BMCR 2023.01.39

Homer. Iliad book I

, Homer. Iliad, book I. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781108412964



When I first read (selections of) the Iliad in an intermediate Greek class fifty years ago, we used the venerable and to-this-day useful edition of A. R. Benner. Other options were few. Today, an anglophone reader of the Iliad has several options, including the multi-volume and multi-author Cambridge commentary (1985-93), Willcock’s two-volume edition (1978-84), and several individual volumes in this same Cambridge “green and yellow” series. In addition, there is, of course, the Basel Iliad project, a volume for each book, some of which have now been translated into English (see, most recently, BMCR 2022.08.02. And for the first book of the poem, where one would very likely want to begin their enjoyment of Homer, useful editions by Simon Pulleyn, with translation, (2000) and P. A. Draper (2002) are available. (Full disclosure: I am working on a text, translation, and commentary on Iliad, 1-3.)

Seth Schein was ideally situated for undertaking this commentary. A life-long scholar of Homer, he has published, in addition to numerous articles, a valuable introduction to the poem (The Mortal Hero, 1984), and demonstrated his considerable ability at commentary writing with his edition of Sophocles’ Philoctetes in this series (2013). Furthermore, Schein is an expert in Greek metrics, the area of his earliest scholarship, and he brings this expertise to bear on his explication of Homer’s language. The result is excellent. Schein provides a very full introduction, text with abridged apparatus, and extensive commentary that considers book 1 from virtually every perspective—language, meter, myth, oral theory, structure, etymology, narrative technique, historical and social context, and (psychological) characterization—as well as discussing its major themes of mortality, divine activities, friendship, war, and glory.

Versions of the Homeric Question(s), first voiced in antiquity, have dominated Homeric scholarship for more than two centuries, and commentators on the poem must stake out their position. Schein sees the poem as rooted in an oral tradition of composition, taking its current form (more or less) in the eighth century. He sees the advent of the Greek alphabet as “permanently alter[ing]” (1) the medium, imagines that an oral poet wrote down or dictated the poem near the end of the eighth century, and that the generative period of composition would not have survived much past this date. While this view goes against much current orthodoxy, it is a reasonable set of inferences from the available evidence, and Albert Lord himself accepted an orally dictated text as the most plausible scenario. From this position, Schein explores the nuances of oral composition, formulaic modification, traditional referentiality, focalization, and like phenomena. He offers an attractive variation on Parry’s definition of formula, suggesting, “It seems more productive to think of shared expectations by poet-singers and their audiences that certain words belonged together—were, so to speak, bound to one another—a conception which left room for Parry’s identically worded formulas in the same metrical position and for changes in word order within a line or extending over two lines” (52). Schein also embraces the possibility of meaning in traditional epithets, not just their metrical utility, and appreciates the role of “focalization” in their use.

In addition to discussion of the large questions of orality, the Introduction provides much rich information. In describing the structure of the poem, Schein observes that it is “organized accordingly to two complementary, reinforcing artistic principles, one related to its traditional narrative and mythological context, the other to its symmetrical form and to eighth-century aesthetic norms” (9) and describes how these two principles operate. He gives useful overviews of the book’s main human characters and the crucial themes of mortality and honor. His survey of the gods and their roles emphasizes their interaction with and distance from mortals, and he embraces the principle of “double determination.” He goes too far, however, in quoting with approval Richard Janko’s assertion that “one can give a clear account of the poem’s entire action with no reference to the gods at all” (23). While it is true that most instances of divine intervention can be explained in human terms, not all can be. Paris’s disappearance from the battlefield via Aphrodite’s mist in book 3 cannot be accounted for in human terms, nor can Athena’s return of Achilles’s spear in book 22.

On Homer’s language, Schein provides both a concise and perceptive overview of the variety of the dialectal mixture and the development of the “literary” language, followed by a listing of the chief morphological and syntactic features of the Homeric Kunstsprache. Schein’s treatment on the poem’s meter is the most detailed section of the Introduction, reflecting his belief that although meter, language and style are “inseparable,” there “is a sense in which meter is primary [italics added], insofar as it provides a constant, if flexible framework, to which language and style must adapt, even though semantics and grammar play just as an important a role as meter in the constructions, phrase-patterns, and “formulas” of the Homeric language” (25).” Of the two most common analyses of a four-colon hexameter, Schein adopts the third break after the 8th (C1) and 9th (C2) elements of the line. He effectively discusses the ins and outs of Homeric metrics and encourages readers to see the verses not as confined by rules but working within norms and capable of considerable variation and nuance. His reference to defamiliarization (or “marked” and “unmarked” categories) allows him to offer the reader a deeper understanding of Homeric meter and style. See, e.g., his treatment of the word shapes in the very first lines of the poem (32 and on note on line 1).

Schein’s text relies on the editorial work of others, particularly M. L. West’s Teubner edition (1998), and he provides a helpfully simplified apparatus. The bald language of the apparatus is English, not Latin, appropriately for a text in this series. In the commentary, Schein’s handling of textual matters is full, clear, and balanced.

A perennial question for a commentary is about inclusion/exclusion, a question that is perhaps most acute when deciding on what grammatical exegesis to provide, especially when one is hoping to reach a wide audience. There are more than a few places where I think the level imagined is too basic (e.g., on μάχεσθαι expressing result, 8; σαώτερος, adj. where Engl. uses adv., 32; ἥν, 72, after earlier explanation at 9-10; morphology of παρελεύσεαι at 131-2 and of κάμω at 166-8; fut. part. indicating purpose after a verb of motion at 207-9; lack of subj. of infin. in indirect discourse when the same as that of introducing verb at 397-8), but better to err in that direction than in the other.

I cull some sample items from the commentary, to indicate its range and approach and to express occasional disagreement.

4-5. Schein accepts the unanimous mss. reading πᾶσι and not Zenodotus’s δαῖτα, although, as Schein observes, it seems as if the latter was at least one reading in 5th-century texts, judging from the apparent influence on several passages in tragedy. While torn between these two possibilities and preferring the metaphor in δαῖτα, I suspect he is right.

5. About the prominent phrase Διὸς δ᾽ἐτελείετο βουλή, Schein reports the two most common interpretations (Zeus’s promise to Thetis to honor Achilles by effecting Trojan martial success and his plan to reduce Earth’s population, reflected in the Cypria, frag. 1.3-7), suggesting that these two interpretations are not incompatible and holding out a further interpretation, namely Troy’s destruction. He goes on to comment, “Perhaps Zeus’s “plan” is best understood as several plans with overlapping goals.” This openness to interpretation is typical of Schein’s approach.

9-10. On ὁ as “still a demonstrative pronoun in Homer,” Schein might have mentioned that there are instances where it seems at least to have moved close to becoming the article.

9-10. κακήν: Typical of the commentary are the strong comments on the placement of the adj., the resulting tension between the rhetorical and metrical structures, and its focalization by Apollo.

35-6. Schein observes that ἀπάνευθε κιών is part of an “acoustic formulaic system also including ἀπάνευθε νεῶν (48, 15.348, 17.403, 19.356) and ἀπάνευθε θεῶν (549, 8.10, 14.189) at the same position in the verse.”

51. Schein does not suggest the etymology of ἐχεπευκές (<*σεχεπευκές) as the reason for the otherwise anomalous heavy final syllable of βέλος in the phrase βέλος ἐχεπευκές.

74-5. Schein draws attention to the parallels between the μῆνις of Achilles and that of Apollo.

85-91 and 90. Throughout the commentary and in the Introduction (13-4), Schein points out the striking nature of Achilles’ speech.

103-4. The commentary includes Schein many valuable comments on the semantics of key words; here on μένος. See, also, e.g., 118 on γέρας; 55 on φρένες; 202-5 on ὕβρις; 240-1 on ποθή (and cf. 492n.); 412 on ἄτη; and 517 on ὀχθέω.

110. Aristarchus rejected this line for greater concision, but Schein observes that “such concision, however, is rarely sought by speakers in Homeric epic.”

126. A valuable comment on how the two hapax words παλίλλογα and ἐπαγείρειν reinforce the claim of how rare such redistribution would be.

131-2. The force of Agamemnon’s opening in his response is “marked by the short semantic units and the strong intra-linear sense breaks.”

166-8. Schein discusses the “violation” of Hermann’s Bridge of ἐπεί κε and a possible textual remedy, and drawing on his keen knowledge of metrics, he observes other similar “violations” involving enclitics elsewhere in the Iliad, concluding that this anomaly is “not impossible here.”

172-87. Agamemnon’s self-centered clustering of first-person forms is observed.

188-222. Schein handles very well the complexity and nuances of the scene involving Athena’s intervention and Achilles’response.

188-9. Observations on the ways in which Achilles’ pondering is different from other instances of pondering in the poems.

197-8. Schein frequently shows his interest in iconographic representations of the poem’s actions; in this note alone, he refers to six works of art over a 2,000-year period. See also 528-31n.

234-7. Achilles’ characteristic use of unusual words is well known (see, esp. J. Griffin, JHS, 1986); Schein enriches this observation with his comments on the atypical rhythm of these lines.

270-1. Is Schein’s observation that the phrase ἐξ ἀπίης γαίης appearing in the Iliad only here and at 3.49, both in reference to strife over women, too subtle? Perhaps, but his note on the several uses of εἵνεκα κούρης to refer to the contests over these two women is more persuasive.

318-48. On a possible alternative version of the story in which Agamemnon removes Briseis himself, Schein concludes that although poem “may allude to this tradition in Agamemnon’s threats [185], ignores it in its own narrative.”

320-44. Several times, as here, Schein is attentive to variation(s) within “type scenes.”

396-406. Apropos Achilles explaining that Zeus owes Thetis a favor because of the time she rescued him from being bound by Hera, Poseidon, and Athena, Schein sees an “allusion to a traditional, poetically resonant myth not found elsewhere,” and not the poet’s ad hoc invention. This is possible but, more cautiously, I would say that we simply do not know. (See his more open-ended treatment at 590-4 of the two accounts of Hephaestus’s being hurled from Olympus). In this same section, Schein rightly supports that γάρ at 404 is explaining not the etymology of Briaeus’s name but the reason he was called upon by Thetis.

472-4. A full note on reference to non-epic music performances in the Iliad.

485-6. As elsewhere, Schein is attentive to sound (alliteration, rhyme, etc.); here the rhyming verse ends ἔρυσσαν and τάνυσσαν.

511-16. Observations on unusual features that signal the importance of Hera’s response to Zeus’s silence.

520-1. On the αἰεί in Zeus’s reply to Hera, Schein imagines other possible examples of Hera’s opposition, but surely the adverb is a standard piece of rhetorical exaggeration, as Schein accepts in the case of this word at 107.


No bibliography on Homer can be exhaustive, but there are no major gaps in what Schein provides. Beyond well-known works, Schein has mined deeply and widely, and he is very up to date, including at least two works published in 2022 and recent online scholarship. My only quibble (perhaps stemming in part from pietas) is that he doesn’t include Ruth Scodel’s Epic Facework: Self-Presentation and Social Interaction in Homer (2008), which is valuable for thinking about the quarrel in book 1.

The production quality, as typical of this series, is extremely high. I noted no typographical errors, and only a couple of insignificant spacing mistakes.

In conclusion, I reiterate my opening assessment: this is an excellent commentary on Iliad 1. While it might be too sophisticated for a true novice, for whom a more introductory approach may be preferable, it will benefit all who consult it. Reading it, one feels confident of being in the sure hands of scholar who has thought deeply about the poem over a long career. The edition’s rich scholarship, full and careful treatment of myriad issues, thoughtful judgments, and attention to both the small items and the big picture open up the marvels of the Iliad. For decades to come it will prove a valuable companion for anyone reading the poem’s opening book.