BMCR 2020.03.08

Homer im kulturellen Gedächtnis

, Homer im kulturellen Gedächtnis Eine intentionale Geschichte archaischer Homerrezeption bis zur Perserkriegszeit. Hamburger Studien zu Gesellschaften und Kulturen der Vormoderne, 5. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2019. 247 p.. ISBN 9783515123495. €48,00.

Lars Hübner’s Hamburg dissertation marks the culmination of a rich and varied student career of a sort familiar enough in Europe but seldom seen in the American academy (6-7). His studies took him from Hamburg to Freiburg—where he especially acknowledges the influence of Hans-Joachim Gehrke—and to Konstanz, where he thanks Aleida and Jan Assmann for their contribution to his theoretical grounding. These are only a few of the professors and scholars whose help he acknowledges along with his Hamburg Betreuer Werner Riess, but they give an idea of the remarkable range of his educational background as well as the overall orientation of his work.

Lest the title of the book misdirect the expectations of the reader, it should be noted that Hübner is a historian, working in an area that inescapably falls between history and philology. The “center of gravity” (Schwerpunkt) of the study is explicitly historical or socio-political rather than philological (16).

The thesis of Hübner’s book is extremely broad—so much so, in fact, that one might wish that he had let it incubate for a few years and expanded the argumentation and examples into a full-length study.[1] Perhaps we still have such a book to look forward to, but if what he gives us here seems a little preliminary, it is nevertheless both interesting and promising. He starts from a critique of a model he associates with Gregory Nagy’s Homer the Preclassic (Berkeley, 2010). The notion of a Homer appropriated and disseminated in a grand imperial gesture by the Athenian democracy is “wohl zu eindimensional”(20). What is needed, and what Hübner proposes to supply, is an account of the reception of Homer down to the fifth century BCE that traces the increasing evidence for the emergence of a democratized and democratizing Homer from the firm (but ultimately doomed) grip of the aristocratic symposium, a history, finally, of who did what with Homer (and eventually, to whom) in the archaic period. Methodologically, this will entail Hübner’s privileging the evidence of seventh- and sixth-century lyric poetry over the synthetic and retrospective accounts of fifth-century and later writers of prose, distorted as the latter are by priorities and ideologies that belong to a later time (28 and passim).

A few issues suggest themselves from the start, issues that Hübner can and does explain to the reader. First, what is meant by “Homer” here? Broadly speaking, the book is not about the reception of the Iliad and Odyssey but about the use of the “Homeric”—Homerisches is a key word (28-30)—or, broadly speaking, of the Troy tale and related heroic poetry.[2] This is a credible and efficient solution to a thorny problem, and one that allows Hübner to get down to the nuts and bolts of his exposition. He goes on to select the Haupttexte that will constitute the major touchstones of his account, viz. The Demodocus episode of the Odyssey (eighth century); Callinus, Mimnermus, and Tyrtaios representing the seventh century; Ibycus’ Ode to Polycrates and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, with a nod to Stesichorus, for the sixth; and finally the contrasting pair of Stesichorus’ Plataiai Elegy and Pindar’s (reactionary) Isthmian 8 for the fifth. And the methodology? Here we have something of a dichotomy. On the surface and on the evidence of the core chapters, the methodology at work here is quite traditional: Hübner interrogates each text, paraphrases, interprets, and draws from it what evidence he can for its relevance to his thesis. If the discussion of theoretical concerns is a little out of proportion, that is the nature of dissertations. On the whole, Hübner gives a credible account of the importance of the notion of memory (the Assmanns) for his thinking on his subject, but theoretical concerns appropriately underlie his practice rather than dictate it. Likewise, Gehrke’s notions of intentionale Geschichte and Rezeptwissen (see esp. 57), frequently invoked, have their proper function here as tools, perhaps a little too visible in the finished product, but nevertheless kept in perspective.

And finally, how does the evidence fit the thesis? Hübner is by no means naive in his presentation of his conclusions. Writing social history—including the history of the use of the Homeric in society—from fragmentary poems is a risky business at best. At some points the reader might ask whether a preconceived idea of the social history of the archaic period drives this history of the Homeric, or the reverse. The answer is that Hübner needs only to show that the use of the Homeric in archaic lyric poetry is consistent with social changes visible in other ways, and this he does quite credibly. He is fairly often obliged to call attention to the tenuousness of the evidence for a given claim, whether about the locus of performance of one of his examples or its relevance to the social developments with which he associates it (e.g. 93, 102, 108, 181). The fact, however, that these repeated qualifications emerge as genuine acknowledgements of the difficulties inherent in the argumentation contributes to the impression that his overall model is sound.

The discussions of the Haupttexte vary in length and thoroughness and Hübner’s goals here are, again, not literary. The emphasis is on the verifiable or hypothetical historical context of each poem, and the question of the implied audience and the locus of performance is central to each section. In some instances (e.g. the long discussion of the historians’ accounts of the Pisistratids at 94-124), the analysis is largely a matter of pointing out contradictions and inconsistencies that undermine the coherence and so the credibility of those accounts. Against this is held up the evidence of lyric (124-54) and the far from trivial conclusion is that the later narratives make the demos the bearer of the Homeric in the sixth century, while the surviving evidence of contemporary lyric poetry offers a more complex picture in which the Homeric is far more clearly allied to praise of aristocrats or of tyrants (see e.g. 149).

The sixth and fifth centuries are the most problematic, of course, as well as the most likely to provide substantial results, given the nature of the evidence. Still, the story Hübner tells of the strength and tenacity of the aristocratic appropriation of the Homeric is both vivid and persuasive.

Overall, this book delivers a good deal more than one expects from a dissertation and does so quite memorably. It is food for thought and suggests that we may hope to hear more from its author in the future.

[1] The Hamburg webpage covering Hübner’s doctorate contains (with English translation) an abstract of the dissertation offering a clear, concise, and valuable summary: Dr. Lars Hübner, Universität Hamburg

[2] This notion also gives Hübner’s account of his work’s relationship to Nagy’s a certain credibility, given that Hübner’s work is based on a rather conservative chronology of the poems and a focus on the importance of the eighth century for their emergence, a model that Nagy rejects. It seems initially implausible that the two should enter into a meaningful dialogue. “The Homeric,” however, though difficult to define with any precision, is largely identifiable and its occurrences documentable and so allows Hübner to skirt a potentially distracting issue.