BMCR 2021.04.33

Destin des heros et dessein de Zeus dans l’intrigue de l’Iliade

, Destin des heros et dessein de Zeus dans l'intrigue de l'Iliade, (2 vols.). Villeneuve-d'Ascq: ANRT Thèse à la carte. Lille: Université Charles de Gaulle, 2020. Pp. xvi, 894 (2 vols.). ISBN 9782729591618 €89,00 (pb).

I volunteered to review this book when I saw it on the list because I did not think there would be enthusiastic applicants to review a literary study of this length. I knew of the author mostly from a volume on Hesiod.[1] It turns out to be a 1995 Lille dissertation directed by Jean Bollack, originally made available on microfiche. A Worldcat search for the dissertation offers one library in North America, in Ottawa, two in Germany. It is not in L’Année. So I do not feel embarrassed that I had not seen it before, and, although it is very long, it is not quite as long as the page-count makes it appear, since it reproduces a document with generous spacing. Stylistically, however, it is not a quick read, since there are many sentences containing multiple relative clauses, so that the reader needs to be attentive to keep the antecedents straight. It has been provided with a brief avant-propos, which comments on a few points where the author has further developed or modified his arguments in articles, but the book is otherwise simply a republication of the original thesis, with no revisions or new bibliography, because the author did not see the point in superficial updating. There have, of course, been many publications since 1995 that address passages and themes treated in this book, far too many to list.

The reader will therefore not be surprised that the book has all the annoyances of a dissertation. Minor issues are discussed at length, and, while some of these are enlightening discussions of the particular question (I found the discussion of Poseidon’s reasons to intervene in Book 13 despite his refusal to do so in 8 really enlightening, pp. 342–4), others entertain far-fetched interpretations (e.g. .the discussion of 18.209–10 on pp. 163–5), and overall they distract from the argument. Pages 700-717 are dedicated to refuting an article by Michael Gagarin about the chariot race, and, while I do not find Gagarin’s interpretation convincing, this is overkill.[2] Passages are often discussed without being quoted, so that the reader needs a critical text at hand at all times. On p. 132, there is a passing comparison to a poem about a capture of Baghdad that is not identified by title; it must mean one of the poems called “Song of Baghdad” in Serbo-Croatian Heroic Songs, but these poems are quite different, and the point does not fit either precisely (my thanks to Justin Arft). There are several cases of carelessness of this kind with modern scholarship, where a reference is vague or the item is not found in the bibliography.[3]

Rousseau is an oralist, strongly influenced by Gregory Nagy and his students, though with occasional disagreements about specific points. He believes that all narrative material is traditional and that stories attested later were known to the Iliad-poet. That is, however, the only respect in which he seems truly influenced by oral theory—most of the time he argues like a pre-Parry Unitarian (he does not accept Book 10, however). He engages with Analytic arguments throughout, and occasionally he succumbs to Analytic literal-mindedness. He argues, for example, that because Antenor recalls the mission of Odysseus to Troy and because Helen identifies Odysseus to Priam, the Teichoscopia could not belong in the first year of the war, as if it would have had to be borrowed without adaptation (by this logic, the Catalogue of Ships cannot be borrowed from the song tradition about the gathering at Aulis, because it mentions that Philoctetes is on Lemnos and Protesilaus is dead). He consistently assumes that formulae are contextually meaningful and repetitions significant. Sometimes he points out that a particular formula has a metrical equivalent, but usually he simply does not consider formulaic systems, so that when he comments that he has not been able to identify a difference between the two patronymics of Zeus, he does not mention that they are metrically different and occupy different positions in the verse (p. 550).

The book has a core argument, which I will try to summarize, although it is available in English translation at The Center for Hellenic Studies “The Plot of Zeus”.[4] I suggest, however, that Homerists read the article, but scan and keep the Index Locorum of the book (pp. 853–79), so that they can readily check whether a particular passage is treated.

Rousseau develops the arguments of Kullmann in making the Plan of Zeus a plan to end the heroic age.[5] He proposes, for example, that the agreement of Hera to allow Zeus to destroy her favorite cities, Mycenae, Argos, and Sparta is a trap, because it represents the destructions of the Atreids, both in the near-destruction of the army within the poem, to which she has implicitly consented, and in the unsuccessful Returns that Rousseau argues that it prefigures. The Achaean Wall makes the camp a city closely parallel to Troy, and the destruction of one is parallel to and leads to the destruction of the other. The attempts of the pro-Achaean gods, by protracting the battle, actually cause more Achaean deaths; they have been tricked by Zeus. It is certainly the case that, as the plot develops, the near-massacre of the Achaeans is the necessary cause of the mission of Patroclus and thus of the death of Hector, and that the poem, which avoids references to the Wooden Horse, implies that Troy’s fall is inevitable once Hector dies. Rousseau does not discuss when Zeus conceives this plan. I have recently argued almost the exact opposite, that Zeus brilliantly improvises to make his promise to Thetis serve the larger end of Troy’s destruction.[6] Rousseau repeatedly suggests that almost all the Achaeans perish in the Returns, and that this is the end of the heroic age. It is not clear to me what the Iliad-poet would want his audience to think about the Returns and the end of the age of heroes: he surely hints at the bad end of Locrian Ajax, but the recurrent misfortunes of Teucer surely suggest his fate, which points to the importance of the wandering heroes around the Greek world.

A long final chapter concerns the chariot race. Rousseau sees two very different perspectives from Achilles, who seems to assume that the outcome will depend entirely on the quality of the horses, and Nestor, who claims that the charioteer’s μῆτις at the turn can completely compensate for an inferior team. He argues that the only place where the “natural” outcome can normally be upset is the turn; I think that he wrongly ignores 23.460-61, where Idomeneus considers the possibility of an accident elsewhere, but he is right that both the spectators and the external audience expect the turn to be the place where outcomes change.[7] He argues that the divine intervention that wrecks the chariot of Eumelus and Antilochus’ trick against Menelaus evoke the roles of Apollo and Euphorbus in the death of Patroclus. Similarly, he suggests that the interventions of Apollo and Athena in the race evoke how Apollo disguises himself as Agenor to distract Achilles and to allow the Trojans to take refuge behind the walls and Athena’s help to Achilles in the killing of Hector, although the events of the race do not plot simply onto these antecedents. I am not convinced that the chariot race alludes to these earlier events in quite the way Rousseau argues, but he does convince that it serves as a reflection on divine intervention and human action (I suspect, however, that the action of Antilochus is more ambiguous than is usually thought). By linking it to the earlier divine interventions, this reading helps explain why Apollo gives up so easily—he loses here just as he had to abandon Hector.

There are various interesting interpretations, with variable results. Rousseau interprets Nestor’s speech in 11 as intended entirely to persuade Patroclus not to induce Achilles to enter battle, but to convince him of what appears to be the second-best option, that Patroclus fight himself (p. 380). The argument rests mainly on the absence of any direct exhortation to Achilles to fight, either in 11 or in 16. I remain unconvinced, however, since both the framing of this option and Achilles’ answer to Patroclus take such an exhortation as implicit.

He also suggests (p. 504) that at 5.472–92, where Sarpedon rebukes Hector, Hector has indeed been avoiding fighting in the front as we would expect because he is reluctant to fight when his community has violated its oath. While there is nothing from the narrator or in character-speech to suggest this, yet it seems a plausible inference. In another observation, Rousseau sees a convergence of Paris and Hector (pp. 514–20), marked especially by the famous repeated simile. He notes that in the Epipolesis (4.231–421), Agamemnon praises Ajax and Idomeneus, both valiant defenders rather than offensive fighters, but rebukes the two heroes most associated with the fall of Troy, Diomedes and Odysseus (p. 612). The scheme is not quite so neat, of course, since Agamemnon also addresses Nestor, while Ajax is with the other Ajax, and since other heroes closely associated with the end of Troy, Neoptolemus and Philoctetes, are not present. He further makes the interesting point that the similarity between the speech of Thersites with the complaints of Achilles means that, when the Achaeans laugh at Odysseus’ beating of Thersites at Il. 2.265–77), they become symbolically complicit in the insult to Achilles (p. 636).

The Plan of Zeus is not easy to understand. Rousseau’s interpretation requires a Machiavellian Zeus and a sometimes disingenuous poet. I do not believe in this Zeus or this narrator, but others may be persuaded. Even those who do not accept the main thesis may see many passages in new ways. While the book would certainly have profited not only from updating, but from rigorous editing and cutting, it has good indices, so that it will not be difficult for users to find the sections of most value to themselves.


[1] F. Blaise, P. Judet de La Combe, P, Rousseau, and G. Arrighetti, Le métier du mythe : lectures d’Hésiode. Cahiers de philologie ; vol. 16. Villeneuve d’Ascq 1996.

[2] M. Gagarin, “Antilochus’ Strategy: The Chariot Race in Iliad 23,” CP 78 (1983), 35–39.

[3] Rousseau occasionally seems condescending towards Anglophones, especially the British, when dismissing suggestions about ad hoc invention. Note 103 on p. 326, where he takes critics’ evaluations of Agamemnon as evidence that they are neoliberals or supporters of Thatcher, seems offensive. Carroll Moulton is not female.

[4] Originally “L’intrigue de Zeus,” Europe 79 (no. 865, May 2001), 120-158.

[5] W. Kullmann, , “Ein vorhomerisches Motiv im Iliasproömium.”. Philologus 99 (1954), 167;” Zur ΔΙΟΣ BOΥAH des Iliasproömiums,” Philologus 100 (1956), 132–133.

[6] “Homeric fate, Homeric poetics” in The Winnowing Oar, ed. C. Tsagalis and A. Markantonatos,, Berlin 2017, 75–93.

[7] One of the few significant bibliographic omissions from before 1995 is J. Morrison, Homeric Misdirection, Ann Abor 1992.