Homer’s idea of Greek aristocratic lifestyle has influenced the Western worldview of what we characterize as success and power. Diffusing ideas of grandeur, institutions, government and philosophy steered the aristocracy into a life of mentorship and glory and spoils in warfare. Kurke explains, “In a period when various factors cause a broader distribution of wealth and political influence, threatening the power monopoly of the elite, conscious forms of aristocratic display become more and more prominent in reaction” . In Homeric Greece and the lliad, the main themes that Homer highlights are personal honor and arête, transience of human life, pederasty, and society and politics.
Werner Jaeger explains arête as the “quintessence of early aristocratic education”, yet it was also characterized by the individual personification of one’s self. Am I the best (aristos)? The most handsome? The best warrior or public speaker? A noble's arête, in Homer, is specifically indicated by his skill and prowess as a soldier in war, and as an athlete in peace” . Yet, his over inclination to human perfection and self-fulfillment was most often the result of his prowess in leadership, which can’t be separated from arête. According to Homer, arête is expressed by a struggle or contest in war. Through a man’s willingness to fight, he will protect his family, preserving his own honor and that of his family, and thus preserves his reputation.
James McGlew explains that offspring of divine mortal relationships are always exceptional in arête. This statement is best embodied by the relationship of Achilles and Agamemnon in the lliad. Both men are proud and seek personal honor and excellence. Arête is expressed by those respecting their distinct reputation and importance, thus foregoing the wellbeing of their own forces . Only one, however, is of divine and mortal origin and it is he who seeks Kleos and Agamemnon who seeks timé. Arête was the driving force in Greek aristocratic society, which is why the theme of arête comes up several times in the lliad.
The lliad provides a universal lesson of all aristocratic warrior men. Spielvogel mentions one account of a commentator stating, “men will still come and go like the generations of leaves in the forest; that [man] will still be weak, and gods strong and calculable; that the quality of man matters more than his achievement” .
Does the quality of man really distinguish his achievements? In the lliad, we were introduced to Agamemnon, chief of the Achaean forces, who believes that he’s entitled to Briseis. This of course denies the Achaean Achilles his warrior prize, and thus, forces him to defend his claim over Briseis, rather than defuse the situation entirely. Spoils of war and the entitlement to these so-called prizes, are the very essence of timé. Yet, one wonders, with Achilles’ claim to an early heroic death, why he would even bother the humiliation, rather than acting of honor or duty. We see demonstrated the aristocratic warrior way, where a man puts his own interests ahead of that of his people, jeopardizing the war effort.
Although the transience of warrior life, especially for warrior aristocrats, was fleeting, they recognized that, or believed that they were, essentially immortal like their great gods. It was the responsibility of the elder men to educate the young, feeble-minded warrior men about life. The obstacle was that in Homeric Greece, texts such as the Odyssey and lliad were meant to represent the glories of war and the honor one might obtain by embarking on such a mission. Life wasn’t always about war, yet men lived as though it was. Thus, relationships formed to instruct the young men on matters of state, life, family, and war.
Homer said, “To have a great man for an intimate friend seems pleasant to those who have never tried it; those who have, fear it” . Greek male aristocracy had rites of passage much like men do today in fraternities, albeit in a stricter sense, pedastery was based upon close intimate relationships. These intimate, sometimes erotic, relationships didn’t define a Greek male’s personal lifestyle, yet they influenced their standing in the political arena with the older, more established and revered, Greek aristocratic males. There were no such things as ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ in ancient Greece. Your sexual orientation depended on how you had sex, with whom, and your social status. Therefore, gender roles during sex were fluid and were only characterized by the terms “penetrator” and “penetrated”.
The Marquis De Sade defended pedastery in his book Philosophy in the Bedroom, explaining that the act was misconstrued and falsely criticized. The Marquis states that, “The lawgivers of Greece would they have introduced it to their country if it was [dangerous]? Quite the contrary, they thought it necessary for a warrior people . It’s evident that erotic relationships between Greek Athenian men and adolescent boys were seen as completely natural and admirable. Sexual relations were a large part of the overall master/apprentice relationship. Like a practicum for young men of refinement to learn how to become respectable members of aristocratic society.
Society in Homeric Greece was largely based on agriculture, which the warrior aristocracy controlled. A large gulf separated the wealthy land owning aristocrats from the peasants who hardly embraced their existence. Hesiod, a poet and farmer, wrote a poem titled Works and Days scrutinizing the aristocrats for their obsession with pride and war and their treatment of the farmers and peasants. In the other hand, he explains that the gods punished injustice, and the way to success was work. “Famine and blight do not beset the just, who till their well-worked fields and feast. The earth supports them lavishly” . Consequently, many aristocrats worked the land along side their hired men and slaves, which makes Hesiod’s statement over justified. If both aristocrats and slaves worked the land, thus appeasing and pleasing the gods, then why would the earth not provide for them both?
“In the human realm, the guarantors of order and justice are the basileis. Thus they are the earthly counterparts of Zeus” . The king's responsibilities varied from state to state and, however they did have religious duties as well. The widespread designation of the title basileus for religious officials signals how great a reverence was still attached to the name; the Greek aristocrats felt a need to keep the very important religious sphere of polis existence linked to the ancestral champions of the demos. The Homeric tribal society during the Archaic was dwindling, yet some states, mostly of Dorian origin, kept the tradition alive. Consequently, in Argos, a dynasty of hereditary basileis retained authority into the seventh century, resisting the attempts of the aristocrats to establish oligarchic rule. One of them, Pheidon, using his position of traditional basileus as a springboard, managed to make himself into a tyrant with absolute powers . The Spartans maintained a tribal system for the longest time, which allowed for not one but two hereditary, life-long basileis.
Aristocratic Greeks controlled the city-states for generations utilizing an advisory board. “Membership was confined to the high offices of the state, or magistracies, to their own landholding class.” Offices, especially in the early polis, were restricted to the aristocrats considering their high rank and birthright. They claimed their powers to govern
were derived from the gods, therefore, they believed they were the most excellent and the best aristoi-and thus the government they headed in each state is known as an aristocracy, the rule of the best.
Aristocratic women in Homeric Greece were expected to pursue excellence. Displaying courage during times of war and intelligence in governing her household while her husband was away was seen as admirable. Aristocratic young females, most associated with Spartan society, often appeared nude in ritual ceremonies, thus exemplifying the desire for physical perfection. Women’s bodies could also be assessed for childbearing purposes. After all, aristocratic society thrived on New Greek citizens.
Young men from wealthy aristocratic families and of citizen rank also underwent training and education and were accompanied to private school by a paidagogas, an elderly and trusted slave who supervised and protected the boy. Whereas boys of lesser means pursued education for no more than three or four years, the rest continued for as many as ten years. Young Athenian boys played sport and exercised in the nude as physical training was also seen as education for the mind, and athletics assumed an increasingly important role as the boy approached manhood.
The Pantheon of gods the aristocrats claimed lineage from was a huge aspect of the way in which the landed aristocracy ruled and lived their lives. Homer presents deities in a way that deviated from the older gods who didn’t claim immortality and superpowers. For this reason, aristocrats in Homeric Greece never regarded gods, which could succumb to death or injury, as their greatest. “In Homer, the deities lead an existence paralleling in many ways that of the earthly nobles. Although the warrior nobles are supported or opposed at every turn by the heaven, they regard their relations with the gods as those between a lesser and greater order of beings” .
In essence Homeric Greece evolved out of one blind man’s interpretation of perfection. A land of Utopia, which Thomas Moore in the 16th century believed was attainable by adhering to godly standards of piousness and purity. While young women enjoyed the arts, dancing, and singing, warrior nobles were learning the art of war and leadership. Mentorship and personal honor. Homer is regarded as saying, “men grow tired of sleep, love, singing, and dancing sooner than war”. As we’ve seen throughout history, men like Henry the 5th, Henry the 8th and Alexander the Great, have all left a legacy of their successes in personal honor and war. Homeric Greece was very much the same. So we see that Homeric Greece, which slowly started to dwindle, or rather, was virtually non-existent in Classical Greece, was a foundation in which many warriors through the ages based their efforts. The foundation, I believe, was never really lost.
- Dandrow, Edward. Ancient Greece Class Notes, 2011.
- Dunstan, William E. Ancient Greece. Orlando: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.
- Heinl, Robert Debs. Dictionary of Military and Naval Questions. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1966.
- Kurke, Leslie. "The Politics of in Archaic Greece." Classical Antiquity 11 (1992): 91-120.
- McGlew,James F. Tyranny and Political Culture in Ancient Greece. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1993.
- Moskowitz, Michael. Reading Minds: guide to the cognitive neuroscience revolution. Great Britain: Karnac Books, 2010.
- Percy III, William Armstrong. Pedastery and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. Illinois: Board of Trustees University of illinois, 1996.
- Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece: a Political, Social, and Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Sansone, David. Ancient Greek Civilization. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.
- Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization. 7th Edition. Belmonst: Thomson Higher Education, 2009, 2006.