BMCR 2008.02.34

Homer. Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World. Second edition

, Homer. Blackwell introductions to the classical world. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2007. xv, 240 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 1405153245. $29.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

This is the second edition of Powell’s (= P.) Homer.1 P. intends this book to serve as “a first reader’s introduction and commentary to the texts of Homer for people familiar with the Homeric poems in translation,” and hopes that it will be of use also to professional classicists who “do not understand the basis to assumptions often repeated about Homer, often his date” (xiv). In the introduction (1-2) the author clearly states his assumptions about the poems: the Iliad and the Odyssey were both composed by the same poet and “along with Hesiod’s poems they are the oldest substantial pieces of alphabetic writing of any kind” (2). P. disagrees with the idea that there were many different original versions of Homer’s poems (9) and emphasizes throughout this book that the poems were written down under dictation.

This edition contains new sections: “Remnants of Oral Composition in Homer’s Texts” (43-5), “Homer and Archeology” (72-81), “Homer and Genre” and “Homer and Myth” (93-6). “The Date of Homer’s Texts” has been expanded (45-53) and a seventh chapter has been added (“The Homer of Philosophers and Poets”: 203-13). Terms left unexplained in the first edition are now glossed (e.g. volumina at 9; “lexigraphy” and “semasiography” at 17). Chapters have been further subdivided into shorter sections, while the first edition’s endnotes have been converted to footnotes, all of which contributes to the clarity of presentation. There are two new maps (at 73 and 180) and numerous figures (a list can be found at viii-ix). As the following summary will show, P. covers a great number of issues related to Homeric scholarship, which makes this a useful volume.

The book begins with a chronological chart (xi-xiii), and is divided into three parts: Part I (5-97) offers background knowledge necessary for understanding the Homeric poems; part II (101-200) is a summary of the Iliad and the Odyssey accompanied by commentary; and part III (203-13) is concerned with Homer’s reception. A section with suggestions for further reading (214-24) and an index / glossary (225-40) round off the volume.

Part I contains three chapters. “The philologist’s Homer” (5-53) focuses on the history of writing and the Homeric Question. P. introduces his readers to the differences between ancient, Byzantine, and modern writing conventions (from boustrophedon to Porson’s elegant Greek handwriting and modern printed texts); the various book shapes (folded tablets, papyrus rolls and codices); the book-division of the Homeric poems; the role of the Alexandrian scholars in clearing the text of so-called wild lines (which P. attributes to scribal interference and not to multiple original versions of the poems); and the influence Athens may have had in establishing the pre-Alexandrian vulgate. He presents F. A. Wolf’s theory, and discusses the fixed epithet, the formula, the type scene, and the important fieldwork undertaken by Parry and Lord. In this context, an important addition to this edition is a conversation between Parry and Lord’s assistant and a guslar (Mujo Kukuruzovic), which illuminates the guslar‘s understanding of the “word” ( rec) as a building block in oral composition (27-8). The last part of this chapter deals with the invention of the alphabet since “the alphabet made Homer’s texts possible and without the alphabet his poems could not and did not exist” (36). Obviously, a great part of this section depends on P.’s earlier work on the subject.2 He discusses two important early alphabetic inscriptions (the Dipylon Vase and Nestor’s Cup inscriptions) and proposes that it was a bilingual Semite who first adapted the West-Semitic writing system to write down Greek song (39). This adaptation may have taken place in Euboea.

The “Historian’s Homer” (54-83) asks to what extent the Homeric poems reflect a real world and how much is the product of poetic imagination. P. walks the reader through a wide array of issues, such as the differences between Homer and Bronze Age practices and the confusion between old and new in the poems. There are strata in the poems’ content (just as in their Kunstsprache), and they mainly reflect Homer’s own age (8th c. BC) while incorporating elements from the Bronze and Iron Ages. P. also examines the cultural and political context: the polis was coming into being during Homer’s time, while the phalanx had not yet appeared. The Odyssey reflects the age of colonization and the antagonism between Greeks and Phoenicians, and figures such as the Cyclopes recall the foreign peoples the Greeks met during their colonial expansion. Based on pictorial representations of the story of Polyphemus’ blinding, P. hypothesizes that “copies of Odyssey 9 (excerpted from the Odyssey) circulated independently in the early 7th c. among Greek travelers” (65) and inspired artists to create these depictions. He further notes parallels between the Homeric poems and Gilgamesh (both in plot and details) and proposes that bilingual singers may have been responsible for the transmission of these Near Eastern elements. Homer’s gods resemble Iron Age aristocrats and P. again adduces Near Eastern parallels for such representation. In “Homer and Archeology” (72-82), P. surveys the archaeological discoveries at Troy and the possible relations between Trojans and Hittites. In his conclusion to this chapter P. cites the Chanson de Roland to emphasize that even if the legends about the Trojan War reflect a historical event, Homer’s poems cannot be treated as historic documents.

“The Reader’s Homer” (84-97) discusses Homer’s style: similes, the poet’s love for detailed descriptions and catalogues, his avoidance of suspense, and the concept of “mythos” both in the Aristotelian sense (plot) and as a “traditional story, passed down and around not by writing, but by word of mouth” (94). At 88-9 (a new section), P. briefly discusses ring-composition as a structural device.3 P. furthermore addresses genre and explains the meaning of ἔπος in Homer (= “ordinary conversation” in the singular, “emphatic utterance” in the plural) and Aristotle (= “dactylic hexameter verse” in the plural).

In Part II (= chapters 5-6, pp. 101-200), P. summarizes the content of the Homeric poems, and addresses along the way literary issues, as for example Homer’s originally all-male audience (112), the place of the Doloneia in the Iliad (124), Near Eastern parallels (e.g. 118 on Zeus’s scales), the relation of the Polyphemus story to folktales (171), and archaeological findings at the cave near modern Stavros on Ithaca that point to a shrine to Odysseus (179). At 150-2, P. recapitulates some overarching themes of the Iliad (the withdrawal and return theme, the supplication scene), emphasizes the absence of magic and the prominence of direct speech, and suggests that the poem can be seen as the first example of tragedy. In chapter 6 (197-200), P. views the Iliad and the Odyssey as complementary poems, the latter often supplementing the narrative of the former, and concludes that they were both composed by the same poet.

Part III (= chapter 7, pp. 203-13) is concerned with Homer’s reception and is an expansion of “Homer’s imitators” (158-61 in the first edition). P. presents the philosophers’ objections to Homer’s poems which led to the emergence of interpretive strategies that aimed at defending Homer against these philosophical accusations (allegorical interpretations). He offers a helpful overview of the differences between Homer’s epic and Apollonius’ Argonautica, and proceeds to examine Homer’s presence in Italy, both in the visual arts and in literature (pictorial representations of Homeric scenes in Etruscan tombs and Roman houses, Livius Andronicus’ translation of the Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid). The chapter closes with a brief mention of Renaissance authors who followed in Homer’s tradition, and modern “epic” films (e.g. Star Wars).

The section on ‘Further reading’ (214-24) is an annotated bibliography of books on Homer written in English. It is divided by subject and has been updated to include works that have appeared since the first edition. P. T. Struck’s, Birth of the Symbol. Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts (Princeton, 2004) could have been cited in the context of allegorical interpretation (228).

I have noticed very few typographical errors: on p. 6, for προῒαπσεν and Ἀτρεῒδες read προΐαπσεν and Ἀτρεΐδες, respectively; on p.104, the quotation is from Iliad 7.81-91 (instead of 7.87-91).4 There are also some other (minor) slips. On p. 12, we are told that the Banks papyrus (fig. 3) does not exhibit any diacritical marking; however, rough breathings (as well as some accents and apostrophes) are clearly visible. On p. 16, King Iobates is called Proetus’ uncle instead of his father-in-law.5 On p. 144 (first line), we should read “Athena” instead of “Hera”. At Odyssey 18.83-7, Antinous does not threaten to cut Irus’ ears, nose, and genitals, but to send him to king Echetus who is going to inflict this punishment on the beggar (cf. 186).

More important, certain topics receive more detailed treatment than others, perhaps disproportionately so. For example, the history of writing and Homer’s relation to the Near East — issues to which P. has devoted much of his scholarly effort — are analyzed in great depth. On the other hand, problems of narrative technique and style receive brief treatment. Neo-analysis, briefly mentioned at 138 (part II, summary of the Iliad) and 181 (summary of the Odyssey), does not appear in the index / glossary. The formula is presented mainly as an aid to composition and nothing is said of its importance from the point of view of the audience.6 Furthermore, it would have been useful to include a more precise definition of genre (a term not to be found in the index / glossary) than “what the audience expects” (94). Likewise, P.’s definition of intertextuality (also missing from the index) as a “fancy word for purposeful imitation . . . which means that when you read one book, you think of another” (208) may not be very helpful to the uninitiated.7

All in all, this is a useful book as it introduces a wide range of topics with clarity and shows through the abundant parallels that Homer belonged to a long tradition of oral story-telling. It will certainly inspire its readers to pursue further the study of Homer.


1. The review of the first edition in this venue is available at BMCR 2004.04.20.

2. E.g. Barry B. Powell, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

3. P.’s example ( Od. 11.171-8) also illustrates that ring-composition may do more than organize the material in an oral performance: in this exchange between Odysseus and his mother, Penelope occupies the central ring, which is in keeping with her central role in a song about the husband’s return. On ring-composition in general, see now M. Douglas, Thinking in Circles. An Essay on Ring Composition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.

4. This typographical error is repeated from the first edition (68); others however have been corrected: “24.296” (153 in the first edition) has been corrected to “23.296” (196 in the second edition), while “crete” (first edition at 138, 5th line from the bottom) has been eliminated.

5. Cf. Il. 6.170, 177, and 178.

6. The concept of “traditional referentiality” discussed in J. M. Foley’s works (cited in the bibliographical section) could have been mentioned in this context.

7. P.’s assertion on p. 208 that “we first find intertextuality in fifth century Athens, where entertainment was orally experienced but based in texts that circulated in schools” contradicts what is said of the Cup of Nestor inscription on p. 211, namely that it is “the first literary allusion in the Western world and the first example of intertextuality.”