By the second century CE, Homeric poetry held a position of considerable authority in Imperial Greek literature; one has only to look at the frequency with which references to the Iliad and Odyssey are deployed: nearly 500 times by Lucian, 400 by Dio, and 300 by Aristides (Householder 1941, Kindstrand 1973, Gangloff 2006). Such citations, whether used as decoration, examples, or supporting evidence, collectively functioned as a respected ‘language’ in which authors or speakers could communicate to their audience.
But one corollary of this widespread familiarity with the poet has not been sufficiently recognized: among the Imperial educated elite, it appears that Homer’s symbolic value, as a marker of learning and paideia, was diluted by the fact that his poetry was so generally known. In fact, the second-century CE texts that quote or discuss Homer the most are precisely those aimed at more unsophisticated audiences—e.g., Maximus of Tyre’s Dialexeis, Ps.-Plutarch’s On Homer—and even in the corpora of expert orators like Dio or Aristides, frequent mention of Homer is confined to discourses and speeches intended for students or mass audiences, rather than their educated elite peers. By contrast, in classical Athens, a thorough knowledge of Homer was valued primarily among the elite (e.g., the sophists), and references to his poetry scrupulously avoided in more ‘democratic’ genres, like forensic oratory (Ford 1999). My contention is that when Homer was cited in texts meant for elite audiences, it was primarily to showcase the author’s skill in revising or adapting the poet’s verses in novel or unexpected ways.
In this paper, I offer some general evidence of this phenomenon (using examples from Dio, Aristides, and Galen), before turning to a specific example: the use of Homeric quotations in Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists (never previously studied, to my knowledge). While Philostratus clearly knew Homer extremely well (devoting his Heroicus to a learned interrogation of Homer’s account of the Trojan War: Kim 2010), in Lives of the Sophists the Philostratean narrator only quotes Homer three times (489, 568, 577), other than his reference to Helen’s pharmakon in the preface (the sophistication of which I examine briefly by way of introduction). He does relate, however, several memorable episodes of extempore Homerizing by the sophists themselves: e.g., Polemo, chosen to deliver an embassy for Smyrna instead of the aging Scopelian, pays him homage by quoting Patroclus’ words to Achilles in Il. 16.40—“Give me your harness to buckle around my shoulders, if by chance they should mistake me for you” (Lives 521). A sophist’s improvisatory prowess could also be showcased by an on-the-spot modification of a Homeric line: when asked about his ne’er-do-well son, Herodes Atticus responded by altering Od. 4.498—“One living person is still left on the wide sea” (εἷς δ’ ἔτι που ζωὸς κατερύκεται εὐρέϊ πόντῳ)—to say: “One fool is still left in the wide house” (εἷς δ’ ἔτι που μωρὸς καταλείπεται εὐρέϊ οἴκῳ). In such cases, readers and audiences are expected not only to catch the reference to Homer (who is never mentioned by name), but also to recall the original context (or wording) of the quoted line and relate it to the matter at hand. These anecdotes (along with several others that I will examine) suggest that, for Philostratus, what was valued was less the ability to quote Homer than the ability to produce a verse on the spot appropriate to the situation, or even to modify the lines themselves for a memorable bon mot.
I conclude with an analysis of an episode from Philostratus’ Apollonius (1.22), where the gap between Apollonius and his companion Damis, a Syrian trying to become ‘educated’ and ‘Greek’ (3.43), is exemplified in their contrasting attitudes toward Homer. Damis proudly cites Homer precedent to solve a problem, but Apollonius demonstrates that just knowing Homer is not enough: the true pepaideumenos also knows how to adapt, revise, or employ Homeric poetry in a sophisticated manner.
Homeric Poetics at the Dawn of Christianity