Beginning with a table of contents and a short Preface (p. 7), this book contains a List of Technicalities (pp. 9-10), a General Introduction to the whole Iliad, divided into five paragraphs (pp. 11-43), a line-by-line commentary on each book of the poem, based on three selected translations (pp. 45-323), an Appendix, entitled The ‘Truce’ in Book 3 (pp. 325-327), a rather extensive Bibliography, a useful Index of the subjects discussed.
As stated in the Preface, the purpose is to provide those reading the Iliad for the first time with a useful tool enabling them to understand and appreciate the basic characteristics of what is considered to be the first masterpiece of our Western Culture, through a detailed commentary based on the most widely used translations, namely: E. V. Rieu, Homer: The Iliad (Harmondsworth: Penguin 2003), revised and updated by P. Jones himself; M. Hammond, Homer: The Iliad (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1987); and R. Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer (Chicago 1951). Although intentionally limited in scope, this book nevertheless discusses “the main issues that lie at the heart” of the Iliad, be these issues related to the problematic genesis of the poem, to its diction or narratological devices, or to the well-known dialectic between poetry and history. These issues constitute the main contents of the General Introduction.
Section 1. Poetry and History (pp. 11-23). Jones begins by explaining the plot (pp. 11-15). Rather than a mere summary following the order-sequence of the Iliadic books, after having specified briefly the core of the plot (what, when, where), Jones unfolds the subject as a series of shots concerned with the events that he calls “bare bones of the story” (p. 11), i.e. those events gravitating around Achilles and his ‘anger’, showing Homer as a skilled director who successfully organized the rest of the plot (the other two thirds of the poem representing the so-called non-Achillean books). Jones describes how the shots gradually become wider by showing Homer (a) as setting the scene first in the context of the battle between the Greeks and Trojans, then within the broad context of the whole history of the ten-year Trojan war; (b) as dealing with his personages like a “vast cast” (p. 12), that includes leading heroes, secondary characters and gods; and (c) as controlling the fictional time of the story by glimpsing the periods before and after the ‘real time’ of the Iliadic events themselves. In the end, Jones’ description not does only give a complete and vivid recounting of the whole plot of the poem, but it also gives an almost complete set of clues concerning the narrative structures. Jones shows an attractive way of elucidating the plot later, as well, when he introduces a peculiar “way of thinking about a plot” that consists of determining the main characters’ ‘object of desire’ (see, pp. 32-33). Therefore, he describes the Iliadic plot as a sequence of main personages’ ‘object of desire’, and, in doing so, covers the entire plot.
The oral poetry’s techniques (pp. 15-20) are clearly explained as well. It is noteworthy how Jones illustrates the metrical and formulas’ system by giving some practical examples (pp. 16-18). In light of his strong determination to make any reader familiar with the peculiarity of this ancient poetry, it is unfortunate that Jones confines himself to hinting at the well-known flexibility of the Homeric formulas1 without giving a clarifying example. Jones then moves to deal with the relationship between Homeric poetry and history (pp. 20-23). With regard to this, some of Jones’ remarks seem too absolute if one considers both the difficulty per se of dealing with such a subject and the body of the archaeological and linguistic evidence involved. Thus, while I agree that Homer cannot be seen as a historian and that his poetry is first of all a poetic creation, I have trouble with some of Jones’ conclusions, e.g. that “it is very hard to conclude that Homeric epics … tell us anything substantial” about the historical period presumably represented by the Iliad, i.e. the Bronze / Mycenaean Age (p. 21), and that constructing an epic for his time, Homer “reflects the concerns and interests of his own world far more than that of any long-lost past… ” (p. 22). I would think that in Homer it is not as black and white as these conclusions imply (though cf. pp. 34-37), and to dismiss altogether any sort of historical sense is not as simple as it seems on the basis of Jones’ description.2 First of all, some specific connections between archaeological evidence and poetry cannot be completely neglected. In fact: archaeological sites and relics, which go back to the Bronze Age, have been found on the basis of Homeric indications; the ‘tower-like-shield’ of Aiax as well as the smaller round shield go back to different phases of the Mycenaean Age;3 the lions, characterizing several similes, were animals living in the Mycenaean Age, as shown above all by the iconography which goes back to that age and portrays mostly lions’ hunting situation,4 then these animals disappeared; human sacrifices, normally practiced in the Mycenaean Age, at least once appear to be practiced by Homeric personages, specifically by Achilles for the funeral ceremony of Patroclus in Iliad 23. 166-178.5 Moreover, Jones does not take into account both the presence in Homer of what has been called “klare Ausdruck eines distanzierenden historischen Bewußtsein”6 and the ancient audience’s broad point of view. For Homer’s audience the poem was not a simple literary entertainment nor a pure product of poetic invention; it was, indeed, a way to learn about their ancient roots, history, beliefs, and also a way to take examples for their own life from the past poetically transfigured, yet taken for real.7 This ancient perspective is completely neglected in Jones’ introduction. To understand and appreciate an ancient work, it should be useful to deal also with the way that the Ancients themselves conceived of that work.8
Section 2. Heroic Value (pp. 23-26). Here Jones focuses on some basic aspects of the hero’s mentality, from the core-value of kleos to the concept of aidos, from the generic competitiveness and the urgent commitment to be the best on the battlefield to the ability to win in debates, too. Although Jones talks about aidos, the overall explanation omits to emphasize the deep involvement of the so-called ‘shame-culture’9 above all in relation to the “central subject” of the poem (p. 24), namely the anger of Achilles following the quarrel with Agamemnon. Achilles’ emotional reaction, from which the whole Iliadic story originates, is a consequence of Agamemnon’s humiliation, having his gift of honour — i.e. the geras, the tangible sign of heroes’ reputation ( time) – publicly removed. It is not accidental that Achilles’ first complaint, when talking to his mother, is the fact that Agamemnon atimazei him ( Iliad 1. 355-356; see also, e.g., 1. 170; 2. 4, 240; 9. 109-111). Thus, his reaction is certainly understandable in a shame-culture perspective. Jones misses unfolding this aspect in the General Introduction as well as in the commentary on the 1st Book (p. 53). He focuses almost exclusively on the following items: the debate as the first reaction of the two heroes to the problem, as according to the heroic code they have to assert themselves and win by debating, too (p. 25); the issue of Agamemnon’s status which does not justify the way he dealt with Achilles’ feelings of injustice (pp. 26, 53). Not to deny the well known importance of the ‘authority’ issue,10 the impression is that of an one-sided explanation.11
Section 3. The Human and Divine Worlds (pp. 26-32). Jones describes the ‘religious’ beliefs of the Homeric world, clearly pointing out the difference from the modern concept of religion and theology. His explanation is quite exhaustive. However, when talking about the anthropomorphic traits (pp. 27, 29), Jones seems to force a little the similarity between gods and human beings, forgetting the so called “mode of polar opposite”, i.e. that form of thought according to which, while the gods cannot be imaged as anything but analogically as human-shaped entities, they cannot also be imaged as anything but as creature ‘polar-opposite’ to humans.12 Thus, if it is true that they eat and drink like men (p. 27), it is also true that they eat and drink only some special things ( ambrosia and nectar, i.e. ‘not-mortal’ food, inaccessible to humans; and, though it is true that if one cuts the gods, they bleed (p. 27), it is also true that they do not have blood in their veins, but something analogous and yet ‘polar-opposite’ in quality, since it is an immortal liquid called ichor (see Iliad 5. 339-340). Jones does not mention any of these points of difference.
Later in the commentary he does give some details about both food and blood, but there is something wrong. Commenting on 5. 340 (p. 112), he writes:
ichor : since gods are immortal and live off ambrosia and nectar, they cannot have blood in their veins, because blood is mortal, created from the food mortals eat, and when it is shed, mortals die (though cf. 5.870!). So gods must have something different in their veins — here called ichor (for whatever reason). Note that the Greek word, brotos, means ‘mortal’ and ‘blood’; and ambrosia means ‘not-mortal, immortal’ or ‘no-blood’.
Beside the fact that prior to this the reader is never told about the special food and drink of the gods,13 to say that the Greek word brotos means ‘mortal’ and ‘blood’ is misleading, and to say that ambrosia means ‘not-mortal, immortal’ or ‘no-blood’ is incorrect. The first statement is misleading since in Greek, actually, the word meaning ‘mortal’ and that meaning ‘blood’ are homographs with the acute accent differently located (
Section 4. Features of Homeric Plotting and Narrative (pp. 32-43). Here Jones discusses almost every narratological technique which one has to know: “The plot and ‘retardation'”, “Homer as narrator and ‘focaliser'”, “Ring-composition”, “Similes” and “Battle”.
Section 5. Introductory Bibliography (p. 43). Jones finally provides information about the main secondary literature that should be used for both the general introduction to Homer and the book-by-book analysis.
(II) LINE-BY-LINE COMMENTARY (pp. 45-323).
Each book’s line-by-line commentary is introduced by a meticulous summary by means of which Jones allows the readers not only to familiarize themselves with the content of the book but also to ‘see’ Homer building his poem by facing, step by step, the narrative problems (sometimes vividly qualified as “tricky”, p. 139; “serious”, p. 148; “especially difficult”, p. 271) that the fictional situations themselves could raise. A typical device that Jones uses to realize this goal consists of asking what the poet can do or how he reacts to the narrative situation, as if the poet asks himself, interacting, as a consequence, with both his own personages and readers. This is a noteworthy way to engage the readers by making them participate in Homer’s creative process. Jones’ asking-device frequently occurs in the detailed notes where the challenge to the readers sometimes becomes excessive because of the absence of answers. It is also worth noting that each introduction begins by reminding the readers of the preceding stages of the narration, so that they cannot lose their way. This commitment to jogging the memory is also shown in the detailed notes concerning the personages. At the end of each book’s introduction Jones also indicates the main sources for the commentary and related readings.
The line-by-line commentary is in turn divided into several thematic segments. Each segment is introduced by a short and clear summary of its contents that includes also precise indications about the time of the involved events. The commentary is characterized by an abundance of details, which ranges from explanations of epithets to geographical and ethnological notes; from descriptions of narratological rules and devices (such as Zielinski’s rules, ring-composition, some peculiar speech-pattern, paradigm-speech, parallel-structure) to the meticulous recording of every simile; from the focusing on typical scene-patterns (such as departure, arming, killings ‘chain reaction’, aristeia, ‘rebuke’) to descriptive notes on the vivid figurative language of both Homer and his characters. There are also clarifying comments on the situation of the single personage in a given stage of the narration, sometimes enriched by exquisite quotations (see, e.g., on 18. 98-102, p. 253).
Jones’ commentary does not omit to point out and discuss passages that are specifically object of interest of analytical scholars (see, e.g., on 8. 80, p. 141; on. 11. 609, p. 180, etc.) nor cases concerning specific lines’ Homeric authenticity (see, e.g., on 8. 548+550-2, p. 146; 9. 458-461, p. 158; 18. 604-605, p. 261; 23. 806, p. 307; 24. 45, p. 312). There are also several interesting notes on the issue of translation, although these are, unfortunately, not as numerous as one would expect from the title of the book. In these notes, Jones often focuses on what the Greek word or sentence means, which translation is preferable, and why. Some of the translation’s notes are acute, explained in detail, and show an effort to avoid too modern and anachronistic interpretation.
As in each book’s introduction, the focus in the commentary is on Homer’s art of narrating. With regard to this, Jones prefers to highlight the ‘objective’ way of the Homeric narrative. Although talking of intervention of the poet to manipulate events, or to make general statements or personal comments, contrary to trends in recent scholarship, Jones tends to consider it as being rare.
In sum, the overall commentary is very rich in details; most of Jones’ notes are indeed notable. However, in this section, too, there are some shortcomings, not unexpected in so long a commentary.
As to the translation, in light of Jones’ attention to precise explanations and avoidance of too modern translations, it comes as a surprise that he does not discuss the way that Rieu-Jones translate
A few other points: on Thersites (on 2. 212, p. 71), Jones says that it means ‘loud-mouth’; but it should mean ‘(man) bold of speech’ since
Finally, in the appendix concerning the ‘truce’ in Book 3 (pp. 325-327) Jones rejects the common view of the oath taken by the Trojans and Greeks in 3. 276-301, when Menelaus and Paris are about to duel, as constituting an official truce. Jones’ argument is clearly explained and is quite persuasive. He focuses on the fact that a real truce should be sealed by oaths and, in his opinion, the oath itself of Book 3 concerns only the outcome of the duel (ll. 276-309), not “any truce, official or otherwise” (p. 325). Thus, on the basis of the words of Hector in 3. 84-94, Jones regards the truce as possibly being concluded after the duel takes place. To a closer analysis, Jones’ overall argument seems to be questionable. To simply touch on the issue, it is just Hector’s words that imply something different from what Jones argues. Hector reports Paris’ command-exhortation (l. 87) that involves, on one hand (l. 88), all other Trojans and Greeks, who are significantly invited to put away, down the weapons (l. 89); on the other hand (l. 90) Paris himself and Menelaus, i.e. the duel. Passing over the immediately following wish-order expressed by Menelaus (“you others be parted with all speed”, l. 102), I wonder whether the command ‘to put away’ the weapons is so unimportant as to exclude that at least an unofficial truce, covering the period of the duel, is implied (see, also, ll. 113b-115). Moreover, Jones does not consider the libation and the sacrifice, which take place (ll. 266-274; 292-296), as possibly having officially sealed the mentioned friendship (see ll. 73, 94) and the putting away of the weapons, too, i.e. a sort of ‘truce’.18
In conclusion, it is unfortunate that a certain unevenness in quality weakens the potential force of this book, whose basic idea of comparing three translations is to be applauded especially when one considers that the translation itself may be a major issue for everybody. On the other hand, the commentary’s richness strongly struggles with misgivings over specifics. In the end, I would think that addressing the shortcomings, in a possible revised edition, would permit the overall notable traits of this book to be more appreciated.
1. See J.B. Hainsworth, The flexibility of the Homeric Formula, Oxford 1968, the well-known originator of these observations. Even taking into account the declared limited scope of this book, I have to notice that Jones misses mentioning Hainsworth’s work; yet, he usually cites the bibliographic references after other specific topics are discussed. The same occurs later, when talking about the repeated patterns of common scenes and mentioning some of them (pp. 18-20), Jones omits to quote the very first pioneer work of this kind of studies, W. Arend, Die typischen Scenen bei Homer, Berlin 1933.
2. The only evidence that Jones has introduced to support his statement that the Homeric poetry has little substantial to tell us about the Mycenaean Age is questionable; he hints at the written records, the Linear B tablets, whose contents have no relation with the society of the Iliad. In my opinion one should take into account that the discrepancy concerning the Linear B tablets’ contents, as well as other inconsistencies between Homeric poems and the Mycenaean Age, may be due to the inevitable mixture with the traits of the following ages (the Dark Age and the beginning of the Archaic Age) throughout the oral transmission of traditional material. Curiously, Jones never mentions the Dark Age that, covering a considerable length of time between the Bronze Age and the Archaic Age (i.e. the time when it is more or less agreed that Homer composed his poems), has been taken into consideration by the scholarship within the Homeric question (however, see, e.g., M. Ventris & J. Chadwich, Documents in Mycenean Greek Cambridge 1972, p. xx. R. d’A. Desborough, The Greek Dark Age London 1972, p. 321). There are still scholars that date the society described by Homer as late Dark Age (see, e.g., P.A. Draper, Homer. Iliad Book 1 with notes and vocabulary Ann Arbor 2002).
3. Jones simply hints at their Mycenaean origin in the comment on 7. 219 (p. 135). Also, as to the general weapons there is a misleading statement: Jones writes (p. 15): “all their [Homer’s heroes] armour and weapons are bronze”. Instead, there is, at least, one exception in 4.123 that has caused many discussions (see also 7. 141 and Odyssea 21.10-11). It is true that the exception is pointed out in the commentary of that book (p. 98). However, someone that reads the general introduction and not the commentary on every single book, has, at least at this stage, inaccurate information. I point this out not only for reasons of precision, which should obviously be adhered to the extent possible, but since this fact also indicates that the Homeric picture is not as invariable as Jones at times seems to imply.
4. The lion is a very popular animal-motif of the Mycenaean iconography. On this subject, see, e.g., E. Bloedow, On Lions in Mycenaean and Minoan Culture, in “Aegaeum” 8, (1992), pp. 295-305; Löwenjagd im spätbronzezeitlichen Griechenland, in “Altertum” 38 (1993), pp. 241-250; more recently, “Hector is a lion”: New Light on Warfare from the Homeric Simile and Bronze Age Iconography, in “Aegaeum” 19 (1999), pp. 285-295, where the scholar has observed that a comparison of lions in Homeric similes and lions in Mycenaean iconography can also enable us to gain new insights into Bronze Age war and warfare.
5. See G. S. Kirk et al., The Iliad. A Commentary, vol. VI (by N.J. Richardson), Cambridge 1993, pp. 186-189. Jones hints at this case of human sacrifice in the comment on 18. 336 (p. 257), simply explaining it as a clear signal of how intensive Achilles’s grief is, given that similar brutal acts are normally avoided.
6. See W. Schadewaldt, Die Anfange der Geschichtsschreibung bei den Griechen, in “Die Antike” 10 (1934), pp. 144-168 (the quotation is on p. 149).
7. Regarding the inner didactic purpose of the poetry according to the archaic mentality, see, e.g., W. J. Verdenius, The Principles of Greek literary Criticism, “Mnemosyne” 36 (1983), espec. pp. 31-36. As to the ancient sources, it could be enough to mention, e.g., Xenophanes fr. B 10 D-K; Heraclitus fr. B 50, 57 D-K; Herodotus II, 53; Aristophanes Frogs 1031-1036a.
8. It is also a little strange that Jones has never introduced the concept of ‘myth’, which is as important for understanding the ancient Greek poetry, and more generally the archaic Greek culture, as it is difficult to define. In the commentary, Jones occasionally uses the word, and/or derivatives (pp. 99 on 4. 219; 123 on 6. 119-236; 124 on 6. 132; 151-152 on 9. 145; 266 on 19. 95-133), without any explanation and, sometimes, accompanied by confusing terminology, e.g.: “folktale/myth” to name the Bellerophon’s story told by Glaucus (p. 123); while about Meleager in Book 9, Jones talks of a ” traditional story” (p. 159).
9. E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 1951, pp. 17-18, 28. As to the transliterated form of
10. See, e.g., W. Donlan, The Structure of Authority in the Iliad, in “Arethusa” 12 (1979), pp. 51-70; V. Di Benedetto, Nel laboratorio di Omero, Torino 1994, pp. 349-358.
11. Jones also never introduces the concept of geras, which is actually what provokes the quarrel (see E. Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, Paris 1969, vol. II, espec. pp. 43-44). As to how the time / aidos issue affects the reaction of Achilles and his desire of revenge, Jones nevertheless later talks of “revenge for his own [Achilles] slighted honour” (p. 311).
12. See H. Fraenkel, Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy (transl. by M. Hadas & J. Willis) New York-London 1975, pp. 54 and n. 4. On this ‘mode of polar opposite’ with reference to early Greek Religion, see also G. E. R. Lloyd, Polarity and Analogy: Two Types of Argumentation in Early Greek Thought, Cambridge 1966, pp. 41-48.
13. In the comment on 4. 34 (p. 97) Jones writes: “… : gods, of course, consume only ambrosia and nectar (5.341-2)”. Beside the fact that the reader cannot understand why “of course” since nothing has been explained before, I would think that there is a misprint here, because there is no mention of those words in the Greek text neither in the l. 34 nor in the surrounding lines (except for nectar, mentioned at the very beginning: 4. 3)
14. See, e.g., H. Frisk, Griechisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, Heidelberg 1960, pp. 270-271; P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, Paris 1968, I, pp. 197-198; B. Snell, Lexicon des frühgriechischen Epos, Hamburg 1979, I, pp. 616-618.
15. Regarding to the ambivalent meaning of
16. For the meaning of Thersites, it is enough to check on LSJ, s.v.
17. Regarding to this, see G. Arrighetti, EOIKOTA TEKNA GONEUSI. Etica eroica e continuità genealogica, in “SIFC” (1991), espec. pp. 141-144 (with further bibliographic references).
18. Moreover, I would like to point out that the subjunctive in 3.94 seems to be hortatory, which indeed would express propelling and hastening instead of waiting and delaying, as supposed by Jones. At times, actually,