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Homeric Questions - Homeric Geography


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Homeric Geography
Homeric Questions - Homeric Geography

Homeric Geography deals not only with the debated location of the city of Troy (where the famous 10-year Trojan War was waged by Achaeans* from across the Aegean and an alliance of People from Asia Minor led by the Trojans), but also with the locations mentioned in connection with the wanderings of Odysseus. In the ancient world, Strabo (63/64 B.C.-c. A.D. 24), the renowned ancient Greek geographer from Pontus, was at pains to locate places mentioned in the Homeric epics. In 2005, Dimitri Nakassis wrote that recent scholarship has treated the Odyssey's travels as belonging to a mythical world, rather than the real Mediterranean. This view is called "idealist." In contrast, one of the most prolific writers on Homer, the 19th century British Homerist William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) was a realist who thought the locations were real ones in the Mediterranean.

The rest of this article discusses the physical geography and the people who lived there. Should you wish to learn more about the idealist and realist positions vis a vis the Homeric literature, see:

  • "The Portrait of Homer in Strabo's Geography," by Lawrence Kim; Classical Philology Vol. 102, No. 4 (October 2007), pp. 363-388>
  • "Gemination at the Horizons: East and West in the Mythical Geography of Archaic Greek Epic," by Dimitri Nakassis; Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) Vol. 134, No. 2 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 215-233.
  • "W. E. Gladstone and the Reconstruction of Bronze Age Geography," by William A. Koelsch; International Journal of the Classical Tradition Vol. 12, No. 3 (Winter, 2006), pp. 329-345

By geography we mean both the lay of the land and the political boundaries. It is particularly in the political boundaries that the geography of Greece has changed significantly over the millennia. Where Persia and Turkey have taken away land on the Eastern shore of the Aegean, the conquering army of the Macedonians and the migrations following the Trojan War have added to it.

At times Macedonia has been the hinterland; at others, the center of the world. The geography of Greece is confusing and has been since the mysterious Dark Age out of which Greece emerged, dominating both sides of the Aegean.

Greece is an area dominated by mountains. Most of the mainland of Greece is on the Balkan peninsula, with the Peloponnese in the south separated by the Isthmus of Corinth. Greece also has more than a thousand islands. Greece early sent colonists throughout the Mediterranean, so when discussing the Archaic period and later, but not the period covering events in the Homeric epics, Greece includes settlements on the mainland of Italy and northern Africa, as well as islands.

The Early Settlers

According to vislab-www.nps.navy.mil/~fapapoul/history/greece.html, beginning in the third millennium B.C., 3 invading tribes settled in Greece:
  1. Achaeans settled in southern Greece and the Peloponnesus,
  2. Ionians settled in Attica, east-central Greece and the Cyclades, possibly around 1600
  3. Aeolians settled in Thessaly.
A fourth group of invaders came about a millennium and a half after the first. These were the Dorians [Dark Age, 1-Timeline].
"[when] meager, relatively isolated agrarian settlements [were] dominated by local landed aristocracies, with a relatively low level of material culture: no urban centers, relatively little trade or manufacturing, a population sustained principally by what crops it could manage to foster in the arid, rocky soil...."
- Porter

The Dark Age Migrations

In a simplified version of events, a Dark Age invasion of Dorians from the North (settling first in the Corinthian Gulf and the northwest Peloponnese; then the south and east, and the islands of Crete, Rhodes, and Kos) pushed the native Greeks out of their homelands. Eventually some mainland Greeks migrated to Ionia.

Fast Facts About Greece

Ancient Version
of the Dark Age Migrations

* The Greeks of the epics didn't describe themselves as Greeks (Hellenes), but as Achaeans, Danaans, etc.

"Before the Trojan war there is no indication of any common action in Hellas, nor indeed of the universal prevalence of the name .... The best proof of this is furnished by Homer. Born long after the Trojan War, he nowhere calls all of them by that name, nor indeed any of them except the followers of Achilles from Phthiotis, who were the original Hellenes: in his poems they are called Danaans, Argives, and Achaeans...."
- Thucydides [See Hellas and the Hellenes]
Maps of Greece
Review of Homer and his Epics

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