Roger Backhouse
The Ordinary Business of Life

The society described in the Iliad and the Odyssey probably reflects, in part, the Mycenaean (Bronze Age) world of Troy around 1400-1100 BC, and in part Homer's own time. It was ordered and hierarchical, based not on market relationships, but on the distribution of wealth through gifts, theft, prizes for winning competitions, plunder received in war, and tribute paid by defeated cities to their conquerors. Troy might have fallen earlier, it has been suggested, if the Greek army had not been so intent on pillaging. Trade was viewed by Homer as a secondary, and inferior, way of acquiring wealth. Heroes were aristocratic warriors, rewarded strictly according to their rank. Gifts were governed by a strict code of reciprocity, in which it was important that, when gifts were exchanged, those involved should hold the same rank after the exchange as before. Hosts were obliged to provide hospitality and gifts for their guests, who in turn had an obligation to provide gifts, pernaps to the hosts' families, at a later date in return.

The basis for this economy was the household, understood as the landowner, his family and all the slaves working on an estate. Owners and slaves would work alongside each other. Prosperity was seen by Homer as the result of being in a well-ordered, rich household. On the other hand, there was suspicion of excessive wealth—households should be rich, but not too rich. There were, of course, traders and craftsmen (we read of Greek soldiers exchanging their plunder for provisions, and craftsmen were brought in to do certain tasks on landed estates), but they were less important than landed estates. Even if he gained his freedom, a slave who lost his place on a landed estate might lose his security. The acquisition of wealth through trade was regarded as distinctly inferior to obtaining it through agriculture or military exploits.

Of the two poems attributed to Hesiod, the one that is seen as having the most substantial economic content is Works and Days. He starts with two creation stories. One is the well-known story of Pandora's box. The other, undoubtedly influenced by Mesopotamian creation stories, tells of a descent from the golden age of the immortals, 'remote from ills, without harsh toil', to a race of iron, for whom toil and misery are everyday realities. Hesiod offers his readers much advice about coping with life under these conditions. Works and Days is a poem within the tradition of oriental wisdom literature, moving seamlessly between advice that would nowadays be seen as ritualistic or astrological and practical advice on agriculture and on when to set sail in order to avoid being lost at sea. Though they fall within the same tradition, however, when compared with the Babylonian and Hebrew creation stories, Hesiod's stories (like those of Homer) are comparatively secular. It is Zeus who provides prosperity, and Hesiod regards morality and pleasing Zeus as the main challenges that men have to deal with, but the stories are the product of the author's own curiosity, not the work of priests.

Hesiod can be read as having realized that the basic economic problem is one of scarce resources. The reason men have to work is that 'the gods keep men's food concealed: otherwise you would easily work even in a day enough to provide you for the whole year without working'. Choices have to be made between work (which leads to wealth) leisure. Hesiod even suggests that competition can stimulate product for it will cause craftsmen to emulate each other. However, the these ideas are clearly present in Works and Days, they are not expressed in anything like such abstract terms. Hesiod describes himself as a farmer, and says that his father was forced to emigrate owing to poverty. The virtues he sees as leading to prosperity are thus-not surprisingly-hard work, honesty and peace. His ideal is agricultural self-sufficiency, without war to destroy the farmer's produce. This is far from the aristocratic disparagement of work and support for martial virtues that can be found in Homer, but the two poets share the idea that security is bound up with land.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.