BMCR 2005.07.21

Homer: The Resonance of Epic. In the series ‘Classical Literature and Society’

, , Homer : the resonance of epic. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. London: Duckworth, 2005. 1 online resource (176 pages).. ISBN 9781849667463. £16.99 (pb).

In spite of its modest size and unpretentious style, this book is highly ambitious: its purpose is no less than to teach the reader a new and better way of reading Homer. The means is a careful apprehension of how archaic audiences understood the Iliad and the Odyssey, and how reiterations work in Homeric style. For this latter aspect Graziosi and Haubold use the term resonance, defined as a poem’s “ability to evoke a web of associations and implications by referring to the wider epic tradition” (p. 9). Their main achievement is to stress the importance of this phenomenon and to give it an ingenious name — hardly even a metaphor, considering that the normal way of appreciating epic in ancient times was by listening.

The book addresses both students and scholars. It is elegantly balanced, divided into two parts, each of which is subdivided into chapters of similar content and form. After a preface follow I: Resonance (1. The Poet, 2. The Poems) and II: Resonant Patterns (3. Gods, Animals and Fate, 4. Men, Women and Society and 5. Death, Fame and Poetry). At the end are notes, bibliography and index.

Graziosi and Haubold consider attempts at identifying the poet as a person misguided and argue that scholars should rather consider whether they have been asking the right questions of the ancient sources. “Altogether we may make more progress by asking why Homer was thought to be blind, rather than worrying about whether we think he really was” (p. 22). Also, they underline that in the archaic period many poems other than the Iliad and the Odyssey were attributed to Homer and that the criteria for attribution seem to have been found in the contents, with the Theban and Trojan wars as Homer’s special topics. Single poems were understood within the larger context of epic song; when modern readers interpret the poems they should be aware of how single formulas and passages recall other, similar ones. The surviving corpus of Hesiodic epic offers a general picture of the history of the cosmos, from the origins in the Theogony, via the Catalogue of Women with its concern for the genealogies of heroes and the end of their times, to the Works and Days, focused on the time of poet and audience. Homeric poems explore crucial moments within that history. Homeric hymns often recount the birth of an Olympian god and the process leading to his or her finding a proper place in the divine hierarchy, whereas the Iliad and the Odyssey paint in detail what Hesiod just mentions briefly. The same seems to hold good for the (lost) poems of the epic cycle. Common to all archaic epics is that they understand this development in genealogical terms, with the history of gods and men as a huge family tree. In part II these basic views are used as a guideline to understand important aspects of Homeric worldview as well as of specific passages. For instance, the encounter between Odysseus and Nausicaa at the beach of Phaeacia is delightfully read as a version of the typical battle scene.

Up to a certain point this approach is both important and fruitful. It offers a modern version of A.B. Lord’s interest in Homeric composition by theme, which is, of course, a return to the sound Alexandrian principle of understanding Homer from Homer. When the field is here broadened to include the whole corpus of transmitted archaic Greek epic, it still generally works very well, and it is undoubtedly rewarding to insist on asking how these poems resemble each other rather than seeking their originality.

However, the study is hampered by a basic lack of clarity when it comes to the question of how far the surviving works are representative of Greek epic tradition as such. Sometimes Graziosi and Haubold are careful to remind us that stories might have been told in other ways, as when they say, “the early history of the gods, as it is told, for example, in Hesiod’s Theogony” (p. 57), but mostly they proceed as if the tradition as such were accessible to us. They refer to Jonathan Burgess’ studies of the epic cycle,1 but his results are not taken seriously. In this way they sometimes reach strange conclusions, such as when they assert that Homeric women do not have a claim to renown in their sphere similar to that of the male heroes. According to Graziosi and Haubold, this is because only men go back to the divine family tree whereas womankind was first introduced with Pandora. Now, the surviving Homeric poems never mention the myth of Pandora and there is no way answering the question whether the poet(s) of the Iliad and the Odyssey knew that story. What we can know, however, is that an obvious difference between the transmitted Hesiod and Homer is that Hesiod is a misogynist, Homer not, and the view of Graziosi and Haubold is feasible only so far as they do not comment on e.g. the passages of the Odyssey in which the importance of Penelope’s and Clytaemnestra’s fame is underlined.

Another conclusion difficult to accept is that in the general history of the cosmos, the Odyssey represents a stage much closer to the world of poet and audience than the Iliad, in that the gods have by now learnt the lesson not to try to make their sons immortal, and that therefore they no longer intervene in mortal affairs. Of course, that the gods act in different ways in the Iliad and the Odyssey is no new observation, and for many scholars this is a main reason for insisting that the two poems cannot have been composed by the same person. But to argue that Odyssean gods leave mortals alone is possible only if you are silent about the role of Athena towards the end of the Odyssey.

In some cases, Graziosi and Haubold treat objections to their hypothesis, but do so in a note instead of handling them properly in their running discussion. For instance, at the end of the chapter in which they have argued that at the time of the Odyssey gods no longer have intercourse with human beings, they add a note about the epic cycle, especially the Telegony, and suggest a possible way of fitting this into their cosmic history. This means that only readers who read notes, or who know in advance that the Telegony presents a problem, find their way to the discussion (p. 80, n. 46; similar cases p. 99, nn. 13 & 14, p. 118, n. 75, p. 128, n. 17).

The bibliography is mostly concerned with recent works, which is of course attractive. It gives the reader an impression of being drawn into discussions that are hot just now, and in fact the book is very much a child of its times. A deconstruction of the poet Homer in 2005 is just as typical of contemporary trends as was Friedrich August Wolf’s construction of the Homeric Question in 1795. But concentration on the most recent scholarship is problematic, too, in that it makes the text seem more original than in fact it is. Among important earlier interpretations of epic along similar lines as those advocated here Michael Nagler, Berkley Peabody and Antonio Aloni might be mentioned.2

In many ways, the present book is a continuation and coordination of the two scholars’ individual works, especially their previous monographs on Homer, Haubold, Homer’s People: Epic Poetry and Social Formation (Cambridge 2000) and Graziosi, Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic (Cambridge 2002). This is in itself exciting, and readers who come to this book from the authors’ earlier works will have great expectations. For my part, I found Inventing Homer an absolutely ingenious and original book. Compared to that, The Resonance of Epic is disappointing. Much of it repeats what is already in the previous books. This is presumably inevitable in the case of scholarly argument, but jokes seldom grow funnier by being retold.

To summarize: Homer: The Resonance of Epic is a stimulating book elegantly structured, giving priority to interpretation of the Homeric epics over speculation about their origins. Even though it has its weaknesses, the basic argument, that traditional motifs and their phrasing resound in every single story told, is convincing and important.


1. Jonathan S. Burgess, The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore, London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

2. Michael N. Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition: A Study in the Oral Art of Homer. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: California University Press, 1974. — Berkley Peabody, The Winged Word: A Study in the Technique of Ancient Greek Oral Composition as Seen Principally through Hesiod’s Works and Days. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975. — Antonio Aloni, Tradizioni arcaiche della Troade e composizione dell’Iliade. Milano: Edizioni Unicopli, 1986.