BMCR 2018.02.51

Homer’s Iliad: The Basel commentary, Book XXIV

, Homer's Iliad: The Basel commentary, Book XXIV. Translated by Benjamin W. Millis and Sara Strack and edited by S. Douglas Olson. Boston; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017. xiii, 334. ISBN 9781501512292. $149.99.

The Basel Homer commentary is both an exceptionally helpful work of scholarship and a misconceived project. The commentary is a wonderful tool for advanced students and Homerists, although even these ideal users will probably experience considerable frustration. However, most others will find it too difficult to extract the material that would be very useful for them.

First, why this volume is extraordinarily helpful: The bibliographies are superb and represent an extraordinary amount of work for which we should be deeply grateful. Philological notes are often gems of concision, for example the treatment of ἐναίσιμοι in verse 40 (nothing in Richardson or Macleod) 1, or of ἐρρώσαντο in 616. The small-print notes are especially good (e.g. 528 on ἐάων), but there are also very fine passages in the regular-size sections, such as the comparison on 565-67 of how Achilles reasons that Priam must have had divine help with Odysseus’ reasoning about his bed at Od. 23.184-189. Formulae are identified as such, although sometimes nothing more is said about them (and the approach is usually not favorable to contextual interpretations of formulae). Although the commentary emphasizes first traditional narrative and rhetorical methods (type-scenes, for example and traditional style) and structuralist narratology, then philology, archaeology is not neglected (on cremation and other aspects of funerary ritual, for example, and on architecture), and there are occasional nods to reception.

Often Brügger summarizes views and arguments without presenting his own opinion, and sometimes he appends citations that disagree with his interpretation (which is most often the communis opinio if there is one). The effect can sometimes seem almost bland, and the tone is not lively, but it is also authoritative. The individual authors of the volumes are evidently following editorial direction.

Not surprisingly, on some passages I would have considered possibilities that the commentary does not; at 358-369, Brügger writes “Priam’s fear appears natural and, precisely for that reason, poignant,” while I wonder whether his utter paralysis in panic is not, given the frequent cruelty of Greek humor, funny; and I find absurd the idea that Achilles is truly worried that if Agamemnon learned of Priam’s presence, the ransom could be impeded. Agamemnon is not going to risk Achilles again, and Achilles knows it. And throughout, orality and performance are entirely neglected, perhaps deliberately, so that Homerists of different persuasions can use the information provided as they prefer.

Reviewers of earlier volumes have already noted how unlikely it is that the project will truly serve all its intended audiences. Notes intended for all readers, including the Greekless, are in regular type. A smaller font identifies notes for the philologist, and a smaller font still specialized comments. Help for the beginning student is at the bottom of the page. I find it hard to imagine that anybody would use the Basel commentary in an undergraduate class. There is a very brief summary of the most important points of Homeric grammar at the front, but the student would certainly need the Prolegomena, and so at least two volumes, and of course the text. In English, at any rate, far more suitable textbooks are widely available. An instructor might encourage an enthusiastic undergraduate to look up a specific note, but hardly more.

Then there are the Greekless readers. There is a great deal here for them; this volume could provide a rich introduction to Homeric style and narrative. They will need considerable general intellectual sophistication, however, and much would be incomprehensible to a non-specialist who has not read the Prolegomena. Narratological and rhetorical terms appear frequently, and Latin is untranslated. On verses 101-102, the commentary uses the terms “perlocutionary” and “illocutionary” without explanation, though with bibliography on the use of speech-act theory for Homer. So I can imagine that college-level faculty in other humanities fields, who often find themselves teaching Homer, might consult this commentary, but their students would not. The brief discussion of Priam’s journey as a visit to the Underworld, in a note on verse 328, is in the smaller type, although it would surely be of considerable interest to Greekless users. The original also treats this interpretive question as irrelevant for the Greekless.

Instead of trying to be everything for everyone, it might have made sense to compose different versions in a modular electronic format: an elementary version, a Greekless version, and a scholarly version. I am not a coder, but I do not think this would be difficult. The user could select the appropriate version.

The scholarly reader, too, may sometimes feel annoyed. While Homerists know the abbreviations of standard works, they will not know those of the chapters of the Prolegomena (and the reader who does not know the standard abbreviations, hunting for the right list will be a genuine chore, since they are in different places). Cross-references abound. For example, in the note on atê at 28, the reader is directed to the notes at 1.412 and 19.88. The reader really needs to have the series at hand when using any volume. While avoiding repetition is a good, the scale of the project makes such references a difficulty, and it may easily grow worse as the series grows. It is not clear whether each book will receive its own volume (two in the German edition, with text and translation), but even if a few are combined, who has space and money for so many volumes? We will presumably have electronic access, but can we have multiple e-books open at the same time? And in my university’s library catalogue, it is a real effort to sort through the various listings and work out what we have, in print or online, and then to reach it (electronic versions were unavailable January 18, 2018). It does not help that the volume numbers of the German do not correspond to the books of the Iliad, since it is the volume numbers that appear in the initial catalogue entry. The translation omits these entirely, which is an improvement, until the reader wants to match the translation with the original and has to struggle to find it. The title page does not even refer to the German edition, and my library catalogue does not seem to recognize that they are the same book. I doubt that the problems of the Michigan library catalogue are unique. The Basel commentary is not going to rival FGrH as the essential work whose arrangement drives classicists crazy, but it is inconvenient.

The translation is usually very reliable, but there are occasional infelicities. At least once, a plural reference to many interpretations has become a singular, which is confusing when the note lists several interpretations. A few very small slips have what seem to me potentially serious consequences, though only for that general reader who is unlikely to use the commentary. So on 28, the German says that atê “bezeichnet den Anstoß zu einer töricher Handlung mit katastrophalen Folgen.” That is a good definition, but the translation reads “a stimulus for foolish action with catastrophic consequences,” and it does not seem to me certain that the innocent reader will realize that atê is never resisted: it is in operation only when the stimulus actually leads to the action. On 44, there is a mistake (in transcription, surely), where Affekt is translated “impulse” and the note makes no sense as a result. On 110, “Lösegeld” is translated “ransom money” (on 232) which is mildly irritating, since “ransom” or “ransom payment” would carry the sense without introducing money into a world in which it does not yet exist.

The only positive error I have noted is on 57, where the behaviors of the Seven and the Epigoni are reversed (also in the German).


1. N. J. Richardson, The Iliad, a Commentary. Vol. VI: Books 21-24 (Cambridge 1993); C. W. Macleod, Homer, Iliad Book XXIV (Cambridge 1982).