BMCR 1996.11.14

1996.11.14, [Plutarch]: Essay on the Life and Poetry of Homer

, , , Essay on the life and poetry of Homer. American classical studies ; no. 40. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996. 321 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780788502590. $21.95.

Lamberton wrote the introduction and notes to this attractive bilingual edition of “Plutarch’s”Essay, both editors “refined and corrected” the translation, and Keaney prepared the Greek text. He was able to consult the authoritative new Teubner edition (J.F. Kindstrand, ed., [Plutarchus] De Homero [Leipzig: Teubner, 1990]), to which “the reader in need of a richer apparatus” (30) is referred. Michael Hillgruber’s Die pseudoplutarchische Schrift De Homero: Teil 1, Einleitung und Kommentar zu den Kapiteln 1-73 (Stuttgart/Leipzig: Teubner, 1994) appeared too late for the editors to use.

The first part of the Introduction, “The History of the Essay,” is a most useful and concise discussion of text transmission, authorship, and date. Because the Essay“survived fortuitously as a parasite on the text of Homer [including the editio princeps ] and on the Planudean corpus of Plutarch’s Moral Essays” (1-2), it exerted significant influence on Renaissance and early-modern scholars; this makes the question of the identity (unanswerable) and intellectual milieu of its author one of some interest. Lamberton’s special expertise in the area of ancient (especially Neoplatonic allegorical) exegesis of Homer—see his Homer the Theologian (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986)—enables him to fix the Essay, with due scholarly caution, in the last quarter of the second century CE. Pseudo-Plutarch is conversant with the favorite topics of Homer interpretation, including those of Eteo-Plutarch, up to that time, but does not exhibit the hermeneutic preoccupation with “mystical allegory we see emerge in the tradition that runs from Numenius to Porphyry and ultimately Proclus” (9). Rather, he provides a “global summary of earlier developments” and, incidentally, a glimpse of the pedagogical bent of a (Lamberton supposes) representative Imperial-era grammaticus.

The second and longest part of the Introduction, “Content and Aims,” guides readers through the morass of learning and lore in the Essay, as does an appended invaluable systematic outline of the work’s 218 chapters. The Introduction ends with a statement of (conservative) editorial principles and a page of acknowledgments. Next come listings of “Principal Editions,” “Earliest Translations” (just one other in English, by W. Lloyd Bevan in 1909), “Abbreviations,” general “Bibliography” and the aforementioned outline of contents.

The format of the body of the edition is Loeb-like, though the apparatus entries are gathered at the end. Lamberton shows a deft touch in his notes, printed at the foot of the English pages: lean, always instructive, never impeding, they mainly explicate obscurities and tick off sources and loci similes. General and Greek indices conclude the volume.

Technically, the book is nicely turned out, sturdily bound in signatures, with a charming cover illustration from the engraved frontispiece of “Joshua Barnes’ extravagant edition of Homer (Cambridge, 1711).” I noticed a half dozen misprints, only two misleading: on p. 115, chap. 47, for “Pelians,” read “Pylians”; in the footnote on p. 249, for “Glaucus to Sarpedon,” read “Sarpedon to Glaucus.”

“Plutarch” has thus been well served indeed by the authors of this edition of his Homeric Essay. A work essentially inaccessible in English is now available in an affordable, proper scholarly version. And just what will its users discover by consulting it? That, in Homer’s poetry, cranes are noisy, hawks are speedy, rabbits and deer are timid, wolves are fearsome, and lions are brave. That blood boils in anger, that the spirit ( pneuma) in fear contracts, cools, and produces goosepimples, shaking, pallor. That sometimes good things and sometimes bad happen to good people. That Homer prefers odd numbers (especially nine) to even ones. That, in making Apollo create an image ( eidolon) of Aeneas in Iliad 5, Homer anticipates the atomists’ notion of eidola. That Homer was the first political scientist, and portrays truth-telling as good and lying as bad. And so on.

A mass of brief, discrete interpretations, encyclopedic in range, is set forth with the aim of establishing Homer as the fons et origo of all knowledge: “he was adept at every kind of wisdom and skill and provides the starting points and so to speak the seeds of all kinds of discourse and action for those who come after him …” (71). As Lamberton’s notes make plain, “Plutarch” has virtually nothing new to contribute to the proof of this claim. Instead he meticulously parades evidence, culled from mostly unattributed earlier writers, of Homer’s expertise in prosody, narrative technique, rhetoric, etc.—well and good—but also in all other areas of human achievement: philosophical, religious, scientific, political, military, etc. His method is to back assertions by quotation of pertinent passages from Homer. Some of his conclusions are inarguable but uninteresting: it is good to know that catachresis, metalepsis, anadiplosis, homoeoteleuton and all the other tropes and figures in fact appear in Homer and to be able to cite lines to prove it, I suppose. Others are interesting but preposterous: for example, that Homer anticipates both Platonic and Stoic versions of the mind-body problem. Still others are fatuous and risible: Homer sometimes describes people laughing, so is the originator of comedy as well as tragedy; the talking horse of Il. 19 and Helios’ concern for his cattle in Od. 12 anticipate Pythagorean notions of the transmigration of souls and the kinship of nature.

Despite his wearisome catalogue style of presentation and often procrustean argumentation, the author of the Essay endears by a single-minded love of his subject and a firm conviction that “there are in Homer examples of exemplary deeds of people of all ages, with which absolutely everyone might be encouraged” (287). Critical naïveté perhaps (though a distinguished German Homerist asserts in a recent book that his “goal has been to make modern readers so familiar with a great poetic work of the past that they might better understand their own lives”), but in the service of such beliefs, “Plutarch’s”Essay merits our attention by furnishing broad access to the manner and themes of ancient scholarly exegesis of Homer.