Reading Homer Today

Review: Barbara Graziosi, ‘Homer’

Rembrandt's 'Homer'
Rembrandt's 'Homer' (1663)
• December 3, 2016 4:57 am


One of the most striking things about the Iliad and the Odyssey is the simultaneous universality and strangeness of the poems’ characters. We understand, for example, Hector and his wife’s need to speak about—and, at times, partly believe in—life after the war and the future of their young son, Astyanax, even though they both know there will be none. In book six, in a brief break from battle, Hector meets Andromache on the city wall, plays with his son briefly, and tells his wife he has no choice between life and death, only between a courageous death and a cowardly one. Still, he asks the gods to allow his son to "rule all Troy in power / and one day let them say, ‘He is a better man than his father!’" Homer ends the poem with Hector’s corpse burning on a funeral pyre, but in most other accounts of the war, Astyanax is thrown from the same wall to his death shortly after the fall of Troy.

Nor is it too difficult to sympathize with Achilles’s impossible choice between glory and a long quiet life in the countryside. Like him, we can sometimes seem to allow circumstances to make the choice for us while, at the same time, acting on subconscious desires we refuse to acknowledge fully. While it is the death of his friend Patroclus that finally shakes Achilles from sulking over Agamemnon’s confiscation of Briseis and sends him back into battle, when he finally faces Hector, it is not vengeance he has on his mind. He is "bent on glory."

Of course, the violence with which these characters defend their honor has always been at least a little shocking. When Odysseus returns home after 20 years away he and his son, Telemachus, kill all but one of the over 100 men who have been courting his wife in his absence. With jaws "dripping red" with blood and thighs "splattered with gore," Odysseus hangs, on a single rope, the dozen women who slept with the suitors. As "doves or thrushes beating their spread wings / against some snare…in thickets," Homer tells us, "so the women’s heads were trapped in a line, / nooses yanking their necks up, one by one…they kicked up heels for a little—not for long."

But what is increasingly foreign to contemporary Western readers, perhaps, is the strong sense of duty—the duty of kings to be generous, wives to be faithful, subjects to be loyal—that rules these characters’ lives, however imperfectly. In short, the world of two of the foundational texts of Western civilization, which have always seemed to belong to a remote past, risks seeming even remoter.

Enter Barbara Graziosi, one of the foremost scholars of ancient Greece, and her short, charming new book, Homer. The volume is part of the "Living Poets Project" at Durham University, which studies "how listeners and readers imagined the Greek and Roman poets." Representations of ancient poets, the researchers write, "tell us something crucial—not about the actual poets of Greece and Rome, but about their readers" and the value and relevance of the poems in "particular contexts." The first part of the volume, therefore, is devoted to the old question of the authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey and the person of Homer. Nothing new is revealed—the poems were probably composed around 700 BC and show evidence of both the oral tradition and the voice of a single poet—but it is one of the most readable and succinct overviews of the key questions and most plausible answers, supported by historical, textual, and archeological evidence.

The real pleasures of the volume, however, are in Graziosi’s comments on the poems. In a book devoted to showing the enduring relevance of ancient poems to a contemporary audience, what a relief that Graziosi avoids the temptation to focus on power and sex through that most constricting but fashionable of academic lenses: gender theory. She writes about men as fathers and sons, women as mothers and wives, male friendship as male friendship, the courage and divine help needed to die a good death, and the cunning self-centeredness that is sometimes required to live.

She remarks that the Iliad, for example, is both war memorial—each man "dies in a particular way" and "has a name, a family, and a specific life that has been cut short"—and warning: not so much of the devastation of war, though it is that, but of the effects of failed leadership. "Leaders fail in the Iliad, and the people die as a result," Grazioisi writes. The very first lines announce the scandal: Achilles, because of his rage, "inflicts ‘countless agonies’ upon the Achaeans, the men on whose side he is supposed to be fighting. In his wrath, Achilles plans the destruction of his own side; other leaders in the Iliad, by contrast, lose their people out of incompetence, selfishness, or even a sense of shame."

The poem is also a consolation. Hector—the one good leader in the poem—is guided by his duty to his people and devotion to the gods. Still, he dies alone in front of the city’s gates, and Troy falls. Graziosi writes that in book 22, "the poet gives us unprecedented access to Hector’s thoughts…All other Trojans have taken cover inside the city, fleeing ‘like fawns’ before Achilles’ onslaught. Only Hector remains outside, planted in front of the Scaean Gates, ‘like a snake full of venom in front of his lair’." These final passages highlight Hector’s loneliness, but they also bring us, as listeners and readers, close to him, creating another kind of community for the warrior—and for us—through art.

Odysseus, by contrast, is a survivor. Like most critics, Graziosi thinks the Odyssey is weaker than the Iliad. The narrative occasionally lacks purpose and the ending, which features the intervention of the gods, is not very satisfying. Still, Odysseus shows us, among other things, how trickery can be used both for selfish ends and to fulfill one's duty. Penelope remains faithful to her long-departed husband by tactfully and cunningly postponing her many suitors’ proposals. Some of Odysseus’s decisions cause his men to die, but it is also because of his wits that the eloquent warrior finally arrives home, albeit alone.

Longtime readers of the poems will find little that is new in the volume but much that is true and worth considering once again.

Published under: Book reviews