Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Mario Baier, Neun Leben des Homer. Eine Übersetzung und Erläuterung der antiken Biographien. Schriftenreihe altsprachliche Forschungsergebnisse, Bd 9. Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovač, 2013. Pp. 232. ISBN 9783830071501. €75.80 (pb).

Reviewed by Paola Bassino, Durham University (

Version at BMCR home site

This book offers the first collection of the ancient Greek biographies of Homer with German translations and commentaries. In particular, the book focuses on the following nine texts: Pseudo-Herodotus' On the origin, time and life of Homer; two biographical excerpts from Pseudo-Plutarch's On the life and poetry of Homer; Proclus' Homer's date, life, character, catalogue of poems, from the Chrestomathy; the two Vitae Scorialenses; the Vita Romana; Suda, 'Homer'; and The contest of Homer and Hesiod. These texts are crucial witnesses to the reception of Homer across different periods: although, in their current form, they mostly come from the Imperial or Byzantine period, they collect the results of centuries of ancient speculation on the life and works of the poet. They were handed down in medieval manuscripts, often together with the texts of the Homeric poems, and are very diverse in terms of origins, length, contents and scope.

The Lives of the poets have been the object of growing academic interest. Recent scholarship has established the value of these biographical accounts not as historical sources, but as witnesses for the ways in which poets were imagined by the early audiences and readers of their works.1 The Lives of Homer, more specifically, have been translated into English in a Loeb edition, and a few monographic studies and commentaries on some of the texts are also available.2 Baier's book is a welcome contribution to existing scholarship in the field, not least because the process of close reading enabled by the commentary format has never before been applied to some of these texts (e.g., Vitae Scorialenses, Vita Romana, Suda).

The book starts with an Introduction, in which Baier explains his approach to Homeric biographies and highlights the value of those texts as sources for literary and intellectual history; then, as a preamble to the detailed analysis of the nine Lives, the Introduction offers a generally well-conducted overview of the earliest developments of the biographical tradition on Homer. Baier traces the beginnings of this tradition in the archaic period, and analyses the role of the rhapsodes, the performers of the Homeric poems, and of the earliest individuals to whom an interest in the life of Homer can be attributed (e.g., Stesimbrotus and Antimachus). Baier also turns his attention to the ancient dispute concerning the poet's birthplace, and presents a well-informed discussion on Smyrne and Chios, two of the oldest contenders, whose claims on Homer were associated to Homeric works (Hymn to Artemis for Smyrne and Hymn to Apollo for Chios). In the following pages, Baier presents a detailed survey of the works that were attributed to Homer in antiquity, and of the poets to whom those works were sometimes alternatively ascribed.

The main body of the book is made up of nine chapters, each including translation and explanatory notes for one Homeric biography. Baier's translations are largely based on Wilamowitz's text,3 which he defines as 'die immer noch maßgebliche griechischsprachige Edition' (p. 21).4 Indeed, Wilamowitz's edition, although it is almost a century old and less accessible than others, still distinguishes itself for philological good judgement and its brief yet informative apparatus criticus. The order of the texts in Baier's collection also follows that of Wilamowitz. Here it should be noted that the order in which these texts are presented varies in different collections, and the fact that Baier usually refers to them, in the index and throughout the book, by number rather than by title or author ('erste Leben', 'zweite Leben' and so on) can be frustrating for the reader.5

Each biography is accompanied by a short introduction (only the Vitae Scorialenses, two texts which are very similar to each other, share one), which provides information on the textual transmission of the work and some of the most important manuscripts. This is particularly useful because studies other than critical editions rarely give a sense of how these texts have been handed down. Here the reader also learns about some of the main features of each text; for example, Baier notes that the two Vitae Scorialenses transmit an epigram which is a rare but important witness to the Peisistratid recension of the Homeric poems. However, some of the issues discussed in the introductions to individual texts might have benefited from a deeper analysis. For instance, in his introduction to the Life by Proclus, Baier explains that part of modern scholarship questions the traditional attribution of the Chrestomathy, from which the Life derives, to the fifth century AD Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus Diadochus, in favour of a lesser known Proclus, a grammarian from the second century AD, and agrees that there are good reasons to do so; but he does not go into the details of the dispute, nor does he provide new insights into such an important issue as the authorship of this text.

After these short introductions, each chapter offers the translated text of a Life divided into paragraphs, with comments on individual paragraphs of text. (Different fonts are used for the texts and the explanatory notes.) Baier's discussion can thus be read alongside the passage of text to which it refers. This facilitates the use of the commentary, especially in the case of the longer texts such as the Life by Pseudo-Herodotus, while making it more difficult to read the texts continuously. The commentaries cover a wide range of issues and are generally well-organised. Baier guides the reader through the main features of the corresponding passage of text, and also considers details such as individual characters, places or works. Furthermore, the commentaries include a large quantity of references to relevant passages from other Greek and Latin works, as well as visual sources (e.g., the Pompeian fresco which portrays the young fishermen proposing a riddle to Homer in the commentary on Pseudo-Herodotus 34-6, and Archelaos' relief depicting Homer's apotheosis in the commentary on Pseudo-Plutarch 1.5). Scholars interested in the topic will find useful material in these commentaries which will also inspire further study, especially in the case of those Lives on which no other commentary is available. An example is the Vita Romana, a text that offers two peculiar accounts of how Homer became blind (either as a consequence of seeing Achilles' gleaming second armour, or because of Helen's anger at the way Homer presented her in his poems). Here Baier draws a picture of the origins and the resonance of such episodes in antiquity by taking into account a number of significant passages, such as the description of Achilles' armour in Iliad 18 and 19 and the story of how Stesichorus was allegedly blinded by Helen.

Because of its structure, the book lends itself to the use of 'hit-and-run' readers, who may be interested in the comments on a particular passage. This type of readership is generally well served by numerous cross-references, which will enable them to locate Baier's discussions of related topics elsewhere in the book. There are, however, cases where this does not work so well. Some paragraphs of text are left with no commentary or cross-references, although they provide material for interesting reflection (as in the case of Vita Scorialensis 1.3, the only passage where Homer is said to 'starve himself to death' after his failure to solve the fishermen's riddle; or the opening of the Vita Romana, which states the impossibility of identifying Homer's origins). But what is most problematic for the 'hit-and-run' reader is the lack of an index of names and/or places mentioned in the Lives, which would have worked well as a systematic guide through the several biographical details that repeatedly occur in the texts, often with interesting variations.

Although the texts are only given in translation, on several occasions Baier engages with the original language and critically reflects on textual issues, manuscript readings and editorial choices: in Proclus 8, he accepts an emendation proposed by Allen and West concerning the problematic title of a Homeric work, and justifies his choice on the basis of external evidence. He also highlights some of the features of the textual transmission – for example, commenting on the name Hyrnetho (one of Homer's alleged mothers) in Vita Scorialensis 1.1, he claims that the several variant readings here 'für eine erhebliche Unsicherheit bei der Manuskript-Überlieferung sprechen'.

At the end of the book, Baier offers a Summary in which he gives a brief overview of five aspects of the biographical tradition on Homer: 'Der Name "Homer" als biographisches Indiz', 'Ilias und Odyssee als "Quellen" der Biographie', 'Der Einfluß "lokaler Traditionen" auf die Biographie', 'Der biographisch "tiefere Sinn" von Homers Lebenszeit', and '"Muster" in der Biographie eines Kultur-Heroen'; an Appendix collects translations of biographical passages from Tatian, Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, Eusebius and Aulus Gellius.

There are a few problems with this book, especially some missed opportunities to offer new insights and some difficulty in finding pieces of information or discussions. Still, because of the translations and the breadth of the topics addressed in the commentaries, Baier makes the Lives accessible to a wider range of German readers. With his discussion of the textual transmission and editorial issues related to the Lives, Baier also offers useful material for scholarly research.


1.   See, for example: M. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets, Baltimore 2012 (1981); B. Graziosi, Inventing Homer: the early reception of epic, Cambridge 2002. This approach is currently at the core of the research project Living Poets: A New Approach To Ancient Poetry, funded by the European Research Council and directed by Prof. Barbara Graziosi at Durham University.
2.   M. L. West, Homeric Hymns. Homeric Apocrypha. Lives of Homer, Cambridge (MA) 2003; among the monographs on individual texts, see e.g. M. Hillgruber, Die pseudoplutarchische Schrift De Homero, 2 volumes, Stuttgart 1994-1999; M. Vasiloudi, Vita Homeri Herodotea: Textgeschichte, Edition, Übersetzung, Berlin 2013.
3.   U. von Wilamowitz, Vitae Homeri et Hesiodi in usum scholarum, Bonn 1929 (1916).
4.   See E. Vogt, 'Homer – ein großer Schatten?', in J. Latacz (ed.), Zweihundert Jahre Homer-Forschung, Stuttgart and Leipzig 1991: 365-77 (p. 368).
5.   Furthermore, the texts in Baier's collection are not associated with the same number as in Wilamowitz's (although following the same order): Baier treats the two biographical excerpta from Pseudo-Plutarch in two separate chapters (second and third Lives, see the respective Introductions), while Wilamowitz had put them together under the heading '2. Vitae Pseudoplutarchi'. As a result, Proclus is n. 3 in Wilamowitz but n. 4 in Baier, and so on.

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