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The Art and Rhetoric of the Homeric Catalogue (review)

From: Classical World
Volume 105, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 557-558 | 10.1353/clw.2012.0034

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In this accomplished and readable book, Sammons does a remarkably thorough job of investigating “the function of Homer’s catalogues in the contexts in which they appear” (3). After a close reading of two “paradigmatic” catalogues (Dione’s in Iliad 5 of gods harmed by mortals and Calypso’s in Odyssey 5 of goddesses whose love for mortals was thwarted by gods), Sammons proceeds to examine two catalogues of women (Zeus’ of his lovers in Iliad 14 and Odysseus’ of the famous women in the Nekuia of Odyssey 11) and two catalogues of objects (Odysseus’ catalogue of trees in Odyssey 24 and Agamemnon’s of gifts for Achilles in Iliad 9). A culminating chapter appropriately focuses on the most prominent Homeric example of the genre, the Catalogue of Ships in Iliad 2; a much shorter coda demonstrates how the catalogues of suitors in the Odyssey ironically deprive these characters of fame.

Sammons is thoroughly conversant with the existing literature on the subject—including studies of catalogues in more recent poetry and fiction—and makes good use of it, but his theses are truly original. Some details of his readings have been anticipated by earlier critics, whom he cites generously; but he rightly claims that his is the first overview of the relationship between the catalogue, seen as a genre within a genre, and the Homeric narratives in which it is deployed. The catalogue, as a list whose components fit a common rubric but have no other “explicit connection with one another” (15), presents itself as objective and uniquely authoritative. Yet its lack of internal structure also puts it potentially at odds with the narrative dimension of epic, offering the poet and his characters a means to distance themselves from that narrative and comment on it.

Sammons argues, in the first place, for the rhetorical, even “tendentious” (41), functions of catalogues as deployed by Homeric characters: thus Calypso’s list of mortals loved by goddesses can be seen not only as face-saving for herself but as a protest against the way Athena and Zeus (and Homer) are shaping Odysseus’ story. Agamemnon’s list of gifts, despite its failure to persuade Achilles, can also be seen as a rhetorical tour de force in its ambition to shape the future career of the hero.

Beyond the close readings of catalogues in character speeches, Sammons takes a broader view of their deployment by the poet. He argues that in the aggregate—and especially in the most extended example, the Catalogue of Ships—the catalogues reveal a poet highly conscious of his own position in the tradition. Whether or not the Catalogue of Ships was originally composed for another poem, Sammons shows that it is artfully adapted to its place in the Iliad by a combination of “centrifugal” elements alluding to the wider heroic world and “centripetal” allusions to the distinctive plot of the Iliad. Sammons also explores discrepancies between this catalogue and the rest of the narrative, arguing for a deliberate ambiguity in Homer’s treatment of kleos (as “fame” and “rumor”) and a disjunction between his estimates inside and outside the catalogue of the excellence of specific heroes, especially Agamemnon.

This book will be important to scholars who work on Hesiodic as well as Homeric poetry, since it discusses the relationships between the two traditions within the overarching framework of early hexameter poetry. It is accessible in style but intellectually challenging. Those who emphasize the oral dimension of the Homeric epics may take issue with the detail of Sammons’ interpretations, which can seem oversubtle for a listening audience and possibly anachronistic in their emphasis on the potential for ironic effects. Yet Sammons himself notes that the catalogue by its nature poses a special challenge to interpretation, and he admits that it is a “modern instinct” to look for its “destabilizing or disruptive effect on the narrative” (17). Altogether, he makes a strong, even eloquent, case for the sophistication with which Homer deploys the catalogue genre to reflect on the epic tradition as a whole and to situate his own poems within it.

Copyright © 2012 The Classical Association of the Atlantic States, Inc
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Lillian E...


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