The Printed Homer: A 3000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey

Philip H. Young’s The Printed Homer: A 3000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey is an odd book to recommend to laymen because about half of it will be useful only to a very focused class of specialists. The other half, though, is of interest to any Classicist, professional or amateur, and is enough to justify buying the whole package.

The specialist half can be dealt with very briefly. Young has compiled a comprehensive list of every known printing of Homer’s works (including those spuriously attributed to him, such as the Hymns) from the first example in 1470 to 2000. It’s an impressive undertaking and I’m sure it’s very helpful for historians who specifically study historical interest in and treatment of the Homeric texts. For laymen such as myself, though, I find it hard to imagine a plausible scenario where this part of the book might be useful.

The rest of the book, though, discusses a range of material that I found fascinating and enlightening as an introduction to the Homeric Question, how the texts were created and transmitted, and how Homer was received, interpreted, and admired from ancient Greece to modernity, as well as Young’s own defense of why Homer is worth studying. I’ll just give a sample of each chapter. The first chapter asks, “Who was Homer?” This chapter is also the shortest because, ultimately, we have no idea, as Young explains, “It is clear from their writings that the historical Greeks did not know any true facts about the life of this poet Homer, and they also did not have a good idea of when he had lived, simply assigning him to some past era before their own time,” despite various authors’ speculations. There are few reliable references to Homer prior to the sixth century B.C., but many references do appear after that point, such as “an inscription from the ancient Athenian Agora dateable to ca. 475 [B.C.].” There were also several cities which tried to claim him as a native of their town, with little or no real evidence. Young does address the obvious strategy of looking for hints in the poems attributed to Homer. His epics were written in the Ionic Greek dialect, which points to him having lived in the Greek East. He also seems to have been familiar with the geography around Troy and the Mediterranean, as long as we allow for some poetic license.

The second chapter addresses the creation of the Homeric text. Young poses four primary questions: Was “Homer” a single man who composed the Iliad and Odyssey, or were they created by some other process? When were the epics composed, when were they written down, and when did a standard text emerge? What era do the stories take place in? How much of the poems are historical and how much fictional?

Let me pause for a moment to note that, for those approaching Homer’s work for the first time, I recommend not worrying too much about these issues. Focus first on the text in front of you and enjoy it as a work of literature. For those who already love Homer, though, it is natural to wonder about such things, and of course it is the work of historians to attempt to answer them. (I’ll also note that I’ve written a little about how to approach Homer on a first reading).

Now, those familiar with the epics and with Greek history will notice a number of oddities with the works. For example, in the Iliad men will be killed in one book, then appear alive later on. Cultural practices, military technologies and tactics, and other things are a mix of disparate periods of Greek history. Some passages include language forms from much earlier Greek dialects. Some passages are simply of inferior quality than others. How do we explain all this? Some scholars have argued that they’re evidence that the epics are actually separate works edited together; Young cites Friedrich August Wolf as an early modern proponent of this theory, who attempted to divide the poems into these earlier parts in his 1795 book Prolegomena ad Homerum.

Another possibility discussed at some length is that the oddities are the result of the epics’ origin as oral poetry. Young summarises the work of various scholars and points out that oral poetry often uses recurring lines and epithets just as Homer does, for example. Oral poets may also repeat certain passages either purposely or accidentally, and the conservatism of oral poetry could explain the presence of old-fashioned language. On the other hand, oral poems are rarely of such epic length, though again, it’s possible that the poems were divided into separate poems that were performed individually, not all together.

Beginning in the third chapter, “The Homeric Text in Classical Antiquity,” Young spends the rest of the first half of the book discussing Homer’s reception and reputation in various periods of Western history. It’s well-known that the ancients revered Homer, attributing to him extraordinary insight into topics from ethics to geography to military strategy. That said, Homer did have his critics. Xenophanes criticised his overly human depiction of the gods as impious, and Heraclitus “attacked the philosophical authority and other poets.” Homer’s most famous critic must be Plato; in the Republic he discusses poetry at length and concludes that the works of Homer and other poets are, ultimately, impious and encourage undesirable beliefs and behaviours, and should therefore be banned, despite admitting that Homer is excellent in other ways. I discussed this in my review of the Republic, for those interested.

The fourth chapter addresses medieval Europe and the Byzantines. After the fall of Rome, the West mostly lost the knowledge of Greek, and so knew Homer only second-hand through the descriptions and summaries of Latin writers. Some Greek knowledge did, of course, come to the West eventually, most notably Aristotle, but overall the Greek Classics would remain largely obscure until the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Of course, Byzantium was Greek and so retained Homer, whose reputation did rise and fall over time but, overall, continued to be held in the highest regard. A particularly interesting example is the literary genre of the cento, which is an epic poem created entirely through lines and phrases taken from Homer.

In the fifth chapter we come to the Renaissance and the printing press. Knowledge of and interest in Homer and Greek learning in general began picking up in the fifteenth century due partly to the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the influx of Byzantine scholars fleeing westward, and commercial contact with the Eastern Mediterranean. Young says, for example, that “Venice established itself as the center of Greek scholarship ca. 1500 due to her schools, including the nearby university of Padua, the many printers producing first editions of the Greek classics, and the necessity for its colonial administrators to learn to read Greek.”

The long sixth chapter begins with a discussion of the difficulties of translating Homer, much of which will be familiar at least in outline to those who’ve read translators’ introductions to Homer, or any other author for that matter. He then proceeds to outline the volume of printings of Homer in each era of the modern world and highlight particularly notable translators. Many of the spotlighted translators are well-known, such as Chapman, Pope, and Lattimore. Others are more obscure or not known as translators, such as Thomas Hobbes and T. E. Lawrence. Young writes near the end of the chapter:

One of the first observations that must strike anyone after this survey of just a few of the translators of Homer is the diversity of people who have undertaken to do so. There are poets (Percy Blysshe Shelley), playwrights, novelists, philosophers (Thomas Hobbes, I. A. Richards), thinkers on society (William Morris, Samuel Butler), master publishers (William Caxton, E. V. Rieu), prime ministers of England (Edward Earl of Derby, William Gladstone who published fragments of translations in his 1858 Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age), a courtier to a king (William Ogilby), ecclesiastics, headmasters, military men (T. E. Lawrence, Robert Graves), a French lady (Anne Dacier), as well as scholars galore.

He also observe when discussing the first half of the twentieth century how, with the destruction of Europe’s aristocracy in the World Wars, translation became the domain of scholars rather than aristocrats, gentlemen, and poets. This is unfortunate, since the diversity of translators made for interesting takes and points of comparison.

In the seventh chapter Young ends Part I of the book by returning to his question raised in the introduction, “Why read Homer?” He points out, correctly, that Homer addresses themes of universal importance, and that anyone living in the West should be familiar with Western culture. Unfortunately, his defense is rather weak. He compares diversity and multiculturalism to a stew, in which each chunk contributes something, so we should retain the Western ingredients while also incorporating material from non-Western, non-male authors. This is weak sauce, but for a professional academic is as much as one can expect.