Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Papaioannou, Sophia. Redesigning Achilles: 'Recycling' the Epic Cycle in the 'Little Iliad': (Ovid, Metamorphoses 12.1-13.622). Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Bd. 89. Berlin; New York: Walter De Gruyter, 2007. xii, 304 p. $118.00. ISBN 9783110200485.
Reviewed by Ioannis Ziogas, Cornell University (ivz2@cornell.edu)

The star of the Ovidian Renaissance that has risen in recent decades, shines brightly in Greece, and Sophia Papaioannou is one of Greece’s leading Ovidian critics. Her second book offers a close reading of Ovid’s Trojan War (Metamorphoses, 12.1-13.622) and recalls in structure, methodology, and interpretative tools her first book,[[1]] which deals with the ‘little Aeneid’ in the Metamorphoses. Focusing mainly but not exclusively on Achilles, Papaioannou examines the deconstruction of the model of the Homeric hero and its reconstruction in Ovid’s innovative epic. Poetics is the key to Papaioannou’s interpretation as she analyzes Ovid’s intertextual dialogue with the Homeric epics, an aspect that brings up a tension between the stability of traditional epic poetry and the mutability of Ovid’s metamorphic work. While Papaioannou follows well-established trends in literary criticism that revolve around the dynamics of intertextuality and metapoetics, she reads Ovid’s ‘little Iliad’ against the background of Homer’s Iliad. She thus provides a thorough analysis of Ovid’s reception of the Homeric epic that has been long overdue.

After an introduction that sets out the parameters of the study (the transformation of epic tradition, the dramatization of the Trojan War through the incorporation of tragedy into Ovid’s epic, and the dichotomy of gender), Papaioannou discusses in the first chapter the Aulis episode and its relation to the character of Aesacus, an obscure son of Priam, whose literary cenotaph effects the transition to the Trojan War. Papaioannou argues that the story of Aesacus is not merely a transitional device, but actually encapsulates the basic themes of the Trojan War. The narrator presents Aesacus as a substitute Hector, alluding to the end of the Iliad, in advance of Ovid’s retelling of the Trojan War. Papaioannou further argues for a connection between Aesacus’ literary monument and Ovid’s epic cenotaph at the end of the Metamorphoses.

In examining Calchas’ interpretation of the prodigy of the snake that devoured eight sparrows and their mother, Papaioannou argues convincingly that this episode alludes not only to Il. 2.299-329, where Odysseus tells the same story, but also to the presentation of Calchas in Il. 1.68-73. She is right to observe that Calchas’ obscure patronymic Thestorides (Met. 12.19) refers to Il. 1.69, while augur (Met. 12.18) translates οἰωνιστής (Il. 1.68). Thus, the beginning of Ovid’s Trojan War refers back to the beginning of the Iliad and the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. Moreover, Calchas, as a seer, is an alternative persona of the poet, the person who controls and generates epic action (cf. Papaioannou’s argument about the Sibyl in Epic Succession and Dissension, 60-74).In discussing the petrification of the snake in Homer and Ovid, Papaioannou suggests that, while Aristarchus rejected Il. 2.319, Ovid seems to accept the line as authentic. This concise and nice observation is an excellent contribution to the discussion about the use of the Homeric scholia by the Augustan poets.

The first chapter ends with a discussion of the Famae ecphrasis, in which Papaioannou juxtaposes the multivocality of Fama with Calchas’ foreknowledge of the truth. Hardie’s article on Fama,[[2]] (not cited by Papaioannou) examines fame’s relation to epic kleos and the tradition of the Epic Cycle, and would be conducive to Papaioannou’s approach. Chapter 2 deals mainly with the duel between Achilles and Cycnus. Papaioannou argues that Ovid discredits the standard of the Homeric hero reflected in Achilles and constructs a counter-model for a hero. Cycnus, an invulnerable hero, is a challenge that Achilles never encountered in the Homeric epics. Papaioannou’s analysis of the intertextual dynamics between Achilles’ condescending address to Cycnus and Aeneas’ compassionate words to Lausus is compelling. Vergil’s Aeneas and Ovid’s Achilles share the same rhetoric, but the former expresses empathy, the latter arrogance.

For Papaioannou, the invulnerable Cycnus puts Achilles’ masculinity to the test and thus sabotages the gender-specific agenda of epic poetry. Papaioannou focuses on Cycnus’ boast that he wears his armor as an ornament, just like Mars (Met. 12.88-92), and discusses the importance of Achilles’ divine weapons in the Iliad. Incidentally, Cycnus’ comparison of himself to Mars interestingly recalls Ares’ vulnerability in the Iliad, (a point not made by P). In Homer Ares does not wear his armor as an ornament and is not invulnerable. When Diomedes wounds him, the god of war roars in pain (Il. 5.858-9).

Papaioannou discusses the wrath of Achilles (furor) after his futile attempts to kill Cycnus, arguing that Ovid refers to the main theme of the Iliad. Achilles acts as if he were in the Iliad, devoted to a heroic ideal that rejects flexibility, and he fails to integrate into the ever-changing world of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For Papaioannou, Achilles represents the Homeric system of heroism, while Cycnus represents Ovid’s new epic. In my view, however, it would be more reasonable to suppose that Cycnus, whose story was told in the Cypria, represents the supernatural and fantastic world of the Epic Cycle. At the end of Chapter 2, Papaioannou (following Möller,[[3]]) identifies Cycnus (‘the Swan’) with Ovid’s innovative epic, examining the three different aitia of the swan in the Metamorphoses. She suggests that the main motifs of the three swan-aitia (homoeroticism, a grieving mother, non-epic poetics, and the prominence of the water element) are present in the Trojan Cycnus, but apply to the Homeric counterpart of Achilles. I find this argument unconvincing, and actually Papaioannou herself fears that her analysis is “[t]oo implicit and convoluted” (85).

The third Chapter is devoted to Nestor’s long speech. In a feast held to celebrate Achilles, Nestor deliberately fails to corroborate Achilles’ heroic status, assimilating him to the Centaurs, and Cycnus to Caeneus, the victim of the Centaurs. Arguing that Phaecomes’ intention to strip his opponent (Met. 12.439-41) echoes Achilles’ attempt to despoil Cycnus (Met. 12.143), Papaioannou erroneously states that “no other Centaur (or Lapith) in the course of the battle demonstrates an intention to celebrate a victory by stripping the armor of the opponent’s dead body” (117). In fact, Nestor says that the Centaur Latreus killed and despoiled Halaesus (Met. 12.462-3).

The story of the transsexual Caeneus revisits and reverses the gendered polarity of traditional epic. Papaioannou discusses the celebratory banquet, in which the Greek chieftains talk about Achilles’ recent victory over Cycnus, and compares it with the scene in Il. 9.186-91, in which Achilles plays his lyre and sings of the deeds of men. While Homer’s Achilles is an aoidos, the Greek heroes in the Metamorphoses dismiss music. Papaioannou notes the exclusion of songs and music from the Ovidian banquet, but I was expecting an assessment of the unmelodious talk of the Greek leaders. Cycnus, the symbol of the musical aspect of poetry, is reduced to the subject of prosaic talk (domito uictoria Cycno/ in sermone fuit, Met. 12.164-5). Contrary to Papaioannou’s argument that Ovid’s Achilles is “[a]ware of the direct relationship between epic song and the power of epic memory” (93), songs are absent from Achilles’ banquet in the Metamorphoses.

Papaioannou examines Nestor’s proximity to epic singers, such as the Muses, the Sirens, and Fama, a comparison that aligns the king of Pylos with a group of speech-manipulators. Nestor, the aged authority who narrates the novel story of Caeneus, combines innovation with tradition, touching upon the essence of Ovid’s epic poetry. Nestor’s account of the Centauromachy offers a counter account of the Achilles- Cycnus combat. Papaioannou focuses on the vignette of Cyllarus and Hylonome, in order to examine the interplay between the politics of masculinity and the poetics of genre, in particular heroic epic. In my view, however, Caenis/Caeneus is the main, though surprisingly less studied, case of a generic shift that is reflected in a gender-inversion. Nestor structures his narrative as an ehoie of Caenis, shifting from the glory of manly deeds to the Hesiodic Catalogue, the genre that celebrated female virtue and renown.

At the beginning of Chapter 4, Papaioannou comments on the metamorphosis of Caeneus into the unique bird the phoenix as reported by Mopsus and quoted by Nestor. Papaioannou is right to note that exitus (Met. 12.522; cf. 525 exire) describes Caeneus’ ‘exiting’ his human existence, but it would be also worth considering the fact that Nestor had already described the end of Caeneus’ life at 12.208-9 (studiisque uirilibus aeuum/ exigit Atracides). Does that mean that Nestor’s opinion is at variance with Mopsus’?

After the end of Nestor’s narrative, Tlepolemus, Hercules’ son, resents Nestor’s forgetting the crucial role of Hercules in the battles against the Centaurs. Focusing on Tlepolemus’ reaction, Papaioannou examines the epic narrator’s power to immortalize the deeds of heroes or relegate them to obscurity. But she has missed a more subtle consequence of Tlepolemus’ complaint. Nestor’s exclusion of Hercules from the Centauromachy is even more intriguing, given that the old king of Pylos actually mentions Hercules in his narrative once; when Nessus and the other Centaurs flee, the seer Asbolus prophesies the death of Nessus by Hercules in an attempt to dissuade him from running away (“ne fuge! ad Herculeos” inquit “seruaberis arcus.” Met. 12.309). Asbolus’ point is that Nessus has nothing to fear in the present battle because his fate is to die by Hercules, implying that Hercules was not present in the battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths. Nestor’s reference to Hercules’ encounter with Nessus was also the beginning of Hercules’ agonizing death, a tale told in Metamorphoses 9. In this story, it is the dead Centaur Nessus who triumphs in the end, not Hercules. Nestor’s unique reference to Hercules and the implications involved could hardly have escaped Tlepolemus.

Nestor’s second narrative focuses on the death of his brother Periclymenus by Hercules. Papaioannou argues for a metapoetic dimension of the name Periclymenus, which is related to the epic aoidos (περικλυτός). This is very convincing, but the juxtaposition of lyric poetry to epos through the image of the eagle, presumably found in Pindar, is not likely to have much to do with Ovid. Rather, the description of Periclymenus/the eagle as “the bird which carries in its hooked talons thunderbolts, the bird most beloved by Jupiter” (Met. 12.560-1) recalls by itself the ‘thundering’ poetics of epic.

Chapter 5 analyzes the judgment of the arms and is the best chapter of the book. Ajax and Ulysses enter a contest for the arms of Achilles, the symbolic prize of the competition, while the actual title they strive to acquire is that of the ‘best of the Achaeans’; the winner will inherit the legacy of Achilles along with his arms. After Achilles’ death, the portrayal of the ‘best of the Achaeans’, his mythos, is controlled by his potential substitutes, Ajax and Ulysses. Papaioannou argues that in Greek antiquity a warrior’s weapons were considered an extension of their owner. Thus, the contest over Achilles’ arms is actually a contest over Achilles’ identity. While Ajax seeks to replicate Achilles and ensure the stability of the heroic ideal that Achilles represents, Ulysses is to be identified with the neoteric poet, preferring flexibility and mutability, the very core of the Metamorphoses, to Ajax’s unbending obsession with the traditional ideal of the epic hero. Interestingly, it is Ajax, the hero who refuses to embrace change, who undergoes a metamorphosisin the end as the hyacinth grows from his blood, not Ulysses'.

Papaioannou argues convincingly that the setting of the competition between Ajax and Ulysses evokes an epic recitation contest, and at the same time recalls a theatrical play and the theatricality of forensic oratory. The contest further refers to the opening of the Iliad and the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles. Papaioannou draws an intriguing comparison between the wrath of Ajax after his defeat by Ulysses (Met. 13.384-6) and the wrath of Achilles in the Iliad. Ajax misreads Homer’s heroic culture because he dissociates martial deeds from oratorical performance. He can manipulate his sources for his own purposes, and Papaioannou discusses how the Salaminian hero twists certain passages from the Iliad, in order to portray Ulysses as a coward. Still, this point might be problematic for Papaioannou’s thesis that Ajax reads the poetic tradition literally. It turns out that the Salaminian hero can distort the primary sources, not unlike Fama and Ulysses. It is equally problematic to argue that Ajax tries to be Achilles’ doublet, but dismisses eloquence for physical strength. As Papaioannou rightly observes, the Iliadic Achilles is both ‘a great orator and an accomplished leader in action’ (Il. 9.443), and Ovid’s Ajax gives a masterfully constructed rhetorical speech.

Ulysses’ response offers a different reading of the Iliad. Papaioannou discusses several intertextual references to the Iliad in the speech of Ovid’s Ulysses, showing that Ulysses suggests that Ajax misreads and misunderstands the Iliad and the broader Trojan legend. One of the most intriguing points made by Papaioannou is that while Ajax in his speech draws on events found in the Iliad, Ulysses refers to events from the broader Epic Cycle, suggesting a more complex and controversial portrait of Achilles. I wish that this excellent point had been developed further. Achilles’ transvestism, mentioned by Ulysses and attested in the Epic Cycle, is unheard of in the Homeric epics, which are very different from Cyclic poetry. Ulysses’ alternative ‘Iliad’ includes several unheroic aspects of the Trojan legend that are to be identified as intrinsic traits of the un-Homeric Epic Cycle.

Papaioannou examines the transference of an Iliadic list of men killed by Ulysses into the Metamorphoses, focusing on the employment of catalogues, an archaic element of oral epic, to serve Ulysses’ narrative in Ovid’s written epic. Papaioannou’s discussion centers on an aspect of Ovid’s art that has been neglected until recently.[[4]] Her investigation of catalogues of names offers one of the most insightful analyses in her book; while Ulysses lists the catalogue of his conquered heroes in Iliad 5, a book devoted primarily to the aristeia of Diomedes, he implies that his heroic valor is independent of Diomedes, his traditional companion, even in a book about Diomedes. This is an excellent point, showing that Ovidian catalogues are not merely lists of names, but contribute to the interaction of the text and the intertext.

Chapter 6 examines the fall of Troy as a recurring allegory for dynamic and flexible experimentation with epic composition. In the fates of the survivors (Polydorus, Polyxena, Hecuba), Ovid continues the deconstruction of Homer’s Achilles, following Euripides’ subversion of the epic hero. Ovid revisits the fate of Polydorus, told in Euripides’ Hecuba and Vergil’s Aeneid. Both texts are crucial to Ovid’s treatment of the story as he refers to the Aeneid version, while correcting Vergil and restoring the Euripidean details about the treacherous killing of Periclymenus by Polymestor.

In mourning Polyxena, Hecuba experiences a reenactment of the fall of Troy (Met. 13.505-8). Papaioannou analyzes the gender reversal of the male-centered dynamics of heroic epic in the ‘transformed’ version of the Trojan War in the Metamorphoses. The sacrifice of Polyxena, commanded by the ghost of Achilles, recalls the human sacrifice on Patroclus’ tomb. Polyxena’s sacrifice, however, overturns the epic ideal of masculinity. Still, neither the destruction of the city nor the sacrifice of Polyxena makes Hecuba angry. Her rage is unleashed after the treacherous killing of Polydorus by Polymestor, a kinsman, not an enemy. Hecuba’s wrath is described with a verb (exarsit, Met. 13.545), which is used elsewhere in Ovid’s Trojan War to describe Achilles (haud secus exarsit, Met. 12.102). It is now the Trojan queen that is enraged, not the best of the Achaeans. I would add that the gender-inversion of the Iliadic wrath is all the more intriguing if we take into account that Achilles’ wrath was so closely associated with his masculinity that Protagoras objected to the feminine gender of the word μῆνις (see Arist. Soph. El. 173b19).

The Iliadic wrath of Achilles is specifically mentioned by Ovid when the ghost of the hero, who is as threatening as when he challenged Agamemnon with his sword, demands the sacrifice of Polyxena. While the ghost rebukes the Achaeans for forgetting his uirtus, the sacrifice of Polyxena is meant to deconstruct Achilles’ epic profile, given that the sacrifice of a virgin is unheard of in the Homeric epics. On the other hand, by her brave stance Polyxena transgresses her gender so that she is described as fortis et... plus quam femina uirgo (Met. 13.451). Papaioannou argues that Achilles’ anger and his demand for a virgin refer to his argument with Agamemnon for Briseis, while Polyxena’s request that the Achaeans return her body to her mother without ransom evokes the end of the Iliad and the ransoming of Hector by Priam. Drawing mainly on Tsagalis,[[5]] Papaioannou argues that Hecuba’s lament is related to the central issue of epic kleos. The fact that Hecuba laments a daughter and not a son corroborates Polyxena’s masculinization in the Metamorphoses. Lamentation, reserved for men in the Iliad, extols the dead hero, but also contributes to the perpetuation of the foe’s fame since killing one’s opponent earns the killer kleos. Papaioannou examines the relation of the Iliadic laments of Hecuba and Andromache to the mourning of Ovid’s Hecuba. A mourning song, at the same time an epic and an anti-epic sung by women for men, is performed for a virgin who died like a man, thus emphasizing how gender-boundaries are blurred in Ovid’s innovative epic.

In the final Chapter, Papaioannou discusses Aurora’s supplication to Jupiter in Metamorphoses 13 and argues that this scene is modeled on Thetis’ plea to Zeus in Iliad 1. Thus, the end of Ovid’s Trojan War reaches back to the beginning of the Iliad. Aurora’s mourning for Memnon is reminiscent not only of Thetis’ lament for Achilles, but also recalls the lament of the Trojan women over the body of Hector, and Papaioannou analyzes the ‘Achillean’ and ‘Hectorean’ side of Memnon.

Papaioannou discusses the avian transformation of the Memnonides together with that of the Meleagrides as well as with the transformation of the destroyed city Ardea into a heron (cf. pp.187-97 of her Epic Succession and Dissension). Different versions of the story of Meleager are told in Iliad 9 and Metamorphoses 8. Papaioannou draws a connection between Achilles and Ovid’s version of Meleager. However, the story of Meleager, which definitely targets Achilles in Iliad 9, is hardly relevant to Achilles in the Metamorphoses and Althaea’s wrath is not related to Achilles’. Papaioannou argues convincingly about Ovid’s reference to the wrath of Achilles in the Metamorphoses version of the Trojan War, but in Althaea’s case the connection with Achilles seems far-fetched.

The book concludes with a discussion of Ovid’s cenotaphs, the narrative monuments that immortalize the absent presence of the deceased. These empty literary tombs are filled with the voices of poetic memory. Papaioannou relates the recurring cenotaphs to the broader poetics of the Metamorphoses, but her approach is not very well integrated into the main topic of the book, i.e. the poetics of Ovid’s Trojan War. Some of her statements strike me as tendentious, like the point that Caeneus’ death and rebirth as a phoenix, the sui generis, self-propagating bird is “an obvious allusion to the extraordinary epic voice of Ovid” (277). This allusion is far from obvious. On the other hand, the use of etymology as an interpretative key is one of the most powerful critical tools that Papaioannou employs in her book, which ends with a recapitulation of the etymological dynamics of the names Aesacus, Caeneus and Memnon, and their relation to the memorializing of a hero’s fama.

Overall, one main difficulty I find in the book is that Papaioannou does not discuss in depth the juxtaposition between Homeric and Cyclic poetics, and Ovid’s stance on this issue. Given the title of the book, I was expecting that the focus would be on the entire Epic Cycle, not just on Homer. The Cyclic nature of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in general and his Trojan War in particular calls for an extensive analysis of the poetics of the Epic Cycle vis-à-vis Homeric epic.

In conclusion, this book is a welcome contribution to Ovidian studies. Papaioannou gives a thorough analysis of Ovid’s Trojan War that is well-attuned to modern literary trends, without losing focus on the text. The scholarly quality of her work and her command of secondary literature are admirable.


[[1]] S. Papaioannou, Epic Succession and Dissension: Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.623-14.582, and the Reinvention of the Aeneid, Berlin/New York 2005.

[[2]] P. Hardie “‘Why is Rumour Here?’ Tracking Virgilian and Ovidian Fama”, Ordia Prima 1 (2002), 67-70.

[[3]] M. Möller, “Der staunende Achill: eine poetologische Lektüre der Cygnus-Episode (Ov. met. 12, 64-176)”, Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft 6 (2003), 51-66.

[[4]] See now S. Kyriakidis, Catalogues of Proper Names in Latin Epic Poetry: Lucretius-Virgil- Ovid. Pierides. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2007.

[[5]] C. Tsagalis, Epic Grief: Personal Laments in Homer’s Iliad, Berlin/New York 2004.

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