Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.16

Roger Brock, Greek Political Imagery from Homer to Aristotle.   London, New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.  Pp. xx, 252.  ISBN 9781780932064.  $130.00.  

Reviewed by David Whitehead, Queen’s University Belfast (

The ship of state, the body politic, political combat, tyrannical behaviour. So familiar can these kinds of metaphor be that it comes as a surprise to realise that anyone wanting a monograph-length treatment of the subject as it pertains to ancient Greece would not have known, hitherto, where to find such a thing. A most conspicuous gap, now filled by Roger Brock’s excellent (and well-produced) book.

It is a dense piece of writing, not merely in its literal, physical aspect – more than two hundred pages of print that readers above a certain age may well wish had not been set quite so small, and at forty-five lines to the page – but also and more importantly in its intellectual and critical content. The main text itself is packed with detail; the accompanying endnotes (forty-nine lines to the page) are copious in number and size. More copious, indeed, than footnotes could conveniently have been; while traditionalists might have preferred the latter, the endnote format can more readily accommodate something like the huge n.127 to chapter 7 (to which attention is drawn on p.xvii), which might otherwise have had to become an appendix in its own right. I did begin my task by wondering whether the three decades that this book has spent in the making, since its first incarnation as an Oxford D.Phil. dissertation supervised by the late George Forrest and Kenneth Dover (p.ix), might have resulted in something too bottom-heavy, too weighed down by digressions, caveats and other accumulated impedimenta reinforced by a Bibliography that occupies more than twenty pages (pp.199-220). But, for this reader and I dare say for others too, not so. Brock’s great strength, as anyone who knows and has profited from his Vorarbeiten and other articles over the years will agree, is the close and thoughtful dissection of individual poetic and prose texts and the elucidation of their relationship one to another. To have the benefits of this sort of intelligent and subtle analysis set out at length, and with its purview extended beyond the original endpoint of Plato, is therefore an unqualified plus. Here I can do no more than try to summarise the main lines (and highlight a few points that, for me, particularly stood out).

The meat of the book, between a multi-purpose Introduction and a brief Epilogue, lies in eight substantive chapters, of two kinds. First come five ordered by theme rather than (except in the very broadest of senses) by chronology; then three longer ones take an explicitly diachronic approach to the subject-area, setting the various images more firmly in their historical context. The rationale of this structure, aiming to meet the needs of different academic constituencies, is explained on p.xvi.

The Introduction (pp.xi-xx) establishes the objective of studying ‘the emergence of political imagery as a historical and cultural phenomenon which runs in parallel with the Greek “discovery of politics” and illuminates that process and the ideas behind it’ (p.xi). Brock’s (unexceptionable) view that political imagery is part of western culture’s legacy from the Greeks does not, though, lead him to downplay the Greeks’ own debt to the Near East; on the contrary, he is and will remain at pains to suggest where specific images do have such pre-Greek roots and where (as with the ship of state and the body politic) they seem not to. Furthermore, as is appropriate to an era without its own consciously-articulated terminology of metaphor (p.xiv), we are spared agonies of definition-mongering and, instead, invited to go along with a simple but effective formulation recently offered in Richard Rutherford’s Greek Tragic Style: ‘imagery […] is used to include words and expressions which communicate a non-literal sense, and particularly comparisions of which the main categories are metaphors and similes’ (p.xv); this is broad enough to subsume personification, allegory and fable.

Chapter 1 (‘Gods as Kings, Kings as Gods’: pp.1-24) begins, despite the necessary nods to the Near East (p.1 and again passim), with the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod. In both, the parallelism between divine and royal authority is expressed in the reciprocal ways embodied in the chapter’s title. Brock discusses each element separately, bringing in later material (lyric poetry, tragedy, comedy, prose) and finding on the whole that the ‘gods as kings’ version is the one more prone to show development over time, reflecting both changing political circumstances and the evolution of several types of cosmological theory in the Presocratics. Subsequent to that, in the fourth century, Xenophon’s Cyropaideia (8.1.22) appears to inaugurate the convergent notion, taken further in Plato, Aristotle and Hellenistic philosophy, of the ruler as law embodied.

Chapter 2 (‘The State as a Household and Family’: pp.25-42) explores a theme for which, by contrast, there turns out to be scant evidence before the late sixth century (Herodotus 5.29 on Miletos and its Parian arbitrators). Instead the relevant material here is largely classical and, Pindar aside (p.26), largely Athenian. Brock opens with the well-known questions asked at the archons’ dokimasia in Ath.Pol. 55.3 (which ‘indicate how natural it was to make associations between oikos and polis’: p.25) but he loops back from that to take in Aristophanes (esp. Knights: see pp.229-230), Euripides, Plato, Xenophon, Demosthenes and other orators, and Aristotle. Here again, fourth-century shifts are signposted (pp.31-32), before concluding remarks (pp.34-35) pull back the chronological focus.

Chapter 3 (‘The Shepherd of the People’: pp.43-52) reveals another set of circumstances in the sources: an image – little used nowadays in this precise form, Brock notes – with clear Near Eastern origins; a prominent military role in Homer, the Iliad especially, with the poimena/poimeni laôn formula; much less in evidence in the fifth century, at least outside Aeschylus (e.g. Agamemnon 795-8) and other tragedians; and a marked ‘resurgence’ (p.45), in the fourth century, in philosophy and its adjuncts such as Xenophon’s Cyropaideia (1.1 and passim). ‘More than any other complex of imagery, the imagery of animal husbandry illuminates for us the process of the reconstitution of the conception, ideology and presentation of monarchy prompted by the changing political landscape of the fourth century’ (p.48).

Chapter 4 (‘The Ship of State’: pp.53-67) traces the early stages of this famous image from Archilochus and Alcaeus – there are no relevant passages in epic, it turns out – and tracks its evolving specificity in aspects like the ship’s physical construction and components (e.g. seating, undergirding) and, most particularly, the helmsman vel sim., the counterpart of the charioteer in the parallel image of the chariot of state (in Aristophanes and elsewhere); the man whose expertise must guide such a ship if it is not to founder. Here Brock first slips in the fascinating suggestion (p.60) that the type of vessel envisaged in the ship of state image is not a warship, or at least not a trireme, but a merchantman. Initially sceptical, I would have liked much more on this, but the argument comes and goes all too briefly, despite being revisited and refined at pp.85-86 vis-à-vis early pentekonters.

Chapter 5 (‘The Body Politic’: pp.69-82) deals with another much-used image that, similarly, appears not to originate in Homer but in later archaic poetry; Theognis and Solon in this instance. The body politic, like the human (or animal) body, is frequently “sick”, with stasis, the manifestations of which can be described in medical and/or anatomical terms. But beyond mere description comes ‘the other side of the medical coin: the issue of treatment’ (p.71), and there Brock finds, in Plato and elsewhere, another aspect of emphasis on a model of expertise as what is indispensably required for the restoration and maintenance of good health. Along the way many passages, familiar and unfamiliar, are illuminated; a highlight is p.75 (reprised p.117) on the Sicily debate between Nikias and Alkibiades in Thucydides 6.

Chapter 6 (‘Leaders and Communities: the Archaic Period (c.750-480 BC)’: pp.83-105) begins the second, diachronic approach to this complex mass of (largely poetic) material, out of which emerge several of the images discussed in the first five chapters (including the ship of state and the body politic). Inevitably in this elite-dominated era, political imagery is slow to reflect “popular” concerns and aspirations, associated with an emerging dêmos (witness for instance the almost total absence, from the archaic period, of the state-as-household image); even so, it ‘tacitly acknowledges the existence and, to some degree at least, the claims of a wider community’ (p.94).

Chapter 7 (‘Democracy and Autocracy: the Fifth Century (c.480-404 BC)’: pp.107-145) tracks the twin elements of its title – associated with Persia and Athens respectively – and their mutual relationship during this Short Fifth Century. Initially and conceptually polar opposites, they become interlinked with each other once Athens as well as, or even more than, Persia is perceived as the great autocrat or tyrant. Athenian (and Athenocentric) material naturally predominates here, and in it Brock finds, as have others before him, no easy solution to the ‘puzzle’ of the ‘paucity of imagery which expresses the ideals of democracy’ (p.125). Rather, the stark language and metaphor at one time applied to the way barbarians behaved (or wished to behave) toward Greeks increasingly lends itself to the power-relations between some Greeks and others.

Chapter 8 (‘Orators and Philosophers: the Fourth Century to Alexander (c.400-322 BC)’: pp.147-196), unsurprisingly given the material available, is the book’s longest. Brock begins it by identifying two key drivers of the period – ‘the resurgence of monarchy as a serious constitutional option, and the emergence of clearly articulated political thought’ (p.147) – before plunging in to the primary sources. Plato takes pride of place, with support from Xenophon, Isocrates, Aristotle, and real-life (non-Isocratean) oratory. This last is a field in which ‘a strain of increasing violence in the political language’ (p.163) can be discerned, but philosophy and oratory are at one in their insistence on the central importance of nomos (p.164); and the end of the period sees a tripartite convergence between nomos, monarchy and divinity.

I must emphasise again that anyone who reads and absorbs Greek Political Imagery from start to finish, or even single specimens of its constituent chapters, will find there far more nourishing food for thought on individual passages than these summaries of mine have been able to convey. For every such person, though, there will surely be many more who want merely to consult the book, with despatch, on specifics. Anticipating precisely such targeted exploitation (p.xvi, cf. p.xviii n.15), Brock has catered for it with three well-considered indices: first, ‘Authors and Images’, which features seventy-four of the former and their contribution under recurrent alphabetical heads such as ‘animals’, ‘architecture’, ‘household’, ‘maritime’, ‘medical’, ‘military’, ‘music’, ‘sport’; then a selective Index locorum, embracing a larger group of some one hundred literary sources (though not the epigraphic material that the footnotes sometimes invoke, to good effect – see e.g. p.66 n.48, p.126 n.5, p.128 n.22, p.134 n.83, p.144 n.153, p.167 n.4, p.183 n.109, p.191 n.158, p.195 n.183); and finally a General Index of names and subjects. This last, presumably aimed at gathering in a miscellany of matters which might otherwise have passed unnoticed, actually subsumes only a selection of the array of contemporary figures and allusions the book has cited. Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Governor Huey Long, Nelson Mandela, Chairman Mao, François Mitterand, Joseph Mobutu, George Orwell, Eduard Schevardnadze, Margaret Thatcher (who opens the proceedings: see p.x) and Yulia Tymoshenko all get an entry, but many others do not, and something like p.62 n.5 with its quickfire mention of George Canning, William Pitt the Younger, Walt Whitman, Sir John Tenniel, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bismarck, Punch, Helmut Schmidt, Franz-Josef Strauss, Private Eye, the British submarine HMS Astute and the Titanic can give a flavour of the lively and eclectic erudition with which Brock entertains as well as informs his readers.

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