Basileus, wanax and king in Homer

basileus-assembly

The precise contextualisation of the Homeric poems is still to a certain extent inconclusive: many scholars have pursued this undertaking yet reaching rather hesitant results. The Mycenaean epoch, even though widely recognised as the social framework within which the splendid Homeric narrative masterly develops, seems to correspond only partially to the scenario where the highly celebrated heroes dwell. From the political standpoint, however, it can be almost confidently affirmed that the Homeric heroes’ functions and their institutions appear less sophisticated and bureaucratic than those we can infer from the archaeological findings related to the Mycenaean world. Actually, in spite of the detailed descriptions of warfare tools, strategies and attires which almost comply with civilisation of Mycenae, several social, political and religious beliefs, behaviours and rituals must be considered somewhat modern and definitely more recent.

For instance the Basileus represented into both poems is deemed only partly as the reproduction of the Mycenaean king; for he can also be considered the chief of any of those communities who survived the decay of that evolute pre-Greek culture. His government his principally based on recognised power and strength rather than acclaimed wisdom and proved judgement. As Hector sustains talking about his son to his wife Andromache:

But he kissed his dear son, and fondled him in his arms, and spoke in prayer to Zeus and the other gods: “Zeus and ye other gods, grant that this my child may likewise prove, even as I, pre-eminent amid the Trojans, and as valiant in might, and that he rule mightily over Ilios. And some day may some man say of him as he cometh back from war, ‘He is better far than his father’; and may he bear the blood-stained spoils of the foeman he hath slain, and may his mother’s heart wax glad.

And as hopeless Telemachus laments before the Ithacan assembly enduring the long lasting siege perpetrated by Penelope’s suers:

For there is no man here, such as Odysseus was, to ward off ruin from the house. As for me, I am no-wise such as he to ward it off. Nay verily, even if I try I shall be found a weakling and one knowing naught of valour. Yet truly I would defend myself, if I had but the power

And as proudly Nausicaa claims the praises of her father king Alcinous when she meets Ulysses for the first time:

The Phaeacians possess this city and land, and I am the daughter of great-hearted Alcinous, upon whom depend the might and power of the Phaeacians.

The Homeric Basileus, similarly to the Mycenaean wanax, besides exercising his ruling functions is primarily in charge of the army and derives his powers directly from the Gods, as Odysseus points out to the assembly of the generals:

In no wise shall we Achaeans all be kings here. No good thing is a multitude of lords; let there be one lord, one king, to whom the son of crooked-counselling Cronos hath vouchsafed the sceptre and judgments, that he may take counsel for his people.

The same creed is corroborated by Nestor when he speaks before a restricted counsel held in Agamemnon’s (commander in chief of the Achaean forces) tent:

He with good intent addressed their gathering and spoke among them: “Most glorious son of Atreus, Agamemnon, king of men, with thee will I begin and with thee make an end, for that thou art king over many hosts, and to thee Zeus hath vouchsafed the sceptre and judgements, that thou mayest take counsel for thy people. Therefore it beseemeth thee above all others both to speak and to hearken, and to fulfil also for another whatsoever his heart may bid him speak for our profit; for on thee will depend whatsoever any man may begin.

What particularly strikes is the greatly confounding contrast between the description of Alcinous’ kingdom and residence – which strongly reminds of a typical palatial socio-political structure – and Ulysses’ realm:

Odysseus went to the glorious palace of Alcinous. There he stood, and his heart pondered much before he reached the threshold of bronze; for there was a gleam as of sun or moon over the high-roofed house of great-hearted Alcinous. Of bronze were the walls that stretched this way and that from the threshold to the innermost chamber, and around was a cornice of cyanus. Golden were the doors that shut in the well-built house, and doorposts of silver were set in a threshold of bronze. Of silver was the lintel above, and of gold the handle. On either side of the door there stood gold and silver dogs, which Hephaestus had fashioned with cunning skill to guard the palace of great-hearted Alcinous; immortal were they and ageless all their days. Within, seats were fixed along the wall on either hand, from the threshold to the innermost chamber, and on them were thrown robes of soft fabric, cunningly woven, the handiwork of women. On these the leaders of the Phaeacians were wont to sit drinking and eating, for they had unfailing store. And golden youths stood on well-built pedestals, holding lighted torches in their hands to give light by night to the banqueters in the hall. And fifty slave-women he had in the house, of whom some grind the yellow grain on the millstone, and others weave webs, or, as they sit, twirl the yarn, like unto the leaves of a tall poplar tree; and from the closely-woven linen the soft olive oil drips down. For as the Phaeacian men are skilled above all others in speeding a swift ship upon the sea, so are the women cunning workers at the loom, for Athena has given to them above all others skill in fair handiwork, and an understanding heart. But without the courtyard, hard by the door, is a great orchard of four acres, and a hedge runs about it on either side. Therein grow trees, tall and luxuriant, pears and pomegranates and apple-trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives. Of these the fruit perishes not nor fails in winter or in summer, but lasts throughout the year; and ever does the west wind, as it blows, quicken to life some fruits, and ripen others; pear upon pear waxes ripe, apple upon apple, cluster upon cluster, and fig upon fig. There, too, is his fruitful vineyard planted, one part of which, a warm spot on level ground, is being dried in the sun, while other grapes men are gathering, and others, too, they are treading; but in front are unripe grapes that are shedding the blossom, and others that are turning purple. There again, by the last row of the vines, grow trim garden beds of every sort, blooming the year through, and therein are two springs, one of which sends its water throughout all the garden, while the other, over against it, flows beneath the threshold of the court toward the high house; from this the townsfolk drew their water. Such were the glorious gifts of the gods in the palace of Alcinous. There the much-enduring goodly Odysseus stood and gazed. But when he had marvelled in his heart at all things, he passed quickly over the threshold into the house.

Especially when compared Odysseus’ domains and patrimony, which albeit devotedly praised by his servant Eumaeus – who considers his masters’ possessions boundlessly abundant – seem quite distant from requiring and actually having a Minoan and/or Mycenaean palatial organisation and bureaucracy:

Verily his substance was great past telling, so much has no lord either on the dark mainland or in Ithaca itself; nay, not twenty men together have wealth so great. Lord, I will tell thee the tale thereof; twelve herds has he on the mainland; as many flocks of sheep; as many droves of swine; as many packed herds of goats do herdsmen, both foreigners and of his own people, pasture. And here too graze roving herds of goats on the borders of the island, eleven in all, and over them trusty men keep watch.

Ultimately it seems that the Homeric society is rather a melange of different stages of proto-Greek and pre-classic Greek world, starting from the Mycenaean era to the more recent period were the poems are believed to have been composed: thus embracing at least three-four centuries of slow evolution/involution – as this period includes what is commonly defined the Greek Dark Age. These mixed traditions and their scenery concoction, most likely due to the sedimentary oral composition of the poems, narratively blend elements and situations that historically could have never concomitantly existed, perhaps poetically enhanced by Homer’s frequent romantic glances to the good old mythical and Mycenaean days.

Heroic virtues in the Homeric world

homeric-hero-virtues-arete-metis

The Homeric poems and some legends and myths narrated by posthumous authors are the only literary source we can rely on in order to assess the main features and events of the dawn of Greek civilisation. The lack of very organised information, rather fragmentary and only partially comforted by archaeological discoveries, still now puzzles scholars, academics and amateurs passionate about archaic Greece. Nevertheless, the attentive reading of these sources has revealed some evident characteristics and aspects of Hellenic archaic culture that can aid us to draw the basic sketch of virtues and values, of morally correct behaviour and socially accepted and praised conduct: some of the paradigmatic main lines of a civilised society.

Accordingly, hospitality can be considered the very first duty and virtue within and among the ancient tribes who populated the archaic Greek terra-firma, islands and the Ionian colonies.  Protection, hosting and gifts were rituals deeply rooted and consistently honoured for generations. An interesting instance is reported in Iliad’s dialogue between Glaucus and Diomedes:

But Hippolochus begat me and of him do I declare that I am sprung; and he sent me to Troy and straitly charged me ever to be bravest and pre-eminent above all, and not bring shame upon the race of my fathers, that were far the noblest in Ephyre and in wide Lycia. This is the lineage and the blood whereof I avow me sprung.” So spoke he, and Diomedes, good at the warcry, waxed glad. He planted his spear in the bounteous earth, and with gentle words spoke to the shepherd of the host: “Verily now art thou a friend of my father’s house from of old: for goodly Oeneus on a time entertained peerless Bellerophon in his halls, and kept him twenty days; and moreover they gave one to the other fair gifts of friendship. Oeneus gave a belt bright with scarlet, and Bellerophon a double cup of gold which I left in my palace as I came hither. But Tydeus I remember not, seeing I was but a little child when he left, what time the host of the Achaeans perished at Thebes. Therefore now am I a dear guest-friend to thee in the midst of Argos, and thou to me in Lycia, whenso I journey to the land of that folk. So let us shun one another’s spears even amid the throng; full many there be for me to slay, both Trojans and famed allies, whomsoever a god shall grant me and my feet overtake; and many Achaeans again for thee to slay whomsoever thou canst. And let us make exchange of armour, each with the other, that these men too may know that we declare ourselves to be friends from our fathers’ days.”

Recognizably in the Homeric poems physical power, bravery, strength and cleverness on the battlefield are remarkably emphasised and rewarded. The effort and commitment aimed at the conquest of eternal glory are summarised within the utmost virtue for an Homeric hero: excellenceAρετή. This is brilliantly described in this brief dialogue between Sarpedon and Glaucus during the siege of Troy:

“Even so did his spirit then urge godlike Sarpedon to rush upon the wall, and break-down the battlements. Straightway then he spoke to Glaucus, son of Hippolochus: “Glaucus, wherefore is it that we twain are held in honour above all with seats, and messes, and full cups in Lycia, and all men gaze upon us as on gods? Aye, and we possess a great demesne by the banks of Xanthus, a fair tract of orchard and of wheat-bearing plough-land. Therefore now it behoveth us to take our stand amid the foremost Lycians, and confront the blazing battle that many a one of the mail-clad Lycians may say: “Verily no inglorious men be these that rule in Lycia, even our kings, they that eat fat sheep and drink choice wine, honey-sweet: nay, but their might too is goodly, seeing they fight amid the foremost Lycians. Ah friend, if once escaped from this battle we were for ever to be ageless and immortal, neither should I fight myself amid the foremost, nor should I send thee into battle where men win glory; but now—for in any case fates of death beset us, fates past counting, which no mortal may escape or avoid—now let us go forward, whether we shall give glory to another, or another to us. So spoke he, and Glaucus turned not aside, neither disobeyed him, but the twain went straight forward, leading the great host of the Lycians.”

This rather complex concept of ἀρετή (arete) is not solely straightforwardly affirmed, but per contrapasso is ulteriorly stressed by the pending oppression of the shame caused by any possible display of cowardice and ineptitude – as Hector clearly states before his duel with Achilles:

“Then, mightily moved, he spoke unto his own great-hearted spirit: “Ah, woe is me, if I go within the gates and the walls Polydamas will be the first to put reproach upon me, for that he bade me lead the Trojans to the city during this fatal night, when goodly Achilles arose. Howbeit I hearkened not—verily it had been better far! But now, seeing I have brought the host to ruin in my blind folly, I have shame of the Trojans, and the Trojans’ wives with trailing robes, lest some other baser man may say: ‘Hector, trusting in his own might, brought ruin on the host.’ So will they say; but for me it were better far to meet Achilles man to man and slay him, and so get me home, or myself perish gloriously before the city.”

To exercise just vengeance to a personal or social offence is another greatly demanded virtue, unquestionably also part of the sense of honour and courage that an Homeric hero is naturally supposed to possess – as Athena warmly reminds to Telemachus:

“First go to Pylos and ask Nestor; thence go on to Sparta and visit Menelaos, for he got home last of all the Achaeans; if you hear that your father is alive and about to achieve his homecoming, you can put up with the waste these suitors will make for yet another twelve months. If on the other hand you hear of his death, come home at once, celebrate his funeral rites with all due pomp, build a grave marker to his memory, and make your mother marry again. Then, having done all this, think it well over in your mind how, by fair means or foul, you may kill these suitors in your own house. You are too old to plead infancy any longer; have you not heard how people are singing Orestes’ praises for having killed his father’s murderer Aigisthos? You are a fine, smart looking young man; show your mettle, then, and make yourself a name in story. Now, however, I must go back to my ship and to my crew, who will be impatient if I keep them waiting longer; think the matter over for yourself, and remember what I have said to you.”

And as it is very sadly lamented by Helen when speaking of Paris’ spinelessness:

“Howbeit, seeing the gods thus ordained these ills, would that I had been wife to a better man, that could feel the indignation of his fellows and their many revilings. But this man’s understanding is not now stable, nor ever will be hereafter; thereof I deem that he will e’en reap the fruit”.

Yet warfare skills, fierce revenge and combating courage seem of course admittedly necessary, but not sufficient, to reach the excellence and the consequent of endless glory. The Homeric hero must be also a master of the dialogue, able to gain consensus with his words and submit masses with his charismatic speech, virtues highly praised in both Iliad and Odyssey:

“Then among them spoke Thoas, son of Andraemon, far the best of the Aetolians, well-skilled in throwing the javelin, but a good man too in close fight, and in the place of assembly could but few of the Achaeans surpass him, when the young men were striving in debate”.

Nevertheless when force and/or speech cannot obtain success the Homeric hero has to count on the absolute and most sophisticated virtue – Μτις (metis): a multifaceted and articulated ability implying wit, inventiveness, audacity and shrewdness, whose master of course is Odysseus. IN fact not only a mortal: king Nestor, who knowledgeably lectures his son Antilochus on how to win the cart race:

“The horses of the others are swifter, but the men know not how to devise more cunning counsel than thine own self. Wherefore come, dear son, lay thou up in thy mind cunning of every sort, to the end that the prizes escape thee not. By cunning, thou knowest, is a woodman far better than by might; by cunning too doth a helmsman on the wine-dark deep guide aright a swift ship that is buffeted by winds; and by cunning doth charioteer prove better than charioteer. ”

notwithstanding his own old age, intelligence and experience, confesses Ulysses’ artful deceptiveness superiority; but even the goddess Athena, almost proudly and appreciatively, admits Odysseus’ insuperable foxiness in conceiving and fulfilling ingenious plans:

Athena smiled and caressed him with her hand. Then she took the form of a woman, fair, stately, and wise, “He must be indeed a shifty and deceitful person,” said she, “who could surpass you in all manner of craft even though you had a god for your antagonist. Daring that you are, full of guile, unwearying in deceit, can you not drop your tricks and your instinctive falsehood, even now that you are in your own country again? We will say no more, however, about this, for we both of us know craftiness upon occasion – you are the best counsellor and orator among all humankind, while I for diplomacy and crafty ways have fame among the gods.