Rethinking the Homeric Polis

Cop Shows and Homer, or, An Introduction to a Re-Thought Homeric Polis

I begin with the commonplace that every story is selective in what it tells, and reliant upon the preconceptions of its target audience. A police procedural drama, for instance, will often feature scenes set at the police station, which might include a large room filled with desks where the detectives sit, a holding cell for criminal suspects, interview rooms with one-way glass, a separate office for the captain, and so on. For the experienced television and movie audience, the appearance of any of these features is natural, and lacks the intrinsic interest and need for explanation that, say, an in-house chicken coop would elicit. At the same time, this experienced audience can be expected to supply background, so that the scene can shift to an otherwise unmentioned bathroom or stairway if the plot so demands. It is our deep familiarity with this basic scenario, acquired through encountering countless variations on the crime-and-punishment theme, that makes us comfortable in this imaginary world.

This imaginary world, conversely, is a reflection of the “real-world” culture at large. The language that the detectives use, the clothes that they wear and the size of their phones and computers all point to a specific historical context, so that we the experienced audience can easily determine within a few years when a movie or program was produced. The correspondence between the real world and the artistic representation of it is of course not exact; for a variety of dramatic licenses are implicitly granted by the audiences, and, to return to my initial truism, every story necessarily condenses space and time and description, and relies on its target audience to fill in the gaps.

In this project I will be exploring the significance of some of the details that emerge in descriptions of the communities in which characters in early Greek epics live. I hope to make the case that these communities are more sophisticated than the historical Greek chiefdoms or kingdoms to which they are usually compared, and that they therefore reflect a significantly later historical context than has generally been appreciated. If I am right, we should look to these epics, in other words, as primary sources, at least in terms of their social worlds, for Greece on the eve of the Classical period. I hope to make the case for not simply a reorientation of our approach to the historical dimension of the surviving early Greek epics, but also a reassessment of what we think we know about the values and motivations that animate the characters.

To get an idea of what I’m up to here, let’s start with a passing reference in Odysseus’ account of his own adventures in the Odyssey. Having survived hostilities with the Kikones and the Kyklops, the hero and his men find themselves on the island of a people called the Laistrygones. The Greeks eventually make contact with the local king, whom they find at a place called in Homeric Greek an agorê, or in the better-known Attic dialect agora (Od. 10.114). In early Greek epic, as in ancient Greek culture generally, an agora is a communal space associated with government and religion. The placement of the Laistrygonian king at his community’s agora is not significant for the action, but it does have symbolic force. For when the Laistrygones prove to be cannibalistic like the Kyklopes, they, though mere men like the Greeks, manage to kill far more of Odysseus’ crew than do the one-eyed giants, precisely because of the capacity for organization represented by their agora. The Laistrygones’ success against the Greeks thus contrasts starkly with the experience of the Kyklopes, who, though possessing monstrous strength, are described specifically as lacking “council-bearing agoras” (Od. 9.112), and in the end prove comically unable to function as a community and aid their stricken comrade Polyphemos when Odysseus’ men blind him and escape.

The second detail I would like to consider is to be found in the realm of the gods as described in the Iliad. At one point the goddesses Here and Athene attempt to leave Olympos secretly, and as they do so they pass through what are described as “gates of heaven,” pulai ouranou (Il. 8.393). This passing mention demonstrates that Olympos is, at least at this moment, surrounded by walls—otherwise there would be no need for gates. The fact that these fortifications do not appear in contexts where they might actually serve a purpose—as in myths where the home of the gods is attacked by hostile forces—suggests that the mention of them at this point in the Iliad is not conditioned by any specific vision of Olympos. Rather, the “Gates of Heaven” seem to indicate a general tendency on the part of the Iliad to locate its characters in communities that are walled, so that as if by reflex the departing goddesses are made to pass through gates on their way to earth.

The third introductory passage takes us to the community on the island of Skherie that is home to the Phaiekes, or Phaeacians, the people who help Odysseus to complete the last leg of his homecoming after he is shipwrecked on their shores. Their city is also surrounded by a wall, and is also endowed with an agora; in addition, near this agora is located a “beautiful temple of Poseidon, embraced by stones sunk in the ground” (Od. 6.9-10, 266-72). Again, though none of the action of the Odyssey takes place in this temple, it nevertheless retains a symbolic significance given Poseidon’s close but conflicted relationships with both Odysseus and the Phaiakes. And again, the surreal world of the Phaiakes—who possess automatons and self-guided ships—takes as its reference the “real world,” this time in describing, if only in passing, the most distinctive product of ancient Greek architecture.

My argument is that these three features—agora, walls, temples—together represent the basic, bare outline of a community in early Greek epic poetry. Like the police squadroom, holding cell and captain’s office in a modern crime drama, this complex of features resides in the mind of the audience, to be activated whenever a character appears in the context of a community.