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.

Introduction: Seeds of Perfection

In the course of the so-called Heroic Age, the Greeks mustered a fleet of a thousand ships and sailed to Troy in order to retrieve the radiant Helen, wife of the Spartan king, as well as to avenge the Trojan prince’s breach of the sacrosanct relationship between guest and host. [1] Thus it was, as Homer recounts, that hostilities between the Greeks and the Trojans began. The story of the Trojan War and its greatest heroes, Achilles and Odysseus, is, of course, extremely well known, while concrete facts regarding the story’s origin still remain largely shrouded in mystery. The usual questions posed by scholars about the Trojan War and the Iliad and Odyssey, our primary sources of information about that event and its participants, are as follows: Was there a historical Trojan War? Was there, in actual fact, a bard called Homer, and did he compose the Iliad and Odyssey? Do the Iliad and Odyssey in any way accurately reflect Greek society at any historical period, or is the social background against which the epic heroes act out the drama of their lives entirely a fictional construct? To these compelling questions, I would like to add another. Could the Iliad and Odyssey both be counted among those literary works that are fundamentally utopian in outlook? On the grounds that they strongly manifest the dream of a society for a better life, I will argue that they should. [2] The Iliad and Odyssey both “pursue the prospect of recasting a political and social order” in the best possible way, and as such they should be viewed as “pre-texts” or “hypo-texts” of the utopian genre in literature. [3] Specifically, these epic tales “frame a value system that sustains and … educates a society” by presenting societal evolution from village to polis as an ideal. [4] Through the words of the epic Muse, both the Iliad and Odyssey, each in its unique way, illustrate the post-Mycenaean Greek faith in urbanism as the optimum vehicle of human advancement, spiritual, ethical, intellectual, and technological alike; the form and institutions of the polis, it was thought, could best negotiate a place for humanity in Nature. Indeed, more than three centuries after the time of Homer, when the polis was well established as the characteristic social and political organization of the Greeks, it would remain Aristotle’s opinion that the person who forms no part of the polis must be either beast or god, a creature well below or well above the human level. [5]

The dating of the poems is critical because the eighth century was a time of tremendous change and evolution in the Greek world, both socially and politically. Greece had only just emerged from the so-called Dark Age, roughly 1150–800 BCE, a period in which the art of writing had been lost; in which monumental architecture (or anything that could be considered “art”) was no longer produced; and in which, generally speaking, people in the Greek world seem to have been reduced to a more or less nomadic, subsistence existence. Archaeological evidence reveals that this time of “material poverty and social insecurity on a grand scale” was attended by a dramatic decline in population and a nearly complete loss of foreign contact. [10] However, the passage of time has revealed that social and political crisis, upheaval, and conflict constitute the very seeds of perfection. Dissatisfaction is the most potent catalyst of speculation about modes of social improvement; it is crisis, not contentment, that breeds utopias and utopian thought. [11] The Greeks’ emergence from Dark Age regionalism and isolationism was marked by a new and growing social consciousness and a desire to define “what it was to be Greek.” [12] The eighth century saw the re-introduction of an alphabet, now borrowed from the Phoenicians, the organization of pan-Hellenic institutions such as the Olympic Games and the Delphic oracle, the expansion of colonization, and, most critically for my purposes, the appearance of the polis ‘city-state’ as a distinct form of social organization. [13] This time of recovery and change was ideal for the flourishing of utopian speculation.

If the Homeric poems are products of the very-formative eighth century, it stands to reason that the social conditions and material culture in which the poems began to take their ultimate form should somehow be reflected in the fabric of the poems themselves. As products of an oral tradition, the poems needed to be “modern enough to be understandable, but archaic enough to be believable.” [14] So, for instance, artifacts such as the tower shield, boar’s tusk helmet, and silver-riveted sword, all unlikely to have been used in the Dark Age or thereafter, are now understood as devices employed to lend the poems a convincingly antiquated cast rather than as evidence of the poems’ crystallization in the Bronze Age. At the same time, the elaborate bureaucracies and highly stratified social and political systems of the palaces that sustained the warrior elite of Bronze Age Greece are at most reflected in traces. [15] The relative impotence, as well as the sheer numbers, of kings, wanakes and basileis, together with the importance and recurrence of assemblies of the People, is particularly telling. Any reader of the Iliad will observe that Agamemnon, while commander-in-chief of the expedition to Troy, is not actually able to assert himself over Achilles or the rest of the Greek contingent. Odysseus, for his part, prevails over the heinous threat of the suitors in Ithaka by means not only of cleverness and physical prowess but also of brute force. It has been noted that political influence in the Homeric poems is determined less by the official position an individual holds than by his “social standing,” “rhetorical abilities,” and “personal charisma.” [16] Further, the succession of kingship is far from clear. For instance, Odysseus has succeeded his father Laertes in the kingship, but in Odysseus’ absence, Laertes, having chosen what is tantamount to exile, has no say whatsoever politically; political activity has, in fact, ceased altogether. Meanwhile Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, has not automatically assumed his father’s position, nor is he guaranteed this position if his father should ultimately fail to return. [17] What emerges from the Homeric poems is, accordingly, not the picture of a typically dynastic, absolute kingship. Power is not firmly in the hands of a single ruler.

The transformation and hegemonic devolution of the chieftainship went hand-in-hand with the birth and development of the Greek polis. A definition of the mature polis can be variously conceived, as usage of this term by ancient authors has proven to be remarkably fluid, ranging in meaning from “stronghold” to a “totality of town and hinterland.” [20] For example, the polis, which Aristotle believed to have evolved organically from a partnership of villages, is spoken of by Thucydides not as a physical construct but as a community of men; “men,” he says, “make the polis, not empty walls or ships” (Peloponnesian War 7.77.7). [21] A conception of the polis similar to that of Thucydides may be found also in Alcaeus and Aeschylus, while in Herodotus’ Histories, the urban sense of the word is more common than the communal or political. [22] Pausanias, again, describes the polis in purely physical terms when he remarks that the city of Panopeus in Phokis lacks the accoutrements of a proper polis, namely civic buildings, gymnasia, theaters, a marketplace, and a spring to supply the city with fresh water. [23] Likewise adopting a “structural” and physical perspective, Aristotle envisions the ideal polis as a walled city that is easily defensible and has sufficient territory, good port access, healthful air and water, a restricted population, and purposefully placed temples, public buildings, and agorai ‘places of gathering’. [24] Based on the most prevalent applications and usages of the term, the polis may be understood as minimally comprising “a community of persons, of place or territory, of cults, customs and laws, and capable of (full or partial) self-administration (which presupposes institutions and meeting places).” [25]

Interestingly, Homer remains tantalizingly vague about the constitution or political organization of Odysseus’ polis both before and after its reorganization; this is something about which the poem’s audience is left to speculate. The Odyssey focuses instead on the process by which the hero is equipped to undertake the societal reorganization that is so desperately required, and Homer, not unlike Thomas More in his Utopia, employs the literature of travel as a vehicle by which his “political” imagination, “assisted by fiction, can freely roam.” [31] While More had not by any means been the first to envision a “better way of living and being,” which is the substance of the social dream we call utopian, his sixteenth-century text formalizes the discourse on the good society, relegating it to a didactic frame of narrative fiction. [32] This narrative consists of a journey to a new world and a detailed description of the life, customs, and constitution of its inhabitants. [33] More’s new world is at once a place impossible to locate in space (ou-topos ‘no place’) and a good place (eu-topos), a foil and corrective model for contemporary society. [34] Notably, More refers directly to Odysseus in casting his explorer Hythlodaeus as “a man superior to Ulysses himself in his knowledge of countries, men, and affairs,” and again as a “wide-awake and observant” traveler, not like Palinurus who falls asleep at the helm, but rather like Ulysses or the well-traveled Plato. [35] In shaping his discourse on the good society, More most certainly had the Homeric text in mind. The narrative of travel, for its part, remains the device favored in composing literary utopias precisely because the traveler can witness alternative social orders firsthand in the course of a journey.

Scholars have argued that the wanderings of Odysseus represent the redefinition of what it means to be a hero in the post-palatial world and/or that they symbolize a historical process of enlightenment achieved through de-mythologizing—and therefore more completely understanding and controlling—the workings of the natural world. [36] It has been argued too that the Odyssey illustrates the hero’s progressive activation of “the unconscious potential of the self.” [37] There is ample textual support for all of these readings, but these widely accepted, or at least acknowledged, readings fail to provide a complete answer to a fundamental question that arises at the beginning of the poem. The proem, formal opening, of an epic poem is programmatic; it reveals the themes of greatest import:

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσε·
πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.

Homer states at the outset that Odysseus is a man of the greatest intelligence and endurance, and as such, he is ideally suited to travel extensively and gather information of an “ethnographic,” socio-political nature. [
39] But why precisely, one wonders, does the poet introduce his hero to many cities and many societies? Why, again, would Augustan Rome rehearse the wanderings of Odysseus anew in the figure of Aeneas?


[ back ] 1. The Introduction and Chapter 1 reproduce and build upon material originally published in Giesecke 2003. In the course of this discussion, “Heroic Age” and “Bronze Age” will be used interchangeably. As has become common usage, the term “Mycenaean Period” will refer to the Bronze Age in mainland Greece specifically, and the adjective “Mycenaean” will be employed in reference to mainland Bronze Age culture and civilization.

[ back ] 2. It is not my intention to argue here that the Iliad and Odyssey should be classed as formal literary utopias but rather that the works are utopian in nature and that they are manifestations of a contemporary utopian propensity. As Sargent 2000:8 argues: “Although the word utopia and the literary genre resulted from the book now known as Utopia by Thomas More, the phenomenon long predated the book.” The definition adopted here of utopianism as “social dreaming” is likewise Sargent’s 1994:3. The utopian content question itself [ back ] is a natural appendage to the “Homeric Question,” for determining the purpose of these epics is surely as weighty a scholarly concern as their authorship and dating.

[ back ] 3. For the extended quote, see Schaer 2000:4. Pradeau 2000:83 applies the tag of utopian “pre-text” and “hypo-text” to Plato’s Critias, specifically the Atlantis myth.

[ back ] 4. Nagy 1990:34.

[ back ] 5. Politics 1253a1–4.

[ back ] 6. For detailed and, at the same time, readable summaries and evaluations of the evidence regarding the historicity of the Trojan War see Latacz 2001 and Wood 1987.

[ back ] 7. On the workings of oral poetics and the “identity” of Homer, see the persuasive arguments of Nagy. The arguments set forth in Homeric Questions, Greek Mythology and Poetics, and, more recently, in Homeric Responses (Nagy 1990, 1996, and 2003) have heavily influenced the perspective adopted here.

[ back ] 8. For the quotations, see Nagy 1996:21 and 40 respectively. Nagy, for example 2003:2–3, continues to re-evaluate and re-synthesize the fundamental work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord and argues convincingly against the eighth-century dictation model in favor of consecutive periods of transmission, a movement from fluidity through transcription to [ back ] ultimate textual crystallization in the second century BCE. Scholars who espouse and also persuasively argue the dictation and/or written composition theories include the following: Janko 1982, Jensen 1980, West 1990, Whitman 1958, and Powell 2002. Others would identify Homer as the first “singer” of these particular heroic lays or, alternatively, the most prestigious/influential (and not necessarily the last).

[ back ] 9. The dating of the Homeric poems is, of course, no less hotly debated than the identity of Homer. Currently, most scholars lean towards the eighth century date for the significant shaping of the poems. See, for example, Hammer 2002, Langdon 1993, Osborne 1996:137–156, and Sherratt 1990 for the “textbook” view. My argument will be somewhat, though not entirely, at odds with Van Wees 2002 and Nagy 2003. Van Wees 2002 argues for a date between 735 and 640 BCE, entailing a forward dating-shift that I think my theory can sustain. On the other hand, while Nagy 2003:2–3 argues for a very late fixation date for the Homeric texts, he does designate the eighth (through sixth) century as a “more formative or ‘Pan-Hellenic’ period” in the poems’ evolutionary history.

[ back ] 10. Langdon 1993:9. See also Thomas and Conant 1999:58.

[ back ] 11. For the observation that utopian thinking is prompted by specific crises and social problems, see Manuel and Manuel 1979:23–24.

[ back ] 12. Hurwit 1985:83–84.

[ back ] 13. For a discussion of the emergence of pan-Hellenism at this time, see Nagy 1990:passim and 1979:7–8, Osborne 1996:70–156, and Hammer 2002:30–33.

[ back ] 14. Raaflaub 1997:628. This point is also made in Redfield 1994:35–39. Foley 1997 provides a sweeping history of scholarly advances towards gaining an understanding of orality and the oral tradition.

[ back ] 15. A full discussion of Bronze Age and Dark Age material in Homer can be found in Luce 1975:passim and in Sherratt 1990.

[ back ] 16. Osborne 1996:150, pointing to Agamemnon and Odysseus as prime exemplars.

[ back ] 17. These examples, all recounted by Osborne 1996:150–151, are contained also in Finley’s discussion 1970:84–86.

[ back ] 18. Pomeroy et al. 1999:43.

[ back ] 19. This account is a summary of fuller discussions in Fine 1983:53–57, Langdon 1993:9–36, Osborne 1996:3–102, Thomas and Conant 1999:passim, and Pomeroy et al. 1999:43–59, 87–89.

[ back ] 20. Hansen 1997:15. See also Hansen and Nielsen 2004:12–150.

[ back ] 21. See Aristotle Politics especially 1252b16–1253b1.

[ back ] 22. For the sentiment that the inhabitants “make” the polis, see Alcaeus Z103 and Aeschylus Persians 348–349. The observation regarding Herodotus’ use of the term is Hansen’s 1997:15.

[ back ] 23. Pausanias Description of Greece 10.4.1.

[ back ] 24. Aristotle Politics 1325b34–1331b24. Agora appears in the plural here because Aristotle specifies the need for two types of agora, one designated for commercial activity and the other precluding it.

[ back ] 25. Raaflaub 1997:630.

[ back ] 26. Luce 1978:15.

[ back ] 27. See Edwards 1993, Raaflaub 1997, and Scully 1981.

[ back ] 28. Luce 1978:3. For the absence of the word “village” in Homer, see Scully 1981:1.

[ back ] 29. The Homeric use of the word “polis” in tales purportedly set in the Bronze Age, which was a citadel-based, not a polis-based, society, has occasioned no small degree of confusion. As Scully 1990:3 remarks, the description of Troy, for instance, “is not a historical portrait of a polis at any one period of Greek history but a pastiche of old and new” in which aspects of the Mycenaean citadel are blended with the ideology of the new city-state. The same may be said of Ithaka, whose “actual” evolution from Bronze Age monarchy to polis we witness in the Odyssey but which is nevertheless referred to throughout as a polis. This argument will be elaborated in what follows.

[ back ] 30. This basic but profound observation about the critical role of the polis in the Iliad and Odyssey is Scully’s 1981:2.

[ back ] 31. Schaer 2000:4.

[ back ] 32. Levitas 1990:7 argues that “the desire for a better way of being and living” is the one constant in the diverse corpus of utopian literature.

[ back ] 33. On the formal elements of a proper (Morean) literary utopia, see Kumar 1991:31.

[ back ] 34. The pun is More’s own from the six-line poem (“Hexastichon in Utopiam Insulam”) that forms part of the so-called parerga to Utopia. See Surtz and Hexter’s edition 1965:20.

[ back ] 35. The quotation is Surtz and Hexter’s translation (1965:21) from the original Latin of a sentiment in the letter from Peter Giles to Jerome Busleyden that likewise forms part of the parerga to [ back ] Utopia. The reference to Palinurus, Ulysses, and Plato appears in the first book of Utopia, Surtz and Hexter 1965:48. For the description of Hythlodaeus as “wide awake and observant,” see Surtz and Hexter 1965:301 ad loc.

[ back ] 36. The former argument underlies the text of Whitman 1958 and the latter that of Horkheimer and Adorno 1993.

[ back ] 37. Segal 1994:14.

[ back ] 38. Unless otherwise noted, all translations of ancient texts are my own. The translations provided here are not intended to be particularly artful in and of themselves. Rather, my intention has been to render in English each line and each word therein as literally as possible for the purpose of supporting my arguments.

[ back ] 39. Dougherty 2001 explores the notion of Odysseus as ideal “ethnographer” and the Odyssey as a direct reflection of the colonizing spirit of the eighth century BCE.