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.


This book is dedicated to
my friend and collaborator in all things,
σύν τε δύ᾽ ἐρχομένω καί τε πρὸ ὃ τοῦ ἐνόησεν
ὅππως κέρδος ἔῃ

The occasion of the writing of this book is the completion of the Homer Multitext project’s digital edition of the Venetus A manuscript of the Iliad (, the culmination of eighteen years of collaborative, intergenerational theorizing, experimentation, and editing. [1]

The Homer Multitext is an interdisciplinary project that has brought together researchers from a variety of fields in the humanities and computer science and from institutions across the United States and Europe. Mary Ebbott and I are the project’s coeditors, but we are partners in all aspects of the project with its information architects, Christopher Blackwell and Neel Smith. Douglas Frame, Leonard Muellner, and Gregory Nagy are associate editors and have been integral to the project since its inception. The Homer Multitext seeks to present the textual transmission of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey in a historical framework, one that takes into account that these poems were composed orally over the course of hundreds if not thousands of years by countless singers who composed in performance. When the tradition in which these songs were composed was flourishing, no two performances were ever exactly the same. Our historical sources still reflect such multiformity, which is natural and expected in an oral tradition, but scholarly editions in print typically obscure rather than highlight these natural variations. Using technology that takes advantage of the best available practices and open source standards that have been developed for digital publications, the web-based Homer Multitext offers free access to a library of texts and images and tools that allow readers to discover and engage with the dynamic nature of the Homeric tradition. The project publishes high-resolution images of the most ancient documents that transmit the Iliad (including five of the oldest medieval manuscripts that preserve the Iliad) together with edited transcriptions of their texts, including their accompanying scholia (marginal commentary derived from ancient scholarship on the poems). The project is generously supported by the University of Houston’s Research Computing Center and Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies, but we have also received crucial funding from a variety of sources, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

It has been fairly customary practice in the long history of textual criticism of ancient works for editors to publish a book, or at the very least a lengthy introduction (in Latin), to set forth what the editor has accomplished and to defend his (until very recently, in almost every case, his) choices. That is not the purpose of this volume. These chapters represent a good deal of what I have learned in the course of thinking about why and how to make a Multitext edition of Homer and in editing the Venetus A with various teams of students and faculty, all of which took place, primarily in the summers, at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC. But rather than a congratulatory setting forth of what we have accomplished, I see this volume as being merely preliminary to the very necessary work that has only now become possible. As Matthew Jockers has written, “The literary scholar of the twenty-first century can no longer be content with anecdotal evidence, with random ‘things’ gathered from a few, even ‘representative,’ texts. We must strive to understand these things we find interesting in the context of everything else, including a mass of possibly ‘uninteresting’ texts” (Jockers 2013:8). The editors of the Homeric texts and scholia of past eras have made enormous contributions to our understanding of the Iliad and Odyssey and the ancient scholarship on those poems, but they were limited by the technologies of their day (primarily paper, ink, the printing press, and human learning, memory, and intellect). They could not test and verify their data sets or replicate their results. Their editions were selective, and their conclusions were necessarily speculative—as are mine in this book. The chapters I have written here provide the hypothesis—the “proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation” (Oxford English Dictionary)—that explains why my colleagues and I wanted to make a Homer Multitext. But the work of interpreting the Homeric epics multitextually has only just begun.

Our editorial work thus far has been accomplished by teams of undergraduates working with professors, who are trained at an annual two-week summer seminar hosted by the Center for Hellenic Studies. Students at the seminar are introduced by myself and Mary Ebbott to the theoretical background of the project and its implications for our understanding of Homeric poetry, and they are trained by project architects Neel Smith and Christopher Blackwell and project managers Stephanie Lindeborg and Brian Clark in our editing procedures. (For examples of the kind of topics discussed, see our research blog at The students then work with faculty in teams to create an edition of the text and scholia of a book of the Iliad during the seminar. After the seminar, students return to their home institutions and continue to edit assigned manuscript folios together with their faculty mentors. The editions they create are then subjected to a number of automated tests, which are reviewed by the project editors. It is safe to say that the vast majority of new discovery in connection with the Homer Multitext is made by undergraduate researchers, who regularly present at national and international conferences. Between 2014 and the writing of this book in 2017, seven Homer Multitext undergraduate researchers have been awarded Fulbright fellowships to continue their research after graduation.

The Homer Multitext project officially began in the summer of 2000, when a group of us initially conceived of creating a multitextual edition of the Iliad, and, upon paging through Domenico Comparetti’s 1901 facsimile edition of the Venetus A, thought that that particular manuscript would make a good starting place. We received early encouragement and support from two people who profoundly influenced the project in very different ways: Greg Nagy, whose lifetime of work on Homer and whose initial call for a multitext edition of the Homeric texts have inspired us throughout, and Ross Scaife, a pioneer in digital humanism (long before the term “Digital Humanities” was coined), who died, far too young, in 2008. Little did we know how much trial and error and international travel would be involved in actually accomplishing our edition of the Venetus A.

After successfully capturing high-resolution images of three manuscripts with scholia in Venice’s Marciana Library in 2007, an NEH collaborative research grant (“The Oral Poetics of the Homeric Doloneia,” 2007–2008) gave my coeditor Mary Ebbott and me the opportunity to write a sustained demonstration of the need for a multitextual approach to the Iliad. The research leave afforded by that funding enabled us to write a series of essays and a commentary on book 10 of the Iliad (Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush: A Multitext Edition with Essays and Commentary, Washington, DC, 2010) as a kind of test case. Our printed edition was multitextual in that we included an edited transcription of the Venetus A manuscript’s text of book 10 together with three fragmentary papyrus texts. Along with these texts we provided commentary on the multiforms presented by them. In our essays we articulated how an awareness of multiformity changes and in fact deepens our understanding of the poetics of the Iliad.

Building on that rationale, we have directed our efforts since 2010 toward the creation of a complete digital edition of the Venetus A manuscript of the Iliad. The Venetus A is a tenth-century CE manuscript (now housed in Venice) that contains a wealth of scholia deriving from the scholarship of Alexandrian editors such as Aristarchus and Zenodotus. The debates preserved in the margins of this particular manuscript more than any other show us that the Iliad was not fixed and monolithic in antiquity, it was multiform—and the wider epic tradition from which the Iliad emerged was more multiform still. The Venetus A is an inherently multitextual document, because it contains material from a variety of different scholarly traditions in its front matter and in its margins, including discussions of alternative versions of the text that were known in antiquity. Access to the full contents of the Venetus A will enable scholars who are open to a multitextual approach to gain a much greater understanding of the history of a poem that evolved over many centuries and the multiformity of the tradition of composition in performance in which the Iliad and Odyssey were created.

Our edition of the Venetus A was funded by an NEH Scholarly Editions and Translations grant (“Editing as a Discovery Process: Accessing centuries of scholarship in one 10th-century manuscript of the Iliad”). Work (and funding) began in 2013 and was completed in 2017 with total funding of $276,115. The project we undertook is a complete scholarly edition of the oldest surviving and richly annotated manuscript of the Homeric Iliad: its text, scholia, and all other elements on its 654 pages. Our edition is based on the high-resolution digital photographs of the manuscript that we obtained (and have already published under a Creative Commons license for other scholars’ use) in 2007. The text and scholia were transcribed (as a diplomatic edition, representing faithfully the text of the manuscript, including accents and spelling that are not “standard” from our point of view), and marked up with TEI-XML encoding for several key features. Each portion of the digital text, that is, each individual scholion, is linked precisely to the location on the digital image of the folio that contains it. Any user can easily move from the transcription to the image of the primary source and see for herself what the manuscript says.

This NEH funding, combined with Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation and National Science Foundation funding for our photography of the manuscripts and Mellon Foundation funding for undergraduate research, has been transformational for the Homer Multitext. Our Scholarly Editions and Translations grant has in recent years encouraged us to focus our energies on a particularly valuable and complex historical artifact, the Venetus A, which will now become the cornerstone of the much larger project. In creating this edition we have experimented with editorial processes and computational approaches and have done the hard work of trying and failing and trying again necessary for producing something that will last. The Homer Multitext is a digital project: the scholarship that results will be undertaken using computational methods and will be published digitally. We are grateful for the opportunity this funding has given us to create a new kind of edition of the Iliad, one that we feel will allow for new perspectives and new questions and offer a new means for evaluating the evidence for the oral tradition preserved in the textual record of these poems. 

This book will be published in both analogue and digital forms as part of the HMT. It gathers together much of my writings over the time period I have outlined here, writings which I have extensively revised and rewritten for their present place. The process of coming to understand why Homeric poetry is best understood multitextually has been a long one, beginning with my earliest days as a student of Greg Nagy, and I hope this book will provide a coherent rationale for our project as whole. Over the course of these nearly twenty years I have benefitted tremendously from discussions with my fellow editors and the faculty and students of our annual summer seminars at the Center for Hellenic Studies. My favorite moments of the project have come from these seminars, when in varying combinations Chris Blackwell, Mary Ebbott, Doug Frame, Lenny Muellner, Greg Nagy, Neel Smith, and I learned to read Homer differently by sharing our evolving multitext with teams of undergraduate researchers and subjecting it to their scrutiny. We were joined over the years by Tazuko van Berkel, Eric Dugdale, Madeleine Goh, Olga Levaniouk, Corinne Pache, and Ineke Sluiter, all of whom brought their particular expertise and their own students into the fold as contributing editors. I will not list the more than one hundred student editors who have contributed to the Homer Multitext, but their names can be found on the project website, and I am deeply grateful to them for their time, energy, enthusiasm, and brilliant presentations at the CHS and at national and international conferences. Special kudos must be conferred upon Stephanie Lindeborg and Brian Clark (both of whom began as undergraduates and are now our project managers) and Melissa Browne, who likewise began as an undergraduate (in fact she was our first undergraduate contributor) and who has contributed much to our project and to our summer seminars while pursuing her PhD.

Of course the best part about these past twenty years has been the collaboration. Working closely with Mary Ebbott, Chris Blackwell, and Neel Smith has been the joy of my professional life, matched only by the mentorship and inspiration I have received along the way from Doug Frame, Lenny Muellner, and Greg Nagy. A thrill of working on a large digital project is the opportunity it offers to contribute to something much bigger than ourselves, and the Homer Multitext has been that opportunity for me. I cherish the friendship that our collaboration has forged.


[ back ] 1. For more on the significance of the Venetus A manuscript (Marciana 454 = 822), see Dué 2009a and the introduction to the edition online at