Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.04.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.04.17

Athanasios Efstathiou, Ioanna Karamanou (ed.), Homeric Receptions across Generic and Cultural Contexts. Trends in Classics - Supplementary volumes, 37.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2016.  Pp. x, 495.  ISBN 9783110477832.  $182.00.  


Reviewed by Jan Haywood, The Open University (UK) (Jan.Haywood@open.ac.uk)

Preview

In this wide-ranging new volume on Homeric receptions across multiple generic and cultural contexts, Athanasios Efstathiou and Ioanna Karamanou seek to demonstrate the enduring dialogue with Homeric poetics in various historical periods and different literary and artistic traditions. The volume, which stems from a 2011 international conference on Homeric receptions, comprises an introduction followed by eight substantive parts, each of which explores a particular set of generic receptions or examines Homeric receptions within a specific chronological period. The book covers an impressive range of material, from the iambic poetry of Hipponax to modern cinematic receptions of Homer in early silent films. Given that a thorough analysis of every chapter in this study would far exceed the scope of this review, I shall proceed to discuss a relative sample of the contributions, in order to show the diverse, inter-disciplinary perspectives that it offers, to explore particularly significant contributions, as well as to flag up specific questions that a volume dedicated to Homeric receptions necessarily raises.

Lorna Hardwick offers a brief yet illuminating discussion that engages with vital questions surrounding the contexts of Homeric reception, whilst underlining the importance of identifying the structures and conventions that lie behind Homeric reworkings. Hardwick illustrates the way that later texts do not simply replicate their source text (in this instance, the Iliad and the Odyssey); rather, they repeat, with a difference various formal aspects of the Homeric poems. From this viewpoint, it becomes possible to appreciate the dynamic set of interactions between, and aesthetic qualities of, the original text, the new text and other mediating texts, all of which operate—and have to be understood—within their own differing contexts.

Andres Petrovic provides some interesting, albeit speculative, discussion on the interactions between Homeric epic and early epigrammatic poems. Although relatively sparse, there are a few passages in the Iliad and the Odyssey in which ancient and modern readers alike have discerned epigraphic qualities (Il. 3.156-58; 3.178-80; 3.200-02; 6.460-61; 7.89-90; Od. 1.180-81). In the concluding moments, however, Petrovic appears to be aware that his discussion is somewhat hampered by our relative ignorance on the fixity of the Homeric texts in the archaic period, that is, the process of their commitment to a stable, written text.1 These gaps in our knowledge make it difficult to determine whether or not these quasi-epigrammatic verses were incorporated into the Homeric poems before the emergence of epigrammatic inscriptions, or vice versa. It is a pity, too, that Petrovic repeatedly refers to Elmer 2005, which does not feature in the bibliography. Notwithstanding these cautions, Petrovic’s enquiry reveals clear linguistic, ideological and stylistic connections between the Homeric poems and early verse inscriptions, and will hopefully invite further research into the dialogical relationship between Homer and early epigram.

Chris Carey covers what is now fairly well trodden ground: Herodotus’ intertextual engagement with Homer. Nevertheless, Carey succeeds in plumbing new depths, showing how Book Seven of the Histories is no less indebted to Homeric motifs and epic themes than is the case for other parts of Herodotus’ work, as numerous scholars have already demonstrated.2 Certainly, it is in this book of Herodotus’ Histories that the historian narrates Xerxes’ march from Asia to Europe, including the Persian army’s iconic crossing of the Hellespont. These are signal events that are pointedly associated with Homeric precedents by the Herodotean narrator, for, just before the Persians crossed the Hellespont, they ascended the citadel of Priam, learnt about the events at Troy and made a sizable sacrifice to Athena of Ilium (Hdt. 7.43). Carey demonstrates cogently Herodotus’ highly nuanced relationship with epic, and Homeric epic in particular, arguing well that Herodotus utilised and adapts many stylistic and narrative features of the Homeric poems in order to attain an equivalent status for his own innovative text. Indeed, Herodotus’ remarks on the extraordinary scale of the Persian invasion, which surpassed even that of the Trojan War (Hdt. 7.20; cf. Thuc. 1.10.3-5) is another key passage, which illumines Herodotus’ historical-literary heritage, as well his lively and complex relationship with the Homeric poet.

Eleni Volonaki explores the deployment of Homeric values such as aretē and timē in fifth- and fourth-century funeral orations. Volonaki emphasises the shift in the meaning of the term aretē, which, in its Homeric context, is demonstrative of an individual’s aristocratic status. In contrast, the extant funeral orations of, inter alios, Gorgias, Lysias and Hypereides indicate that such élite values were transformed in the classical period, operating instead as democratic concepts that were associated with the collective body of individuals within the polis. While the overall argument is a sensible one, the discussion has a tendency to become more narrowly focused on providing a diachronic assessment of Athenian civic ideology in the classical period, as can be discerned from the few surviving epitaphioi logoi, and less about the specific repetition, repudiation, refraction and/or transformation of Homeric values in this particular genre of speeches.

Sophia Papaioannou offers an intriguing assessment of Vergil’s Carthaginian descriptio in Book One of the Aeneid, illustrating the way that the passage interweaves oral and literary elements—a conscious move on Vergil’s part to embrace “tropes and mechanisms of orality fundamental and conspicuous in the composition of the Homeric narrative” (p. 249). In this descriptio, Aeneas encounters and describes a series of murals that depict the battles fought at Troy in the temple of Juno in the expanding city of Carthage. The discussion shows well that through Aeneas’ highly personalised descriptive technique, which prioritises the act of visualising the murals, the poet discourses with and appropriates the process of oral composition of epic poetry in its Homeric context, a period when multiple versions of the Trojan War could be found circulating across the Greek world.

Charilaos Michalopoulos extends this volume’s special interest in Homeric receptions in Vergil by examining the intertextual correspondences of the Achaemenides episode in Book Three of the Aeneid. Although the discussion focuses particularly on Homeric resonances, Michalopoulos shows a subtle appreciation of the complex filtration processes that occurred between the initial textualisation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Vergil’s publication of his own epic. The analysis thus signals the influence of, for example, the Hellenistic poets Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes—authors who were themselves strongly indebted to the Homeric poems. This is an altogether subtle response, but just occasionally Michalopoulos fails to pursue a close reading through to its finality; while we might accept, for instance, that the accumulation of sea references in the Achaemenides episode signals the “metaliterary suggestiveness of the sea” (p. 273), it is left unclear as to what precise metaphorical function(s) such references serve.

In an excellent contribution to this study, Ivana Petrovic explores the important work of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787-1864), known mononymously as Vuk in his native Serbia, who collected many of the Serbian folktales and songs that were regarded as having little literary merit by the majority of his contemporaries in Serbia. Scholars usually centre on the significant work of Milman Parry, whose comparative research into Yugoslavian poetry in the 1930s transformed our understanding of the oral formation and dissemination of the Homeric poems. Petrovic argues, however, that Friedrich August Wolf’s work on Homer had already proved decisive in shaping comparisons that were made between Homer and oral poets by Vuk and his acquaintance and fellow scholar Jernej Kopitar. As if to underline the connections between the Homeric poems and Serbian oral traditions, Petrovic reveals how after Vuk encountered Philip Višnjić, a blind peripatetic guslar, Višnjić came to emblematise Vuk’s entire collection of oral literature, thus acting effectively as a “Serbian Homer” (p. 323). This chapter’s conclusions both on Wolf’s significant impact on perceptions of Homer in the Balkan region and on the wider political implications of Vuk’s work for the Serbian nation and its literature, which now took its own place amongst the European family, are as incisive as they are revealing.

In the final part of this volume, the focus shifts towards modern receptions of Homer in different areas of the performing arts. Pantelis Michelakis considers the reception of Homer in silent cinema, offering an engaging analysis of early epic films. Michelakis demonstrates the popularity of early epic releases such as Helen (1924) and Odyssey (1911), films that avoid common tropes and narratives that revolve around the formation and reaffirmation of national identities, as is often found in epic films. The discussion successfully grounds the unfamiliar reader in a body of materials that remain obscure in the popular imagination, but also engages in wider debates (also pursued elsewhere in this volume) on approaches to and understandings of Homeric orality (e.g., Petrovic’s chapter on South Slavic singers), and the specificity of the term “Homeric” in particular reception contexts. For the term “Homer” was often associated with films that were in fact more aligned with other texts from the Epic Cycle. Rather than simply reject or invalidate the application of the Homeric label in such cases, however, Michelakis uses these examples to problematise the idea of Homer, a multiform term that has generated neither monolithic nor fixed responses across the varied geographical and chronological contexts in which it has been influential.

Anastasia Bakogianni’s paper also focuses on Iliadic receptions in film, looking at the prevalence of epic themes in Michael Cacoyannis’ loose trilogy of films, Electra (1961-62), The Trojan Women (1970-71) and Iphigenia (1976-77). Although Cacoyannis’ films are modelled on Euripidean tragedies, it is Bakogianni’s contention that his trio of films also enjoy a nuanced, “masked relationship with ancient epic” (p. 406). The discussion clearly establishes the political context of these films, which are bound up with the director’s exile from Greece during the military dictatorship of the 1960s-1970s. That being said, it is not always clear from the discussion where Homeric resonances begin for Bakogianni, and where the author detects more general epic themes. For instance, Bakogianni argues that The Trojan Women and Iphigenia recall the Iliad in their exploration of the “darker aspects of the war” (p. 411), yet the emphasis on war’s brutal realities is by no means unique to the Homeric poems (e.g., Euripides’ tragic play, the Troades (415 BCE), has been read by many as a potent, bleak account of the cataclysmic event that was the Trojan War).3 Indeed, the author’s closing remarks on Cacoyannis’ relationship with the epic tradition as being a “more indirect, implicit one” (p. 416) is a telling nod to the complexity of distinguishing between Homeric and epic in cinematic receptions of the Trojan War.

As emphasised at the outset, the relative constraints of word count make it difficult for any reviewer to do full justice to the scope and variety of responses in this volume. While I have taken issue with certain aspects of individual readings, and would have liked to see further engagement with the difficult question of what constitutes distinctively Homeric reception as opposed to reception of the so-called Epic Cycle or the wider Trojan War tradition, this remains a fine contribution to the ever-expanding field of Homeric reception. Efstathiou and Karamanou’s study successfully demonstrates not only the profoundly diverse suite of Homeric responses across various spatial, chronological generic and cultural contexts, but affirms the way that many of these receptions repeat—and with a difference—multiple aspects of the Homeric poems.4


Notes:


1.   See further G. Nagy, Homeric Questions (Austin, 1996), pp. 41-43, 99-100.
2.   For a useful introduction to this vast topic, see C. Pelling, “Herodotus and Homer”, in M. J. Clarke, B. G. F. Currie, and R. O. A. M. Lyne (eds.) Epic interactions: perspectives on Homer, Virgil, and the epic tradition presented to Jasper Griffin by former pupils. (Oxford, 2006). 75-104.
3.   See especially A. Poole, “Total Disaster: Euripides’ The Trojan Women”, Arion 3 (1976): 257-87.
4.   The volume has generally been well edited, but there remain some (mostly insignificant) typographical errors, as well as some missing or imprecisely listed items in the bibliography.

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