Ancient History & Civilisation

5. The State

How are these passionate and vigorous Achaeans ruled? In peace by the family, in crisis by the clan. The clan is a group (genos, literally a genus) of persons acknowledging a common ancestor and a common chieftain. The citadel of the chieftain is the origin and center of the city; there, as his force subsides into usage and law, clan after clan gathers, and makes a political as well as a kinship community. When the chieftain desires some united action from his clan or city, he summons its free males to a public assembly, and submits to them a proposal which they may accept or reject, but which only the most important members of the group may propose to change. In this village assembly—the one democratic element in an essentially feudal and aristocratic society—skilled speakers who can sway the people are valuable to the state; already, in old Nestor, whose voice “flows sweeter than honey from his tongue,”62 and in wily Odysseus, whose words fall “like snowflakes upon the people,”63 we have the beginnings of that stream of eloquence which will reach greater heights in Greece than in any other civilization, and will finally submerge it in ruin.

When all the clans must act at once the chieftains follow the lead of the strongest of their number as king, and report to him with their armies of freemen and attendant slaves. Those chieftains who are nearest to the king in residence and respect are called the King’s Companions; they will be called that again in Philip’s Macedonia and in Alexander’s camp. In their boule, or council, the nobles exercise full freedom of speech, and address the king as merely and temporarily first among equals. Out of these institutions—public assembly, council of nobles, and king—will come, in a hundred varieties and under a thousand shibboleths and phrases, the constitutions of the modern Western world.

The powers of the king are narrowly limited and very wide. They are limited in space, for his kingdom is small. They are limited in time, for he may be deposed by the Council, or by a right which the Achaeans readily recognize—the right of the stronger. Otherwise his rule is hereditary, and has only the vaguest boundaries. He is above all a military commander, solicitous for his army, without which he might be found in the wrong. He sees to it that it is well equipped, well fed, well trained; that it has poisoned arrows,64 lances, helmets, greaves, spears, breastplates, shields, and chariots. So long as the army defends him he is the government—legislature, executive, judiciary. He is the high priest of the state religion, and sacrifices for the people. His decrees are the laws, and his decisions are final; there is as yet no word for law.65 Below him the Council may sit occasionally to judge grave disputes; then, as if to set a precedent for all courts, it asks for precedents, and decides accordingly. Precedent dominates law because precedent is custom, and custom is the jealous older brother of law. Trials of any kind, however, are rare in Homeric society; there are hardly any public agencies of justice; each family must defend and revenge itself. Violence abounds.

To support his establishment the king does not levy taxes; he receives, now and then, “gifts” from his subjects. But he would be a poor king if he depended upon such presents. His chief income is derived, presumably, from tolls on the plunder that his soldiers and his ships gather on land or sea. Perhaps that is why, late in the thirteenth century, the Achaeans are found in Egypt and Crete; in Egypt as unsuccessful buccaneers, in Crete as passing conquerors. Then, suddenly, we hear of them inflaming their people with a tale of humiliating rape, collecting all the forces of all the tribes, equipping a hundred thousand men, and sailing in a vast and unparalleled armada of a thousand ships to try their fortunes against the spearhead of Asia on the plains and hill of Troy.

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