Home » Greece » The Dark Ages in Ancient Greece — the Homeric (pre-Polis) period. XI-IX centuries BC.

The Dark Ages in Ancient Greece — the Homeric (pre-Polis) period. XI-IX centuries BC.

Features of the development of the Homeric society

The period of Greek history following the Cretan-Mycenaean epoch is usually called “Homeric” after the great poet Homer, whose poems “The Iliad “and” The Odyssey ” remain the most important source of information about this time.

Evidence of the decline of Greece in the ” Dark Ages»

The evidence of the Homeric epic is significantly supplemented and expanded by archaeology. The bulk of the archaeological material for this period is provided by the excavations of necropolises. The largest of them were discovered in Athens (the areas of Ceramicus and the later Agora), on the island of Salamis, on Euboea (near Lefkandi), in the vicinity of Argos. The number of known settlements of the XI-IX centuries BC is extremely small (this fact itself indicates a sharp decline in the total population). Coastal settlements of the Homeric period are usually located on small peninsulas connected to the land only by a narrow isthmus, and are often surrounded by a wall, which indicates a widespread piracy. Of the settlements of this type, the most famous is Smyrna, founded on the coast of Asia Minor by Aeolian colonists from European Greece.

A pot with a handle. Geometric style. 1200 BC.

A pot with a handle. Geometric style. 1200 BC.

Archaeology shows that the so-called Dorian conquest set Greece back several centuries. Of the achievements of the Mycenaean era, only a few industrial skills and technical adaptations were preserved, which were of vital importance both for the new inhabitants of the country and for the remnants of its former population. This includes a potter’s wheel, a relatively high metalworking technique, a ship with a sail, and the culture of growing olives and grapes. The Mycenaean civilization itself, with all its characteristic forms of socio-economic relations, state institutions, religious and ideological ideas, etc., has undoubtedly ceased to exist. On the whole territory of Greece, the primitive communal system was again established for a long time.

The Mycenaean palaces and citadels were abandoned and lay in ruins. No one lived outside their walls anymore. Even in Athens, apparently not affected by the Dorian invasion, the acropolis was abandoned by its inhabitants already in the XII century BC. e. and after that for a long time remained uninhabited. It seems that in the Homeric period, the Greeks forgot how to build houses and fortresses from stone blocks, as did their predecessors in the Mycenaean era. Almost all the buildings of this time were wooden or built of unfired bricks.

The burials of the Homeric period are generally extremely poor, even shabby, when compared with the Mycenaean graves. Their entire inventory is usually a few clay pots, a bronze or iron sword, spearheads and arrows in the men’s graves, cheap jewelry in the women’s. There are almost no beautiful valuables in them at all. There are no objects of foreign, Eastern origin, so frequent in Mycenaean burials. All this speaks of the sharp decline of craft and trade, of the mass flight of skilled artisans from the country ravaged by war and invasions to foreign lands, of the rupture of the trade sea routes that connected Mycenaean Greece with the countries of the Middle East and with the rest of the Mediterranean.

The products of the Greek artisans of the Homeric period are noticeably inferior both in their artistic qualities and in purely technical terms to the works of Mycenaean, and even more so Cretan masters. In the painting of ceramics of this time, the so-called geometric style completely dominates. The walls of the vessels are covered with a simple geometric pattern made up of concentric circles, triangles, rhombuses, and squares. The first still very primitive images of people and animals appear after a long break only at the very end of the IX century.

The appearance of a new metal — iron

A polished cup. Geometric style. Ca. 1200 BC

A polished cup. Geometric style. Ca. 1200 BC

All this, of course, does not mean that the Homeric period did not bring absolutely nothing new to the cultural development of Greece. The history of mankind does not know an absolute regression, and in the material culture of the Homeric period, the elements of regression are intricately intertwined with a number of important innovations. The most important of them was the development by the Greeks of the technique of smelting and processing iron.

In the Mycenaean era, iron was known in Greece only as a precious metal and was mainly used for making various kinds of jewelry such as rings, bracelets, etc. The oldest examples of iron weapons (swords, daggers, arrowheads and spears) found on the territory of Balkan Greece and the islands of the Aegean Sea date back to the XII-XI centuries BC. A little later — in the X-IX centuries BC.e. the first tools made of the same metal appear. Examples include an axe and chisel found in one of the burials of the Athenian Agora, a chisel and adze from one grave in the necropolis of Ceramics, an iron sickle from Tiryns, and other items. Homer is also well aware of the widespread use of iron for the manufacture of agricultural and other tools.

The widespread introduction of the new metal into production meant a real technical revolution in the conditions of that time. For the first time, metal became cheap and widely available (iron deposits are found in nature much more often than copper and tin deposits — the main components of bronze). There was no need for dangerous and expensive expeditions to the places of ore extraction. In this regard, the production capacity of individual communities has increased dramatically. It was an undeniable technological advance. However, its beneficial impact on the social and cultural development of Ancient Greece was not immediately felt, and in general, the culture of the Homeric period is much lower than the chronologically preceding culture of the Cretan-Mycenaean era. This is unanimously evidenced not only by the objects found by archaeologists during excavations, but also by the descriptions of life and everyday life with which the Homeric poems introduce us.

Socio-economic relations

It has long been noted that the Iliad and the Odyssey as a whole depict a society much closer to barbarism, a culture much more backward and primitive than we can imagine when reading the linear B tablets or looking at the works of Cretan-Mycenaean art. The economy of the Homeric period is dominated by natural agriculture, the main branches of which remain, as in the Mycenaean era, agriculture and cattle breeding. Homer himself was undoubtedly well versed in the various types of peasant labor. He judges with great knowledge of the hard work of a farmer and a shepherd, and often introduces scenes from contemporary rural life into his narrative of the Trojan War and the adventures of Odysseus.

Agriculture — agriculture and cattle breeding

The centaur of Lefkandi. Ca. 900 BC

The centaur of Lefkandi. Ca. 900 BC

Especially often such episodes are used in the comparisons with which the poet plentifully usnachivaet his story. Thus, in the Iliad, the heroes of Ajax going into battle are compared to two bulls plowing the ground. Approaching enemy troops are like reapers walking across the field to meet each other. There are also detailed descriptions of field labor in the epic. Such, for example, are the scenes of ploughing and reaping, depicted with great skill by Hephaestus, the god of blacksmithing, on the shield of Achilles:

He also made a wide field on it, a rich arable land,
Loose, three times plowed steam; on it farmers
They drive the jugular oxen, both back and forth.;
And always, as back to the end of the fields approach,
Each of them has a cup of wine in their hands, which makes the heart happy,
The husband serves; and they, according to their stripes, turn,
Again, they hurry to reach the end of the deep-cut steam.
The field, though golden, is black behind the shouting ones,
The ploughed field is similar: such a miracle he presented.
Next, he selected a field with high fields; a harvest
The mercenaries stung, their sharp sickles flashing in their hands.
Here thick handfuls continuously fall in a strip;
Three bandages walk behind the reapers; their children are behind them,
A handful of ears of corn quickly, one after the other in heaps
They are served to the astringents. The lord between them is silent,
With a club in his hand, he stands on the reins and has fun with his soul.

Along with farming, the Homeric Greeks were engaged in horticulture and viticulture. This is evidenced by the detailed description of the wonderful garden of the king of the Phaeacians Alcinous in the Odyssey. Cattle breeding played an extremely important role in the economy of Homer’s time. Cattle were considered the main measure of wealth. The number of heads of cattle was largely determined by the position occupied by a person in society; the honor and respect paid to him depended on it. Thus, Odysseus is considered “the first among the heroes of Ithaca and the nearby mainland”, because he owns 12 herds of cattle and a corresponding number of goats, sheep and pigs. Cattle were also used as a unit of exchange, since Homeric society did not yet know real money.

The results of the study of the Homeric epic fully confirm the conclusion made by archaeologists about the economic isolation of Greece and the entire Aegean basin in the XI-IX centuries BC. The Mycenaean states with their highly developed economy could not exist without constant well-established trade contacts with the outside world and, above all, with the countries of the Middle East. In contrast, the typical Homeric community (demos) leads a completely separate existence, almost without coming into contact even with other similar communities closest to it. The economy of the community is mainly natural in nature. Trade and craft play only the most insignificant role in it. Each family produces almost everything necessary for its life: the products of agriculture and cattle breeding, clothing, simple utensils, tools, perhaps even weapons.

Craft and trade

The tripod. Cyprus. Ca. 1100 BC

The tripod. Cyprus. Ca. 1100 BC

Specialists-artisans who live by their work, in the poems are extremely rare. Homer calls them “demiurgists”, i.e. “working for the people”. Many of them, apparently, did not even have their own workshop and permanent place of residence, and were forced to wander around the villages, moving from house to house in search of income and food. They were used only in cases where it was necessary to make some rare type of weapon, for example, a bronze shell or a shield made of bull skins, or a precious piece of jewelry. In such work, it was difficult to do without the help of a qualified master blacksmith, tanner or jeweler.

The Greeks of the Homeric era did not engage in trade at all. They preferred to get the foreign things they needed by force, and for this they equipped predatory expeditions to foreign lands. The seas surrounding Greece were teeming with pirates. Sea robbery, as well as robbery on land, was not considered a reprehensible occupation in those days. On the contrary, enterprises of this kind were seen as a manifestation of special prowess and bravery, worthy of a real hero and aristocrat. But even the dashing pirates-getters did not dare to go far beyond their native Aegean Sea in those days. The expedition to Egypt already seemed to the Greeks of that time a fantastic undertaking, requiring exceptional courage. The whole world that lay outside their little world, even such comparatively close countries as the Black Sea Region or Italy and Sicily, seemed to them distant and terrible. In their imagination, they inhabited this region with terrible monsters like the sirens or the cyclopean giants that Odysseus tells his astonished listeners about.

The only real merchants mentioned by Homer are the “cunning visitors of the seas”, the Phoenicians. As in other countries, the Phoenicians were mainly engaged in intermediary trade in Greece, selling at exorbitant prices outlandish overseas products made of gold, amber, ivory, incense bottles, glass beads. The poet treats them with obvious antipathy, seeing in them insidious deceivers, always ready to deceive the simple-minded Greek.

Patriarchal way of life

Despite the appearance in Homeric society of quite clearly expressed signs of property inequality, the life of even the highest strata of it is striking in its simplicity and patriarchality. The Homeric heroes, and they are all kings and aristocrats, live in rough wooden houses with a courtyard surrounded by a palisade. Typical in this sense is the home of Odysseus, the main character of the second Homeric poem. At the entrance to the” palace ” of this king, there is a large dung heap, on which Odysseus, returning home in the guise of an old beggar, finds his faithful dog Argus. Beggars and vagabonds easily enter the house from the street and sit at the door waiting for a handout in the same chamber where the host feasts with his guests. The floor of the house is densely packed earth. The interior of the dwelling is very dirty. The walls and ceiling are covered with soot, as the houses were heated without pipes and a chimney “in a chicken way”. Homer clearly has no idea what the palaces and citadels of the “heroic age” looked like. In his poems, he never mentions the grand cyclopean walls of the Mycenaean strongholds, the frescoes that decorated their palaces, or the bathrooms and toilet rooms.

And the whole way of life of the heroes of the poems is very far from the lush and comfortable life of the Mycenaean palace elite. It is much simpler and rougher. The wealth of the Homeric Basileae is nothing compared to that of their predecessors, the Achaean lords. These latter needed a whole staff of scribes to keep records and control their property. The typical Homeric basileus himself knows perfectly well what is stored in his storeroom and in what quantity, how much land, cattle, slaves, etc. His main wealth consists in the reserves of metal: bronze cauldrons and tripods, ingots of iron, which he carefully stores in a secluded corner of his house. In his character, not the last place is occupied by such traits as hoarding, prudence, and the ability to benefit from everything. In this respect, the psychology of the Homeric aristocrat is not much different from the psychology of the well-to-do peasant of that era.

Domestic slavery

Bronze statue of a bull. VIII century BC.

Bronze statue of a bull. VIII century BC.

Homer never mentions the numerous court servants who surrounded the Vanactes of Mycenae or Pylos. The centralized household of the palace, with its workmen, its overseers, its scribes, and its auditors, is completely alien to it. True, the number of workers in the farms of some Basileians (Odysseus, king of the Phaeacians Alcinous) is determined by a fairly significant figure of 50 slaves, but even if this is not a poetic hyperbole, such an economy is still very far from the economy of the Pylos or Knossos palace, in which, judging by the data of the tablets, hundreds or even thousands of slaves were employed. It is difficult for us to imagine a Mycenaean vanakt sharing a meal with his slaves, and his wife sitting at a loom surrounded by her slaves. For Homer, both are typical scenes in the lives of his characters. The Homeric kings do not shy away from the roughest physical work. Odysseus, for example, is no less proud of his ability to mow and plow than of his military skills. The first time we meet the King’s daughter, Nauzikaya, is when she and her maids go out to the seaside to wash clothes for her father, Alcinous. Facts of this kind suggest that slavery in Homeric Greece had not yet gained any wide distribution, and even in the farms of the richest and noblest people there were not so many slaves.

With the underdevelopment of trade, war and piracy remained the main sources of slavery. The very methods of acquiring slaves were thus fraught with great risk. Therefore, the prices for them were quite high. Beautiful and skilled in the work of the slave was equal to a whole herd of bulls of twenty heads. The middle-class peasants not only worked side by side with their slaves, but also lived with them under the same roof. So the elder Laertes, the father of Odysseus, lives in his rural estate. In the cold season, he sleeps with the slaves right on the floor in the ashes by the hearth. And by his clothes, and by his whole appearance, it is already difficult to distinguish him from a simple slave. It should also be borne in mind that the bulk of the forced laborers were female slaves. Men in those days were usually not taken prisoner in war, since their “taming” required a lot of time and perseverance, while women were taken willingly, since they could be used both as labor and as concubines.

In the household of Odysseus, for example, twelve female slaves are busy grinding grain with hand-held grain grinders from morning until late at night (this work was considered especially difficult and was usually assigned to obstinate slaves as a punishment). Male slaves, on the few occasions when they are mentioned in the pages of the poems, usually graze cattle. The classic type of Homeric slave was embodied by the” divine swineherd ” Eumaeus, who first met and sheltered the wanderer Odysseus when he returned to his homeland after many years of absence, and then helped him to deal with his enemies — the suitors of Penelope. As a young boy, Eumaeus was bought from Phoenician slavers by Odysseus ‘ father Laertes. For his good behavior and obedience, Odysseus made him the head shepherd of the pig herd. Eumaeus expects that his diligence will be rewarded even more. The owner will give him a piece of land, a house and a wife- ” in a word, all that the good-natured lord should give to the faithful servants, when the just gods have rewarded him with success.”

Geometric style. A ceramic vessel in Athens. XI-X centuries BC.

Geometric style. A ceramic vessel in Athens. XI-X centuries BC.

Eumaeus can be considered a model of the” good slave ” in the Homeric sense of the word. But the poet knows that there are also “bad slaves” who do not want to obey their masters. In the Odyssey, they are represented by the goatherd Melanthius, who sympathizes with the suitors and helps them fight Odysseus, as well as the twelve slaves of Penelope, who have entered into a criminal relationship with their master’s enemies. Having finished with the suitors, Odysseus and Telemachus also deal with the traitorous slaves: the slaves are hanged on a ship’s rope, and Melanthius, having cut off his ears, nose, legs and hands, is still alive thrown to the dogs. This episode eloquently shows that the sense of the owner-slave owner is already quite strongly developed in the heroes of Homer, although slavery itself is still just beginning to emerge. Despite the patriarchal features in the depiction of the relationship between slaves and their masters, the poet is well aware of the impassable line that separates the two classes. This is indicated by a characteristic maxim uttered by the swineherd Eumaeus, who is already known to us:

The slave is negligent; do not forget the master by a strict command
To his work, he himself will not take up the hunt: The
painful lot of sad slavery has chosen a man,
The best half of his prowess is destroyed by Zeus.

Tribal communities and the formation of the foundations of the policy

The disappearance of writing

Among the other major achievements of Mycenaean civilization, linear syllabic writing was also forgotten during the time of tribal invasions and migrations. The entire Homeric period was a period in the full sense of the word without writing. Until now, archaeologists have not been able to find a single inscription on the territory of Greece, which could be attributed to the period from the XI to the IX century BC.

After a long break, the first Greek inscriptions known to science appear only in the second half of the eighth century. But these inscriptions no longer use the linear B characters with which the Mycenaean tablets were inscribed, but the letters of an entirely new alphabetic script, which was apparently only in its infancy at this time. Accordingly, we find no mention of writing in Homer’s poems. The heroes of the poems are all illiterate, unable to read or write. Neither do the aedic singers know the letters:

  • “divine” Demodocus and
  • The Phemias we meet in the pages of the Odyssey.

The very fact of the disappearance of the letter in the post-Mycenaean era, of course, is not accidental. The spread of linear syllabic writing in Crete and Mycenae was primarily dictated by the need for a centralized monarchical state to strictly account for and control all material and human resources at its disposal.

The vessel. Geometric style. From the Keramika cemetery, Athens. Ca. VIII century BC.

The vessel. Geometric style. From the Keramika cemetery, Athens. Ca. VIII century BC.

The scribes who worked in the Mycenaean palace archives regularly recorded the receipt of taxes from the subject population to the palace treasury, the performance of labor duties by slaves and freemen, as well as various types of disbursements and deductions from the treasury. The destruction of palaces and citadels in the late XIII-early XII centuries BC was accompanied by the collapse of the large Achaean states grouped around them. Individual communities were freed from their former fiscal dependence on the palace and moved to the path of independent economic and political development. Along with the collapse of the entire system of bureaucratic management, there was no need for a letter that served the needs of this system. And it was long forgotten.

Background of the policy

What kind of society emerged from the ruins of the Mycenaean bureaucratic monarchy? Relying on the testimony of the same Homer, we can say that it was a rather primitive rural community-demos, which, as a rule, occupied a very small territory and was almost completely isolated from other neighboring communities. The political and economic center of the community was a settlement called polis.

In the Greek language of the classical era, this word simultaneously expresses two closely related concepts in the minds of every Greek: “city” and “state”. It is interesting, however, that in the Homeric lexicon, in which the word “polis” (city) occurs quite often, there is no word that could be translated as “village”. This means that there was no real antithesis between town and country in Greece at that time. The Homeric polis itself was at the same time both a town and a village. It is connected with the city, firstly, by a compact, crowded building in a small space, and secondly, by the presence of fortifications. Such Homeric polis as Troy in the Iliad or the city of the Phaeacians in the Odyssey already have walls, although it is difficult to determine from the description whether these were real city walls of stone or brick, or just an earthen rampart with a palisade. And yet the polis of the Homeric era is difficult to recognize as a real city because the bulk of its population consists of peasants-farmers and cattle breeders, not merchants and artisans, who were still very few in those days. The polis is surrounded by desolate fields and mountains, among which the eye of the poet distinguishes only single shepherd’s huts, and corrals for cattle.

As a rule, the possessions of an individual community did not extend too far. Most often, they were limited to either a small mountain valley, or a small island in the waters of the Aegean or Ionian Sea. The whole of Greece, then, appears to us in Homer’s poems as a country divided into many small self-governing districts. In the future, for many centuries, this fragmentation remained the most important distinguishing feature of the entire political history of the Greek states.

There were very tense relations between the individual communities. The inhabitants of the nearest neighboring polis were regarded as enemies in those days. They could be robbed, killed, or enslaved with impunity. Violent feuds and border conflicts between neighboring communities were common, often escalating into bloody, protracted wars. The reason for such a war could serve, for example, the theft of neighboring cattle.

Ancestral relations-philae and phratries

A musician who plays the lyre. Bronze. Circa 900-800 BC Museum of Hieracleion, Crete.

A musician who plays the lyre. Bronze. Circa 900-800 BC Museum of Hieracleion, Crete.

In the social life of the Homeric polis, the traditions of the gentile system played a leading role. The associations of the clans — the so-called philae and phratries-formed the basis of the entire political and military organization of the community. According to the filae and phratries, a communal militia was built during a campaign or battle. In the philae and phratries, the people gathered for a meeting when it was necessary to discuss some important issue. A man who did not belong to any phratry stood, in Homer’s understanding, outside of society. He had no hearth, that is, no home and no family. No law protected him. Therefore, he could easily become a victim of violence and arbitrariness.

There was no strong connection between the individual tribal unions. The only thing that made them cling to each other and settle together outside the walls of the polis was the need for joint defense against an external enemy. For the rest, the philae and phratries led a completely independent existence. The community hardly interfered in their internal affairs. Individual clans were constantly at war with each other. The barbaric customs of blood feuds were widely practiced. A man who had tainted himself with murder had to flee to a foreign land, fleeing from the pursuit of the relatives of the murdered man. Among the heroes of the poems, there are often such exiles who left the fatherland because of blood feuds and found shelter in the house of some foreign king. If the murderer was rich enough, he could buy off the relatives of the murdered man by paying them a fine with cattle or ingots of metal.

The communal power, which was represented by the “elders of the city”, i.e. the tribal elders, acted as an arbitrator, a conciliator of the litigants, with the decision of which they did not necessarily have to take into account. In such conditions, in the absence of a centralized authority capable of subordinating the warring clans to its authority, inter-tribal strife often grew into bloody civil strife, putting the community on the verge of disintegration. This is the critical situation we see in the final scene of the Odyssey. The relatives of the suitors, embittered by the death of their children and brothers who fell at the hands of Odysseus, rush to the country estate of his father Laertes with the firm intention of avenging the dead and uprooting the entire royal family. Both “parties” with weapons in their hands are going to meet each other. A battle ensues. Only the intervention of Athena, who protects Odysseus, stops the bloodshed and forces the enemies to make peace.

Property, social stratification and separation of the nobility

Describing the Greek society of the Homeric era, we see the ancient gentile organization still in full force, but we also see the beginning of its destruction: the paternal right, with the inheritance of property by children, favored the accumulation of wealth in one single family and made the family a force opposed to the gens.

Land relations

The patriarchal monogamous Oikos family was the main economic unit of Homeric society. The main type of wealth, which was in the eyes of the Greeks of Homer’s time, the land was considered the property of the entire community. From time to time, the community organized redistricting of the land belonging to it. Theoretically, every free community member had the right to receive an allotment (these allotments were called in Greek “clerics”, i.e. “lots”, since their distribution was made by drawing lots). However, in practice, this system of land use did not prevent the enrichment of some members of the community and the ruin of others. Homer already knows that next to the rich “multi-ethnic” people (polyclera) in the community, there are also those who had no land at all (aclera). Obviously, they were poor peasants who did not have enough money to run a farm on their small allotment. Driven to desperation, they ceded their land to rich neighbors and thus became hopeless farmhands-fetes.

The Fetes, whose position was only slightly different from that of the slaves, stand at the very bottom of the social ladder, at the top of which we see the ruling class of the ancestral nobility, i.e., people whom Homer constantly calls “the best” (arista — hence “aristocracy”) or “good”, “noble” (agatha), contrasting them with “bad” and “low” (what), i.e. ordinary community members. In the poet’s understanding, the natural aristocrat stands head and shoulders above any commoner, both mentally and physically.

Rise of the nobility

A statuette of the goddess. Bone. VIII century BC Dipilon Cemetery Athens.

A statuette of the goddess. Bone. VIII century BC Dipilon Cemetery Athens.

The aristocrats tried to justify their claims to a special, privileged position in society by referring to their supposedly divine origin. Therefore, Homer often calls them “divine” or “godlike”. Of course, the real basis of the power of the ancestral nobility was not kinship with the gods, but wealth, which sharply distinguished the representatives of this class from the ordinary members of the community. For Homer, nobility and wealth are almost indissoluble concepts. A noble person cannot but be rich, and vice versa, a rich person must necessarily be noble.

The economic power of the nobility gave it a commanding position in all the affairs of the community, both in times of war and in times of peace. The decisive role on the battlefields belonged to the aristocracy already due to the fact that only a rich and noble person could at that time purchase a full set of heavy weapons (a bronze helmet with a crest, a carapace, greaves, a heavy leather shield upholstered in copper), since weapons were very expensive. Only the wealthiest people in the community were able to maintain a warhorse. In the natural conditions of Greece, in the absence of rich pastures, this was far from easy. To this it should be added that only a person who had received good athletic training, who systematically practiced running, throwing the spear and discus, and riding, could perfectly master the weapons of that time. And such people could be found again only among the nobility. A simple peasant, who was engaged in hard physical labor on his allotment from morning until sunset, simply did not have time for sports. Therefore, athletics in Greece for a long time remained the privilege of the aristocracy.

During the battle, the aristocrats in heavy armor on foot or on horseback stood in the first ranks of the militia, and behind them a disorderly mass of “common people” in cheap felt armor with light shields, bows and darts in their hands. When the opposing forces converged, the blunders (literally, “fighting in front” – as Homer calls the warriors from the nobility, contrasting them with ordinary warriors) ran out of line and tied single duels. It rarely came to a clash between the main poorly armed masses of warriors. The outcome of the battle was usually decided by a miss.

In ancient times, the place occupied by a person in a combat formation usually determined his position in society. As a decisive force on the battlefield, the Homeric nobility also claimed a dominant position in the political life of the community. The aristocrats scornfully treated the common commons as people who “knew nothing about the affairs of war and the council.”

At popular gatherings, descriptions of which are repeatedly found in poems, speeches are usually made by kings and heroes of “noble origin”. The people who were present at these discussions could express their attitude to them by shouting or rattling their weapons (if the meeting was held in a military situation), but they usually did not interfere in the discussion itself. Only in one case, as an exception, does the poet bring a representative of the popular mass to the stage and give him the opportunity to speak out. At a meeting of the Achaean army besieging Troy, a question is discussed that affects all those present: whether it is worth continuing the war, which has been dragging on for the tenth year and does not promise victory, or whether it is better to board ships and return to their homeland, to Greece, with the whole army. Suddenly, private soldier Thersites takes the floor. He boldly denounces the greed and avarice of Agamemnon, the supreme leader of the Achaean host, and calls on all to sail immediately to their native shores, leaving the proud Atreides to fight the Trojans alone. The” seditious ” speeches of Thersites are abruptly cut short by Odysseus, one of the Achaean kings. After showering him with rude abuse and threatening him with reprisals if he continues his attacks on the kings, Odysseus, in confirmation of his words, deals the troublemaker a strong blow with his royal rod.

The scene with Thersites, like many other episodes of Homeric poems, eloquently testifies to the deep decline and degeneration of primitive democracy. The Assembly of the People, which by its very nature serves as the mouthpiece of the will of the majority, is here an obedient instrument in the hands of a small group of tsars.

Thus, the political organization of Homeric society was still very far from a true democracy. The real power was concentrated at that time in the hands of the most powerful and influential representatives of the ancestral nobility, whom Homer calls “basileians”. In the works of later Greek authors, the word “basileus” usually refers to a king, such as the Persian or Macedonian.

The role of the nobility in Homeric society

Centaur and man. Bronze. VIII century BC.

Centaur and man. Bronze. VIII century BC.

Outwardly, the Homeric basileae really resemble kings. In the crowd, any of them could be recognized by the signs of royal dignity: a scepter and a purple robe. “Skiptroderzhtsy” is a common epithet used by the poet to describe the Basileae. They are also called “Zeus-born” or “Zeus-fed”, which should indicate the special favor shown to them by the supreme Olympian. The Basileians have the exclusive right to preserve and interpret the laws instilled in them, as the poet thinks, again by Zeus himself. In war, the Basileians were at the head of the militia and had to be the first to rush into battle, showing an example of bravery and bravery to ordinary soldiers. During large public festivals, Basileus made sacrifices to the gods and prayed to them for the good and prosperity of the entire community. For all this, the people were obliged to honor the “kings” with “gifts”: an honorable share of wine and meat at the feast, the best and most extensive allotment during the redistribution of communal land, etc.

Formally, “gifts” were considered a voluntary grant or honor that basileus received from the people as a reward for his military valor or for justice shown by him in court. However, in practice, this ancient custom often gave the” kings “a convenient excuse for extortion and extortion, so to speak,”on a legal basis”. Such a” king — eater of the people “is represented in the first songs of the Iliad by Agamemnon. Thersites, already known to us, sarcastically denounces the exorbitant greed of the” shepherd of the nations”, which manifests itself in the division of the spoils of war:

What, Agamemnon, are you complaining about, what else are you dissatisfied with?
Your tabernacles are full of brass, and there are many captives
In your tabernacles, which we give to you, Argives, the first chosen
ones in the army, when we destroy the cities.
Are you still hungry for gold, so that someone from the Trojans can get it?
I have brought glorious horsemen for you, as an atonement for my son,
Whom in bonds would I bring, like another Argive?
Do you want a new wife to enjoy your love with her,
In the shadow of one enclosed? No, it’s an unworthy thing,
You who were the head of the people, bring us into trouble, Achaeans!

With all the power and wealth of the Basileians, their power cannot be considered royal power in the proper sense of the word.

Within the limits of his philae or phratry, basileus performed mainly priestly functions, managing tribal cults (each clan union had its own special patron god at that time). Together, however, the basileae formed a sort of ruling college or council of a given community, and together they resolved all the pressing issues of government before submitting them to the People’s Assembly for final approval (by the way, this last formality was not always observed).

Bell-shaped female figure from Boeotia. 900-700 BC.

Bell-shaped female figure from Boeotia. 900-700 BC.

From time to time, the basileae, together with the ancestral elders (the poet usually does not draw a clear line between the two), gathered in the city square (agora) and there, in the presence of all the people, they sorted out lawsuits. During the war, one (sometimes two) of the Basileis was elected at the people’s assembly to the post of military commander and led the militia of the community. In the campaign and in the battle of the basileus, the military commander enjoyed a very broad power, including the right of life and death in relation to cowards and disobedient people, but at the end of the campaign, he usually resigned his powers. Obviously, there were cases when a military commander, who was famous for his exploits and also stood out among other basileians for his wealth and nobility of the family, sought to extend his powers. If his military functions were also joined by the functions of the high priest and the chief judge, such a person became the “king”, i.e. the actual head of the community. This position is occupied by, for example,

  • Alcina among the Phaeacian Basileians,
  • Odysseus among the other Basileae of Ithaca,
  • Agamemnon among the leaders of the Achaean army at Troy.

The position of the supreme basileus, however, was very precarious. Only a few of them managed to secure power for a long time, and even more so to pass it on to their children. This was usually prevented by the rivalry and hostile intrigues of the other basileis, who jealously watched every step of the ruler and sought at all costs to prevent his excessive strengthening. Thus we find among the Homeric Greeks only “the first germ of a future hereditary leadership, or monarchy.” As an established and well-established institution, the monarchy did not yet exist at this time.

Brief conclusion

The Homeric period occupies a special place in Greek history. The class society and state that already existed in Greece at the height of the Mycenaean civilization is now emerging here again, but in a different scale and form. The centralized bureaucratic state of the Mycenaean era was replaced by a small self-governing community of free farmers. Over time (in some parts of Greece, this seems to have happened as early as the late ninth or early eighth century BC), the first city-states, or polis, grew out of such communities.

Unlike the preceding (Mycenaean) and subsequent (Archaic) epochs, the Homeric period was not marked by any outstanding achievements in the field of culture and art. From this time, not a single major architectural monument, not a single work of literature or fine art has come down to us (the Homeric epic itself, which is our main source for the history of this period, is chronologically already outside of it).

In many ways, it was a time of decline and cultural stagnation. But at the same time, it was also a time of accumulating strength before a new rapid rise. In the depths of Greek society, during this period, there is a persistent struggle between the new and the old, there is an intensive breaking of the traditional norms and customs of the gentile system, and an equally intensive process of the formation of classes and the state. Of great importance for the subsequent development of Greek society was the radical renewal of its technical base that took place during the Homeric period, which was expressed primarily in the widespread distribution of iron and its introduction into production. All these important changes prepared the transition of the Greek polis to a completely new path of historical development, entering on which they were able to achieve cultural and social progress unprecedented in the history of mankind over the next three or four centuries.

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