Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.39

B. K. M. Brown, The Mirror of Epic: The Iliad and History.   Berrima:  Academic Printing and Publishing, 2016.  Pp. xi, 403.  ISBN 9780994541826.  $175.00.  

Reviewed by David F. Elmer, Harvard University (

One of the more intractable aspects of the so-called Homeric Question concerns the situation of the Homeric poems with regard to their historical context. Moses Finley located the “world of Odysseus” in the ‘Dark Age’ of the eleventh through ninth centuries; others have preferred a date roughly contemporaneous with a supposed eighth-century textualization of the Homeric poems. A more recent tendency to date our texts even later has complicated the issue, and some writers (including the author of this review) have maintained that binding the poems to a single historical period is a reductive simplification of their chronological depth.1 B. K. M. Brown’s contribution to this debate is to figure the Iliad as a “mirror” that not only reflects the world of its composition, but also transforms it by catalyzing social and political change. While he follows current orthodoxy in linking the poem as we have it to the 6th-century Panathenaia, his overall project is to break down the opposition between historical reality and literary representation. He urges us to think of the Iliad as a historical event and to read in history a record of it.

Brown conducts his argument primarily in terms of a sophisticated theoretical discourse. Books 1 and 23, which bear directly on his primary object of interest, namely, collective practices of distribution and adjudication, come in for close scrutiny, along with a few other passages, but Brown’s method does not center on the sustained interpretation of the Iliadic text. His project is to construct a theory of the relation between the Iliad and its historical context based on an impressive synthesis of thinkers including (in approximate order of their significance for the argument) Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Gernet, Jean Baudrillard, Claude Calame, Fredric Jameson, Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, and others. The result is a dense and largely abstract discussion that demands careful reading and rereading, and that will be heavy going for readers who find continental philosophy and social theory to be less familiar ground. The book repays attention, however, even for those of a more empirical cast of mind. Brown marshals a wide range of documents, including, for example, Linear B tablets and the Gortyn law code; detailed notes and a generous bibliography make the book a valuable resource for anyone interested in archaic Greek notions of value or exchange.

In six chapters divided into two sections and framed by an Introduction and a Conclusion, Brown argues that the Iliad explores a tension between “the intimacy of symbolic exchange” and “the alienated referentiality of the political sign” (363). The poem’s central concern, he maintains, is precisely “the problem of value” (89), a view he develops in Part One by exploring the ways in which the poem first poses this problem and then seeks a solution. The trajectory he traces is in broad terms a familiar one: like Dean Hammer and Donna Wilson, for example, he sees in the funeral games of Book 23 a form of institutional progress that resolves, to a degree, the social and political tensions of Book 1.2 The theoretical framework against which he plots this trajectory is, however, an original attempt to situate the Iliad’s themes in the context of the development of the early polis.

Following an introduction that sketches crucial components of the theoretical framework and outlines the structure of the book as a whole, Chapter One, “γέρας: The Expression of Political Value in the Iliad,” lays the groundwork for Brown’s investigation of social conflict in the poem by examining the institution of the dasmos, the division of spoils in which the hero receives his geras. Brown’s crucial intervention here is to establish a firm distinction between the dasmos and the institution of reciprocal gift-exchange, a distinction that helps to explain certain aspects of Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon. The distribution of gera is a matter of non-reciprocal exchange insofar as it concerns relations between the warrior and his social group as a whole, rather than between two individuals. The Homeric dasmos is, in Brown’s view, already a departure from a purely “symbolic” mode of exchange, in which value is expressed immanently in ritual practice. The geras “straddles the divide between the ‘symbol and the sign,’” by which Brown means that the Iliad speaks to the emergence of an abstract and referential notion of value that is “independent of social exchange” (66).

The ambiguity and institutional weakness of the dasmos allows the system to be exploited by Agamemnon; this disruption of the system of exchange is, in turn, what prompts Achilles to mount his critique of the heroic economy. Chapter Two, “The Economy of Social Worth in Iliad 1,” provides, in the form of a sequential reading of the poem’s first book, an analysis of how the “crisis of value” arises (102). Brown wavers between outright condemnation of Agamemnon for overturning the social contract and a position more sympathetic to the king (as at pp. 125-26). Nevertheless the chapter concludes by making Agamemnon a proto-tyrant and linking the poem to “emerging crises in the formalization of civic identity and institutions” in historical poleis. Achilles, meanwhile, emerges as the hero of a new form of value-consciousness whose ordeal becomes “the aetiology of politics itself” (143).

If Achilles’ “crisis of authenticity,” as described by Brown in Chapter Two (114), is to arrive at any resolution, it must come in the form of an institutionally robust framework for the adjudication of status and social worth. Chapters Three and Four —“Beyond the dasmos: Succession” and “Funeral Contests and the Beginnings of the Greek polis”—conclude Part One by arguing that the funeral games of Book 23 provide just such a framework. Chapter Three focuses on social practices regulating the distribution of an inheritance among legitimate heirs. The aim is to situate the funeral games for Patroklos in the context of procedures for the determination of status, but the relevance to Iliad 23 of some of the material reviewed here (the Gortyn code, Hesiod’s quarrel with Perses) is not always made clear. In Chapter Four Brown turns his attention more squarely on the games for Patroklos. Especially valuable here is Brown’s discussion of the distinction between prize and gift, which he shows to be essential to the interpretation of the aftermath of the chariot race (203-8). Pointing to the explicit valuation of prizes in terms of oxen (Il. 23.703, 705), Brown argues that aethla represent a form of “proto-monetary estimation” prefiguring the emergence of coined money. He concludes the chapter by positioning the Iliad as an expression of a “historically interstitial” way of thinking that hovers “between symbolic forms of truth and authority and the autonomous public discourses of the polis” (213).

In the two chapters of Part Two, Brown presents his theory of the relation between the Iliad and its broader social and historical context. Chapter 5, “‘Worlds of Performance, Worlds in Performance,’” articulates a vision of how the performance of epic poetry could catalyze social and political change. This is perhaps the most theoretical chapter in the book: many pages are devoted to expositions of the ideas of Greimas, Calame, Bourdieu, Baudrillard, and others. By combining Greimas’ actantial categories, as applied to archaic Greek poetry by Calame, with Bourdieu’s theory of practice, Brown arrives at a notion of poetic performance as a ritual act that transforms the habitus of participants. The participants in turn carry these embodied dispositions beyond the performance event; in this way, performance can have a transformative effect on the broader social and political world. The chapter concludes with a short “endnote” on the “Peisistratid Question” that for the most part endorses established views about the relation between the text of the Iliad and the Panathenaia under the Peisistratids.

Chapter 6, “The ‘Oath of Achilles’: Symbolic Exchange in the Iliad and Beyond,” is a final examination of the transition from symbol to sign. Applying Baudrillard’s concepts of “symbolic exchange” and “fatal strategies” to the situation of Achilles, Brown finds in Achilles’ great oath in Book 1 an act of ‘disenchantment’ that opens a gap “between social identity and self- identity” (307), that is, to quote from the Introduction, between “the social subject formed by communal narratives and symbolic exchanges, and the self, who begins to demand that those exchanges somehow accurately map his own real experience of himself” (52). This gap is partly mended by the sacrifice of Achilles’ double, Patroklos. Drawing a comparison with the conclusion of the Oresteia, Brown sees the poem’s resolution as pointing to a “‘Eumenidean’ outcome” (339) in which an archaic mode of symbolic exchange—the geras afforded to the hero—is preserved within a context that also licenses more political modes of adjudication—including the awarding of aethla. Finally, Brown links Achilles’ experience of a split between the “social subject” and the “self” to the emergence of “historical consciousness” in archaic Greece, arguing that Hekataios’ “invention of the historical fact” derives from a similar moment of ‘disenchantment’ with regard to traditional forms of truth.

The brief Conclusion associates the Iliad with the emergence of the politēs, a process understood as a destabilizing and ambivalent rupture. Thus the poem is no simple celebration of new social and political arrangements. Performed at the Panathenaia in Peisistratid Athens, “the Iliad lay across, and sharpened, fault-lines opened by a nascent political consciousness focused and challenged in equal measure by the arrogations of tyrants. Out of a dialogue with an embryonic citizen identity coalescing at these Panathenaic gatherings, the figure of Achilles helped the autonomous subject make his traumatic historical entry between the intimacy of symbolic exchange and the alienated referentiality of the political sign” (363).

This lengthy summary illustrates the complexity of Brown’s argument and of its presentation. The unavoidable gap between a theory and the objects it seeks to explain inevitably leaves such a project open to a variety of reservations. Unquestionably, however, the book is a rich and thoughtful examination of the relation between the Iliad and its social context. It is also an impressive, if occasionally bewildering, synthesis of theoretical approaches. The presentation suffers somewhat from lackluster editing: the text is occasionally repetitive, and is liberally strewn with typos. Nevertheless, Homerists will find much on which to ruminate in the pages of Brown’s book.


1.   For a survey of various positions, see D. F. Elmer, The Poetics of Consent: Collective Decision Making and the Iliad, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (2013).
2.   Dean Hammer, TheIliadas Politics: The Performance of Political Thought, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press (2002), pp. 134-43; Donna Wilson, Ransom, Revenge, and Heroic Identity in the Iliad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2002), esp. pp. 124-25.

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