Homer
Barbara Graziosi
Oxford University Press
176pp, 14 black and white illustrations
Hardback, £10.99


Homer's great epics the Iliad and Odyssey have been studied for over 2500 years and have become such an integral part of Western culture that even those who have not read them have some second-hand familiarity with the poems. Barbara Graziosi, Professor of Classics at Durham University and author of several other works on Homer, sets out to introduce the general reader to the most famous of ancient writers in this brief, straightforward guide.

Deftly handling some of the key literary, historical, cultural and archaeological issues that appear in Homeric studies, the book aims to aid understanding of the Iliad and Odyssey. One topic which naturally features prominently is 'the Homeric Question' – namely the questions over Homer's identity and the single or multiple authorship of the epic poems.

Graziosi goes through the poet's appearances in various ancient sources, which offer no consensus on his name, his birthplace, and which compositions should be attributed to him. In these matters, and in others, we are introduced to the key thinkers over the centuries. Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) first put forward the argument that the works had their origins not in one great poet's mind, but instead in ancient Greek popular culture. And later, in 1795, Friedrich August Wolf published his theory in Prolegamena ad Homerum proposing that they were produced by a process of ancient revision of earlier oral poems.

Linguistic and stylistic clues, such as the use of formulaic descriptions ('wine-dark', 'swift-footed', 'rosy-fingered', 'luminous' and more) and swift changes in viewpoints and focus (for example, zooming in on small details from sweeping broad vistas of the battlefield) help build a picture of a poet with a distinctive voice.

These same linguistic clues also offer an insight into the long tradition of oral composition, which often used pre-established patterns to fit to a certain meter. And while linguistic analysis cannot date the Homeric epics with certainty, it can establish a sequence and help to work out which phrases are older or younger. A chapter on material clues looks at the archaeological evidence behind the works, examining, for example, how Homer's descriptions of Troy match the findings from Schliemann's excavations.

The book's early chapters explain these general, but complex, Homeric concerns with great clarity, while the latter ones focus on the Iliad and the Odyssey in turn. These include commentary on specific crucial episodes from both epics. In one of the chapters on the Iliad, Achilles' grief over the death of Patroclus leads to comparisons between this ancient hero and another, namely Gilgamesh.

There is also an interesting discussion of the modern diagnosis of Achilles' post- traumatic stress disorder – and, elsewhere, Hector's death is compared to tragedy. The final chapter summarises and discusses the nekyia (dialogue with the dead) in Book 11 of the Odyssey. With Odysseus' journey to the Underworld, the Homeric epic again exhibits some parallels with the Epic of Gilgamesh. Graziosi also explores the influence this tale had on later writers, including Virgil's Aeneid, Dante's Inferno and, more recently, Primo Levi's If This is a Man.

The book is praiseworthy for its clarity and is, as it intends to be, perfect for the general reader. It offers a smooth and engaging overview of arguments surrounding Homer that have been raging for centuries, making them easy to grasp; as well as discussions of the Iliad and the Odyssey in general and key episodes from them both.

All passages are quoted in translation, with important Greek words highlighted when relevant (for example, in discussions of Homeric terms). In all, this is an excellent, succinct and up-to-date synthesis, and so much more enriching than simply a summary of the epics.
Lucia Marchini

 

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