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M.I. Finley - The World of Odysseus - Book Review

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In addition to introductions to each edition and appendixes, The World of Odysseus consists of five fascinating chapters: Homer and the Greeks; Bards and Heroes; Wealth and Labor; Household, Kin, and Community; and Morals and Values.

The first chapter introduces the world of the Greeks, their exposure to writing, the importance of Homer, and the possibility that the two epics were written by two people. Finley says that of the Greek papyri from Egypt that had been published by 1963, half of them were either the Iliad or the Odyssey.

In the second chapter Finley explains why he believes the world of Odysseus was not the Mycenaean Age or the world in which Homer lived, but the intervening period -- the Dark Age. Finley also describes the treatment the Iliad and Odyssey received from the Archaic period of ancient Greece on.

In the third chapter, Finley looks at class structure. Although Homer doesn't mention commoners very often, there were skilled craftsmen, and slaves, who were mainly women. Below them were the lowest of the low, the thetes. This is an odd concept for us who believe anything is better than being a slave, but freedom to the ancient Greeks without belonging to a household (oikos) was empty.

While the nobles knew how and were capable of doing all the household work and animal husbandry, not having to do so was important for their status. Thus, Odysseus was insulted to be called a merchant. But because there was need for things which one's almost self-sufficient household could not produce, gifts were welcome. Metal treasure was especially valuable, whether it was a tripod, cooking pot, or golden bracelet. Acceptance meant reciprocation at a later date.

The Household, Kin, and Community chapter explores the avenues to power. Agamemnon is high king because, given that he has the right genealogy, he commands the largest armed contingent. While the king need not follow the advice of his fellows, he does listen to it. The meeting place at which these discussions took place, the agora, was part of the Greek definition of civilization. Finley also looks at the confusing power structure of Odysseus' Ithaca.

The last chapter describes the heroic code and the relationships between gods and mortals in the Iliad and Odyssey. Finley says that the Homeric gods represent a revolution in religion.

If you've ever read the Iliad and been frustrated by the long catalogs or lists of ships, gifts, and ancestors, read The World of Odysseus and then try again. M.I. Finley shows that the catalogs are more than just devices the bard may have used as metric place holders or to refresh the audience while getting a little much needed breather for himself. The lists have a valuable place in maintaining what Homer believed was the social hierarchy of a society that was long gone even by the time Homer wrote about it. As Bernard Knox puts it, "the poems preserve, with the anachronisms and misunderstandings inevitable in a fluid oral tradition, the social institutions and values of the early Dark Ages, the tenth and ninth centuries B.C."

Among other works, historian Sir Moses I. Finley (1912-1986) wrote The Ancient Economy and Ancient Slavery, in addition to The World of Odysseus.

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