Greek and Romans
What does the Odyssey tell the reader about Greek culture and values?
The Greeks in general regard Homer’s two epics as the highest cultural achievement of their people, the defining moment in Greek culture, which set the basic Greek character in stone. Throughout antiquity, both in Greece and Rome, everything tended to be compared to these two works; events in history made sense when put in the light of the events narrated in these two works.
There are two very important words repeatedly used throughout the Homeric epics: honor and virtue or greatness. The latter term is perhaps the most reiterated cultural and moral value in Ancient Greece and means something like achieving, morally and otherwise, your greatest potential as a human being. The reward for great honor and virtue is fame (kleos ), which is what guarantees meaning and value to one’s life.
Dying without fame (akleos ) is generally considered a disaster, and the warriors of the Homeric epics commit the most outrageous deeds to avoid dying in obscurity or infamy (witness Odysseus’s absurd insistence on telling Polyphemos his name even though this will bring disaster on him and his men). The passage from Odyssey XI discussed above presents Achilles’s final judgment on kleos and its value when he tells Odysseus that he would rather be alive and the most obscure human on earth than dead and famous.
“The Great Wanderings,” from which these extracts are taken, make up Books IX-XI of the Odyssey ; in this part of the epic, Odysseus narrates to his hosts, the Phaiakians, who have rescued him from the sea after he leaves Kalypso’s island, about his adventures following the Trojan War and how he came to be shipwrecked alone on the island with Kalypso. It is this part of the story you are probably most familiar with and have encountered in some form or another, if only in the Kirk Douglas movie. If there is a general idea animating the account of these wanderings, it is the nature of civilization and ordered society. Most of the fabulous events, especially the story of Polyphemos, in some way deal with the values that underlie the early Greek notion of order and civility, as well as those values that underlie the heroic code.
2. Discuss the causes of conflict between Athens and Sparta.
According to Thucydides’ account, the major cause of the Peloponnesian war was “the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”. Athenian power had come from Periclean imperialism and economic dynamism. The new generation of Spartiates wanted to restore the power of Sparta. As a consequent, the Spartiates would have a grudge against Athens, due to its greater power, which overshadowed Sparta’s hegemony in the Peloponnesus. Considering the agonistic nature of Greek culture, the Greek’s emphasis of ‘eris’ and other elements of Greek life, this give Thucydides a persuasive case for the major cause of the war.
Thucydides accounts for the resources and strategies of Sparta and Athens. He states that Sparta had an army of approximately 30,000 hoplites with 2,000 cavalry as compared to the 13,000 hoplites and 1,200 cavalry that Athens had. Although Sparta used mainly the Corinthian vessels as a navy, it didn’t compare to the 300 trireme strong Athenian navy.
However, Sparta’s interests did not lie in the sea, or anywhere else but the Peloponnesus where they held their sphere of influence. It can seem hard to believe that the Spartans would fear the Athenians when they had a superior army. There can be little doubt that it was mainly Corinth who feared Athenian imperialism, not Sparta, as both Athens and Corinth were competing for hegemony over the colonies both in the Aegean and to the west.
Some scholars have raised questions about the reliability of Thucydides account for this period. This school of historians believes that Thucydides purposely misleads the readers due to his partisanship with Athens. If this is true, there can be little doubt that Athens was the aggressor in this war. However, Athens also ostracised him when he was a general, so that incident makes it hard to see a ‘partisanship’ between him and Athens would be evident in his writings. However, as he is the chief source on this period, and there is little evidence to either argue for or against the reliability of his work, many of his descriptions can be assumed as fact.
Bradley considers that Thucydides’ explanation to the cause of the Peloponnesian war is “regarded as far too simplistic”. This evaluation is derived from the lack of emphasis or mention of the other reasons which provoked the war. One such reason is the opposing political and ideological beliefs between the two sides. In which can be basically described as a conflict between the supporters of oligarchy and democracy. There were also the cultural and racial differences between the Ionians and Dorians which was another element which caused mistrust. Bradley points out that Thucydides “has often been accused of misunderstanding the causes of the war, that is, of not estimating accurately the relative seriousness of the incidents leading to it and not giving the Megarian decree as a cause”.
Thucydides uses the ‘pentecontaetia’, the 50 year period before the Peloponnesian war to justify his belief of the major cause of the war, Sparta’s fear of Athenian imperialism. Adcock does not believe that Thucydides’ explanation for the causes of the war can be justified with the history preceding it. Adcock’s opinion can be evaluated as reasonable as there is insufficient evidence that Thucydides’ claim for the cause of the war is true, yet there are many other possibilities for being the major cause of the war, not just a single simplistic reason.
Pericles was prepared for war well before the Peloponnesian league as he was a strategic thinker. Pericles was well aware of the weaknesses and strengths of the Athenian empire and set to exploit them as much as possible. The Walls he built between Athens and the Piraeus is a clear depiction of his plans to go to war in the future, as he can defend Athens easily with such a wall. Pericles also sets up a reserve fund which Thucydides states has 6000 talents deposited for a future war effort. These precautions taken by Pericles show his imperial ambitions for Athens which could lead to a conflict with other states.
Trade rivalry can be considered one of the major causes of the war. The rivalry was between Corinth and Athens in which Corinth’s influence was to the west and Athens’ to the east.
3. Discuss the fall of the Roman Republic and the creation of the Principate during the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C.
The Decline of the Roman Empire is a historical term of periodization for the end of the Western Roman Empire. Edward Gibbon in his famous study It remains one of the greatest historical questions, and has a tradition rich in scholarly interest.
Edward Gibbon famously placed the blame on a loss of civic virtue among the Roman citizens. They gradually outsourced their duties to defend the Empire to barbarian mercenaries who eventually turned on them. Gibbon considered that Christianity had contributed to this, making the populace less interested in the worldly here-and-now and more willing to wait for the rewards of heaven. “[T]he decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight,” he wrote. “In discussing Barbarism and Christianity I have actually been discussing the Fall of Rome.”
Gibbon’s work is notable for its erratic, but exhaustively documented, notes and research. Interestingly, since he was writing in the eighteenth century, Gibbon also mentioned the climate, while reserving naming it as a cause of the decline, saying “the climate (whatsoever may be its influence) was no longer the same.” While judging the loss of civic virtue and the rise of Christianity to be a lethal combination, Gibbon did find other factors possibly contributing in the decline.
In the second half of the 19th century some historians started to promote a continuity between the Roman world and the post-Roman Germanic kingdoms. Fustel de Coulanges in Histoire des institutions politiques de l’ancienne France (1875-1889) argued the barbarians simply accelerated a running process and they continued the transforming Roman institutions.
Henri Pirenne continued this idea in “Pirenne Thesis”, published in the 1920s, which remains influential to this day. It holds that the Empire continued, in some form, up until the time of the Muslim conquests in the 7th century, which disrupted Mediterranean trade routes, leading to a decline in the European economy. This theory stipulates the rise of the Frankish realm in Europe as a continuation of the Roman Empire, and thus legitimizes the crowning of Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor as a continuation of the Imperial Roman state.
Other modern critics stipulate that while Pirenne is correct in his assertion of the continuation of the Empire beyond the sack of Rome, the Arab conquests in the 7th century may not have disrupted Mediterranean trade routes to the degree that Pirenne suggests. Michael McCormick in particular notes that more recent sources, such as unearthed collective biographies, notate new trade routes through correspondences in communication. Moreover, records such as book-keepings and coins suggest the movement of Islamic currency into the Carolingian Empire. McCormick concludes that if money is coming in, some form of trade is going out – possibly European slaves to the Arabic states, as Islam forbid the use of their own as slaves.