Reception of Homer in Classical Athens

What is a place that you love to return to?

One of mine is Delphi. This photo of the Athenian treasury at Delphi is from my last visit in Feb. 2020. It feels like a fitting image for what I’m thinking about today: reception of Homer in classical Athens.

Something I’ve been thinking about for a long while is the way Athenian thinkers set themselves with and against Homer…the Poet as the bulwark on which everything seems to be built. Even attempts to supersede him reinforce his central place, the foundational threads of the vast web of Hellenic identity.

“My history,” Thucydides says, “is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten” (1.22, Benjamin Jowett). This could be read as a pointed dig at poets who compose their verse to win prizes at festivals. But the Poet had (and has) not been forgotten (and we’re still reading the tragedians too). Still, the desire to supersede is poignant and timeless (and pointless). I’m thinking for example of Umberto Eco’s On the Shoulders of Giants and Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence.

Ancient Greece is a competitive culture, some scholars like to insist, but αγών means both competition and coming together. You cannot compete if you do not come together.

A couple of favorite Homer references from Thucydides and Plato:

From Thucydides’ report of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, in 2.41, translated by Rex Warner:
“We do not need the praises of a Homer, or anyone else whose words may delight us for the moment, but whose estimation of facts will fall short of what is really true.”

From Plato’s report of Socrates’ final dialogue in Phaedo 94e, translated by Christopher Rowe:
“It’s a bit like that scene in Homer’s Odyssey, where he says of Odysseus that
He struck his chest, and his heart he scolded thus:
‘Bear up, my heart! much worse you have endured.’
Do you think Homer composed these lines in the belief that the soul was an attunement, and the sort of thing to be driven by bodily events, or rather because he believed it to be the sort of thing to drive and dominate these, being much too divine a thing to be compared with an attunement?”

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