Abstract: Rethinking the Homeric Polis

Descriptions of communities in the early Greek epics—like descriptions of places, people and things in general—tend to be cursory. Three features, however, recur with some frequency, each of which belongs to the public sphere: a central meetingplace (agorē), freestanding temples, and a city wall that encircles the entire settlement. Communities in which a significant part of an epic narrative is set—Troiē and the camp of the Akhaioi before it, Odusseus’ Ithakē and the Phaiēkes’ Skheriē, Hesiodic Askrē, the Eleusis of the second Homeric Hymn, and even the gods’ home on Olumpos—are said to possess at least an agorē, and often one or more of the other features. Further, these manifestations of public space form a kind of complex, frequently being associated with one another and represented as monumentalized, which is to say constructed of stone and conspicuous to the characters.

This arrangement of public space—indeed the very existence of such space—distances the representations of community in the epics from historical Bronze and Early Iron Age Greek communities. In this “pre-polis” era, assembly and worship seem to have been largely under the control of palaces or chieftains, and fortifications normally excluded a significant part of the population. In fact, a survey of the material record reveals that none of the three features that are the focus of this study appears with any regularity in ancient Greece before the midseventh century BCE.

The interpretation of these facts about the literary and material records advanced here proceeds from the idea that the agorē, temple and enceinte wall correspond to a schematic but coherent reflection of the material and social conditions of the communities known to the Greeks for whom the early epics were composed and performed. The nature of these audiences was Panhellenic: because the epics took shape during performances at religious centers that were frequented by people from various parts of Greece, they rely on images and concepts that were broadly meaningful for those in attendance. This synthetic vision of Greece includes the assumption that it is natural for characters to inhabit places defined by circuit walls, to worship at Panhellenic shrines and city temples, and to conduct their public lives in an agorē, all of which point to the historical context suggested above.