BMCR 1997.12.02

1997.12.02, Homer, Iliad Books VIII and IX

Christopher H. Wilson, Homer, Iliad Books VIII and IX. Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1996. Pp. x + 253. $49.95/Pound 35.00:$24.95/Pound 14.95.

Books 8 and 9 of the Iliad make a good pair for this addition to the Aris and Phillips series of Classical Texts: they cohere (Trojan domination in 8 necessitates sending the Embassy to Achilles in 9), they contrast (8 focusses on the field of battle, the supreme power of Zeus, and the consequences of divine interventions; 9 concerns human diplomacy), and the relatively straightforward 8 is a good warm-up for tackling the more problematic 9). An excellent innovative feature of Wilson’s edition is that at the foot of each page of Greek text grammatical forms are parsed and syntax is explained with references back to 13 pages of ‘Basic Homeric Grammar’ (30-42). W.’s experience as a schoolteacher is apparent here: he was head of Classics at Tonbridge School before moving on to the Open University and the University of Kent. And although confrontations with e.g. ‘Olumpians’, ‘Theomakhy’ and ‘Odusseus’ may hurt some readers’ eyes, by and large this is a most user-friendly edition.

Commenting on Book 8, W. brings out well how speeches delineate character: Hector is repetitive, because blustering and near-desperate (esp. 497-541); Diomedes’ speeches are short and sharp, because Diomedes tends towards arrogance. Indeed, the fighting in Book 8 has scarcely begun when Diomedes has to rescue Nestor from Hector: at 93-6 he calls on Odysseus to help, accusing him of cowardness, but Odysseus does not listen and goes on his way. W. finds Diomedes’ speech ‘a curious one’ with ‘no sequel in the narrative’; but it starts the build-up to Diomedes’ isolation and arrogance, culminating in his retreat before Zeus’ thunderbolt (157-8). A little bit more might sometimes have been made of divine interventions: at 309-34 Teucer aims an arrow at Hector and misses, for Apollo diverted it; he hit instead Hector’s charioteer Archeptolemus. W. hesitates in his interpretation: ‘Does Apollo actually intervene to divert Teukros’ shot Homer appears to say so. But it is possible that no more is meant than that Teukros’ arrow missed its target, and that this is ascribed to Apollo’s agency simply because he is the god of archery.’ But the underlying idea is the widespread Greek belief that if a mortal is to prosper he needs the help of the gods (just as nowadays we might say that to run a fast race an athlete must be fit but also needs external factors over which he has no control, such as weather conditions, to be favourable); so Hector, who at this stage of the battle is meeting with success, has a god on his side. Apollo’s intervention is a poet’s way of representing this fact.

On 189, Hector’s surprising reminder to his horses that Andromache used to give them wine to drink, W., gives Aristarchus’ athetesis of the line qualified approval, but then rightly adds, ‘but we should bear in mind the possibility that the horses of a hero may have unexpected capacities’. He might also have drawn attention to Il. 9.490-1, baby Achilles dribbling his wine over Phoenix. The consumption of wine seems to have been more widespread in archaic Greece than it is in twentieth century England.

W.’s commentary on Book 9 inevitably invites comparison with that of Jasper Griffin (which appeared too late for W. to use), and although naturally both agree on many points of interpretation there are also numerous occasions when W. makes a good point not made by G. or provides an interesting alternative explanation. Twice he has a good note demonstrating how inconsistencies between speeches may be deliberate, a speaker being economical with the truth because a new occasion demands a change of tone. He notes that at 110 Nestor refers to Achilles as φέριστον, when earlier (1.280-1) he had said that Agamemnon was φέρτερος than Achilles, the change perhaps because Nestor is now being more forthright in his criticism of Agamemnon; and on 334-336 he points out how the angry Achilles deliberately presents in the worst possible light Agamemnon’s distribution of booty from sacked cities. He also has a good note (on 168-70) on Nestor’s choice of Phoenix, Odysseus and Ajax as the three ambassadors: ‘Nestor has nominated the friend of Akhilleus, the diplomat, and the warrior; and these will be the roles that each of the ambassadors will maintain when they address Akhilleus.’ On the silence of Patroclus during the Embassy, G. merely remarks (on 190) that ‘his time to intervene will come’, but W. acutely points out the poignant and fateful significance of the silence: ‘his death will accomplish what the present embassy fails to accomplish, Akhilleus’ return to the fighting’.

Sometimes, though, it is G.’s comments that have the edge. When the Ambassadors arrive at Achilles’ tent, they find him singing to his lyre of the famous deeds of men (186 ff.): ‘Akhilleus is whiling away the time’ (W.), but G. suggestively remarks that ‘Achilles, who has aspired to win κλέος ἄφθιτον by a heroic life and death, himself is aware of the poetic tradition, and of himself as a part of it’ (though note that on 412-13, where Achilles discusses his mother’s prophecy, G. takes a rather different view: ‘Do we really believe that Achilles, at such a moment, is presented as talking about himself as a figure in literature?’). At 341-2 Achilles says that any man who is ἀγαθὸς καὶ ἐχέφρων loves his wife and cares for her: ‘the expression ἀ.καὶ ε). looks almost paradoxical, since what is expected of the agathos in the Iliad is self-assertion, rather than self-restraint’ (W.); but G. notes that, although in general the Iliad and Odyssey praise a man for straightforward heroism, in Hector and Odysseus we catch a glimpse of the praiseworthy responsibilities of the family man. Another problem comes at 503: why are the Prayers, who Phoenix says can help a man who has behaved badly, described as ‘lame, wrinkled, looking askance / squinting’? According to W., ‘These epithets have been transferred to the Litai when strictly they apply to the miscreant’; G., more plausibly: they are lame and aged because they come after the damage has been done; they look askance because [following Fränkel] they wish to steer the stubborn man away from his path. Finally, the notorious duals at 182-98; here we find the two editors in close agreement: ‘We may here be getting a glimpse into Homer’s ‘workshop’, and looking at some draft which could be entitled ‘The journey of two ambassadors’, and which has here been set into a narrative where it does not properly belong’ (W. p. 24); Griffin similarly: ‘a singer might well have more than one way of narrating a favourite scene’ (p. 24; cf. 52, the dual forms are probably ‘survivors from a version of the story in which there really were two envoys’).

Both W. and G. are alert to the effects of the sound and rhythm of the Homeric hexameter, but whereas G. generally confines his comments to the effects of enjambement and assonance W. goes further, rather too far in fact, finding some far-fetched significances in the poet’s use of dactyls and spondees, and displaying some naïveté about the Homeric hexameter. On 8.72, ἕλκε δὲ μέσσα λαβών; ῤέπε δ, ‘There is an appropriate air of finality about this line. The five successive dactyls are noteworthy, as also are the two clauses placed side by side divided from each other by the caesura, and both beginning with the verb, and ending with the same heavy sound, –ων’; 553-6: ‘The first four lines are predominantly dactylic, to introduce the calmness and serenity of the scene’; and on 9.503 χωλαί τε ῤυσαί τε παραβλῶπες τ: ‘The unusual rhythm of this line enhances the idea of slow-footed Litai five spondees, with -AI TE at the end of the first and beginning of the third feet—with the caesura after it.’ But what, then, about the rhythmically identical line 500 (which also has repeated TE in the same position)? Several times W. remarks on a weak caesura in the third foot as if it were a noteworthy phenomenon; it could be in Virgil, but in the Iliad a weak third-foot caesura is commoner than a strong third-foot caesura and thus unexceptional. And even with enjambement some caution is called for: on 8.60-5, ‘The repeated use of enjambment in these lines helps to convey the breathlessness and confusion of the melée’; what, then does it convey in 80-4? There is a danger of reading too much into variations of rhythm in Homeric hexameters.

The translations are generally accurate and readable. Three times, however, the idiomatic use of αὐτός in the dative to mean ‘x and all/complete with x’, while noted in the grammatical footnotes, is mistranslated in the translation (8.24, 290; 9.194), and W. sometimes fails to do justice to the aorist tense of the participle of verbs of speaking (it should be ‘having spoken thus ‘, rather than ‘speaking thus’, at e.g. 8.41, 157, 184, 425); at 9.40 δαιμόνιε is better rendered ‘you strange creature!’ (so G.) than ‘good sir’ (W.); and G. shows that εἴξας ὡ (9.598) is ‘after yielding to his anger’, rather than W.’s ‘giving way to his feelings’.

As mentioned earlier, the grammatical notes at the foot of each page are an excellent feature of W.’s edition and will greatly help many readers; in a handful of places, however, errors have crept in: τιθείς (8.171) is not an aorist participle; τόξου ἄπο (8.279) is not elliptical for ‘with the arrows from his bow’, but means ‘by means of his bow’: see LSJ s.v. ἀπό ιιι.3; βωμοῖσι (8.441) is sg. in meaning (‘stand’); χωομένου (9.107) could not be a gen. abs., the first of three suggested interpretations; and finally, at 9.374 ἔργον is not ‘quite inappropriately at a literal level’ governed by συμφράσομαι.

In sum, Wilson has produced a worthy edition of Iliad 8 and 9 that has much to offer the Greekless reader, learners of Greek cutting their teeth on Homer, and the professional Hellenist; and even non-readers will take pleasure in the delightful cover illustration of the Trojan Horse.