Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.15

Pamela Ann Draper, Homer. Iliad Book 1 with notes and vocabulary.   Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, 2002.  Pp. vi, 193.  ISBN 0-472-06792-3.  $22.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Martin Schmidt, Lexikon des frühgriechischen Epos, Hamburg (
Word count: 2529 words

There are now quite a few scholarly commentaries on the first book of the Iliad. The relevant parts of the commentaries on the whole Iliad by Ameis-Hentze-Cauer in German (7th ed., Leipzig 1913) and by W. Leaf in English (2nd edition, London 1900) are still useful and used. But in recent years, in response to current needs, we have been given some new scholarly commentaries on the first book of the Iliad: in 1985 the first volume of the Cambridge Commentary on the Iliad (Kirk, 1985), in 2000 a commentary on the first book of the Iliad by S. Pulleyn (Oxford), and, as part one of a new "Gesamtkommentar" on the whole Iliad, the commentary on book 1 by J. Latacz and others (München & Leipzig, in German). All these works are intended for readers with some knowledge of Greek.

On the other hand, useful commentaries based not on the Greek Homer but on the English translation of the Iliad by R. Lattimore have been published in recent years (M.M. Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad based on the translation of Richmond Lattimore. Chicago & London 1976; Homer's Iliad. A Commentary on the translation of Richmond Lattimore by Norman Postlethwaite, Exeter 2000).

The book reviewed here, like other student or school commentaries before it, takes a middle line between these two approaches: "The annotated edition of the first book of Homer's Iliad is intended to make it possible for students who have completed elementary Greek to read, enjoy and appreciate Homer", says Draper (D.) in her preface (p. V). So I understand her very detailed and sometimes even trivial notes about very simple things (comparable to what one finds in the ancient D-scholia) as an attempt to relieve the reader of any trouble or frustration in translating so as to make it easier to see the beauty, clarity and dignity of the poem.


Short introductory chapters also serve this purpose. They make one familiar with the most important things one has to know, in trying to read in its original language a poem nearly 3000 years old. They summarize the current state of our knowledge (or ignorance), without going too far into arguments and without reference to secondary literature (with one exception).

Asking "Who was Homer?" D. shows, "that there is nothing we can say with complete certainty about Homer" (p.1) and explains why she nevertheless will continue to call the author of the Iliad "Homer".

Under the heading "How was the Iliad composed?" we hear that the Iliad stands in a long tradition of oral poetry, but, with all respect to M. Parry, D. reminds us that "a considerable number of lines in Homer's work are not formulaic" and that the poet can and does utilize formulas "creatively, choosing a specific formulaic word or phrase to create a desired effect" (p.3). Citing W.B. Stanford she shows her enthusiasm for the poet of those "two superb poems", the Iliad and the Odyssey.

In the next chapter ("What Historical Period Does the Iliad represent? Is the Iliad 'true'?") D. thinks it possible that the destruction of "the seventh Troy" about 1220 B.C. ("or perhaps an earlier one") "provided the inspiration for the later stories of the Trojan War, but this is merely a guess" (on the following page she gives 1100 B.C. as the date of the collapse of Mycenean civilisation and the destruction of the great palaces -- this seems to be a misprint for 1200).

The real society on which the details of the world described in the Homeric poems were based she dates not as contemporary with that of the poets (i.e. sometime around 750-700 B.C.) but as "the late Dark Age (the late ninth and early eighth centuries B.C.)". But she concedes that Homer also "added material from his own observation" and, more important, that the "Homeric world is not just a reflection of the realities ... it is also a product of poetic invention".

Passing to the history of the text ("How were the Homeric Poems passed down over the Centuries?") D. thinks that the Iliad and the Odyssey were probably written down "between 650 and 550 B.C." (that would be about a hundred years after being composed), "perhaps even earlier". She doesn't mention the possibility of writing or dictation by the poet himself. But later on, in the commentary to line 84, it sounds as if the poet of the Iliad may no longer have been an oral poet. Next we are told of the transmission of the text down to the editio princeps of 1488.

Then we get a short and precise summary of the Iliad (with Antehomerica and Posthomerica), a survey of "Homeric Greek" and the differences between it and Attic Greek (expanded in Appendix 2 by "Some Basic Homeric Forms and Grammar") and of the "Dactylic Hexameter". For "Further Reading" 45 titles are recommended , all English, but among them one German book in translation (J. Latacz, Homer: His Art and his World), and finally we are given references to "Fiction" (mainly American novels about Troy and its fall, dating from the 20th century) and to Web Sites on Classics.


The main part of the book is naturally the text of Book 1 of the Iliad with the commentary . The text is divided in a user-friendly manner into sections ranging from 5 or 6 up to 30 verses, with special headings.

1. The Greek text is that of Monro-Allen's Oxford edition of 1920. That seems surprising in 2002. If D. thought it too much to confront her readers with the best edition of the Iliad we currently have (that of West, Stuttgart & Leipzig 1998), then van Thiel's edition (Hildesheim 1996) would still be better than Monro-Allen. There are no hints as to variae lectiones, not even in line 5 (πᾶσιν or δαῖτα). Only on line 265 are we informed that this line, with its mention of the Attic hero Theseus, is suspect ("interpolated or added later"). The reader should not "delve into issues of textual criticism" (p.V). I think this regrettable. "Textkritik" is a necessary part of the history of Homer and his readers. Today too the reader must learn that the text didn't fall from heaven, that we have no original Iliad.

2. The Commentary gives something on almost every word, mainly translations, often grammatical notes. Considering the "Glossary" on pages 161-93, where all words are given alphabetically and translated, I do not understand why so many translations are given in the notes. The Commentary itself does not refer to secondary literature, but in Appendix 1 we are given, arranged by line number, a list of references to authors to whom D. owes ideas in explaining the text. Here we find more than once Clyde Pharr, Homeric Greek. A Book for Beginners (rev. ed. by J. Wright, 1985), Pulleyn's Commentary from 2000, and several books and articles by Mark W. Edwards. The ancient commentaries (the Scholia) are also sometimes used (not always correctly, see below on line 191).

The translations or the explanations of words and things given by D. are normally simple and correct. She avoids, if possible, unnecessary details or discussions. Thus, for example, on the ἔπεα πτερόεντα in line 201 we are informed that the poetic phrase conveys the idea of words flying through the air, but there is no mention of the vexed question whether like birds or arrows.

But sometimes I find either not enough or too much meaning given to a word, particularly when the special sound of a word in the sentence has to be weighed. Not enough: on γέρων in line 26 it should be asked whether this word is meant contemptuously or not; and on ἄχος in line 188 explained as "distress, pain, anguish" the sudden, impulsive emotion of Achilles, important for the scene, is not mentioned (cf. the commentaries of Pulleyn and Latacz, and the Lexikon des frühgr. Epos, s. v. ἄχος). Too much: ἐναρίζω in line 191 is explained, following Pulleyn, as "strip a slain enemy of his weapons and armor" and therefore here as something like "take away" (material possessions from Agamemnon). This in my opinion goes too far. No ancient hearer could have understood the verb in this way here.

Questions of grammar are fully explained, also with an eye to the relationship between grammar and poetry. Thus on ἕλκετο in line 194 and the other verbs in the context the "most effective" selection of tenses is emphasized and set in relation to Achilles' thoughts.

Some points of criticism: on line 25 (ἐπιτέλλω) tmesis is explained as an historical phenomenon (Homer's time opp. to later times). But since Mycenean Greek "shows regular composition of preverb and verb and no traces of tmesis" (A. Morpurgo Davies, in: Linear B: A 1984 Survey, edd. A. Morpurgo Davies and Y. Duhoux, Louvain-la neuve 1984. 86), tmesis in the epic poems must be seen as a poetic licence; on lines 188-9 ἐν δὲ οἱ ἦτορ στήθεσσιν λασίοισιν we read: "ἐν translate with στήθεσσιν in the next line". This is probably wrong. ἐν is an adverb (cf. Leaf and Latacz in their commentaries) and we must translate with Schadewaldt "und drinnen, sein Herz in der behaarten Brust", not "his heart within his shaggy breast" (Pulleyn); on line 191 τοὺς μὲν ἀναστήσειν there is a note on the difficulty in understanding these words, and we are informed about the possibilities (cf. also LfgrE s.v. ἵστημι II 1247,8ff.: "exact nuance unclear"). So far I agree. But that Aristarchus suggested the translation "rouse the other Greeks [against Agamemnon]", as D says, relying on a short article by E.D. Floyd (Explicator 35, no.4, Summer 1995, 186-88), is not plausible. We do not know how exactly Aristarchus understood ἀναστήσειν, but Floyd's solution is very unlikely and he himself felt that something was wrong with his translation of the scholia and therefore came to ask "whether Aristarchos's original statement of the matter was not somewhat different from the form in which the scholia report it".


But D. not only gives translations and explanations of words and things, she also deals -- very effectively -- with matters of style, composition and especially with the relationship between the poet and his audience.

Stylistic or rhetorical figures are not merely pointed out: usually D. deals sensitively with the question why the poet used the device in the context, e.g. on the "hysteron-proteron" in line 251, on the fourfold repetition of one word in lines 287-9, on the litotes in line 330, and on the anaphora in lines 436-9.

Again and again we are told that a word or phrase involves an appeal to the hearer: the invocation of the Muse in line 1 is seen not only as an assertion of divine guarantee for the quality of the story but also as a signal for the audience to be quiet since the performance is beginning; the focusing on the μῆνις in the first lines of the poem is explained (note on line 7) as Homer's way of catching the attention of an audience used to hearing more standard heroic songs; on line 84 D. (taking up a suggestion of A. Michalopoulos) also sees a very practical purpose in the use of formulaic epithets in verses that introduce speeches: to catch the listener's attention. The listener who missed the name might pick up the epithet and so still know who the speaker is.

It is, then, no surprise that D. sees (rather convincingly in my opinion) irony more than once in the poet's words: the irony of Agamemnon's threat (μή μ' ἐρέθιζε) in line 32 "will soon become apparent as we see the truly threatening effects of Apollo's and then Achilles' anger"; on line 303: "how ironic it is that the Greeks, who came to Troy to fight for a stolen woman (Helen), are now fighting among themselves over another stolen woman (Briseis)"; on line 175, when Agamemnon speaks of μητίετα Ζεύς, who will soon bring defeat and humiliation on him; and especially on line 489 , where Achilles in his "unaccustomed inactivity" is called πόδας ὠκύς.

And when Zeus, very unusually, addresses Hera as δαιμονίη (line 561), D. ventures to see Homer making a joke (whereas in Latacz' commentary we can only read: "merkwürdig".)

References to the composition or the function of scenes are not frequent, but sometimes very helpful. Some examples: no decision is proposed about Athena's role in Achilles' decision-making process in the famous scene in lines 188-222. D. (on line 222) sees two possibilities: either Athena is "merely a symbol of Achilles' better judgement" or her actions are "literal actions vital for the plot". She does not mention either the ancient (Aristarchus' athetization of line 192) or the modern debate (Snell et al.). Very reasonable in my opinion are the references to the foreshadowing or mirroring function of some scenes in relation to the whole or to other parts of the Iliad. For example, on line 5 we are reminded that the early mention of corpses and what happens to them points to the later books of the Iliad, where a key issue is the fate of the bodies of Patroclus and Hector. On line 32 and again on 474 we are told that acceptance or rejection of ransom is a main theme of the Iliad from Chryses' offer onward , that the story of Chryses may even have been invented specifically to balance the episode with which the Iliad ends (Priam's offer of ransom). And on line 600 the unattractive but successful peacemaker Hephaestus is nicely compared with the respected but unsuccessful peacemaker Nestor.

In a long note on line 284 D., assessing the struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon, rightly points out the importance of honour for the Homeric heroes: "To be dishonored or not be honored would be an unendurable insult. Loss of prestige, power or property is shameful...". But, nevertheless, we are not taken off to the strange territory of "shame-culture", or to aboriginal "status-warriors" (pardon, Hans van Wees). For in the note to the last line of the book (611) we are reminded that book 1 of the Iliad ("often described as a poem about war") depicts no battles at all, but "shows that the poem is also about how people deal with anger, pride, power, honor, responsibility, disappointment and the knowledge of mortality" and that "dealing with power responsibly" or "taking a position on principle and sticking to it despite the consequences" are "all part of being human", and "although set in ancient Greece, it [the Iliad] has relevance for all times, places and cultures".

I cannot judge whether this commentary is exactly attuned to the knowledge of Greek that students in U.S.A have after completing a course of basic grammar. But in view of the amount of elementary explanation it contains, I imagine it is, and considering the literary interpretation it offers I should like to recommend it. The reader, with the help of D.'s notes, will find a lively poem full of emotion and suspense, worth reading in our time, in America or in old Europe.

(I thank my colleague Jim O'Sullivan for correcting my English.)

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:43, Friday, 03 April 2009