The University of Chicago Press’s new edition of Richmond Lattimore’s 1951 translation of the Iliad is not just a re-edition of his iconic work. Lattimore’s rendition of Homer’s Iliad with Richard Martin’s introduction and notes is a fitting companion for students and readers first encountering the Iliad, Homer, Greek literature and classical civilization. Martin not only situates the epic in its literary-historical and archaeological context, but also reminds us of the place of Lattimore’s translation in the reception and translation of Homer. Lattimore’s translation is acknowledged as an achievement in and of itself, as a part of our 20th and 21st century reception of Homer.
Martin from the start addresses the Iliad ’s status as literature and specifically as nothing less than the first work of Western literature, while underscoring that, at the time of the epic’s composition, there were “no identifiable concepts” of “Western” or “Eastern” cultures (1). Writing about the fifth century, the Persian Wars and the emergence of the “Classical” age in architecture, art, oratory and dramatic literature, he reminds us that Herodotus begins his history, the first historical account by a “Western” author, with mention of Helen of Sparta. Unlike “politicized interpretations of the story of Troy” (1) in later literary works (Virgil’s Aeneid), the Iliad is not a poem of national or religious identity, not a means to broadcast an imperial ideology. Rather, the poem is, as Martin writes, “about heroes and humans, and what constitutes humanity” and its story of the war at Troy is “primarily a backdrop for human concerns that fascinate audiences at any age” (2).
Martin describes the Iliad as a product of cultural memory, an Iron Age poem about events taking place in the earlier Bronze Age. Detailing what later Greeks and the Romans thought about Troy, he outlines its symbolic significance for “celebrities likes Xerxes the king of Persia, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar” (3), as a sacred site with which military leaders can associate their deeds through “ostentatious tourism at the spot” (3). He then focuses on the Trojan War via an overview of recent archaeological evidence that enables readers to envisage the geographical setting of the epic. Martin reviews the history of archaeological excavations of Troy, from Frank Calvert’s discernment of Hisarlik as the site to the unabashedly self-promoting Heinrich Schliemann to the most recent excavations by Manfred Korfmann. Troy is thus introduced in its historical and physical reality (5-6).
A summary of “The Saga of Troy” is next (9-17) and then a more interpretative section on “The Vision of the Iliad : The Limits of Mortality” (17-28) that brings the larger, timeless themes of the Iliad to the fore.
“Constantly at the edge of our vision is the specter of mass destruction, either of the Trojans defending their doomed city or of the attackers, beset by plague and slowly wasting away (1.49-52). Death is neither abhorred nor celebrated in this world, however. Instead, just as the Iliad distills the Trojan saga into a few days of intense fighting, it crystallizes by means of this one theme — death in battle — the essence of what it means to be human. Life is a struggle each person will ultimately always lose; the question is how one acts with that knowledge.” (18)
Martin keeps this “big picture” of the Iliad ’s ultimate message throughout. He continues with a discussion of cultural and societal issues including the Linear B tablets and writing, as well as political structures (the basileis) and the beliefs and customs behind such notions as dike (33) and xenia (34 – 36, with discussion of burial rites and tombs such as that found at Lefkandi). The Homeric question is explained by considering ancient readers’ views of Homer (including some of the Lives) and the numerous theories about the poems’ authorship through the Enlightenment and the Romantics (Homer as the very embodiment of Friedrich Schiller’s “naïve poetry” and of Johann Gottfried Herder’s notion of “Das Volk”). Martin also provides the reader with what turns out to be a concise introduction to classical scholarship in considering the theories of Friedrich August Wolf, Victor Bérard, Milman Parry, Albert Lord and Gregory Nagy about oral composition, the oral tradition and the performance of the epics (36-42).
Topics of a literary nature are discussed in “The Style of the Iliad ” (43-53). Calling the Iliad“the original blockbuster” (43), Martin considers its sheer size (it is suggested that performing the poem’s 15,693 lines could take twenty-four hours); Homer’s dramatic technique; the “diversifying” of the narrative with character speeches; the vivid similes that “work like miniature lyric poems enabling a narrator to express a range of attitudes toward the story being told” (47); the use of repetition, from heroic epithets to type scenes (49-52).
In a final section on “Reception and Translation” (53-64). Martin notes the influence of Homer on literature, art, music, dance, graphic novels, films and video games in what must be an admittedly brief overview. While the Odyssey“has seen a number of artful full-scale recastings just in the past century” such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Derek Walcott’s Omeros, the Iliad has yet to be reproduced in a “single artistic effort” (52). Focusing on the character of Achilles, Martin contrasts him with Odysseus, “a man who, despite divine wrath, made it home.” In contrast, Achilles “cannot master his own fate” and the poem that details his exploits is largely centered on his “god-like wrath” (54) though Martin also highlights a different, though no less emotional, Achilles in the imagination of the West, that of the lover, of Patroklos, Briseis, Polyxena and others (57-8).
Certainly, by simply reviewing such “offshoots” of the Iliad, one is offered “entry to an entire education in Western culture” (54). At this point in his discussion, Martin takes into account the place of Lattimore’s 1951 translation in the history of Homeric studies, offering comparisons of his rendering of Iliad 9.319-27 with that of George Chapman (1611), Alexander Pope (1720), F. W. Newman (1856), Robert Fitzgerald (1974), Robert Fagles (1990) and Stanley Lombardo (1997). Certainly the first three sound like products of their time, pace Pope’s historic couplets. Noting his connections, as student or colleague, of the latter three, Martin writes that Fitzgerald’s is the most like Lattimore’s, as both keep the “plainness of the original,” though Martin deems Fitzgerald’s translation “more lyrical than epic in its shorter lines” (62). A short analysis of Fagles’ translation focuses on his diction and his attempts to differentiate the narrator’s voice from that of the speeches of the characters. Martin highlights the speakability of Lombardo’s translation via its “blur[ing] the lines separating natural talk, unscripted improvised poems, and highly artificial, formulaic oral- traditional poetry” (64).
Of course, judging translations for their respective merits and liberties with the original is a highly subjective endeavor. Martin ends his introduction noting that Lattimore’s will “remain the most lucid and yet elevated – ‘noble’ – of recent attempts” (64).
Lattimore’s translation is, it may be said, a classic of a classic. Many of his translations are just unusual enough to remind the reader time and again that, yes, this is a translation – a necessary feature of translations, these reminders that they are not original texts. (Is not an unstated aim of any translation to urge a reader back to the original?) Lattimore’s translation is a touchstone for 20th and even 21st century readers, for introducing them to the flavor of epic speech in phrases such as “his shaggy breast” (1.189, 80); “battling in words of contention” (1.305, 83); “the glancing-eyed Achaians” (1.389, 85); “and lightly she emerged like a mist from the gray water” of Thetis (1.359, p. 84); Achilles referred to as “son of Peleus, insatiate of battle” (20.2, 426).
Countless others remain in my own mind, embedded after reading Lattimore’s work as a teenager who, after years in Oakland public schools, was thrust into a prep school setting of seminars and teachers form a mysterious place, “the East Coast.” I recall puzzling over the periphrastic phrasing of “but when they had put aside their desire for eating and drinking” (1.469, 87): Why expend so many words to say they stopped eating as they were no longer hungry?
Martin’s endnotes provide a running commentary on the epic, with mention of Greek words and terms; of folk motifs such as “the hero being angry at his mother’s curse” (542); of how words function as a “kind of ammunition in battle” (546); of “the first instance of sports betting in Western literature” (562). In a number of places (for instance, the notes on Agamemnon and Nestor in Book 2, 523), Martin offers interpretations of scenes and character’s actions while not indicating that these are such and that other readings can be offered – a minor quibble and, indeed, all the more reason to read his comments with care and thoughtfulness.
Finally, I must apologize for the epic tardiness of this review. As a former student of Martin’s (and advised in my own translation work by Lombardo), reading his introduction and notes has, in the very best of ways, recalled me to halcyon university days when I worked my way through line on line of Greek, resisting the urge to check a translation. As have we all, I have since been through a sort of odyssey and been often mindful of the travels of Odysseus. Martin’s evaluation of the Iliad as a poem about the striving and the pain of being human, and of the powerful, perilous emotions of Achilles, has called me to turn back to it with renewed attention and with new awe.