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Cut Him Down To Size: Homeric Epitomes in Greco-Roman Antiquity

Massimo Cè

Harvard University

This paper argues for the continuity and diversity of epitomization as a form of Homeric reception throughout Greco-Roman antiquity. In broadly chronological sequence, three distinct if related stages of Homeric epitome are identified. First, the embedded self-epitome, in which passages in the Iliad and the Odyssey summarize the plot of either epic (De Jong 2001; Kelly 2007). These passages, whether delivered in the narrator’s voice (Il. 1.1–7; 13.345–60; Od. 1.1–11; 13. 89–92) or spoken by a character (e.g. Odysseus’ so-called ‘recapitulation’ to Penelope of his travels at Od. 23.310–43), are regularly positioned at structurally significant moments, thus encouraging their interpretation as semi-detachable paratextual segments.

Second, this paper examines selfstanding epitomes of the Homeric epics, which first became current in the Hellenistic period. A product of the Alexandrians’ general effort to exhaustively catalog a wide variety of both literary and technical texts, the practice of scholarly epitomization can be specifically viewed as an extension of the registry of authors and texts comprised in Callimachus’ Pinakes (Pfeiffer 1968, 195). While originally the Hellenistic epitomators appear to have focused on composing plot summaries of dramatic texts, especially tragedies, in the wake of Aristotle’s Didascalia, from the 3rd century BCE onward we also have evidence for hypotheseis of the Iliad and Odyssey. These Greek prose summaries, unlike other metatextual materials preserved in the Homeric scholia, such as textual, lexicographic, and interpretive glosses, regularly make up independent textual units (Reitz 2010, 295). The status of the Homeric hypotheseis as selfstanding texts is evidenced by their arrangement preceding individual books in the manuscript tradition (Ernst 2004; Pontani 2007–15; van Thiel 2014) as well as by the papyrus finds (van Rossum-Steenbeek 1998).

The Alexandrian epitomization of Homer provided a direct model for Latin versions of the Iliad and Odyssey, which in addition to translating also significantly abridged the Homeric texts. Although the overall scale of many Latin translations of Homer, such as those by Ninnius Crassus, Gnaeus Matius, and Attius Labeo, is difficult to assess because of the extremely fragmentary survival of these texts, both Livius Andronicus’ Odusia and Baebius Italicus’ Ilias Latina have been convincingly studied as poetic epitomes in recent scholarship (Suerbaum 1992, 168–73; Goldberg 1995, 46–47; Reitz 2007; Feeney 2016, 193). Another kind of epitomization, too, reflected in the synecdochic use of a literary work’s incipit to signify it as a whole, can be connected to Hellenistic scholarly practice, which played a pivotal role in systematically establishing the importance of a text’s opening phrase (Pfeiffer 1968, 129; Cavarzare 1996). Embedded Latin translations of the Iliadic and Odyssean incipits (Catul. 101.1; Verg. Aen. 6.692–3; Hor. epist. 1.2.19–22; Hor. Ars 141–42; Ov. Am. 2.18.1) exploit the epitomizing dimension of the Homeric openings to evoke the epics in their entirety. Conversely, longer segments of poetic texts ostensibly offering summary accounts of the Homeric epics, such as Ovid’s miniature Iliad (Met. 12.1–13.622), have been demonstrated to consistently draw on non-Homeric material (Papaioannou 2007).

The third part of the paper surveys instances of ancient Homeric epitome that are linguistic and material hybrids in order to suggest the broader cultural significance of epitomizing Homer. Expanding on previous scholarship on the Tabulae Iliacae, which connect visual with verbal miniaturization of the Iliad, and theoretical discussions of scale in artistic production (Stewart 1992; Squire 2012), I argue that the extraordinary length combined with the immense prestige of the Homeric epics made them an ideal target for epitomization and re-epitomization. Through a final case study of the pseudo-Ausonian Periochae of Iliad and Odyssey, which intriguingly represent a synchronic conflation of incipit quotation, verse translation, and prose summary, this paper proposes that assembling different modes of epitomization constitutes one possible avenue for the Homeric epitomator to approximate the formidable scale of his source.  

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Homer and Reception

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