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Juan de Mena’s Omero romançado: On (Not) Translating Homer in the Court of Juan II of Castile

Julia Claire Hernandez

University of Georgia

In the prologue to his 1444 work, the Omero romançado, Cordoban poet Juan de Mena, newly arrived at Juan II’s Castilian court, presents himself as the first to “translate and interpret that seraphic work, Homer’s Iliad, rendered first from Greek into Latin and then from Latin into our maternal Castilian.” Almost in the same breath, however, he admits that he will “not interpret [the Iliad’s] 24 books, but rather, brief epitomes of these.” This renders the project’s stated goals somewhat contradictory: one either translates the Iliad (or at least, a Latin translation of it) or translates its epitomes. Unsurprisingly, given the Homeric texts’ 15th-century transmission, as Mena lacked access to a full version of the Iliad, his work is, in fact, a translation of the Ilias latina, a 1st-century-CE Latin compilation of Trojan Cycle epitomes, widely read in the Middle Ages and likely well-known to his readers, given its ubiquitous presence in 15th-century Spain. Nevertheless, Mena repackages these epitomes, arguing that his non-Homerically-sourced “Iliad” is, in fact, superior to any direct translation of the epic. Through a virtuosic display of rhetorical misdirection, he proposes that his unique Cordoban poetic identity links him so closely to the figure of Homer that the true source of his material becomes irrelevant.

This paper explores both how Mena develops this paradoxical argumentation and why he goes to such lengths. My reconstruction of this curious text’s story represents the confluence of three greater historical narratives: the history of the Homeric texts in 15th-century Europe, the spread of Humanism from Italy into Spain, and the intellectual life of the turbulent court of Juan II, with its close ties to Italian Humanists. These include Homeric translator Pietro Candido Decembrio, from whom the monarch himself had personally requested a Latin translation of theIliad. While modern scholarly narratives omit Spain from the history of 15th-century Hellenism or portray its engagement with the Greek tradition as delayed or non-existent, my analysis shows that, already in the 1440s, the Castilian court demonstrated an increasingly insatiable demand for Greek translations and the Homeric poems specifically. This demand was such that even Mena’s not-properly-Homeric Omero romançado could leverage its up-and-coming author’s successful advancement at court. The Omero romançado thus remains a testament to the 15th-century cultural capital of the figurative Homer, representative par excellence of the Greek tradition, and, by extension, the Italian Humanists whom Castilian intellectuals sought to emulate.

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Homer in the Renaissance

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