BMCR 1996.06.11

Ages of Homer

, , , The Ages of Homer : a tribute to Emily Townsend Vermeule. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995. xvii, 542 pages, 2 unnumbered leaves of plates : illustrations (some color). ISBN 9780292711693. $45.00.

The Festschrift is to scholarship what haute cuisine is to home cooking: an extreme of extravagance and indulgence. It is the recipient who is supposed to indulge and to enjoy the feast. But the reviewer—presumably the only reader, between editor and recipient, to read from beginning to end—is the recipient’s parasitos. As reviewers, we have savored this privilege far too long (over three times the BMCR limit of three months), but let it be our excuse that this banquet of thirty-one courses is conceived on the scale of that of Athenaeus and might challenge the appetite of a Herakles. Even taking into account the 208 black and white illustrations and two color plates, the nearly 600 oversized pages of The Ages of Homer must contain well over 400,000 words.

For all its extravagance (and in part because of it), the Festschrift as a genre labors under a cloud of suspicion. Over time, many an article has languished in a desk drawer, blighted by the lingering effects of editorial and/or referee abuse in infancy, only to find its little patch of sunlight in a Festschrift. What the journals could not appreciate, the Festschrift editor often cannot refuse. At its best, however, the genre brings together around the personality and accomplishments of a major scholar (such as Emily Vermeule) a constellation of studies that illuminate the state of a field of inquiry. The Ages of Homer is by any standard an outstanding Festschrift, and among its 31 articles are nearly a dozen that will be appreciated as real advances in the discussion of one Homeric problema or another—perhaps an unprecedented percentage. (At one stage in our attempt to write this review, we tested a Siskel-and-Ebert approach: a dozen articles got “two thumbs up,” nine of them “two enthusiastic thumbs up.”)

Before turning to the specifics, however, it is important to note that the illumination cast by this collection on the present state of Homeric studies does not spare the cracks and wrinkles. As Carter and Morris make clear in their elegant “Introduction”, the editors have exhibited tolerance to the point of pluralism, not to say contradiction. For example, if Walter Burkert’s important contribution here is correct and its implications such as they would seem to be, then much of the discussion of Homer and Bronze Age realities in Part I and elsewhere becomes an enterprise that might have emerged from the imagination of a Borges: scholars working with recalcitrant, undatable texts, along with equally recalcitrant and often unprovenanced artifacts, to inscribe in a history of the Bronze Age what is for all practical purposes a fictional narrative, divorced by half a millennium from that history. No one will doubt that it is the greatness of Emily Vermeule to have kept all of these wobbly missiles in the air at once—to have written with extraordinary authority about archaeology, about material culture, and about the evidence of texts. One of the lessons of her Festschrift is that her ability to do so is one shared by few others.

Of course, not all of the contributors set out to match Emily Vermeule’s breadth and virtuosity, and most in fact keep to their own more modestly defined areas of research. The editors have divided the thirty-one articles into three chronological groups, entitled respectively “Homer and the Bronze Age: Memory and Archaeology,” “Homer and the Iron Age: History and Politics,” and “After Homer: Narrative and Representation,” and in so doing they superimpose an orderly symmetry on what is, inevitably, a very disparate body of material.

Six articles constitute primary (or virtually primary) publications of artifacts, to which are assigned dates ranging from the fourteenth century BCE to the time of Augustus. Among these, a group of Mycenean sherds from Saqqara is alone in having a known archaeological provenance. Among the unprovenanced is a small “geometric” bronze in the Getty, sumptuously illustrated over life-size on the dust jacket, both coming (front) and going (back), and representing a lyre-player accompanied—Perhaps, led? Could he be blind?—by a boy. If the group had been commissioned as cover-art for this volume, it could hardly have been better conceived or executed for the purpose—but, leaving the artist’s identity and motives aside, let us just say that the piece is … ben trovato.

These six articles constitute a methodologically coherent group, but the remaining twenty-five are not so easily assigned to cubbyholes. Though Homer and perspectives on Homer provide the glue that binds the collection together, there are nevertheless about half a dozen contributions (including, not surprisingly, several of the six discussed above) in which Homer is never mentioned, or mentioned only in an opening or closing gesture. A further, overlapping, group of six articles is purely descriptive of artifacts, offering little interpretation beyond adducing comparanda. Another group of about the same size might be classified as historical, in that the authors undertake to relate the text of Homer to historical realities—whether of the Bronze Age or the Geometric. Some of those articles, along with seven others, explore the relationship between the text of Homer and the archaeological record. Finally, there are six articles that focus exclusively—or nearly so—on issues relating to the text of Homer, its generation, nature, and interpretation.

There is clearly no question of providing useful or even adequate summaries of such a disparate body of material in a review. The editors, in fact, do a remarkably good job of providing just such an overview in their “Introduction” and reviewers are unlikely to improve on their efforts. Without belittling the other pieces, however—almost all received at least one “thumb up”—we want to call attention to a few of those we found the most rewarding. Walter Burkert’s “Lydia Between East and West or How to Date the Trojan War: A Study in Herodotus” is a characteristically lucid, concise, and devastating demonstration of the classical Greeks’ ignorance of the events of the Bronze Age. We mentioned above the tension between this article and the enterprise of a number of the others: to match up a more-or-less eighth-century poem with Bronze-Age “realities.” As fascinating and seductive as the latter mode of inquiry is, Burkert’s article should be required reading for all those inclined to embark upon it. Mabel Lang’s “War Story into Wrath Story” could not be more different, methodologically, from Burkert’s piece. Relying largely on internal evidence, she builds a scenario—her own description of the procedure as “trial-and-error speculation” (158) is too harsh—to account for the genesis of the Iliad, or more specifically, to show how a panhellenic poem like the Iliad might have emerged from an amalgamation of local traditions. That something of the sort in fact happened, most of us would probably agree—and none, Lang included, would claim that it has to have happened in just the way she suggests—but she asks interesting questions and makes her reader see the Iliad in a new light. In “An Evolutionary Model for the Making of Homeric Poetry: Comparative Perspectives,” Gregory Nagy makes another important contribution to the same debate, though in his case the terms of that debate have been hyper-refined in a long series of major and minor contributions. What he adds here is an important piece in the puzzle: comparative evidence, the bulk of it from India, is adduced to throw light on the evolution of epic traditions and specifically on the role the Panathenaia might have played in the diffusion and fixing of the Homeric poems. In “The Sacrifice of Astyanax: Near Eastern Contributions to the Siege of Troy,” Sarah Morris makes some ingenious and unexpected connections to support the notion that the Near Eastern custom of sacrificing children to save a city under siege may find belated and distorted representation in the Greek story of Astyanax, who in story is thrown from the walls by the victorious invading army, but in art is depicted as a sacrificial victim. We wonder if “A Dancing Floor for Ariadne ( Iliad 18.590-592): Aspects of Ritual Movement in Homer and Minoan Religion,” will be the last to appear of Stephen Lonsdale’s rich and eloquent contributions to the cultural history of dance, now that we have lost him at such a tragically early age. It is, in any case, an admirable contribution, exposing an unexpected sinister side of a familiar passage. Erika Simon’s “Early Images of Daidalos in Flight” is an iconographic essay characterized by stunning clarity and efficiency of argument, establishing a highly plausible case for identifying a series of winged figures in “Knielauf” as Daidalos. In “Priam, King of Troy,” Margaret Miller starts from the observation that in Attic iconography “Priam orientalizes two generations after other ‘Oriental’ kings,” (449) and develops an exceptionally persuasive claim that we can see in such developments the evolution of “the popular Athenian worldview” in response to larger political developments (460). Finally, Cornelius Vermeule’s “Neon Ilion and Ilium Novum: Kings, Soldiers, Citizens, and Tourists at Classical Troy” is a wonderful and valuable assemblage of the evidence for the history of what the current excavators sometimes call “post-war” Troy, the classical city that stood on the mound Schliemann was to excavate. He integrates the numismatic evidence into the literary in a tour-de-force that leaves no doubt that the city of the era that turned the Troad into a Homeric theme-park is every bit as fascinating as the one heroized by the Iliad.

Those are just eight of the essays we found most attractive, helpful, or informative. This is a collection that addresses itself in its entirety to one reader, Emily Vermeule. A very large number of readers, however, will find in it a great deal to be learned and to be enjoyed. Few Festschriften are addressed to a broad audience, and few are produced or marketed in anticipation of significant sales beyond the research libraries. This is emphatically not the case here: The University of Texas Press has produced a volume worthy of its ceremonial function in the career of a tremendously influential scholar and educator. It is lavish, and very attractive. Perhaps most remarkable of all, its modest price is a clear indication that it has been kept deliberately within the range of a wide readership, one that it richly deserves. It is a pleasure and an honor to be invited to Emily Vermeule’s feast.