Category Archives: Archaic Greece

Homer, the Iron Age, and Materiality

The new issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal contains an article by James Whitley, entitled “Homer’s Entangled Objects: Narrative, Agency and Personhood In and Out of Iron Age Texts.” Its abstract reads as follows:

In recent years, material culture studies have come to embrace contemporary Melanesia and European prehistory, but not classical archaeology and art. Prehistory is still thought, in many quarters, to be intrinsically more ‘ethnographic’ than historical periods; in this discourse, the Greeks (by default) become proto-modern individuals, necessarily opposed to Melanesian ‘dividuals’. Developments in the study of the Iron Age Mediterranean and the world of Homer should undermine such stark polarities. Historic and proto-historic archaeologies have rich potential for refining our notions both of agency and of personhood. This article argues that the forms of material entanglements we find in the Homeric poems, and the forms of agency (sensu Gell 1998) that we can observe in the archaeological record for the Early Iron Age of Greece (broadly 1000–500 bc) are of the same kind. The agency of objects structures Homeric narrative, and Homeric descriptions allow us precisely to define Homeric ‘human–thing entanglement’. This form of ‘material entanglement’ does not appear in the Aegean world before 1100 BC.

If Whitley is right, of course, this is an important discovery that cuts to the heart of how we understand the Greek world, the history of the Western notion of personhood, and so on. Obviously it’s not possible in a short blog post to touch on every aspect of Whitley’s argument, so I’m just going to concentrate on a series of claims that Whitley makes about the Homeric poems. Whitley argues (397)  that “it is the particular entanglements of people, narratives and things… that form much of the matter of both Homeric poems.” This argument pins down a key claim of Whitley’s, namely that (398)

the ‘entanglement’ of objects within peoples’ lives, and the agency attributed to objects in many kinds of narrative in many genres undermines the stark dichotomy between a morally autonomous ‘Western’ individual and a socially-entangled Melanesian ‘dividual’. It should no longer be taken as self-evident then that those proto-Westerners, ‘the Greeks’, whose ‘individualism’ many authors have taken as rising in Archaic times, were ‘individuals’ in the modern sense at all.

Whitley’s discussion of Homer focuses on two types of objects in Homer: those with extensive biographies, and those which are described at great length (these descriptions are known as ekphrasis). Whitley claims (399) that subjects of ekphrasis provide occasions for brilliant poetic performance, but have little narrative force, whereas biographical objects, while rarely described in detail, are often agents that drive the narrative forward. An example of an ekphrasis for Whitley is the gold brooch described by Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, to Penelope. But Whitley says that in ekphrasis “images act as a prompt to oral narrative” (399). But in this case, the brooch is entirely absent: the whole point is that Odysseus/the beggar is describing the brooch totally from memory. So it seems odd to focus on the materiality of an immaterial thing. And the fundamental immateriality of this exchange is confirmed by the fact that the brooch is just the introduction to the beggar’s overall description of Odysseus that causes Penelope to weep: the brooch is described in 6 lines (19.226-31), but the beggar’s description of Odysseus takes up a full 24 lines (19.225-248).

In fact, Whitley’s focus on material objects is a problem to begin with. Whitley focuses on artifacts (Agamemnon’s scepter, Achilles’s arms, Odysseus’s helmet) that are potentially recognizable archaeologically, because he’s an archaeologist. But this is surely far too limiting: after all, as much as archaeologists might wish it to be true, it’s not the case that the world is just made up on individuals, dividuals, and artifacts. It’s not. There are animals, plants, actions, features of persons, and divine signs, among many, many other things.

I didn’t pick these examples at random. When I think about those marks that are most entangled with personhood in Homer, I think about these, not artifacts. Odysseus’s identity, after all, is not revealed mainly by artifacts. It is instead revealed by an animal, Odysseus’s dog Argos, who dies when at last his master returns home after 20 years (Od. 17.290-310), by his amazing knock-out of Iros with a single punch (Od. 18.88-117), by a scar on his leg that he got while hunting in the mountains with his grandfather Autolykos (Od. 19.386-502), by divine portents seen by Theoklymenos (Od. 20.350-357), by his ability to string his bow — notice that it is his ability to manipulate this ‘biographical’ artifact and not the artifact itself which is decisive here — and his use of it to slaughter the suitors in his heroic persona, with divine assistance (Od. 21.404-22.41), and finally, and most decisively, by his clear and detailed recollection of a fixed bed which he built with his own hands from a living olive tree (Od. 23.181-204).

It’s very odd to read an article about non-human things and personhood in Homer that doesn’t refer to any of these things. It might be possible to describe Homeric poems as “narratives of people and things” (411), but only if we radically cut down our full range of vision to a tiny subset of interactions in order to suit one particular argument.


Geography and a Greek “culture of freedom”?

I recently had the opportunity to begin reading Christian Meier’s “A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece & the Origins of Europe” (Oxford University Press 2011), a translation of the first two parts of his seven-part history of Europe. Several reviews of the book have already come out in academic journals (CJ, CP) and in the popular press (THES, WSJ). The book seeks to answer “how the Greeks came about… how they developed into a culture that was so different from all the other magnificent high cultures that emerged before and beside them in world history.” (286) The answer, not surprising given the title, is freedom: “With the Greeks, the motor [of culture] was freedom, specifically, a broad circle of free men in many cities, who saw themselves challenged to secure and expand their free way of life against all encroachments.” (286)

I have to say that so far I find the book deeply problematic. For the moment, I’ll leave aside the politics, which I would characterize as triumphant Occidentalism. Meier is writing to a broad audience, and he is covering a massive topic, so a certain amount of oversimplification is probably inevitable. But when an author talks over and over again about “the Greeks,” it’s hard not to think about bad undergraduate essays in introductory classes. For instance (14):

The Greeks’ defining characteristics were that they were first and foremost human beings, and not emperors, consuls, or senators; that they refused to be constrained by the rules of a class-segmented society…

I really don’t understand this. Was Augustus an emperor first and a human being second, whereas Perikles was a human being first and a general second? How could we know? Similar problems occur when Meier tries to explain the big events in Greek history. Thus, when discussing the 8th century “renaissance” and the rise of the polis, he writes (65):

In fact, it was probably only their intense contact with the Orient that allowed Greeks to jump immediately, almost without any transition, up to the next rung of the ladder of civilization without drastically changing their original nature.

What can this possibly mean? The “rung of the ladder of civilization” seems to appeal to some notion of unlineal evolution, a theory jettisoned already by the beginning of the 20th century. And how can Meier know what the “original nature” of the Greeks was, given that all of our literary evidence begins precisely during this early period?

The result of this extremely broad and diffuse level of discourse is that Meier is forced to manipulate the evidence so that it fits his schema. I doubt that this is intentional; he is simply not a master of all the material he discusses. But when this material is the end of the Greek Late Bronze Age, I think it is legitimate to take him to task. Here I want to focus on Meier’s discussion of geography and politics.

In his chapter on the “new beginning” in Greece after the destruction of Mycenaean palatial culture, Meier points out that the early city-states of the 8th century were typically small, and he points out that “landscape and climate encouraged the formation of small communities” (53). He then goes on to say that (53-54)

But geography alone cannot explain why Boeotia contained ten independent, only loosely associated poleis, or Rhodes three. Already in the Mycenaean period, topography had not proved a serious obstacle to the formation of larger political units. In that era, however, neighbouring territorial powers — Minoan Crete as well as the Hittite Empire in Asia Minor — seem to have provided the impetus for the formation of larger centrally ruled kingdoms. This may be part of the solution to the puzzle: in this sort of landscape, external impulses were necessary to stimulate the development of larger political units. In the centuries after 1200 BC and the collapse of the Hittite Empire, however, no Oriental power took an interest in the Aegean region.

It seems odd to characterize Mycenaean kingdoms are large political units. Were they really so anomalously large? Pyos, the kingdom whose political geography we know best, occupied about 2000 sq km, comparable to the territory of the polis of Athens. And in fact, the Classical polis that later occupied the same land was in fact larger than its Mycenaean predecessor — by over three times. As Meier himself points out, after the conquest of Messenia, Sparta controlled a territory of 7400 sq km.

We understand the political geography of other Mycenaean kingdoms less well, but they are not gargantuan in size. Knossos maximally controlled a territory of some 6400 sq km — which is still smaller than Classical Sparta. But Jan Driessen (2001) has argued that in fact the evidence from the Linear B texts suggests that Knossos “was not so much a territorial state as an economic enterprise” (99) that focused on particular types of activities in particular places. He suggests that the Knossian kingdom “monitored only one-third or one-fourth of the island” — that is, 2100-2800 sq km, about the same amount of territory at Pylos. The political geography of the Argolid is difficult to assess, but it is worth noting that there are a large number of Mycenaean centres in and around the Argive plain. The modern municipality of Argos covers only some 1000 sq km, although it does seem likely that the kingdom of Mycenae extended north and east into the Corinthia and the Epidauria. Thebes may have controlled a very large territory, although a note of caution has been sounded by Tom Palaima (2011) and Dakouri-Hild, who imagine a Theban polity in the 1000 sq km range, with influence extending to Amarynthos and Karystos. And I’d add, as a coda, that neither were the Neopalatial (“Minoan”) predecessors of the Mycenaean states very large: John Bennet (1990) has estimated that their territories were about 1000 sq km, with the largest being 1500 sq km.

In sum, then, Minoan and Mycenaean polities were not particularly large. They were probably larger on average that Classical poleis: for instance, according to Bennet, Classical and Hellenistic poleis on Crete had on average territories ca. 500 sq km, compared to the Minoan polities with territories twice as large on average. But it is also the case that there may have been many independent Mycenaean polities — say, for example, Aidonia — that skews our data towards the larger, better-known, and better-studied, Mycenaean polities.

So why does Meier insist on the large size of Mycenaean polities? Why doesn’t he cite Colin Renfrew’s (1975) Early State Module, which suggested that in many early civilizations, we find many small (ca 1500 sq km) polities? Perhaps its simple ignorance, but if so it is willful. Meier needs to differentiate Mycenaean culture from Greek culture (49):

As far as we can tell from the numerous and often grandiose remains, Mycenaean culture was monarchic in both organization and character. It was a palace culture, and Mycenaean kings seem to have ruled over large territories. These are two of the major differences between Mycenaean and post-Mycenaean Greek culture.

There is no road that leads from Mycenaean to polis-based culture. All the fundamentally new aspects of this latter culture, which turned world history on its head, could not have arisen easily, had the foundations, forms (and limitations) of the preceding epoch not been destroyed, and, notwithstanding a small and on the whole insignificant number of continuities, had the post-Mycenaean Greeks not had the chance to begin again from scratch.

So, Mycenaean polities are large because that makes them fundamentally different from Greek poleis, and it makes them fundamentally similar to other contemporary eastern kingdoms. Hence Meier mentions the large size of the Minoan palaces (which actually aren’t very large) and the Hittite Empire. But to compare the fairly small Aegean polities to the Hittites is absurd. For some reason, I can’t find any estimates of the size of the Hittite empire, but even if it was on quarter the size of modern Turkey, it covered 196,000 sq km. Meier seems to imagine that the Hittites influenced the Mycenaeans and stimulated the development of larger kingdoms, but how would this have actually worked? It’s entirely unclear.

I think it’s more likely that Meier sees the Mycenaeans are fundamentally non-Greek. After all, they did not create a culture “for freedom’s sake” (14), a phrase that recurs throughout the work. So the Mycenaeans weren’t really Greek, not in their politics (monarchy, not oligarchy or democracy), not in their political geography (big territorial states, not small independent poleis). So Meier needs to assert that Mycenaean polities were big territorial states, even when they’re not. By cutting the Mycenaeans out of Greek history, Meier can begin his history of Europe with the emergence of the polis. This is Europe’s elusive “zero hour.”

Maybe some people won’t mind that Meier stretches the truth a bit to capture a complex reality. To me, however, this is less history than European myth-making.

Place and memory

I’m currently reading Janice Kulyk Keefer’s fantastic memoir, Honey and Ashes. It’s a memoir of an immigrant family in Toronto, full of stories from the Old World, stories that revolve around her grandparents, her mother and her aunt, in the western Ukraine. Those stories were about a world that felt in some ways far more real to her than the Toronto in which she grew up. Her book reminds me of my own relationship to my grandparents and their stories. On the one hand, I wish that I had paid more attention to their stories so that I could recall them with Keefer’s vividness. On the other, the yawning chasm between Keefer and the Ukraine is different from my experience — my paternal grandparents never left Greece, I and my family went back often, almost every summer of my life, although of course my experience of Greece was very different from theirs. My grandmother was from a mountain village in the least populated part of Greece, after all, and my grandfather was one of the refugees who were forcibly moved from their homes in Turkey to Greece in the population exchanges of the early 1920s. When they were married they were strangers, my grandmother always used to say. The Greece I knew as a child was a radically urban Athens and its suburbs (especially Glyfada) in the 1980s and onwards.

The other dimension of Keefer’s work that interests me is the extent to which her stories about her grandparents’ village are bound up in place, and how important place becomes when she travels back to the Ukraine as an adult to explore the remnants of ‘home.’ Places anchor these stories, prove their authenticity, bring them alive. In this respect, one of the stories I was told by my grandparents — although it barely qualifies as a story — has profoundly influenced me. One night I went out to dinner with a prehistorian friend in the Athenian neighborhood of Kaisariani. When I told my grandmother where I had been the night before, she nodded and quietly said that many people had died there during the war. Almost word for word, her youngest sister Elli independently repeated the same to me later that morning. I didn’t ask for any more details. 200 communists were executed there on May 1, 1944, and this is now commemorated by a memorial.

I was struck then by the way in which traumatic memories were so stronly associated with particular places, such that my grandmother and her sister immediately responded in exactly the same way, and I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that more than 10 years later, I wrote an article in GRBS in which I argued that traditions and memories associated with the Athenian Acropolis — in particular the slaughter of the followers of Kylon circa 632 BC — exerted a powerful effect on Athenians in the Archaic and Classical periods, so strong that it influenced the performance of an annual ritual on the Acropolis known as the Dipolieia and the Bouphonia. Memories and family traditions reside in places, they haunt them and define them, no less I would argue then than they do now.

Debt, patriarchy, and Hesiod

Thanks to the guys over at Savage Minds, I picked up and started reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Yearsand increasingly, talking about it to anyone who will listen. Graeber’s book is really good, very interesting and thought-provoking, and it’s given me lots of ideas.

Today, while waiting in line for a burger, I came across a section in the book where Graeber makes an argument for the origins of patriarchy. He argues that anxieties about the sexual propriety of women emerge when human economies become increasingly commercial. A human economy is one where money is “used to arrange marriages and settle affairs of honor” (177) but not to purchase commodities. Such economies primarily arrange relationships between people. But these human economies can be transformed into something else, economies where slavery exists and humans can be bought and sold. Graeber is particularly concerned with debt and debt-bondage. (That is, when an individual took out a loan and used members of his household as sureties on that loan, and if he then defaulted on the loan, then these household members could be put into various forms of servile relationships with the creditor). As Graeber argues,

for much of the rural poor, debt dependency was institutionalized, with the daughters of poor debtors, predictably, often dispatched to brothels or to the kitchens or laundries of the rich. In either case, between the push of commoditization, which fell disproportionally on daughters, and the pull of those trying to reassert patriarchal rights to “protect” women from any suggestion that they might be commoditized, women’s formal and practical freedoms appear to have been gradually but increasingly restricted and effaced. As a result, notions of honor changed too, becoming a kind of protest against the implications of the market… (186)

Graeber then proceeds to discuss the ancient Greek evidence (186-188), without, however, mentioning Hesiod. It immediately seemed to me clear that Hesiodic poetry works very well with Graeber’s larger master narrative. You have in Hesiod on the one hand an anxiety about economic hard work and self-reliance, the importance of passing on to one’s son or sons (although ideally one should have only one son) a large farm, and the avoidance of risky economic enterprises. Hesiod also places his poetic persona in opposition to the elites of the city and their violent, hubristic activity. On the other hand, there is an anxiety about control over female sexuality, an anxiety expressed in the succession myth in the Theogony but also in the Works and Days (trans. Evelyn-White 1914):

(320-341) Wealth should not be seized: god-given wealth is much better; for it a man take great wealth violently and perforce, or if he steal it through his tongue, as often happens when gain deceives men’s sense and dishonour tramples down honour, the gods soon blot him out and make that man’s house low, and wealth attends him only for a little time. Alike with him who does wrong to a suppliant or a guest, or who goes up to his brother’s bed and commits unnatural sin in lying with his wife, or who infatuately offends against fatherless children, or who abuses his old father at the cheerless threshold of old age and attacks him with harsh words, truly Zeus himself is angry, and at the last lays on him a heavy requittal for his evil doing. But do you turn your foolish heart altogether away from these things, and, as far as you are able, sacrifice to the deathless gods purely and cleanly, and burn rich meats also, and at other times propitiate them with libations and incense, both when you go to bed and when the holy light has come back, that they may be gracious to you in heart and spirit, and so you may buy another’s holding and not another yours.

(342-351) Call your friend to a feast; but leave your enemy alone; and especially call him who lives near you: for if any mischief happen in the place, neighbours come ungirt, but kinsmen stay to gird themselves. A bad neighbour is as great a plague as a good one is a great blessing; he who enjoys a good neighbour has a precious possession. Not even an ox would die but for a bad neighbour. Take fair measure from your neighbour and pay him back fairly with the same measure, or better, if you can; so that if you are in need afterwards, you may find him sure.

(352-369) Do not get base gain: base gain is as bad as ruin. Be friends with the friendly, and visit him who visits you. Give to one who gives, but do not give to one who does not give. A man gives to the free-handed, but no one gives to the close- fisted. Give is a good girl, but Take is bad and she brings death. For the man who gives willingly, even though he gives a great thing, rejoices in his gift and is glad in heart; but whoever gives way to shamelessness and takes something himself, even though it be a small thing, it freezes his heart. He who adds to what he has, will keep off bright-eyed hunger; for it you add only a little to a little and do this often, soon that little will become great. What a man has by him at home does not trouble him: it is better to have your stuff at home, for whatever is abroad may mean loss. It is a good thing to draw on what you have; but it grieves your heart to need something and not to have it, and I bid you mark this. Take your fill when the cask is first opened and when it is nearly spent, but midways be sparing: it is poor saving when you come to the lees.

(370-372) Let the wage promised to a friend be fixed; even with your brother smile — and get a witness; for trust and mistrust, alike ruin men.

(373-375) Do not let a flaunting woman coax and cozen and deceive you: she is after your barn. The man who trusts womankind trust deceivers.

(376-380) There should be an only son, to feed his father’s house, for so wealth will increase in the home; but if you leave a second son you should die old. Yet Zeus can easily give great wealth to a greater number. More hands mean more work and more increase.

(381-382) If your heart within you desires wealth, do these things and work with work upon work.

(383-404) When the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, are rising, begin your harvest, and your ploughing when they are going to set. Forty nights and days they are hidden and appear again as the year moves round, when first you sharpen your sickle. This is the law of the plains, and of those who live near the sea, and who inhabit rich country, the glens and dingles far from the tossing sea, — strip to sow and strip to plough and strip to reap, if you wish to get in all Demeter’s fruits in due season, and that each kind may grow in its season. Else, afterwards, you may chance to be in want, and go begging to other men’s houses, but without avail; as you have already come to me. But I will give you no more nor give you further measure. Foolish Perses! Work the work which the gods ordained for men, lest in bitter anguish of spirit you with your wife and children seek your livelihood amongst your neighbours, and they do not heed you. Two or three times, may be, you will succeed, but if you trouble them further, it will not avail you, and all your talk will be in vain, and your word-play unprofitable. Nay, I bid you find a way to pay your debts and avoid hunger.

To be clear, I am not arguing that Hesiod’s Works and Days is a poem that is “really” about debt-bondage. Hesiod doesn’t mention it directly, although he does urge Perses to free himself from debt. Nor does Hesiod express any anxiety over losing members of his household to debt. As Ian Morris put it in Burial and Ancient Society (1987, 201):

Ed. Will assumed that Hesiod’s grumblings about the basileis were those of a proto-revolutionary railing about exclusion from power, and tried to see a situation of mounting discontent and debt bondage in seventh-century Boeotia (1957; followed by Detienne (1963, 15-27)). But as many historians have commented, there is nothing to suggest that either Hesiod or Perses was in debt to the basileis, and indeed the words for debt occur only rarely in the Works and Days.

On the other hand, there is no reason that Hesiod’s anxieties could not have been shaped by broad economic structures and processes,well known to all Greek historians, in which farmers across Greece, especially poor farmers or those with many children who thereby inherited increasingly small parcels of land, ran the risk of falling into relationships of debt with their richer neighbors and losing their autonomy to them. Indeed, Hesiod anxieties over the economic autonomy of the nuclear family and the family’s control over women are hardly unique to him. But it may not be coincidental that these axes of ancient Greek culture emerged in a period when not only debt-bondage, but the more extreme debt-slavery, was a recurring problem for Greek communities. As Ed Harris has recently argued (Harris 2002), Solon in early 6th century BC Athens outlawed the latter (debt-slavery) but not the former (debt-bondage), which continued to be practiced in Athens and indeed in most parts of Greece.