Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.14

Richard Janko, The Iliad: A Commentary. Volume IV: books 13-16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. xxv + 459. $84.95 (hb). $29.95 (pb). ISBN 0-521-23712-2 (hb). ISBN 0-521-23712-2 (pb).

Reviewed by S. Douglas Olson, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Homer's Iliad is one of the masterworks of the Western poetic tradition, and the need for a complete modern commentary has long been felt. It is accordingly a great pleasure to be able to announce the appearance of Richard Janko's extraordinary new study of Books 13-16, the fourth of what will eventually be six volumes produced under the general direction of G. S. Kirk. I do not doubt that many readers will find much to quarrel with here. That is the great strength of this commentary, however, rather than its weakness: it is so full of ideas and information and suggestions that it is bound to be extremely controversial and at the same time to have a tremendous impact on all future studies of early Greek hexametric poetry.

Janko's basic critical orientation is profoundly oralist and profoundly unitarian. He has no doubt there was a single original Iliad, composed by a brilliant Ionian singer who drew on and adapted a wealth of inherited formulae, story-patterns and traditions sometime in the the second half of the 8th century BCE. He is also convinced the text was fixed very early on, so that what we have today is very close to Homer's original song of the Wrath of Achilles.1 Janko's poet is a sophisticated and sometimes showy composer, who sings with constant irony and wit and is in virtually complete control of his story and an abundance of others as well. From time to time he makes a calculated decision which incidentally introduces minor inconcinnities into his narrative, and he is on occasion slightly clumsy. He knows where his story is going and where it has been, however, and virtually every phrase or image which passes his lips has a carefully calculated purpose. Not all of this will convince every reader, and those who have any sort of analyst sympathies or who believe the text has been substantially interpolated or altered over time will be particularly scandalized. What Janko has done, however, is to offer an enormously rich reading of four Books of the Iliad. Let others react to and build upon this as they wish.

Iliad 13-16 begins with several brief introductory essays, on the nature of the gods in Homer (pp. 1-7), the origins and evolution of epic diction (pp. 8-19) and the text and transmission of the poem (pp. 20-38). These are all interesting and insightful, but what is most important about this book is the commentary itself, which deals with an exceptionally wide range of issues and does so with a constant, infectious air of enthusiasm and excitement. Janko is extremely interested in individual words and formulae and in the way poetic diction evolved over time. As a result, he discusses the Alexandrian editors and their excesses repeatedly and is constantly correcting the regularizing tendencies of the OCT.2 At the same time, he has a great deal to say about topics ranging from the early ethnic history of the Mediterranean basin, to the part oil plays in the processing of fine linen, to Homeric fighting tactics, to the use of dress-pins in early Greece, to the influence of Near Eastern cosmogonic myth on traditions preserved in the Iliad. In the meantime, he carefully traces Homer's story and the way it is told, always with an eye to discovering beauty and significance in what less subtle critics might dismiss as somewhat randomly stitched-together fragments of the heroic tradition. Perhaps most important, Janko (like his poet) composes with elegance and wit, and with a constant dry sense of humor. Few modern commentaries on Greek literary texts evoke even a trace a smile from their readers; here one sometimes laughs.

Janko clearly knows the Iliad (and, indeed, all early Greek poetry) inside and out, and has one interesting and insightful thing after another to say about it. This is thus an extremely important book and one which all self-respecting libraries will need to acquire. Many individual classicists will want to own a copy as well, and fortunately the paperback price is low enough to make this possible. Since comparison to the first two volumes of the new Oxford commentary on the Odyssey is probably inevita ble, I should note that Janko's work seems to me, at least, considerably more interesting. The Oxford commentary tends to be very good on individual words and phrases and on the bare-bones mechanics of Homeric composition, but only rarely has anything helpful to say about more strictly "literary" matters. This is where Janko shines, and Iliad 13-16 should accordingly be the standard commentary on these Books for at least a generation.

Cambridge University Press is to be congratulated on the generally high quality of the production of this book. Although there is no index of Greek words, one is promised for the end of Vol. VI; let us hope it is not too long forthcoming. Let us also hope the appearance of this series will lead to a new Cambridge text of the Iliad, to which it would be keyed. The one typographical oddity which should be mentioned here is that the divine name "Here" is rendered inconsistently throughout this volume, sometimes with the final "e" marked long and sometimes not. This is scarcely significant, but one does wonder why the problem was not corrected during proofreading. All in all, however, this is wonderful book, which sets a very high standard for the rest of the series.


  • [1] Much of the detailed evidence for this position is developed in Janko's Homer, Hesiod and the Hymns: Diachronic Development in Epic Diction (Cambridge, 1982). Janko rejects the idea of a largely Pisistratean Iliad more or less out of hand, arguing that the traditions for this are late and extremely vague.
  • [2] See "The Iliad and its Editors: Dictation and Redaction," CA 9 (1990) 326-34, esp. 332-4, which also provides a useful general summary of Janko's orientation toward the poem and the problems it poses.