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These facts show with great clearness how completely the law of force prevailed over the weak, and how the Homeric lady was so constrained by its iron necessity, that all delicate feeling, however ornamental to the surface of society, vanished in stern practice. The case of Penelope corroborates this view.
It was hateful to her to marry one of the rude and ungentlemanly suitors, who thrust their attentions upon her in her grief. Yet if Ulysses were surely dead, there was no help, she must pass into their hands, whether she choose it or not.
Stranger and not less characteristic is the treatment of old age. The king or chief, as soon as his bodily vigour passed away, was apparently pushed aside by younger and stronger men. He might either maintain himself by extraordinary usefulness, like Nestor, or be supported by his children, if they chanced to be affectionate and dutiful ; but except in these cases his lot was sad indeed. We hear Achilles (A 492 sq.) lamenting that doubtless in his absence the neighbouring chiefs are illtreating the aged Peleus, and he longs to dye his spear in their blood. We see Laertes, the father of Ulysses, exiled, apparently by grief and disgust, to a barren farm in the country, and spending the close of his life, not in honour and comfort, but in poverty and hardship. When these princes, who had sons that might return any day to avenge them, were treated in such a way, it is surely no strained inference that unprotected old age commanded very little veneration or respect among the Homeric Greeks. While therefore we find here, too, much courtliness of manner, and respectfulness of address toward the aged, from their younger friends, the facts indicate that, like helpless women and children, so worn-out men received scanty justice and little consideration. Among friends and neighbours at peace and in good humour, they were treated with delicacy and refinement, but with the first clash of conflicting interests such considerations vanished. The age was no longer, as I have said, a believing age; the interference of the gods to protect the weak was no longer the object of a simple faith, and Greek chivalry rested on no firmer basis.
I may add, by anticipation, that at no period of Greek history can we find old age commanding that respect and reverence which has been accorded it in modern Europe. We hear, indeed, that at Sparta the strictest regulations were made as to the conduct of young men towards elders, but this seems an exceptional case, like most things at Sparta. There is a well-known story of an old man coming into the crowded theatre at Athens, and looking in vain for a seat, till he came near the Spartan embassy, who at once stood up and made room for him. Though the whole theatre applauded this act of courtesy, I am sure they did not habitually imitate it. The lyric and tragic poets, as I shall show by ample quotations in future chapters, were perpetually cursing the miseries of old age, and blessing youth, fair in poverty, fairer still in riches. Probably old Athenian gentlemen were for these reasons like old Frenchmen, who are very prone to prolong their youth by artificial means, and strive to maintain a place among their fellows which
they will lose when they are confessedly of the past generation. And so in Greece, as in France, old age may have come to lack that dignity and that importance which it obtains in the British army, on our Governing Boards, and in Chinese society. But apart from these peculiarities of race, the feverish and agitated condition of Greek politics, the perpetual wars and civil conflicts, must have made prompt action and quick decision all-important, and so the citizens could not brook the slowness and caution of old age, which often mistakes hesitation for deliberation, and brands prompt vigour as rashness.
There yet remains the idea of loyalty-I mean hearty and unflinching allegiance to superior authority, or to the obligations taken by oath or promise. The idea is not unknown to Homer's men and women. Achilles and Penelope (more especially the latter) are in the highest sense loyal, the one to his friend Patroclus, the other to her husband Ulysses. But in the Greek camp the chiefs in general are wofully deficient in that chivalrous quality. I shall not lay stress on their want of conjugal loyalty, a point in which Menelaus, according to the scholiasts, formed an honourable, but solitary exception. In those days, as in the times of the Mosaic law, absolute fidelity was expected from women, but not from men. In their own homes, indeed, scandals of this kind were avoided as the cause of ill-will and domestic discomfort. It is specially observed (a 433), that Laertes avoided these relations with Euryclea from respect for his wife's feelings, and the misconduct of the suitors in the same direction is specially reprobated; but when the chiefs were away at their wars, or travelling, the bard seems to expect no continence whatever. The model Ulysses may serve as an example, instar omnium.
But it is in their treatment of Agamemnon that the want of loyalty is specially prominent. Achilles is quite ready to insult him, and but for the promptings of Athene, that is, of prudence, who suggests that he may play a more lucrative game by confining himself to sulkiness and bad language, is ready even to kill him. The poet, too, clearly sympathises with Achilles. He paints Agamemnon as a weak and inferior man, succeeding by fortune to a great kingdom, but quite unfit to govern or lead the turbulent princes whose oath had bound them to follow him to Troy. It is in fact Ulysses, Diomede, and Nestor who direct him what to do. It may be said that we might expect such insubordination in the case of an armament collected for a special purpose, and that even the mediæval knights did not escape this disgrace in the very parallel case of the Crusades. I shall not, then, press the point, though Agamemnon's title to supremacy is far different from that of Godfrey de Bouillon. Take the case of Ithaca in the absence of its king. We are told repeatedly that he treated his people like a father, and yet only a few old servants seem to side with him against the worthless aspirants to the throne.
The experimentum crucis, however, is the picture of the gods in Olympus. We have here Zeus, a sort of easy-going but all-powerful Agamemnon, ruling over a number of turbulent self-willed lesser gods, who are perpetually trying to evade and thwart his commands. At intervals he wakes up and terrifies them into submission by threats, but it is evident that he can count on no higher principle. Herè, Poseidon, Ares, Aphrodite, Pallas, all are thoroughly insubordinate, and loyal to one thing only, that is their party. Faction, as among the Greeks of Thucydides, had clearly usurped the place of principle, and we are actually presented with the strange picture of a city of gods more immoral, more faithless, and more depraved, than the world of men.
This curious feature has much exercised the critics, and caused many conjectures as to the real moral attitude of the epic poets. I think the most natural explanation is based upon the notorious levity and recklessness of the Ionic character, as developed in Asia Minori. We know from the lyric poets, we know from the course of history, how the pleasure-loving
1 We have ample evidence that the more serious of the Greeks regarded the matter in the same light. Xenophanes, for example, was known as a severe critic of Hesiod's Theogony, as well as of Homer, and Sextus Empiricus has preserved for us his bitter utterance:
πάντα θεοίς ανέθηκαν “Ομηρός θ' Ησίοδός τε
κλέπτειν μοιχεύειν τε και αλλήλους απατεύειν. The discussions upon epic poetry which Plato has left us in his Ion, and in the second book of his Republic, point in a similar direction, and even show how the strange utterances were explained as the result of direct inspiration, and not the natural outcome of the poet's mind.