Locale: The village of Ascra in central Greece
Time: Hesiod's lifetime
Hesiod (HEE-see-uhd), an honest and hardworking Greek farmer. His father, a seafaring trader (and presumably a farmer as well), had emigrated from his homeland on the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in a state of poverty and had sailed across the Aegean Sea to mainland Greece in search of a better livelihood. There, he settled in the district of Boeotia, in the meager village of Ascra on the lower slopes of Mount Helicon, which was sacred to the Muses of poetry. He acquired land, achieved middle-class status and a measure of prosperity, and was able to bequeath an estate of some value to his sons, Hesiod and Perses. A bitter dispute about the inheritance, however, led to litigation and to charges by Hesiod that Perses had attempted to get the better of him by bribing the corrupt Barons who functioned as judges. Hesiod, in fact, treats this litigation as the immediate occasion of this thoroughly didactic poem, which is addressed to Perses. Hesiod speaks in the first person and exhorts his brother to forsake his lazy, scheming, and contentious habits and to devote himself to honest living and hard work; these general exhortations are accompanied by explicit instructions about proper conduct, managing a farm, and seafaring. The poem concludes with a straightforward list of propitious and unpropitious days. Hesiod's advice to Perses is grounded in a firm belief that this is a hard but moral universe in which Zeus, the ruler of the gods, rewards industry and integrity and punishes those who cheat and rob. Inspired by the ever present Muses of Mount Helicon, Hesiod, as he informs Perses (and his readers), already was a prize-winning poet before he composed this poem.
Perses (PUR-sees), Hesiod's brother, who figures prominently as the person to whom the poem is immediately addressed and whose moral reformation it seeks to effect. Perses is always merely the addressee and is never allowed to speak for himself or to defend himself against his brother's charges of fraud, sloth, and troublemaking; he might have given a different account of his personal conduct and of the dispute over the inheritance. He is, however, implicitly treated by Hesiod as capable of amendment and of becoming a man who is honest and industrious; otherwise, there would have been no justification for addressing him didactically in such a poem.
Zeus (zews), “the father of gods and men,” who demands of human beings hard labor and honest dealings. He governs Hesiod's universe according to a standard of strict and absolute justice. In a mythological account of the origin of work, sorrow, and disease, Hesiod tells the story of Zeus's conflict with Prometheus (proh-MEE-thee-uhs) and his creation of Pandora (“Allgifts”). To punish Prometheus, the patron and protector of humankind, for stealing fire from the Olympian gods and giving it to humans, Zeus had the gods create the seductress Pandora and confer on her all charms, graces, and deceits; he then sent her into the world with a jar in which were stored all human miseries and arranged for her to open it and release them, only Hope remaining trapped inside.