HOMER’S ILIAD VI (The Basel Commentary)

Ed. by Magdalene Stoevesandt, and tr. by Benjamin W. Mills and Sara Strack (English version ed. by S. Douglas Olson)

De Gruyter (2015) 220pp £97.99 (ISBN 9781614517399)

This is the English language version of S.’s Iliad VI, originally published in German in 2008. This has led to a semi-symbiotic relationship with the Cambridge ‘Green and Yellow’ edition of the same book by Barbara Graziosi and Johannes Haubold (2010): G/H just had time to see S. before their own work came out, whereas S. was able to study G/H (‘an especially rewarding task’) in detail before this English version was published. This is, of course, only the commentary, which for every book is based on the separate volume of text plus translation (Martin West and Richmond Lattimore). When S. disagrees with either scholar, the lemma gives, say, Lattimore’s version in square brackets, followed by her own translation: in practice, instances of questioned translation numbered about five, one of which (at line 62a) is important.

Four more preliminary points call for notice. First, in view of the immense scale of the project, and to avoid unnecessary duplication, a substantial volume of Prolegomena was published in 2000 (English language version 2011), which any user of this volume would be well-advised to have ready at hand. Secondly, the commentary’s format is unusual, in that three founts are generally used on one page: regular type for explanations for all audiences, with transliteration of Greek; smaller type corresponding to a ‘standard philological commentary’, and, in a much smaller type below a dividing line, an ‘elementary section’: and elementary it certainly is, eg. ‘aiei = aei’, or ‘ken = an’, or, my favourite, ‘r’ = ara’. Thirdly, a perhaps minor point, but relevant to the immediately preceding one: the bibliography includes the original German edition of Autenrieth and Kaegi’s Woerterbuch (1873, reprints), but does not mention the English translation by R.P. Keep (1876, several reprints, including one in 1984), which, in the circumstances, seems a pity. Finally, the commentary opens with a section entitled ‘24 Rules Relating to Homeric Language’, emphasizing its deviations from Attic grammar, which should be helpful to those who need the ‘elementary section’ already referred to.

Book VI is one of absorbing psychological interest, but little action on the battlefield. Notable are the encounters between Glaucus and Diomedes and three which involve Hector, especially the one where both Helen and Paris are also present. S.’s introductory account of the first-mentioned is perhaps more thorough than enlightening, with reference to the work of (by my count) 17 other scholars, including G/H. This unavoidably raises a problem: since most of the references are to work in languages other than English, of how much practical use will they be to Anglophone students? Of course, completeness can be justified on the grounds that this is part of a project conceived on an encyclopaedic scale: but even so, one may wonder how many of the references will still have any interest or validity when the opus reaches the finishing line. As to who won the encounter, S. gives a wholly satisfactory account of both ancient and modern views, justifiably pointing out that ‘the narrator commentary marks Glaukos as the inferior character over whom Diomedes gains a symbolic victory’: she deals succinctly with interpreters who regard Glaukos as the victor. The reviewer adds that S. gives a most interesting and complete account of Glaukos’s genealogical narrative, the longest in the Iliad (lines 150-211).

S.’s handling of the scene between Hector, Paris, and Helen (lines 313-368) brings out its Innigkeit with fully satisfactory detail, without matching the exceptional quality of the G/H version, e.g. on the ‘silence’ at line 342. S.’s overall summary of the episode, while accurate, is brief and bland, as is her account in her earlier ‘Overview of the Action’ in the book: yet here we have three of the four key figures of the Iliad (though one might add Achilles as the ‘absent present’) showing their natures in stark detail: no surprise that it comes just after halfway in the book. But once again, one must recall that this episode is only one relatively short part in a book which itself is only one part of an immense structure.

The style of the commentary appears again in the famous episode of Proitus/Bellerophon and the ‘letters/signs in a folded tablet, bringing death’—a vivid image—around which a book could be written (if it has not already been). S. here refers to (again by my count) the work of some 30 scholars, many of them non-anglophone, compared to the spare but adequate account in G/H: to be sure, any scholar wishing to follow up and needing the detail will—rightly—go to S., and will not be disappointed. At a less elevated, or philological, level, the commentary is as clear and complete as could be asked for, and Realien are not neglected: especially relevant, because of their absence from the Prolegomena volume (see this reviews site, October 26 2015).

It should be clear from the foregoing that to make a direct comparison between S. and G/H would be inappropriate: their aims are too different. As a ‘one-off’, especially at student level, G/H’s admirable commentary clearly takes the palm, whereas what S., and the editors of the Basel Commentary, are seeking to achieve amounts to a ktêma es aei: scholars seeking further information on, or the history of, any given topic or controversy will make this their port of call, and are unlikely to be disappointed. Accordingly, at the same time, and despite the provision of elementary information, one may question the extent to which this book will find users below the level of say, graduate or otherwise experienced students.

S. rightly congratulates the translation team on their success in rendering her ‘rather complex German text into readable English’. While much of the (generous) bibliography relates to non-anglophone scholasrhip, the work of such scholars as West, Kirk, Leaf, Macleod, Monro, Hainsworth, Griffin, Janko and others is of course included. This book will unquestionably be a mandatory purchase for university libraries, as they gradually assemble their Basel Commentary, which promises to be on as heroic a scale as its subject: of course, not everywhere will need to buy the ‘Text and Translation’ volumes, given their ready availability in other versions elsewhere. Finally, the quality of book production by De Gruyter is impeccable: but all concerned with the preparation and production of this commentary—especially Magdalene Stoevesandt—deserve our thanks and congratulations. The labor, however improbus, has not been in vain.

Colin Leach



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