Are the Homeric Basileis ‘Big Men’?*

Pierre Carlier
Texte édité par Christian Bouchet et Bernard Eck

Paru dans Epos: Reconsidering Greek Epic and Aegean Bronze Age Archaeology.
Proceedings of the 11th International Aegean Conference, Los Angeles, UCLA, 2006,
S.P. Morris & R. Laffineur dir., Austin, University of Texas at Austin, 2007, p. 121-128.

Since Antiquity, there have been many discussions about Homeric basileis, to decide for instance it they were strong magistrates or absolute monarchs, if their main function was religious or military. Till the late seventies of the twentieth century, however, it seemed obvious to everybody that the Homeric basileis were kings. This unanimous opinion was first challenged in 1981 by the Norwegian scholar Bjorn Quiller in his paper, “The Dynamics of the Homeric Society”1, in which he maintained that the Homeric basileis look like the Melanesian big men. During the eighties, the suggestion was taken up and systematically developed by Walter Donlan in many papers2, which tried to place Homeric basileiai inside the development partern of the neo-evolutionist school of political anthropology of Fried and Service3: according to him, the Homeric basileis were big men turning into chiefs4. This new opinion has gained influential support, for instance from O. Murray and K. Raaflaub, and it has become the prevailing view among Homerists and historians.

Moreover, the traditional view, already expressed by Thucydides (I, 13, 1) and Aristotle (Politics III 14, 1285a-1286b), according to which the first Greek communities were governed by kings, was challenged in 1983 by the Californian historian Robert Drews. In his very stimulating book Basileus. The Evidence for Kingship in Geometric Greece, Drews tried to show that the first Greek poleis were not ruled by hereditary monarchs but that they were under the “informal” power of several leaders called basileis. Drews’ intellectual background and way of reasoning were very different from Quiller’s and Donlan’s, but the conclusions seemed to converge, and today the new communis opinio is that there were no kings either in the Homeric poems or in the first Greek poleis. A few Homerists and historians expressed their disagreement with this new orthodoxy5. I was among them, but my French paper, which appeared in 19966, remained quite unnoticed in the english-speaking historical literature. I take the occasion of this meeting for restating my case with some further arguments.

Big man seems to be the translation of a Melanesian phrase. In the works of Marshall Sahlins7 we have a first-hand analysis of Melanesian societies. In these societies, family groups work very little, just to produce what they need to maintain themselves. The man who works hard to produce a surplus which he distributes gains much prestige and becomes a big man. Since gift is a factor of influence, the big man also compels his wives to work hard, and compels those who are under obligation towards him to become his clients and to pay him dues thanks to which he extends his clientela by giving new gifts. Very often, a big man shows his generosity by inviting many people to great banquets; quite often, he leads companions on plundering expeditions in order to get booty to share. There is a fierce competition between big men. When one of them can no longer be as generous as his competitors, he loses his clients and his influence. An impoverished big man is a nobody. On the contrary, if the clients of a big man consider him as too greedy and oppressive, they often revolt and kill him.

It is undeniable that gift plays a very important role in the world of the Homeric heroes. As Moses Finley has shown, the analyses of Marcel Mauss on gift as a “total social phenomenon”8 apply perfectly to the Homeric world. However, a comparison between Melanesian and Homeric societies shows that gifts are important in both, but in very different ways. The gifts which are described with most details in the Homeric poems are hospitality gifts and gifts on the occasion of weddings; they are all gifts between equals, inside the aristocracy. There are also many gifts from the damos to the basileis, the γέρεα or gifts of honour from booty, the special lands called τεμένεα and many other δῶρα which are sometimes given under constraint9. It is very usual in many societies that those who hold power demand gifts from their subordinates: that Agamemnon and the Melanesian big men are both δημοβόροι10 is neither surprising nor original. There is however a huge difference between them. The counterpart expected from the Melanesian big men is absent from the Homeric world: the Homeric basileis do not distribute wealth to commoners. Of course, the basileis organize banquets, but most often the guests are all aristocrats, and the poet insists on the fact that the guests eat and drink at the people’s cost, δήμια πίνουσι11. The Homeric basileus receives more than he distributes, and that is why his house is prosperous12. In the Homeric poems, a basileus or an aristocrat never gives precious objects from his treasure to ordinary people: he keeps them for peers on exceptional occasions. All the more, the potlatch, competition in which all the competitors try to spend and spoil as much wealth as possible, is wholly absent from the Homeric world. Wealth is a factor of prestige in the Homeric world, and the basileis enjoy showing it, but they prefer hoarding it rather than giving it. We could even say that generosity does not appear among the many virtues which are celebrated by Homer. The numerous words which will express this prestigious behaviour in later Greek – εὐεργεσία, φιλανθρωπία, μεγαλοπρεπεία, ἐλευθεριότης in particular13 – are wholy absent from the Homeric poems, and there is no equivalent word.

The Homeric basileus is not a “big man” in the original Melanesian meaning of the word, one who gains influence by distributing gifts.

All the historians who use the “big man” phrase did not read Marshall Sahlins, as Bjorn Quiller did; the comparison with Melanesia is often completely absent. When used in a looser sense, “big man” simply means a man whose power is informal and precarious in a prepolitical society. Do the Homeric basileis share these features?

According to some scholars, the armies described in the Homeric poems would be only coalitions of private bands looking for adventure and booty. Such private bands are mentioned in the Odyssey: in two of his Cretan tales, Ulysses pretends to be a Cretan condottiere who has led many looting expeditions before taking part in the Trojan war. In one of the tales, this fictive character leads the Cretan fleet beside ldomeneus during the Trojan war before organizing new piratical raids in Egypt afterwards14; in the other tale, Idomeneus’s son Orsilochos tries to deprive him of his Trojan booty, and he kills Orsilochos15. In none of the tales is this condottiere called basileus, and in none of them does he replace Idomeneus and his son. The independence of a private band leader is limited by the pressure of the whole community and by the authority of a basileus whose power has a different origin and a different nature. The Homeric poems clearly distinguish private expeditions and wars which involve the whole community. The sire Euchenor of Corinth knew that he would die during the Trojan war: he left for Troy nevertheless, “to avoid the heavy fine of the Achaeans”16. For those who are enlisted, sometimes after a drawing of lots17, to go to war is an unescapable political obligation. In time of war, the basileis are served by companions who fight around them, but most of these hetairoi live on their own estate in time of peace. The case of Patroclos, who had to flee because he killed another child and who lives permanently with Achilles, is rather exceptional (though not unique)18. The power of Homeric basileis is not built on a great number of full-time companions19.

Many scholars maintain that there is no hereditary kingship in the Homeric poems, but that there is a fierce competition among aristocrats at the death of every basileus, or when the basileus is old, absent or weakened: according to this view, power would be based exclusively on strength. We have to distinguish two questions: 1) is the idea of hereditary power present or absent? 2) Do the heirs effectively inherit, or are there many usurpations?

Hereditary kingships are based on two principles: 1) the royal dignity always remains in the same family; 2) inside this family, a clear rule settles the order of succession. On this second point, there is some fuzziness, even if two rules are hinted at. Primogeniture is not completely ignored: Zeus asks Poseidon to obey him because he is the eldest, and the Erinyes protect the eldest20. On the other hand, when Achilles is teasing Aineias before fighting him, he says, in effect: “you won’t reign even if you kill me, because Priamos will choose one of his sons”21. The choice of the reigning king seems to be the decisive factor in Troy: Hector hopes to be king because his father esteems him most, and to leave his power to his son Astyanax22.

In spite of the absence of a clearcut law of succession, the royal scepter is considered as hereditary, πατρώιον23. Some families have received power from the gods. Agamemnon bears the scepter Hermes had given to his ancestor Pelops24. In the Iliad, kingship usually remains in the hands of the same family, except when some royal family becomes extinct25. For instance, Thoas son of Andraemon leads the Aitolians, “since no longer were the sons of high-hearted Oineus living, nor Oineus himself, and fair-haired Meleagros has perished”26. Most often, the new reigning family is connected with the previous one, and has already a royal character. Thus, Tydeus, who marries Adrastos’ daughter and becomes king of Argos, is an exiled son of King Oineus; Bellerophon, who marries the daughter of the king of Lycia, is a Sisyphid from Corinth. Many heroes lose their kingdom by committing homicide and get another one by marrying a princess. To belong to a royal genos makes one apt to reign in any community. There are few new dynasties in the Iliad, but there are many dynasties which change their seats.

In the Odyssean Phaeacia, Alcinoos promptly offers the brilliant foreigner who has just escaped from a shipwreck the suggestion to marry Nausicaa (even before knowing his name)27. Some scholars have supposed that Alcinoos was also offering his kingship, and that the traditions about Phaeacia reflect very old matrilinear or even matriarcal practices. Since we know much less about the Phaeacians than Homer and his audience28, we must be very careful in our interpretation. Nonetheless, Alcinoos has a son, Leodamas: there is no indication that the husband of Nausicaa will be preferred to him as a king. On the contrary, it seems that the settlement of the foreigner in Phaeacia and his marriage with Alcinoos’s daughter will strengthen the whole royal family. What is clear is that Alcinoos – and Nausicaa – don’t want matrimonial links with other Phaeacian families: to avoid such alliances, Alcinoos married his niece – or rather his sister29 –, and wants to give his daughter to a foreigner.

According to some scholars, the events in Ithaka prove that kingship is not hereditary.

Let us begin the analysis of this very complicated situation with one of the rare dialogues which do not contain any lie or manoeuvring. When Ulysses meets his mother Anticleia in the underworld, more than seven years before his return to Ithaka, he first asks her if his geras, his royal privilege, still belongs to Laertes and Telemachos, or if someone else now possesses it30; only afterwards does he ask questions about his oikos and Penelope. Anticleia answers that no one has taken Ulysses’ beautiful privilege (καλὸν γέρας), that Telemachus quietly administers the τεμένεα, and that he is invited to the banquets31. Telemachus would have inherited his father’s kingship, simply by retaining the traditional privileges of his ancestors if a strong group of young aristocrats had not decided to deprive him of everything.

When Telemachus, on the advice of Athena, opposes the suitors for the first time and declares that he will convoke the Assembly to ask the suitors publicly to leave his house, Antinoos replies: “I hope the son of Kronos never makes you our king in sea-girt Ithaka, even if it is a tradition for your family”32. These words are clearly a threat: if Telemachus tries to be king, he won’t be happy because he will be killed. Antinoos admits that, according to heredity, Telemachos should reign, but he suggests that the gods don’t always support the heirs. Telemachus pretends to accept the suitors’ view; without renouncing kingship, he admits that competition for royal power could remain open33, but insists that he keep his oikos. Eurymachos simulates agreement: “Telemachos, these matters, and which of the Achaians will be king in sea-girt Ithaka, are questions that lie on the gods’ knees. But I hope you keep your possessions and stay lord in your own household”34.

The suitors apparently agreed on two points: 1) the son of Ulysses must not be king; 2) Penelope must choose a new husband from among them. Kingship through marriage is a very usual mythical theme35, and the suitors tried to get advantage of it, but the new husband of Penelope should also have enough prestige – among the suitors and among the damos – to be acknowledged as king36. That is why the suitors were so welcoming of the contest of the bow initiated by Penelope: the winner would have obtained not only the hand of the queen, but the fame of being Ulysses’ equal, and of deserving to be his successor. The competition is a complete failure for the suitors: they are unheroic characters who vainly try to imitate heroes. The only hero in Ithaka, the one who succeeds in drawing the bow37, is also the legitimate king, Ulysses. His complete triumph is both the triumph of legitimacy and of an exceptional individual.

In lthaca, there is no family more royal than the Arcesiads, as the sire Theoclymenes emphasizes. Of course, the suitors try to eliminate Telemachos and to seize power for themselves, but this attempted usurpation is one of their major crimes, for which they deserved death. Contrary to many scholars, I would suggest that the whole story of the suitors proves that hereditary rule is very important for the poet of the Odyssey and his audience.

I arrive at the main point.

The Homeric communities are not pre-states. There is only one group which is simply a juxtaposition of private houses, the Cyclopes, “an overweening and lawless folk”, that the Odyssey describes in these words: “Neither assemblies for deliberation have they, nor appointed laws…, but each of them is lawgiver to his children and his wives”38. Not to have political institutions is for the poet a proof of extreme savageness39.

The map of the Achaean world described in the Iliadic Catalogue mentions three potitical levels: 1) the boroughs – sometimes called poleis – and the small ethne enumerated within each contingent, more than 300 in all; 2) the 29 political entities corresponding to the military contingents, mostly (but not always) kingdoms ruled by one king and very often named by a global ethnic such as “Phocians” or “Arcadians”; 3) the Panachaean community whose supreme leader is Agamemnon. It is worth pointing out that this Homeric superimposition of communities40 has no federal character: not all the kings leading a contingent belong to the Panachaean council of elders. Inside poleis or small ethne, there are still smaller groups like the phratries, but the poet does not give any indication about their organization.

At each of the three above mentioned levels, there are similar political institutions which work in a similar way. The community of gods has exactly the same political system.

The political communities evoked in the Homeric poems all have an assembly (ἀγορά) and a council of elders, or several councils. I say “several councils”, because in some communities the composition of the council may be narrower or larger according to circumstances. In Scheria, for instance, King Alcinoos is everyday surrounded by 12 elders, but summons γέροντας πλέονας, “more numerous elders” to share in the banquet to be held in honour of Ulysses41.

Meetings of the Council and of the Assembly are quite frequent in the two poems. I have counted 42 such scenes42 (without taking into account mere allusions). Every decision in the Homeric world is preceded by some form of deliberation, behind closed doors solely among the elders or publicly in front of the Assembly. The choice between the two possibilities depends on the king and the most influential elders. For instance, in Book IX of the Iliad, Nestor advises Agamemnon to put an end to the assembly and to summon the elders for a meeting inside his hut43. In front of the small group of the elders, Nestor suggests to Agamemnon that he send an embassy to Achilles. The reason for Nestor’s choice is clear: he knows that a negative answer from Achilles is possible, and he deems it preferable not to decide publicly negotiations the failure of which would demoralize the soldiers.

While acknowledging the existence of assemblies and councils, some historians have denied that the kings have real political powers. According to them, the Assembly and the Council are places where “big men” compete to prevail over each other44. Competition is of course important, but the process of decision-making is worth examining. The assembly loudly acclaims a proposal or disapproves of it silently, but the damos never votes. Nor is there any vote among the elders. Even if in many cases Homeric discussions end with a unanimous agreement, it is not always the case. The simplest interpretation of the many political scenes of the two poems is that the king who leads the community puts an end to the discussion and takes the final decision. The king – and only the king – has the power of transforming a proposal into a decision: that is what is meant by the verb κραίνειν, brilliantly analysed by Émile Benveniste45. The political system in the Homeric poems may be described by the following formula: the damos listens, the elders speak, the king decides46.

The famous trial scene on the Shield of Achilles (Iliad XVIII 497-508), which has given rise to many controversies, may be interpreted in a similar way47. Three institutions are mentioned, as taking part in the trial. The laoi, divided into two groups of opposed supporters, listen to the discussion and shout loudly in favour of one or the other litigant; the elders express their opinion one after another; the ἴστωρ says which of the elders has given the better advice, and consequently which of the litigants is right. The text does not say that the ἴστωρ is a king, but his role is exactly parallel to the role the king plays in political discussion. In both cases, the decision is reached in the same way: after listening to the elders, in front of the assembled people, one man takes the final decision.

The necessity of deliberation is highlighted in the very original royal ideology expressed in the Iliad. Neither the supreme king Agamemnon nor the supreme leader of the Trojan army Hector are the wisest of their community (among the Trojans, the wisest is Polydamas, born the same night as Hector). The gods never give all their gifts to the same man; those who have received the privilege of royal power are necessarily deprived of some essential qualities. The king has to decide because he is the king, not because he is the best. So he must listen to the good advice from wiser people (like Ulysses or Nestor among the Achaeans). The Iliad conveys a remarkable theology of royal imperfection48.

The ideology of kingship in the Odyssey is quite different. Ulysses is both the best – and in particular the wisest – and the βασιλεύτατος. His triumph over the suitors is at the same time the restoration of the legitimate heir of Arkesios and the victory of an exceptional individual.

In spite of this wide difference between the political outlooks of the two poems, the king is in both poems the keystone of the political system.

An attentive reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey proves that the heads of the communities – Agamemnon, Priam, Nestor, Menelaos, Alcinoos, Ulysses and many others – are not big men. The title of king is the only one which fits men who exercise a political power inside political communities, who decide after listening to the others, who hold a scepter, who have received their τιμή from Zeus, and whose position is often hereditary. Those people we have identified as kings are often called βασιλεῖς. That does not prove that βασιλεύς means “king”.

I have given elsewhere an exhaustive analysis of all the occurrences of βασιλεύς in the Homeric poems49. I will only repeat the three major facts I have noticed:

  1. βασιλεύς never means head of an oikos50.
  2. The singular βασιλεύς nearly always designates the permanent leader of a polis, of a people or of an army, that is a man who is a king in the usual meaning of the word.
  3. The collective plural βασιλῆες designates the groups of elders who surround the βασιλεύς and deliberate on public affairs. The use of this collective designation could be explained by the political role of the elders. In the Panachaean army, most kings of contingents are not members of the council of βασιλῆες. On the contrary, there is no proof that each of the 12 βασιλῆες of Phaeacia is individually a βασιλεύς.

Even if the semantic fields of homeric βασιλεύς and king in modern languages do not completely coincide, “king” remains the most acceptable mistranslation. To avoid the worst misunderstandings, one has only to remember that “kingship” is not a synonym of monarchy and that one of the main characteristics of the Homeric political system is the close association of one king and a council of kings.

The Homeric picture of the political institutions themselves and of their functioning is quite coherent in both poems. There is no patchwork, but on the contrary a surprising uniformity. We may add that the Homeric decision-making process seems quite realistic: in reading the poems, we get the impression that somewhere some kings must have ruled in such a way. One might rightly object that this impression of reality could just prove the skill of the poet. Is Homeric kingship a clever fiction or did a similar system exist at some moment in Greek history?

The answer to the question is obviously linked with the dating of the poems. If, as the followers of Wolf believe, the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed in late 6th century Peisistratid Athens, then the Homeric political system could be an amalgam of very ancien traditions about the Achaean kings on the one hand and political institutions of the late archaic polis on the other. If we accept this hypothesis, the Homeric picture would be interesting for the history of political ideas and for the study of Peisistratid propaganda (the tyrants would have wanted to appear as heirs and successors of the heroic kings), but it would not give us any information about Dark Age and early archaic politics.

It is much more likely, however, that the Iliad and the Odyssey reached their monumental form in the 8th century51. A first very important historical conclusion could then be drawn: the Assembly and the Council were already familiar to the poet’s audience in the 8th century, and moreover they were considered traditional institutions.

As for kingship, we have to concede that kings like Priamos and Agamemnon were so strictly tied to the traditional plot of the Trojan War that the epic poets would have been obliged to keep kings in their poems even if kingship had already totally disappeared from the world in which they lived. The appearance of kings in the Homeric poems does not prove the existence of kings at the time of Homer52. However, the local traditions of many cities and ethne tell many stories about many kings in the archaic period53. It is not likely that all these traditions are late fictions54. If dynastic kingship was still a living institution in the time of the monumental composition of the poems, we may wonder whether perhaps that contemporary kingship was not at least partially in the background of Homeric kingship.

Another consideration leads us to the same conclusion. How could a public decision be reached before the invention of voting? Sometimes through violence, through the pressure of an influential big man or through unanimous approval of course, but if these means failed, the community would break up. The surest and most convenient way of decision-making is the arbitration of a man set over the others by the support of the gods, i.e. very often a king. It is hard to believe that the Greek epic poets would have imagined this simple and effective political system while it would have been totally unknown to the Greek communities themselves.

Assemby, Council and kings probably existed in most Greek communities of the early archaic period – villages, ethne and many emerging poleis –, and they probably worked more or less as the poems describe them. As this type of government is considered traditional by the poets and their audience, it probably already existed in the late Dark Age. The epic picture of politics proves that the poets and their audience had some experience of politics. Politics in Greece probably antedate the rise of the polis itself.

Most Greek local traditions have the same structure55. There are almost everywhere three successive dynasties: 1) the primeval kings who are often the eponymous of the rivers and the mountains of the country (Eurotas in Laconia or Inachos in Argolis for instance); 2) the heroic dynasties to which belong the heroes who fought around Thebes and Troy; 3) new dynasties which take power two or three generations after the Trojan War, often at the time of the Return of the Herakleidai. The only exception is Arcadia which has always kept the same dynasty, before and after the Trojan War, before and after the Return of the Herakleidai. The traditions about post-heroic dynasties are themselves very similar, and nearly always show the same three features. 1) There are detailed narratives about the establishment of the new dynasties, their first conquests, their first deeds and their first conflicts; 2) there is complete obscurity from the second, the third or the fourth generation; very often ancient sources only say that the same family retained power without interruption; in a few cases, as in Athens and Corinth, king-lists try to fill the gap. 3) After this long gap, kings appear again in texts about the 8th and 7th centuries; very often, these texts insist on the hubris of the last kings. Most of these last traditions stem from propaganda against the lastest kings or the recently overthrown kings; the stories are doubtful, but they strongly suggest the existence of kings in early archaic Greek communities. The traditions about the first Heraclid kings in Dorian states and the first Neleid kings in Ionian cities probably developped, at least partially, as a consequence of epic poetry: the auditors of the aoidoi had to explain why the political map of their own time was very different from the epic one. The most remarkable fact, however, is the gap in Greek traditions. On account of this gap, we are justified in qualifying the period 1050-800 as a Dark Age: contemporary Greeks did not think worth remembering the events of this dull “iron age”56.

We cannot exclude that in some places during the Greek Dark Ages small isolated hamlets or nomadic groups would have been led by big men – in the extended or even the Melanesian sense. The archaeological evidence is quite diverse57 and difficult to interpret. During the last twenty years, the “rise and fall of a big man” has very often been suggested as an explanation of the observed facts58, in particular of the instability of settlements and burial-places. This instability, however, must not be exaggerated, since many Dark Age sites continue for several centuries. Besides, the abandonment of a settlement may have many causes, and the transfer of obedience from one big man to another is not always the most probable one: Nichoria, for instance, was probably deserted as a consequence of the Spartan conquest of Messenia, and Emborio as a consequence of the synoecism of the island of Chios.

Moreover, the very continuity of the epic tradition itself proves that the notion of supra-local links of political character never completely disappeared in Greece. The destruction of the Mycenaean powerful kingdoms was not a cataclysm similar to the Platonic food59 provoking a complete return to primitivism, because some memory of the previous brilliant times survived (that is was of course distorted does not matter).

The big man model may be useful to the archaeologist of Greek Dark Ages – among many other hypotheses – but it is not suitable to the analysis of the Homeric world, and can contribute very little to the reconstruction of the origins of the Greek polis.


* I want to thank Professor Anthony Podlecki for his help in correcting my english text.

  1. SO 56, 1981, p. 109-155.
  2. For instance “The Politics of Generosity in Homer”, Helios 9, 1982, p. 1-15; “Reciprocities in Homer”, CW 75, 1982, p. 137-175; “The Pre-State Community in Greece”, SO 64, 1989, p. 5-29.
  3. From the beginning of his first paper, W. Donlan explicitly quotes the models set out by E.R. Service, Primitive Social Organization. An Evolutionary Perspective, New York, 1962, and by M.H. Fried, The Evolution of Political Society: An Essay in Political Anthropology, New York, 1967.
  4. The distinction between big man and chief is not always clearly explained. For a good detailed analysis, see M. Sahlins, “Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 5, 1963, p. 285-303: the big man exerts his influence on more isolated groups, in a “more segmented” society; his authority is more personal and less institutional, and that is why it is more precarious.
  5. For instance Fr. Gschnitzer, “Zur homerischen Staats und Gesellschaftsordnung”, in Zweihundert Jahre Homer-Forschung, Colloquium Rauricum, 2, J. Latacz éd., Stuttgart & Leipzig, 1991, p. 182-204; H. van Wees, Status Warriors. War, Violence and Society in Homer and History, Amsterdam, 1992, p. 281-294; more briefly, Fr. Ruzé, Délibération et pouvoir dans la cité grecque de Nestor à Socrate, 1997, Paris, p. 13-14.
  6. “Les basileis homériques sont-ils des rois ?”, Ktèma 21, 1996, p. 5-22.
  7. The most important study is M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, Chicago & New York, 1972.
  8. M. Mauss, “Essai sur le don : forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques”, L’Année sociologique, 2nde série, I, 1923-1924, p. 145-179 – in particular p. 147 and 174; M.I. Finley, The World of Odysseus, New York, 1954, (Finley quotes Malinowski who quotes Mauss). See also, more recently, the very good analysis of É. Scheid-Tissinier, Les Usages du don chez Homère. Vocabulaire et pratiques, Nancy, 1994.
  9. For a detailed analysis, see P. Carlier, La Royauté en Grèce avant Alexandre, Strasbourg, 1984, p. 151-165.
  10. Iliad I 231: Achilles is reproaching Agamemnon with his greed.
  11. Iliad XVII 251.
  12. Telemachus takes it for granted that kingship makes one richer (Odyssey I 392-393).
  13. This rich vocabulary about generosity is used, for instance, by Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II, 7, 4.
  14. Odyssey XIV 231-258.
  15. Odyssey XIII 256-271.
  16. Iliad XIII 669.
  17. Iliad XXIV 396-400.
  18. Aias’ hetairos, Lycophron, is also an exiled aristocrat who had to leave his homeland Cythera because he killed a man (Iliad XV 428-434).
  19. For more details, see P. Carlier (supra n. 9), p. 181-182.
  20. Iliad XV 166-167; XV 204.
  21. Iliad XX 180-183.
  22. Iliad VI 478.
  23. Iliad II 46; II 186.
  24. Iliad II 104. Pelops “gave” the scepter to Atreus, Atreus “left” it to Thyestes, and Thyestes “left” it to Agamennon. These fomulations allude to the quarrels and murders among the Atreidai; however, the poet has chosen not to insist on this odd transmission, but to underline the permanent possession of the scepter by the same family. This exceptional, incorruptible, scepter, is linked with Panachaean authority.
  25. Sparta would be an exception if Menelaus had inherited his father-in-law’s kingship while the sons of Tyndaros were still living. We only know that the Dioscuri died after the departure of Helen with Paris (III 236-242), but we have no indication on the respective deaths of Tyndaros and the Dioscuri.
  26. Iliad II 641-642, translation R. Lattimore.
  27. Odyssey VII 313-315.
  28. The only other tale that survives about the Phaeacians is the sojourn of Jason and Medea on their way back from Colchis (Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica IV 995-1221). For further discussion on the Phaeacians, see P. Carlier, Homère, Paris, 1999, p. 222-229.
  29. Odyssey VII 54-55.
  30. Odyssey XI 174-176.
  31. Odyssey XI 184-187.
  32. Odyssey I 386-387 (Lattimore’s translation, modified).
  33. “But in fact there are many other Achaian princes (βασιλῆες), young and old, in sea-girt lthaka, any of whom might hold this position, now that the great Odysseus has perished” (Odyssey I 394-396). For a commentary of the meaning of βασιλῆες in this text, see P. Carlier (supra n. 9), p. 143-145.
  34. Odyssey I 401-402.
  35. The most elaborate study remains M. Delcourt, Œdipe ou la légende du conquérant, Liège, 1944.
  36. For more details on the suitors’ plans, see P. Carlier (supra n. 28), p. 236-243.
  37. Telemachus has failed three times, but his fourth attempt would probably have been successful if Odysseus had not ordered him to stop (Odyssey XXI 126-129).
  38. Odyssey IX 112-115.
  39. Even the Laistrygones, horrifying giants who catch travelers like tunnies and eat them, have a king who spends some time in the agora (Odyssey X 114).
  40. For this notion, see in particular G. Vlachos, Les Sociétés politiques homériques, Paris, 1974, p. 303-328.
  41. Odyssey VII 189.
  42. P. Carlier (supra n. 9) p. 183-184; see also Fr. Ruzé (supra n. 5), p. 103 104.
  43. Iliad IX 52-78.
  44. For instance, A.G. Geddes, “Who is Who in Homeric Society”, CQ 34, 1984, p. 17-36.
  45. É. Benveniste, Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, II, Paris, 1969, p. 35-42.
  46. For more details, see P. Carlier (supra n. 9), p. 182-187, and P. Carlier (supra n. 28), p. 278-283.
  47. On this text, the basic studies remain G. Glotz, La Solidarité de la famille dans le droit criminel en Grèce, Paris, 1904; H.J. Wolff, “The Origin of Judicial Litigation among the Greeks”, Traditio 4, 1946, p. 31-87, and L. Gernet, “Droit et pré-droit en Grèce ancienne”, L’Année sociologique, 1948-1949, p. 21-119. For a more detailed presentation of my interpretation, see P. Carlier (supra n. 9), p. 172-177. H. van Wees (supra n. 5), p. 34, attributes the same roles to the laoi, to the elders and to the ἴστωρ. Among other recent analyses, see R. Westbrook, “The Trial Scene in the Iliad”, HSPh 94, 1992, p. 53-76, and É. Scheid-Tissinier, “À propos du rôle et de la fonction de l’ἴστωρ”, RPh 68, 1994, p. 187-208.
  48. For more details, see P. Carlier (supra n. 9), p. 195-204.
  49. P. Carlier (supra n. 9), p. 222-230.
  50. I insist on this point, because the inexact formulation of M.I. Finley (supra n. 8), p. 92, who talks about “the oscillation between basileus as king and basileus as chief – that is, the head of an aristocratic household with its servants and retainers –”, has misled many scholars.
  51. The arguments for this date are summed up in P. Carlier (supra n. 28), p. 81-100.
  52. Later, in democratic Athens, heroic kings remained the main characters of Athenian tragedy.
  53. I have collected ancient traditions about thirty-five royal dynasties in archaic Greece (P. Carlier [supra n. 9], p. 233-514).
  54. R. Drews, Basileus. The Evidence for Kingship in Geometric Greece, New Haven, 1983, rejects many traditions as fictitious (with rather unconvincing arguments), but he cannot question all the testimonies about hereditary kingship. He tries to get around the obstacle in two ways. First, he admits that there were kings in ethne (but not in poleis); as there were many ethne in early archaic Greece, he should have to concede that kingship was quite usual. Secondly, Drews maintains that the βασιλεῖς mentioned in many cities are not kings, but “republican basileis”. It is clear that this strange expression does not suit such powerful hereditary leaders as Pheidon of Argos or Arcesilas II of Cyrene.
  55. For more details, see P. Carlier, “Les rois d’Athènes. Étude sur la tradition”, in Teseo e Romolo. Le origini di Atene e Roma a confronto, E. Greco dir., Athènes, 2005, p. 125-141.
  56. I deliberately use the Hesiodic phrase. As Hesiod, Works and Days 174-180, Greek people in the Dark Ages probably had a very bad opinion of their own time.
  57. On this point, see in particular J. Whitley, “Social Diversity in Dark Age Greece”, ABSA 86, 1991, p. 341-365; C.G. Thomas & C. Conant, Citadel to City-State. The Transformation of Greece, 1200-700 B.C.E., Bloomington, 1999.
  58. See for instance J. Whitley (supra n. 57), p. 350, about the “big building” of Lefkandi: “Since authority in these systems was so highly personal, on a big man’s death, his authority and prestige collapsed with him. In Lefkandi, Toumba the association of a big man’s personality with his house was such that it could not be used by anyone else. So he was interred within its floor, and a tumulus was built over him and his house.” We could as well suppose that the “hero of Lefkandi” received such honours because his family kept his power.
  59. Laws III 677b-680a.
Posté le 01/07/2022
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ISBN html : 978-2-35613-420-2
Publié le 01/07/2022
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10 p.
Code CLIL : 3385; 4031
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Carlier, Pierre (2022) : “Are the Homeric Basileis ‘Big Men’?”, in : Bouchet, Christian, Eck, Bernard, éd., Pierre Carlier, un esprit de finesse. Recueil d’articles, Pessac, Ausonius éditions, collection B@sic 2, 2022, 347-356 [en ligne] [consulté le 01/07/2022].

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