The Dark Age: Homer | The First Civilizations

The three centuries from 1100 to 800 B.C. are known as the Dark Age-dark because we have too little evidence to obtain a clear picture of Greek life, and dark also because civilization took dramatic steps backward. Literacy virtually vanished, and writing stopped. Poverty and primitive conditions prevailed, causing suffering, a loss of skills, a shrinkage of the communities, a great forgetting of the past, and a halt in progress.

After about 1050 B.C., however, iron began to replace bronze for weapons and utensils. Moreover, we know that there were migrations of Greeks to the Aegean coasts of Asia Minor and especially to the central region later called Ionia by 800 B.C. On the mainland, the Athenians escaped the full impact of the Dorian invasions; perhaps their good fortune started them on the way to leadership of Greece.

The end of the Dark Age is closely tied to the oral composition of the Iliad (sixteen thousand lines) and the Odyssey (twelve thousand lines). It seems probable that both poems took roughly the form in which we know them at some time between 850 and 750 B.C. The Odyssey was almost surely composed later than the Iliad, though it may be a later work of the same person who composed the Iliad in his youth.

This person, whom we call Homer, was really a singer, putting together in these monumental narratives shorter songs about the deeds of heroes. Such singers, accompanying themselves on stringed instruments, sang the shorter separate songs to audiences seated at table in a princely household, or to a gathering of villagers in a public square, or to soldiers around a campfire. The Iliad and the Odyssey represent only a fraction of the epic material that existed in the Dark Age; there were many other tales of heroes that were less popular or that stood the test of performance less well.

The composer of the long poems was selecting favorites that, when assembled, would make a coherent narrative. Works as long as the Iliad or Odyssey would have taken several days to recite. They may have been put together specifically for some nobleman’s prolonged feast or for a religious festival. But it seems more probable that a great singer who knew many of the individual songs was inspired to assemble them.

For a long time after their composition, both poems continued to be transmitted orally. In the sixth century B.C., the Iliad and the Odyssey were recited in public every four years at an Athenian festival; the law required that this be done in order and without omissions. By then, presumably, the poems had been written down; but it was not for another three centuries that a stable “scholarly” text was produced in Alexandria.

The Iliad deals with a single episode that took place during the siege of Troy-the wrath of the Greek hero Achilles, who stopped fighting and sulked in his tent because the commander, Agamemnon, had taken from him a captive Trojan girl. Agamemnon had allowed himself to be persuaded to restore his own captive girl
to her family, and made up for his loss by taking Achilles’ prize away. While Achilles refused to fight, the great combat continued. Eventually, when Hector, a Trojan prince, had killed Achilles’ best friend and comradein-arms, Patroclus, Achilles returned to the battle and slew Hector. At the very end he returned the body to Hector’s sorrowing father, Priam.

The Odyssey tells of the ten-year wanderings of another Greek hero, Odysseus, after the siege of Troy was over, and of the extraordinary places and peoples he visited on the way back to his home on the island of Ithaca, where his faithful wife Penelope awaited him despite the attention of many suitors, and whence their son Telemachus had set out to find his father.

Put in this summary form, the two stories seem blunt and commonplace. But a deep humanity pervades both. Despite the continual bloody fighting in the Iliad, modern readers-like all before them-are moved by the terror of Hector’s baby son, Astyanax, when he sees his father with his fierce plumed war helmet on; feel the truth of the passage in which the old men of Troy admit that Helen was well worth all the fuss; share the grief and dignity of Priam as he begs Achilles to return Hector’s body for a decent burial; and appreciate Achilles’ courteous generosity to an enemy when he reluctantly agrees.

The romantic Odyssey, with its lotus eaters, sirens, men turned to swine by enchantment, and fierce one-eyed giant, provides similar moments of high human drama in the homecoming of Odysseus in disguise; in the responses of his favorite dog and his old nurse; and in the sorrow of the beautiful island princess Nausicaa when she finds that Odysseus will not stay and be her lover.

It is possible that there are real links stretching backward from the Iliad and the Odyssey across the Dark Age, when the singer’s art was kept alive in Ionia, to heroic songs composed by Mycenaeans themselves. The long Catalog of the Ships in the Iliad, for example, lists the contingents supplied to the Greek armies at Troy by the various Greek settlements, and names their commanders. Many think it a real Bronze Age document that provides evidence about the diverse political organization of Mycenaean society: by city, by the captain the troops followed, and by tribe. The description of Odysseus’s household as including more than fifty slaves is often taken to indicate that slavery was common in Mycenaean times. And some draw conclusions from the poems about the inheritance of royal power or the existence of assemblies of elders.

Whether or not we use the poems as history today, the Greeks themselves certainly did so, forming their own conception of their ancestral past from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Together with the Hebrew Bible, the Homeric poems form the greatest literary and cultural legacy of ancient people. Indeed, many modern scholars maintain that both Homeric and Hebrew civilizations grew directly from a common eastern Mediterranean background and point to many parallels in action and attitude.

One Comment

  1. Anonymous
    Posted 2008/08/15 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
    Answer a fool according to his folly.

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