HOMER’S ILIAD: THE BASEL COMMENTARY: PROLEGOMENA

Ed. by A. Bierl and J. Latacz; English version ed. by S.D. Olson, and tr. by B.W. Millis and S. Strack

De Gruyter (2000 and 2011) h/b 284pp £97.99 (ISBN 9781614517375)

The unusual genesis of this volume calls for explanation. It was originally published in German in 2000, to herald the immense, multi-authored Basel Commentary, planned to extend to 48 volumes. However, as time went by, it became apparent that the growing importance of English—and the concomitant relative decline of German—rendered an English version desirable: indeed, imperative. There were financial considerations, too, which fall outside this review. After discussions, S. Douglas Olson, has taken on the General Editorship of the English version, which, it is to be assumed, will run in parallel with the German one, though instead of the text with a new translation of the German editors’ version, the Anglophone collaborators will use ‘Richard (sic) Lattimore’s popular version’, from which the lemmata are to be drawn. (The Greek text being used by the Swiss editors is that of the Teubner edition [1998-2000]of the late M.L. West.) Finally, this volume has been updated or improved in some ways, to reflect the needs of its Anglophone readership, notably in the bibliography, where, however, such familiar names as D.L. Page, H.L. Lorimer, C.M Bowra and H.T. Wade-Gery are not to be found.

The (sensible) object of providing Prolegomena on this generous scale is to obviate, so far as possible, the need ‘to discuss indispensable basic information anew at every relevant point’. The 11 articles, after the two prefaces, the second one being for the English edition, run as follows: 1: Introduction: commenting on Homer from the Beginnings to this Commentary (Latacz). In this important chapter, it is argued that the current Commentary is regarded as a step towards unifying the German (Ameis-Hentze-[Cauer]) and Anglophone (especially American) traditions of Homeric scholarship (Leaf-Kirk); 2: History of the Text (M.L. West): writing in 2000 with less than his usual sparkle, he does not offer a date for when the poem was first written down, though Wachter (chapter 4) suggests ‘early 8th century’ (a suggestion which Hugh Lloyd-Jones [1981], in a different context, had regarded as astonishing); W. severely criticizes Allen’s Oxford Classical Text of 1930 for its confused and self-contradictory apparatus criticus and emphasis on orthographical trivia. 3: Formularity and Orality (Latacz): a justifiably long section. L. starts with Aristarchus, moves on to Wolf, and takes matters a stage further via Hermann’s masterly comprehension of the link between orality and formularity, with explanation of the filler-role performed by epitheta ornantia. More work was carried out by such scholars as Ellendt, Duentzer and Witte, before L. arrives at Milman Parry, to whom, in one way or another, the rest of the chapter is devoted. Parry’s work was first taken up in France (it is not always remembered that his thesis was written in French), but rather slowly elsewhere: L. gives credit to Albert Lord, C.M. Bowra and Albin Lesky as early supporters, and goes on to argue that the ‘boom’ started in 1971, thanks to the translation of Parry’s work by his (equally short-lived) son Adam. (Here, the reviewer demurs: Parry’s influence was dominant, at least at Oxford, by the early 1950s.). The rest of the chapter largely consists of additions to, or modifications of, Parry’s work, before we are told that E. Visser overcame Parry’s limitations in 1987 by showing that the singer shaped the hexameter via the positioning of determinants (subject, object, etc) and variables (verbs, particles), and filling out deliberately retained spaces with free supplements. This direction of recent research (says L.) ‘promises to validate Parry’. 4: Grammar of Homeric Greek (Wachter): this long article relies heavily on Chantraine (Munro is not mentioned). 5: Homeric Metre (Nuenlist): this brief section calls on the work of West, Maas and H. Fraenkel; N. points out in a footnote that the famous miurus, aiolon ophin, at Iliad 12.208, may go back to ‘opphin’ in Ionic pronunciation: so West, 1982. 6: Cast of Characters of the Iliad, divided between Gods (Graf), with substantial ‘biographies’ of the major figures and references to where they most relevantly appear, and Human Beings (Stoevesant), with the same approach: a distinctly helpful vade-mecum. 7: The Structure of the Iliad (Latacz): this includes a brief discussion of the ‘Analyst—Unitarian’ controversy from Wolf (who effectively opened the debate) to the present, and presents an Aristotelian approach to the topic, with graphs; when Latacz primly observes that Schadewaldt’s Iliasstudien (1938), with its Unitarian approach, was published at a time ‘detrimental to the rapid dissemination of its findings’ one has the very faint sense of a nose being wrinkled. L.’s conclusion—that authorial interweaving of different elements was so ‘meaningful that the recipients’ general impression of a work of the highest quality was reinforced by aspects of its structure as well’—is disappointingly, if unsurprisingly, bland. 8: Homeric Poetics in Keywords (Nuenlist/de Jong): this is basically a substantial glossary with explanations, from ‘ABC-Scheme’ to ‘Word-play’. 9: New trends in Homeric Scholarship (Bierl): this complicated chapter (27 sections), in which the work of Nagy makes frequent appearances, does not lend itself to summary; it concludes by saying that the Commentar[ies], ‘in their hermeneutic “reperformance” and re-digest of earlier and recent research results keep the tradition of this outstanding text alive and fresh’. 10: Character Index (Stoevesant, with Fornara, Gyr, and Suter): another glossary, with references (Zeus has approximately 600). 11: Homeric-Mycenaean Word-Index (Wachter): the list of words is impressively long; its aim is naturally to direct the attention of the reader of Homer to Mycenaean Greek.

It will be clear from the foregoing that the work under notice here has some of the characteristics of a ‘Companion’, and the problem inbuilt to all such works cannot be ignored. So far, six double volumes of text/translation/commentary have appeared, with three more due imminently, and a further three by 2016/7. Thus, twelve books of the Iliad will have been covered; a grant application is being made for continuation of the project, for which no dates are suggested, though the intention is to produce ‘approximately three volumes per year’. Those chapters in the Prolegomena which are of a more or less factual nature (1, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, perhaps 2 and 8) will have enduring value, but other chapters (3, 7, 9) are liable to become out of date, especially if the timescale becomes extended. It is not clear from Olson’s contribution to the Preface how far the English language version has so far progressed; reliance on Richmond Lattimore’s error-strewn translation (1951) is hardly ideal, even if unavoidable. That said, there can be no doubting that the volume is one of substantial utility—which the addition of a chapter on ‘Homer and the Monuments’ would surely have enhanced. The translation shows relatively little sign of its German origin (no small achievement), and the printing standards are of the highest quality. Only the price may be daunting, though it seems that a digital version is, or will be, available.

Colin Leach

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