Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Carl Joachim Classen, Vorbilder - Werte - Normen in den homerischen Epen. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 260. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. Pp. x, 287. ISBN 9783110202595. $137.00.
Reviewed by Wolfgang Polleichtner, Ruhr-Universität Bochum (

This succinctly argued and highly readable book by Carl Joachim Classen is a wonderful treasure chest for everybody interested in the question what kind of values, rules, and ideals existed in Homeric society. Classen builds his study on the basis of a very focused textual analysis of the Iliad and Odyssey. The author thereby presents us with a rich warehouse of observations that can and undoubtedly will serve as starting point for many studies to come. Some of Classen's findings may, of course, not be new.1 The synopsis that he delivers, however, is worthwhile reading.

Although the table of contents simply lists individual chapters, the argument of the book is divided into four parts. After a preface and an introduction, the first part consists of seven chapters which are devoted to a description of the Homeric design of important characters: Achilles, Agamemnon, the two Ajaxes, Diomedes, Hector, Nestor, and Odysseus. The second part deals with a general analysis of the portrayal of certain features of epic characters in Homer. This part is divided into six chapters: (1) zest for action, fortitude, and courage, (2) intellectual capabilities and mental activity, (3) prudence and moderation, (4) fairness, justice, and sense of justice, (5) respect for gods and human beings, (6) veracity, friendship, pity, and care. The next chapter then deals with the norms and standards for good (or bad) behavior in society. A supplement on the role of glory and recognition for the Homeric heroes rounds out the discussion which is then summarized in the final chapter of the book. An index of passages cited from the Iliad and the Odyssey and a list of Greek words that are discussed conclude the book.

A preface normally needs no discussion, but Classen's preface (VII) informs us about a very important aspect of his book. In the face of the enormous amount of scholarship on Homer and Homer's poetry, he decided to work from the primary text only. This decision means that neither a bibliography nor a discussion of other scholars' work on the passages in question can be found in the book. Only rarely does Classen cite secondary literature. He reports that these few, scattered, and rather random references are the fruit of a first phase of his work on this book. And he admits that some unevenness in the presentation of the book is attributable to continued interruptions of his work that were due to other obligations. As a result, however, Classen claims to have written a book that extensively focuses on and quotes from the primary text. And indeed, his study does exactly what he promises.

This fact entails, of course, a few implications. First, as a result of this approach, Classen provides us with an enormous amount of material that he has superbly and lucidly organized around the topics mentioned above. Whether we can recognize with certainty today what is good or bad behavior in Homeric society is, of course, subject to the question whether Homer or characters that speak in Homer's poems directly or indirectly indicate their approval or disapproval of certain actions or opinions. Classen expressly wants to present us with an overview over this explicit Homeric set of values that has influenced the real life of people in all kinds of societies as well as the literature of all centuries since then. And without a doubt, Classen succeeds.

Needless to say, one would have liked to read an account of how Classen thinks his results fit into or alter the greater picture of Homeric studies and disciplines for which the Homeric poems are vital, such as, for example, philosophy, archaeology, anthropology, or reception studies. The conclusions that we have to draw from his findings undoubtedly will have great effects. To even start arguing about them would have meant that the publisher would have had to print many more pages. Classen's self-restriction, however, in fact is welcome because it grants the reader the chance to reassure herself or himself with his aid of what really is in the text. It remains, however, a task for future books and articles to put the wealth of Classen's material to further use.

Second, from his introduction (2f.) it becomes clear that Classen is very well aware of implications arising from the Homeric Question and from the oral nature of the tradition of Homer's texts. Rather than asking the question--which may even be a futile one because of its complex nature-- whether we can detect any kind of development of the conventions of Greek society in the various layers of the Homeric text, he wants to analyze what archaic Greece could read in Homer. Consequently, however, he gives no answer to the question who that reader was,2 nor does he consider whether our assumptions and preconceptions about morally good behavior in particular are the same as those of the archaic Greeks were.

An answer to this last question, of course, is difficult. There seems to be no evidence for dealing with it outside of Homer that we could rely on with regard to the centuries in which Homer's poems came into being. One also has to consider that opinions on morally good behavior that were popular in archaic Greek society did not necessarily concur with "Homer's" views although they certainly were shaped by them. The results of Classen's study therefore need to be checked against the background of the texts of Archilochus and others if we want to answer that question at least in part. Maybe standards were a little lower on certain aspects and higher on others. And what do generalizations about moral views say about the views held by individuals anyway? Perhaps some people thought certain behavioral patterns in certain situations to be recommendable or despicable even if there is no explicit judgment about this question in the pertinent Homeric scenes. In other words, how far exactly did Homeric poetry influence archaic society and vice versa? Classen's book brings us a great step closer to at least a partial answer to this question.

For example, take the passage that starts at Iliad 19.154 and its discussion about whether Achilles is right and Patroclus' death needs to be avenged first or whether Odysseus is right and the Greeks need sustenance first. Is a clear-cut answer even possible? Classen limits his discussion to shorter passages in which Homer's judgment can be detected more easily and with more certainty. For example, he argues that Odysseus's claims have other qualities than Achilles' in Il. 19.216-219 (10) and other select verses (see Classen's index, p. 244) of this debate in Iliad 19. It is really interesting that, within the framework of the larger question and in order to score a point against Achilles, Odysseus in Il. 19.216-219 has to resort to pointing out to Achilles that strength and valor in battle need to yield to wisdom. In order to convince Achilles, Odysseus even implicitly admits that listening to an 'elder statesman' may be a little burdensome for Achilles. In addition, however, Achilles in fact needs to stage a tactical retreat that both saves face and does not offend Odysseus. Thus, a question of right behavior in a meeting of the leaders of the Greek army is conditioned by politics, diplomacy, and the far-reaching consequences of yet another question, namely how to avenge Patroclus' death. What would have been the judgment on this conglomerate of questions in archaic Greece? Ultimately, however, an inquiry into Achilles' motifs for his proposal to start the next attack on Troy quickly will disclose that the search for glory and the question whether Achilles' attack on Agamemnon implicit in his proposal can be allowed to be successful is indeed at the core of the considerations of the Homeric heroes involved in that scene. This, then, ties in nicely with Classen's chapter on glory and, hopefully, exemplifies where in my opinion further research can build on Classen's study.

In making the smaller bits and pieces of Homeric scenes the focal point of his study, Classen avoids to get sidetracked and arrives at a very helpful collection of case studies that, looked at as a whole, informs us about various basic aspects of "correct" behavior in the Iliad and Odyssey.

In this context, Classen identifies five important factors of the value system of Homer's texts (11). In Homeric society, everybody strives for a kind of excellence that is superior to one or more, possibly even all other human beings. This effort is not restricted to just one discipline or area of human life, but affects every aspect of it. One's own advantage, benefit, and gain play a major role in this regard. The Homeric hero wants to live up to the expectations that society confronts him with. The group to which a hero belongs and in fact the entire society judges its members and non-members according to this value system that is at the same time shared and established time and again by the actions as well as reactions and their respective approval or disapproval by everybody involved. These judgments, however, do not content themselves with measuring the success of a hero on a human scale. The goal is to comply with divine standards.

Classen shows us the existence of these five factors in a threefold approach. The first group of chapters collects data from scenes in which the author shows us a deed or action of an individual character and tells us one way or the other what we have to think about it. The second group of chapters collects data from scenes in which certain virtues and values are displayed. Third, Classen looks at certain Greek terms and phrases and examines what expressions like "something ought to be done", what is "appropriate" behavior, and the like convey to the addressee according to Homer. Classen's arguments are always very concise and deliberate, his examples well-chosen, and the material consulted as complete as can be expected from a study like this.

The database thus collected is a wonderful tool, e.g., for interpreting what it means that Odysseus is threatened with death in Od. 22.27-30 even if his true identity is not yet revealed to the suitors (145). We also need to use Classen's data to examine the larger designs of Homeric scenes also in respect to moral questions when, in addition to the question whether certain isolated deeds are good or bad, several other factors like different social statuses (cf., e.g., 97f.) and other aspects come into play as well. Classen's results will also force us to think anew about type scenes in Homeric poetry and their consequences for the interpretation of the entire poems as they are extant today.

One thing, however, remains clear, as Classen points out: Homer's poems were composed for purposes of entertainment first. To teach manners is not their first priority (239). But maybe exactly because of this fact, they proved to be very influential in this regard and, as I would add to what Classen says on page 241, still are and in all likelihood will continue to be widely read and carefully examined. One of the reasons, I think, for the continued presence of Homer's characters is exactly the zeal with which these heroes fight for their place and good reputation in history. The struggle that underlies these stories is, for example, ably and aptly expressed by Herman Hupfeld: "It's still the same old story / A fight for love and glory / A case of do or die." The parameters may have shifted a little bit over the millennia, but the question who is right and who is wrong while playing this game still attracts large audiences because we can easily relate to these heroes and their quest, not least because they are not infallible: what happens to them has always captured audiences' attention and still does so today.

I noticed a few typographical errors (for example: VII: "Persaonen", 242: second to last line: the preposition "auf" is missing, etc.), but none of them is really detrimental for the understanding of the text or detracts from the great value of this book.3


1. In general, of course, the question what we can learn from Homer's characters and why we are still interested in them is a very old one. See, e.g., H. K. T. Yan: "Morality and Virtue in Poetry and Philosophy: A Reading of Homer's Iliad XXIV," in: Humanitas 16.1 (2003) 15-35.

2. On this topic cf., e.g., B. Graziosi, J. Haubold. Homer. The Resonance of Epic. London 2005.

3. I am very much indebted to the Fondation Hardt for giving me the opportunity to finish this review in their wonderful library.

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