Achilles Unbound: Multiformity and Tradition in the Homeric Epics

  Dué, Casey. 2018. Achilles Unbound: Multiformity and Tradition in the Homeric Epics. Hellenic Studies Series 81. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 3. “And Then an Amazon Came”: Homeric Papyri

In the previous chapter we saw that the earliest witnesses to the text of the Iliad, in the form of early quotations, are multiform. Additional verses and variations within verses are not uncommon, and the attested variations are often of a demonstrably formulaic nature, by which I mean they are perfectly in keeping with what we know of Homeric diction. The fragmentary texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey that survive on papyrus are the next-oldest witnesses to the text of Homer. Some papyrus fragments predate the medieval tradition by as many as twelve hundred years, and like the early quotations, they are multiform—so much so that they have been labeled “wild” by the scholars who work with them. In papyrus texts from the third and second centuries BCE, we find differences on the level of entire lines of the poetry. Also prevalent is variation in the formulaic phrasing within lines, such as the presence of one noun-epithet formula in place of another. As in the quotations, there are also numerous verses attested in the papyri that are seemingly intrusive from the standpoint of the medieval transmission. These additional verses, the so-called plus verses, are not present in the majority of the medieval manuscripts of the Iliad. Other verses that are canonical in the medieval manuscripts are absent from the papyri. It is not until about 150 BCE, in the era of Aristarchus, that the papyrus texts begin to present a relatively more uniform text that more closely resembles the medieval manuscripts, and multiformity persists even after this date.

Graeme Bird has been closely affiliated with the Homer Multitext since its earliest days, and his 2010 book, Multitextuality in the Homeric Iliad: The Witness of the Ptolemaic Papyri, advocates for an understanding of the multiformity attested in the Homeric papyri that is similar to my own. Drawing on the work of Milman Parry and especially Albert Lord, Bird emphasizes the natural multiformity of poetry composed in performance and the ways in which live performances necessarily contributed to the transmission of the text of the Iliad. In this respect Bird’s work differs considerably from most earlier studies. Stephanie West’s (1967) work on the Ptolemaic papyri of Homer is dismissive of most multiforms transmitted in the papyri, as is Michael Haslam in the New Companion to Homer (1997). [1] Derek Collins, by contrast, takes an approach similar to Bird’s:

The question of the authenticity of these variations is also misleading to the extent that it presupposes an “original” text against which the variations ought to be judged. Instead, it makes more sense to view the variations as stemming from or produced for live performances during which variations were expected—which also means they must all be regarded as “authentic.” (Collins 2004:216)

Both Bird and Collins see the multiformity attested in the Ptolemaic papyri as being in some way connected to performance, either directly (in the sense of transcripts of lives performance) or indirectly (in the sense that the textual transmission still reflects, even in later eras, the multiformity that is natural to poetry composed in performance). In this brief chapter then I will strive not to simply repeat the work of Bird or Collins, though I have certainly been influenced by it, and instead to build on some of the implications of my previous chapter as well as Bird’s findings, using some of my own examples. [


I noted at the beginning of chapter 2 that the first ten lines of the Iliad exhibit considerable multiformity when all ancient sources are taken into account, in keeping with what we would expect of an oral-derived text. I’d like to begin my discussion of the papyri with a well-known example that concerns the final line of the poem. [4] The medieval manuscripts and all modern editions, such as that of Munro and Allen’s 1920 Oxford Classical Text, end this way, at Iliad 24.804:

[804] ὥς οἵ γ’ ἀμφίεπον τάφον Ἕκτορος ἱπποδάμοιο.

[804] Thus they celebrated the burial of Hektor, tamer of horses.

This is a deeply meaningful ending that brings closure to the story of the Iliad, while at the same time powerfully looking ahead to the death, lamentation for, and funeral of the Iliad’s central figure, Achilles. As Thetis makes clear in Iliad 18.95–96, Achilles’ death will come “straightaway after Hektor” (αὐτίκα γάρ τοι ἔπειτα μεθ᾽ Ἕκτορα), and the two are inextricably linked. [
5] But it seems that not every Iliad ended this way. A note in the scholia of the eleventh-century CE Townley manuscript (Burney 86) states that “some write” (τινὲς γράφουσιν):

[804] ὥς οἵ γ’ ἀμφίεπον τάφον Ἕκτορος· ἦλθε δ’ Ἀμάζων,
[804a] Ἄρηος θυγάτηρ μεγαλήτορος ἀνδροφόνοιο

[804] Thus they celebrated the burial of Hektor, and then an Amazon came
[804a] the daughter of great-hearted man-slaying Ares

We might be tempted to dismiss this comment as resulting from some sort of confusion involving the Aithiopis in the Epic Cycle. We know that by the time the poems of the Cycle came to be summarized by Proklos (the primary form in which we now know them), they had been edited to fit around the Iliad and the Odyssey and to flow relatively seamlessly from one to the next (Burgess 2001:132–143). This is how Proklos describes the initial episodes of the Aithiopis:

If we can trust Proklos, the Aithiopis began with the arrival of Penthesileia (though it is by no means certain that we can trust Proklos). Could this attested multiform really be a verse from the Aithiopis, wrongly added to the Iliad?

The introduction of Penthesileia into a story that has been up to now a tale of the consequences of Achilles’ wrath, which was provoked by his grief at the taking of Briseis, changes the arc of the poem considerably. But just because we prize the thematic closure that Iliad 24 brings does not mean that the poem always had to be sung that way. The addition of Penthesileia to the poem would bring to the fore a theme associated with Achilles that is for the most part not emphasized in our Iliad, namely his erotic associations with a wide variety of female characters beyond Briseis, including Deidameia on Skyros, various women of the towns he sacked throughout the Troad, Polyxena, and even Helen.

This is a theme that I explored in my 2002 study of Briseis, where I suggested on the basis of surviving tales about Achilles in a variety of sources that there were local, Aeolic epic traditions in which Achilles has a love interest who helps him storm Pedasos and/or Methymna (and possibly other towns as well). I further suggested that the Iliad associates Briseis with these women on some level (Dué 2002:57–65). Archaic vase paintings too depict Briseis and Achilles together in a way that suggests a romantic encounter in which Briseis falls in love with and aids Achilles in the pattern of Ariadne and Theseus or Medea and Jason (Dué 2002:33–36). The Iliad would be likely to screen out such an erotic narrative, but I argue that it does not do so entirely. In Iliad 1 Briseis leaves Achilles “unwillingly” (ἀέκουσα 1.348), and in Iliad 9 Achilles proclaims that he loves her as a man loves his wife, even though he won her in war (ἐκ θυμοῦ φίλεον δουρικτητήν περ ἐοῦσαν 9.343). In Briseis’ lament for Patroklos in Iliad 19 we learn of her hope to become Achilles’ kouridiē alokhos (19.298) in Phthia.

The Iliad that we know mostly omits these erotic narratives, which seem to have been more prevalent in the poems of the Epic Cycle, perhaps because of the Iliad’s focus on Achilles’ wrath in connection with Agamemnon’s seizure of Briseis, and his subsequent grief for Patroklos. As Fantuzzi observed: “The limited presence of eros in the Iliad, and in particular the limitation of its narrative relevance to the female sphere, cannot be satisfactorily explained just by the fact that the poem was a martial epos. Tailoring the role and features of eros to this particular aspect of heroic life may have been a choice of poetics pursued by the oral tradition that generated the Iliad. In fact, in the Aethiopis … we find that eros and martial prowess are treated as interrelated and overlapping aspects of the heroic world” (Fantuzzi 2012:267). The themes of the Iliad, as I noted in chapter 1, center around Achilles mēnis and akhos, not eros.

There are still other themes that such a performance might have highlighted by including the story of Penthesileia. As Fantuzzi has explored in his study, the plot of the Aithiopis and the Penthesileia narrative in particular involve “a series of mirror repetitions of the structure of the Iliad,” beginning with an attack on Achilles’ honor (by Thersites) in connection with a woman and his temporary withdrawal from the army. Following the work of Burgess (2009), I see such repetitions as the result of deeply entrenched traditional patterns at play in the epic poetry associated with the life of Achilles rather than an intentional mirroring of the Iliad. But by including the story of Penthesileia, a poet necessarily juxtaposes her storyline with that of the Iliad, and thereby highlights their shared structures and themes.

One such thematic parallel concerns the very name of Penthesileia, as Gregory Nagy has shown: [12]

A big question remains: why would Achilles fall in love with the Amazon Penthesileia in particular? A key to the answer is the name of this Amazon, Penthesileia, which means ‘she who has penthos for the people [lāos]’. This name is a perfect parallel to the name of Achilles, the full form of which can be reconstructed linguistically as *Akhi-lāos and which is understood in the specialized language of Homeric poetry to mean ‘he who has akhos for the people [lāos]’. Not only the names of these epic characters but even the characters themselves are beautifully matched. When Achilles and Penthesileia are engaged in mortal combat, as we see in the vase paintings, their eyes meet at the precise moment when he kills her. And what Achilles sees in Penthesileia is a female reflection of his male self. All along, Penthesileia has been his other self in the feminine gender, as even her name shows, and now he has killed her. The death of Penthesileia thus becomes a source of grief, sorrow, and overwhelming sadness for Achilles, this man of constant sorrow. Both these epic names—and the epic characters that are tied to them—have to do with themes of lament, as signaled by the words akhos and penthos. (Nagy 2013:76–77)

As we saw in chapter 1, the theme of Achilles’ sorrow or akhos is a deeply ingrained theme in the Iliad, perhaps as old or older than his wrath (as Nagy’s reconstruction of his name suggests). A performance of the Iliad that included Penthesileia might well have emphasized this theme even further.

The traditional way of ending the Iliad, within the “poetics pursued by the oral tradition that generated the Iliad,” and especially in regulated contexts such as the Panathenaia, may well have been with the funeral of Hektor. And the Panhellenic Iliad could have evolved in such a way as to for the most part pass over Achilles’ romantic exploits (except where it concerns Briseis). But as papyrus 104 and the Townley scholion show, there is really no reason why a poet versed in both the Iliadic tradition and that of the Aithiopis could not have segued from one to the other, as the occasion allowed or the audience requested. That audience then would have a experienced a different Iliad than the one we know.


Not every example of multiformity preserved in the papyri has such dramatic narrative consequences. Most of the early papyri exhibit the fairly standard forms of variation that I noted above as being typical of oral-derived texts. The Ptolemaic papyri as a group have been labeled “wild” and “eccentric” by papyrologists and editors of the Homeric poems alike. But they are only “wild” from the perspective of the medieval transmission. The variations themselves present little that is surprising when considered from the viewpoint of the system as a whole. Papyrus 40 (P. Hibeh 19) is one such “wild” papyrus, dating to the first half of the second century BCE (West 2001:90). It is a lengthy papyrus with quite a few plus verses as well as multiformity within individual lines. The following is an excerpt from fragment L of this papyrus:

[302] <ὣς ἔφαν εὐχό>μενοι, μέγα δ᾽ ἔκτυπε μητίετα Ζεὺ̣ς
[302a] [ca. 10 letters]    φ̣ων ἐ̣π̣ὶ̣ δὲ στεροπὴν ἐφέηκεν·
[302b] <θησέμεναι γ>ὰρ̣ ἔμελλεν ἔτ᾽ ἄλγεά τε στοναχάς τε
[302c] <Τρωσί τε καὶ> Δαναο̣ῖ̣<σι> διὰ κρατερὰς ὑς<μί>νας.
[302d] <αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ ὄ>μοσέν τε τελεύτησέν <τε> τὸν ὅρκον,
[303] [       ]<Δαρδανί>δ<η>ς̣ Πρίαμος πρὸς μῦθον ἔειπ<ε·>
[304] <κέκλυτέ μευ Τ>ρῶες καὶ Δάρδανοι ἠδ᾽ <ἐ>π̣ί̣κ̣<ουροι>
[304a] <ὄφρ᾽ εἴπω> τά μ̣<ε θυ>μὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ἀν<ώ>γε<ι.>
[305] <ἤτοι ἐ>γὼν εἶμι πρ<ο>τὶ Ἴλιον ἠνεμόεσσαν·
[306] <ο>ὐ̣ γάρ κεν τλαίην <ποτ᾽ ἐν ὀφθα>λμοῖσιν ὁρᾶ<σθαι>
[307] <μα>ρνάμ<ε>νον φίλο<ν υἱὸν ἀρηϊφίλῳ Μενελάῳ.>
[308] <Ζεὺς μέν που> τ̣ό̣ <γ>ε̣ <οἶδε καὶ ἀθάνατοι θεοὶ ἄλλοι>
[309] <ὁπποτέρῳ θα>ν̣ά̣τοιο τέλ<ος πεπρωμένον ἐστίν.>
[310] <ἦ ῥα καὶ ἐς δίφρο>ν̣ ἄ̣ρ̣<νας θέτο ἰσόθεος φώς>

302: <ὣς ἔφαν εὐχό>μενοι, μέγα δ᾽ ἔκτυπε μητίετα Ζεὺ̣ς] ὣς ἔφαν, οὐδ’ ἄρα πώ σφιν ἐπεκραίαινε Κρονίων mss. 303: πρὸς] μετὰ mss. 304: Δάρδανοι ἠδ᾽ <ἐ>π̣ί̣κ̣<ουροι>] ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοί mss. 306: <ο>ὐ̣ γάρ κεν τλαίην <ποτ᾽ ἐν ὀφθα>λμοῖσιν ὁρᾶ<σθαι>] ἄψ, ἐπεὶ οὔ πω τλήσομ’ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρᾶσθαι mss.

[302] So they spoke, praying, and Zeus the deviser thundered loudly
[302a]                     and he let fly lightning.
[302b] For he was about to place still more sufferings and groans upon
[302c] the Trojans and the Danaans in powerful combat.
[302d] Next, once he [Agamemnon] had sworn the oath and completed the sacrifice,
[303] To them Priam, descendant of Dardanos, spoke words,
[304] “Hear from me, Trojans and Dardanians and allies,
[304a] let me say what my heart in my chest tells me to say:
[305] I will go to wind-swept Ilion,
[306] for I would never bear to watch with my own eyes
[307] my dear son fighting with Menelaos, dear to Ares.
[308] Zeus, I suppose, knows this, as well the rest of the immortal gods,
[309] to which of the two the fulfillment of death has been allotted.”
[310] He spoke, and into the chariot he, a man equal to a god, placed the lambs

At verse 302, the papyrus seems to read ὣς ἔφαν εὐχόμενοι, μέγα δ᾽ ἔκτυπε μητίετα Ζεὺ̣ς (“So they spoke, praying, and Zeus the deviser thundered loudly”) in contrast to the medieval manuscripts, which read ὣς ἔφαν, οὐδ’ ἄρα πώ σφιν ἐπεκραίαινε Κρονίων (“So they spoke, but not yet did Zeus bring it to fulfillment for them”). Following that verse, there are four plus verses that are not attested in the medieval manuscripts. At verse 303, the papyrus reads πρὸς where the medieval manuscripts have μετὰ. [
14] At verse 304, the papyrus reads Δάρδανοι ἠδ᾽ <ἐ>π̣ί̣κ̣<ουροι> (“Dardanians and allies”) where the manuscripts read ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοί (“well-greaved Achaeans”). After 304 there is another plus verse. At verse 306, the papyrus appears to read <ο>ὐ̣ γάρ κεν τλαίην <ποτ᾽ ἐν ὀφθα>λμοῖσιν ὁρᾶ<σθαι> (“for I would never bear to watch with my own eyes”) whereas the manuscripts have ἄψ, ἐπεὶ οὔ πω τλήσομ’ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρᾶσθαι (“back, since I will not yet dare to watch with my own eyes”).

As we can see in this small segment, this particular papyrus text differs from medieval texts of the Iliad in its number of lines and often within lines (with one verse almost entirely different at 302), but the variations are formulaic in nature, with the kind of compression and expansion and differences in choice of formula that are natural for oral-derived texts. Verse 302 on the papyrus does not happen to survive in any other manuscript or papyrus in this particular location within the epic, but it is found at Iliad 15.377, indicating that it is a perfectly Homeric line. Verse 302 in the manuscripts (οὐδ’ ἄρα πώ σφιν ἐπεκραίαινε Κρονίων) is also attested elsewhere in the poem (at Iliad 2.419). Both, then, are equally acceptable within Homeric diction. Here is another case where a multitextual approach can accommodate both without excluding one or the other.

There are five so-called plus verses in a span of fourteen lines, but four of these have close parallels elsewhere in the Iliad. Verses 3.302b–302c on the papyrus closely resemble Iliad 2.39–40:

[2.39] θήσειν γὰρ̣ ἔτ᾽ ἔμελλεν ἔπ᾽ ἄλγεά τε στοναχάς τε
[2.40] Τρωσί τε καὶ Δαναοῖσι διὰ κρατερὰς ὑσμίνας.

[2.39] For he was about to place still more sufferings and groaning upon
[2.40] the Trojans and the Danaans in powerful combat.

Verse 3.302d on the papyrus can be found at Iliad 14.280:

[14.280] αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ ὄμοσέν τε τελεύτησέν τε τὸν ὅρκον

[14.280] Next, once he had sworn the oath and completed the sacrifice

And finally, verse 3.304a on the papyrus can be found at Iliad 19.102. In fact, this particular passage from Iliad 19, in which Zeus addresses the other gods, is contextually similar to the one we are exploring in Iliad 3:

[19.100] ἤτοι ὅ γ᾽ εὐχόμενος μετέφη πάντεσσι θεοῖσι·
[19.101] κέκλυτέ μευ πάντές τε θεοὶ πᾶσαί τε θέαιναι,
[19.102] ὄφρ᾽ εἴπω τά με θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ἀνώγει.

[19.100] Making a solemn statement, he spoke among all the gods,
[19.101] “Hear from me, all you gods and goddesses,
[19.102] let me say what my heart in my chest tells me to say.”

We can see that verse 2.304 on the papyrus is likewise parallel to 19.101, with the substitution of the contextually appropriate Τρῶες καὶ Δάρδανοι ἠδ᾽ ἐπίκουροι for πάντές τε θεοὶ πᾶσαί τε θέαιναι.


At Iliad 18.603–606, near the end of the recital of Hephaistos’ decoration of the shield of Achilles, and following a long passage describing the dancing of young men and women on a dancing floor “like the one which once in broad Knossos Daidalos made for Ariadne of the beautifully braided hair” (18.591–592), the Venetus A and all medieval manuscripts read as follows:

πολλὸς δ᾽ ἱμερόεντα χορὸν περιίσταθ᾽ ὅμιλος
τερπόμενοι· δοιὼ δὲ κυβιστητῆρε κατ᾽ αὐτοὺς
μολπῆς ἐξάρχοντες ἐδίνευον κατὰ μέσσους.

A great crowd stood around the lovely dancing place
delighting in it. And two tumblers throughout them
leading off the song and dance whirled in the middle.

As Martin Revermann has pointed out in his analysis of the lines, this version of the text has not only universal manuscript support, but also the support of five papyri and a quotation of the passage in Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Revermannn 1998:29). And yet this seemingly canonical version of the text is not the only possibility. Friedrich Wolf, whose conservative edition set the standard numbering of verses that all modern editions adopt, prints this longer version of the passage, as attested in Athenaeus (181b): [

[18.603] πολλὸς δ᾽ ἱμερόεντα χορὸν περιίσταθ᾽ ὅμιλος
[18.604] τερπόμενοι· μετὰ δέ σφιν ἐμέλπετο θεῖος ἀοιδὸς
[18.605] φορμίζων· δοιὼ δὲ κυβιστητῆρε κατ᾽ αὐτοὺς
[18.606] μολπῆς ἐξάρχοντες ἐδίνευον κατὰ μέσσους.

[18.603] A great crowd stood around the lovely dancing place
[18.604] delighting in it. And among them a divine singer sang and played
[18.605] on the phorminx. And two tumblers throughout them
[18.606] leading off the song and dance whirled in the middle.

Because the line numbers of Wolf’s edition have been adopted by all subsequent editors, Athenaeus’ version of these verses receives the canonical line numbers 603, 604, 605, and 606. Modern editors who choose to leave out the expansion due to insufficient textual support must format their edition in such a way as to preserve the line numbers of Wolf, but not the parts of verses 604 and 605 that are attested only in Athenaeus.

What do we gain in Athenaeus’ longer version of the passage? First and foremost we gain a divine singer, who also plays the phorminx as the young people dance. In this final image from the shield of Achilles (at least as it has survived in the medieval transmission) we find a link between the current occasion of performance of the poem and the internal occasion depicted on the shield. The shield, so famously full of movement and activity and dynamic energy on an object that should be static, picks up on the earlier scenes involving festive music and singing (491–495, 526, 569–572) and concludes with the sound not only of the phorminx but also the voice of an aoidos. Gregory Nagy has argued that the metalworking of the shield passage as a whole is a metaphor for the composition of Homeric poetry via the metaphor of pattern-weaving (poikillein; cf 18.590). The aoidos on the shield then becomes a manifestation of the external aoidos of the poem (“Homer”), who calls attention to his own status as the leader of the singing and the dancing in the current festival context (Nagy 2015d:4§§9–17).

The context within which Athenaeus cites these verses is actually an argument about the correct text of the Odyssey. Athenaeus says that those in Aris-tarchus’ circle (οἱ περὶ Ἀρίσταρχον 180c) and Aristarchus himself were deceived by verse 4.3 (in which Menelaos is found giving a wedding feast) and inappropriately added to the text verses that come from the description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad:

ἀλλ᾽ ἐξαπατηθέντες ὑπὸ τοῦ πρώτου ἔπους:

[4.3] τὸν δ᾽ εὗρον δαινύντα γάμον πολλοῖσιν ἔτῃσιν…

προσσυνῆψαν τοιούτους τινὰς στιχους

[4.15] ὣς οἱ μὲν δαίνυντο καθ᾽ ὑψερεφὲς μέγα δῶμα
[4.16] γείτονες ἠδὲ ἔται Μενελάου κυδαλίμοιο,
[4.17] τερπόμενοι: μετὰ δέ σφιν ἐμέλπετο θεῖος ἀοιδὸς
[4.18] φορμίζων, δοιὼ δὲ κυβιστητῆρε κατ᾽ αὐτούς,
[4.19] μολπῆς ἐξάρχοντες, ἐδίνευον κατὰ μέσσους.

μετενεγκόντες ἐκ τῆς Ὁπλοποιίας σὺν αὐτῷ γε τῷ περὶ τὴν λέξιν ἁμαρτήματι.

But having been deceived by the first verse

[4.3] They found him giving a wedding feast for his many kinsmen…

They fastened on in addition such verses as follows

[4.15] So they feasted throughout the great high-roofed house
[4.16] the neighbors and kinsmen of the outstanding Menelaos,
[4.17] delighting in it. And among them a divine singer sang and played
[4.18] on the phorminx. And two tumblers throughout them
[4.19] leading off the song and dance whirled in the middle.

having transferred them from the “Making of the Arms” together with the error concerning the text.

Athenaeus, much like a modern critic, accuses the scholars associated with Aristarchus of taking lines that belong in Iliad 18 and inserting them in Odyssey 4. This argument is part of a larger discussion about the appropriate mix of wine, song, and dance, in which Athenaeus claims that in Homer it is mainly the suitors and the Phaeacians who indulge in this kind of activity. But the fact is that in both passages song and music are thematically and formulaically appropriate—and even expected, from what we know of Homeric diction—as Revermann has shown and as I will discuss below. Just as in the case of the golden amphora of Iliad 23 and Odyssey 24, which I discussed in chapter 2, we should not have to choose between the Iliad and the Odyssey here. Both poems make use of the formulaic language associated with feasting and festivals where it is thematically called for.

But the problem goes deeper than a mere accusation of interpolation, because the verses that Athenaeus quotes from the Odyssey, the ones he accuses the circle of Aristarchus of having transferred from book 18 of the Iliad, are not the same as the ones we find preserved in the medieval transmission of the Iliad 18 and in the papyri. In the process of making one argument about the text of the Odyssey, Athenaeus creates an entirely different problem for the text of the Iliad. What is an editor of the Iliad to make of the multiformity presented by Athenaeus? Do we simply ignore the fact that in the course of making an argument about the correct text of the Odyssey such an early witness as Athenaeus challenges our text of the Iliad?

To make matters even harder than they already are for the modern editor, there are additional issues in the text addressed by Athenaeus, which lead to further evidence of multiformity in the textual transmission as it was known to Athenaeus. Athenaeus, for example, objects to the reading ἐξάρχοντες at Odyssey 4.19 (this is what he means by “the error concerning the text”). Athenaeus argues that the tumblers are not the ones who lead off the song and dance but rather the ἀοιδὸς, suggesting that the correct reading should be ἐξάρχοντος (180d). In the Odyssey passage, as Athenaeus quotes it, there is an ἀοιδὸς who could in theory lead off the singing. But when Athenaeus then quotes the Iliad passage once again (181a–181b), the ἀοιδὸς is not present! (μετὰ δέ σφιν ἐμέλπετο θεῖος ἀοιδὸς / φορμίζων is omitted, just as it is in our medieval manuscripts of the Iliad.) The omission appears to be an accidental one. Later in the discussion (181d), Athenaeus quotes the text again, and again without μετὰ δέ σφιν ἐμέλπετο θεῖος ἀοιδὸς / φορμίζων, but he attributes this version of the text to Aristarchus, who, he says, “removed” (ἐξεῖλεν) the singer from the Iliad passage. Athenaeus objects to the removal, because without an ἀοιδὸς, it is not possible to read ἐξάρχοντος.

It would be tempting to dismiss Athenaeus’ longer text as it is first quoted altogether, given its lack of support in the manuscripts and the textual difficulties present in Athenaeus’ own discussion of the passage. Moreover, we have no reason to dismiss the shorter passage, as it has been transmitted in all manuscripts. Nagy has argued, pace Athenaeus, that both the shorter and the longer versions of the passage discussed by Athenaeus have support within the formulaic diction of Homeric epic (see Nagy’s arguments in Nagy 2015d:4§§26–38, drawing on the scenes featuring Demodokos in Odyssey books 8 and 13). In other words, both versions are legitimate multiforms generated within the system of Homeric diction. But Revermann makes a persuasive case that there is indeed something missing from the more compressed shield passage as transmitted in the medieval manuscripts of the Iliad. He studies all available passages that depict dancing in ancient epic, including two others on the shield (at 18.491–496 and 18.561–572), and concludes that in every case music, musical instruments, and/or singing are explicitly mentioned:

To sum up: as the text stands, the final group dance on the Shield of Achilles is not only unaccompanied but, apart from the mention of μόλπη, even silent. The near-silence and the absence of any form of accompaniment are unparalleled on the Shield, in the Homeric epics as a whole, in Ps.-Hesiod, and in the Homeric Hymns.… I conclude that the description of a festive ἱμερόεις χορός of young men and women on the Shield, the most elaborate scene of its kind in the Homeric epics, is incomplete without more noise and an explicit mention of instruments and/or instrumentalists. Thus, a lacuna of uncertain length is to be postulated. (Revermann 1998:32)

Revermann’s arguments clearly show that something is missing, but the lacuna he postulates, in his view, cannot be filled by the citation in Athenaeus, which he finds too problematic. [


Revermann goes on to discuss (and ultimately dismiss) another possible source for filling in the postulated lacuna on the shield, a first-century BCE papyrus known as papyrus 51. It is this papyrus that I now propose to examine. In what follows I am indebted to the edition of Stephanie West (1967:132–136), on whose papyrological observations and expertise I rely (as does Revermann), even, as mentioned above, when I have disagreements about the significance of attested multiforms for our understanding of the the Homeric epics.

West sums up the importance of papyrus 51 this way (1967:132): “This is one of the most remarkable of the eccentric papyri: it is the latest in date, it contains a lengthy interpolation from the Hesiodic Scutum, and it is liberally provided with critical signs, its most problematic feature.” The papyrus once contained two columns of at least seventeen verses each, but the first column is now almost completely missing except for a few letters at the end of some of the verses. Still, in what remains it is clear that plus verses were present (West 1967:132). Column II also contains plus verses, including one (18.606a) that is highly relevant to our discussion of Athenaeus, and four (18.608a–d) that closely resemble the Hesiodic Shield (verses 207–215).

The portion of column II relevant to our discussion reads as follows (as edited by West). There is a diplē next to each verse at 603, 605, and 608a–d, and a possible obelos along with the diplē at 608a. There is a stigmē next to 607. [19]

[603] πολλὸς [δ᾽ ἱμε]ρόεντα χ[ο]ρὸν περιίστα̣[θ᾽ ὅ]μιλ[ος
[604/5] τερπόμ̣[ενοι·] δοιὼ δὲ κ̣υ̣[β]ι̣στητῆρε κ[α]τ᾽ αὐτ̣[οὺς
[606] μολπῆ[ς ἐξ]άρχοντες ἐδ̣ί̣νευον κατ[ὰ] μέσ[σους.
[606a] ἐν δ’ ἔσ[αν σ]ύ̣ριγγε[ς, ἔσ]α̣ν̣ κίθαρίς τ[ε] κ̣αὶ α̣[ὐλοί.
[607] ἐν δὲ τ[ίθει] ποταμοῖ̣ο μέγα σθένος Ὠκε[ανοῖο
[608] ἄντυγα πὰρ πυμά̣τ̣η̣ν̣ σ̣άκεος πύκα π[οιητοῖο.
[608a] ἐν δὲ λιμὴν ἐτέτυκτ̣[ο] ἑ̣ανοῦ κασσιτέρ[οιο
[608b] κλυζ[ομ]ένωι ἴκε̣[λο]ς· δοίω δ’ ἀναφυσιόω[ντες
[608c] ἀργύ[ρεοι] δελφῖνεσ̣ [ἐ]φοίνεον ἔλλ[ο]πας [ἰχθῦς·
[608d] τοῦ δ̣’ [ὕπ]ο χάλκε[ιοι] τ̣ρ̣έ̣ο̣ν̣ ἰ̣χ̣θ̣ύ̣ες· αὐ̣τὰ[ρ ἐπ᾽ ἀκταῖς

[603] A great crowd stood around the lovely dancing place
[604/5] delighting in it. And two tumblers throughout them
[606] leading off the song and dance [μολπή] whirled in the middle.
[606a] And on it were panpipes and a lyre [kithara] and flutes [auloi].
[607] And on it he placed the great might of the river Okeanos
[608] next to the outermost rim of the intricately made shield.
[608a] And on it was wrought a harbor of beaten tin
[608b] and it was like as if rising from the waves. And drawing deep breaths two
[608c] silver dolphins reddened the scaly fish.
[608d] And beneath it the bronze fish trembled. Meanwhile on the shore

For the moment I call attention only to verse 606a on the papyrus. This verse is attested in no other manuscript and is not found elsewhere in what survives of Homeric poetry. As West points out, the text as she has reconstructed it is problematic metrically, but there are no likely alternatives to her supplement. Clearly, at some point in the history of composing this passage in performance it was felt that musical accompaniment was called for here, and Revermann’s research confirms that we should expect to find it. In terms of what we know of Homeric diction, however, the verse is problematic, and it is not surprising that it did not gain a stronger foothold in the textual transmission. [

Even thornier is the question of the remaining plus verses on the papyrus. These verses are almost universally regarded as an “interpolation” or “contamination” from the Hesiodic Shield, verses 207–215. [21] Here is the Hesiodic passage, with overlapping phrases highlighted:

[207] ἐν δὲ λιμὴν ἐύορμος ἀμαιμακέτοιο θαλάσσης
[208] κυκλοτερὴς ἐτέτυκτο πανέφθου κασσιτέροιο
[209] κλυζομένῳ ἴκελος· πολλοί γε μὲν ἂμ μέσον αὐτοῦ
[210] δελφῖνες τῇ καὶ τῇ ἐθύνεον ἰχθυάοντες
[211] νηχομένοις ἴκελοι· δοιὼ δ᾽ ἀναφυσιόωντες
[212] ἀργύρεοι δελφῖνες ἐθοινῶντ᾽ ἔλλοπας ἰχθῦς.
[213] τῶν δ᾽ ὕπο χάλκειοι τρέον ἰχθύες· αὐτὰρ ἐπ᾽ ἀκταῖς
[214] ἧστο ἀνὴρ ἁλιεὺς δεδοκημένος· εἶχε δὲ χερσὶν
[215] ἰχθύσιν ἀμφίβληστρον ἀπορρίψοντι ἐοικώς.

[207] And on it a harbor with good mooring of the monstrous sea
[208] was wrought in a circle of pure tin
[209] like as if rising from the waves. In the middle of it many
[210] dolphins darted here and there fishing
[211] like as if swimming; and drawing deep breaths two
[212] silver dolphins feasted on the scaly fish.
[213] And beneath them the bronze fish trembled. Meanwhile on the shore
[214] sat a fisherman watching. And he held in his hands
[215] a casting net, seeming like one about to cast it.

Revermann uses the presence of these verses on the papyrus to condemn 606a, even though 606a contains the music that he argues is lacking from the medievally transmitted shield of Achilles:

The overall impression is that the verse is awkwardly squeezed in to supplement what is felt to be lacking. The way in which the papyrus elsewhere indulges in what are unmistakably interpolations shatters its trustworthiness as a whole, and clinches the question of the authenticity of 606a. (Revermann 1998:33)

West likewise speaks of the plus verses on the papyrus as being an “interpolation” from the Hesiodic passage. But a comparison of the two passages arguably shows something quite different. The passages make use of similar formulaic language to describe a similar image on a shield, but one need not be an “interpolation” of the other, if we take into account that both shield passages were composed within a long oral tradition of such passages. The Iliadic shield of Achilles and the Hesiodic shield of Herakles are only two such compositions that happen to survive. We simply cannot know how many more may have existed and how prone such compositions may have been to expansion and compression in performance. Papyrus 51’s additional verses are almost certainly not the work of a miscreant scribe intentionally “contaminating” the Iliad with verses from the Hesiodic corpus. Rather, both passages draw on the traditional formulaic language associated with shield poetry, language that was evidently readily available to poets of the Homeric and Hesiodic corpora alike. [

Indeed, the presence of critical signs on the papyrus, what West calls the papyrus’ “most problematic feature,” point to this text being a critical edition, and not some carelessly made transcript of an unusual performance. We cannot know the source for the text that has been preserved, but we can see that it has been annotated and is keyed to a commentary, which would have been published in a separate scroll. [23] So while the additional verses on papyrus 51 may be the result of a particular performance in which a singer drew on thematically appropriate formulaic diction in order to extend his performance of the making of Achilles’ shield, as Revermann (1998:37) suggests later in his article, they have been taken seriously enough to be included and commented upon in this critical edition. It is worth noting that this particular edition did indeed mark verse 606a for athetesis, but 608b–608d (and possibly 608a) received only a diplē. The diplē indicates merely that they were discussed in the accompanying commentary, not outright condemned. And in fact it is this very lack of condemnation that West finds so problematic about these signs. She notes that there is no difference in ink color or anything to indicate that the signs were inserted later by someone else, but wonders if “it is perhaps not necessary to assume that they were inserted by the original scribe” (1967:132). Her reason is that the signs do not match up with her expectations of the Homeric text here: “the only sign which would be at all appropriate before 608a, b, c, d is the obelos” (1967:133). For West, working within a model in which there is a single, correct text to be found, athetesis of 608a–608d is the only conceivable option. But it seems the editor of this particular papyrus in the first century BCE did not feel that way. They are unusual enough to be commented upon, but they were included nonetheless.


Instead of taking this passage on the shield of Achilles as an example of why a multitextual approach to the Iliad might be fruitful and instructive, Revermann explicitly rejects such an approach:

If the considerations put forward in this paper are correct, they point to the peculiarities of the transmission of the Homeric poems. Performance and written versions co-exist at least up to the fifth century, and performances continue to leave their imprint on the texts. The ending of the description of Achilles’ Shield was particularly liable to fluctuations owing both to the attraction which the dancing-scene climax exerted on the performers and to the fact that the ecphrasis as a whole was perceived as a self-contained unit, presumably one of the jewels of any performance of the Iliad.

This result may bring to mind the theory of transmission of the Homeric poems advocated by Nagy, especially his notion of ‘fluidity’ and ‘rigidity’. I nevertheless disagree with most aspects and implications of this theory, in particular the attempt to identify different stages of ‘fluid’ transmission in a ‘multitext edition’ of the Homeric poems. The passage at the end of Shield description on which I concentrated is an isolated and special case, in which the evidence from a ‘wild’ papyrus and the secondary transmission allows for a glance at the ‘fluidity’ to which the text could be exposed. But beyond noting the ‘fluidity’, the overall result is, alas, negative. Comparison with the relevant textual and archaeological evidence available suggests that our tradition of a particular passage of this ecphrasis is lacunose. There are, however, no means of recovering the ‘genuine version’ of this passage. In fact the quest for it would be misguided in principle.

Revermann’s analysis, by his own admission, uncovers an instance of fluidity (or multiformity) in the textual transmission, only to reject such fluidity as interesting or worthy of further examination. He describes as being a “special case” something that, as we have seen, is not particularly special or unusual. The earliest quotations and papyri reveal that the Homeric text existed and was presumably performed in shorter and longer versions throughout antiquity. Revermann’s penultimate sentence highlights the difference between the approach of many scholars and that which I and my fellow editors (following Nagy, and ultimately Albert Lord) advocate for. We are not attempting to recover the “genuine version,” nor do we think that there is only one “genuine version” to be had. [
24] A multitextual approach can accept that formulaic language associated with shield poetry could have been used in performance to further extend the shield passage. It can also accept that different performances of the shield of Achilles might have included varying numbers of verses devoted to describing the musical accompaniment of the dancers. It can accept the presence or absence of an aoidos in the passage, while acknowledging that there are poetic implications of each multiform that should be taken into account in any analysis of the passage.

My point in writing about this passage and its attested multiforms has not been to disagree with Revermann’s core arguments; in fact I agree with almost every point that he makes. Where we diverge is in our understanding of the implications of his analysis, and of multiformity more generally. Because the editors of the Homer Multitext are not interested in identifying a single correct or pristine text, we can appreciate papyrus 51 in a different, more historically contextualized, way:

  • We can find evidence for the formulaic diction connected to Shield poetry in the larger epic tradition.
  • We can find evidence pointing to a thematic preference for musical accompaniment in passages that depict dancing, something that seems to have dropped from the medievally attested text of the shield of Achilles.
  • We can find evidence for how the Homeric poems were being performed and circulated and received in the first century BCE.

The performers whose songs are the ultimate source for papyrus 51 evidently were not always quite ready to end the making of the shield of Achilles at verse 18.608, and might keep going. Likewise it seems plausible that the ultimate source of the multiform ending of the Iliad preserved on papyrus 104 were performers who were not ready to end the Iliad with the burial of Hektor. They too kept going, and brought Penthesileia onto the scene. The choice to keep going, and not end with the burial of Hektor, or to include an aoidos on the shield or not, necessarily affects our understanding and reception of the Iliad, as it did for audiences in the first centuries BCE and CE.

The presence of such multiformity in our earliest sources complicates many traditional forms of literary analysis, but our response to that complexity need not be to hide or dismiss it. Rather, in embracing multiformity we can attempt to recover some of the richness and creativity of a poetic tradition in which compositional possibilities abounded for performers even while they worked within a highly traditional medium. What may be surprising about the papyri is that this kind of creativity persisted within the system long after the time in which scholars have typically conceived of the Iliad and the Odyssey as being fixed and unchanging. Even within Nagy’s evolutionary model, a text like papyrus 51 comes quite late in the process of crystallization. Many scholars would be comfortable with an oral tradition that remained in flux until “Homer’s time,” a time typically conceptualized as being in the late Iron Age or early Archaic period. But to embrace or even acknowledge that multiformity persisted long past this date requires abandoning modern notions of authorship and genius. Indeed, it requires us to abandon “Homer.” It requires us to blur the line between the creative aoidos and the replicating rhapsode (González, forthcoming [c]). I will return to this idea in my conclusion.


[ back ] 1. For more on West’s and Haslam’s views see above, pp. 69–76. For more on the Homeric papyri and the multiformity of they exhibit, see Dué and Ebbott 2010:169–191, where three papyri containing text from Iliad 10 from different eras are compared to the Venetus A manuscript.

[ back ] 2. Bird’s findings are, as to be expected, quite similar to those expressed in Dué 2001a and Dué and Ebbott 2009, 2010, and 2017.

[ back ] 3. We should be careful to note that even though the Ptolemaic papyri are, as I have stated, “late” in terms of the performance tradition of these poems, the texts they preserve are not necessarily late. Some papyrus texts are clearly not hastily made transcripts of performance, but rather carefully assembled editions, whose ultimate source is not known to us. It has been argued by Ready (2015:2) on the basis of comparative evidence that “the textualized versions of Homeric epic that stemmed from a process of dictation should be understood as co-creations of the poet, scribe, and collector.” My own understanding of the textualization process differs in some ways from that of Ready, however. While I see scribes as editors and in many cases scholars and poets in their own right, I do not believe that the multiformity that survives in texts of the Iliad on papyrus usually results from the intervention of scribes or collectors. Certainly the circumstances of performance, including any patronage associated with them, may have played a shaping role in the overall structure of the performance and no doubt affected the choices of the composer as he performed. But in the vast majority of cases, attested multiforms in the Ptolemaic papyri conform to what we know of the system as a whole and are clearly a product of it. (See chapter 2, above, and further below for examples.) I see therefore no reason to treat these Ptolemaic multiforms as in any way less “Homeric” than those that survive in the medieval manuscripts.

[ back ] 4. For discussion of the attested variations on the final line of the Iliad and their relationship to the Aithiopis see the edition of Bernabé 1996 (Aithiopis fragment 1) as well as Burgess 2001:140–142 and Davies 2016:46–52 with additional bibliography and primary sources discussed ad loc.

[ back ] 5. See chapter 2 above, p. 78.

[ back ] 6. The text is taken from folio 6r in the Venetus A, printed here as written.

[ back ] 7. Papyrus 104 (= P. Lond. Lit. 1.6 + P. Ryl. 3.540 + P. Lib. Cong. inv. 4082b + P. Morgan inv. M662[6b] + [27k] + P. Giss. Univ. inv. 213). For the publication history of this papyrus see the Mertens-Pack 3 database (, s.v. 643.

[ back ] 8. Otrera was a queen of the Amazons. For more on Penthesileia, her lineage and alliance with the Trojans, and her fatal battle with Achilles, see Mayor 2014:297–304.

[ back ] 9. On this point see again Burgess 2001:140–142, discussing the work of Kopff (1981 and 1983). Kopff argues on the basis of surviving visual representations that the Aithiopis tradition at one time included the ransom of Hektor.

[ back ] 10. On the concept of a story thread, see Odyssey 8.73–74 with Nagy 1979:18n3.

[ back ] 11. See also Fantuzzi 2012:270 and Nagy 2013:75–77. For more on the visual representations of Achilles and Penthesileia see Kossatz-Deissmann 1981, Ahlberg-Cornell 1992:69–70, and Mayor 2014:298–301.

[ back ] 12. For fuller discussion of Nagy’s reconstruction of the names of Achilles and Penthesileia see Nagy 1979:94–117 and 2004:131–137.

[ back ] 13. The text and supplements are taken from the digital edition of this papyrus made by Joseph Miller, who follows S. West’s 1967 edition in most respects. Note that text within angle brackets is not present on the fragmentary papyrus and has been supplied by the editor based on what is attested in the medieval manuscripts. Letters with dots underneath are visible but unclear on the papyrus. For 302a M. West (1998) suggests [Ἴδης ἔκ κορυ]φ̣ῶν ἐ̣π̣ὶ̣ δὲ στεροπὴν ἐφέηκεν (“from the peaks of Ida he let fly lightning”). On this section of the papyrus see also Bird 2010:86–89. For the publication history of the papyrus see the Mertens-Pack 3 database (, s.v. 640.

[ back ] 14. As Leonard Muellner points out to me, and as West (1967) observes as well here, the beginning of the verse, which is not preserved, must likewise differ from what is attested in the medieval manuscripts. πρὸς could be used with a reading like Τρῶας, but not with the manuscripts’ τοῖσι δέ.

[ back ] 15. And in fact, as we have seen already in chapter 2, the multiforms exhibited in early quotations often find support in surviving papyrus texts.

[ back ] 16. Papyrus 51 (= BKT 5.1.18 + 20 [P. Berol. inv. 9774] + BKT 5.1.19 [P. Berol. inv. 9774]). For the publication history of this papyrus see the Mertens-Pack 3 database (, s.v. 962. The multiforms exhibited in the passage are also discussed by Nagy (2015d, part IV), but without reference to this papyrus.

[ back ] 17. See Revermann 1998:39n29 for earlier bibliography. Wolf’s edition (1804–1807) is generally conservative in that he does not typically include plus verses or readings from outside the medieval manuscript transmission. This passage is an exception.

[ back ] 18. S. West (1967:134) likewise dismisses Athenaeus, suggesting that the longer version of the passage comes from a “wild” text of book 18, which Athenaeus assumed to have been excised by Aristarchus but believed to be genuine. Because West’s understanding of the Homeric text is so different from my own (she finds reasons to dismiss or disregard the multiformity of early witnesses, while I seek to show that it was the norm and in fact to be expected), it is difficult for me to be in dialogue with her arguments. Nevertheless I do aim to build on her work even while operating within a different paradigm. For West, a “wild” text (which as I stress throughout this book, is only “wild” in hindsight, from the perspective of the medieval transmission) is not likely to preserve what she would consider a genuine reading. But since my definition of “genuine” depends not on a single composer or a single authoritative text, and instead encompasses all the poetry composed within a system that evolved over many centuries, I can argue for the acceptance of Athenaeus’ text as a “genuine” multiform.

[ back ] 19. On the critical signs preserved in medieval manuscripts such as the Venetus A see Bird 2009. For signs in the papyri see McNamee 1981, 1992, and 2007. See also West 1967:132–133 with further bibliography on the use of signs on this particular papyrus.

[ back ] 20. Lord points out that in his fieldwork not every performance resulted in perfectly composed verses from a metrical standpoint: “Under the pressure of rapid composition in performance, the singer of tales, it is to be expected, makes occasional errors in the construction of lines. His text may be a syllable too long or a syllable too short.This does not trouble him in performance, and his audience scarcely notices these lines” (Lord 1960:38).

[ back ] 21. See West 1967:136 with citations of earlier scholarship.

[ back ] 22. For the relationship between Hesiodic poetry and Homeric poetry (and their interconnectedness with other Archaic song traditions) see González (forthcoming [a] and Martin (forthcoming). I would adduce the descriptions of the shields of the Seven in the Seven Against Thebes of Aeschylus as another, later manifestation of a longstanding tradition of shield poetry.

[ back ] 23. See chapter 1 above, p. 46 and Ebbott 2009:42.

[ back ] 24. Much like Revermann, Janko (2016:104) rejects a multitextual approach to Homer on principle, almost as a matter of faith: “Indeed, textual criticism was developed in order to spare ourselves from having to read through ‘multitexts’, which may, in a case like Homer’s Iliad, amount to thousands of verses in thousands of sources. Homeric studies have for years been bedevilled by some scholars’ rejection of the idea of an authoritative archetype, even for this oral dictated text, in favour of a multitextual chimera.” My collaborators and I, however, do not assume the existence of a single dictated text, and in fact a core aim of this book is to show that our evidence simply does not support the notion. We are interested in the thousands of verses in thousands of sources that Janko rejects. The existence of an abundance of evidence for multiformity is precisely why we think it is important to present the Homeric epics as multiform compositions with a very complicated transmission, and not monolithic entities with recoverable archetypes.