Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.32

Anthony Snodgrass, Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998.  Pp. xii, 186, 63 figs.  ISBN 0-521-62022-8.  $59.95 (hb).  ISBN 0-521-62981-0.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Sarah Morris, University of California, Los Angeles (
Word count: 1910 words

"It is said that every Classical scholar wishes to write a book about Homer -- and that every other Classical scholar wishes to stop him or her writing it." This apology introduces a book devoted more directly to early Greek figural art, as the author admits in the next sentence; few would have wished to stop him from doing so. For the book caps a series of studies over the past twenty years, from several essays on Geometric figural scenes,1 expanded into archaic narrative in the Myres lecture,2 that have no doubt sown anticipation for this small monograph.

Its avowed purpose is baldly stated in the first sentence, and promises an unpopular message (p. ix). S. demonstrates, through a close analysis of well-known narrative scenes of the eighth, seventh and sixth centuries B.C., that early Greek artists did not follow closely the texts of our Iliad and Odyssey, as is commonly assumed. (If this sounds familiar, it should, because scholars like Friis Johansen and Fittschen have emphasized this in the past.3) He does this in five dense chapters, framed by an opening discussion of how and when these poems became important in antiquity ("The prestige of Homer"), and a final one on composition in Greek art and literature (perhaps something that should have come earlier). His method involves an exhaustive comparison of many images (primarily decorated vases and some bronze reliefs) to Homeric episodes for their fidelity, defined not only by complete agreement with the text, but demanding some overt reference to the poetic version. Naturally, few scenes satisfy these criteria; the summary of scenes of the blinding of Polyphemus is typical: "different, but roughly contemporary, artists display mutually exclusive combinations of apparent fidelity to the Odyssey account, and demonstrable adherence to a non-Homeric account" (x). I have emphasized conditions crucial to Snodgrass's evaluation: images of a story that are mutually exclusive cannot derive from the same source, and significant features which point to a non-Homeric version weigh heavily against inspiration from Iliad or Odyssey. Snodgrass also demands that artists privilege those episodes prominent (in his view: p. 69) in the poems, or include details exclusive to the Homeric version (72-73). Explicit here (p. 67) is the expectation that artists not only could but would express their debt to a textual source.

This approach resembles the kind of neo-analytic exercise once practised on Homer by early scholars: art and text are tested against each other the way the two poems once were, as individual passages were rejected since antiquity. It also could perpetuate the appeal to lost versions of stories, long used by art historians confronted with "discrepancies" between text and art. For some, this book can be an absorbing journey asking tough questions of familiar images, with much to learn along the way. Those who take this book seriously can no longer assume a sudden or dramatic interest in "illustrating" the Iliad and Odyssey in early Greece, and this has important implications for the study of epic poetry as well as early Greek art.

Two things that will help a reader enjoy this book are prior acquaintance with the images as well as the controversies surrounding them, and an absorbing interest in both to provide patience and concentration. There are rewards along the way, such as the introduction to an old debate of new non-Greek works often critical to particular scenes (e.g. figure 38). But is difficult to accumulate a sense of satisfaction from a series of negative results, and therein lies the main problem for this reader. Conclusions emphasize the independence of the artist, and a new focus in art as a result of a new literary genre, drama: but these should be assumptions fundamental from the start, not new discoveries. There is much false precision marginal to ancient or modern enjoyment of poetry and art, although some precision did preoccupy ancient audiences (if it is true that Peisistratus could take such credit for canonizing the order of Homeric episodes) and, eventually, Hellenistic scholars.

Here the timing of publication may be unfortunate, as philologists consider new proposals to spread the "fixation" of the Homeric text over many centuries,4 while prehistorians argue about the date of its oldest ingredients. The site of Troy itself is once again under excavation, offering some archaeologists new (and surely false) comfort in the "historicity" of Homer,5 and offering philologists and visitors new delusions of absurdly precise termini and settings for epic poetry.6 This has made Homer a moving target, if not a Procrustean corpus being stretched back into the Bronze Age by some, ever later into the Iron Age by others. This leaves little agreement on whose "Homer" we are comparing to these images, and we should feel some discomfort with the pursuit of points of convergence between two evolving traditions.

Skirting some of these issues (pp. ix, 12-13, 169-170), Snodgrass considers first how Homer got his name and fame, starting as "just a very good poet living in Ionia" (p. 11, the final phrase of Chapter 1). Then we turn to the first figural scenes in Geometric art in the second chapter, "Learning to read in the dark," with special emphasis on the "twins" already treated by Snodgrass in earlier publications. Here he warns against the circular process whereby early images serve as "proof" of the circulation of Homeric poetry, then are cited as evidence for inspiration by those same poems (p. 13). The Bronze Age receives short shrift as usual, thanks to the iron curtain lowered since Finley between Homer and prehistory. But how distant are the shipwreck scenes from Akrotiri, Thera (fifteenth or seventeenth century BC), from sea battles in new Mycenaean pictorial kraters from eastern Lokris (Kynous), or the Geometric scenes centuries later (figure 14)? All tell the same story in identical details: the prow of a ship, a drowning sailor with hand open as a badge of death, hungry sea-creatures nearby. All are "Homeric" in their anguished view of death at sea without burial or kleos, yet none matches a specific passage, so they fail Snodgrass' test (p. 36). If Snodgrass has Homer himself as heir to a long tradition as old as the Bronze Age (p. 49), who was the first to recognize in Geometric art a type of "generalized heroic" scene, how early do we start testing Greek art for its Homeritas?

The third chapter ("The Geometric artist reassessed") considers the impact of writing and revisits a favorite topic of the author, the representation of time in narrative and the invention of the synoptic convention by early Greek artists. The blinding of Polyphemus is by far the most popular episode from the Odyssey for early Greek vase painters, but was also equally common in non-Homeric and even non-Greek folktales and other oral traditions. This episode dominates the seventh century and thus Chapter 4, "Beyond the Geometric." Snodgrass subjects familiar images to his stringent criteria, then plays a trump card: an Etruscan version (a pithos once in the Fleischmann collection and now in the Getty Museum: fig. 38) distant from Homer's native land agrees more closely with Homer's verses than scenes from Athens, Argos, or Sicily. Where does this leave us? With regret, and without "artistic proof of the currency of the Odyssey" by this period (p. 100). The advent of writing, linked by some scholars with the redaction of Homer itself, does not improve artists' chances to satisfy Snodgrass' demands for Homeric fidelity, as Chapter 5 shows. A case in point is the chariot-race held at the funeral games of Patroklos in Iliad 23, represented on the François vase (ca. 560 B.C.) by Kleitias, who labels his figures copiously, to his own disadvantage. Noted discrepancies exist between Homer's account of this event and the names, sequence and roles of heroes depicted on the krater (Odysseus is first on the vase, but does not compete in the Iliad, where Diomedes is the winner but appears third on the vase, etc.). The crucial question is asked: "Do the discrepancies amount to a 'substantial departure' from Homer's version?" (120). Snodgrass is torn, but finally blames "a variant and no doubt post-Homeric version of the race: probably, but not certainly, a poetic one; possibly one designed to promote the glory of Odysseus, here shown as the winner." This seems to set us back many years, laboriously noting "inconsistencies" like visual Analysts of Homer, taking comfort in lost works of poetry, all the while losing sight of the power of story and image. Is this really an advancement on Beazley's view (critized by Snodgrass, p. 120) of Kleitias, as one who lost his prompter (a "learned friend" who knew the text and its principals more closely) and mislabeled his figures?

A recent and more intriguing view of this scene sees Kleitias "reading" the Iliad by showing Odysseus -- notorious winner of the foot-race -- ahead, then Automedon, charioteer of the dead hero and heir to his horses, in a creative combination of several events from the games, still following Homer.7 This reveals how early Greek art can be close to the text without literal reproduction, as artists used their imagination in telling the same story. Similar efforts have been developed in a recent publications on Homer and Greek art,8 and suggest thinking about narrative in new ways, if we expect to advance the field beyond Carl Robert's Bild und Lied.

Casting our net more widely into the postmodern, let us compare Snodgrass' treatment of one image to another recent and very different approach to early Greek (Corinthian) vase painting by Michael Shanks.9 A notoriously difficult scene on a Protocorinthian aryballos in the Louvre (CA 617), often identified as the abduction (or recovery) of Helen, is condemned by Snodgrass (pp. 86-88) for its suitability to four episodes of the epic cycle, all non-Homeric. In Shanks' breath-taking tour of gender, violence, monsters, flowers, faces, and gifts around the same vase (75-105), "Helen" becomes a male figure supervising athletic events, the two horsemen disappear as Dioskouroi, and the heroes threatening with swords are mere competitors. In a text much more copiously filled with quotations from early Greek poetry, Homer plays a minor role in the interpretation of individual scenes, but serves instead as a resource for early Greek values (war, violence, etc.) in a study devoted to "social archaeology" (with explicit deference to "the pioneering work" of his teacher, Snodgrass: p. 2). Many will find Shanks' book (billed as "a textured collage characterised by thick description," p. 4) a wild ride, once he sets out flaws in the positivist approach and empirical method in archaeology, and proposes instead "learning from hermeneutics" (p. 11). But this kind of critical approach to one's subject matter, method and presuppositions has become standard in modern interpretation. Snodgrass performs a similar critique by exhausting a positivist method based on logical criteria, for we are left with little new understanding of what Greek artists heard and saw in Homer. On the threshold of the next century, I wonder what the future holds, beyond such books and the critical poles they represent, for the study of Greek art.

To end on more practical notes: as a slim volume in small format (6 x 8.5"), this book is not worth $60, but the simultaneous paperback is more affordable at $19.95. There is no bibliography but abbreviations head endnotes densely packed with references, and the list of illustrations features a concordance of their appearances in significant publications which will be useful to specialists.


1.   "Poet and Painter in 8th-Century Greece," PCPS 205 (1979) 118-130; "Towards the interpretation of the Geometric figure-scenes," AthMitt 95 (1980) 51-58; enhanced in his Sather lectures, published as An Archaeology of Greece. Towards the History of a Discipline (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1987), chapter 5, pp. 132-169.
2.   Narration and Allusion in Archaic Greek Art (London 1982).
3.   K. Friis Johansen, The Iliad in Early Greek Art (Copenhagen 1967); K. Fittschen, Untersuchungen zum Beginn der Sagendarstellungen bei den Griechen (Berlin 1969).
4.   G. Nagy, Homeric Questions (Austin 1995), to be read with reviews and ensuing debate.
5.   See the field reports in the new Studia Troica (since 1991), which also features articles on classical philology relevant to Troy. Among new positivist interpretations, the excavators of the prehistoric city argue that the lower city is now revealed as large enough for the city to have inspired an epic, etc. Burkert's essay in The Ages of Homer (note 8) dismantles the notion that any precise date or event lay behind Greek speculation about their early history.
6.   A visit to Troy convinced M. West, "The Date of the Iliad," Museum Helveticum 52 (1995) 203-219, that "he composed it here" (217 n. 43), but no earlier than the flooding of Babylon by the Assyrians (668 B.C.), which he links to the flood in Iliad 12.17-33.
7.   S. Lattimore, "The Chariot Racers on the François Vase," AJA 101 (1997) 359 suggests that Kleitias "used the race to represent the entire games."
8.   See especially the essays by Benson, Brownlee, and Stansbury-O'Donnell in The Ages of Homer. A tribute to Emily Townsend Vermeule, eds. J. Carter and S. Morris, Austin 1995, and now Mark Stansbury-O'Donnell's Pictorial Narrative in Ancient Greek Art (also published by Cambridge, 1999, in their series on Classical Art and Iconography).
9.   M. Shanks, Art and the Early Greek State: An Interpretive Archaeology (likewise Cambridge 1999).

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