At a 2010 forum at the New York Public Library featuring Harvard professor Cornel West and Jay-Z (Shawn Carter), Prof. West recalled one of his seminars at Princeton, which had featured a panel of Jay-Z, Toni Morrison, and Phylicia Rashad. West recalled discussing how Plato “made the world safe for Socrates, so the people would remember the name of Socrates forever,” and Jay-Z replied, “Well I have been playing Plato to Biggie’s Socrates.” As it turns out, there is a great deal of classical allusion to unpack in the world of hip-hop, many embedded within the lyrics of Jay-Z.
For a number of years, our local Eta Sigma Phi chapter has been organizing public readings of the sorts of things classicists cut their teeth on – or at least feel like we do: Homer’s epics, Vergil, Ovid. These have always been a wonderful experience for our department – everyone involved loves the opportunity to read and hear these works as they were meant. We decided that this year we wanted to reach a different and larger audience than before, inspired by the outreach of, among others, Bob Cargill and the University of Nebraska's Homerathon tradition (which the SCS Blog covered last year).
With the thermometer outside registering a frigid 29 degrees Fahrenheit at 7am on Thursday, April 19, 2018, a cohort of undergraduate Classics students at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) launched their Homerathon: a marathon reading of Stanley Lombardo’s translation of Homer’s Iliad, which ran non-stop until 3am the next morning. The event taught students and listeners a lot about the difficulties and benefits of the ancient tradition of oral poetry—but brought Classics back out into the public sphere and made an argument for its relevance today.
“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory
than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”
οὐ μὲν γὰρ μεῖζον κλέος ἀνέρος, ὄφρα κεν ᾖσιν,
ἢ ὅ τι ποσσίν τε ῥέξῃ καὶ χερσὶν ἑῇσιν.
Homer, Odyssey 8.147-148
Salve, My ancient Roman friend—I know that much of this world of ours confuses you. Not if I had ten thousand mouths and as many years could I cover the histories of the centuries between your world and ours, nor could I catalog and explain airplanes, televisions, cell phones, and the droning chorus of wonders and horrors you see around you.
The Homer Multitext (HMT) has something in common with the poetry it documents: They are both monumental and impressive works whose gradual evolution over many years by many hands has left traces of its past; it exists in several forms that present the same information in slightly different ways, and its development through changing technologies has left occasional redundancies. Like the Iliad, it lives up to its title, but perhaps not in the way one expects. And like its poetic source text, it richly rewards those who plumb its depths.