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The Art of Wrath

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

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.

1.

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:

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 ninety-one, 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 is not even supported by usage.2

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?

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

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.3

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 post-modernist 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.4 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.5 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.6

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.

2.

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.”7 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.”

3.

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.).8

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.

  1. 1

    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.  

  2. 2

    Homer, 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 Aristophanes; see his Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad (Leipzig: Saur, 2001), p. 173. This is unpersuasive: the play he cited, a fantasy called Birds, depicts a bird takeover of the universe and, in the passage in question, has a bird chorus enumerate the benefits that will be conferred on the Athenians by individual bird species, provided they award Aristophanes’ play first prize: “But if you vote against us…you will be shat on by all birds.” No such contrast motivates “all birds” in the Iliad.  

  3. 3

    The Iliad, edited by Walter Leaf (London: Macmillan, 1900–1902), Vol. 1, pp. 3–4; Homer, Iliad 1, edited with an introduction, translation, and commentary by S. Pulleyn (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 120–121; Homerus Ilias, edited by M.L. West (Stuttgart/Leipzig: Saur, 2000), Vol. 1; Homers Ilias: Gesamtkommentar, edited by J. Latacz et al. (Munich/Leipzig: Vieweg and Teubner, 2000), Vols. 1, pp. 1, and 2–3; and 2, pp. 19–20.  

  4. 4

    For a recent discussion of the epiphōnēma, see Michel Patillon, Corpus rhetoricum: Tome III.1 Pseudo-Hermogène, I’invention (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2012), pp. xcvii–ix.  

  5. 5

    West here adopted the reading of the pre-Aristarchan Aristophanes of Byzantium, “in the season of spring,” which then requires that “leaves” be understood as subject of “succeed”: “and they succeed in the season of spring.” This replaces the lilting epiphōnēma of the transmitted text with a banality.  

  6. 6

    A minority of scholars look for the plan outside the Iliad itself, often pointing to the first surviving fragment of the non-Homeric epic Cypria, in which Zeus puts in train the events culminating in the Trojan War in order to relieve the earth of its excess population. It would be highly uncharacteristic of Homer to refer so obliquely in his proem to a plan mentioned nowhere else in the work, all the more so given that the ensuing poem most certainly does narrate the unfolding of a plan of Zeus (to honor Achilles after his quarrel with Agamemnon), who guides the action decisively from the end of Book 1 all the way through the bitter end (with a time-out for sex in Book 14). Green is himself an advocate of the overpopulated-earth theory (see p. 543), but even he is unwilling to foist it on the proem (p. 25, note 2).  

  7. 7

    War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad, a collection of Christopher Logue’s four adaptations of sections of the Iliad, as well as previously published material (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). The quotations above are cited from this new edition: Agamemnon, p. 24; teenage Athene, p. 112; Chou-Chou, p. 122.  

  8. 8

    Barry B. Powell, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Writing and the Origins of Greek Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2002). The “Homeric Timeline” is on p. xxvii of the translation.