Homer the Classic

  Nagy, Gregory. 2008. Homer the Classic. Hellenic Studies Series 36. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Homer_the_Classic.2008.

Prolegomena: A classical text of Homer in the making

Pⓢ1. The Homeric Koine

P§1 Homer the Classic centers on ancient concepts of Homer as the author of a body of poetry that we know as the Iliad and Odyssey. This body of poetry, this corpus, became a classical text, but it started as something else. That something, as I have argued in earlier projects, is oral poetry. In the present project, however, my aim is not to reassess the Homeric corpus as oral poetry. Rather, I aim to show how the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey became a classic in the days of the Athenian empire and later.

P§2 I will clarify what I mean by the concept of Athenian empire as my argumentation proceeds. I need to say from the start that I could have described the historical reality behind this concept in a variety of alternative ways, steering clear of the English word empire, but I prefer to use this particular word in the light of its derivation from the Roman idea that we translate as ‘empire’, imperium. As for the specific concept of an Athenian empire, I focus on another word, a Greek word:

koinē (κοινή) / plural koinai (κοιναί) ‘common, standard’

The plural form koinai was once used as a substantive in referring to texts of Homer that were ‘common, standard’. The concept of a ‘common’ or ‘standard’ text of Homer, to which I will refer hereafter simply as Koine, is central to my overall project. It comes closest to capturing what I mean by classic in the title Homer the Classic.

P§3 At first glance, my formulation seems anachronistic. Homer, we may be saying to ourselves, does not speak for the Athenian empire. By the time we reach the last chapter of this book, however, we will see that Homer does exactly that: he actually does speak for the Athenian empire – as far as Athenians in the fifth century BCE were concerned. In that age, Homer was {1|2} a classic, an Athenian classic, and Homer’s poetry gave meaning not only to civilization in general but to the Athenian empire in particular. The Athenian version of Homer is shaped by the idea of a unified text of Homer, a Homeric Koine. This idea of a Homeric Koine, a text that is both ‘common’ and ‘standard’, matches the idea of a society that is both democratic and imperial.

P§4 I plan to show how the multiple koinai or ‘common’ texts of Homer, as they were known in the city of Alexandria around the middle of the second century BCE, stem from a notionally singular Athenian Koine or ‘standard’ version of Homer that goes as far back as the era of the Athenian empire in the fifth century BCE.

P§5 Beyond the Athenian Koine, the Homeric tradition can be traced all the way back to a poetic lingua franca current already in the Bronze Age, in the second millennium BCE. Athenians who lived in the middle of the first millennium BCE imagined this remote age as the era of the so-called Minoan thalassocracy, the maritime empire of King Minos of Crete, who supposedly lived in the second millennium BCE. The very idea of a Homer who knew about such a remote age, however, is beyond reach without an intermediary. For me that intermediary is the idea of Homer in the age of the Athenian empire. That idea converges with what I am calling the Homeric Koine. To grasp that idea is the objective of this book, as reflected in the title Homer the Classic.

Pⓢ2. Twin books about six ages of Homeric reception

P§6 Homer the Classic (HC) is complemented by the twin book Homer the Preclassic (HPC), which covers the vast prehistoric era that led to the formation of the Homeric Koine. These two books, between the two of them, cover six ages of Homeric reception. These six ages correspond to six lectures I gave in the spring semester of 2002 at the University of California at Berkeley while I was teaching there as the Sather Professor for