11
Mar
14

A Revisionist History of Ancient Greece: Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus

The World of Odysseus (New York Review Books Classics Series)The World of Odysseus by Moses I. Finley

If you’ve read my reviews here for any length, you’ll know I’m a sucker for Ancient History. I’ve read everything from Aesop to Tacitus, histories to poetry. But if I had to choose one that I’ve enjoyed the most, it’d probably be the Fagles and Knox translation of The Odyssey: not only is it presented in a great translation with a ton of notes and context, but it’s just a blast to read.

But truthfully, part of that enjoyment came on a recent re-read, which I did on the urging of another book I recently picked up by the late Homeric scholar Moses Finley: The World of Odysseus, which was recently republished by The New York Review of Books with an introduction by Knox.

A clear, concise and fascinating look at the world of Ancient Greece,  Finley’s The World of Odysseus busts a myths about two of the most famous stories to emerge from the ancient world and lays out a clear vision of how Finley thinks things were nearly 3,000 years ago.

On the surface, it sounds like one of two things: dull, full of academic jargon and of little interest to the average person, or full of supposition and guesswork. Surprisingly, it’s neither of them. Finley supports his opinions with careful readings of Homer, opposing them against other Ancient Greeks (Hesiod, generally), and with the support of our knowledge of oral epics in other cultures and other ancient societies. And the way he does it, carefully laying out an opinion and explaining why how he reached it, never comes across as overly academic – or in a way that talks down to his readers.

In a nutshell, Finley lays out a thesis that neither The Iliad or The Odyssey have any real basis in fact: there may have been a Troy, but it certainly wasn’t subject to a ten-year siege, for example. And forget trying to chart Odysseus’ journey on a map: if Homer knew anything about geography, he didn’t leave it in his poem. He goes a step further, too, explaining customs between city-states (finally, a good explanation for the gift-giving!), between a king and his community and man and the gods.

Two examples to show the simple genius of Finley’s book. In one chapter, Finley points out the changing roles of Greek religion in Homer: the sun-god Helios, who you’d think would rank among the most powerful gods, has such little power he has to turn to  Zeus when Odysseus’ men eating his cattle. In another, he observes how oral histories of the Second World War have changed and been embellished in just a short period of time; based on that, how could one reasonably think a history told over hundreds of years, in many oral forms, could retain anything but a grain of truth?

Finley’s book is packed with interesting observations like that. It breaks down myths and misperceptions, trashes naive and lazy assumptions by historians and archaeologists. It came just as the Linear B tablets were discovered and just before they were decoded; once they were and the idea that one might find Ajax’s receipts was destroyed, Finley’s controversial takes were finally accepted. Looking back, it’s a wonder anyone thought otherwise.

Rating: 7/10. It’s a short read, but one that’s remarkably full of insight, lucidly presented. People who know The Odyssey in depth will have things to chew on here, but so will newcomers. It’s a scholarly text that reads like a popular history. Recommended!

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