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THE HOMERIC AGE (CONTINUED).
THE foregoing general reflections on the Homeric age have necessarily detained us, as being essential to the better understanding of the permanent features in the Greek character. I still owe such readers as are not intimate with Greek literature some details which may help them to picture to themselves the society of those long-past days.
Homer introduces us to a very exclusive caste society, in which the key to the comprehension of all the details depends upon one leading principle-that consideration is due to the members of the caste, and even to its dependants, but that beyond its pale even the most deserving are of no account save as objects of plunder. So the Homeric chieftain behaves even in battle with some consideration to his fellow chieftain; in peace and in ordinary society he treats him with the most delicate courtesy and consideration. To his wife and to the wives of his friends he behaves with similar politeness, though in a less degree, and with a strong sense of their inferiority. To his own slaves, who are as it were dignified by being attached to him, he conducts himself with consideration, as he does even to his horses and
his dogs for the same reason. But there is evidence enough that the stranger who was not a guest friend, and the free labourer who was unattached to his household-these, as well as all women not belonging directly to the governing classes, were treated with reckless brutality, and in disregard of the laws of justice and mercy. A few illustrations on each of these points will be sufficient to establish the principle, and so give us a clue to gathering up details under its special heads.
The Greeks and Romans always laid great stress on the habits of the table as indicative of civilisation, and it was specially noted of such mythical humanisers as Orpheus, that they had induced men to improve the tone and manners of their feasting. The Greeks of historic times not only contrasted themselves in this respect with their semi-barbarous neighbours, but even (as we shall see) estimated the comparative culture of the Greek cities by this sensitive social test. From this aspect, then, the Greeks of Homer and of Hesiod occupy a very definite position. The appointments of their feasts seem simple, but not unrefined. Each guest generally had a small table to himself (a 106-12) well cleansed with sponges, and a special supply of bread. The washing of hands before eating was universal. With the exception of the large cup (кPNTÈP) on the table, which was often embossed, and the work of a famous artist, we hear of no plate, or other valuables to ornament the tables. This neat simplicity, however, does not correspond with the extraordinary quantity and rudeness of the food, and the barbarous
sameness in the victuals and their preparation. The Achæan heroes seem always ready to join in a meal of great roast joints, and they hardly ever meet on any important occasion without forthwith proceeding to such a repast. Nor do we see any refinement or variety in either cooking or materials. We hear of no vegetables except among the peculiar Lotos-eaters (oï 7' avlivov eîdap edovoi, i 84), or of fish, except indeed that the latter is mentioned by Menelaus1 as the wretched sustenance of his starving comrades when wind-bound off the coast of Egypt! Here is indeed a contrast to the Attic banquet, where large joints were thought coarse and Boeotian, while fish was the greatest and the most expensive of luxuries.
Yet withal the primitive and primitively cooked materials of the banquet, in themselves no better than the mutton and damper' of the wild Australian squatter, were accompanied by evidences of high refinement and culture. There was ruddy sweet wine, mellowed by age, and esteemed for its bouquet as well as its flavour. And yet good as the Greeks thought it, they tempered it with water, for bestial drunkenness was in all ages an offence against Greek taste; it was even by the immoral suitors considered fit for Centaurs, and by later Greeks for Thracians: atopa nívew ( 294)
1 Cf. 8 368, and Mr. Hayman's instructive note on the passage.
2 The eating of cheese, and general milch-speise, as the Germans call it, which we find to be the habit of the Cyclopes in the ninth book of the Odyssey, was evidently the habit of pastoral tribes, or of the lower classes thus occupied. Still Ulysses and his companions seem to enjoy it thoroughly, though they prefer meat diet.
was an universal rule of society. There was also present the reciting bard, who aided and was aided by the generous wine in raising the emotions of the guests to a warmer and loftier pitch, for he sang the deeds of men of old renown, the ancestors and models of the warriors who sat before him at their tables. This was truly the intellectual side of the Homeric banquet, a foretaste of the Symposium of Plato. But the Homeric Greeks were still far below that stage, when intellectual conversation, in which all took part, was considered essential to social enjoyment; for the most cultivated of the heroes, Ulysses, describes it as his notion of the highest enjoyment (1 7) to sit in a row of silent guests and listen to a bard singing, with ample meat and drink upon the table. There were sometimes ladies present also, as we see in the case of Helen and Arete at their respective courts, and the strong intellect and high qualities of such ladies are plainly seen in the leading part which they take in the conversation.
The current news of the day seems generally to have been the chief topic, whenever strangers were present, and we can imagine the eagerness with which men enquired concerning absent friends, when they had no other means of hearing of their welfare. So much was the want of regular communication felt, that wandering beggars evidently attained an importance similar to that of the beggars and also of the pedlars in Scott's novels, who combine with the trade of selling goods that of carrying news, and were even at times employed as confidential messengers. These vagrants, in Homer's
day, either carried or invented news, and obtained their living in reward for it. Thus Ulysses, in this disguise, asks his swineherd (§ 118) what sort of man his lost master was, perhaps he may have met him in his wanderings. And the swineherd replies: 'Old man, no wanderer could persuade his wife and son by bringing them news, but vagrants in want of hospitality tell idle lies, and will not stick to the truth. Whatever wandering beggar comes to Ithaca, goes to my queen and babbles idle tales, but she treats him kindly and asks him every detail, and as she weeps the tears drop from her eyelids, as it is with a woman when her husband is lost abroad. And I suppose you too, old man, would not be slow in making up a story.' In so similar a state of society to that of old Scotland, I fancy that the Phoenician traders may have corresponded somewhat to the pedlars, as the beggars were so analogous. The Homeric beggars do not, however, seem to have made so much money as those of Scotland and Ireland in the last century.
The great courtesy and hospitality shown to strangers, even of the lowest type, nevertheless appear to me rather the remains of a more primitive state of things, than the natural outburst of Homeric generosity, for even in the ideal society depicted by the poets, there are many passages where the close shrewdness and calculating generosity of the Greek mind break out naively enough through the curtain of nobler feeling which only disguised them. I lay no stress on the absence of that modern sentiment which values a gift as a keepsake, and will not part with it even for greater value.