Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.19

Johannes Haubold, Homer's People. Epic Poetry and Social Formation.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2000.  Pp. xv, 240.  ISBN 0-521-77009-2.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Jonathan S. Burgess, University of Toronto
Word count: 1873 words

First, clarification of the title is required. This book is a revised dissertation on the group designated laos in early Greek epic, primarily the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is not an anthropological, sociological, or political study, but rather a highly original analysis of the poetic function of this term. A final chapter explores how the Homeric laos would have been perceived when the Iliad and Odyssey were performed in Athens. On these terms it is an interesting and rewarding book.

The first chapter surveys scholarly debate over the word laos before exploring its mytho-poetic implications. References to the "people" in early epic seem vague and inconsequential, and the term has in fact been largely neglected in critical studies. But, through exploration of the metaphoric significance of such formulaic phrases as "shepherd of the people" (where laos most often occurs in early epic) and "he destroyed the people," Haubold argues for the potential thematic importance of the laos. Essentially Haubold portrays the epic laos as traditionally insecure or vulnerable, with a close relationship to a leader who often fails to protect it.

Chapter 2, the heart of the book, focuses on the laos in the Homeric poems. For the Iliad, Haubold focuses on Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hector from the perspective of the laos. The "people" are seen as a hinge between the stories of Agamemnon and Achilles; the former loses them, whereas the latter proves his value by allowing their destruction through his absence. Thus Achilles profits from Agamemnon's failure as leader of the laos. It is well-known that Hector has divided loyalties to city and family, and to these Haubold adds the laos. The Trojan leader is portrayed as having difficulty defining his various responsibilities, let alone meeting them. The Odyssey presents Haubold with some discomfort, for the poem less frequently makes reference to the laos, and it is certainly not prominent in the narrative. Yet two important Odyssean groups, the companions and the suitors, are discussed as similar to the laos yet ultimately distinguished from it. Establishing that the suitors and the companions are not equivalent to a laos is seen as a recurrent source of anxiety for the narrative. Indeed, Haubold portrays the issue as central to the poem, for otherwise Odysseus would be open to blame for "destroying the people."

In Chapter 3 Haubold turns to the reception of the Homeric poems in Athens, particularly in reference to the Homeric laos. Haubold argues that in Athens there was "leos ritual" (leos being the Attic form of the word) that invoked a pre-political "founding people" that inevitably experiences successful institutional progress. The reaction by an Athenian audience to the Homeric poems, as performed at the Panathenaea, is then explored. Haubold proposes that the Athenian audience would have understood the epic laos as a pre-polis group without institutional stability, even if sometimes on the verge of receiving such stability. Thus the Homeric laos would have been highly resonant to the Athenian people. The Athenians would find the Homeric portrayal of a vulnerable laos uncomfortable, yet they could reassure themselves that they were a type of laos which had successfully developed a secure place within a civic context.

As far as methodology is concerned, Haubold cites Gregory Nagy as his main inspiration for using formulae as evidence for a traditional poetic-cultural theme.1 The book does not seem theory-driven, but many of the more successful sections seem indebted to narratology, and Haubold cites recent work that links tragedy with Athenian civic discourse as fundamental to his third chapter (in this context it is notable that Simon Goldhill was his thesis supervisor). But as I mentioned above, the focus of the book is on the poetic function of the Homeric term laos. Haubold is vague about the historical background of the Homeric poems, generally viewing them as indicating a transition from a pre-polis to polis culture. He does not seek to use the Iliad or Odyssey as evidence for sociological circumstances external to the poems, nor does he try to employ cultural aspects of a presumed time of composition to explain the texts. In regards to the origins and transmission of the Homeric poems, Haubold is largely non-committal. Even the third chapter on the Athenian reception of the Homeric poems is for the most part vague in terms of history and politics (as discussed further below). It is also not as dynamic as the recent work of Seaford and Cook, who explore the interaction of poetic traditions with their audience over time, not the static reaction to fixed texts.2

But this work is certainly an energetic and original exploration of a topic to which most Homerists have probably given little thought. Indeed, many readers will be surprised that so much can be made of the Homeric laos, since this group seems to appear only meekly in the background as the undifferentiated masses. In defense of his focus on the laos, Haubold points out that Homeric criticism can seem over-concerned with heroes and the heroic, especially in the wake of Whitman's existential analysis of the hero.3 Certainly readers of this book will be encouraged to look beyond the hero to the "people." It seemed to me that Haubold successfully demonstrated the potential thematic importance of the laos by establishing the traditional resonance of formulae involving the word. Haubold's discussion of the Iliad does not lead to startling results, but the essential unfolding of the plot is refreshingly re-considered with the laos in mind. Haubold's discussion of the Odyssey is especially effective, ironically enough given the apparent unimportance of the laos in the poem. The possibility that the Odyssean companions and suitors might be classified as laos, with fundamental consequences for the narrative, is convincingly demonstrated. Haubold's "people" seem to be a group whose definition is in dispute in the epic world and always open to sudden shifts of fortune, which makes his analysis particularly agreeable to modern scholarship that has emphasized the poly-vocal, open, and indeterminate nature of the Homeric poems. The final chapter on the reception of the Homeric laos in Athens is interesting and challenging. Much has been written about the performance of the Homeric poems at the Panathenaea but usually with a focus only on the origins and transmission of the Iliad and Odyssey. Haubold's attempt to ascertain one aspect of their reception is thought-provoking and welcome.

At times the argument is pursued too adamantly. For example, Haubold early on insists that heroes cannot function as leaders of the people in a synchronic social system because they belong to a past world of indistinct social class. Yet much of Greek literature depends on the overlay of the mythological world onto the contemporary world. The purpose of Haubold's contention is not readily apparent, and at times it becomes a bit polemical in regards to past scholarship. Haubold also often ends up stretching his evidence a bit far given the lack of emphasis on laos in the Homeric poems. For example, much is made of the ending of Teiresias' prophecy to Odysseus, where it is stated that the laos will be prosperous at the time of Odysseus' death (Od. 11.113ff.). The reference to the laos seems to be the least interesting thing about this fascinating passage, but in Haubold's analysis it becomes central to the poem. The development of his argument on "leos ritual" is also uncertain, since this ritual must be extrapolated from a limited number of brief phrases in literary texts, often parodic in nature.

The third chapter on the reception of Homeric laos in Athens in general can be extremely subtle, and sometimes different parts of the argument seem to be contradictory. Somehow the Athenian audience is supposed to identify itself as a laos that recognizes the instability of the Homeric laos yet is reassured by its own security within civil institutions. All this is argued without reference to the historical development of Athenian civic institutions, and in fact political issues are explicitly excluded from the analysis. I was impressed by the ambitious attempt to connect disparate phenomena, but some will find it confusing, and many will remain unconvinced.

At times Haubold seems to avoid key issues, as with his insistence, only made in passing, that the laos cannot be equated with the demos. Admittedly the flexible word laos does seem to mean different things in different contexts, an aspect that is emphasized to great effect by Haubold. Yet the epic word laos may very well at times suggest the demos, or at least might be perceived as being the demos.4 One might expect a book on the laos would help clarify the socio-political aspects of the assembly scene in Book 2 of the Odyssey, for instance, but Haubold's discussion is disappointing in its resolute refusal to consider the laos as a social class. The potential link between the laos and the demos would also have enormous implications for the Athenian reception of the text, but Haubold remains curiously silent on the political background, as noted above. The ideology of the Homeric poems is a hotly debated topic, but this work will not contribute much to that controversy. In the end we are not left with a very clear sense of what the Homeric laos actually is. "Homer's people" remain amorphous, which allows the construction of many interesting arguments about the poetic function of the laos, but which also leaves one with the feeling that important issues have been left unclarified.

At the risk of seeming to quibble, let me add that I disagreed with the portrayal of heavy losses for both Achaeans and Trojans as distinctly Iliadic, since the Cypria apparently narrated that loss of life was a prime divine motivation for the war (frag. 1 Bernabé, Davies). I also found the use of the phrase "Homer's people" disconcerting. The phrase seems to have originated at the publishing stage and is never adequately explained. I did not find that it was particularly helpful to the argument.

On the whole, though, this is a very good book that breaks much new ground. It will make readers focus on an overlooked Homeric word, and the implications of its discussion involve the whole narratives of both Homeric poems. Thus the book enables one to return to the Iliad and the Odyssey with the ability to appreciate a new dimension of them. The attempt to locate the reception of the Homeric poems in an Athenian context is also noteworthy for its originality. Though the wording can at times be a little imprecise and though multiple ideas are sometimes introduced at too quickly a pace, there is a consistent effort to make the development of the argument clear, with numerous signposts and cross-references. Also helpful are thorough indices and two appendices on epic and ritual formulae involving laos/leos. Despite the approachable title, I think it is graduate students and Homerists who will be most interested in the book, though the middle chapter on the Homeric texts would be quite suitable for undergraduates. For reasons explained above, I do not think that specialists interested in the sociological and political background of epic poetry will find the work satisfying, though, as Haubold suggests, the book might well inspire further work about the Homeric laos along those lines.


1.   Yet after claiming that a new analysis arose in the late seventies that refuted an "old paradigm" which saw the laos as a warrior society, Haubold oddly claims that Nagy was the "first scholar to respond to the challenge." When one turns to the pages cited from The Best of the Achaeans (Baltimore, 1979), however, it is clear that Nagy is there following Haubold's "old paradigm."
2.   R. Seaford, Reciprocity and Ritual: Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State (Oxford, 1994); Erwin Cook, The Odyssey in Athens: Myths of Cultural Origins (Ithaca, 1995). Haubold's caution in reconstructing the transmission of the Homeric poems is understandable, of course, and he deserves praise for clearly admitting that we do not know that the Iliad and Odyssey were performed exclusively at the Panathenaea, though this seems central to his argument. The possibility of Cyclic or other non-Homeric performances at the Panathenaic festival is explored in my The Epic Cycle and Homer (Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming in 2001).
3.   C. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (Cambridge, MA, 1958).
4.   For the parameters of the term laos, I have found helpful the discussion of W. Wyatt at Minos 29-30 (1994-5):159-170. There it is convincingly argued that some passages about the laos in the Odyssey can be understood to refer to the demos.

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