Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.37

Benjamin Sammons, Device and Composition in the Greek Epic Cycle.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. vii, 263.  ISBN 9780190614843.  £55.00.  

Reviewed by Malcolm Davies, St. John's College, Oxford (


‘The discussion of a book one likes can easily outgrow any tolerable proportions.’ Accordingly, I shall imitate the scholar just cited (Momigliano, JRS 41 (1951) 146 = Quinto Contributo p. 959) and concentrate on two aspects that are important but provoke debate. For, despite its title, this attractively produced volume does not deal with the whole of the Epic Cycle. Rather, it takes further a growing tendency to suppose that we can legitimately practice literary criticism not merely on the few citational fragments of the Trojan epics, but also on Proclus’ summaries of these epics (hereafter ‘P’). Former scepticism as to the reliability of these summaries is now almost extinct (Appendix A has a sensible account of why). But their very brevity encourages another related tendency in recent scholarship: to expand their details and then apply literary criticism to the consequent expansion. The principle of expansion has a long history (see below). The new element here is the more refined application to such expansions (and to Homer) of sophisticated modern literary theories involving, for instance, the employment of aristeiai (pp. 157 ff.) or the issue of ‘character roles’ (pp. 129 ff.) in both Homer and the Cycle. This application can supposedly allow us to form more positive opinions than hitherto about the literary qualities of the lost epics.

Some expansions and the conclusions drawn from them may seem fairly uncontroversial, as with Sammons’ suggestion (p. 155) that the Cypria progressively focussed on Achilles in its latter part. But even in this instance there is room for debate, and dangers lurk. Both aspects are signposted by the author himself when he pictures Monro, ‘seeking to impose [my italics] unity on the Cypria’ (p. 152), by figuring Paris as the poem’s main hero. How different is Monro’s effort from more recent versions? Ruth Scodel’s expansions of the Cypria (‘Stupid, Pointless Wars’, TAPhA 138 (2008) 219-38) produce an epic with an ironic ‘take’ on war, a stress on its ‘unheroic’ aspects, which seems, in more senses than one of the adverb, disturbingly contemporary. Questions therefore arise relating especially to the risk of something approaching circular argument. May not the choice of details wherewith to expand P be determined, consciously or not, by a desire to boost the epics’ qualities? What checks are available to control and minimise these risks? (In the case of Monro, for instance, one might retort that there is counter-evidence suggesting that poems of the Epic Cycle did not exactly entertain the implied positive view of ‘the enemy’).

Elaborating the theme of ‘dangers’, I give some concrete examples, drawn first from the ‘long history’ mentioned above. Welcker well over a century ago speculated that the Aethiopis’ Achilles, before his duel with Memnon, had withdrawn again from fighting in Iliadic rage, and was impelled back to battle by the killing of Antilochus, a Patroclus doublet. More recently, Kullmann and others have suggested (largely on the basis of a passage of Pindar and a vase painting) that the Cypria’s Patroclus had an aristeia during the Teuthranian expedition, which ended in his being wounded and then treated by Achilles. This latter expansion is interesting in view of Sammon’s observation (p. 160) that, because of his impending death, the aristeia of the Iliad’s Patroclus lacks the wounding and healing that that poem’s use of the device leads us to expect. Neither expansion seems to be favoured in the present book (cf. p. 137 with n. 36; p. 160 f.). It would be useful to see it argued out how they are less plausible than the new expansions therein advanced.

From these I extract two examples. Of the Cypria’s unique detail (courtesy of P) that Thetis and Aphrodite brought Helen and Achilles together, it is suggested (p. 192) that Thetis may first have visited Zeus, as she does in Iliad Book One. Perhaps; but there is absolutely no evidence for this, and the actual fragments of the Cypria, as the author himself is well aware and illustrates (e.g. pp. 40 f.), exhibit many differences from Homer. So many, I suggest, and on so many levels, as not exactly to encourage this guess. More worryingly, it is speculated (p. 146) that in the Nostoi, Menelaus on returning home, may ‘have lamented his absence when Agamemnon was killed, ‘just as [sic]’ Achilles laments the death of so many Greeks during his absence from battle. This comparison of two not very similar situations is itself based on a preceding comparison of Nostoi and Iliad: the former (says P) had Menelaus sail away from the rest of the Greek forces the day after his quarrel with Agamemnon. This, we are assured, is reminiscent of the Homeric Achilles’ withdrawal from battle after a similar quarrel. But Achilles’ action reflects the pattern of the alienated individual that angrily quits the company of his peers who then, paradoxically, have to persuade him back to help them in a crisis—not at all like Menelaus, surely.

In this way hypothesis can spawn hypothesis, and earlier attempts at expansion (e.g. p. 183 n. 23) are treated as secure fact on which further hypotheses may rest. And we are confronted with a scholar applauding a literary effect that he himself may partly at least have manufactured. The process is easy to replicate. For instance, significant irony is detected (p. 198) in the Aethiopis’ presentation of an Achilles purified from blood-guilt by Apollo, the very deity who will later kill him. Perhaps. But can we not go further? Since speculation, if speculation be once admitted, has no certain limitation (to adapt Dr Johnson), why not cite, as further comparable irony, Apollo’s notoriously hypocritical participation at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, perhaps stressed in the Cypria? The room for subjectivity is virtually unlimited. Achilles as the main hero of the last-named epic is at odds with Monro’s bestowal (cited above) of that honor upon Paris. One almost foresees a not too distant future when it will be desperately difficult to disentangle what P actually relates from a penumbra of modern expansions, some mutually incompatible.

Expansionist remedies may seem less applicable on the rare occasions when we have the ipsissima verba of the poems, but here too something similar, it seems, can be tried. A test case of literary qualities (or their absence) is the fragment of the Little Iliad describing Astyanax’s brutal murder. Here Rudolf Kassel in 1954 lethally detected nullus vagitus, nulla palpitatio infantis, qui lapidi aut glomeri non dissimilis arripitur atque deicitur (Kl.Schr. p. 4). Like other recent scholars, Sammons seeks to redeem this extreme inadequacy by speculative expansion of the context, as it were. Perhaps the lines originally belonged (p. 82) to some sort of parenthetic digression or catalogue? I am not convinced that this saves the poet’s credit. If he really thought such digressive treatment suitable for so potentially poignant a scene (‘pathos in parenthesis’?) he probably deserves any amount of obloquy. This mode of redemption is in other respects too more problematic than is often realised. For instance, the same flat narrative brevity is apparent in other parts of the Cycle — the Cypria’s fr. 1, for instance, or its picture of Lynceus on Mt Taygetus — where it is respectively almost impossible and utterly impossible to apply such an excuse. (Unhelpfully enough, the one fragment of the Cypria whose narrative is almost certifiably parenthetic, because probably deriving from a speech, describes Zeus’ pursuit of Nemesis at a surprisingly leisurely pace.) This is one area where a comparison with Homer could produce particularly subtle results, for the Iliad’s first fifty-two lines also ‘move swiftly,’ but ‘the immediate impression is of speed and narrative energy’, with the result that ‘it is the triumph of the Homeric style that the introduction is so short and at the same time so massive’ (Jasper Griffin and Martin Hammond, G & R29 (1982) 135). Like the Attic tragedians, Homer takes as subject matter apparently peripheral events and imbues them with the utmost significance. On any interpretation, the cyclic poets seem to have taken central subject matter and treated it as if peripheral.

I add finally one example of a failure to exploit syncrisis between Homer and the Cycle: the author omits to follow up his perfectly reasonable aperçu (p. 190) that, on the evidence of P, the Cypria’s Artemis played a formidable and key role in events leading up to the crisis at Aulis, a role apparent nowhere else in the poem. Appropriate comparison and contrast with the Iliad, where the goddess’s one and only intrusion into the narrative (in the Theomachy) presents her as a laughably inadequate figure, would have been enlightening.

Martin West once criticised a book on early Greek Epic as ‘unimaginative’ (CR21 (1971) 69) while containing ‘speculations hardly worth writing down’. The adjective could never be used of this book, which indeed, in at least one reader, inspired musings on the very meaning of that word and its place in classical studies. To end with an admonitory but consolatory exemplum to set beside Nestor’s in the Cypria (source again P): no less a figure than Ronald Syme has been charged with building hypothesis upon hypothesis, and the scholar advancing that criticism (Momigliano, Gnomon 33 (1961) 58 = Terzo Contributo p. 744) added a warning that the wizard risked becoming slave to his own magic.

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