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   Chapter 3 HOMERIC POLITY. THE OVER LORD

The World of Homer By Andrew Lang Characters: 12636

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


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As Homer conceives the period of his heroes, they live in a perfectly well known stage of society, illustrated in later northern Europe by the French Chansons de Geste; by the most ancient Irish stories in prose mixed with verse; and even to some extent by the Arthurian romances. Every prince has his castle and town or towns, his lands, pasturage, tilth, and orchards; he is, in the Irish phrase, a righ. He is surrounded by the γ?ροντε?,-in Irish the flaith, the gentry or squires, who held "rich lands remote from towns," and possessed war-chariots.[1] The princes and gentry with war-chariots alone take notable individual parts in the fighting, whether they fight mounted or dismounted. It is the gentry who offer a rich demesne, vineland and tilth, to Meleager, imploring him to take part in their war.[2] It appears to me that the gentry themselves held land in severalty, perhaps contrary to the old letter of the law, and in possession rather than in property.

The question of Homeric land tenure, as of all early land tenure before written records, is very obscure. There existed "common fields" certainly; but were they common property, each freeman having no more than his strip; separated, we know, from that of others by a longitudinal "balk" or boundary? We hear of men wrangling across the balk, "with measures in their hands, in a common field, striving for their right within scanty space."[3] Such quarrels were common in the Scotland of the eighteenth century, under the "run-rig" system of common fields; but then the men were tenants. They may have been free-holders in Homer's time, each with his assured "lot" (κλ?ρο?)[4] The Irish tribal free man had a right to one of these lots, which were redistributed by rotation, but many lots came gradually into the hands of each of the flaith, squires, (γ?ροντε?), who were rich in cattle, and let out the cattle to poor lease-holders, for returns of rent in kind. A mail in Homer might have no lot,[5] and yet employ hinds, and be a cultivator. He must have been a tenant farmer.

In the Iliad, apart from the demesnes allotted to great men by the γ?ροντε?, we only hear of personal property, gold, iron, cattle, and so on. In the Odyssey (xiv. 211) we read of men in Crete who each possessed several lots; and in so old a civilisation nothing is more probable. One is inclined to suppose that the majority of freemen held each his lot, while some had lost their lots; that many who had been land-holders came to hold as tenants merely, under rent in kind paid for stock to the γ?ροντε?, who were rich in ploughing cattle; and that some γ?ροντε?, and all princes held demesnes and a large share of the unfenced pasturage, worked by slaves and hinds. This is quite a practicable condition of affairs; there were all grades of wealth, some men were, as Odysseus feigned to be, wandering tramps. By the time of Hesiod lots of land were purchaseable,[6] but we do not hear in Homer that lots could be bought and sold.

It does not seem that these variations of conditions, in a society where the rich and the very poor certainly coexisted, are proofs that ideas and practices of various later ages have been brought into the Epics by the insertion of lays of various dates. In savage and barbaric societies on a very low level, even in Australia, we find the most various social rules coexisting, and tribes with maternal and with paternal reckoning of descent live side by side. In Melanesia the conditions of native land-tenure vary greatly, some are "primitive" others not so.[7] When we reflect on facts so certain, it seems strange that the hints of varieties in the condition of land-tenure in Homer are regarded as a proof that the poems are a patchwork of the usages of four changing centuries.

We do not, of course, know anything about land-tenure in the early Ionian settlements in Asia, where, if anywhere, novelties would be interpolated. Probably, as was usual and natural in the foundation of a colony, each freeman was assigned his lot. But as the cities became full of seafaring traders and sailors, some men thus occupied would part with the lots which they could not cultivate, and these would be bought by capitalists. Now Homer never mentions the purchase of lots. Athenian tradition held that their colonists were led by the Codrids, descendants of kings not Athenians, descendants of the sons of Neleus of Pylos, Nestor's family. This legend was probably invented for the purpose of introducing Attica into the Achaean cycle of history, in which Attica, as far as Achaean traditions inform us, had no part. Indeed we cannot know whether or not princes like these of Homer long ruled the Ionian cities. Colonists are usually impatient of monarchy.

Returning to the Homeric Over Lord, the princes do not hold land from the Crown, so to speak. The Over Lord is primus inter pares by right divine, not by election. In late forms of the Trojan tale, Agamemnon is only an elected general; this idea may be derived from the Ionic poem, the Cypria. In Homer, Agamemnon is commander-in-chief by birth; but the princes, in formal council, or on the field, deliver their advice, which may or may not be accepted. Agamemnon usually gives way to it. The Over Lord's rights are not strictly defined, except by traditionary custom. Like Charlemagne in the later Chansons de Geste, like Fion MacCumhail in his cycle, even like Arthur, the Achaean Over Lord is not the favourite of the poets and romancers. They much prefer, in Homer's case, the princes; in the mediaeval romances they prefer Diarmaid, Cuchullain, Oscar, Lancelot, and the rest, to the Over Lord. Except in the case of Arthur, who himself tends to become a fainéant, the Over Lords are always capricious, arbitrary, unjust, always encroaching, and are apt to be rebuked or even reviled, by their more energetic subordinates. Agamemnon is in a position between that of the Charlemagne of the Chanson de Roland, and the dotard of the later chansons. His divine right is always recognised; his bursts of insolent temper are easily checked; his nervousness as a commander-in-chief brings on him rebukes to which he instantly yields, and is partly redeemed by his personal prowess and skill with the spear. When the Over Lord's insolence and injustice are beyond b

earing, the injured prince may blamelessly "renounce his allegiance," return home or remain without taking part in battle or council. Nobody blames Achilles for his mutiny, least of all does Athene, till he, in turn, exceeds his rights by refusing atonement and apology.[8] It seems that Achilles would actually have lost consideration had he returned to action without receiving gifts of atonement,[9] as Meleager did in his day. This is the chief point of the long exhortation of Phoenix.[10]

When reconciliation did occur, it was regulated by minute etiquette (as in Iliad, xix. 171-183); there is an oath, a banquet, the gifts of atonement are publicly brought into the midst of the Assembly, ?? μεσσην ?γορ?ν, and exhibited: none of these points may be omitted in the customary mode of giving satisfaction, ?να μ? τι δ?κη? ?πιδευ?? ?χηισθα.

These transactions Odysseus forces on the reluctant Achilles, as one who "knows better" than he.[11]

There is nothing superstitious in the manly and constitutional attitude of the princes towards the king. He is not a god of vegetation, who is slain or sacrificed yearly or at longer intervals; if ever such a mortal king god of vegetation existed anywhere. In the Odyssey (xix. 107-114) we hear that, under a godfearing king, who reigns over strong men and a large population, and maintains just dealings, the crops, whether of grain or fruit-trees, and the flocks are fertile, while the sea yields fish abundantly, "through the king's good government." Here is a trace of belief in the prosperity of a good king, the gods reward him, and his people prosper. But there is no hint that the king, as the embodiment of a god, controls the weather.

The Achaean attitude towards the Over Lord is stated by Nestor,-"Think not, son of Peleus, to strive with a king, might against might, seeing that no common honour pertaineth to a sceptred king to whom Zeus apportioneth glory." "I have beside me," says Agamemnon, "others that shall do me honour, and above all Zeus, lord of counsel." He inherits his sceptre "that over many islands and all Argos he should be lord." He rules by right divine, but there are recognised limits to his authority. This is a well-known form of polity in early civilisations, and, so far, Homer, from first to last, thoroughly understands his world. He never lets his Over Lord fall into the decadence of Charlemagne in the Chansons de Geste. It may be a later, it was certainly a more hostile spirit, as regards the Over Lord, that reached the Cyclic poets (circ. 760-660), who dwell on the tyranny suffered by Palamedes and Philoctetes, Palamedes being the inventor of alphabetic writing. Pindar and the Greek tragedians followed, and exaggerated such traditions.[12]

Homer retains the true sense of the position of the Over Lord, no tincture of the ideas of later ages appears in the Epics. Now, is it not a point worth considering that the Epics, though the critics take them to have been open to interpolation even in their oldest passages, down to 540 B.C. or thereabouts, never contain the word τ?ραννο? or any of its compounds? The τ?ραννο?, the "Tyrant," was originally the person who unconstitutionally seized power in one of the republics, usually oligarchic, that succeeded to the Homeric kingships. We place the early "tyrants" in the eighth century and onwards. To the Athenian tragedians a Homeric king was a "tyrant." Yet despite the assumed facility of interpolation into the Epics, even at a much later date than the eighth century, no late poet foisted into our Epics the word τ?ραννο?, nor the ideas which it denotes. This abstinence is irreconcilable with the supposed freedom of late interpolating poets in uncritical ages. The Epics are perfectly consistent in their view of the divine right, but limited power, of the Over Lord. He may display illegal arrogance (?βρι?), but he is never a τ?ραννο?. The word, and the ideas connected with the word,-usurpation by an individual of despotic power over members of a free commonwealth,-were familiar to Greeks on both sides of the sea in the eighth century. Interpolators of that period could hardly have kept the word τ?ραννο? out of their additions of new matter, but it appears to occur for the first time in the Hymn to Ares: "tyranny" (τ?ρανν??) is familiar to Archilochus.[13]

Thus, in the important matter of polity, we see that the Homeric picture of society is coherent, represents a well-known social and political state of affairs, is drawn with minute knowledge of the rights and duties of all concerned, and bears no trace of interpolations made under the later conditions known to Ionian poets in Asia. But some epics of these poets display a grudge against the Over Lord and his House, which is un-Homeric, and is exaggerated by the Athenian tragedians.

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[1] Iliad, xxiii. 832. All this passage, the conclusion of the funeral games, is regarded as a late addition. It may be, but the poet preserves the distinction between the uses of iron for implements, and of bronze for weapons, which pervades both Epics. When a warrior like Achilles offers a mass of iron for a prize, "we rather expect from him," says Helbig, "an allusion to the military uses of the metal" (Das Homerische Epos, pp. 330, 331, 1887). But Homer does not regard iron as a military metal.

[2] Iliad, ix. 574-580.

[3] Iliad, xii. 421-423.

[4] xv. 498.

[5] Odyssey, xi. 490.

[6] Opp. 341.

[7] Codrington, The Melanesians.

[8] Iliad, ix. "When Achilles is justly angered with Agamemnon at first none can blame him (ix. 523); but if he persists after Agamemnon has sued for forgiveness, then there will be nemesis; people will be indignant. He will know he is doing wrong." So Mr. Murray writes (Rise of the Greek Epic, p. 81).

[9] Iliad, ix. 605.

[10] ix. 434 et seqq.

[11] They weary the critics, who are not at the Homeric point of view. "It is quite conceivable that the whole idea of the Reconciliation is an afterthought ... it is not only consistent with the character of Achilles, but materially adds to the movement of the story, if we suppose that on hearing of the death of Patroklos he set out to avenge it without more ado" (Leaf, Iliad, vol. ii. p. 317).

[12] See infra, "The Story of Palamedes."

[13] 25 Bergk.

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