BMCR 2023.04.05

The origins of the law in Homer

, The origins of the law in Homer. Law and literature, 21. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2022. Pp. viii, 142. ISBN 9783110765939



This book proposes to study the Iliad and the Odyssey as the first two literary works to deal with the gradual transition from a society without formal law to an institutionalized legal system as practiced in the classical polis. Published in a collection entitled Law & Literature, it is written neither by nor for Classicists. It nevertheless offers some original analyses that can feed certain current debates.

A short first chapter introduces the fundamentals of the theoretical apparatus mobilized throughout the following developments. For a society to enter the era of the law, it necessitates, according to the author, the intervention of a violent force which establishes a new regime but also “Generative Legal Narratives” to give legitimacy to the power grab. These narratives allow the passage from anomia (lawless existence) to the rule of law, by tracing the contours of the latter. Thus, they allow the law to maintain its legitimacy and authority against opposition and to present its organization and general ideas. These “generative legal narratives” are studied here according to an approach that the author calls “law alongside literature” (p. 14-15). The approach considers the interactions between the two fields: postulating the imperfect nature of law, it considers imagination and empathy, which literature would develop, as useful tools to correct the imperfection. From this perspective, literary narratives on legal issues allow us to capture milestones in the history of law and its improvement.

Chapter 2 reproduces an article published by the author in 2020[1]. It compares the judicial treatment of the violent consequences of the return of Odysseus (in the Odyssey) and Agamemnon (in the Oresteia). While both works deal with a similar subject, the revenge in the Mycenaean period, they do not opt for the same solutions. Odysseus benefits from a form of immunity, guaranteed by the oblivion that Athena casts on the relatives of Penelope’s slain suitors, but Orestes must face a trial according to a procedure instituted by Athena. According to the author, this difference in treatment is explained by the historical context of the production of the two works. Homer, writing around 750 B.C., depicts a class society, dominated by an elite that identifies itself with demigods and whose will is law, without any notion of justice independent from their own power. Aeschylus, on the other hand, asserts the “Enlightenment of the fifth century” and uses myth to lead the Athenian people to reflect on their democratic institutions. The comparison of the denouement of the Odyssey and that of the Oresteia leads to see successive stages in the development of the rule of law. In both cases, however, the hero gets away without being condemned, which allows an expression, through literature, of aspirations for a progress of the law.

The third chapter compares the angers of Achilles and Odysseus in the Iliad and the Odyssey. According to the author, Achilles’ angers, successively directed against Agamemnon, against Hector and then against his corpse, are not justified: Hector, for instance, is only defending his city. Although unjust, Achilles’ anger is not controlled by law and threatens the whole society. The story thus highlights the need for a legal limitation to individual aspirations for revenge. Odysseus does not act any differently when he refuses a generous offer of peace after the murder of the first suitor or when he stands ready to take on the relatives of the slain suitors. For the author, these epic heroes are driven by revenge and violence because they lack an appropriate legal tool, namely a legal language. The Homeric poems are thus works that verbalize the human vulnerability facing the unlimited power of a few. They are the first step in a slow march towards the establishment of law and criminal justice. The next step is the one embodied by the Oresteia, where gods and mortals renounce the free expression of their anger and accept its “juridification”.

The last chapter moves away from the question of the emergence of law to investigate the agency of the female characters in the Odyssey. The episodes featuring Penelope, Calypso, Circe, Nausicaa and Arete, then the maids of Ithaca and finally Athena are here analyzed in the light of a paradigm proposed by the author and designated under the name of “Metis syndrome”. By this expression, the author refers to the Hesiodic account in which Zeus swallows the shrewd Metis to put an end to the threat that the too intelligent Titanide was posing to his power. The “Metis syndrome” designates the perpetual suspicion of cunning and deceit towards women, which leads to the obstruction of their action, and eventually to murder. This syndrome makes one feel the danger that hangs over women who claim to be more competent. On the male side, it creates a primal fear of women’s power, a feeling of threatened male superiority, and finally the silencing of women. It helps explain why Penelope governs Ithaca for twenty years, but skirts around the suitors, why Odysseus suspects Calypso of duplicity when she offers to help him return to Ithaca, or why the gods neutralize Circe’s powers in the face of Odysseus’ threat. The “Metis syndrome” appears to be typical of the pre-legal system of the epic. In the world of tragedy, women would not need to hide their power since they would be totally deprived of it by Athenian law.

The book ends with a brief conclusion (“Coda”, p. 130-131), which insists on the shuddering of a reflection on the usefulness of the rule of law in the epics. The artistic works studied here underline any imperfections of law while insisting on the perpetual hope of improvement of law sustained by a flow, continuous since Homer, of “law alongside literature”. A short index closes the book.

The book does not seem to be intended to specialists in Greek antiquity and, let us say it frankly, the author’s approach is more like an essay or literary criticism than a scholarly study. It is an empirical approach based on a small selection of works: the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Oresteia, studied in translation and without any reference to the original text. The theories developed are readily evolutionary and utilitarian, sometimes anachronistic and ethnocentric. This assumed bias (p. 3; p. 51) would undoubtedly confuse Hellenists, jurists, and historians of antiquity.

The epics and the Oresteia are considered here as literary works, which leads the author to sweep the Homeric questions under the carpet and to never mention the conditions of production and representation of Aeschylus’ trilogy. What is even more problematic for Hellenists, the author does not, as mentioned above, use the original text of the works studied, either in the quotations or in the references. Thus, the Iliad and the Odyssey are systematically quoted in an English translation whose verse numbering does not correspond to the original text (e.g. p. 27, the ref. to Od., V, 125 actually refers to V, 112; p. 30, II, 261-263 to II, 143-145; p. 31, XXIV, 501-510 to XXIV, 454 sq. etc.) while the references to Aristotle’s Poetics adopt the pagination of a translation without the conventional references to Bekker’s numbering (e.g. n. 71; n. 105; n. 283).

A second difficulty for the Hellenist proves to be the bibliographical choices. The bibliography is very succinct: seven pages that mix translations of ancient texts and critical works. It is limited to works in English (or translated into English) and in Hebrew. The references have been chosen in a way that seems rather personal and does not comply with scholarly standards. Many old references (Moses Finley, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Pierre Vidal Naquet) or very old ones (Simone Weil, Rachel Bespaloff, Erich Auerbach) are not accompanied by the necessary updating, other than borrowing from female authors of novels (Margaret Atwood, Madeline Miller) mobilized for their interpretations of the psychology of the female characters in the Odyssey. Among the great specialists of Homeric questions, one notes such surprising absences as those of Milman Parry and Albert Lord. This bibliographical orientation also leads to some major gaps among more recent scholarship. The author simply ignores works as expected as Gregory Nagy’s Best of the Achaeans, Florence Dupont’s Insignifiance tragique or Christian Meier’s Entstehung des Politischen bei den Griechen, to give just a few examples. The history of Greek law is not better considered: the book explores the rise of the rule of law without mentioning the work of Edward Harris, for instance. These bibliographical weaknesses lead to many approximations and historical misunderstandings in the developments (e.g. p. 9: contrary to what the author implies, Karl Hölkeskamp criticizes the importance of written laws in the life of cities; p. 57: the institution of the polis does not involve the decline of public meals or collective sacrifices, still fundamental in the classical and Hellenistic periods; p. 77: the distance between the language of Homer and that of Aeschylus is clearly overestimated).

There are just a few typographical errors of minor importance (e.g. p. 1, Ptolomais for Ptolemais) as well as some repetitions (e.g. Aristotle, Poetics, XVII, 4, 1455b, quoted on p. 32-33 and p. 48). Numerous summaries of well-known mythical episodes will lengthen the text in the eyes of specialists but are probably necessary for the readership targeted here (e.g. p. 54-55, the quarrel of Agamemnon and Achilles about Briseis in Il., I; p. 77-78, the reasons for the Trojan war, from the observation of the overpopulation of the earth by Zeus (Cypria, fr. 1 West) to the kidnapping of Helen).

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, one will retain some thought-provoking developments, such as the analysis of Priam’s long reception in Achilles’ tent (p. 61 sq.) where the author prefers to insist on Achilles’ cruelty in making a father wait for his son’s body rather than on the touching empathy between the two mourning adversaries. Others are not entirely convincing but are thought-provoking, such as the useful “Metis syndrome.” The “syndrome” allows us to shed light on certain behaviours, both female and male, in antiquity and beyond.

For in the end, it is not so much Antiquity as the contemporary world that this book seems to consider as its object of study. Perhaps the author should have insisted more on this to avoid a latent ambiguity: it is not so much ancient societies that interest her here as the discourses on law that we preserve in our literary canons and what these texts, which the book considers as “works of art”, say about our own conceptions of law.



[1] S. Almog, “From the Odyssey Onwards: Law’s Long and Winding Road”, Law and Literature, 32‑1, 2020, p. 47‑74.