HOMER’S ILIAD: THE BASEL COMMENTARY BOOK III

By Martha Krieter-Spiro

De Gruyter (2015) h/b 198pp £97.99 (ISBN 9781614517382)

While supplying background on heroes who have been already fighting ten years, all elements of III fruitfully retard the plot, situated as it is between the catalogues of II and the renewed clash of battalions in IV. The mustered Akhaian and Trojan armies advance to conflict, but Paris has a bright and attractive idea. He proposes a duel with Menelaos, the principals, to forestall mass slaughter. Uncanny Helen identifies the Akhaian heroes for basileus Priam from Trojan battlements. A solemnly ritualized armistice precedes the formal duel to be fought to the death while their comrades sit down to observe. Irritable Aphrodite snatches defeated but undamaged Paris from premature demise and removes him from the field. The lover reunites with his sarcastic, resistant girlfriend Helen in his bedroom. Agamemnon back on the field declares Menelaos the winner. Thus, he demands the return of Helen stolen with her accompanying goods plus timê (satisfaction for damaged honor) and poinê (reparations) for booty anticipated but foregone (3.286-91). Menelaos’ superiority anticipates Akhaian success in the ‘War.’ The Trojan failure to carry out their sworn obligation justifies (to some) their future eradication (4.158-62).

 Iliad III offers 461 verses that describe a truce, Helen’s unexpected tenth-year retrospective and thumbnail impressions of Akhaian chiefs (Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Aias), unique sacrifice and oath-rituals, and heroic combat with an arming type-scene (first, shortest, only Trojan). The struggle features no verbal vaunts or taunts, but spears, swords, and ignominious dragging by helmet strap. The duel ends with Aphrodite’s incisive interference, and the Book ends with domestic untranquillity spiced by unwanted sex. Homer provides public and private perspectives, masses and individuals, panoramas and close-ups. The one-on-one mortal combat produces an ingenious ‘what if/if only’ opportunity for aborting the death of Patroklos, Akhilleus’ berserk reaction, the Trojan War, indeed the Iliad itself. Krieter-Spiro presents 154 pages of commentary on III, where G. S. Kirk’s Iliad: A Commentary Vol. I (1985) offered 66. Bigger can be better, and Krieter-Spiro generously cites predecessors, linguistic authorities, while examining a compendium of relevant issues. (She published a monograph on Menander’s slaves.)

Only Books III and VI of the German Gesamtkommentar (edited by Joachim Latacz and Anton Bierl) are available so far in English—from eleven (non-sequential) Book-Commentaries published. This volume (translated into English by B. Millis and S. Strack under S. D. Olson’s editorship) expects, sometimes requires, access to the frequently referenced Basel Prolegomena and Kommentar on Book II. Three sizes of founts innovatively distinguish information for all readers, for philologists, and for subfields of Homeric scholarship (e.g., etymology, archaeology, comparative anthropology, oral theory, metrics). Explanations of elementary Homeric grammar (depending on 24 ‘rules’ of Homeric language [1-8]) appear only in footnotes. These distinctions can save philologists time, but the many abbreviations and symbols (three lists) at first demand frequent page-flipping. The volume closes with 31 pages of cited studies but unfortunately supplies no index.

Krieter-Spiro has absorbed both narratological insights into the foundational epic and the last thirty years of other advances in the poems, such as the now complete Lexikon der Frühgriechischen Epos (1955-2010), substantially published since Kirk’s ambitious, multi-authored Iliad Commentary. This volume and the series make several centuries of Germanic progress on Homeric poetry and society easily available to Anglophones. Nor does Krieter-Spiro skimp on scholarship in English and French. The glamour of Helen stupefying even old men, the meaning of oath rituals, libation curses on brains, and sacrifice of the lambs, and the polyphony of long and short similes (3.23, 230) merit detailed analyses, although some enthusiasts may decide there is more detail than they need.

Advanced students of Homeric idiolect, story-telling, thought-world, and heroic protocols will welcome this unexpected treat and resource, if their German (like mine) is weak. If one extrapolates the price to explore the Iliad’s entirety from this one volume (24 x £97.99, Prolegomena not included), however, s/he will need first to amass much treasure and booty.

Donald Lateiner—Ohio Wesleyan University

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