BMCR 2022.05.03

Clash of cultures: a psychodynamic analysis of Homer and the Iliad

, , Clash of cultures: a psychodynamic analysis of Homer and the Iliad. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2021. Pp. 147. ISBN 9781793644053 $90.00.


In Clash of Cultures: A Psychodynamic Analysis of Homer and the Iliad, Vincenzo Sanguineti proposes to “examine the psychological complexities of Homer through the Iliad, reflecting on the Iliad’s narrative as a vehicle for social and personal grief and healing”, as the blurb on the back of the book advertises. As a practicing psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry Sanguineti is certainly a professional with regard to the psychological side of this endeavor. That being said, his interest in Homer and the Iliad developed from a deep-seated and enduring fascination with the story, but he is not a trained Classicist, and notably neither the endorsing foreword nor the praises for the monograph on its jacket were supplied by Classical scholars.

Before offering an evaluation of the book I will first provide an overview over its sections and the trajectory of its arguments:

In the brief introduction, Sanguineti defines his use of the term ‘psychodynamic’:

“[A] psychodynamic formulation is a hypothesis about the way a person’s unconscious thoughts and feelings may be participating in the person’s conscious mental activities. (…) [A] psychodynamic technique is … also about understanding how and why those unconscious thoughts and feelings developed.” (p. 3).

Since Sanguineti proposes to apply this psychodynamic approach not only to the characters of the Iliad but particularly to its poet, the followings chapters, “Chapter 1: The Author” and “Chapter 2: The Epic: Its Coming to Life”, present his view of Homer as a native Anatolian who lived shortly after the Trojan War when Greek settlers were colonizing Asia Minor:

“It is as likely that Homer was the offspring of local laborers, if not actually the fatherless child of a laborer-captive woman, and grew up as a subject citizen under Greece, well versed in the language and culture of the colonial power.” (p. 9).

In his dating of the poet, Sanguineti broadly follows Ps.-Herodotus’ Life of Homer where Homer’s birth is placed 168 years after the Trojan War and 622 years before Xerxes’ bridging of the Hellespont ([Hdt.] Vit. Hom. 38), resulting in the year 1102 BCE.

“Chapter 3: Homer and the Greeks” opens Sanguineti’s reading of the Iliad with examinations of the development of the strife between Achilles and Agamemnon in Book 1 and the failed embassy in Book 9. As he himself professes, he is particularly interested in “address[ing] Homer’s personal opinion about the character of Achilles” (p. 47) and states that “the psychodynamic analysis of this narrative points to a constellated search for a primal oedipal triumph and a vindication from a history of narcissistic wounds since infancy and childhood.” (p. 48).

“Chapter 4: Book II: The Opposing Armies” briefly looks at the catalogues of the two armies at the beginning of the Iliad and notes the peculiarity that the Greek army had not succeeded in defeating the Trojans and their allies and in conquering the city after nine years of war despite the disparity in number between the two sides.

“Chapter 5: Book XIX: The Transferred Wrath against Trojans” starts with an examination of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus whose death causes the transferral of Achilles’ destructive wrath from Agamemnon to Hector. Sanguineti then comments on Achilles’ ἀριστεία, his killing and mutilation of Hector, as well as the supplication of Priam whose themes mirror the opening of the poem. His analysis is indebted to the work of Jonathan Shay,[1] but while Shay offers sympathetic psychological explanations for Achilles’ rage through the comparison with the accounts of modern soldiers, Sanguineti is critical of Homer’s depiction of Achilles and diagnoses a “psychological regression to a non-human level.” (p. 74).

“Chapter 6: Conclusive Remarks on the Two Opening Demands” first sums up this reading of Homer’s presentation of the Greek heroes, most of whom are shown favorably, though Sanguineti detects veiled criticism of both Achilles and Agamemnon. He then proceeds to look at the gods in the Iliad, whom he interprets as conflations of the Greek deities, who provided the names, and their native Anatolian counterparts. With regard to the actions of the gods and the Greeks’ and Trojans’ attitudes towards them, Sanguineti discovers an imbalance favoring the Trojan side: “[W]hile Homer shows true admiration for several Greek heroes, the assessment of his vision of the divine dimension strongly suggests that his movement of the heart was a Trojan one.” (p. 93).

This partiality for the Trojans is the focus of the following “Chapter 7: Homer and the Trojans”, where Sanguineti concludes that Homer’s “real motif of the Iliad [is] a eulogy to the culture and disappearance of his motherland” (p. 104):

“It is my hope that the collected documentation has illustrated in a sufficient manner the deeper level at which the mind of Homer operated to express and honor the tragedy of his putative motherland and her heroes under the screen of a paean for Greece’s might. The affective tapestry of the epic is infiltrated with the awareness of the city’s impending doom and with pervasive grief.” (p. 105).

As a kind of coda, “Chapter 8: Homer and the Orient. Integrating Psychodynamics and History” mentions the parallels of Homeric epic and Near Eastern literature, presumably to implicitly corroborate the book’s hypothesis of an Anatolian origin of Homer.

The book ends with two Appendixes, providing summaries of “developmental patterns” of Homer, the Trojan War and the Iliad’s main characters and a synopsis of the individual books of the Iliad (pp. 117-121). The following bibliography is incomplete insofar as it does not list all literature cited in the endnotes of each chapter. As it is, the bibliography consists of translations of ancient texts and a few introductory titles. No critical editions and only little of the vast body of research literature on Homer and the Iliad are cited, indicating that much of current Homeric scholarship and philological communes opiniones have been neglected or overlooked. Though Milman Parry is mentioned (p. 11), the consequences of Oral Formulaic Theory and how it has fundamentally influenced our view of the composition and the poet(s) of the Iliad were either not comprehended or have been ignored.

This summary reveals several implicit assumptions which are surprising to Classicists, such as the undiscussed convictions that the Iliad was composed by a single poet whose name was Homer and that the Trojan War was a historical event which happened much as it is narrated in the Epic Cycle (cf. e.g. the calculation of the number of combatants from the evidence of the Iliad, pp. 56-57). Furthermore, dating ‘Homer’ to approx. 1100 BCE places the poet more than 300 years earlier than the period of composition in the second half of the 8th century BCE (and possibly even later[2]) commonly assumed by philologists. Linguistic difficulties of this dating are ignored and questions about how Sanguineti imagines the transmission of the composition through the Dark Ages are not raised. No less startling are the assertions of Homer as a native Anatolian who used the medium of Greek epic poetry to process the grief of the fall of Troy, commemorate his homeland, and put forth veiled criticism of the Greek invaders.

Though I am not qualified to judge the validity of Sanguineti’s psychological diagnoses, accepting them is complicated by factual errors. For example, he traces back the difficult relationship between Achilles and Agamemnon to a prolonged stay of the former at the court of the latter: “All translations that I consulted do not say how old young Achilles was at that time (sc. when he was sent from Phthia to Agamemnon), but the Greek text describes him as a “πέμπε νήπιον,” “a five-year-old child.”” The following note locates the quote in Il. 9.438ff. and states that “From a psychodynamic perspective this age is at the center of the Freudian Oedipal phase of development.” (p. 43 with n. 74 on p. 52; repeated on p. 112). Τhis is either based on a confusion of πέμπε in Il. 9.439, clearly the unaugmented imperfect of πέμπω “(to) send”, with πέντε “five” (or possibly πέμπτος “fifth”), or Sanguineti takes πέμπε as the Aeolic form of the cardinal numeral πέντε (which does not appear in Homer and would not be syntactically correct, at any rate): Conclusions based on this presumptive age of Achilles when he first encountered Agamemnon, his “difficult paternal substitute” (p. 43) are hence devoid of any textual basis. As a second example, Agamemnon’s offer of gifts in Iliad 9 is not a “public apology” (p. 42, 43), since it is neither given coram publico in the assembly (which is where the original slight in Book 1 occurred) nor is there any overt admission from Agamemnon that he was wrong. On the contrary, he still insists on the recognition of his superior status (cf. Il. 9.160: βασιλεύτερός εἰμι), a demand which Odysseus shrewdly omits when he recounts Agamemnon’s ostentatious display of generosity. In this case, there is the Archaic cultural and social background of the interaction to consider, and the situation is more complex and nuanced than Sanguineti presents it—as is the case in several other instances he discusses. The Iliad is undoubtedly great poetry, which is why the poem has stood the test of time and is still read and discussed to this day, and therefore often does not yield itself to simple explanations. As such, interpreting the complexities and equivocal presentations of Greek characters as veiled anti-Greek sentiment is a rather simplistic response.

Furthermore, regarding Homer’s partiality for the Trojans, Sanguineti acknowledges that “Homer’s empathy for the Greeks facing death, loss and separation is present, but what are missing are specific Greek memories and manifestations of interpersonal tenderness and love.” (p. 100). This claim disregards the affectionate relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and it also does not take into account the different situations of the two opposing sides: The Greeks are far from their families and homelands while the Trojans defend their home city as well as their parents, wives, and children within.[3] This is the traditional constellation of the narrative of the Trojan War, but otherwise their situations as aggressors and besieged respectively are the only difference between the two sides in the Iliad, since all potential cultural differences are downplayed. As such, the Trojan War as narrated in the Iliad is far from the ‘clash of cultures’ that Sanguineti makes it out to be. Ascribing this depiction to the poet’s personal favor neglects the demands of the narrative, and it also does not consider the constant depiction of the Greeks as the superior fighters, which has even been interpreted as a pro-Greek bias on the part of the poet.[4]

This leads to what I would consider the central methodological flaw in the conception of the book. Some of its claims regarding the person of the poet might not be impossible (though utterly unprovable), but the question of ‘authorship’ of the poem is fraught with so many uncertainties that the whole endeavor of a psychodynamic analysis of Homer and the Iliad amounts to a circular argument: There is no reliable external evidence for the identity or even the existence of the poet (as all ancient testimony of ‘Homer’ is much later than the epics’ composition and ultimately derived from the content of ‘his’ poetry), and hence taking the persona that Sanguineti constructs for him as basis for an analysis of his work is inevitably ouroboric. Since the premises of the monograph’s endeavor are flawed, or questionable at best, there is little that Homerists could profit from it.

In addition to its doubtful value to Homeric scholarship, the list price of $ 90.00/£ 69.00 seems excessive, especially in light of its only moderate length of only 130 pages.


[1] Cf. J. Shay, Achilles in Vietnam. Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, New York 1994.

[2] See esp. the works of Martin West who proposed a composition between 680 and 640 BCE, e.g. in M. L. West, The Making of the Iliad. Disquisition and Analytical Commentary, Oxford 2011, 15-19.

[3] For these observations also cf. my “Patriotism in Homer’s Iliad”, in: R. C. Evans (Ed.): Patriotism, Ipswich, Ma., 2021, 3-20.

[4] For this aspect see esp. the detailed and nuanced discussion of the depiction of Trojans in the Iliad by M. Stoevesandt, Feinde – Gegner – Opfer. Zur Darstellung der Troianer in den Kampfszenen der Ilias, Basel 2005.