Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.14

Deborah Beck, Homeric Conversation.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, 2005.  Pp. ix, 317.  ISBN 0-674-01962-8.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Mark W. Edwards, Stanford University (
Word count: 1955 words

Table of Contents

Since Walter Arend's trail-blazing book Die typischen Scenen bei Homer (1933) a lot of work has been done identifying Homeric type-scenes and examining the ways in which particular instances are elaborated and amplified to produce different effects. Studies have also been made of the formulaic (and occasionally unformulaic) lines which Homer uses to introduce the many speeches in his poems.1 Beck (hereafter B.) combines these two approaches, studying the sequences of speeches between Homeric characters as a "conversation" type-scene, analyzing the regular patterns, the elaborated examples, and the effects of the occasional variations from the norm.

This is a good idea, and a new approach. B. divides the conversations in the Iliad and Odyssey into two main groups: "One-on-one conversations," in each poem, with those between Odysseus and Penelope given a separate chapter; and "Single Speeches and Group Conversations", subdivided into various kinds of single speeches on the battlefield and in group contexts such as assemblies, games, and laments. Within each section there is a discussion of the sequence of speeches in particular scenes, the ways in which the speeches are framed by the content of the introductory and concluding verses, and how each conversation contributes to the general effect of the scene in which it occurs.

First an Introduction deals in turn with "Type Scenes and Homeric Conversation," "Linguistic Perspectives on Conversation," and "Repeated Speech Sequences and Formulas in Conversation" (1-45). The first part shows B.'s sound knowledge of earlier work, the second that she is familiar with modern techniques of conversation analysis. In the third she describes the way she intends to categorize the speeches in the two poems: "Any given speech may take a conversational 'turn' in one of three basic ways: it may not participate in a conversation at all; it may be the first turn in a conversation; or it may respond in various ways to a previous turn in an ongoing conversation. Depending on several factors like the number of speakers involved, the social context for the speech, and others to be discussed further below, many different sequences exist for joining together a series of turns to form a conversation" (25). She then discusses the types of "turn" in "single" (= isolated) and sequential speeches, categorizing and listing the "formulaic speech frames" which introduce them, making it clear that she considers that "even highly formulaic language is compatible with aesthetic significance and meaning" (31).2 Her categories are based upon the verb used, instead of the semantic circumstances underlying my own analysis (see note 1 below).

Then follows Part I of the volume, devoted to one-on-one conversations, divided into those in which Odysseus talks with Athena, with Telemachus, and with Laertes: those in which he talks with Penelope; and those which occur in the Iliad. At the start B. eliminates cases where "two speakers alternate without either events in the story or comments from the narrator intervening between one speech and the next" (49), and focuses on conversations where there is some elaboration, "some kind of variation within a single verse speech introduction or speech conclusion that goes beyond the normal range of structures and meanings for such formulaic verses, or an extension of a single formulaic verse into a multi-verse speech frame." This is, of course, like the wide range of different forms one sees in Homeric type-scenes. "The most common type of variation involves one or both characters in a conversation feeling unusually strong emotions about the conflicting pressures of skeptical concealment and self-revealing honesty, which the narrator then describes for the audience" (49). B.'s method is to give "detailed close readings of specific passages" to bring out the elaboration in the framing speech introductions, often explaining in great (and sometimes rather wearisome) detail how the elaborating passages could have been omitted, or replaced by a standard one-verse formula, without disturbing the narrative or violating formulaic usage. Though her investigations are careful and she often brings out interesting points (such as the fact that the suitors address Penelope as "daughter of Ikarios", but Odysseus calls her "wife of Odysseus, son of Laertes", 96-97) I sometimes felt that interesting aspects were being passed over (see below). Her comments on the elaborated speech-introductions in the Odysseus-Penelope scene in Odyssey 23 (110-123) are good.

In Part II, "Single Speeches and Group Conversations," speeches are grouped into those occurring on the battlefield, those spoken in assemblies, those found in funeral games, and laments. On the battlefield, speeches are mainly exhortation (in which section B. pays special attention to Agamemnon's epipolesis), challenge, and vaunt, where she covers the Achilles-Lycaon encounter extensively. A concluding section points out that expansion of the genre of exhortation in the epipolesis provides conversations with and portraits of several Greek leaders, and the conversations of Achilles in the later books, occurring where normally a single genre of speech (usually a vaunt) would be found, emphasize his tremendous fury.

The chapter on assemblies examines the normal methods of switching from one speaker to another, and then compares the four different types of group conversation in Iliad 9: assembly; council; embassy; and informal group conversation. A following section studies variations on the typical assembly patterns in Iliad 1 and 19, both occasions of exceptional length and significance. B. shows how the speech frames in the first assembly bring out the increasing anger of Achilles, and how the Iliad 19 assembly is unusual in that no speaker replies to the person who addressed him. In conclusion, B. refers briefly to the rare Trojan assemblies and the single example in the Odyssey.

The final groups are athletic games and laments. These are studied as conversational sequences, since only one example of each occurs, and are compared with assemblies. In the funeral games, it appears that the representation of speeches combines aspects of an assembly with aspects of battlefield conversations: "opponents strive against one another in an agonistic, competitive manner within a larger framework of rules and order that prevents the competitive aspect of the situation from getting out of control" (244). Laments are more similar to assemblies, with specific formalized conventions. B. considers the two sets of laments for Hector, in Iliad 24 and 22, and the three for Patroclus (in 18, 19, and 23).

A final chapter on "Conclusions" summarizes the results of the previous investigations, and stresses two particular features: "First, each poem displays a compelling and consistent unity; the regular structures of conversational types, the ways in which conversations vary from these regular structures, the effects to which these variations are put, and the significance of these variations for the artistic and aesthetic shape of the poems are both widespread and consistent in their various appearances" (273). And: "Secondly, the consistency of these artistic effects and of the underlying vocabulary of what a conversation 'normally' looks like implies the existence of an audience for the poems who was versed in these effects and for whom they were intended to make sense" (274).

Besides a bibliography, an index locorum, and an index of names and subjects, there are four appendices: a breakdown of speeches by type; a list of participles appearing in ton ... prosephê ... verses (easily available from concordances); a list of full-verse context-specific introductory formulas (arranged on different principles from those I used in my article, note 1 below); and full-verse speech concluding formulas.

Studying speech-genres and speech-frames in the same way as one compares different instances of a type-scene is a good idea, and B.'s comments are usually appropriate enough and uncontroversial, though sometimes expressed at what seems unnecessary length. Occasionally one wishes she had said more about cases where the poet avoids elaboration and the speech-introductions are utterly simple, no more than the names of characters in the text of a play, as in the highly-emotional Hector-Andromache scene in Iliad 6 (here 128-129).

B. does not often bring out a new angle, and sometimes omits some which seem to me of interest. The wise old editors of BMCR caution reviewers against attacking a book for not being the book they would have written, reasonably enough; but it seems only fair to give some examples of what I mean.

pp.52-55. On the wonderful scene between Odysseus and the disguised Athena on Ithaca (Odyssey 13.221-440): I cannot agree with B. (54-55) that the similar line when Odysseus greets Athena in 22.207 ( 8776; 13.226) suggests that he recognizes her immediately in her disguise here; his saying he prays to her "as to a god" (13.230-231) should be compared to his similar and much-elaborated comparison of Nausicaa to Artemis (6.150-152). I do not agree that the absence of "an extended or unusual speech introduction" to Odysseus' speech after she names herself to him (13.311) "implies that Odysseus is, in fact, not surprised to find out who Athena is" (59). B. does not mention his immediate and resentful reproof "Where were you when I needed you?" (13.314-323).776; 13.226) suggests that he recognizes her immediately in her disguise here; his saying he prays to her "as to a god" (13.230-231) should be compared to his similar and much-elaborated comparison of Nausicaa to Artemis (6.150-152). I do not agree that the absence of "an extended or unusual speech introduction" to Odysseus' speech after she names herself to him (13.311) "implies that Odysseus is, in fact, not surprised to find out who Athena is" (59). B. does not mention his immediate and resentful reproof "Where were you when I needed you?" (13.314-323).

p.67; In Odyssey 16.90 proseeipe is used because Odysseus is not replying to the previous speaker (Eumaeus) but addressing Telemachus; it is not equivalent to apameibomenos prosephê.

pp.69-70: Of Odyssey 16.192 B. says "Indeed, the syntax of line 192 stops the action briefly and focuses on Telemachus' isolation: the adversative sense of δ' separates him grammatically and emotionally from his father, who has been mentioned in the previous verse." This is a lot of weight to impose on a d' introducing a new sentence.

p.75. B. rightly points out the emotional force of the two-verse speech-introduction at Odyssey 16.220-221 but omits to stress that this is largely due to the substitution of prosephôneen hon pater' aipsa ( = 19.35) for the usual pepnumenos antion êuda (which actually appears in the text used for Dunbar's Concordance).

p.86. I would have expected a comment on the introduction to Odysseus' first speech to old Laertes, which instead of using his name refers to him as phaidimos huios (Odyssey 24.243); and on the introduction to Laertes' first response, which calls him patêr (24.280). Later, the normal proper-name speech-introductions return for both of them (24.302, 327).

pp.135-144. B. devotes nine pages to the scene between Priam and Achilles in Iliad 24, but has no comment on what seem to me the highly significant expressions hupodra idôn and epikertomeôn introducing Achilles' speeches and describing his gruff mood (24.559, 649).

p.200. I missed a comment on Iliad 9.223-224, the remarkable speech-introduction where Achilles nods to Ajax, inviting him to open the talk, and Odysseus jumps in instead.

pp.206-207, 221. I was surprised that B. did not include comments on the highly-significant introductions to the assemblies at 1.53-58 (Hera prompting Achilles to summon the Greeks) and 19.40-55 (the impressive account of the gathering of the host and its wounded leaders), since these might be thought elaborations of the speech-introduction which then leads off the assembly.

p.219. B. rightly comments on the hapax hupoblêdên "interrupting" in the speech-introduction for Achilles at Iliad 1.292, but fails to note that Agamemnon does not forget the insult and throws the word back at him at 19.79-80 (oude eoiken | hubballein).

I noticed only a couple of very minor misprints, and few slips: (pp.6 and 302) the Collected Papers of Milman Parry was published in 1971, not 1987; (p.89) Laertes hopes the suitors will get their "just desserts"; (p.185) there is an unfortunate slip in the translation of Iliad 22.305, "that men shall come to know of it" for Lattimore's "that men to come shall know of it" (he omits kai "too"); (p.218 and note 60) the "cobbled-together" line, with its odd article, should be replaced by the Homeric toisi de Nestôr | hêduepês anorouse, ligus Puliôn agorêtês (Iliad 1.247-8).

B.'s work goes far to rescue speech introductions from "pervasive scholarly neglect" (14).


1.   Including my own "Homeric Speech Introductions" (HSCP 74 (1968) 1-36, which includes a survey of unusual forms found in both Homeric poems; A. M. Riggsby's "Homeric Speech Introductions and the Theory of Homeric Composition"(TAPA 122 (1992) 99-114, which refines my analysis on the basis up-to-date theories of formulaic usage. An earlier work by F. M. Combellack, "Omitted Speech Formulas in Homer," University of California Publications in Classical Philology 12.4 (1939), in which he discusses cases where a concluding hôs phato might have been expected but is not found, is the only relevant article that B. omits.
2.   I would have thought that this went without saying, but B. goes on (31) "A recent statement on the subject of Homeric style and oral poetics asserts: 'it must be remembered that Homer always has (and often avails himself of) the option of not taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the formulaic diction but of substituting something fitting the context and quite untraditional.' This statement implies that 'untraditional' language is required in order to fit the context, when in fact this is not the case...". The statement is mine; whether it actually carries the implication B. reads into it I leave to the reader to decide.

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