Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.09.55

Benjamin Sammons, The Art and Rhetoric of the Homeric Catalogue.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. x, 233.  ISBN 9780195375688.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by D. Thomas Benediktson, University of Tulsa (


Sammons analyzes various catalogues in Homer (women, objects, suitors, etc.), leaving aside the catalogues of warriors slain in battle. His argument is that the catalogues situate the narratives in larger narrative spaces and times, giving perspective to the Homeric poems. Viewed in this way, the catalogues reveal a Homer self-conscious (and self-confident) of his own methods and intentions.

An Introduction situates his topic within traditional Homeric issues like Analysis and Oral Theory, as well as within scholarship on catalogic passages in other literatures. Sammons' interest is especially in the catalogue as a means of bringing into the poems stories and other materials otherwise outside the scope of the poems. Sammons here points to Aristotle (Poet. 1459a30-b12), who praises Homer for narrowing his theme but using passages like the Catalogue of Ships to incorporate the larger context of a long war. Sammons defines a catalogue as an elaborated list, normally with anaphoric linkage, in which the contents are unrelated except as appropriate to the rubric of the list; this allows him also to avoid discussion of catalogic narratives such as the Shield and the Teichoscopia.

The first chapter treats the "paradigmatic catalogues" of Dione (Il. 5.382-405) and Calypso (Od. 5.118-36). The former passage, when interpreted together with the narratives of Glaucus and Diomedes himself in Book 6, reveal a "moral theory," a treatment of "crime and punishment" (p. 38), which illuminates the rest of the Iliad; the passages combined show that fighting the gods leads to retribution, but that in any case humans are subject to fate and the behavior of the gods. In the Odyssey passage, the apparently inappropriate list (all of the mortals die) makes sense when seen in Iliadic context: like Achilles, Odysseus elects fame and mortality over obscurity and a kind of death with Calypso, as implied in the myth of Tithonus (Od. 5.1-2).

Chapter 2 treats catalogues of women. Antinous' catalogue (Od. 2.115-22) suggests that Penelope might be worthy of an epic poem herself. Here, as often, Sammons sees Homer commenting on his own poetics by illustrating, via catalogue, the larger epic world and showing his own place in the tradition. Zeus's list of lovers (Il. 14.315-28), notoriously inappropriate as a seduction technique, features a Zeus who has lost control and uses his own behavior as a paradigm. In this and Hera's catalogue (Il. 14.200-205) we see the instability of the Olympic power structure until the διὸς βουλή can be restored. The catalogue of women in the Nekyia (Od. 11.235-327) is unique, with a mortal speaker and based on the words of the people met in the underworld rather than on divine knowledge. Each woman becomes an opportunity, not always taken, for narration and elaboration, and no coherent pattern appears as in the other catalogues and in Hesiod. The subsequent catalogue of heroes (11.568-626) becomes a visual show rather than a series of interviews and paradigmatically reinforces the "crime and punishment" motif of the Odyssey (p. 98). In each case discussed in Chapter 2, then, Homer alludes to other poems or traditions, showcasing his own style, manner and poetic world.

A fascinating third chapter treats natural objects in catalogues. The trees catalogued at Od. 24.336-44 are "a clear sign" (p. 103). Odysseus knows their meaning and history. In Homer inanimate objects can have epic κλέος, with histories and even genealogies, and the Ithacan trees represent home. Priam's ransom catalogue (Il. 24.228-37) dramatically contrasts his former happiness and glory with his current want and misery, ideas reinforced in the subsequent lists of his sons (24.248-62). Agamemnon's catalogic offer to Achilles in the Embassy (Il. 9.120-57) begins like a normal Homeric catalogue, but as the catalogue adds conditionality of victory and return home, the catalogue breaks down, gifts improve (finally whole cities!), time, space and values explode, and Achilles becomes the hero of a happy scenario everyone knows will never come to be. A catalogue of objects becomes a fictional narrative.

Chapter 4 turns to the Catalogue of Ships. To Sammons, the Catalogue presents a "double view" (p. 139): events at Aulis and events at Troy nine years later. Again Homer opens the larger epic world and expands space and time. The Catalogue is full of oddities such as praise of nobodies (in spite of the statement in the Invocation that this will not happen) and inadequate praise of genuine heroes. These oddities cast doubt on the historicity of the Catalogue. Furthermore, Agamemnon's power and position are emphasized, contrary to what we have seen of him previously in Book 2; the catalogue ends with Achilles' region, highlighting that hero's absence along with Protesilaos and Philoctetes. The Catalogue, then, is an integral part of the Iliad, not an insertion, and the passages often seen as patchwork are reflections of the themes important to the poem.

A brief fifth chapter treats catalogues of suitors in the Odyssey. These are intentionally different from the other catalogues, consigning the suitors to obscurity and denying them the larger cultural context normally bestowed in epic. 16.245-53 is an ironical parallel to the Catalogue of Ships. 22.265-68 is catalogic ἀνδροκτασίη, the reverse of κλέος-conferral, and 16.245-53 is a catalogue without names.

A conclusion sums up: Through allusion to other poems, real or potential, Homer is able to "define the excellence of his own work" (p. 209). To Homer, pure catalogue of true historical (or mythological) data is not possible.

The book is full of excellent analyses of passages, supplemented by contextual discussions and a generous citation of scholarship. Anyone working on a catalogic passage should consult this book to learn both about the passages and about the larger contexts of the passages. Sammons frequently suggests that Homer is referring to other poems or traditions as foils to his own poetry, and I find this argument somewhat speculative. Sammons in fact presents a Homer more self-conscious of his work and accomplishments than the Homer I personally envision. But the book is valuable and well worth study.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 12:34:08, Thursday, 30 September 2010