The City as Educator – 2
Ignorance and Formative Justice
in Classical Experience
Table of Contents
Athens as Educator
Reflections on Ignorance and Formative Justice in Classical Experience
2 • Homer's Winged Words – From orality to literacy
During the Bronze Age, until about 1500 BCE, Greece was something of a backwater of the Minoan civilization, which was centered on the island of Crete. From about 1400 to 1100 Mycenean kingships flourished in Greece, with a literate (Linear B) administrative elite and a warrior culture, more or less reflected in Homer's Iliad. The Trojan War that it depicts probably took place circa 1250. Around 1100, the Mycenean centers seem to have imploded from some combination of environmental adversity, internal strife, and invasion (military or migratory)by Dorian tribes. The art of writing was lost and a "dark age" settled over the Greek world for two or three centuries, slowly reawakening around 800. The Greeks, now Dorians, not Minoan/Myceneans, reclaim a place in history, the old rule by kingship gone, replaced by numerous city-states, poleis, aristocratic and oligarchic republics. The Olympic Games began in 776. A period of colonization through the founding of new poleis out to Italy, Sicily, Asia Minor, and the Black Sea area flourished, probably occurring more often through accidental settlement by maurauding voyagers than by a process of planned creation of a new polis. Greeks remastered the art of writing with an innovative alphabetic script and the oral poems of Homer and Hesiod were written down, circa 750 and 700. Numerous cultual and political developments characterized this Archaic perid from roughly 800 to 500, or the start of the Persian wars.
Through this period, and into its successor, the Classical (500-330), Athens emerged as a leader in the uses of literacy, the arts, political innovation, and commercial vitality. It took a leading role with Sparta in the Persian wars, rose to great heights, and over-reached in the Peloponnesian Wars, and then continued on as a center of commerce, art, and learning.
A brief narrative such as this, or a longer one, for that matter, glosses over the differences between now and the Athenians of the archaic or classical period. We start with their early written reflections on public life in order to start with an appreciation of distance and difference that we need to bridge in thinking about how they coped with their uncertainties and their life-choices.
Homer Iliad and Odyssey are the central reference points in the study of when, how, and why writing was introduced into Greek culture. During the so-called "dark age," the Greeks did not use writing; sometime between c. 750 to c. 650, writing with a novel alphabetic script was introduced and was put to political, intellectual, and artistic uses. The Iliad and Odyssey probably came into being over an extended period of oral creation and transmission, and then were probably transcribed in the form they come down to us early in the spread of writing among the Greeks. Exact, definitive knowledge of what happened cannot be attained, but one can gain significant insight into early Greek intellectual history from the extensive literature working out hypotheses designed to make sense of a significant transformation that clearly did happen, but about which we have some, tantalizing little, clear evidence.