BMCR 2022.06.03

La genesi dei poemi omerici

, La genesi dei poemi omerici. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 376. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. xi, 434. ISBN 9783110650044 $149.99.

I volunteered to review this work for two reasons. The first was general: I wanted to help make non-English scholarship more visible to anglophone audiences. In 2015, I conducted a preliminary study of the decline in citations in anglophone Greco-Roman scholarship to non-English secondary sources.[1] In the 2002 and 2014 issues of the American Journal of Philology and Transactions of the American Philological Association and the 2015 issue of the Classical Quarterly, I found that only 3 to 4% of citations pointed to publications in Italian. The second reflected the particular focus of this monograph upon the analyst critics of the Homeric epics, who attempt to reconstruct the evolution of written versions of these epics as they passed from one hand to another. Four decades ago, when I began my career with a dissertation on the Odyssey, I had spent considerable time with publications by analysts. I did not find their conclusions compelling and I saw in this an indication that they had, in treating the Homeric epics as products of successive written versions, been posing the wrong questions. Forty years ago, I believed — and still believe — that the problem was that the analysts applied to the Homeric epics intellectual assumptions of written literature. The fieldwork of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on Southslavic epic in the middle of the twentieth century opened up a new framework by which we could understand the Homeric epics.[2]

But I learned quite a bit from the individual observations and, in particular, from the inconsistencies and repetitions that the analysts carefully ferreted out of the text. Reading the work of scholars from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a profound impact upon my career. When in 1982 I had the opportunity to begin working on the (long term) transformation of Greco-Roman studies from print to digital culture, I made this decision in large measure because I was working with publications on Homer that were more than a hundred years old and this engagement with earlier scholarship imposed a longer-term view upon me. I did not know then how long that transformation would take — and the fundamental impact of the shift to the digital remains to be felt, as we continue to follow scholarly practices from print culture.

I will begin with what I think others who are engaged with contemporary Homeric scholarship might find most useful. Lucarini includes brief and clear histories of analyst work on the Iliad (12-23) and the Odyssey (218-232). I also find the list of terms (7-11) describing various episodes or segments of the epics useful as well. I may not believe that our epics were mechanically copied from written sources but I do believe that both poems drew upon extensive pre-existing traditions that poets and audiences alike knew well. For me, the reference would be to 58 different songs that Avdo Međedović listed for Milman Parry’s assistant, Nikola Vujnovic, in 1935 (Albert Lord and David Bynum, Serbocroatian Heroic Songs, vol. 3 [Harvard 1974] pp. 53-57). Truly accomplished oral poets would have been well able to master the traditions listed by Lucarini and would have viewed each as a flexible instrument that could be adapted and reused in different ways. I also found the section on the Funeral Games in the Iliad and Hesiod and the Telegonia and the Odyssey of particular interest (293-301).

The big challenge for me, and surely for many others, is that Lucarini uses the analyst approach as his primary way to understand the Homeric epics. The fundamental problem is that this approach does not address the most fundamental Homeric Question: why do these epics remain so compelling to new generations? In the pandemic blighted spring semester of 2021, I introduced yet another class of students, in this case all born in the 21st century, to the Iliad and the Odyssey and watched them respond to these deeply alien poems. Seeing the Iliad and Odyssey as crudely sutured Frankensteins leaves me wondering why anyone would read these poems at all.

I see in this book a contribution to the history of Homeric Scholarship, rather than an advance in our understanding of the Homeric epics, but I can’t imagine that anyone but a true believer would have dedicated the time needed to produce this book. I imagine that some will dismiss this book but I think that we should thank Lucarini for his considerable effort and recognize the value of what he has done in bringing to light again an older thread of Homeric scholarship.

Lucarini does not even mention Parry or Lord — neither appear anywhere in his book. He dismisses the relevance of research on oral tradition (1-6) with arguments that indicate little interest in how differently oral composition works and insists on treating the epics as the products of a written tradition. The climax of the book comes on p. 416 where Lucarini prints a stemma for his proposed development of the Iliad and Odyssey. In this reconstruction, two figures — P and R — are responsible for our Iliad, while a single figure — B — is primarily responsible for our Odyssey. The Lachmannian stemma reflects the fact that Lucarini dedicates this book to Lachmann and pays particular attention (13-16) to his theory that the Iliad was assembled from various distinct songs (as opposed to positing an early core Iliad to which additional materials were later added).

Parry himself, of course, drew fully and enthusiastically on analyst research into repetition and variation and recent scholarship continues to cite the patterns that they detected, even when very different conclusions are drawn. Egbert Bakker[3] (to take only one example) cites the results of their work, arguing that the analysts were more sensitive than oral formulaic theory to the linguistic features that distinguish speech from narrative in Homer (76), and noting the analysts on the prominence of the augmented form of the verb in similes (115). Such linguistic patterns are, however, not a primary focus of Lucarini’s work.

Those who are not sympathetic to the analyst approach overall may still find it useful to consult this book as they consider particular passages so that they can see what inconsistencies have been adduced. We may draw completely different conclusions but inconsistencies are often quite real. In the same way, some of us in 2021 may regularly consult the trivia section on a site such as IMDB (the Internet Movie Database) so that we recognize small issues (e.g., a character’s shirt is different from one shot to the next) when they happen. We may not ever consider tracking down such continuity errors and we may not view them as intellectually significant, but recognizing them sharpens our focus and helps us defamiliarize what we are seeing.

In his Making of the Odyssey (2014), the late M. L. West criticized the degree to which recent scholars focused upon scholarship from the past thirty or forty years and defended his decision to cite primarily scholars from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Lucarini follows this practice.  To make this preference for older scholarship more tangible, I performed a quick analysis of the text. The figures listed below could certainly be refined — I used easily identified features such as four-digit numbers in parentheses starting with 1 or 2 and relied upon a text automatically generated from the page images. But I doubt that additional refinements to this work would change in any substantive way the overall picture that emerges.

I found 1,872 citations of secondary sources. Of these, 1,226 point to publications published in 1945 or before. Less than 20% of the publications appeared in the forty years before Lucarini published this monograph (from 1979 through 2018: 354 or 19%). Just over 11% of citations point to scholarship in the current century (216).

Lucarini does not engage in any significant way with current work by other Homerists. M. L. West is by far the twenty-first century author most often cited: his Making of the Odyssey (30 times), his Making of the Iliad (2011) (15), his  Epic Cycle (2013) (7), his “‘Iliad’ and ‘Aethiopis’” (CQ NS 53 [2003], 1-14) (5) and  his “Towards a Chronology of early Greek epic” (pp. 224-241 in Andersen and Haug’s Relative chronology in Early Greek Epic (Cambridge 2002)) (3).  The only other twenty-first century publications that Lucarini cites 5 or more times are: D. Hertel’s book on early Troy (Das Frühe Ilion, Munich 2008) (8 references), along with 5 references each to B. Rose’s Archaeology of Greek and Roman Troy (Cambridge 2014), A. C. Cassio’s “Early Editions of the Greek Epics” (pp. 105-136 in F. Montanari, Omero tremila anni dopo (Rome 2002)) and L. Ferrari’s essay on the Peisistratid recension (“la biblioteca del tiranno”, Quaderni di Storia 28 (2002) 5-47).

Ulrich von Wilamowitz is by far the most commonly cited author: 219 citations — more than all 21st century publications combined. The remainder of the top 10 authors are Erich Bethe (177),  Eduard Schwartz (90), M. L. West (69 —including 20th and 21st century works), Benedict Niese (63), Peter von der Mühl (59), Theodor Bergk (57), Karl Lachmann (28) Peter Diedrich Christen Hennings (27) and Friedrich Focke (23). Aside from West and von der Mühl, all represent publications from 1945 or before. Lucarini focuses our attention on a world before the disruptions by Parry and Lord.

I add a note about the publication venue itself. I find, just after the title page, the statement that “the publication of this book has been assured by a grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.”  De Gruyter is fully capable of publishing books under an open access license. If the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation felt that this book was worth publishing, they should have funded the open access rights. As of April 2021, Amazon lists it as $110.34 (Kindle: $104.82). I have access to this book because I have access to a library that licenses all of De Gruyter’s online monographs. Very few anglophone libraries collect more than a small number (if any) of non-English-language monographs.

Most potential readers who are not fluent in Italian, even when they normally prefer print, should take advantage of the online version. Not only can they search the text but available machine translation has, in 2022, reached a level where it can produce useful results. I now require that my students use machine translation to report on secondary sources in languages that they do not know.[4] They do quite as well as they have with English publications in the past. Even those who can read the Italian with some facility will find it helpful to see how one system or another renders particular sentences into our native language.

As one returning to Homer after many years, I feel again, as I did in my youth, some despair as I wonder at how little justice I can do to the lovingly constructed publications about these two epics (much less Greek literature as a whole). At Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies, 36 shelves and more than 100 linear feet are completely filled with scholarship on Homer in a variety of modern languages. If the reader’s goal is to explore the most intellectually stimulating work on the Homeric epics, Lucarini’s book may not loom larger than the inch or so that it occupies on one of those shelves and, in ignoring his contemporaries, Lucarini has arguably invited them to do the same to him. Nevertheless, Lucarini demonstrates a different approach and one that recalls a different era in scholarship.


[1] This was part of Essays on Digital Classics, a collection of working papers shared online in 2015. The details for this analysis of citations are in chapter 7, part 1: “Greek, Latin, and Digital Philology in Germany and the United States”.

[2] The secondary literature is immense but starting points remain: Adam Parry, ed., The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. (Oxford 1971); Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales. 2nd ed., (Harvard 2000).

[3] Bakker, Egbert J. Pointing at the Past: From Formula to Performance in Homeric Poetics. (Harvard 2005).

[4] I prepared the materials by converting PDF documents into TIFF images, then using the Tesseract OCR engine to convert the images into machine readable text. Students then worked with the PDF and the uncorrected OCR-generated text (which they cut and pasted into the DeepL and Google Translate machine translation engines). Tesseract can provide reasonable results for Ancient Greek but has a difficult time with a text that has both Greek and a language with a Roman alphabet. I asked students to assess the effectiveness of the machine translation. Everyone found issues but every student was able to explain the contents of the reading effectively. Readings were translated automatically from French, German, and Italian—three European languages for which machine translation does particularly well. I was particularly impressed that a student was able to report on the complex German in the chapter on the Antigone from Tycho von Wilamowitz’s Die dramatische Technik des Sophocles (Berlin 1917).