BMCR 2024.07.17

Homer’s Iliad: the Basel commentary, book VII

Katharina Wesselmann, Homers Iliad: The Basel Commentary, Book VII.  Translated by Benjamin W. Millis and Sara Strack, edited by S. Douglas Olson. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2023. Pp. xii, 237. ISBN 9783110687637.



Modern critics have tended to regard Iliad VII as one of the sloppier parts of the epic, as summarized in M.L. West’s judgement that Books VII and VIII (especially VII) “give a strong impression of hasty composition.”[1] Yet—in this reviewer’s opinion—the seventh book is riotously entertaining, perhaps partly because of its deficiencies. A kind of madcap energy results from the poet’s attempt to fuse disparate ideas and episodes into a feisty continuity.[2] That it does not quite work (or, at least, works well enough) somehow enhances its entertainment value.

However that may be, Katharina Wesselmann’s commentary responds to such criticism and helps the reader appreciate the importance of Book VII’s contents in the architecture of the Iliad as a whole.[3] Possibly even more valuable is Wesselmann’s attention to nuances of characterization and action scene narration, and to the humor or irony that might arise therefrom. Notes on character psychology, and the synthesis of relevant critical views, are acute and usually comprehensive. Furthermore, there is an admirable concision and versatility with which this commentary runs on several tracks at once. Every page is stratified into three layers of different font sizes:

  1. In regular type, the main commentary, made as accessible as possible to a reader with little or no Greek (important terms are transliterated), with English lemmata drawn from Richard Lattimore’s translation;
  2. A smaller-print commentary covering fine-grained grammatical, lexical and formular analyses,[4] without transliteration;
  3. In smallest print, a footer containing grammatical notes for the beginning or intermediate student of Homeric Greek.

Layers (1) and (2) do a good job of synthesizing recent bibliography with mainstays of earlier criticism. It is a gift that this series is becoming so accessible to English readers.  I have not seen the original German edition, but this translation is written in crisp and formal yet idiomatic language, overall.

Among its core themes, this commentary often revisits the idea of evenly matched combat, which emerges in Book VII as an organizing principle of individual duels and of the entire epic. This impression of symmetry has a way of creating suspense even while forecasting the outcome—the audience knows that both Hector and Ajax will survive this round and that Troy is doomed. Nonetheless, whether cleverly or clumsily, the poet creates an illusion of evening the odds between the opponents. He makes the duel exciting and has us believe that the Achaeans can build a towering defensive wall in one day. The results, so impressive as to offend an envious Poseidon, turn the beachhead into a quasi-city—a mirror image of Troy that sets the stage for the entire second half of the story (see pp. 12-13). With the rejection of Paris’ offer to return his plundered ktēmata (but not Helen), the war transcends its original purpose and enters a more dangerous phase in which one side must destroy the other. While noting these developments, Wesselmann attends to narratological views (citing Irene de Jong, among others), especially regarding shifts in focalization between Trojan and Achaean that contribute to an overall sense of foreboding (e.g., p. 152). Wesselmann also considers the duel’s resemblance to an athletic event (such as the wrestling and boxing matches of Book XXIII), in this case with Athena and Apollo among the spectators—leering like vultures over the literally cutthroat monomachia. Notes on Near Eastern and Indo-European traditions enter the commentary as they become relevant, among which “David and Goliath” (1 Samuel 17) is an interesting point of reference.

Another area of criticism surrounds the Achaeans and Trojans as national groups. Wesselmann surveys scholarly perceptions of cultural differences between the two sides—e.g., a comparative noisiness and disorder among the Trojans, with the exception of Priam’s forbidding his people to wail during the collection of their corpses (vv. 427-8). In this way, the symmetries of Book VII become broken symmetries. Could these imbalances help account for Troy’s “ultimat[e] . . . “downfall”?[5] See, for instance, p. 168 on the “contrast between sprightly Nestor and passive Priam,” and Antenor’s failure to sway opinion in the assembly that follows the day of dueling (Books III and VII) and battling (Books IV-VI) and Pandarus’ violation of the oath (Book IV). Whereas the Achaean council is typically a scene for robust argument, Trojan policy is at the mercy of the coolly obstinate Paris. One can speculate about whether the poet is comparing an outmoded Anatolian monarchy with the more versatile political arrangement on the Achaean side. On the other hand, the problem of accounting for Trojan behavior takes Wesselmann’s discussion into the murkier waters of character psychology. She cites stimulating questions about how the narrator presses storytelling problems into the service of characterization (p. 169):

The vagueness of motivations may originally have stemmed from a narrative dilemma: the Trojans are clearly in the wrong for having stolen Helen, but Homeric epic portrays them not without empathy as characters with whom one can identify; the narrator shifts the problem from the narrative plane to the character psychology of the weak Priam [citing R. Scodel]. This ‘stopgap’ solution, however, creates a remarkable effect in the portrayal of complex ‘political thinking’ in the tension between individual and communal interests, aristocracy and populace, divine and human motivations [citing K. Raaflaub].

Yet there could also have been traditional or historical reasons for such “narrative dilemma(s).” With the elderly Priam neutralized and his wily son Paris/Alexander in control, there is an eerie resemblance to the Hittite document (c. 1285 BC) that names an “Alaksandu” as the potentate of Wilusa (CTH 76). Does Priam’s “passivity” have something to do with this historical antecedence, which required an Alexander (if not the Alexander of the Hittite treaty) to be at least de facto king of Ilium?

Aside from these questions about national character, one of the most welcome aspects of Wesselmann’s commentary is its sensitivity to nuances of individual personalities and to possible instances of humor or irony[6] —even if some beats are missed. In the passages discussed above, Wesselmann examines the principal sons of Priam. She notes that Hector and Paris are alike in their pertinacity, which nevertheless expresses itself differently in each brother: Hector’s hotheadedness contrasts with Paris’ composure, one of his several most infuriating qualities. Accordingly, Paris’ “verdict” on Antenor’s advice “sounds…gentle, or at most ironic” (p. 174, here citing I.M. Hohendahl-Zoetelief). Subtle commentary on speech patterns and the use of colloquial expressions and particles (such as appear in Nestor’s colorful declamations [p. 94]) raises questions about the relationship between characterization and versification. In this regard, Wesselmann frequently interprets the role of enjambment (e.g., pp. 34-7, 42, 74 146, 172, 174):

In combination with numerous enjambmentsP, [Hektor’s use of formulae that praise Aias] makes the first six verses appear breathless, as if Hektor (in contrast to Aias) must first catch his wind and is trying to gain time through the use of platitudes… [on vv. 288-302].

The integral enjambmentsP lend a sense of haste [citing G.S. Kirk], or of emotion and urgency, to Antenor’s words [on vv. 351b-353]

This area of criticism is interesting but slippery. The aoidos or rhapsode could have played off such cues in performance, but we would need to have heard him to get the full picture. Hector’s attitude seems open to other interpretations. Is there only a “lack of confidence” (p. 131, citing M. Stoevesandt), or also sarcasm in his way of challenging this formidable opponent?[7] Hector has from his brother Helenus the assurance of prophecy that he will live to die another day, even though the sight of a bloodthirsty Ajax (μειδιόων βλοσυροῖσι προσώπασι [v. 212]) could still naturally cause him to lose his nerve. Wesselmann notes that Hector conceals this information from the Achaean and Trojan crowds (“portray[ing] Helenos’ instructions as his own idea” [p. 52]), but she does not consider the following reason for his doing so. Like Agamemnon in Book II, Hector thinks that the supposed oracle gives him the latitude to behave as recklessly as he likes. Wesselmann does compare verses from the διάπειρα Ἀγαμέμνονος episode (2.79-81), but only to suggest that Hector “likely” wants “to forestall scepticism about the divine intervention (p. 52).” But why would Hector brandish this ace up his sleeve? Would doing so not interfere with this opportunity? Of course, as with Agamemnon (cf. 2.186), it could be that Hector’s prophecy-inspired courage begins to fade when he realizes what he has let himself in for. This adds to the character-humor of the situation, and it does agree perfectly with Wesselmann’s notes on the effect of Hector’s enjambments.

To explore another problem, we may belabor a few verses from Nestor’s plan to construct the Achaean wall along with a funeral pyre during the day of the truce (vv. 336-8):

τύμβον δ’ ἀμφὶ πυρὴν ἕνα χεύομεν ἐξαγαγόντες
κριτον κ πεδίου· ποτὶ δ’ αὐτὸν δείμομεν ὦκα
πύργους ὑψηλοὺς εἶλαρ νηῶν τε καὶ αὐτῶν.

It seems to me most natural, given the principles of oral composition, to take ἄκριτον ἐκ πεδίου as a unit. Among the interpretive possibilities Wesselmann considers (e.g., that ἄκριτον refers to the materials used in the tumulus’ composition or its mixed human remains), unlike previous commentators,[8] she skirts around the idea that this phrase describes the shape of the mound in relation to the wall—viz., that the Achaeans drew its contours (ἐξαγαγόντες) “continuously” (ἄκριτον) “out from the plain (ἐκ πεδίου)” towards the shore, and that they joined the wall into its sides (ποτὶ δ’ αὐτὸν). I only harp on this detail because v. 337 is probably the most difficult line in all of Book VII,[9] and a crucial one for Wesselmann’s argument about the structural importance of Book VII in the epic. The poet combines—not only into a single episode, nor even into a single verse, but into a single phrase—the “day of burial” and the “construction of the Achaean wall.” These two themes do not fit perfectly together, either chronologically or logically,[1 and perhaps the imprecision of the phrase ἄκριτον ἐκ πεδίου betrays the sleight of hand that the poet is attempting. He needed the wall in place for the impending drama of the Longest Day (Books XI-XVIII), and he has Nestor obviate the problem by devising this narrative convenience.

One disarming aspect of this commentary is its attention to what one can call “cinematic” effects in Homeric narration. I do not want to overstate how frequently Wesselmann makes such observations, so as not to make this serious work seem in any way frivolous.[11] Nonetheless, this reader found such moments refreshing. When Wesselmann reviews the verses describing Hector’s spear ploughing through the layers of Ajax’s shield (vv. 244-8), she notes that “the drama of the scene is heightened by the narrator’s quasi-X-ray vision: only a thin layer of leather is stopping the spear (p. 132).” After Ajax has had his throw, Hector implausibly finds time to bend his torso as the spear is passing through his breastplate and chitōn. Wesselmann explains (p. 134):

Once a missile has penetrated the corselet and the chiton, the target realistically has no time to dodge the attack…. The verse often occurs in the type-sceneP ‘duel’, although it seems unnecessary to deny its semantic valence on those grounds [responding to G.S. Kirk]: the hero’s achievements are not portrayed realistically but as superhuman—a type of depiction still common today (e.g. in fight sequences in action films).

This comment has two oddly encouraging corollaries. The first is that an equivalent of “unbelievable CGI” existed three millennia ago, and that cinematic special effects have finally caught up with (or dumbed down to?) the poet’s imagination. The second is that the average teenager nowadays might be better disposed to appreciate this aspect of Homeric narration than was G.S. Kirk.



[1] M.L. West, The Making of the Iliad: Disquisition and Analytical Commentary. Oxford: 2011, p. 187. Wesselmann (p. 18) quotes from this same page: “[Book VII] in particular falls below the standard of excellence that has been generally maintained up to this point [in the epic].” The Greek text of the Basel Commentary is based on West’s edition of the Iliad (Bibliotheca Teubneriana, 1998/2000).

[2] The Iliad’s earliest audiences may well have agreed with this opinion, if seventh-century vase paintings indicate the popularity of the “Hector vs. Ajax” theme in this era. This is a matter of dispute, which Wesselmann does not address except to doubt a correspondence (with the action of Book VII) observed by K. Friis Johansen on an eighth-century oinochoe.

[3] Wesselmann also, specifically, responds to “analytical scholarship’s pejorative take on the duel episode [between Hector and Ajax] (p. 18).”

[4] These formular analyses include tallies of appearances of formulae and their variants (as well as their verse positions) in the Homeric epics, the Hymns, and Hesiodic poems.

[5] Wesselmann cites D. Elmer and J. Christensen, examples of recent scholarship (p. 167).

[6] Among many other examples, see, e.g., pp. 32-6, on a dialogue between Apollo and Aphrodite, or p. 209, on the final verse of Book VII.

[7] E.g., is the subjunctive expression in ἀλλ’ οὐ γάρ σ’ ἐθέλω βαλέειν τοιοῦτον ἐόντα / λάθρῃ ὀπιπεύσας, ἀλλ’ ἀμφαδόν, αἴ κε τύχωμι (242-3) a sign of diffidence (Wesselmann cites M. Stoevesandt)? Or, with ἀλλ’ ἀμφαδόν, is it a play on Ajax’s previous use of ἀμφαδίην (196), in which the Telamonian hero took back his order to pray secretly for victory? Looked at in this way, αἴ κε τύχωμι is more a taunt than a confession of doubt—Hector contrasts Ajax’s impulse to secrecy with his own mano-a-mano courage.

[8] Mentioned by G.S. Kirk and M. Willcock (although Kirk notes that “this interpretation is really meaningless” [The Iliad: A Commentary, Cambridge: 1990, p. 279]). Citing Kirk, Wesselmann does discuss a related interpretation, but one that depends on the reading ἐν πεδίῳ (Aristophanes Byz. in schol. AT) rather than ἐκ πεδίου.

[9] Or else the second-most difficult, after the puzzling but vaguely amusing v. 156, which M.L. West considered “probably…a rhapsode’s interpolation” (West 2011, p. 191).

[10] See p. 178: “The truce will last for a single day. Although it is unrealistic that the Greeks’ extensive fortifications would be completed in so little time, the brief period for the burial of the dead is customary; a nine-day mourning period, like the one for Hector, is exceptional.”

[11] Also, e.g., p. 21, on a “quick ‘pan of the camera,’” or p. 189, on a “quick ‘cut’” that “amplifies the effect of the parallelism between the [Achaean and Trojan] camps.”