HOMER, ILIAD BOOK 18: The Basel Commentary

Edited by Marina Coray (English version ed. by S.D. Olson, and tr. by B.W. Millis and S. Strack)

De Gruyter (2018) 315pp h/b £100 (ISBN 9783110570465)

This volume continues the Basel Commentary series of individual Iliad books by different scholars, in this case Marina Coray, ‘a Homer specialist’ who also teaches at Basel.

As readers of previous CfA reviews of this series will know, a good deal of general information about Homer and the Iliad is contained in a companion volume by the editors entitled Prolegomena. This means that anyone wishing to delve more deeply into e.g. Homeric dialect, grammar or metre, the poem’s structure and circumstances of composition, or a history of Homeric scholarship (a topic possibly of more interest to German-speaking teachers and learners than their Anglophone counterparts), will have to find another £100 for this. That said, the Prolegomena is a useful free-standing addition to Homer studies, and in any case C., like her fellow editors, has plenty to say in her commentary about wider Homeric issues.

An attractive feature of this series is the use of four levels of explanation, distinguished by decreasing sizes of type that follow each other on the same page:

  • general comment aimed at the Greekless reader, with Greek words transliterated;
  • more detailed explanation of the Greek text, described as ‘a standard philological commentary’;
  • ‘specific information on sub-fields of Homeric scholarship’;
  • linguistic guidance appropriate to school and university students.

C. has produced a serious, scholarly yet readable work, comparable with the Cambridge six-volume commentary (Basel also has no room for a text; its reference point is not OCT but Teubner). She knows her Homer well, has read widely in relevant scholarship, and her comments on points of linguistic and compositional interest in Book 18 lead the reader’s mind fruitfully to other parts of the poem. When discussing passages that admit of more than one interpretation, she quotes from a wide range of criticism in English as well as European languages (indeed, the Prolegomena editors observe that English is overtaking German as the predominant language of classical studies).

Any commentary on Book 18 stands or falls by its treatment of two major events: the agonistic debate between Hector and Poulydamas, and the Shield of Achilles. C. allows herself plenty of room to introduce a discussion both of the shield’s making and the function of scenes depicted on it in the poem as a whole. It is all very sound and mainstream, though she does maintain, after the sensible observation that it is less a description of a real object than ‘a fantastical marvel with certain links to reality’, that khalkos in l.474 is not bronze but copper, on the grounds that the other three materials used by Hephaistos are not alloys but metals (tin, gold and silver). Homer elsewhere seems to regard bronze as a metal, and anyway his grasp of metallurgy is not all that firm, assuming that gold and silver are worked in the same way as iron. 

C. makes much of the relation of scenes represented on the shield to themes in the rest of the Iliad: the besieged city has obvious relevance to Troy, the wedding celebration perhaps recalls Paris and Helen, and (more speculatively) the legal dispute with its arbitrators could well remind us of Achilles’ unresolved dispute with Agamemnon. For this reviewer, however, she allows too little significance to the shield’s contrasting scenes of peace (86 lines) and war (30 lines): the ‘blessings of ordered communal life’ (Mark Edwards), which neither Greeks nor Trojans are destined to know again. The theme of lost peace sounds a recurrent note throughout the poem, often in a kind of parenthesis but insistently present nevertheless: in similes from ordinary people’s lives, in scenes inside Troy, in the deaths of young warriors far from home like Gorgythion, in the two sons of Phainops whose inheritance is shared among distant relatives, in the powerful half-line about Trojan women frequenting the washing pools outside their city ‘before the sons of the Achaians came’.

In an exhaustive work like this there will also be smaller matters of interpretation that one could take issue with. In l.18 daiphrôn is said to mean simply ‘skilled in war’, without reference to the places where mention of war is inappropriate, i.e. just ‘wise’; agkulomêtês (l.293) can possibly mean ‘of the crooked sickle’ instead of ‘crooked counselling’ (see now Rutherford’s 2018 CUP commentary); and thumos (l.4 and elsewhere) should probably carry a direct reference to Michael Clarke’s important Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer.

But overall, this commentary is an important addition to the study of the Iliad, for students and scholars alike. It is readily accessible, contains a huge amount of information, and points its readers in useful and interesting directions—a worthy addition to the admirable Basel project.

Anthony Verity

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