BMCR 2024.03.17

Early Greek epic: language, interpretation, performance

, Early Greek epic: language, interpretation, performance. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 138. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2022. Pp. xxix, 637. ISBN 9783110993721.



As the tripartite subtitle suggests, the book aims to explore the interrelations of three specific aspects and areas of early epic poetry: language, interpretation, and performance. This approach implies the effort to link the formal components of epic poetry, and especially the poetic diction, with all the multiple levels of interpretation of such a complex literary genre, from its contents to the pragmatic component of the performance, which affected the final textual form of the epic poems in multifarious ways.

The book collects a selection of 20 studies on early Greek epic poetry by the author. Some of them have been updated, while others are reprinted in their original form. The essays are organised in four parts, devoted respectively to Homer, Hesiod, the Cycle, and the performance of epic poetry. This editorial choice is not just a simple juxtaposition of previously published articles, but it is structured so as to offer a complex reconstructive framework of the main issues in the wide field of Archaic Greek epic, with the result of providing a coherent vision of the phenomenon from the author’s perspective. For this reason, then, the book represents the mature fruit of a long and very carefully cultivated fieldwork and can be considered as a unitary study characterised by well-defined fils rouges, that provide a decisive point of view in the intricate dialectic in Homericis and, more generally, in epicis. The book’s coherent and organic perspective is reinforced by a short but effective introduction.

The author establishes a fruitful dialogue with the vast body of scholarship in various fields of the study of Archaic epic poetry, which, starting from the Homeric epics, considers the developments of the ‘other’ epics. Chapter 1 of the first part of the volume, which is dedicated to Homer, is entitled “Towards an Oral, Intertextual Neoanalysis” and is a useful overview that, starting from the main problems and limits of both neoanalytic and oralist theory, provides an original attempt to reconsider the implications of these theories, in order to overcome their schematisms and to “endorse a more flexible approach to certain scholarly taboos” (p. 3). This aim is pursued through a rigorous analysis of the Homeric texts, which benefits from an interesting crossover between the more traditional, philological and linguistic methods – with a special focus on metre, formulas, and allusive motifs and structures –, and the more recent tools of cognitive theory, narratology and comparative studies. In “Decontextualizing Homer. Intonation Units, Background Knowledge, and the Proems of the Iliad and the Odyssey” the author suggests an interesting interpretation of the proems of the Iliad and the Odyssey, with some reflections also on the proems of the Cyclic poems, in the perspective of an oral analysis that develops the criterion of “special speech” adopted by Bakker 1997. The analysis of the sound and alliterative system in the oral composition of epic poetry seems to be particularly prominent and productive in two case studies: one is devoted to Homeric catalogues (“The Dynamic Hypertext: Lists and Catalogues in the Homeric Epics”), which are examined from the perspective of the impact of the use of “aural means” in the construction of the lists and in their reception by the audience; the second, focused on the name of Helen (“Naming Helen: Localization, Meter, and Semantics of a Homeric Character”), is the occasion for a crucial reflection on the multiple functions of the formula, which can be interpreted as a trace of the way in which this structural element of the epic poetry provided the audience with further visions of a wider epic tradition, marking the Homeric text as a kind of hypertext. Very noteworthy is the treatment of space as a narrative tool in the framework of the episode of Diomedes and Glaucus (“Epic Space Revisited: Narrative and Intertext in the Episode between Diomedes and Glaucus (Il. 6. 119-236)”); the narrative skills of the two heroes show them as storytellers who open up other mythical narratives, i.e. the stories of Lycurgus and Bellerophon, and thus also introduce wider spaces and perspectives on different environments, such as Lycia, evoked by the Lycian origin of Glaucus. The author shows the two different interpretations given by the critics to this phenomenon, i.e. an influence of the Lycian power on the poet of the Iliad, or the possible dependence of the Iliad on lost epics about Lycia (pp. 101-103): in this case, the difficulties mentioned by the author regarding the first hypothesis are absolutely convincing, but the motives given for the complete exclusion of the second interpretative option are perhaps still open to question. Indeed, according to the author, “strong contacts between Lycia and the Greek world did not happen before the fourth century BC and […] it was then that Greek poets and musicians started visiting royal courts of powerful local kings” (p. 102). This observation is certainly remarkable and underlines the reality of a deeper link between the two worlds from the fourth century BC onwards, but the possibility should also be taken into account that earlier contacts between these two cultures could be even stronger than it seems, if we consider the complex exchanges between the two civilizations, as shown by the pre-Hellenistic bilingual inscriptions – Greek and Lycian – of a public and private nature (Réveilhac 2021), and the linguistic exchanges attested e.g. in Greek lyric poetry, as it is especially demonstrated by the case of Hipponax, a sort of paradigm of the profound permeability of the Greek poetic diction to the ‘incursion’ of the nearby Anatolian languages (Bettarini 2017, pp. 25-34, passim). Moreover, as most of the Greek epic production of the Archaic and Classical periods has been lost, we should not completely exclude the possibility of a wider consideration of Lycian myths and stories in the Greek hexametric production, even in the form of ‘miniature frames’ in a more complex narrative space, as it happens in the Iliad. Considering these aspects, indeed, even if the author is sceptical about a possible Mycenean and/or Greek circulation of other epics on Lycian subject-matters (see, for example, Sbardella 2020, with previous bibliography), such a factor could even strengthen or at least add an element of diachronic dynamics to the fascinating interpretation proposed by the author, according to whom “it is much more plausible that the Greek epic tradition did not depend on some unattested Greek epic poem about the Lycians but on widely circulating oral traditions about the Lycian past or at least mythical lays diffused in the region of Ionia” (p. 103).

The second part of the volume deals with the Hesiodic corpus especially from the point of view of the intertextuality, whose traces reveal a plural and intense relationship among the Theogony, the Works and Days, and the Catalogue. The sense of a deep interconnection among the Hesiodic epics is further underlined by author’s reflections on the place of this epic poetry in the system of Greek literary genres; in this perspective, from the Introduction he states that “each of the three main Hesiodic epics is an idiosyncratic poetic experiment that deviates in stunning manner from the generic orthodoxy of its relevant sub-genre” (p. XXV). Following this line of interpretation, the author examines, in particular, the Catalogue of Women (“Poetry and Poetics in the Hesiodic Corpus” pp. 235-253; “Soundplay in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women”), which is considered a poem of hybrid nature. Its peculiar structure, subject-matter and poetical form are also studied in the light of the performance and of the effect that such broad and detailed mythological visions on the different heroines could have in front of an audience: the Panhellenic image of the Greek world, that is the result of the combinations of the various frame of the catalogue, implies a high degree of involvement by the various members of the audience, since, through these mythical visions, they are able to “identify their own and their ancestors’ connection to a given pedigree stretching back in time” (p. 250).

The third part of the work is devoted to the Epic Cycle, which the author analyses in an attempt to identify constant motifs and their various functions in the frame of the Theban and the Trojan sagas, as is particularly clear from the survey of the multifarious tasks of the gods’ actions in the different poems (“The Gods in Cyclic Epic”). The combined analysis of the two most important epic cycles is then continued from an intertextual point of view, taking into account the specific case study of the phrase γυναίων εἴνεκα δώρων (Od. 11. 519-521; 15. 243-248) in the context of both the Theban and the Trojan epics: the interpretative key used to explain the spread of the motif and the various funtions it assumed in the different epic poems is interformularity and intertraditionality, according to the definitions of such phenomena offered by Bakker 2013. With a strong philological method the author deals with two specific case studies in the chapters “Cypria fr. 19 (PEG, GEF): A Reconsideration”, “Telegony” (pp. 384-406), and “Verses Attributed to the Telegony”. The attempt to reconstruct the uncertain outline of these crucial poems at the beginning and the end of the Trojan cycle leads the author to consider the different and mostly fragmentary evidence, trying to find a coherent line of development of the poems. This attempt is particularly evident in the case of the analysis of the Telegony, the stratified structure of which is presented at pp. 404-406. The proposed reconstruction is certainly fascinating, since it also offers an overview of the possible working methods of a cyclic poet, like Eugammon, but in any case the evidence for these poems is so evanescent that any overly strong statements about their structure and content run the risk of appearing difficult to prove.

The fourth part of the book is very promising, as it explores from a fresh perspective the interesting spread of the rhapsodic performances in the Archaic and Classical periods, with a detailed look at the strong links that such events had with different geographical and political contexts. The last section is focused on rhapsodic recitations in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, offering evidence and suggestions that can certainly serve as a starting point for further studies of the development of epic performances in the complex communicative system of the Greco-Roman world.

The analysis and the reflection proposed in the book are clearly based on a solid system of references which is mostly linked to the Anglophone world of scholarship; anyway, a further opening towards other research traditions (for example, the contributions in epicis by Luigi Enrico Rossi and Mario Cantilena, among the others) could have sometimes allowed a wider enrichment of the proposed critical position.

In conclusion, this book is a landmark in the study of the Greek epic poetry: it will be an indispensable reference point for all the scholars still eager to read not only the poems that have come down to us intact, but also the textual shreds of a broader and more complex tradition.



E. J. Bakker, The Study of Homeric Discourse, in I. Morris, B. Powell (eds.), A New Companion to Homer, Leiden 1997, pp. 284-304.

E. J. Bakker, The Meaning of Meat and the Structure of the Odyssey, Cambridge 2013.

L. Bettarini, Lingua e testo di Ipponatte, Pisa 2017.

F. Réveilhac, Le statut du lycien et du grec dans les inscriptions pré-hellénistiques de Lycie, in author Lamesa, G. Traina (sous la dir. de), L’Anatolie: de l’époque archaïque à Byzance, Besançon 2021, pp. 67-96.

L. Sbardella, I «semata» di Bellerofonte: da una saga micenea all’epos omerico, «La Parola del Passato: Rivista di Studi Antichi» 75.1-2 (2020), pp. 289-309.