You are here

Quintus’ Homer Illusion and the Proem of the Posthomerica

Emma Greensmith

To the Late Antique poet, Homer represented the ‘classic’ par excellence, the source of all cultural and literary identity, but he was also a contested figure, as open to satirizing as to sacralizing (Kindstrand 1974; Lamberton 1986; Zeitlin 2001; Kim 2010). In most cases, epic’s response is openly Oedipal: Nonnus’ Dionysiaca both praises Homer and programmatically discards his theme (1.34-8;25.255-60) and Triphiodorus’ speedy rewriting of the ‘tiresome’ Trojan War (Iliou Halosis 1-5) is an implicit critique.  One poet, however, takes a markedly different approach.  Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica – 14 books of Homeric hexameter which join together the narratives of the Iliad and Odyssey – does not seek to dismantle the Homeric model, but evokes it in the most ‘authentic’ way possible, replicating Homeric diction closely.

This paper seeks to explore the dynamics, and consequences, of Quintus’ ‘Homer illusion’ by re-examining the Posthomerica’s delayed proem; arguing that this complex eight-line statement can be used as a map to guide the reader through the literary position of the poem. That the Posthomerica begins proemlessly, it has been noted (Schenk 1997, 37; Bär 2009; Maciver 2012, 29-33), signals to the reader that we are still ‘in the Iliad.’ When it does arrive, Quintus’ ‘proem in the middle’ (Conte 1992) asks the Muses to recall who went inside the wooden horse, and tells of how they first inspired him as he tended sheep on a hill in Smyrna (Q.S.12.306-13). Multiple intertextual allusions have been identified in these lines: the Iliadic (Il.2.484-92)- is interwoven with the Hesiodic (Theogony 22-8) and the Homeric-Hesiodic is refracted through the Callimachean (περικλυτὰ μῆλα νέμοντι 12.310 echoes Aetia 1 fr.2).  In recent interpretations, the metapoetic significance of this pattern has been stressed (Hopkinson 1994; Bär 2007, Maciver 2012,27-38): the intertextuality is felt to have shattered the ‘still Homer’ illusion.  Such interpretations miss the obvious point: that every poetic device Quintus employs is thereby implicitly ascribed to Homer himself.  This paper examines what happens to our reading of the proem (and the poem) if this  is treated not as a superficial conceit but as a kind of mimicry.  Role-playing and Homeric impersonation were established features in the sophistic performative repertoire (Zeitlin 2001,190, 207-17; Anderson 1998; Swain 1996, 231f). Read within this framework, the proem reveals its sting. If Quintus is performing his proem as Homer, then all intertextual markers are absorbed back into Homeric epic: the posthomeric is (preposterously) anticipated in the Homeric.

Quintus, in persona Homeri, performs in the proem his own incorporation of later poetics. Merged with the Smyrna reference, Hesiod’s pioneering ‘epic I’ was first uttered by Homer himself. Callimachus too gets subsumed into Homeric discourse: Homer knew the Aetia before he did. Even the hill, neither too high nor too low, (12.313) is figured as conceptually rooted in Homer: the Odyssey discusses the excessive height of Cyclopes’ hills (Od.9.114-6;481), while Odysseus is able to cleave his way δι᾽-ἄκριας  to the levelled dwelling of Eumaeus, another devoted rearer of cattle (Od.14.1-7): Quintus appropriates the Callimachean ‘symbolic’ technique back into the Homeric system.  

In the reading pursued by this paper, Quintus’ proem is not a literary agon in the manner of the other surviving Late Antique epic poets: rather than subverting Homer by way of later poetics, Quintus subordinates later poetics to Homer.  Homer becomes the container for all cultural and intellectual production (as, for example, he is held to be in the pseudo-Plutarchan De Homero or in late-antique allegoresis: Lamberton 1986). At the same time, whilst this impersonation is earnest, there is a sense of self-consciousness and a hint of almost sophistic exaggeration.  Can we – could we ever – commit to this image of an all-encompassing Homer? A difficult question which Quintus seems to pose to those celebrating – or satirizing – Homer’s supreme cultural authority.


Session/Panel Title

Homeric Poetics at the Dawn of Christianity

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy