Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.06.15

Peter W. Rose, Sons of the Gods, Children of Earth: Ideology and Literary Form in Ancient Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Pp. 412. $45.00 (hb). $14.95 (pb). ISBN 0-8014-9983-6.

Reviewed by Kirk Ormand, Oberlin College.

This is a learned and very difficult book. In it Rose applies Marxist literary criticism to six of the most-taught works in Greek literature, focusing specifically on their manipulation of the idea of inherited excellence. Few scholars today would attempt to cover the ground that Rose does -- the Iliad to Plato -- and despite Rose's statement that he intends to "suggest an approach rather than to exhaust the project" (2) he has clearly done much painstaking research, not only in traditional classical scholarship, but also in a wide range of modern (and postmodern) critical theories. His breadth of vision and attention to detail both elicit admiration; but one occasionally feels that Rose is taking us across the literary map at great speed on a series of dusty byways. We cover a lot of ground, and the reader may sometimes wish that he could just hop onto the interstate.

Much of the material in this book -- chapters 1, 2, 3, and 5, in fact -- has appeared in articles, though apparently in significantly different form. Moreover Rose states in his preface that he has "... retained a certain amount of repetition of critical issues and even of historical data from chapter to chapter in order to make each chapter internally coherent" (ix). At stake here, therefore, is not only the quality of the various chapters, but the value of their inclusion in a single volume. For this reason I give particular attention to the Introduction, in which Rose defines and justifies his method.

It is often difficult to perceive the relation between much Marxist (and post-Marxist) criticism and what for the sake of simplicity we might call Marxist politics (Rose uses the term "Orthodox Marxism", which seems to me to confuse the issue). There is a tenuous connection at best between current discussion of "ideology" and "the subject" and Marx's model of a material "base" and a cultural "superstructure," to say nothing of the projected proletariat revolution. Rose should be commended, therefore, for trying to make these connections clear in his own work. In his Introduction, he traces the development of Marxist thinking from a "Stalinist" model, in which everything depends on the class struggle, to a model more akin to the Hegelian dialectic, in which artistic production is seen as both reflecting the economic base (and thus reproducing the status quo) and, in some way, affecting the production of the economic base. The chapter ends with an impressive summary of Jameson's contribution to this history, the idea of the double hermeneutic.

As Rose points out, Marxism is currently "a site of struggle" (6). It is not surprising, then, that he and I should differ in our views of Marxist thought. At several points Rose suggests that a Marxist approach allows a broader-based study of culture than various other academic stances. Such a position is well documented in Marxist circles.1 Rose turns this stance into a sort of defense of a Liberal Arts education: he cites as one of the "deepest attractions" of Marxism its "invitation to make connections, to bring some coherence to the understanding of phenomena that bourgeois analysis seems bent on keeping separate in ever more refined and narrow categories (academic departmental turfs and specializations are the most obvious instances)" (16, see also pp. 6, 22-3). But Marx was not so interested in uniting the various disciplines as in pointing out that most of them do not matter to the understanding of history; in a passage from German Ideology which Rose quotes on pp. 22-3, Marx states "Morality, religion, metaphysics, and all the rest of ideology as well as the forms of consciousness corresponding to these ... have no history, no development.... It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness." To use this indictment of academic disciplines as a protest against the fragmentation of that most bourgeois institution, the modern university (as Rose does), seems a bit perverse.

Rose's attempt to "understand the social totality" becomes even more suspect to me when I discover that it "must be set [against] the sheer hollowness of and political impotence offered by a world of subtly differentiated fragments and deconstructed subjects" (16). Rose cites with approval Jameson's suggestion that "... the most strident of the anti-totality positions are based on that silliest of all puns, the confusion of 'totality' with 'totalitarianism'" (p. 16, n. 28). But, as Rose is surely aware (he declares himself sympathetic to feminist causes in several places), many of the most significant advances in feminist scholarship in the past 20 years have been precisely in the world of "deconstructed subjects" that Marxist scholarship has enabled. (E.g. the work of Irigaray and Spivak.) For women and minority groups, the myths of unity and coherence of society have indeed been a form of totalitarianism. I agree that "some models of knowledge have distinctly superior explanatory power" (17), but not necessarily that the criteria should be that of Rose's "coherence".

These points, however, may smack of that very overspecialization that Rose wishes to combat; and in any case, they do not negate the positive contributions that the book makes. Of considerably more importance is the sheer density and difficulty of the first 25 pages of this book. In his efforts to produce an intellectual history of Marxism and the Classics, Rose spends too little space explaining basic concepts with which the average classicist may not be familiar (his particular use of the word ideology, for example) and instead buffets the reader with a dizzying amount of detail as he locates important thinkers on the road-map of Marxism. In a welcome critique of the New Right's appropriation of Classics, for example, we jump from Hobbes to Blake to Eagleton on the Victorians to Allan Bloom and Ronald Reagan and then back to Gramsci on education -- all in the space of pp. 3-6. Likewise, when Rose is explaining the important developments away from a "Stalinist" Marxism towards a more dialectical model, he seems more concerned with locating Lukacs in the Frankfurt School than in explaining his contribution. Rose's history is, as far as I can tell, correct in its particulars. But until we reach p. 25, we are in a tiresome no-person's land: there is too much detail for the Classicist who wants to see what Rose has to say about Homer, not enough explanation for the budding theorist who wants an introduction to Marxist Criticism, and (I would think) too little detail for the serious student of Marxist thought. It took me a solid two hours to read these opening sections, and at that point I gave up and went to sleep. I fear that many classicists will simply give up entirely, and that is a shame. Some of the later chapters are worth the struggle.

In pp. 25-42 are sections on Cultural Production; Mediation, Hegemony, and Overdetermination; and Jameson's Double Hermeneutic. Though again Rose has a tendency to spend as much time locating scholars (and himself in relation to them) as explaining their contributions, these sections are clear, concise, and well done. As the concept of the double hermeneutic is crucial to all of Rose's work, it deserves brief explanation here. As I understand it, a hermeneutic is an interpretation which incorporates (as all interpretations do, on some level) an appropriation of the work of art into the critic's culture. (Rose gives the helpful example of the early Christians who saw Vergil as a proto-Christian.) A "negative hermeneutic" draws out those ways in which a cultural production reflects and supports the ruling class. A "positive hermeneutic" demonstrates the ways that the same works of art "call into question or negate the ruling-class version of reality" (36). The double hermeneutic combines the two approaches. It is a useful tool, therefore, for showing how any cultural production both is and transcends the ruling ideology.

Of the following six chapters I give a detailed account of only the one on the Iliad. It is, I think, a useful example of what is best in Rose's approach. I deal with the other chapters in much briefer fashion not because they are less deserving of attention (indeed each is a complex piece that stands alone), but because a detailed critique of six often lengthy articles would be both dull and unnecessary.

Rose calls his chapter on the Iliad "How Conservative is the Iliad?" and though that is the larger question of the chapter, it does not indicate the most interesting points that Rose has to make. The chapter begins with what quickly becomes an all-too familiar pattern, roughly 15 pages of history of criticism on the epic. Rose takes us through Parry, Redfield, Thornton, Nagler, as well as historians like M. Finley, Vermeule, and Desborough before finally reaching his thesis on p. 58, i.e., that although much in the Iliad functions as ideology (read: supports the status quo), the epic shows "A tension between traditionalism and radical negation ... at every level of the poem" (58).

The form that this tension takes comes to light particularly in the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles, and their attitudes towards inherited greatness. Rose begins by pointing out that, although there is an underlying assumption that greatness is a characteristic of birth (hence various heroes' recital of their ancestry), the epic repeatedly gives the lie to such a formulation. Patroklos, for example, will kill Sarpedon; as Rose says (in the context of Aeneas and Achilles in Bk.20), "demonstrated superiority is the real sign of divine favor, and in the face of such power nice distinctions of pedigree are a dangerous absurdity" (69). And in fact, Rose points out that the epic is surprisingly free from words that mean "well bred" -- there is only one use of gennaion (referring to Diomedes), and one of eupatria (referring to Helen) (p. 62).

In one of the chapter's most cogent moments, Rose argues that war is the central economic institution in the epic. Achilles believes that the war is, or should be, essentially a meritocracy, that the best fighter should be in charge and win the most prizes. Agamemnon's status as the head honcho, however, derives from "... another sort of inheritance -- the accumulation of wealth and political power from generation to generation" (76). The poem emphasizes, in particular, the chain of inheritance that accompanies Agamemnon's sceptre (2.101-9). It is not news that Achilles and Agamemnon represent different world-views. But Rose's focus on the different economic ideologies from which they derive power is exciting stuff. And, for those interested in Marxist theory, the punch line to this argument is even more thrilling: "Agamemnon's relation to property seems to dramatize the transition from the purely symbolic role of possession as concrete manifestations of actual achievements on the battlefield to fetishized objects that seem to have an inherent power to give control over one's fellow human beings -- in short toward a money economy" (76). This subtle teasing out of the economic characteristics of the Iliad's representation of war shows the usefulness of the double hermeneutic; we see now how the Iliad both preserves an older ideological form of kingship as meritocracy, yet points to the future of archaic Greece with its oligarchs and unstable class structures.

So far so good. But again, one of the real problems with this chapter is its extensive focus on critical history, with too little attention to explication of theory. The reader will have to work hard to reach p. 76, and even then, if he is not pretty familiar with the first chapter of Marx's Capital and fluent in the Marxist (as opposed to Freudian) definition of a fetish, Rose's observation about Agamemnon (quoted above) will seem like just so much jargon.

The end of the chapter too, in which Rose deals with the place of women, disappoints. In what seems to me an odd move, he reads the various woman-snatchings of the poem as Oedipal in order to point to the "disastrous family dynamics of ancient Greek patriarchy" (85). He then moves on to (briefly) discuss the Iliad's constant anxiety over legitimacy, and woman's role as a potential disrupter of patriarchal order. I find Rose's argument extremely difficult to follow here. Moreover, he seems blind to women's implicit role as objects of trade in the meritocratic economy of war (the sort of thing that has been so well explained by post-Marxist G. Rubin), and the ways in which Helen, for example, disrupts that economy in Bks. 3 and 6.

The chapters on the Odyssey and on Pindar are less successful. Both are attempts to "historicize" the respective works. The attempt is again, valuable. But much of what Rose has to say about the Odyssey -- e.g., that the poem reflects the extensive patterns of migration that happened in the Dark ages in its emphasis on colonization, or that the suitors represent a new class of aristocrats that were coming to power in the eighth century -- is not particularly new. The central piece of his analysis is an often entertaining Freudian reading of the poem (122-33) which, despite Rose's statement that "Freud can and should be historicized" (133) is largely ahistorical. Similarly, the piece on Pindar makes a number of interesting suggestions concerning the changes in class structure in Archaic Greece, and their representation in Pindar's particular form of epinician. Rose makes one particularly intriguing suggestion, i.e., that Pindar's emphasis on the poet's control over the patron's fame is connected to the increasing power of discourse in the emergent democracy (177-8). Alas, like too much in this chapter, this important insight remains largely unexplored, though earlier Rose gave us a detailed critique of Bundy and his followers (155-165).

The chapter on the Oresteia is the longest in the book, and will be of particular interest as Rose has not published any of this material previously. Not surprisingly, Rose reads the trilogy against the backdrop of the growing democracy, and specifically as a text concerning the shift in class structure that the democracy depends on.2 The basic point is clear enough: the Agamemnon shows us a corrupt and dangerous aristocracy that is replaced in the Eumenides by a more democratic rule. This is not new, except perhaps in Rose's emphasis on the political and economic, as opposed to merely legal, shift of paradigms. To his credit, Rose's reading of the Eumenides is quite convincing. To make the earlier plays into an indictment of aristocracy, however, Rose must make the house of Atreus not only consist of aristocrats, but represent them (and their supposed values) as a class. This becomes a slippery slope. Particularly difficult, I think, is the fact that Rose links the practice of inheriting wealth with the aristocracy (e.g., 204-5). But, as scores of fifth and fourth century legal texts attest, oikoi in the democracy were constantly concerned with manipulations of inheritance. Such people are aristocrats only if by "aristocrat" we mean "anyone who owns property" -- which is what Rose apparently means, in some spots (p. 202, n. 25). But if this is the case, then Agamemnon, Klytaemestra, et al., no longer seem to me to represent the aristocracy, but rather an elite subset within it. Can their behavior, therefore, be treated under the rubric "aristocratic criminality" (244, with numerous echoes)? I also find unconvincing Rose's delicate critique of Zeitlin 1978, which discusses the play as a founding myth of patriarchy (256-65). Rose wants to be able to celebrate Aeschylus' focus on the transformed Eumenides, and the importance of women's power of procreation within the polis. Each reader must decide for himself; but for me, the prominence of women has never been the issue, and whether by blatant misogyny or subtle cooption, patriarchy still amounts to 67 cents on the dollar for working women.

Many scholars will remember Rose's 1976 article on Sophocles' Philoctetes; this is the most successful chapter in the book. Through a series of sound and often acute close readings, Rose argues that in this play, Sophocles specifically adapts and re-writes the sophist's arguments of the mid to late fifth century. Two of Sophocles' apparent innovations in the myth clearly support this view, the presentation of Lemnos, and the introduction of Neoptolemos. Through these features of the drama, this play represents the sophists' speculations about the development of human life: Philoctetes' isolation emphasizes the problem of survival (soteria) in the wild, and his eventual bond with Neoptolemos becomes a study in the development of the social compact. This leaves one major sophistic concept to go, that of education, and here Rose argues for a Sophocles who carefully revises the sophists. Though Neoptolemos and Philoctetes are clearly opposed to the aristocratic society that Odysseus naturally represents, considerable weight is put on Neoptolemos' phusis, his inherited excellence, and the importance of educating that phusis correctly. Sophocles, then, uses sophistic anthropology to critique the democratizing implications of sophistic education, creating in effect a new aristocratic phusis in the bond between Neoptolemos and Philoctetes. The play confirms this new aristocracy, of course, by having Heracles appear ex machina as the representative of aristocratic phusis.

In part this chapter is so successful because Rose largely confines his discussion of other critics to the footnotes. Here, too, the book rises to meet the challenge of its title. Rose is actually talking about ideology, and the way that ideas can directly affect the materialist base while reflecting it. If the chapter has a weakness, it is in Rose's curt dismissal of Errondonea's suggestion that Heracles' arrival is really Odysseus in disguise. Good arguments can be found against such a view (though I confess it holds a certain fascination for me), but Rose contents himself with saying that it is "inherently preposterous" (p. 323 n. 101). In a book concerned with the ways in which inherited excellence and baseness are manipulated and culturally produced, Rose's choice of words here seem almost parodic; and the suggestion that Heracles might be Odysseus does seriously threaten the thesis of this chapter.

Rose finishes with an analysis of the tensions between form and content in Plato's Republic. Rose again shows considerable perception and skill in highlighting the various ambiguities of Plato's text (e.g., the use of myth in Plato's harsh critique of mimesis). Eventually, he suggests that Plato's movement is parallel to that of Sophocles. Plato, he argues, starts by defining justice in a sophistic, and apparently democratizing, manner: it is each one doing what he or she is best suited to do. It turns out, however, that what one is suited to do is a matter of innate talent -- phusis -- and that Plato clearly thinks that such phusis is inherited. The ruling class in Plato's utopia must be carefully monitored, lest a bad apple be left among them; but the expectation is that most, if not all, of the good apples will come from that class. Even here, however, there is an ambiguity: though it seems that good phusis cannot be taught, it can be made base by poor education. Nurture, it seems, is a one way street (369). Rose's discussion is often illuminating, and I am pleased to find such a literary treatment of Plato, who is too often treated as a sort of proto-Aristotle who had not yet learned to edit the stories out of his philosophy. But I am a little disappointed that after carefully drawing out a series of provocative ambiguities and social tensions, Rose insists that Plato gives us "at least provisional ancient closure" on the nature/nurture problem (369). Rose has shown me, on the contrary, how open the problem was and is, particularly in Plato's texts.

A word on style: at times Rose's prose has real punch. At other times, however, his sentences are distractingly abstract: "Moreover, the practical, utilitarian, and generally materialist assumptions underlying the anthropological analysis of human progress readily lent themselves to a relativist analysis of ethics based on enlightened self-interest or hedonistic calculus and, correspondingly, a distrust of absolutist values supported by traditional anthropomorphic religion" (277). Footnotes are often far too detailed, telling us not only a particular scholar's views, but Rose's precise relation to those views.

In sum, this is a learned but difficult book. Despite my lengthy criticisms, Rose has important insights about individual works, and his method is one that classicists should give careful consideration. Rose's very wealth of detail makes the collection a difficult read, however, and I suspect that most scholars will be tempted to tackle only the chapter(s) that deal with their particular area(s). The book has been set up to make such readings possible and, with some regret, I cannot insist that readers should do otherwise.


  • [1] See, for example, M. Jay, Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
  • [2] While it seems ludicrous to fault Rose's 30-page bibliography, I found it curious, given the interest in the reforms of Kleisthenes and their effect on tragedy (and vice versa), that Rose does not cite J. Winkler, "The Ephebes' Song: Tragoidia and Polis," originally published in Representations 11 (1985): 26-62 .