HOMER’S ILIAD: The Basel Commentary Book XVI

Edited by Claude Brügger

De Gruyter (2018) h/b 428pp £100 (ISBN 9783110554151)

Book XVI of the Iliad puts in train a sequence of events that will turn Achilles’ confident mastery of events into ashes in his mouth: for he will send Patroclus into battle as his proxy, and he will be killed by Hector, and Achilles’ concern for his τιμή will be entirely forgotten in his desire for revenge, and by his realisation that his revenge will be the death of him. Aristotle saw that Homer invented tragedy: that tragedy begins here. 

The first thing to say is that this commentary has been superbly translated from the original German edition (2016) by Benjamin Millis and Sara Strack under S. Douglas Olson’s editorship. The reviewer spotted two infelicities (ἀναρπάξας translated as ‘abduction, rapture’ [211] and μενέαινε as ‘reared up mentally’ [227]) but otherwise one would never know it was a translation. 

The opening notes explain how the commentary is organised in different type-faces. The topics published in the accompanying Prolegomena to cover all 24 books are explained. (This was reviewed at https://classicsforall.org.uk/book-reviews/homers-iliad-basel-commentary-prolegomena/, though with the exception of technical literary terms B. makes relatively little use of it.) The ‘24 rules relating to Homer language’ (very good indeed on particles) follows; then a brief overview of the action in XVI (on p. 9, not p. 8, as it claims on p. 12); and finally an analysis of the action up to Book 16, which deals with two problems (the apparent inconsistency between the embassy in IX and Achilles’ view of it in XVI, and the absence of the wounded Machaon in XVI). Summary references to various aspects of the book (Patroclus, other characters, similes, type-scenes etc.) conclude the introduction. It is noticeable that B. rarely refers to Lattimore’s translation, the Basel default translation for the Greek. This was wise. That translation is riddled with (still uncorrected) errors (by my count fifteen in XVI, and a record 23 in XV). Martin Hammond’s Penguin translation would have made a far better choice.

The commentary proceeds as follows: a general introduction to the content of a large block of text is followed by shorter sub-sections, each with its more closely focussed attention on content, grammar, other material and linguistic help. The bibliographical information is extensive (the 51-page bibliography indicates the editor’s mastery of the scholarship) but this is no simple variorum edition: B. makes it clear where his views lie on any number of issues. B. is generous in his acknowledgement of others’ work (especially Richard Janko’s 1992 edition) and refers to many old favourites now long out of date, e.g. E.T. Owen’s excellent little The Story of the Iliad (1946). It is especially productive in its harvesting of the rich pastures of German scholarship, for which all Anglophones will be grateful. On a personal note it is a pleasure to record the use B. makes of the emeritus professor of medicine Kenneth Saunders’ now definitive appendix to W-H. Friedrich’s Wounding and Death in Homer, in which Saunders brings the eye of a modern physician and fine classical scholar to bear on Homer’s understanding of the human body (prejudice alert: the reviewer co-edited the translation of Friedrich [Bloomsbury, 2003]). Probably for the first time in recorded history, not a single publication of the editor’s appears in the bibliography. 

It has been a genuine pleasure working in detail through this magnificent commentary. It is extremely impressive both on the large and small scale. Book XVI is a major turning point of the Iliad, and Homer exploits the tragic possibilities to the full, picking up on past words and deeds whose relevance to the present and future becomes gradually clearer. B. is fully on top of these connections and their dramatic significance, enriching our appreciation of the mastery with which Homer paces the narrative, turning the tragic screw as he does do so, not just for Patroclus but for the soon-to-die Hector and Achilles. The commentary, for all its detail, often makes thrilling reading on its own account. Perhaps collating a number of these tragic markers—prophecies, warnings, irony, over-confidence, delusion, ignorance, pathos, sympathy—would have confirmed even more securely Aristotle’s claim that Homer invented tragedy.

On the smaller scale, too, B. offers much to ponder. Take for example the death of Patroclus. At 791-2, Apollo slams him in the back, knocking his helmet off and making his eyes spin. His armour collapses off him. At 805-6, Homer comments ‘Ate seized his wits, his shining knees gave way, and he stood bewildered’. Is this Patroclus’ recognition of what Apollo has done to him? Or rather ‘a second response by Patroclus, this time no longer to the blow but to the loss of his armour, which he recognizes as a divine intervention …’? That would be appropriate, especially as Euphorbos immediately stabs him from behind (806-7). B. does, however, miss a general point here: the reason for Apollo’s removal of the armour is not just that it is Achilles’ divine armour and therefore impenetrable. It means that Hector can easily make off with it (17.125) and (another tragic moment, full of pathos) put it on himself (17.192-7), but without taking the body as well. For if he did that, the ending of the Iliad would not be possible—Achilles would inevitably offer Hector’s body in return for Patroclus’. 

One or two very minor points arose. At 22 B. quotes Cairns (2003) to imply that Patroclus’ μὴ νεμέσα suggests Achilles may think him guilty of a moral lapse. This is rather contradicted by the subsequent quote that turns it, surely more accurately, into a feeling of ‘justified indignation’. At 500, Sarpedon says that it will be an everlasting disgrace for Glaucus if ‘the Greeks strip me of my armour where I fell νεῶν ἐν ἀγῶνι’. B. translates ‘in the encampment of the ships’ but, as he says, this is not strictly accurate. So why not ‘in the contest relating to the ships’? At 617-8, Aeneas mocks Meriones for being a fine dancer in avoiding his spear, and B. comments that ‘the contrast between battle and dance is a popular rhetorical motif’. It is indeed, but it might have been worth quoting 7.241 where Hector boasts of his ability to μέλπεσθαι ῎Αρηϊ ‘dance a war-dance in honour of Ares’.

These are thin pickings. Better scholars will probably find more, given the extraordinary range of linguistic, metrical, archaeological and cultural issues covered in such minute detail. But this reviewer judges that B.’s commentary certainly matches, and in some respects surpasses, Janko’s, than which there can surely be no higher praise.

Peter Jones

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