Consensus, Collective Decision-Making, and the Shaping of the Iliad: Ancient Greek Reflections on Sustaining Epic Tradition
Affiliation: Harvard University

Given the inherent multiformity that characterizes oral narrative traditions, the sustainability of an epic tradition is not a matter of its preservation but of its ongoing development and transformation in such a manner that it retains its relevance to the community to which it belongs. Over time, a tradition changes, and these changes are dictated by the needs of the tradition bearers. One way to conceptualize this ongoing change is to conceive of the tradition as a process of collective decision making, where the decision concerns the way in which the story is to be told or performed. Any authoritative realization of an epic tradition—for example, the Iliad, understood as the end product of a lengthy Greek epic tradition—can be thought of as the result of a series of decisions made over an extended period of time by performers and audiences. As the tradition develops, an ever-evolving consensus among performers and audiences determines what qualifies as an authentic or legitimate performance.

In the Iliad we can trace an awareness of just such a diachronic process of negotiation. Moreover, it is precisely in scenes of collective decision making that this awareness comes across most clearly. Attention to the system of formulas that describe assemblies and other deliberative procedures reveals that collective will (as opposed to the will of individuals) is, as a rule, decisive in determining collective action. At the same time, deliberation, particularly among the Olympian gods, frequently has a metapoetic aspect: groups deliberate about how the plot of the poem will unfold. In effect, consensus becomes the principal constraint governing the events that are admitted to the Iliadic tradition. This can be interpreted as an indication of the way that the bearers of the Iliadic tradition (both performers and audiences) understood the role of the community in shaping that tradition. An allusion to the Iliad in Plato’s Republic indicates that Plato himself understood the Iliad’s representation of collective decision making in this way.

Much Homeric criticism has linked the artistry of the Iliad to the abilities of a gifted performer (or performers). The poem itself, however, seems to envision the tradition as the product of a collective enterprise. The picture of collective involvement in the shaping of epic tradition that emerges from the Iliad corresponds to an essential insight about the sustainability of traditions: traditions are sustained not by individuals but by communities as a whole in the context of a dynamic process of development in which the shape of the tradition is under constant negotiation.