The Archaic Greek World

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The Archaic Greek World



The Politics of Homer. During the Archaic Period (700-480 b.c.e.) Greece went through a political and social renewal. The epic poetry of Homer, composed toward the end of the eighth century, indicates some of the changes that occurred. For several generations before, oral poets had composed and sung epic poems celebrating various aspects of the legendary war against Troy. Now two parts of that epic cycle took shape through the skill of a poet, or poets, whom we call Homer. The first, the Iliad, focuses on the anger of Achilles, the greatest fighter among the armies amassed against Troy. This anger, which is directed at Agamemnon, the expedition’s commander, leads to Achilles’ petulant withdrawal from fighting, with disastrous consequences for his friends and allies, including his best friend, Patroclus, whose death leads Achilles to rejoin the fight and kill the Trojans’ leading warrior, Hector, in the climax of the epic. The second story, the Odyssey, relates the ten-year voyage home of Odysseus, the craftiest of the fighters among the armies amassed against Troy, and the struggles of his family anxiously awaiting his return. Along the way he has fantastic adventures, loses all his ships and crew, and arrives to find his home under siege by men who want to take his place.

Inspiration. The poems of Homer were inspired by events from a different world. To the extent that their legendary stories do reflect historical events, these must be from the time of the Mycenaeans. Not since that time had the Greek world been organized into the sort of fortified palaces that Homer describes. In fact the archaeological record has even borne out Homer’s description of a palace at the site of Troy; however, the details of Homer’s story can hardly extend back five hundred years. They are probably descriptions inspired by the social and political organization from Homer’s own time, and from that of the oral poets from whom he inherited so much of his material.

Hesiod. During the same time that Homer was composing his poetry, Hesiod employed the same metrical pattern in composing two poems with an altogether different focus. In the Theogony he adapted several stories from Near Eastern traditions in order to systematize and explain the origins of the Greek gods. In his Works and Days he reuses

some of these myths in an elaborate lesson in morals addressed to his disloyal brother.

Written Language. In order for the poetry of Homer and Hesiod to be preserved in a set form (and in the case of Hesiod, perhaps, even for it to be composed at all) there had to be writing. The syllabic Linear B script of the Mycenaeans had died out with them. The epic poetry of Homer had been developed by oral poets, but with Greek contacts with the Near East came the adoption of an alphabetic writing system. There are debates about where exactly the transmission of the alphabet took place and who was involved, but it is clear that once the transmission was made, the alphabet spread quickly throughout the Greek-speaking world, from southern Italy to Cyprus. Unlike Linear B, which was apparently used largely only for administrative reasons and for trade, the new Greek alphabet shows signs of having been devoted largely to poetry, especially epic. One of the earliest samples, from Pithecussae, an island off southern Italy, makes a reference to Nestor, one of Homer’s characters, and to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. It seems likely that drinking parties included the recitation of Homer’s poetry.

Mixture. The social and political organization in Homer’s poetry is a mixture of institutions, some of which extend back to the Mycenaeans while others reflect his own times. For one thing, Homer did not know anything about “Greeks” (Hellenes), the people of later times who were united by language and religion. The collected armies that attack Troy are variously called Achaeans, Argives, or Danaans, and individual groups among them are identified from their home areas, such as Crete, Sparta, or Salamis. However, they speak the same language and worship the same gods as their enemies the Trojans and many of the Trojans’ allies, though some of the latter, like the Carians, are foreign speakers.

Leaders. The army consists of a collection of groups led by individual noblemen, called basileis (kings). Homer also uses the Mycenaean term wanax (lord) but it is not used by any other sources from that time. Agamemnon as wanax is the commander in chief, but in some ways he is simply a first among equals. He has the greatest wealth and the most soldiers and ships of any of the Argive commanders, but they are all more or less free to follow his leadership or not. They are there to serve their own interests and as a favor to him, not because he can compel them. They have meetings before the assembled armies in which various leaders take up a scepter, which signifies the right to speak. They want to achieve a consensus, but because of the size of Agamemnon’s army, what he himself ultimately decides carries great weight. Nevertheless, a commander such as Achilles can disagree with him vehemently and go off to sulk without Agamemnon’s being able to coerce him. On the other hand, when Thersites, an upstart commoner without the support of an army, tries to dress down Agamemnon and the other Argive leaders, he is silenced with a box around the ears. Free speech had its limits in the Homeric world.

Justice. In the Odyssey, Odysseus marks the midafternoon by saying that it is “when a man rises from the agora (the assembly place) for dinner after deciding disputes of young men seeking judgment.” The public day was then over. Judicial activity played such a large role in the public life of Homer’s time that he used it as a way to establish the time of day. In the Iliad, when the god Hephaestus decorates a new shield for the hero Achilles, he inscribes two poleis, a city at war and a city at peace. In the city at peace he illustrates two scenes, one a wedding procession and the other a judicial scene, further confirmation of the centrality of justice for early Greek civic life.

Homicide. In the modern world homicide is a criminal matter and prosecuted by the state. In Homer’s world it is a matter between the killer, who seems in the shield scene to have accepted blame for the man’s death and wants to make reparation (rather than go into exile), and a survivor of the dead man, who has up to now refused any compensation, or blood-price. There is no question of his trying to take vengeance on his own. In cases where the killer was really evil and considered a threat to the community, it would not have been a judicial matter at all: the man would simply have been driven out or killed. Here the men have been unable to reconcile their differences, but they both seek out a third party in the assembly place to render a judgment and bring their dispute to an end. Although the procedure seems to be recognized by all, there are no laws to govern what should be done. The tradition of paying a blood-price might have played a role, but it did not determine the situation. Instead, a group of elderly aristocrats each propose their own judgment. The two men in dispute have each contributed a weight of gold, and they themselves will decide which of the judgments they can both live with.


The people were gathered together in the assembly place, and there a dispute had arisen, and two men were disputing about the blood-price for a man who had died. The one made a claim to pay back in full, declaring publicly to the village, but the other was refusing to accept anything. Both were heading for an arbitrator to get a limit; and the people were speaking up on either side to help both men. But the heralds restrained the people, as meanwhile elders were seated on benches of polished stone in a sacred circle and took hold in their hands of scepters from the heralds who lift their voices. And with these they sprang up, taking turns, and rendered their judgments and in their midst lay on the ground two weights of gold, to be given to the one among them who pronounced a judgment most correctly.

Source: Iliad 18,497-508,

Greek Expansion. As the economy and population of the Greek world grew in the eighth and seventh centuries, various changes occurred in the political landscape. Increasing population created pressures on the land base, and increasing economic activity created a wealth of various goods for trade, as well as a hunger for new goods and raw materials. Despite the Greek determination for self-sufficiency, the economic activity of the individual household, or oikos, no longer satisfied the needs of its members. There was thus more trade between households and an increased specialization of trades. The need for a central, urban market where these new, specialized goods could be traded gave rise to an urban population and thus an identification with a particular urban center. The Greek polis was born, an autonomous population based on an urban core, what one usually understands as the “city-state.”

Agora. The principal characteristic of the polis was the agora, the gathering place or market. It was normally located close to a religious sanctuary, where people gathered for festive occasions also. The original function of the agora was as a gathering place for trading between households and for discussion of common points of interest. It was essentially an open area upon which various temporary structures might be set up, like tables and booths for trading or a tent structure for dramatic presentations or festive dancing. It had to remain open, however, for common use. Any privatization would frustrate its function as a communal gathering place. Manufacturing was also done close to this area, where bronze, iron, ceramics, and leather might be worked more economically than they could be in an individual house.

Settlements. Rising population levels and interests in trading led many Greek cities to resettle parts of their populations away, in less populated areas on the fringes of the Greek world, on the borders with other peoples, in North Africa, Sicily, France, Spain, and the Black Sea. These were not colonies on the later Roman model, in which the new settlements were largely governed by the home cities. Each new settlement immediately became an independent polis. It certainly had ethnic and traditional ties with its mother city, but in general these were quickly forgotten if the interests of the new settlement were contrary to those of its parent. The methods of selection for the settlers and the way they organized their settlements could vary a great deal. The settlements thus offered an area for experimentation in the way that the polis was governed. For instance, the privileges of large, landed wealth that tended to keep power in the hands of relatively few aristocrats in the original cities were not present in the new settlements, where land tended initially to be divided evenly. Those with ability and leadership skills could rise to the top more easily.

Greek Identity. Another consequence of the resettlement movement was that as the Greeks came into contact increasingly with non-Greek-speaking peoples, they gained a heightened sense of their own Greek identity, their language, religion, and cultural commonalities. The oracular shrine of the god Apollo at Delphi was regularly consulted about where new settlements should be located. Since Greeks considered Delphi the center of the world and gathered there for consultation about many issues, the oracle could serve as an important clearinghouse of information. Greek self-consciousness gave an added boost to the great festival games also. Participants in the Olympic Games, which were held every four years at Olympia in the northwest Peloponnese from 776 b.c.e. onward, had to speak Greek and worship the Olympian gods.

Warfare. The political structure of the polis was also greatly transformed by the technology of warfare. The affordability and strength of the new weapons meant that every Greek farmer of moderate means could own his own weaponry. The aristocrats who had formerly dominated because only they could afford durable weaponry now found that their advantage was neutralized. Moreover, the new middle-class farmers who owned their own weapons, the hoplites, found that they could fight most effectively when they were tightly massed in a phalanx formation, their overlapping shields providing maximal mutual protection. With military force came political demands: the hoplites demanded a say in government.

The Tyrant. In many of the most economically active cities, where social and economic mobility most undermined the traditional political power structure, the way was opened for a particularly ambitious person, usually one of the aristocrats, to champion the cause of this new class against the aristocrats. The experience of Cypselus at Corinth was typical. Corinth was thriving as a result of its strategic trading location on the isthmus between central Greece and the Peloponnese. Travelers by land and sea used the isthmus, and the Corinthians developed strong trading relationships. Cypselus used his position as a military leader to topple the domination of the city by his mother’s family, the Bacchiads. Like Pheidon of Argos, Cypselus took power in an unprecedented way and earned the designation “tyrant.” Yet, he was a champion of the people and was able to concentrate the city’s resources on public enterprises, public works, and festivals. In time, the usefulness of the institution of the tyranny as a protector of the popular interests wore out. The tyrant, or his son or grandson, had to spend more time protecting his own power than doing truly useful things for the people. He often resorted to cruel means, which left the Greeks with a bad view of tyrants; however, tyrants usually had popular support at the beginning.


Antony Andrewes, The Greek Tyrants (London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1956).

John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade (London: Thames & Hudson, 1980).

Michael Grant, The Rise of the Greeks (New York: Scribners, 1987).

Anthony Snodgrass,Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment (London: Dent, 1980).

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The Archaic Greek World

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