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Another Current in Homer's Ocean

Joshua M Smith

Johns Hopkins University

Of all metaphors applied to Homeric poetry by ancient criticism, the figure of Ocean afforded the broadest horizons. The epic image of a circumfluent river encompassing the known world and feeding all interior waterways (Iliad 21.193-197) aptly captured Homer’s status as the original source and terminus ultra quem non of the literary cosmos. Current—or “current”—scholarship rightly identifies the metaphor as a conventional indication of conscious, selective Homeric mimesis by other authors, often figured in terms of “drawing off” water from a source in the process of irrigation or drinking (esp. Brink 1972, Williams 1978, Pontani 2000, Jones 2005, Fenoglio 2012, van den Berg 2017). A key testimony, however, is omitted in the relevant discussions, resulting in a reduced appreciation of the metaphor’s capabilities and textures. A careful consideration of Maximus of Tyre (Dialexeis 26.3) illuminates an altogether different kind of influence latent in the metaphor, one of inevitable and total permeation.

I first offer a brief survey of the most important testimonia to the identification of Homer as Ocean. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (De Comp. 24.16-21) and Quintilian (Inst. 10.1.46) provide the most explicit association between Homer’s primacy and Ocean’s status as source and boundary. Others (e.g., Manilius, Astr. 2.8-11) are less explicitly Oceanic but nonetheless communicate similar notions of Homer as a nourishing aqueous source, always in reference to linguistic or rhetorical content. I then explain how Maximus deploys the metaphor with a new valence by describing Plato’s language (καὶ τὰ ὀνόματα καὶ τὰ ῥήματα) as an off-flowing from Homer’s eloquence (ἐκείνης τῆς ἁρμονίας ἀπορροή) in the same way as water flows ineluctably from the Ocean through numerous intermediaries to the Aegean. Whereas previous deployments of the image posit Homer’s posteritas as self-selecting the nature of their engagement with the Poet—a superficial, artificial, and deliberate mimesis—Maximus sees a deep-seated, naturalized, and inevitable Homeric flow. This type of influence finds an apt analogue in Maximus’ parallel description of the decisively familial relationship shared by Plato and Homer. With the help of the father-son paradigm offered by Odyssey 4.149-150, Maximus capitalizes on a more rigorous reading of the Ocean, which in the Iliad is a progenitor simultaneously hydrological and mythological, the source of all waterways and the father of all gods (γένεσις πάντεσσι, Iliad 14.246; pace Panchenko 1994-1995). In the hands of Maximus, therefore, the metaphor becomes more capacious: Oceanic Homer is not merely an accessible fount of supply for other authors, but a necessary and inescapable genetic precursor to any literary composition. Homeric currents have permeated the entire logosphere.

By understanding this neglected aspect of the Ocean metaphor, we can better appreciate its place in the history of Homeric reception, and of ancient conceptions of influence more broadly. When, for example, the 12th-century scholar Eustathius uses the Ocean metaphor as a resounding advertisement for Homer’s nearly exclusive grasp on original eloquence (Proem. ad Il. 1.1.5-10), he does so in the language of inevitability, with all human intellectual disciplines being forced to acknowledge their Homeric debts. The Eustathian deployment is unique in its breadth of application, but the seeds of its expansive conception of influence are found already in the 2nd century CE in the work of the proto-Neoplatonic philosopher. The transformation of Homer into his true Oceanic self thus challenges the simplicity of older paradigms and, in an ironic twist, even inverts Platonic potamology, with Ocean usurping the role of Lethe as the source from which all must drink.

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