Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.33

M. L. West, Hellenica: Selected Papers on Greek Literature and Thought. Volume I: Epic.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. xii, 451.  ISBN 9780199605019.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by R. B. Rutherford, Christ Church, Oxford (

This is the first of three proposed volumes containing selected Kleine Schriften from the voluminous output of Martin West. The second volume will focus on lyric and tragedy, the third on philosophy, music, metre and other miscellaneous topics.

The present volume contains the following items:1

1. Greek Poetry 2000-700 BC (from CQ 23 (1973) 179-92
2. Curtains in the Wind (reviews of Austin, Archery at the dark of the moon and Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans, both from TLS, and of Haudry, La religion cosmique, from CR)
3. An unrecognized injunctive usage in Greek (from Glotta 67 (1989) 135-8)
4. The Rise of the Greek Epic (from JHS 108 (1988) 151-72)
5. The Descent of the Greek Epic (from JHS 112 (1992) 173-5)
6. Immortal Helen (inaugural lecture of 1975)
7. History and Prehistory: the Troy saga (English version of a paper published in German in Studia Troica 14 (2004) xiii-xx)
8. Phasis and Aia (from Mus. Helv. 64 (2007) 193-8
9. Orpheus and the Argonauts (from a conference volume publ. 2010; parts omitted)
10. Grated cheese fit for heroes (from JHS 118 (1998) 190-1)
11. The Singing of Homer (shortened version of JHS 101 (1981) 113-29)
12. Hesiod’s Titans (from JHS 105 (1985) 174-5)
13. Is the Works and Days an oral poem? (from a conference volume published in 1981)
14. The Transition from Oral to Written (English version of a conference paper published in German in 1990)
15. On Editing Homer (a reply to reviewers, from BMCR 2001)
16. (with S.West) Book Division (from Symb. Osl. 74 (1999) 68-73
17. The Date of the Iliad (from Mus. Helv. 52 (1995) 203-19)
18. Echoes of Hesiod and Elegy in the Iliad (new)
19. The Achaean Wall (from CR 19 (1969) 255-60)
20. Iliad and Aethiopis (from CQ 53 (2003) 1-14)
21. The Gardens of Alcinous and the Oral Dictated Text Theory (from Acta Antiqua Hungarica 40 (2000) 479-88)
22. Odyssey and Argonautica (from CQ 55 (2005) 39-64)
23. The Fragmentary Homeric Hymn to Dionysus (from ZPE 134 (2001) 1-11, but omitting the text there printed, now available in West’s Loeb of the Hymns)
24. Cynaethus’ Hymn to Apollo (CQ 25 (1975) 161-70)
25. Magnes of Smyrna (new)
26. ‘Eumelos’: a Corinthian Epic Cycle? (from JHS 122 (2002) 109-33)
27. The View from Lesbos (from a Festschrift for Kullmann, published in 2002)
28. The Invention of Homer (from CQ 49 (1999) 364-82).

There are thus two new items, 18 and 25. Of these the first expounds in more detail views which were already familiar: that the Homeric poems postdate both Hesiod and (some) archaic elegy, possibly making use of poems by Tyrtaeus and Mimnermus which survive. The second restores to public view a forgotten Ionic epic poet of the time of Gyges (and therefore, on West’s view, a contemporary of the Iliad-poet).

There are supplementary notes, mostly very slight, to items 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 14, 17, 20, and 24. Of these the most important draw attention to changes in the current consensus on chronology, especially of the various settlements at Troy. The volume also contains, besides indexes, a list of other relevant publications by the author, including reviews.

It will be obvious from the list above that West has not reprinted the papers in chronological order. Rather, there is a kind of plot to the volume. We move from the reconstruction of the early Indo-European roots of Greek poetry and metrics through influences from the East (a leitmotif throughout); then come the contributions of IE myth and of the actual history of the Mycenaean-Trojan conflict; early lost Argonautic poetry leads us on to the poems which are extant today; central essays consider their performance, their transmission, their source-material, and the development and elaborations visible in what we know of the so-called Epic Cycle. The collection aptly ends with the brilliant 1999 paper which reconstructs the origins of the name Homer, defines the role of the Homeridae, identifies Cynaethus as the poet of the united Hymn to Apollo, and concludes with a bold hypothesis regarding the arrival of the full text of the two great epics in the Athens of Hipparchus son of Peisistratos. The carefully chosen final words give us the first date of performance of the Iliad at the Panathenaic Games—19 August 522, an anniversary for us all to celebrate. As so often, we can admire the beauty of the construction without sharing West’s apparent confidence in the certainty or probability of his conclusions.

These papers cover more than forty years of astonishingly productive scholarship, yet they have a remarkable coherence. West comments that he has changed his position on some points, and instances his growing suspicion that a poet called Homer never actually existed. Another notable point is his changed position on the date at which some of the Near Eastern theogonic myths that influenced Hesiod arrived in Greece (p. 70); and his willingness to down-date the works of both Hesiod and Homer has weakened his faith in that well-known archaic landmark, the Lelantine war (p. 207). But on the whole the reader is more impressed by the continuity, or rather the way in which West’s position seems to have been thought out and well established from the beginning. Of course there are fresh ideas and nuances, but the early essay on the Achaean Wall (item 19, from 1969) already contains in nuce the view of the Iliad now presented in full dress in The Making of the Iliad (2011)—as a work by a poet who worked on the Iliad for much of his life, used writing, reshaped and revised, expanded and had new ideas. As West repeatedly emphasises (e.g. pp. 258-9, 276), the criticisms of the analysts were not stupid, but they explained the problems they detected by the hypothesis of multiple authorship; West explains them by the hypothesis of single authorship protracted through time (and without the aid of modern copy-editing or the burden of demands for consistency). Even if the detailed identification of layers is open to question, this is a persuasive model which deserves serious consideration alongside the prevailing oral theory.

It would be a pity if West’s authority were to establish an orthodoxy on all the matters he discusses, some of which are very much open to debate. The question of chronology may illustrate the dangers. West has argued that the Iliad should be placed in the period 670-640 (the Odyssey, of course, will be later). He has coined the phrase ‘dogmatic drag’ to describe the resistance of those who cling to old views when the arguments supporting those views have been refuted. One might reply that some of his own arguments are characterised by what we might label ‘seductive slip’. By this I mean that he will present a possible chronological range and move towards the extreme which suits his case. We are told that Gorgons first appear in Greece c. 700 and on shields ‘around 680-70’ (p. 196). On p.209 this has become ‘around 670’. Agamemnon’s shield in the Iliad must therefore be after this date. But how secure are these datings anyway? At all events, it only needs a significantly earlier example to turn up for the argument to be neutralised. Archaeological silence is a dangerous foundation for a terminus post quem, yet West uses such arguments repeatedly. A temple like that referred to in Iliad 6 is ‘something very unlikely, so far as our knowledge goes, before the seventh century’ (210; my emphasis). Evidence of Greeks on the Black Sea is not to be found ‘till around the middle of the seventh century’;2 but would that rule out travellers bringing garbled tales of mare-milking pastoralists? (211, on Iliad 13.5-6) Another example is the famous reference to Egyptian Thebes in Iliad 9. Like Burkert, West holds that this must be a contemporary reference (rather than memories of Mycenaean times). The city’s period of wealth and power was between 715 and 663, when it was sacked by the Assyrians. But while allowing that its fame might be widespread within that time- frame, they prefer to argue that it would be best known after it was sacked: so again, the terminus post quem slips down to post-663 (pp. 197-8, 210, both conceding that an earlier dating remains possible).

In fact the only definite argument that would, if accepted, place the Iliad firmly after c. 680 is the one which West put forward in item 17—the claim that the description of the flooding which destroys the Achaean wall at a future date is indebted to Eastern texts describing the sack of Babylon by Sennacherib (pp.200-6). Here one may legitimately suspend judgement. The parallels are interesting, but need they show a connection between the different passages?3 A flood brought by divine displeasure is a familiar motif to the Iliad-poet (16.384-92), and the author of the Scamander episode in book 21 knew the power of a river in spate. Many who, like myself, admire the imagination and acumen of The East Face of Helicon (1997) will nevertheless often have wondered how many of the countless parallels presented there prove influence, rather than simply showing that creative writers often hit on the same images, motifs and devices.

I am not claiming that West is wrong on any or all of these points; he may indeed be right on all of them. But there is room for more acknowledgement that certain planks in his structure are insecurely nailed down.

Any selection invites griping about what is and is not included. It is apparent that more than half of this book derives from CQ and JHS, journals which are in every Classics library and also available online. While this should not be the only criterion, it is a pity that more was not done to include items which are less readily accessible. I would have welcomed the inclusion of the paper on ‘The Textual Criticism and Editing of Homer’ from G.W.Most’s collection Editing Texts (1998), or an English version of the introduction on the history of the text which he has contributed to the collaborative commentary on the Iliad by Latacz and others. Especially regrettable is the omission of a very recent essay which synthesises West’s views on epic chronology, even providing a date-chart (see the paper referred to in n.2). This draws together arguments presented in more detail particularly in items 17, 18, 20 and 27, and presents the author’s views as a coherent argument. Was West concerned about overlap, or did the publisher refuse permission for that paper to be printed here so soon? In any case, anyone who does not know that essay is recommended to consult the volume in question, all the more so because they can then consider West’s position alongside essays by scholars holding very different views (notably Richard Janko).

To reprint reviews (and still more replies to reviews) in a volume of this kind is of questionable value. West says (preface, p.v) that he has included only those which ‘raise general issues of scholarly principle’, but does not say what these are. To my mind reviews are only worth reprinting if they either embody a detailed and scholarly critique of an important book (Sherwin-White’s outstanding review-discussion of Syme’s Tacitus comes to mind, JRS 49 [1959]), or advance the discussion begun by the book, providing additional evidence or arguments, so that the review is in effect an article (not necessarily critical) on the same topic (e.g. Shackleton Bailey on Goold’s Manilius, CP 74 [1979]). The reviews printed here satisfy neither of these criteria, and I fear their republication will do nothing but reopen old wounds. Hellenica II is still unpublished, but to judge by the information provided online, it will not include reviews; I applaud this change of practice.

These pygmy criticisms do not diminish West’s titanic achievements. It has become trite to praise the range and depth of scholarship evident in his work, the complete mastery of ancient source-material, the wit, lucidity and sheer intelligence with which he expounds complex problems; it is proper nevertheless. This handsome volume is cause for celebration and congratulation.


1.   Oddly, the dustjacket blurb states that the volume includes 30 essays, when there are in fact only 28 items. Perhaps we are meant to disaggregate the three reviews; but a review is not the same as an essay.
2.   In an essay not collected here, West’s formulation is more cautious: ‘The reference in 13.5f.... cannot antedate the seventh century.’ (‘Towards a chronology of early Greek epic,’ in Relative chronology in early Greek epic poetry, ed. Ø. Andersen and D. T. T. Haug (Cambridge 2012) 224-41, at 236) Yet on p. 389 of the book under review it is stated that ‘Pontic exploration possibly goes back to the eighth century’.
3.   R. Lane Fox, Travelling Heroes (Harmondsworth 2008) 352-3 effectively brings out the differences between the passages in question.

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