BMCR 2020.04.22

The gaze of Homer: light and vision in the Iliad

, The gaze of Homer: light and vision in the Iliad. . Athens: Institut du Livre - Kardamitsa, 2019. xii, 180 p.. ISBN 9789603544999 €30,00 (pb).

The interconnected themes of light and vision, in particular their manifestation within Homeric epic, form a marked leitmotif within Constantinidou’s scholarly output spanning as far back as the early 1990s—a fact highlighted by the author herself within this book’s opening paragraph. It is no surprise, therefore, that Constantinidou’s latest contribution represents the culmination of her extensive investigation into and reflection upon this topic. The book’s thesis is a simple one—a thesis which, in the opinion of this reader, Constantinidou successfully demonstrates: the phenomena of light and vision are utilized by the poet of the Iliad for deliberate narrative and thematic effect.

This thesis is a timely one given that narratological readings have now become well-established within contemporary Homeric scholarship—for example, studies such as those of de Jong, Alden, and Scodel;[1] however, it must be emphasized that this book’s particular focus—light and vision—presents a unique contribution to this growing corpus. For this reason alone, The Gaze of Homer is to be appreciated by students and scholars alike. Constantinidou is successful in not simply demonstrating that the Iliadic text is permeated with light imagery but also in analysing the ways in which her chosen examples are integrated into the larger narrative action of the epic and, in turn, reflect the broader themes of the poem. Of particular note for this reader, as a single example, is the clear connection drawn between gods manipulating (human) action via their manipulation of light (and thus time), a phenomenon Constantinidou analyses in detail within the context of books 16–17 (pp. 70–75). It could be argued that Constantinidou’s presentation of this thesis overemphasizes an ability to identify the authorial intent of the Homeric bard, especially when Homer is presented as “the first literary impressionist” (pp. 3, 77) or as akin to a filmic auteur (p. 82). Nevertheless, this is a common critique of certain kinds of narratological scholarship (a common workaround being to nuance the emphasis upon authorial intent with that of the receiving audience) and the reader appreciates the contextually relevant image of Homer-as-filmmaker given the clear relationship of light and filmmaking.

While Constantinidou’s thesis is to be applauded, the general organisation and structure of the book obscures the clarity of the argument. There are no chapters to speak of; rather, the book is divided into two separate studies: (1) “Sunrise, sunset…: Light and time in the Iliad”; and (2) “Light imagery and vision in Homeric similes”. The two halves represent distinct investigations (complete with summary conclusions at the end of each half) with their particular focus relating to narrative uses of light as either time-markers or within Homeric similes. These broad themes are divided further by subsection titles, each identifying a specific expression of the theme (e.g., §1.1: “Light and time in arming scenes” [pp. 10–39]). This reader found these subheadings to be useful indicators of the general material with which each half of the book is concerned but at the same time that they could not be relied upon to demarcate clearly the structure of the argument itself (see further below).

This criticism aside, the book starts strongly with a concise introduction that clearly positions its two halves as contributing to its singular thesis. The thesis is plainly stated—albeit amongst a considerable number of ‘light’ and ‘vision’ related words that provide a rather playful tone to the writing—and is positioned within a brief survey of recent scholarship on the themes of light, vision and space within Homeric epic. This survey establishes, for anyone in doubt, the uniqueness of Constantinidou’s thesis and cements the place of The Gaze of Homer within the scholarly corpus. The incorporation of some French and Italian studies provides a refreshing international flavour to this review, one that is of clear benefit to those for whom this book might serve as an introductory text and/or those who are familiar with only anglophone scholarship. Despite the wide scope of this review, this reader was surprised to find several significant works absent: for example, Purves’ seminal work, Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative, is not mentioned here (despite Constantinidou’s clear awareness of it, for it is included in both footnotes and the bibliography);[2] while Gazis’ work on sight and Homeric narrative is nowhere to be found.[3]

The first half of the book, “Sunrise, sunset…: Light and time in the Iliad”, explores the ways in which the poet uses the natural phenomena of sunrise and sunset as narrative tools for developing action within the plot. Constantinidou highlights numerous instances of dawn and dusk (especially those brought about by the manipulation of the gods) and demonstrates how these phenomena are embedded into particular narrative units which, in turn, serve as significant transition points within the plot: case in point, Hera and Zeus’ quarrel in book 8 (pp. 15–18) or Priam’s pseudo-catabasis in book 24 (pp. 18–19).

Yet, it is indicative of the larger issues with the book’s organisation that the two particular examples identified above occur within the subsection entitled “Light and time in arming scenes” (pp. 10–39). Although both the Book 8 and Book 24 examples contribute to the overall thesis of the study’s first half (this much is not in question), the reason for their inclusion within this particular subsection is difficult to identify. These are not arming scenes (not even according to the loosest of criteria by which this type scene may be identified), nor do they depict mortals engaging in the act of fighting. The connection here is entirely absent. Indeed, prior to the detailed treatment of Achilles and Agamemnon’s arming scenes (i.e., Books 19 [pp. 25–32, 35] and 11 [pp. 32–35, 37–39] respectively), the only clear examples relating to ‘arming scenes’ are two brief references to the sunset and Thetis’ retrieval of Achilles’ armour (book 18 [pp. 15, 18]), an episode connected by Constantinidou (via the precedent of Edwards) to Achilles’ arming scene in book 19.

A further example of the issues surrounding the book’s arrangement occurs within the subsection, “Zeus and the Sun” (pp. 65–67). It struck this reader as odd that this particular subsection, numbering a mere three pages in length, was demarcated at all. The subsequent section, “Sunlight: Revelation and Concealment” (pp. 67–78), develops the premise that the gods (as a collective group) are responsible for the manipulation of light. After addressing the figure of Apollo (pp. 68–71) the discussion returns to focus upon Zeus once more (pp. 71–72) making the division between these two sections largely indistinguishable. It is not clear why this section did not occur in the earlier, exclusive, analysis of the figure of Zeus, or, as an alternative, what purpose the demarcation between these two sections was intended to serve. In short, while Constantinidou’s analysis is always complementary to the book’s overall thesis, this reader found this sort of misleading signposting to obscure the argument’s readability.

The second half of the book, “Light imagery and vision in Homeric similes”, narrows its focus to consider only examples deriving from Homeric similes, although, it too maintains the same overarching thesis that the intrinsic value of such imagery is in how it illuminates the narrative’s thematic intent. It is clear that the figure of Achilles serves as a cornerstone for this half of the book with the majority of analysis devoted to similes relating to Achilles’ shield (pp. 82 ff.), Achilles’ battle against Scamander (pp. 91 ff.) and Achilles theophany (pp. 101 ff.), to name but a few examples.

On the one hand, in light of the Iliad’s proem, it is appropriate that Constantinidou devote so much discussion to the figure of Achilles; however, the analysis becomes repetitive in parts due to this fixation (for example, the subsections “Light and Kleos” [pp. 79–97] and “Bright Weapons or the Glitter of Arms” [pp. 98–101] echo points already established within the discussion of arming scenes from the first half of the book). For this reason, Constantinidou’s discussion is at its strongest when it is expanded to include figures other than Achilles, transforming this from a study of Achilles’ characterisation in the Iliad to a study of the entire narrative of the Iliad. Thus, the final two subsections (“The Light of Diomedes” [pp. 118–126] and “Gleaming Idomeneus and Agamemnon’s Gaze” [pp. 126–136]) reinvigorate the discussion by exploring the application of light similes to a broader range of heroic figures. These concluding sections demonstrate not only the incredible breadth of light imagery within the Iliadic narrative but also the way in which these phenomena permeate the entirety of the poem.

Finally, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that the issues surrounding the flow of the book’s argument are not helped by various minor errors. Typographical errors occur (e.g., “withi n” [p. 10]) but, on the whole, these are rare. By comparison, there is a larger number of stylistic infelicities that may prove jarring to some readers (e.g., “he goes for sleep” [p. 20], “far more less time” [p. 23]). Also problematic are issues of consistency regarding interactions with the primary source material: for example, changes in naming conventions (Priamos/Priam [pp. 11, 19], Alexandros/Paris [p. 46]); the regular use of parentheses for the inclusion of Greek text but not invariably; only the occasional indentation of text for quotations of Greek consisting of more than three lines (cf. p. 21, pp. 107–108); and while translations are sometimes clearly indicated as such (e.g., p. 21 n. 35), there is also a tendency to present these as summary paraphrases despite adhering very closely to the original text (e.g., p. 18, ll. 75–77). While discussing translation, it struck this reader as odd that Constantinidou uses the 1925 Loeb edition by Murray (e.g., p. 21 n. 35) when the 1999 version (revised by Wyatt) would be more readable for contemporary audiences.

To sum up, although The Gaze of Homer is less polished than this reader would have preferred, none of the above issues diminishes the profundity of Constantinidou’s thesis and its contribution to the field of Homeric scholarship. The quality of the both the thesis itself and the analysis of the Homeric text are evidenced via a thorough grounding in contemporary scholarship and thought and reflect Constantinidou’s lengthy devotion to this topic. For readers who are willing to put this book’s shortcomings aside, The Gaze of Homer will enlighten all who share an interest in the themes of light and vision within ancient Greek thought, narratology in Homeric epic and/or the intersection of the two.


[1] I. de Jong, 2001, A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey. New York; I. de Jong, 2004, Narrators and Focalizers: The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad. London; M. Alden, 2017, Para-Narratives in the Odyssey. Oxford; R. Scodel, 2002, Listening to Homer: Tradition, Narrative, and Audience. Ann Arbor.

[2] A. C. Purves, 2010, Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative. Cambridge; New York.

[3] E.g., G. A. Gazis, 2012, ‘Odyssey 11: the power of sight in the invisible realm’. Rosetta 12: 49–59; G. A. Gazis, 2018, Homer and the Poetics of Hades. Oxford; New York.