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Homer’s Greeks: Bronze Age Mycenaeans or Gang Lords from the Steppes?

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(Photo by Eurokinissi/Yorgos Kontarinisi)

After a century and a half of intense, cross-disciplinary investigation kicked off by the pioneering archeological work of Heinrich Schliemann, something of a consensus has emerged about Homer, the Trojan War, and the oral tradition. The historical Trojan War took place somewhere between 1250 and 1200 BC during the late Mycenaean Bronze Age. Though their cuneiform writing (an older version of Greek known as Linear B) suggests that they were more bureaucratic than heroic, their centers of power across the Peloponnese, with the richest citadel at Mycenae, match up well with Homer’s Catalogue of Ships (Iliad II). Troy, near the shores of the Hellespont and across from Gallipoli, also reflects closely Homer’s descriptions of the city.

Despite the power and wealth of the Mycenaeans, by the end of the twelfth century, their civilization had collapsed, and their mighty citadels were all abandoned. Their fall triggered a domino effect that also took down the Minoans (Crete), the Trojans, the Hittites, the Canaanites, and the Egyptians (only they recovered). Greece then entered a three hundred year Dark Age (1100-800), during which she lost the art of writing, and trade and centralized government collapsed. To make matters worse, Greece was invaded by waves of iron-bearing, lighter-skinned Dorians from the north, causing many Greeks to abandon the mainland and sail either east to Asia Minor or west to Italy and Sicily.

For three centuries the glories of the lost Bronze Age were preserved and carried down via an increasingly systematized and sophisticated oral tradition that reached its zenith along the Asia Minor (Ionian) coast in the eighth century. Homer, one in a long line of Ionian bards (who was likely blind and from Chios), composed the Iliad and Odyssey near the end of the eighth century, about the same time that the Greek writing was rediscovered, using a new script borrowed, in part, from Phoenician traders.

Homer’s epics were composed orally and were not written down for another two centuries, probably by the enlightened Athenian tyrant Peisistratus, who brought Ionian bards to Athens every four years to chant Homer’s epics during the Panathenaic Festival. The epics were later edited and given their final form in second-century Alexandria, Egypt, the city founded by Achilles’ greatest admirer and imitator, Alexander the Great.

Such is the basic consensus, one that has been bracingly challenged by Adam Nicolson’s well researched and beautifully written Why Homer Matters (Henry Holt, 2014). Though Nicolson agrees that Homer composed orally in the late eighth century, he argues that the oral tradition dates back much further than the late Bronze Age, to a period stretching from 1800-1600 BC.

Those who know Schliemann’s work well will find Nicolson’s argument to be strongly ironic. When Schliemann first began to dig at Troy and Mycenae, he uncovered two massive hordes – a treasure chest of priceless jewels at Troy; richly endowed shaft graves replete with golden death masks at Mycenae – that he initially identified with the Troy of Priam and the Mycenae of Agamemnon. Later research showed that Schliemann was off in his dates and that the hordes pre-dated the epoch of the Trojan War by some five centuries. If Nicolson is correct in his theory, then Schliemann was right, and his critics, who continue to ridicule poor Heinrich for his folly, are the ones in error!

Nicolson feels confident in altering the traditional date for the Trojan War because he thinks that what the Iliad is really about is an ancient clash of civilizations that took place between the city-dwellers of Troy and the proto-Indo-European people who invaded Greece about 1800. In making this bold claim, Nicolson builds on the work of two generations of linguists who have pieced together the birthplace of Indo-European by looking at those words that are most common in the family tree that branches off from that lost, original language. Those words point to a group that had cattle and sheep, grazing and riding, hearth and home, village and clan, but did not have palaces or cities or centralized authority – as were common in Troy or Egypt, Babylon or Mesopotamia. Nicolson agrees with the linguists that the people who first spoke Indo-European were horse riding people from the steppes of central Asia who lived a semi-nomadic life and who organized themselves into feuding clans with no fixed palaces or accompanying luxuries, somewhat like the highland chieftains of old Scotland.

Nicolson provocatively compares these steppe chieftains to modern gang lords who revel in violence and revenge and who seek primarily after individual glory. When he meditates on Homer’s Greek soldier-kings, he does not discern the late Bronze Age with its large palaces and complex bureaucracy, but boastful gang lords whose only concern is for personal honor and immortality. Homer’s Greeks are as concerned with winning weapons of war as they are in flaunting their masculine beauty; just as gang lords “trash talk” the enemies they kill, so Achilles and his fellow Greeks, including the gentle Patroclus, love to vaunt over their dead enemies.

According to Nicolson, the showdown between Achilles and Hector in Iliad XXII is really a struggle between the steppes and the city. Only in Troy does Homer depict a luxurious palace life that values communal living and familial intimacy. In contrast, Homer’s Greeks are depicted as wandering warlords with family relations but no fixed homes or sense of intimacy. Indeed, in the Greek camp, women, as they are for gang lords, seem mostly to be trophies or objects of trade.

Nicolson’s thesis is a powerful one, and he develops it with relish and brio. But does it offer a correct reading of Homer and the historical evidence? Nicolson does well to depict the Trojan War as something akin to a Viking raid by warriors more interested in booty than in expanding an empire, but I see no compelling reason to identify those raiders as nomadic steppe lords rather than as marauding Mycenaeans seeking to seize control of the wealthy trading route through the Hellespont and into the Black Sea.

Nicolson claims that the only reason scholars cling to 1200 as the Troy of Homer is because that is the date suggested by Herodotus, but the evidence for 1200 goes far beyond Herodotus. That Homer lists Idomeneus as the King of Crete and gives him, like Diomedes, 80 ships (only Agamemnon with 100 and Nestor with 90 have more), yet makes it clear Idomeneus does not share the influence or prestige of the Peloponnesian kings, fits exactly with what we know from archeology: that the mighty Minoan empire of Crete was sacked and absorbed by the Mycenaeans about 1400.

And the archeological record does more than back up Homer’s vision of the Trojan War and the various groups that participated in it. It supports the combined testimony of the Iliad and Odyssey. Why is it that Homer’s victorious Greeks do not set up a colony in Troy? And why is it that they all go home to find Greece in dire straits? Why do the tales of Mycenaean glory end with Telemachus and Orestes, the sons of Odysseus and Agamemnon? Why, that is, does victory seem to give way to defeat?

What we find in Homer’s two epics is exactly the sequence of events to which the archeology bears witness: the riches and power of the late Bronze Age (thirteenth century) mysteriously gave way (in the twelfth) to the Fall of Mycenae and all the other citadels. Indeed, this sequence is prophesied in Book IV of the Iliad when Zeus and Hera cut a terrible deal by which Hera will allow Zeus to destroy her beloved cities of Sparta, Argos, and Mycenae (the main centers of the late Bronze Age) if he will allow the city she despises, Troy, to fall.

Nicolson finds traces of the culture of the steppe lords in Homer’s Greeks, but that identification can be fully accounted for, not by the distant memory of an eighteenth century invasion from the steppes, but by the recent memory of an eleventh century invasion by the Dorians, an aggressive group of Viking-like raiders who were, like Nicolson’s steppe lords, of Aryan descent. Nicolson is right to see in Homer a struggle between order and chaos, civilization and barbarism, but that too can be better accounted for by the near memory of the Dark Ages than by the far memory of the steppes.

Still, even if Nicolson’s overarching thesis is questionable, his book is full of illuminating insights into Homer’s epics, particularly the wrath of Achilles and the way in which that wrath threatens to tear down civilization. Nicolson is right that the Greek do seem like Barbarians at the Gates when compared to the civilized and familial Trojans. Order and civilization are precarious things, and when Achilles of the steppes defeats Hector of the city, it does seem that chaos will prevail.

Thankfully, Nicolson reminds us, the Iliad does not end there. When Priam, in Book XXIV, goes to ransom the body of his son, he brings the city into the steppes and helps to civilize the unattached Achilles. The fact of the matter is that Homer’s Greeks often go overboard in their gang lord vendettas, as even Odysseus does in Odyssey XXII when he not only slaughters all the suitors but mercilessly hangs the serving women as well. Nicolson does a fine job demonstrating how Homer presents the brutal reality of this steppe world without necessarily approving of it. Homer understands the glory of war and its bestiality, and he presents both in a direct, unsparing, unsentimental manner. That is because he knows that the nomadic, gang lord ferocity of the Greeks is something that lies latent in all of us.

Just as he handles well the main conflict between Achilles and Hector, as he does that between Odysseus and the suitors, so Nicolson deals skillfully with the disorder in the Greek camp. Achilles’ stubborn refusal to obey, or even grant, the absolute authority of Agamemnon may indeed preserve a memory of an older Greek civilization that precedes the Mycenaean palaces and that has links to Scottish chieftains and American gang lords. (I believe Nicolson’s argument would have been enhanced if he had made an analogy instead to the medieval Viking invasions of Europe. Might not Priam of Troy trying to save civilization from the raiding Greeks be more aptly compared to Charlemagne’s heirs (unsuccessfully) or Alfred the Great (successfully) holding back the Vikings from sacking their European or Wessex renaissances of culture and learning?)

Finally, Nicolson is at his best and most haunting when he casts his eye on the journeys of Odysseus. When the sirens tempt Odysseus in Book XII to listen to their stories of Troy, they are really tempting him to stay fixed in the past rather than move on. But that is precisely what Odysseus must not do. He must leave behind the old steppe world of chaos and disorder to build a civilization that will last.

So argues Nicolson near the beginning of his book, and then counter argues, near the end, that when Odysseus goes to the underworld in Book XI, he is promised by Tiresias that he will reclaim, in the twilight of his life, the lost past of his ancestors. Odysseus’s final journey, so Tiresias prophesies, will take him to a place so far from the sea that the people know nothing of salt and think that an oar is a winnowing fan. What can this place be, asks Nicolson, but the very steppes of central Asia from which the invading Greeks, with their Indo-European language, originally came? The question is an intriguing one, and, though it may or may not be correct historically, it does make sense of the fact that the sea nearly always represents chaos and death in the Iliad and Odyssey.

It is questions and insights like these that make Why Homer Matters a must read for all lovers of Homer and for all those who are aware of how fragile and tenuous a thing civilization is. The showdown between Achilles and Hector before the plains of Troy and the reconciliation of Achilles and Priam over the dead body of Hector comprise a central part of the memory of the West. To fail to wrestle with them is to fail to wrestle with the very foundations of European (and American!) civilization.

 

Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; he is the author of 18 books, including From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, and two children’s novels, The Dreaming Stone and In the Shadow of Troy, in which his children become part of Greek mythology and the Iliad and Odyssey.