Chapter 3: Hellenic Kingship


As compared with the Indo-Iranian and the Italic concept of the king the Greek names basileús and wánaks suggest a more evolved and differentiated notion close in several respects to the Germanic conception.
Of unknown etymology, but both attested in the Mycenaean texts, these terms are in distinctive opposition, in that only the second designates the holder of power.
As for basileús, although he is not a god like the Indian rāj-, he exercises functions of a magico-religious type which were doubtless structured originally along the tripartite lines already studied. The scepter, the symbol (of Hellenic origin) of his authority, is nothing more in its origin than the staff of the messenger who bears an authorized message.


There is no better measure of the transformation of the political structures of the Indo-Europeans than the vocabulary of primitive Greek institutions. From the dawn of history, royalty and everything pertaining to it has in Greek new designations which are unknown elsewhere and remain quite inexplicable.
Greek possesses two names for the king, basileús (βασιλεύς) and wánaks (wάναξ). These two terms do not exist on the same level, but they both defy any etymological analysis. They have no correspondent in other languages, and we cannot even detect any connections, even partial ones, within Greek itself.
There has been much fruitless discussion over the origin of basileús. If the identification of the root is impossible, we may at least suggest a probable analysis of its morphology: basileús is derived by means of the suffix -eus, which is preceded by the morpheme -il-, this being an element characteristic of the personal names of Asia Minor: e.g. Trṓil-os, Murs-íl-os, to which the Hittite Muršiliš corresponds. This is all that can be said.
As for the root element bas-, none of the numerous hypotheses recorded in the etymological dictionaries can even be discussed today. The term basileús has in fact been detected in the Mycenaean tablets, where it has the form qa-si-re-u, with the derivative qa-si-re-wi-ya, which is probably equivalent to basileía. If the phonetic value of the sign qa- is secure, the initial b- of basileus must go back to an original labiovelar g w-. The Mycenaean form may be posited as g w asileús. It is from this basis that we must proceed in the future if some chance of a connection should present itself. For the moment we have merely advanced a stage along the road of reconstruction.
The case of wánaks is comparable but different. Like basileús it is Homeric and Mycenaean. But it has a wider dialectal extension and it is encountered once outside Greek.
In a number of old inscriptions this title is given both to divinities like Poseidon and the Dioscuri and to men invested with supreme power. Thus in a bilingual Greco-Phoenician inscription of Cyprus wánaks translates the Phoenician ádon ‘Lord’. It is interesting to note that in a dedication in Old Phrygian dating from about 600 BC the king Midas is qualified as wánaks although we cannot tell whether the word is native to Phrygian or whether it comes from Greek.
But the most important data are provided by Mycenaean where the term appears in a number of forms: wa-na-ka (wánaks), wa-na-ke-te, wa-na-ka-te (= wanáktei, dative singular), wa-na-ka-te-ro (= wanák-teros, with a comparative suffix), wa-na-sa-wi-ja, wa-na-so-i or wa-no-so-i, of less clear interpretation.
Further, the contexts in which the terms are used in Mycenaean throw light on the relation between the words basileús (in fact g w asileús) and the wánaks. It seems that the basileús was merely a local chieftain, a man of rank but far from being a king. He does not seem to have possessed any political authority. On the contrary the wánaks is regarded as the holder of royal power, even if we cannot define the extent of his territory. Is the title also bestowed on divinities and priests? We are not in a position to assert this, but it remains a possibility.
The respective positions of the basileús and the wánaks in the Homeric epic correspond well with what characterizes these two persons in Mycenaean society. Only it should be noted that wánaks is also a divine qualification reserved for the highest gods. Apollo, the god of the Trojans, is the wánaks par excellence. Zeus is also dignified with this title but less frequently. The Dioscuri are also specifically called wánake (a dual form which contrasts with the declension which is based on the stem wanakt-).
It would be of interest to make precise the relation of sense between basileús and wánaks, at least in its main features. According to Aristotle, the brothers and the sons of the king bore the title of wánaks. It would thus seem that the relation between basileús and wánaks was that which exists between “king” and “prince.” This would be the justification of the title wanake bestowed on the Dioscuri, Διόσ-κουροι, royal princes. We cannot, however, accept the limitation of the term wánaks to the son or the brother of the king; for in Homer a person can be at one and the same time basileús and wánaks. One title does not contradict the other, as we can see from Odyssey 20, 194. Moreover, wánaks by itself serves as a divine qualification: the invocation to Zeus Dodonaios, one of the most solemn texts of the Iliad, begins thus: Ζεῦ ἄνα … (16, 233). A god is never called basileús. On the contrary the title basileús is widespread in human society: besides Agamemnon it is bestowed on a whole crowd of people. There are even degrees and a kind of hierarchy among basileîs, to judge by the comparative basileúteros and the superlative basileútatos, whereas there is no such variation on wánaks in Homer. Apart from the Mycenaean wanaktero-, the sense of which remains uncertain, the title of wánaks denotes an absolute quality. Further, it should be noted that in almost every case basileús has no qualification: a man is simply a basileús. There are only two or three examples of basileús with a genitive. On the other hand wánaks usually has a qualification, the name of a community: wánaks andrō̂nwánaks of men’ or else the name of a country: wánaks Lukíēswánaks of Lycia’. Similarly the verb wanássō ‘to be wánaks’ is constructed with a place name.
This implies that wánaks alone designates the reality of royal power; basileús is no more than a traditional title held by the chief of the génos, but which does not correspond to a territorial sovereignty and which a number of persons may hold in the same place. There are a large number of basilē̂es living in Ithaca (Od. 1, 394). One single town, that of the Phaeacians, counted no fewer than thirteen basilē̂es (8, 390). A respected person, the basileús had certain privileges in the assembly, but the exercise of power was the prerogative of the wánaks alone, and this is what is indicated also by the verb wanássō. Similarly testimony is also afforded by expression preserved as proper names: Iphi-anassa ‘who rules with power’, the name of the daughter of Agamemnon. The feminine (w)ánassa is the epithet of goddesses like Demeter and Athena. Further, when Odysseus sees Nausicaa for the first time he addresses her thus, believing her to be a goddess.
In the Homeric conception of kingship there survive certain ideas which recur in some guise in other Indo-European societies. Of special importance is the idea of the king as the author and guarantor of the prosperity of his people, if he follows the rules of justice and divine commandments. We read in the Odyssey (19, 110ff.) the following eulogy of the king: “a good king (basileús) who respects the gods, who lives according to justice, who reigns (anássōn) over numerous and valiant men, for him the black earth bears wheat and barley, the trees are laden with fruit, the flocks increase unceasingly, the sea yields fish, thanks to his good government; the people prosper beneath his rule.”
This passage was frequently echoed in later literature; writers took pleasure in contrasting the happiness of peoples governed according to justice with the calamities born of deceit and crime. But this is not simply a moral commonplace. In fact, the poet exalts the mystical and productive virtue of the king, whose proper function it was to promote fertility about him, both in animals and vegetables.
This conception is found, at a much later date, of course, in Germanic society, but attested in much the same terms. Among the Scandinavians the king ensures prosperity on land and sea; his reign is characterized by an abundance of fruits and the fecundity of women. He is asked, according to a consecrated formula, for ár ok friđr ‘abundance and peace’, just as sacrifice was made at Athens at the Bouphoniae “for peace and prosperity.”
These are not mere empty formulas. Ammianus Marcellinus reports that the Burgundians, after a defeat or a calamity, inflicted a ritual death on their king because he had not brought prosperity and success to his people. We find here, in a different form, the idea which animates a prayer of the Achaemenid Persian king, which Darius formulates thus: “May Ahuramazda bring me help along with all the other gods and protect this land from the army of the enemy, from bad harvests, from the lie.”
Above (Book Three, Chapter One) we have commented on this prayer. It lists the evils proper to the three divisions of society and their respective activities: religious spirit (drauga ‘falsehood’), the cultivation of the soil (dušiyāra ‘bad harvest’), martial activity (hainā ‘hostile army’). This sum total of misfortunes which Darius begs the god to ward off from his kingdom is the counterpart of the benefits which he himself should procure for the people. It is only insofar as he enjoys the favor of Ahuramazda that he will ensure the prosperity of his country, the defeat of his enemies, and the triumph of the spirit of truth.
This image of the king as provider created in Old English the name of the “lord.” The English term lord goes back to an ancient compound hlāford, the first element of which is hlāf ‘loaf’. Hlāford is traced to an original form *hlāf-weard ‘guardian of the loaf’. He is an “alimentary” lord, one who provides sustenance, “the master of the loaf.” Similarly lady in Old English is hlæf-dīge ‘the loaf kneader’. The subjects of the lord, those who are under his authority, are called “the eaters of bread.” In the medieval economy the petty English “lord” played within his domain the same role as the Homeric “king” according to Indo-European conceptions.
However, not all these peoples have the same ideas of the royal function. Between the Vedic kingship and that of the Greeks there is a manifest difference which may be brought out by the two definitions we propose to contrast.
In the Laws of Manu the king is characterized in a single phrase: “the king is a great divinity (mahatī devatāhi) in human shape (nararūpena).” This definition is confirmed by other formulations: “There are eight sacred things, objects of reverence, of cult and circumambulation: the brahman, the (sacred) cow, fire, gold, ghr̥ta (melted butter), the sun, the waters, and the king” (he being the eighth).
With this we may contrast the definition of Aristotle (Politics I, p. 1259): “The king has the same relation to his subjects as the head of the family has to his children.” In brief, he is a despótēs in the etymological sense of the word, the master of the house, certainly an absolute master but not a god.
It is true that in Homeric phraseology the basileús is diogenḗs, diotrephḗs, ‘born of Zeus’, ‘nurtured by Zeus’; he has some attributes which come to him from Zeus, such as his scepter. Everything that he is and everything that he possesses, his insignia and his powers, have been conferred on him by the gods, but he does not hold them in virtue of divine descent. This essential change, which is peculiar both to the Greek and the Germanic worlds, brings into being a type of kingship which is opposed to the Indian and Roman conception of the king: the Roman rex is in effect on the same plane as the Indian rāj: the two personages have a common role and the same name.
The more “modern” conception, which is also more “democratic,” manifested in the Greek and Germanic societies must have evolved independently of each other. It is not accompanied by common terminology, whereas India and Rome are in this respect profoundly conservative. The coincidence of terms is instructive: the term *rēg- survived in the Italic languages and in Indic, at the two extremities of the Indo-European world. It is here that the most traditional institutions and the most archaic concepts survived, thanks to a religious organization which was maintained by colleges of priests (cf. above, Book Four, Chapter One).
On the contrary, in the center of Europe, great movements of peoples have overthrown the ancient structures. We must not think merely of the Greeks and Germanic peoples but also of other peoples, far less well known, who seem to have participated in the same social organization, such as the Illyrians and the Veneti, of whom we possess only scanty and indirect testimony.
In the series of terms relating to the king and kingship it appears to be legitimate to include the name of one of the insignia proper to the royal function, the scepter, the Greek word for which is skē̂ptron (σκῆπτρον). This is not an Indo-European term; in fact it is confined to Greek. Here we see something rather peculiar, for the institution of the scepter soon spread to a number of European peoples. In fact the term passed from Greek to Latin and Slavic, and then from Latin to Germanic, thus covering a great part of Europe. This makes even more noteworthy the absence of the notion in Indo-Iranian.
No designation for the scepter exists either in India or in Mazdaean Iran. No word of this sense is found in the lexicon of the Rig Veda or the Avesta; this is a negative fact, yet one of considerable significance. Some scholars have sought to find a scepter on an Achaemenid bas-relief in an object carried by a follower of the king, and its bearer is designated on this monument as vassa-bara ‘the bearer of vassa’. Was he the scepter-bearer of the king? Today there is general agreement that the object in question is a bow; thus the term presumably designates the bow-bearer or archer of the king. Thus the result of the enquiry is negative for Achaemenid Persia, as it is for India.
We know the importance of the scepter for the Homeric kingship, since the kings are defined as “scepter-bearers”: σκηπτοῦχοι βασιλῆες.
The name itself, in Homer and in everyday language, is skē̂ptron, which became sceptrum in Latin, but we also have the form skā̂pton (σκᾶπτον) in Doric, in Pindar. Besides there exists a form with a different grade of the vowel, Latin scipio which is paralleled by Greek skípōn (σκίπων).
In Homer this skē̂ptron is the attribute of the king, of heralds, messengers, judges, and all persons who, whether of their own nature or because of a particular occasion, are invested with authority. The skē̂ptron is passed to the orator before he begins his speech so that he may speak with authority. The “scepter” in itself is a staff, the staff of the traveler or the beggar. It takes on an august aspect when it is in the hands of a royal person, such as the scepter of Agamemnon, apropos of which the poet enumerates all those who have transmitted it, going right back to Zeus himself. This divine scepter was preserved with great reverence at Chaeronea, where it was kept under the guard of a priest to whom it was entrusted annually in the course of a ceremony, according to Pausanias. However, the name given to this was not skē̂ptron but dóru, literally “wood” (Pausanias IX, 40, 11). It was therefore a long staff, the shaft of a spear. Now, in the earliest history of Rome the scepter of the king was called hasta, according to Justinus 43, 3: “hastas quas Graeci sceptra dicere …” Hasta is thus certainly the Latin equivalent of the “scepter” as the shaft of a spear. As for the scepter of the Germanic peoples, the Latin historians call it “pike,” contus. The Germanic word in OHG chunin-gerta, OE cyne-gerd ‘king’s staff’; now OHG gerta ‘wand’ (Goth. gazds ‘goad’) corresponds to Latin hasta.
It would be of interest to try and establish the original meaning of skē̂ptron in order to see if we can infer in what form this emblem was imagined. We may start from the concept of royalty itself, for the insignia of royalty are of a different order from mere ornaments. The scepter and the crown are royalty in themselves. It is not the king who reigns but the crown, because it makes the king. It is the crown which through all time is the foundation of royalty. Today we still speak of the “possessions of the crown”; the son of the king is “the crown prince” (German Kronprinz). Thus the king derives his power from the crown, of which he is merely the trustee. This mystical notion also attaches to the Homeric skē̂ptron: a person can reign, judge, harangue only when he has the skē̂ptron in his hands.
There is nothing mysterious about the formation and the sense of the Greek term: skē̂ptron is the instrument noun formed from the verb skḗptō ‘lean on’; it is an object on which one supports oneself, a staff. But this etymological sense tells us nothing about the origin of the powers which were attached to this emblem. This translation is itself too bald. “Support oneself” can be expressed in other ways, e.g. by klínō. The proper sense of skḗptō is “to lean with all one’s weight on something which gives support.” The poet in order to describe the attitude of a wounded man sustained by his companions says that “he leans with all his weight” on those who are helping him to get away. The beggar of the Odyssey “supports himself on his staff.” From this comes the secondary sense of the verb skḗptō ‘to put forward as a pretext, give as an excuse’, that is, to justify oneself by “supporting oneself” on an established fact.
This verb is sometimes translated as “fly, speed” on the basis of as few passages from the tragedians. This translation needs revision. In a passage of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus four examples of this verb are used in succession (ll. 302, 308, 310) in the description of a fire which is used as a beacon transmitted from one station to the next. Along the chain of stations the fire illuminates the hearths. The torch covers a certain distance and the light shoots down (éskēpsen) over Lake Gorgopis, in this place, and urges the following fire not to tarry but to take flame in its turn: “Lo! it shot down (éskēpsen) and reached the Arachnaean peak.” Then “Lo! it shoots down (skḗptei) on the roof of the Atreidai.” The flame leaves one summit and “supports itself” on the different summits that it must inflame. It is always the same movement which is pictured.
Speaking of the god who brings a calamity, Sophocles (Oed. Rex, 28) says that the god descends (skḗpsas), swoops down on the town. Finally, in an inscription (IG II2, 1629) the subject is some triremes on which a storm has “swooped down.”
The sense of the verb is everywhere to “weigh down on, press with all one’s weight.” It follows that the skē̂ptron is the staff which one presses down on and which prevents one from falling. Now there is only one type of staff that meets this purpose and this is the walking stick or staff.
The question is how an instrument so defined by its descriptive term can invest its bearer with such high dignity. We may discount the various explanations which have been proposed; it is not in itself the emblem of power, the symbol of authority, the staff of the orator. Nor is it a magic wand; this is called in Greek rhábdos, and the skē̂ptron is never the attribute of the magician. Since skē̂ptron designates the staff, the walking stick, we have to ask ourselves how we can unify the different functions of this skē̂ptron in the hands of the different persons who are authorized to hold it.
Originally the skē̂ptron seems to have been the staff of the messenger. It is the attribute of a traveler who advances with authority not to perform some act but to speak. These three conditions, the man on the march, the man with authority, the man with something to tell, imply a single function, that of the messenger who combines them all and who alone can explain them. From the fact that it is necessary to the bringer of a message the skē̂ptron becomes a symbol of his function and a mystic sign of his credentials. Henceforward it is an attribute of the person who brings a message, a sacred personage whose mission it is to transmit the message of authority. This is why the skē̂ptron starts with Zeus from whom, by a succession of holders, it descends to Agamemnon. Zeus gives it as a kind of credential to those whom he designates to speak in his name.
The uneven distribution of the scepter in the Indo-European world thus reflects the variable conception of royalty. For the Indo-Iranians the king is a god; he does not need any such symbolic credential as the scepter. But the Homeric king is merely a man who holds from Zeus his qualification and the attributes which manifest it. Among the Germans, too, the king exercises an authority which is purely human, whereas at Rome the rex is of the same essence and invested with the same divine powers as the Indian rāj.
It was only in the first beginnings of Rome that, under Greek influence, the king adopted the scepter as his attribute. Both the word and the idea came to the Romans from the Greek civilization. This whole process shows how a secondary phenomenon of historical diffusion may conceal and mask profound differences of origin.