Discussion Series: Homer’s Poetic Justice

Background Lecture

For this series, we have provided an on-line text of the Homeric Odyssey, translated by Samuel Butler and revised by Gregory Nagy and Timothy Power. This revised translation includes glosses of key Greek words in the text. The entire Odyssey can be found here (or by using the button on the menu to the left). You may also use another translation if you prefer.

Relevant facts about ancient Greek history (Everything you need to know for this series):

A. Place. “Ancient Greece” was not really a “country” or “nation,” as we ordinarily think of these terms (and certainly not a centralized kingdom, as you might guess from the depiction of the heroic age in the Iliad). Rather, it was a cultural constellation of competing city-states that had a single language and civilization in common. During all the historical periods that we are studying, “ancient Greece” included not only the city-states in the geographical area that we know as “modern Greece” or “Hellas,” the most prominent of which were Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Argos, and Thebes, but also other equally important city states all over the Mediterranean Sea. Here are some examples… In the East and North-East:Miletus, Smyrna (= Turkish Izmir), Chios, Mytilene, Byzantium (= Turkish Istanbul);  in the South: Cyrene (in African Lybia); in the West: Syracuse (Sicily), Tarentum (Italy), Naples (Italy), Massalia (= French Marseille). The ancient Greeks would agree that they shared the same language, despite the staggering variety of local dialects. They would even agree that they shared a civilization, though they would be intensely contentious about what exactly their shared civilization would be. Each city-state had its own institutions, that is, its own government, constitution, laws, calendars, religious practices, and so on. Both the sharing and the contentiousness lie at the root of the very essence of the city-state. What I am translating here as “city-state” is the Greek word polis.This is the word from which our words political and politics are derived.

B. A most basic observation about ancient Greek society: ‘The human being is an organism of the polis’.— Aristotle, Politics I 1253a2-3. (Often mistranslated as ‘Man is a political animal’.) Here we see the basis for the concept of civilization. In other words, human beings achieve their ultimate potential within a society that is the polis. From this point of view, the ultimate humanism is achieved politically.

C. The most basic aspects of their civilization that most ancient Greeks could agree about:


  1. interpolitical festivals; primary examples: the Olympic festival (= “Olympics”) at Olympia, the Pythian festival at Delphi, the Panathenaic festival at Athens

  3. interpolitical repositories of shared knowledge; primary example: Delphi

  5. interpolitical poetry; primary examples: the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, the Theogony and Works and Days of Hesiod.

D. I use “interpolitical” instead of “international” because I do not want to imply that each polis is a nation. In my own writings, I use a cover-term for “interpolitical”: Panhellenic. Panhellenism is the   least common denominator of ancient Greek civilization.

E. The impulse of Panhellenism is already at work in Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. In the Iliad, the names “Achaeans” and “Danaans” and “Argives” are used synonymously in the sense of Panhellenes = “all Hellenes” = “all Greeks.”

F. Homer represents an interpolitical or Panhellenic perspective on the Greeks. Homeric poetry is not tied down to any one polis. It presents the least common denominator in the cultural education of the elite of all city-states. How can a narrative or “story” like the Iliad be an instrument of education? We will get to that later.

G. In the Classical period, Herodotus is on record as saying that Homer and Hesiod are the foundation for all civilization. Note that Herodotus defines civilization in terms of religion (the forms and functions of gods).

H. Finally, an essential point about ancient Greek religion: not only were   the gods worshipped, Heroes too were worshipped. The worship of heroes was very much like ancestor worship. (Compare similar customs in other traditional societies, including the Japanese.) Besides the word worship, we may use the word cult. As in hero cult. (Other relevant concepts: cultivate and culture. More on these   concepts in lectures.) That is one of the main topics of my book Best of the Achaeans. Another useful word: ritual. I will have more to say on the concepts of worship, cult, and ritual in Lecture I. (It is enough for now to give two main examples of ritual: sacrifice and war. Moral problems of killing animals  to eat their meat, killing other humans. A classic discussion is Walter Burkert’s Homo necans.)