Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Getting the Iliad right

There are so many misconceptions and myths about antiquity in mainstream culture that it's a refreshing pleasure to see someone with a really solid grasp of their subject. (Especially when I've criticised the same author on a previous occasion for spouting absolute nonsense ...)

Lindybeige, a.k.a. Nikolas Lloyd, talks about the Homeric Iliad in a video published to YouTube almost exactly a year ago today. No nonsense this time. Instead, we have a discussion that is well-informed, accurate, and also, apparently, interesting -- at least to the 400,000-odd people who have watched it. So let's take a moment to celebrate popular media getting antiquity more or less right!
I think that a lot of people buying this [holds up a copy of the Iliad], buy it, start reading, get a little bit confused, and realise, 'Oh! We're already deep into the war when this starts,' and they go alllll the way to the end, they slog through it, and are so disappointed! No wooden horse! That's right! It ends before Achilles dies, so we don't get him being shot in the heel or any of that, and it ends before anyone even has the idea of making a wooden horse.
-- Lindybeige, 'The Iliad' 0:40-1:07

Alexander Ivanov, Priam asking Achilles to return Hector's body, 1824 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Lindybeige's mini-lecture spends its first 5 minutes (1) dispelling a popular misconception about the Iliad (see quotation above), and (2) giving some basic information about the epic and its historical context. The remaining 9 minutes are literary criticism, highlighting two ideas: (3) that the poem walks a tightrope between celebrating warfare, and celebrating the human tragedy caused by war; and (4) the resolution to Achilles' personal narrative in the final third of the epic.

His points are well chosen, and there are no major inaccuracies or misrepresentations. Sure, there's room for disagreement on something as subjective as the core meaning(s) of a literary work -- people come up with wild readings sometimes: there are people who actually think characters like Humbert Humbert and Walter White are heroes -- but it's clear that the themes Lindybeige emphasises are important ones.

As fourteen-minute lectures go, you could do a lot worse. Would I be happy for Lindybeige to do a guest lecture in a course I was teaching? Mm, not necessarily. But I would give his essay a decent mark.

Let's look at his account of the historical context of the poem. He highlights the Iliad's importance in antiquity by comparing it to the Bible -- not an exact analogy, but a traditional trope, and one that makes its point -- and mentioning, entirely correctly, that there are stories of Alexander taking his personal copy with him on campaign,* and that at Alexandria scholars spilled a great deal of ink over the Iliad (and here's the main end-product of that scholarship).
* Alexander's copy of the Iliad: see Plutarch Alexander 8 (= Onesikritos BNJ 134 F 38), 26. Cf. Plutarch On the fortune of Alexander i.327f, where he also takes the Odyssey on campaign.

I especially like his comments about modern popular culture's fetishisation of the library of Alexandria:
You can tell how middle-class you are by how aggrieved you are and how much you wince every time someone mentions the fact that the library of Alexandria burnt down. Ahh! Grr! Oh if only it hadn't! Agh!
(I could wish the same about the Palatine library in Rome, the Athenaion at Pergamon, and hundreds and hundreds more. Any of them would involve multiple miracles.)

Anyway, the next bit is what's most likely to raise the hackles of those who have been taught about the Iliad in a certain way. was an epic poem that would be performed over several nights by a poet. Quite often we are told that they would beat a stick to a strict rhythm, as they spoke the rhythmic words. And it would take a few nights for them to get all the way through this. And yes, they wouldn't have a script to work from: they had to memorise the entire lot, a feat that was made possible by an oral tradition and the fact that there are a lot of standard phrases and repetitions within the rhyme itself.
-- Lindybeige, 'The Iliad' 2:12-2:43
There are a few things here that some classicists would probably want to see phrased differently, but I'm on Lindybeige's side. The word 'rhyme' is just a trivial slip (rhyme was almost unheard-of in ancient poetry): we'll skip that.

The real qualm I'd expect a classics student to have is with the word 'memorise'. American scholarship on Homer in the last 30 years or so has strongly disliked the idea that Homer was memorised and transmitted. They tend to prefer to talk about recomposition. The idea is that bards supposedly improvised the poem afresh every time they performed it. That idea is common in America, but in the rest of the world it's more common to think of the epic as informed by a sophisticated tradition of recomposition-in-performance, without necessarily being produced directly within that tradition. The archaic language of the Iliad belongs firmly to the first half of the 600s BCE, but the earliest likely date for its transcription is in the second half of the 500s. To bridge that gap, there's a much stronger case for verbatim or very-nearly-verbatim transmission than you'd think if you just read American books. I'm not certain which books or people have shaped Lindybeige's views: but he's English, and I gather he's based in Newcastle, so there's that.

Then imitate the action of the rhapsode; stiffen the sinews, summon up the hexameters! Lindybeige illustrates using a staff to beat time (2:20)

I'm especially pleased to see no reference to singing. Lindybeige describes a performer 'beat[ing] a stick to a strict rhythm'. As an onscreen caption makes clear, he's talking about rhapsodes, who declaimed epic, not about bards who sang with a musical accompaniment. 'Singing' often appears in Homeric epic as a metaphor for performance, but all external evidence points strongly to rhapsodic declamation. This is a position that many professional classicists would contest, but I'm firmly on Lindybeige's side here. One of Homer's rivals, Hesiod, describes performance in their genre as follows:
And [the Muses] gave me a staff, a branch of lovely laurel
that they'd plucked, a marvel: and they inspired me with a voice
divine, so that I would popularise things that will happen and did happen,
and they told me to hymn the race of the blessed ones, who are eternal,
and always sing of themselves both first and last.
-- Theogony 30-4 (ca. 700 BCE)
Rhapsode with staff,
declaiming an epic episode
set at Tiryns; from the cover
of my own book (BM E270,
ca. 490-480 BCE)
Hesiod talks about 'hymning' (hymnein) and 'singing' (aeidein), but the staff shows that he's thinking about rhapsodes. For my money, I'd say 'singing' is a conventional poetic image, not a literal reality. (See also my Early Greek hexameter poetry, 2015, pp. 76-7, with more sources.)

Lindybeige is also nicely cautious about the date of the Iliad: 'somewhere between the 700s and 500s BC', he says. Modern scholarship dates the Iliad anywhere from ca. 800 (Powell) to the mid-500s (Jensen) -- for what it's worth, in my view the most powerful evidence points to ca. 670-650 -- so this is a fair reflection of an open question.

So much for the historical aspects. The rest of the video is occupied with literary exegesis. Lindybeige illustrates how the Iliad simultaneously celebrates war and shows an extraordinary sensibility to the human suffering caused by war. He gives a full reading of Iliad 11.218-247, the death of Iphidamas, killed by Agamemnon, and his touching backstory ending in 'bronze sleep ... far from his wedded wife'. In the last minutes, he turns to Achilles' fury. The very first line of the epic highlights this theme, but Lindybeige confines himself to talking about the last third of the poem, where Achilles is enraged at Patroclus' death, rampages on the battlefield, fights a river-god, kills, captures, and sacrifices Trojans, buries his friend, but cannot find peace anywhere -- until the night-time visit from king Priam in book 24 (also a genuinely powerful moment in Petersen's film Troy (2004), with Peter O'Toole as Priam, as Lindybeige points out).

'Perhaps more than anything, the Iliad is about this scene.' (10:00-11:25)

Do these points give an exhaustive account of the literary merit of the Iliad? Of course not. But they're a very good selection. Lindybeige's discussion of war and humanity neatly encapsulates two divergent modes of interpretation which focus on the Iliad as praise poetry and as tragic, respectively -- the Gregory Nagy school and the Aristotle school, you might say. And his treatment of Achilles' fury, while not the deepest or most thorough, nonetheless draws out an aspect of how the Iliad develops that theme throughout books 17 to 24, and does so without mistakes.

The only real criticisms I can imagine being levelled at Lindybeige are about all the other things going on in the Iliad which he doesn't mention. The rampages of the other Greek heroes; how the poet plays on competing poetic traditions; the narrative of divine withdrawal and return; the humanity and failings of Hector; the use of folkloric themes. And so on. But who has time for all that? This is 14 minutes long. And it's perfectly good for that length. It's a delight to see something this competent in the popular arena. Congratulations.

Postscript: for more multimedia coverage of Homer and the Iliad, try the BBC World Service's programme 'The Iliad: beauty, brutes, and battles' (Dec. 2016), with Bettany Hughes talking to Stathis Livathinos, Antony Makrinos, Folake Onayemi, and Edith Hall. I haven't listened to it yet, and the cast-list makes it sound like it's more about reception than about the Iliad itself, but I'm looking forward to it!


  1. Hello! This is in an old post, but I'll comment anyway. How do you mean that the Iliad should be dated around 670-650 BC, but "the earliest likely date for its transcription is in the second half of the 500s"? How, and why, would a poem be memorised verbatim (or almost verbatim) for at least a century before being committed to writing? Why do attempts to solve the Homeric question always have to give me a headache...? Wouldn't it be much simpler assume that the Iliad got its final form when, and only when, it was committed to writing (as in West's theory)?

    1. Hi Eetu. The penalty for asking a hard question is getting a long answer...

      670-650 is the date suggested by material culture described in the Iliad and corresponding to transitions in the archaeological record: the most important study is Van Wees' articles in Greece & Rome (1994) 41.1: 1-18 and 41.2: 131-155. For what it's worth, West agrees with the dating, though he draws on very different (and much less compelling) evidence.

      I'm not comfortable with arguments for early transcription, for a cluster of reasons:

      (1) It is a commonplace idea - shared by both analysts and oralists - that the text underwent an important phase-change when it began to be performed at the Great Panathenaia in the latter half of the 500s.

      (2) There are some kinds of linguistic evidence that hint at the possibility - only a possibility, mind, as things stand - that the text as we have it was transliterated into Ionic from the classical Attic alphabet.

      (3) It's fairly well settled that, though the Trojan War was a popular legend, and the name "Homer" was known in the early 500s, the Iliad itself only began to have a significant cultural impact (on the pictorial arts and on other poetry) from the late 500s onwards.

      (4) For some places we actually have evidence that Homer was not popularly known until quite late: 505 BCE in Syracuse, and Burkert and West have argued for 522 in Athens.

      (5) All extant Greek writing from before about 540 BCE is framed as an utterance designed for the moment at which it is read - declarative statements, instructions, etc. for the reader at the moment of reading it. We have no direct evidence that writing was used to transcribe anything at all until after that point. (See further Jesper Svenbro, "Phrasikleia", opening chapter.)

      With all that in mind I think there's a stronger case for near-verbatim oral transmission in the intervening period (with some alterations, but I'd suggest not enough to qualify as "recomposition in performance") than is usually accepted.

      Obviously that isn't a universal view. West firmly believed that the text was written down in an Ionic context in the mid-600s, and that most of it can be recovered by applying some systematic orthographic adjustments to the text as transmitted, to convert it from later Ionic into 7th century Ionic. Oralists prefer to think that the text crystallised gradually over a period of decades or centuries.

      I'd say that the above points pose serious difficulties for both those views - points 2 and 5 for West's view, and points 3 and 4 for the "crystallisation" view.

    2. Postscript: it's point 5 above that most directly addresses your question, I think. That is: we don't have evidence for any written transcriptions of any poems at that date, and we do have some reason to think that writing *wasn't* used that way.

      The evidence isn't nearly complete enough to be certain, but it's enough to treat near-verbatim oral transmission seriously.

    3. Thanks for your answer!

      Without (as of yet) reading the reference given in (5), if I understand you correctly, you're claiming that e.g. most Lyric or Iambic poetry weren't written down by their authors either – Sappho, Callinus, Tyrtaeus, Callinus, Solon, Archilochus etc., not to mention hexameter poetry like Hesiod. So all of these would have been handed down (near-)verbatim for some time before being written down? I find this difficult to believe. We do have, after all, very early hexameter inscriptions like Nestor's cup, but I reckon that it doesn't count because it's more or less an "instruction for the reader at the moment of reading it" (basically, "drink me!"). Papyrus and parchment were perishable materials, wouldn't that account for much of the problem of lacking direct evidence?

      As far as point (3) is concerned, I feel that it's partly answered by point (4) – a text needn't make a cultural impact in places were it wasn't known, and the text might have had a rather small circulation in the beginning. On the other hand, if a 15000 verse was considered so important that it was memorized near-verbatim and transmitted from mouth to mouth for over a century, wouldn't you expect it to have had a "significant cultural impact"? That too answers (3) I think.

      What is the actual evidence for very long texts transmitted verbatim for extended periods, anywhere? Mostly something even close to that would happen with cult texts, I suppose. I'm not denying that the epic might have had a long history in a fluid, oral state before being written down (I think it's even probable).

      That said, I consider your theory much less fantastic than Nagy's idea of a gradual "crystallization" of the text (it all depends on how much is "some alterations", when you say "with some alterations, but I'd suggest not enough to qualify as "recomposition in performance").

    4. /quote: "if I understand you correctly, you're claiming that e.g. most Lyric or Iambic poetry weren't written down by their authors either – Sappho, Callinus, Tyrtaeus, Callinus, Solon, Archilochus etc., not to mention hexameter poetry like Hesiod. So all of these would have been handed down (near-)verbatim for some time before being written down? I find this difficult to believe."

      That is the implication, yes. I agree that it poses severe difficulties if you imagine these corpuses of poetry as inert artefacts, like a treasury of a poet's collected works, but (a) in many cases we can be certain that these corpuses were _not_ inert -- we know authors adopted well-known personas (not just Homer and Hesiod, but also Sappho, Aesop, Orpheus, Musaeus, etc.), and that indicates that the corpuses associated with those names were evolving traditions -- and (b) before rejecting it I'd still like to see some evidence of written literature earlier than Hecataeus!

      (On point (a), think for example of the Hymn to Apollo adopting the persona of Homer; the fluidity of the Homeric corpus, which in the early 500s seems to have been represented by the Thebaid; or the ostentatious persona-adopting in the Works and Days; or how Sappho's surely fictional love for Phaon appeared in "her" poetry; or how "Solon" often frames his poems with "hey I'm Solon".)

      The Nestor's cup inscription that you mention is exactly the kind of poetry, designed for the moment of utterance, that I meant. The same goes for literally every other extant hexameter inscription of the Archaic period -- "so-and-so dedicated me", "this is the tomb of so-and-so", "so-and-so did this thing here". The earliest hexameter text that _doesn't_ do that is from around 490-480: a Douris cup with a quotation from a poem about Skamandros. CEG 462, dating to around 500, does mention passers-by and so looks to be designed as an utterance for the moment of reading, but it's indirect enough that that might qualify as a slightly earlier example.

      (I'm not relying on Svenbro here, by the way, but on a catalogue of inscriptions that I drew up myself: so Svenbro may have different interpretations. I recall that he puts his transition around 540, but I haven't read that chapter recently.)

      That's still not a rock-solid argument (if you'll forgive the expression), because of course we can't expect inscriptions to be representative of literary texts. But it does dovetail nicely with Rosalind Thomas' arguments about literacy having a reasonably high take-up rate, but low social importance. Until I'm persuaded otherwise, I do tend to default to thinking that in the second half of the 500s we're looking at a transformation in the social role of writing -- the transformation that enabled the existence of written literature in Greek.

    5. I should add that I acknowledge you do raise an important objection -- why such long poems as the Homeric epics seem to have had so little an impact. I don't have a good answer! Not yet, anyway.