The Odyssey Historical and Social Context
by Homer

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Historical Context

(Epics for Students)

Map of the Aegean region Published by Gale Cengage

The context in which the Homeric poems were created is clouded by the fact that their creation is a process that spans several centuries. In a very real sense, the poems' historical and cultural background is rather like one of the archaeological sites from which we gather our information about the period, it is deep, it has many levels or layers, and over time things can get pushed up or down from their proper context. Consider, for example, that the cremation burial of Elpenor described in XII.11-15 would have been common practice in Homer's day, but extremely rare in the Bronze Age when the events he describes would have taken place.

The Bronze Age

The Trojan War and its aftermath took place in the late Bronze Age, which began around 1550 BC, the date of the very wealthy burials found by Heinrich Schliemann in Grave Circle A at Mycenae in 1873. For this reason, the period is sometimes also called the Mycenaean era. This was a time of relative stability though not, of course, without its conflicts, wars, and raids. The dominant powers in the eastern Mediterranean were the Hittites in the central part of what is now Turkey, the Egyptians in what we now call the Middle East and, apparently, the Mycenaean kings in Greece and the surrounding islands.

These three "great kings" all ruled over literate (at least to the extent of being able to keep records and official documents, even if they left us no "literature" to speak of), apparently complex, societies (complete with bureaucrats, if the Linear B tablets found at Pylos and elsewhere are any indication). They engaged in diplomacy with each other and with numerous smaller kingdoms on the edges of their territory that served as buffer zones between them and could be compelled to provide both military and economic support under the terms of the treaties that bound them to the particular kingdom with which they were allied. These secondary kingdoms were also prime targets for raids by other "great kings" and foreign invaders, especially those that were relatively distant from their protectors' centers of authority and military strong points.

Trade was flourishing, and, given the uncertainties of shipping and other means of transportation, together with a relatively low level of technological advancement (at least when considered by modern standards), quite surprisingly so. Distinctive Mycenaean pottery, whether as art pieces intended for display and ceremonial use, or purely for transporting trade goods like oil, grain, or perfume, is found all over the Mediterranean basin in staggering quantities throughout this period.

The Trojan War, if it took place at all, came very near the end of this flourishing civilization. The Greeks, using generational calculations, set the date of the war at around 1184 BC; modern scholarship, based on archaeological evidence at Troy and other sites, puts it some 75 years earlier, around 1250 BC. But the traditional victors at Troy did not have very long to enjoy their victory.

The Dark Age

For reasons we do not really yet understand, this civilization begins to die out around 1220 BC with the mysterious destruction and subsequent abandonment of Pylos. That event ushers in a period of decline that lasts until roughly 1050 BC, when the Mycenaean civilization literally fades away into nothingness. Some echoes of this troubled period seem to be preserved in the Odyssey where, for example, the first question asked of a stranger is almost always along the lines of "Are you a pirate?" The social unrest, migrations of peoples, and foreign invasions that seem to have characterized the end of the Mycenaean civilization may also have served as a model for the troubled homecomings of some of the Homeric heroes that are recounted in the poem.

Whatever its causes, the disappearance of the Mycenaean civilization marked the start of about 250 years of very difficult times in Greece: aptly referred to as the Dark Age. This period has its end with the...

(The entire section is 2,128 words.)