Why Ancient Greece Loved Homer: An Oratory Genius

Democracy had just begun, and men looked to their ancient poet for guidance.

Homer
Bela Čikoš Sesija (1864–1931), Homer uči Dantea, Shakespearea i Goethea pjevat (Homer Teaches Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe to sing) via Wikimedia Commons

“Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.” —Homer, Illiad

Homer, the iconic poet of Ancient Greece, authored some of the oldest pieces of literature that are still being enjoyed widely today. His writing is chock-full of dialogue; a half-play, half-story, with blocks and blocks of speeches that mount over each other to construct a story of a monumental scale. Before Homer’s time, stories in Ancient Greece only existed on the tongue, passed down from people to people through oral storytelling. Although forms of writing did exist, they were only known by a handful of people and reserved for specific purposes. Homer, a preserver of tradition and evidently, of ancient myths, naturally absorbed the best elements of oral storytelling into his works.

There’s much scholarly debate on whether Homer was indeed a real person. If he was, he was a poet likely from Ionia (modern-day Turkey,) perhaps blind, perhaps illiterate. He composed the Odyssey and the Illiad, both gigantic verses more commonly called “epics,” which retold the myths of Ancient Greece’s origins with a stunning skill in narration. Some experts argue that the epics were actually composed by multiple authors and perfected over many years to take the shape that is known now. The figure of Homer may be nothing more than a myth in itself, erected to glorify and preserve the master of words that so many Greeks adored.

Indeed, Homer’s two epics were so revered by Ancient Greek society for many centuries after his day. Homer was a staple in their education, which often required students to memorize his epics by rote, and was a popular appearance in games and competitions. Boys and men might take turns reciting Homer line by line, being kicked out once their memory faltered until just one victor remained. It was common sense that reading and reciting Homer was necessary to make one a “good man.”

Homer
Philipp Foltz (19th century). Athenian Democracy

But why was Homer so important? You could consider him as our version of Shakespeare – raised to an almost divine level today, seen in many ways as the father of one’s culture and language. Yet at the time, Homer, if he lived in the first place, was merely collecting oral myths from all around Greece and its neighboring islands and putting it together in a big, fancy poem.

The world’s first democracy developed in Athens at around the 5th century BC. This meant that all free Athenian men were required to participate in the government, and 500 men a year were randomly chosen to actively serve in governance. It was, by any means, a tumultuous change – it required each man to speak up for himself and to essentially be a politician.

“Rhetoric,” or public speaking, was seen as the most important skill to have as a citizen of Athens. You couldn’t simply boast your social status to convince the everybody to do what you wanted. You had to be cleverer, sly; words were your only friend.

Now, if you thought that this “rhetoric” was anything like “debate” in modern days, you could be far off. While debating is all about hard logic and philosophical principles, rhetoric was often emotional in color and perhaps “illogical” in many ways. Consider Demosthenes, who spoke out against Aeschines, a politician who was already unpopular among Athenians for negotiating peace with the king of Macedon. Demosthenes raised the concern of “ father, Tromes, who was a slave in the house of Elpias… mother… ran a love chapel by the hour in a lean-to near the shrine of the Hero Kalamites…” His “accusations” grew ever bolder, calling out Aeschines’ un-manly attire and “unpleasantly high-pitched voice.”

While dishonoring his opponent was how Demosthenes chose to attack, Aeschines didn’t lose faith in justice until the very last moment. Aeschines called Demosthenes’ defense a “scheming preparation” rather than anything based in the law. Throughout his own defense, Aeschines pointed out Demosthenes’ failings purely from a legal standpoint, backing his claims with clear evidence and research.

Such effort was, however, not enough to rouse the audience. It was, in the end, Demosthenes that invited his audience’s sympathy. He appealed to the Athenians’ “benevolence,” their “conscience and honor”—a choice arguably spelled an easy victory. Athenians’ story demonstrated the significance of rhetoric that preceded all notions of righteousness or justice, as we might call them now. Your reputation, perhaps your life, depended on how well you spoke, and had little to do with what you did.

A Reading from Homer (1885) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
A Reading from Homer (1885) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

It’s not hard to explain why Homer was a hero in ancient times: he was a fascination that blurred the lines between art and skill (tékhnē.) To be able to speak as Odysseus did – the hero of Homer’s Odyssey – was not only a glorious thing. It was skillful, intelligent, controlled. Homer wrote, Odysseus’ “words came drifting down like the winter snows.” Odysseus’s speech was likened literally to the force of nature, something that could be chaotic and orderly all at once, something like beauty.

Indeed, beyond mere inspiration, Homer could have served religious purposes in Greek society. His poems were performed by singers as part of religious festivals and could sustain the attention of a large audience of men, easily taking hours at a time. All singers at the end must attend a procession and an animal sacrifice wearing “remarkable” dress that were close to what the heroes in the epics were wearing. For these reasons, Manon Brouillet suspects that Homeric performances were not merely fun to watch, but ritualistic, grounding the people’s faith in the gods in something tangible as a poem.

For us modern-day readers, notions of “glory” or “victory” that so many of Homer’s characters prized may be a little far-fetched. If we forgot about gaining literary insight, though, Homer could turn out to be a genuine source of entertainment.

Lyon Nishizawa

Contributor

Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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