BMCR 2010.05.25

Epic Facework: Self-presentation and Social Interaction in Homer

, Epic Facework: Self-presentation and Social Interaction in Homer. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2008. xii, 177. ISBN 9781905125227. $80.00.

This book aims to understand how Homeric characters interact with each other during the story, focusing especially on their social behaviour, which is always related to the economy of honour or face. Not only how his opponent thinks about the hero, but also, more importantly, how the others think about him, is a significant concern. Characters tend to control how others evaluate themselves, which is why Homeric heroes carefully manipulate their words. This is what Scodel attempts to comprehend.

This book has seven chapters, including a conclusion.

In chapter one (The economy of honour), based on the idea that Homeric society is profoundly concerned with timê (‘honour’) and that heroes need to manifest timê visibly, Scodel explains the forms of timê, its zero-sum system, kleos (‘fame’), kudos (‘glory’ or ‘charismatic splendor’), face (apparently there are two sides of face: negative and positive ones), and discusses how they are related to each other. She also argues that aidos is associated with timê, as it internalises timê and links manifest timê with more social pressures. Generally, Homeric characters, who consider how others think about them, feel aidos. Paris, however, because of his lack of the sense of aidos, seems to be insensitive to public criticism.

Calculations of timê are difficult because they depend on how events are estimated, including complex factors such as people’s judgement of others. For example, in assembly, a speaker needs to consider the interests of the group to win timê. According to Scodel, zero-sum timê is basic to the plot of the Iliad and that timê is subjective. Kleos is not divisible, and nobody can share the hero’s kleos except for those in a close relationship, such as father and son. Unlike kleos, kudos is not zero-sum, but it is an “all-or-nothing-property — opponents cannot have it simultaneously, for whoever has it wins” (p. 26), not precisely divisible, but the entire group can share it. Since timê‘s form depends on power and others’ evaluation of other people, timê can be unfairly assigned. However, nobody can control kleos, which could trump short-term timê, if conflicts happen.

Gift and gift-giving between Homeric heroes is examined in chapter two (Gifts), as they too affect face. Usually, a generous gift improves the face of the giver, but the recipient loses if others think that the gifts are inappropriate. Giving examples of accepting prizes in the Funeral Games in book 23 of the Iliad (particularly the fight between Menelaus and Antilochus) and the meeting between Odysseus and the Phaeacians in book 8 of the Odyssey, Scodel shows that whether those gifts are socially suitable to the recipients is closely connected with the recipient’s timê. Selecting gifts reflects the giver’s judgement of the recipient’s or guest’s status, as well as of the relationship between giver and recipient, and also requires calculation or evaluation of how much the giver can win his superiority. Gift-giving, a prestige activity, is not typically competitive in Homeric practice (one exceptional situation is marriage, and competitive gift-giving is possible, but only at the margin). The reason is that timê is not regarded as zero-sum: gift-giving can increase prestige for everyone involved and also diffuse any loss. It might be expected that the giver would establish his superiority if he gives more than appropriate, but at the same time, it is hard to interpret a gift as too large or too small. Besides, the giver’s evaluation is represented in the gifts, and the other fundamental point is that others may judge them differently. That is what Homeric characters are concerned about, continually. During the negotiation in book 23 of the Iliad, Menelaus is very careful about how the Achaeans judge him, insisting that he does not need the prize to keep his status and giving the horse to Antilochus. Because he acts in order to impress the Achaeans, Menelaus cunningly manages not to lose face. One of the significant gift-giving circumstances is Agamemnon’s gift to Achilles, which Scodel examnines thoroughly in chapter six.

Chapter three (Managing face) is divided into two sections: ‘Anger’ and ‘Sacrificing face, on and off record.’ In the first section, Scodel addresses how anger functions for the Homeric hero. Anger is a common stimulus for heroic action, and an expected and correct response to an offense or insult. If the character does not respond angrily to insult, it implies that he is not only weak but also devalues his own timê. But under certain circumstances, characters do not need to respond angrily, if the rebuke is justified ( Il. 5. 473-92). As for the terms for anger in epic language, the basic noun is χόλος, with its denominative verb χολόω. μῆνις (its verb μηνίω) has been thought as a word applying only to divine beings, but Scodel claims that the term should rather be understood as an anger that is a powerful force. There are other terms for anger such as χαλεπαίνω, κότος, νέμεσις, and the poet also marks the emotion clearly without using any term for anger, e.g., μένος. Furthermore, there are other signs of anger, which can be subtle (e.g., σχέτλιος in Il. 9. 622-42). Taking as an example Paris’ response to Hector in book 3 of the Iliad, a failure to respond angrily to offenses is an indication of the lack of αἰδώς. According to Scodel, Paris basically does not care about his reputation and becomes angry only because he must give Helen up. By contrast, Achilles’ anger on account of Agamemnon’s insult seems to be perfectly reasonable, as an angry response against insult is generally expected in Homer. However, it is also wrong to be provoked too easily and to provoke others unnecessarily. Then ‘friendly-mindedness,’ φιλοφροσύνη, serves to moderate one’s response, since friends are deeply involved with preserving each other’s face. Consequently, it is an intricate task to judge whether the anger is appropriate, when one should be angry, how much the offense should arise anger, and so on. Furthermore, it also depends on how sensitive the character is. How can we know the hero is too angry? This kind of argument on emotion is inescapably complex because it certainly causes different opinions, as Scodel admits. Following the first section, Scodel argues how Homeric characters aim to preserve or improve face; although an angry response is rightly expected after receiving a rebuke, heroes sometimes sacrifice their face at the moment, in order to achieve the longer-term honour later, since it is the long-term which does matter most for them. Agamemnon deliberately provokes Odysseus in book 4 of the Iliad and even smiles when he recognises that Odysseus is angry ( Il. 4. 336-7). Rebuking Odysseus first, but later taking it back, Agamemnon is satisfied with the outcome because he obtains what he intends and the story goes on successfully. The sacrifice of his face at the moment seems to be worthwhile. Also, Diomedes first accepts Agamemnon’s neikos in book 4 of the Iliad, even though Diomedes resents the insult. But afterwards, Diomedes angrily responds to Agamemnon’s rebuke in book 9, because Agamemnon seems to be abandoning the goal that the Achaeans have been aiming for, i.e., taking Troy, which would be more than compensation for Diomedes’ earlier loss of face. If Agamemnon really gives up the interest of taking Troy, then Diomedes’ initial sacrifice of his pride would be completely wasted. The similar situation is seen in Agamemnon’s ‘Test’ in book 2 of the Iliad, though this tactic is not successful in the end. Moreover, taking Menelaus’ situation in book 7 of the Iliad, Scodel discusses that it is possible to sacrifice and to try to retain face at the same time. Menelaus deliberately permits the recognition of his inferiority in public, by offering to duel with Hector ( Il. 7. 92-102), a manoeuvre that stems from his long-term goal of restoring his timê, which, in his case, depends less on his successful action during the battle than on the final outcome.

Scodel applies her insights into Homeric gift-giving society specifically to Achilles’ anger in chapter four (Ransom and revenge). Focusing on the difference between two terms ( ἀποινα and ποινή), she analyses how Homeric characters handle their words in those contexts and tries to inspect how their states of mind consistently interrelate to a social recognition of face, or timê. By proposing ransom, ἀποινα, the character expects to recover friendship, even though it leaves the parties on unequal terms. However, the two sides are equal after compensation or revenge, ποινή, which the hero usually seeks because he cannot possibly recover what he has lost. After considering a number of scenarios, including ‘boundless’ ransom and battlefield supplication, Scodel offers a persuasive point: ransom and revenge are never exacted between friends, but rather between enemies. A damaged friendship is never repaired even when compensation is accepted. The hero’s or party’s anger still remains. Thus, other words should be adopted if the compensation seeks to restore friendly relations that were damaged by insults or other offense, namely ‘gift,’ ἀποδίδωμι, and ἀρέσκω. The theory remarkably applies to Achilles’ anger – he also does not employ the word ποινή in the Embassy scene in book 9 of the Iliad, which implies that Achilles in fact wishes to return to the Greek army later, recovering the friendship, although he wants Agamemnon to suffer and wants to take compensation. But if he uses the word ποινή, friendly relations will not be re-established again, which is not his intention. This is Achilles’ extremely distinctive situation with his anger.

Chapter five (Apologies): Interestingly, there are no apologies in Homeric epics in our modern sense, but rather Homeric apologies are like inadequate apologies in our modern life. In effect, Homeric characters do not expect an apology. They express regret, but do not say that they are sorry. Quoting examples of Euryalus in book 8 of the Odyssey, Antilochus in book 23 of the Iliad, and Hephaestus in book 8 of the Odyssey, Scodel searches for Homeric remedial exchange. According to Scodel, Homeric characters can defuse others’ anger, even if they do not express regret or sorrow, or without admitting their wrongdoing. This is a useful strategy for shifting blame. They imply that they offend or insult, but at the same time they cleverly shift their responsibility to someone else, gods, for instance, by paying compensation. Considering Xanthus in book 21 of the Iliad, Euryalus in book 22 of the Odyssey, Helen in book 3 of the Iliad, and so on, the blame-shifting is taken in the situation when only face is at stake. The blame-shifting to the gods, in particular, which seems beneficial to control social conflict, can operate only if all participants agree. The most important example is Agamemnon’s apology to Achilles in the Iliad. Agamemnon, concerned about his face, admits his previous action was atê, but asks to realise his correct behaviour at present. Achilles agrees with Agamemnon only because he desires revenge for Patroclus. The point(s) where they agree is not quite the same, but consensus is produced. Even without full agreement, they make a move forward. Therefore, in Homeric world, it is not an issue who is really aitios, to blame; but only the outcome is of interest.

Following the previous chapters, chapters six (Quarrel and embassy) investigates the quarrel in book 1 and the embassy in book 9 in the Iliad, mostly examining how Agamemnon and Achilles interact. Insisting on another prize as a substitute for Chryseis, Agamemnon’s behaviour is constantly related to his face-saving during the quarrel. The best strategy for it would be to make the return of Chriseis into an opportunity for displaying his wealth and generosity. In contrast, as Scodel proposes as a plausible comment on Achilles’ character, he basically takes the most direct path to his goal, without considering how it could reach the social goal. Achilles withdraws from the battlefield in book 1 but remains outside Troy until Agamemnon is forced to yield. In book 9 where the reconciliation with Achilles is attempted, Agamemnon, accepting Nestor’s proposal, offers gifts to Achilles, which “is central to our understanding of the Iliad (p. 141),” as Scodel states. The first speaker in the Embassy scene, Odysseus, appeals to Achilles to return to the battlefield and mentions Agamemnon as little as possible. However, Odysseus’ speech, which does not even address Agamemnon’s admission of atê, rather backfires on them. According to Scodel, Achilles might regard Odysseus’ rather delicate ignoring of Agamemnon as an indication that they are manipulating Achilles on purpose, and so Achilles rejects Odysseus’ request, responding angrily. But later Achilles changes his mind, announcing that he will fight when fire reaches his own ship, even though he had previously declared that he would sail back to Phthia. The process of his changing intimates that what Achilles wants is the outcome that maximises his face while damaging Agamemnon’s as much as possible. Achilles does not care that the offered gifts lack a sense of apology, but wants Agamemnon to suffer. It is deliberate that Achilles, without taking the gifts, exchanges the visible timê that “he can obtain only by allowing Agamemnon to save face for an invisible one he can win by not taking the gifts (p. 150).” Scodel claims in the end that the narrative of the Iliad directs us to sympathize with Achilles, albeit to an ambiguous extent, and the richness of the situation might be neglected if we do not realise how difficult Homeric judgements are.

In the concluding chapter, Scodel brings her points together on this issue of face, citing some cases of social interactions. As she clearly and eloquently concludes, “The heroes, like real people in any real culture, evaluate themselves and others, anticipate and infer the judgements of others, seek to make their own evaluations prevail, moderate and compromise in endless adjustments (p. 157).” On occasion, Scodel’s arguments are slightly too figurative. Once the argument depends upon a sense of emotion, it does provoke different subjective opinions, caused by people’s evaluation of others, which can weaken a straight logical track of argument. However, Scodel’s coherent analysis reveals the importance of ‘facework’ in Homeric characters’ self-presentation, and self-control, and social interactions that operate throughout the story. Not only linguistically but also historically, socially, economically, psychologically, scholars can learn much about this effectively sophisticated social system from Scodel’s well-argued and comprehensive book.