BMCR 2004.07.18

Wounding and Death in the Iliad: Homeric Techniques of Description. Translated by Peter Jones and Gabriele Wright, with a new appendix by Kenneth Saunders

, Wounding and death in the Iliad : Homeric techniques of description. London: Duckworth, 2003. xviii, 167 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0715629832 £45.00.

In 1956, Wolf-Hartmut Friedrich published Verwundung und Tod in der Ilias. Duckworth Press has now made it available in an English translation by Peter Jones and Gabriele Wright. This edition also contains a new appendix by Kenneth Saunders that provides a modern medical perspective on the injuries described in the Iliad, which is in part a reprise of his earlier writings on the subject.1

The book is divided into three chapters: one on fantastical wounds, one on realistic wounds, and one on what Friedrich terms “strict style.” It also contains Friedrich’s four appendices that discuss Harpalion, Lycaon, and Sarpedon; the duels between Hector and Ajax; the healing of Menelaus; and the layered style of Book Thirteen.2 Saunders has provided a new appendix which reevaluates Friedrich’s classification of the relative realism of the wound descriptions from the perspective of a modern doctor of medicine. It should also be noted that although the work is made more accessible by its translation into English, it will still be restricted to use by classicists, since the Greek passages discussed by Friedrich are not translated.3 The majority of scholars will probably consult this volume in tandem with Fenik as a starting point for understanding the literary portrayal of violence and wounding in the Iliad.4 It will also be a resource for the discussion of specific scenes in the Iliad, and there is an index locorum that assists such a use as well as two indices, one of words, and one of names. Another helpful aspect of the production is that page numbers from the original text are cited in brackets thereby making it easy to consult the German for key terms. There is no bibliography and all sources are cited within the text or in endnotes.

The translation, largely the work of Gabriele Wright, is prefaced by an introduction written by Peter Jones. He notes that the original publication of Friedrich’s work coincided with the widespread influence in English-speaking countries of theories concerning oral composition. This meant that Friedrich, who was attempting an analytic reading that claimed to distinguish various authors based upon stylistics, seemed hopelessly behind the times, and his work was largely ignored, at least in England and the United States. Jones argues for the importance of exploring Homeric style — something that he claims Friedrich can help to pioneer. He also suggests that this work will be of interest to scholars of ancient medicine, despite the fact that this was not the original intention of its author. Jones gives a quick history of analysis in Homeric studies and goes on to defend the analysts as scholars who “envisage the narrative implications of earlier Iliads with, and without, the episodes that our Iliad possesses” (xvi). This is surely relevant to any re-imagining of the process of narrative composition, whether one considers the resulting poem the work of one, or of many, and its excellence the product of its oral production, or its final redaction.

Jones makes a plea for the relevance of this work not on the grounds of its ultimate conclusions but because of its methodology. Friedrich attempted to match like scenes with like — and rather than seeing them as type scenes, he instead looked at their style and further tried to categorize them in terms of their relative realism. Although this is only partially convincing as a justification for making this work more broadly available, there are nevertheless moments of insight in this book that contribute to our understanding of the artificiality of some of the violence portrayed in the Iliad. Unfortunately, Friedrich’s goal of finding different authorial voices is a constant intrusion upon his astute observations and often serves as an end point to analyses that one would have liked to have seen developed in other directions. Nevertheless, this volume will almost surely serve as a stimulus for other scholars to undertake such explorations.

In the original introduction, Friedrich sets forth his methodology. He notes that it is easiest to get a sense of the style of a passage by comparing like with like. His intention, then, is to avoid scenes which are formulaic repetitions and to focus instead upon those with similar content, the battle scenes. Further, such scenes, because they are related to a reality that can still be experienced, are amenable to definition as being more or less natural. By observing the relationship of these depictions to physical reality, he is able to uncover the level of artifice in the descriptions.

The first chapter takes as its topic “phantasmata” or fantastical deaths. The starting point for his discussion is the death of a charioteer in Book Thirteen (line 394 ff.). After witnessing the death of his master, Asius, the unnamed charioteer is paralyzed by horror and is easily killed. This leads to a discussion of a variety of different scenes that ring the changes upon the theme of the death of charioteers, that of the heroes they accompany, or the experience of paralysis in battle (16.401 ff., 5.585 ff., 13.428 ff.). Friedrich’s approach is to move from one interlude to another, drawn forward by the resemblance between what he terms “motifs.”

Ultimately, Friedrich perceives a stylistic difference in these accounts, considering the death of the unnamed charioteer to be more realistic and less “lavish.” The other accounts by contrast are judged to be more fantastic and grotesque. Examples of this include Thestor being dragged from the chariot like a fish, eyeballs popping cartoon-like from the heads of victims, and the charioteer Mydon falling headfirst into the sand and sticking upright until kicked over by his horses. Friedrich observes that these sorts of “supernatural” events tend to cluster around certain characters like Aeneas (15-18). Although what will seem realistic to a poet, a medical doctor, and a civilian in the 21st century may be different things, the contrast between austerity and gore is a real one and suggests that different effects were being attempted.5

The second chapter discusses wounding scenes that Friedrich terms true to life, or “biotischer Realismus.” Again, he makes a number of interesting observations. Just as the fantastic was associated with the character of Aeneas, so the realistic appears to be associated with Hector and the sons of Priam. He also discusses issues of heroism, contrasting Deiphobus, who withdraws groaning from combat after he is wounded, with Odysseus and Agamemnon who manage to endure their injuries long enough to kill their opponents. Friedrich observes that these scenes of wounding distinguish the great heroes from the minor ones, a theme that has been taken up more recently by Salazar.6

In an addition to his second chapter, Friedrich expands his categories by adding those of pseudo-realism and low realism. Pseudo-realism describes scenes that seem realistic at first but become disturbing or confusing when subjected to contemplation. One example is what Saunders describes in the appendix as the “mismatch of weapon and wound” such as when a victim attempts to hold in intestines dislodged by a spear thrust. Such a description would suit a gut wound delivered by a sword but not a spear wound (39 and 137). Low realism, on the other hand, describes wounds that are repellant on some visceral level (no pun intended), such as the character Meriones who is associated with inflicting groin and bladder wounds. Friedrich suggests that this is an attribute of minor heroes, an observation that he will reiterate more forcefully in Chapter Three (43 and 65).

A final category explored in the second chapter is that of atrocity. Decapitation is an unusual wound in Homeric warfare, but even more unusual is trophy collection. The most extreme acts are committed by Achilles and by Agamemnon. Friedrich views the behavior of Achilles as an “expression of his condition” that is poetically appropriate (48). The atrocities committed by other characters, however, appear to him to be unmotivated and he believes that they are sensationalizing and have seeped into the repertory of these other characters from the account of Achilles’ deeds.

The third chapter describes “strict style” by which Friedrich appears to mean sublimity or nobility of style. The depictions of death are still grim, but they are restrained. They are graphic because the descriptions are restricted to “what is necessary” (55). Strict style is exemplified by the first general battle in Book Four (line 457 ff.) and is also characteristic of the Diomedeia.

Friedrich is able to demonstrate in the third chapter the disdain for the Trojan forces betrayed by both the way they die and the way they kill. Thus, the Greeks show a distinct talent in the art of throwing spears and the Trojans are completely ineffective in Book Four when fighting against any Greek who is not distracted by dragging away a slain enemy. The success of the Greeks is underlined by the nature of the injuries they inflict such as when Odysseus throws a spear that crashes through both of the temples of Democoon (54). Since mortality and valor are such important themes in this poem, this is a rich topic, and again, one sees possibilities for further exploration.

The final appendix added by Saunders reevaluates Friedrich’s categorization of wounds in the Iliad. The appendix partly reproduces earlier articles published by Saunders but they have been reworked to respond directly to Friedrich. Wounds in art are always subject to their own idiom and are all artificially depicted to some degree. For instance, Saunders notes one commonplace in depictions of violent death, the convention of “sudden death” — an event that is quite rare in reality. He also briefly touches upon the weaponry used during this period and the typical wounds inflicted by each type of weapon, the difficulty of establishing mortality rates in Homer, and the treatment of wounds. He then goes on to consider the specific wounds discussed by Friedrich and whether they fit within the realm of medical possibility. Saunders in part helps to stabilize the methodology of the whole work by giving a less subjective rationale for designating realistic wounds. His analysis results in the reclassification of a number of the scenes.

This book will be of interest to scholars who are working on violence, heroism, ancient medicine, or the narrative structures within the Iliad, Although marked by its intellectual period, it is nevertheless a work that opens many horizons of investigation and offers many fascinating (and occasionally gruesome) observations. It should be consulted as a stimulant to questions rather than as a source of answers.


1. K. B. Saunders, 1999: “The Wounds in Iliad 13-16,” CQ 49, 345-63. K. B. Saunders, 2000: “A Note on the Strange Death of Mydon in Iliad 5,” Symbolae Osloenses 75, 24-33.

2. In keeping with current practice, I have used numerals to identify books rather than the Greek letters used by Friedrich.

3. This restriction to those who can read Greek may be for the best as this work does not engage with the findings of Parry and Lord and so could conceivably be somewhat misleading for the casual reader.

4. Fenik cites Friedrich fairly often in his book Typical Battle Scenes in the Iliad (Steiner Verlag 1968). Jones, in his introduction to the volume under review (xiii-xiv), gives a lengthy and approving quote by Fenik as evidence that Friedrich still has many valuable observations to offer despite his lack of engagement with oral poetics.

5. This is a point that Saunders makes as well in the appendix, noting that plausibility is largely dependent upon the knowledge of the reader or listener (162).

6. Salazar, in The Treatment of War Wounds in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Brill 2000), devotes a chapter to the code of wounding scenes in the Iliad and their role as a “vehicle” for “heroic virtues” (157).