BMCR 2021.02.34

The poetics of failure in ancient Greece

, The poetics of failure in ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 206. ISBN 9781472479112 $124.00.

Whoever opens this book because of the title or the publisher’s blurb is in danger of frustration. Several chapters provide lively and often insightful readings of particular texts that are well worth reading, but this is not an attempt of a systematic study of failure in archaic and classical Greece or of how texts present it. I asked to review the book because Greeks so often seem to revere what William James called the “bitch goddess Success” as much as Zeus, and I expected that there would be much material for thought in a study of failure. While the book did provide material for thought, it was not at all what I had expected. The book has a short introduction that devotes a few paragraphs to the Greek words that can denote failure, but it does not explore how they relate to each other, or to narratives in which they do or do not appear, or to how they resemble modern concepts or differ from them. Although the book cites a variety of secondary literature, it is not really engaged with the bibliography on Greek emotions and popular ethics, or with modern discussions of failure in philosophy or the social sciences. It refers occasionally to Greece as an honor-shame culture but does not look critically as the concept. Chapters address different kinds of failure—death, loss of prestige, moral failure, losing an athletic competition—but the book does not consider how these are related, if they are. Maybe a different reader would find that the chapters read in sequence add up to more than each one individually, but that was not my experience. I would therefore tentatively recommend that those interested in particular chapters certainly read them, but not worry about losing the wider context of the argument.

I was especially frustrated that it does not mention what seem to me some central passages of Greek ethical thought about failure, such as Simonides 542, the Scopas fragment, with its acknowledgment that mortals cannot always succeed, or Pindar’s claim that the noble “turn what is fine outward” (P. 3.83). It also bothered me methodologically that the book’s arguments several times rely on the assumption that material attested later than the text at hand, or not mentioned in it, is relevant to interpretation; sometimes the issue is acknowledged, sometimes not. There are discussions of interesting issues that have nothing obviously to do with the Greek understanding of failure, like the suggestion that Kleomedes suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (155). My disappointment has probably jaundiced my reading, making it hard to appreciate the merits of the book, which are real.

The first chapter is a vigorous presentation of the case against Odysseus for losing his men. It points to the gap between the apologetic position of the narrator and the story itself as Odysseus tells it; I would have appreciated a fuller treatment of the Laestrygonian episode. It seems very peculiar that, if Odysseus moors his own ship outside the harbor out of prudence, he does not warn the crews of the other ships, and it is worth thinking about why he says nothing about his own reasoning. In any case, while others have criticized Odysseus, this is a strong case for the prosecution.

The second chapter deals with the failed katabasis of Theseus and Peirithoos.[1] Although I was not convinced that the themes of bride-abduction and katabasis “really” belong to Theseus and that Peirithoos serves to deflect blame from Theseus, this is a learned and fascinating discussion (published as an article in 2015).  Dova has an earlier book on katabasis, and this is clearly a core interest.[2] The chapter on Euripides’ Heracles, indeed, seems to reflect the author’s interest in katabasis as much as this book’s theme. The chapter “Whose Fault is It?” compares Agamemnon (mostly in the Iliad) and Elpenor; the discussion of Elpenor is especially rewarding.

Chapter 5 treats immortality through fire or water (Thetis fails with Achilles, but he achieves immortality through fame; Melikertes receives cult, but he is a complicated figure).  While much of the discussion here has little to do with failure, it is insightful and absorbing. The book has a broader concern with the limits of mortality, since the following chapter concerns Tithonus in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. Dova suggests that Anchises hopes to become immortal, but that the hymn teaches that the immortality he actually receives through his descendants is preferable. Here as elsewhere I was prompted to wonder about how Greeks understood such failures by gods.

“Heroes and athletes in Homer” deals with both the Funeral Games and with Odysseus on Phaeacia. The treatment of the games stresses the unpredictability of athletics because of divine intervention, but discusses only the chariot race and the footrace. The other competitions are worth considering from this perspective. The examination of the Phaeacian games is good, but throughout the chapter I missed a deeper treatment of failure. It is surely a greater failure that Eumelos comes last because he should win; does the sympathy of Achilles and the crowd in any way mitigate his failure? (Dova stresses the similarity of Achilles and Eumelus as sons of famous mothers; the assumption that the story of Alcestis was already familiar is an example of the assumption mentioned above.). How much difference does it make in the risk of competition that everyone in the Funeral Games gets a prize? There is surely some tension between the risk of losing prestige by doing poorly in competition and the fact that participation is itself a demonstration of elite status.

“Winner Takes All” concerns Odysseus’ fight with Irus and the killing of the suitors. It makes the valid point that, as Odysseus himself says at 18.382–3, the suitors overestimate themselves because their basis of comparison is limited. Chapter 9, on epinician, looks at Pindar’s famous comments on the misery of the defeated. The discussion acknowledges that these comments may be exaggerated, and mentions other places where Pindar himself mentions a defeat (e.g. N.6.61–3). Dova says that the competitor has made a “promise” to win (149). Maybe, in a world without sports statistics, every competitor in crown games really expected or at least hoped to win, but I find it hard to believe. Surely the calculations involved in seeking and risking prestige were more complex.

The final chapter concerns the Ionian revolt and the Capture of Miletus of Phrynichus  It suggests that the failed play was a success in the longer run by inspiring the Athenians to resist Persia.

There is much to be learned and thought about in the volume, as long as the reader does not expect it to be what it is not.


[1] The Hero’s Katabasis – Greek Heroes in and out of Hades. Lanham, MD and Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2012.

[2] This chapter is reprinted with minor edits from Les Études Classiques 83 (2015) 51–68.