CJ Online Review: Bizer, Homer and the Politics of Authority in Renaissance France

posted with permission:

Homer and the Politics of Authority in Renaissance France. By Marc Bizer. Classical Presences. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xii + 245. Hardcover, $85.00/£55.00. ISBN 978-0-19-973156-5.

Reviewed by Timothy Wutrich, Case Western Reserve University

Marc Bizer presents a compelling argument regarding the reception of Homer in sixteenth-century France in his book Homer and the Politics of Authority in Renaissance France. However, Classicists and others who are not well-read in French literature and who lack a firm command of sixteenth-century France’s complex history may find this book difficult. Bizer’s book makes an important contribution to the field of Classical reception studies as part of a dialogue with specialists, but it is not the best point of entry for someone casually interested in the topic or interested in an introduction.

Bizer writes well: his prose is clear and jargon-free. His book has two main parts. Part I, “Making Homer French, 1530–1560” describes in three chapters how French Renaissance humanists like Guillaume Budé and Jean Dorat helped promulgate Homeric studies in France, especially as a means of instructing French monarchs. Bizer begins by revealing the long tradition of Neoplatonic allegorical interpretation of Homer. Then he considers Pseudo-Plutarch’s Essay on the Life and Poetry of Homer, which presented Homer as a polymath with special authority in politics, and shows that the essay had a strong impact on Budé. Finally, Bizer recounts the persistent sixteenth-century myth that France’s royalty could trace its roots to the Trojan royal family. Bizer goes on to argue that Budé’s interpretation of Homer for François I was designed to instruct the French king in philology and statesmanship while simultaneously presenting the work of the humanists as essential for the monarchy. Bizer surveys three of Budé’s treatises which “illustrate the important connections between Greek learning, humanism, and royal power” (33).

From Budé, Bizer turns to Jean Dorat, a remarkable figure, who, although he did not publish a book, is known from his lectures on Homer and his influence on members of the group of French Renaissance poets known as the Pléiade. The Dorat chapter also features an excursus on the influence exerted by both Budé and Dorat on artists working for the French court, particularly in the Château of Fontainebleau’s “Ulysses Gallery.”

In Part I’s final chapter, Bizer offers a contrasting view of Homeric exegesis, showing that in the 1550s both the poet Joachim Du Bellay and the essayist Etienne de la Boétie used Homeric poetry to challenge the French Trojan myth. Bizer compares Du Bellay’s work with the court-sanctioned poetry of Ronsard who continued to celebrate the French monarchy. Bizer then turns to La Boétie’s essay De la servitude volontaire as the first example of a text that challenged Homeric authority in politics, particularly Homer’s apparent approval of monarchy in Iliad 2.204–5. However, the Wars of Religion and the ensuing chaos caused La Boétie to refine his views in the essay Memoire sur le pacification des troubles, which, Bizer asserts, while lacking specific Homeric reference, “constructs a pragmatic argument for one religion by insisting on the real dangers of two” (108).

Part II, “Homer and the Problem of Authority During the Wars of Religion (1560–1592),” includes four chapters that explore the ways in which Catholic and Protestant writers used Homer in polemical works. In Chapter 4 Bizer examines texts by Catholic and Huguenot writers to argue that in the 1560s “Homer continued to be invaluable in authorizing discourses on sovereignty, if ultimately he could no longer authorize sovereignty itself” (154). In Chapter 5 Bizer reveals that as the crisis in France worsened the use of Homer by both Catholic and Huguenot polemicists began to change. He observes that a writer like Jean de Sponde, who began by hoping that Henri IV would be like the Homeric heroes, ultimately wondered whether Homer should or could be used in discourse about the monarchy. In Chapter 6 Bizer turns from his study of polemical tracts to offer a reading of Garnier’s tragedy La Troade (1579) which, while indebted to Homer, Euripides, and Seneca, nevertheless draws didactic historical and political parallels with the religious wars in France. Chapter 7 argues that Montaigne felt obliged to react to the chaos in French society and politics since La Boétie’s death, especially to the extent that his friend’s writings were thought to have incited conflict. Bizer argues that while Montaigne acknowledged the authority of Homer, he questioned “the unconditional authority … [of] ancient authors, finding that they contradict themselves” (209). Bizer states that Montaigne’s assertion was that “Homer’s exegetes use Homer merely to ventriloquize themselves” and that “an end to the religious wars can only come from a monarchy whose authority is absolute, derived from itself and from no other source” (212–3). In the Conclusion Bizer asserts that he has recounted “the story of a political hermeneutics” in which Homeric exegesis “became inseparable from engaging in a politics of authority, of debating the nature of that sovereignty and eventually questioning that sovereignty itself” (215).

Scholars working on the Classical Tradition and Classical Reception will find Bizer’s arguments engaging and his methodology attractive. However, much material will be new to non-specialists in French literary or political history; the fact that Bizer does not translate everything will be an obstacle to those unused to sixteenth-century French. He also assumes that his readers know the succession of sixteenth-century French monarchs and the background of events like the Placard Affair and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Yet overall the book is informative and offers a thought-provoking take on the capacity of Homer to exert influence on political action in sixteenth-century France.

CONF: Ancient Greece and Ancient Israel: Interactions and Parallels (10th-4th Centuries BCE)

Seen on the Agade list:

Ancient Greece and Ancient Israel: Interactions and Parallels
(10th-4th Centuries BCE)
October 28-30, 2012
Room 496, Gilman Building, Tel Aviv University

Collaboration between the European Network for the Study of Ancient
Greek History and Tel Aviv University

Conference Organizers: Irad Malkin, History Department, Tel Aviv
University and a member of the European Network
(malkin.irad AT gmail.com); Alexander Fantalkin, Department of
Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, Tel Aviv University
(fantalk AT post.tau.ac.il)

The world of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, has often been
studied against the background of Near Eastern civilizations. Yet,
aside from the enormous hinterlands of the Near East, the ancient land
of Israel also neighbored the Mediterranean. As a collaborative
conference between the European Network for the Study of Ancient Greek
History and Tel Aviv University, we wish to concentrate on
interactions and parallels between the ancient Greek world and the
Eastern Mediterranean, with an emphasis on the period before the
Hellenistic and Roman periods.

How do we, at the start of the third millennium CE, perceive and
interpret the almost simultaneous arrival of the two cultures whose
self-definitions still mark out the meaning of western civilization?
We wish to discuss the key concepts of "parallels, similarities, and
influences" in the context of the Eastern Mediterranean. Are they due
to general human reaction to comparable historical situations or do
they depend on actual contacts and influences, directly or via third
parties? Drawing on specific case-studies we will discuss the
usefulness of these key terms and analyze the likely contexts for
interaction and/or the evidence of actual contacts.

The question of what is comparable as such and what is owed to actual
influence is often debated. Whereas former approaches tended to regard
the issue of influence literally, "in-fluence," "flowing into," as if
cultural contacts are necessarily uni-directional; their "source,"
therefore, needed to be identified and located in a hierarchy that is
either temporal ("who was first?") or spatial ("first from where?").
Such approaches may indeed be valid at times. Today the cutting edge
of the discourse of civilizational parallels and contacts seems rather
to consist in a multi-directional, non-hierarchical perspective, which
may hopefully find its expression in the conference.


October 28th

09:45 Coffee & Gathering

10:00-10:15 Greetings

Eyal Zisser (Dean, Faculty of Humanities, TAU)
Irad Malkin (European Network/TAU)

Constitutive Narratives and Comparative World-views

Session I Chair: Israel Finkelstein (TAU)


Oswyn Murray (Balliol College, Oxford): The Western Tradition of Ancient History

Hans-Joachim Gehrke (University of Freiburg): Between ‘Clash of
Civilisations’ and Hybridity: Conceptualizing Historical Comparison

11:15-11:30: Pause


Irad Malkin (TAU): Foreign Founders: Greek and Hebrew Colonization

Alexander Fantalkin (TAU): Comparable Chronologies: The Contexts of Interaction

12:30-13:45: Discussion Panel: Shlomo Bunimovitz (TAU), Bernard M.
Levinson (University of Minnesota), Doron Mendels (Hebrew
University of Jerusalem)

13:45-15:15: LUNCH

Session II Chair: Jonathan Price (TAU)


Kurt Raaflaub (Brown University): The Despotic Template: Authority,
Politics and Religion in Early Greek and Hebrew Thought

Josine Blok (Utrecht University): The Greek and Hebrew Concepts of the
Covenant: A Comparative View

16:15-16:30: Pause


François de Polignac (EPHE/ANHIMA, Paris): Did the Greeks Feel at the
Margins of the Ancient Near East?

17:00-18:00: Discussion Panel: Maurizio Giangiulio (University of
Trento), Konrad Schmid (University of Zurich)

October 29th

Session III Chair: Oded Lipschits (TAU)


Amir Gilan (TAU): A Bridge or a Blind Alley? Hittites and Neo Hittites
as Cultural Mediators

Marek Wecowski (Warsaw University): The Greek Symposion and the
Biblical Marzeah: Contrasts and Parallels

11:00-11:15: Pause


Jacob L. Wright (Emory University): Aegean War Commemoration and the
Composition of Biblical Writings

Martti Nissinen (University of Helsinki): Prophets and Kings: A
Comparison between Greece and Mesopotamia

12:15-13:15: Discussion Panel: Nadav Na’aman (TAU), Thomas Römer
(Collège de France/University of Lausanne)

13:15-14:45: LUNCH

Session IV Chair: Sylvie Honigman (TAU)


Christian Mann (University of Mannheim): Body and Sports in Israel and
Greece: A Comparative View

Bruce Louden (University of Texas at El Paso): Jason, Medea, and
Aietes: Jacob, Rachel, and Laban: Argonautic Myth and Genesis 27-32

15:45-16:00: Pause


Thomas Römer (Collège de France/University of Lausanne): Hebrew Bible
and Greek Mythology: Some Case Studies

Robin Lane Fox (New College, Oxford): Mixed Marriages: Nehemiah,
Pericles and Others….

17:00-18:00: Discussion Panel: Margalit Finkelberg (TAU), Israel
Finkelstein (TAU)

October 30th

Session V The Phoenicians between Greeks and Hebrews

Chair: Moshe Fischer (TAU)


Benjamin Sass (TAU): The First Adaptations of the Semitic Alphabet to
Indo-European Languages: Some New Evidence for Phrygian and Greek
Writing ca. 800 BCE

Rosalind Thomas (Balliol College, Oxford): Phoenicians in the Old
Testament and in Greek Writers: A World Apart?

11:00-11:15: Pause


Assaf Yasur-Landau (University of Haifa): From Canaanites to
Israelites and Phoenicians: Cultural Trajectories in Mediterranean

Tamar Hodos (University of Bristol): Mediation and Multi-Directional
Exchanges: The Phoenicians

12:15-13:15: Discussion Panel: Ayelet Gilboa (University of Haifa),
Gunnar Lehmann (Ben- Gurion University)

13:15-14:45: LUNCH

Session VI Human Connectors

Chair: Oren Tal (TAU)


James D. Muhly (University of Pennsylvania/ASCSA): Traveling Craftsmen?

Robert Rollinger (University of Innsbruck/University of Helsinki):
Craftsmen and Specialists between East and West

15:45-16:00: Pause


Nino Luraghi (Princeton University): Fighting for the Other:
Mercenaries, Culture Contact, and Ethnicity

16:30-17:30: Discussion Panel: Maurizio Giangiulio (University of
Trento), Ran Zadok (TAU)

17:30-17:45: Pause

Envoi & Reflections: Margalit Finkelberg (TAU), Irad Malkin (TAU)

Final Discussion

Classical Words of the Day

sententious (Dictionary.com)
crepitate (Wordsmith)
thurification (Worthless Word)
stichometry (Wordnik)