tells Agamemnon he has to return Khryseis. Agamemnon agrees, but in a fit of pique resolves to compensate himself by taking the prize of one of the other leaders, namely Briseis, who has been given to Akhilleus/Achilles. Achilles quite naturally takes umbrage and, exploiting his position as the foremost champion of the Greeks, withdraws himself and his troops from the battle in anger. This is his famous “wrath”. The poem’s opening words are: “Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus, the destructive wrath, which brought many woes upon the Akhaians ...”

As a result the Trojans, who have been on the defensive, start to win. Led by Hektor, they advance right up to the Greeks’ ships and even succeed in setting one on fire. Achilles relents so far as to send his friend, Patroklos, into battle wearing his armour. Hektor kills Patroklos, whereupon Achilles re-enters the battle and eventually kills Hektor. King Priam of Troy comes to the Greek camp to ask for the return of his son’s body, a request which Achilles grants, and the poem ends with Hektor’s funeral.

The key section of the Iliad is the so-called ‘Embassy to Achilles’, carried out, in the text version, by three individuals - Phoinix, Odysseus and Aias (Ajax) - in book ix. (This seems to overlay an earlier version, where only Odysseus and Aias went, and indeed the poem may originally have lacked the whole episode.[18]) Agamemnon has already admitted publicly that he was in the wrong. He offers handsome compensation: seven tripods, 10 talents of gold, 20 cauldrons, 12 horses, and seven women “skilled in noble handiwork”, including Achilles’ paramour, Briseis, whom Agamemnon swears he has never slept with.[19] And that is only the first instalment: if the expedition is successful there follows a choice of 20 Trojan women, Agamemnon’s daughter in marriage, a rich dowry (meilia) and seven cities (hepta ptoliethra). It is all a bit reminiscent of a modern generous takeover bid aimed at winning over the shareholders.

The three chiefs do their best to persuade Achilles to accept Agamemnon’s offer. Crucial is the speech of Aias, which lays out the social code:

“A man accepts recompense even from the slayer of his brother or child, and the slayer remains in his own land if he pays a great price, and the kinsman’s heart and proud spirit are restrained by the taking of compensation. But, as for you, the gods have put in your breast a heart that is obdurate and evil because of one girl only; but we now offer you seven, the best that there are, and many other gifts besides; so make your heart gracious, and respect your ancestral hall; for under your roof we have come from the mass of the Danaans, and we are eager to be nearest to you and dearest beyond all others.”[20]

Achilles would have done better to have accepted this offer right away: his failure to do so leads to Greek defeats and a crisis for the expeditionary force, which is only resolved by his re-entry into the battle. Even then Achilles is still angry, this time because Hektor has killed his friend, Patroklos; he kills Hektor, and subjects the body to indignities which the poet calls aeikea (w)erga - ‘foul deeds’.[21] He finally redeems himself by allowing Priam to take back the body for burial. (Incidentally, some have complained that Homer’s characters do not develop as the story unfolds: this is not true of Achilles). The moral is: don’t break the social rules.

Even more interesting is the behaviour of Odysseus in book ii, when Agamemnon, ostensibly testing the morale of the army, announces the abandonment of the siege. The troops take him at his word and begin hurrying to the ships; Odysseus, following Agamemnon’s instructions, restrains them, using words that reveal a pronounced anti-democratic bias:

“In no way will we Akhaians all be kings here. Rule by the many is not good: let there be one lord, one king, to whom the son of Kronos of the crooked counsel [ie, Zeus] has given the power of the sceptre and of judgement, so that he may take counsel for his people.”[22]

Shortly after this we have the remarkable speech of Thersites (apparently a common soldier), in which he attacks Agamemnon for being basically concerned with feathering his own nest: “Your huts are full of bronze, and filled with many chosen women, which we Akhaians give you first of all whenever we take a city.”[23]

Homer goes out of his way to emphasise that Thersites is the ugliest (aiskhistos, which also means ‘most disgraceful’) man in the Greek army: “He was bandy-legged and lame in one foot.”[24]

Thersites’s reward is to be reviled by Odysseus for casting aspersions on the kings (basilÄ“as), and physically beaten by him. One cannot help feeling that this is a very realistic portrayal of the knee-jerk ruling class response to criticism coming from the lower orders.

Similar elitist attitudes can be found in the Odyssey, most obviously in Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens and their irresistible powers. The Sirens’ trump card is their knowledge of past and future: “For we know all that the Greeks and Trojans suffered on the broad plain of Troy by the will of the gods, and we know what will happen on this fruitful earth.”[25]

The myth of the Sirens, I would argue, is a folk-memory of the original female-led coalition which originated human culture.[26] Central to this conception is Friedrich Engels’ notion that the earliest development of class society was bound up with “the world-historic defeat of the female sex.”[27] If the male sex is to take over the directing role, as certainly occurs in pastoral and (predominantly) in agricultural societies, then men must gain the mastery over the hitherto female-controlled sensus communis, the collective storehouse of human knowledge. Appropriation of this knowledge involves communion with the dead, who are its guardians. The male hero in search of this knowledge must somehow escape the clutches of the dead, while appropriating their discoveries.

This is Odysseus’s position: he is determined to gain some acquaintance with the Sirens, but is equally determined to survive the experience. His crew become the means to the end: with their ears stopped they do not hear their master’s frantic calls to untie him so that he can join the Sirens, but stolidly keep rowing past the Sirens’ island. Once again a basileus has put one over on hoi polloi (the many) and escaped death: Odysseus may not have gained the Sirens’ knowledge entire, but he has defeated them.

There is also a certain parallel between the Thersites episode in the Iliad and the seizure by Odysseus’s crew of the oxen of the sun in the Odyssey. Homer is well aware that the leadership provided by the basileis (plural of basileus) is sometimes not of the highest quality: he has Odysseus’s subordinate, Eurylokhos, persuade him (with full approval of the crew) to put in at the sun’s island and there, while Odysseus is conveniently offstage asleep somewhere, Eurylokhos persuades the crew, who by now are facing starvation, that the seizure of the cattle is worth the risk A serious mistake! The angry sun god complains to Zeus that if Odysseus’s crew don’t pay compensation for the slaughtered cows he will no longer shine upon earth: “If they don’t pay me in full for the cows, I will go down to Hades and shine among the dead.”[28]

Zeus duly ensures that the ship is struck by a thunderbolt and the crew duly drown. Moral: don’t break the religious taboos, even if you are starving, and don’t mess with the sun (the luminary of agriculture, as opposed to the moon, which is the luminary of hunter-gatherers).

Before we leave the subject of social relations in Homer, there is a remark about slaves made by the swineherd, Eumaios, that deserves a mention. This comes at the point where Odysseus and Eumaios encounter the old dog, Argos, outside the palace on Ithaca. The poor dog is on his last legs. Odysseus asks, in effect, if he is a working dog or only for show, and Eumaios answers that the slave girls at the palace have not been looking after him properly because their master is not at home, so they neglect their duties: “When the day of slavery catches up with a man, wide-seeing Zeus takes away half of his virtue.”[29]

In other words the rulers are the truly good people.

The Iliad and the Odyssey as literature

There seems no point in spending much time on the vexed question of whether both works were composed by one single poet. In my view the question is irresolvable and of less importance than the poems’ ultimate artistic value, which means concentrating on the virtues and vices of the texts that we have. The question is, of course, complicated by the fact that we cannot be sure that the texts as they have reached us represent a genuine performance by Homer himself - or one by any other single individual, for that matter.

Personally I think that if Homer was the master composer of the Iliad - which seems likely, despite the inconsistencies noted by Page (the ‘Embassy to Achilles’ and the issue of the wall around the Greek camp) - I cannot see how he could have failed, given the chance, to leave his mark upon the Odyssey as well. Aristotle was one of the first to note that both poems have, at their core, essentially unified, well delimited plots. Accordingly, in the second part of this article, I will look at Homer’s poetic language and then assess the poems in a broader context.


  1. M Korfmann, ‘Was there a Trojan War?’ Archaeology May-June 2004, p38.
  2. See D Page History and the Homeric ‘Iliad’ Berkeley 1959, p10; J Latacz, Troy and Homer Oxford 2004, pp123f and p280; JG MacQueen The Hittites and their contemporaries in Asia Minor London 1986, p164.
  3. See J Latacz Troy and Homer Oxford 2004, pp243-44.
  4. See Iliad book ii, lines 816-77.
  5. See lines 484-760.
  6. “We do not clearly know how these actions will turn out” (Iliad ii, 252).
  7. Greek anthology Loeb edition, Vol 5, book xvi, epigram 298.
  8. G Thompson The prehistoric Aegean New York 1965, p549.
  9. Ibid.
  10. M Bernal Black Athena Vol 1, New Brunswick 1987, p455, note 58.
  11. Ibid p86.
  12. Ibid p88.
  13. R Drews End of the Bronze Age Princeton 1995, p105.
  14. Ibid p178.
  15. Ibid pp93-94.
  16. Ibid p225.
  17. All these are discussed by Malcolm Willcock in his admirable Companion to the Iliad (1976). Denys Page has a separate chapter on ‘Some Mycenaean relics in the Iliad’ in his History and the Homeric ‘Iliad’ Berkeley 1959, pp218-96.
  18. See D Page History and the Homeric ‘Iliad’ Berkeley 1959.
  19. See Iliad ix, 115-34.
  20. Iliad ix, 632-642, Loeb translation, slightly amended.
  21. Iliad xxii, 395.
  22. Iliad ii, 203-6, translation slightly changed, as also below.
  23. Iliad ii, 226-8.
  24. Iliad ii, 217.
  25. Iliad xii, 189-91.
  26. For a short summary of the theory behind this conception, which originates in the work of Chris Knight, Camilla Power and Ian Watts in anthropology - see Martin Edwardes, ‘Thor and Loki, sun and moon, and Santa’s reindeer: the female coalition model and Norse mythology’, available from Turn on JavaScript!
  27. F Engels, ‘The origin of the family, private property and the state’, in K Marx and F Engels SW Vol 2, Moscow 1958, p217.
  28. Odyssey xii, 382-3.
  29. Odyssey xvii, 322-3.
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