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I don't really count as a classicist but I have read chunks of it in Greek. My take (and I think it is a common view) is that Fitzgerald is a pretty poem but not Homer. Fagles seems closer to the Greek. Moreso even does Richmond Lattimore, but at a price of some opacity (it's the handiest trot).

Penquin had a nice little reader with snippets from a dozen or more translations. And many people will recall War Music, the --homage, I guess you would call it--the poetry of Christopher Logue, who I believe reads no Greek, but who has an uncanny knack for catching the mood of the piece.

Davis X. Machina

The roll-call in Iliad 2 is often considered the newest and the oldest part of the work.

There are towns that were flyspecks in the eight century who have impressive detachments, because there's an older, Bronze-Age political geography showing through.

Some newly-important may have had detachments inserted retrospectively into Iliad 2, too, places that were flyspecks in the Bronze Age.

There is no explict reference to literacy in the Iliad beyond the cryptic 'sêma' that Bellerophon carried.

Homer seems to have no clue that there was such a thing as Linear A or Linear B, or that his Homeric heroes had enormous clerical staff in their home palaces taking inventories down to the last cumin seed.

His world-view seems in this regard much more a reflection of his own Iron-Age conditions than the glory days of Mycenae and Pylos.

Davis X. Machina

I think Wood says that by Homer's day Greeks had apparently forgotten how to read and write. They rediscovered how to do it within the following five hundred years. That strikes me as weird. I wonder how often this has happened in human history.

It happened again, almost -- in the Latin West, at least, in the late sixth and early seventh centuries AD. Literacy did not actually vanish, largely because of monasticism, but the infrastructure of lay literacy just about disappeared. In 675 AD I would guess that the literate population of western Europe was less than the literate population of just the city of Rome in 325 AD.

Dave Schuler

Fagles is closer to the Greek.


One reason for many seemingly surperflous details (e.g. the list of ships) may be that they were use to encode important information (just as e.g. Australian dream time myths were used to encode geographic imformation).


"There are numerous examples of astronomy encoded in myth, but it is especially surprising to discover their presence in the most familiar stories of classical literature, such as The Iliad of Homer, written about 750 B.C. Homer was probably the last poet in a long line of bards who memorized and passed on astronomical knowledge through an oral tradition. This is clearly demonstrated by Florence and Kenneth Wood in their book Homer's Secret Iliad: The Epic of the Night Skies Decoded (John Murray Ltd., 1999). After years of painstaking analysis of the Iliad, these authors found convincing evidence that Homer's great epic is the world's oldest astronomy book, written in metaphorical language. They show that Homer assigned each planet and star to a mythological character, and that battles between Greeks and Trojans mirrored the movements of stars and planets as they fought for ascendancy in the night sky. It becomes clear that Homer's purpose in relating the Iliad was the preservation of knowledge essential for life in ancient times and the usefulness of observations to support theoretical ideas about the nature of the universe."

Lance Knobel

Let me second Buce's recommendation of Christopher Logue's War Music. Nothing else in English gets close to the original.

It's not a line-by-line translation. It's the work of a poet at the top of his powers, freely interpreting Homer in a work that has evolved over several decades. But unless you want to spend a couple of years studying ancient Greek in order to pick your way through the original (as I did -- and it's worth it), grab Logue.

On interesting recent studies, I'd recommend Odysseus Unbound, the search for Homer's Ithaca, by Robert Bittlestone. It's about the other Homeric epic (let's not get into the argument as to whether there were two different authors for the moment), and is a meticulous work of archaeology and geography to try to identify the various sites of the Odyssey on Ithaca.


On the subject of studying Greek as an adult--it's no day at the beach but it is not impossible. And to actual reading, Homer turns out to be on the easy side--not as easy as Xenophon, but a lot more interesting, and not nearly as hard as Thucydides, or Aeschylus, or Pindar. The vocabulary (of Homer) is huge but the grammar is straightforward and the epics loaded with the catch-phrase epithets that help you move from place to place. It's not strictly "classical"--it is a stage-dialect all its own with bits of this and bits of that. But for one who doesn't really know classical anyway, hey, what's the big deal.


The oral poems that Homer synthesized into the Iliad go back at least as far as ca. 1600, as we can tell through references to physical artifacts that archaeologists have uncovered.

Susan Sherratt published an important article in the early 1990s, since reprinted in several collections, that analyzed the artifacts mentioned by Homer, related them finds from Mycenaean and Dark Age Greece, and postulated an archaeology of the Iliad. Her argument briefly is that the tale was created in several stages, the earliest dating back to the Middle Helladic Period, and the latest dating to the 8th (?) century BC.

To my mind, this suggests that any historical kernel of a Trojan seige would have to be dated hundreds of years before people have been trying to place it. If you look at the remains at Hisarlik (Troy), the most impressive city appears to be Troy II, not the Troy VIIA (destroyed ca. 1190) that has long been the focus of attention. Emily Vermeule long ago said this as well, when she was at Berkeley for her Sather Lectures. Troy II (whose destruction dates to ca. 2000) would make a much better candidate for any putative historical Trojan War, than Troy VIIA.

No, there's no evidence that Homer's heroes could read, though they could recite epic (oral) poetry.

The recently revived excavations at Troy are said to have turned up a large defensive wall that might run entirely around the citadel, but having a much larger circumference. The excavators have also found what could be regular dwellings between the citadel walls and the out perimeter wall. But what this might mean for interpreting the Iliad is very unclear.

Oh, and the Iliad really benefits from reading start to finish. It acquires a hold over your imagination.


Thanks for the comments and the recommended books and articles, folks. Lots of good reading ahead for me.

I have a question about the two translations. I've been reading more of Fagles' version this time, because Fitzgerald's was the first one I read and the only one I've re-read beginning to end. How is Fagles closer to the original? Does he capture the sound and sense of the Greek poetry better? Is his a closer approximation of the actual words and phrasing? Or is his translation also thematically truer? Am I missing something essential to the story by reading Fitzgerald?

Lance Knobel

You're not missing any of the story with either. I think most classicists would agree that Fagles gets closer to the poetry of Homer, but translating any poetry is notoriously difficult. Really, seek out Christopher Logue and you won't be disappointed.

If that doesn't satisfy your Homeric thirst, it is wholly worthwhile to try and learn some ancient Greek. Buce is right that Homer is more approachable than some others. Clyde Pharr's Homeric Greek is a good start for autodidacts.

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