Works and Days
Oddly enough, we know more about Hesiod, the author of Works and Days, than we do about his (probable) contemporary Homer. Though far more people read the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the influence of those epics is much more wide-ranging, the reader will feel closer to Hesiod than he can ever feel to Homer.
This is partially due to the fact that we can locate Hesiod both in time and place. His father was a ship owner living on the coast of Asia Minor sometime just after 800 BC. Due to a reversal in fortune, Hesiod’s father moved the family to Ascra, a town north of Athens, and bought a farm. Apparently, Hesiod and his brother Perses farmed alongside their father until his death, at which point Perses sued Hesiod for the lion’s share of the inheritance. Thanks to some judicious bribes, Perses won his suit, and a fuming Hesiod was left to vent his anger in Works and Days.
This leads us to the other reason the reader may feel as though he knows Hesiod: Works and Days is a very personal work, written by a frank farmer as a warning to his lazy brother. The advice, the obvious hurt feelings, the ties to the land, and the self-important voice all suggest a certain character to the reader. Hesiod is definitely human, however exalted someone like Homer might be.
“Since I perceive good things,” he writes, “I will tell them to you, Perses, you utter fool. It is easy to seize failure and in quantities; the road is smooth: she resides very near. But before success the deathless gods put sweat: long and straight up is the path to her and tough at first. When a man reaches the top, then indeed it is easy, though it was hard before.”
I especially like Hesiod’s “at first” in the above passage. Perses needs to know all about the path to success since he is an “utter fool”—but Hesiod has traveled the path far enough to know that it is only tough “at first.” Not only is he justifiably angry with his brother, but he is both self-important enough and small enough to slip the knife in wherever he finds an opening. The ancient Greeks were just like me!
And this is why students need to read Works and Days. They will never feel kinship with these people from a distant time and place when they read Homer. It is to Hesiod we must turn to remember that we are all part of the same family, children of Adam and Eve.
by Jeff Baldwin