BMCR 2020.03.32

Yearbook of Ancient Greek Epic. Volume 3

Jonathan Burgess, Jonathan Ready, Christos Tsagalis, Yearbook of Ancient Greek Epic. Volume 3. Yearbook of ancient Greek epic, 3. Leiden: Brill, 2019. 204 p.. ISBN 9789004398511 €109,00.

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Jonathan Burgess, a leading expert on the Epic Cycle and its relationship to Homeric epic, guest-edits this latest volume of YAGE ‘with the collaboration of’ the Yearbook’s established editorial duo, Ready and Tsagalis. The volume explores the interconnections between the Odyssey and the lost Nostoi and Telegony of the Cycle — a welcome expansion of Homero-cyclic studies beyond the familiar terrain of the Iliad The concept and papers derive from a panel which Burgess organised at the 2017 SCS Annual Meeting in Toronto, so it is perhaps no surprise that all the contributors are North American. But it is a shame that there are no contributions from female scholars — an imbalance not isolated to this volume in the study of archaic epic.[1] Despite their relatively uniform profile, the contributors approach the topic from a range of perspectives, showcasing the rich variety of contemporary Homeric scholarship. Burgess has assembled a stimulating collection of interpretations (including two hefty contributions of his own) which will prove required reading for both scholars and students of archaic Greek epic.

The volume begins with a thorough introduction by Burgess which develops his past work on the Epic Cycle and grounds the concerns of the volume in a broader thematic and methodological framework. He considers the origins and development of the Cycle, our limited access to it through scanty fragments and later sources, and the various main scholarly approaches to its possible relationships with the Homeric poems. He shrewdly works through the seeming paradox of the Cycle as both a source for pre-Homeric myth and an assemblage of post-Homeric receptions, a balancing act to which various other contributors return. He also offers a summary of both the Nostoi and Telegony, highlighting some of their major points of correlation with the Odyssey and thereby paving the way for the articles which follow. Alongside the full and up-to-date bibliography, this introduction serves as a concise and accessible survey of the field; I would highly recommend it to specialists and non-specialists alike.

The remaining six articles can be grouped in pairs. The first two are primarily concerned with doublets as a narrative structure.

Sammons explores the differing treatment of younger heroes in archaic epic. Beginning with the Little Iliad and Nostoi, he establishes a pattern whereby an epigone (in both cases, Achilles’ son Neoptolemus) emerges in the narrative as the second half of an ‘anticipatory/increasing doublet’: at first, the epigone follows the example of an older, better-established hero (Philoctetes and Calchas respectively), but he soon surpasses his model and ‘takes over’ the narrative himself. The Odyssey, by contrast, inverts this sequence (Telemachus appears before his older model — his father Odysseus — and never inherits the narrative from him), and the Telegony perverts it (Telegonus appears after Odysseus, but apparently receives very little narrative development and ends up imitating the wrong model: the ‘swashbuckling invader’ of Od. 9–12, rather than the ‘prudent homecomer’ of Od. 13–24). Sammons attractively suggests that these varied treatments of the epigone reflect competing perspectives on the end of the heroic age. This is a sensitive reading which demonstrates the advantages of engaging with the whole corpus of archaic Trojan epic. However, Sammons leaves unaddressed a notable difference between his examples: the model for both Telemachus and Telegonus is their own father (just as Diomedes’ is Tydeus in the Iliad), whereas Neoptolemus’ models are his father’s friends, Philoctetes and Calchas. There is an obvious reason for this: Achilles had already died by the time Neoptolemus arrived at Troy. But it would be worth asking whether the directness of the epigone’s familial relationship to his narrative model makes any difference to our interpretation (and how precisely these internal models square with the external model of the Iliadic Achilles).

Solez examines a single anticipatory doublet which frames the whole Trojan myth cycle: he argues that the nostos of Paris after his theft of Helen (from Sparta to Troy) is a proleptic parallel for Menelaus’ nostos after the sack of Troy (from Troy to Sparta).[2] In both cases the hero is diverted by a storm into the Eastern Mediterranean before returning home. The parallel establishes a contrast between Helen’s two husbands: Paris’ hostile sack of Sidon (Cypria arg. 2d West) serves as a foil for Menelaus’ hospitable welcome there (Od. 4.617–19). In addition, it lends a sense of foreboding to Paris’ initial actions, which ominously foreshadow Menelaus’ future return once he has regained his wife. Solez grounds his analysis in the historical realities of migration and movement in the Late Bronze Age, a refreshing concern with the lived experience of archaic audiences, although I would have liked him to address the distinctiveness of his alleged doublet more directly: as he notes at the outset, a similar geographic pattern is found in ‘the lying tales of Odyssey 14 and 17, in the myth of Zeus and Typhon, and in the wanderings of Solon and of Lycurgus’, as well as in various other literary cultures — but only the Odyssey passages receive any detailed attention here. A fuller typology of such Levantine wanderings would enrich his argument further.

The second pair of articles explore the Odyssey’s selection and omission of narrative details — a familiar topic, but one which here brings fresh insights.

Christensen explores the Odyssey’s suppression of Cassandra’s traditional story, a manoeuvre which he argues enforces the poem’s patriarchal ideology. He lays out four basic motifs of Cassandra’s fabula which are variously elided in the Odyssean narrative. In particular, the muting of her rape by Ajax has multiple effects: Ajax joins a homogenised mass of Achaean wrongdoing as a foil for Odysseus; Ajax’s sacrilegious crime does not overshadow the suitors’ relatively tame misconduct; and sexual transgression remains the province of Odyssean women (e.g. Clytemnestra/the handmaidens). A strength of this contribution is Christensen’s ability to situate his intertextual reading within broader feminist approaches to archaic epic, and he ends with a neat analogy between the poem’s treatment of gender and tradition: in the Odyssey, Cassandra’s traditional story is marginalised ‘just as female perspectives and experiences are marginalized and instrumentalized’.[3]

Ready turns our attention to the end of the Odyssey, reassessing the final battle between Odysseus’ household and the suitors’ relatives. He stresses the uniqueness of this scene: it is not found in other accounts of Odysseus’ return (where the clash is either absent or resolved legally), nor is there any folktale parallel. So why does our Odyssey end as it does? Ready makes two suggestions. First, the battle emphasises Odysseus’ complete and final return: he no longer runs the risk of ‘not returning’ and instead inflicts that fate on others (οὐδ᾽ … ἂψ ἀπονοστήσειν, Od. 24.470–71; ἀνόστους, 24.528). Second, this final conflict allows Odysseus to reassert his status as paramount basileus on Ithaca: unlike the murder of the suitors, this final display of superiority is not ultimately ‘forgotten’ (24.484–85) but remains an enduring testament to Odysseus’ dominance. This strong closure, Ready contends, excludes alternative narratives of Odysseus’ post-return wanderings (an exclusion which is reinforced by Teiresias’ prophecy at Od. 11.121–34: the folktale type of the ‘Sailor and the Oar’ usually involves a sailor settling permanently far from the sea, whereas Odysseus’ sacrifice to Poseidon only requires a temporary absence from Ithaca). At times, I feel that Ready underplays the problematic and open-ended nature of the Odyssey’s conclusion (after all, the very inclusion of Teiresias’ prophecy opens the door to future post-nostosnarratives, while the final divinely imposed ceasefire is uncomfortably forced), but he nevertheless offers an invigorating analysis, aided by a rich range of comparative material.

The third and final pair of articles consider the traditions of Odysseus’ death and afterlife.

Burgess analyses the relationship of the Odyssey and Telegony, arguing against the common assumption that the latter is a derivative sequel of the former. Instead, he contends that each poem is an independent response to traditional Odyssean myth: while they share some features in common, the Telegony differs significantly in tone and ideology. To substantiate this point, he dwells on the Telegony’s treatment of Odysseus’ corpse and its transference to Circe’s island Aeaea, which serves as a quasi-heroic paradise akin to the Isles of the Blessed or the ‘White Isle’ (where Achilles’ body was conveyed in the Aethiopis). Whereas the Odyssey situates Aeaea in mythical space at the edges of the earth, the Telegony grounds it in Italy, in the real world of Greek colonization. Burgess offers a typically judicious analysis of the relevant sources to reach this conclusion, although I was left wondering how it impacts our understanding of the Telegony itself: why does a poem allegedly composed by a Cyrenaean (p. 146) show such interest in Italy? And how precisely does this final resting place relate to other traditions of Odysseus’ post-return adventures in the West? What should we make of this spatial overlap between Odysseus’ post-Odyssean life and death (pp. 145–46)?

Finally, Arft follows a similar approach to Christensen and Ready by contending that the Odyssey suppresses the narrative alternatives of the Telegony tradition which were inimical to its own goals. He charts a number of oppositions between the two traditions: above all, Telemachus’ successful recognition (anagnorisis) of his father in the Odyssey, in contrast to Telegonus’ failure to recognise him (agnoēsis) in the Telegony, resulting in Odysseus’ death. But he also considers different approaches to the Ithacan household (preserved in the Odyssey, displaced and dismantled in the Telegony) and to immortality (achieved through poetry in the Odyssey, and through hero cult localised in Aeaea in the Telegony). Of course, Arft depends on the assumption that the Telegony tradition predates (or at least does not post-date) the Odyssey, a position supported by Burgess’ previous essay, even if it cannot be proved categorically (we are repeatedly assured that Telegonic elements ‘need not’ be late/post-Homeric: e.g. pp. 162, 170, 174). But for those who accept such fluid interaction of traditions, Arft attractively highlights how the spectre of Telegonus’ non-recognition hangs over the reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus.

In sum, then, this volume offers a range of novel perspectives on archaic Greek epic, with many rewarding contributions. The individual articles cohere remarkably well, with a number of explicit cross-references between them, and the whole is well edited despite the occasional lingering typo.[4] Traditionally, the Iliad has received the bulk of scholarly attention in Homero-cyclic studies, but this collection highlights the riches still to be gained by exploring these issues through the lens of the Odyssey. Burgess should be heartily congratulated for pioneering this project, which will no doubt inspire further research into the shadowy connections between the epics of Homer and the Cycle.

Authors and Titles

Jonathan S. Burgess, Introduction (1–47)
Benjamin Sammons, The Space of the Epigone in Early Greek Epic (48–66)
Kevin Solez, Traveling with Helen: The Itineraries of Paris and Menelaus as Narrative Doublets (67–87)
Joel P. Christensen, Revising Athena’s Rage: Cassandra and the Homeric Appropriation of Nostos (88–116)
Jonathan L. Ready, Odysseus and the Suitors’ Relatives (117–35)
Jonathan S. Burgess, The Corpse of Odysseus (136–57)
Justin Arft, Agnoēsis and the Death of Odysseus in the Odyssey and the Telegony (158–79)


[1] Cf. the recent 2015 CUP Companion to the The Greek Epic Cycle and its Ancient Reception (88% male). For a broader discussion of this issue in our discipline as a whole, see P. Thonemann, ‘Gender, Subject Preference, and Editorial Bias in Classical Studies, 2001–2019’, CUCD Bulletin 48 (2019) at

[2] It is a pity that M.J. Anderson’s excellent analysis of such broad ‘correlations’ in Trojan myth is not acknowledged here or elsewhere in the volume (The Fall of Troy in Early Greek Poetry and Art, Oxford, 1997, pp. 9–102).

[3] Emily Pillinger’s recent study of Cassandra unfortunately appeared too late for Christensen to engage with it (Cassandra and the Poetics of Prophecy in Greek and Latin Literature, Cambridge, 2019), but their approaches are complementary.

[4] Most humorously, we hear of a debate about ‘whether or not Ajax had sex with Ajax’ (p. 96 n. 28), which would be a very different version of the Cassandra myth!