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Poetry’s Politics in Archaic Greek Epic and Lyric

From: Oral Tradition
Volume 28, Number 1, March 2013
10.1353/ort.2013.0005

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In memoriam John Miles Foley

The Iliad’s Politics of Consensus

In a recent book (Elmer 2013) examining the representation of collective decision making in the Iliad, I have advanced two related claims: first, that the Iliad projects consensus as the ideal outcome of collective deliberation; and second, that the privileging of consensus can be meaningfully correlated with the nature of the poem as the product of an oral tradition. The Iliad’s politics, I argue, are best understood as a reflection of the dynamics of the tradition out of which the poem as we know it developed. In the course of the present essay, I intend to apply this approach to some of the other texts and traditions that made up the poetic ecology of archaic Greece, in order to illustrate the diversity of this ecology and the contrast between two of its most important “habitats,” or contexts for performance: Panhellenic festivals and the symposium. I will examine representative examples from the lyric and elegiac traditions associated with the poets Alcaeus of Mytilene and Theognis of Megara, respectively, and I will cast a concluding glance over the Odyssey, which sketches an illuminating contrast between festival and symposium. I begin, however, by distilling some of the most important claims from my earlier work in order to establish a framework for my discussion.

Scholars have been interested in the politics of the Homeric poems since antiquity. Ancient critics tended to draw from the poems lessons about proper political conduct, in accordance with a general tendency to view Homer as the great primordial educator of the Greeks. Thus Philodemus, in the first century BCE, wrote a treatise called On the Good King according to Homer, extracting lessons from both poems about the appropriate exercise of power; Dio of Prusa has Alexander of Macedon expounding to his father, Philip, Homer’s preeminent virtue as an instructor of princes (Oration 2). Modern scholars have tended instead to treat the poems as documents for early Greek history—or rather, prehistory. In the wake of Milman Parry’s demonstration of the thoroughly traditional character of Homeric poetry, it has come to seem plausible that the poems, by preserving a tradition that antedates our earliest written texts in alphabetic Greek, may offer a precious glimpse into the prehistory of Greek politics. Historians are thus able to offer the poems as evidence for the political forms and structures of late Bronze Age and early Iron Age Greece. Still the best-known example of this kind of argument is Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus (1978 [1954]), which founds a number of claims about the society of the so-called Dark Age (roughly 1100–800 BCE) on nothing more than the testimony of these two literary texts.

The appeal of such an approach is readily apparent—it holds the promise of providing access to a period for which textual sources are otherwise lacking—but so are the perils. One must always exercise caution when seeking to correlate a literary text with historical realia. This is particularly true when no external documentary evidence is available as a control. In the case of Homeric poetry, an additional problem arises from the very same circumstance that seemed to open up the possibility of a prehistory of Greek politics in the first place, namely, the indebtedness of the Homeric poems to a very lengthy oral tradition, as demonstrated by Milman Parry and Albert Lord. It is in the nature of such a tradition to preserve within its inherited and formulaic diction traces of chronologically diverse periods, so that the “Homeric World” described by Finley is really an amalgam of elements from very different eras. For example, within the world of the Iliad, the boar’s tusk helmet worn by Odysseus in Book 10—a Bronze Age piece of equipment that would not have been seen in Greece after, say, the fifteenth century BCE—can happily coexist with Iron Age weapons and implements that first came into use centuries later. A similar kind of synthesis can be observed with regard to marriage customs, burial practices, and combat techniques. But if this is the case, how confident can we be that the poems reflect...


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