Homer Among the Moderns

Beatrice Bradley

Early in the Iliad, Helen defends her lover, the “blind mad Paris,” to his brother, and she tells Hector, “Zeus planted a killing doom within us both, / so even for generations still unborn / we will live in song.”[1] Excusing her role in the destruction of Troy, she understands the carnage as the price they all must pay for fame. The trope of immortality through literature, life through song, is so familiar to a modern audience that it has become near cliché. Yet the concept began with Homer, in the nascence of the written word, and in Helen’s reference to future generations, the poet bridges the divide between the oral and literary tradition: Helen foretells a lasting existence through “song,” but she will require a medium for transmission so enduring that the story of Troy will reach those still unborn. However, due to the decline of ancient Greek in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, the mythic figures of Homer almost died a second death, as they faded from literary consciousness.

From antiquity through the late medieval and early modern periods, the work of classical Roman poets appeared more frequently in circulation than Greek texts, for Latin remained in use in religious writing and in educated circles. Yet the literary world by and large did not regain the ability to read Greek and therefore did not have access to the Hellenic poets of antiquity until the fifteenth century, when scholars began to produce renditions of the Homeric works in dialogue with the original Greek text. Following the advent of the printing press, these translations and reworkings of the ancient poet were able to reach a far broader audience than had earlier manuscript versions. Thus, Homer exerted immense influence on the readership of the Renaissance, and it is these early print editions and their long-term significance that this volume will address.

The aim of this collection is to consider the publication of Homeric texts in the Renaissance in the context of early modern classical reception as well as in relation to the history of the book and the production of books as material objects. The scholarship in this volume is necessarily interdisciplinary—the widespread and variant editions of the Renaissance allow and encourage multiple academic approaches—and, as such, the resulting essays participate in classical studies, the history of the book, art history, biographical history, and translation studies. These disciplines converge to generate vastly different readings of Homer, the Homeric texts, and their evolution in early modern Europe. The collection of essays in this volume delivers a multifaceted examination of the Hellenic influence on Renaissance thought and moreover provides a new lens for the study of Homer. Even as the chapters engage with widely variant translations—written in several languages and with differing degrees of faithfulness to the original text—the authors of this volume work in concert to offer nuanced approaches that emphasize the vitality of the Homeric text in Renaissance Europe.


The Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana

This volume is especially unusual in that all of its scholarship treats books to some degree as a material object and does not merely deal with the text in abstract terms. The authors within worked closely with the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana, a collection of Homeric works at the University of Chicago Library, and the editions cited in this volume were often consulted in person. The book collector M. C. Lang gave the collection to the University in 2007, and it contains an expansive assortment of Homeric texts spanning the fifteenth to the twentieth century.[2] Given this volume’s focus on Renaissance engagement with Homer, the chapters cover a wide publication history, from a 1489 incunable Greek edition to a 1773 English translation of Homer. Bridging nearly three hundred years of translation practices, this volume works closely with the Bibliotheca to demonstrate how the spread of Homeric texts across Europe shaped generations of readership, generations that gave rise to and formed our own conceptions of Homer.


The History of the Book

In emphasizing the book as artifact, the authors of this volume understand the book as at once being produced by and exerting an influence on a historical period.[3] In his seminal essay, “What Is the History of Books?,” Robert Darnton defines the purpose of the discipline as, “to understand how ideas were transmitted through print and how exposure to the printed word affected the thought and behavior of mankind during the last five hundred years.”[4] He diagrams what he describes as a “Communications Circuit,” the path through which books and with them ideas were disseminated in a given society, and he lists the major factors: authors, publishers, printers, shippers, booksellers, and readers. His circuit has been heavily debated and much revised in current scholarship—including a subsequent 2007 essay by Darnton himself—to encompass various other factors, such as piracy, commercial structures, or religious institutions.[5] Nevertheless, Darnton’s original six categories in the circuit are integral to the history of books. The essays in this volume remain in conversation with his foundational tenets and simultaneously seek to expand our understanding of the many factors in Renaissance culture that led to book production.

The Homeric opus, much in demand, was published across countries and cultures, which thus produced more errors, more copies, and more extant editions today than resulted from a lesser-known work. The wide degree of variation in the Homeric texts of the Renaissance encourages us to consider the books themselves as material objects: that is, to examine the early modern copies for potential errors that may be elided in modern editions; to assess how the printer set the page and how the layout itself shapes our reading experience; to inquire how images, whether woodcuts or engravings, work with or against the written word; and to carefully attend to the views expressed in the often lengthy paratextual materials. It should be noted that several editions included in this volume are unavailable outside rare books libraries and must be returned to in their original form in order to be read at all. Moreover, although modern editions of Homer provide a certain ease when reading his work, we must keep in mind that recent translations are by no means contained in themselves but are instead the product of a rich translation history that has been filled with variations, uncertainties, and tensions. In this respect, the following collection of essays provides a necessary background to contemporary readings of Homer and enriches our understanding of the dynamic process that is translation.


Homer and Humanist Study

Scholars have long debated how to define “humanism,” and Nicholas Mann notes this in his discussion of the term, at last describing it as follows:

It involves above all the rediscovery and study of ancient Greek and Roman texts, the restoration and interpretation of them and the assimilation of the ideas and values they contain. It ranges from archeological interest in the remains of the past to a highly focused philological attention to the details of all manner of written records—from inscriptions to epic poems—but comes to pervade […] almost all areas of post-medieval culture, including theology, philosophy, political thought, jurisprudence, medicine, mathematics and the creative arts. Grounded in what we would now think of as learned research, it rapidly found expression in teaching. And in this way it was to become the embodiment of, and vehicle for, that very classical tradition that is the most fundamental aspect of the continuity of European cultural and intellectual history.[6]

The inclusivity of this definition and its attention to the long-term effects of fourteenth-century humanism is very much in line with the scholarship of this volume and its view of Renaissance engagement with classical sources. Although this collection focuses primarily on early modern humanist practice, the classical revival began with Petrarch and his call for a return to antiquity.[7] Italian scholars, among them the chancellor of Florence, Coluccio Salutati, used the word “humanism” as early as the fourteenth century:[8] they adopted it from the Latin phrase studia humanitatis, which appears in numerous classical texts—including several of Cicero’s speeches—to describe an educational system that resembled what we would consider the liberal arts.[9] At first popular in Italy, humanist study rivaled and eventually surpassed scholasticism as the primary mode of inquiry in universities throughout the continent and England.

The early humanist movement necessarily focused on Latin texts. Although post-classical Greek was still widely spoken in the Mediterranean basin and trade routes existed between Italy and Byzantium, the language was mostly lost in medieval Europe.[10] Petrarch studied Greek with a tutor, Leonzio Pilato, in 1358, but few advances were made; Pilato’s Latin translations of the Iliad and Odyssey were largely incomprehensible.[11] It was not until 1396, when Salutati invited the Byzantine diplomat Manuel Chrysoloras to teach at the University of Florence that at last Greek was accessible to Italian scholars. Not only did Chrysoloras provide classes and lectures on the famous Hellenic poets—including, of course, Homer—but his grammar, Erotemata (“Questions”), became immensely popular.[12] The grammar allowed scholars to study Greek at home, thus no longer needing to travel to Florence, and the language was able to spread at a greater speed. Chrysoloras argued for the fluidity of translation, instructing his students to forgo the verbatim stylistic choices of Pilato and others in favor of their own artistic renditions.[13] Such an approach to translation informed Renaissance humanist practices for centuries, as many of the essays in this volume emphasize.

The study of classical Greek continued and in fact grew in the fifteenth century, thanks to the influx of Hellenic manuscripts and the advent of the Gutenberg press. In 1453, following the invasion and subsequent overthrow of Constantinople by the Turkish army, large numbers of Greek citizens migrated into Italy, bringing with them manuscripts and their knowledge of the language.[14] This event, combined with several expeditions into Greece to bring back manuscripts, led to a rapid influx of Hellenic texts and, as Michael D. Reeve explains, “By 1500 nearly all the Greek literature that survives today had reached Italian libraries” (36). In 1496, the Venetian printer and scholar Aldus Manutius began his series of printed classical texts, providing standardized and clean copies of works that had previously been inaccessible.[15] With these Aldine texts and the explosion of print in general, humanist study was able to expand across Europe.[16]


About This Volume

This volume exists in four sections, divided for the reader’s convenience. Section I, “Publication, Book-making, Biography,” begins with Nicholas Bellinson’s “First Impressions: The editio princeps of 1489,” an essay that underscores the impressive temporal range of this volume in its discussion of an early print edition of the Iliad. Bellinson contextualizes the Homeric text as emerging from the humanist tradition of Petrarch and discusses at length the copy in the University of Chicago Library with special attention to its binding and handwritten annotations. In his chapter “Ogilby and the Odyssey,” George Elliott likewise refers to the Bibliotheca and in particular an edition of John Ogilby’s Odyssey. Elliott provides a biographical examination of the translator’s work, and he discusses in detail how the 1665 edition reflects Ogilby’s ambition and personal struggles. Blaze Marpet’s essay entitled “Fancy That: An Essay on Hobbes’ Homer” considers a contemporary of Ogilby, Thomas Hobbes. Marpet argues that the philosopher’s 1667 Iliad and Odyssey, much maligned in recent criticism, in fact acted as a last resort for Hobbes, who was no longer allowed to publish philosophical treatises. With a close attention to the word “fancy,” this essay situates Hobbes’ treatment of epic in relation to his earlier work. Rounding out this section, Margo Weitzman also explores the historical factors involved in translation in her chapter, “Literary London: Pope’s Iliad and the Eighteenth-Century Book Trade.” Weitzman reads Alexander Pope’s Iliad within the ambit of his literary career and in the larger scope of London’s book trade.

Following Weitzman, Section II, “Literary / Philological Translation Practices,” offers a survey of the ideologies and stylistic choices that shaped early modern editions of Homer in vernacular and Latin translations. In “Constructions of Authorship in Valla’s Iliad,” Beatrice Bradley reads Lorenzo Valla’s translation of the Iliad in the context of the 1522 edition’s printed marginalia and index, composed after the humanist’s death, and she discusses how the editorial interventions shape the text. Elizabeth Tavella turns our attention to the 1570 edition of L’Achille et l’Enea, an interweaving of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid into one poem. Her essay, “The Editorial and Ideological Project of Lodovico Dolce’s L’Achille et l’Enea,” emphasizes the translator’s attempts to cater to a contemporary audience and his engagement with popular literary genres. Similarly interested in the translator’s relationship with his audience, Jo Nixon considers George Chapman’s efforts to anglicize the Iliad in “The Thing’s a Sling: Source Squabbles and Mistranslation in Chapman’s 1611 Iliad.” She carefully examines how the translator’s claims of accuracy, which he asserts in his extensive paratexts, are belied by his in-text treatment of Homer. Moving into the eighteenth century and thus demonstrating the long-term effects of Renaissance translation practices, Angela Parkinson explores Thomas Bridges’ 1772 A Burlesque Translation of Homer in her chapter, “Paratext as Metatext and Metafiction: Contextualizing Honest Satire in Thomas Bridges’ A Burlesque Translation of Homer.” Parkinson argues that Bridges’ treatment of the Iliad provides a satirical rendition of the Greek poet in its tongue-in-cheek suppositions of Homer’s hidden designs.

Section III, “Images,” discusses the visual representations in Homeric texts and how illustrations can work in conjunction with translation practices to inform our reading. Tali Winkler returns to Ogilby in her chapter, “Illustrating the Classics and the Self: John Ogilby and his Self-Fashioning Portraits.” Winkler discusses the import of the translator’s frontispiece portrait, which appears in several of his published works in the seventeenth century, and she explores how Ogilby thereby crafted his own authorial persona. Hilary Barker likewise attends to the impact of illustration in her essay, “Expectation and Image(-ination): The Purpose and Reuse of Woodcuts in the Books of Gabriel Giolito de Ferrari,” which traces the use of woodcut images in both the 1542 Italian edition of Orlando Furioso and the 1570 L’Achille et l’Enea di Lodovico Dolce. In his article, “In Chapman’s Forge: Mistranslation as Ekphrastic Resistance,” Javier Ibáñez urges us to consider the ways in which translators made use of Homer’s famously vivid poetic imagery in their reworkings of the text; in particular, Ibáñez focuses on George Chapman’s treatment of Achilles’ shield in his 1616 translation of the Iliad. Finally, Goda Thangada’s “Henri Estienne’s Concepts of History and Poetry” discusses Estienne’s ornate and lavish anthology of seemingly unrelated Greek poets, and Thangada seeks to understand Homer’s place in the collection. She argues that the 1566 anthology was greatly influenced by Estienne’s approach to history, which he understood as necessarily interconnected with poetry.

The final section, Section IV, “Nationalism and National Identity,” considers the potential for political expression in translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Felix Szabo’s chapter, “Homer, Venice, and Byzantium: Aldus Manutius’ First Edition of the Iliad,” demonstrates that such political and nationalistic concerns have long governed translations of Homer. Szabo considers Manutius’ apparent failure to consult the Byzantine manuscript of the Iliad, the tenth-century Venutus, and she situates the 1504 Aldine edition in the greater cultural climate of sixteenth-century Venice. Camille Reynolds also explores the politics of Renaissance Italy in her essay, “Alfonso, Valla, & Homer: Poetry and Politics in Renaissance Naples.” Reynolds provides another reading of Valla, examining his relationship with his patron, King Alfonso of Aragon, and argues for increased contemporary attention to the way Valla’s translation of the Iliad functioned as a political tool. Brendan Small further discusses the role of Italian politics in humanist translation, and his chapter, “The Language Question: The Cultural Politics of the Medici Dynasty,” carefully considers the impact of the Tuscan dialect and its cultural influence on Girolamo Baccelli’s 1582 L’Odissea D’Homero Tradotto in Volgare Fiorentino. Ji Gao’s “Translating Homer in the French Renaissance: The 1584 French Verse Translation of the Iliad” similarly emphasizes the tensions in vernacular translation. In particular, Gao analyzes the translation practices involved in a late sixteenth-century translation of the Iliad—a collaborative endeavor at the hands of several translators—and he presents it as being deeply informed by French nationalism. We end with Noor Shawaf’s discussion of James Macpherson’s 1773 rendition of Homer in her essay, “‘Too Much of a Modern Beau’: Macpherson’s Iliad and the Nationalist Epic.” She outlines the ways in which the translator challenges the Greek poet’s supremacy over the epic as a political form and the weaknesses of previous translations. This section spans centuries and traverses countries to demonstrate the many political aims invested in the translations of Homer’s texts, and it embodies the wide range of scholarship that is found throughout the chapters.



This volume asks the reader to consider the many renditions of Homer in Renaissance Europe—the translations that provided the foundation for our modern readings of the great epic poet—and in so doing, it emphasizes the many potentialities of book history. Although the history of the book is ever evolving, this volume offers the reader an in-depth and innovative approach to the reception studies of Homer and proposes new avenues for further research. When we study the Renaissance and the humanist movement, we must also consider the books it produced and how they were distributed, for through attention to the publication practices and readership of early modern Europe we can better understand the circulation and generation of humanist ideals. Indeed, it is the growing print trade of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries that allowed for such ideals to take hold and become integral in modern day study. In these essays’ varied approaches to the historical contexts that surrounded the Renaissance printing of Homer—at once considering economic, social, and cultural factors—this collection provides a interdisciplinary reading of Homeric text. As in response to the premonition of Helen, the volume gives voice to Homer’s song, revealing how Renaissance translations of the classics have reverberated across generations and echo still in contemporary thought.

Keywords: Alfonso V of Aragon, Orlando Furioso, Authorship, Girolamo Baccelli, book trade, Thomas Bridges, George Chapman, University of Chicago, Manuel Chrysoloras, Cicero, Constantinople, Robert Darnton, Lodovico Dolce, England, London, engravings, Henri Estienne, Robert Fagles, Gabriele Giolito de’Ferrari, Paris, French, genre, epic genre, satire, Greece, Greek, Thomas Hobbes, illustration, Italian, Italy, Florence, Naples, Padua, Venice, M.C. Lang, Latin, James Macpherson, Nicholas Mann, Aldus Manutius, Medici, John Ogilby, paratext, annotation, frontispiece, index, marginalia, prefatory material, patron, Petrarch, philology, piracy, Alexander Pope, Michael D. Reeve, Coluccio Salutati, Aragon, Tuscan (dialect), Lorenzo Valla, Vernacular, Virgil, Aeneid, woodcuts

  1. Robert Fagles, trans., The Iliad (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 6.423–6.
  2. See Alice Schreyer in her preface to Homer in Print: A Catalogue of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana at the University of Chicago Library, eds. Glenn W. Most and Alice Schreyer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Library, 2013), vii.
  3. In their introduction to A Companion to the History of the Book, Eliot and Rose argue that the history of the book is “based on two apparently simple premises”: “books make history” and “books are made by history.” See Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose, eds., A Companion to the History of the Book (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 1.
  4. Robert Darnton, “What Is the History of Books?” Daedalus 111, no. 3 (1982): 65.
  5. Robert Darnton, “‘What Is the History of Books?’ Revisited,” Modern Intellectual History 4, no. 4 (2007): 495–508.
  6. Nicholas Mann, “The Origins of Humanism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, ed. Jill Kraye (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 2.
  7. For an extended discussion of Petrarch and humanism, see Mann, “The Origins of Humanism,” 8–16.
  8. See Michael D. Reeve, “Classical Scholarship,” in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, 21–22.
  9. Mann, “The Origins of Humanism,” 1; Reeve, “Classical Scholarship,” 21–22.
  10. Ibid., 32.
  11. Mann, “The Origins of Humanism,” 16.
  12. Reeve, “Classical Scholarship,” 33–34.
  13. Mann, “The Origins of Humanism,” 16.
  14. Reeve, “Classical Scholarship,” 34.
  15. For a discussion of Aldus Manutius’ influence on humanist study, see Martin Davies, “Humanism in Script and Print in the Fifteenth Century,” in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, 57–60.
  16. David Shaw, “The Book Trade Comes of Age: The Sixteenth Century,” in Companion to the History of the Book, 207.