NEH Summer Seminar 2008

Homer's Readers, Ancient and Modern

June 23-July 18, 2008 (Ann Arbor, MI) 











The two Homeric epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, have been required reading in Western culture from its first beginnings. All the uncertainties about Homer and his poems notwithstanding, their place in the cultural imagination in the West has been unrivalled. Although a complete mystery in so many respects (their date and authorship are unknown; they resemble more a tradition than a text; they are blemished with imperfections, inconsistencies, repetitions, irrelevancies, and so on), their influence on literature and culture has been vast, from Sappho and Greek tragedy to James Joyce’s Ulysses, Derek Walcott’s Homeros, and the recent American-German continuation of Schliemann’s original excavations at Troy. Indeed, as secular texts with no pretensions to revealed truth and yet conferred with nearly Biblical stature, their status in world literature is almost unique. With this in mind, the University of Michigan is proposing to host a four-week long summer seminar for fifteen college and university teachers, the aim of which will be to investigate the reasons for the extraordinary standing and the enduring attraction of Homer. The seminar is not specifically designed for classicists, although classicists are definitely welcome. The seminar is open, however, to anyone interested in broadening his or her perspectives on classical culture and its reception. 

To turn to Homer was and still is to search for past meanings, a desire that is palpable in the poetic memory of the epics themselves: they, too, are backward-facing. The epics are the product of a long oral tradition that crystallized sometime in the eighth or seventh centuries BCE, most likely with the introduction of writing, although just how the three processes of transcription, fixation (whereby the epics ceased to change), and canonization are related remains a mystery to this day. Being based as they are on the equivalence of song and memory (“Muses” are the goddesses of both, to whom poets turn for inspiration), the epics are inevitably obsessed with their control over knowledge of the past and with its transmission into the future. That control is occasionally acknowledged to be imperfect and fragile, as when Homer introduces the tally of the Greeks who came to fight at Troy: “Tell me now, you Muses . . . / [For] we have heard only the rumour (kleos) of it and know nothing. / Who then of those who were the chief men and the lords of the Greeks? / I could not tell over the multitude of them nor name them, / not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths” (Iliad 2.484-88). Although these verses are standardly taken as a sign of Homer’s deference to the Muses, the opposite suggests itself: it is the deference that is feigned, not the ignorance. And it is only one of several occasions when Homer’s grip on the past appears frail—nor can this have escaped his contemporary audiences or his later readers.

The epics were born of a historical irony. They recall, from a state of ruins, a glorious Bronze Age palace culture that vanished almost without a trace, while their final, dim remembrance of this earlier age—passed down in the form of our Iliad and Odyssey—took place in the tumbledown Dark Ages just before the Greek polis economy could make its spectacular rise. If Homer’s epic poems stood for the historical loss they also recalled, Homer the poet could only embody this loss, not only in his memory of the past, but above all in his distance from it. It was a loss that the Greeks experienced both in the face of Troy (or Troy’s absence) and in the person of Homer. Homer was always a controversial entity, as much a myth as a person, but always a legend (the son of a river, of one of the Muses and Apollo, or of divine poets, he died unable to solve a child’s riddle or from the debility of old-age), and ultimately a potent symbol, idea, and a prize. There is no denying that the uncertain question and meaning of “Homer”—Homer’s location in the cultural present, both the poet and his poems—was the source of anxieties and debates throughout the whole of classical antiquity, which gave rise to a veritable Homer-industry not much different from our own. The monstrous but now lost work in thirty volumes by Demetrius of Scepsis near Troy (mid-2d c. BCE) is a case in point. Devoted at least in part to establishing the true location of Troy, this polemical and proudly local work was a commentary on a mere sixty-two lines from the Catalogue of the Ships (Iliad 2.816ff.). The fury of Demetrius’ historicism is telling (no doubt of different things). But it is only one exaggerated instance of a widespread tendency with roots in ancient legends and lore and in the earliest rationalizations of Homer. Homer is, and probably always was from his baptismal naming, an idea of something that remains permanently lost to culture—whether this be a Heroic Age, an ideal of unattainable poetic excellence, or a vague sense of some irretrievably lost past.

It is against this background of loss that the first fledgling efforts of classical scholarship emerged and have to be understood. Philology itself, which arose early on out of the need to make sense of Homer’s often obscure and troubling poems (starting with word-glosses), is but a symptom of this larger process, which could be driven by the pleasures of invention and often evinces a high degree of self-reflexivity. From Hesiod to the Second Sophistic under Imperial Rome, the ancients generated a good deal of their culture around the puzzle, and  mystery, of Homer. The permanent loss that Homer embodied was felt more acutely as time went on, as Homer came to stand for the lost splendor of antiquity itself.

Most students and teachers come to Homer through a close reading of the epics. The purpose of this seminar is to give college and university teachers an opportunity to enrich their readings of the epics by approaching the question of Homer from a different angle, namely that of intellectual and cultural history. To read Homer in this light is to reveal the kinds of problems that Homer and the Homeric epics present to ever new generations of readers. The aim of the seminar, in other words, is to explore not the poems as such, but their monumentality—less their quality as great works of literature than their role as cultural icons and as landmarks in the evolving relationship between literature, history, and culture. On this approach, of interest is the question to what extent the object and the means of Homeric interpretation have or have not changed over time. Plutarch’s Homer is not Longinus’, or Nietzsche’s—and he is: Homer may be forever, but is he ever the same? As Homer is variously confronted, some of the resemblances that emerge between antiquity and modernity can be startlingly similar. In other respects, the gaps can be extreme. These proximities and distances will be the true object of the seminar, which will undertake to survey a progression in the way Homer has historically been read, in the widest sense of the term. The coverage will span, selectively, a variety of humanistic media, from ancient and modern forms of classical scholarship to literary criticism, travel literature, studies in translation, anthropological writing, historiography, archaeology, philosophy, and cultural criticism.

The reason for this width of focus is that from antiquity on “Homer” evokes so very much. He is both a looming presence and a gaping absence that demands to be filled. The resonance of “Homer” extends far beyond the poet or his works: it also includes the site of Troy, the setting of the Iliad. And it is in this triple nexus of the person, the works, and the place, all three of these compounded of real and imaginary traits, that a peculiarly haunting effect comes about in the Western historical and cultural imagination. The same holds for his physical poems. One anecdote, probably Hellenistic in origin, relates how Homer’s poems suffered near-total destruction due to fire, floods, and earthquakes, as though Homer were not a text but a place. No other ancient author—and few places—enjoyed this kind of catastrophic fame. It was only natural that Homer, the narrator of Troy, should become inseparably linked to the violent destruction of Troy. That destruction was complete, and the memory of this loss was traumatic for the ancient world—and, in different ways, remained this for the modern world.

It is tempting to say that one of the greatest achievements of modern thinking about Homer was its rediscovery, in the eighteenth century, of the historicity of Homer’s texts and his world. But once it dawned on modernity that it might be possible to locate Homer in space and time, and in a way that antiquity never could, it remained to come to grips with this realization. Reinserting the encumbered Homer of tradition into history was an arduous affair. Much of the progress was made reluctantly, and often with as much backtracking as advances. It was the particular achievement of modernity to name Homer finally as the idea that he always had been. But that achievement produced great tensions. F. A. Wolf shattered the myth of Homer with his philological proof (1795) that Homer was not a poetic genius but was rather a name that had been attached to an oral (illiterate, “primitive”) tradition that had evolved over centuries, if not over a millennium. Instantly, sharp divisions were created, but so were even more profound ambivalences: the lines were easily crossed, often by the same individuals, including by Wolf himself.

(i) On the one side stood philology, science, history, and ruthless, often skeptical, rationality (doubting the myths of antiquity). 

(ii) On the other, there was humanism, classicism, poetry, the poetics of personal inspiration, and a sense of familiar identification, with the ancients functioning as moral paradigms for contemporary moderns. As the nineteenth century wore on the lines grew more entrenched. Classical scholarship became increasingly positivistic, pitched against the ideals of humanism and classicism, and increasingly analytically minded: Homer was broken down into a stratigraphy of compositional layers, interpolations, and accretions, a mere patchwork of many hands.

(iii) Then, a third direction emerged, typified by Nietzsche: primitivism, irrationalism, and the archaic were glamorized, and Homer’s age, viewed now as violent, pre-historical, and ritual-laden, became the locus of this new set of values. 

These three interpretive directions remained at odds with one another right into the twentieth century, as humanism made a resurgence, first under Werner Jaeger’s “Third Humanism” movement, then thanks to the Unitarians who argued for a unified author in Homer (against the Analysts), and then, most recently, with Bernard Williams’s “ideal anthropology,” which located in Homer’s Greeks unified selves who are “just like ourselves.”

Framed by these larger themes, the seminar will provide participants with an introduction to ancient and then modern perspectives on Homer. In the place of close readings of poetry, the seminar will provide a chance to do a close reading of history itself through case studies over time. While knowledge of Greek will be useful, it will not be a prerequisite: all source materials will be made available in English, and some of the obscurer sources to be read in week 1 will be made available in my own translations made specifically for this seminar. Participants will, however, be urged to refresh their familiarity with both Homeric poems prior to the first meeting. A few other key texts will be strongly recommended as preliminary reading prior to the first meeting, including some background materials on the history of Homeric studies, a few essays from Homer’s Ancient Readers, and an essay by myself on the history of classicism.

Details about application procedures and criteria are available at the NEH website. For more in-depth information and to apply click  here.

For further information, send email here


NPR, All Things Considered, April 9, 2007:

Hearing Homer, and Finding an Adventure

by Andrei Codrescu 

Commentator Andrei Codrescu listens to a reading of the works of Homer in translation and he's caught up in the adventures and the language. Codrescu muses on the effect Homer's narrative had back in ancient Greece.


Cyclops and Cunning 
Given his inability to get lift off, even flying close to the sun, Barack Obama will need all the cunning intelligence he can muster.

New: Exhibit on Homer at the Antikenmuseum Basel