Homeric Responses

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Chapter 4. Homeric Responses [1]

The Shield of Achilles: Ends of the Iliad and Beginnings of the Polis

Let us take a close look at this detail on the Shield of Achilles, picturing a litigation that is taking place in the City at Peace:

490 ἐν δὲ δύω ποίησε πόλεις μερόπων ἀνθρώπων
491 καλάς. ἐν τῇ μέν ῥα γάμοι τ᾽ ἔσαν εἰλαπίναι τε,
492 νύμφας δ᾽ ἐκ θαλάμων δαΐδων ὕπο λαμπομενάων
493 ἠγίνεον ἀνὰ ἄστυ, πολὺς δ᾽ ὑμέναιος ὀρώρει·
494 κοῦροι δ ὀρχηστῆρες ἐδίνεον, ἐν δ᾽ ἄρα τοῖσιν
495 αὐλοὶ φόρμιγγές τε βοὴν ἔχον· αἳ δὲ γυναῖκες
496 ἱστάμεναι θαύμαζον ἐπὶ προθύροισιν ἑκάστη.
497 λαοὶ δ εἰν ἀγορῇ ἔσαν ἀθρόοι· ἔνθα δὲ νεῖκος
498 ὠρώρει, δύο δ᾽ ἄνδρες ἐνείκεον εἵνεκα ποινῆς
499 ἀνδρὸς ἀποφθιμένου· ὃ μὲν εὔχετο πάντ᾽ ἀποδοῦναι
500 δήμῳ πιφαύσκων, ὃ δ᾽ ἀναίνετο μηδὲν ἑλέσθαι·
501 ἄμφω δ᾽ ἱέσθην ἐπὶ ἴστορι πεῖραρ ἑλέσθαι.
502 λαοὶ δ᾽ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπήπυον ἀμφὶς ἀρωγοί·
503 κήρυκες δ᾽ ἄρα λαὸν ἐρήτυον· οἳ δὲ γέροντες
504 εἵατ᾽ ἐπὶ ξεστοῖσι λίθοις ἱερῷ ἐνὶ κύκλῳ, {73|74}
505 σκῆπτρ κηρύκων ἐν χέρσ᾽ ἔχον ἠεροφώνων·
506 τοῖσιν ἔπειτ᾿ ἤϊσσον, ἀμοιβηδὶς δὲ δίκαζον.
507 κεῖτο δ᾿ ἄρ᾿ ἐν μέσσοισι δύω χρυσοῖο τάλαντα,
508τῷ δόμεν ὃς μετὰ τοῖσι δίκην ἰθύντατα εἴποι
490On it he [= the divine smith Hephaistos] wrought two cities of mortal men.
491And there were weddings in one, and feasts.
492They were leading the brides along the city from their maiden chambers
493under the flaring of torches, and the loud bride song was arising.
494The young men were dancing in circles, and among them
495the pipes and the lyres kept up their clamor as in the meantime the women,
496standing each at the door of the courtyard, admired them.
497The people [ laos ] were gathered together in the assembly place, and there a dispute [ neikos ]
498had arisen, and two men were disputing [ neikeō ] about the blood-price [ poinē ]
499for a man who had died [ apo-phthi- ]. The one made a claim [ eukheto ] to pay back in full,
500declaring publicly to the district [ dēmos ], but the other was refusing to accept anything.
501Both were heading for an arbitrator [ histōr ], to get a limit ( peirar );
502and the people [ lāos ] were speaking up on either side, to help both men.
503But the heralds kept the people [ lāos ] in hand, as meanwhile elders
504were seated on benches of polished stone in a sacred [ hieros ] circle
505and took hold in their hands of scepters [ skēptron ] from the heralds who lift their voices.
506And with these they sprang up, taking turns, and rendered their judgments [ dik azō], [
507and in their midst lay on the ground two weights of gold,
508to be given to the one among them who pronounced a judgment [ dikē ] most correctly.

Iliad XVIII 490-508 {74|75}

Let us review the corresponding words in the Iliad 18 passage quoted above:

497 The people [ laos ] were gathered together in the assembly place, and there a dispute [ neikos ]
498 had arisen, and two men were disputing [ neikeō ] about the blood-price [ poinē ]
499 for a man who had died [ apo-phthi- ]. The one made a claim [ eukheto ] to pay back in full,
500 declaring publicly to the district [ dēmos ], but the other was refusing to accept anything.

I repeat, Muellner stresses that this Homeric passage is the only overt literary attestation, in all of Greek literature, where this word is found in a juridical context – a context confirmed by the evidence of the Linear B tablets.

By extension, Westbrook argues that the defendant in the scene of litigation on the Shield of Achilles is likewise claiming the right to pay compensation in the form of poinē – that is, reparation in full – for the death of the man mentioned in verse 499 of Iliad XVIII Let us look at the wording again:

499 The one made a claim [ eukheto ] to pay back in full,
500 declaring publicly to the district [ dēmos ], but the other was refusing to accept anything.

In making his arguments, Westbrook adduces a variety of parallels, from which I select the following:

  1. Hittite Edict of King Telepinu 49: “A matter of blood is as follows. Whoever does blood, whatever the owner of the blood says. If he says, ‘Let him die!’ he shall die. If he says ‘Let him pay ransom!’ he shall pay ransom. But to the king, nothing.” [17]
  2. Neo-Assyrian legal document (ADD 321): “{A} the son of {B} shall give {C}, daughter of {D}, the scribe, in lieu of the blood. He shall wash the blood. If {A} does not give the woman, they will kill him on {B}’s grave. Whichever of them breaks the contract shall pay ten mina of silver.” [18] We may compare the two weights of gold in the Iliadic picture of the Shield, verses 507 to 508 in the passage quoted above. [19] {77|78}
  3. Arguing against the notion of Erfolgshaftung, that is, strict liability, Westbrook suggests that there was “some gradation of homicide based on the mental condition of the offender.” [20]
  4. Codex Hammu-rabi 206-207: “If a man strikes a man in a brawl and inflicts a wound on him, the man shall swear ‘I did not strike knowingly’ and he shall pay the doctor. If he dies from being struck, he shall swear, and if it was the son of a man, he shall pay half a mina of silver.” [21] Again we may compare the two weights of gold in the Iliadic picture of the Shield, verses 507 to 508 in the passage quoted above.
  5. Iliad 23.86-90, Patroklos recalls how, as a boy, he fled his homeland because he had killed another boy over a game of dice, ouk ethelōn ‘not willingly’ but kholōtheis ‘in anger’. Westbrook compares the parallel formulation in Near Eastern law codes where one person kills another “not knowingly.” He infers: “There must be two elements in mitigation, a threshold situation for which the killer was not entirely to blame, i.e., a fight or a quarrel in which he was provoked, and lack of intention to strike a fatal blow.” [22]
  6. With regard to the litigation scene in the City at Peace, Westbrook concludes: “The reason why the killer and not the other party is said to be arguing before this court is that the burden of proof is upon him to establish the existence of mitigating circumstances, as we have seen from our discussion of the Near Eastern sources. The other party, the avenger, has the dual right to ransom or revenge. By refusing to take ransom, he asserts that the case is one of aggravated homicide and he therefore has a free choice between ransom and revenge, and chooses the latter.” [23]

Let us take an even closer look at the litigation scene in the City at Peace:

497 The people [ lāos ] were gathered together in the assembly place, and there a dispute [ neikos ]
498 had arisen, and two men were disputing [ neikeō ] about the blood-price [ poinē ]
499 for a man who had died [ apo-phthi- ]. The one made a claim [ eukheto ] to pay back in full,
500 declaring publicly to the district [ dēmos ], but the other was refusing to accept anything.
501 Both were heading for an arbitrator [ histōr ], to get a limit;

Iliad XVIII 497-501

Again I focus on the word peirar ‘limit’ at verse 501 of the Shield passage. This reference to the ‘limit’ of the case is relevant to the visualization of an inner circle of elders who are attempting to define such limits – and of an outer circle of people who are in turn attempting to define the best definition of such limits. In terms of a linear narrative, the peirata or ‘limits’ of the Iliad would be the end of the Iliad, when Achilles finally accepts compensation in the form of apoina, that is, ransom. In terms of the concentric circles that surround the scene of litigation in the Shield of Achilles, on the other hand, the peirata or ‘limits’ of the Iliad are pushed to the outermost limits of the Iliad, that is, to the broadest possible interpretive community.

It is in this context that Muellner cites the words of Ajax to Achilles in Iliad 9:

νηλής· καὶ μέν τίς τε κασιγνήτοιο φονῆος
ποινὴν ἢ οὗ 1αιδὸς ἐδέξατο τεθνηῶτος·
καί ῥ᾽ ὃ μὲν ἐν δήμῳ μένει αὐτοῦ πόλλ᾽ ἀποτίσας,
τοῦ δέ τ᾽ ἐρητύεται κραδίη καὶ θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ
ποινὴν δεξαμένῳ· σοὶ δ᾽ἄληκτόν τε κακόν τε
θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι θεοὶ θέσαν εἵνεκα κούρης
Pitiless one! A man accepts from the slayer of his brother
a blood-price [ poinē ], or for a son that has died;
and the slayer remains in his own district [ dēmos ], paying a great price,
and his [= the kinsman’s] heart and proud spirit are restrained
once he accepts the blood-price [ poinē ]. But for you it was an implacable and bad
spirit that the gods put in your breast, for the sake of a girl
– just one single girl!

Iliad 9.632-639

We may compare the wording in the Shield passage:

499for a man who had died [ apo-phthi -]. The one made a claim [ eukheto ] to pay back in full,
500declaring publicly to the district [ dēmos ], but the other was refusing to accept anything.

Iliad XVIII 499-500

Just as the logic of a simile spills over into the logic of the narrative frame, so also the logic of the story-within-a-story, the litigation scene, spills over into the logic of the story of Achilles, affecting all other passages. From Muellner’s point of view, you cannot say that you “solved” the meaning of the litigation scene if you disregard its relation to the main narrative.

From the standpoint of the Iliad as a linear progression, there is a sense of closure as the main narrative comes to an end in Book 24. From the standpoint of the Shield passage, however, the Iliad is open-ended. In other words, the vehicle re-opens the tenor. In order to make this argument, I must first confront a paradox: the world as represented on the Shield seems to be closed and unchanging, as opposed to the openness of the Iliad to changes that happen to the figures in the story while the story is in progress. The question is, however, what happens when the story draws to a close? Now the figures inside the Iliad become frozen into their actions by the finality of what has been narrated. This freezing is completed once all is said and done, at the precise moment when the whole story has been told. This moment, which is purely notional from the standpoint of Iliadic composition, gets captured by the {82|83} frozen motion picture of the Shield. Time has now stopped still, and the open-endedness of contemplating the artistic creation can begin.

In order to pursue this point, I focus on an instance of textual variation at Iliad XVIII 499 between apophthimenou ‘a man who died’ and apoktamenou ‘a man who was killed’. The second variant, as we learn from the scholia, was noted by Zenodotus. If indeed the Shield passage, as a vehicle, can refer to the main narrative of the Iliad as the tenor, then the referent of this variant apoktamenou can be Patroklos, as suggested by Iliad 24 where Achilles accepts the apoina or compensation from Hektor’s father Priam for the death of Patroklos.

I use the word “referent” here in a diachronic sense, that is, viewing various different degrees of cross-referencing in Homeric composition. It is from {83|84} a diachronic perspective that I find it useful to consider the phenomenon of Homeric cross-references, especially long-distance ones that happen to reach for hundreds or even thousands of lines: it is important to keep in mind that any such cross-reference that we admire in our two-dimensional text did not just happen one time in one performance – but presumably countless times in countless reperformances within the three-dimensional continuum of a specialized oral tradition. The resonances of Homeric cross-referencing must be appreciated within the

Earlier, I made the claim that, just as the logic of a simile spills over into the logic of the narrative frame, so also the logic of the story-within-a-story, the litigation scene, spills over into the logic of the story of Achilles. But there is more to it: it spills over even further, into the logic of the audience that responds to the overall story. Moreover, the logic of the audience can loop back to the logic of the original litigation scene. It is an endless coming full circle, an endlessly self-renewing cycle.

In order to comprehend this coming full circle, I propose to rethink the litigation scene, one more time, all over again. In this litigation, the immediate response is to come from an inner circle of supposedly impartial elder adjudicators who compete with each other about who can best define the rights and wrongs of the case. In the inner world of the Shield of Achilles, this group of arbitrators must compete with each other in rendering justice, until one winning solution can at last be found. Such a winning solution is also needed for the Iliad as a whole, which does not formally take a position on the question “Who is aitios ‘guilty, responsible’ in the narrative?” The response to this question is left up to someone beyond the Iliad.

For the winner of the competition among this inner circle of elders, the immediate prize is the gold, two weights of it, highlighted in verses 507 and 508 of the litigation scene. This gold is the visual focal point of the competition, in which the ultimate winner takes all, and this winner is neither of the two litigants. The two weights of this gold, balancing the claims of the two litigants, will go instead to that special someone who gives the perfect response to the central question of the litigation.

I started by saying that the logic of this outermost circle – of the audience that responds to the overall story – loops back to the logic of the innermost circle, of the litigants in the original litigation scene. By way of this looping back, the responses to the questions posed by the innermost circle become externally relativized, even if the responses of Homeric poetry are internally absolutized by its self-equation with mantic poetry. The value of the two weights of gold becomes no longer absolute but relative.

The idea of a relativized Iliad, the limits of which are delimited, paradoxically, by the expanding outermost circle of an ever-evolving polis outside the narrative, is compatible with a historical view of Homeric poetry as an open-ended and ever-evolving process. Earlier, I described this view of Homer in terms of an evolutionary model. Such an evolutionary model cannot be pinned down, I argued, to any single “Age of Homer.” I suggested that we need not think of any single age of Homer, but rather, several ages of Homer.


[ back ] 1. The original version of this essay is Nagy 1997a.

[ back ] 2. Seaford 1994, esp. p. 73, where the “narrative development” of the Iliadic ending is correlated with “this historical development of the polis.” For narrative details reflecting the emerging institutions of the polis, cf. Scully 1990, esp. pp. 101-102.

[ back ] 3. My translation of apoina as ‘ransom’ follows the reasoning of Wilson 2002:9-11, 13-39.

[ back ] 4. Seaford 1994:69-71, 176-177; at p. 176, there is an important adjustment on the formulation of Macleod 1982:16 (“the value of humanity and fellow-feeling”). See also Crotty (1994), who argues that the ceremony of supplication that takes place in Book 24 of the Iliad creates an emotional effect so powerful – and so troubling – that it will take another epic, this time the Odyssey, to follow up on its resonances. For further refinements on the poetics of supplication in the Iliad, see Kim 2000, esp. pp. 18-34.

[ back ] 5. On the correspondences between depicted details on the Shield of Achilles and narrated details in the main narrative of the Iliad, see Taplin 1980. The detail that I am about to consider is not among the ones treated in that work. On the general topic of the poetics of ecphrasis in the Shield of Achilles passage, see Hubbard 1992 and Becker 1995. See also Stansbury-O’Donnell 1995 for a wide-ranging critique of published interpretations concerning the composition of the Shield – from the standpoint of art history as well as literary history.

[ back ] 6. Lessing 1962 [1766]:ch. 19, pp. 99-100.

[ back ] 7. Cf. Hubbard 1992:17: “We do not see the shield as a finished product (for no man save Achilles can dare look upon it), but we see it in the process of fabrication by Hephaestus, as he adds ring after ring.” Cf. Becker 1995:121; also Lynn-George 1988:49, 183-184 (whose valuable formulations will be discussed further below).

[ back ] 8. On the juridicial background for the notion that a speaker is authorized to speak by holding a skēptron, see Easterling 1989:106, with specific references to this passage in Iliad 18.

[ back ] 9. Cf. Seaford 1994:25: “The world on the shield seems to represent the everyday life of the audience, including a city at peace, as a contrast to the heroic world of the main narrative, in which there is no judicial mechanism to resolve the crisis of reciprocity.”

[ back ] 10. Cf. Edwards 1991:214, 218; for analogies to this description of early Greek law in early Germanic law, see Wolff 1946, esp. pp. 44-46. For more on the litigation scene, see also Hubbard 1992:29-30, Becker 1995:119-123.

[ back ] 11. Muellner 1976:100-106.

[ back ] 12. Hooker (1980:139) thinks that ke-ke-me-na ko-to-na is common land “leased” from the dāmos

[ back ] 13. Westbrook 1992.

[ back ] 14. Ibid.:73-74.

[ back ] 15. Ibid.:74.

[ back ] 17. Translation after ibid.:57; highlighting mine.

[ back ] 18. Translation after ibid.:58.

[ back ] 19. As we shall see later, however, the ultimate winner of the gold in Iliad 18.507-508 turns out to be neither of the litigants. On the two weights of gold, see also the discussion of Stansbury-O’Donnell 1995:323.

[ back ] 20. Westbrook 1992:73.

[ back ] 21. Translation after ibid.:61-62.

[ back ] 22. Ibid.:71.

[ back ] 23. Ibid.:75.

[ back ] 24. Ibid.:75-76.

[ back ] 25. Muellner 1976:104.

[ back ] 26. Westbrook 1992:67.

[ back ] 27. Muellner 1976:104, citing Lejeune 1965:12.

[ back ] 28. Cf. PH 251 n. 10.

[ back ] 29. Edwards 1991:215.

[ back ] 30. Ibid.:216.

[ back ] 31. Ibid.:215, citing Perpillou (1970:537), who cites the evidence of Linear B eukhomai and who translates the Homeric eukhomai at 18.499 in terms of the defendant’s claiming a right, not a fact. Westbrook (1992) did not use the work of Perpillou.

[ back ] 32. Perpillou 1970:537.

[ back ] 33. Muellner 1976:106.

[ back ] 34. Muellner 1976 and Andersen 1976. Cf. Edwards (1991:216), who cites the second of these publications but not the first.

[ back ] 35. Stanley 1993:309, with specific reference to Andersen 1976. There is a similar problem with the interpretation of Edwards 1991:213.

[ back ] 36. Muellner 1976:106.

[ back ] 37. Richards 1936.

[ back ] 38. Muellner 1976:106. Wilson (2002:161)agrees, adding this adjustment: what the plaintiff will never accept is “composition,” that is, payment in prestige goods. The plaintiff reserves the right to exact tisis, that is, payment in harm (ibid.:39).

[ back ] 39. My formulation here is based on my earlier wording in PH 254, with an adjustment added in the light of the insights of Wilson 2002. Wilson argues convincingly that Achilles refuses to think of Agamemnon’s gifts as apoina ‘ransom’. See Wilson 2002:10: “Although Achilles feels he is owed poinē [revenge] for the seizure of Briseis, Agamemnon offers him apoina [ransom].” See also ibid.: 87: “When Achilles redefines the seizure of Briseis as loss of a bride (alokhos thmarēs, 9.337), he puts her in a familial relationship to himself and, as a result, transfers her from the sphere of prestige goods to that of persons, and, more to the point, family.” For a most perceptive analysis of the role of Briseis in the Homeric Iliad, see Dué 2002.

[ back ] 40. Wilson (2002:202 n. 97) says: “I find my point that Achilleus ultimately seeks compensation for his own life independently confirmed by Nagy (1997[d])204.” The page cited by Wilson contains the same point as rewritten here. On this point, I disagree with the reasoning of Lowenstam 1993:100 n. 103 (citing Andersen 1976:16).

[ back ] 41. Cf. PH 253-255.

[ back ] 42. PH 254 n. 29, esp. with reference to Iliad 9.502-512.

[ back ] 43. BA 109-110, 312. Here I find it useful to invoke the Near Eastern concept of a “split legal personality,” as discussed by Wilson 2002:198 n. 25.

[ back ] 44. PH 254.

[ back ] 45. This formulation builds on the observations in PH 255.

[ back ] 46. Lynn-George 1988:183.

[ back ] 47. Ibid.:184.

[ back ] 48. In terms of an evolutionary model, I suggest that the variant noted by Zenodotus at Iliad 18.499, apoktamenou ‘a man who was killed’ instead of apophthimenou ‘a man who died’, reflects a relatively earlier version of Iliadic narrative.