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Exegetic Backgrounds to Aristotle’s "Homeric Problems"

Benjamin Sammons

We know from the Poetics that Aristotle rated Homer far above other epic poets, largely on grounds of narrative economy.  So under the rubric of unity Aristotle praises Homer for choosing a single tale while including elements of the larger myth as episodes (ch. 23, 1459a30-59b16).  Yet we do not know whether he thought episodes such as the Catalogue of Ships (named as an example at 1459a36) did thematic work for the poem as a whole, beyond mere incorporation of mythical content; this is at least partly due to the Poetics’ relentless focus on drama, which precludes any account of epic’s episodic complexity (cf. Halliwell 259-62).

I approach this problem through the fragments of Aristotle’s lost Homeric Problems (frr. 142-79 Rose).  I argue that some of the fragments dealing with anachronistic episodes in Homer’s Iliad balance narrative improbabilities against larger poetic aims and thereby reveal assumptions about the thematic function of these passages within the Iliad as a whole.

The Homeric Problems may not appear, at first glance, to be fruitful ground for such inquiry.  The Problems was a work in six books consisting of questions or zetemata about seemingly improbable details of the Homeric epics, each followed by a more or less neat solution.  Some of these “problems” may appear trivial to modern readers (e.g., fr. 144: why does Menelaus alone not keep a concubine at Troy?).  They nevertheless provide an important glimpse into the nuts and bolts of Aristotle's interpretative practices (cf. Flashar et al. 375-78).  Indeed, in Poetics chapter 25, Aristotle himself notes that such problem-solving is necessary for broader appreciation of a poetic work (cf. Lucas 232-34, Halliwell 265-66, Flashar et al. 371-74).  There has been no systematic comparison of the Poetics and the remains of the Problems since Hintenlang’s 1961 thesis, but several more recent studies have used the fragments to reconstruct specific aspects of Aristotle’s critical method: Huxley on his use of historical anthropology; Bouchard (317-24) on the critical term βλαβερόν; Boyd (7-11) and Porter (23-26) on poetic invention.

My argument will focus on fragments dealing with scenes and speeches that would seem to qualify as episodes brought into the Iliad by Homer but belonging properly to the larger myth.  The most significant of these are:  1) Fr. 148 (cf. Porphyry ad loc.): Why does Homer arrange his narrative of the duel of Paris and Menelaus so that the Trojans are not technically foresworn?  Both the question and the solution are complex, but the discussion itself is built on an assumption that a renewal of the Trojans’ original crime is the basic point of the larger context, a thematic reading very close to modern interpretations (e.g., Stanley 63-67).  2) Fr. 150, on Paris’s incongruously amorous conduct at the end of Iliad 3, also implies a careful reading of the whole book as a series of re-enactments of the past.  3) Fr. 147: In the Teichoscopia, a notoriously anachronistic episode, why does Helen not know that her brothers are dead, nine years after the fact?  The answer (Paris has guarded her from knowledge) may appear facile; but the discussion also notes that there was no need to have Helen bring the matter up at all, implying that Helen’s recognition of her brothers’ absence is thematically motivated.  4)  Fr. 145 (cf. Porphyry ad loc., Cicero de. divin. 2.30.65): Why, in Odysseus’s narrative of the omen at Aulis, does Calchas interpret the consumption of the sparrow chicks (which is natural and not ominous) but not the petrifaction of the serpent (which is a real teras)?  An explanation is sought in the rhetorical aims of the speaker Odysseus (who avoids the issues of death at Troy and the slowness of the war), in a way that reflects the fundamental importance of the themes of time and nostos for the first half of Book 2 (on which see most recently Garcia 44-64).

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Homer: Poetics and Exegesis

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