The Catalogue of ships (B 474-785) in the Iliad can count as one of the main fields of interest of Homeric scholarship since antiquity. Yet the question of its origin and intention is still controversial. In his Habilitationsschrift (Basel 1996), now available in a slightly revised form as a Teubner monograph, Edzard Visser has made an enormous effort to solve the numerous questions concerning the Homeric Catalogue of ships raised over the centuries. The core question is that of the historic credibility of the account in the Iliad, whether written by Homer himself or a document of pre- or post-Homeric times.
After a short introduction Visser outlines in chapter A (pp. 1-52) three interpretations of the Catalogue (pp.16-17). The Catalogue of ships in the Iliad is either a) an accurate geographic land register from either Mycenae, the dark ages, or geometric times, which reflects the political conditions of the time of its origin; b) a list of place names, which combines fictional and real elements, and is therefore not of historical relevance; or c) a construction composed in the archaic period out of elements of other, mostly lost epic poems that has only one purpose: to supply the reader with the geographic facts of the Trojan war.
His own approach Visser describes on pages 49-52. According to Milman Parry’s concept of oral poetry the origin of the Homeric Catalogue of ships goes back to pre-Homeric times and its formulae are incorporated by Homer en bloc in the Iliad. But this approach makes the whole Catalogue “unexplorable”. Visser has already established over ten years ago a new concept of verse improvisation according to which hexameters are not constructed by formulae but by determinants, variables and free elements. Visser’s uses this new concept for the examination of the Homeric Catalogue of ships.
He begins in chapter B (pp.53-77) with an overall view of the structure of all verses of the Catalogue of ships that contain names of places. Visser proves that these verses do have fixed structures and concludes that the poet followed formally discernible typological patterns.
In chapter C (pp. 78-150) Visser lists the geographic epithets that can be found within the Catalogue and comes to the conclusion that the poet must have had concrete knowledge of the geographic facts of the places he describes. Visser’s analysis proves also that it is not imperative to postulate a traditionally fixed Mycenaean source for the Catalogue of ships; it could also be a product of poetic improvisation with a similar time of origin to the Iliad. The fact that only a few epithets have a concrete individualising function shows that it was sufficient for the poet to have only general geographic knowledge of a place. Therefore Visser includes in his interpretation a source that has often been neglected when interpreting the Catalogue of ships: heroic myth.
According to these results Visser in chapter D (pp.150-238) tries to prove his argument by a specimen analysis of verses B 569-580, the description of the northern Argolis and Corinthia, secondly Aigialos/Achaia and thirdly the leader of the contingents of ships and the names of the ships.
Chapters E and F (pp. 239-750) then form an extensive commentary on the whole Catalogue of ships, which, in contrast to former commentaries, not only focuses on archaeological and historical facts but also deals with the mythological background of the place names. It offers the reader a detailed and thorough collection of facts and is divided by the geographical borders of Hellas themselves, beginning with Boiotia (ch. E) and then in ch. F the other parts of Greece that are described in the Catalogue: Central Greece and Peloponnese, Crete and the South Sporades, and Thessaly.
The conclusion in chapter G (pp. 742-750) summarizes clearly the results of the single chapters of Visser’s examination.
1) The Catalogue of ships is compatible with the technique of verse improvisation; therefore it could be an integral part of the Iliad.
2) As in the more narrative parts of the poem Homer uses within his verse improvisation three elements: determinants, variables and free additions like epithets.
3) The elements in the Catalogue of ships that might refer back to Mycenaean times are transferred into the epic by heroic myths. The poet treats these poetic elements not as fiction, but believes in them just as in the political and geographical conditions of the 8th century BC.
4) The word order between narrative verses and the Catalogue of ships is different. Whereas Homer combines the narrative verses more or less freely, he attaches more value on the word order in the Catalogue. Names at the beginning of a description of a contingent are clearly the most important ones (although there are exceptions due to the hexameter and its caesura, namely names with a dactylic scheme).
5) Homer has concrete geographic knowledge of Hellas of his own time, yet he puts more emphasis on mythological places like Mycenae or Knossos.
6) Myth is also the source within the description of the single contingents. Each begins with an mythological introduction, which is then expanded by a geographic description.
7) To be included in the Catalogue of ships a place must therefore be of mythological and/or geographical importance.
8) The Catalogue of ships is strongly related to the myth of Troy. Other myths are dealt with only marginally. The reason why the picture of the contingents before Troy is more or less a detailed and fully rounded description of the mythological and late geometrical Hellas is a result of the dimension of the myth of Troy (to which Homer himself of course contributed enormously).
9) The question of how Homer got his geographical knowledge can only be answered hypothetically. Either he really knew it himself, because he visited the places, or he used the geographical knowledge of his contemporaries, for example sailors, merchants or craftsmen.
Visser’s book is indeed an impressive display of hard work and diligence; it combines skilfully both the character of a monograph and a commentary (the register of place names at the end is especially helpful). But even Visser must conclude after nearly 800 (!) pages that his results are only an approach and could not be proven definitely — as he points out, that is what interpretative philology is all about.
Only one comment at the end. Perhaps Visser should have edited the commentary separately, because the reader is sometimes simply overpowered by the book’s content and the number of pages (which could be reduced slightly by omitting the large lacunae between the single footnotes).