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on 12 September 2013
I read an earlier edition (with Finley as sole author) many years ago, and knowing nothing whatever of the background from other sources, I found it a convincing debunking of any claims of Homer to historical accuracy, beyond a distorted folk memory of the Greek dark ages. Since then I have come across other evidence that puts the book in a rather different light.
The emotional tone of his book is hostile towards any suggestion that the Homeric poems have any reliable link with real bronze age events, putting their inspiration firmly in the dark ages that followed the collapse of the Mycenaean (and other) civilizations around 1100 BCE. But in making his case, Finley is, to put it charitably, selective with the evidence that he presents. He claims for example that the Mycenaean centres were no larger than perhaps a few hundred people in each, making the Homeric figure of 60,000 Greeks on the expedition to Troy pure fantasy.
But Chadwick's work on the Linear B tablets makes very clear (and Finley must have known this) that the centres must have been much larger than this. Chadwick estimated the population of Pylos alone as "at least 50,000", a figure based on a detailed analysis of the extensive archives found at the burned palace at Epano Englianos. These archives allow details of the industrial and agriculturural activity of Pylos to be reconstructed, though with obvious gaps. As I recall there were no fewer than 400 bronze-smiths listed: this in population Finley would have us believe numbered at most 1000 or so! It seems probable that the other centres (Mycenae, Tiryns etc) were of similar size, though since we don't have the benefit of the accidental incineration of so many Linear B tables as at Pylos (or at least, they haven't been found yet) we cannot know with certainty. The 60,000 figure still looks improbable (and this ignores all the other improbables such as a ten year siege!), but Finley's argument loses its force.
Whereever he can, Finley tries to discredit the credibility of the Homeric account as having any link with the bronze age. For example, Homer mentions temples, but the Mycenaeans didn't have temples. But they did, as the Linear B tablets make clear, have shrines: probably in most cases these were incorporated as part of the palaces of the Mycenaean kings, but given that the archaeological record is so incomplete, the existence of freestanding temples cannot be ruled out. It may be that the Homeric account referred inaccurately to shrines as temples, or it may be that the temples existed but were destroyed and have not yet been uncovered, so the temple argument is at best weak. But no, for Finley the suggestion enables him to score a debating point at the expense of Homer's credibility, so it has to be made.
Likewise, he rules out the historical existence of the Homeric Troy on the basis of the alleged poverty of Troy VIIa, the only possible candidate (he claims) for the Homeric Ilium. He uncharitably suggests that anyone who disagrees with him must be one of the lunatics who unfortuately infest the subject. Well, the lunatics are still here, and many of them now claim that Troy VI was the Homeric Troy, and that the destruction of the walls may have been manmade rather than the result of an earthquake. Others believe that Troy VIIa was in fact much more significant than previously believed.
The point is not to argue in favour of Homer, whatever that means, but to make clear that Finley is not a reliable narrator of the rather slender sum of our knowledge of the world of Odysseus. We simply do not know, to this day, and may never know, the answers. Finley's arrogant assumption that the case "against" Homer is cut and dried, just does not stand up to scrutiny. The real historical mystery is what psychological forces drove Finley to devote all the force of a brilliant intellect to such a partial and misleading presentation of the few facts that we do possess.