Last time we talked about Homer and whether or not he really existed. HOWEVER, whether or he was real or merely a legend, we are left with the same problem when viewing the text. In fact, everything in this post will be applicable for pretty much any of the Greek or Roman texts that I will reference in the future, so this post is not only relevant for The Iliad, but for other ancient texts as well.
These texts have a very different bias than we do (or, at least, it most likely does, unless you are a rare and mysterious individual) and therefore there are some major Potentials For Miscommunication. Some of these PFM’s are listed below:
- Time. These epics were created and written down many, many years before I was born, and therefore, many, many year before you were born (unless you are a time-traveling doctor or a girl named Julianna, who is secretly thousands of years old). The way people lived back then was very different from how we live now (especially to us living in the modern Western world). Even how we view the concept of time may be different. Consider, for example, the Mesoamericans and their quadripartite concept of time — very few people will even know what that means, but for a pre-conquest Mesoamerican it was just a part of life. So too might the Greeks or Romans view time conceptually different than however you do.
- Place. None of us are living in Ancient Greece or on the Ionian Coast. Most of you are not even living in Greece or Turkey. (If you are: while this PFM is not as terrible for you, the landscape has still changed quite a bit since the Stone/Bronze/Iron Age.) The Mediterranean world is different geographically from, say, the Hudson or Wyoming Valleys. Therefore, the land you are looking at and living in is not the same land Agamemnon would have looked at or lived in. [A person’s Sense of Place and the Significance of Place is something I will probably go into more detail later.]
- Language. These were written in an old form of Greek (or Latin) that no one actively speaks anymore. You will most likely be reading a translated text. Every time you translate something, you re-make it. Every translator is going to bring their own views and vocabulary to the text. It’s impossible not to. So even if you are reading the original text it is still a translation, because YOU are translating it. You are not an ancient Greek, and therefore no matter what you do you will have to translate this text and in the translating of it, re-make it.
- Poetic Language. Not only is The Iliad written in old time Greek , but the text uses poetic devices all over the place. It uses a whole lot of symbolism, metaphor, epic simile, and more. It talks about pastoral images a lot (like leaves and fields and leopards), which seems really weird when you read it the first time. The poem has a specific rhythm and meter and all that (which I will NOT explain because poetic forms is not my forte). It repeats a lot of phrases, because this is what poets used to help them remember what came next in the poem. That’s why Athena is often spoken of as “grey-eyed” and the sea is “wine-dark.” These phrases not only fit the meter of the poem, BUT also helped the poet remember where he was in the poem when he was dramatically reciting to the masses.
- Repetition. Because Homer’s poems were recited out loud to crowds there is a WHOLE lot of repetition, just in case someone wanders around the campfire/into the crowd and doesn’t know what happened yet; or in case someone dozed off; or in case some poor child was fighting desperately to focus but, really?, couldn’t. Also, #becausepoetry. (That is the only explanation you’re going to get out of me, because I am that bad at poetic vocabulary/definitions.)
- Values, Ethics, and Moral Ideals. Some of the ancient Greek/Roman values and ethics will overlap with our modern ones; some of them definitely won’t. Don’t be quick to judge, but try to think of the world through their eyes. They don’t have phones or fancy magic devices, they barely have swords. They don’t have burger fast food places, they have fields of barley and a whole lot of drought. No cars, but difficult seas that sometimes stranded you for three months because of the currents and the weather. Their world is going to be different than ours, so their values are going to reflect that. Also, they live in a different time period, in a different land, with a different religious outlook (unless you are a Hellenic Reconstructionist of some sort, in which case, the differences religiously won’t be as bad). Even if they didn’t live in such a different time/place, remember: your values, ethics, and moral ideals could be different from your next-door neighbors values, ethics, and moral ideals, so it’s important to be able to understand and be aware of this PFM in particular, because it is something that will show up in your day to day life.
Some other points to remember when considering authorship, particularly with ancient Greek or Roman works, is that the person who created/wrote it was:
- Male. (Unless possibly Sappho). It is sad, but true. Until you get to Anna of Byzantium, outside of some poetry, it’s all males all the time, and that bias shows, sometimes like #WHAT.
- Educated. You don’t write things down if you aren’t educated. Mostly because you can’t write things down if you don’t know how words or alphabets work. #thisshouldbeobvious
- Probably middle/upper class. You don’t get educated if you don’t have monies.
- Sexist. Women are poetic devices at best. Some authors are less sexist than others, but yeah. The Greek and Roman world is INCREDIBLY male-centric/phallo-centric, whatever fancy term you want to use to describe it. Sometimes this is painful. I try to be fair, because that is the world they grew up in, but sometimes my own bias will come out in a roar, so be prepared for that.
- Polytheist. Whether hardcore, fairly agnostic, meh, or more atheistic, the polytheist view is going to color EVERYTHING in the Greek/Roman world. If you are used to a monotheistic viewpoint, I promise you, some things in these texts just won’t jive and will leave you flummoxed. Do your best.
- Ethnicity/Race. Greeks are VERY pro-Greek everyone else is stupid/barbaric/uncivilized/a cannibal. Romans are VERY pro-Roman everyone else is stupid/barbaric/uncivilized/not as good as us. The Greek worldview is very anti-anyone else (part of their hatred of Thrace). The Romans are very We Are The Most Awesome HAHAHAHA, which is why they downplay the importance of Etruria like #WHAT. So whenever a Greek/Roman author is talking about someone/a group that isn’t part of their group, BE AWARE, a bias is happening.
There are other lenses that authors look through that create their bias, of course. These are just some basic things to keep in mind. A future post delving into ancient Greek ethics/values may happen one day, and at that time will be linked to HERE. But not this day.
ALSO: Obviously, I am an author so I have a bias. All of these categories also relate to what I’m writing. While I do try my best to be accurate and fair, sometimes I, like Herodotus, exaggerate/gossip/re-invent because it makes a story, quite simply, better. Keep this in mind and forgive me my re-interpretations of text, as I forgive those who re-interpreted before me.