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08 December 2013


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William R. Cumming

Thanks Richard and a reminder well worth it!

If you or others have not read Thomas Cahill's "Sailing the Wine Dark Sea-What Greece Gave Western Civilization" from the Hinges of History Series you might find it of some interest!

nick b

"Homer, thy song men liken to the sea,
With every note of music in his tone,
With tides the that wash the dim dominion
Of Hades, and light waves that laugh in glee
Around the isles enchanted: nay, to me
Thy verse seems as the River of source unknown
That glasses Egypt's temples overthrown,
In his sky-nurtur'd stream, eternally.
No wiser we than men of heretofore
To find thy mystic fountains guarded fast;
Enough--thy flood makes green our human shore
As Nilus, Egypt, rolling down his vast,
His fertile waters, murmuring evermore
Of gods dethroned, and empires of the Past."

- Andrew Lang, from his translation of the Odyssey of Homer, with SH Butcher. From Volume 22 of the Harvard Classics.

Babak Makkinejad

You guys need to get out of Euro-American tunnel and read other epics that are equally alive; e.g. Shahnameh, and Mahabharata.



I have read both of those. pl


Sing to me the man, O Muse...

Homer's well worth reading; and one discovers more of the challenges to living with each reading.

William Fitzgerald

Well written, Mr. Sale. Speaking of the Greeks, I had a wonderful cinematic moment while watching the Polish film "Katyn". After the war, while the Soviet sponsored Polish government was being consolidated, a young woman, having learned that her brother had been one of the Poles murdered in the Katyn forest, decided commission a memorial to him, with the date of his death inscribed thereon. This was anathema to the new Polish government and communist party, since the party line was to blame the Germans and the date made that impossible. Unable to raise enough money for the memorial she sold her very long snd beautiful hair to a theatre for a wig. On her way out of the theatre with the money, the camera passed over a poster announcing the play being produced. The play was "Antigone". That was an "Aha!" moment and illustrated for me why we still read, study, and perform the plays of Sophocles 2500 years later. That wonderful play asks the question, "what duty do we owe to the state and what do we owe the Gods, our consciences and customs?". An enduring question.




For what it's worth, Homer isn't as embedded in the "Euro-American" tradition as you might think. The poems only became widely read, really, in the late 18th century. Virgil was much better known and admired throughout the tradition, and they are very different poets. I'll try to sketch those differences.

Homer's theme is rage. His warriors have been trained since birth to build and harness incredible anger into acts of violence. They don't fight as disciplined units, they range around the battlefield talking trash and trying to murder one another. Victory almost always results in rape and slaughter--though their are curious acts of friendship and kinship too on the battlefield. At times, Homer's warriors can seem (to modern eyes) borderline psychotic. But they are also highly noble and fascinating in their way--they are very different from the Western tradition. I also don't mean any of this as criticism (I see no point in using modern morality in ancient contexts). Homer sees no world other than his.

Virgil is completely different. While he recognizes the need for violence (and, I should note, he's a profoundly self-contradictory writer; the poem ends with Aeneas killing a prostrate foe in a fit of rage), in general for him, furor must be balanced by pietas. The Iliad is largely framed around an internal dispute inside the Greek army, the war in the Aeneid is altogether a dispute between people who are foreign to one another--the one superior in virtue to the other. You can many threads of European thought in him, while relatively few in Homer.


I disagree on your view of Homer's theme. Virgil wrote almost a thousand years after Homer, at the beginning of the Augustan period. Homer was the foundation, the cornerstone, Virgil built on his themes. Of course it is differnt to modern eyes. The morals of today are certainly not the ones existing in the Agean 3,000 years ago.

William R. Cumming

I have always believed seapower the driver for Greece and Rome not the Phalanx and Cohort. Perhaps am wrong. Mare Nostrum!


Your disagreement is with Homer, not me. He announces his subject matter in the first line of his poem: the wrath of Achilles. But, of course, you are correct that Virgil built on Homer and that they treat many themes in common. So in that sense, you're right. Still, they have very different worldviews. Virgil is highly critical of the Homeric ethos, and his view had a deep and profound influence on European thought; while Homer's did not. Until relatively recently (by this, I mean 250 years), Homer was not much read, and Virgil was read by everyone.

Babak Makkinejad

Thank you for your comments; I learnt something.


The Romans had no navy until the First Punic War. They obsessively built roads to extend their power. They developed credible sea forces, but if they could avoid water, they did.

With the Greeks, sea power was obviously more important. The Athenians always had a big navy.

David Habakkuk


Thanks for your fascinating comments on Richard Sale’s fascinating post.

My own knowledge of Homer is sketchy, largely deriving from an amateurish interest in English drama in Shakespeare’s time.

Certainly, the Iliad is the story of the ‘wrath of Achilles’. But then, the Odyssey is quite different, is it not? In which case, to speak of a simple ‘Homeric ethos’ might be slightly misleading, might it not?

The first significant translation of Homer into English was that of George Chapman, Shakespeare’s contemporary. It did have resonance at the time. In particular, it seems likely that one of Shakespeare’s weirdest plays – Troilus and Cressida – was in part his response to Chapman’s translation.

The play is suffused, I think, with Shakespeare’s own complex feelings about the ‘swordsmen’ of the court of the late Elizabethan period, with some of whom he was closely acquainted. Behind his transformation of Homer’s Achilles is, quite clearly, the Earl of Essex.

It is at least arguable that the culture of the ‘swordsmen’ was carried over into Virginia, the colony named for Elizabeth. At the risk of putting forward too outrageous an hypothesis, I might suggest that both the negative and positive aspects that Shakespeare identified in the ‘swordsmen’ could be found very strongly present in the antebellum south.

Perhaps the ambivalences one finds in ‘Mark Twain’ have something in common with those one finds in Shakespeare.

This is a rash comment, which better informed people may know to be quite off the wall. But the relations between Greek culture, Roman culture, English culture, and American culture are fascinating in their complexity.


I've also been mulling my own rashness in proposing such a late date for widespread reading--it's a squishy concept. My own sense of intellectual history is that the Homer really became popular with the Romantic movement, though certainly the works were translated and read earlier. But what's always curious to me is that while we almost entirely prefer Homer to writers like Virgil, that was not a widely held view until relatively recently.

You're correct about Chapman's Homer, it did have resonance (it is, by the way, not a close translation by any means). But unfortunately it is not the source of Troilus and Cressida, which was probably published a decade or so before Chapman's translation. The T/C legend is not of ancient vintage but a tale of chivalry belonging to the Middle Ages. Chaucer wrote a version of it. As such, I'd imagine you could make a go of an argument that S's feelings about swordsmen resonate in the South, which embraced chivalry apparently with some gusto. (That said, others on this blog are much more knowledgeable about that period than me).

As for the final point about Odysseus, again, I'd get clobbered by any of my old professors for talking in such a sloppy way. The Odyssey is quite different in many ways, and some have argued it represents a transition to a more settled time.



The whole Southern thing of the classics as a background for gentlemen was very strong, even in the fifties (1950s). I was saturated in the matter of this or that place at VMI. This predilection is reflected in the 19th Century name of a tiny hamlet on the Shenandoah Valley. It is called "10th Legion." I am in Charleston, SC. An African-American gent drove me to the hotel this morning. As we passed through the city he pointed out the Military College of South Carolina (The Citadel). He said "you have another one of those, right? VMI?" I said. "Yes, there is such a place." pl

nick b

Here is an 1884 NYT review of George Palmer's translation. The author speaks briefly about the increase in Homeric translations throughout his time.


Parts of Chapman's translation of The Iliad began appearing in 1598, though the whole work was not published until 1611.


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