Big men in archaic Greece

In my previous post on the braggart Numanus Remulus  I observed “Nobody says ‘look at me, look at how big I am.’ “. Herewith a few, a very few, bits of evidence.

In Homer, humans and gods alike pay attention to height, each differently:

When Odysseus and his companions meet the queen of the Laestrygonians:

“When they entered the palace, they found his wife there, tall as a mountain…they hated her.”

οἱ δ᾽ ἐπεὶ εἰσῆλθον κλυτὰ δώματα, τὴν δὲ γυναῖκα
εὗρον, ὅσην τ᾽ ὄρεος κορυφήν, κατὰ δ᾽ ἔστυγον αὐτήν, Odyssey 10.112-13

So the visitors were sawed-off runts; get used to it guys. Live with the pain…there’s lots more coming. [pedantic bonus: first place in Western literature of “man must be taller than the woman he dates.”]

But the gods do it differently:

On the battlefield, Eris (Strife) appears…

“First she appears small, but then her head touches the sky while her feet walk the earth.”

ἥ τ᾽ ὀλίγη μὲν πρῶτα κορύσσεται, αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
οὐρανῷ ἐστήριξε κάρη καὶ ἐπὶ χθονὶ βαίνει, Iliad 4.442-3

Did the Geeks hate her? Fat chance; start hating a divinity and it will go badly for you…in perpetuity. [pedantic bonus: extreme is often associated with divine epiphanies in Greco-Roman authors; the next quote is just one example.]

Hades can’t get a date, so he takes matters into his divine hands and steals one…that would be Persephone. Her mother Demeter in no good mood wanders the earth, clutching a copy of The Omniverse in Ten Dollars A Day. Finally she finds lodging, but can’t resist doing the epiphany trick when she enters:

But the goddess strode to the threshold: her head reached the roof and she filled the doorway with a heavenly aroma.

…ἣ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐπ᾽ οὐδὸν ἔβη ποσὶ καὶ ῥα μελάθρου
κῦρε κάρη, πλῆσεν δὲ θύρας σέλαος θείοιο.  Homeric Hymn to Demeter, 188-9

Definitely not a crowd-pleaser, for the hymn next describes how her hosts were in total terror. This is a surprise? In Homer, the gods are usually not so great with human relations; since they’re gods, no need to acquire people skills. [pedantic aside: the dating of the hymn relies on datable allusions throughout; consensus would be seventh century B.C., but plausible as late as 700 or so itself. Interested, or desperate? Leave me a request and I’ll supply references]

Finally, the archaic sixth-century B.C. poet Archilochus had rather different ideas on the ideal general, not limited to matters of height:

“I like him not,  a tall general nor a straddling, nor one preening his hair and none partly-shaven for me; my ideal general should definitely be short and bandy-legged to behold,standing foursquare, full of spirit.”

Οὐ φιλέω μέγαν στρατηγὸν οὐδὲ διαπεπλιγμένον
οὐδὲ βοστρύχοισι γαῦρον οὐδ᾽ ὑπεξυρημένον·
ἀλλά μοι σμικρός τις εἴη καὶ περὶ κνήμας ἰδεῖν
ῥοικός, ἀσφαλεώς βεβηκὼς ποσσί, καρδίης πλέως.

Archilochus 60 D.  114 W.

It’s a new era. Gone is the blustering Homeric hero. Gone is war as the pursuit of the socio-economic elite. In with the hoplite line and a  radical redefinition of warfare, which had continue pretty much unchanged at least since the early Bronze Age. As a result, there would be remarkable socio-economic changes, although their precise nature remains disputed. Undisputed, though is the Chigi Vase, 650-630 B.C. which is the earliest depiction of the hoplite line. Archilochus would have loved it!

Chigi Vase

Nobody talked about how tall they were. They were (humans) or did it (divinities). Put differently videre est credere (seeing is believing)

4 thoughts on “Big men in archaic Greece

  1. This all made me think that maybe we should read more into what Achilles says to Lykaon before he kills him in the Iliad (21.108)

    “Don’t you see what kind of a man I am, how pretty and big?”

    οὐχ ὁράᾳς οἷος καὶ ἐγὼ καλός τε μέγας τε;

    It is not just about being big and strong–maybe he looms larger thanks to divine lineage?

    (Or maybe he is just acting the part of wrestling heel…)

    1. Absolutely. I didn’t include it because καλός τε μέγας is formulaic, which doesn’t it make it as unique as I might like.

    1. Thank you, and for the company I keep. The sorts of things I’ve been known to say in class, here for posterity!

Leave a Reply to spfestus Cancel reply