BMCR 2011.08.23

Homer’s Trojan Theater: Space, Vision, and Memory in the Iliad

, Homer's Trojan Theater: Space, Vision, and Memory in the Iliad. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. x, 136. ISBN 9780521149488. $29.99 (pb).


This slim volume, in which Jenny Strauss Clay synthesizes and expands her recent scholarship (e.g., TAPhA 137: 233-252), aims to demonstrate that “Homer’s vision of Troy is rational and consistent, that he renders his auditors witnesses to the events he narrates, that the sequence of actions is reactivated in each performance, and that these features are characteristic of Homeric poetics” (2). To make this case, Clay argues that the “battle books,” Iliad 12-15, which have seemed confused and confusing to many critics, can usefully be approached as a kind of spectacle, the “theater” of the title: the poet develops a cogent theater of war for the theater of his own performance, and does so using a mnemonic system called the “theater of memory” by Renaissance scholars. In terms of methodology, the author associates herself with what she describes as a shift in emphasis in Homeric studies “away from the creation and evolution of the poems to questions concerning their reception” (15), and derives insights from speech-act theory and cognitive psychology, in particular the work of Egbert Bakker and Elizabeth Minchin. In terms of analysis, the book “largely ignore[s] the speeches of the actors and instead focus[es] on their entrances and exits and their movements within the space of the battlefield” (37).

The methodological perspective is developed in detail in the first chapter, which explores how the epic simultaneously distinguishes and conflates narrative time and the performative present through such effects as Muse invocations, apostrophes, and similes. Amid the shifting temporal perspectives, spatial orientation emerges as crucial to the ability of the Iliad to maintain control over its story. This much is consistent with comparative evidence and research in cognitive psychology, which demonstrates the nexus between visual and verbal imagery and information. Rejecting Lessing’s dichotomy between the visual and verbal arts, Clay turns to the metaphor of cinema in accounting for the enargeia, vividness, of Homeric narrative. This move necessarily entails a rejection, or at least reappraisal, of Thaddeus Zielinski’s influential argument for the relentlessly progressive nature of Homeric narrative, and leads to the conclusion that, with respect to the ordering of individual episodes, “meaning…has nothing to do with chronological sequence” (36).

The second chapter constitutes the bulk of the book and the argument. The analysis proper begins by describing how Troy is visualized in the course of Hector’s movement through the city in Iliad 6. While a general picture of the city can be gleaned from the narrative (47, Figure 2), it is impossible to “draw a map of Ilium with any precision because the city is not described spatially, but emotionally” (41). Outside the city, by contrast, spatial coordinates prevail over emotional ones. A series of scenes at crucial points in the narrative establishes both a general picture of the Greek ships and a more specific rendering of the Greeks’ public space that together anchor the audience’s perspective on the entire narrative (50, Figure 3). The author does an admirable job of summarizing the many conflicting interpretations of Iliadic geography, and builds a persuasive case that “the orientation of right and left remains constant throughout and is always seen from the perspective of a narrator situated in the center of the Greek camp facing the Trojan plain” (45).

Analysis of the first of the “battle books” commences with a consideration of the defensive wall around the Greek camp, the future destruction of which is related proleptically at the beginning of Iliad 12. This wall serves to orient the battle narrative from the moment the Trojans form up in five squads to attack it from the left, right, and center. The narrative carefully maintains the integrity of these squads, switching between them in order to advance the attack in a manner that creates its own sequential logic. Thus, for instance, Sarpedon’s attempt to scale the wall on the right prepares for Hector’s assault by drawing Ajax away from the center. The relationships among these coordinate actions are indicated to the audience through the deployment of verb tenses and through similes.

The Greek counteroffensive in Books 13 and 14 plays out in analogous ways, as Poseidon proceeds from the right rallying the Greeks, and Hector is forced back from the center. These major movements draw various squads into the action, bringing together threads of the battle narrative that originate in Book 12. Again transitional formulas separate battle sequences and verb tenses distinguish consistently the background (imperfects) from the main action (aorists). Further, as the narrative shifts here and there on the battlefield, passage of time is evident in the movements of characters that must be inferred if the battle is to be coherent. Here the shortcomings of Zielinski’s understanding of parallel narrative strands seem particularly apparent, for “the whole narrative sequence in Books 12 and 13 is predicated on simultaneous action on two and sometimes three fronts, and the poet is at pains to show that the events are concurrent” (76). The attempt here to maintain the linear coherence of the Dios apate sequence in Book 14 elicits something of a departure from the opinio communis, for Clay rejects the interpretation that in this scene Hera retroactively enables Poseidon’s earlier transgression of Zeus’s support for the Trojans, on the grounds that “there is…no compelling reason to situate the opening of Book 14 at an earlier time frame and even less reason for the poet to disguise a retrograde temporal movement if he wishes” (79). With Book 15, the action shifts from the Greek wall to the space between it and the ships. The Trojans are first driven back over the wall, then rally and recross it, forcing the Greeks into an ever more confined space, and temporarily inverting the relationship between besiegers and besieged.

Books 16 and 17 differ from the preceding battle books in that each has a clearly defined focus—Patroclus’s death, and the battle over his body—but each still maintains the visualization of the battlefield earlier established in terms of leftward and rightward orientation. Patroclus’s movements in Book 16 bring him from the inactive Myrmidons on the right to the struggle around Protesilaus’s ship in the center. The narrative shifts between the successes of the Greeks’ new champion and the Trojans’ increasingly desperate situation as they are driven from the ships for the last time and then back toward their city. Patroclus’s movements throughout “can be plotted onto the plain of Troy as a zigzagging path” (90), from the Myrmidons’ quarters on the right to the battle raging at the center, then to the right to face Sarpedon, where the Greek hero makes the fateful decision to abandon Achilles’ instructions that issues in his own death in the center of the plain before Troy. Book 17 then centers on Patroclus’s body, out from and back to which various characters describe “loops” (93-94). Hector repeatedly retreats to the right and returns, while the Greeks seek reinforcements from the left. Thus the fallen Patroclus serves as the focus both literally and figuratively for action that is protracted but remains indecisive.

In the third and final chapter, Clay summarizes these findings and addresses their implications. Support for the idea that Homeric narrative plays out simultaneously in spatial and temporal terms is found in the fields of geography and psychology, which suggest that human perception and information storage is best understood from the “hodological” perspective of a traveler (97-98).1 For the Iliadic battlefield, the major landmarks are the Greek and Trojan walls and, particularly in Book 21, the river Scamander that bisects the Trojan plain, while tombs and other monuments provide ad hoc anchors for specific scenes. As a consequence, “the inconsistencies that scholars have discovered in Homeric geography, if not derived from misguided attempts to map the Iliad onto the plain below Hisarlik, correspond to the distortions of distance and perspective produced” by respondents in cognitive mapping experiments (105).

The book concludes with a consideration of the mnemonic significance of the “Trojan theater,” specifically how the “mutual reinforcement of the spatial and the verbal” (110) bears comparison with the memory system of loci traditionally attributed to Simonides. While some scholars have associated this system with the advent of literacy, here Clay argues that the kinds of cues that render the Iliadic battlefield coherent demonstrate the existence of such a system in the ancient Greek oral tradition. Confirmation is found in another Homeric theater, namely the presentation in the Odyssey of the Suitors in Odysseus’s hall with the use of deictics and a sequence that reinforces social hierarchy and narrative importance. Also suggestive is Homeric language that associates songs with journeys. Further, the Iliadic Catalogue of Ships describes a tripartite tour of Greece, and the Catalogue of Trojans shows a similarly hodological bent. All of this leads to the conclusion that Homeric epic deploys implicitly mnemonic techniques that were rendered explicit and reduced to a system that remained in use throughout antiquity and that survives even today in the form of programs for improving memory.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its relative brevity, Homer’s Trojan Theater manages to communicate something new and profound about one of one of the world’s most studied texts. The argumentation throughout is lucid, clearly signposted and free of jargon, and translations are provided for passages in ancient Greek and non-English modern languages, so that the book can (and should) be consulted by anyone reading or teaching the poem, whether in English or the original Greek. A well-designed website has been established that illustrates the book’s arguments graphically; see 95 n124). The bibliography is diverse and up-to-date, though, given the book’s concision, understandably selective. Having in her previous books fundamentally advanced our understanding of the Odyssey, the Homeric Hymns and Hesiodic poems, Clay has once again produced a study that will inform both the scholarship and the classroom.


1. Alex Purves in her 2010 Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative, which explores the spatial nature of Homeric narrative from a complementary perspective and is cited here in passing, seems to have developed this line of inquiry independently; see BMCR 2010.10.69.