Homer the Preclassic

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Part One. A preclassical Homer from the Dark Age

A working definition of the Dark Age

I§1 Thinking my way backward from the classical period of the fifth century BCE, I confront a preclassical period that I divide into two ages, the Dark Age and the Bronze Age. I start here in Part I with the Dark Age. Then, in Part II, I will proceed to the Bronze Age.

I§2 The term Dark Age refers to discontinuities, real or perceived, after the time of the Bronze Age, which comes to an end sometime around the eleventh century BCE. There is much speculation about the nature of such discontinuities and about their causes. Such speculation, however, is not relevant to what I am about to do, which is, to offer a working redefinition of a Dark Age viewed exclusively in terms of the study of Homer. Here in Part I, the Dark Age is the Dark Age of Homer.

I§3 For those who specialize in Homer, there is a chronological chasm separating the era of historical events in the classical period of the fifth and the fourth century BCE from the prehistoric era of events like the Capture of Troy, which is the single most important point of reference for Homeric narrative—and which coincides roughly with the end of the Bronze Age as archaeologists define it. We are left in the dark, as it were, about Homer for a vast stretch of time. We experience a strong sense of discontinuity with a past not recorded in writing. Denied any access to any Homeric texts that could date back to the life and times of Homer, we feel cut off from this Homer. We cannot even have any direct way of knowing when the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey were first written down. [1] {5|6}

I§4 From the standpoint of surviving written evidence, if we work our way forward in time from the Bronze Age, all we can say is that the Dark Age of Homer stays dark until we reach the beginnings of a span of time marked by the fifth century BCE. So my working definition of the Dark Age of Homer is a length of time extending from the end of the Bronze Age all the way to the fifth century BCE, that is, all the way to the beginnings of recorded history, as represented by Herodotus and Thucydides. The perspectives of these two historians, I will argue, provide a glimpse into such a Dark Age of Homer—to the extent that both Herodotus and Thucydides searched for realities that predated their own times. In the course of their search, as we will see, both these early historians relied in significant ways on the authority of what we know as Homer.

I§5 The Dark Age of Homer, then, is delimited on both sides by objective dating criteria. On the far side, the eleventh century BCE marks the end of the Bronze Age as defined by the evidence of archaeology. On the near side, the fifth century BCE marks the beginnings of direct reportage about history and prehistory.

I§7 Already at the beginning of my inquiry into the Dark Age of Homer, the question arises: What could be the antecedent of such a classical Homer as performed in the fifth century? For an answer, I concentrate on the era of the Peisistratidai, a dynasty of turannoi ‘tyrants’ who ruled Athens from 546 to 510 BCE. As we will see, a direct antecedent of the classical Homer was the preclassical Homer of this era.

I§8 In the twin book Homer the Classic, I link the reception of Homer during the fifth century BCE with the politics of what we call today the Athenian empire, {6|7} which was establishing control over Greek cities formerly dominated by the Persian empire. Here in Homer the Preclassic I link the reception of Homer with earlier phases of Athenian imperialism, in the era of the Peisistratidai.

I§9 What was evolving already in this earlier era can be described as an earlier form of the Athenian empire, even though it cannot compare in scale with the imperial might of the Athenian democratic regime in the fifth century. As we will see, a predemocratic Athenian empire was actively being shaped by the Peisistratidai. As we will also see, the Homer we know from the democratic era was in turn shaped by the imperial interests of Athens in the predemocratic era of these Peisistratidai.

I§10 One sign of such imperial interests was the Athenian initiative of occupying territories contiguous to Troy, formerly occupied by Aeolic-speaking Greeks. I will save for Part II my investigation of this initiative, which is relevant to the oldest recoverable phases of content in Homeric poetry.

I§11 Another sign of such imperial interests in the era of the Peisistratidai was the Athenian initiative of appropriating the island of Delos, an age-old religious and political center of Ionic-speaking Greeks. This Athenian initiative, as we will see, was most relevant to the shaping of the preclassical Homer in the era of the Peisistratidai.


[ back ] 1. HTL 3–24. The question of dating the earliest phases of written texts recording what we know as the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey cannot be answered by way of comparing the surviving evidence about epigrams, attested already in the earliest phases of ancient Greek alphabetic literacy. The genre of the epigram, that is, a form of poetry meant to be recorded in inscriptions, had an existence separate from all other early poetic genres, including the epics ascribed to Homer: unlike other poetic genres, the genre of the epigram required the technology of writing. It is essential to add that this technology was required not for the sake of composition but rather for the sake of recording and thereby memorializing the composition. On the conceptual separation of mentally composing an epigram and physically inscribing it, see HQ 14, 35–36, with more on various controversies surrounding this question. I will return to this topic in Chapter 2, in the section entitled “Homer the epigrammatist.”

[ back ] 2. In other studies as well, I have concentrated on the central role of Athens in the transmission of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. See especially PR 9–35. For still other such studies, I single out Cook 1995.

[ back ] 3. On the history of the annual and the quadrennial Panathenaia, see Shear 2001.

[ back ] 4. On Delos and the Peisistratidai, I find the discussion of Aloni 1989:43–44 most helpful.