Homer on Phaecia: Adams “Defense” No. 38

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 38

Ancient Monarchical Republics: HOMER on PHÆACIA

Dear Sir,

IN the kingdom, or rather aristocracy, of Phæacia, as represented in the Odyssey, we have a picture at full length of those forms of government which at that time prevailed in Greece.

There is a king Alcinous; there is a council of twelve other kings, princes, archons, or peers, for they are called by all these names; and there is a multitude: but the last do not appear to have any regular, legal, or customary part in the government. They might be summoned together by the heralds, or called by the found of trumpet, or a horn, to receive information of the results of their chiefs; to assist at a sacrifice or procession; to see a stranger, or a show, or to partake of a feast; or they might assemble of themselves in a rage against an oppressor, from enthusiasm for the royal sceptre, or other causes: — and the kings had often much dependance on their attachment to their hereditary right, their descent from the gods, and the sacred authority of the poets, who were generally royalists. — The archons too were often afraid of the superstition of their people for the king, and his regal popularity. But the legal power of the people was very far from being a constitutional check; — and the struggle lay between the kings and nobles. The last finally prevailed, as they ever will against a king who is not supported by an adequate popular power. The authority in Phæacia was collected into one center, and that center was thirteen kings confederated together under a president only. Each archon was a king in his own island, state, or district, in which his dignity and power were hereditary; and in case of a foreign war, he commanded his own division in the general camp.

Ulysses is represented, at his first entrance into the Phæacian dominions, as observing and admiring the palaces of the archons, after having surveyed the gardens, palace, and particular territory of Alcinous:

He next their princes lofty domes admires,
In separate islands crown’d with rising spires.
Od. vii. 57.

Alcinous is afterwards represented as describing the form of government to Ulysses:

Twelve princes in our realm dominion share,
O’er whom supreme imperial pow’r I bear.
Od. viii. 425

Mr. Pope indeed, in this translation, has given him the air of a sovereign; but there is nothing like it in the original. There Alcinous, with all possible simplicity and modesty, only says, Twelve illustrious kings, or archons, rule over the people, and I myself am the thirteenth.” Alcinous and his twelve archons were all present at this interview:

Night now approaching, in the palace stand,
With goblets crown’d, the rulers of the land, &c.
Od. viii. 182.

The nobles gaze, with awful fear opprest;
Silent they gaze, and eye the godlike guest, &c.
Od. viii. 192.

Pleas’d with his people’s fame the monarch hears,
And thus benevolent accosts the peers, &c.
Od. viii. 421.

Th’ assenting peers, obedient to the king,
In haste their heralds send the gifts to bring.
Od. viii. 433.

The precious gifts th illustrious heralds bear,
And to the court th’ embodied peers repair.
Od. viii. 453.

Then to the radiant thrones they move in state,
Aloft the king in pomp imperial sate.
Od. viii. 457.

We must not forget the poet, who with his inspiration from the Muses was a principal support of every Grecian king. It was the bard who sung the praises of the king, and propagated the opinion that he was sprung from Jupiter, and instructed as well as dearly beloved by him.

The bard an herald guides; the gazing throng
Pay low obeisance as he moves along.
Od. viii. 515.

Beneath a sculptur’d arch he sits enthron’d,
The peers encircling form an awful round.
Lives there a man beneath the spacious skies,
Who sacred honours to the bard denies?
The Mute the bard inspires, exalts his mind;
The Mute indulgent loves th’ harmonious kind.
O more than man! thy soul the Muse inspires,
Or Phoebus animates with all his fires.
Od. viii. 532.

Every peer, in his own district or state, had another subordinate council, and a people; so that the three powers, of the one, the few, and the many, appeared in every archonship; and every archon, in his own district, claimed his office to be hereditary in his family: and all the archons agreed together to support each other in this claim, even by arms. This, therefore, was rather a confederacy of thirteen little kingdoms, than one great one. The first archon of the confederation was called king of all the people, and claimed his office as hereditary, and often as absolute. The other archons were always disposed to dispute the hereditary descent, and to make it elective. The subordinate councils of the archons, in their several districts, were probably often disposed to deny their offices to be hereditary, and to insist upon elections. Ulysses, who was himself one of the greatest and ablest of the Grecian kings, discovers his perfect knowledge of the hearts of Alcinous, his queen, and nobles, in the compliment he makes them. Addressing himself to the queen, the daughter of great Rhexenor:

To thee, thy contort, and this royal train,
To all that share the blessings of thy reign,
So may the gods your better days increase,
And all your joys descend on all your race;
So reign for ever on your country’s breast,
Your people blessing, by your people blest.

This supplication was addressed to the king and queen, the princes, archons, dukes, counts, barons, peers, call them by what name you please, and it concludes with a compliment very flattering to all. Ulysses knew the ruling passion of Grecian kings and nobles to be, that their dignities, even such as had been conferred by the election of the people, should become hereditary. Mr. Pope has disguised this sentiment, and made it conformable to the notions of Englishmen and Americans; but has departed from the sense of Homer, and from the fact.

“May you transmit to your children your possessions in your houses, and whatever gifts, rewards, or honours the people hath given you.”

It is plain the kings claimed an hereditary right yet the succession was sometimes set aside in favour of some other noble, or branch of the royal blood: and perhaps it was always set aside when any one of the nobles had more power than the heir apparent. The nobles too claimed their honours to be hereditary; and they generally were so: but the people were sometimes bold enough to set up competitors, and give them trouble. But perhaps there were never any very formal elections; presenting a successor, in presence of the king and the other nobles, to the people for their acclamations, was probably the most that was done: for as there were no records, nor written constitution, or laws, the right of kings, archons, and people, must have been very loose and undefined.

Table of Contents: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, by John Adams

Formatting, font, spelling modernizations, explanatory footnotes, and review questions for this version of John Adams’ “A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States,” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell. Copyright for the original version of this book is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired.

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