Greek warfare and Homer

Last month, Josho Brouwers gave a lecture about the cultural signifcance of the Homeric epics to ancient Greek warfare, which was also recorded on video. Here you can read the text of this lecture.

Josho Brouwers

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to rage throughout most of the world, many of us have had to perform even more work online than before. This does have its advantages: many academic conferences and lecture series that would normally be conducted in the physical world have now moved online, making them much more accessible to a wider audience.

Cezary Kucewicz of Wolfson College in Cambridge organized a series of webinars about ancient Greek warfare. The first took place on the 10th of June and a new lecture has been given every Wednesday since. All of the lectures in this series of “Wolfson (Ancient) Warfare Wednesdays” have been recorded and are available online, so even if you missed them the first time around, you can watch them at your leisure now.

While I was in Crete, I gave a lecture in this series about the connection between ancient Greek warfare and Homer. If you missed it, you can watch that lecture online just like any of the others in this series. Since I also wrote out the text of my talk, I figured it might be useful or interesting to publish that online: you can read it below. (I do stray from the text in places during my talk, since I try to avoid reading too much.)

Greek warfare and Homer

First of all, thank you, Cezary [Kucewicz], for organizing this series of webinars, and thank you to Wolfson College for supporting this series and making it all possible. I am very honoured to be part of such a distinguished line-up of speakers.

The subject of my talk today is Homer. I don’t think I need to qualify why Homer is a fitting subject to talk about; the Iliad is, after all, a battle-epic. In his talk on Greek warfare and mythology, Cezary pointed out that when myths are used as a point of discussion, the starting point is often Homer, usually to the detriment of other early sources. In this talk, however, I want to contextualize the Homeric epics within broader cultural traditions in the ancient Aegean.

So let’s get started. There are many ways in which we can talk about the relationship between Greek warfare and Homer, but I want to focus on three of them. To begin with, we can start by talking about “Homeric warfare”, that is the type of warfare that the heroes of the epic engage in. We can talk about command structures, modes of fighting, motives for waging war, and so on. All of this discussion would be based solely on a reading of the Homeric epics themselves, mostly the Iliad, but also the Odyssey whenever pertinent.

Sooner or later, we do have to tackle one of those pesky “Homeric Questions”. The one that probably concerns us most is if the Homeric epics can be related to any particular period of Greek history. In other words, can the epics be used as a source of historical inquiry? If we can answer this question in the affirmative, we need to determine which period is reflected in the Homeric epics.

These two aspects – Homeric warfare and the use of Homer as a source of historical inquiry – are important in many ways. But they perhaps distract from the main point that can be made about the Homeric epics and the Iliad in particular, and which reaches beyond the epics themselves. The point is that Homer beautifully articulates a particular ideal, a warrior ethos, if you will, that informs much of the epic world and the actions that the heroes take within it. This warrior ethos finds expression in the epics, but we also encounter it in other texts, as well as – or perhaps especially – in the archaeological record.

Part 1 – Homeric warfare

I will start with a discussion of “Homeric warfare”. As an adjective, “Homeric” has been applied to many aspects, to the point that one can reasonably say it has been abused. Anthony Snodgrass, in his book Homer and the Artists (1998), devotes some space to discussing just how peculiar the usage of the adjective “Homeric” is. He writes (p. 7):

If one asks, first, what are the chronological limits of “Homeric”, the answer is that it has been used to cover all periods, from the very earliest historical episodes of which some reflection may be present in Homer, down to the lifetime of the poet himself. Already this amounts to nearly a millennium, from perhaps the sixteenth to the eighth centuries BC; “Homeric Greece” and “Homeric archaeology”, in particular, are often allowed this generous span of coverage. Sometimes “Homeric art”, at least, can be even extended to cover the much longer period in which the influence of Homer’s poetry is thought detectable in the visual arts. Then there are the geographical limits of “the Homeric world”: they often turn out to extend at least as far east as Cyprus, an island of which Homer knew, but which he seldom mentions, and southwards to Egypt.

He concludes, rather despondently (p. 7):

As for the function of the word “Homeric” in these phrases, nothing can be distilled from its usages more precise than “of, or pertaining to, early Greece”.

Snodgrass notes that we should really only ever use “Homeric” when describing something that pertains to the epics as literature. And that’s what I want to do here: give a brief overview of warfare as described in the Homeric epics. I’ll turn to the difficult issue of connecting the Homeric epics to history a little later in this talk.

Since the Iliad is focused entirely on an action-packed part of the last year of the Trojan War, it is filled with descriptions of fighting. We also get a good idea of the structure of the Greek and Trojan armies, their respective sizes, how they are organized, and more. I cannot go into any details here, but a broad outline is perhaps useful. This broad outline is in many ways a summary of part of my PhD thesis, which in itself was heavily influenced by the work of Hans van Wees.

The armies in the Iliad are massive, but they are organized in a fairly straightforward way: they consist of a large number of warbands, each with their own leader, a basileus – i.e. a king or prince. An example would be the Myrmidons under the command of the hero Achilles. At one point in the Iliad, Achilles even divides his troops or followers (hetairoi) into smaller sections, each with a leader at the head of it. Armies in the epic world thus consist of a number of leaders and their followers. At the head of each army is a commander-in-chief. For the Greeks, this is Agamemnon, widely considered the most powerful of all the Greek kings and the brother of the aggrieved Menelaus. On the Trojan side, it should be king Priam, but since he is apparently too old his son Hector leads the army instead.

The bulk of the fighting in the Iliad takes place on the plain between the Greek camp on the coast and the city of Troy located a little further inland. The fighting typically lasts the entire day, with heralds calling an end to battle at nightfall. Leaders are driven to the battlefield in chariots; the rest of the troops walk. The Greeks march in quiet order, while the Trojans are a cacophonous bunch – Greek warfare and propaganda à la Homer!

The fighting itself is all done on foot. Most of the warriors are equipped with a set of two spears, which are often thrown, and a shield. Armour of various type is worn, though we only get detailed descriptions of the leaders. The Achaeans are always “well-greaved”. Hans van Wees has usefully compared the fighting in the epics with the mode of fighting that the indigenous population of Papua New Guinea engaged in, with a no-man’s land between the opposing forces that some brave warriors would leap into to challenge their opponents or to hurl a spear at them. The bravest of the warriors always fight in the front ranks: they are promachoi, but they don’t hesitate to shrink back into the mass of the army (plethys) if they feel they are in danger, or when they want to head back to camp to pick up some additional spears.

I’ve mentioned the warbands, which don’t seem to be deployed in formation for the most part. But descriptions like this one (Il. 4.422-432) suggest that the Greeks advanced in “waves”, rolling across the battlefield. It is very evocative.

I want to devote a few words to Archers. Archers appear to be a rare sight on the battlefield. There is the Locrian contingent, who are all archers and also able to fight with slings. But for the most part, archers appear to operate singly. They don’t loose volleys that arc through the air toward the opponent, but instead pick and choose their targets at will, like snipers on the modern battlefield. Interestingly, this is also how archers are depicted in Greek art from the Bronze Age onwards, as specialists on the battlefield.

Modern commentators often claim that archers were held in low esteem. This is based on instances where archers are decried as cowardly, because they fight from a distance. An example would be the Trojan Achamas calling the Achaeans “arrow-fighters” (Il. 14.479). But later we find Agamemnon praising Teucer for his archery, even promising him a great gift when they finally get to sack Troy: a tripod, a team of horses and a chariot, or a woman (Il. 8.277-291). Later, Idomeneus, calls Teucer the greatest of the Achaean archers, though he is also careful to stress his skill at hand-to-hand combat, too (Il. 13.313–314).

Before we leave the epic battlefield, I should emphasize that the Trojan War is an exceptional engagement. Prophecy foretold that the war would last ten years, and the gods had attached various conditions to the capture of Troy. But there are descriptions in the Iliad of battles that may have been more typical: frequent cattle-raids such as those mentioned by Nestor, as well as the raiding operations that Achilles engaged in, during which he captured and sacked a number of towns both on land and by sea.

Part 2 – Homer and history

Now that we have some idea of what warfare looked like in the Homeric epics, we can turn to the question of whether or not the Homeric epics can be used as a source of historical inquiry.

In ancient times, no one doubted the historical veracity of the stories of the Trojan War. Ancient Greek – and later, Roman – historians tended to start their accounts with a discussion of the Trojan War, including Herodotus and Thucydides. Let’s cite Snodgrass again (p. 6):

Historians – even those as critically-inclined as Thucydides – would evaluate Homer’s testimony, but never dismiss it as mere poetic fantasy.

There were, of course, early detractors and critics of Homer: refer to the overview by Dio Chrysostom, for example. But on the whole, Homer and the Homeric epics were regarded as important pillars of Greek culture, and so we can leave this aspect aside for today.

In the modern era, scholars believed that the Homeric epics were little more than fantasy. This changed when, in the nineteenth century, German entrepreneur Heinrich Schliemann set out to unearth Priam’s city at Hissarlik in Turkey. He supposedly did so with a copy of the Iliad in one hand and a shovel in the other. Having proven to most people’s satisfaction the existence of an important city there, he next excavated in the Greek mainland, unearthing Agamemnon’s capital at Mycenae and also digging at Tiryns.

As time went on, however, it became increasingly clear that there were important differences between the epic world described by Homer and the archaeological realities of the Bronze Age. These differences were put into even starker contrast following the decipherment in 1952 of Mycenaean Linear B, which revealed a bureaucratic system entirely alien to the kind of socio-economic system found in epic poetry.

Today, there are some scholars who would argue that the Homeric epics don’t have anything in particular to say about any specific period of history. Commentators like Anthony Snodgrass and Oliver Dickinson have argued that the poems feature a mix of elements from different periods, as well as fantastical elements, to the point that it is futile to try and disentangle what bits of the poem may belong to what periods of Greek history.

Still, most other scholars, I believe, would argue that the Homeric epics are at least to a large extent consistent, and may confidently be said to reflect a particular time. They disagree about the kinds of elements that should be examined to arrive at a date for the epic world. Moses Finley, for example, argued that our focus should be on the structure of Homeric society; Ian Morris that we should focus on the culture, the attitudes that are taken for granted. The simplest way is to examine the material culture in the epics and try to determine which period of Greek history offers the best parallels for what is described in Homer when it comes to architecture, weapons, tools, and so forth.

There are still scholars today that argue there is some kind of link between Homer and the Bronze Age. This is a minority opinion, and often the material cited in defence of this idea concerns material objects such as Meriones’ boar’s tusk helmet, or shields that are described in Homer as resembling a “tower” and immediately – and perhaps a bit foolishly – linked with what we today refer to as “tower shields” encountered in Bronze Age iconography.

But whatever elements of the Bronze Age do appear in Homer can often be explained without recourse to some form of direct link between the Mycenaean era and Homer’s own age. For example, the massive fortifications around Mycenae remained visible throughout time. Greeks of the Classical period came to believe that these huge walls had been built by Cyclopes, and that Mycenae must have been important centre at some point in the distant past. It’s not hard to imagine how stories might spring up around such places. Things like Meriones’ helmet may well have been an heirloom, or something that an Archaic Greek found when they happened across a Mycenaean tomb.

The number of elements that may indeed be traced back to the Bronze Age include perhaps the idea of a war against Troy. The city unearthed at Hissarlik – if this is indeed Priam’s city! – was of little importance in the Early Iron Age and beyond. A second possible relic may be the names of certain characters, which are known from Linear B tablets, such as Achilles, but are not encountered in the historic era until well after the Homeric epics have become established as pan-Hellenic literature.

Perhaps instead Homer describes the conditions of a time after the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces, conventionally dated to ca. 1200 BC? Moses Finley argued in his World of Odysseus that this was the case, proposing to date Homer’s epic world to the ninth century BC. This date is no longer seriously supported as archaeology has revealed more and more about the Greek Dark Age.

Instead, the current consensus is that if the Homeric epics do reflect the conditions of a particular period of Greek history, then it most likely corresponds with Homer’s own age. Homer’s floruit used to be dated to the late eighth century, but over time this has been lowered, to ca. 700 BC or even to the early seventh century BC. Certainly, there is little trace of the Mycenaean world in Homer, and what we find instead seems to fit best, at least in archaeological terms, such as architecture, decorated metalwork comparable to the shield of Achilles, and so on, with the Early Archaic period.

However, the result of narrowing down the date of Homer’s epic world has not been as important as one might have expected. Hans van Wees, in his book Status Warriors: War, Violence and Society in Homer and History (1992), writes in his conclusion (pp. 262-263):

In the preface, it was argued that historians cannot afford to ignore Homeric evidence, because it is essential to current views of the Dark Age (including the eighth century) and hence to theories of the changes that took place at the end of this period. To disregard the epics as sources, it was suggested, would mean such a serious loss of evidence that these theories might no longer have a basis. Ironically, the implications of the present reconstruction of Homeric society are somewhat similar to the effect of ignoring the epics as sources. Homer’s image of the heroic age turns out to be so similar to what we know of the Archaic Age that many perceived contrasts between Homeric/Dark Age and Archaic society are reduced to the point of vanishing.

And he summarizes this point as (p. 263):

One might conclude that Homer reflects the early Archaic Age itself, or one might argue that the poems reflect Dark Age conditions and that there is thus a great deal of continuity between these periods. In either case, the epics provide little or no evidence for historical change in any of these respects.

In other words, the problem is that if we want to use the Homeric epics as a source of historical information, we need to know enough about each period of Greek history to be able to confidently assign it to one in particular. The epics seem to best fit the Early Archaic period, because we have enough material to compare them with, making what they add to our historical knowledge of relatively limited value.

Part 3 – The warrior ideal

Which brings me to my last and also the most important point that I want to make. The Homeric epics are incredibly useful when it comes to articulating the warrior ideal or ethos that seems to pervade Early Greek culture. We find expressions of this warrior ideal not only in texts, including other Archaic poems, inscriptions, and even Herodotus; it is also reflected in the archaeological record across a large swathe of time.

Homer’s heroes distinguish themselves in two ways: through their words and through their deeds, or to put in a different way: through politics and through war. Both of these activities generate important kudos or (divine) glory or prestige. Odysseus is perhaps the archetype when it comes to the former: he tells stories, inspires people, but is also a gifted liar. Our modern morality doesn’t apply. Old king Nestor, who cannot fight himself anymore, has to rely entirely on his words, but does tell stories that reveal that in the past, at least, he was also a man of action.

When it comes to deeds, it’s primarily prowess that matters, especially the prowess or aretē displayed on the battlefield. Odysseus may be a gifted speaker, but he is also a force on the battlefield, though obviously inferior to the Greek champion, Achilles, and the Trojan champion, Hector. In the world of the Iliad, might makes right, though this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone with political power was necessarily also a strong fighter, or that only the strongest fighters wielded political power.

The Homeric ideal emphasizes that those in power have an obligation to protect their communities. This is a point demonstrated by Susanne Ebbinghaus in her article on the Mykonos Vase. This large fragmentary pithos or storage vessel, dated to the late seventh century BC, features a number of scenes associated with the Trojan War. Ebbinghaus makes a strong case for interpreting it as a statement regarding the military obligations of the rich. Important within the context of the vase’s scenes is a fallen warrior, whom she plausibly interprets as representing the Trojan hero Hector. Ebbinghaus concludes (pp. 68-69):

The interconnection of a man’s prowess in battle, his standing in the community and his wealth, which we find expressed in early Greek poetry, explains why a pithos was felt to be the appropriate place to advertise the importance of leadership by illustrating the suffering of a city that had lost its protector.

The many scenes on the Mykonos Vase showcase the horrors of war. They bring to mind some of the scenes of death and destruction in the Iliad. A speech by Hector, given when he says goodbye to his wife Andromache and their son, Astyanax, gives some idea of the anguish experienced by the inhabitants of Troy if their city were taken by the Greeks (Il. 6.447-465).

Insults to honour (timē) are usually the main cause of conflict in the epic world. As Hans van Wees memorably put it, Homeric society centres on the “importance of being angry”. Any perceived slight to one’s honour ought to be punished, or one risks losing their privileged position. After all, in a world where might makes right, becoming feeble is a liability, and we get some idea of this when Achilles laments about leaving his aged father alone in Phthia. In reality, the situation is more complex, with not all slights actually punished immediately or at all, but for now let’s leave it at this.

A lot of the ethos expressed in Homer also focuses on the body. Ugly people, like the Greek Thersites, are not to be taken seriously, to be mocked and even beaten into submission – he is inferior in status to the princes, who may not always be handsome, but are never actively repulsive. The most powerful heroes, like Achilles and Hector, are strong and healthy, able-bodied men. The pervasiveness of this ideal is clear from a fragment attributed to the warrior-poet Archilochus, who is able to ridicule it. He describes his ideal military commander (stratēgos) as “a shortish sort of chap, who’s bandy-looking around the shins” (fr. 114.3 West).

The physical appearance of the heroes is enhanced using bronze armour that makes them “shine” like the gods: think about, for example, Shining Apollo or Athena with the flashing eyes. Armour in particular is something of great value, and can be passed down from father to son. During the fighting, warriors will try to strip their fallen foes of their armour. It could be that wearing the armour of a particularly powerful foe would imbue you with some of their strength. After Patroclus’ death, Hector strips him of his armour. When he puts it on, “Ares the dangerous war god entered him, so that the inward body was packed full of force and fighting strength” (Il. 17.210-212; transl. Lattimore). It was a sign of considerable respect that Achilles did not strip Andromache’s father Eëtion of his armour, but instead cremated him in it (Il. 6.416-420).

In graves that span a wide swathe of time, we encounter many elements that can be connected to this ethos. In an article published in 1995, Paul Treherne usefully pointed out that European tombs of the Bronze Age have a number of recurring elements that point to the existence of a particular ideal among the elite. The tombs in question contained weapons and body-armour, as well as personal accoutrements focused on adorning, emphasizing, or otherwise enhancing the body, and vessels used in the consumption of alcohol.

The latter is a reference to feasting. Feasts are important events where members of the elite reinforce their bonds and establish hierarchies. They play an important part in the epics, too, and are pervasive in other sources. The famous tomb T45 at Argos, dated to the late eighth century BC, yielded a cornucopia of finds that connected the deceased with both fighting and feasting: the grave featured a bell-shaped cuirass, two strips that may have belonged to greaves, a helmet, a pair of double-axes, as well as two firedogs shaped like ships and obeloi or spits used for roasting meat. The tomb also contained fragments of a number of cups, remains of a krater, and a fragmentary amphora.

But tombs with similar grave goods are also found in earlier periods of Aegean history, suggesting that the warrior ideal articulated in Homer may indeed stretch back to the more distant past. From Pylos, we have the well-published “Griffin Warrior Tomb”, dated to ca. 1450 BC. This tomb featured bronze bands that may have been part of armour, as well as a sword, a dagger, a knife, silver cups and bronze vessels associated with the consumption of alcohol, and various objects associated with bodily care or decoration: ivory combs, rings, and a mirror.

That the body and physical beauty in particular are important to this elite ethos is made especially clear when we turn to the concept of the “beautiful death”. In the twenty-second book of the Iliad, Priam extols the virtues of a young man dying, contrasting it with the death of an older man (Il. 22.71–76; transl. Lattimore):

[…] For a young man all is decorous when he is cut down in battle and torn with the sharp bronze, and lies there dead, and though dead still all that shows about him is beautiful; but when an old man is dead and down, and the dogs mutilate the grey head and the grey beard and the parts that are secret, this, for all sad mortality, is the sight most pitiful.

We see similar sentiments in other poets of the Archaic period. Tyrtaeus, for example, emphasizes that the death of a young and handsome warrior is good, whereas the sight of older men dying on the battlefield is considered “disgraceful”. Tyrtaeus specifically addresses the “young men” (neoi) of the Spartan army to stand and fight against the enemy (fr. 10.15–32 West).

The ideal of the beautiful death is, of course, embodied by Achilles. Of course, he has the benefit of being a demigod and having a more or less direct line to the Fates. As he says in the ninth book of the Iliad (Il. 9.410–416; transl. Lattimore):

For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either, if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans, my return home is gone, but my glory [kleos] shall be everlasting; but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers, the excellence [esthlos] of my glory [kleos] is gone, but there will be a long life left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.

Still, you didn’t have to die on the battlefield to attain eternal glory. Tyrtaeus again tells us that if a man were to distinguish himself in battle and survive, all the people of the community, “young and old alike”, would honour him. He would become something of a local celebrity, respected by high and low, and “all the men at the public seats” would “make room for him”. In other words, brave warriors can look forward to enjoying certain privileges. This, Tyrtaeus emphasizes, is the just reward of those who defend their country (fr. 12.35–44 West).

Again, the general acceptance of these notions is demonstrated by the fact that Archilochus gets to parody them. He complains in one fragment “no one here enjoys respect (aidos) or reputation (periphemos) once he’s dead” (fr. 133 West); the people familiar to the poet only tend to the living. This may certainly have been the case in some – perhaps many? – instances, but the important thing here is that the ideal articulated in Homer and found elsewhere is considered the norm.

The point that I am making here is different from what J.E. Lendon argues in his book Soldiers and Ghosts (2005). He writes (p. 37):

The ultimate origins of the ferocious competitiveness of the Greeks – in human biology? An inheritance of Indo-European codes of masculinity – cannot be discovered. But without doubt the cult of Homer perpetuated in Greece the competitive ethics embodied in the poems, while the epics remained fundamental educational texts because the poems reflected those familiar, undying, admired principles: epic and Greek competitive ethics walked like conjoined twins through the centuries. And this congruence of Homeric and later Greek ethics ensured that the heroes were not only old, but also admirable, and so the past of the Greeks was not inert, but to be imitated by the men of the present. The heroes of epic always sat invisible upon the shoulders of the Greeks, whispering their counsel.

Lendon here suggests that the later Greeks were heavily influenced by the Homeric epics when it came to how they developed their form of warfare. This may be true for the Classical period – I am not expert when it comes to that period – but I am not one hundred percent convinced that the Greeks would have sacrificed practical concerns out of some kind of loyalty towards the “good old ways” of fighting as described in Homer. I think the work that Roel Konijnendijk has done when it comes to classical Greek tactics reveals different concerns.

In my opinion, saying that Homer influenced the development of Greek warfare is an instance of putting the cart before the horse. As I hope to have shown, the Homeric epics carefully express the dominant ideologies of the day, including a warrior ethos in which competitiveness may have been an important aspect, if perhaps not as important as the general warrior ideal that we find expressed in both the written and archaeological records.

But it is true, of course, that Homer could be used as a source of inspiration for ancient writers from at least the Classical period onwards. A good example of that is the fight over the corpse of king Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae as described by Herodotus. Fights over corpses – what in German is referred to as Leichekämpfe – are among the most violent encounters in the Iliad, a place to display one’s aristeia or bravery in combat.

As Henk Singor put it in a paper published in 1995 (pp. 194-195):

In the Iliad, a large part of the fighting among the promachoi is around the corpses of fallen warriors. These fights belong to the “typical battle scenes” of the epic. Both sides’ heroes and their hetairoi are frequently drawn into a fight in order either to partake in the despoiling of a slain foe or to help protect a fallen friend.

Herodotus’ description of the struggle over Leonidas’ corpse is clearly derivative of the epic descriptions, which should probably make us question its historical veracity. But that’s the subject of a different talk.

Concluding remarks

We are nearing the end of my presentation. There’s a massive amount to talk about when it comes to Greek warfare and Homer, but I had to be selective, and skipped over a great deal of detail and academic debates. There should be time to discuss some points in further detail when we turn to the questions.

But before I let you go, I think it’s useful to summarize the key points that I have made over the course of the last forty minutes or so.

I started with a brief review of the main characteristics of “Homeric warfare”, that is the form of warfare described in the Homeric epics. I next discussed whether the Homeric epics can be used as a source of historical inquiry, and suggested that the current consensus is that they reflect the conditions of Homer’s own age, say round 700 BC or a little later.

But even if you don’t agree with the reconstruction of Homeric warfare proposed in this talk or with the date of the Homeric world, there is one element of the Homeric epics that I think cannot be refuted, namely that they articulate a warrior ethos that appears to have been influential across a wide area of the Aegean basin and across a large span of time.

Thank you for listening.