Anthony Snodgrass, Homer and the Artists:
Text and Picture in Early Greek Art, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1998, xii, 186pp,
ISBN 0 521 62022 8 (hb), 0 521 62981 0 (pb)
reviewed by Andrew Erskine
In the tenth book of the Odyssey Odysseus and his companions find themselves trapped in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemos. After their monstrous host has munched his way through several of his guests, the remainder take action. Odysseus makes a sharp, wooden stake, cutting it from a massive cudgel discovered in the cave; then together with four of his men he plunges the stake into the eye of the drunken, sleeping Polyphemos. But it was not only literature which took the blinding of Polyphemos as its theme; it is also found in art. The scene features on several vases from the mid seventh century BC, the products of workshops in Argos, Athens and the West. Is the coincidence of subject-matter a sign that the artists were familiar with Homer's work? And, furthermore, can it be taken as evidence that the Odyssey was already widely circulated by the first half of the seventh century? The answer to both these questions has usually been a vigorous 'yes'.
Snodgrass, however, would dissent. His whole book is devoted to proving that not only did early Greek art rarely illustrate Homer, it was rarely even inspired by it. This thesis is not in itself new. It was the subject of an important 1983 article by R.M. Cook, to whom Snodgrass has dedicated the present book, but the case has never before been made with such thoroughness. Concentrating on the eighth and seventh centuries, Snodgrass meticulously studies examples of scenes often thought to be illustrations of Homer. Geometric art, he argues, offers nothing that can be identified as Homeric; indeed there is only one Trojan war scene and that is Ajax's rescue of the body of Achilles, a scene which occurs in neither the Odyssey nor the Iliad. One of the more bizarre apparitions of Geometric art takes the form of a pair of Siamese twins, warriors with two heads, four legs, four arms and one torso, and the subject of some fascinating pages in Snodgrass's book. They were especially popular in early Greek art, and are depicted in about fourteen surviving pictures, but there is no clear sign of Homeric influence here. Twice in the Iliad Nestor does refer to the twins, yet significantly he does not mention their rather striking deformity. It is preferable to understand both the artists and Homer as drawing on the same body of legendary material.
By the mid seventh century figures on vases are beginning to be identified by captions. This at least makes it easier to determine whether the scene is from the Trojan war. Instead of two warriors fighting over a body we can be sure that we are looking at Menelaos and Hektor fighting over the body of Euphorbos, as found on a famous Rhodian plate of the late seventh century, a picture that makes an impressive and appropriate cover for the book. This could very well be an illustration of Iliad book 17 where Menelaos abandons his attempt to strip the dead Euphorbos' corpse when he sees the approaching Hektor. Snodgrass, however, observing various discrepancies between the painting and the poem, suggests that the painting is a representation of an Argive version of the encounter in which Menelaos does successfully strip the corpse. Evidence for this tradition can be found in the shield of Euphorbos in Hera's sanctuary near Argos, supposedly dedicated by Menelaos himself. This is certainly plausible and helps to show that common subject matter is insufficient to prove influence. On the other hand, where a minor character is named, such as 'Odios' in the embassy to Achilles, then we can be more confident that the artist had Homer in mind.
This is a book of enormous learning and subtlety, and its conclusion is surely right, yet at the same time it seems something of a missed opportunity. It is devoted to a negative and tightly-argued thesis, that Homer's epic poems had only minimal influence on early Greek art. Snodgrass is re-thinking early Greek art as he goes, but he is re-thinking it within the restrictions imposed by the very narrow focus of the book as a whole. Thus the positive, for instance the illuminating chapters on synoptic narrative and on composition, can be rather swamped in the relentless negative arguments. Others will now need to work through the implications of his thesis, for example the role that must be assigned to oral tradition and all its local variations. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this book should appear at a time when the literary culture of the recent past is being eroded by an increasing emphasis on the visual.