Hay­den Pel­lic­cia

The Iliad by Homer, trans­lated from the Greek by Peter Green The Iliad by Homer, trans­lated from the Greek and with an in­tro­duc­tion and notes by Barry B. Pow­ell, and with a fore­word by Ian Mor­ris

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Hay­den Pel­lic­cia

The Iliad by Homer, trans­lated from the Greek by Peter Green.

Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 592 pp., $29.95

The Iliad by Homer, trans­lated from the Greek and with an in­tro­duc­tion and notes by Barry B. Pow­ell, and with a fore­word by Ian Mor­ris.

Ox­ford Univer­sity Press,

596 pp., $29.95

The two re­cent trans­la­tors of the Iliad, both veteran clas­si­cal schol­ars, have long in­hab­ited that now largely aban­doned cat­e­gory, Man of Let­ters. Barry Pow­ell has pub­lished poems of his own; Peter Green has trans­lated Apol­lo­nius of Rhodes, Cat­ul­lus, Ovid, and Ju­ve­nal, and both are nov­el­ists. Both now bid (Green avowedly so) to seize the crown of the long-reign­ing king of Homer trans­la­tors, Rich­mond Lat­ti­more, whose Iliad of 1951 re­mains the stan­dard.1 If ei­ther suc­ceeds, I sus­pect it will be Green, though his com­peti­tor is a wor­thy one.

Like Lat­ti­more, Green and Pow­ell have ren­dered the un­rhymed Greek into un­rhymed verse. Green’s lan­guage tends more to the con­tem­po­rary and col­lo­quial than ei­ther of the oth­ers’ (Lat­ti­more was not above a lit­tle light ar­chaiz­ing), but apart from the oc­ca­sional lapse of taste, he has suc­ceeded in pro­duc­ing a flu­ent and highly read­able ver­sion that of­ten achieves a poetry of its own. Pow­ell is lu­cid and re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful in mak­ing a lit­eral trans­la­tion none­the­less en­joy­able, but the price is that his un­ob­tru­sive verse is slightly pro­saic; his great virtue against Green is that he pre­serves Homer’s dig­nity with­out fail.


Green pref­aces his trans­la­tion with a mov­ing ac­count of his life­long en­gage­ment with Homer, and his long-held, long-failed am­bi­tion to trans­late his poems: “Of course, it didn’t hap­pen. A mass of other work got in the way. I mar­ried, had chil­dren, was caught up in end­less re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.” His life has in­deed been prodi­giously pro­duc­tive, so that the cli­max to his nar­ra­tive of these frus­trated Homeric hopes is at once both poignant and in­spir­ing, with a charm­ing if per­haps un­in­tended hu­mor­ous side ef­fect:


The old warhorse is show­ing no in­cli­na­tion to head out to pas­ture: it was re­cently reis­sued with an ex­cel­lent in­tro­duc­tion by Pro­fes­sor Richard P. Martin of Stan­ford, who also con­trib­uted sub­stan­tial notes and other aids to the reader; see The Iliad of Homer, trans­lated by Rich­mond Lat­ti­more, with an in­tro­duc­tion and notes by Richard Martin (Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 2011). For the su­pe­ri­or­ity of Lat­ti­more’s trans­la­tion to those of Robert Fa­gles and Robert Fitzger­ald, among oth­ers, see Hugh Lloyd-Jones, “Wel­come Homer!,” The New York Re­view, Fe­bru­ary 14, 1991; and Greek in a Cold Cli­mate (Barnes and Noble, 1991), pp. 1–17. It was only a year ago, when I re­al­ized that on my next birth­day I was go­ing to be ninety, that I asked my­self what I had to lose, even now, by tack­ling the Iliad; and in a cu­ri­ously re­laxed mood sat down and tried my hand at book 1.

At age ninety Cato the Cen­sor could boast only of hav­ing be­gun learn­ing Greek—Green is about to turn nine­ty­one, his Iliad is out, and his Odyssey on the way: an epic coda to an epic ca­reer. Pow­ell has de­voted al­most all his schol­arly en­er­gies to Homer, so his late ca­reer move to trans­late the au­thor is un­sur­pris­ing (though it seems to have sur­prised Pow­ell: it was his Ox­ford pub­lisher who sug­gested it, “out of the blue”).

The proem—the poem’s first seven lines—an­nounc­ing the Iliad’s sub­ject is a bril­liant and in­flu­en­tial ex­am­ple of how Homer can make what is dif­fi­cult and dense seem easy and light. Re­cre­at­ing the ef­fects in English is not an easy feat, es­pe­cially when dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions about tex­tual vari­ants are thrown into the mix. Here is Lat­ti­more’s ver­sion of the proem, which opens with an ad­dress to the muse, the di­vine source of epic poetry:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its dev­as­ta­tion, which put pains thou­sand­fold upon the Acha­ians, hurled in their mul­ti­tudes to the house of Hades strong souls of he­roes, but gave their bod­ies to be the del­i­cate feast­ing of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was ac­com­plished since that time when first there stood in di­vi­sion of con­flict Atreus’ son the lord of men and bril­liant Achilleus.

Now Pow­ell:

The rage sing, O goddess, of Achilles, the son of Peleus, the de­struc­tive anger that brought ten-thou­sand pains to the Achaeans and sent many brave souls of fighting men to the house of Hades and made their bod­ies a feast for dogs and all kinds of birds. For such was the will of Zeus.

Sing the story from the time when Agamem­non, the son of Atreus, and god­like Achilles first stood apart in con­tention.

And fi­nally Green:

Wrath, goddess, sing of Achilles Pēleus’s son’s calami­tous wrath, which hit the Acha­ians with count­less ills— many the valiant souls it saw off down to Hādēs, souls of he­roes, their selves left as car­rion for dogs and all birds of prey, and the plan of Zeus was ful­filled— from the first mo­ment those two men parted in fury,

Atreus’s son, king of men, and the god­like Achilles.

The very first line of the Iliad forces any English-lan­guage trans­la­tor to de­cide im­me­di­ately and to de­clare con­spic­u­ously whether he would rather be caught be­tray­ing his poet or his own lan­guage. The open­ing word, mēnin, wrath, is the sub­ject of the long poem that fol­lows, but not of the long sen­tence it be­gins. This word or­der in the orig­i­nal cre­ates a markedly styl­ized but not a strained ef­fect. Po­etic Greek can bring off putting the po­tent sin­gle the­matic word first and then pro­ceed­ing to other parts of the sen­tence, placed in an or­der that sat­is­fies the de­mands of rhetoric and ver­si­fi­ca­tion. Not English, where “man bites dog” means that man bites dog and not the other way around. Homer’s trans­la­tors and im­i­ta­tors must ei­ther in­vert English’s nat­u­ral pref­er­ence for putting the sub­ject first, or else for­feit the em­pha­sis Homer has given the word “wrath.” Mil­ton, im­i­tat­ing Homer’s open­ing (“Of Man’s First Disobe­di­ence and [four more lines of things to sing of] . . . Sing Heav’nly Muse, that,” etc.), tricked his way around the stricter de­mands of English word or­der: the phrasal “sing of” let him tuck a bit of the verb in ahead of the un­nat­u­rally front-loaded ob­ject. The reader is aware of the re­sult­ing gram­mat­i­cal sus­pense, and will­ing to wait in­def­i­nitely for the rest of the verb to drop.

As we can see, only Lat­ti­more has cho­sen loy­alty to English over Homer’s word or­der, which in lit­eral trans­la­tion goes like this: “Wrath sing, goddess, Peleus-son Achilles’, bane­ful, which hurled . . . . ” Match­ing in­flec­tional mark­ings on “bane­ful” and the rel­a­tive pro­noun that fol­lows it tell the Greek reader that both go with “wrath” rather than, for ex­am­ple, “Achilles”: it’s the bane­ful wrath of Achilles that hurled . . . .

But in or­der to tell an English reader the same thing, the rel­a­tive clause has to plump down right af­ter the noun and hold on for dear life: “Sing the wrath which .... ” Try to pre­serve the Greek word or­der and English speak­ers will have to pause to fig­ure out that which leapfrogs back­ward to wrath. This is why Pow­ell and Green, un­will­ing to give up Homer’s ef­fect, opt for the hic­cup rep­e­ti­tion that elim­i­nates any am­bi­gu­ity: “wrath, goddess, sing... wrath, which . . . . ” Lat­ti­more fi­nessed the prob­lem by ex­chang­ing the ad­jec­tive open­ing line two (bane­ful) for a more mo­bile part of speech (dev­as­ta­tion) to park the rel­a­tive clause af­ter: “and its dev­as­ta­tion, which put . . . . ”

So, line one, round one to the reign­ing champ. But the next chal­lenge comes as soon as line 5, a no­to­ri­ous ed­i­to­rial crux and a touch­stone of any trans­la­tor’s nerve. It gets the bet­ter of all three. Here the con­test is be­tween the manuscripts, which all point in one di­rec­tion, gen­er­ally agreed to be the wrong one, and the sense. How do we de­cide? The choos­ing will be con­cealed from ev­ery­one but the trans­la­tor’s con­science, and as we will see, the im­pulse to have things both ways can be ir­re­sistible. The vul­gate text of the Iliad—the ac­cepted Greek ver­sion of the text— es­tab­lished in the mid-sec­ond cen­tury BCE by the Alexan­drian scholar Aristarchus, tells us that the bane­ful wrath of Achilles, af­ter send­ing the souls of many he­roes to Hades, made of their bod­ies “tak­ings for dogs and all birds.” Three and a half cen­turies later, a sin­gle source re­ports that Aristarchus’s pre­de­ces­sor Zen­odotus had read the word “ban­quet” in the space oc­cu­pied by “all” in our stan­dard text: “and made their bod­ies tak­ings for dogs/and for birds a ban­quet.” Our source re­jects this read­ing on the fas­tid­i­ous grounds that in Homer “ban­quets” are al­ways for hu­mans. In 1978 the Bri­tish scholar M.M. Will­cock coun­tered that the vul­gate read­ing “all” was “flat and in­ac­cu­rate, see­ing that only cer­tain birds, such as vul­tures, would be in­ter­ested,” a judg­ment en­dorsed by more re­cent com­men­ta­tors, who have also shown that the ob­jec­tion to us­ing “ban­quet” of an­i­mals 2 is not even sup­ported by us­age.

2Homer, Iliad, edited with in­tro­duc­tion and com­men­tary by M. M. Will­cock, Vol. 1 (Lon­don: Macmil­lan, 1978). The late Martin West de­fended “all birds” by point­ing to the phrase’s oc­cur­rence in the fifth-cen­tury comic play­wright

More to the point of the pas­sage, Zen­odotus’s “ban­quet” cre­ates a sar­cas­tic and pun­gently emo­tional cli­max to the enu­mer­a­tion of the con­se­quences of Achilles’ wrath. It is, in short, a much bet­ter read­ing, and de­rived from a cred­i­ble pre-Aristarchan source. So why not adopt it?

In fact, that’s what ev­ery­body wants to do, but no­body dares. Schol­ars over the past cen­tury or so have demon­strated a de­press­ing con­sis­tency of equiv­o­ca­tion. Wal­ter Leaf (1900) read “all” in his text, but com­mented: “On the whole ‘ban­quet’ seems in­trin­si­cally a bet­ter read­ing, but we have no right to leave the uni­form tra­di­tion of the manuscripts.” In an Ox­ford com­men­tary of 2001 Si­mon Pul­leyn does much the same. Per­haps the great­est cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance has been ef­fected by the gi­gan­tic Basel edi­tion of the Iliad that be­gan pub­li­ca­tion in 2000 (orig­i­nally pro­jected at more than fifty vol­umes, but now scaled back): it prints the Greek word for “all” on the left-hand page, but the fac­ing trans­la­tion reads Zen­odotus’s “ban­quet,” and the com­men­tary de­fends it vig­or­ously and per­sua­sively.

With that back­ground we can see that what our trans­la­tors are do­ing is re­ca­pit­u­lat­ing a long-stand­ing schol­arly fail­ure of nerve in a more eco­nom­i­cal fash­ion. Green says what the dogs got was “car­rion,” which ac­cept­ably ren­ders Greek helo­ria, lit­er­ally, “tak­ings,” or “booty.” When he com­pletes “car­rion for dogs” with “and all birds of prey,” how­ever, he silently gives the lame “all birds” some help by adding the help­ful qual­i­fi­ca­tion “of prey,” which is nowhere in the Greek (“scav­enger birds” would have been more ac­cu­rate). But Green’s ad­just­ment here is noth­ing com­pared to what Lat­ti­more and Pow­ell do: if “car­rion” is ac­cept­able for the neu­tral “tak­ings” of the Greek, where then did Lat­ti­more get the “del­i­cate feast­ing” with which he feeds his dogs? I think we know the an­swer. Al­though his re­ten­tion of Aristarchus’s “all” kicks Zen­odotus out the front door, “del­i­cate feast­ing” (or Pow­ell’s “feast”) smug­gles him and his “ban­quet” back in through the rear. Should we be grate­ful to our ed­i­tors and trans­la­tors for letting us have our del­i­cate feast­ing and eat it, too, rather than mor­al­iz­ing about their cow­ardly equiv­o­ca­tions? Cer­tainly it would not be hard to imag­ine a post­mod­ernist de­fense of the palimpses­tic ef­fect achieved by al­low­ing Zen­odotus’s ghost to lurk be­hind the dais over which Aristarchus pre­sides. But I would have thought the choice here was sim­ple: be­lieve Zen­odotus.

The tail­piece of line 5, “and the will of Zeus was ful­filled,” cre­ates a dis­tinc­tively Homeric ef­fect, bet­ter served by Lat­ti­more and Green than Pow­ell. This kind of coda, which Homer uses to round off com­par­isons and other pas­sages of im­plicit pathos, was called by an­cient schol­ars an epiphōnēma— some­thing like “con­clud­ing pro­nounce­ment”—usu­ally an ob­ser­va­tion that sub­tly departs from the eth­i­cal or rhetor­i­cal per­spec­tive of what pre­cedes it. Thus, when the Greek hero Diomedes, meet­ing in bat­tle for the first time the Tro­jan ally Glau­cus, asks who he is, the lat­ter be­gins (my trans­la­tion):

Why do you ask my birth? as is the birth of leaves, so is that of men: the wind blows one growth of leaves to the ground, but the bur­geon­ing wood sends forth oth­ers, and the sea­son of spring suc­ceeds. The last clause is strictly speak­ing ir­rel­e­vant to the com­par­i­son, but pro­foundly af­fects its tone by open­ing up a wider and pos­si­bly hope­ful per­spec­tive. The epiphōnēma is thus a kind of ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing “spin”—of­ten moral­is­tic— but in Homer’s hands is al­ways added with the light­est of touches, in­tro­duced at the end of a se­quence as if no more than an­other item in it: it is left to the au­di­ence to note the change of tone and ori­en­ta­tion. So here in the proem, the un­ob­tru­sively in­tro­duced “and the will of Zeus was ful­filled” lifts our eyes from the grisly ac­tiv­i­ties of the an­i­mals on the bat­tle­field to the cos­mic per­spec­tive of Zeus’s plan, what­ever it may be. The heavy em­pha­sis of Pow­ell’s “for such was the will of Zeus” is at odds with the del­i­cacy Homer cus­tom­ar­ily dis­plays when us­ing this rhetor­i­cal fig­ure.

But what is this plan of Zeus that was ful­filled? To say “we don’t know for sure, but it sounds im­pres­sive enough” would be flip­pant but sadly ac­cu­rate. Aristarchus thought it was the plan of the Iliad it­self, by which Zeus de­lib­er­ately hon­ored Achilles in his quar­rel with Agamem­non by tem­po­rar­ily grant­ing the Tro­jans the up­per hand. This seems most likely, though what is es­pe­cially no­table is that Homer raises the ques­tion with­out an­swer­ing it: he seems to want the proem to leave us sens­ing that what is about to un­fold is omi­nous and im­por­tant, but some­what mys­te­ri­ous in its the­o­log­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions. Again our un­der­stand­ing of this por­ten­tous prob­lem comes down to an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the gram­mar. Con­sider line 6: “Since that time when first there stood in di­vi­sion of con­flict Atreus’ son the lord of men and bril­liant Achilleus.” Lat­ti­more prints this line so that it fol­lows di­rectly on “and the will of Zeus was ac­com­plished.” Green and Pow­ell, on the other hand, punc­tu­ate heav­ily at the end of line 5, with Pow­ell even re­in­forc­ing his full stop with a para­graph break af­ter it. The point at is­sue is whether the “since” (or “from the time when”) is telling us some­thing about Zeus’s plan—that it started with the two he­roes’ quar­rel—or is part of the poet’s charge to the muse start­ing in line 1: “Start the tale from this point” (which is where the nar­ra­tive ac­tu­ally does start). The for­mer in­ter­pre­ta­tion has the dou­ble de­fect of ru­in­ing the epiphōnēma of line 5 and of con­tra­dict­ing Homer’s own ac­count: Zeus is drawn into the quar­rel be­tween Achilles and Agamem­non only by the ex­tor­tionary in­ter­ven­tion of Achilles’ goddess mother (end of Book 1), and very much against his bet­ter judg­ment. To say that his own plan be­gan to be ful­filled at the mo­ment they first quar­reled is sim­ply wrong. So Green and Pow­ell have the ev­i­dence of the poem on their side. The prob­lem for them is that Homer does not usu­ally stretch out his sen­tences so long—so that in lines 6–7 we are still work­ing off of the ver­bal charge of “sing” in line 1.

This strik­ingly dis­so­lute syn­tax was cu­ri­ously in­flu­en­tial—Herodotus seems to have im­i­tated it in the proem to his His­to­ries—but I es­pe­cially ad­mire how Green has solved the prob­lem: while Pow­ell as usual achieves per­fect lu­cid­ity (“Sing the story from the time when”), he does so by hav­ing re­course once again to a rep­e­ti­tion not in the Greek. Green avoids this dis­tor­tion by putting lines 3–5 be­tween dashes and so giv­ing the reader a vis­ual cue to carry the syn­tac­ti­cal con­struc­tion of what pre­cedes over into what fol­lows. Thus he gets the in­ter­pre­ta­tion right with­out in­ter­rupt­ing the for­ward mo­tion that is al­ways Homer’s aim—and this is one of the great virtues of Green’s trans­la­tion as a whole: its lim­ber flu­ency.


Less suc­cess­ful are some of his dic­tio­nal choices. When he says that Achilles’ wrath “hit the Acha­ians with count­less ills,” re­plac­ing a rather col­or­less verb with a dis­tract­ing col­lo­qui­al­ism—“Hit me with your best shot!”—it is a sud­den veer­ing out of key that hap­pens of­ten enough to cre­ate a cer­tain anx­i­ety in the reader. Some­times we can see that a spe­cific ef­fect is be­ing aimed at. When Zeus, who has force­fully pro­hib­ited the other gods from med­dling in the bat­tle at Troy, spots Hera and Athena head­ing down from Mount Olym­pus to do just that, he sends the mes­sen­ger god Iris to stop them, con­clud­ing the com­mis­sion with some zest­fully enu­mer­ated threats:

I’ll crip­ple their swift horses in their har­ness, I’ll hurl them­selves from the char­iot, which I’ll smash to pieces: not in ten cir­cling years will they get over the wounds that my thun­der­bolts will in­flict upon them! That way

Miss Grey-Eyes will learn what it means to fight her fa­ther! Zeus is in­deed an­noyed, and there is a com­pli­cated irony in his ap­ply­ing the nick­name “Grey-Eye” to his daugh­ter Athena here, in that a few lines ear­lier she had her­self pre­dicted to Hera that “though he is an­gry with me now” (i.e., for her med­dling) “the day will come when he calls me his dear Grey-Eye once more” (8.370–3, my trans­la­tion): all-know­ing Zeus, seated a few hun­dred miles away on a dif­fer­ent moun­tain­top, seems some­how to have picked up this pre­dic­tion, which he now throws back at her. But “Miss Grey-Eyes”? That seems a lit­tle ado­les­cent. Green is stray­ing near the tone of Christo­pher Logue’s some­times pow­er­ful, some­times ap­palling reimag­in­ing of the Iliad, in which he at one point has Achilles apos­tro­phize his king as “Cuntstruck Agamem­non” and at an­other has Zeus (“God”) af­fec­tion­ately ad­dress “teenage Athene” as “Chou-Chou.” When Green threat­ens to go Logue, as here, it is a re­lief to turn to the sober ac­cu­racy of Pow­ell: “Then maybe the flash­ing-eyed one/ will know what it is to fight against her own fa­ther.”


The two edi­tions dif­fer in the sup­ple­men­tary aids they pro­vide. While Green’s trans­la­tion makes for a bet­ter read, Pow­ell’s gets us closer to the Greek (as does Lat­ti­more’s); as such it is more schol­arly, and would be suit­able to put in the hands of stu­dents who want to go deep in. Green has de­lib­er­ately de­clined to in­clude any in­tro­duc­tory guide to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, since he wants his read­ers to come up with their own, and is ex­tremely spar­ing with ex­plana­tory notes (though fur­ther guid­ance is of­fered in a syn­op­sis and an idio­syn­cratic fifty-page “Se­lect Glos­sary” at the end). Pow­ell’s notes are abun­dant, though he avoids stul­ti­fy­ing pedantry, and he has had the ex­cel­lent idea of in­ter­spers­ing pic­tures (more than fifty) of Greek vase paint­ings, sculp­tures, and even amus­ing cu­riosi­ties like a por­trait of the sec­ond Mrs. Hein­rich Sch­lie­mann be­decked in jew­elry that her ar­chae­ol­o­gist hus­band had dug up from the pre­sumed site of Troy—be­fore the walls of which we also get a pic­ture of Pow­ell him­self. His maps are far bet­ter than Green’s, and his in­tro­duc­tion is a se­ri­ous at­tempt to fa­mil­iar­ize the reader with the lit­er­ary, lin­guis­tic, his­tor­i­cal, and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal back­grounds to the poem (Green’s twenty-four-page in­tro­duc­tion is in­ter­est­ing but quite per­sonal and un­sys­tem­atic).

Pow­ell has for many years ad­vanced a the­ory that an il­lit­er­ate Homer dic­tated the Iliad and Odyssey to an un­known ge­nius who adapted the Phoeni­cian al­pha­bet to this pur­pose by out­fit­ting it with the hith­erto miss­ing vow­els. In our present state of knowl­edge the the­ory is be­yond proof or dis­proof. Pow­ell has ar­gued for it else­where with great learn­ing and acu­ity, and states it here as an es­tab­lished fact, even giv­ing the mo­ment of its first pro­pound­ing the fi­nal slot (“AD 1991,” i.e., the date of Pow­ell’s book) in a “Homeric Time­line” of fif­teen items (“c. 1200 BC: Fall of Troy,” etc.).

Each of these trans­la­tions is an ac­com­plish­ment its au­thor can be proud of. If you want an Iliad for the beach, take Green’s—for the study, Pow­ell’s.

‘King Priam Beg­ging Achilles for the Body of Hec­tor’; draw­ing by Henry Fuseli, circa 1770–1771

‘Achilles Sac­ri­fic­ing His Hair on the Fu­neral Pyre of Pa­tro­clus’; draw­ing by Henry Fuseli, circa 1800–1805

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