Ancient Greece: From the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Homer

By Sigrid Deger-Jalkotzy; Irene S. Lemos | Go to book overview

24

HISTORICAL APPROACHES TO HOMER

Kurt A. Raaflaub

This is an important topic–generally and to me personally. I have written on various aspects of it and taken a firm stand on the question of the 'historicity' of 'Homeric society' (in detail: Raaflaub 1998; summary: Raaflaub 1997a). I have strong allies in this endeavour, and in the last years the communis opinio has perhaps begun to shift in our direction.1 But disagreement remains formidable, and that is good: without it, no progress.2 At any rate, this is still very much a live issue, and so I welcome the opportunity to focus here on some important issues and on questions of principle and methodology.

As historians confronted with the majestic epics of Homer, we need to display a good deal of modesty. To be sure, the epics are set in the distant past. At least superficially, they deal with an event (and its aftermath) that was considered historical throughout antiquity–so much so that Thucydides (1.9–11) did not hesitate to apply to it the argument from probability and some of the sharpest intellects throughout antiquity competed in establishing a precise date for it (Burkert 1995; on Thucydides: Hornblower 1991: 31–7). But the epics are not really about history. Nor is the Iliad really about the Trojan War. History and the war merely provide the context in which, under the poet's careful guidance, major dramas of human relations, dilemmas, failures, and successes unfold. It is these human dramas that have made the epics immortal and enabled innumerable generations over almost three millennia to identify with their protagonists. The epics represent great narrative and great literature, and if we think that they are historically important as well, we always need to remind ourselves that they were not intended to be that.

I emphasise this not only to pay my humble respects to the master of heroic epic. Rather, to historians it is essential to be fully aware of the nature and

1 I mention especially Adkins 1960, 1971; Donlan (largely collected in 1999, see Donlan 1997);
Morris 1986; Ulf 1990; van Wees, Status Warriors; van Wees 1994, 1997; see also Olson 1995:
ch. 9; Thalmann 1998.

2 I gratefully acknowledge Paul Cartledge's persistent but generous 'opposition' (see also below,
note 3) that has pushed me to pursue the relevant questions further than I might have done
otherwise.

-449-

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