Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.03.16

Announcement, by Gregory Nagy, of a new on-line discussion series: "Homer's Poetic Justice".  

Editor Gregory Nagy, Classics, Harvard University

I will lead an on-line discussion series concerning law and morality in the heroic world, with the help of junior colleagues recruited from Harvard's Classics Department, including project leaders Mary Ebbott and Tom Jenkins. Enrollment is open to the public and is free of charge. You can find out more and register at the following URL: The assigned on-line readings, presented in translation from the original Greek, will focus on Scrolls 1, 3, 9, 16, 18, 22, and 24 of the Homeric Iliad.

For over twenty years, I have been teaching a Core Curriculum course in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard entitled "The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization." Now I have transformed this course into this on-line discussion, consisting of four "cyber-dialogues," each lasting one week. The time-frame for this new on-line discussion series is the month of April, 1999. Our "cyber-dialogues" are an extension of both my Core course and of a general book I am working on -- a book that deals with concepts of the hero (as does the course). This forthcoming book is entitled "Homeric Answers."

The starting point for the course can be instantly grasped by reading chapter 6 of this forthcoming book, which I offer to precirculate electronically to those interested in engaging in our on-line dialogues. The title of the chapter is "The Shield of Achilles: Ends of the Iliad and Beginnings of the City-State," an earlier version of which appeared in Susan Langdon, ed., New Light on a Dark Age: Exploring the Culture of Geometric Greece, pp. 194-207 (University of Missouri Press, Columbia 1997). This essay gives an idea of how the four "cyber-dialogues" of our on-line discussion can flow out of a single image as pictured on the Shield of Achilles in Scroll 18 of the Iliad: it is a scene of litigation, where the poetic "freeze frame" locks the defendant and the plaintiff into an eternal juridical debate over the rights and wrongs of a single overriding moral question: what is the true "price" of a human life?

Like my Core course, this on-line discussion series presupposes no knowledge of the Greek language and no historical background about ancient Greek civilization -- a background that we will provide in the course of our on-line dialogues. The point of immersion, the "Shield passage" of the Homeric Iliad, is of such universal humanistic appeal that it can serve as an overall introduction to ancient Greek concepts of the hero. These concepts are in turn an ideal introduction to the study of ancient Greek values in general. To enter the dialogue with the professor and his junior colleagues, you must confront right away some of the biggest questions of ancient Greek civilization: (1) what is at stake in the life-and-death struggles of heroes? (2) what is absolutely right and absolutely wrong? (3) what is justice, and is it or is it not guaranteed by the divine order of things?

As I point out in my essay, cited above, Homer critics have begun to interpret the resolution of the Iliad in Book 24, at the end of the epic, as a reflection of a new spirit that emerges from the heroic tradition and culminates in the ethos of the City State or polis. I argue that the ethos leading toward a resolution at the end of the Iliad is already at work inside the very structure of the Iliad. Though the rules of Homeric poetry seem incompatible with overt references to the values of the polis, the poetry itself draws attention to this incompatibility in the timeless and even limitless picture of the City at War and the City at Peace, depicted in the hero's own microcosm, the Shield of Achilles in Scroll 18 of the Iliad.

In describing this picture as "limitless," I have in mind an essay of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, originally published in 1766, the title of which has been translated into English as "Laocoon: An essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry." I draw attention not only to the use of the word "limits" in this title but also to the emphasis placed by Lessing on the limitlessness inherent in one particular detail of the picture, that is, a scene of a litigation that is taking place in the City at Peace. In painting a picture through poetry, Lessing argues, the poet chooses not to confine himself to the limits of the art of making pictures. And yet, as I argue, the picturing of this particular detail of a litigation allows "the poet" to go beyond the limits of his poetry as well. (The Greek word that I translate as "limits" has an explicitly juridical dimension, just like the English word.) The Iliad need not end where the linear narrative ends, to the extent that the pictures on the Shield of Achilles leave an opening into a virtual present, thus making the intent of the Iliad open-ended. This open-endedness makes the "Shield passage" a highly effective point of engagement between the modern world and the ancient world of heroes.

To repeat, the URL for registration is at: Please join us!

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