Barbarian Liberty and Civilisation in Homer

Following from my last two posts, this will explore the sort of ‘barbarian’ liberty that Tacitus recognised in his time, that is of the early Roman empire, and was further explored by Montesquieu and Humboldt in the eighteenth century in relation to the poetry of Homer. ‘Homer’ here refers to two Greek epic poems attributed to him, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which had a very large presence not only in Greek culture, but in Roman culture which produced a kind of sequel in Latin, The Aeneid of Virgil, a very major work in its own right deserving of separate consideration.

As already indicated Homer shows us warriors of extreme destructive ferocity, who consider it normal and admirable to destroy enemy cities, taking slaves, and collecting loot as well as killing without mercy. A reasonable immediate reaction to that from a liberty supporting point of view is that this is the opposite of what liberty is about, that liberty oriented thought treats  unprovoked violence as the prime evil. Without denying any of that, the kind of violence that the Homeric Heroes engage in is part of a social bond within which voluntary co-operation of some sorts. Here I am referring to heroes not just in the sense of the main protagonists of a story, but the semi-divine status they are accorded in Homer, and by implication which is accorded to them in Mycenaean (late Bronze Age) Greece, where these stories originate.

The Homeric world is one in which there is trade and commerce, but it is regarded as less ‘honourable’ than Heroic violence, including piracy and physical destruction of cites. What this refers to, in fictionalised and poetic ways, is a world of weak enforcement of rules about property and individual security from violence outside small compact communities. Trade is clearly hazardous, running risks of the piracy referred to and maybe trading valuables of a kind acquired by violence, including slaves. Wealth is to a very large degree understood to consist of what can be seized or occupied through violence, including land, livestock and metal objects, rather than the less tangible and physically identifiable wealth of commercial life.

The value of ‘Heroic’ violence is then understandable in a world where there is very limited understanding of forms of wealth and security arising from relations of mutual advantage and respect for rules that apply to more than a small community and maybe its intimate contacts in other communities. Individual achievement and excellence is then understood in very large part as striving for excellence in war, and maybe in associated activities such as competitive sports which may suit strong aggressive warriors, and in which valuables looted in war or even originating with the gods (presumably a metaphoric poetic way of referring to the skilled workers in metal, leather, and precious stones that only the ‘Hero’ class could employ) may be awarded as prizes.

What this picture is building up is the importance of excellence and competition in the Homeric warrior society, and which continues into later stages of ancient Greek society, certainly up to the great cultural achievements and experiments with political liberty and democracy in Athens of the fifth century BCE. Of course the Homeric poetry maybe to a large degree reflects the growth of that culture of individual excellence and competition between whatever tales of Bronze Age wars are the starting point of the oral poetic tradition that leads to Homer and the writing down of the poems as we know them.

The Iliad begins with a story of extreme personal anger at an insult to honour in which the greatest Greek hero, Achilles, withdraws from the war. This is one aspect of the individualistic competitive nature of the warrior culture in Homer and while it is a classic case of uncontrolled temper which threatens social bonds, it is  also a classic case of the growth of individuality. Achilles’ rage is the product of self-awareness of individuality and demands for respect of that individuality, which Achilles directs at someone with some claim to authority over him, Agamemnon the most powerful of the many kings ruling different parts of Greece, and the leader of the Greek league against Troy.

Achilles’ rage does not easily decline and is even increased when the Trojan hero Hector kills his best friend Patroclus. Achilles shows ‘barbaric’ cruelty in not only killing Hector himself, an inevitable response in this world, but in denying Hector’s body a funeral, even throwing it in the dust to decay and be eaten by wild animals. The greatest horror of the Homeric Heroes is to suffer such indignities in death, which are also an attack on the honour and welfare of family and of the community of that dead Hero. In the end, however, Hector’s father, King Priam of Troy, is able to persuade Achilles to return Hectors body and reflect on their shared experience of mourning for loved ones.

What we have in The Iliad is a kind of brutal but real individuality, which at least elevates warriors as individuals above a mass of identical individuals in a collective killing machine. The fierce kind of individuality which leads Achilles to rage at insults to his honour and the death of his friend also shows a capacity to judge wisely in disputes as in Achilles’ way of handling the games which are part of the funeral of Patroclus, and a capacity for empathy with the extreme emotions of others. That is Achilles shows a barbaric strength of warrior individualism and a growth of understanding of impartially administered justice and empathy with the sufferings of others, including his enemies. So we see that ‘barbarian liberty’ encompasses justice within the community and respect of some kind for the individual suffering of others, basic prerequisites for the development of a society in which individual liberty can flourish.

Next week the development of heroic individualism in the character of Odysseus and in The Odyssey.

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