Homer on Ithaca: Adams “Defense” No. 39

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 39

Ancient Monarchical Republics: HOMER on ITHACA

Dear Sir,

THE court of Ithaca, in the absence of Ulysses, is an admirable example of the intrigues of the archons, and their insatiable ambition. The throne of Ithaca, and the sceptre of Laertes and former kings, were the objects which had so many charms in the eyes of the suitors; and Penelope’s hand was chiefly courted, because that would reconcile the archon who should possess her to the superstition of the people, and enable him to wield the sceptre. The suitors deny the sceptre to be hereditary; and Telemachus himself is doubtful: he threatens indeed to call a council or assembly of the people, but is afraid to trust them; for fear they should set up some other Grecian prince, whose blood might be nearer that of their ancient kings.

To tempt the spouseless queen with amorous wiles,
Resort the nobles from the neighbouring isles;
From Samos, circled with th’ Ionian main,
Dulichium, and Zacynthus’ sylvan reign:
Ev’n, with presumptuous hope her bed t’ascend,
The lords of Ithaca their right pretend.
Od. i. 315.

My sentence hear: with stern distaste avow’d,
To their own districts drive the suitor crowd.
Od. i. 352.

I to the peers assembled shall propose
The firm resolve I here in few disclose;
No longer live the cankers of my court,
All to your several states with speed resort;
Waste in wild riot what your land allows,
There ply the early feast and late carouse.
Od. i. 475.

If ruin to our royal race ye doom,
Be you the spoilers, and our wealth consume;
Then might we hope redress from juster laws,
And raise all Ithaca to aid our cause:
But while your sons commit th’ unpunish’d wrong,
You make the arm of violence too strong.
Od. ii. 83.

Elect by Jove his delegate of sway,
With joyous pride the summons I’d obey.
Should factious pow’r dispute my lineal right,
Some other Greeks a fairer claim may plead,
To your pretence their title would precede.
At least, the sceptre lost, I still should reign
Sole o’er my vassals and domestic train.
Od. i. 501:

To heaven alone
Refer the choice to fill the vacant throne;
Your patrimonial states in peace possess,
Undoubted all your filial claim confess:
Your private right should impious power invade,
The peers of Ithaca would arm in aid.
Od. i. 509.

It is thus agreed on all hands, that, as one of the archons, his hereditary title of his estates, vassals, and government was indisputable. This was the common cause of all the archons, and they would arm in support of the claim of any one. But the throne and sceptre of Ithaca were to be disposed of by augury, by the will of Jove, signified by some omen. To this Telemachus pays some respect, but still insists on his right of blood; and says, that if the omen should be unfavorable to him, it would not promote the hopes of any of the archons of Ithaca; but some other Greeks, nearer of kin to the royal blood, would set up their claims. The archons, not likely to succeed in their scheme of getting the sceptre by the marriage of Penelope, nor by persuading Telemachus to submit the question to Jupiter and his omens, and afraid to appeal to the people, or to call them out in arms to dispute the succession, knowing the family of Laertes and Ulysses to be more popular than themselves, they take the resolution to assassinate the young prince.

But die he shall; and, thus condemn’d to bleed,
Be now the scene of instant death decreed:
Wait ye till he to arms in council draws
The Greeks, averse too justly to our cause?
Strike, ere the states conven’d the foe betray,
Our murd’rous ambush on the wat’ry way.
Or choose ye vagrant from their rage to fly,
Outcasts of earth, to breathe an unknown sky?
But if submissive you resign the sway,
Slaves to a boy, go natter and obey;
Retire we instant to our native reign,
Nor be the wealth of kings consum’d in vain.
Od. xvi. 386.

Telemachus had before declared, that if any archon of Ithaca, or any other Greek, obtained the sceptre, he would no longer remain in the confederation, but would reign separately over his paternal domain. Now Antinous declares, that if the rest of the archons submit to the boy, he will not, but will retire to his native archonship.

Amphinomus ascends,
Who o’er Dulichium stretch’d his spacious reign,
A land of plenty, bless’d with ev’ry grain.
O friends forbear, and be the thought withstood!
‘Tis horrible to shed imperial blood;
Consult we first th’ all-seeing pow’rs above,
And the sure oracles of righteous Jove.

Neither in Poland nor in Venice was the aristocratical rage to render weak, unsteady, and uncertain the royal authority, more conspicuous than it was here. They were afraid of the people and the auguries; but neither was a legal check: and we shall see hereafter that these struggles of the archons very soon abolished every monarchy in Greece, even that of Sparta, until it was renewed upon another plan by Lycurgus. And the same progress of passions, through seditions, rebellions, and massacres, must for ever take place in a body of nobles against the crown, where they are not effectually restrained by an independent people, known and established in the legislature, collectively or by representation.

That the Grecian kings, claiming from Jupiter and supported by their auguries and bards, thought themselves absolute, and often punished the crimes of the archons very tyrannically, is true. — Ulysses is an example of it. Instead of bringing the suitors to trial before the nation, or their peers, he moots them all, without judge or jury, with his own bow. — A more remarkable assertion of a claim to absolute monarchy cannot be imagined.

Antinous would retire to his native district and spend his revenues among his own people, not consume his royal wealth by attendance at a court of a confederation which would be no longer to his taste. This was a popular sentiment in his own dominions; his people wished to have their king reside among them, and were very willing to have the confederacy broken. This principle it was that afterwards crumbled all the Greek confederations to dust.

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 39, Part 2

Ancient Monarchical Republics: HOMER

My dear Sir,

THE similitude between the ancient Greek monarchies, as they are generally called, though the predominance of aristocracy in all of them is very manifest, and the feudal aristocracies described by Tacitus, is very obvious. The democratical power is nevertheless much more regular, though not independent, in the latter; for, in addition to what is before quoted, it appears, that the judicial authority was commonly exercised in national assemblies — “Licet apud concilium accusare quoque, et discrimen capitis intendere. Distinctio poenarum ex delicto, proditores et transfugas arboribus suspendunt; ignavos, et imbelles, et corpore infames, coeno ac palude, injecta insuper crate, mergunt. Diversitas supplicii illuc respicit, tanquam scelera ostendi opporteat dum puniuntur, flagitia abscondi. Sed el levioribus delictis, pro modo poenarum, equorum pecorumque numero convicti multantur; pars multæ, regi vel civitati, pars ipsi qui vindicatur vel propinquis ejus ex solvitur.”

Although the mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, is visible in the republic of Phæacia, yet the king appears little more among the archons than the first among equals, and the authority of the people is still more faint and feeble. In Ithaca, there appears a strong claim of sovereignty in the king, and as strong a pretension to it in the archons; and, although the people are dreaded by both, and their claim to interfere in the disposition of the crown is implicitly acknowledged, yet it seems to be as judges of certain religious ceremonies, by which the will of Jupiter was to be collected, than as any regular civil authority.

Homer was a royalist, at least as much as Plato and Aristotle.

Jove loves our chief, from Jove his honour springs.
Beware! for dreadful is the wrath of kings.
Be silent, wretch! and think not here allowed
That worst of tyrants, an usurping crowd:
To one sole monarch Jove commits the sway;
His are the laws, and him let all obey.
Il. ii. 233 — 241.

The name of a republic is not found in any of his writings: yet, in every Grecian government described by him, we find a mixture, not only of an aristocracy, consisting in a council of princes; but of a democracy, in an assembly of the people.

Agamemnon, in the second Iliad, calls together the whole body.

Bid him in arms draw forth th’ embattled train
Lead all his Grecians to the dusty plain.
The king dispatch’d his heralds with commands
To range the camp, and summon all the bands.
The gath’ring hosts the monarch’s word obey,
While to the fleet Atrides bends his way:
In his black ship the Pylean prince he found,
There calls a senate of the peers around.
Th’ assembly plac’d, the king of men exprest
The councils labouring in his artful breast:
Friends and confed’rates! with attentive ear
Receive my words, and credit what you hear;
Ill fits a chief who mighty nations guides,
Directs in councils, and in war presides,
To whom its safety a whole people owes,
To waste long nights in indolent repose.
Now, valiant chiefs! since Heav’n itself alarms,
Unite, and rouse the sons of Greece to arms;
But first with caution try what yet they dare,
Worn with nine years of unsuccessful war.
To move the troops to measure back the main
Be mine, and yours the province to detain.

— — The kings without delay
Dissolve the council, and their chief obey.
The scepter’d rulers lead; the following host,
Pour’d forth by thousands, darken all the coast.
Nine sacred heralds now, proclaiming loud
The monarch’s will, suspend the list’ning crowd.
The king of kings his awful figure rais’d,
High in his hand the golden sceptre blaz’d —
Ye sons of Mars! partake your leader’s care,
Heroes of Greece, and brothers of the war,
Fly, Grecians, fly! your sails and oars employ,
And dream no more of Heaven-defended Troy.
His deep design unknown, the hosts approve
Atrides’ speech; — the mighty numbers move.

It appears from the whole narration, that the great body of the people were discontented, and desirous of raising the siege. The king, alarmed, was obliged to call them together, with an artful design to obtain their consent to persevere. He feigns an intention to return home; the people were rejoiced at it. Then Ulysses and the other chiefs, in concert with Agamemnon, receives the sceptre of command, and endeavours to persuade the people to make another effort. To this end Ulysses harangues them.

He runs, he flies through all the Grecian train,
Each prince of name, or chief in arms approv’d,
He fir’d with praise, or with persuasion mov’d.
But if a clamorous vile plebeian rose,
Him with reproof he check’d, or tam’d with blows:
Be still, thou slave, and to thy betters yield,
Unknown alike in council or in field!
Ye gods! what dastards would our host command!
Swept to the war, the lumber of the land.
Be silent, wretch! and think not here allow’d
That worst of tyrants, an usurping crowd.
With words like these the troops Ulysses rul’d,
The loudest silenc’d, and the fiercest cool’d.
Back to th’ assembly roll the thronging train,
Desert the ships, and pour upon the plain.
Thersites only clamour’d in the throng,
Loquacious, loud, and turbulent of tongue:
Aw’d by no shame, by no respect controul’d,
In scandal busy, in reproaches bold,
With witty malice studious to defame,
Scorn all his joy, and laughter all his aim:
But chief he gloried, with licentious stile
To lash the great, and monarchs to revile.
Spleen to mankind his envious heart possest,
And much he hated all, but most the best;
Ulysses or Achilles still his theme,
But royal scandal his delight supreme.
Long had he liv’d, the scorn of ev’ry Greek,
Vext when he spoke, yet still they heard him speak.

If from this only, and the subsequent harangue of Thersites, we were to form a judgment, we should conclude, that popular assemblies were very frequent, and that the freedom of speech in them was far advanced and well established; but the furious answer of Ulysses, and the unmerciful flogging he gives him for his boldness, in the face of the whole assembly, which is applauded universally, shews, that the demagogues had yet but very little influence, very little courage, and that popular assemblies had as yet very little constitutional power.

The principles of government were very little understood, and all the political institutions extremely confused, in the times of the Trojan war, and from thence to Homer’s time. — Nothing was precisely defined; no laws were written. The most distinct rules, which are now to be traced, were a supremacy in kings, in religion and war: sometimes they exercised judicial power. Monarchies were generally hereditary; yet a right of the nation to interfere, and alter the succession, is admitted. The right of the sons of the archons, to succeed to their estates and districts, was an agreed point among them; but these very archons chose to keep open to competition the succession to the throne, so that there might always be room for the pretensions of the most powerful, who would easily make themselves thought the most worthy. The most celebrated kings, when advanced in years, and unable to sustain the fatigues of war, and cares of government, were obliged to resign their power. — The anxiety of Achilles, expressed to Ulysses in the shades, is a proof of this.

Say if my sire, the reverend Peleus, reigns
Great in his Pthia, and his throne maintains?
Or, weak and old, my youthful arm demands
To fix the sceptre stedfast in his hands?
Oh might the lamp of life re-kindled burn,
And death release me from the silent urn!
This arm, that thunder’d o’er the Phrygian plain,
And swell’d the ground with mountains of the slain,
Should vindicate my injur’d father’s fame,
Crush the proud rebel, and assert his claim.
Od. ii. 605.

Kings and their families, claiming their descent and power from Jupiter, contended very naturally and consistently that the one was hereditary, and the other absolute; and accordingly, when the prince who swayed the sceptre was active, brave, and able, he kept the archons in awe, and governed as he pleased: but when he was feeble, the archons grew ambitious, disputed the succession, and limited the royal power. To this end both they and the kings, or heirs of kings, sometimes looked to the people, and seemed to admit in them a right to be present at the religious ceremonies by which the will of Jupiter was to be declared; for all parties agree, that the will of Jupiter confers the sceptre, not the mere election of the people.

The right of primogeniture was favored by popular opinion, as well as hereditary descent, because the family was the family of Jupiter, related to him, and descended from him by blood; and it was natural to suppose, that Jupiter’s inclinations for descent and primogeniture resembled those of other fathers of families.

The chiefs, who are all called kings, as well as the head of them, or archons, were like the Teutonic counts or feudal barons, who exercised royal rights within their own districts, states, or separate territories. This principle preserved the real and legal power chiefly in their hands, and constituted the whole government more properly an aristocracy than a royalty. This gave an uncontroulable pride to these nobles, which could not willingly submit to the pretensions of the kings (as representatives of Jupiter) to omnipotence, at least to unlimited power. Hence the continual struggle between the kings and archons, from Homer’s time to that great and memorable revolution throughout Greece, from monarchy to aristocracy; that is, from kings to archons. The people not yet possessing nor claiming an authority sufficiently regular and independent to be a check to monarchy or aristocracy, the latter at last prevailed over the former, as it ever did and ever will, where the contest is merely between these two.

The people, only in extraordinary cases, in the most essential matters, and when the chiefs were greatly divided, were at all consulted; yet, in the course of the struggle between the kings and archons, the multitude were so often called upon, and so much courted, that they came by degrees to claim the whole power, and prepared the way, in many of the Grecian states, for another subsequent revolution, from aristocracy to democracy.

Through the whole of Tacitus and Homer, the three orders are visible both in Germany and Greece; and the continual fluctuations of law, the uncertainty of life, liberty, and property, and the contradictory claims and continual revolutions, arose entirely from the want of having the prerogatives and privileges of those orders defined, from the want of independence in each of them, and a balance between them.

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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