Homer Among the Shades

Nicholas Bellinson

The moderns were giving a lavish reception for the ancients, and all the important guests had arrived. Cicero was delivering orations to Erasmus and his circle, who sat, spellbound, at his feet; Vergil was helping Pico della Mirandola and Giordano Bruno rearrange the furniture with his magic staff; Horace and Ben Jonson sulked in the corner while Shakespeare and Ovid inched, arm-in-arm. toward the refreshments; Machiavelli and Livy gossiped in the corner. Even Phalaris and Hermes Trismegistos, disguised by large, fake beards, had snuck past Valla and Casaubon who stood guard at the door. But one guest, the guest of honor, had yet to arrive. Petrarch grew anxious. Finally, the unmistakable sound of sung Greek reached the partygoers’ ears, the doors swung open, and a few scruffy Byzantines stumbled in, supporting the singer––a blind man. Having transferred his weight to Petrarch’s eager shoulders, the Byzantines mumbled something in a language nobody understood and beat a hasty retreat.

Homer had arrived; the room buzzed with excitement. The moderns had been talking about this moment for centuries, and the ancients had given them every reason to keep their expectations high. All wisdom came from Homer, Macrobius had announced to the guests before falling asleep in the next room, and Vergil, like a dutiful pupil, had spoken of the sublimity of his predecessor. The crowd’s palpable admiration for Homer soon turned to awkwardness, however, as he was rough and rude: he uttered long words that no one understood, blasphemed the gods, and frequently repeated himself. Some thought him an impostor, and knowingly whispered that the real Homer was out there somewhere, and might even be a woman; others set more store by his reputation and pointed out that such babblings were known to be vatic. Getting him to the party had demanded so much time and labor from everyone in the room––but once he was there, no one knew quite what to do with Homer.

Homer did indeed come late to the classical reception that was the Renaissance, and, when he arrived, his reputation, which preceded him by centuries, seemed unjustified to many early modern Europeans. Faced with the disjunction between the ideal and the real Homer, philologists emended him to make his language smoother, often using Vergil’s work rather than his own as their guide; allegorists explained the crude behavior of the Gods as a mask for the esoteric truths which their readings of Plato, the ancient scholiasts, and even Cicero encouraged; translators argued that their competitors had butchered the beauty of the original, and that they alone held the key to Homer’s eloquence. Confronting Homer as he was proved quite uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, the fact that nobody quite knew what to do with him did not, as the essays in this collection show, stop early modern readers from putting his works to all sorts of creative uses. In this sense, the reception of Homer in early modern Europe is an instructive case study in the difference between theory and practice. In particular, the project of translating Homer engaged some of the most eloquent writers and scholars of modernity. I discuss in my essay how Petrarch and Boccaccio collaborated to squeeze a Latin Homer out of the Greek scholar Leontius Pilatus. Beatrice Bradley writes about Lorenzo Valla’s Latin Iliad of 1474 with an eye to the many interventions of its translator and unknown editor––a collaboration which remained in print as a cheap and useful student edition fifty years later and had gone through eight editions by 1550; Camille Reynolds looks at Neapolitan court politics under Alfonso of Aragon and suggests that Alfonso may have commissioned Valla’s translation in order to re-fashion himself as an Italian prince of letters. In the same vein, Brendan Small shows the first Italian Odyssey, Bacelli’s L’Odissea D’Homero Tradotta in Volgare Fiorentino of 1582, to be part of the Medicean promotion of Florentine culture––“politics by other means”. Elizabeth Tavella uses Lodovico Dolce’s 1570 L’Achille et l’Enea, a fusion of Homeric and Vergilian epic, to reconstruct his position in contemporary debates about literary genre. Hilary Barker discusses illustrations in works published by Gabriel Giolito de Ferrari, including the creative repurposing of images from the 1554 Orlando Furioso for the 1570 and 1573 Dolce translations of Homer’s works. Ji Gao demonstrates the connections between the French translation of Homer by Salel and Jamyn in 1584 and the nationalistic projects of the Parisian literati.

Other essays scrutinize the motives and methods of anglophone translators. George Elliott and Tali Winkler illuminate the personal and professional ambitions of the Scotch dancer-scholar John Ogilby through his Homer, while Javier Ibanez and Jo Nixon give two such different accounts of George Chapman’s mistranslations as patriotism and “ekphrastic resistance.” Blaze Marpet defends Hobbes’s Homer, the only remaining intellectual conduit of a great political philosopher whose means of speaking directly had been systematically banned. Margo Weitzman takes a close look at the initial reaction to Pope’s much celebrated and criticized Iliad of 1715, and suggests that its eventual success was far from obvious at the time, ultimately depending on a highly complex subscription system and Pope’s appeals to his personal connections. Noor Shawaf shows that James Macpherson’s somewhat disparaging translation of Homer served to challenge the bard’s established monopoly on epic and make room for his own invented bard, Ossian. A different challenge was issued by Thomas Bridges’s burlesque Homer, in which Angela Parkinson sees a counterweight to the gravitas of Pope’s translation and a precursor of twentieth-century historical metafiction.

The rest of the essays examine the parallel transmission of Homer’s Greek text. I discuss the editio princeps as it bears on the recovery of Greek in the early modern West and the creative interventions which two readers have made in the Lang copy; Felix Szabo discusses Aldus Manutius’s Iliad and its relation (or non-relation) to the Byzantine manuscript Venetus A, in the process illustrating the cosmopolitan print culture of Venice around 1500. Goda Thangada reveals the protestant historical and critical methodologies around which Henri Estienne constructed his 1566 anthology of Greek poetry.

Indeed, Homer was anthologized, illustrated, mistranslated, allegorized, deprecated, appropriated by cultural politicians, made a mouthpiece for early modern philosophies and religions––and above all, read. Few of the difficulties which these early modern readers of Homer confronted have been solved in our own time. The scope of these essays does not include the august hexameter translation of Johann Heinrich Voss or the nineteenth-century tradition of mock-Homeric epic, nor do they document the heroic achievements of Richard Bentley, who fixed many of Homer’s faulty lines by restoring a long-lost letter and broke others in the same way. Notwithstanding, the volumes in the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana offer an abbreviated history of the manifold ends to which Homer––this invited yet often unwelcome guest––was repurposed, and of his central role in the European classical revival.

I close with two snapshots from the period in history at which the animus against Homer was most vigorous––the seventeenth-century Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. A common genre for staging this debate over the relative achievements of the ancients and the moderns were so-called “dialogues of the dead” in imitation of the ancient writer Lucian. Holding a somewhat medial position in the debates, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle authored the most famous of such dialogues, among which one reports a conversation between Homer and Aesop.

Homer: Il faut que vous ayez eu beaucoup d’art pour déguiser ainsi en petits Contes, les instructions les pluse importantes que la Morale puisse donner, & pour couvrir vos pensées sous des images aussi justes, & aussi familieres que celles-là.
Aesop: Il m’est bien doux d’être loüé sur cet Art, par vous qui l’avez si bien entendu.
Homer: Moy? je ne m’en suis jamais piqué.
Aesop: Quoy, n’avez-vous pas prétendu cacher de grands mysteres dans vos Ouvrages?
Homer: Hélas! point du tout.
Aesop: Cependant tous les Sçavans de mon temps le disoient; il n’y avoit rien dans l’Iliade, ny dans l’Odissée, à quoy ils ne donnassent des Allégories les plus belles du monde. Ils soûtenoient que tous les secrets de la Theologie, de la Physique, de la Morale, & des Mathématiques mesme, estoient renfermez dans ce que vous aviez écrit. Veritablement il y avoit quelque difficulté à les déveloper; où l’un trouvoit un sens moral, l’autre en trouvoit un physique; mais à cela prés, ils convenoient que vous aviez tout sçeu, & tout dit à qui le comprenoit bien.[1]

Though Aesop refers to allegorists of his own time, the barb is obviously directed at Fontenelle’s contemporaries. The evident collapse of any conceptual approach to fiction became a precondition for a purely literary approach: when Aesop asks whether Homer’s gods could possibly have been “good without allegory,” Homer responds, “Why not? You imagine that the human mind seeks only the True; disillusion yourself. The human mind and the False sympathize extremely.”[2]

This opening of the modern European mind to literature as literature sometimes seems to anticipate the post-modern. In a second compilation of “dialogues of the dead”, François de Salignac de La Mothe Fénelon staged a dialogue between Homer and Achilles, in which the bard meditates on the contingencies of fame. Only his own poetry, he claims, saved Achilles from the obscurity of the unremembered dead; without Homer, the Trojan War would have had no more significance than (in the words of Tom Stoppard) “a minor redistribution of broken pots”. When Achilles characteristically loses his temper, Homer reminds him that violence would be vain: “Tu ne suis que l’ombre d’Achille, & moi je ne suis que l’ombre de Homere.”[3] But Homer’s shade was substantial, and took many forms in the early modern European imagination––as these essays attest.

University of Chicago, May 2015



Keywords: Aesop, Alfonso V of Aragon, Allegory, Richard Bentley, Giovanni Boccaccio, subscription, Thomas Bridges, Giordano Bruno, Isaac Casaubon, George Chapman, University of Chicago, Cicero, Lodovico Dolce, Desiderius Erasmus, Henri Estienne, François Fénelon, Gabriele Giolito de’Ferrari, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, Paris, French, epic genre, Greek, Hermes Trismegistos, Thomas Hobbes, Horace, illustration, imitation, Italian, Venice, Amadis Jamyn, Ben Johnson, M.C. Lang, Latin, Livy, Lucian, Niccoló Machiavelli, Macrobius, Aldus Manutius, John Ogilby, Ovid, Petrarch, Phalaris, philology, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Leontius Pilatus, Plato, Alexander Pope, Protestant, scholiasts, William Shakespeare, Aragon-Spain, Tom Stoppard, Lorenzo Valla, Venetus A, Johann Heinrich Voss



  1. “H: You must have had great skill for so disguising the most important lessons which moral philosophy can give in little stories, and for concealing your thoughts beneath images as fitting and as familiar as those. A: It is very sweet to me to be praised on this skill by you, who understood it so well. H: I? I never prided myself on it. A: What, you didn’t claim to hide great mysteries in your works? H: Alas! Not at all. A: Meanwhile all the sages of my time said that; there was nothing in the Iliad, nor in the Odyssey, to which they did not give the most beautiful allegories in the world. They maintained that all the secrets of theology, physics, moral philosophy, and even mathematics were sealed up in what you had written. To be sure there was some difficulty in elaborating them; where one person found a moral sense, the other found a physical one; but that aside, they agreed that you knew everything, and said everything to him who understood well.” Bernard de Fontenelle, Nouveaux dialogues des morts (Paris: C. Blageart, 1683), 54–56.
  2. Ibid., 59.
  3. “You are nothing but the shade of Achilles, and I, I am nothing but the shade of Homer.” François de Fénelon, Dialogues des morts anciens et modernes, avec quelques fables, composez pour l'éducation d'un prince (Paris: Florentin Delaulne, 1718), 25.


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