Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.18

Edan Dekel, Virgil's Homeric Lens. Routledge monographs in classical studies.   New York; London:  Routledge, 2012.  Pp. ix, 166.  ISBN 9780415890403.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Sergio Casali, Università di Roma Tor Vergata (

This slender but dense book is devoted to the relationship between Virgil and Homer. "Virgil’s Homeric lens" is the Odyssey: the author belongs to that school of thought that holds the Odyssey to be the most important structural model for the Aeneid. The optical metaphor in Dekel’s title presupposes the view that not only does the major structure of the Aeneid correspond to the major articulations of the Odyssey, with Aeneas’ “homecoming” in Italy and the killing of Turnus seen as parallel to Odysseus’ homecoming and the slaughter of the pretenders — the view best represented by an essay of Francis Cairns (Virgil’s Augustan Epic, Cambridge 1991, 177-214, “The Aeneid as Odyssey”); but also that the Aeneid’s Iliadic material is filtered through the intertextual revision that the Odyssey operates on the Iliad: that is, the Odyssey is to be considered not only as a sequel, but also “an interpretation, or perhaps even a rendition, of the Iliad,” so that we should construe “a system in which Virgil bases his own active interpretation and adaptation of Homer on the interaction between the Odyssey and the Iliad themselves” (pp. 1-2).

Dekel’s book is divided into four chapters, all with titles relating to optics. In the first chapter, “Primary Colors” (pp. 1-28) Dekel states his disagreement with the view — already expressed by Servius (ad Aen. 7.1) and Macrobius (5.2.6) — that the Aeneid has a bipartite structure, with a first Odyssean half, and a second Iliadic half. But few people would think today that Servius’ and Macrobius’ opinions are to be accepted without qualification, especially after works like Knauer’s, Barchiesi’s, or Nelis’: the Aeneid’s frame has multiple references at the same time, and a basically Iliadic structure does not exclude Odyssean substructures, or vice versa. So, Dekel’s argument about two halves of the poem does not exhaust the topic of Homeric intertextuality in the Aeneid.

Many different threads of thought are intertwined in this chapter. We find for example an analysis of Servius’ statement about intentio Vergilii in the light of Dekel’s own declared intentions (pp. 2-6), and an examination of Macrobius, Sat. 5.2.6, where Macrobius’ phrase ex Iliade pugnae suggests to Dekel a connection between 1.456 uidet Iliacas ex ordine pugnas and 7.40 et primae reuocabo exordia pugnae (p. 9). “Macrobius’ choice of pugnae rather than bellum” is seen as significant (pp. 9- 10) since “the word [pugna] is equally suited to the Odyssey, which includes at least one fist-fight (Od. 18.32-116) and, more importantly, features as its climax the pugna between Odysseus and the suitors” (p. 10).

There are interesting points. For example, Dekel connects in an acute way, and in a style sometimes happily reminiscent of that of Michael Putnam, the dragging of Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy in Aen. 1.483 and the procession around the pyre of Pallas in 11.250-2 (pp. 16-18).

In the last section of this introductory chapter, entitled “de Homerici operis speculo” (pp. 19-26), Dekel introduces his main notion: “Imitating Homer means first and foremost emulating the Greek poet’s own habits. For Virgil, this means first and foremost modeling his intertextual epic on the very first intertextual epic, the Odyssey.” In other words, Virgil’s main model is the Odyssey; the Odyssey is “the first intertextual epic” so much as it constantly alludes to, reinterprets, and in a sense repeats its predecessor, the Iliad; so, the influence of the Iliad on Virgil’s poem is to be seen as filtered through the Odyssey.

Chapter 2, “Iliadic Refraction (pp. 29-62),” is devoted mainly to an analysis of the intertextuality between the Odyssey and the Iliad, and to a demonstration that the second poem constantly refers to and reshapes the second one. Dekel’s argument here is full of acute observations. The section entitled Telemachoio pater is centred on the Odyssey, especially on the Telemachy, and it is mainly concerned with the relationship between the Iliadic veterans and their children, with special concern for the relationship between Odysseus and Telemachus (pp. 32-44).

The third section is devoted to a discussion of etymological plays on Achilles’ name as deriving from “the sorrow (achos) of his own people (laos)” (pp. 44-51). The relationship between achosand longing (pothe) in Il. 1.240-2 is resumed in the Anticleia scene of Od. 11, especially in 11.195-6: this case for an “Iliadic connection” in Od. 11, based on a reconfiguration of the causal link between desire and sorrow, is elegantly argued.1

The most important point for Dekel is the idea that in the Odyssey Odysseus confronts the figure of Achilles, and takes over his role as the destroyer of Troy and also as “father” of Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus. In this idea — “the overall project of defining Odysseus as a successful replacement for Achilles in the epic hierarchy” (p. 63) —lies the quintessence of the Odyssey, and most importantly the aspect of the Odyssey Virgil is especially interested in, and it is the one Dekel most clearly resumes in the two Virgilian chapters of his book. In the Aeneid, the transformation from “losers’ epic” to “victors’ epic” is thought to be modeled on a similar pattern in the Odyssey (Dekel borrows the concepts of “losers’” and “victors’ epic” from David Quint’s Epic and Empire, Princeton 1993). Odysseus transforms himself into a “victor” when he slaughters the pretenders, and so does Aeneas when he transforms himself from a Hector figure into an Achilles who would be in fact more similar to the Odysseus of the second half of the Odyssey than to the actual Iliadic Achilles.

In Chapter 3, “Odyssean Diffraction” (pp. 63-89), Virgil’s Pyrrhus in Aen. 2 is described as embodying the Neoptolemus refashioned and appropriated by Odysseus in Od. 11, in a sort of prefiguration of the “new war” of Aeneid 6-12. Odysseus gives to Achilles, ironically, “a portrayal of Neoptolemus as a subverted Achilles” (p. 70). This may have some weight in explaining the fact that the snake simile that introduces Neoptolemus in Aen. 2 is based on a simile that describes Hector about to fight against Achilles in Il. 22.93-5 — another way of expressing the idea of a degener Neoptolemus, as Priam calls him in Aen. 2.549 (pp. 69-70). Aeneas’ reliability as a narrator is well discussed (p. 73-4), especially the reference to the similarity between the way in which Aeneas plays down his own responsibilities in the Trojans’ folly and “Odysseus’ technique of obliquely blaming his comrades for his own inability to avert disaster” (p. 73) — even if it is strange that he does not quote Heinze’s Vergils Epische Technique in this context.

In the second section of the chapter, Demodocus is seen as a surrogate of the Homeric narrator of the Iliad, and Odysseus, with his own “song,” a double of the poet of the Odyssey (Dekel does not take position in the discussions about separate authorship for the two Homeric poems: p. 130 n. 65). Reasonably enough, Demodocus’ first song is seen as deeply Iliadic; but it is not clear why Dekel says that Demodocus, though promoting Odysseus to the rank of king Agamemnon, “obliquely suggests that Achillean physical strength is still superior to Odyssean cleverness” (p. 78). Given the subtlety with which Dekel sees overtones in Demodocus’ first song, it is rather disappointing that the bard’s second song about Ares and Aphrodite is disposed of as a mere “interlude” (p. 79).2

The first section of Ch. 4, “Virgilian Reflection” (pp. 90-115), takes its cue from the much discussed version of the Aeneas legend found in Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1.72.2), according to which “the author of the history of the Priestesses of Argo” would have written that “Aeneas came in Italy from the land of the Molossians [the Epirus] with Odysseus, and became the founder of the city, to which he gave this name because of Rhome, one of the Trojan women.” The attribution of this detail to Hellanicus of Lesbos, who is known as the author of a treatise on the priestesses of Hera in Argos, is not certain, and has been vigorously refused by Horsfall. It also far from certain that the word order in Dionysius implies that “the central idea” of this story is that “Aeneas founded Rome ‘with Odysseus.’” But Dekel is not interested in the history of the legend: the idea of Aeneas “founding Rome with Odysseus” has a “particular figurative resonance” with his argument, the idea of Odysseys as a crucial partner in Virgil’s intertextual project”; a partner, but also a rival as to narrative techniques” (p. 90). It is typical of Dekel’s personal and imaginative argumentation that he derives observations about another aspect of Virgil’s intertextual system also from the variant reading met’ Odussea, which is found in one of Dionysius’ mss.: the Aeneid may also be seen as “a kind of meta-Odyssey” (p. 91).

In the second section of Ch. 4 (pp. 96-109), Dekel runs through Book 3 “in order to elucidate the ways in which Virgil engages his Homeric intertext to define the Aeneid as a new kind of nostos” (p. 98).

In the last pages of the book, Dekel considers the ending of the Aeneid. Aeneas is seen as a new, “Odyssean,” Neoptolemus in his ruthless slaughtering in Aen. 10 — more than, as it might seem obvious, a new Iliadic Achilles. With the killing of Turnus, “Aeneas essentially enacts an Achillean vengeance through the ethical lens of the Odyssey” (p. 114).

Dekel’s book is not reader-friendly. All the titles he uses are unhelpfully vague, and his writing is difficult and intricate. Nevertheless, Dekel’s views about the Homeric intertextual structures of the Aeneid are surely worth considering. The book is rich, perceptive, and full of acute readings, and will be of interest to scholars both of Homer and of Vergil.


1.   Dekel also points to a connection between the play achos/akos in Il. 9.249-50 (Odysseus says that Achilles will bring achos to the Trojans, and no cure will be found as a remedy, akos, for this evil thing) and Od. 22.481-2. where Odysseus asks for sulphur, kakon akos, "the cure for evils," in order to clean his house after the slaughter. This would point to the contrast between the Iliadic situation, where there is no remedy for Achilles' sorrow, and the Odyssean situation, where Odysseus can find a remedy for evIl.
2.   As to Aen. 1.488, the reference to Iliad 20.338-9 is traditional in the exegetical tradition (cf. e.g. Conington-Nettleship ad l.). On Dido’s question about Diomedes’ horses, see R. O. A. M. Lyne, Further Voices in Vergil’s Aeneid, Oxford 1987, 138. Shrewd is the observation about a double meaning of error (“wandering”/“mistake”) in Dido’s exhortation to Aeneas that he tells insidias… Danaum casusque tuorum / erroresque tuos (1.754) (p. 87).

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