BMCR 1999.04.19

Beginning Greek with Homer. An Elementary Course based on Odyssey V

Frank Beetham, Beginning Greek with Homer : an elementary course based on Odyssey V. Homer. Odyssey. Book 5.. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1996. xi, 264 pages ; 21 cm. ISBN 9781853994807 £12.95.

In comparison with Clyde Pharr’s Homeric Greek, this is a much more compact book and is focused on Odyssey 5 rather than Iliad 1. Designed both as a course textbook and as a self-tuition manual, Beetham’s book manages in 185 pages to survey the basic morphology and syntax of Homeric Greek and to present the fifth book of the Odyssey in a series of progressively longer, heavily glossed segments. Book 5 is chosen both as providing our first look at the hero and as a gateway to the rest of the poem. Beetham suggests that students could go on to Book 6 (available, e.g. in A.F. Garvie’s 1994 ‘Green and Gold’), and then perhaps to 7-9, and so on.

The 25 chapters of 6-7 pages proceed with dispatch. Explanations are very brief and purely descriptive. Appendices provide (a) a synopsis of mood, tense, and aspect, (b) rules and paradigms of vocalic contraction, and (c) a conspectus (again, mostly through paradigms) of grammar (232-39). There is also an answer key to the exercises that run through the book and a word list containing all words that occur at least twice in Odyssey 5 and 6. English terms and Greek words are efficiently indexed. Modest as it is, Beetham’s six-page preface gives a very basic but up-to-date and interesting orientation to the poem.

Students first encounter Odyssey 5.1-20 in section 7 (p. 45), with the text accompanied by numerous glosses and brief exegetical notes on the same page. The unavoidable effect, with a few lines of poetry dwarfed by three quarters of a page of annotation, is aesthetically and pedagogically objectionable to some, but I think such an arrangement can be useful, at least at the beginning. Easy-to-find notes let students imbibe vocabulary and rules in connection with real expressions, and should habituate them to keep increasing their knowledge of Greek by using commentaries.

Teachers will of course supplement the text on points they find too economically presented. (For example, I missed any mention of bucolic diaeresis in the section on scansion.) Quite often, however, economy seems to have dictated a reliance on paradigms where rules of thumb might have been not only less off-putting but also more efficient. For example, instead of presenting contract verbs through exhaustive tables, one might have given a few synthetic rules that will meet most situations (as, e.g., Hansen and Quinn). But this is obviously the work of an experienced and thoughtful teacher, and any textbook will demand a certain cunning in being put to work in class.

Although I have not subjected Beginning Greek with Homer to the crucial test of classroom use, I think it would serve its declared purposes well. Teachers who begin with Homeric Greek will certainly want to consider adopting it, and I would not hesitate to put it into the hands of those who want to teach themselves to read Homer. There are real advantages of starting Greek with Homer: the student gets a front-to-back historical sense of the language, and can proceed to Herodotus, building confidence through rewarding texts with relatively uncomplicated syntax. The disadvantages are also clear, especially the fact that a rather substantial re-orientation will be required to read Plato and the tragedians. For example, the article is mentioned in a footnote on p. 7; this is right from the Homeric point of view, and yet few things are more important for reading Greek prose.

Moreover, in programs where Attic is the established entry to Greek, teachers may well wish to consider this book as a supplementary text for introductory courses in the Odyssey. Good collections of interpretative essays on the Odyssey are available from Seth Schein and Harold Bloom, but affordable textbooks can be hard to find (to say nothing of texts: the OCT of Odyssey 12-24 was out of print last fall). Students using the ‘Green and Gold’ volumes, for example, will also need a grammar and lexicon to hand, and this book may serve them in that regard. In teaching the Odyssey in Greek, I have felt the need for something approximating Benner’s Selections from Homer’s Iliad. The fact that this old book is still in print (and at a rather stiff price) suggests that its particular combination of selected texts, notes for translating, convenient glossary, and basic synopsis of grammar is still useful. Beetham’s admirable text might well be adapted to such an end.