Homer is a book written by Barbara Graziosi in the setting of the research project Living Poets: A New Approach to Ancient Poetry ( Living Poets). The project, financed by the European Research Council, proposes to investigate how, over the centuries, readers imagined the classical poets, and how the biographies and representations they produced influenced the comprehension of the works of these poets, reconfiguring their value and meaning as a function of specific historical-cultural contexts. The application of this investigative scheme to Homer, a poet that many readers know “primarily through echoes and refractions in other poems, novels, plays, and works of art – as well as through the ubiquitous myth of the author” (p. 2), has two fundamental objectives, clearly indicated in the “Introduction”: to provide an overall view of Homeric studies, examining the basic questions about the author of the poems, their composition and transmission; to show how certain images of Homer conditioned the interpretation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and how ancient and modern readers approached Homer considering him as a “living poet”, constantly present in the Western collective conscience. This declaration of intent indicates that Homer represents the natural end point of a research path that, in her previous works, has led Barbara Graziosi to investigate the invention of Homer as an “author” and the ancient reception of the Homeric poems;1 the “resonance of epic” in the more general context of a unified history of the cosmos;2 and the reception of Homer in the twentieth century.3
Homer is divided into three parts, dealing with the poet, the Iliad and the Odyssey respectively.
In the first part (“The Poet”), Graziosi primarily analyses the biographical legends regarding the name, the birthplace and the works of Homer, stressing the strict interconnection between the history of the text and the identification of its author: “We inherited from the Greeks […] a habit of discussing the Iliad, the Odyssey, and indeed the cyclic epics in terms of their putative authors(s)” (p. 11). In the two following chapters, the author discusses the main textual and material clues about the creation of the poems. In a subject about which there are no certainties, Graziosi demonstrates three fixed points. The constant use of formulae and type scenes reveals that Homeric epic derives from a long process “of oral composition, and recomposition, in performance” (p. 19), in which it is difficult to define the role and the influence of writing. Homeric language, as a mélange of Ionic, Aeolian, Mycenaean and Attic elements with a clear predominance of the first, suggests that Ionia is the location of the origin of the epic, in agreement with the ancient testimony that locates the birthplace and poetic activity of Homer in this area. The material evidence reflected in the poems testifies that, despite the presence of elements of Mycenaean culture, they cannot have been composed much before 700 BC. Though coming to no original conclusions, the analysis of how, where and when epic was created shows balance and rigor in evaluating a complex and contradictory scholarly tradition. In conclusion, the last chapter of the first part deals with the voice of the poet as it emerges from the poems. This voice, which Graziosi identifies with that of the Muse, reveals a divine power of “vision”, which allows the poet to sing of facts of the past “as if he had been there himself” ( Odyssey, VIII, 491). In the two poems, however, the narrator’s voice presents different features: while in the Iliad it has an objective tone, in the Odyssey it mixes with that of the protagonist who, in books 9-12, recounts himself the story of his own exploits “like a bard”. The second part (“The Iliad ”) discusses the narrative material of the Iliad through the comments of the ancient scholiasts and the interpretations of modern scholars. Achilles’ pain at the death of his friend Patroclus is observed in the light of two comparative models: the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh who, having lost his friend Enkidu, rebels against the limits of the human condition, and Vietnam veterans who, because of the loss of a close comrade, display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Graziosi shows a just caution about positing homologies, stressing that the Iliad expresses essential aspects of human life that inevitably resonated with the experiences of people of other times and places. The theme of resonance is central to Graziosi’s analysis. In the following chapter, she demonstrates that the Iliad, though only narrating a small part of the Trojan war, makes reference to the whole Trojan saga through specific allusions that the audience is able to recognize. For example, the fall of Troy is not narrated, but symbolized in the death of Hector who, after Achilles, is the other great protagonist of the story. Graziosi interprets this character as a tragic hero, whose story offers the ancient audience the chance of experiencing the approach of death, as well as the emptiness and importance of hope. The significance of this hero in the economy of the story is clarified by the antithesis with his great rival: while “Achilles has to choose between glory and a long life” (p. 81), in Hector’s case “the choice is not between life and death, but between a cowardly death or a glorious one” (p. 87), which will give eternal memory to the hero and provide the material of song for future generations.
The third part (“The Odyssey ”) shows how interpretation of the Odyssey has changed from ancient to modern readers. While for Aristotle ( Poetics, 1455b 16-23) the poem about Odysseus is above all the story of his return to Ithaca and the restoration of his authority, in modern culture it essentially becomes an adventure tale in which travels to the end of the earth and the search for knowledge monopolize the public’s attention. From this viewpoint Graziosi analyses the narrative function of women and monsters in Odysseus’ peregrinations and, finally, concentrates on the ancient and modern rewriting of the Nekyia (“the dialogue with the dead”), recognizing in the different reincarnations of the Homeric hero “not just a will to live, but a determination to take pleasure in the tale” (p. 125).
The end of the volume has a list of textual and bibliographical references, suggestions for further reading, and an index of names, places and concepts.
Compared to other books by Barbara Graziosi, especially Homer: The Resonance of Epic,4 Homer is less ambitious but more thorough and more balanced. The author has perfectly mastered the material under investigation and, even when speaking of allusions in the Homeric text to other myths, she does not generally force the interpretation in an attempt to establish improbable chronologies. The only exception is on page 63, where Graziosi claims that the Iliadic episode in which Thetis saves Zeus from an attempted revolt by other divinities ( Iliad, I, 396-406) presupposes the myth of the preempted union between Zeus and Thetis, which was destined to produce a son stronger than his father. Moreover, it is easy to appreciate Graziosi’s clarity of presentation and ability to offer precise and brief definitions: for example, the Iliad is at the same time “a political poem” because “it offers an intense exploration of leadership and its failures” and “an existential poem” because it “invites a clear-sighted reflection on the value of life” (p. 80), while “the Odyssey […] offers a more disenchanted, epic exploration of power and its consequences” (p. 107); “The Odyssey, like the Iliad, seeks to define what it means to be human” (p. 95). In virtue of the features I have highlighted, the book constitutes not only an accurate critical evaluation of Homeric studies for the benefit of scholars, but also a valuable and accessible introduction to the subject for non-specialist readers.
1. Barbara Graziosi, Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
3. Barbara Graziosi, Emily Greenwood (eds.), Homer in the Twentieth Century. Between World Literature and the Western Canon, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. See the review by Constanze Güthenke in BMCR 2008.02.10.
4. See note footnote #2.