BMCR 2005.10.18


, Odyssee-Rezeptionen. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Antike, 2005. 128 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 3938032057 €24.90.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The title of this book might arouse interest both as a sort of “counterpart” to Klaus Rüter’s posthumous “Odysseeinterpretationen” (1969) and as a new, updated reappraisal of Homeric resonances in ancient and modern cultures. Potential readers must be warned that these goals are only partially fulfilled: the six papers in this collection are neither exhaustive nor systematic, and seldom do they interact with each other in a more general perspective; furthermore, they hardly take into account the new trends of research in the field of reception studies.1 Some of the material collected here, however, might be of interest to the unprejudiced Classicist.

The collection opens with two papers devoted to the Roman world. The first one, by Lilian Balensiefen (9-31), is a description of the five Roman villas (Sperlonga, Castelgandolfo, Tivoli, Baiae, Domus Aurea) among whose remains were found grottos adorned by marble groups (or, in the last case, a mosaic) of Odysseus and the Cyclops; the first three of these villas combined this representation with sculptures of Scylla in the nymphaeum. Now, Scylla’s connection with water does not call for special explanation, even if the exact reconstruction of the monster’s appearance is still debated. One might add that Peter Schneider’s latest novel (Skylla. Berlin: Rowohlt 2005) is centered precisely on this archaeological riddle and on the (fanciful) discovery of a new mosaic among Roman ruins near Sperlonga. As for Polyphemos, B. tries to explain his constant association with fountains in Roman villas by resorting to the Ovidian myth of Acis (met. 13, 750ff.), who was transformed into a river after being killed by the Cyclops himself in a fit of jealousy. This argument, even reinforced by the fact that Scylla appears in the same Ovidian passage (met. 13, 719-749 and then 14, 1ff.), is weak, as it refers to a moment of Polyphemos’ life that bears no reference whatsoever to the Odyssean scene depicted in the marble groups (on the contrary, Homer’s Cyclops is the loser rather than the killer). Furthermore, B. does not allude either to the long, possibly Rhodian Hellenistic tradition of the so-called “antra Cyclopis”, or to the important connections between Odysseus and dynastic policy of the Julio-Claudian gens (all the villas were in fact luxurious imperial buildings). It is unlikely that the Odyssean scenes imply the victory of man over natural elements (water and earth), as B. puts it, rather than a precise mythological background to the owners’ families.2

Ulrich Schmitzer (33-53) deals with different images of Odysseus in Roman literature. His treatment of the hero’s genealogies, if it somehow compensates for the lacuna in the preceding essay, is far from exhaustive: no mention is made here of the crucial Hesiodic lines (Theog. 1011-1016: the name of Circe’s son Latinos should at least have been quoted), nor of the hot historical and political debate that eventually led to the official triumph of the Trojan version. As for Schmitzer’s literary analysis, it is limited to the obvious constatation of Virgil’s negative presentation of Odysseus (no exception is allowed for Aen. 3, 613 and 691 “infelicis Ulixi”), and to some sporadic notes on Ovidian images of the hero. It is really a pity that the author is not familiar with Gareth Morgan’s stimulating insights about Odysseus’ role in the Tristia (1, 5), especially in comparison with Horace’s idealisation.3 It is also a pity that he believes Dante’s Ulisse to follow in the wake of Virgil’s and Seneca’s contempt (Inferno 26 is really more subtle than that), that he defines Dictys as a “spätantiker Troja-Roman” (the Greek original dates back to the I-II cent. AD and that he does not provide any reference to the Stoic, Gnostic or Patristic background (say, Philo, Hippolytus or Clement) when quoting Maximus of Turin’s Christian allegory of Odysseus tied to the mast.

The Egyptologist Joachim Friedrich Quack (55-72) deals with Homeric reception in Egypt. The paper suffers from the lack of a secure chronological or ethnic definition. Very little reference is made to the crucial problem of Greek-Egyptian interaction from the Ptolemaic period onwards, or the special role played by Alexandria over the centuries.4 Quack shows that very little influence of Homer (if any) can be detected in Egyptian demotic texts, but when he deals with Greek sources, he is not always rigorous.5 The larger part of the paper is a list of the many sources of the biographical tradition concerning the “Egyptian” Homer: in itself, this is a welcome idea (Sinko’s article “De Homero Aegyptio” is as old as 1906), yet one regrets that no attempt is made towards a satisfying Quellenkritik. This leads Quack, for instance, to ignore Graziosi’s book on Homer’s biographies (where a theory explaining Herodotus’ account is suggested),6 and he seems to be unaware that the fanciful attribution of the Homeric poems to an Egyptian woman named Phantasia (in John Donne’s words, “her, whose booke (they say) Homer did finde, and name”) was in fact put forward in the book of an Egyptian writer, namely the well-known mythographer Ptolemy “Chennos”, or “Quail”.7 Quack’s more general argument that Homer’s survival in Egypt was confined to sanctuaries and religious élites is in itself plausible, but somehow “schwebend in der Luft”. It could have benefited from a discussion of Michael Frede’s general presentation of Chaeremon,8 or from a clearer sketch of the historical evolution of local religion in Egypt.

Angelika Malinar’s paper (73-94) is a charming introduction to the issue of blindness and seeing in the Sanskrit poem Mahabharata. The author provides the reader with some general remarks on structure and plot of the poem and then skilfully shows how her topic is indissolubly linked with the poem’s narrative strategy. As a matter of fact, the battle that represents the very heart of the story is recounted to the blind king (whom most of us imagine with the face of Ryszard Cieslak in Peter Brook’s celebrated film production) by a seeing bard, who is endowed with the special gift of observing every single action of the battle (the opposite of Stendhal’s Waterloo). Malinar describes the special position of the bard as “Ich-Erzähler” and eyewitness of the events he is singing. Her analysis is very interesting; yet, not only there is no trace of a “reception” of the Odyssey in the Indian epic, but even the trope of blindness and seeing can hardly be compared — except per antithesin — with the Homeric world. Malinar seems aware of this on p. 80 (the hint to Odysseus’ “Beglaubigungsapparat” on p. 89 is misleading); perhaps a comparison with the case of Oedipus (mentioned on p. 80 note 17) would have yielded interesting results, though it might have fallen outside the scope of this collection.

Stefan Kipf (95-108) is primarily concerned with the figure of Telemachos in modern and contemporary literature for children. Beginning with Fénelon’s “Aventures de Télémaque” and then (less fruitfully) Gustav Schwab’s “Die schönsten Sagen des klassischen Altertums”, Kipf looks for traces of Telemachos’ role in modern paedagogy as a model of wisdom and maturity. It is very interesting to learn that in most contemporary renderings of the Odyssean plot, the whole Telemachy is either heavily abridged or eliminated tout court. All the more significant is the case, duly highlighted by Kipf, of Peter Hacks’ book “Prinz Telemach und sein Lehrer Mentor” (1997). From an Italian perspective, one might add that in our own days “Telemaco” is the name of both a well-known junior reading club in Piemont and a national program for social assistance to young people. However, in a book devoted to continuity, I think one further issue ought to have been mentioned. Even if one does not believe that the relative abundance of Telemachy-papyri in schoolhands should be explained in the light of moralistic teaching,9 there is no doubt that the ancients had already developed a clear sense of the paedagogical purport of Telemachus’ adventures, as is certified by several scholia focusing of Telemachos’ paideia and psychology.10

Andreas Goltz’s paper (109-124) starts with a brief documented survey of the films drawn from or inspired by the Odyssey: my only complaint regards the absence of Theo Angelopoulos’ “Ulysses’ Gaze” (with Harvey Keitel, and terrific music by Eleni Karaindrou), probably one of the best films of this kind. Goltz concentrates on a comparison between Camerini’s “Odissea” (1954, with Kirk Douglas and Silvana Mangano) and Konchalovsky’s “The Adventures of Ulysses” (1997, with Armand Assante and Greta Scacchi): this turns out to be a very fruitful procedure that highlights some overall and some minute differences that can be explained by referring to the cultural climate in which each movie was born (the presence of the gods; the handling of Ulysses’ adulteries; the hero’s cruelty after his homecoming). Anyone wishing to experience how artistically powerful the chill of the ancient world can be in contemporary cinema, should visit Francesco Vezzoli’s “Caligula”, currently on display at the Italian Pavillion of the Biennale in Venice.

The essays in this collection are of uneven quality. Some of them clearly suffer from a scarcely revised oral form, and none of them aims at a systematic or global presentation of the issue it is dealing with (which is sometimes especially regrettable). The editing is not always flawless,11 and the unity of the collection — even apart from Malinar’s “extravagant” essay — is difficult to grasp. Still, some interesting points made in this book will no doubt represent a stimulus for further research.


L. Balensiefen, Polyphem-Grotten und Skylla-Gewässer:Schauplätze der “Odyssee” in römischen Villen

U. Schmitzer, Odysseus — ein griechischer Held im kaiserzeitlichen Rom

J. F. Quack, Gibt es eine ägyptische Homer-Rezeption?

A. Malinar, “Blindheit” und “Sehen” in der Erzählung des Mahabharata

S. Kipf, Eine mythische Gestalt mit pädagogischer Kraft oder nur Odysseus’ Sohn? Telemach in der neuzeitlichen Kinder- und Jugendliteratur

A. Goltz, Odyssee-Rezeption im Film — Moralische normen und Konflikte in Epos und Adaption.


1. I am referring for example to the stimulating socio-cultural slant of L. Hardwick, Reception Studies (Oxford 2003).

2. A minor note: the etymology of Skylla from σκύλλω“tear apart” (taken for granted on p. 24) has been proposed by J. Schmidt (RE III, col. 658), but the classic one (Od. 12, 86 and then from EM 720, 18 down to Chantraine) is from σκύλαξ“dog”.

3. G. Morgan, Banished Voices (Cambridge 1994), 108-114.

4. See e.g. Peter Green et al., Alexandria and Alexandrinism (Malibu 1996; rev. in BMCR 1998.01.01); W. V. Harris-G. Ruffini (ed.), Ancient Alexandria between Egypt and Greece (Leiden 2004: rev. in BMCR 2005.07.62). Not to mention studies on earlier contacts, such as P. Vasunia, The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander (Berkeley, 2001; rev. in BMCR 2002.08.32).

5. I overlook here minor slips such as the following: Eustathios’ Commentarii in Odysseam were edited by Stallbaum, not by Weigel; the Vitae Homeri should be quoted (apart from West’s new Loeb) from Wilamowitz’s (or Allen’s) edition, not from Sittl or Piccolomini.

6. B. Graziosi, Inventing Homer (Cambridge 2002), 111-117, esp. 117 note 66.

7. On him see most recently A. Cameron, Greek Mythography in the Roman World (Oxford 2004), 134-159. On the anecdote see my “Il proemio al Commento all’Odissea di Eustazio di Tessalonica”, Bollettino dei Classici s. III, 21, 2000, 5-58: 35-38.

8. ANRW II.36.3, 1989, 2067-70.

9. T. Morgan, Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds (Cambridge 1998), 105-115.

10. See e. g. schol. V in Od. 1, 264; schol. DEHJKMaO in Od. 1, 354; schol. H in Od. 1, 360 (cp. Schwab’s words on p. 100); schol. DEHMaO in Od. 2, 350. These notes were then of course incorporated in the bulky Byzantine commentary by Eustathios of Thessalonica.

11. Bibliographies are not free from mistakes; the bibliography of the last paper does not follow an alphabetical or chronological order; the general index is laconic, but reliable.