The history and culture of ancient Greece, a.k.a. Hellas, is rich and varied, and totally worth studying for its own sake and for the major influence it had on Western culture that continues to be felt in societies throughout the world today.
But if you’re short on time, here’s the key things you absolutely need to know about hellenic history and culture before you read the Homeric epics – the Iliad and the Odyssey – to get what Homer is talking about.
Nation and Politics
The first thing to know about ancient Greece is that, in a sense, it didn’t really exist. In ancient times, Greece was not a nation, a single well-defined entity. The land incorporated in the modern nation of Greece was divided up into multiple independent, sovereign units, or states. These states were fully functioning political bodies with their own government, laws, leaders, economies, and military forces, but in geographic terms they were all pretty small, comprised of one major city and its outlying lands, so they were referred to as city-states.1
One’s native city-state (or polis, in ancient Greek) was also an important part of one’s identity in ancient Greece. Individual city-states valued their own local culture. Citizens felt loyalty to their own polis, and would fight to defend it. In fact, this sometimes meant fighting against the people of the other Greek city-states, as they were frequently involved in struggles for power and territory. For example, the Peloponnesian Wars were a series of conflicts in the 5th c. BCE between several city-states on the Peloponnese (the peninsula that comprises southern Greece), which lasted nearly 60 years.3
But even though every polis was an autonomous entity, and had its own unique local culture to some extent, there was still a lot that the Greek city-states shared. You’ll notice that the ancient Greeks still had a name, Hellas, to refer to all of the Greek city-states together. In fact, in Homer’s writing you’ll see several terms – Achaeans, Danaans, Argives – used to refer to Greeks as a whole and distinguish them from non-Greek peoples. The Greeks also had a word to lump together all non-Greeks – barbaros, the word from which we get the English barbarian,4 which tells you a little something about how the Greeks saw themselves in comparison to non-Greeks. Though divided up into their own individual states, all Greeks shared a language, a religion, and numerous traditions, practices, beliefs and values they held in common; though there were some regional variations, these were all aspects of Greekness that Greeks identified with, were proud of, and felt set them apart from (and made them superior to) other peoples.
Culture and Values
One of the most important aspects of Homer’s works is how they both reflect, and reflect on, the values and worldview of his society. Homer’s heroes and narratives dramatize key concepts that held an important place in Greeks’ understanding of their own identity and community, and thus provided a forum for exploring and questioning these concepts. Perhaps the most central themes of the Homeric epics are the Greek values of arete, kleos, and xenia.
The Greek word “arete” is often translated as virtue, but what the ancient Greeks meant by virtue doesn’t quite line up with the way we use the word today. Our “virtue” usually implies some aspect or morality or ethics; a virtuous person is someone who is “good,” who acts with integrity or follows some moral code. And this is part of what the ancient Greeks understood by arete: someone who was just, loyal, or pious, or just generally acted honorably would have been considered to have arete. But arete also included a whole bunch of behavior that it would be tough to call “virtuous” in the modern sense. This isn’t just because the ancient Greeks had a different system of morality than we do; it’s because their understanding of arete included excellence of any kind – it was about being the best at something that was prized or valued, so that you became a kind of human embodiment of an ideal. You could excel at acting honorably, or justly, or with wisdom. You could also excel in strength or athletic ability. Someone who was an amazing warrior or a brilliant military strategist could be considered to have arete, even though demonstrating their excellence might involve acting with cruelty or brutality. In fact, arete didn’t exclusively apply to people; even things could be said to have arete: a beautiful work of art, harmonious music, a well-designed product, an efficient tool – all demonstrate a kind of excellence, in being the best they could be of their kind, or for the function they were created to fulfill. So while arete included the idea of moral virtue, in itself it was an amoral concept.5
This meant that the Greek notion of virtue was also strongly tied into reinforcing the values and norms that already existed in their society. Fulfilling one’s role, one’s destiny, or one’s “proper” place with a degree of excellence – that was the essence of arete, which meant that anyone or anything that went against the grain, or challenged these expectations, was unlikely to be praised as having arete. In Plato’s Meno, one character makes a point of laying out different models of arete for men and women:
“First, if you want the virtue of a man, it is easy to say that a man’s virtue consists in being able to manage public affairs and thereby help his friends and harm his enemies – all the while being careful to come to no harm himself. If you want the virtue of a woman, it’s not difficult to describe: she must manage the home well, keep the household together, and be submissive to her husband; the virtue of a child, whether boy or girl, is another thing altogether, and so is that of an elderly man – if you want that – or if you want that of a free man or a slave. There are lots of different virtues…”6
So the notion of arete was predicated upon a set of values and attitudes about what constituted excellence for certain groups of people, which in turn was based on assumptions about the “natural” or “appropriate” place, role, or function of those people in their world. It’s not just about being good at something, but being good at something you’re supposed to be good at, according to the judgment of your community.
In ancient Greek, “kleos” was the word for “glory,” though it implied a whole host of related ideas. It comes from the verb “to hear” (akoúein) and most literally means “that which is heard.”7 So this notion of “glory” incorporates what people hear about you and what people say about you, reputation and rumor. It’s connected to arete – through arete one gains kleos – but arete in itself would have been incomplete in the society Homer describes: what’s the point of being the best if no one knows you’re the best? So while kleos includes a sense of acting honorably or with excellence, it’s mostly focused on what one has to gain from demonstrating excellence to others – a fame that will spread throughout the world and that will outlast even the death of the individual. In fact, kleos is connected not only to someone’s reputation while alive, but to the idea that people continue to talk about the person, to tell his/her story after death. The word kleos is connected strongly to commemoration, the rituals surrounding death, and the memorialization of the heroic figure, especially through the retelling of his/her story in literary works like Homer’s. So it’s not only fame but a kind of immortality, and it not only ensured the hero’s own place in history, but also extended to all of his/her descendants.
Because of this, kleos often seems to be more important to Homer’s characters than even their own lives, such that they would value gaining fame though a violent death rather than living a peaceful life of obscurity. As Homer scholar Charles Segal points out, “In a shame culture, like that of the society depicted in Homer, where esteem depends on how one is viewed and talked of by one’s peers, kleos is fundamental as a measure of one’s value to others and to oneself.”8
Xenia is often translated as hospitality, or “guest-friendship,” but as usual, our modern translations can only take us so far. While basically, yes, xenia concerns welcoming guests into your home, the ancient Greek concept of xenia is both more complex and more extreme than what we would understand now by “hospitality.” As literature professor Gerald Lucas has pointed out, “The tight interconnections and mutual respect in this host-guest relationship are reflected in the fact that the word xenos in ancient Greek can mean both ‘host’ and ‘guest’.”9 It means you welcome the guest so fully into your own home, that the distinction between who actually owns the place is blurred; it’s like “mi casa es su casa,” but literally.
And that’s only the beginning. Xenia implies taking responsibility for the guest’s welfare that doesn’t stop at simply letting them crash on your couch and raid your fridge. It means bending over backwards to accommodate your guest in every way, providing for his every comfort and even giving him lavish gifts, and then helping him on his journey when he decides to leave. The formula, “welcome the coming, speed the parting guest,” sums it up,10 and if speeding your guest on her way meant lending her a ship, or a team of horses, or even sailing her back home yourself, then that was your duty. It’s like if a friend from out of town showed up at your place and said she needed to stay with you… and then when she was ready to leave, said you needed to drive her to the airport… and then when you got to the airport, said you needed to buy her a ticket to Miami… and then when there were no flights to Miami, said you’d better start building a plane.
Except it’s also like if some random stranger showed up at your place and said all the same things. Xenos refers to guests and hosts, but it’s also the general word for “stranger” (you may have heard the term “xenophobia,” which is fear things or people perceived to be strange or foreign). In ancient Greece, xenia was not a special accommodation extended to friends and relatives; it was the code for how one treated all strangers and travelers.11 Codes of xenia developed as the ancient Greeks were beginning to explore the seas and set up colonies throughout the Mediterranean. Of course, sailing into an unknown land, in a time where communication across distances was difficult or impossible, left travelers incredibly vulnerable. If they got into difficulties, lost their property or means of transportation, were kidnapped or robbed, they couldn’t call home for help, and their family and countrymen might never hear of their fate. Xenia was a way of counteracting that inherent danger by placing a taboo on victimizing travelers, and ensuring that they had someone to turn to if they experienced some misfortune. And xenia was a two-way street. All were expected to give hospitality, but they could therefore all expect hospitality in return, so everyone was able to move about more freely, which allowed them to explore new territory, and establish trade partnerships and diplomatic relations with people from other places.12
In fact, the rites of hospitality were so important that they were incorporated into ancient Greek culture as not only a social custom but a religious mandate. Zeus, the king of the gods in the ancient Greek religion, was said to be the protector of strangers and travelers, so refusing to respect the obligations of xenia wasn’t just a social taboo, it was an insult to the gods.13 And the Greek gods did not tolerate any disrespect. Refuse hospitality to a stranger, or worse, take advantage of someone you had welcomed as a guest, and you were liable to get a thunderbolt right between the eyes.
Now of course Zeus was a reasonable guy (not really), and he recognized that not everyone had the resources to send their guests off with horses and chariots and gold and other fancy gifts. Xenia simply demanded that you give freely of whatever you had, whether a little or a lot, to accommodate your guests. But this meant that, for the elites in society, xenia was often a lavish display of wealth, showing off how freely you could afford to give. In fact, the generosity with which you showered your guests with gifts, if it was spectacular enough, could actually add to your kleos, while a failure to give it up could bring shame upon you and your father and your children and your children’s children…
More than that, stepping up to one’s obligations under xenia was a point of pride. It was a “civilized” custom that defined for the Greeks just how advanced and noble their society was, and your own show of xenia demonstrated that you lived up to those ideals, that you were a true Greek.14
1. Mark Damen, “The Origins of Western Theater: The Early Greek World, History and Prehistory,” Classical Drama and Society, 2012; “Historical Context for Homer,” The Core Curriculum, Columbia College, 2013. <https://www.college.columbia.edu/core/node/1744>; “Why did Greece develop city-states?”, The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization, PBS. <https://www.pbs.org/empires/thegreeks/siteindex/f2_html.html> ↩
2. Mark Damen, “The Origins of Western Theater.” ↩
3. Mark Cartwright, “Peloponnesian War,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2018. <https://www.ancient.eu/Peloponnesian_War/> ↩
4. Maria Khodorkovsky, “Etymology of ‘Barbarian’,” altallang.com, Alta, 2008. <https://www.altalang.com/beyond-words/etymology-of-barbarian/> ↩
5. Richard Parry, “Ancient Ethical Theory,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2014.<https://stanford.library.sydney.edu.au/archives/sum2008/entries/ethics-ancient/>↩
6. Plato, Meno, Trans. J. Holbo and B. Waring. Newcastle University, 2002.↩
7. Jesper Svenbro, Phrasikleia: An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece, Trans. Janet Loyd, Cornell UP, 1993, p. 14-15.↩
8. Charles Segal, “Kleos and its Ironies in the Odyssey,” L’Antiquité Classique, 52 (1983), p. 22.↩
9. Gerald Lucas, “Xenia: A religious duty,” The Humanities Index. <https://humx.org/xenia-a-religious-duty-78132ecff5ea>
10. Scott Huler, No-Man’s Lands: One Man’s Odyssey through the Odyssey, Three Rivers Press, 2008, p.40.↩
11. Scott Huler, No-Man’s Lands, p.39.↩
12. Scott Huler, No-Man’s Lands, p.39.↩
13. Scott Huler, No-Man’s Lands, p.39; Gerald Lucas, “Xenia: A religious duty.”↩
14. Scott Huler, No-Man’s Lands, p.39.↩