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Keys for the study of Homer, Plato and "Greek" literature

Hellenics for dummies

I'm a bust. Somebody thought I look like Homer should look like. Now I am in the Louvre Museum! Without legs!"Ancient Greece," in the times of Homer (c. 750 BC?) and Plato (428-347 BC), was not one nation or state. Hellas, as it eventually came to be called, was a loose confederation of self-governing tribes and colonies that shared the Greek language (with many local dialects) and some (by no means all) spiritual beliefs, customs and traditions. 

All government was local: the tribal unit, known as the polis or city-state, was a collection of families that ideally numbered no more than 20,000 total individuals and seldom united with other tribes except in times of major wars.

Social organization was small-scale because the people so often faced famine due to the limited amount of land suitable for farming. In pre-history, catastrophic flooding covered the once-fertile lowlands and coastal regions of the entire Aegean area. By about 7500 BC, the remaining land area was, as it is today, only the exposed rocky mountain tops peeking out above the sea. 

So Hellas was poor, even by ancient standards. (Contrast Egypt or the fertile crescent of the ancient Near East where the big populations were.) Local population pressures were relieved through territorial conflicts with neighboring city-states and also through the start-up of new colonies in unpopulated or conquerable areas.

Hellenic city-states spread aggressively not only on what is now mainland Greece but also throughout the Aegean islands, coastal Asia Minor, and around the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. Some famous Mediterranean outliers included Byzantium (Turkish Istanbul), Cyrene (in African Libya), Syracuse (Sicily), Tarentum (Italy), Naples (Italy), and Massalia (French Marseille). Geographic dispersal is reflected in many tales of the Hellenes, including Homer's, filled with foreign adventure, homesickness, disorientation, separation, wandering, forgetting, and loss of identity.



"Greek" historically was an abusive term, invented and popularized by mystified Romans to whom the strange Hellenic language sounded like "Greek, Greek, Greek." Apologies to all Greeks, but I  prefer the term "Hellenic" by which most mainland  Greek- speakers of classical times described themselves.








Helladic and archaic times

A warrior tradition was responsible for the survival and territorial expansion of the Hellenes, but it was also a crippling problem for social development.

Centuries of chaotic violence preceded Homer. This troubled time, the Helladic Dark Ages (cir. 1150 - 800 B.C.), appears to have been ruled by marauding hordes of pirate-raiders like Achilles, Odysseus and the other city-sacking Achaeans described in the Homeric songs. Throughout this long reign of terror, except for occasional visits by squatters, cities in the Greek-speaking world were abandoned. Their former settlers, like Homer's Trojans, had been slaughtered or carried off into slavery, or they had fled into hiding in remote places like mountainous Arcadia and the island of Cyprus where the old ways were pastoralized (as I argue in Lesson 10 preserved on diphtherā, cattle hides).

Return of civilization, the rise of Hellenism:  arts may have helped to stimulate better cooperation and a sense of community among Greek-speakers at the end of the dark ages. Or perhaps piracy diminished because there were no treasures left to pillage. Scholars are not sure how the Greeks pulled out of their uncivilization but, for whatever reasons, a time of social renewal known as the Greek archaic period began in about 800 BC. Developments during this impressive age included:

  • all-Hellenic religious games and festivals, including the festival at Olympia (the first "Olympics"), the Pythian festival at Delphi, the Pan-Athens festival at Athens, and many others;

  • all-Hellenic sanctuaries of worship, including the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and many others; 

  • all-Hellenic songs, including the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, the Theogony and the Works and Days of Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns to the gods, and other literature that now has been lost.

Bronze image found on Crete, thought to represent a Homeric bard, dating from the 8th century BC.The songs were civilizing not only in providing a shared group of stories, or pan-Hellenic mythology, but also in raising consciousness of right and wrong. The Homeric songs, for example, dealt with dark ages subject matter, the warrior-ancestors at the siege of the wealthy city of Troy (in about 1200 BC?), but the songs celebrated civil values: sympathizing with victims, honoring the gods, avoiding rage, showing hospitality to strangers, and winning praise from the community through self-sacrifice. 

In Homer's day (usually dated in the range of 850 - 750 BC), the Greek-speaking peoples did not yet have a common name. The Homeric songs seem to use the names "Achaeans" and "Danaans" and "Argives" inter-changeably to refer collectively to main forces massed against Troy. But Homer's Trojans also are Greek-speakers, and they are presented no less heroically than their attackers. The Homeric songs can't be identified with any particular tribe or cult. The point of view is broader, a unifying pan-Hellenic vision.

Troy (Homer's Ilium, the setting for the Iliad) is believed to have guarded the Hellespont, the strategic narrows connecting the Aegean Sea (shown left) and the Black Sea to the northeast above Asia Minor.




Dawn of the Hellenes































Image left: figurine of a bard or singer from the 8th century BC.

Ancient hero rite with Muse, singer and torch bearers at the tomb, image from a tomb carving from classical Attica, outside Athens.

Hero worship

Greek religion also had been a local matter in the beginning. For example, Athens was the place (among others) where the goddess Athena was worshipped, while the goddess Hera was celebrated at Argos in the Peloponnesus to the south, and the goddess Artemis was enshrined across the Ionian Sea on the coast of Asia Minor at Ephesus. "Culture" begins with cult, or group worship, but there had been many cults among the Greek-speaking peoples, dividing the separate communities.

Polytheism (the worship of many gods) in the Hellenic case seems to have been an attempt to build a larger, more unified society--as we would call it in America today, a multi-cultural society. Poets played a leading role in uniting the states. Homer, Hesiod and their peers merged the separate gods and goddesses into a single, grand framework. Their songs helped to invent the Hellenic group identity, much as the books of Moses established a unified cultural framework for a collection of disparate tribes through stories of a shared, divinely inspired past.

Local ancestors or ghosts, known as "heroes," were as important as the gods for the development of literature and religion. All over the Hellenic world, hero cults gathered on feast days at local tombs or memorials, usually in burial groves or gardens outside of town, not to commemorate the past but to meet the ghosts! The dead, when properly buried, were believed to remain present in the ground, where they were responsible for local fertility, including the reproduction of plants from the soil. (Hence "cult" is the root word in "cultivation" and "agriculture." If I farm the land where my ancestors are buried, they are feeding me, so I encourage them to continue being kind to me by singing their praises and giving them some of the food.)

The form of worship included food-animal sacrifice and a communion meal followed by communication with the spirit of the hero. Having been fed a libation (the pouring of blood or wine or other magic drink on the burial ground), the hero regained the power to speak. Heracles (Hercules) was the most widely summoned spirit, but there were hundreds of others including not only warriors and wise men but also women and children. Anybody who was buried and remembered with ceremony could be a hero.

How did the dead speak to the living? In each of these local rites someone necessarily took the hero's part or sang the hero's words. This inspired singing was not understood to be a dramatic performance, or a pretense for the entertainment of the crowd. In the rapture of the ritual, in the belief of the cult members, the hero was presented--that is, actually made present. The song or voice in the ceremony, as the faithful heard it, was the hero, not some actor's imitation, old timer's remembrance or historian's lore. The professional impersonator was "possessed."

Hero rites created the miraculous illusion that, by calling hem correctly and sharing picnics with them, the dead (or at least their voices) can arise from their tombs. The sacrifice of a food animal and its consumption in a stylized ritual meal, repeated year after year in the customary way, was a belief-machine that provided a glimpse of eternity or transcendence of time. The living fed the dead, and the dead fed the living. Sacrifice united all mortal beings of all time in an inter-dependent cycle of life and death.

What do these ancient religious practices have to do with literature?

The Homeric songs, and other archaic Greek poetry, used present-ing techniques of ancient hero worship, especially spiritual possession that allowed the ancestors to speak to the living through the medium of an entranced singer. The bard's impersonation of heroes, however, no longer necessarily took place at the heroes' graves. In a king's great hall or other communal dining facility, the heroes were not physically present, so the songs of the heroes were understood to be fictitious or representational simulations. A professional entertainer only imitated the voices of Achilles or Odysseus, but a good imitation nonetheless could trick an audience temporarily into believing that the past was present. Homeric storytelling and its later development, Greek tragedy, can induce grieving, as if we are visiting the tombs of loved ones, but they are only arts that provoke the elegiac response.

This was the beginning of the entertainment industry in Europe, insofar as anyone today can tell. The illusions were closely akin to religious practice, rich in emotional depth. 

Inspired connection with the heroic past is an enduring element of western civilization, long after Achilles and the ancient heroes generally have been forgotten. For instance, aspects of ancient Hellenic hero-worship carried over into Christianity in the veneration of martyrs and saints whose bones and relics were collected at shrines and cathedrals everywhere across Europe. Even in our relatively shrineless and future-oriented world today, long after the gods have stopped talking to most of us, we still are guided (or misguided) by heroes. We still call them back from the dead in illusory spirit worlds of literature.

Figure left: from classical Attica (outside Athens),  a representation of a Hellenic hero ritual in progress. "Performers" include Muse and singer at left of the tomb and a libation bearer (with a bowl of drink) and torch bearers at the right. The hero spirit will speak through the medium of the singer, when the hero is awakened with the drink.



Polytheism is multi-cultural.





















Left: classical image of a resurrection







Left: Odysseus and Hermes raise a dead crew member, classical Hellenic vase painting.





































Left: Ancient Hellenic bowl shows actors engaged in performing a mystery rite of the underworld. The gods were human so they could be enacted.

Plato and the classical period

Secularism or humanism is clearly the other most important contribution of the Hellenic people to later western civilization. This self-reflective process began with the development of secularized heroic art, especially the Homeric songs, but that was only the first step. 

Image of Socrates, a favorite subject of classical sculptors.The idea that Homer and other poets had made up the stories of the gods seemed perfectly obvious to Plato and other philosophers, scientists, poets and historians in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the age that we call the Greek classical period.

The literary response of the classical age was not to replace polytheism with a new religion (that would come later in the first century AD, with Paul's introduction of Christ among the Greeks), but to tell new kinds of stories, especially stories about people in isolation from the gods, people in whose affairs there was no clear divine intervention.

These secularized classics were great novelties in their day:

  • The poet Plato invented a new kind of heroic literature: voices of the dead philosopher Socrates and his peers are called up in the form of dialogues or conversations in which no gods appear and no certain truths are revealed.

  • At about the same time, a retired military general Thucydides composed the first secular history, an attempt to tell story of the contemporary Peloponnesian War, from a military perspective, without reference to gods or religion.

  • Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and other poets re-wrote traditional hero stories for a spectacular public form of song and dance and ensemble acting, the tragic drama.  This was a specifically literary contest in which poets were judged as to which one could put on the best show in town.

  • Aristophanes and other writers introduced parody, satire, burlesque and comedy to ridicule un-heroic aspects of everyday life.

Most of this new kind of literature appeared in a surprisingly short span of time and within a single city: for the most part, these things happened at Athens, within a few generations after the introduction of political democracy there.

What happened? It has been argued that there was a breakdown of religious values in classical Athens as the city became more cosmopolitan. But it may be more accurate to say that audiences became specialized and differentiated, particularly with the rise of urban life, trade, democracy and literacy. There needed to be more kinds of stories because people had (or believed that they had) less in common with one another. 

Some of the new literature was entertainments that would appeal to multicultural audiences. Some, turning from Homer's concern with the general culture of all Hellenes, cultivated specific factions or professions. Not only had religions proliferated; new social divisions appeared that were secular cults

Plato's Socrates, for example, became the hero for a new way of life called philosophy (or love of wisdom), which was clearly not for everybody. This new cult was set apart from the rest of society with the establishment of a university, Plato's Academy. This innovative school did not emphasize the traditional, general culture (the gods or rituals or collective history), and it did not teach scribal skills or rote learning of any kind. Students here learned to be Socratic (Socrates-like), by searching for truth through thought and argument. Truth needed to be uncovered by the mind because it remained hidden to the physical senses, like the non-apparent laws underlying the operation of the universe. Historically at least, this core belief in mystery and wonder underlies all western research institutions and think tanks.Singer pouring a libation, image from a cup, early 5th century BC.

Historians often present Homer and Plato as distinct opposites: spiritual man versus rational man, poet versus philosopher, etc. But the similarities are more significant than the differences. Above all, what unites the two--and other founders of western civilization--is their understanding of the power of literature, their bold use of story-telling to re-make the world. This power can provide a unifying vision for society, as in Homer's invention of Pan-Hellenism, or for social institutions, as in Plato's invention of academic life. Insofar as it can be said to be Hellenic, the underlying nature of western culture is poetic


Homer influenced Plato and nearly all Greek artists and thinkers for hundreds of years.

Left: from a figurine of Socrates found at Alexandria, Egypt.





















































Figure left: Hero ritual performed solo, the singer pours a libation to find the words.

Hellenic timeline

(Dates before 500 BCE are very speculative.)

This polished marble image from the Aegean island of Syros probably dates from before 2100 BC.Before 2000 BCE. The beginnings of heroic singing are unknown but probably date from very early times, even before the Bronze Age (3300 BCE-1200 BCE). The small stylized figure shown here (image right) from the Cycladic Islands (between modern Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea), dates possibly as early as 3000 BCE, in any event centuries before the arrival of Greek speakers in the area. The Cycladic figurines were used in funerals or ancestor worship. They were buried with the dead. 

Mycenaeans hunting with new fangled chariots cir. 1600 BC, image from gold ring found in a Mycenaean tomb.1600 BCE. The early history of the Greek-speaking people is a mystery, but many scholars speculate that the Hellenes, as they later called themselves, came as conquerors from eastern Asia Minor or the area of Armenia in the middle of the Bronze Age, about 1600 BC. With the technological advantage of war chariots and advanced bows, they took over the plains of Thrace in the north of the Greek peninsula and the Peloponnesus in the south. Their greatest city, Mycenae in the Peloponnesus, apparently reached its economic peak in about 1550 BC.

Vase from Cnossos, Crete, cir. 1500 BC,  probably used to hold sacrificial bull's blood, a relative of the golden calf of the Old Testament.1400 BCE. Indigenous or at least earlier peoples in the region, before the Greek speakers, included the Minoans on Crete. The great Minoan civilization ruled the seas in the eastern Mediterranean for hundreds of years, but it collapsed at about 1400 BC, evidently through volcanic disaster. For the next 100 years, Greek-speaking people occupied the Minoan capital of Cnossos until the city finally was abandoned. This occupation is evidenced in the ruins on Crete by tablet writing in Linear B script, thought to be an early form of Greek.

Barbarians at the gate, the Lion gate of the palace of Mycenae in the late 20th century.1200 BCE. For unknown reasons, the Bronze Age ended suddenly. Mycenae and other cities on the Greece peninsula sank into serious decline or were abandoned completely from about 1200 BC to 900 BC or later, the period that is known today as the Helladic Dark Ages. People may have fled into the remote countryside or distant islands to hide from sea raiders and angry gods. Scholars speculate that knowledge of writing was lost altogether; Linear B tablets are not found in the wreckage of this period. It seems more plausible that writing during this period used perishable media.

1184 BCE. The traditional date for the fall of Troy. (There may or may not have been a Trojan War, such as Homer describes in the Iliad. Most scholars think that there was. Most guesses date the war to sometime between 1250 BC and about 1050 BC.)

1000 BCE or slightly earlier. The Iron Age began in Greece.













Image left: an early drive-through. Mycenaeans loved their chariots the way that we love automobiles.





If you're into cattle, you'll love Homer. Even before the Greeks, however, the Mediterranean was full of bull. The head figured left is not my trophy but a Minoan sacrifice bowl.






Image left: I call this one "My summer vacation, I don't wish." It's the Lion Gate at Mycenae, alleged home of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.

850 BCE. Homer composed his songs, or so says the great story-teller Herodotus, known to us today, incorrectly, as both "the Father of History" and "the Father of Lies." (Herodotus was writing long after Homer's time, at about 450 BC.) Many modern scholars place Homer's date in the mid-700's BC, but there is no satisfactory evidence for Homer's date. Among other questions: How did Homer know about a war fought 200 to 500 years before his time, if writing was not in use?

776 BCE. The Olympic games were founded. The games, and religious shrines that developed at about the same time, were open to all Greek speakers to express the common culture of the diverse cities, the multi-culture known to us as Hellenism.

725 BCE. The Homeric songs perhaps were first written down at about this time, using an alphabet borrowed from the Phoenicians. Some modern scholars think that the poems first were composed at this time, but many others believe the poems were composed as songs many generations earlier and passed down by oral tradition until the alphabet came into use. The evidence, such as it is,  favors neither of these views. To become a true Hellene, you must learn to be skeptical about what you read!

Queen of the gods Hera seduces Zeus, king of gods and men. Image modeled on an ancient carving, based on a famous/infamous scene in The Iliad.550 BCE or so. The first mention of Homer in Greek literature, still surviving today, is a criticism by Xenophanes of Colophon, a jealous poet. The review isn't very favorable. Monotheist Xenophanes says that Homer's portrayal of the gods is immoral and implausible. 

546 BCE. Peisistratus seized control of Athens and ruled as its tyrant. According to one story, Peisistratus offered a bounty for anyone who could supply missing lines from Homerís songs, and suddenly all kinds of people turned up to claim prizes. Establishing definitive texts of Homer took the next 350 years to complete. Although we speak of "The" Iliad and "The" Odyssey, the texts that we have today were compiled in antiquity from different versions of the songs, probably very many versions. (See Alexander the Great, below.) At least a few small inconsistencies remain in the modern texts.

507 BCE. or thereabouts. Democracy was invented in Athens after the one of the sons of Peisistratus was assassinated and the other was expelled from the city.

490 BC to 479 BCE. United against a common enemy, the Hellenic city-states defeated two invasions of the Greek peninsula by the powerful Persian Empire. Victories in these Persian Wars inaugurated the "Golden Age" of Greek classical civilization.

Image of Pericles, from a bust by Cresilas, 430 BC.460 BCE. Pericles ruled democratic, imperialistic Athens at the height of its political power. The Parthenon was built at this time, and Greek tragedy (elaborated Homeric performances) reached sophistication in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles.

431 to 404 BCE. The principal Hellenic city-states Athens and Sparta destroyed one another and many of their allies in the Peloponnesian War. The tragic history was written by Thucydides, an Athenian general in the war and the greatest historian of the classical world. Spartan troops occupied Athens at the end of the war in 404 BC, and they set up a puppet government nominally controlled by "Thirty Tyrants" (Athenian aristocrats sympathetic to Sparta), temporarily ending the democracy.


Homer still looking spry at age 2700 or perhaps 3200 or who knows what?

















Left: in a comic scene in the Iliad, Hera seduces Zeus to keep him from helping the Trojans thrash the Achaeans. There's a range of emotion in Homer from humor to despair, all of which makes for dramatic opportunity in performance. 















but the comedians lampooned Pericles mercilessly for his egg-shaped head, which he tried to hide under a helmet... A great reason to be continually at war!






Image of devilish Socrates, after a Hellenistic bust.399 BCE. A bloody counter-revolution restored democracy in Athens, and there was a wave of political persecution in reaction to the oppression of the Thirty Tyrants. In this climate of social fervor, Socrates the philosopher was tried and sentenced to death by the citizenry of Athens, allegedly for impiety and for corrupting beliefs of young people. It was the beginning of the university system.

387 BCE. One of Socrates' students, a young poet named Plato, returned to Athens from hiding (two of the Thirty Tyrants had been his uncles) to found the Academy where he taught philosophy until his death in 347. Plato's most famous student Aristotle founded his own famous school at Athens, the Lyceum, in 335. Aristotle and his students collected and summarized documents of all kinds to make, in effect, the world's first encyclopedia of knowledge.

Alexander the Great, after a bust by Lysippus, ALexander's official court sculptor.336-323 BCE. Homer was enshrined in Egypt. After visiting Troy and paying homage to Achilles, Aristotle's most famous student Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire including all of the Near East, Egypt and much of central Asia. Alexander loved Homer, they say. In any case, Alexander's followers built the first world class library, the library at Alexandria, Egypt, to collect, edit and study Homer's manuscripts. (They called it a "museum" or house of the Muses; Alexander's mummy was there, with a copy of the Iliad under its pillow.) Standard texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey eventually were established here by the Alexandrian scholars in about 200 BC.

336-31 BCE. The Hellenistic Age marked the high point of the international political influence of the Greek-speaking people. Hellas and the Near East were ruled by Alexander's successors until Octavius (later known as Augustus Caesar) defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra (the last of the Greek pharaohs) at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE.

200-100 BCE. The classical epics of India were composed or written down, the tragic Mahabharata having similarities to the Iliad, the romantic fantasy Ramayana comparable to the Odyssey.

The Roman hero Aeneas carries his father Achises and the household gods from burning Troy. Image copied after a Renaissance sculpture by Bernini.19 BCE. Homer more or less survived the Roman occupation. The Roman poet Virgil composed an epic poem in Latin so that Augustus' new empire would have a great poem of its own. This Roman national epic, the Aeneid, was modeled closely on the Iliad and the Odyssey. Its hero Aeneas is Homer's pious man of destiny, the Trojan who escapes the fall of Troy to lead his people on a mission to found the Eternal City, Rome.

415 CE. The great library at Alexandria was burned and destroyed, and the lady chief librarian was butchered, by a violent mob of Christian zealots. Afterwards, for the next 1000 years, Homerís texts were preserved only in the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople. Plato's texts apparently were preserved only in the Arab world, where the last scholars of the Academy fled from persecution by the Christian Emperor Justinian in 529 CE. The Academy had a 900-year run.

1453 CE. Homer was reborn in western Europe after Constantinople fell to the Turks. Scholars fled to Italy bringing with them ancient Greek texts, including Homer, that had been lost for centuries in west. Simultaneously, the Renaissance and neo-classicism dawned in Italy.

1488 CE. The first printed edition of the Homeric poems was published in Florence.

1600 - 1603 CE. William Shakespeare inaugurated Homer's rule in England by writing a trilogy of ingenious Homeric adaptations: Troilus and Cressida, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet. The first complete translation of Homer into English followed in 1611. when George Chapman published The Iliads of Homer, Prince of Poets, Never before in any language truly translated.


Apollo's oracle called Socrates the wisest of mortals, a title that made him interesting to students and  otherwise unpopular.











Alexander, and the Hellenistic world that he founded, translated Homer into a world culture.



















Image left: Virgil's Aeneas tried to carry the ancestors from Troy to Rome. 
















The arrival of Homer in Italy opened the Renaissance and the modern age



Homer is a poet's poet, a favorite of great writers of all kinds down through the ages.

1720 CE. At the end of the Stuart dynasty Alexander Pope produced his famous but creative translation in rhymed heroic couplets, The Iliad of Homer. Neoclassicism reached its height of fashion in English literature and other western European arts at this time.

Bronzed image of Herr Schliemann.1872 CE. Heinrich Schliemann, father of modern archaeology, excavated "Troy" and "Agamemnon's Mycenae" or claimed that he did. No indisputably Homeric artifacts ever have been found, but the dig goes on, with the belief that Homer's world exists somewhere underground.

2000 CE plus. You are here, perhaps 3200 years after Achilles (if any) raged and Odysseus came home. 

FOR DETAILS ON GREEK HISTORY: see Thomas Martin's Historical Overview at the Perseus site. Martin has updated his history in book form, too: see Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times (Yale U. Press 2000).


Image left:
Alexander Pope



Image left: Herr Schliemann carried poetry into the age of science by inventing stories about the heroes'  physical remains. This was called archaeology.


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