Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.69

Alex C. Purves, Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xi, 273.  ISBN 9780521190985.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Jacqueline Klooster, Universiteit van Amsterdam (


The title of Alex Purves’s book, Space and Time in ancient Greek Narrative, sounds comprehensive. However, as the order in the title implies, of the two categories, space is really at issue. Time influences how space is perceived and represented in narrative (simultaneously, or sequentially), and in this Bakhtinian way it features in Purves's analyses. The book consists of an introduction and six chapters, which treat (1) Iliad, (2) Odyssey, (3) fragmentary works of Anaximander and Pherecydes, (4) Herodotus, (5) Xenophon’s Anabasis and (6) Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. In each, Purves seeks to articulate the ways in which the author's conception of space (and time) informs the structure of his works. This involves the willingness (1) “to imagine the poem as a kind of literary landscape that we might survey in our mind’s eye, as if it were a vista.” Although I had difficulty agreeing with some of Purves's conclusions, this wide-ranging book contains many thought-provoking, perceptive and creative readings of classic texts: it presents an accomplished, if at times abstract and intricate, meditation on an important subject in classical studies.

In the Introduction, Purves sets out the aims of the book and previews her arguments. She elaborates upon the central idea that a text can be (and was in antiquity) considered a landscape that may be mentally surveyed by a reader. She illustrates this by a discussion of ancient and modern appraisals of Homer’s Iliad. According to many readers, starting with Aristotle, the plot of this work may easily be surveyed at a glance: it is eusynoptic. This may be contrasted and paralleled to plots of other works of prose and poetry, and Purves argues that these variations in plot structure and stylistic choices at some level reveal the spatial perspective of their authors, and the fluctuating ideas about mapping and experiencing space in Greek culture.

Ch. 1. Purves further explores the Aristotelic term εὐσύνοπτος (Poet. 23.1459a30-4), describing the Iliad’s plot: not too lengthy, nor too loaded with detail to be taken in at a glance. She relates this to passages in the Politics where a city is so characterized, to argue for a similarity between narrative plot and plot of land in Aristotle’s perception. This in turn is supported by a comparison from the Rhetorics between a sentence (periodos) and a road or path, which implies the same metaphor of text as space. Next Purves turns to the Poetics again, where a eusynoptic plot is likened to an animal, sizeable but neither too big nor too small. These passages are then applied to the Iliad’s composition, beginning with the actual space in which the action evolves, the Trojan plain. In this eusynoptic plain, surveyed from above by gods from on high and men on the walls of Troy, it is nevertheless impossible, or so the narrator famously claims in book 2, to know and recount every detail: this is the prerogative of the Muses. In the tension between the myriad detail of reality, and the condensed narrative version of reality the poetics of the poem take shape. Taking up from Aristotle’s description of a plot as an animal, Purves (rather impressionistically) proceeds to discuss how time animates space in the Iliad's plot. She concludes that Homer holds a kind of protocartographic view of the world, expressed in the form his plot takes. It depicts many actions, great detail, in a limited chronological scope, yet remains eusynoptic for human beings. In an ingenious interpretation of book 18, the poem is therefore both likened and contrasted to that divine artifact and protocartographic map, Achilles’ shield, whose incredible detail and lifelikeness baffle the human gaze of the Myrmidons.

Taking further (too far, even) the idea of the ideal plot as a sizeable, but not too large animal, Purves then explains why the Trojan Horse never entered the Iliad: the complexity and long-windedness of telling its story would have breached the walls of the eusynoptic plot, just as the walls of Troy had to be breached to receive the horse's mass. This is a beautiful metaphor, but what is its status? Does the Iliad suggest seeing the Trojan Horse in such terms, or is it Purves's symbolic reading, retrojecting Aristotle's terminology?

(2) Similar questions arise in the discussion of the Odyssey. Space in this poem is contrasted by Purves to that in the Iliad. The Iliad is eusynoptic and protocartographic; the Odyssey is based on a hodological worldview, the perspective of the traveler on the ground, which explains the relative unimportance of the Muses. It entails that narrator and reader travel in a space/text that (97) " always extend[s] beyond our cognitive horizons, and c[an] never be fully known or mapped." Probing the Odyssey's uncertain boundaries, Purves concentrates on Tiresias's prophecy of Odysseus's last journey inland, away from the paths of the sea, into uncharted territory, where no-one knows his kleos, or the symbol of his sea-journeys, his oar. Purves makes many fine remarks about the implications of this prophecy, but again I find her final interpretation too far-reaching and vague (73) “This movement toward an alternative version of space in the poem has repercussions for the structure of epic narrative, denoting not just a shift to a radically new and alien topography, but also a shift in genre between the ends of epic and the beginnings of prose.” So is there some subconscious awareness present in the Odyssey that prose is about to be invented? Or again, is this Purves's interpretation of literary history, with the knowledge of hindsight?

(3) Next prose enters the picture, and the way it (97) "uses the properties of the newly invented map to create its own identity…as a genre spoken in the voice of a human narrator without the fantastical aid or inspiration of the Muses." In particular, Purves focuses on the cartographic paradox: maps can depict the entire earth while at the same time being small enough to hold in one's hand. Pherecydes' prose Theogony is discussed, a cosmogonical tale of how the marriage of Zas (Zeus) and Chthoniè results in the creation of Gè through Zas's gift of an embroidered mantle to his bride. On the mantle, earth's surface and the cosmos are depicted, which means that Chthoniè, formerly an amorphous mass, is now turned into definite, variegated earth. Here the cartographic paradox announces itself: how can a robe simultaneously be something Zas holds in his hands, and the cosmos of which Zas himself is a part? Purves suggests that Pherecydes' own project of writing his cosmogonical plot is the double of Zas's creation of the robe. A kind of dual perspective is thus implied: the godlike view of the mapmaker is here almost combined with the view from within, of the earth's actual inhabitant.

Anaximander, another early writer of prose, reputedly created the first (Greek) map, which, interestingly, was coupled to a description of the world; later Hecataeus did the same. These attempts inspired the scorn of Herodotus (4.36.2), as Purves suggests, because maps are so abstract as to bear--contrary to the mantle-map of Chthoniè/Gè, which simultaneously depicts and covers the actual earth--practically no relation to the world as we experience it when we walk on it. The problems of this paradox are amusingly and enlighteningly related to Aristophanes' Clouds 206-217, where misunderstanding of the working of a map's scale causes Strepsiades to urge a mapmaker to move Sparta further away from Athens.

(4) The presence and interrelation of the two worldviews hitherto postulated, the cartographic and the hodological, are then discussed with regard to Herodotus. Purves (somewhat predictably) argues that the hodological worldview is announced in Herodotus's prose style, the so-called lexis eiromenè (cf. Aristotle Rhet. 3.9. 1409a27-b1). More interestingly, Herodotus's mistrust of the cartographic view is shown to reveal itself in passages demonstrating the impossibility of charting the world, e.g. the sources of the Nile (2.31), or the description of Scythia (book 4), a swathe of land eerily void of geographical features. Even Herodotus's most famous description of an actual map (5.49.1-7), the one Aristagoras offers to Cleomenes urging him to march on the Persians, demonstrates elements of distrust in maps. Again, the difficult translation of a scaled map onto the actual world causes the problem, when Cleomenes realizes that a journey to Persia would actually take him three months. A related problem is that maps, especially when accompanied by an ekphrasis such as that of Aristagoras, trick viewers into believing they have a godlike perspective, and may see, or evaluate, all, even what is hidden. This last interest in hidden versus seen returns in several forms in Herodotus, from the story of Gyges and Candaules to that of Croesus and Solon (the contrast between the exhibited riches and the hidden future of a man's life) and the description of the labyrinth at Moeris (chaotic from the ground, but patterned from above).

The Delphic oracle on the contrary truly possesses the divine perspective of the Homeric Muse, but in the translation of her wisdom into human verse, knowledge gets lost, as the fate of Croesus exemplifies. Thus the divine, cartographic perspective remains something Herodotus acknowledges but does not claim to be able to attain, although as Purves shows, he does smuggle elements of it into the Histories, e.g. his precise way of setting out routes from A to B. But overall he takes the view from the ground and combines it with the perspective of time, with the injunction to look towards the end, in a sequential view.

(5) The same sequential, countercartographic tendency is pushed to an extreme in Xenophon's Anabasis, the story of the March of the Ten Thousand through Asia Minor. Like Odysseus's Apologoi, this is an autobiographical account of the search for the way home. It raises questions about what home is, when one is lost, and how a lost narrator represents his whereabouts. The Ten Thousand's march is initially conscientiously measured out in the parasangs they leave in their wake, creating the impression that we are reading an orderly, measurable narrative travel account. Yet, at a certain point (1.9-4.7), when the Ten Thousand get lost in uncharted territory, measuring systems break down, leaving reader and narrator alike in uncertainty, only to return in Greek form (the stade) when the Ten Thousand reach the Black Sea, symbol of the known world, if not limit of their trek. Thus the experience of being lost is written into the text.

(6) The Oeconomicus, on the contrary, focuses on the bliss of exactly mapping and finding things at home. Once more, structure echoes style, Purves argues: the embedded form of the dialogue symbolizes the way the wife of Ischomachus is encapsulated in her home. By a system of memorizing the taxis of objects in their rightful places, a home may be adequately mapped and reach perfection. In this attaining of a natural order it is likened to the beautifully planted paradeisos garden of Cyrus. Purves connects this garden and the way its orderly layout is easily memorized with Simonides' mnemotechnics, and with the passage where Odysseus on Ithaca enumerates to Laertes the trees in his garden. Purves's suggestion that these trees (although they are mainly fruit trees and vines) form an element in a system of symbols where they represent the static, orderly counterpart of the dynamic (wooden) ships of the Greeks at Iliad 2 and also of this poem's falling warrior-similes (like trees) is once more an example of a beautiful image, but one that to my mind reveals more about Purves than about Homer.

All in all, Space and Time in Ancient Greek narrative is a demanding, yet rewarding read, full of original insights and arresting observations, even if not all arguments are of equal cogency.

Some misprints: 61 ἄμουν: ἄπουν; 100: Orphioneos: Ophioneos; 151: theodorokoi: theorodokoi; 181 various aporia: various aporiai; 185 horion: horizon; 216: dacyliotheca: dactyliotheca

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