Homer as Political Thinker III

Homer’s political world is one in which the principle of god-king monarchy is in some tension with a principle of a king whose power rests on commanding the consent of a warrior aristocracy, which has its wealth from a mixture of land and plunder. Some speculation on the historical background to Homer suggests that the tension of this kind, as it appears between Odysseus and the Suitors, refers to some late Mycenaean crisis, even the general crisis of the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean in which sea peoples overwhelmed various kingdoms. This may or may not be the real historical context, in any case the violence between Odysseus and the Suitors could be rooted in high Mycenaean tension between kings and aristocrats, sometimes referring to tensions between aristocrats in one place and the king to whom they pay tribute in a neighbouring place. We do not need to assume some golden age without such tensions, which only only appear as the Bronze Age monarchies are wrecked by mysterious wanderers and refugees from whatever disasters were afflicting the region.

The relation between absolute monarchy and aristocratic assemblies seems to foreshadow the development of republics, or polities (politea) as they were known to the Greeks in which no one man dominates, so that power is shared between an aristocracy and then maybe even the whole free male native born population. Given the development of what we now know as the Homeric epics from the late Bronze Age (ending about 1,100 BCE) to the Archaic Age (about 700 BCE), it is possible that any sense of foreshadowing comes from later incorporation of aristocratic urges to share power, or even that it is too tempting now for some of us to read back into Homer some foreshadowing of the later development of Greek polities, which make a rather large contribution to ideas ever since of republicanism and democracy.

Anyway, at whatever stage such tensions entered The Iliad and The Odyssey it is better to look them as texts full of tensions regarding political power than as remembrances of a world of monolithic unity regarding sovereignty, regarding who judges, who leads in war, and who controls the distribution of land, the vital issues of the state at that time. The Iliad opens with a struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon, a struggle between the chief of the Greek league and one of the lesser kings in the league, and this looks very much like a way of referring to the monarchical-aristocratic tension.

On the whole it seems clear enough that the common people, the labourers, agricultural workers, small farmers, and so on are simply on the periphery of the Homeric world. However, there are some ambiguities here. One of the gods who plays a notable role is Hephaestus who is a metal workers, maybe a metal worker and craftsman of rare distinction, but an artisan rather than an aristocrat. Beyond that The Iliad, suggests that gods helped the Trojans built the city walls and were poorly rewarded for their labours, so we see that even the blessed immortals can appear as labourers harshly treated by those who power over the state and economic resources.

Odysseus himself appears as a beggar and vagabond when he returns to Ihaca and while there is always the suggestion that he can be recognised as fallen lord, he is identifying with and playing the part of the lowest in the society. Proud warrior hero Achilles in Hades, famously suggests that he would prefer to return to life as the lowest kind of bondsman, tied to a poor farmer, than continue in Hades as a hero. So even that representative of pride at its most extreme, Achilles, can imagine the life of a poor man and at the very least regard it as some kind of tolerable life, which is life just like that of the supposedly god linked heroes.

There is anyway some sense in Homer of common humanity and the worth of the life of the most common of the people alongside the apparent absolute separation of heroes and kings from the common people. The honour of a king or aristocrat depends on goods that are made by manual labour, so it is hard to deny all honour to those who live from such labour. The swineherd Eumaeus is praised in The Odyssey. It turns out that he is a lord in exile as Odysseus pretends to be, but still we get the sense that the highest born can fall to the other end of the social spectrum, and that the kings power rests on some capacity to communicate with and gain the support of the lowest common people. Every lowly herdsman could be a king in exile. In mythical terms, the lordly-kingly Phaeacians are presented as close to the gods, but less so than the Cyclops shepherds with whom they used to live in proximity.

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