The Epic City: Urbanism, Utopia, and the Garden in Ancient Greece and Rome

  Giesecke, Annette. 2007. The Epic City: Urbanism, Utopia, and the Garden in Ancient Greece and Rome. Hellenic Studies Series 21. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 1. Homer’s Eutopolis

For ten long years after the fall of Troy, Odysseus endures one hardship after another as his ships are driven over the ominous, wine-dark sea, but his sufferings are not in vain. In the course of his wanderings, Odysseus sees many cities and intimately comes to know many ways of life. The intelligence he gathers will be of the utmost importance to him if and when he achieves his own nostos ‘homecoming’. Upon his return, he will find his household and his city in shambles. Yet equipped with the knowledge of other cities and other societies of people, divinities, or monsters that he has encountered during his protracted travels, he will now have the resources, physical and intellectual alike, to restore everything to order.

However, it would be imprudent at best to assume that the restoration would not involve a major reorganization. A leader absent for some twenty years could not honestly expect to resume precisely where he left off. This is the fatal mistake Agamemnon makes in Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy the Oresteia: upon his return to Argos after a ten-year absence as the leader of the Greek contingent at Troy, Agamemnon fails to heed the elders’ advice that he make inquiries regarding the fidelity of the kingdom’s remaining citizenry. As a result of his failure to gather this information, he walks directly into the lethal bath prepared for him by his unfaithful wife Clytaemnestra, who, in his absence, had become the city’s acting regent. While Homer’s Agamemnon, like Aeschylus’, is not remarkable for the power of his mental faculties, Odysseus is. When Odysseus returns home and subsequently reorganizes his city, he will presumably aim to do so in the best possible way, to create the best possible society. Ithaka’s pre-Trojan War political “state” is not germane to this endeavor, hence Homer’s relative disinterest in the island’s former social order. Again, it would be imprudent to try to turn back the clock. Utter chaos is Odysseus’ starting point. Therefore, Homer’s purpose would be, at least to some significant extent, to present his audience with the picture of what constitutes an ideal society via the encounters that will inform and guide the hero’s new political settlement (Figure 1). The Odyssey must, in turn, be considered utopian. Moreover, it would not seem inappropriate to view Odysseus’ reorganization as a metaphorical, mythological re-enactment of Greece’s historical evolution from the order of Mycenaean palace-based society through the chaos of the Dark Age to an urban, polis-based society.

Giesecke fig.1

Figure 1. Mapping utopia. Map of the wanderings of Odysseus, after Otho Cushing in Charles Lamb, The Adventures of Ulysses (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1894, 1917), frontispiece.

What Odysseus’ polis at home in Ithaka should not strive to emulate is fairly plain. The outstanding example is the apolitical, dystopian “society” of the Cyclopes:

          Κυκλώπων δ᾽ ἐς γαῖαν ὑπερφιάλων ἀθεμίστων
          ἱκόμεθ᾽, οἵ ῥα θεοῖσι πεποιθότες ἀθανάτοισιν
          οὔτε φυτεύουσιν χερσὶν φυτὸν οὔτ᾽ ἀρόωσιν,
          ἀλλὰ τά γ᾽ ἄσπαρτα καὶ ἀνήροτα πάντα φύονται,
110     πυροὶ καὶ κριθαὶ ἠδ᾽ ἄμπελοι, αἵ τε φέρουσιν
          οἶνον ἐριστάφυλον, καί́ σφιν Διὸς ὄμβρος ἀέξει.
          τοῖσιν δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἀγοραὶ βουληφόροι οὔτε θέμιστες,
          ἀλλ ̓ οἵ γ᾽ ὑψηλῶν ὀρέων ναίουσι κάρηνα
          ἐν σπέσσι γλαφυροῖσι, θεμιστεύει δὲ ἕκαστος
115     παίδων ἠδ᾽ ἀλόχων, οὐδ᾽ ἀλλήλων ἀλέγουσι.

          The land of the insolent, lawless Cyclopes
          did we reach. They, trusting in the immortal gods,
          neither plant crops with their hands, nor do they plow;
          rather, everything grows without sowing and cultivation,
110     wheat, barley, and grapevines, which yield
          wine full-bodied, nourished by Zeus’ rain.
          For them there are neither deliberating assemblies nor precedents of law;
          rather they inhabit the peaks of lofty mountains
          in hollow caves, and each makes his own law
115     over his children and wives, and for one another they have no regard.

Odyssey 9.106–115

Homer is at pains to inform his audience that these monsters do not practice agriculture; they leave almost everything in the hands of the immortals. The Cyclopes’ choice of habitation, namely caverns hollowed among the peaks of the high mountains, likewise demonstrates their inability, or lack of desire, to create order out of natural forms. Ultimately, they acknowledge no separation between themselves and the natural or animal world. The Cyclopes have neither institutions nor meetings for counsels. There is no body of law, divinely ordained or otherwise, that governs the Cyclopes’ behavior; rather, each creates laws for his own wife and children. Xenia ‘guest friendship/hospitality’, which was so much part of the “civilized” Greek “way” that its breach precipitated the Trojan War, is certainly not a concept for the Cyclopes. A host would never eat his guests. Indeed the Cyclopes’ entire existence may be described as insular; they care nothing about each other nor, apparently, are they curious about much apart from what readily presents itself on their (is)land. [1] There is an island of great fertility with a large population of goats in what would seem tantalizing proximity to the Cyclopes’ own territory, yet they lack the necessary navigation skills to avail themselves of its endless potential. They could never even fathom that this is an island ripe for settlement, a notion precisely rendered by Odysseus (Odyssey 9.130). He describes an island affording a landscape ideally suited to the needs of civilized humanity, providing a wilderness for hunting, ample land for grazing, and farmland, as well as a site for a city complete with spring and harbor. [2]

To give the Cyclopes some credit, they are apparently quite good at making cheese and keeping track of the sheep on their own land. Nevertheless, it is evident that they lack “all forms of communal or non-tribal organization.” [3] Technology, commerce, and communication, all of which the polis fosters and which are the veritable underpinnings of civilization, are nowhere in evidence among them. [4] It is telling, of course, that Aristotle names the Cyclops as the outstanding exemplar of an apolitical being:

… ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον, καὶ ὁ ἄπολις διὰ φύσιν καὶ οὐ διὰ τύχην ἤτοι φαῦλός ἐστιν, ἢ κρείττων ἢ ἄνθρωπος· ὥσπερ καὶ ὁ ὑφ᾽ Ὁμήρου λοιδορηθεὶς “ἀφρήτωρ ἀθέμιστος ἀνέστιος”· ἅμα γὰρ φύσει τοιοῦτος καὶ πολέμου ἐπιθυμητής, ἅτε περ ἄζυξ ὢν ὥσπερ ἐν πεττοῖς.

… a human being is by nature a creature of the polis, and he who is no part of a polis due to natural inclination and not due to a stroke of fortune is, indeed, either inferior or superior to a human being—just like the one reviled by Homer as having no brotherhood, no divinely appointed ordinances, and no hearth, for being thus by nature, he also is eager for war—in as much as he is like an isolated game piece at draughts.

Politics 1253a2–7

It is the Cyclopes’ lack of social ties, their lack of divinely and culturally sanctioned ordinances or codes of behavior, and their lack, even, of a hearth that Aristotle points to specifically in order to mark them as inhuman, bestial, and, therefore, not suited to the life of the polis. [
5] In truth, the hearth’s importance to human civilization would be difficult to overstate. For the Greeks, the hearth represented and ensured the physical security and continuity of the family unit and, by extension, of any “political” union of families. The hearth was life-giving and life-sustaining, a source of stability in a mutable universe and a necessary link between the vulnerable human and the invulnerable, immutable divine. [6] Accordingly, the hearthless, lawless Cyclopes, privileged brutes living amidst a Golden Age abundance of natural resources, have nothing positive to offer Odysseus in terms of progressive social organization. Adopting their lifestyle would entail a massive step backwards to a time before humankind had emerged from the cave. Theirs is a lifestyle, Aristotle affirms, characterizing the unenlightened times of old (οὕτω τὸ ἀρχαῖον ᾤκουν, Politics 1252b23–24).

In the case of Calypso, Odysseus encounters another cave dweller, again surrounded by preternatural fecundity, but this encounter affords a glimpse into a lifestyle of an altogether different sort. On Calypso’s lovely island Odysseus comes face to face with one of several fully animate manifestations of the myth of matriarchy. We, the audience, first experience Calypso’s island from Hermes’ vantage point as he wings his way across the heavens.

55      ἀλλ ̓ ὅτε δὴ τὴν νῆσον ἀφίκετο τηλόθ᾽ ἐοῦσαν,
          ἔνθ᾽ ἐκ πόντου βὰς ἰοειδέος ἤπειρόνδε
          ἤϊεν, ὄφρα μέγα σπέος ἵκετο, τῷ ἔνι νύμφη
          ναῖεν ἐϋπλόκαμος· τὴν δ᾽ ἔνδοθι τέτμεν ἐοῦσαν.
          πῦρ μὲν ἐπ᾽ ἐσχαρόφιν μέγα καίετο, τηλόθι δ᾽ ὀδμὴ
60      κέδρου τ᾽ εὐκεάτοιο θύου τ᾽ ἀνὰ νῆσον ὀδώδει
          δαιομένων· ἡ δ᾽ ἔνδον ἀοιδιάουσ᾽ ὀπὶ καλῇ
          ἱστὸν ἐποιχομένη χρυσείῃ κερκίδ᾽ ὕφαινεν.
          ὕλη δὲ σπέος ἀμφὶ πεφύκει τηλεθόωσα,
          κλήθρη τ᾽ αἴγειρός τε καὶ εὐώδης κυπάρισσος.
65      ἔνθα δέ τ᾽ ὄρνιθες τανυσίπτεροι εὐνάζοντο,
          σκῶπές τ᾽ ἴρηκές τε τανύγλωσσοί τε κορῶναι
          εἰνάλιαι, τῇσίν τε θαλάσσια ἔργα μέμηλεν.
          ἡ δ᾽ αὐτοῦ τετάνυστο περὶ σπείους γλαφυροῖο
          ἡμερὶς ἡβώωσα, τεθήλει δὲ σταφυλῇσι·
70      κρῆναι δ᾽ ἑξείης πίσυρες ῥέον ὕδατι λευκῷ,
          πλησίαι ἀλλήλων τετραμμέναι ἄλλυδις ἄλλη.
          ἀμφὶ δὲ λειμῶνες μαλακοὶ ἴου ἠδὲ σελίνου
          θήλεον· ἔνθα κ᾽ ἔπειτα καὶ ἀθάνατός περ ἐπελθὼν
          θηήσαιτο ἰδὼν καὶ τερφθείη φρεσὶν ᾗσιν.
75      ἔνθα στὰς θηεῖτο διάκτορος ἀργειφόντης.

55      But when he came to the remote island,
          then, stepping from the violet-colored sea, onto the land
          he made his way, until he came to a huge cave, in which a nymph
          lovely-haired made her home. And her he found within.
          A large fire was burning in the hearth, and far did the fragrance
60      of split cedar and citronwood waft over the island
          as it burned. And she, singing in a beautiful voice
          as she went back and forth before the loom, was weaving with a golden shuttle.
          And a luxuriant forest was growing around the cave,
          alders, and poplars, and fragrant cypresses.
65      And there long-winged birds had their resting places,
          owls, and hawks, and loud-crying gulls
          from the sea, who busy themselves with tasks supplied by the ocean.
          And around the hollow cave itself had spread a
          burgeoning vine, and it was flourishing with clustering grapes.
70      And four fountains in formation flowed with clear water
          nearby each other, one in one direction and another in another.
          Around it soft meadows of violets and celery
          were blooming. There even one of the immortals, happening upon the place,
          would marvel as he beheld it and would rejoice in his heart.
75      There, coming to a halt, the messenger Argeiphontes gazed with admiration.

Odyssey 5.55–75

The description of Calypso’s island veritably confounds the senses. There are sweet smells, soft meadows, refreshing fountains, chattering birds, and an abundance of plant life, including flowers, trees, and grapevines, that of themselves would make the island irresistible. Still, this lush beauty is merely the backdrop for the most alluring of the island’s treasures, the fair woman, singing sweetly as she works at her loom to the light of a blazing fire. The allure of the place and of the woman is ultimately too much for Odysseus to resist, but this, at first glance perhaps surprisingly, is less the result of Odysseus’ overwhelming desire than of Calypso’s ability to manipulate him into submissiveness. It is out of compulsion, anagkēi (ἀνάγκῃ, Odyssey 5.154), the poet tells us, that Odysseus unwillingly sleeps with Calypso, who is willing (παρ’ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ, Odyssey 5.155). In Calypso, Odysseus faces a fantastic illusion. The goddess has the semblance of a proper wife safely contained in a proper, though primitive, home; at least her cave, unlike that of the Cyclops, contains a hearth. [
7] Here, it seems, a paradisiacal existence is within the hero’s reach. No ordinary woman, however, Calypso is a deinē theos ‘dread goddess’ (δεινὴ θεός, Odyssey 7.246, 255) likely of Indo-European and Near Eastern origin, and her cave is not a safe, primitive relic from a lost Golden Age. [8]

There are numerous additional indications that it will be necessary for Odysseus to exercise the greatest caution in order to survive his encounter with Calypso, a Creator with the prerogative also to destroy. Caves such as that of Calypso, for example, are certainly shelters and womb-like sources of life, but they are simultaneously passages to the underworld, the realm of the dead. They are thēsauroi ‘treasuries’ that may refuse to yield their treasure. Of this fact the cave-dwelling goddess’ name, derived as it is from kaluptein ‘to hide/conceal’, serves as a vivid reminder. While Calypso does undeniably rescue and nurture Odysseus, the hero would lose the opportunity to end his life as a mortal among mortals, his potency as a man and a human drained, if he were to remain engulfed in her embrace.

Similar meadows appear in the landscapes of the dead and on the island of the fearsome, man-eating Sirens who, together with Scylla and Charybdis, exemplify the essence of the matriarchal threat, the threat of Nature unbridled. [20] Of these the whirlpool Charybdis, fully elemental in her “being,” constitutes the most basic sort of danger to the survival of humankind. She is no sea monster but rather the sea at her most monstrous. More precisely, she is the sea’s ravening maw. Seafaring was always a risky business in antiquity, and the sea, though abounding with life, presented the possibility of a death more frightening than the most horrible demise on land. Even a relatively calm sea could literally swallow those who fell victim to her, and their remains would likely never be recovered for a proper burial. [21] Those who died at sea thus risked finding their souls condemned to eternal wandering. Such is the peril faced by those unlucky enough to encounter either Charybdis or Scylla, who is, like the Cyclops, a cave-dwelling anthropophage. Scylla, with her six necks and ravening canine heads, may be physiologically more “evolved” than Charybdis, but her instincts are no less primal. She is a predator pure and simple, fishing for any life form that approaches within striking distance (Odyssey 12.94–97). Foolishly, the Greeks themselves attempt to assume the role of predator immediately on the heels of their Scylla Abenteur. Emerging from the cave that had become their shelter, they prey on the sacred cattle of Helios. The result is predictably disastrous. Unless one has no need of the gods—and no need to worry about divine retribution—one may not, as it turns out, slaughter, eat, and sacrifice as domesticated those animals not raised and tended by oneself or one’s community. [22]

When Odysseus and his men pull their ship into a safe harbor at Circe’s island Aeaea, they hope desperately that they will somewhere glimpse the works of humans, erga brotōn (ἔργα βροτῶν, Odyssey 10.147), and hear human voices, both relatively certain indicators, under “normal” circumstances, of a civilized culture and a hospitable reception. Their hopes are not utterly vain, since Odysseus discerns smoke rising in the distance. By now, however, Odysseus has learned to be very, very circumspect in his approach to the inhabitants of such unknown places, and his precautionary measure in sending out a scouting party is definitely in order. Smoke rising from a dwelling in the midst of densely growing woods and thickets signals that the Greeks will likely encounter something unexpected. Certainly “works of humans” such as cultivated fields would have been more comforting than a structure engulfed by forest. [28] It is thus hardly surprising that the inhabitant of this dwelling is a witch, partly a creature of folklore and partly Indo-European/Near-Eastern Nature goddess. [29] Unlike Calypso, who is attended merely by a few handmaids, Circe presides over what might be described as a small community, or, at least, an extensive household consisting both of female servants, some of whom are nymphs of the water and woods, and of wild animals. The attitude of these creatures of the wild is significant; these woodland wolves and lions are described as fawning about Odysseus’ men like dogs greeting their master. [30] The effect Circe has on the animals is precisely that of Aphrodite on the wolves, bears, lions, and leopards of Mount Ida, which are described as fawning around her in the so-called Homeric hymn composed in her honor. [31] Both Circe and Aphrodite have about them something of the Potnia Therōn, the Mistress of Animals known in Greece at least as early as the Bronze Age. If, however, Circe can tame these animals, she could certainly—and easily—incite them to fury. The control she exercises over both the animals in her kingdom and the men whom she has either transformed, or is about to transform into animals, stems from qualities that she shares with Calypso and the Sirens. These attributes include the possession of an agile, scheming, “mantic” intellect and the powerful abilities to seduce and beguile. [32] Fortunately for him, Odysseus receives assistance from the divine sphere that enables him to resist Circe’s manifold threat.

What sets Odysseus’ encounter with Circe apart from those with Calypso, the Sirens, and all his other female foes is the explicitness of the ideological male/female conflict in this passage. Only in this portion of his adventures does Odysseus openly reveal the fear of being emasculated, anēnōr (ἀνήνωρ, Odyssey 10.301, 341), and sword in hand, he overpowers the Earth goddess with a weapon that is an extension of the warrior “self.” Circe is the only female adversary whom Odysseus feels the need to attack physically, and the extremity of the measures he takes to defend himself against her results not only from the fact that she poses a physical threat to himself and his companions, a threat to their survival, but also from the fact that she represents the greatest threat of all to “evolved” patriarchal civilization. In the case of Calypso, the prototypical Greek faces the danger of being eternally confined in a quasi-paradisiacal, matriarchal Paleolithic, but Circe’s architectonic faculties suggest that she has progressed well into the province that Western culture has claimed as masculine. Where Circe lives is not a cave, a natural orifice within the Earth herself, but rather in a house crafted from polished stone (τετυγμένα δώματα Κίρκης / ξεστοῖσιν λάεσσι, Odyssey 10.210–211). This finely constructed house comprises the true peril of Circe.

Filarete’s stumbling block was the Vitruvian idea that a building is based on the proportions of a man and is a male entity. A building, however, must be created, and creation is by nature the province of the feminine. Filarete’s solution was a sort of “transsexual operation” whereby the architect is transformed functionally into a woman while remaining male in gender. [34] In the case of Circe, there is no indication that a male has created her dwelling. Furthermore, this structure is described in terms that clearly suggest a high level of craftsmanship and technical skill. While Homer has not explicitly stated that Circe built it with her own hands, the ability to have done so is certainly within her reach. Like Calypso, Circe is a skilled weaver. Indeed, she is more than simply skilled; her work is not only technically proficient, delicate, but also exquisitely beautiful, lovely and radiant (λεπτά τε καὶ χαρίεντα καὶ ἀγλαὰ ἔργα, Odyssey 10.223). Weaving, as evidenced by Calypso’s tectonic abilities, is a form of creation that stems from mētis ‘knowledge’, which “embraces both mental and manual prowess.” [35] Simply put, weaving is “an architecture.” [36] One very basic and important manifestation of weaving’s architecture is clothing, the original fabricated shelter enabling humanity to emerge from the cave and brave the elements. The hut or tent, and ultimately the house, are therefore extensions or elaborations of the original, intimate, body shelter. More specifically, tent, hut, and house are modeled on, or are reflections of, the protective umbrella of the maternal skirt. [37] On Aeaea, an island inhabited only by women, it would appear that the creation of all forms of shelter rests in the hands of the current population, a condition consistent with the inherently feminine nature of shelter fabrication. Controlling “space” and creating a culture outside of the house through construction of buildings in the environment constitutes a manifest subversion of the patriarchal order shown to exist in the Hellenic world of Homer’s poems. In the end, Circe’s entrancing small community denies male autonomy on every level.

Odysseus does, of course, encounter other groups or individuals that provide examples of social organization comparable to the “matriarchies” in their impracticality or Hellenic inadmissibility. The Lotus Eaters, for instance, are seemingly benign and content enough with their way of life, but their existence is in a sense unreal; theirs is not a vital, productive life because it is passed in a drug-induced haze. It “is actually the illusion of happiness, a dull vegetation, as meager as an animal’s bare existence, and at best only the absence of the awareness of misfortune.” [41] Moreover, succumbing to the temptation of the lotus would be nothing short of “a regression to the phase of collecting the fruits of the earth and of the sea, a stage more ancient than agriculture, cattle-rearing, and even hunting, older, in fact than all production.” [42] It can certainly be argued that the Lotus Eaters exemplify a basic sort of utopia, the so-called Cockaigne utopia, which is characterized by the gratification in abundance of the average person’s desires. Lands of Cockaigne, in which the populace is devoted to “unrestrained enjoyment and pleasure,” are appealing on the surface, but they harbor the potential of deterioration “into excess and satiety, probably also to killing and of riotous disorder.” [43] Odysseus, whose intentions are clearly progressive rather than regressive, wisely resists the temptation of this illusory happiness. In the end, this vegetative life has nothing more to offer than Hades, whose realm Odysseus also visits. It is true that the netherworld yields invaluable information regarding the mechanics of his homecoming, the current state of his household, and a premonition of his death from the sea at some point in the more distant future. In the house of Hades, Odysseus is made painfully aware that his family has suffered and that the creation of a new social order in Ithaka must be preceded by a reaffirmation of the bond between himself and his wife, his son, and his father. Still, the dead are disembodied souls, weak, unproductive, and lacking in sensory perception, and there is ultimately nothing within their current social order that Odysseus can practically apply to his reformative efforts in the world of the living except, perhaps, their sense of justice. [44] Homer’s dead are not, as they will later be, characterized as makares ‘happy’, and the House of Hades itself has been seen as resembling a Bronze Age kingdom with a walled, central palace containing a lordly hall. [45] Odysseus will return to this largely joyless, retrospective place soon enough, and there is certainly no reason to aspire to recreate Hell on Earth.

The dead, the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclopes, Circe, and Calypso all exemplify or offer “lifestyles,” however superficially appealing, that Odysseus could not or would not actually want to adopt, and all can exist in their respective “worlds” without the organization and security provided by a city. They require no urban defense because, in various ways, they are impervious to the threats of wild Nature, some rendered invulnerable by the permanent or temporary loss of vital functions, others through a kinship with the Elemental. Odysseus does, however, encounter beings more like himself, more vulnerable in the face of menacing Nature, and these inhabit poleis. Apart from the city of the Kikones, who are firmly of this world, there are three other-worldly poleis that Odysseus and his men come upon. These are the cities of Aeolus, the Laestrygonians, and the Phaiakians. Not all cities, to be sure, are equal, and the impressively fortified, exceptionally well-ordered city of the Phaiakians will prove to be the only positive model that Odysseus encounters. In the case of Aeolus’ city, there may be formidable fortifications made of unbreakable bronze, but there appears to be no agora and, therefore, no public business. [46] In fact, the only activities on Aeolus’ island about which we hear are feasting, sleeping, and the dispensation of xenia. Strangest of all, Aeolus, his wife, and his children form the only social unit on this island, which leads inevitably to the practice of incest. [47] The Laestrygonians, for their part, seem diverse enough as a population. They have a king and a queen, and they possess a functioning agora from which the king is summoned upon the Greeks’ arrival. Their city has a good, safe harbor, and there is a stream nearby to provide water. Nevertheless, other typical polis components, such as city walls and the works of oxen and men, are missing. It is soon revealed that these “omissions” result from the Laestrygonians’ greater proximity to the bestial than the divine. Like the Cyclopes, they are anthropophages, albeit more advanced in social organization.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Odyssey closes, and Odysseus’ re-settlement of the Ithakan polis is completed, in the garden. An unmistakable signifier of his return, Odysseus must visit his father in his garden and must recall, and in a sense relive, their planting of the garden’s orchard together (Odyssey 24.336–344). The establishment and existence of the polis depends on the containment of Nature. Only after reorganizing or reclaiming the garden can Odysseus hope to make peace with the families of his wife’s slain suitors and legitimately resume the position of civic leader. Arguably, the hero’s slaying of the suitors and the concomitant execution of a number of handmaids are not actions befitting a utopian venture. However, Homer makes it abundantly clear that the suitors and handmaids are eminently deserving of punishment. It can be no coincidence that the poet applies the same epithets to the suitors as he does to the Cyclopes. Both are repeatedly described as utterly insolent, lawless, and brimming with hubris. [49] The suitors may not always appear to be uniformly heinous, but the undeniable fact remains that all of them, selfishly motivated by the desire to possess Penelope and the household of Odysseus, had readily assisted in the plotting of Telemachus’ murder (Odyssey 4.673). The handmaids whom Odysseus condemns to hanging are likewise guilty of grievous wrongdoing. They have abused Penelope and slept with the suitors (Odyssey 22.417–425). In other words, the handmaids have prostituted themselves for the suitors’ amusement, and Homer gives no evidence of their having been forced to do so. Meanwhile, Homer is careful to point out that the singer and herald, both of whom have also served the suitors, are deemed blameless and spared because they had been forced to submit to the suitors’ will (Odyssey 22.340–360). As for the use of violence itself, even Thomas More’s Utopians avail themselves thereof in order to preserve the integrity of their own social order when it is deemed absolutely necessary. Wars are undeniably waged and criminals executed in the archetypal literary utopia.

Having survived and successfully navigated the extreme challenges presented by a decade’s worth of nomadism and, metaphorically speaking, having first survived the end of the Heroic Age as prefigured by the collapse of Troy, Odysseus ultimately finds himself in a position equivalent to that of the historical, eighth-century Greek. Faced with organizing a civic and administrative unit after what might be described as a period of “Dark Age” unsettlement and chaos, he has much in common with those at the forefront of the societal changes inherent in the fashioning and evolution of the polis. Through Odysseus’ many adventures, Homer, together with his audience, explores the relative deficiencies and excesses of a variety of “settlements.” The model for Odysseus’ ideal settlement is clearly the polis of the Phaiakians. [50] They alone practice agriculture and viticulture. They alone worship, and build temples for, the gods. Theirs is a walled, well-organized, architecturally differentiated city with a just and progressive system of government. Of course, the Phaiakians are also particularly close to the gods. Deities physically attend their feasts, and it is due to the gods’ bounty that the Phaiakian crops evince a preternatural fecundity with no dependence whatsoever upon seasonality. In addition, the existence of the Phaiakians is all but free from difficulty and stress. They have a life and lifestyle to which mortals can aspire, but which they can never actually achieve. On the basis of its inimitable perfection Scheria has been viewed by some scholars as the “first surviving Utopia in European literature.” [51] Still, while neither Odysseus nor Homer’s audience could ever hope to approximate the Phaiakians’ closeness to the gods, the Scherian civic organization can be emulated, and one expects that this is what the wise Odysseus—and Homer’s audience—will do. The fact that Homer does not expound the new Ithakan constitution is testimony of his genius as a storyteller and as a political thinker. He relies instead on the formidable power of suggestion, whereby he can most fully engage his audience in the act of polis-building.

The Iliad opens with a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, the leader of the Trojan expedition. The quarrel is over a prize of honor, a young woman whom Agamemnon has decided to take from Achilles although she had been awarded to the latter by the collective armed forces as a symbol of his preeminence in war. Symbolically stripped of an honor that no individual should be able to “remove,” Achilles withdraws from the war effort. This benefits Trojan defense efforts and leads to the deaths of countless Greeks. From a social standpoint, removing himself from the fray and becoming a veritable island unto himself (ultimately participating in next to none of the activities that mark one as human—such as eating and sleeping) is the wrong thing to do. Homer makes this apparent on many levels, but most vividly by likening Achilles to polis-destroying fire: [53]

ὡς δ᾽ ὅτε καπνὸς ἰὼν εἰς οὐρανὸν εὐρὺν ἵκηται
ἄστεος αἰθομένοιο, θεῶν δέ ἑ μῆνις ἀνῆκε,
πᾶσι δ᾽ ἔθηκε πόνον, πολλοῖσι δὲ κήδε᾽ ἐφῆκεν,
ὣς Ἀχιλεὺς Τρώεσσι πόνον καὶ κήδε᾽ ἔθηκεν.

As when smoke, rising, reaches the wide heaven
from a city ablaze, and the wrath of the gods has incited it,
to all it brings toil and inflicts sorrows upon many,
thus did Achilles bring toil and sorrow upon the Trojans.

Iliad 21.522–525

Sinking to sub-human cruelty in response to grief over the death of his dearest companion, Achilles becomes the polar opposite of his all too human, family-oriented, Trojan counterpart, Hektor. Likewise influenced by the concerns of a shame culture, Hektor struggles with the issue of what constitutes virtue and honor. Concern for himself, however, readily gives way to his concern for others, for his family and for the welfare of all the citizens of his polis. Hektor is the beloved, compassionate city defender; his very name, likely a shorted form of Ekhepolis ‘city-holder/defender’, casts his role in an unmistakable light. [
54] He is the life-blood of the city, and his death is inextricably linked with the fall of Troy. The city flourishes and falls with him. Hektor’s personality and convictions are “an example of the real-time infiltration of the new ethics of the polis,” of a concrete social consciousness. [55] In order to redeem himself in the new world order and achieve a meaningful greatness therein, Achilles must not only comprehend Hektor’s humanity but also embrace and absorb it. This he does in the poem’s climactic scene. It is only when he is able to forgive his friend’s slayer—who happened to be Hektor—and feel compassion for the latter’s bereaved father, that he reaches truly heroic heights. This capacity for compassion, which Achilles has in reality always possessed, is activated by the realization of the senselessness of war and of the inevitability of death that unites all humanity in a common fate. [56] Through Achilles’ realization, the individualistic heroic code of old is proven irrelevant and outdated in the Iliad. A new heroism of social responsibility has been born. The Achilles who emerges at the close of the poem is an individual suited to leadership in the sort of social order he has, previously uncomprehendingly, carried with him on the emblem of his shield.

Depicted on the Shield is the Cosmos: the heavens, the constellations, the sun, and, at its very heart, the Earth. The central tableau, the image of Earth, is dominated by a fully animated representation of two beautiful cities (poleis kalas, Iliad 18.490–491). The prominent position of the cities in the picture field is an unambiguous signifier: the polis is central to the human experience. Further, the Shield’s cities and their inhabitants convey a socio-political message of the greatest importance. A wedding and its attendant festivities open the description of the first city. Simultaneously, a very different event, a court trial for murder, is taking place in the agora. In this proceeding the people, in addition to the judges, have a significant voice, and for this reason, both the accused and the accuser are at pains to sway the people’s opinion with their arguments:

          λαοὶ δ᾽ εἰν ἀγορῇ ἔσαν ἀθρόοι· ἔνθα δὲ νεῖκος
          ὠρώρει, δύο δ᾽ ἄνδρες ἐνείκεον εἵνεκα ποινῆς
          ἀνδρὸς ἀποφθιμένου· ὁ μὲν εὔχετο παντ᾽ ἀποδοῦναι
500     δήμῳ πιφαύσκων, ὁ δ᾽ ἀναίνετο μηδὲν ἑλέσθαι·
          ἄμφω δ᾽ ἱέσθην ἐπὶ ἴστορι πεῖραρ ἑλέσθαι.
          λαοὶ δ᾽ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπήπυον, ἀμφὶς ἀρωγοί·
          κήρυκες δ᾽ ἄρα λαὸν ἐρήτυον· οἱ δὲ γέροντες
          ἥατ᾽ ἐπὶ ξεστοῖσι λίθοις ἱερῷ ἐνὶ κύκλῳ,
505     σκῆπτρα δὲ κηρύκων ἐν χέρσ᾽ ἔχον ἠεροφώνων·
          τοῖσιν ἔπειτ᾽ ἤϊσσον, ἀμοιβηδὶς δὲ δίκαζον.
          κεῖτο δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐν μέσσοισι δύω χρυσοῖο τάλαντα,
          τῷ δόμεν ὃς μετὰ τοῖσι δίκην ἰθύντατα εἴποι.

Clearly, the meting out of justice in this blood feud, traditionally a family matter, has been taken out of the hands of the individual. This system of justice has advanced immeasurably beyond that of the Cyclopes, where each is a law unto himself. It is also more institutionalized and democratic than what is believed to have existed in Bronze and Dark Age Greece, when the dispensation of justice was the personal province of the king or chieftain. In fact, the concern with publicly sanctioned justice on the Shield is so pronounced that the court vignette concludes with the promise of a substantial monetary reward to the judge whose verdict is deemed the fairest. [

At this point the poet turns his attention to the Shield’s second city. This is a city at war, and its juxtaposition to the “just” City at Peace is very striking. We, the audience, are not told the reason for the conflict, and the solution chosen is not peaceable arbitration but rather a show of force. In truth, ultimate resolution of the conflict by peaceable means appears unlikely, since the attacking army is itself divided over tactics and issues of booty distribution (Iliad 18.510–512). What is at stake, meanwhile, for the besieged army is nothing less than what they love most, their wives and their children (Iliad 18.514). If captured, their fate cannot possibly be better than that of the innocent herdsmen who are treacherously slain, flocks and all (Iliad 18.520–529). The ensuing battle is gory almost beyond belief. Strife and Tumult have joined the fray, and deadly Fate, her flowing garments smeared with blood, drags both the dead and the wounded through the seething masses (Iliad 18.535–540). Then the poet seems abruptly to change his focus to things less painful. He describes the plowing of fields, the making of wine, the herding of flocks, and, in conclusion, the rhythmic and joyous dancing of youths and maidens (Iliad 18.541–606). With this dance the parade of earthly images has come full circle, for it is with a wedding dance that the cityscapes commence. Represented here are the realities, joys, and necessities of daily life, all of which, in their earthly fragility, will fall victim to the ravages of war when violence is the method chosen to deal with a dispute.

Achilles faces a tremendous challenge. In order to save himself in any meaningful way and rise to truly heroic heights, he must climb from the depths to which he has fallen. On his arm—on his shield—he carries the model for the path he will ultimately choose, the path he presently rejects. The matter of Briseis, which entails making amends with Agamemnon, and the matter of Patroklos, which entails making peace with the father of his friend’s slayer, are, in the end, resolved not through continued hostilities but through the exchange of words, by diplomacy. Though Achilles will return to the fighting around him, he will do so a greater man, a man shown worthy of belonging wholly in the City at Peace.

Achilles’ journey is a search for justice and higher meaning in a rapidly evolving world. Admittedly, Achilles is goddess-born and accordingly functions on a level elevated somewhat above other mortals. He can certainly be more assured of divine assistance when he needs it. Nevertheless, his spiritual quest has a direct bearing on the lives of his audience, whether ancient or modern, in so far as ethical behavior remains among humanity’s leading concerns in its eternal quest for betterment. The same can be said of Odysseus, whose many travails have brought the ultimate reward of wisdom commensurate with creating an ideal society; the quest of Odysseus too has remained relevant throughout the ages. Homer has created a “paradigm for seeing and talking about the world” and for exploring the role of humanity in it. [60] More specifically, the Homeric poems present the view that the polis, the social order in formation at the time the poems were composed, “represents civilization, progress, community, justice, and openness [while] not to live in a polis means primitiveness, isolation, fragmentation, lack of community, and lawlessness.” [61] As Aristotle succinctly asserts, the polis is an institution that “came into being in order to foster life but exists for the purpose of promoting good living” (Politics 1252b29–30). [62] Although Homer was consulted as the authority on religion, philosophy, and pre- (or mythological) history, he was neither a philosopher nor a historian. He was a poet with a grand vision of and for humanity, a eutopian vision realized in the embrace of the polis.


[ back ] 1. Although Homer designates neither the land of the Cyclopes nor Phaiakian Scheria as an island, the tendency to identify these lands as islands dates back at least to the fifth century BCE. So, for instance, Thucydides Peloponnesian War 6.2.1 and 1.25.4 respectively.

[ back ] 2. Edwards 1993:28.

[ back ] 3. Scully 1981:4.

[ back ] 4. Observed also by Scully 1981:4.

[ back ] 5. For the observation that the hearth represents the security of the home, see Nagler 1977:85n22. For a discussion of the importance of fire in the creation of a human culture separated from the animal world, see Betsky 1995:9.

[ back ] 6. See Vernant 1983:127–175.

[ back ] 7. Nagler 1977:85n20 notes that the weaving of both Calypso and Circe provides Odysseus with the false impression of a potential home.

[ back ] 8. For the Indo-European origins of and Near Eastern influences in the Calypso episode, see Nagler 1977 (especially 79–81).

[ back ] 9. Betsky 1995:xviii.

[ back ] 10. As noted also by Austin 1975:149.

[ back ] 11. On the Near Eastern notion of four rivers that sustain life on Earth and divide her territory into quadrants, as well as the “imitation” of these rivers in Persian gardens, see Moynihan 1979:8–9 and King 1979:21–31.

[ back ] 12. Betsky 1995:10.

[ back ] 13. On the metaphorical meaning of “weaving,” see Snyder 1981 (especially 194) and also Scheid and Svenbro 1996:passim.

[ back ] 14. In this particular context, Homer informs his audience that Odysseus is a skilled craftsman, but a craftsman, however skilled, does not necessarily know how to build every given structure. It is Calypso who provides him with tools, material, and, perhaps most importantly, a “plan”: “But come now, cutting long planks with an axe, fit together a wide raft; and firmly set platforms upon it of good height so that it may carry you over the misty sea” (Odyssey 5.162–164).

[ back ] 15. duBois 1988:57.

[ back ] 16. In a full discussion of Calypso’s cave, Weinberg 1986:21 notes that the alder was sacred to Cronos and the black poplar to Persephone. The cypress, meanwhile, was sacred to Dis.

[ back ] 17. The dearth of wildlife on Ogygia apart from birds is observed by Louden 1999:107, and Weinberg 1986:21–22 remarks on the ominous aspect of Calypso’s birds. Crane 1988:15–18, who discusses the funerary aspects of the island, does not, however, emphasize them to the extent that Weinberg does.

[ back ] 18. See Crane 1988:17.

[ back ] 19. For further discussion of the ambiguous position of women in the Greek world because of their latent savagery and inherent pollution, see Zaidman 1992:338–376 and also Arthur 1973. On sex and death in particular, see Vermeule 1979:145–177.

[ back ] 20. Gresseth 1970:208–209 points to the meadows of asphodel in the realm of the dead (Odyssey 11.539 and Odyssey 24.13), the Elysian plain (Odyssey 4.563), and the island of the Sirens (Odyssey 12.45, 159).

[ back ] 21. Vermeule 1979:185.

[ back ] 22. Vidal-Naquet 1970:1288–1289.

[ back ] 23. The literature on the Sirens consulted here includes: Buitron-Oliver and Cohen 1995, Buschor 1944, Doherty 1995a and 1995b, Hofstetter 1990, Gresseth 1970, Gropengiesser 1977, Pucci 1979 and 1998, and Vermeule 1979:75.

[ back ] 24. Pucci 1979.

[ back ] 25. Gresseth 1970:212 cites Euripides’ Helen (168) for the notion that Earth is the Sirens’ mother, and Hecuba (70–71) for the Sirens’ association with Persephone. Vermeule 1979:75 derives them from the Egyptian ba-soul.

[ back ] 26. “Muses of the Afterlife” is Buschor’s description (1944). As remarked by Graham 1995:21, the sexual allure of the Sirens is also implied by the verbs thelgein (θέλγειν, Odyssey 12.44) and terpesthai (τέρπεσθαι, Odyssey 12.188), both verbs meaning ‘to delight’ and both commonly found in amorous contexts.

[ back ] 27. See Louden 1999 (especially 105–117) for an extended comparison between the two goddesses.

[ back ] 28. Circe’s house is described as being located in a clearing, or, more properly, periskeptōi eni khōrōi ‘in a place visible from all sides’ (περισκέπτῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ, Odyssey 10.211), but that is the extent of “earthworks” here.

[ back ] 29. See Carpenter 1956:passim, Crane 1988:31–85, Dyck 1981, and Segal 1968 (especially 440).

[ back ] 30. Odyssey 10.212–215.

[ back ] 31. Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 69–72.

[ back ] 32. Both Calypso and Circe (technically, her island) are described as doloessa ‘deceitful’ (δολόεσσα, Odyssey 7.245 and Odyssey 9.32 respectively). The verb thelgein ‘to beguile/charm’ (θέλγειν) is used of Calypso (Odyssey 1.57), Circe (Odyssey 10.213), and the Sirens (Odyssey 12.40, 44). Part of the allure of the Sirens, Circe, and Calypso is their mantic faculty which, in the case of Calypso and Circe, is suggested by their designation as deinē theos audēessa ‘dread goddess endowed with speech’ (δεινὴ θεὸς αὐδήεσσα, Odyssey 10.136; Odyssey 11.8; and Odyssey 12.150, 449), indicating that the goddesses possess speech that is like that of mortals in sound and also, more significantly, prophetic in nature. For this interpretation, see Nagler 1977.

[ back ] 33. As cited in Agrest 1991:173–195.

[ back ] 34. Agrest 1991:182.

[ back ] 35. Bergren 1993:8.

[ back ] 36. Betsky 1995:40. As Scheid and Svenbro 1996:25 note, Plato himself described weaving as yielding a form of “housing,” namely a product that defends and protects (Statesman 279d).

[ back ] 37. This is vividly illustrated by a ceramic sculpture crafted by Oaxacan folk-artist Josefina Aguilar. The sculpture in question is a self-portrait representing the artist wearing a floor-length skirt. The garment’s painted “belt” is a substantial wall with its formidable gate at the figure’s navel. Covering the skirt itself are miniature likenesses in high relief of the members of the artist’s extended family. Beyond any doubt, this sculpture represents the female, the mother, as the shelter that provides security and sustenance for her family. For the image, see Wasserspring 2000:115.

[ back ] 38. Convincing arguments countering Bachofen’s conclusions (1967) regarding the historical reality of matriarchy may be found in Zeitlin 1978 and duBois 1982, who characterize matriarchal myths as cautionary expressions of the male fear of domination by the irrational second sex.

[ back ] 39. The inversion of sex roles on Ithaka in Odysseus’ absence is discussed by Foley 1978.

[ back ] 40. As Scheid and Svenbro 1996:9–34 indicate, the political application of weaving as a vehicle and reflection of civic harmony is vividly demonstrated by the Athenians’ ritualized fabrication and dedication of a robe to their patron goddess at the Panathenaia and, additionally, by the collaboration of women from once-dissenting Elean cities in weaving a robe for the Olympic Heraea.

[ back ] 41. Horkheimer and Adorno 1993:63.

[ back ] 42. Horkheimer and Adorno 1993:63.

[ back ] 43. Kumar 1991:18.

[ back ] 44. Odysseus characterizes the dead as “powerless” (ἀμενηνὰ κάρηνα, Odyssey 11.29), and Achilles speaks of them as “senseless” and “finished with/worn out by the work of mortals” (ἀφραδέες … βροτῶν εἴδωλα καμόντων, Odyssey 11.476).

[ back ] 45. The realization that the House of Hades resembles a Mycenaean palace is elaborated in Vermeule 1979:35, where the author points specifically to the evidence of Iliad 23.71 and 76. The concept of the “happy dead” and its history is examined in Vermeule 1979:73.

[ back ] 46. Lowenstam (1993) focuses on the presence or absence of a megaron, a rectangular room containing a central hearth and entered from one side through one or more antechambers and a porch, and agora (as well as activities related to the megaron and agora) as he evaluates the relevance of these various cities and settlements to the Greek experience.

[ back ] 47. See also Clay 1983:129.

[ back ] 48. Scully 1981:5.

[ back ] 49. These adjectives are, respectively: huperphialos, athemistos, hubristēs (ὑπερφίαλος, ἀθέμιστος, ὑβριστής). Hubris, in the Greek sense, means not so much ‘pride’ as the failure to recognize the traditionally sanctioned limits placed on human behavior in one’s interactions both with the gods and with one’s fellow human beings.

[ back ] 50. That this is the case is further substantiated by the fact that, aside from Penelope, the Phaiakians alone enjoy the privilege of hearing the account of Odysseus’ wanderings. Additionally, parallels in plot and structure between the Phaiakian and Ithakan-return episodes abound, which strongly suggests that the Phaiakian adventure is a trial run or preparation for what lies ahead in Ithaka. It is a suitable venue for such preparation, as the Phaiakians possess values most like those to which Odysseus aspires. See, for example, Vidal-Naquet 1970:1292–1297, Segal 1994:12–64, and Doherty 1995b:91–92.

[ back ] 51. Ferguson 1975:14.

[ back ] 52. In presenting the Iliad as a political drama and Homer as a political thinker, Hammer 2002 supports this notion. Hammer focuses on Homer’s concern with defining the relationship between the individual and his or her community as a reflection of real-time politics in the middle of the eighth century BCE.

[ back ] 53. On the bestiality of Achilles as well as the impropriety and senselessness of his removing himself from the fabric of culture (and entering the realm of wild Nature), see Kim 2000:141 and Redfield 1994 (especially 104).

[ back ] 54. For this derivation of “Hektor,” see Nagy 1979:146–147.

[ back ] 55. Jaeger 1966:121.

[ back ] 56. Kim 2000:10, 57, and passim, points out that that Achilles’ compassion or pity stems from his ability to see Priam as a philos ‘friend’, a capacity that he has always had, for the ransom and return of Hektor’s body is foreshadowed throughout the poem.

[ back ] 57. The translation of lines 499 and 501 is taken from Nagy 1997:195–196 (reiterated in 2003:74), and that of line 500 is based on that of Muellner 1976:106.

[ back ] 58. As Muellner 1976:100–106 has noted, the novelty of the judicial proceedings described on the Shield is all the more pronounced as this passage contains the only literary application of the word εὔχομαι, eukhomai ‘make a claim’, in a legal context (Iliad 18.499).

[ back ] 59. For the progressive transformation of Achilles, see Whitman 1958:181–220 and King 1987:1–49.

[ back ] 60. Dougherty 2001:6.

[ back ] 61. Raaflaub 1997:648.

[ back ] 62. Aristotle’s wording is as follows: γιγνομένη μὲν τοῦ ζῆν ἕνεκεν, οὖσα δὲ τοῦ εὖ ζῆν, gignomenē men tou zēn heneken, ousa de tou eu zēn. It is worthy of note that Aristotle employs the word eu ‘well/good’ in the phrase “good living,” the same eu that, together with ou ‘no’, is inherent in the naming of More’s Utopia. There are certainly other words in Greek to denote ‘good’, ‘just’, ‘noble’, and so forth.