BMCR 2022.08.02

Homer’s Iliad: the Basel commentary, book IV

, , , , , Homer's Iliad: the Basel commentary, book IV. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. xiv, 266. ISBN 9783110608298. $126.99.

Table of Contents

First things first: this volume is invaluable. Like the others in the series, it is thorough, careful, judicious, and, most importantly, helpful. It treats the material from virtually all perspectives— literary, linguistic, archaeological, textual-critical, narratological, metrical, historical, and comparative, to name a few. Its bibliographical treatment, if not exhaustive, is comprehensive and expansive. It builds, as all commentaries must, on the work of other scholars. This series was originally conceived of as an updating/expansion of the commentary by Ameis-Hentze-Cauer (1868-1913), and Latacz referred to it as the “New Ameis-Hentze,” which “must use the old one only as the base” (“The New Ameis-Hentze: A Project Outline and Report on the Current Stage of Development,” trans. by J. Holoka, BMCR 1997.07.12). Indeed, it builds on that foundational commentary, takes deep advantage of advances in the many fields and sub-fields of Homeric scholarship since its publication, and engages frequently with other scholars across the disciplines. It must also be noted that the translation, even though I have not compared it to the original, is very lucid and reads as smoothly as a rendering of academic German can. Some previous reviewers of volumes in this series have questioned the need and value of translating this work into English, but there can be no doubt that as a result it will find a wider audience and that is a good thing. The translators, Benjamin W. Millis and Sara Strack, and the editor, S. Douglas Olson, will earn wide gratitude for carrying out this task. The production level is extremely high and the volume a pleasure to read.

Most readers will be familiar with the format of the volumes in this series: two volumes are devoted to each book, one with M. L. West’s slightly modified Teubner text and apparatus (1998/2000) with a facing German translation by Latacz, the other being the commentary proper. In addition, an initial volume, Prolegomena (rev. [of English translation] by E. van Emde Boas, BMCR 2016.08.22), maps out the terrain of the project and provides sections on Homeric scholarship, language, the poem’s key themes and characters, etc. Translations into English of the commentary proper are now being published, of which, according to the publisher’s website, this is the tenth to date, including the Prolegomena. The English translation of the volume under review is based on the original German version (2017), which has been “slightly revised . . . and corrected wherever needed” (ix).

As do the other volumes in this series, the commentary operates at four registers, marked off typographically: 1) large-ish print dealing with major issues and widely accessible (any Greek appears in transliteration); 2) smaller print focused on explanations of the Greek text, “correspond[ing] to a standard philological commentary” (xi); 3) slightly smaller print dedicated to particular sub-fields of scholarship; and 4) bottom-of-the-page notes for the novice reader of the Greek text. The three commentators, Marina Coray, Martha Krieter-Spiro, and Edzard Visser, divided their work on this important section of the poem, in which the narrator has to “restart” the action after the failed duel between Menelaus and Paris, into three parts, corresponding to the chief sections of this book: the divine scene and Pandarus (1-219), the Epipolesis (220-421), and the start of the fighting (422-544). These three scholars have also been involved with other volumes in the series, and they handle the material skillfully and effectively.

If one were to read only the top-level comments, those intended for the broadest audience, one would learn a great deal about, inter alia, the narrative technique of the poet, the role of this book within the larger structure of the poem, the depictions and imagined psychology of several crucial players, the function of the gods, and the role of battle in a poem dedicated to Achilles’s rage. They would also find much about the poem’s artistry, words’ semantic nuances, verbal repetitions (beyond Homer’s use of formulas), and the use of type-scenes and their variations. The editors show a keen interest in the poem’s narrative, in terms of both more traditional analysis of storytelling and more current narratological approaches, pioneered in particular by Irene de Jong, who is a member of the larger Basel project. On the speeches, which make up about 45% of the poem, they are sensitive to formal structuring principles, such as ring-composition, “character language,” and the interaction between speech and narrative. Mythological background and variant versions, at times raising old-style Neoanalysts’ questions of sources and innovation, also occupy the editors’ attention.  Insights into material culture are split between the main register of notes and those reserved for more technical discussions. Since the first battle scene of this poem, which is dominated by combat and death, starts at the end of this book, the commentators pay considerable attention to how the poet describes battles, including a brief survey of the scholarship on the topic. Unsurprisingly, as his former students, they closely follow Latacz on the topic, and on p. 185 explicitly express this debt. The notes on 297-309 (passim), 442-544, and 457-544 are especially rich on these matters.

The second and third tier of notes are rich in information on the numerous aspects of Homer’s language, including morphology, syntax, semantics, formulaic composition, meter, prosody, Mycenean connections, etc. They are occasionally very dense, but almost always repay careful reading. They cite, following Ameis-Hentze-Cauer, the repetitions of lines and half-lines and refer to formulas and their modifications. They do not, however, weigh in on the critical questions of what is meant (or at least what they mean) by formula, although, admittedly, these matters are treated in the Prolegomenavolume, esp. 39-64 and 178-94. Let one philological note (end of n.46-7), chosen almost at random, stand to show the flavor of many:

εὐμμελίω: ‘with a good lance of ash’ (for the metonymic use of μελίη ‘ash’ for ‘lance’, LfgrE s.v.); on the contracted form of the gen., Schw. 1.252; Chantr. 1.64f. A generic epithetP of heroes, in the Iliad only of Priam and the sons of Panthoos (LfgrE s.v.). On epithets referring to the arms of heroes or armies, 6.116n.; for I-E parallels, West 2007, 460.

The text itself receives relatively modest attention. When the editors do take up textual issues, they elucidate them clearly, sometimes taking no position, at other times affirming West’s textual choice, and occasionally disagreeing with him (e.g., on 132-3, 235, 351-3).

Among notes that struck me as particularly useful and/or indicative of the commentators’ interests are:

75-81: comparisons or similes for gods changing location (usually as they descend to earth)
86-87: Athena taking the appearance of Laodocus
95: relationship of κῦδος to κλέος
155-82: Agamemnon’s speech, after Menelaus has been struck by Pandarus’s arrow; in general, the editors are very informative on the speeches, including the ways in which their language differs from the narrator’s
176-82: τις-speeches
186-87: the multiple layers of armor and the Realien they might reflect
220-41: long initial note on the epipolesis
232-50: Agamemnon in this scene
370-400: Agamemnon’s speech to Diomedes
376-81: possible poetic invention
409-10: a possible example of a metapoetic function in the differentiation of generations of fighters
422-32 and 422-26: on similes
470b-471a: the narrator’s view of war.

It is always difficult to determine what to include and what not in a commentary, perhaps especially when thinking of the novice reader. While it is advantageous to have the notes for this group marked off at the bottom of the page, these notes are the only disappointing part of the commentary. They are often thin and too often repetitive.  For example, that an initial digamma in the root Fιδ- explains the prosody of the verse is reported several times; unaugmented verb forms are noted as late as n.514; η, instead of α, after ρ or ι is several times observed (e.g., n.136 and n.484); and the anaphoric use of the demonstrative is noted many times throughout. Those coming to Homer for the first time will need other sources to assist in their understanding of the text, while more advanced students will not benefit from what’s provided here.

One insuperable(?) challenge in a multi-volume project is cross-referencing. It is valuable, to be sure, to be sent to other treatments of relevant issues outside the immediate passage, and it would make little sense to repeat information in several places, but to take full advantage of the commentary, one needs access to the other volumes, which will be unlikely for most users. In addition, the Prolegomena volume is also frequently cited. That volume contains much that is useful, including a concise “Grammar of Homeric Greek” by Rudolf Wachter. This mini-grammar is excluded in the individual volumes but, thankfully, each does include a “24 Rules Relating to Homeric Language,” based on that longer treatment. This list, although it comes without exegesis, is the handiest guide to Homeric Greek I know of.

A few words of comparison with the chief “competing” commentary on Book 4 (Kirk): Kirk devotes 69 pages to this book, Coray, et al. 236. Thus, the latter have much more scope for their treatment and provide greater balance and more detail on the topics being discussed and typically a richer starting point for following up one’s inquiry. Whereas the Basel Commentary builds on Ameis-Hentze-Cauer, Kirk never mentions this work. Both commentaries offer literary comments—e.g., on similes or the structure of speeches—and display a sensitivity to language. But Kirk famously also comments frequently on the rhythm of the poetry, while the Basel editors almost never do. These observations have not always garnered praise, but there is overall a stronger sense of the individual behind the commentary.

Will we ever see a single scholar again tackle the entire poem? I suspect not. The most recent single-scholar anglophone commentary on the Iliad is Malcolm Wilcock’s useful, if at times overly terse, two-volume treatment (1978-84). Cedric Whitman had planned a commentary of the entire poem, but his death in 1979 cut short this possibility. The six-volume Cambridge commentary (Kirk, et al., 1985-93) has five authors. The poem itself is long and complex, and the relevant fields are so many and expanding that commenting on the whole may simply be too large a task for a single scholar. As Latacz wrote in the conclusion of his 1997 article cited above, “In fact, there is a danger that, in its level of complexity, modern Homeric scholarship may soon defy intelligent summary.”

No one can deny the immense value of the Basel Commentary; it will stand for generations as the go-to source for scholars and advanced students, a place to at least start one’s investigations. And Coray, Krieter-Spiro, and Visser have contributed admirably to this effort to advance our understanding of this remarkable poem. But I confess a regret that we will likely no longer see the individual scholar’s approach to this monumental poem, such as we see in Stanford’s lively engagement with the Odyssey (first ed. 1947-8). Perhaps this is inevitable: just as a focus on the tradition risks effacing the monumental composer, so too does the individual scholar fall back among the θίασος, which works collectively to bring to life these extraordinary poems.