Homer and Greek History

I read Homer in High School. And slowly, in my college classes in ancient, medieval, and modern Greek history, I realized Homer’s epic poems were at the very core of Hellenic civilization.

The more I read the Greek tragic poets and historians of the fifth century BCE, the larger the icon of Homer became in my mind.

Homer in antiquity

According to the second century philosopher, Athenaios, Aischylos said that the stories of Homer became a banquet for the Greeks (Deipnosophistai 8.347d), a source of wonderful stories, and a ceaseless fountain of inspiration and pride from which philosophers, scientists, dramatic poets, rhetoricians, military strategists, and men of ideas borrowed for the creation and enrichment of Greek literature and civilization.

The Greeks also sang the songs of Homer for centuries in order to celebrate their Greek identity and civilization. His poetry inspired the Greeks to creativity and greatness. Homer became Hellas. His epics remain one of the greatest achievements of Greek culture.

The poets, Aeschylos, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and the two seminal historians, Herodotos and Thucydides, never questioned the authority of Homer. Poets invented their stories from Homer. He was the teacher of the Greeks.

Homer’s epics, Iliad and Odyssey, were best sellers for millennia. Aristotle edited the Iliad for his star pupil, Alexander the Great. Alexander kept Aristotle’s precious gift with him everywhere he went. Achilles became his hero. There never was doubt in Alexander’s mind that the Trojan War took place, much less that Homer was real and not a mythical figure.

The epics of Homer received their final form in Alexandria, Egypt, capital of the Greek kingdom of Egypt, itself a result of Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire. Scholars in the Alexandrian Library followed Aristotle’s paradigm and edited the epics of Homer. The Homeric epics we read today come from that tradition.

Allegorized Homer

The Iliad and Odyssey survived the violent Christianization of Greece. A medieval Greek scholar, Ioannes Tzetzes, used allegory to cover up the Olympian gods in Homer’s poetry.

Tzetzes wrote his allegorized Homer in the 1140s or 1150s. He dedicated it to “the most powerful and most Homeric queen, Lady Eirene of the Germans.” Queen Eirene was none other than Bertha von Sulzbach of Bavaria who came to Constantinople in 1142 to marry Manuel I Komnenos. Manuel I reigned from 1143 to 1180.

Classical scholars attacking Homer

Modern times have been more friendly to Homer than the dark ages. J.A.K. Thomson, a rare Homeric scholar of the twentieth century, connects the epics of Homer to the very foundations of the West:

“At the sources of Western civilization, themselves its main source, stand two poems on the grand scale which for sustained beauty and splendour have found no superior, perhaps no equal, in all the poetry that has followed them. This is the most remarkable fact in the history of literature… the Iliadand the Odyssey are not the beginning but the consummation of an artistic process of which the earliest stages are no longer discernible. But, while this would explain the fact, it does not explain the miracle. The miracle is the quality of the poetry, and miracles cannot be explained” (“Homer and his Influence” in A Companion to Homer, eds., Alan J.B. Wace and Frank H. Stubbings, 1963, 1).

Homer, however, is still having troubles with “classical” scholars. In 1993, Robert Knox, professor of Greek literature at Yale and Harvard, denounced classical scholars for intentionally attacking and ignoring Homer’s incomparable genius in telling stories with heroes beloved by readers for millennia (The Oldest Dead White European Males, 46-47).

Denying Homer in a Greek history book

I came across a contemporary scholar who denies both the talents and existence of Homer. This is Roderick Beaton who taught Greek medieval and modern history and literature at King’s College in London for about 30 years. He attacks Homer in his recent book: The Greeks: A Global History (Basic Books, 2021).

In some ways, this is a very interesting book, summarizing millennia of Greek history. But Beaton’s attack on Homer destroys his credibility as a historian. He must have known the enormous respect ancient Greeks had for Homer.

“In ancient times the Iliad and the Odyssey were both almost universally considered the work of Homer, a poet of genius,” writes R. B. Rutherford, editor of books XIX and XX of the Odyssey.

How could Beaton have ignored all that ancient and modern evidence?

Only Beaton can answer this question. His arguments for downgrading the talents of Homer and denying his very existence are shallow and superficial. They remind me of the arguments of early monotheistic theologians who were terrified by the Olympian gods all over the Homeric epics.

Without Homer, Greek history would have been different. And today Greek history without Homer is meaningless. So, is Beaton rewriting Greek history to undermine Greek civilization? But it’s also possible Beaton’s metaphysics don’t allow him to understand Greek history, much less Homer.

This was the very reason the nephew of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Emperor Julian, 361-363, forbade Christians from teaching Greek. The pages of Homer are populated by heroes and gods speaking to each other, telling stories about the eternity of the Cosmos, courage, justice, love, and passion for their homelands.

This conversation probably unhinged Beaton who argues, as a result, the Greeks of the “imaginary” Trojan War had no national consciousness.

Bronze Age Greeks

The other major handicap of Beaton’s narrative is that it denies that the Bronze Age Greeks of Crete were Greek. We know those Greeks as Minoans because of Minos, a king in the second millennium BCE who was a son of Zeus. Beaton says the name Minos is not Greek.

He fails to see the same culture that united the Greeks of Crete to the mainland Greeks known then in the Bronze Age as Myceneans from the name Mycenae of their capital polis. Minoans and Myceneans spoke Greek, worshipped the same gods, painted murals of nature: rivers, wild animals, and trees; beautiful women with golden earrings, wearing exquisite woven and colorful clothes; naked boys boxing or holding fish. The Minoans and Myceneans had paved streets and lived in two and three story homes with running water and toilets.

I saw surviving fragments of this sophisticated Greek Bronze Age culture in Akrotiri, Thera, a Greek island in the Aegean that blew up in the 1650s BCE. Surviving stones are still black from the massive explosion of the Thera volcano.

Beaton talks of four centuries of dark ages following the decline of the Mycenean age, starting sometimes in the twelfth or thirteenth century BCE. But this was the age of the Trojan War and Homer. Dark ages don’t give rise to genius, in this case, Homer. And Homer was the apotheosis of Bronze Age Greek culture, which had nothing to do with dark ages.

Astronomers date the solar eclipse Homer describes in the Odyssey (XX, 356-357). That partial solar eclipse took place over the Ionian islands, including Ithaca, on October 30, 1207 BCE. This was the time Odysseus finally arrived home to Ithaca after ten years of wondering. So, the Trojan War took place during late thirteenth century BCE, probably starting in 1227 and ending in 1217 BCE.

Beaton, however, says there was no Trojan War: no Helen, no Paris-Alexander, no Achilles, no Patroklos, no Hector, no Odysseus.

Arguing against Homer and the Trojan War in a Greek history book is undermining the book and misinforming the readers. And that’s a pity because, as I said, parts of the book are well-written and informative.

 

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.