Monday, August 5, 2013


David F. Elmer, The Poetics of Consent: Collective Decision Making and the Iliad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 313. ISBN 9781421408262. $55.00.

Reviewed by Werner Tietz, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (

Version at BMCR home site

David F. Elmer has written an excellent book that puts the boundaries of socio-historic interpretation and textual semantics to a serious test. It is of great relevance to both historians and philologists. He makes the case that the Iliad contains certain passages in which the narration is enriched by a more or less obvious hint to the audience for a certain proposal to be collectively approved. The author is well aware that such a technique would emphasize the fact of the decisions concerned as well as the related approvals. So he further investigates the narrative economy behind this textual technique and, ultimately, the power of the collective will per se in the Iliad. The key term for the author's assumptions is epaineîn (and the noun epainos), which, according to Elmer, is always present when collective approval is indicated.

This method will seem at least questionable to those who do not regard the Iliad in its traditional form as the product of a thorough and final editorial process that enables us to perceive terms as epaineîn as having a technical meaning that is more or less the same throughout the whole poem, in other terms, of a single mastermind that took great care when stylizing the whole work with regard to expectations and experiences of his or her intended audience. The use of a single term serving as a red thread might even be regarded as an over- interpretation, since very few of these red threads have been identified so far with respect to other questions, e.g. what the structure of 'Homeric' society was like, a problem noted by Elmer himself in his introduction (pp. 8-13). However, regardless where you stand in this ongoing and perhaps never-ending debate, most of Elmer's results are valid and/or useful, and in some instances even open new and exciting horizons for further questions to the Iliad. This concerns especially the author's many new interpretations of single, often short text passages, a longer discussion of which must be saved for more suitable places than this short review.

In the introduction (pp. 1-18) Elmer lays out his main methodological tools and gives a short overview of recent scholarship on the Iliad. Then there follow three parts, each divided into several chapters. Part I ('Frameworks and Paradigms', chapters 1-4) takes a look a the relevant grammatical, stylistical and formulaic questions that underlie the text passages of importance to Elmer's work. Chapter 1 ('The Grammar of Reception', pp. 21-47) scrutinizes the vocabulary of consent and dissent. Elmer shows that there is a closely knit semantic net throughout the poem wherever these themes are adressed. Chapter 2 ('Consensus and Kosmos: Speech and the Social World in an Indo-European Perspective', pp. 48-62) is concerned with the etymology of epaineîn. In Indo-European tradition, the author finds three contexts of ainos (the noun epaineîn and epainos are derived from): praise, certain 'mechanisms of public deliberation' (p. 62) and a somewhat encrypted discourse within an (actual or self-perceived) elite. All of these contexts are also to be found in the Iliad as places of epainos and epaineîn, and often more than one of them at the same time. With these tools at hand, Chapter 3 ('Achilles and the Crisis of the Exception', pp. 63-85) turns to the beginning of the poem and shows how important collective decision making and consensus is in terms of grammar and formulaic structure, especially so since the crisis of Agamemnon's leadership forces the narrative to address these issues. Quite similarly, Chapter 4 ('Social Order and Poetic Order: Agamemnon, Thersites, and the Catalogue of Ships', pp. 86-104) takes a look at another situation of crisis, the Greeks' rush for the ships and the necessity to solve the underlying problems of authority in book 2. Here the situation ultimately leads to a restoration of order and political norms by solidarity in the Greek army, described in terms of epaineîn.

Part I provides the framework for Part II ('The Iliad's political communities', chapters 5-7), in many respects the centrepiece of the book. Here the author seeks to investigate the 'development' (p. 16) of the epainos motif and other, less significant political themes in the Iliad, distinguishing three groups of actors, the Achaeans, the Trojans and the Gods. Chapter 5 ('In Search of Epainos: Collective Decision Making among the Achaeans", pp. 107-131) shows the Achaeans as struggling for a state of comprehensive solidarity and epainos, until the difficulties between Agamemnon and Achilles are resolved by the death of Patroclus, and even then there remains a certain amount of insecurity. Chapter 6 ('A Consensus of Fools: The Trojans' Exceptional Epainos', pp. 132-145) shows, how, on the contrary, the Trojans reach a collective consensus and attribute epainos in a situation where it is applied to an innovative and ill-conceived course of action that breaks with the political tradition of Trojan society. It is a very interesting question to what degree this is an intentional hint to sociological differences between the Trojan and the Achaean 'peoples' (p. 144). Chapter 7 ('The View from Olympus: Divine Politics and Metapoetics', pp. 146-173), finally, shows the characteristics of epainos among the gods, which is identified as resolving a situation of conflict between tradition and innovation. It also provides a convincing answer to the above-mentioned question put forth in chapter 6 by demonstration of how epainos almost always serves to reinstitute and consolidate the status quo, with the one exception of the Trojans' deliberation and collective decision on the battlefield in book 18.

Part III ('Resolutions', chapters 8-9) turns away from the narrative and towards the present of the audience during the act of performance, also looking for evidence outside the poem itself. Chapter 8 ('The Return to Normalcy and the Iliad's 'Boundless people'', pp. 177-203) discusses the shift of the themes of collective sentiment from the narrative to its audience, namely by interpreting the term apeiron ('boundless', referring to the audience of Helen's lament for Hector close to the end of the Iliad), as encompassing not just a huge crowd in Troy but all of humankind, or at least all of the audience. Finally, Chapter 9 ('The Politics of Reception: Collective Response and Iliadic Audiences within and beyond the Text', pp. 204-224) goes beyond the text of the Iliad. Here, Elmer seeks to show, and very successfully so, that the poem's terminological and formulaic treatment of collective decision making might in fact have to be understood as documentation on the tradition of the work itself. In stretching the final argument of the 'unlimited' audience discussed in chapter 8, Elmer sees therein the Iliad's claim to Panhellenic authority. He finds crucial evidence for this in the performances at the Panhellenic (and other) festivals in later times, where tradition tends to be bent according to epichoric experiences and standards, but the less so the more Panhellenizing a performance is. The epainos motif in the Iliad is an indication how consensual collectives might have been established by performance, where locally or regionally formed expectations met with the poem's universal 'demand for the restoration of norms' (p. 224).

There is no real conclusive chapter, but since Elmer has already given a short overview on the final pages of his introduction (pp. 16-18) and made his results clear in the rather independently constructed chapters it is not missed. In an 'Afterword' (pp. 225-232) the author takes a quick look at epainos in the Odyssey, on the search for 'points of connection' (p. 17) with the Iliad. In the Odyssey, too, epainos is one of the main response formulas, but the whole formulaic cataloque of this poem differs considerably from that of the Iliad. There are quite a few additional formulas, rooted in the themes addressed and in the frequent role of Odysseus as the main, inimitable and first-person narrator.

Elmer's book draws on extensive bibliography, which is presented on pp. 285-301 and framed by the annotations (pp. 233-283) and a very detailed general index (pp. 303-313). There is not much left to be desired in that respect. 1 The interested reader might want to have a look at two volumes that have been published after Elmer's book went to the press: E. Flaig (ed.), Die Mehrheitsentscheidung. Entstehung und kulturelle Dynamik (2013) and M.-J. Werlings/F. Schulz (edd.), Débats antiques (2011), the latter one having come out only recently, despite the official date of publication. Of course, some questions remain, e.g. about the nature of the respective 'collectives' making the decisions and their constitution, how Elmer's results translate into the various theories on the genesis of the Iliad as a whole, and – of course – about other signposts with roles similar to that of epaineîn.

Overall, this is a great and thought-provoking book with a fascinating argument. It is well and carefully produced 2, providing translations of all discussed texts for the non-specialist reader. Scholars and students of archaic epic and history alike will profit greatly from the methodological groundwork it lays out and, even more, from the many stimuli it provides for further study.


1.   The book might have profited from taking into account the extensive work of Karl-Wilhelm Welwei, especially regarding the role of phêmis in 'Ηomeric' epic, e.g. K.-W. Welwei, 'Polisbildung, Hetairos-Gruppen und Hetairien' [1992], in: Id., Polis und Arche. Kleine Schriften zu Gesellschafts- und Herrschaftsstrukturen in der griechischen Welt, ed. by M. Meier, Stuttgart 2000, 22-41.
2.   The only exception seems to be the bibliography, where there are quite a few errors in the citation of non-English titles (e.g. in Flaig 1995, Hommel 1969, Ulf 2011 and Vogt 1959; also somewhat misleading is the citation of Schadewaldt 1987, since the author has died in 1974, and this book is just a reprint of the second edition of 1943.

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