Searching For True Monarchy In Greek Literature
Since the beginning of time monarchs and monarchy have attracted a great deal of attention in the media. Countless works of history have focused on the deeds and misdeeds of political leaders, and many writers of fiction have likewise devoted much of their energy to such characters. However, insight into the true nature of the power structure in any given society has been rare. There have only ever been essentially two types of government: monarchy and oligarchy (or aristocracy). True monarchy is populist and anti-aristocratic. This means that many crowned heads are not true monarchs at all, while many other supposedly non-monarchical political leaders really are monarchs in the true sense.
In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey the focus is on kings and aristocrats, with hardly even a look-in for anyone of lower birth. The modern sceptics, like Sir Moses Finley (1964), who pooh-poohed Homer as providing a reliable reflection of Mycenaean society, have been decisively trounced. The Homeric epics do not claim historical accuracy, but their reflection of the power structure of Mycenaean Greece is corroborated by both archaeology and linguistics. Homer’s picture of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, as heading up a loose alliance made up of the rulers of Sparta, Pylos, Ithaca and other regional states conforms broadly to the excavated archaeological pattern of lavish palace-centred states. The decipherment of Linear B has likewise revealed that each of these states was ruled by a wanax (or anax in Homer and Classical Greek), meaning a king with religious as well as political, military and judicial power. Basileus, the standard word for king in classical and modern Greek, is the title for a fairly lowly local official in Linear B, and in Homer it can refer either to the ruler of one of the regional states or to members of the aristocracy, like Penelope’s suitors in Ithaca. Homer’s anax is much more of a true monarch than the wanax of Linear B, who, despite his apparently all-encompassing power, is the head of a multi-layer bureaucratic hierarchy.
The Greek Tyrants
True monarchy is essentially anti-aristocratic and populist. Ancient Greece provides a good example of this in the shape of the so-called tyrants, whose heyday was from 650 to 550 BC, though tyrants pop up in later periods of Greek history as well. Tyrannies arose on the overthrow of aristocratic (or oligarchic) governments. Today the word “tyrant” has pejorative connotations, but these bad associations date only from the fifth century BC.
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Dr Michael Arnheim is a practising London Barrister and Sometime Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge. He has written 23 published books to date, including Aristocracy in Greek society (Aspects of Greek and Roman life.
Top Image: Pericles's Funeral Oration, by Philipp Foltz (1852)(Public Domain)