BMCR 2005.07.37

Quintus of Smyrna. The Trojan Epic. Posthomerica

, , The Trojan epic : Posthomerica. Johns Hopkins new translations from antiquity. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 1 online resource.. ISBN 9780801892370. $49.95.

A new English translation of Quintus’ Posthomerica was long overdue. The archaizing language of Arthur Way’s 1913 Loeb is occasionally harder to follow than the accompanying Greek text, which is that of Koechly’s 1850 edition. Frederick Combellack’s 1968 prose version ( The War at Troy, University of Oklahoma Press) has long been out of print, is for the largest part based on Zimmermann’s 1891 text, and shows marks of contemporary Homeric scholarship that have not aged well. Both come with virtually no annotation and with scanty introductions which, to put it mildly, do little to endear the reader to their subject. Alan James’ book, I am happy to say, is precisely what we need. J. provides a free verse translation of the poem in contemporary English, based on the critical editions of Vian and Pompella (1963-69 and 2002), preceded by a forty-page introduction and followed by more than a hundred pages of annotation. The volume may be usefully compared to Vian’s Budé, to which J. indeed acknowledges a large debt in his Preface (p. viii). However, when he claims that “it has been possible to improve upon [Vian’s edition] at many points” (ib.) this is by no means idle boasting. J. is innovative in many details, but most importantly in his rigorous application of the principle of charity throughout and his willingness to search for intent, planning, and skill where others have turned a blind eye — in his own words: “the [ Posthomerica ] has tended to be dismissed as a late imitation of Homer without serious attempt to assess its qualities. (…) How far the main thrust of this critique is justifiable can now be left for unprejudiced readers to judge for themselves” (p. vii).


In their recent commentary on Posthomerica 5, J. and the late Kevin Lee provided what was, amazingly, the first full-scale introduction to Quintus and his poem in English.1 J.’s introduction in the present volume presses largely the same points, but it has been expertly tailored to suit a wider audience. It opens with a section on “Homer and the Epic Cycle” which discusses the oral background of the Greek epic tradition, the Trojan cycle, the contents and nature of the cyclic epics (rightly held to be composed substantially later than the Homeric epics), and the special status, contents, and organization of the Iliad and Odyssey (rightly explained as successful attempts “to construct an epic round a gripping personal drama” while at the same time “creat[ing] a wider panorama of the Trojan War”, p. xv).

The following section, “The Epic Cycle and Quintus”, opens with a discussion of the ‘seal’ which precedes Quintus’ catalogue of warriors who entered the wooden horse (12.306-13). Here the poet states, with reference to Homer, Hesiod, and Callimachus, that when he was still young the Muses “filled [his] mind with poetry” when “tending [his] noble sheep in the land of Smyrna (…) on a hill that is not particularly high or low.” J. finds that there is no good reason to disbelieve that Quintus indeed came from Smyrna (the Posthomerica shows detailed knowledge of western Asia Minor; Tzetzes refers to its poet as “Quintus of Smyrna”), warns against taking the reference to the hill as a claim to have written in the ‘middle’ style (the epic idiom is sublime by default), and judges the interpretation of “sheep” as “pupils” plausible.

J. proceeds with the vexed question of Quintus’ date (pursued in more detail in James and Lee 2000): he imitates the Oppiani (late 2nd c. CE) is imitated by Triphiodorus (mid-4th c.), is not mentioned by Philostratus (work completed by 238), and set out to replace the Cyclic epics (presumably lost shortly after Pisander of Laranda’s work made them ‘superfluous’, in the first half of the 3rd c.). On this last point (which pops up throughout the introduction and commentary) I find J.’s reasoning less than convincing. His main argument (again prefigured in James and Lee 2000) is that Quintus’ narrative “differs substantially from those of the Little Iliad and the Sack of Ilion as known to us from their summaries. Unlike the Little Iliad Quintus places the arrivals of Eurypylos and Neoptolemos before the return of Philoktetes and the death of Paris; unlike the Sack of Ilion he places the intervention of Laokoon before the entry of the wooden horse into Troy, and the departure of Aineias not immediately after these but later, during the night of Troy’s destruction. It is altogether implausible that Quintus would have departed so far from the epics he sought to replace if they had been available to him” (p. xx). But why not, if he had sound dramatic reasons for such transpositions? Ironically J. himself in both cases offers such reasons elsewhere in the volume (see pp. xxx-xxxii and his commentary notes on the relevant episodes). Moreover, one might argue that even if the cyclic epics themselves were lost, it is plausible that Quintus knew at least as much about their plots as we do — and that in the first example Quintus is no more divergent than Sophocles’ Philoktetes (and no one would argue that he did not know the Cyclic epics). Also open to argument is J.’s attempt to narrow down Quintus’ date with the help of the so-called Vision of Dorotheus, a hexameter poem by a ‘Dorotheus son of Quintus’ ( Kuntiadês) who has been plausibly identified with a friend of Eusebius ( Eccl. hist. 7.32.2-4, 8.1.4, 8.6.1-5) and who must have died between 303 and 311. The case for the identification of Dorotheus’ father with the author of the Posthomerica, which results in a floruit in the second half of the second century, is well-presented, but skeptics will probably remain unconvinced. The section closes with a short survey of the Posthomerica‘s manuscript tradition and printed editions (which, through an unfortunate mishap, down to the eighteenth century identified the author as ‘Quintus of Calabria’).

In “The Character of the Trojan Epic” J. discusses the “mechanical and technical”, “imaginative”, and “intellectual” aspects of Quintus’ poem (p. xxi). In the first category fall the workings of the dactylic hexameter (and its application by Quintus), the peculiarities of the Homeric ‘dialect’ (and Quintus’ closeness to it), and the formulaic character of Homeric expression (and Quintus’ application of epithets and repeated phrases). “Imaginative” features discussed are Quintus’ handling of recurrent themes and motifs (in recurrent scenes, notably battle scenes, Quintus’ technique is analogous to Homer but he avoids precise repetition), character speeches (which are influenced by formal rhetoric and make up 24% of the text, at an average length of 12 lines per speech — both numbers are close to Apollonius’ Argonautica), similes (about twice as frequent as in the Iliad, often clustered, 10% with subjects not found in extant earlier epic, many showing “what in a contemporary author would be called environmental sensitivity”, p. xxvi), and ecphrases (of the shield and armor of Achilles/Neoptolemos and Eurypylos, the baldric and quiver of Philoktetes). “Intellectual” aspects are Quintus’ approach to his characters (emphasizing their virtues and minimizing their faults, resulting in “some loss of liveliness and individuality” [p. xxvii] and, one might argue, humanity), the Homeric divine machinery (much ‘double motivation’, few direct interventions, the cast expanded with Fate, unnamed deities, and personifications of aspects of warfare), and his moral awareness (expressed in ca. ninety maxims spoken by characters and the narrator) and the probable influence on it of Stoic philosophy (the omnipotence of fate, more or less identified with the will of Zeus; the manner of the survival of souls after death as expressed e.g. at 7.87-9; the moral allegory of Virtue at 5.49-56).

“The Structure of the Trojan Epic” sets the tone for J.’s outstanding notes on macro-level coherence and poetic aims and planning in the book-for-book commentary. J. rightly diagnoses the prevailing assessment of Quintus’ achievement as “little more than the application of Aristotle’s negative judgment of the Cyclic epics as lacking the dramatic unity of the Homeric (…). His work as a whole is usually dismissed as merely episodic, and it has even been suggested that the idea of arranging the books as a large-scale epic was an imperfectly realized afterthought” (p. xxix). J.’s deliberations in this section and elsewhere should convince even the staunchest critic that whatever the faults of the poem’s execution may be, there is little wrong with the underlying plotting. A few examples must suffice. With a narrative focus on twenty-two days out of forty-five, the temporal concentration of the Posthomerica is “not greatly different from that of the Iliad, with its main focus on four days out of fifty-two, or from the focus of much of the Odyssey on nine days out of forty” (p. xxx; contrast for example Apollonius’ Argonautica). And while the story did not allow Quintus to organize his epic around a single hero, it is no less effectively unified by the themes of heroic succession and the (related, Iliadically inspired) questions ‘what does it take to make Troy fall?’ (brawn, brain, both?) and ‘who is the best of the Achaeans / Trojans?’ i.e. who can fill the shoes of Hektor on the Trojan side (Penthesileia, Memnon, Eurypylos, Paris?) and those of Achilles on the Greek (Ajax, Odysseus, Neoptolemos, Philoktetes?).

The introduction closes with sections on “The Translation” and “Proper Names” (perhaps longer than necessary), and with a “Select Bibliography” (in which all crucial titles are indeed present2).

TranslationChoosing a form to represent the Greek dactylic hexameter is a matter of taste, audience, and ability. Way’s choice of English blank verse with five iambic feet resulted in a translation that is extremely dense and still runs to more lines than the original; Combellack simply resorted to prose. J.’s own solution is very close to that of Andrew and Oakley’s Iliad (p. xxxiv). His translation has either five or six stressed syllables to the line, separated from each other by either one or two unstressed syllables. Lines are allowed to start either falling (with a stressed syllable) or rising (with an unstressed one) and to end either pendant (with an unstressed syllable) or blunt (with a stressed one). When they fall apart into two clear cola (which is mostly the case) these cola may have either three or two stressed syllables, and the first colon may end either pendant or blunt and the second may start either rising or pending (though the vast majority seem to start rising). The resulting lines are rhythmically so diverse that one might ask if this is still a verse translation. This, however, is a matter of taste. Monotonous the lines definitely are not, and the minimal formal restrictions allow J. great flexibility in choosing his words while maintaining a line-for-line correspondence with the original. The translation’s idiom, J. claims, “is strictly contemporary in the sense that no use is made of any word or expression that is inconsistent with modern usage” (p. xxxiv). Although some of the students in my Greek and Roman mythology class might be inclined to disagree, I trust they will all be very grateful to see “no thought the Trojans had | of standing forth to fight” (Way at 9.6-7) replaced by “the Trojans now refused to make a stand in battle.” It definitely clears things up.

To illustrate the general tone of J.’s translation, here is a longer passage from book one (lines 118-24), followed by the versions of Way and Combellack:

The sun upon its swiftly spinning course
Now dipped below the depth of Ocean and ended the day.
When the goodly feast and drinking were concluded,
The serving maids prepared a welcome bed
In Priam’s palace for Penthesileia the brave.
She went to rest, and there sweet sleep enveloped her
And veiled her eyes.


Then in swift revolution sweeping round
Into the Ocean’s deep stream sank the sun,
and daylight died. So when the banqueters
Ceased from the wine-cup and the goodly feast,
Then did the handmaids spread in Priam’s halls
for Penthesileia dauntless-souled the couch
Heart-cheering, and she laid her down to rest;
And slumber mist-like overveiled her eyes.


The sun, whirling through its swift course, sank into Ocean’s deep stream, and the day was done. When the banqueters had finished their wine and the lovely feast, then the maids prepared a comfortable bed in Priam’s palace for brave Penthesileia. She went and lay down, and sweet sleep fell upon her, covering her eyes.

Here and elsewhere J. manages to find the middle ground between Way’s high-flown poetry and Combellack’s somewhat flat prose. His debt to Way is clear (‘goodly meal’, ‘veil’), as is his fondness for alliteration and assonance (‘sun-swiftly-spinning’, ‘dipped-depth’, ‘sweet sleep’).

CommentaryThe volume’s commentary section opens with an extensive “Critical Summary” of the poem (pp. 239-65). Beyond serving as a useful aid to those who want to (re)familiarize themselves with the poem’s contents without (re)reading it, this excellent piece gives a clear impression of what Quintus was trying to achieve (whether he actually succeeded is, of course, a different question). The commentary proper opens with a short section on “The Trojan Epic and Its Sources” (pp. 267-8), where J. comes down in favor of direct influence of Virgil upon Quintus (“the burden of proof rests with denial of the more economic explanation of direct influence”, 2683). The commentary then proceeds book by book (pp. 268-347) with half-page introductions and detailed notes on individual passages and lines, with emphasis on sources and imagery, but also translations of select variant readings (an unusual feature but doubtless welcome to some). The volume concludes with an Index of Names (pp. 349-65) which is comprehensive and includes short explanations (format “Enkelados, giant defeated by Athena: 5.642; 14.582”).

This book should be welcomed by all who want to use the Posthomerica in teaching or who just want to familiarize themselves with its contents. In his Preface J. tells how he was dissuaded by his teachers from working on this poem as an undergraduate and did not return to it until almost 35 years later. The advice is as wise now as it was then: the job market will never be screaming for Quintus specialists, and perhaps rightly so. Yet the Posthomerica certainly deserves more attention than it has received in the past. Therefore I suggest that we all speed up the publication of the paperback edition of this book by convincing our local bookseller to display it with the DVD of “Troy”. Our students will be grateful.


1. Alan James and Kevin Lee, A Commentary on Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica V, Mnemosyne Suppl. 208, Leiden: Brill, 2000. Reviewed for BMCR by Robert Schmiel and Benjamin Garstad (BMCR 2001.08.01); see also my own review article in Mnemosyne 58.2 (2005), in press.

2. A full Quintus bibliography is available online.

3. See now also Ursula Gärtner, Quintus Smyrnaeus und die Aeneis: Zur Nachwirkung Vergils in der griechischen Literatur der Kaiserzeit, Zetemata 123, Munich: Beck, 2005. Contrast James and Lee 2000: 7 and on 5.180-317, 180-236, 237-90 (direct influence argued for Ovid, non-committal about Virgil).