Entering the Agon: Dissent and authority in Homer, historiography and tragedy

Barker, Elton (2009). Entering the Agon: Dissent and authority in Homer, historiography and tragedy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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This book investigates one of the most characteristic and prominent features of ancient Greek literature – the scene of debate or agon, in which with varying degrees of formality characters square up to each other and engage in a contest of words – and sets out for the first time to trace its changing representations through Homeric epic, historiography and tragedy. Combining literary dialogic theory with sociological approaches towards structure, it makes the claim that debate is best understood in relation to an institutional framework, in which issues of authority and dissent are variously set out and worked through. Intersecting with key recent scholarship, it shows that the Homeric poems establish, and scrutinise, the assembly as an institution which accommodates dissent, in line with an understanding of epic narrative as foundational; that the historians’ marginal status as writers in an oral culture manifests itself in their representing debate as a challenge to the utility of public institutions; and that tragedy marks the formal institutionalisation of dissent in its adversarial structure with an onus on speaking back, which offers a new way of thinking about tragic politics in terms of the process by which dissent is enacted and managed.
Aimed at both scholar and student, including anyone interested in the origins of political thought, this book demonstrates not only the fundamental importance of debate to these genres, but also the ways representations of debate construct an agonistic mentality which intersects with and informs the broader cultural construction of a citizen community.

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