Thursday, May 16, 2019


Sven Meier, Die 'Ilias' und ihr Anfang: Zur Handlungskomposition als Kunstform bei Homer. Studien zu Literatur und Erkenntnis, Band 14. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2018. Pp. 205. ISBN 9783825368821. €39,00.

Reviewed by Fabian Horn, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (

Version at BMCR home site


The PhD thesis of Sven Meier, supervised by Prof. em. Arbogast Schmitt at the University of Marburg, takes as its starting point the age-old observation, which has also informed much of modern Homeric scholarship 1, that the Iliad appears to be interrupted by digressions and subplots which do not contribute to the progress of the main narrative, particularly in the first third of the poem. He then proposes an argument for the unity of the poem by examining Books 2-7 in detail.

The brief introduction 'Why Homer' is rooted in discussions internal to German Classical scholarship about the justification of studying Ancient Greek literature and raises the general question of the validity and usefulness of literary interpretation, which is then addressed in more detail in the first of the following three chapters, all of which discuss the Iliad as an ethical poem and confront questions about its structural unity. Indeed, the book is rather heavy on theoretical and philosophical preliminaries to the extent that the entire first half of the book consists of a theoretical discussion serving to demonstrate that preconceived notions about Homer and epic poetry have often informed the findings of studies of the structure of the work. Despite their necessity as premises for the following considerations, these first two chapters make for a rather cumbersome reading.

In the first chapter, Meier outlines his definition of the structure of a work of literature. Drawing primarily on Aristotle's definitions of character and agency in the Nicomachean Ethics and Poetics, he distinguishes between plot ('Handlung') and narrative ('Erzählung') and aims to demonstrate how narrative structures can be attributed to efforts to make the actions of the characters coherent and comprehensible. Applying Aristotle's thoughts on unity of plot to the Iliad, Meier concludes that the main narrative of the wrath of Achilles subsumes and integrates all subplots. He goes on to define the 'tragic structure' shared by both good tragedies and good epic poems, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, as the 'subordination of narrative sequence to the intelligibility of the presentation of the action' (cf. p. 54).

Since the approach of the first chapter introduces poetic purpose and contribution to the 'narrative aim' as a criterion to explain narrative structure, the second chapter aims at repudiating 'functionality' (German 'Zweckhaftigkeit', i.e. the suitability of episodes to reach a certain narrative goal) as a valid standard for the interpretation of poetry, and especially epic poetry. Thus, Meier addresses the question of whether the passages which have been regarded as digressions and subplots of the poem are indeed retarding and delaying the main narrative, a criticism levelled at some parts of the Iliad by both Analytic and Unitarian scholars. With recourse to the thoughts on the nature of epic and dramatic poetry reflected in an exchange of letters between the two German poets and literati Goethe and Schiller, who were influenced by the aesthetics of Kant and who in turn significantly influenced the work of Schadewaldt (who also published a volume Goethestudien), Meier shows the historical basis of this traditional view of the Homeric poem and argues that it has no claim to objectivity.

Only after these extensive theoretical considerations does the third part of the book finally turn to the main topic and the poem itself by offering a discussion of Books 2-7 of the Iliad as both 'distractions' (German: 'Retardationen') and integral components of the plot. Drawing on the structural approach of Aristotle, extensively discussed in the first chapter and taken up by Schadewaldt in his Iliasstudien, Meier begins (pp. 91-103) by addressing and refuting the two premises of the 'retardation model', first showing that the plea of Thetis to Zeus in Iliad 1 has in fact not been suspended until Book 8 and then rebutting the suggestion that the episodes of Books 2-7 are supposed to mirror events from the beginning of the war almost ten years before the story of the wrath of Achilles. On this basis, he claims that the narrative of the Iliad does not presuppose a ten-year siege and battles before Troy, since there are surprisingly few references to the fighting during these first ten years. However, on the assumption that the Iliad starts with the first real attacks on the city after nine years of plundering the surrounding towns and countryside, the events described in the first third of the poem can be plausibly placed at the beginning of the tenth year of the war. The next subsection (pp. 103-41) discusses the psychological and factual plausibility of the actions of Agamemnon as well as their importance for the plan of Zeus: Meier argues that the diapeira, the teichoscopeia, and the monomachia between Menelaus and Paris, as well as the betrayal of Pandarus and the epipolesis, fit the trajectory of the narrative and the plan of Zeus well and properly belong in the last year of the war. The same argument is set forth for the actions of Hector in the same time span and Meier supports his interpretation of Books 2-7 with a reading from the point of view of Hector (pp. 141-87). Based on his analysis of the relationships between Hector, his brother Paris, and Helen in Books 3 and 6, as well as that of Hector and his wife Andromache in Book 6, Meier examines the motivations for Hector's actions and argues that these earlier episodes prepare his decisions and his failure in the later narrative and thereby contribute to the fulfillment of the plan of Zeus. In a last step, Meier considers the position of the duel between Hector and Ajax in Book 7 in this scheme and concludes that it serves to portray Hector as a sensible defender of his city (since his brother Helenus has predicted that he will not die on this day and can thus seize the opportunity to weaken the Greeks). Furthermore, after the prospects of the Trojan cause have become more dire due to the betrayal of Pandarus in Book 4 and the Greek successes in Books 5 and 6, the standoff also adumbrates the superiority of the Trojans (which necessitates the building of the Achaean wall) after the first day of battle in accordance with the plan of Zeus. Thus Meier can show that all the events of the first third of the poem contribute to the narrative, even if not in a strictly functional manner, and can characterize the beginning of the Iliad as a 'model of artful plot development'.

A brief summary concludes the book, succinctly recapitulating the argument and its individual steps by showing the coherence of the individual chapters. Meier's argument is carefully presented, well structured, and persuasive (even if it is easy to lose sight of its trajectory among the theoretical and philosophical discussions). He makes a strong case against the dismissal of certain episodes of the first third of the Iliad as delaying effects, which Analytic scholars explained as interpolations and even Unitarians like Schadewaldt viewed as expendable for the narrative as a whole. However, despite the extensive theoretical preliminaries required as a basis for his own argument, Meier leaves some general considerations about the poem, most notably the 'Homeric question' and the oral nature of its composition, unmentioned. These omissions are probably understandable, since a full discussion of the Homeric question in the given context would require a work in itself, and for reasons of space Meier cannot review the entire debate. The main reference points of the study, both thematically and methodologically, are the Analyst and Unitarian positions of the 19th and early 20th century, rather than the extensive Homeric scholarship of more recent years. Thus, the study ultimately dodges the question of its correlation with contemporary Homeric scholarship: it would, however, be well worth considering the consequences of Meier's argument in light of the insights of oral poetry theory and the bearing it might have on the issues of Homeric composition and authorship.

As for production quality, the book is neatly produced with few misprints, but contains no indices, neither thematic nor of discussed passages.


1.   Since the beginning of modern Homeric scholarship with the publication of Friedrich August Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795, the main question has been the origin of the Homeric poems, characteristically called the "Homeric question", and the field has long been divided between Unitarians and Analysts, i.e. those who saw the poems as the works of a single monumental poet (each) and those who assumed them to be the result of many different hands. The opposition has not been resolved conclusively, but the focus of the questions has shifted significantly with the advancement of the study of oral-formulaic composition following the publication of the groundbreaking and influential works of Milman Parry (PhD thesis 1928 and numerous articles until his death in 1935; see The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, ed. A. Parry [Oxford, 1971]). Already in the blurb, Meier places his work in the Unitarian tradition of Wolfgang Schadewaldt's Iliasstudien (Leipzig, 1938), striving to understand the composition of the poem as a whole.

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