BMCR 1996.02.10

1996.2.10, Griffin, ed./comm., Homer: Iliad IX

, , Iliad, Book nine. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. vii, 152 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198140788 $14.95.

Book divisions in Homer, it is well known, date from the Alexandrian age, the number twenty-four being influenced by the number of letters in the Greek alphabet. Some of these divisions are totally artificial (e.g., the one between Books 5 and 6 of the Iliad); others conform to the movement of the poem. Book 9 is one such book. While it follows clearly from the events of the preceding day and connects with the following action, it can also stand on its own. Achilles’ rejection of the embassy, structured into three pairs of speeches, is a gripping narrative, central to the plot, and reveals the character of the poem’s central figure. It is no wonder that Jasper Griffin, who has contributed much to Homeric studies over the last twenty years, would be drawn to write a commentary on this book. This volume offers introduction, text (essentially the OCT), and commentary.

G. presents a full introduction, with five sections, plus bibliography and an appendix. He first places the Iliad in the context of heroic poetry, making comparisons to other epics, especially those from the Near East, and showing how the Iliad itself preserves traces of an earlier Greek world (pp. 1-4). Next he surveys some of the general features of the poem, starting with its relation to tradition (pp. 4-8). G. firmly endorses the view that an individual (eighth-century) monumental composer is responsible for the greatness of the two poems ascribed to Homer. He rejects greatness by committee or (responding specifically to Richard Seaford’s recently expressed views) greatness by institution or ritual. He even outlines what he imagines to be the three decisions leading to the development of this unusually long and unusually compelling epic. His treatment of “gods and men” (pp. 9-14) is orthodox, but it is an orthodoxy that he helped to shape in his earlier work on Homer. He also comments on what he nicely calls the “atmosphere” of the poem (pp. 14-7), especially the typical civility of Homeric warriors, one of the striking features of the poem. With a brief discussion of how Book 9 connects to the preceding story (pp. 17-8) G. segues into his treatment of “Book 9 and the Iliad” (pp. 19-28). This book’s centrality to the poem is undeniable and G. articulates forcefully its importance and artful structure.

The longest section of the introduction focuses on language and style (pp. 28-45). What G. provides will prove very helpful to the Homeric novice and of value to more advanced readers as well. He sets out the basic issues of dialect and formulaic composition. Without launching a major assault on conventional Parry-Lord thinking on the poems’ composition, G. follows Norman Austin and David Shive, e.g., in pointing to some limitations in this theory and in asserting the importance of individual epithets. He moves from here to considerations of the rhythm and movement of lines and passages, especially as achieved by enjambment. Following Aristotle, and appropriately for a commentator on this book, he points to the importance of speeches in the poem (they comprise roughly 45% of it). The essence of G.’s section on “psychology and speech” is best summed up by his own words: “It is a paradox that Homeric verse, emerging as it does from a tradition of oral song with many fixed and formulaic elements, provides the most elaborate and convincing representations of individual psychology to be found in classical literature” (p. 42). In a brief note on the text, G. explains that to go along with what is in essence Allen’s OCT he prints a much abridged apparatus, following the system used by C. Macleod in his commentary on Iliad 24. The appendix on the famous problem of the use of duals to describe the embassy of three to Achilles is concise and its conclusion aporetic: “I am no more able to give a satisfactory answer to this problem than my predecessors.”

The commentary itself is modest in size—seventy-three pages of very easy to read print—but often rich in content. In these pages G. provides information on a very wide range of topics. Grammatical assistance is minimal, but G. does comment on difficult forms and often extends his scope to fuller treatment of matters of morphology, syntax and semantics (with references to standard and not-so-standard sources). He is sensitive to the sound and rhythms of the poetry (see, e.g., 4-8n., 249-50n., 309n., 328-9n., 388n.). G.’s longer notes on the important central speeches that comprise this book are particularly good and reflect his stronger interest in the human dynamics of the poems, the psychology of the characters and Homer’s success in capturing these within a traditional medium. He discusses the ways in which the material and the characters have been shaped to serve the purposes of this poem (see, e.g., 529-49n. [the Meleager story]). G. is also useful on the role of Diomedes in this book and in the poem (see., e.g., 34ff. n. and 57n.). The overall impression is of a learned and sensitive interpreter of the poem, one who leavens his scholarship with a strong instinctive sense of the poem’s humanity and artfulness.

G. could have been better served by his copy editor. There is too much repetition between notes (see, e.g., the treatment of the suffix -FI spread across several notes or the repetition between 165n. and 26n. and between 377n. and 162n.), and too many false cross-references (e.g., the reference to 182n. at both 192-3 and 676ff. n., and to 527n. at both 552n. and 580ff. n.). Unsurprisingly the author of Homer on Life and Death often appeals to common sense (e.g., “Anyone who has ever sulked will admit the truth of both statements,” 260n.) and is prone to pronouncing on the beauty of phrase or power of sentiment (e.g., “a depth of feeling … unsurpassed in the poem”, 186ff. n.) or “this is the most splendid speech in Homer,” 307-429n.). His style, always clear, admits some striking colloquialisms (e.g., “good lookers, “128n.; “hardened boozer,” 203n.; “macho heroic songs,” 341n.).

In his Preface G. invites comparison with two other commentaries, hoping that the recently completed multi-authored Cambridge commentary on the whole poem (Books 9-12 by Bryan Hainsworth) will leave room for a commentary on Book 9 along the lines of Macleod’s on Iliad 24. It does, but in the final analysis, G.’s commentary will serve as a complement to other work more than stand on its own. Those starting out in their Homeric travels will find inadequate guidance for their journey. More advanced scholars, while discovering some valuable insights along the way, will—inevitably—find Hainsworth a richer guide. There is much to admire here but this commentary leaves one vaguely unsatisfied, wishing for more.

A few specific observations: 1n.: G. explains that φυλακάς is acc. plural of φυλακή, meaning “watch” (what else could it be?), while passing up the opportunity to comment on Homeric narrative with a note on αὐτάρ in its approximate sense of “meanwhile”. 24n.: apropos of the nuances of the κρήδεμνον a reference to M. Nagler’s Spontaneity and Tradition (not even in the Bibliography) is in order. 116n.: G. acknowledges that ἀάσατο can be interpreted as middle or passive. It might be more helpful to suggest that the semantics of this verb do not allow for a neat distinction; see recently R. Padel, Whom Gods Destroy, esp. 167-87). 146n.: on dowry and bride-price, G. might have given an indication of the chronological issue here. 207n.: tmesis does in fact occur in Attic Greek (cf., e.g., Eur., Hipp. 342, 934, Her. 1105). 387n.: on Achilles’ extraordinary language here, some reference to the large bibliography on this subject (at least A. Parry’s article “The Language of Achilles”) is called for. 477n.: the “superfluous” use of ἀνήρ with a class or profession is not uniquely Homeric (and the reference to Schwyzer II. 514 is a phantom). 655n.: σχήσεσθαι is called “passive”, but it would have been relevant and useful to discuss briefly the historical development of the uniquely passive forms. Finally, how can one write an anglophone commentary on Iliad 9, with particular interest in the character of Achilles, and not refer anywhere to Cedric Whitman’s Homer and the Heroic Tradition ?