Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Jerry Toner, Homer's Turk: How Classics Shaped Ideas of the East. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. x, 306. ISBN 9780674073142. $29.95.

Reviewed by Tim Rood, St. Hugh's College, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site


"This book is not just about Homer and the Turks," Toner writes near the start of Homer's Turk. In fact, this book is not much about either Homer or Turks. The index entry for "Homer" lists 8 pages in all, and while Turks fare better, the book has much more about Arabs and Indians. The source of the title appears near the start of the book, in Toner's discussion of a seventeenth-century traveller in Ottoman Turkey who describes Janissaries using a horse-tail tied to the end of a staff as a royal standard – a usage "which … doth retaine, perhaps something of Antiquity. For Homer sticketh the like in the gallantly armed (though not so spirited) Paris" (quoted p. 4). Toner concludes that "The Turk … was in a real sense Homer's Turk" – by which he seems to mean is that the Turk was (almost) Homer's Trojan. The odd title should not, however, detract from recognition of Toner's ambition in the book as a whole: writing for a general readership, he covers in an accessible style a great deal of material from the Byzantine age to the present day, showing numerous ways in which allusions to classical authors have been used to express western (and particularly English) ideas of the East.

A brief summary is enough to show the chronological range of Toner's interests. The first part of the book consists of three thematic chapters: Chapter 1 offers some general comments on the importance of classical reception for oriental image-making; Chapter 2 examines different modes of classical allusion; Chapter 3 then explores some early (mostly Byzantine) representations of Islam. Part II is a series of case-studies, focussing in turn on seventeenth-century English travellers to the Ottoman empire; Gibbon's portrayal of Islam; James Mill's History of British India; the writings of Lord Cromer; and explorers in Arabia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (e.g. Doughty, Burton, Lawrence). Part III takes the story up to date, exploring representations of the East in cinema and some specifically American responses.

Admirable though this chronological scope certainly is, it is hard not to feel that Toner has been too ambitious. It is difficult for any writer to be fully in control of so much material, and inevitably in the more general early chapters some of the writing has a derivative feel, with examples cited via secondary sources. Toner does mention Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's comparisons between Homeric and oriental manners (pp. 116-17), but there would have been scope for a much richer analysis of this typical eighteenth-century theme: key texts such as the notes to Pope's translation of the Iliad or Robert Wood's An Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer are nowhere mentioned. The very scope of the book also leads to problems with its texture: Toner repeatedly, and commendably, reminds his readers of the complexity of the issues he is addressing, warning against reductive polarities, but he is too often content to stop at that point. The argument is carried forward by many rather bland generalizations (e.g. p. 32: "Classical comparison functioned to legitimate the whole imperial project, from the military to the cultural. Yet it also served as a means for the English to think about their own level of civilization"; or, more dubiously, p. 233: "Not much had changed by 2006" – that is, between The 300 Spartans of 1961 and 300). The evidential basis of such broad-brush comments is sometimes unclear: Toner concludes a discussion of the growing number of women travellers in the nineteenth century with the claim that their travel texts show "that Western, always a general term, was acquiring many more apparent internal divisions": "The 'West' no longer simply meant masculine" (p. 215). "No longer simply meant …" – to whom? Leaving aside the fact that Toner here ignores his earlier, welcome treatment of Montagu, this claim speaks most to one of the dangers of reception studies – the insidious attractions of narrativization.

Many of Toner's abundant classical references could have profited by further contextualization. I was pleased to be introduced to Bholanauth Chunder's Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India, in which the name of battle of Plassey is said to "stand on the page of history as equal to those of Marathon, Cannae, Pharsalia, and Waterloo – the greatest battles in the annals of war" (p. 160), but missed an allusion to E.S. Creasy's Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, one of the most popular history books of the nineteenth century, which was presumably the source of Chunder's Marathon to Waterloo trajectory (though, interestingly, not of the battles in between). Again, Toner notes how James Mill drew on John Richardson's claim that there were no Persian records for the major battles of the Persian Wars (p. 153), but he does not provide any information on Richardson, an idiosyncratic eighteenth-century scholar, or pick up on Mill's distortion of the original argument – which was directed against the reliability of Greek accounts of the Persian Wars. Particularly puzzling is Toner's discussion of a passage in Charles Doughty's Arabia Deserta where a Herodotean parallel is offered to a story of an Arab prisoner escaping by cutting off his fettered foot. Toner uses this story to support the statement that "Many see the oriental as typically cowardly" (p. 203). Since he does not gloss the bare allusion to Herodotus, he does not pick up on how Doughty twists ("will not a rat as desperately deliver herself, leaving even her limb in the trap?") an act that Herodotus describes as "the bravest of all deeds" (9.37). In any case, it is not at all clear that Doughty's nasty rat comparison was meant to characterize the Arab prisoner as "cowardly".

The problem with the texture of the work is compounded by a lack of clear focus: for the most part the book does indeed, as its sub-title and blurb promise, discuss how Classics have shaped the way travellers have viewed the East; but other sections seem more concerned with discussing the intersection between the Greco-Roman world and Islam or more generally the East as a geographical component in the wider problems of empire (for both the British and the United States). A further blurring of focus comes with the rather brief overview of American engagement with the East towards the end of the book: Toner jumps at one point straight from two nineteenth-century American travellers in the Near East to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This final chapter on "America Roma Nova" has comparatively little to say about ideas of the East: it focuses rather on the familiar theme of Rome as a lens for thinking about empire, and seems mainly to be an attempt to boost the book's potential market by giving it an air of contemporary relevance (the jacket blurb alleges that image-making of the Oriental Other through the Classics "persists today in some of the ways the West frames its relationship with the Islamic world and the rising powers of India and China").

The lack of clear focus in Toner's book is nowhere more evident than in its sub-title. Toner is well aware that the images with which he is concerned have often been conceived in different terms (e.g. "Of course, no simple equivalence should be drawn between the Greeks and later Westerners", p. 16; "concepts such as the 'West' and 'Europe' were in their infancy, with 'Christendom' being a far more common term", p. 56; "no simple East/West divide existed in the Middle Ages", p. 59). But while dismissing the "vague and condescending" English ideas about the East (p. 21), Toner does not bring out sufficiently the inherent relativity of the concept of "East": the East is always a plastic concept, and his book would have done more to unsettle (or perhaps for some readers confirm) the vague and condescending ideas that continue in the present day had he noted that for many English travellers from the periods with which he is concerned, the East began not in the Levant or at the Bosporus but within Europe itself.1

Toner's book, then, is valuable for its energetic collection of a large body of primary material, and for its interesting discussion of some of that material. But its interest for all types of reader would have been greater if he had settled on a slightly more modest and coherent topic.


1.   See e.g. the opening chapters of B. Jezernik, Wild Europe: The Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers (London, 2004) and M. N. Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (New York and Oxford, 2009; first edition 1997).

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