Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.29

Dean Hammer, The Iliad as Politics: The Performance of Political Thought. Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture, Vol. 28.   Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.  Pp. x, 294.  ISBN 0-8061-3366-X.  $34.95.  

Reviewed by Shawn A. Ross, William Paterson University (
Word count: 2363 words

In The Iliad as Politics, Dean Hammer (hereafter H.) considers the Iliad as a work of political thought. A professor of Government with an impressive command of the ancient sources and familiarity with a broad array of modern scholarship, H. is less concerned with the rudimentary political institutions or structures found in the Iliad (although they are not ignored) than he is with politics as an activity, the process by which problems of community organization are resolved. In discussions such topics as authority and obedience, autarchy and interconnectedness, and conflict and reconciliation, H. examines how the Iliad constitutes a critical reflection on community organization. He argues that study of the Iliad contributes to an understanding of the development of a political ethic that echoes through the tumultuous and diverse political evolution of the Greek city-states, from the advent of tyranny to the establishment of the oligarchies and democracies of Classical Greece. H.'s command of both the political and historical literature, ancient and modern, has produced a rigorously argued and convincing book of interest to advanced students and scholars studying Homeric epic, pre-Classical Greek history, or the evolution of Greek political thought.

The Iliad as Politics is divided into an introduction and seven chapters. The introduction not only provides a useful chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the author's argument, but also lays out the reasons why H. thought the book necessary. He observes that in the wake of Plato's dismissal of poetry in the Republic, the Iliad has not been studied as a work of political thought. Following Plato, modern scholarship has categorized Homeric epic as mythos, storytelling, which is unfriendly to logos, reasoning. Oral theory, H. continues, emphasizes the functionality over the meaning of epic language (Parry and Lord), or at best ascribes to epic a pragmatic morality and utilitarian politics (Havelock). H. instead builds upon the work of scholars such as Gregory Nagy, Kurt Raaflaub, and Walter Donlan, who counter that epic poetry is uniquely capable of illuminating the society that produces it, extending that idea to the realm of political thought and action in the eighth century BC. H. begins from the premise that epic--as the product of oral composition and public performance--not only embeds societal values and knowledge into a story of human struggle but also critically examines the organization of community life to produce a pre-polis reflection on politics.

The first two chapters of The Iliad as Politics offer a defense for treating the Iliad as a work of political thought. In chapter one, "Political Fields," H. argues that Homer is not "prepolitical" and that the polis is not necessary for politics; the activity of politics transcends any one set of structures or institutions. As he presents his argument, H. offers a thorough survey of recent scholarship concerning political and social organization in Homer, and more broadly in late Dark Age and early Archaic Greece. By focusing on actions and processes rather than structures and institutions (thus extending work by Moses Finley, Donlan, Raaflaub, Hans van Wees and others), H. frees himself to explore a range of activity that occurs within what he calls the "political field"--the public arena in which individuals and groups contend to settle issues of importance to the community. Such a political field appears in the opening scene of the Iliad, in which the Achaian host gathers to determine the appropriate response to Apollo's plague and the proper distribution of war prizes. A section entitled "Archaeological Sites as Political Fields" in chapter one represents H.'s most sustained attempt to relate the Homeric world to the society that produced it, based largely upon material evidence.

In chapter two, "Human Agency and the Divine," H. seeks to reconcile the role of the gods in the Iliad to its value as a political work. The problem of divine intervention undermining the human agency required for a meaningful discussion of politics is resolved by H. through the idea of chance. Chance, which H. contends does not exist in Homer apart from the gods, is reconciled with human agency by community action: "agency and chance...serve to define each other as they are mediated through culture." (58) H. emphasizes that the Homeric heroes' response to divine intervention is consistently an attempt to re-establish (appropriately hierarchical) order and thereby restore balance in the community. Instead of undermining human agency in the Iliad, the gods are integrated into a conception of human action, as a response to divine intervention becomes part of the political field rather than a negation of it.

Chapters three through seven develop the main points of H.'s arguments. In them H. seeks to tell a "story of epic thought" about authority, power, rights, and ethics as they are revealed through dialogue, action, and plot. (16)

Chapter three, "Power, Force, and Authority," looks at the political ramifications of the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. H. explores the tension between willing and forced obedience, seeking to moderate the view first articulated by Finley that Homeric leaders rule only by force. Agamemnon attempts to rule by force, but fails; the abuse of compulsion actually weakens his power. More effective authority is wielded by heroes such as Odysseus, Nestor, and Diomedes who realize that power resides not in the person, but in the political field. Specifically, H. follows Hanna Arendt in asserting that power is derived from group recognition; he locates the Iliad's central conflict in the attempt by Agamemnon to substitute force, based on violence and deceit, for genuine power, based upon persuasion and recognition.

Chapter four, "Self-Sufficiency," focuses on Achilles' withdrawal from battle and the effort to elicit his return. H. sees Achilles' withdrawal as an attempt to take a "liminal" position apart from society--regardless of the cost to his community, the hard-pressed Achaian army. The embassy of Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax represents an effort to coax Achilles back into that community. The embassy's offer of gifts and honor fail to sway Achilles, however, because he has come to view himself not as a warrior struggling for honor but as an outsider laboring without due reward. Likewise, appeals to pity fail because Achilles has determined that the suffering of the Achaians is his best revenge against Agamemnon and that he can inflict suffering without suffering himself. The initial political crisis caused by Agamemnon's inappropriate rule by force is thus compounded by Achilles' equally disruptive alternative, that of self-sufficiency. It is only with the death of Patroklos that Achilles learns that the costs he inflicts on his community will eventually lead to his own suffering; H. concludes the chapter by considering the shield of Achilles as an artifact of transition from liminality into community.

Chapter five, "Elite Relations," turns to the reconciliation of Achilles to the Achaian elite after the death of Patroklos. Much of the chapter consists of an extended discussion of the nature of power and the meaning of themis in the Iliad. H. argues that Agamemnon's failure has discredited rule by force and Achilles' failure has discredited autarchy. Instead, power rests upon properly maintained relationships, and the most accurate understanding of themis is the ongoing, public process of negotiating these relationships, both among the elite and between elites and the people. By "relationships" H. means not just the widely recognized elite reciprocity embodied in practices such as aristocratic guest-friendship and gift exchange, but all public enactments governed by themis that allow individuals to work together. Again, H. focuses on actions and processes, not institutions and structures. The chapter concludes with an investigation of the funeral games, which not only represent Achilles' reconciliation with the rest of the Achaian elite, but also depict Achilles as a just ruler presiding over the games. Achilles' reconciliation thus occurs within and reconstitutes a "collegial space" encompassing the elite.

Chapter six, "Leaders and Led," turns from relationships among the elite to the relationship between leaders and people, emphasizing the importance of public acclamation of leadership decisions. Although H. concedes that the people do not initiate action in the epic he defends their role within the political field, pointing out two aspects of their importance. First, he contends that leaders lead not only through innate authority but also with public acclaim from the people; acclaim is, in fact, the ultimate wellspring of power. Second, a rudimentary public ethic is emerging, an ethic of "political heroism" under which leaders must act and speak for the good of the community, maintaining a public space rather than aggrandizing themselves. H. concludes with an exploration of how this political and ethical arrangement transcends the Iliad to color the entire formative period of archaic Greek political development.

In chapter seven, "Toward a Political Ethic," H. explores how the "ethical self" emerges through human experience. Specifically, he examines the transformation of Achilles from an individual "suffering-from" interaction with others to "suffering-with" others, best illustrated by contrasting Achilles' conflict with Agamemnon in the first book of the Iliad with his reception of Priam in the last. Once Achilles realizes that he suffers with others, he develops an ethic based upon recognition of his (sometimes unexpected and unpredictable) interconnectedness with the community; he gains a sense of "esteem" for himself and others, learning that individuals have a responsibility to act together in the face of an inscrutable future. H. concludes that through Homer's vision of the world we can see the emergence of an ethic underlying the political field based upon the recognition of a shared world.

Throughout The Iliad as Politics, H. displays a thorough knowledge of current scholarship relevant to his work. For example, H. makes productive use of important scholarship concerning the historical context of the epics, oral tradition, the effects of economic development on Archaic Greek society, and elite reciprocity. I could find no really significant bibliographical omissions within areas familiar to me, and can only assume that H.'s wide-ranging discussions of such fields as political theory, sociology, and ethics are of equally high quality. H. successfully builds upon earlier scholarship to advance our understanding of Homeric society. Two particularly persuasive arguments illustrate the impact of this work: H.'s discussions of elite relationships in chapter five and the relationship between leaders and led in chapter six.

Although others have discussed Patroklos' funeral games as an event reconciling Achilles to Agamemnon and reintegrating him into the Achaian elite (H. provides an excellent discussion of the scholarship), H.'s argument in chapter five that the games reveal the nature of appropriate elite action is thorough and persuasive. He emphasizes how public space is demarcated for the games' performance, property is communalized for distribution as prizes, and institutions for the adjudicating of disputes are established, such as Phoenix's appointment as umpire in the footrace. H.'s image of Achilles as the chastened dispenser of political justice, overseeing the games and arbitrating disagreements, is particularly compelling.

Even more significant is the author's argument for the role of the people within the political field made in chapter six. H. rejects a "royal model" of government in the Iliad that emphasizes the role of the basileus as a charismatic "big man" exercising autocratic power derived partly for birth, partly from achievement. He also rejects a "class-model" depicting an exploitative aristocracy set against a restive demos in the context of increasing division and conflict. Although influenced by an "interactive model"--in which the basileus possesses traditional and charismatic authority, but has little coercive power and is checked by will of a demos that possesses a collective identity and a voice--H. rejects this model since it fails to explain adequately the integration of the basileus and the demos. Faced with this dilemma, H. proposes a "plebiscitary" model based upon the ideas of Maxwell Weber, in which authority requires the recognition of the ruled, typically through public acclamation. The leaders still hold the initiative and often attempt to manufacture such acclaim, but sometimes the people act unexpectedly, revealing the limits to elite initiative--as is indicated by the flight of the people instigated by Agamemnon's (false) call to retreat from Troy in Book 2. H. concludes that a "rudimentary public ethic that attempts to balance the charismatic and public aspects of authority" has come into effect, producing not a democracy, but a political field where decisions are taken in a public space and subject to community acclaim. (157)

Other arguments presented by H. are equally rigorous, and overall The Iliad as Politics is a success. The following criticisms are minor. H.'s integration of the Iliad into the society which produced it is not always as satisfying as it might be; H. appears most comfortable when dealing with the epic as its own self-contained world, and he only intermittently reconciles it with the underlying society of eighth century BC Greece. Furthermore, H.'s work seems to be focused too exclusively upon the Achaians, missing opportunities to explore the politics played out among the Trojans, such as the often tense relationship between the Trojans and their allies (as when Hektor's leadership is impugned by Sarpedon, Iliad 5.472 ff.). In chapter six concerning leaders and led, H. seems to equate politics with democratic politics, although this is not the case for the remainder of the book. When H. launches into his own synthesis, he does not always differentiate his argument well enough from those upon which he builds (as in the difference between the "interactive model" and the "plebiscitary model" for the leader-people relationship discussed above). Finally, the book does not really have a conclusion; the final chapter is a meditation on political ethics in Homer, and contains no summary of the book's main points, which would have been welcome considering the admirably wide-ranging arguments deployed over the course of the work.

The Iliad as Politics represents an uncommon example of a genuinely interdisciplinary work, benefiting from an author who is an expert in the two fields combined in the book: Homeric scholarship and political philosophy. My reading of Homer and understanding of Archaic Greek political development has been modified and enriched by H.'s synthesis. As an added inducement, the book is nicely produced, reasonably priced, and almost entirely free of printing errors. Advanced students and scholars from a variety of fields--history, political theory, classics--will benefit from H.'s worthwhile contribution to the study of Homer and his world.

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