In this book, based on a doctoral Thesis completed in part at the University of Amsterdam and in part at the University of London, the author embarks on the bold attempt of wringing history from the Homeric epics—in particular, ‘the general question of why men fight’.
He begins correctly in his first Chapter with the problem of “History in Poetry”. This almost intractable problem of course involves separating fact from fiction. In opposition to numerous ostensibly easy attempts to do this, van Wees contends that ‘too often scholars regard as implausible or even impossible what is merely unfamiliar’; and even more important, they fail to consider that the epics may contain ‘plausible fantasy‘. In this exercise of extracting history from poetry it is necessary to go beyond separating fact from fantasy. Van Wees makes the subtle point that one must also assess what is fact and what is fantasy—which can only be done after one has reconstructed the Homeric world ‘as a whole’. On doing so, after separating fact from fantasy, one ‘will not discard fantasy, as virtually all historians are prone to do’. For, although it may not reflect fact, it does reflect an important aspect of culture, in that it ‘is bound to reflect the experiences, fears and ideals of those who fantasise,’ so that ‘even the imaginary aspects of the world of the heroes may indirectly prove valuable information on Greek culture’. One of the major contentions of the study, therefore, is that, although a great deal of what makes up the world of the heroes in the Homeric poems is fantastic, it none the less reflects ‘the ideals of Homer and his audience’ (5-10).
This approach involves not only history but also psychology, which clearly means a very difficult task, especially if one accepts that ‘the “truth” changes as the world changes, even if people perceive it as immutable’. And it is even more difficult, given the problems associated with where the stories originated, how they were transmitted, when they were created, and above all how much they changed in the course of transmission. It would make a significant difference, for instance, if the stories began as early as the sixteenth century BC or were created by the Aeolians in the post-Mycenaean era, and whether they were written down ca. the middle of the eighth century by one or more poets or in the time of Peisistratus ( ca. 550 BC)—i.e., whether the poems contain material from the Mycenaean era, the so-called ‘Dark Age’ or the Archaic period, or all three.
These factors clearly pose tremendous problems. To obviate them, in part, van Wees posits that one should reject the view that the epics are a patchwork—rather, one should begin from the premise that ‘the text is coherent, consistent and meaningful unless proven otherwise, and one should therefore pay due attention to the context in which the evidence occurs’. From this, one can extrapolate that ‘one’s first step should be to reconstruct the heroic world as a whole,’ i.e., on the basis of the poems alone. Thereafter, appeal can be made to the ‘archaeological and historical record for parallels’. In this process, what is admittedly ‘fantastic’ does not constitute any problem, provided the picture is coherent (19).
As an illustrative instance, van Wees discusses “the case of the round shield,” and, rejecting as an alternative view that it stems from Mycenaean times and that oral tradition turned Mycenaean shields into armour fit for supermen, he favours an original hypothesis—that later epic poets not only invented a race of heroes, but ‘also invented large shields for them’ (17-20). This is admittedly a possibility, but no more. There is no way of proving it. The same applies to the conclusion which van Wees extrapolates from this discussion: such shields indicate that ‘the epics consistently depict a version of Dark Age or Archaic reality, which, one might say, is glamorised to reflect one or two of the ideals of poet and audience’ (21). Although this is a viable approach, as the author contends, it is not necessarily compelling.
Van Wees’ approach, then, is threefold: 1) To reconstruct a coherent image of the world of the heroes. 2) To consider the possibility that what at first glance seems a jumble of mutually incompatible historical elements may in fact be a consistent fantasy. 3) To ‘explain the role of fantastic elements whenever their existence is posited’ (22).
He then applies these three rules to three major areas, each constituting a separate chapter: 1) “Life in town: the organisation of household, community and state” (25-58; 322-44); 2) “The Importance of Being Angry: status, personal power and violence” (61-165; 345-78); 3) “Pillage and Destruction: predatory and status warfare” (167-258; 379-405). Thereafter, a short Conclusion (261-65) is followed by four Appendices: 1) “Towns and Townfolk” (269-73); 2) “Princes and Sceptres” (274-80); 3) “Monarchs, Dynasties, Temenea” (281-98); 4) “Booty: Prizes and Portions” (299-310). There is also a very extensive Bibliography (419-40), but a highly selective Index (443-50), and, finally, an Index of Passages from Homer (451-55).
After studying the three major areas, in the course of which van Wees offers a whole series of original and stimulating ideas on Greek epic and Greek history, not a few of which challenge old views, he concludes that, for all intents and purposes, all but one aspect of the world of the heroes ‘reflect the realities and ideals of eighth or early seventh century society’—i.e., ‘almost exclusively … the society in which the poems reached their final form’ (262).
Such a conclusion is not, however, without serious difficulties. While van Wees demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the epics and a solid appreciation of the society which they depict, one detects in his discussion a less than comprehensive understanding of the so called ‘Dark Age’ and the Archaic period—i.e., to the extent that society and culture in these eras are currently known, which means chiefly on the basis of the archaeological evidence.
Moreover, since he concludes that the poems reflect either so called ‘Dark Age’ or (more likely) Archaic society, it should follow that he accepts, of the two alternatives of the origin of the epic tales, the view that the tale of Troy was ‘made up by the Aeolian Greeks who came to settle in the plain of Troy’ in the Dark Age (11). That being so, and given that ‘Homer’ traditionally came from across the Aegean, if the Homeric poems reflect the society of the Archaic period, they ought to reflect first and foremost features from society in western Asia Minor—although the society in the poems ostensibly refers to that of the Greek mainland. Van Wees, however, does not appear to take Ionia into account at all, although it obviously ought to be of great significance—and not least in respect of population growth, which is important for his thesis.
As for the major thesis of his study, namely, ‘why men fight,’ he concludes that violence and aggression in Homer should not be seen as part of human nature,
Even if van Wees has not achieved his primary objective, there is much in this book about Greek epic and early Greek society that readers will find worth reading.