Greek Renaissance 800-700 BC
Around 800 BC this enclosed, static society began to change. The spur was increasing population, growing prosperity at home and renewed contacts with traders from the Levant. The traders were Phoenicians, a Semitic people from the coast of modern Lebanon who founded Carthage near modern Tunis in 814 BC. The use of iron also spread, giving Greek farmers metal axes, ploughs and other useful implements. But Greek society remained essentially aristocratic, meaning ruled by aristori (the best), as hereditary nobles modestly called themselves.
Eastern influence first appear in art, depicting humans and animals, often mythical such as sphinxes, in freer if not yet realistic ways. But the greatest single change was revival of literacy. Around 770 BC Greeks, probably poets, adopted the Phoenician alphabet, adding the vowels needed for Greeks to make 24 letters and adjusting the symbols. Semitic aleph became Greek alpha, the first letter. More flexible and easier to learn than the 300 character Mycenaean system, the new alphabet spread around the the Greek world. Our own Roman alphabet derives directly from it. One of the first users of literacy was to record the works of homer, the greatest Greek poet.
HOMER’S ILIAD AND ODYSSEY
There are no reliable details about Homer’s life but he probably lived around 750 BC on the island of Chios or the Ionian mainland, and perhaps was blind. Whether the two great Homer poems, The Iliad an The Odyssey
, were written by the same person is still debated. Homer’s theme in The Iliad is wrath of Prince Achilles and disastrous effects on the last stages of the ten year Trojan War, of wich he gives only fleeting glimpses. In this grand tragedy he lauded heroic values such as philotimon (love of honour), arete (meaning variously courage, excellence, perfection), endurance and a fiercely competitive individualism.
By contrast in The Odyssey, his adventure story comedy, Odysseus triumphs chiefly by craftiness. Homers description of an aristocrat society led by kings, with the voices of common people such as Thersites firmly ignored, inadvertently mingles current Iron Age customs with those of the Bronze Age. His heroes ride into the battle in Mycenaean chariots and carry Bronze Age giant shields but they are cremated not buried as Mycenaean were. Although they lived in palaces , these are simply large houses of real Mycenae or Pylos. Queen Penelope, wife of wandering Odysseus her own wool. Homer’s influence on later Greeks has compared to that of the Bible an Shakespeare combined.
All Greeks with any education could quote Homer, and he inspired men as diverse as the philosopher Socrates and Alexander The Great. In portraying the twelve Olympians (the chief gods on Mt Olympus) light hardheartedly as super-sized humans, Homer’s writing had beneficial side effects. If even Zeus, king of the gods, could be portrayed as hen pecked by his wife Hera, there was small danger of Greeks being totally over-awed by their gods majesty. The Greeks never had a special priestly caste or clergy. This helped philosophy that quest for truth by non-religious means to spring up in Ionia two centuries later.
THE POET HESIOD
Balancing the exuberant aristocratic splendor of Homer’s world are the theognis and works and days of Hesiod, a poet who lived slightly later around 700 BC in rural Boeotia, an area noted for its dullness. An independent small farmer, Hesiod grumbles at the rich and at the weather, but provides useful advice to his feckless brother on when to sow or plough. He has a strong distrust of seafaring and a peasant attitude to accruing more land. In his Theognis hegave a systematic genealogy for the gods and an account of divine myths, darker in tone than Homer’s, that also prove very influential on later generations.