BMCR 1999.01.06

The Latin Iliad. Introduction, Text,Translation, and Notes

, The Latin Iliad. Introduction, Text,Translation, and Notes. 75.

‘What’s that?’ is the response most commonly elicited by mention of the ‘Ilias Latina,’ a poem whose most outstanding feature may well be the extent to which it is absent both from the catalogues of major libraries and from the minds of classicists. Indeed, at a time when the focus of scholarly study is increasingly turned to ‘minor’ authors and less famous works, it is surprising that this poem has not received more attention. Written probably by one Baebius Italicus during the reign of Nero, this short Latin translation of the Iliad is essentially classical in style, with many Vergilian and Ovidian idioms. A reduction of the entire Iliad to 1070 lines inevitably reads like a summary and lacks most of the depth of the original, but the poem does have some merits of its own. We can learn much about the author’s view of Homer’s tale from the sections he chooses to transmit, omit, amplify, or change; clearly he had a very different perspective from that of most modern readers of the Iliad. Since during the middle ages Baebius’ version rather than Homer’s was the Iliad known in western Europe, Baebius’ choices have had a significant impact on the history of the Trojan myths.

The ‘Ilias Latina’ also has the distinct advantage of being, from the point of view of an English-speaking student, some of the easiest classical-sounding Latin poetry in existence. I quote lines 686-95, which summarize book 9:

Attoniti Danaum proceres discrimine tanto
nec dapibus relevant animos nec corpora curant,
sed miseri sua fata gemunt. Mox Nestore pulsi
legatos mittunt dextramque hortantur Achillis,
ut ferat auxilium miseris. Thetideius heros
nec Danaum capit aure preces nec munera regis
ulla referre cupit; non illum redditus ignis
aut intacta suo Briseis corpore movit.
Irrata legati referunt responsa Pelasgis
et dapibus curant animos lenique sopore.

Kennedy’s edition of this poem provides an introduction, text, English translation, and commentary.1 In most respects he follows the standard edition of the ‘Ilias Latina’, Scaffai’s 1982 work in Italian. Kennedy provides his own text and apparatus, but he gives no indication of the extent to which this part of his work is original or whether it involved consultation of manuscripts. In fact his text is virtually identical to Scaffai’s, although in a few difficult passages he makes different choices. The apparatus is briefer than that provided by Scaffai but suffices to cover the most important points; it appears to be derived from the works of Scaffai and his predecessors rather than from re-examination of the manuscripts.

The prose translation is Kennedy’s own, and very well suited to the Latin. It is generally accurate and literal (barring the odd peculiarity such as line 276) but not ungraceful, and it does not aspire to literary pretensions the Latin text does not have. Kennedy has, however, managed to preserve in his translation the acrostics with which the Latin poem begins and ends (ITALICUS is spelled by the first letters of lines 1-8, and SCRIPSIT by lines 1063-70). This is a nice touch (one Scaffai did not attempt), and Kennedy manages to achieve it without doing serious violence to either Latin or English. Whenever possible, each Latin hexameter is translated by a single line of English, and the English translation is equipped with frequent line numbers matching the Latin, making it easy to refer back and forth.

The translation is printed after the text, rather than on facing pages, in order to facilitate use of the Latin by students in translation classes. The commentary is placed at the foot of the pages containing the translation and is thus clearly a commentary on the translation rather than on the text. Scaffai provided 240 pages of commentary in his edition, but Kennedy is far briefer and ignores most of the scholarly issues raised by Scaffai and others. The majority of his notes concern comparison with the Iliad, in which he notes Baebius’ changes and additions carefully.

The notes can appear grating to those who know the Iliad and feel that Kennedy is stating the obvious, but they will be useful to those less familiar with the Greek who wish to get a sense of Baebius’ perspective. (It is however inaccurate of Kennedy to describe to the tying up of a prisoner as ‘a Roman note’ (p. 59); Baebius may have added tying at this particular point, but it is found elsewhere in the Iliad, as at 21. 30.) A few notes also point out passages with similarities to classical Latin authors, or explain obscure references to individuals, but in keeping with the location of the commentary it contains no help in reading the Latin text.

The introduction contains sections on ‘The Significance of the Latin Iliad‘, ‘The Author and Date of the Poem’, ‘Italicus’ Treatment of the Iliad‘, ‘History of the Text’, and ‘Selected Bibliography’. It is brief, occupying four and a half pages in contrast to Scaffai’s 71-page explanation, and much of the material in it appears to be derived from Scaffai; it suffices, however, to cover the basic facts at issue.

The book is self-published, forming a single stapled quire with a paper cover; it looks like one of the shorter members of the Bryn Mawr Commentaries series. The quality of proofreading and typesetting is, however, better than that of many professionally published works; there is no impression of sloppiness, and relatively few typographical errors, only one of which is misleading (in note 82 the reference should be to book 9, not book 6). The author has clearly devoted considerable effort to producing a professional-quality book, and I for one fail to understand why this work is self-published at all. It is hard to believe that a publisher would not have been glad to produce this edition, if not alone (it is probably too short to be economical) then in combination with some other text. Readers, however, are perhaps better served by the current state of affairs, since it is hard to imagine that a professional publisher would have made the work so affordable.

Kennedy’s effort, then, is not (and is not intended to be) a definitive scholarly work superseding that of Scaffai; those seriously interested in the ‘Ilias Latina’ will still need to read Italian. What Kennedy does do, however, is to make available and affordable a good text of this interesting poem, together with an English summary of the main facts necessary to understanding the poem and a good translation. It is to be hoped that this offering will lead to increased interest in a hitherto neglected element of Latin literature.


1. Privately published by the author, from whom copies are available for $12: PO Box 271880, Fort Collins, CO 80527.