Skip to main content

This paper argues that ancient Jews were much keener on Homer than most believe; and that the epics were, for many bicultural Jews, a capacious, dynamic narrative system, whose very geographical aporiai created possibilities for inventive intercultural reading.

Who were the Solymoi? The Iliad (6.184, 206) locates them in Lycia, and indeed by Hellenistic times they were claimed by the Termessians. In the aftermath of the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE, however, Roman writers suddenly associate them with the Jews, pseudetymologically deriving Hierosolyma ('Jerusalem') from two Greek elements (Tac. Hist. 5.2; Val. Flacc. 1.13; etc.). Scholars (e.g., Brenk 1999) have conventionally assumed that this association is 'pushed' onto them by triumphalist Romans, keen to magnify their opponents and thus their victory. But Josephus, at around the same time, can also be found 'pulling' the association, by referring to their city as 'Solyma' (Ant. 1.180, 7.67); this suggests that some Jews themselves made the link. The name Hierosolyma is securely attested as the Greek for 'Jerusalem' as early as the third century BCE, and is an eccentric formation that is difficult to explain on its own terms (Brenk 2011). Is it possible that among the reasons for the choice of this Hellenization was a desire to link the city to Homer?

There is indeed evidence for a highly sophisticated, creative reading of Jews into Homer; but whereas it was the Romans who linked the Jews to Bellerophon's troublesome foes in Iliad 6, the Jews themselves sought a point of entry in Odyssey 5, with its solitary reference to the ‘Solyman mountains’ from where Poseidon, on his return from Ethiopia, spies Odysseus back out to sea (283). The scholia identify this place (via the Iliad) with Termessus, an erratic route; Martin West (2011) may be right to emend 'Solyman' to 'Elyman' (i.e. Mt. Eryx). Be that as it may, 'Solyman' was already being read in the fifth century by Choerilus of Samos, who refers (SH 320 = FGrH 696 F34e and fr. 4 Kinkel) to warriors in Xerxes' invasionary entourage who live in the 'Solyman mountains' – the phrase appearing in the identical metrical sedes as in the Odyssey. Intriguingly – this is where we rejoin our main argument – this phrase is cited by Josephus, who identifies the warriors in question with the Jews (Ap. 1.172-4). Scholars typically dismiss this identification as procrustean; but their arguments for doing so are weak, and the case for Jews, however hazily understood, is much stronger (Radici Colace 1976). And crucially there is evidence here that he already knew of a tradition linking the Odyssey's Solyman mountains to Jerusalem and its environs.

Though there were clearly some Jews who cleaved relentlessly to tradition, there were others who were culturally and literally highly mobile. There is no reason why such figures would not have read and responded to the Homeric epics, in much the same way that the Romans did. We have fragments of two epic poems on Jewish themes (Philo and Theodotus: Holladay 1989), and hear of one Sosates, the 'Jewish Homer' (Cohen 1981).

But although Hierosolyma's Homeric undertones seem to have existed much earlier than is usually admitted, they were not thereby fossilized. I close the paper by returning to Roman imperial times, and discussing two hexameter poets who reanimate the Homeric link by associating the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 with the destruction at Troy: the fourth Sibylline oracle (115-27), which imagines the city of the Solymoi in Trojan terms, and implicitly accuses the Romans of war crimes; the second comes in Quintus of Smyrna, where Memnon's sacking of 'the city of the Solymoi' en route to Troy is (I argue) designed to evoke Jerusalem's sack (2.121-3). The Jews' Homeric heritage was thus not just a symbol of Janus-faced biculturality, but also a flexible narrative system, capable of being remolded to new circumstances and acquiring new resonances.