Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 9. The King and His People


The two Homeric words for “the people,” dē̂mos and laós, are distinguished in sense and in origin.
Dē̂mos designated both a division of land and the people who inhabit it; it is a term of Dorian origin.
Laós is the community of men, a warrior group which is defined by its relationship to the chief, the “shepherd” ( poimḗn), or the “leader” (órkhamos) of the laoí. In Homer it is principally heroes from Thessaly and Phrygia who are dignified with the title of poimḕn laō̂n. Other testimony, both literary and epigraphic, confirms this distribution of the term laós, which, from the Greek point of view, seems to belong to the Achaean stratum. But it attests also the existence of some degree of community which we may call Aeolo-Phrygian, which does not go back much further than the beginning of the Greek literary tradition, so that it would not be surprising to find reflections of it in the Homeric epic.


In defining the position and the characteristics of the king we should also envisage those persons over whom he exercises royalty, in other words the terms which designate in different ways the “people” of whom he is sometimes the master, and sometimes the most immediate representative.
In Homer there are two different words for “people,” both of which deserve close scrutiny: dē̂mos (δῆμος) and laós (λαός). We also have the metaphorical expression for the king as “the shepherd of the people”: poimḕn laō̂n. What is the exact meaning of this phrase? It is to be noted that poimḗn, like other titles with a more political sense, órkhamos, koiranós, kosmḗtōr, is never constructed with dē̂mos, but exclusively with laós; while ánaks, agós and sometimes órkhamos take solely andrō̂n ‘of the men’.
Because of the limitations of our language we translate both dē̂mos and laós as “people,” but it would be of interest to distinguish between these two notions. For there is a distinction and it is a considerable one.
Dē̂mos is a territorial and political concept, and it designates both a division of land and the people who inhabit it. By “people” we must understand in this connection something other than éthnos (ἔθνος), which is in any case clear from the fact that éthnos is not solely used of men but also of animals, such as bees, whereas dē̂mos is never used in such applications. Besides, éthnos enters into such expressions as éthnos laō̂n, éthnos hetaírōn to designate groups of comrades in battle. It emerges finally also from Homeric examples that dē̂mos designates a grouping of men who are united solely by their social status and not by any bond of kinship or attachment to a political community.
The peculiarity of laós (the term is used both in the singular and the plural) is that it expresses the personal relationship of a group of men to a chief. It is an organization peculiar to ancient warrior societies such as those we have established among the Germans and which, in the term laós, comes to life in ancient Hellenic society. The laoí form part of the retinue of the chief; they are often under his orders; they owe him fidelity and obedience; they would not be laoí unless they were attached to him by mutual consent. They may be engaged in his cause in battle, which is the situation most familiar to us, but this is probably due to the epic character of the Iliad. In any case laós is the name of the people insofar as they are capable of bearing arms. Thus the term does not comprise the old men or the children, but only the men in their prime. Thus the laós is the warrior community, and so is different from the dē̂mos. The use of the plural laoí suggests that this community was made up of different sections.
We must now study more closely the conditions in which the expression poimḕn laō̂n is used. To whom is this description applied, and in what circumstances does it occur in the Iliad and the Odyssey? This, curiously enough, is a question which, so it seems, has never been posed.
The expression is very ancient, and what gives some idea of its antiquity is that we have forty-four examples of it in the Iliad as against only twelve in the Odyssey, and these are mainly in passages of a formulaic character, so that they would appear to be no more than a survival for the poet of the Odyssey.
If we attempt to classify the examples and to draw up a list of the persons to whom it is applied, we arrive at a peculiar result which should prompt reflection. We find it attached most often to Agamemnon, and also to Achilles, Machaon, Jason, a Lapith (Dryas), and finally Nestor. This list is not exhaustive, but, as we shall see, it constitutes a distinct group within the Achaean world.
Is there something in common between these persons? They are all men whose ancestry and origin are known. The poet tells us where they come from. Achilles comes from Phthia, from the Phthiotis, a region of Thessaly; Machaon is from Ithoma, a place in Thessaly, Jason from Iolkos, a place in Thessaly, which was the point of departure for the expedition of the Argonauts. Dryas the Lapith, like all the Lapiths, comes from the north of Thessaly. Finally, Nestor is king of Pylos, but (this has already been observed) different features of his legend and the expression hippóta Néstōr link him likewise with Thessaly.
Here we reach down to the most ancient stratum of the epic. It is not a simple accident that some of the most notable poiménes laō̂n should come from Thessaly. The title, which had become a cliché, was later extended to all the kings of the Achaeans, among whom was Agamemnon.
There are several others dignified by this title in the opposing camp: Hector, Bienor, Hyperenor, Hypeiron, Agenor. We are less well informed about these. They belong to the Trojan camp, some being Trojans and other Phrygians.
This, then, is the distribution of the expression poimḕn laō̂n in the two Homeric groups: the first is specifically Thessalian and the second Ilio-Phrygian.
This point established, we may return to the word laós to carry the investigation further. It is a word which has no correspondent outside Greek. We cannot therefore ascribe it to the Indo-European vocabulary or illuminate it by its prehistory. But it has enough connections inside Greek itself to make possible a more penetrating study which will bring out some new aspects of the word.
An important historical piece of information, though it bears only indirectly on laós, has been preserved by Herodotus (VII, 197) apropos of the expedition of Xerxes into Thessaly. When Xerxes arrived in this region, at Alos in Achaia, his guides told him about a local legend concerning Zeus Laphystios. Athamas had plotted with Ino against Phryxus, and to punish them the Achaeans laid down a rule which was to be applied to their descendants. The eldest son was forbidden to enter the prytaneum. If he does so enter, he will leave it only to be sacrificed. This is a curious story and it seems to imply the sacrifice of the eldest son to Zeus Laphystius.
In relating the story of this interdiction Herodotus uses the expression érgesthai toû lēḯtou ‘to forbid access to the lēḯton’ and he adds this gloss: lēḯton dè kaléousi tò prutanḗion hoi Akhaioí ‘The Achaeans call the prytaneum the lḗïton’.
We recall that this scene occurred in Achaea Phthiotis. This word lḗïton (the Ionic form of lā́ïton) is connected with a whole series of forms preserved in the glossators and particularly in Hesychius: lā́ïton· tò arkheîon ‘the residence of the magistrates’; laḯtōn· tō̂n dēmosíōn tópōn, that is to say, “of public places”; lēΐtē, lḗtē· hiéreia ‘public priestess’; finally leitoárkhai, the title of those concerned with sacrifices and who have public posts, magistrates.
Another gloss—an important one because it gives us its source— provides an agent noun: lētē̂res· hieroì stephanophóroi Athamā̂nes. Now the legend reported by Herodotus concerned the descendants of Athamas, and the word lētḗr comes precisely from the language of the Athamanes, from the people who had as their eponym the hero Athamas. Another agent noun *leítōr is attested by the denominative verb leitoreúō ‘to exercise a magistracy, a public office’, which is found exclusively in Thessalian inscriptions.
What information is provided by this testimony? The basic term lḗïton, which goes back to lā́(w)iton, a derivative of (w)os, among the Achaean people designated the prytaneum, the “people’s” house. The distribution of the terms quoted shows that it was in Thessaly and Arcadia that these traditions were localized and nowhere else. We are justified in concluding that laós was an Achaean word. Those who vouch for the legend reported by Herodotus are Achaeans originating in the region which in Greece itself preserves the name of Achaea Phthiotis. This region is considered as Aeolic along with Thessaly, a part of Boeotia, certain islands, and part of Asia Minor. There is a further connection, loose though it is, between Aeolic and the language of Homer, in the sense that it exhibits a number of features found in the epic language. Now here this term, which is defined as Achaean, is applied to Athamas, the son of Aeolus, the ancestor of the Aeolians. There is thus concordance between the historical traditions and the dialect distribution. The term laós may therefore be attributed to the Achaean stratum of Greek. This seems to find confirmation in the study of proper names. Laós enters into a large number of personal names whether as the first or the second component: we have Laomedon, Laokoon, and, on the other hand, Menelaos, and all the names in –las. Their number is considerable. Among the most ancient persons bearing these names we find a large number who come from the Aeolic regions. We go still farther. The word laós, or more precisely the derivative (w)ito-, occurs, though this is not generally realized, in a well-known compound of common Greek: this is lē̆itourgós (ληι-, λειτουργός) with the abstract leitourgía (λειτουργία) ‘liturgy’, which is to be analyzed as *lēitowerg-. Thus this word lḗïton, which in Herodotus is still given as a local word and provided with a translation, served as the base for the name of an institution which became part of the common language. The “liturgy” was in fact a public service, a public due paid by a citizen to the state. The compound must, therefore, also be of Aeolo-Achaean origin. It could have only been formed in a dialect in which the usual term for “public” was lḗïtos.
In another part of Hellenic territory, in the domain of Doric, this notion of “liturgy” was expressed on Cnidus by dāmoûrgos (δᾱμοῦργος). The two words lēitourgós and dāmoûrgos correspond exactly in sense, but their difference is instructive: we see that dā̂mos is the Dorian form which corresponds to the Aeolo-Achaean form (w)ós (and lā́(w)iton). The analysis provides us with a kind of stratigraphy within the Greek vocabulary.
There are thus as early as Homer two distinct sources for the concept of “people.” We must attribute laós to the Achaean period, whereas dē̂mos must be ascribed to the Dorian invasion, that is, to a later date.
But up till now we have considered only half the available facts. The title poimḕn laō̂n is also bestowed in the Iliad on heroes who are neither Achaean nor Greek, but Trojan. Further, among those who bear proper names in –laos there are found persons of Asiatic origin, Phrygians. We have in fact the word in Phrygian itself in two forms. Ancient Phrygian inscriptions present the proper name Akenanolawos and also the word lawaltaei, which is interpreted as meaning “he who nourishes (cf. Latin alo) the people.” In any case we cannot doubt that the first element is to be identified as lāwós ‘people’.
We should not be surprised that elements of vocabulary seem common to Greek and Phrygian. We distinguish between Greeks and Phrygians for historical and linguistic reasons. But it is probable that the Greeks themselves were more conscious of their similarities than their differences. The Phrygian and Trojan world is exactly similar to the Greek world in Homer. The language presented no obstacle to their communications. The heroes address each other and understand each other perfectly. They invoke the same gods on both sides. They have the same institutions, the same relations of hospitality, the same type of family. There is intermarriage between the two sides, and they travel freely to each other. For Homer the Trojan War is not a dispute between Greeks and barbarians, it is a quarrel within one and the same world, even though the Carians are called “barbarophones.”
In ancient tradition the Phrygian world is closely associated with that of Thessaly and the Aeolis. The Phrygians, Φρύγες, Βρύγες, were regarded as originally from Thrace. Thus located in the region in which the abode of the Athamanes lies, the Phrygians are simply an offshoot of the same ethnic group as the Thracians. It is not surprising that evidence of their community or of their proximity should be preserved in the epic.
The title órkhamos laō̂n belongs to the same repertory of terms. The form órkhamos is connected with árkhō ‘command’, but the initial o– represents a specifically Aeolic treatment like that of ὀν for the preposition aná.
It is in the light of this overall survey, which is both ethnic and social, that we must judge the title poimḕn laō̂n. It goes back to an age when, in a social structure founded on animal husbandry, the profession of war was in the hands of “bands” subjected to a chief. It is doubtless not an accident that one of the oldest pieces of evidence for the existence of the word lāwos is represented by the Mycenaean word ra-wa-ke-ta = Lāwāgetās ‘chief of the lāwos’ (cf. Dor. lāgétās ‘chief of the people’ in Pindar). But “royalty” introduces a conception of power which is different: the authority of the king is that of the guide, of the “shepherd” [1] and we find it in Iranian, in Hittite, as well as in Homeric Greek.


[ back ] 1. Cf. Hittite et indo-européen, Paris, 1962, p. 100.