Written by: Helen Van Noorden
Early on in Hesiod’s Works and Days, the first didactic poem of Classical antiquity, we find in succession two versions of human history. The first is a retelling of the havoc resulting for mankind from the actions of Prometheus in heaven and Pandora on earth; the second, introduced as an ‘alternative account’, asserts that four human races preceded our own. The first, of ever-prosperous Golden men, was succeeded by one of Silver, men who stayed children for a century, and on reaching adulthood were destroyed by Zeus for impiety. Zeus next created Bronze men who perished by mutual violence, but then made a more just race of Heroes. Some died in war, some flourish still on the Blessed Isles. At this point in the narrative, Hesiod’s narrator laments in an unusual expression his own place among the corrupt and violent Iron men of the present – ‘I wish I had either died earlier or been born later!’ – then vividly pictures the societal breakdown yet to come.
This intriguing narrative, widely known as the ‘myth of the races’, inspired Greek and Roman writers and was reworked throughout the next millennium. Yet its ancient legacy has been rather overshadowed by studies of the cultural significance of the Golden Age, a central myth of Western culture. Ancient responses to Hesiod’s races, however, range far beyond simple nostalgia for a lost paradise or hope of its return. In my book, Playing Hesiod: the ‘myth of the races’ in Classical Antiquity, I demonstrate the extent and significance of interpreting this narrative as part of the curious blend of myths, images and precepts in Hesiod’s didactic poem on farming and justice. Particularly important is the presentation of the metallic races sequence as an ‘alternative account’ to that of Pandora, and the striking intrusion of the narrator himself. I show how these are points of experiment in key ancient responses to this narrative, from Plato to Juvenal. The book’s central emphasis is that there was in Classical Antiquity no passive ‘reception’ but a continual rereading of the races story, in detail and as a whole, within reconstructions of Hesiod’s project of instruction in new forms (such as philosophy, world-history, and satire).
I have since been considering Hesiod’s symbolic human history through a slightly different lens. Hesiod memorably switches into the future tense to describe the future of the current, Iron race, which Zeus will destroy ‘when children are born with grey hair at the temples’ (Works and Days 181). Hesiod’s extended nightmare of societal values overturned and the gods abandoning mankind, a vision often termed ‘apocalyptic’ by Classical scholars, is almost unique within ancient Greek literature. It is repeatedly exploited, however, in the Sibylline Oracles, a Late Antique collection of Jewish and Christian oracles on world history and the fates of nations, composed in Greek hexameters and attributed to the pagan prophetess Sibyl.
The ‘Sibyl’ names herself in a manner consciously resembling that of ‘Hesiod’, who in the opening of his other great poem, the Theogony (‘Generation of Gods’), describes how the Muses inspire him with knowledge of past and future. Such links have prompted me to notice how far the Sibyl draws on anticipations of collective destruction in Hesiod’s Theogony and again from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the archaic Greek epics which are the foundations of Classical culture. The language of imminent doom for the Titans, for Troy or for the suitors of Penelope is picked up and combined with the language of the Hebrew prophets in the Sibyl’s oracles against Greece, Rome, Egypt and Asia, oracles successively edited by different monotheistic believers from the 2nd century BCE. She thereby offers us a fossil of an ever-resonant ‘apocalyptic discourse’ reaching across the Greco-Roman world and back to its origins. Taken together, Hesiod and the Sibyl have provoked in me new questions about the authority, accessibility and rhetorical purposes of visions of collective destiny, both in antiquity and today.