BMCR 2024.02.23

Reading Homer: Iliad books 16 and 18

, , , Reading Homer: Iliad books 16 and 18. Reading Greek. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. Pp. 206. ISBN 9781107000933.



Reading Homer by Stephen Anderson, Keith Maclennan, and Naoko Yamagata presents the Greek text of Books 16 and 18 of the Iliad complete with a succinct but thorough introduction, detailed glosses of every word in the Greek text, and a number of (predominantly ancient) illustrations. The text of the epic is divided into smaller scenes and narrative units each preceded by a short discursive summary, and the book also contains a separate vocabulary list and a grammar index. Published in the Reading Greek series produced by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers and Cambridge University Press, the primary purpose of this thin volume is to facilitate the teaching and learning of Greek, especially Homeric Greek, but it also serves as an excellent introduction to the beauties and complexity of the Iliad to students at an advanced secondary or university level.

It would be easy to bring arguments for other combinations of Iliadic books which could provide an informative glimpse into the language and artistry of the Homeric epics, but Books 16 and 18 would certainly be among the strongest contenders in any highlights list. For those who embark on their first experience of Homer with this volume (and we can assume some of the designated readers have no previous knowledge of the original Homeric text), these two books provide a dazzling array of plot twists, character changes, and various narrative devices (speeches, similes, etc.) as well as significant parallels with, and references to, other parts of the epic. In this sense, they are representative of the Iliad as a whole, and the authors of the volume make sure that the “Introduction” and notes emphasize salient aspects of their connection to larger Homeric contexts (including the Odyssey).

The Homeric text proper is preceded by a 13-page “Introduction” in which the authors provide a lucid and compact summary of the most important characteristics and problems of the Iliad. In section “A” (“Homer and the Iliad”) they present the Homeric question and the current consensus about some of the epic’s historical and geographical contexts, but, importantly, also remark, that “[t]he search for history in Homer is endlessly fascinating, but of limited help in evaluating the Iliad as literature” (2). Accordingly, in the rest of the “Introduction” emphasis is placed on those aspects of the Homeric epics which contribute to our understanding and appreciation of the text as a work of art which, despite its remoteness and marked strangeness, has informed and still informs European and world literature. Section “B” (“The story of the Iliad”) prepares for this systematic discussion of Homeric poetry through a brief epitome of the plot of the epic. Retelling the story of such a long and complex work as the Iliad in little more than two-and-a-half pages seems to be a daunting task for anyone, especially for specialists, but the authors succeed admirably in guiding prospective readers through the main plotlines and episodes of the work. The only point where the present reviewer felt that this short summary has not done full justice to the original is concerning the Homeric pantheon (which seems to be less prominent here than in the original)—but a later separate subchapter on the gods gives ample information on their role and function in the epic.

In section “C” (“Reading Homer”) the authors elucidate the characteristics of Homeric poetry, starting from a brief reflection on the Iliad’s oral origins and the Parry-Lord theory. They leave open the question of whether the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed by the same poet and present the possibilities of a poet (or poets) who either wrote down the text of the poem(s) or dictated them—with the latter option being “more plausible” (6). A series of short (a few paragraphs-long) subchapters follow on stock-themes and typical scenes, foreshadowing (both by direct reference and allusion), speeches and their function within the narrative, similes and descriptions (such as the great ekphrasis of Achilles’s shield in Book 18), heroic roles with special emphasis on the question of social responsibility and justice, as well as the role of the gods, their function in the narrative, their influence on human actions, and the great moral dilemmas of the poem.

Section “D” (“Homer’s language”) provides basic information on the Homeric Kunstsprache from its various dialectal components to the major characteristics of declension, conjugation, articles, particles, pronouns, etc. Finally, section “E” (‘Metre’) introduces the structure of the Homeric hexameter with some practical help in scansion. As the authors indicate, reflection on occasional special poetic licences in metre are reserved to the notes. The “Introduction” closes with a “Select Bibliography” listing a number of editions and commentaries of the Iliad as well as “General Books on Homer and the Iliad.” In both these categories the lists are naturally very selective: the authors seemed to focus on Anglo-American editions, commentaries, and criticism from the past few decades (the oldest item on the list is from 1984).

The main body of the volume is taken up with the presentation of the text of Books 16 and 18. The narrative is broken into scenes of varying length (from a little more than a dozen to a couple of hundred lines) each of which is introduced by an editorial summary of what follows (presented in bold). Within these larger sections there are further divisions introduced by a few explanatory sentences (in italics). These editorial headnotes make navigating the text easy for readers: reading them one after the other provides a minimal summary of what is going on in the plot, and often they also contain useful background information with reference to other books of the epic. The authors used the Oxford text of the Iliad, and their notes provide glosses on every word that appears in the text (some commonly occurring words like καί, μέν or δέ are glossed on their first occurrence and later only if they present a special problem of interpretation). The detailed glossing of particles such as τέ, γέ, ἄρα, etc. seems especially useful in nuancing the interpretation of text. The notes provide information on the form and grammatical function of the glossed word, and where necessary they also give the corresponding Attic forms. Besides these, the commentary often contains metrical information, cross-references within the two books or to other parts of the epic, alternative meanings and, occasionally, alternative readings (for example, in the note to 16.690 where the authors refer to the MS tradition to suggest ἐποτρύνει as a possible reading for ἐποτρύνῃσι). Importantly, the notes also contain exegetic material reflecting on the narratorial strategies (foreshadowing, irony, etc.) as well as possible avenues of readerly reception (suspense, compassion, etc.). All in all, armed with such an apparatus, students will be able to work their way through the text of the two books and learn not only about the language, but also about the special poetic features of the Homeric poems in the process.

The book is beautifully produced with eleven high-quality colour illustrations, plus a black-and-white diagram by M. M. Willcock (from his A Companion to the Iliad) representing the structure of the shield of Achilles. The majority of the colour images are reproductions of details from Greek painted pottery, but there are a number of photographs of sculpture as well as two pictures from manuscripts. Some of the illustrations are in direct connection with the plot of the Books 16 and 18, a few of them (such as the bust of Homer, or a page from a fifteenth-century manuscript) provide larger contexts for the interpretation of Homeric epics.

In any Greek course it is an important question when students should embark upon reading Homer. The writer of this review started learning Greek as a university student with Homer, plodding through the text of selected books from the Iliad and the Odyssey word by word. Later, when, very briefly, he taught Greek in a special study circle in a secondary school, he reserved Homer for the very end of the course. Both strategies are justifiable and whether instructors decide to use the former or the latter method of introducing the “oldest and greatest” of poets, Reading Homer will serve their—and their students’—needs well.