Jonathan Gottschall


Cambridge University Press







David Sloan Wilson (biology) was on his dissertation committee. This book is his dissertation. Boyd and Carroll read copies before it was published.



Page I

1 – The Trojan War ends in the rape of Troy. Boys butchered and girls taken to Greece.


When Homeric men are not fighting neighbors, they are usually competing among themselves in dancing, storytelling, games, public debate, martial skill and courage, speed of foot and strength of arm, proficiency in sailing and horsemanship, plowing straight furrows, dress, armor, number of folks killed, Gods in their family trees, and their ability to host lavish feasts.


2 – Interpretations of Homer are constrained because the men are also competing philosophers.   So interpreters answer “why so violent?” as the characters: hatred of mortality and want immortality for their deeds in “cultural memory banks.”


3 – Still others have said they fight for resources, social status and power.


This book will agree, but use evolutionary biology and anthropology to back its claims.   Furthermore, it will use Homer’s work to recreate the Homeric Society.


There are three main arguments:

1)     The war pattern in Homeric society converges with anthropologists and ethnographers find in many non-state societies.   And all the fights and competitions are over Darwinian fitness.


4 – But Homeric competition was excessive, why?


2)     Because, Gottschall argues, they didn’t have enough young women for the young men.  This because they were, in practice, polygynous, with high-status men monopolizing the women; leaving low status too few.


3)     This explains the success of the fatalistic and pessimistic philosophy in Homer’s characters.


This approach has its roots in the 19th century classicist Wilamowitz-Moellendorff who aimed at Altertumswisssenschaft – This sought a science that would recreate ancient society.   This meant a broad interdisciplinary ‘miscegenation’ to literary scholarship.  


6 – Anthropology has long been at the center of this effort. They compiled traditional songs and ran comparisons to discover the oral roots of Homeric epic.


But this anthropological view has not been combined with evolutionary biology.  Indeed Keeley (whom Gottschall relies upon) says biology has naught to do with war.


8 – What is the evolutionary perspective?


Darwin thought his theory a failure unless it explained all our “human mental life.”


This line of thought is not deterministic as many factors intervene in this complex world.


Others worry it is crudely reductive.


9 – This too is unwarranted.  “Placing all of human behavior and culture within the biological purview is the ambitious goal of the “adaptionist program.’” But this doesn’t make other approaches irrelevant.  Ignoring the physical and social environment would be un-biological.


Genes, he notes, are turned on and off by the environment: epigenetics.  Thus genes are the causes and consequences of our actions.


And, he does not seek a Homeric ‘theory of everything.’


10 – This book looks at Homeric competition, but another could look at Homeric cooperation.


Homer’s most incessant point: that Homeric battles are over women, has too long been ignored. Yes, they fight over honor, power, status and material goods.  But these are proximate, not ultimate causes.  Women don’t lead to these things, power, honor, status, material goods lead to women.



Page 11


11 – Even Herodotus and Thucydides sought to confirm Homer’s claims. Gottschall thinks them a reliable source for knowing Greek society.


To assert this, he must  contend with the “mosaic” interpretation of Homer,  that sees the works as sewing together tidbits from many eras.


12 – F. A. Wolf’s 1795 “Prolegomena ad Homerum” launched the idea that the epics were orally transmitted.


13 – They would each take 24 hours to recite and memory is poor.  Wood said, preliterate folks have better memories.


14 – Wolf said many Homeric poets memorized snippets and these were later stitched together. This accounted for some episodic, repetitive characteristics of the books.


Wolf’s followers were called ‘analysts’ as they looked for evidence of separate authorship.  The holdouts were known as unitarians.


15 – This battle raged till the young American “Milman Parry” (1902-1935) ‘the Darwin of oral literature’ came in.   Shot at 33, he used contemporary Yugoslavian oral epic to argue that Homer’s works evolved via oral tradition.  


17 - Homer evolved them in performance.  One Yugo did 12,000 lines in oral performance.   Homer could be a single re-teller (though striving for tradition, not originality).


19 – The analytic view meant that Homer was not a good source for info on ancient Greece.  They sought evidence different pieces represented different eras; like poetic archeology. 


Heinrch Schliemann was a fantastic  Unitarian holdout who began digging around 1870.   He said Homer’s writing accurately depicted Mycenaean civilization.  


21 - This view dominated until the 1950s when archeology and deciphered text found Mycenaean world was much more complex than that depicted in Homer.  The Homeric folk looked more like tribes than state societies.


22 - Thus the view that they were updated prevails. And, he thinks they reflect the Greek dark ages of 800 bc.


22 -  In the late 13th and 12th centuries Mycenaean culture suffered a collapse.


23 – During this time villages were of 100 people and Athens shrunk to 1,000 or 2,000 residents.


24 - Homer is a good source for these Dark Ages.


25 – In particular, it shows us their mentality, social and cultural world.


26 - Though the reliability of this Dark Ages depiction (even though ever bolstered with new information) is contested, he’ll rely on the current consensus.



Page 27


27 – 85% of the Aegean Greek world was mountainous.  This isolated groups.


28 – The word “Greek” implies more unity than existed.  They did, though, share a language (with dialects), culture and religion.  The sea and temporary alliances against the Persians held them together.


29 – Three decades ago, people still thought of Greece as like European kingdoms. 

Ethnography has helped us here.


30 – Rather than unrealistic, studies of war in New Guinea show Homer’s depictions of personalized war to be accurate.  


31 – Homer used royal terms to lend grandeur to his characters.  But, they were smaller groups than the exaggerations of wealth suggest.


Leadership was informal, led by groups of influential males.


32 – Rank was earned by heroics, not heredity alone. There are no cowardly leaders.


34 – But this doesn’t mean Greek society was egalitarian. 


35 – From the Mycenaean period forward, Greek history is a chronicle of constant warfare.


Sometimes these wars seemed heroic, like fighting off the Persians.  But, as soon as it was done, they went into Peloponnesian war and fought each other.   


The Greeks had a fatalistic view of war, seeing it as an ineradicable constant in the human condition.   


36 – Good men means good warrior. 


37 – They largely did snatch and grab raids on each other, often by ship, wherein women and livestock would be taken.


There was violence within communities too.  Justice and revenge were meted out personally.   Judges are references, but these are an exception.


38 – Minor insults lead to fights to the death.


And, while folks fought to neutralize enemies, gain wealth, get slaves and women, etc., this book will tie them to reproductive rivalry.



Page 40


40 – All folks prefer peace, even Yanomamos, yet


41 – no society has succeeded in rooting violence out.


“The Harmless People” the !Kung San had a homicide rate higher than the most violent American cities.   No peaceful hunter-g


42 – Purely socio-cultural analysis cannot explain why violence is frequent in all societies, even isolated ones.  


43 - Socio-cultural models cannot explain universals.


“The leading cause of violence is maleness.” – Robert Wright


“Well-studied species mortality rates from violent  intraspecies competition are far higher than those documented among humans.”  And males are more likely to be killed across such species.


44 – Why? They fight to access to females. Females have large expensive eggs, males cheap sperm.


46 – In species where males invest more than females, the roles are reversed; males are coy and sexually selective.


These characteristics are not male or female but low or high parental investment characteristics.


Females take on all the costs of fostering the young in 95% of all mammalian species.


47 – TO the generalization that males fight more than females, there is not even one substantiated counter-example in all of human history.


48 – Our size dimorphism and DNA point to our being mildly polygynous.


Increasing this problem are human female’s menopause.  Chimps stay fertile their whole lives.  And, older ones, with more proven fertility capacity are more sought after than young ones.  Also, since women invest more in raising kids across all human societies, men must fight hard to gain that investment.


49 – Larua Betzig’s Despotism and Differential Reproduction (1986) shows how many wives Incans got depending on status.  And, Eleanor Herman’s Sex with Kings (2004) shows European courts were littered with bastards.


51 – Darwin: “With savages . .. . the women are the constant cause of war.” (The descent of man).


52 – Yanomamo evidence.


53 – 75% of !Kung murders were for women.   


54 – Examples aside, that violence is largely over women, in pre-industrial societies – is not in dispute.  And, this includes not just women directly, but status, land and other women attractors.



Page 57


“Was this the face that launched the thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” (Christopher Marlow – Doctor Faustus).


Homer’s characters thought fighting over women reasonable.


58 – Moderns say it was only technically over Helen.


59 – The first woman in dispute in the Iliad was taken from booty.  But, when Agamemnon must return her (to appease Apollo), he decides to take Achillies’ woman, Briseis. 


Some commentators have said this dispute is really about honor.


60 – To make up, Agamemnon offers Achilles 28 women. 


61 – But initially Achilles rejects this Darwinian windfall.

But this offer is only good after the War and after Achilles submits to Agamemnon.

There is no apology.  And, the offer shows Agamemnon’s wealth.


62 – Second, Achilles decides war is for naught. 


63 – And, Achilles sort of does accept the offer.  And, the death of Patroclos changed all.


The Odyssey opens with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s battle over her.  And, the bulk of the book concerns Penelope. 


Do the suitors want the woman?  Penelope is not a queen. They would not automatically get Odysseus’ stuff.  


64 - The wealth of the household belongs to Telemachus.  


In fact, if they win her, they’ll have to pay a bride price.


65 – Penelope is always portrayed as beautiful. She has 108 suitors.  The suitors are also charged with raping Odysseus’ slave women.


67 – Telemachus hangs the slave women one by one while mentioning their fornication.  They are considered the master’s sexual property.


Ares and Aphrodite were intimately linked as siblings and lovers. Their children were terror and fear.


68 – It is repeatedly invoked, also, that besides Helen, the prize of the war will be Trojan women. Achilles references his past wars as being fought for other men’s women.


70 – The Homeric heroes are casual in their mention of their bastard offspring, there doesn’t seem to be stigma attached to them.  They bask in their father’s love and good graces.


72 – Bastards got less inheritance, but were not ostracized.


73 – The Odyssey and Iliad are only 2 of 8 poems in a cycle, but the only ones that survive.


74 – In one of the other epics, we learn that this was the second war over Helen.   The other cycles also involved war over women.


75 – This book’s title is a reference to the Rape of Nanking.  And, herein he notes that in Deuteronomy God says kill the boys and take the women for yourself.


76 – He lists many nations with wartime rape.


77 – Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s 2000 A Natural History of Rape provides an evolutionary theory justification and attacks the socio-cultural ones.   Women are more likely to be rape victims during their peak years of fertility.  This goes against the idea that rape is just violence.


Scorpion flies have abdominal clamps specifically for raping unwilling women. 


It may be a general side effect of sexual desire.  This is seen in interspecies mating. This can’t make babies and is due to the low threshold for arousal among males.


78 – Many say rape is not about sex. This doesn’t fit the evidence. Rape is proscribed in all cultures.  Homers warriors are “almost all serial rapists.”


80 – There is no textual evidence that Homer’s men rape out of hatred for the enemy or women.  They do it for sex. (Though there is a mentioning of revenge for Helen being a motive for some sex in one spot).  


Page 81


There are many small incidents that nearly explode into duals to the death.


82 – Van Wees (and others) in his book Status Warriors sees status as the main reason behind the wars.


83 – But in biology, status would be a proximate motivation for reproductive success.


84 – This answers a question an Wees doesn’t answer, ‘Why is status so important?’


We saw this in Frans De Waal’s 1989 Chimpanzee Politics.


85 – In it the alpha male Yeroen was involved in 75% of all procreation.  This goes across the primate order and across the animal kingdom.


86 – Homeric warriors with status got the first access to the most captured women.  


88 – Men do also fight over status and glory and resources (metals, cattle, jewelry, armor, etc.,)   But, again, why do they want resources or glory?


89 – Even Greek ‘kings’ were not strangers to famine.


90 – And some things (cattle, for example) are taken for food.  But, much is taken for prestige (jeweled tripods, the tattered armor of those defeated).   


91 - And, there is so much eating in the Iliad (the ‘eatingest epic’ – Henry Fielding said).  But, still booty is proximate.


92 – Bride price and the opposite Dowry exist in these epics.  But, there is doubt on the translation of the word Dowry.


93 – Gottschall says, though, that the Homeric marriage customs are clear.  Men must transfer lots of wealth to their bride’s family.  The man who offers the most, if she gives in, will get Penelope.   


94 – Even today women prefer men with resources and status.


Women, social prestige and wealth are proximate for reproductive success.  They are not overtly programmed for reproductive success, they just strive for what is obviously good.


95 – But what then of a system wherein so many young men die young?


96 – Ronal Fisher explained the rush to war and over zealous fighting – leading – to – early – death by the prestige and resources it brought your kin.  This was prior to William Hamilton’s inclusive fitness theory.


97 – A good death confers honor on your descendents (sons especially).  Immortal glory pays off after death.


But those without dads are vulnerable to attack.


98 – So a ‘good death’ of glory in battle  is only a second best.


And, when the odds are bad, Homer’s heroes and warriors retreat without shame. Warriors weigh the question of fighting or running in monologues.  But, they weigh the ignominy of cowardice in these deliberations.


99 – There is also physical coercion.  Still many choose dishonor over death.


Those who risk what they have by fighting in battle, have what they have because they fight in battles. And (next chapter) battle shirkers will not get respect from women.


Being a shirker and reproductive is not really an option.



Page 100


In Homeric writing the focus is on men and women are extras – set pieces.  But, were women really passive?  No.


While women vary less in their reproductive success than men, they still vary. 


101 – And, indeed, men wrote these epics.


102 – The principal hazards facing women were the darker aspects of Homeric men: their propensity for violence and rape.


103 – Women’s chastity was important.  Going astray risked violent reprisal.   Men, not so much.  In fact, wanton promiscuity was a source of status.  Most women had to accept that a significant amount of their resources would be shifted away to bastards.


How did Homeric women navigate these rocky shores?


104 – Women also wanted status and power.  They did so by attaching themselves to a high status male.


Wealthy parents and family lines are important.  But, these women all do household chores.  Beauty is their  most important characteristic.  Beauty is stressed throughout the epics.


Paris chooses Aphrodite (love of the most beautiful woman in the world) over Athena’s power and Hera’s glory.


106 – Aphrodite is about the only one who can best Zeus.


107 – Hera (along with Athena) get their revenge on Troy  (for Paris’ betrayal) despite Zeus, who she cajoles right to the breaking point, but never past.


108 – TO be sure, women are multifaceted and love and marriage are described tenderly in Homer.  But, women beguile and strategize a lot.


Our society is rare.  Usually women need men like fish need water.  Without men they could not get resources for their kids and the violence of stepfathers was a bad outcome.


109 – Men too needed women.  They have maids, but constantly work on the household.


110 – Penelope’s family pressures her to take a suitor (so they can get a cash infusion), but she controls the outcome.


111 – Penelope aside, men had to woo with gifts.  This indicates women had power.  Anthropology also shows women’s influence in societies with arranged marriages.


112 – If men stick around and want status, it is partially because women rewarded these items with sexual access.


113 – “Males are a breeding experiment run by females said John Hartung.

Homeric women choose men with resources and who are handsome, but size matters most. Big and strong.


114 – Partially Penelope does not remarry because no man is as strong as Odysseus. He alone can win the archery competition.


115 – When Paris is beaten by Menelaus, Helen berates him awfully.  Even though he is big, she won’t take him to bed.   


116 – This convinces Paris to return to the battlefield.


117 – Usually warrior heroes are erotic heroes as well.  Paris is an exception, for his cowardice.


118 – This all is not the women’s fault.  Once men go down the ‘demonic’ reproductive strategy, women have little choice but to go alone.   They need protection.  Men without strength can’t get women.  It is a viscous circle.



Page 119


119 – Pre-state warfare was huge, but varied.  


120 - It isn’t totally genetic. The warlike Vikings spawned the peace-loving Scandinavians.   So why were the Homeric folk so bellicose?


Answer?  A shortage of young women for young men.


This was cause by slave concubines and female infanticide.


121 – Darwin, in Descent, noted a tribe wherein female infanticide led to raiding for women.


China and India now have surplus males for the same reason.  Dangerous. Unmarried men have more testosterone and are called losers by their society.


In the US history, murder rates were highest where the population had the most unmarried men and the fewest available women.  


122 – Inuits and Yanomamo and others have this same profile.  


Divale and Harris have found this pattern in 561 band and tribal populations.  And, 105 males are born for every 100 females, naturally.


123 – War waging societies tend to manipulate sex ratios in order to maximize the number of fighting males.  Having more males gives you a survival advantage.  So infanticide and war make for a vicious cycle.


124 – Barry Hewlett’s study agreed with Divale and Harris, but added his also leads to more war within groups too.


Hudson and Den Boer not that significant rates of polygyny is functionally equivalent to a masculinized society.


125 – Homeric slave women were taken from other Greek groups, so the raids would not have corrected the imbalance.


126 – Evidence suggests Greeks practiced female infanticide.  


127 – Shy of infanticide, just giving females less nutrients would lessen their survival rates.


128 – While there is no direct textual evidence, Priam’s sons outnumber his daughters 4:1. This pattern is in all genealogies in the text.  The Warriors miss their wives and sons in the text, not their daughters.


130 – Why this male preference? Sons were more valuable socially, economically, and politically.


131 – Achilles and Odysseus’ only having one child (a son) is rare.


132 – Like Telemachus, being an only child in a fatherless home is dangerous. 


Estates were divided among sons, so Homeric villages are like conglomerations of ‘fraternal interest groups.’


133 – Brothers discourage and punish violations of the estate. Those with no brothers are vulnerable.


134 – In at least a dozen examples in the Iliad, brothers fight side by side.  At the end of the Odyssey only Athena deus ex machina prevents revenge on Odysseus for his massacre of the suitors by their families.


Might is not only personal, it is in the strength of your kin network.


136 – Economically, men were more of a boon too. They brought the raw materials that the women processed.  This almost always leads to favoring males, a high ratio of males, and war.



Page 140


Aristotle noted real tragedy is when bad things happen to good people.  Epic can be tragedy.  The Iliad is.


These are good men.  But situations dictate their ends.


141 – The Iliad and Odyssey are pessimistic and fatalistic.


Aristotle likes plots that provoke wonder and surprise, but argues against making this happen via recourse to Alogon: That is the negation of law (a – without logon – logic).    He didn’t like absurdity, irrational, unaccountable, inexplicable.


But at the heart of Homeric works is alogon: horrors that con only be explained via recourse to the supernatural.


142 – The Iliad is not an anti-war poem.  At times he curses war, but at times his characters pine for it as sweet.


As General Lee said, “It is well war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.”


143 – Yet the poem graphically depicts deaths of 250 named soldiers and more unnamed.   


144 – Homer contrasts the waste of war with the satisfactions of peacetime.


145 – The war is genocidal for the Trojans, but also tearful and wasteful for the Greeks.


146 – But for all its horrors, the men rarely consider renouncing war.  There is no escape from it.


147 – Several times the Greeks and Trojans try to make peace.  But, Gods intervene.


148 – People sometimes say the Iliad is a peon to war and the Odyssey to peace.  He thinks this is overstated.  108 suitors are killed in the end.


Not moral, Odysseus instructs his swineherd not to kill one fellow straight away so they can torture him with revenge.


149 – When Odysseus meets Agamemnon in the underworld, he assumes he has died in a booty raid.  And, as soon as he is home, after one month, Odysseus leaves to raid in Egypt.   (The name Odysseus likely means ‘son of pain.’


150 – Why this choosing of war when domesticity is described so peacefully? 


151 – The maniacal, capricious, and cruel control of the universe?


Violence and retribution are a self-reinforcing cycle.  People bias in favor of males because the world is violent; the world is violent because people bias in favor of males.


152 – Herein he invokes the Prisoners’ dilemma.


155 – In Robert Axelrod’s phrase, cooperation – in the Prisoners’ dilemma – is favored when “the shadow of the future” is long.  


In the Greek world, the shadow of the future was short and precarious.


156 – Homer’s epics are about men who spend their lives preparing for war.  No one can count on the sort of cooperation that the optimal prisoners’ dilemma outcome requires.  Its all a vicious circle.


Choosing violent males for mates, a perennial overstocking of males, and rewarding bold aggression – all rooted in reproduction prerogatives – rigged this world towards endless combat.



Page 160


The evolutionary approach to human behavior is feared for many reasons.  One ‘the unquiet ghost of Social Darwinism.”   Also, people still haven’t made peace with us being animals, not descendants of Adam and Eve.


Evolutionary exploration leads us to ask, “What is a human being?”


161 – Hector is a loving family man and a killer. 


More than half of the Iliad’s similes have an animal object.   Most frequently, men are lions, covered in blood surrounded by slaughtered oxen.


162 – But Homer crosses species easily.  And, he also notes we’re like animals taking care of their cubs.   The emotional gravity of the Iliad and Odyssey lay in their depiction of the struggles for survival and reproduction.


The losers and winners play for the highest Darwinian stakes.


163 – In the Iliad we glimpse pictures of Achilles as a loving father, a conscientious son, a singer of songs, a teacher, a devoted lover and loyal friend.


Usually evolutionary themed books end with an upbeat, reassuring message.  But the liberal Enlightenment portrait of humans is more flexible than the man as animal message of Darwinian portraits.  


164 – The Enlightenment picture sees us as possibly hitting utopia.  Evolutionary theory only ‘hope of some unspecified level of diminishment in human suffering and malfeasance.


But the hope in evolutionary models is not inconsiderable if we ‘know ourselves.’  But Peter Singer notes in “A Darwinian Left,’ it has dashed the Left’s dream of ‘The Perfectibility of Man.”


165 – The final image of the Iliad is Achiles and Priam meeting in peace in a tent.  Achilles agrees to bury Hector with respect.  But, even then, in the tent, Achilles almost teeters and kills Priam. 


They bury Hector and the next day fighting resumes.  Achilles will kill and kill and be killed here.


Even as Achilles is alienated from his society, he is in it.  He is between the status of ‘lion and men” as we all are.