Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.03.46

Gregory Nagy, Homer the Classic. Hellenic Studies 36.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2009.  Pp. vii, 641.  ISBN 9780674033269.  $15.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by John B. Van Sickle, Brooklyn College and the Graduate School; City University of New York (

HC (styled so by its author) was "born digital” in 2008 on the website of the Center for Hellenic Studies, complementing its “twin book Homer the Preclassic (HPC),” which covers the prehistoric background to the “Homeric Koine” dealt with in HC, both stemming from Nagy’s Sather lectures (2002).

The prolegomena sketch “five periods” in “an evolutionary model for the making of Homeric poetry,” with two periods before written texts from time immemorial down to the mid-sixth century BCE. The third period, “definitive, centralized in Athens, with potential texts in the sense of transcripts,” comprises mid-sixth to the latter part of the fourth century and supposes, somewhere near its start, “a reform of Homeric performance traditions at Athens.” Here “definitive” means roughly ‘tending to set limits’ by a process of ‘setting straight’ (diorthosis) conditioned by the ideology of imperial Athens and limiting “Homer” to the Iliad and Odyssey. Fourth unfolds a “standardizing period, with texts in the sense of transcripts or even scripts,” stretching from latter fourth century to mid-second, with “somewhere near” its start “another reform of Homeric performance traditions in Athens.” The fifth period, “relatively most rigid,” starts “with the completion of the editorial work of Aristarchus of Samothrace on the Homeric texts, not long after 150 BCE or so”; it features “texts as scripture,” where “the written text need not even presuppose performance.” In this final stage, diorthosis is authorized less by governing ideology (Athenian arkhe) than by a diffused ingratiatory quality (kharis).

The prolegomena offer readers two options: either skip ahead to “Homer in the Age of Virgil” (Chapter 1) or read at once about the background for our actual text of Homer. Here Nagy documents developments by tracing shifts in meaning of koine, which became “a default term for Homeric texts.” Culling clues to editorial practice from scholia, Nagy deduces the principles of Aristarchus (c2 BCE, Alexandrian library) from traces in Didymus (c1 BCE, Rome), where koine appears to shift from ‘standard’ to ‘common’. Nagy also looks back to deduce the editorial bents of Zenodotus (c3 BCE, Alexandria’s first librarian) and Aristophanes of Byzantium (c2 BCE). He glances at diverse ‘city editions’ and highlights the edition of Crates of Mallos (c2 BCE, library of Pergamon), who admitted so much more than the base text of Aristarchus as to prompt Nagy to speak of Homerus auctus, which was the version preferred by Virgil. (For Virgil’s Homer, see also Nelis in Farrell and Putnam, reviewed by Lovatt: BMCR 2011.08.31.)

Nagy calls attention to the metaphorical tissue of his critical terminology, e.g. rigid, definitive, fluid, crystal, also freeze, rival (pp. 6, 74, 90, 97, 98, 186). He also warns that “The Aristarchean standard was itself a grand uncertainty, inviting ever new redrawings of boundaries for distinguishing the real Homer from the amorphous mass of competing pseudo-Homers” (p 42). The welter of competing texts brings to mind Stanley Fish, that there are no texts, only readers, who create their texts in the act of reading (owed to my CUNY colleague D. C. Greatham).

(Chapter 1) Nagy avers that Virgil even displaced Homer as “the Classic” in Roman imperial culture, defining classic quality in terms of “petrification” and “perfection” (Il. 2.299-332, 24.601-20), citing for the latter esthetic also Kleobis and Biton (Herod. 1.31.3-5). He links the spectacle of petrifaction to the outsized figures of gods on Achilles’ shield (Il. 18.516-19). Nearing Virgil, he also ties Greek poikilia to Latin pictura, which both may refer to weaving. To compare with Homer’s petrifying scenes, Nagy chooses Virgil’s sacrifice of Laocoon (Aen 2.199-227), which “rivals the scene of terror and pity in Iliad II.” (p 107) Nagy specifies that Virgil from the epic cycle picks a version making Aeneas leave Troy only after it was set on fire. This Nagy links to legends of Athena’s statue, the Palladium, with reminders that it became a talisman for Troy’s legacy, claimed by divers cities through competing myths. These legends leave a trace, Nagy argues, in Virgil’s account of the serpents that kill Laocoon and slither to Athena’s statue at the top of Troy about to be destroyed: dracontes (‘glaring’) featured elsewhere as drawing Athena’s car; so that she, in Virgil’s version, is the “absent signifier” (pp. 134-44).

(Chapter 2) Moving back to Callimachus, Nagy documents fluidity in Homeric tradition, focusing on hymnos (p. 189), traced from Hesiod’s Theogony through hymnic variants from Homeric to Hellenistic. He returns to the concept of epos as spectacle and performance, again emphasizing hypokrinesthai (pp. 202-06). He goes on to trace ‘thread’ metaphors in poetics, e.g., prooimion and Latin ordo (p. 230) and to develop a poetics of genre shift (metabasis, pp. 232-46), which he applies fruitfully to hymnic structures in Theocritus and Homer, remarking the genre shifts signalled among Demodokos’ songs (Odyssey viii; pp. 326-347).

(Chapter 3) Moving back to Plato’s age, Nagy finds relative stability in the Panathenaic performance, limited to the Iliad and Odyssey, as opposed to Orphic and cyclic material marginalized. Nagy proceeds to review Plato and Aristotle as they reflect on the status of “Homer,” with glances at the claim to “total recall” made by sophist and rhapsode. Nagy concludes, as in the two preceding chapters, with the motif of Andromache’s sorrows, as high theater exemplifying the bond between tragedy and epos featured by Aristotle’s Poetics.

(Chapter 4) Moving to Pheidias, Nagy argues for a fine connivance between the Panathenaic Homer and imperial Athens, returning to his earlier insistence on the spectacular and sculptural nature of epos. Into the weave he brings the Ionian rhapsode Ion and the ideology of koine understood as Athenian hegemony over the Ionians (acute deconstruction of Athenian pretense in the Melian dialogue, pp. 459-61). He traces the impact of imperial Homer also on the non-Ionian Hippias (pp. 467-88). Nagy then brings by now familiar strands together in Pheidias’ work at Olympia (“Homeric statue of Zeus”) and Athens. He interprets the new Odeum as an imperial stage for Homer. He relates the weaving of Athena’s peplos to the sculptural program of the Parthenon. Here he returns to the story- thread motif, oimion and exordium (pp. 544-72) and highlights the traces of the Iliou Persis on the Parthenon’s effaced north metopes, including Aeneas’ escape with Iulus (p. 573), all threads for Virgil’s loom.

Not only a paradigm for Pheidias, the Iliou Persis also, avers Nagy, underlies Virgil’s ecphrasis of temple art at the imagined founding of Carthage, “experienced by Aeneas as heroic prototype of the Roman Empire.” Nagy infers that in sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt “the poetics of terror and pity can be seen as a hallmark not only of Roman imperial poetry but also of Homeric poetry” (p. 570).

Vision may enthrall and still perplex. The Troy story suffered peculiar twists in Roman minds. Virgil’s image of sympathetic tears may represent an imaginary Trojan victim’s attitude toward an Iliou persis. But in the also imagined context of a temple for Juno (Hera) at the origin of Carthage, depicting Troy’s demise signals celebration not lament (amply discussed by, e.g., Putnam, Virgil’s Epic Designs, 1998, especially chapter one citing rich scholarly conversation). Virgil represents Aeneas imposing his own perspective unaware of context, which we as alert and reflective readers are supposed to avoid.

Modern scholarship warns that the Aeneid resists reduction to credo and screed. Given Virgil’s by now well- known ambivalence towards the very imperial disposition that he helped to promulgate, readers may want also to query Nagy’s link between the Aeneid and Athenian shibboleths. Indeed like caution (epistemological and historiographical) might well problematize Nagy’s equation of panathenaic ‘Homer’ with Pheidias and Pericles in imperial Athens, and with Hippias at Olympia. Alert readers might remember that the opening voice in Virgil’s cognitive journey speaks eloquently of loss, patriam fugimus (metabasis from republican order into exile, shades of Iliou persis), by contrast with the tentative vision of a new god at Rome (metabasis of traditional bucolic to a newly Roman state). The motif of outward motion (flight as metabasis) recurs as the Georgics rise to heroic and tragic themes, in climactic figures of despair. Flight then opens and closes the Aeneid. At first the hero is fato profugus, shown in flight that is determined by Rome’s twist to the Iliou persis plot. Notoriously the flight motif shifts to the hero’s victim and closes the work on a suffered, anti-Augustan note, fugit indignata sub umbras. The echo of that opening exile (patriam fugimus) enacts a final metabasis but not to pastoral shade.

To raise a further query, Nagy construes the Odeum as the ultimate venue for Homeric epos performed to convey imperial ideology. He does not, however, compare the new theater of Pompey, which from its debut became a venue for ideological thrusts (55 BCE). Laberius lost and regained his knight’s ring under the brief reign of Julius (48-44 BCE). Then Virgil painted Julius and his heir as new gods in mythic tradition, playing on their claimed descent from Jove (Ecl. 3, 4, 8) via Dione (Ecl. 9), claiming precedence for himself over epic tradition (Ecl. 4). The novel mix of bucolic epos with satyr drama, italic mime and ideological myth scored success, winning frequent performances (per cantores crebro) and making Virgil a celebrity sic quasi Augustum (Tacitus, Dialogus): the weave of epos, performance, and ideology lays the foundation for “Virgil the Classic,” unrecognized by Nagy, who merely writes that “the pastoral setting of the Eclogues is the key,” (p. 155)

No review, certainly not in such brief compass, can do more than point toward the skeleton of a work so densely documented and closely woven. Anyone interested in poetics and indeed in the interplay between poetics and cognitive process, with the concomitant issues of epistemology, will find much to ponder here in the focus on the metaphors of poetics, the flow, the weave, and the recurrent testing of relationships between narrative and spectacle, tragedy and epos. In particular, the typology of hymnic structure and thematic deferral could prompt detailed and fruitful revision of the structural dynamics of Virgil’s eclogue book (e.g., Van Sickle, Virgil’s Book of Bucolics. Johns Hopkins 2011). Focus on typology, however, does preclude attention to unity in the individual works of ‘Homer’ as limned by Bruce Heiden, Homer's Cosmic Fabrication: Choice and Design in the "Iliad" Oxford, 2008; reviewed by M. S. Jensen (BMCR 2009.06.36), or by Suzanne Saïd, Homer and the Odyssey praised by Christos Tsagalis (BMCR 2012.02.03) for “her ability to show the process of cross-fertilization of each and every bit of the plot by certain themes that give to the Odyssey cohesion and unity.”

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