BMCR 2005.04.29

The Cambridge Companion to Homer

, The Cambridge companion to Homer. Cambridge companions to literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xvii, 419 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0521813026. $29.99.

The Cambridge Companion to Homer is third in Cambridge’s new series of companion volumes, in which books on Virgil and Ovid have already appeared, nicely produced and very attractively priced. In the “Introduction” the general editor R. Fowler finds Homer’s poems miraculous and even “a serious argument for divine intervention in human affairs.” Whereas Dr. Johnson considered Homer a great among greats, the Romantic view was to relish his alterity and to understand his different world. By these lights, the historicism of modern Homeric criticism is Romantic, F. suggests, but the mystery will remain because we know nothing real about any such poet. Still, we strive to learn more, and this book will show a literary bias, while not neglecting historical issues.


The opening essay by D. Lateiner, “The Iliad, an unpredictable classic,” is a spirited bellelettristic overview of themes and character in the Iliad. L. writes about plot, narrative point of view, and what Homeric characters value, and the meaning of Homer’s story.

In “The Odyssey and its explorations,” M. Silk answers Lateiner’s essay with summary remarks about the Odyssey, especially its differences from the Iliad in its affections for wordplay, focus on loyalty, and interest in recognitions, female characters, the lower classes, and the art of telling tales. He neatly summarizes the linear structure of the Iliad compared to the backward and forward sway of the Odyssey, which drifts into fairyland, then back to the grubby world of everyday.

In a masterpiece of concision, R. Scodel summarizes prominent features in Homer’s narrative in “The story-teller and his audience.” She illustrates his effective use of precise detail and recalls how repetition through variation establishes meaning. At a crisis, the poet often moves away from the main narrative, as in the story of Odysseus’ scar, to emphasize the moment’s importance. But elaborate preparations may lead to nothing special, as with the appearance of Theoclymenus to Telemachus; or expectations raised by prophecy or otherwise are fulfilled later and in unexpected ways. Homer shows remarkable sympathy for characters on both sides of his war, his Trojan sympathies perhaps reflecting his native genius. A recurrent narrative structure is the scene of pleading (Chryses, Agamemnon, Priam). The poet can evolve the moral he wishes from traditional material but associates “truth” with the catalogue or the straightforward chronological narrative.


E. Kearns, in “The Gods in Homeric Epics,” discusses the Iliadic conception of gods as individuals (she writes “Gods” with a capital G, for some reason), their anthropomorphism, their interactions with humans, sacrifice as a way to persuade them, their relationship to prophecy, tendency to have sexual relationships with humans, and their somewhat diminished role in the Odyssey, where they appear to espouse a moral position invisible in the Iliad.

M. Clarke in “Manhood and heroism” surprises by claiming that Achilles’ behavior is “By any standards … a bizarrely exaggerated response to an insult.” Homer’s contemporaries would not have seen it that way, and in any event Achilles’ behavior is required for the story to go forward. Later, it is Achilles’ “godlike and passionate behavior that drives him to such extreme anger,” but Agamemnon’s brutish contempt may have something do with it. For C., heroic experience is “a device for exploring the universal realities of man’s struggle for self-validation under the immortal and carefree gods.”

I was again surprised in N. Felson and L. Slatkin’s “Gender and Homeric epic,” this time to learn that “scholars have been unable to mine the Iliad or the Odyssey in any easy way for historical evidence of the way of life of the early Greeks,” when such activity is a mainstay of Homeric criticism, including essays in this volume. Of course it is not always easy. This diffuse essay can slip into balderdash, as when “the gendering of … [epic’s] conflicts, contradictions and values informs both the social order represented (and disturbed) within the poems and the metaphysical — indeed ideological — orders there limned.” By the end I was unsure what is meant by “gendered institution,” “sex-gender system,” and “gendered logic,” but in the Iliad women suffer as much as men, while in the Odyssey Penelope and Odysseus unite in homophrosune.


As if in the introduction to an elementary reader, M. Clark in “Formulas, metre, and type-scenes” explains the rudiments of the dactylic line, its caesuras, its cola, then shows how the theory of oral-formulaic composition explains, in a general way, such divisions. He discusses definitions of the formula and its flexibility and reviews problems with the semantic nature of the fixed epithet. Enjambment helps our understanding of oral-formulaic style, and type-scenes are parallel to the formula on a narrative level, while larger repeated patterns govern the poems taken as a whole.

In “Similes and other likenesses,” R. Buxton reviews the theoretical distinctions between metaphor and simile. He reminds us how similes relate to the world of nature, of landscape, and of the ordinary activity of mortals. He emphasizes the diversity of the Homeric similes and their different frequencies and functions in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Similes create a parallel world to the epic world of heroes and their tribulations.

J. Griffin in “The speeches” notes how 55 percent of the Homeric poems consist of direct speeches, unlike Virgil’s Aeneid, who never has extended conversations. Of course Plato objected strongly to the emotive effects of Homeric oratory and wanted to ban Homer from his ideal city. G. describes how Homeric speeches define character, hence vary widely in their focus and subject. Modern heroes are laconic (“Make my day!”), but Homer’s heroes are eloquent, especially Achilles (in spite of his denial) and Odysseus. Incorporating a good deal of paraphrase, G. analyses Iliad 1 as a case study in the range of Homeric speech.


J. M. Foley takes on the tough topic of genre in “Epic as genre,” tough because a comparative study of non-Greek “epic” traditions reveals a bewildering diversity in every respect. Apparently epic is not an archetype. To prove his point F. reviews results from Indian, North Asian, African, Moslem, Finnish, and Old English “epic,” then seemingly against his point he quotes from Lauri Honko a pretty good definition of epic: “great narratives about exemplars, originally performed by specialized singers as superstories which excel in length, power of expression and significance of content over other narratives and function as a source of identity representations in the traditional community or group receiving the epic.” Comparing Homeric epic to non-Greek epic, F. notes that the Homeric epics are of middling length, but I’m not sure if he is comparing Homer’s poems with non-Greek texts taken down by dictation, written anew by literati, or recorded on tape in the field. F. mentions a Chinese text one million lines long, but you cannot notate oral song in Chinese characters, so what does that mean? Interesting that the simile is not found in non-Homeric traditions. In a Romantic almost nineteenth-century gesture (agreeing with a point in Fowler’s “Introduction”) F. suggests that “Homer” is “an anthropomorphisation of the epic tradition.” On similar grounds he rejects the historicity of Cor Huso; but the greatness of Homer and Cor Huso left an indelible impression on their traditions.

K. Dowden turns to “The epic tradition in Greece,” which he sees as beginning in primordial Indo-European times, reflected in a handful of parallel expressions in other (but always later) Indo-European textual traditions. Perhaps we can speculate more firmly on a Mycenaean phase, which no one doubts, but the evidence remains exiguous. D. makes far too little of the massive evidence for Greek epic’s indebtedness to Semitic models on the level of phrase, story, characterization, and meaning. He defines genre as dependent on occasion, and reviews the Homeric Hymns and Cyclic epic, handily including a translation of Proclus’ famous summaries of the lost epics. He credits Homer “with a sophisticated intertexuality,” but how can that be when Homer worked within an oral tradition, where there were no texts? Homer preferred a “realistic” style to the Cycle’s affection for fantastic elements, D. claims (what about Paris spirited from plain to boudoir? Cyclops? Circe and her wand? ghosts at the blood? visions on the wall? Odysseus’ transformations?).

R. Osborne’s “Homer’s society” is an exemplar of lucid condensation of complex and wide-ranging information. In thirteen pages he describes salient features of the palace societies of the Bronze Age, their hierarchical structure supported by Linear B writing, competition within the elite, and the role of exotic goods. The Dark Age is poorly known, but the massive building from Lefkandi c. 1000 BC implies that some Greek communities remained hierarchical. Where institutions are weak, charismatic power matters in winning political power. In Homer’s day, the powerful, assisted by alphabetic writing, obtained luxury goods and slaves and sailed ships to far places (in fact no evidence supports the use of the early Greek alphabet for commercial purposes). Warfare and sacrifice united the community, which consisted of independent oikoi. Can we suit Homer’s world to a historical society? Some elements are Bronze Age, but Phoenicians, seafaring, and political issues place the poems in the eighth or early seventh centuries BC, perhaps 700 BC. But the features that O. describes will as easily or more easily place the poems c. 800-775 BC, where the poems’ ignorance of writing, on which they depend for their existence, becomes explicable.

R. Osborne has set up the Homeric Question and R. Fowler pursues it in “The Homeric question.” Curiously denying F. A. Wolf’s premise that Homer lived in an illiterate age (“a premise which … we now know to be false”), he summarizes the old Analyst position and Parry’s refutation of it, claiming that the formulaic style is the “creation of tradition,” not of one bard. But tradition hardly exists independently of individual bards, as A. B. Lord emphasized repeatedly. F. endorses the “transitional text,” partly written and partly oral, although Parry/Lord gave many reasons why such a text was not possible. F. seems not to understand the historical context in which these poems came into being. He speaks of “writing” as if it were a single thing that can turn up anywhere and do anything you ask of it. He uses “oral-derived” to paper over the problem of how the texts came into being. At least he rejects fantasies about the texts being written down in the sixth century under Pisistratus. It is possible that Hesiod sang a theogony at the funeral games of Amphidamas, but has the theory that our written Theogony was that song really found general assent? According to F., Homer “decided to record his findings for posterity,” as if he himself wrote down these texts and understood their power. F. understands that the key to the Homeric Question is the role of writing in the creation of the Homeric texts, as F. A. Wolf propounded in modern form two hundred years ago, but F. does not take into account the theory and history of writing, without which the Homeric Question cannot be resolved.

PART 5. Homeric Receptions

In “Homer and Greek literature,” R. Hunter takes the late Hellenistic relief of Archelaos of Priene, where the crowned Homer is shown like father Zeus on the same relief, as paradigmatic of Homer as the “father” of Greek literature. Sophocles’ Philoctetes assumes intimacy with the Homeric poems to make its very contemporary argument, as well as the language of elegiac and subsequent epic poetry, as does the new genre of history. Attic drama, too, picks up its regretful sense of the loss of a greater past. Whereas only two plays, the Rhesus attributed to Euripides and Euripides’ Cyclops, present stories taken directly from the Iliad and Odyssey, other lost plays did depend on the big epics (although stories from the Cycle were far more common). Plato’s opposition to Homer is well known and reflects the centrality of the Homeric texts in Greek education. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods the Greek novelists, especially Heliodorus in his Aethiopica, mined Homer for plots and motifs.

J. Farrell’s excellent “Roman Homer” stands out for its hard facts and persuasive conclusions. The Romans lived in an intellectual world dominated by Homer from the earliest times. Hesiod had already mythologized the Italian landscape, and by the sixth or fifth centuries BC Odysseus or Aeneas was said to have founded Rome. Even in 730 BC someone scratched a reference to Homer’s Iliad on a cup buried on Ischia, and the fourth-century BC Franc,ois tomb at Vulci is decorated with Iliadic scenes. The contemporary Tomba dell’Orco at Tarquinia emphasizes scenes from the Odyssey, and illustrations on many small objects show familiarity with Homeric themes. The twenty marble plaques called the Tabulae Iliacae, from the first and second centuries AD, testify to the continuity of such themes in the Roman Imperial period. Striking are similarities between the Tomba dell’Orco and house paintings from the Esquiline from about 30 BC, as if specific traditions of representation were continuous for hundreds of years. In literature, too, Homer was an important element in elite ideology, furnishing material for quotation and quips in Cicero, Seneca, and Petronius, to name three. Such familiarity with the Homeric texts grows from Roman education, an extension of Greek education, which from the earliest times was based on Homer’s texts. In a nice conceit, it turns out that the “Roman Homer was none other than Homer himself”!

P. Wilson in “Homer and the English epic” characterizes the place of Homer in English epic up to the end of the eighteenth century, with speculations on what was meant by “epic” then, which could include Piers Plowman and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. In medieval Europe Dictys the Cretan and Dares the Phrygian were principal sources for the story of Troy. Chapman’s translation changed that in 1598; both Milton and Pope are readers of Homer. Paradise Lost is a kind of primer for reading Homer, whose allusive style to things Homeric winnows the audience into the elect. Pope, by contrast, threw open Homer to the people.

Continuing attention on the British Isles, T. Webb’s “Homer and the Romantics” focuses on the period 1770-1830. In a kind of running catalogue, he summarizes response to the Homeric poems by Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, Keats, Byron, Hazlitt, Blake, and Coleridge. This essay, as the preceding, assumes familiarity with authors who today in North America are virtually unread except by specialists (some read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).

V. Zajko’s “Homer and Ulysses” is not about Homer but about modernism in Joyce’s Ulysses, with interesting reports about T. S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s different views on this often dull and pretentious novel. (Why does Z. always refer to the readers of modernist literature as female?) According to a postmodernist fancy, “We can read the Odyssey and discover the influence of Joyce,” as much as the other way around.

J. I. Porter’s “Homer, the history of an idea” appears ignorant of Homer’s role in Greek education from the moment his poems became texts, claiming instead that “Homer cannot have existed prior to the debates about him and independently of them.” I’m not sure what this means, or of the meaning of “archaic romanticism,” “aesthetic paganism,” “deformed classicism,” “racialising portrait,” or “Homeric hypothesis.” Evidently Porter belongs to the “Homer was just a myth” school of thought, a symbol who in antiquity stood for an idealized heroic past, whose name was stuck on “as an afterthought.” A legend to the ancients, in modern times Homer became the subject of speculation by Vico, who denied that he had existed. Jebb, Schliemann, and Nietzsche contributed to the topic, as did Wolf, Samuel Butler, and Francis Newman. I’m not sure that Porter understands Parry’s work, calling Homer a “spokesman of the rhapsodic tradition that preceded him,” as if Homer was a rhapsode, as if a tradition requires a spokesman. “Homer must come after the tradition,” but Parry/Lord maintained that Homer was the tradition. In conclusion, “Homer is nothing other than the modern idea of what is ancient about antiquity.” In L. Hardwick’s “‘Shards and suckers’: contemporary receptions of Homer,” we learn how various Anglophone modern writers in the last third of the twentieth century have adapted Homeric themes, namely Elizabeth Cook, Christopher Logue, Peter Oswald, Derek Walcott (who receives the longest discussion), and Michael Longley. Derek Walcott is well-known, but the others have small reputations. H. should have expanded her inquiry to include something here on the cinema, for example Robert Wise’s 1956 Helen of Troy (of which the new Warner Brothers film TROY is in many ways a remake), if we are to understand how Homer is “received” in modern times. H. concludes by observing that Homer has been “uncoupled from a position at the centre of western cultural hegemony,” but I can’t believe that: Homer will always be the first monument of alphabetic literacy, no matter who rules the world.

G. Steiner in his sprightly “Homer in English translation” gives an odd meaning to the term in supposing that the creation of the text was itself a “translation” (from the oral to the written). S. is playing with words, but he goes on to suggest that Homer wrote down his own texts (against all historical evidence). He then summarizes the highpoints in a long, complex tale, that goes back before English even existed and includes Dictys of Crete, Dares the Phrygian, Guido della Collona, Dante, Boccacio. Translation can also include adaptation, S. maintains, as in Chaucer’s Troylus and Criseyde. Alexander Pope’s great rendering into heroic couplets is “the foremost heroic epic in the language” (after Milton). In addition, S. mentions Dryden, Thomas Hobbes, James MacPherson, T.E. Lawrence, William Cowper, Charles Lamb, Shelley, Tennyson, J. K. Lockhart, William MacGinn, William Gladstone, F. W. Newman, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Starling Northgate, P. S. Worsley, James Inglis Cochrane, W. C. Bryant, Butcher and Lang, William Morris, Robert Graves, Richmond Lattimore, E. V. Rieu, Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles, and Christopher Logue. Only at the end of the nineteenth century did a tension arise between increasing scholarly understanding and the need to be artistic in a translation, a tension by no means resolved today (although Lattimore seems to me to satisfy these two masters).

About a book like this you have to ask, “Who is it for?” R. Fowler tells us in the “Introduction”: his “remit is both to provide essential advice for the novice and to suggest future directions for research.” Failure to achieve such goals no doubt goes with the territory, given the scope of the project. The novice will in fact have a hard time with this book, while professional Homerists will find few suggestions for research. The always short essays, with thin bibliography, cannot afford to go deep into difficult questions; there is nothing new. The book contains some excellent essays, but the overall picture of Homeric studies is old-fashioned and sometimes false. Nowhere is there a sense of how radical Homer’s poems were in the history of human thought, or an understanding of the revolutionary medium by which his texts were created and transmitted. You’d not guess from reading this book why anyone should care about Homer. Nothing about the moral genius of Homer and no understanding of his place in the history of the Near Eastern literature that preceded him and made him possible. Nothing about the epoch-making invention of the narrative style in art and its close relation to the creation of epic texts. Waffling and indecision about basic and resolvable issues: was Homer one man or two, or did he even exist, and what is the date of his poems. We have good answers for these questions, and certainly better evidence than for Indo-European formulas in the fourth millennium, about which we read confident statements. The Dateline at the back of the book gives 700-670 BC as the date of Homer’s poems, so that the novice, looking there, will learn that Homer was a seventh-century poet, a contemporary of Archilochus, and not suspect that a powerful consensus has existed for a long time that Homer belongs to the eighth-century Renaissance. There is little about archaeology and recent extraordinary discoveries at Troy and Lefkandi that have enlightened the historical background of the tradition and of the texts that emerged from the tradition. These exclusively Anglo-American essays can seem parochial, constricted, hazy, self-indulgent. A more appropriate title for this book would be The British Companion to Homer. As Fowler promises in his introduction, there is a good deal about reception in the United Kingdom, but nothing much about Homer in Italy and France and Germany, so neither novice nor professional ever gets an accurate picture of Homeric reception after the ancient world. In my view, the essays on reception, which occupy one fourth of the book, should have been dropped and the space given to essays on earlier topics.

There are few misprints, but in citations for three books of my own in the bibliography, two titles are inaccurate and one date of publication is wrong. Well, nothing, not even Homer, is perfect.