Aristotle on Homeric Innovation and Book 9 of the “Iliad”: Oral and Written Stages of Enlargement

As is well known, to date no clear notion has been formed of ancient Greek epic production, which preceded or followed immediately the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey": "We know next to nothing about the relationship of the Homeric poems to antecedent and contemporaneous epic" [Fenik, 1986: XIII]. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to draw a dividing line between the traditional and innovative aspects of Homeric poems: "Even so, some noteworthy conclusions can be drawn in this direction via the consideration of ancient authors' notes and the analysis of Homer's poems" [Gordeziani[1], 2002: 123]. The study of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" according to the aspects of the formulaic language, the development of an epic action and conflict, compositional organization, and individualization of the characters shows clearly that "the innovative spirit is present almost everywhere in Homeric poems" [Gordeziani, 2002: 123-125].

Despite the objective difficulties, taking into account the ancient sources and above all Aristotle's "Poetics", study of Homeric innovation is still possible. In several parts of "Poetics", Aristotle widely discusses Homeric poems and in particular, distinguishes the author of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" from other Greek epic poets: "Whether or not we want to attribute ‘innovative' tendencies to Homer, we must think of him not only as a master of his craft but also as a supremely gifted man who, like Shakespeare, Bach or Mozart, could not help transforming whatever he touched. Aristotle saw the particular excellence of the Homeric poems in their control of large-scale narrative, and since this quality distinguishes them from all other heroic poems it is reasonable to look for a specific quality of Homer's genius in his sense for large-scale narrative" [Mueller, 1984: 159]. In respect to the above aspect i.e. the compositional organization of the epic narrative, as is well known, Aristotle emphasizes the Homeric innovation in several parts of his treatise: VIII, 1451a22-30; XVII, 1455b16-23; XXIII, 1459a18-37; XXVI, 1462b5-11.

However, there is another passage within the "Poetics". This is XXIV, 1460a5-11, which deals with a different aspect of Homeric innovation - the individualization of characters. It is a well-known fact that the given part of "Poetics" presents Aristotle's unambiguous opinion about the nature of Homeric characters, in particular, on how Homer individualizes his characters: according to Aristotle, by means of their speeches - monologues and dialogues [cf. Gordeziani, 2002: 114-115].

From the outset, this passage attracted the attention of translators and commentators of the treatise. In particular, its interpretation is complicated by the circumstance that Aristotle's words - ατν γὰρ δεῖ τν ποιητν λάχιστα λέγειν [Aristotle's...: 1460a7], i.e. "the poet himself should speak very little" - can be interpreted in two ways: 1. a poet should speak very little in the first person; 2. a poet should speak very little both, in the first and third persons. In my opinion, the second interpretation is more acceptable [Khintibidze, 2012]. It is based upon G. F. Else's [Else, 1957: 619-621] and D. W. Lucas' [Lucas, 1978: 67, 226-227] comments on the given passage of "Poetics". Although popularity of the above interpretation has ‘decreased' recently, I comprehend the given passage (XXIV, 1460a5-11) in the following way:

[5] "Homer deserves praise for many other [reasons], but also [6] because alone among other [epic] poets he knows what to do, [7] and the poet himself should speak very little [as a narrator] because [he] is not [8] an imitator (i.e. a poet) owing to it. Others (i.e. other epic poets), in fact, always (i.e. throughout the whole poem) narrate themselves [9], but imitate (i.e. impersonate) little and insignificantly. But he (Homer) after a brief [10] preface immediately brings in a man or a woman or any other [11] character and no one without character, [only] with character" (i.e. in contrast to other epic poets, Homer individualizes his characters through their speeches, or dialogic - and not narrated - parts of the text).

The above interpretation of passage XXIV, 1460a5-11 makes it possible to analyze the question of the individualization of Homeric characters and at the same time, provides an opportunity to study the problem of the genesis of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" in an innovative way. I mean the fact that, according to Aristotle, Homer exceeds other epic poets in the large number of dialogic parts of his poems. I think, that the double innovation of the author of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" - his successful aspiration to the compositionally organized monumentality, or to an extensive and at the same time, structurally united composition, as well as to the large number of dialogic parts of the text  - can be logically connected to each other. However, Homeric researchers, as far as I know, have never taken such an opportunity.

 Recent Homeric studies endorse the idea about reaching an unprecedentedly large i.e. monumental size of the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" by means of the gradual process of enlargement, carried out by one and the same poet - Homer himself [Mueller, 1984: 159-176]. From the first sight, this new and to some extent, conciliatory theory seems quite successful. In my view,  it aims at achieving a sort of compromise between analytical and unitarian concepts of the 19th-20th centuries, as well as the simultaneous counteraction of Parry-Lord's theory of Oral Poetry, so far as this new theory does not exclude completely the existence of the stage of writing within the process of formation of the Homeric epic. Therefore, it overcomes, indeed, the aspiration of analysts [Page, 1959: 297-342] to reject Homer - an individual creator, which really existed and on the other hand, makes irrelevant the desire ‘to justify' each vague part of the "Iliad" from the unitarian point of view [Schadewaldt, 1938]: it is not necessary to reject the contradictions, really existing in the text, as far as they are caused not by a multiple authorship, but by Homer himself - a supremely gifted creator, which however "was not, by our standards, a very good editor" [Mueller, 1984: 172]. Accordingly, this fact of course does not overshadow the genius of the author of the "Iliad".

The above-mentioned theory is characterized by maximally allowable eclecticism. Thus, it is popular, so far as it considers more or less the interests of all major schools of Homerology. However, it is regrettable that the given theory, as it seems to me, fails to achieve full success - to harmonize the theories of multiple authorship and Oral Poetry, on the one hand and the conceptions of an individual creator and written Homer, on the other.

Within the framework of the theory under discussion, various forms of the so-called narrative discontinuity or inconsistent parts of the text are properly, as it seems to me, considered as the evidence for the stages of gradual enlargement of the "Iliad" [cf. Mueller, 1984: 167]. The concept of creation of the"Iliad", comprehended as a gradual and a perennial process of enlargement, actualized by Homer himself, does not contradict the unitarian conception: "It is obvious that the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" are not poems which were written ‘in one breath'. We should think that the author created them gradually, in parts. ... It is also possible that the parts of the poems were not created in the same order in which they appear now" [Gordeziani, 2002:125]. However, in order to consider the point of view of numerous supporters of M. Parry and A.B. Lord the given theory does not discuss one of the most important issues - how to distinguish from each other oral and written presumable stages of the above enlargement.

According to the theory under discussion, the narrative inconsistencies of the text, which emerged after the enlargement of the "Iliad" can be arranged in three groups. The first group - "editorial deficiencies" [Mueller, 1984: 172] - was neutralized by Homer, but "the resulting editorial problem was solved by addition rather than subtraction". As a result, the previously enlarged part of the poem was brought into conformity with a new narrative context and situation. All the above-mentioned can be illustrated by the lines 699-709, 721-728 of Book 2 of the "Iliad" [Mueller, 1984: 161-162]. Homer left the vague parts of the second group without neutralization, because "the poet did not bother to revise his previous narrative in the light of his addition" [Mueller, 1984: 174]. This fact is illustrated by the scene of duals from Book 9 of the "Iliad", which presents the movement of more than two persons to Achilles' camp by means of dual forms [Mueller, 1984: 174, 167]. The vague parts of the third group too were not neutralized by Homer. The theory under discussion gives the following explanation to this fact: "the poet lacked from being a good editor" [Mueller, 1984: 167-168]. It is illustrated by the Homeric insertion of the ‘catalogue of ships' in Book 2 of the "Iliad", which caused "'cracks' in the narrative joint": regardless of Zeus' desire, Agamemnon does not begin the war, which may cause a rapid and an inevitable failure. He tests his army, and this changes the direction of development of the narrative line [cf. Mueller, 1984: 167-168, 172].

Thus, the narrative inconsistencies of the "Iliad" can be used for the reconstruction of Homeric stages of enlargement of the poem. Therefore, it would be better, if we differ these inconsistencies according to the way of their creation, i.e. at which stages of enlargement they, presumably, appeared  - at oral or written stages. Hence, the above-mentioned narrative inconsistencies, in my view, can be divided into three groups:

1) The first group comprises actually non-existent, but potentially expected narrative inconsistencies, which could emerge, but, even so, are not present at the places of the connection of the ‘old' and inserted textual parts. For example, according to the analytical theory, Book 8 of the "Iliad" is undoubtedly one of the latest additions of the current text of the poem. It is a well-known fact that the given book does not present any inconsistencies or, all the more, structural flaws (only two lines - 8, 475-476 - can be probably considered as presumable and unimportant exceptions [cf. Mueller, 1984: 169]). Therefore, the given insertion - if it is Homeric indeed - could be made at the oral stage of the enlargement of the "Iliad", because it left no traces of  narrative inconsistencies. (Therefore, if Book 8 is an insertion, it could have been added at the initial or an oral stage of the enlargement. Thus, in this particular case a comparatively late, written stage of enlargement is excluded.) Taking into consideration the fact that the text did not exist in writing at that time and was only kept in the author's mind (which is called ‘oral fixation' by the theory of Oral Poetry), the redaction of the text was easier owing to the oral mode of its enlargement. Therefore, the current text of the poem, in fact, presents no inconsistencies regarding the Book 8.

2) The second group encompasses the inconsistencies resulted from the expansion of the text, which were neutralized by Homer through the further, additional enlargement of the poem.  This circumstance should indicate, that a pre-enlargement text was presented already in a written form. For that reason, the poet was not able to neutralize the narrative inconsistency - which emerged as a result of the expansion of the poem - by means of its changing. Therefore, the enlargement of the poem by the additional text as well as the neutralization of the resulted inconsistency through the new, additional enlargement should be made, presumably, within the text of the poem, fixed already in writing, i.e. at the written stage of enlargement (for further details see below). Thus, in this case, it can be logically assumed, that the poet was expanding a text, fixed in writing and not orally, anymore (if it is possible at all to ‘fix orally' an artistic text of a monumental size).

3) The third group comprises those inconsistencies, which were noticed by the author - as well as the inconsistencies of the first and second groups - but, even so, were deliberately left without neutralization. (In my opinion, it is impossible that the highly gifted poet did not realize a vague part, which appeared after the enlargement of the poem.) I think that the poet had two reasons for leaving these inconsistencies untouched:

a) The poet feels the emerging inconsistency, but, at the same time, he also realizes that there is a possibility of novel, different comprehension of the new text, which was created during the process of enlargement. Such a comprehension does not contradict the author's main artistic intention and, besides, neutralizes a freshly created vague part without an additional effort on the poet's part. Therefore, it can be left without neutralization. As far as I know, this circumstance, in fact, was not emphasized in Homeric researches. All the above-mentioned can be illustrated by the well-known scene of duals, presented in Book 9 of the "Iliad". If two initially existing ambassadors were expanded to three (although I have doubts about it), the poet, all the same, could leave the scene expressed by duals. But, in this case, he had to realize that even in the new text, which was created by means of enlargement, the use of the dual forms was still justifiable: if the duals initially corresponded to two ambassadors (Odysseus and Aias), after the addition of Phoenix, three ambassadors could be considered as the first member of the actual pair, whereas two heralds would be regarded as the second such member. As a result of the above, unitarian ‘treatment' of the duals in Book 9 the consideration of this scene as a vague part of the poem is under reasonable doubts [cf. Gordeziani, 2002: 54, 82].

b) And again, the poet leaves an apparent inconsistency untouched, but, in this case, on account of another reason, different from the above-mentioned (see a). In particular, the neutralization of the textual inconsistency, created after the enlargement contradicts the development of the narrative line, the peculiarity of the character of any protagonist,  poetic conception in general or a particular artistic intention. In this case, we can suppose, that a poetic flair dictates to the author of the "Iliad", that from the artistic point of view, the existent vague part can cause ‘less' damage to the whole composition than the consequences of its neutralization. For example, we can discuss "the open conflict of the text in Books 11 and 16 with the Embassy" i.e. with Book 9 of the "Iliad". Within the framework of the theory under discussion, this case, not unreasonably, is explained as "a by-product of the cumulative process of composition". In Books 11 and 16, Achilles addresses Patroclus, but he doesn't mention Agamemnon's last night's offer about returning Briseis and giving treasure in return for reconciliation, although according to the context of the conversation he had to mention it [cf. Mueller, 1984: 171-172]. If we presume that Homer included Book 9 in the text of the "Iliad", when Books 11 and 16 were already composed and for some reason, he was unable to neutralize the above-mentioned contradiction, how can we explain W. Schadewaldt's indication that in the same address to Patroclus (Book 16) Achilles takes into account the words uttered by him in supposedly ‘later added' Book 9? In particular, within both books Achilles speaks about joining the war, when the fight approaches his ships:  XVI, 61-63 = IX, 650-652 [cf. Mueller,  1984: 171-172]. If Homer was able to neutralize one narrative inconsistency, why did he not do the same in the other case? I suppose that such neutralization could cause irreparable damage to the artistic world of the "Iliad" (in contrast to the ‘less significant' inconsistency caused by the rejection of neutralization). According to the unitarian conception, a gradual transformation of an imprudent behavior into a prudent one is regarded as a determining feature of Achilles' character [cf. Gordeziani, 2002: 116]. Thus, the consideration of an artistic logic of the "Iliad" - namely the above-mentioned peculiarity of Achilles' character, determining, in fact, the development of the narrative line of the whole poem - explains the unacceptability of any form of the neutralization of this particular inconsistency on the poet's part. In the Books 11 and 16 (in contrast to the beginning of the Book 19) Achilles is not yet ready to confess that he made a wrong decision during the conversation with ambassadors in the Book 9. But any form of the mentioning of Agamemnon's offer in the address to Patroclus should be equal to his ‘untimely' confession already within the Books 11 or 16.

It is obvious, that inconsistencies of the third group (types a and b) could arise both at the oral and written stages of enlargement of the "Iliad". As far as I am unitarian and at the same time, the supporter of the conception of written Homer, therefore, in my view, it is very significant to reveal the inconsistencies of the second group, because they indicate the trace of the written stages of enlargement in the current text of the "Iliad" (for further details see below).

As I have already mentioned, within the framework of the theory under discussion presumable stages of enlargement of the "Iliad" are reconstructed by means of considering wholly and unchangeably the analytical conception of G. Hermann, J. Grote, V. Leaf [cf. Mueller, 1984: 166-167] and naturally, U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff [cf. Gordeziani, 2002: 51-52].  The only difference lies in the fact that multiple authorship is substituted for the one author - Homer. But such ‘innovation' is not enough for the final ‘reconciliation' of analytical and unitarian theories. The point is that a contemporary unitarian theory argues in favour not only of the single authorship - and therefore, an artistic unity - of the poems, but also of the conception of written Homer. For this purpose, within the framework of the unitarian theory the following arguments are presented: the existence of a complete system of the structural symmetry both, on micro and macro structural levels of the poems, a common and single system of introducing i.e. of ‘exhibiting' characters, during their presentation for the first time in the "Iliad", a regular distribution of mythological information between the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey", etc [Gordeziani, 2002: 125-126]. These circumstances cannot be explained without the existence of written stages at the end of the perennial process of creation of the given poems. But according to "a rough sketch" of presumable stages of the formation, or enlargement of the "Iliad" - which is presented within the framework of the theory under discussion - the only function of the written stage of creation of the poem is, in fact, the fixing and transmission of the orally created text of the "Iliad", which was compositionally single or unified and at the same time, monumental, i.e. already fully enlarged orally [cf. Mueller, 1984: 162-176].

In my view, the oral "Iliad", which preexisted the process of its fixation in writing,  may have had an artistic unity, but, in this case, it could not have, at the same time, a monumental size. This supposition is based upon several circumstances, but my main argument is that at the oral stages of enlargement the symmetry of the beginning and ending of the "Iliad" could have an artistic function only in that case if the poem was intended for a one-time, single performance or performance without a break, i.e. if the "Iliad" would not have a monumental size [Khintibidze, 2005: 277-279, 330-331]. Thus, without written stages of enlargement i.e. only at the oral stages of its expansion, theoretically, the "Iliad" could expand into a monumental poem, but, in this case, it could not maintain its compositional unity. On the other hand, if the oral "Iliad" had no unity before the process of its expansion, just the same, the poem could not have achieved it during oral enlargement. Moreover, I believe, that even at the written stage of its formation, the text of the "Iliad" could not be expanded through the insertion of relatively large narrative parts i.e. ‘preliminarily created' books (this probability, too, could not be excluded in the case of the acceptance of the theory under discussion). The point is that in the orally created ‘small' text of the poem, which was fixed afterwards in writing, the above-said enlargement could cause not only the single, non-structural inconsistencies of the so-called ‘editorial character', observable in the current text of the "Iliad", but it would destroy completely the compositional order of the whole poem, its unity. This fact can be best illustrated by Book 10 of the "Iliad" - "The Doloneia" [cf. Mueller, 1984: 175-176]. Therefore, I suppose that it was almost impossible, even for Homer, to enlarge an ‘Ur-Iliad' through the book or a group of the books (2-7 and 12-15), which "'existed' in some form prior to their inclusion in the Iliad" [cf. Mueller, 1984: 173] and by means of the above-said extension to create compositional unity, characteristic of the current text of the poem. Besides, as it seems to me, such extension would be even more impossible at the written stage of enlargement, than at oral one.

On the other hand, as I have already mentioned, the "Iliad", in my view, could achieve its monumental size - without losing its initial compositional unity, or simultaneously even improving it - only at the written stage of enlargement. Therefore, all the above-mentioned raises the following question: how could the orally created ‘small' poem with already organized structure acquire a monumental size at the written stages of its expansion, keeping, at the same time, safe its initial compositional unity and even achieving the higher level of artistic unity, characteristic of the present text of the "Iliad"? As it seems to me, the above-said enlargement of the "Iliad" could become possible through the insertion of mostly dialogic parts - i.e. speeches of heroes - into the relatively small poem, which before its expansion comprised, mainly, only the narrated parts of the text, created orally and recorded in writing only afterwards. It is obvious that in a number of the exactly above-mentioned dialogic parts of the text - as it seems to me, the main ‘instrument' of the Iliadic enlargement in writing - Homeric poems far exceeded any epic poem familiar to Aristotle [Aristotle's...: 1460a5-11].

To illustrate the above-mentioned enlargement, owing to the limited space of the paper, I shall present only one example, which is from Book 9 of the "Iliad". According to lines 676-692 of the given book, after his return from Achilles, Odysseus reports the results to Agamemnon. However, the report refers to Achilles' and Odysseus' conversation only. Thus, Odysseus says nothing about the results of the subsequent talks between Achilles and Phoenix, and again, even a single word, about the outcome of the brief conversation between Achilles and Aias, at the end of the embassy. Odysseus' ‘absent-mindedness' makes Agamemnon and the rest of the Achaeans think that Achilles is going to return to his homeland immediately, early in the morning. Meanwhile, in reality Achilles has changed his intention to go back and he has spoken even about his terms of returning to the battlefield. The passage under discussion has repeatedly attracted attention since antiquity and as far as I know, it has always been discussed analytically [Mühll, 1952: 180-181[2]]. However, the consideration of the theory of a gradual enlargement of the "Iliad" by Homer himself clarifies, that in this particular case, again, we do not deal with the evidence for two - so called "A and B" - authors; on the contrary, we can trace back the independent stages of enlargement of the "Iliad", actualized by one and the same poet - Homer himself.

I think that the study of lines 676-692 of Book 9 gives important information about the gradual enlargement of this book. It can be supposed that the passage under discussion has preserved that stage of formation of the poem,  within which Achilles was visited by three ambassadors: Odysseus, Aias and Phoenix, but, even so, only Odysseus addressed him. Meanwhile, the other ambassadors did not participate in the conversation. Presumably, the text had already been fixed - i.e. recorded - in writing at this stage of enlargement. The above-said can be confirmed by the following circumstances: at one of the subsequent stages of enlargement, for quite explicable reasons, Homer ‘added' the talks of Achilles/Phoenix and Achilles/Aias to the dialogue between Achilles and Odysseus, but he did not ‘delete' or change the outdated lines 676-692. He just expanded them through Diomedes' encouraging speech to Agamemnon (IX, 696-709); at least through the lines 701-703, which, in contrast with the Odysseus' report, echo Achilles' replies to Phoenix[3] and Aias [4]).

As it seems to me, the above-discussed passage (IX, 701-703) is the evidence, enabling to assume that at the final, written stages of enlargement the text of the "Iliad", which was already fixed in writing i.e. recorded, expanded through the insertion of the heroes' speeches in it. The above-said reveals as well that Homer composed his monumental poem, indeed, "at an intersection of two modes of textual production" [Mueller, 1984: 172] - oral and written, but the reconstruction of this process must not be based entirely upon an analytical conception, in particular, the so-called "expansionist theory".

Finally, I would like to focus attention on one more point: the above-discussed supposition of the gradual enlargement of Book 9 of the "Iliad", as it seems to me, makes possible a ‘slightly' different interpretation of the duals of the Embassy (but still from the unitarian position). However, this is the subject of further discussion.   


[1] I am very grateful to my teacher Prof. Rismag Gordeziani for giving me professional advice.

[2] See also the bibliography.

[3] To think next morning about returning to the homeland or staying there (ἀλλ᾽ ἤτοι κεῖνον μὲν ἐάσομεν  κεν ἴῃσιν, κε μένῃ [Homer: IX, 701-702a]).

[4] In which case would he join the battle (τότε δ᾽ αὖτε μαχήσεταιὁππότε κέν μινθυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ἀνώγῃ καὶ θεὸς ὄρσῃ [Homer: IX, 702b-703])


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For the interpretation of one part (XXIV 1460a5-11) of Aristotle’s Poetics, Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, Institute of Classical, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, International Conference, GREECE – EUROPEAN IDENTITY – GEORGIA, 27-29 June, Tbilisi.
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Homer and Rustveli. Homer’s principles of the compositional organization and an epic tradition. Tbilisi (in Georgian).
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