The dominant mode of reading Homer in antiquity was through a moralizing lens. For many such readers, Homeric poetry was thought to contain moral rules, ethical advice, and exemplary figures that could serve as paradigms for behavior (cf., e.g., Xen. Symp. 4.6). This moral didacticism is taken for granted both by critics of Homer, such as Plato in the Republic, as well as by proponents and defenders, such as Philodemus (On the Good King according to Homer), Plutarch (How the Young Man Should Listen to Poetry), Heraclitus (Homeric Problems), Maximus of Tyre, and many others. Despite its ubiquity and importance, there has not been any systematic study of the ancient moralizing interpretation of Homer, which comprises a wide and varied range of techniques and methods (cf. Buffière 1956, 307-342; general accounts in Kroll 1924, 64-86; Russell 1981, 84-98).
In this paper, I draw attention to an aspect of the moralizing interpretation of Homer that deserves more emphasis, and that perhaps belies the method’s reputation as a simple-minded and outdated way of reading literature: the fact that moralizing criticism posits the poet as the inventor of his material, rather than as merely a storyteller beholden to the strictures of either ‘reality’ or the mythological ‘tradition’. In fact the latitude granted by these critics to Homer in shaping his fictional world is quite remarkable when compared to other major trends of interpretation that assume his poetry’s correspondence with history (as explored in Kim 2010) or other underlying ‘truths’ (such as allegoresis). While I suspect that such a notion of Homer underlies many moralizing readings, I focus on a particularly explicit and detailed example: the speech that opens the section of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (early 3rd c. CE) entitled On the Life of the Heroes in Homer (1.15-18; 8e-11b).
The speaker, most likely Myrtilus the Thessalian (Heath 2000), remarks upon an oft-noted feature of the Homeric heroic diet: their avoidance of fish (along with boiled meat, birds, and any food “requiring elaborate preparation” (1.15; 9c)). This peculiarity had frequently been taken as evidence for the frugal lifestyle of the heroes (cf. Pl. Rep. 3.404b-c; Dio Chrys. 2.47; Plut. Quaest. Conv. 8.8; Schmidt (1976), 182-185). But while Plato, for example, avoids discussing Homer’s intentions and only uses his poetry as evidence for heroic simplicity, Myrtilus insists that Homer, because he intended (βουλÏŒμενος, λογιζÏŒμενος) to implant moderation (σωφροσÏνη) in the young and make them “good”, “set up” and “ascribed” a simple diet to the heroes (1.15; 8e-f). In Myrtilus’ phrasing, it seems as if Homer invented the simple heroic diet in order to emphasize his moral lesson.
As the speech continues, Myrtilus attributes even more creative agency to Homer. For example, Homer, he claims, does not just eliminate the trappings of luxury from the heroes’ lives, he also depicts a world in which those luxuries (like fish) are abundant, thereby emphasizing how his “well-disciplined and self-controlled” heroes resist temptation. The unusual custom of Homeric heroes being bathed by their hosts’ daughters is also seen in this light: “Homer represents (ποιεá¿–) [these scenes]…in the conviction that passion and lack of self-control have no effect on men who have led good, modest (σωφρÏŒνως) lives” (1.18; 10e). The emphasis on Homer’s moralizing ends may be banal, but I want to highlight the fictional power Myrtilus attributes to the poet here to achieve those ends. These passages, as well as others that I will examine, show how Myrtilus’ idea of Homer, as a poet who shapes his world without concern for ‘reality’, but according to his own independent aims, should be grouped among other ancient literary critical positions interested in Homer’s ability to fashion fiction, such as that of more ‘respected’ scholars like Aristotle and Aristarchus. The motivation that critics like Myrtilus assign to Homer may be overwhelmingly moralizing and didactic in nature, but their conception of the poet’s creative power deserves recognition and closer study.