BMCR 2019.07.56

Homer’s Iliad. The Basel Commentary: Book XIV and Book XVI

, Homer’s Iliad. The Basel Commentary: Book XIV. (Translated by Benjamin W. Millis and Sara Strack and edited by S. Douglas Olson.). Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. xv, 304. ISBN 9783110568868. €109,95.
, Homer’s Iliad. The Basel Commentary: Book XVI. (Translated by Benjamin W. Millis and Sara Strack and edited by S. Douglas Olson.). Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. xii, 428. ISBN 9783110554151. €109,95.

Preview Book XIV
Preview Book XVI

The Basler Homer-Kommentar (BK) is one of the most ambitious research projects in Ancient Greek studies in the 21st century. It was initiated by Joachim Latacz (former Professor of Classics at the University of Basel, Switzerland) and continued (after Latacz’s retirement) by his successor Anton Bierl. Its goal is nothing less than a full-scale commentary on all twenty-four Books of the Iliad, in which the Greek text, along with a German translation, appears in the first fascicle, and the commentary in the second.1 In 2000, the Prolegomena were published, and since then, the editions and translations of, and commentaries on, Books 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 14, 16, 18, 19, 22 and 24 have been issued.2 To reach a broader international audience, the commentary fascicles are now being successively translated into English; in 2015, an English version of the Prolegomena was published, and since then, English translations of the commentaries on Books 3, 6, 14, 16, 18, 19 and 24.3 In this journal, reviews of the translations of the Prolegomena (BMCR 2016.08.22, by Evert van Emde Boas) and of Books 19 (BMCR 2017.04.25, by Rachel H. Lesser) and 24 (BMCR 2018.02.51, by Ruth Scodel) have already been published. This review deals with the two latest translated volumes: those on Books 14 (the Dios apate) and 16 (the Patrokleia).

Martha Krieter-Spiro’s German commentary on the Dios apate (called so after the famous seduction scene in the centre of the Book where Hera uses her physical charms to divert Zeus from the battlefield) was published in 2015, that of Claude Brügger on the Patrokleia (the Book that describes the heroic fight of Patroklos against Hektor and his subsequent tragic death) in 2016. According to the prefaces, mistakes were corrected in the English version, and the commentary on Book 14 contains some updated references. Apart from that, the structure and the content of both commentaries is the same as in the German original. Both volumes follow the established standard format of the BK, namely: a) notes to the reader, including a list of abbreviations used; b) a list of twenty-four idiosyncracies (so-called “rules”) of the Homeric language; c) a synopsis of the narrative in the Book in question; d) the commentary; e) a comprehensive bibliography.

Since the two volumes reviewed here are translations of previously published research, I would like to begin with a few thoughts on the aspect of translation and the potential problems connected to it. Translating academic German into English can be challenging since the two languages follow very different conventions as to what is considered appropriate and how something should be expressed in order to qualify as good academic writing. The most significant difference is the tendency of academic German toward long-winded and syntactically convoluted sentences—as opposed to the anglophone model that embraces concision and clarity. Other obstacles include a predilection for nominals and for the passive voice by writers of German. English is not my native language and I am therefore not in a position to give a definitive assessment of the quality of the English of the two volumes under review. However, being a native German speaker experienced in writing academic English, I think I have a good grasp on how well the translation from the German original to English has succeeded. I did, of course, not compare both versions of both commentaries systematically, but predominantly my impression from reading the English version is positive. To my ears, the English reads for the most part naturally and authentically, and occasional side glances at the German text confirm tight fidelity to the original. Sometimes, though, less fidelity might have been preferable; to quote a random example: I find the following English sentence hard to understand (Brügger, p. 325, on Il. 16.745–750): “The narrator has Patroklos in his speech pick up the motif of a person jumping headfirst used in the preceding comparison (742) […].” Here the German wording lurks in the background (p. 315): “Der Erzähler läßt Patroklos in seiner Rede das im vorangehenden Vergleich (742) enthaltene Motiv des kopfüber Springenden aufgreifen […].” Complex as it is, the German sentence is unambiguous and highly idiomatic; an equally idiomatic (but less literal) English rendering would perhaps have resolved this sentence into two.4 However, this selective criticism should not cloud the great accomplishment of the two translators, and I therefore agree with my colleague Evert van Emde Boas who, in his review of the English version of the Prolegomena, expressed his “greatest admiration for the achievement of Benjamin W. Millis and Sara Strack” (BMCR 2016.08.22).

Content-wise, the English versions of the two commentaries are identical to their German originals, and those have been reviewed before.5 I therefore restrict myself to some very general observations and comments. Above all, it needs to be stated once more here what reviewers of the original German versions already have noted and given praise for, namely, the remarkable learnedness and comprehensiveness that both commentaries display. Considering the fact that Homeric scholarship is not only immense in quantity, but that it is a discipline with numerous (and often conflicting) approaches and ‘schools’, both Krieter-Spiro and Brügger have mastered a virtually Herculean task. All aspects and disciplines within the field of Homeric studies have been acknowledged; besides the linguistic and traditionally philological matters, a particular strength lies in the realms of narratology: narratological features and idiosyncracies are labelled and explained consistently. The influence of Irene de Jong’s work is clearly noticeable here. In line with the strength of the commentary in the area of narratology comes a consistent terminological distinction between ‘narrator’ and ‘author’. However, sometimes this results in an unnecessarily stilted phrasing that adds little value to the general understanding. I quote just one example (Krieter-Spiro, p. 130, on Il. 14.264–266): “The narrator has Hera act cunningly by not doubting or belittling Hypnos’ memories […]”. No extra information (beyond the very obvious) is conveyed by the statement that it is the narrator who has Hera act in such a manner.

All commentaries in the BK series follow a unique format, which has been discussed (and criticized) by reviewers before.6 By default, “four levels of explanation are distinguished graphically” in the commentary, as stated in the notes to the reader (Krieter-Spiro, p. xi; Brügger, p. ix), namely 1) information for the general reader (in regular type) where no knowledge of Greek is required; 2) philological information (in medium type) targeted at the reader who is a professional Hellenist (or at least knows Greek) but is not necessarily a specialized Homerist; 3) more detailed information (in small type) “on particular sub-fields of Homeric scholarship”; 4) an “elementary section” (at the bottom of the page below a dividing line) with information on linguistic issues primarily for students, relating back to the twenty-four “rules” of the Homeric language. This summary probably already demonstrates sufficiently how confusing this intricate format is—well-meant as it may be. For one thing, so many levels automatically cause disagreement as to which piece of information should have gone onto which level. For another, there are, as I see it, three further problems connected to this format. First, the “elementary section” looks like footnotes, which might further confuse many readers. Secondly, several abbreviations have been invented, some of which are quite obscure, such as MYC (“Homeric-Mycenaean Word Index”) and NTHS (“New Trends in Homeric Scholarship”)—something which further curtails the readability of the commentary. Thirdly, the abundant use of bibliographical information between brackets in the running text (on all levels) also impedes the reading flow. I have long advocated the use of footnotes in commentaries for the sake of unburdening the main text, as is common practice in monographs,7 and I am convinced that such a scheme would be considerably more user-friendly also for the BK.

I would like to end with some remarks on the translation project as a whole: I am one of those hopelessly old-fashioned scholars who strongly believe that reading competence in several modern languages still is indispensable for Classicists. Even if English is more and more becoming the international publication language in the humanities, the fact remains that we all need to be able to read and acknowledge research from ‘the old days’ (something that fundamentally distinguishes our disciplines from the natural sciences). For this reason, I can see a certain risk in having ‘important’ non-anglophone pieces of research translated into English, because this may wrongly insinuate that everything that remains untranslated was less important. That being said, I can of course also see much benefit in the enterprise. First and foremost, the English translation of the BK makes this important tool accessible to a wider audience that includes those outside the field of Classics. Secondly, it may contribute to an increased dialogue between different traditions and approaches in Homeric scholarship, and to more mutual acknowledgement. In other words, the BK is no longer “a German-language counterpart […] [to] the Cambridge commentary”, as Joachim Latacz put it when he announced his project in 1997 (BMCR 97.07.12); rather, it may be viewed as emblematic of a globalized world that has changed drastically in the past twenty years and that therefore needs to close ranks in the realm of scholarship as well. Finally, instructors may indeed use the English volumes as a starting point to introduce their students to non-anglophone scholarship, for example by pointing to the bibliographies, which naturally have a stronger focus on non-anglophone research. Unfortunately, though, this might be jeopardized by the high price of the volumes. I would not want to force my students to buy such expensive books and would therefore refrain from putting them on the syllabus, despite their usefulness. Maybe the publisher will consider issuing affordable paperback versions in the future.


1. See the project webpage for more information.

2. See the link on the webpage of the publisher for information on the German commentaries.

3. See the link on the webpage of the publisher for information on the English translations.

4. Reviewers of previously translated volumes have expressed similar views on the generally high quality of the translation, the only downside of which is that it occasionally mirrors too closely the German original; see e.g. Lesser in BMCR 2017.04.25.

5. For a review of Krieter-Spiro’s commentary on Book 14, see e.g. Margalit Finkelberg in Gnomon 90, 2018, 361– 332. Brügger’s commentary on Book 16 was reviewed by Ronald Blankenborg in BMCR 2017.11.47.

6. Cf. e.g. Lesser’s criticism in BMCR 2017.04.25.

7. The reason why footnotes are traditionally not used in commentaries goes back to the days when commentaries were ‘notes’ to the primary text in the actual sense of the word. As a result, footnotes could not be used for purely technical reasons, and therefore any extra information had to be added between brackets. However, when a commentary is detached from the primary text and is presented in a monographic format, I see absolutely no reason why footnotes should not be allowed. ​