You are here

Iliadic Euphony, Odyssean Cacophony: Homeric Exempla in Philodemus’ On Poems 1

Amelia Margaret Bensch-Schaus

University of Pennsylvania

       Homer lies at the heart of any work on ancient literary criticism, but each critic presents a particular version of the great Ur-poet. From Xenophanes to the Contest of Homer and Hesiod and beyond, ancient critics created and judged their own Homers based on the particular social and moral values of their work. Some Hellenistic critics, however, focus not on the moral implications but rather the form of this poetry. Works such as Graziosi’s Inventing Homer have demonstrated the need to analyze how later texts define the foundational poet of Greek literature and his works. This analysis is particularly important in treatises on aesthetics, in which authors are reflecting on the sine qua non of good poetry. I will consider the construction of Homer in one field of ancient aesthetics, euphony. The main source for euphonic views is Philodemus’ On Poems 1, a text that has proven elusive and was, as a result, often neglected until Janko’s edition, which provides reconstructions of the fragments as well as extensive commentary. From Janko’s elucidation, the euphonists emerge as critics with distinct views who nonetheless agreed in prioritizing the sound of poetry over its plot, whether that be the rhythm of an entire line or the resonance of particular letters. This euphonic viewpoint constitutes a distinctive strand in ancient literary criticism, and my analysis of the euphonists’ viewpoints will provide a more complete and varied picture of ancient attitudes towards Homer.

       The euphonists are only preserved through Philodemus’ quotations of them as his adversaries in a work of polemic, yet parts of their arguments remain recoverable. In the extant fragments, Homer was their preferred author to turn to when providing examples about the importance of sound. Not all Homeric poetry, however, was created equal. The Iliad is cited more often than the Odyssey, and it is also cited about topics that would naturally seem to belong to the world of the latter poem. For example, the euphonists are particularly drawn to appearances of onomatopoeia in poetry, which occurs commonly in descriptions of the sea and water. Surprisingly, all of the examples of this favored device that they cite come from the Iliad, despite sailing and the sea being more pivotal themes in the Odyssey. Furthermore, the Iliad receives only praise while the Odyssey appears in contexts that criticize its euphonic techniques, thereby questioning its aesthetic value. The euphonists’ use of quotation suggests that they not only viewed the Iliad as the quintessential Homeric poem, but also that they viewed the Odyssey as an inferior work by the aural standards that they had set for judging good poetry.

       Scholars such as Porter and Romano have often emphasized the way in which euphonic theories were at odds with the rest of the Greek aesthetic tradition, which usually focused on content and morality. Indeed, Philodemus’ own views on poetry were grounded in moral judgments, which is why he provides such strenuous objections to the euphonic approach. The challenges posed by the hostile perspective of Philodemus and the fragmentary state of the papyrus record have only solidified this view of the euphonists as disconnected eccentrics. This paper, however, will bring out how euphonic views on Homer fit into a larger tradition in ancient literature about the relative importance of each poem. Particularly, the pre-Hellenistic Homer was primarily the poet of the Iliad, as Graziosi and Schenkeveld have shown in their work. This remains true for Hellenistic euphonists, but they take the further step of suggesting that the Odyssey is formally inferior to the Iliad. Building on this assessment of Homer, pseudo-Longinus will later view the Odyssey as the lesser work of a declining poet. Rather than being outliers in ancient criticism, the euphonists engaged in contemporary debates about how to define Homer and contributed a new perspective on the Homeric poems by providing formal criticism of the Odyssey.

Session/Panel Title

Homer and Reception

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy