THE MEASURE OF HOMER: The Ancient Reception of the Iliad and the Odyssey

Richard Hunter

CUP (2018) h/b 254pp £34.99 (ISBN 9781108428316)

One ‘Life of Homer’ called him a kosmopolitês, a citizen of the world, the poet (it was claimed) from whom all literature and culture took inspiration. Far more than the traditional seven cities claimed his birth; and the further East Alexander the Great travelled, so more were added to the list. Even Rome put in a bid. The cultural ramifications of this phenomenon are the subject of H.’s endlessly interesting book, which demonstrates the extent to which Homer lay at the heart of ancient cultural identity.

Epigram at all levels of society across the Greek world were replete with his influence. In funerary epigrams, one wife was praised for here ‘eyes like a cow’ (cf. boôpis Hêrê), another for her superiority to Penelope, and a loyal servant likened to Eumaeus. The way to behave in a latrine in 4th C AD Ephesus was expressed in Homeric language. Writers like Plutarch, Dio Chrysostom, Lucian (all 2nd C AD) and Philostratus (3rd C AD) engaged constantly with Homer. When Dio visited Olbia on the north coast of the Black Sea, he found cults of Achilles all over the place. Socrates in the Republic may have wondered what state Homer benefitted or where he was counted as a law giver, but Philodemus (1st C BC) argued that he taught the elite how to behave; and Proclus (5th C AD) produced other examples, arguing that Plato was attacking poets because it was to them that Athenians looked for truth and education, not philosophers. 

Homer’s depiction of the gods was another source of his influence. Though some thought Homer’s view of the gods ‘unseemly’, others argued that his poetry demonstrated that gods favoured just behaviour and, by allegory or other means, could be used to teach virtue and vice. But allegory did not mean there were no gods: Homeric gods were both gods and ‘something else’. Homer’s understanding of death was reflected in a poem from Smyrna (c.AD 200), where a young man described how he sat around feasting with the gods. Much earlier, Cicero had attacked such a view: but that simply emphasised that Homer was a universal point of reference. Like the Homeric gods, he filled the world. Homer also dealt with subtle problems of motivation: was it gods or simple human desire that made men fall in love? Aphrodite’s mediation in Helen’s encounter with the defeated Paris in Iliad 3 was a key text in the debate. Herodotus’ view that Homer gave Greeks their gods was influential in more ways than one: Dio’s Olympian Oration went into detail about the difficulties the sculptor would have had in depicting Homeric gods in all their glory.

Odysseus’ account of his journeys to the Phaeacians in Odyssey 9-12 exerted a continuing fascination among symposiasts, even though he was not describing a symposium: ‘everyone invokes [his travels] at public sacrifices before the feasting and libations’ (Contest of Homer and Hesiod). Naturally there was philosophical disapproval of Odysseus’ view that such feasting together was kalliston, ‘the finest thing’, but for symposiasts the sentiment merely demonstrated that Homer was one of them, first and best; even the antics of the feasting suitors in the later books of the Odyssey proved that he too was well aware of the effect of excessive alcohol. All this raised the question of correct sympotic practice, a common theme in sympotic verse and much discussed by Plutarch and Maximus of Tyre. The sundeipnos kephalalgês (‘the dining companion who gives you a headache’) and the ‘spectre at the feast’ who turned companionship to strife were all part of the mix. Odysseus’ account in the Odyssey also raised another issue: where did one begin any tale? What order should it be told in? Such narratological issues remain high on the modern critical agenda.

Scholars inevitably fell to arguing about the detail of the Homeric poems: allegorising and rationalising the gods, questioning whether the Greeks actually did fight for the whole ten years since they knew that Troy was doomed to fall in the tenth, and so on. Aristotle wrote a complete book entitled Homeric Problems. Aristarchus, the greatest Homeric scholar of the Hellenistic period, thought long and hard about emending, particularly athetising, the text and produced major advances in understanding Homeric technique. But he began from certain assumptions which we might not share: that Homer could not be inconsistent, repetitious, inappropriate or simply odd. 

Other scholars reworked Homer for educational and rhetorical purposes. Libanius from Antioch (4th C AD) imaginatively composed the speeches (omitted by Homer) which Menelaus and Odysseus would have given the Trojans on their embassy in Iliad 3. Throughout this sort of exercise, ancients showed the same awareness of and interest in character, motivation and intelligibility as we do. Meanwhile Plutarch imagined a dialogue between Odysseus, Circe and Gryllus, a man turned into a pig, in which Gryllus amusingly deconstructed the whole heroic epic tradition. But grandeur, the ‘high’ style, was important, and raised questions about the nature of poetry. In what sense, for example, could the second half of the Odyssey, with its lowlife beggars and pigmen, be justified?

The Siren’s promise of knowledge and pleasure through song represented another rich legacy, the combination of the useful and the delightful which dominated ancient discussions of the nature and effects of literature. In his Phaedrus, Plato allegorized the story: Odysseus tied to the mast was the philosopher refusing to yield to the temptations of pleasurable experience. The tradition that the Sirens represented literary and philosophical culture more generally was a Platonic invention. For Christians, however, the Sirens were typically temptations to be avoided, as Odysseus had done on his way to his ‘real home’. But what of Achilles’ song about the ‘fame of men’ in Iliad 9? Scholia suggested he was, as a lover of music, seeking consolation; he did not bring the lyre to war (no aesthete, he), but took it as booty; he was keeping his psukhê active by practising deeds of war; or was he practising anger-management? Again, the moment was being interpreted in the context of Achilles’ character.

H. concludes that, whatever one makes of ancient views of the poet—and most of them are largely apple-sauce—‘poetics’ is the business of responding to poetry, and when it came to Homer, there was nothing there that ancient critics did not want to respond to. But the importance of H.’s elegant elucidation of the historical ‘reception’ of Homer is that it casts instructive light on the ancient world. Modern ‘reception’ for the most part can do nothing but witter unproductively on about the modern.

Peter Jones

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