The ancient Greeks regarded Homer and Hesiod as their most important poets. Both lived at about the same time, around 700 B.C. — that is, if a poet named Homer actually lived at all. But it seems most likely that Hesiod did live and write most of the poems we attribute to him.
Hesiod was best known in antiquity for the poem called Theogony, about the birth of the gods. But to historians today, Works and Days is the more interesting work, because through it we have a rare glimpse into the life and thoughts of an ordinary farmer in the early Iron Age.
When most people today consider ancient Greece, they think of the Classical age, during the heyday of the Athenian democracy. Hesiod lived hundreds of years earlier, in the beginning of what is known as the Archaic age, when writing had only recently been reinvented. Life was hard and poor, and most of the population was trying to make a living on small farms.
Hesiod's father was a failed merchant who settled on a farm in Boiotia, in northern Greece. When he died, he left his property to his two sons, Hesiod and Perses, but Perses, at least according to Hesiod, bribed the magistrates to award him the best part of it. This apparently did him little good, as Perses seemed to be coming around begging money from his brother. The poem Works and Days is framed as Hesiod's advice to Perses, and its central message is: work hard.
The poem contains practical advice for a farmer -- when to sow and when to harvest, what kind of wood to use for a plow, the management of farmhands. There are sections on the most auspicious days to perform certain tasks, sections on the weather, on astronomy, on choosing a wife. And there are numerous wise sayings that sound very much like the words of wisdom from Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack.
When one adds to what he has, he fends off staring hunger.
What is stored away in a man's house brings him no trouble.
Do not let any sweet-talking woman beguile your good sense
with the fascinations of her shape. It's your barn she's after.
Twice you may get help, and three times even, but if you plague [your neighbors]
further, you will get nothing more, and your pleading will fall flat.
Most of the poem, however, is practical advice for the farmer.Get yourself two oxen, males, nine years old, for their strength
will be undiminished and they in full maturity, at their best to work with,
for such a pair will not fight as they drive
the furrow, and shatter the plow, thus leaving all the work done
gone for nothing.
Astronomy was essential to the farmer, as the stars told him when to perform essential tasks.At the time when the Pleiades, the daughters of Atlas, are rising,
begin your harvest, and plow again when they are setting.
According to Hesiod, certain days of the month were sacred to the gods, and certain other days best for performing specific tasks.The eleventh day, and the twelfth too, are both very good days,
either for shearing sheep or for reaping the good harvest;
but of these the twelfth day is far better than the eleventh.
Hesiod covers the smallest details of the farmer's life, from the practical to the moral, through all the season's of a farmer's year. We have no idea whether Perses appreciated his brother's advice, but today's readers can certainly appreciate this look into life on an Iron Age farm, so different in many ways but in many more ways so familiar to us.
Lattimer, Richard, Hesiod: The Works and Days/Theogony/The Shield of Herakles (trans; Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1991).
Photo Credits: Olive Harvest Vase: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/28/Greek_pottery.png