Chapter 3


In the second book of the Iliad the poet catalogues the contending hosts, in the case of Greeks by the names of their chief leaders and the number of ships each brought with him. 'But the multitude (i.e. the commoners] I could not relate nor name, not if I had ten tongues, nor ten mouths' (II 488-9). The list totals 1186 ships, which, at a minimum computation, means over 60,000 men, a figure as trustworthy as the 400,000 Saracens of the Song of Roland. The world of Odysseus was a small one in numbers of people. There are no statistics and no ways of making good guesses, but the five-acre sites of the archaeologists, together with what is known from later centuries, leave no doubt that the populations of the individual communities were to be reckoned in four figures, often even in three, and that the numbers in the poems, whether of ships or flocks or slaves or nobles, are unrealistic and invariably err on the side of exaggeration.

One of the smallest contingents in the catalogue of ships was led by Odysseus, a mere twelve (Agamemnon had one hundred and provided sixty others for the inland Arcadians). He is announced as king of the Cephallenians, who inhabit three adjacent islands in the Ionian Sea, Cephallenia, Ithaca, and Zacynthus, together with two sites apparently on the near-by mainland. But it is with Ithaca specifically that he is always directly identified. And it is on the island of Ithaca, not in the Never-Never Land through which he later wandered, that the world of Odysseus can chiefly be examined.

The island population was dominated by a group of noble families, some of whose men participated in the expedition against Troy while others remained at home. Among the latter was Mentor, to whose watchful eye Odysseus entrusted his young wife, Penelope, who came from another district, and his only child, his newborn son Telemachus, when he himself went off.


For twenty years there was a strange hiatus in the political leader- ship of Ithaca. Odysseus's father, Laertes, did not resume the throne, though still alive. Penelope could not rule, being a woman. Mentor was no guardian in any legal sense, merely a well- intentioned, ineffectual figure, and he did not function as a regent.

For ten years a similar situation prevailed throughout the Greek world, while the kings, with few exceptions, were at war. With the destruction of Troy, and the great homecoming of the heroes, life was resumed in its normal ways; The fallen kings were replaced; some who returned, like Agamemnon, ran into usurpers and assassins; and the others came back to the seats of power and its pursuits. But for Odysseus there was a different fate. Having offended the god Poseidon, he was tossed about for another ten years before he was rescued, largely through the intervention of Athena, and permitted to return to Ithaca. It was this second decade that perplexed the people at home. No one in all Hellas knew what had befallen Odysseus, whether he had died on the return journey from Troy or was still alive somewhere in the outer world. This uncertainty laid the basis for the second theme of the poem, the story of the suitors.

Again there is trouble with numbers. No less than 108 nobles, 56 from Ithaca and the other islands ruled by Odysseus, and 52 from a neighbouring island kingdom, says the poet, were paying court to Penelope. She was to be forced to choose Odysseus's successor from am9ng them. This was no ordinary wooing, ancient style or modern. Except that they continued to sleep in their own homes, the suitors had literally taken over the household of the absent Odysseus and were steadily eating and drinking their way through his vast stores; 'not twenty men together have so much wealth', according to his swineherd Eumaeus (14.98-g). For three years Penelope had defended herself by delaying tactics, but her power of resistance was wearing down. The ceaseless carouse in the house, the growing feeling that Odysseus would never return, and the suitors' open threat, made publicly to Telemachus, 'to eat up your livelihood and your possessions' (2.123), were having their effect. Just in time Odysseus re-


appeared, disguised as a wandering beggar. By employing all his craft and prowess, and a little magic, he succeeded in slaughtering the suitors, and, with the final intervention of Athena, in re- establishing his position as head of his household and king in Ithaca.

Abroad, Odysseus's life was one long series of struggles with witches, giants, and nymphs, but there is none of that in the Ithacan story. On the island we are confronted with human society alone (including the ever-present Athena, to be sure, but in a sense the Greek gods were always a part of human society, working through dreams, prophecies, oracles, and other signs). The same is true of the Iliad. For the story of the few days between the insult by Agamemnon and the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles, as for the main plot of the Ithacan theme, the nobility provides all the characters. The Odyssey parades other people of the island, but largely as stage props or stock types: Eumaeus the swineherd, the old nurse Eurycleia, Phemius the bard, the name- less carvers of the meat', the sailors and housemaids and miscellaneous retainers. The poet's meaning is clear: on the field of battle, as in the power struggle which is the Ithacan theme, only the aristocrats had roles.

A deep horizontal cleavage marked the world of the Homeric poems. Above the line were the aristoi, literally the 'best people', the hereditary nobles who held most of the wealth and all the power, in peace as in war. Below were all the others, for whom there was no collective technical term, the multitude. The gap between the two was rarely crossed, except by the inevitable accidents of wars and raids: The economy was such that the creation of new fortunes, and thereby of new nobles, was out of the question. Marriage was strictly class-bound, so that the other door to social advancement was also securely locked.

Below the main line there were various other divisions, but, unlike the primary distinction between aristocrat and commoner, they seem blurred and they are' often indefinable. There is no generic word in the poems meaning 'peasant' or 'craftsman', and that is right. This world, as we have already seen, lacked the neatly labelled hierarchical strata of the world of the Linear B


tablets or of the ancient Near East. Not even the contrast between slave and free man stands out in sharp clarity. The word drester, for example, which means 'one who works or serves', is used in the Odyssey for the free and the unfree alike. The work they did and the treatment they received, at the hands of their masters as in the psychology of the poet, are often indistinguishable.

Slaves existed in number; they were property, disposable at will. Mostly, to be precise, there were slave women, for wars and raids were the main source of supply: there was little ground, economic or moral, for sparing and enslaving the defeated men. The heroes as a rule killed (or sometimes ransomed) the males and-carried off the females, regardless of rank. Before offering up his prayer for his son, Hector, who knew his own doom, said to his wife: 'But I care not so much for the grief of the Trojans here- after. for yours, when one of the bronze-clad Achaeans will carry you off in tears; and you will be in Argos, working the loom at another woman's bidding, and you will draw water from Messeis or Hypereia, most unwillingly, and great constraint will be laid upon you' (VI 450-8).

Hector did not need Apollo's aid in foretelling the future. Never in Greek history was it otherwise; the persons and the property of the vanquished belonged to the victor, to be disposed of as he chose. But Hector showed gentle restraint, for his prophecy was not complete. The place of slave women was in the household, washing, sewing, cleaning, grinding meal, valeting. If they were young, however, their place was also in the master's bed, Briseis in Achilles's, Chryseis in Agamemnon's. Of the old nurse Eurycleia, the poet reports that 'Laertes bought her with [some of] his possessions when she was still in the prime of youth ...but he never had intercourse with her in bed, and he avoided the anger of his wife' (1-430-3). It was the rarity of Laertes's behaviour, and the promise of his wife's wrath, that warranted the special comment. Neither custom nor morality demanded such abstinence.

It is idle to seek for numbers here. Odysseus is reported to have had fifty female slaves, but that is surely a convenient round figure, used for the household of King Alcinous of the Phaeacians


too. A few men were also in bondage, such as the swineherd Eumaeus, an aristocrat by birth, who had been kidnapped when a child by Phoenician traders and sold into slavery. Male slaves worked in the home, like the women, and also in the fields and vineyards, never abroad as servants or orderlies.

Of the Ithacans who were neither slaves nor nobles, the bulk of the community, some were presumably 'free' herders and peasants with their own holdings (though we must not assume that 'freedom' had precisely the same connotation and attributes as in later, classical Greece or in modern times). Others were specialists, carpenters and metal workers, soothsayers, bards and physicians. Because they supplied certain essential needs in a way that neither the lords nor the non-specialists among their followers could match, these men, a handful in numbers, floated in mid-air in the social hierarchy. Seers and physicians might even be nobles, but the others, though they were close to the aristocratic class and even shared its life in many respects, were decidedly not of the aristocracy, as the treatment and behaviour of the bard Phemius attest.

Eumaeus, we remember, called the elite among these specialists demioergoi, literally 'those who work for the people' (and once Penelope attached the same classificatory label to the heralds). From the word, used in the Homeric poems only in these two passages, it has been suggested that the demioergoi operated in a way well known among primitive and archaic groups, the Kayla of Algeria, for instance: 'Another specialist is the blacksmith, who is also an outsider. The villagers lend him a house, and each family pays him a fixed portion of his yearly salary in grain and other produce.'* Unfortunately the evidence for the world of Odysseus is far from clear or decisive. Once when Nestor, at home, wished to make sacrifice, he ordered his servants, ' "Bid the goldsmith Laerces come here, that he may gild the horns of the cow." ...And the smith came, with the smith's tools in his hands, the instruments of his craft, anvil and hammer and well- made fire-tongs, with which he worked the gold. ...And the old * C.S. Coon, Caravan: The Story of the Middle East (London: Jonathan Cape, 1952), p. 305


horseman Nestor gave gold, and the smith then skilfully gilded the horns' (3-425-38). Neither the status of the goldsmith nor even his domicile is indicated here, unlike the passage in the Iliad about the great 'unwrought mass of iron' which Achilles offered from his booty for a weight-throwing contest. The iron was to be both the test and the prize for the winner. He will have it, said Achilles, 'to use for five full years, for neither the shepherd nor the ploughman will have to go into town for lack of iron, but this will furnish it' (xxiii 833-5).

Although nothing is ever said about remuneration, it does not necessarily follow that each family, in the community gave the smith, or the other demioergoi, a fixed annual maintenance quota. They could have been paid as they worked, provided only that they were available to the public, to the whole demos. That avail- ability would explain the word well enough.

Eumaeus indicated still another special quality of the demioergoi when he asked 'who ever summons a stranger from abroad ...unless he be one of the demioergoi' (again with a parallel among the Kabyle). Were they, then, travelling tinkers and minstrels, going from community to community on a more or less fixed schedule? Actually the logic of Eumaeus's question is that all invited strangers are craftsmen, not that all craftsmen are strangers. Some were but most were probably not, and, of those who were, none Deed have worked on a circuit. The heralds were certainly permanent, regular, full-scale members of the community. The bards may have wandered a bit (in the poet's own day they travelled all the time). Regarding the others, we are simply not informed.

Indispensable as the demioergoi were, their contribution to the quantity of work performed on an estate was a small one. For the basic work of pasturage and tillage in the fields, of stewardship and service in the house, there was no need of specialists: every man in Ithaca could herd and plough, saw and carve, and those commoners who had their own holdings worked them themselves. Others made up the permanent staffs of Odysseus and the nobles, such men as the unnamed 'carvers of the meat', who were an integral part of the household. Still others, the least fortunate,


were thetes, unattached propertyless labourers who worked for hire and begged what they could not steal.

'Stranger,' said the leading suitor Eurymachus to the beggar (Odysseus in disguise), 'would you be willing to work as a thes if I should take you in my service, on a farm at the border -- you can be sure of pay -laying walls and planting tall trees? There I would furnish you ample grain and put clothes on your back and give you shoes for your feet.' Ample grain and clothes and shoe~ make up the store of a commoner's goods. But Eurymachus was~ mocking, 'creating laughter among his companions', at the direc1 inspiration of Athena, who 'would by no means permit the arrogant suitors to refrain from heart-rending scorn, so that the pain might sink still more deeply into the heart of Odysseus son of Laertes' (18.346-61).

A little of the joke lay in the words, 'you can be sure of pay'. No thes could be sure. Poseidon once angrily demanded of Apollo why he of all the gods should be so completely on the side of the Trojans. Have you forgotten, Poseidon asked, how, on order from Zeus, 'we worked as thetes for one year, for an agreed-upon pay', for Laomedon, king of Troy, building the wall around the city and herding cattle? And how, at the end of the year, Laomedon 'deprived us of our pay and sent us off with threats?' (XXI 441-52). The real joke, however, the utter scornfulness of Eurymachus's proposal, lay in the offer itself, not in the hint that the pay would be withheld in the end. To see the whole point we turn to Achilles in Hades rather than to Poseidon on Olympus. 'Do not speak to me lightly of death, glorious Odysseus,' said the shade of Achilles. 'I would rather be bound down, working as a thes for another, by the side of a landless man, whose livelihood was not great, than be ruler over all the dead who have perished' (II -489-91).

A thes, not a slave, was the lowest creature on earth that Achilles could think of. The terrible thing about a thes was his lack of attachment, his not belonging. The authoritarian house- hold, the oikos, was the centre around which life was organized, from which flowed not only the satisfaction of material needs, including security, but ethical norms and values, duties, obligations and responsibilities, social relationships, and relations with the


gods. The oikos was not merely the family, it was all the people of the household together with its land and its goods; hence 'economics' (from the Latinized form, oecus), the art of managing an oikos, meant running an estate, not managing to keep peace in the family.

Just what it meant, in terms of customary or legal obligation and in a man's own familial life, to be a permanent but free member of the oikos of another is by no means clear. We are not helped by the poet's aristocratic vantage-point, which normally saw more social harmony than was presumably the case in reality. Negatively, membership in the oikos of another meant consider- able loss of freedom of choice and of mobility .Yet these men were neither slaves nor serfs nor bondsmen. They were retainers (therapontes), exchanging their service for a proper place in the basic social unit, the household-a more tenuous membership, per- haps, but one that gave them both material security and the psychological values and satisfactions that went with belonging. Altogether the chief aristocrats managed -by a combination of slaves, chiefly female, and a whole hierarchy of retainers, supplemented by thetes -to build up very imposing and very useful household forces, equipped to do whatever was required of a man of status and power in their world. The hierarchy of retainers, it should be added, reached very high indeed. As a child Patroclus was forced to flee his home. Peleus received him in his palace and 'named him retainer' of young Achilles (xxiii 90). The analogy that comes to mind at once is that of the noble page in some early modern-court, just as 'lord Eteoneus, the ready retainer of Menelaus' (4.22-3) who met guests at the door and poured the wine for them, might well have been the counterpart of a Lord Chamberlain.

A thes in Ithaca might even have been an Ithacan, not an outsider. But he was no part of an oikos, and in this respect even the slave was better off. The slave, human but nevertheless a part of the property element of the oikos, was altogether a nice symbol of the situation. Only twice does Homer use the word that later became standard in Greek for a slave, doulos, which seems etymologically tied to the idea of labour. Otherwise his word is dmos,


with its obvious link with doma or domos, a house; and after Homer and Hesiod dmos never appears in literature apart from a few instances of deliberate archaizing, as in Sophocles and Euripides. The treatment of the slaves looks more 'patriarchal' than the pattern familiar from plantation slavery. Eumaeus, a favourite slave, had even been able to purchase a slave for himself. To be sure, a dozen of the slave girls were hanged in the midst of the carnage of Odysseus's successful return, but it was the method of their execution alone that distinguished them from the lordly suitors, who died by the bow and the spear.

There was little mating of slave with slave because there were so few males among them. Nearly all the children born to the slave women were the progeny of the master or of other free males in the household. Commonly, in many different social systems, as among the Greeks later on, such offspring were slaves like their mothers: 'the belly holds the child', say the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara in explanation. Not so in the world of Odysseus, where it was the father's status that was determinative. Thus, in the fanciful tale with which Odysseus sought to conceal his identity from Eumaeus immediately upon his return to Ithaca, his father was a wealthy Cretan, his mother a 'bought concubine'. When the father died, the legitimate sons divided the property, giving him only a dwelling and a few goods. Later, by his valour, he obtained to wife the daughter of 'a man of many estates' (14.199-212). The slave woman's son might sometimes be a second-class member of the family, but even then he was part of that narrower circle within the oikos as a whole, free and without even the stigma of bastardy in our sense, let alone the mark of slavery.

Fundamentally the difference between the ordinary land- owner and the noble (and then among the nobles) lay in the magnitude of their respective oikoi, and therefore in the numbers of retainers they could support, which, translated into practical terms, meant in their power. Superficially the difference was one of birth, a blood-distinction. At some past point, remote or near in time, either conquest or wealth created the original separation. Then it froze and continued along hereditary lines; hence the endless recitation of genealogies, more often than not starting


from a divine ancestor (and therefore blessed with divine sanction). In perfect contrast, of the half-dozen or so craftsmen who are dignified with a personal name in the poems, not one has a patronymic, let alone a genealogy.

The nature of the economy served to seal and preserve the class line. Wherever the wealth of the household is so decisive, unless there is mobility in wealth, unless the opportunity exists to create new fortunes, the structure becomes castelike in its rigidity. This was the case in Ithaca. The base of the oikos was its land, and there was little possibility, under normal, peaceful conditions, to acquire new land in the settled regions. Hypothetically one might push beyond the frontier and take up vacant land, but few men actually did anything so absurd and foolhardy, except under the most violent compulsions. It was not out of mere sentiment for the fatherland that banishment was deemed the bitterest of fates. The exile was stripped of all ties that meant life itself; it made no difference in this regard whether one had been compelled to flee or had gone from home in the search for land by free choice.

The primary use of the land was in pasturage. To begin the story of his adventure among the Cyclopes, which he told at the court of Alcinous, Odysseus underscored the primitive savagery of the one-eyed giants. First of all, they had not learned the art of agriculture: 'they neither plant anything nor till' (9.108). Nevertheless, Odysseus's own world was more one of pasturage than of tillage (unlike the Greek world at the time of Homer himself and of Hesiod, when agriculture had moved to the fore). Greek soil is poor, rocky and waterless, so that perhaps no more than twenty per cent of the total surface of the peninsula can be cultivated. In places it once provided excellent pasturage for horses and cattle; virtually all of it is still, in our day, good for the smaller animals, sheep and pigs and goats. The households of the poems carried on a necessary minimum of ploughing and planting, especially on orchard and vine-land, but it was their animals on which they depended for clothing, draught, transport, and much of their food.

With their flocks and their labour force, with plentiful stone


for building and clay for pots, the great households could almost realize their ideal of absolute self-sufficiency. The oikos was ~above all a unit of consumption. Its activities, in so far as they were concerned with the satisfaction of material wants, were guided by one principle, to meet the consuming needs of the lord and his people; if possible by the products of his estates, supplemented by booty. But there was one thing which prevented full self- sufficiency, a need which could neither be eliminated nor satisfied by substitutes, and that was the need for metal. Scattered deposits existed in Greece, but the main sources of supply were outside, in western Asia and central Europe.

Metal meant tools and weapons, but it also meant something else, perhaps as important. When Telemachus had concluded his visit at the palace of Menelaus in Sparta, in search of news about his father, his "host offered him, as a parting gift, 'three horses and a chariot-board of polished metal and. ..a fine goblet'. The young man demurred. ' And whatever gift you would give me, let it be treasure. I will not take horses to Ithaca. ...In Ithaca there are neither wide courses nor any meadowland' (4.59-605). The Greek word customarily rendered by 'treasure' is keimelion, liter- ally something that can be laid away. In the poems treasure was of bronze, iron, or gold, less often of silver or fine cloth, and usually it was shaped into goblets, tripods, or cauldrons. Such objects had some direct use value and they could provide aesthetic satisfaction, too-characteristically expressed by reference to the costliness of the raw materials and to the craftsmanship applied to them -but neither function was of real moment com- pared to their value as symbolic wealth or prestige wealth. The twin uses of treasure were in possessing it and in giving it away, paradoxical as that may appear. Until the appropriate occasion for a gift presented itself, most treasure was kept hidden under lock and key. It was not 'used' in the narrow sense of that word.

When Agamemnon was finally persuaded that appeasement of Achilles was absolutely essential to prevent the destruction of the Achaean forces, he went about it by offering amends through gifts. His offer included some to be presented at once; others on condition of victory. And what a catalogue it was: seven cities, a


daughter to wife with a great dowry 'such as no one ever yet gave with his daughter', the girl Briseis, over whom the quarrel had broken out, seven captive women from Lesbos skilled in crafts, twelve prize-winning racehorses, and his choice of twenty Trojan women when the war was won. These, apart from the horses, were the utilitarian gifts. But Agamemnon began with none of them; first came 'seven tripods that have never been on the fire and ten talents of gold and twenty glittering cauldrons', and further on, from the anticipated Trojan spoils, as much gold and bronze as his ship would hold.* That was treasure, and its high importance is marked by the care with which it is enumerated here and again later in the poem. Menelaus's gift to Telemachus, all treasure, reappears four more times in the Odyssey, in three different books. The poet rarely overlooked an opportunity to revel in the value of specific gift-objects.

Whatever its purpose or its source, metal created for the individual oikos a special problem in the distribution of goods. For the most part distribution was internal and hence no problem at all. Since there has never been a world of Robinson Crusoes, the simplest human groups perforce have a mechanism, and it is the same one that served, with some extension, even the most elaborate princely oikos. All the productive work, the seeding and harvesting and milling and weaving, even the hunting and raiding, though carried on by individuals, was performed on behalf of the household as a whole. The final products, ready for consumption, were gathered and stored centrally, and from the centre they were redistributed-in the authoritarian household, by its head at a time and in a measure he deemed appropriate.

It made no difference in essence whether the family members within the household were no more than a husband, wife, and child, or whether the oikos was that of Nestor at Pylos, with six adult sons and some sons-in-law. The sons possessed arms and * IX (2 (-56. In Plato's will, preserved by Diogenes Laertius, Lives 3.41-3, the itemized bequest included 'three minas of silver, a silver bowl weighing, 165 drachmas, a small cup weighing 45 drachmas, a gold ring and gold earring weighing 4 1/2 drachmas together'. This is treasure, now narrowed to gold and silver, and like Agamemnon's it was made up indifferently of metal and metal objects.


treasure of their own, from gifts and booty, as the wives and daughters had their fine garments and jewels. But unless the males left the paternal household and established their own oikoi, their personal property was an essentially insignificant factor. Normally, the poems seem to say, although the evidence is not altogether clear and consistent, the sons remained with their father in his lifetime.

Architecturally the heart of the system was the storeroom. Preparing for his journey to Pylos, Telemachus 'went down to his father's spacious, high-ceilinged storeroom, where gold and copper lay piled up, and clothing in chests, and fragrant oil in plenty; and there stood jars of wine, old and sweet, filled with the unmixed drink, close together in a row along the wall' (2.337-42). And of eourse it contained arms and grain in quantity. More than three hundred years after Homer the Athenian Xenophon, a gentleman farmer and no tribal chieftain or king, still placed proper care of the storeroom high on the list of wifely virtues.

It was when distribution had to cross oikos lines that the creation of new and special devices became necessary. Wars and raids for booty, indistinguishable in the eyes of Odysseus’s world, were organized affairs, often involving a combination of families, occasionally even of communities. Invariably there was a captain, one of whose functions was to act as the head and distribute the booty, all of which was first brought to a central storage point. Division was by lot, much like the division of an inheritance when there were several heirs. For example, not all of Odysseus’s home- coming adventures were tragic. Two or three times he and his men had the pleasant opportunity to raid. 'From Ilion,' he began the account of his wanderings, 'the wind bore me near to the Cicones, to Ismarus. There I sacked the city and killed the men; taking the women and many goods, we divided them, so that no one might go cheated of his share through me.'* Forcible seizure followed by distribution in this fashion, was one way to acquire metal or other goods from an outside source.

* 9.39-42. The final line al1o appears in XI 705.


Some scholars, hunting for a kernel of historical truth in the tale of the Trojan War, conjecture that it was a mass raid for essential supplies. There is not a whisper in the poems to support that interpretation, and not much else to be said in its favour, but there were no doubt small-scale wars to such a purpose, against other Greeks as well as against barbarians. However, the violent solution was neither always feasible nor even always desirable; if the aggrieved party were strong enough it invited retaliation, and there were times and conditions when even the fiercest of the heroes preferred peace. An exchange mechanism was then the only alternative, and the basic one was gift-exchange. This was no Greek invention. On the contrary, it is the basic organizing mechanism among many primitive peoples, as in the Trobriand Islands, where 'most if not all economic acts are found to belong to some chain of reciprocal gifts and counter-gifts'.*

The word 'gift' is not to be misconstrued. It may be stated as a flat rule of both primitive and archaic society that no one ever gave anything, whether goods or services or honours, without proper recompense, real or wishful, immediate or years away, to himself or to his kin. The act of giving was, therefore, in an essential sense always the first half of a reciprocal action, the other half of which was a counter-gift.

Not even the parting gift was an exception, although there an element of risk intruded. The last of the recognition scenes in the Odyssey, between the hero and his aged father, began in the customary fashion, with Odysseus claiming to be someone else, a stranger from another land in search of information about 'Odysseus'. Your son, he said to Laertes, visited me about five years ago and received the proper gifts. 'Of well-wrought gold I gave him seven talents, and I gave him a bowl with flower designs, all of silver, and twelve single cloaks and as many carpets and as many fine mantles, and as many tunics besides, and in addition four pretty women skilled in excellent work.' Laertes wept, for he had long been satisfied that his son had perished, and he could

think of no better way to reveal that fact to the stranger than by * B. Malinowski, Crime and Custom in Savage Society (London: Kegan Paul, 1926), p. 40.


commenting on the gift situation. 'The countless gifts which you gave, you bestowed in vain. For if you had found that man still alive in the land of Ithaca, he would have sent you on your way well provided with gifts in return' (24.274-85).

Then there is the interesting scene in the opening book of the Odyssey, in which the goddess Athena appeared to Telemachus in the shape of Mentes, a Taphian chieftain. When she was ready to part, the young man followed the expected custom: 'Go to your ship happy in your heart, bearing a gift, valuable and very beautiful, which will be your treasure from me, such as dear guest-friends give to guest-friends.'. This created a very delicate situation for the goddess. One did not refuse a proffered gift, yet she could not accept it under the false pretence of her human disguise. (Gods as gods not only accepted gifts from mortals, they expected and demanded them.) Being the cleverest of the gods, Athena unhesitatingly found the perfect solution. 'Do not detain me any longer as I am eager to be on my way. The gift, which the heart of a friend prompts you to give me, give it to me on my return journey that I may carry it home; choose a very beautiful one, that will bring you a worthy one in exchange' (1.31 1-8).

Telemachus had said nothing about a counter-gift. Yet he and 'Mentes' understood each other perfectly: the counter-gift was as expected as the original gift at parting. That was what gift-giving was in this society. The return need not be forthcoming at once, and it might take several forms. But come it normally would. 'In a society ruled by respect for the past, a traditional gift is very near indeed to an obligation. # No single detail in the life of the heroes receives so much attention in the Iliad and the Odyssey as gift-giving, and always there is frank reference to adequacy, appropriateness, recompense. 'But then Zeus son of Cronus took from Glaucus his wits, in that he exchanged golden armour with Diomedes son of Tydeus for one of bronze, the worth of a hundred oxen for the worth of nine oxen' (VI 234-6). The poet's

* 'Guest-friend' is explained in Chapter 4. # Marc Bloch, in Cambridge Economic History, vol. I, 2nd ed. by M. M. Postan (Cambridge University Press, 1966), p. 274, writing about the early Germanic world described by Tacitus.


editorial comment, So rare for him, reflects the magnitude of Glaucus's mistake in judgement.

There was scarcely a limit to the situations in which gift-giving was operative. More precisely, the word 'gift' was a cover-all for a great variety of actions and transactions which later became differentiated and acquired their own appellations. There were payments for services rendered, desired or anticipated; what we would call fees, rewards, prizes, and sometimes bribes. The formulaic material was rich in such references, as in the lines with which Telemachus and twice Penelope responded to a stranger's favourable interpretation of a sign from the gods: 'Stranger, would that these words be fulfilled! Speedily should you become aware of friendship and many gifts from me, so that whoever met you would congratulate you.'*

Then there were taxes and other dues to lords and kings, amends with a penal overtone (Agamemnon's gift to Achilles), and even ordinary loans -and again the Homeric word is always 'gift'. Defending himself for having lent Telemachus a ship with which to sail to Pylos and Sparta seeking information about Odysseus, a young Ithacan noble made this explanation: 'What can one do when such a man, troubled in heart, begs? It would be difficult to refuse the gift' (4.649-51 ). In still another category, payment for service was combined with the ceremonialism necessary to an important event. There is much talk in the Odyssey about the 'gifts of wooing', and the successful suitor, who reminds one of nothing so much as the highest bidder at an auction, in turn received his counter-gift in the dowry, which normally ac- companied the bride. The whole of what we call foreign relations and diplomacy, in their peaceful manifestations, was conducted by gift-exchange. And even in war occasions presented them- selves, as between Diomedes and Glaucus, for example, or Ajax and Hector, when heroes from the two contending sides stopped, right on the field of combat, before the approving eyes of their fellow-heroes, and exchanged armour.

Odyssean trade differed from the various forms of gift-

* 15.536-8; 17.163-5; 19.309-11.


exchange in that the exchange of goods was the end itself. In trade things changed hands because each needed what the other had, and not, or only incidentally, to compensate for a service, seal an alliance, or support a friendship. A need for some specific object was the ground for the transaction; if it could be satisfied by oilier means, trade was altogether unnecessary. Hence, in modem parlance, imports alone motivated trade, never exports. There was never a need to export as such, only the necessity of having the proper goods for the counter-gift when an import was unavoidable.

Laertes bought Eurycleia 'with [some of] his possessions ... and he gave the worth of twenty oxen' (1-430-1). Cattle were the measuring-stick of worth; in that respect, and only in that sense, cattle were money. Neither cattle, however, nor anything else served for the various other, later uses of money. Above all, there was no circulating medium like a coin, the sole function of which was to make purchase and sale possible by being passed from hand to hand. Almost any useful object served, and it is noteworthy that the measure of value, cattle, did not itself function as a medium of exchange. Laertes bought Eurycleia for unspecified objects worth twenty oxen; he would never have traded the oxen for a slave.

A conventional measuring-stick is no more than an artificial language, a symbol like the xylem, z of algebra. By itself it cannot decide how much iron is the equivalent of one cow, or how much wine. In Adam Smith's world that determination was made through the supply-and-demand market, a mechanism unknown in Troy or Ithaca. Behind the market lies the profit motive, and if there was one thing that was taboo in Homeric exchanges it was gain in the exchange. Whether in trade or in any other mutual relationship, the abiding principle was equality and mutual benefit. Gain at the expense of another belonged to a different realm, to warfare and raiding, where it was achieved by acts (or threats) of prowess, not by manipulation and bargaining.

The implication that exchange rates were customary and conventional seems unavoidable. That is to say, there was no constituted authority with the power to decree a set of equations –


so much of x for so much of y. Rather the actual practice of exchange over a long period of time had fixed the ratios, and they were commonly known and respected. Even in the distribution of booty, where a central authority, the head of the oikos or a king or commander-in-chief, took charge, he was obviously bound by what was generally deemed to be equitable. The circumstance that no one could punish him for flouting custom, as in the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles, is irrelevant to the issue. For the very fact that just such a situation gave the theme for the Iliad illustrates how dangerous the violation could be. In this world custom was as binding upon the individual as the most rigid statutory law of later days. And the participant in an exchange, it may be added, had the advantage over the passive participant in the distribution of booty. He could always refuse to go through with the transaction if the rules were manifestly being upset, or if he merely thought they were.

None of this is to say that no one ever deliberately profited from an exchange. But the exceptional instance is far less noteworthy than the essential point that, in a strict sense, the ethics of the world of Odysseus prohibited the practice of trade as a vocation. The test of what was and what was not acceptable did not lie in the act of trading, but in the status of the trader and in his approach to the transaction. So crucial was the need for metal that even a king could honourably voyage in its search. When Athena appeared to Telemachus as Mentes, the Taphian chieftain, her story was that she was carrying iron to Temesa in quest of copper.* That gave no difficulties, and her visit ended with the colloquy regarding costly gifts between guest-friends.

A stranger with a ship was not always so welcome or so free from suspicion. He might have been Odysseus before Ismarus, or Achilles: 'Twelve cities of men have I destroyed from ship- board and eleven on foot, I say, in the fertile region of Troy; from all these I took out much good treasure' (IX 328-31). No wonder * Neither Taphos nor Temesa is otherwise known as a place-name, and the many attempts, all failures, to identify them with one or another mining region illustrate once again the futility of such 'historicizing' of the Homeric poems.


that some Greeks eventually objected to Homer as the teacher of the Hellenes. Glorification of piracy, disapproval of theft (seizure of goods by stealth) and encouragement of robbery (seizure of goods and persons by physical prowess) -truly this seemed a world of mixed-up moral standards. 'Theft of property is mean,' protested Plato (lAws94IB), 'seizure by force shameless; none of the sons of Zeus delighted in fraud or violence, nor practised either. Therefore, let no one be falsely persuaded by poets or by some myth-tellers in these matters.'

Yet there was a pattern and a consistency in the moral code; and it made sense from the premises. The distinctions rested on a specific social structure, with strongly entrenched notions regarding the proper ways for a man to behave, with respect to property, towards other men. Upon his arrival among the Phaeacians, but before he had identified himself and told of his wanderings, Odysseus was entertained by King Alcinous. Following the feast, the younger nobles competed in athletics. After a time the king's son Laodamas approached Odysseus and invited hil11 to participate.

'Come, stranger and father, you enter the games, if perchance you are skilled in any; you seem to know games. For there is no greater fame for a man, so long as he is alive, than that which is made by foot and hand.'

Odysseus asked to be excused, pleading the heavy burden of his sorrows. Another young aristocrat then interposed. 'No in- deed, stranger, I do not think you are like a man of games, such as there are many among men; but like one who travels with a many-benched ship, a master of sailors who traffic, one who remembers the cargo and is in charge of merchandise and coveted gains' (8.145-64).

The insult was unbearable under all circumstances, and to Homer's audience it must have carried an added barb when directed against Odysseus. There was something equivocal about Odysseus as a hero precisely because of his most famed quality, his craftiness. There was even a soft spot in his inheritance: his maternal grandfather, the goodly Autolycus, 'surpassed all men in thievishness and the oath, for that was a gift to him from the


god Hermes' (19. 395-7). Later the doubts of many Greeks turned to open contempt and condemnation. 'I know full well,' said Philoctetes in the Sophoclean play of that name (lines 407-8), 'that he would attempt with his tongue every evil word and villainy.' What saved the Homeric Odysseus was the fact that his guile was employed in the pursuit of heroic goals; hence Hermes, the god of tricks and stealth, may have given him the magic with which to ward off Circe the witch, but it was Athena who was his protector and his inspiration in his heroic exploits. To the insult in Phaeacia he first replied with an indignant speech, but Odysseus, of all men, could not establish his status with words. Having finished his reply, he leaped up, seized a weight greater than any the young men had cast, and, without removing his garment, threw it far beyond their best mark.

Possibly there were men, a very few from among those who were hot men of games, living in the interstices of society, who travelled in many-benched ships and trafficked. Yet there is no single word in either the Iliad or the Odyssey that is in fact a synonym for 'merchant'. By and large, the provisioning of the Greek world with whatever it obtained from the outside by peaceful means was in the hands of non-Greeks, the Phoenicians in particular. They were really a trading people, who sailed from one end of the known world to the other, carrying slaves, metal, jewellery, and fine cloth. If they were motivated by gain -'famed for ships, greedy men' (15415-6) -that was irrelevant to the Greeks, the passive participants in the operation.

The need for metal, or any similar need, was an oikos affair, not an individual matter. Its acquisition, whether by trade or by raid, was therefore a household enterprise, managed by the head. Or it could be larger in scale, involving many households acting, cooperatively. Internally, the situation was altogether different. Trade within the household was impossible: by definition: the oikos was a single, indivisible unit. Because a large sector of the population was enmeshed in the great households, they too were withdrawn from any possibility of trade, external or internal. The thetes, finally, were absolutely excluded; having nothing, they had nothing to exchange.


That leaves the non-aristocratic, small-scale herders and peasants. In their households shortages were chronic, if not absolute as a consequence of a crop failure or a disaster to their flocks, then partial because of an imbalance in the yield. Their troubles are not the subject of heroic poetry, and neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey is informative in this regard. The inference is permissible, however, that some of their difficulties were alleviated by barter, primarily with one another, and without the instrumentality of a formal market, absolutely unknown in this world. They ex- changed necessities, staples, undoubtedly on the same principles of equivalence, ratios fixed by custom, and no gain.

Herders and peasants, including the thetes, always had another resource to draw upon. They could work. Unlike trade, skill with the hands, labour, was never greeted with contempt in the poems; in that area, the society's moral judgement was directed not to the act itself but to the person and the circumstance. Back in Ithaca, but still disguised as a beggar, Odysseus, in reply to Eurymachus's mocking offer of employment, challenged the suitor to a ploughing contest-just as, in his proper guise, he boasted of his superior bowmanship or his weight throwing. But Odysseus was not required to plough in order to live. In fact, it is obvious that, though he knew how to till and herd and build a raft, he rarely did any work on his estate except in sport. That was the great dividing-line between those who were compelled to labour and those who were not. Among the former, the men with the inspired skills, the bards and the metalworkers and the others, were an elite. Above all, the test was this, that 'the condition of the free man is that he does not live under the constraint of another'.* Hence there was a line between those who, though they worked, remained more or less their own masters as independent herders and peasants, and on the other side the thetes and the slaves who laboured for others, whose livelihood was not in their own hands. The slaves, at least, were usually the victims of chance. The thes was in a sense the worst of all: he voluntarily contracted away his control over his own labour, in other words, his true freedom.

* Aristotle, Rhetoric 1367a32, writing with specific reference to labour.


Much of the psychology of labour, with its ambivalence between admiration of skill and craft and its rejection of the labourer as essentially and irretrievably an inferior being, found its expression on Olympus. Having humanized the gods, the bard was consistent enough to include labour among the heavenly pursuits. But that entailed a certain difficulty. Zeus the insatiable philanderer, Apollo the archer who was also a minstrel, Ares the god of battle -these were all embodiments of noble attributes and activities, easily re-created in man's image. But how could the artisan who built their palaces and made their weapons and their plate and their ornaments be placed on equal footing with them, without casting a shadow over the hierarchy of values and status on which society rested? Only a god could make swords for gods, yet somehow he must be a being apart from the other gods.

The solution was neatly turned, very neatly indeed. The divine craftsman was Hephaestus, son of Hera. His skill was truly fabulous, and the poet never tired of it, lingering over his forge and his productions as he never sang of the smith in Ithaca. That was the positive side of the ambivalence. The other was this: of all the gods, Hephaestus alone was 'a huge limping monster' with 'a sturdy neck and hairy chest' (XVIII 410-5). Hephaestus was born lame, and he carried the mark of his shame on his whole personality. The other gods would have been less than human, in consequence, were Hephaestus not to be their perennial source of humour. Once, when Zeus and Hera were having a fearful quarrel, the limping god attempted the role of peace- maker, filling the cups with nectar for all the assemblage. ' And unquenchable laughter was stirred up among the blessed gods as they watched Hephaestus bustling about the palace' (1599- - 600). And the social fabric of the world of Odysseus was saved.

In fact, the mirror-image on Olympus was still more subtle. In art and craftsmanship, Athena was frequently linked with Hephaestus, as in the simile in which a comparison is drawn with a goldsmith, 'a skilful man whom Hephaestus and Pallas Athena taught all kinds of craft (techne)' (6.232-4). But there was absolutely nothing deformed or the least bit comical about Athena,


deservedly her father's favourite among the gods. It was unnecessary to apologize for Athena's skill with her hands, for the pattern with respect to work differed somewhat for women. Denied the right to a heroic way of life, to feats of prowess, competitive games, and leadership in organized activity of any kind, women worked, regardless of class. With her maids, Nausicaa, daughter of the Phaeacian king, did the household laundry. Queen Penelope found in her weaving the trick with which to hold off the suitors. Her stratagem, however, of undoing at night what she had woven in the day, repeated without detection for three full years until one of her maids revealed the secret, suggests that her labour was not exactly indispensable. The women of the aristocracy, like their men, possessed all the necessary work skills, and they used them more often. Nevertheless, their real role was managerial. The house was their domain, the cooking and washing, the cleaning and the clothes-making. The dividing- line for them was rather in the degree to which they performed the chores themselves -between those who supervised, working only to pass the time, and those whom circumstances compelled to cook and sew in earnest.


To Chapter 4