CUP (2020) h/b 698pp £141 (ISBN 781107027190)

This is essentially an encyclopaedia about the Iliad and the Odyssey, incorporating a catholic overview of their linguistic, historical and cultural hinterland, which the main editor (Corinne Pache, Professor of Classical Studies at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas) describes as a synthesis ‘of the best Homeric research available at this time’. There are 79 contributors, almost all active academics, of whom 64 practise in North America.

The book is divided into three parts—‘Homeric Song and Text’; ‘The Homeric World; and Homer in the World’. Each part starts with an introduction followed by a few reasonably lengthy general contributions on the theme of the part and completed by a series of ‘Key Topics’, arranged alphabetically based on the title of the contribution. The contributions are self-contained and of varying length (some quite short). The style of presentation is broadly factual and non-polemic; reference sources are conscientiously cited; differences of academic points of view are noted but not necessarily resolved; knowledge of Greek text is useful but not essential. Occasionally the use of jargon grates (‘this hermeneutic is essentially stratigraphic in nature’) but most of the contributions (especially in the ‘Key Topics’) are eminently readable and lucid. Several of the contributions conclude with a brief list of further reading. The book ends with a Bibliography that runs to 64 pages and a comprehensive Index. There are also 25 illustrations. 

With such a range of contributors it would be unreasonable to expect a total conformity of approach to the subject matter but (before looking in more detail at the three parts) a broad consensus on the following lines may be observed:

‘The Greek speaking world had a longstanding tradition of oral public performances given by professional artists. These performances were originally local, though widely spread throughout the mainland of Greece and Asia Minor, and fluid—the performer might slightly change his presentation of the same theme every time that he performed it and the length and theme of the performance would reflect the nature of the occasion. The only unchanging element was the metrical constraints of the dactylic hexameter. 

‘The subject matter of these performances was drawn from the full range of Greek mythological tradition, from creation stories and the lives of the gods to the sagas of the heroic age when men had a closer channel of communication to the gods. Similarities between this material and sagas from the Near East, such as Gilgamesh, are noted but no linear descent is claimed.

‘Over time a degree of standardisation crept in, particularly linked to festivals and competitions held in major cities, to which the desire to promote a pan-hellenic culture contributed. Specialisation may also have emerged—in relation to creation/deity themes around Thebes and for heroic age themes in Asia Minor. The standardisation of the creation themes is presented to us in Hesiod. Out of the heroic age themes two particularly popular chunks of the available material were developed, becoming in due course the Iliad and the Odyssey. For festival purposes these standardised versions were each divided into 24 roughly equal recital modules or “books”. Other chunks of the sagas continued to be performed and audiences of the Iliad and Odyssey would have been knowledgeable about their subject matter.

‘At some point the standardised versions were written down and became scripts for the performer. The attribution of authorship to Homer occurred very early on but is not proven. Surprisingly quickly, the scripts began to benefit/suffer from scholarly scrutiny—one of the ‘Key Topic’ contributions in Part 1 discusses the authorship of scholia and the textual criticism associated with the transmission of scholia. 

‘The cultural and intellectual impact of the Iliad and the Odyssey in Europe has been consistently significant, particularly while Homer remained a curriculum subject in the Greek speaking world, and despite the texts not being translated on a line by line basis into any other language until 1360. The poems retain their artistic and academic magnetism to this day.’

Part 1 ‘Homeric Song and Text’ speaks directly to the poems themselves and starts with seven weighty contributions which include the role of performance, the transition from song to text, epic traditions and the language of Homer. This is probably in academic terms the most distinguished section of the book. There are 41 ‘Key Topics’, including (as examples only) Achilles, Ekphrasis, Hesiod and Homer, Homeric Dialects, Metre and Speech.

Part 2 ‘The Homeric World’ examines the environment within which the events in the poems take place. The opening six contributions are on Communities, Religion, History, Geography and Artefacts. Because there are significant disagreements about which period’s environment should be regarded as Homeric (broadly Bronze Age or Iron Age) this seems to be the section that currently generates the fiercest academic debate. There are 47 ‘Key Topics’, including Athletic competitions, the Catalogue of ships, Class distinctions, Feasts and drinking, Pylos and Women in Homer.

Part 3 ‘Homer in the World’ examines the way in which succeeding generations have reacted to the Iliad and the Odyssey. There are 16 introductory contributions, longer and more detailed than in the other two sections. They fall into three group:- seven representing a historical sequence from antiquity to the present day, two on the development of modern scholarship and the remainder on recent trends like film , gender studies, video games and post-colonialism. There are rather fewer (14) ‘Key Topics’ in this section, mainly about Homer’s relationship with individuals—such as Aristotle, Plato, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Simone Weil.

Because of its design this book is not conducive to being read from cover to cover, rather one to be dipped into—although the opening sections of each part will benefit from being read individually at one go. The quality of the scholarship is impeccable (the number of contributors makes any selection of individual names invidious). All the questions you could think to ask about Homer—together with some that you would never have thought of asking—are addressed. It is unlikely that any Classics for All reader, however eminent, will not end up better informed by some new information and stimulated by some fresh insight. Any serious student of Homer should need to consult this publication.

Roger Barnes