BMCR 2020.09.11

Leggere la mente degli eroi Ettore, Achille e Zeus nell’Iliade

, Leggere la mente degli eroi Ettore, Achille e Zeus nell'Iliade. Variazione, 46. Pisa: Edizioni della Normale, 2019. 233 p.. ISBN9788876426636 €10,00 (pb).

The title of this book might suggest that this is yet another attempt to give an anachronistic psychoanalytic reading of an ancient text. In reality, the “mind reading” of Hector, Achilles, and Zeus that Battezzato aims to provide is a scrupulous analysis of the Iliad through the thoughts and the actions of its main characters. Battezzato uses this approach to argue for the inherent consistency of the Iliad. All of the apparent ‘inconsistencies’ in the poem are neither superficial gaps nor mistakes, but rather the logical result of accidents that are a basic element of the poem’s narrative machinery.

Battezzato’s book aims to demonstrate that “reading the minds” of the characters in the Iliad is important for two reasons. First, it is important from the perspective of the characters themselves, since misunderstandings of other characters’ will and intentions—due to the limitations and ambiguity of the spoken word—often lead to an unintended catastrophe. Secondly, readers can only understand and appreciate the complexity and consistency of the Iliad if they bear in mind that its characters think, make decisions, and act in accordance with their nature and in order to fulfil their desires. Moreover, the success of some characters’ actions and decisions is affected by the unpredictable behaviour of other characters. Battezzato argues that Hector, Achilles, and Zeus all act in perfect alignment with their desire to protect the ones they love or support, but circumstances which are out of their control often disappoint their expectations, or even turn out in ways opposite to their wishes.

The book begins with a short Preface and brief remarks on the editions of Homer and scholia consulted. The main body of the book consists of four chapters, all similar in length and the attention given to the topic under discussion. Chapter 1, “Peripezie epiche”, introduces the general argument of the book, which concerns the complexity of the mental processes that underlie the decisions and actions of the Iliad’s main heroes. More specifically, Battezzato analyses the ambiguity of Hector, Achilles, and Zeus, who, according to him, “are connected by a common narrative mechanism”.[1]What they want is to protect the ones they care about and to avoid suffering for both themselves and the objects of their affections. But the decisions that these characters make often lead to outcomes that are diametrically opposed to the ones they wanted and expected. These shifts from good to bad are caused by an involuntary mistake, a misunderstanding of a message due to the intrinsic fallibility and ambiguity of the spoken word. At the end of this first section, Battezzato makes fitting reference to the concept of “double motivation”, first introduced by Albin Lesky.[2] Battezzato uses this concept, but only partially endorses it. He claims that a god’s intervention does not compromise the free will of a hero because even if the hero himself acknowledges that a god is helping or hindering him, he nevertheless acts in accordance with his own inner impulses.

Chapter 2, “Ettore”, begins with a thorough synopsis of the main interpretations—ancient (scholiasts and ancient authors, especially philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Porphyrius, Theophrastus) and modern, negative and positive—of Hector in the Iliad. In opposition to Schadewaldt, Erbse, and Lesky, Battezzato asserts that Hector’s behaviour is not ‘out-of-measure’ and that he is neither led on nor tricked by Zeus.[3] Instead Hector simply acts in accordance with his aims and desires, and places his faith in the information that is available to him. On this reading, Hector is a victim of words because his ability to read and fully understand the messages that Zeus sends him is compromised (on several occasions) by the circumstances in which he receives them. As a result, the decisions Hector makes in trying to save Troy ultimately lead to the destruction of the city because they are based on a misreading of Zeus’ messages.

The argument of Chapter 3, “Achille”, is organised similarly. After a synopsis of both ancient and modern interpretations of Achilles, Battezzato argues for the consistency of Achilles by analysing his mental process. In particular, Battezzato argues that the message Achilles gives to the embassy in Book IX is not ambiguous or obscure or confused, but rather clear and fitting for Achilles’ emotional condition. It is true that Achilles’ speech makes use of paradoxes and hyperbole to emphasise the severity of the outrage that Agamemnon has committed, but his words makes perfect sense nevertheless. The message Achilles wants to convey is that nothing Agamemnon offers can atone for his taking of Briseis. It is Achilles’ interlocutors who are unable to understand his words. Furthermore, of the three “ambassadors” only Odysseus conveys Achilles’ message to Agamemnon. This incomplete communication leads to a chain of misunderstandings that, in the end, cause the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ most loved friend.

Chapter 4, “Zeus”, is dedicated to the meandering and difficult execution of Zeus’ plan, which is to glorify Achilles in order to fulfil his promise to Thetis. In opposition to the old analytic position, Battezzato claims that Zeus does not know the future development of the action of the Iliad, and, instead, simply opts for what he considers the best plan possible. Although he is a god, his decisions—like those of Hector and Achilles—do not make events go in the direction he wishes. Instead, the unpredictability of both human and divine action creates unintended obstacles to Zeus’ plan. In the end, though, Zeus manages to get his plan back on track thanks to both the decisions of other characters and his own ability to deceive. In this section, Battezzato endorses Pietro Pucci’s focus on the importance of Zeus as a central character in the Iliad, a focal point around which the whole narrative of the poem revolves.[4]

The Conclusion interprets the difficulty of conveying messages accurately in the Iliad as a metapoetic device that introduces the problem of the power of the spoken word.  Battezzato argues that this implicates the poet himself, since he is the only one who can preserve the immortal memory of the heroes and their deeds. In this last section, Battezzato avails himself of the opposition between “motivating reasons” and “normative reasons”, both lying behind the “heroic code”. The contrast between these two reasons, which spur to action the heroes of the Iliad, clarifies and justifies the apparently illogical ambiguity of Hector, Achilles, and Zeus’ behaviour.

Battezzato supports his hypothesis with a wide range of evidence drawn from both secondary literature and the Homeric text itself. It might have been useful to at least mention the concept of shame and guilt in the Iliad in addition to that of “double motivation” to better understand why Hector (as well as Achilles) blames himself deeply for the fatal consequences of his decisions.

This book will undoubtedly be very useful for both undergraduate and postgraduate students who want to deepen their understanding of certain aspects of the Iliad, primarily the way in which characters’ mental processes lie behind the lines but nevertheless shape the narrative of the poem. Although his book adds little to the pre-existing scholarship on Homer, Battezzato explains complex topics like free will and responsibility in Homer with remarkable clarity. Battezzato sometimes simplifies these concepts for a wider audience, yet never banalises either the original text or well-established scholarly positions on it. He shows a wide knowledge of the poem and constantly enriches his analysis with appropriate quotations, along with scholia and the judgement of ancient authors on the passage in question. Battezzato is also intellectually honest, always taking account of secondary literature, both ancient and modern, that provides him with the starting point for his interpretation.

Notes

[1] L. Battezzato, Leggere la mente degli eroi. Ettore, Achille e Zeus nell’Iliade, Edizioni della Normale, Pisa, 2019.

[2] A. Lesky, Göttliche und menschliche Motivation im homerischen Epos, Heidelberg, 1961.

[3] W. Schadewalt, “Hektor in der Ilias” in Wiener Studien 69, 1956, pp. 5-25; H. Erbse, “Ettore nell’ Iliade,” in Studi Classici e Orientali 27, 1978, pp. 13-34; A. Lesky, Divine and human causation in Homeric epic, in Oxford readings in Homer’s Iliad, ed. By D. L. Cairns, Oxford, 2001, pp. 170-202.

[4] P. Pucci, The Iliad – the poem of Zeus, Berlin; Boston, 2018.