The details of Hesiod’s biography at times overshadow his contributions to the literary tradition. Whether he was a contemporary of Homer (proven unlikely by careful linguistic analysis); whether he ever bested the author of the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) in a poetry contest (equally unlikely); even whether the brother to whom Works and Days is addressed actually lived (a fact questioned skillfully by twentieth century scholar Gilbert Murray)—all are of little importance in comparison to his works, especially his long didactic poem on the joys and vicissitudes of the agricultural life. In Works and Days, Hesiod explains how the people of his day fit into a cosmos peopled by gods who interact frequently, if indirectly, with them and with the creatures of the natural world. His advice, sometimes philosophical, sometimes extremely practical, shows how one can live a life that can be at some times happy, at all times virtuous.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the significance of Hesiod’s accomplishment is to compare his work to that of Homer. The latter fills his stories with heroes and gods engaged in political and military struggles; personal bravery, cunning, and might serve as measures of greatness. By contrast, Hesiod focuses on the commonplace, on life outside the limelight of national issues and international conflict. Hesiod is the first in the history of Western civilization to think earnestly about problems of conduct and to embody these thoughts in literary form. Hesiod is the first writer in Greek history to judge deeds by their rightness and not their strength, brilliance, or cleverness. In fact, Hesiod consciously set out to oppose the Homeric ideal in his works, becoming in the process the champion of the commoner and the proponent of righteous living. Numerous scholars have noted the similarities between Hesiod’s moralizing and the works of the Hebrew prophets and teachers whose admonitions and prescriptions fill the pages of the Old Testament.
The Western literary tradition has come to venerate the Homeric writings, but the significance of Hesiod’s investigation of the moral dimensions of human nature should not be overlooked. The immediate source for Vergil’s Georgics (36-29 b.c.e.), Works and Days is also the first work of a tradition that finds exponents in every century: The pastoral poems of the Greeks and Romans and their European inheritors and moralistic poems owe much to this Greek ancestor, who believed that people should be judged by the strength of their character rather than by their might in deeds.
Facts about the existence of a writer who flourished more than two thousand years ago are hard to find. Herodotus, liking to exaggerate the antiquity of people, wrote that Hesiod lived “not more than four hundred years before my time,” putting him about 850 b.c.e. Most scholars, however, are inclined to place him about a century later.
At any rate, Homer and Hesiod left the only Greek writing of the epic age. It is clear from Homeric influences in Hesiod that Homer came first. In Works and Days, the gods are contemporary, directly influencing life in Boeotia. Hesiod speaks about his own environment. From internal evidence (lines 636-640), it is assumed that the author’s father migrated across the Aegean from Cyme in Aeolia on account of poverty. He settled at Ascra, a village of Boeotia, at the foot of Mount Helicon. Ovid, in referring to Hesiod, uses the adjective “ascraeus.” The poet himself, heir to the...
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