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THE GREEKS OF THE HOMERIC AGE.
THE great vexed question of the origin and composition of the Homeric poems lies happily beyond our present scope. To those who desire to study the social indications in these great epics, it is a matter of small importance to know whether they were composed by one poet, by two, or by many; whether they grew up gradually in a school of rhapsodists, or whether they sprang complete from a single genius. Even the ultra-sceptical theory, which holds that the Iliad and Odyssey, as we have them, did not acquire their present form till late in the Attic age, even this theory, supposing it were shown not impossible, would little affect us. Two facts alone we demand, and these will doubtless be conceded by critics of every description; first, that whenever or wherever the Homeric poems were arranged or produced, the great result was accomplished by building with other materials, by assimilating or embodying older and shorter lays: secondly, that whatever may be the exact age of these older materials, at least this is certain, that they describe a state of society different from, and older than, that implied in any other relic of Greek literature.
A qualified exception, as to antiquity, may perhaps be made in favour of Hesiod, but the social state
described by him if contemporaneous, yet belongs to a different part of Greece and to a different rank in society. So far then as he is contemporaneous, we shall call in his assistance as affording a contrast, and possibly as completing the picture left us by Homer. For the social attitude of Hesiod seems to differ curiously from that of all the rest of the earlier Greek poets, except perhaps Hipponax. It has hardly been remarked, how intensely aristocratic was their tone, and how they uniformly addressed themselves to the powers that be, often in pointed exclusion of all inferior classes. The Rhapsodists addressed kings and princes, and sang at courts. The Lyric poets addressed either the gods, the tyrants, or those close aristocratic circles that swayed the Greek cities on the abolition of monarchies. Even the Gnomic poets were aristocrats, and spoke their wisdom to their compeers only. No Greek poet addressed the Demos, till it too became the sovereign Demos, and till the distinction of higher and lower classes became as it were inverted by the ochlocratic spirit of the times. Apart, then, from the scanty fragments of popular songs, no voice directly addressed to the lower classes has reached us, save the plain shrewdness of Hesiod, whose Works and Days' (unlike the Georgics of his Roman imitator, written in the interests of the rulers) give us some evidence of the poor and shady side of Greek life in early days. It is even possible that he describes the same society from a widely diverse point of view1.
Cp. Hom. 8490. I quote the books of the Odyssey by small Greek letters, those of the Iliad by capitals, according to a convenient German
And if it be the same society, there can be little doubt that the genuine Hesiod's picture must be in many respects truer than Homer's. It is almost painful to say anything in the least derogatory to the Iliad or Odyssey, especially when they are almost our only authority for the earliest phase of Greek society. But I am convinced that all the critics, even Grote and the sceptical Germans, have overrated the accuracy of the pictures of life given in these poems. They have been persuaded by the intense reality and the natural simplicity which have made these scenes unapproachable in their charm, and they have thought that such qualities could only coexist with a simple and faithful reproduction of the circumstances actually surrounding the poet's life. But surely this argument, irresistible up to a certain point, has been carried too far. A poet of genius may surely be capable of modifying and colouring, even when he is observing and copying nature. Moreover, he must even endeavour to do so, if he sets himself to describe an ideal state of things above his own experience, or if he desires to please a rich patron, to whom actual surroundings are in many respects unpleasant. Now these were the very conditions under which the epic poets composed. Their poems were certainly intended for recitation at the courts of kings and chiefs. They were intended to honour these chiefs by extolling the deeds and lives of their ancestors. And so an ideal state must be described a state evidently differing only in degree from the poet's own experience else the truth and reality of his picture must have suffered-but yet differing from it in the
greater interference of the gods, in the larger size and strength of the heroes, and in the greater valour of their deeds.
These differences are acknowledged by the poets themselves, but are we sure that they confined themselves to these? Are we sure that they did not accommodate other circumstances to the wishes or the regrets of their noble hearers? Thus, for example, the rank and file of the army are there to be marshalled by the kings, and to raise the shout of battle, but then they actually disappear from the action, and leave the field perfectly clear for the chiefs to perform their deeds of valour. There is not, I think, an example in all the Iliad of a chief falling, or even being wounded, by an ignoble hand. Such a misfortune was too shocking to the sensibilities of an aristocratic audience. Amid the cloud of missiles that were flying on the plains of Troy, amid the crowd of chiefs and kings that were marshalled on either side, we never hear how a 'certain man drew a bow at a venture, and smote a king between the joints of the harness.' Yet this must necessarily have occurred in any prolonged combats such as those about the walls of Troy.
Here, then, is a plain departure from truth, and even from reasonable probability. It is indeed a mere omission which does not offend the reader; but such inaccuracies suggest serious reflections. If the epic poets ignore the importance of the masses on the battle field is it not likely that they underrate it in the agora? Is it not possible that here, too, to please
their patrons, they describe the glorious ages of the past as the days when the assembled people would not question the superior wisdom of their betters, but merely assembled to be taught and to applaud? I cannot, therefore, as Mr. Grote does, accept the political condition of things in the Homeric poems, especially in the Iliad, as a safe guide to the political life of Greece in the poet's own day. The figure of Thersites seems drawn with special' spite and venom, as a satire upon the first critics that rose up among the assembled people, to question the Divine. right of kings to do wrong. We may be sure the real Thersites, from whom the poet drew his picture, was a very different and a far more serious power in debate, than the misshapen buffoon of the Iliad. But the king who had been thwarted and exposed by him in the day would over his cups in the evening enjoy the poet's travestie, and long for the good old times, when he could put down all impertinent criticism by the stroke of his knotty sceptre. The Homeric agora could hardly have existed had it been so idle a form as the poets represent. But as the lower classes were carefully marshalled on the battlefield, from a full sense of the importance which the poet denies them, so they were marshalled in the public assembly, where we may be sure their weight told with equal effect, though the poet neglected it for the greater glory of the counselling chiefs. Would that we had fuller sketches from the tamer Hesiod! He, at least, does not sing in the interest of courts and kings, and he moreover gives us a glimpse into the sorrows and