Chapter & Verse: The Iliad's Civic Community

Chapter and Verse is a series where JHU Press authors and editors discuss the literary landscape of poetry and prose, whether their own creative work or the literature of others.

Guest post by David F. Elmer

When I first had the idea for my new book, The Poetics of Consent: Collective Decision Making and the Iliad, the United States was in the midst of the worst phase of the war in Iraq. In hindsight I can see more clearly than ever how the politics of those years shaped my view of the ancient Greeks’ great martial epic.

I took as my subject the ways in which the Iliad depicts politics, which I understand broadly as the project of collectively determining common values, goals, and actions. I became fascinated by the ways in which a poem that focuses so relentlessly on the competition for prestige among powerful individuals (Agamemnon, Achilles) simultaneously projects consensus as the ultimate political ideal. The tension that emerged from my readings resonated, for me, with my misgivings about what I perceived as the unchecked growth of executive power in the American polity. Presidential signing statements and military tribunals prompted me to incorporate Giorgio Agamben’s chilling vision of constitutional crisis (State of Exception) into my interpretation of Agamemnon’s willful disregard for both the established procedures and the express wishes of his people.

My book is an exercise more in literary interpretation than in political theory, so I do not claim to have any prescription for bringing about a renewed commitment to public deliberation and consensus. In fact, my interpretations might seem, at first glance, to be surprisingly apolitical. I claim that the Iliad’s depiction of politics has in fact very little to do with any historical practice of politics—in the strict sense—among early Greeks. (The notion of a historical “Homeric society” has become an increasingly untenable fiction.) Instead, I view the poem’s vision of consensus as a reflection of the dynamics of the poetic tradition that produced our Iliad.

That poetic tradition, however, has an essential political dimension. The Iliad as we know it is the product of a long process of development. Over the course of centuries, traditional stories and heroic poems about the Trojan war circulated as oral compositions. Gradually, in the context of large, regional festivals that drew audiences from across the Greek-speaking world, a standard version of the Troy story arose; that standard version is represented for us by the Iliad and the Odyssey. These poems are in a very real sense the product of consensus, a consensus among the performers and audiences that shaped the poems. And this consensus was political in the broadest sense: it reflected a variety of trade-offs among Greeks from diverse local communities as they negotiated over an articulation of the heroic past that could be meaningful to them all as an expression of collective identity.

Of course, the achievement of this consensus did very little to alleviate the endemic political problems of the Greek world: unstable governments and constant warfare between neighboring states. But I do not think it would be too naïve or idealistic to suggest that the consensus represented in and by the Iliad offers an important—and hopeful—lesson for those who feel dissatisfied with our prevailing political culture. In an age of niche media, when opportunities for truly inclusive conversations are fewer and fewer, it is useful to be reminded of the potential of literature and art as focal points for collective discussion and debate. Great works of literature, such as the Iliad, have the potential to draw citizens of diverse backgrounds and political orientations into constructive conversations about questions that we must confront together, as a civic community.

elmerDavid F. Elmer is an associate professor of the classics at Harvard University and author of The Poetics of Consent: Collective Decision Making and the Iliad, published by the JHU Press.


I think perhaps you're thinking as a scholar and not an artist. Just look at what Tolkien did to the oral tradition. Elves before Tolkien are the mischievous creatures who knock down Frostian walls and make Christmas presents. After Tolkien they become majestic fantasy heroes. Moreover, if there wasn't a "Homer" then why would a committee invent him? That's a rather Orwellian view to take.

By praising the consensus are you arguing against the value of the "Homer" that collected these scraps into a unified whole?

Your query cuts right to the heart of the “Homeric Question,” which is a shorthand way of referring to the question of how the Iliad and the Odyssey came into being. There are many theories about how these two great epics were recorded in writing. I am one of a growing group of scholars who find the most plausible explanation for the transition from oral tradition to written text to be a gradual process of textual fixation, conditioned by the authority of institutions rather than individuals. Two important lessons can be drawn from the comparative evidence of other oral traditions: first, the introduction of writing does not immediately lead to the ossification of oral tradition (oral tradition and written texts can happily coexist); second, individuals very rarely, if ever, have the ability to exercise lasting influence on an oral tradition. Such evidence therefore suggests that a hypothetical “Homer”—whether this “Homer” is thought of as a composer or as a compiler—would be very unlikely to be able to transform the oral tradition according to his (or her) personal vision. For these and other reasons, I and many other scholars prefer to think in terms of the gradual fixation of the poems in the context of institutionalized performance: as institutional constraints on performance grew more rigid (in the context, for example, of the Panathenaic Festival in Athens), the texts of the poems would have acquired a greater degree of fixity. Gregory Nagy has outlined a detailed “evolutionary model” for such a gradual process of fixation (see especially his book Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond). In my book, however, I do not take aim at any particular answer to the Homeric Question. My concern is simply to elucidate what the Iliad itself has to say about the tradition that lies behind our text. In terms of the poem’s own “poetics of consent,” the tradition is ultimately shaped by consensus.