Thursday, February 21, 2019


Richard Hunter, The Measure of Homer: The Ancient Reception of the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey'. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. x, 254. ISBN 9781108428316. $44.99.

Reviewed by Tom Phillips, University of Manchester (

Version at BMCR home site


How might one go about taking the measure of Homer?1 Even when, as in this book, confined to how (mainly Greek) antiquity valued its most important author, the question ramifies intimidatingly. Richard Hunter clarifies the stakes at the outset by looking at a series of ancient responses to Homer which emphasize his recalcitrance to being measured in conventional terms. Homer's world-encompassing power was expressed by the sheer number of places that claimed him as their own, and 'the fact that potential "homes" for Homer expanded as the Greek world did … shows just how extraordinary Homer's "universality" was felt to be' (1). Moreover, a specific vocabulary was wrought to express Homer's extraordinary status and achievement. Whereas for other ancient Greek authors (and people at large) place of birth was a foundational feature of identity, the Proclan Life of Homer (5 West) calls Homer 'a citizen of the world' (κοσμοπολίτης), while Antipater of Thessalonica claims that 'the broad heaven was [his] fatherland, and no mortal woman gave him birth' (AP 296.7–8 = GP 479–80). The most famous of such images is that of 'the poet as the encircling Ocean from which all rivers and seas derived' (2). As Hunter points out, the image is drawn from 'Homer himself'; at Il. 18.607–8, the Ocean encircles Achilles' shield, while at Il. 21.194–7 Ocean is the source of all other water but is second in power to Zeus. Interpreted allegorically as an image of the cosmos, 'the universal shield reflected the universal nature of its maker, Homer' (3).

With these reflections, the scene is set for a book that, despite its relative brevity, treats an enormous wealth of evidence, ranging from the archaic period to late antiquity, from Alexandria to Borysthenes,2 from the high-cultural entanglements of ps.-Longinus, Plutarch, and Dio Chrysostom to an inscription in a public toilet at Ephesos (SGO 03/02/47, discussed 10–12). Throughout, Hunter demonstrates the breadth and depth of Homer's influence; the bare fact is not surprising, but many readers are likely to have their sense of that influence extended and enriched by Hunter's account of just how thoroughly the Iliad and the Odyssey made their way into every corner of Greek life and thought, from library to latrine, and into the farthest reaches of the οἰκουμένη. Equally important is Hunter's illustration of the extent to which Homer created the terms within and against which not just his own poetry, but almost every aspect of life was to be conceptualized, figured, and debated by subsequent generations. Again, the general claim is not new;3 what is illuminating, and ought to generate much further thought and debate, is the detail and subtlety with which the claim is pursued, and the many new connections between texts that Hunter forges.

Aware that the scale of the subject-matter obviates anything like a comprehensive treatment, Hunter has written a book which aims, with a beguiling combination of modesty and interpretative ambition, 'to offer some sense of what Homer meant in antiquity' (vii). Focused selectively on aspects of Homeric reception such as allusions in inscribed epigram (Ch. 1), debate over Homer's depiction of the gods (Ch. 2), representations of the symposium and sympotic practices (Ch. 3), and responses to Homer in exegetical scholarship and literary criticism (Chs 4 and 5), the 'series of studies' (vii) that follows makes good both on the aim and the measured tone in which it is voiced. Readers familiar with Hunter's back- catalogue will know what to expect: as in his earlier books on the ancient reception of Plato and Hesiod,4 compendious knowledge is allied to keen observation and careful argument to produce interpretations that will be read with pleasure and proft by anyone with an interest in Greek literature. Such is the richness and range of these studies that a review geared to comprehensiveness would risk a similar inutility to that of the 'survey' that Hunter has avoided writing (vii). In what follows, I therefore home in on a selection of readings that illustrate what I take to be some of the particular strengths of Hunter's project.

Although concerned in the main with the rhetorical, tonal, and allusive details of literary texts, this is not a book that neglects the big picture; rather than proceeding from or interrogating overarching methodological premises, Hunter allows general claims to emerge from scrutiny of particular pieces of evidence. Noting, for instance, that the beginnings of Homer's poems were 'a source of critical wonder' in antiquity, Hunter observes that for Western culture, 'questions of "origins" have been almost indissoluble from issues of where literary accounts of "origins", "histories" in fact, begin' (131). Homer's starting-points, therefore, have exerted influence not just on literary openings, but on the very notion of what a 'beginning' is. Hunter draws out this point by comparing Homer and Thucydides. Citing the historian's celebrated distinction between the 'causes' (αἰτίαι) from which the Peloponnesian war sprang and the 'truest πρόφασις' (1.23.4–6), Hunter finds these terms anticipated in the causal structure that underpins the opening of the Iliad; 'whereas Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over, and Achilles' wrath can be traced to, Briseis, the truest πρόφασις of the quarrel and the wrath lie far deeper, in the nature of the two men and the system of values in which they find themselves embedded' (131). That Greek literature begins with 'a problem of beginnings and causation' and 'a recognition that this is a problem' is, Hunter's reading implies, profoundly generative for later thought. The interaction that Hunter puts his finger on here shows that Homer bequeathed to subsequent writers not just literary forms and particular claims about the world, but fundamental interpretative structures and questions about their efficacy.

In other readings, Hunter shows ancient authors fashioning dialogues with Homer in order to pursue equally urgent questions of understanding, conduct, and identity. The subtlety with which such questions are addressed is especially to the fore in Hunter's account of Dio's Olympic Oration (83–90). Focusing on the defence of sculpture as a means of representing the gods voiced by Pheidias, Hunter examines the literary critical and philosophical debates that underlie the speaker's presentation of Homer, and finds the speech staging a simultaneous acknowledgement of Homer's influence on Greek culture's conceptualization of the divine, and the exploration of alternative possibilities. 'Pheidias' contrasts poetry's capacity to represent the divine through a wide range of action with sculpture's restriction to one form (Or. 12.70, 78–9 discussed 86, 89), but these reflections are complicated by persistent allusion to the criticisms levelled at Homer by Plato (87–8, citing e.g. Rep. 3.397a1–b2). On Hunter's reading, 'Pheidias presents his great sculpture [of Zeus and Olympia] as a better way of seeing god and of avoiding the difficulties raised by the Homeric representation of gods'; producing 'fixity and oneness', sculpture becomes 'the approved Platonic form' (90), in contrast to poetry's fleeting uncertainties.

More humorous but posing no less arresting conceptual challenges is Plutarch's Gryllus. Hunter detects in the dialogue numerous engagements with the traditions of Homeric exegesis, suggesting for instance that behind Odysseus' claim that he has argued with Circe 'often enough' about whether or not to remain with her (986a), lie 'arguments drawn from the critical tradition on the Odyssey'. Plutarch's is therefore a playfully anachronistic Odysseus, who 'has been drawing on scholarship on his Homeric namesake to defend and explain his actions' (176). The dialogue's titular protagonist, on Hunter's account, is also steeped in Homeric learning, in addition to his more obviously-displayed philosophical antecedents (177). In Gryllus' description of having seen Odysseus on Crete (989e), Hunter traces a 'rewriting or paraphrase' (179) of the ecphrasis of Odysseus' brooch at Od. 19.225–35. Gryllus employs the language of memory metatextually (ὥς σε μέμνημαι ἐν Κρήτῃ θεασάμενος, 989e), intimating that his memory of Odysseus' appearance is 'a "memory" of the Homeric text' in a manner familiar from Latin poetry (179), and glosses Homeric vocabulary in a manner that recalls the Hellenistic poets (179–80). All this learning is lightly worn, however; in arguing for the superiority of animal life,5 Gryllus enacts a 'rhetorical performance' that teasingly 'downplay[s] the whole scholastic (and) scholiastic business' from which it draws its techniques (180).

As this reading shows, Hunter thrives on demonstrating the influence that the ancient scholarly writings on Homer, preserved by the scholia vetera, exerted on 'literary' writing. Particularly illuminating treatments of this phenomenon elsewhere include Hunter's account of 'the psychological depth and the level of calculation ascribed to Homeric characters' by Libanius (169), and the influence of Homeric exegesis on the questions of characterization and motivation that Libanius pursued (169–70). Hunter also sheds light on the nature of ancient Homeric exegesis itself, and helpfully draws attention to several exegetical tendencies which seem to have spanned generations, while doubtless owing much to pivotal figures such as Aristarchus. One is commitment to the notion of Homer having planned out 'all the details (and silences) of his poem, even those which were apparently inconsistent' (132); another, to which less attention has been paid, is 'the scholarly effort to imagine a coherent Homeric world and a coherent set of customs (ἤθη) in which passages from different parts of the poem are used to illustrate and explain each other' (164–5). In tracing the parallels between such notions and (inter alia) Aristotle's Poetics and later literary criticism, Hunter presents readers with a helpfully clarified picture of ancient scholarly concerns.

Likewise valuable are Hunter's discussions of ancient literary criticism, which often shed new light on much-pondered passages. A highlight is the examination of De subl. 9.12–13 in which Longinus claims that the Odyssey is 'an epilogue' (ἐπίλογος) to the Iliad, before elaborating his celebrated contrast of the two poems. In the course of six densely detailed pages, Hunter draws out the background of Longinus' connection of the predominance of narrative in the Odyssey with old age (comparing inter alia Arist. Rhet. 2.1390a9–10, 188), and parallels between Longinus and the scholia (190–1), in particular their shared emphasis on Homer's having used the Odyssey to tell stories for which the Iliad did not offer scope (with De subl. 9.12, compare ΣT Il. 24.804a). He then turns back to unpack the aptness both of Longinus' characterization of the Odyssey as an ἐπίλογος and of the lines quoted (Od. 3.109–11, from Nestor's speech to Telemachus) to support this verdict. In ancient rhetorical theory, the ἐπίλογος functioned to recapitulate and to stir the emotions, most often to pity (192); when understood against this background, Hunter argues, 'Longinus' choice of Od. 3.109–11 is typically masterful: a simple list of names … pregnant with a sense of suppressed emotion, and behind each death a long epic telling of which Homer's audience are "reminded"'. Moreover, because Nestor's lines refer to the deaths of Ajax, Achilles, and Patroclus, they also point beyond the Iliad, and 'illustrate … how Homer did indeed save up "leftovers" to use in the later poem' (193).

Altogether, then, a learned and fascinating book. Whether reminding us that 'Homer's reach was by no means limited to the Greek world, narrowly interpreted' (21), or using the Homeric echoes in an inscribed elegy to press readers to consider 'what "Greek life" in Hellenistic Bactria actually meant' (24), or tracing the ancient Nachleben of Achilles' song (Il. 9.185–91) through tragedy, literary criticism, scholarly exegesis, musicology, and philosophy (219–31), Hunter is never less than a sure and stimulating guide. His 'studies' testify absorbingly to the varied sophistication with which the ancients responded to Homer's poetry, and to that poetry's inexhaustible fecundity as a source of intellectual orientation.


1.   The title is drawn from the unfortunately lacunose Long. De subl. 9.4: τὸ ἐπ' οὐρανὸν ἀπὸ γῆς διάστημα· καὶ τοῦτ' ἂν εἴποι τις οὐ μᾶλλον τῆς Ἔριδος ἢ Ὁμήρου μέτρον ('… the distance from earth to heaven; and one could say that this was the measure of Homer no more than of Strife', referring to Il. 4.440–1), discussed by Hunter at 58–62.
2.   Or rather Dio Chrysostom's version of the latter: see 28–41.
3.   In recent scholarship, see J. Porter, The Sublime in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2016) 360–81, cited by Hunter at 2 n. 9.
4.   Plato and the Traditions of Ancient Literature: The Silent Stream (Cambridge, 2012); Hesiodic Voices: Studies in the Ancient Reception of Hesiod's Works and Days (Cambridge, 2014).
5.   Spenser's Palmer was not persuaded: 'Let Grill be Grill, and haue his hoggish mind' (The Faerie Queen II.12.87.8).

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