BMCR 2002.09.04

The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle

, The tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the epic cycle. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. xvi, 295 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0801866529. $45.00.

As is well known, the Homeric epics represent only a fraction of the mythological tradition of the Trojan War. The knowledge of the larger story of the war came to the Greeks from other sources, first and foremost from the poems of the Epic Cycle. We are thus confronted with a paradox: if the Cycle poems are not only younger than the poems of Homer but also, as traditionally supposed, composed with the sole purpose of completing the story of the war as told in the Homeric poems, where should the authoritative representation of the Trojan tradition be sought? Since the 1940s, the date of the emergence of the Neoanalytic school in Homeric scholarship, more and more scholars have been ready to entertain the possibility that in everything concerning the general picture of the Trojan War the Homeric poems presuppose the tradition represented in the poems of the Cycle rather than vice versa. Until now, however, no conclusive demonstration that this is indeed how the relationship between Homer and the Epic Cycle should be interpreted has been available. Such a demonstration is precisely what Jonathan Burgess (henceforth B) has succeeded in providing in this book.

Although scholarly interest in the Epic Cycle has steadily increased in recent years, the poems of the Cycle have always been approached as a background to Homer. B reverses this perspective, thereby bringing about highly rewarding results. To some degree, the book’s title, as well as the titles of the three parts into which it is divided (“The Epic Cycle and the Tradition of the Trojan War”; “Homer and the Tradition of the Trojan War”; “The Epic Cycle and Homer”), is misleading, in that it creates the impression that B’s attention is divided equally between Homer and the Cycle. In fact, however, the main focus of the book is the Cycle poems, and it is in their perspective that the Homeric epics are discussed.

Much of the ground covered in Part One is revisited and discussed in greater detail in Parts Two and Three. B addresses such issues as the origins of the Cycle poems (do not necessarily presuppose the poems of Homer); the manufacture of the Epic Cycle as we know it (probably in the Hellenistic period); “Cyclic” Trojan War images in visual art (showing that the Cyclic myth about the Trojan War was well known in the Archaic Age), and their later manifestations (an important source widely used in art and literature). The definition of the Cyclic tradition of the Trojan War that B adopts is as follows: “By ‘Cyclic tradition’ I mean essentially the living pre-Homeric tradition of the Trojan War that led to the Trojan War poems in the Epic Cycle and continued with the Cycle as a major manifestation of it. This tradition preceded the Homeric poems but then in turn was gradually overshadowed by them” (p. 33).

A detailed examination of the presumably Homeric images—both the so-called Iliadic images and those featuring the Cyclops tale—in art of the Archaic Age is the focus of Part Two. B argues (correctly, I think) that the tendency to interpret all Archaic images of the Trojan War as relating to the Iliad testifies to nothing but the Homeric bias of the interpreters. Here B builds on foundations laid by other scholars, who have demonstrated beyond doubt that clearly recognizable Iliadic subjects started to appear in Greek art only after the late seventh century B.C. Seen against this background, the well-attested presence of “Cyclic” images in Archaic art is especially telling, and it is difficult not to agree with B that “in fact it seems that many ‘Cyclic’ images have been misidentified as Homeric” (p. 89). Similarly, the representations of the blinding of a Cyclops, though attested as early as the second quarter of the seventh century, should not be taken unconditionally as referring to the Homeric Odyssey. Finally, since in the Archaic Age the name “Homer” was applied indiscriminately to both the Homeric poems and the poems of the Epic Cycle, only a few passages in early Greek poetry can be shown to display a firmly identifiable Homeric influence. The literary evidence thus concurs with the evidence of art. “It can be argued that early Greek art and literature both contain some reflections of Homer, but the possibilities are not numerous and the first probable reflections date from the end of the seventh century” (p. 127).

B’s argument is cumulative, and it leads to conclusions whose importance is hard to overestimate. While the myth of the Trojan War as represented in the Cycle epics was known from the eighth century onward, it is not until the late seventh century that some knowledge of the Iliad and the Odyssey can be attested. How should such a situation be interpreted? While B admits that his findings agree better with the recent tendency to place the Homeric Iliad in the seventh rather than the eighth century B.C. (p. 89), he is prepared to consider other options as well. The Homeric poems, outstanding though they are, were perhaps not well received when they first appeared; they may not have become known immediately to all of Greece; their sheer length may have impeded their dissemination in oral form while manuscripts, if any existed, could hardly have been widely accessible (pp. 128-29). Be this as it may, as far as the nature of the relationship between the Homeric poems and the poems of the Cycle is concerned, the implications of the fact that in the Archaic Age the influence of the Homeric poems was quite limited are, as B himself admits, enormous (p. 131).

In Part Three, B makes a fresh start by turning to an assessment of the relationship between the poems of Homer and the Cycle poems. Although there can be no doubt that the Cycle poems as we know them are later than the poems of Homer, the tradition that they represent is not only old but also independent of the Homeric tradition. How, then, did the idea of the kuklos as actually encircling and thus completing the Iliad and the Odyssey come into being? By carefully analysing the extant evidence relating to the poems of the Cycle, B shows that at some stage these poems, some of which probably embraced the entire story of the Trojan War, were cropped in such a way as to make them fit the Homeric poems. “The apparent encircling of the Homeric poems by the poems of the Cycle is thus illusory and the result of the production of the Cycle, not an indication of the nature of their earlier manifestations” (p. 149). The assumption that the Cycle poems are dependent on the Homeric poems in content is also shown to be illusory and is effectively demolished. In conclusion, B convincingly argues that the so-called non-Homeric aspects of the poems of the Cycle, such as for example their love of the exotic and the miraculous, are not necessarily post-Homeric.

More than once in the course of his book, B finds it necessary to emphasize that his opinion of Homer’s epics is as high as anybody else’s. This seems to betray an apprehension that an attempt to elevate to literary and historical respectability poems on which so much scorn has been poured since the time of Aristotle might prove a thankless task. A similar apprehension is apparently why B sometimes tends to downplay certain far-reaching consequences that arise from his study. Thus, his statement in the Conclusion that “Both the Homeric and Cyclic traditions are poetic manifestations of a fluid yet stable and unified tradition that existed in many media” (p. 174) is manifestly at variance with his own demonstration in Part Two that for some yet unknown reason the Homeric tradition emerged either later or under different circumstances than the tradition represented by the Epic Cycle and therefore cannot be placed on the same plane with it. It goes without saying that such an asymmetric relationship between Homer and the Cycle is difficult to explain from the standpoint of the oral approach that B ostensibly adopts, and he is perhaps wise not to pursue the issue further.

On the whole, however, B succeeds admirably in his enterprise, and, even if he may be less persuasive in arguing for the high literary quality of the Cycle poems, in the present reviewer’s opinion he has firmly established the case that the Cyclic epics should be regarded as more authoritative representatives of Greek tradition about the Trojan War than the poems of Homer. The conclusion appears irreversible, and this makes B’s book essential reading for everyone seriously interested in Homer and Greek epic tradition.

The book is beautifully produced and includes five Appendices, References, and Index.