BMCR 2011.09.50

Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush: a Multitext Edition with Essays and Commentary. Hellenic Studies 39

, , Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush: a Multitext Edition with Essays and Commentary. Hellenic Studies 39. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University Press, 2010. xi, 426. ISBN 9780674035591. $24.95 (pb).

Book 10 of the Iliad, commonly known as the Doloneia, has been problematic since antiquity; its language, its unusual theme, and its sometimes strange narrative strategies have made it seem suspicious (and spurious) to both ancient and modern scholars. Yet, alongside the well-known objections there have always been attempts to interpret the Doloneia as an integral part of our Iliad. Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush (volume 39 in the Hellenic Studies series) by Casey Dué and Mary Ebbott is the latest such attempt;1 through interpretive essays, a multitext edition (featuring several papyri as well as the text of Venetus A), and a detailed commentary the authors reevaluate the status of book 10 both within the Iliad and the critical tradition. Drawing on a great variety of resources from the historical reception of the Iliad to the iconographical traditions of ambush in Greek vase-painting to the most recent research on oral traditions (and more—the bibliography contains more than 400 items) Dué and Ebbott address in this tastefully presented volume (the cover features an intriguingly ominous ambush scene from a white-ground lekythos) some of the most controversial points in Homeric studies with an admirable arsenal of interpretive tools and techniques. What emerges from this complex enterprise is a thought- provoking, excellent scholarly work catering for a wide variety of readers.

The first part of the volume contains four essays on different aspects of Iliad 10. The Doloneia’s problematic status in Homeric scholarship makes it necessary to deal with and take a stand on the so-called Homeric Question, and in the first essay (“Interpreting Iliad 10″) the authors duly turn this necessity into an opportunity to clarify how their theoretical assumptions and interpretive methods differ from both earlier and recent scholarly work. Dué and Ebbott repeatedly emphasize the need for an approach that would account for the peculiarities of Iliad 10 with recourse to oral-traditional theory rather than critics’ presuppositions about the integrity of the Homeric poems or a creative genius responsible for them. According to the authors, “[w]hat is at stake in taking this approach is a better understanding of the language, structure, evolution, and cultural meaning of the epics” (29). It is therefore not surprising that their attempt to reconstruct the special oral-traditional poetics of the Doloneia goes beyond the sketching of novel interpretive possibilities and involves a thorough reappraisal of the textual tradition as well as the provision of a commentary elucidating how this poetics works. In laying out the program for the reevaluation of Iliad 10 the authors are noticeably (and understandably) eager to assert their allegiance to the critical tradition reaching back (often through the work of Gregory Nagy) to Milman Parry and Albert Lord and at the same time to challenge what they deem to be problematic aspects of previous and current scholarship on the Doloneia (e.g. claims that the book is un-Homeric, “Odyssean,” etc). In explaining the aims of the commentary, however, they also emphasize that they “do not seek to replace […] but rather add to” Hainsworth’s 1993 work (volume 3 in the Cambridge commentary) and “offer an alternative explanation/approach to many passages” (28).

This introduction is followed by the central essay of the first part, indeed, of the whole volume. In this long piece entitled “The Poetics of Ambush” Dué and Ebbott set out to recover the characteristics of the elusive ambush theme in early Greek epic mostly on the basis of the Iliad and the Odyssey, but also the Epic cycle and the Homeric hymns. Amplifying Anthony Edwards’s 1985 study2 the authors argue that the theme of lokhos (ambush) in early Greek epic represents a traditional alternative to polemos, open warfare, and is as much endorsed by the best warriors as conventional battlefield tactics. Dué and Ebbott’s analyses of a great number of Homeric passages reveal that the texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey contain numerous significant references to this special type of guerilla warfare requiring mētis, and the evidence mustered in support of their thesis includes the double role of several heroes (Odysseus, Diomedes, Meriones, and most surprisingly perhaps Achilles) as ambushers as well as promakhoi in the archaic epic tradition. According to the authors, rather than being un-Homeric or a late addition, Iliad 10 is the most extended and most comprehensive remnant of this traditional theme, one whose reconsideration will not only make it possible to reconstruct the poetics of ambush, but also “add to our understanding of the poetics of the Iliad and the nature of the Homeric hero” (49).

What characterizes, then, the theme of ambush in early Greek epic? Interpreting the Doloneia Dué and Ebbott show that, similarly to Homeric accounts of daytime or open warfare, descriptions of (and references to) night raids and missions have their own traditional and typical elements. These include, among other things, arming scenes with special weaponry and outfits, the emphasis on the aural rather than the visual aspects of a given episode, or frequent references (e.g. in epithets) to the endurance of the heroes. Further, ambush functions as a narrative pattern whose sub-themes (e.g. the choosing of the aristoi for the undertaking, or the return of the heroes) the poet/singer may choose to compress, expand, or even skip at will in a given (re)composition-in-performance. Some of these characteristics are common to other traditional themes, i.e. spying missions or cattle-raids, and one of the most fascinating parts of this excitingly written essay is the final section in which the authors argue that the narrative structure of two of the most memorable Homeric episodes, the Cyclopeia and Priam’s ransom of Hector’s dead body, may be interpreted as special variations on the ambush theme.

The third essay of the first part entitled “Tradition and Reception” focuses on the traditionality of the characters of Rhesos and Dolon, and the historical reception of the Doloneia in Euripides and Virgil. In the case of Rhesos the authors could rely on previous scholarship as well as information preserved in the scholia and other ancient sources to explain how this character’s special presentation in Iliad 10 may be connected to the Rhesos tradition outside the Homeric epics. In the case of Dolon, however, the meagerness of external evidence and the character’s relatively short Iliadic career make it difficult to trace the one-time existence of such a traditional identity. Dué and Ebbott therefore compare the presentation of Dolon to the formulaic introduction and description of other Homeric characters, and they also consider how the unfortunate Trojan appears on vase-paintings. The authors are cautious in their claims here—at p. 117 they concede with regard to possible Homeric parallels that “[a]ll these possibilities remain uncertain without further evidence,”—and, indeed, this discussion remains the most tentative section of the volume. Not so with the historical reception where the authors’ interpretation of the Euripidean and Vergilian use and transformation of the Doloneia convincingly shows that the episode became an inextricable part of Homer’s literary heritage.

All this could already fill a short monograph, but there remains the fourth essay (” Iliad 10: A Multitextual Approach”) which serves as a transition to the second part of the volume, the multitext edition of Iliad 10. Here Dué and Ebbott, who are editors of the Homer Multitext project, lay the theoretical foundations for applying the results of oral-traditional theory to textual criticism. As anyone even mildly interested in contemporary Homeric studies will know, the issue of how the text is presented is a major point of contention, one of the key fault-lines dividing sometimes radically different conceptions of the status, the dating, the composition, and the survival of the epics. Not surprisingly, Dué and Ebbott take a very firm position in this ongoing debate, instead of providing a “definitive” text which privileges one version and relegates “variants” to the critical apparatus their aim is to represent the (synchronic and diachronic) multiformity of the Homeric epics. The authors’ admittedly contentious approach in this essay will no doubt provide ammunition for future battles about the fundamental questions of Homeric scholarship, but Dué and Ebbott also stress that embracing multiformity is essential for a new understanding of the Doloneia “as the product of a dynamic oral system of poetry that evolved through time” (165).

It is of course a question to what extent this multiformity can be captured in a printed book: as the authors point out, “a digital edition—one that can more readily present parallel texts—enables a more comprehensive understanding of these epics” (152). The selection of three papyri and a medieval manuscript for the book is indeed limited, but it certainly embraces a wide span of time (from the second century BCE to the tenth century CE) and provides ample variation in the text to account for. Dué and Ebbott’s commentaries on this often heavily fragmentary material focus on “multiforms,” some of which are directly connected to the theme of ambush, and are accordingly cross-referenced both in the essays in the first part and in the general commentary in the third part of the volume. One is inevitably left with the impression that this section is merely a sample of what a digital edition can provide, but the advantages of being able to consult the different texts side by side are quite apparent even in this format. This section also renders a service to scholars by providing an easily consultable transcript of the Venetus A MS (though without the scholia).

The last third of the volume is devoted to a detailed commentary of Iliad 10 in light of the various theoretical and practical results of parts 1 and 2. The authors here retain their dominant focus on multiformity and the theme of ambush (and often the connections between the two), but several entries also serve as illustrations of more general points about oral traditional poetry (e.g. the discussion of βοὴν ἀγαθός (300–306), or the consideration of Odysseus’s rather bloodcurdling smile at 10.400 (340–346)). Some comments reach exceptional lengths and become mini-essays; a good example is the authors’ interpretation of the extended simile illustrating Agamemnon’s unrest at the beginning of the Doloneia (lines 5–9) which provides in nine pages (237–246) a close reading of the traditional elements of this often-condemned image. Naturally, Dué and Ebbott do not comment on every single line, and it would be unjust to quibble over what is left out. One cannot help but wonder, however, whether some expressions would have deserved the authors’ attention (e.g. ἀλᾶσθε in line 141 which could perhaps be fruitfully related to the ambush theme). Similarly, although the commentary is exemplarily cross-referenced to the first two parts of the volume and to multiple occurrences of certain phrases within Iliad 10, there are some minor inconsistencies: μάχεσθαι has a comment at line 101 (265), but not at line 147 (which is generally suppressed by editors), or at line 327; then again, the phrase 3 νύκτα δι’ ὀρφναίην is passed over in silence at line 276, though the fact that it alternates with νύκτα δι’ ἀμβροσίην receives interesting commentary elsewhere (254–256). (Its occurrence at line 276 is also mentioned in the commentary to line 41).

Due to its specific thematic orientation, this section will probably be read as a companion piece to other commentaries (most notably Hainsworth’s). This, however, does not diminish the volume’s interest for Homerists dealing with the traditional nature of the Homeric epics in general, or the Doloneia in particular. The essays, the multitext edition, and the commentary are interdependent parts of the same enterprise, but it is certainly to the authors’ credit that these sections can individually serve different groups of readers. Regardless of critics’ dispositions—and opinions will certainly split over many aspects of the book from the methods employed to Dué and Ebbott’s specific findings— Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush can be expected to become a seminal reference work for future discussions of the Doloneia.


1. A notable earlier monograph on the Doloneia is Georg Danek’s Studien zur Dolonie. Wiener Studien 12, Vienna: 1988.

2. Anthony T. Edwards, Achilles in the Odyssey. Königstein/Ts.: Hain, 1985.

3. See J.B. Hainsworth, ed., The Iliad: A Commentary. Vol 3, Books 9–12 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. p. 169.