Ancient and modern

While shepherds watched, civilisation was born

If you want to understand the worlds of Homer and the Bible, you must start with farming

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

‘And lo, there were shepherds in the fields, watching over their flocks by night
Reading recently that it was the 25th anniversary of the invention of the world wide web, I reflected (yet again) on the difficulty of creating in any of our minds that sense of the world as experienced by the Greeks and Romans. So the ancients did not have Xboxes, Y-fronts, or a ‘knowledge’ economy? Or a civil service, a banking industry, or any industry? Or any institutions like universities, the BBC or the FA? Well, well.

In his Works and Days (c. 680 bc), the Greek farmer-poet Hesiod gives us some sense of the unrelenting peasant life which was the lot of most ancients — that daily wrestling with nature for simple survival. Hesiod’s advice makes clear what survival entailed. ‘Do not put things off till tomorrow and the next day. That man never fills his granary. It is application that produces increase. The man who puts off work wrestles with ruin.’ Look after the pennies, he says: ‘If you lay down even a little on a little, and do this often, that could well grow big; he who adds to what is there keeps hunger at bay.’ Protect what you have: ‘What is stored away at home is never a worry; better to have things there in the house than outside.’ The effects could be dramatic: ‘It is through work that men become rich in flocks and wealthy, and a working man is much dearer to the immortals. Work is no disgrace, but idleness is; and if you work, you will soon find the idle man will envy you as you enrich yourself — for wealth is accompanied by honour and prestige.’ A very Greek sentiment: nothing beats being looked up to.

Community co-operation came into it: ‘It is good to take a measure from your neighbour and good to pay him back the same or better, so that if you are in need afterwards, you can rely on him for help.’ But there was also a strong sense of competition, says Hesiod: ‘A man is keen to work when he sees his rich neighbour ploughing and planting and putting his house in order, and neighbour vies with neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This competition is productive for men. So too potter provokes potter, craftsman, craftsman, and beggar begrudges beggar, and minstrel, minstrel.’

The Roman encyclopedist Varro described pasturing, quite different from farming, thus: ‘For herds of cattle, use older men; for flocks of sheep or goats, use boys. But in either case, the herdsmen who stay in the mountain pastures should be sturdier than those who return every day to the sheepfolds in the villa. Thus, in the woodland areas you may see young men, usually armed; but close to the villa, boys and even girls tend the flocks…

‘In choosing herdsmen, examine their physique. They should be sturdy, swift-footed, quick, with good reflexes, men who not only can follow a herd, but also can protect it from predatory animals and from thieves; men who can lift loads onto pack animals; men who can run fast and hurl a javelin.’

There is nothing romantic here about being a shepherd or herdsman, out in all weathers, in rough terrain, with little in the way of companionship, so disagreeable that it was usually slaves’ work.

In Homer, poet of the Iliad and virtual contemporary of Hesiod, this world emerges even in the heat of battle. Pasturing cattle and sheep is the real work of the day; seven sons of the Trojan king Priam are so engaged when they are killed by Achilles. Diomedes raises horses (rich men’s Ferraris), Priam accuses his sons of being sheep and cattle thieves and rolls in the dung of the courtyard when he hears of Hector’s death. ‘Shepherd of the people’ is a common epithet for these heroes, values are assessed in worth of oxen, and the fighting is likened to farmers defending their livestock against wild animals. Men swarm round the dead hero Sarpedon ‘as flies in a sheepfold buzz round the brimming pails in spring-time, when the vessels overflow with milk’. This is the wholly realistic background to the Iliad’s heroic world. It is the only world most ancients knew.

And here is the extraordinary thing: out of this narrow, crudely basic world, cities emerged, and in them a highly educated male elite. This was not unique to Greeks and Romans. But it was their astonishingly wide-ranging engagement with the question of how life should best be lived and the world best understood, expressed in the most eloquent and sophisticated language and artistic expression, that has underpinned, for good or ill, western civilisation.

We look, and find, the roots of so much of our political, educational, intellectual, mathematical, legal, ethical, literary, theatrical, linguistic, philosophical, sporting, artistic and architectural worlds right there. Oh, and atomic theory too. Add those shepherds watching over their flocks, and we can also reflect that a monotheism, developed in direct line of descent from Judaism 3,000 years ago, still shapes the lives of millions in the West.

What an inheritance from unimaginable millennia ago! Or at least, unimaginable if we did not have their voices.

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