Homer: Bad Liar, Bad Critic, Bad Poet

Dio Chrysostom, Oration 11.35-37

If Homer meant to talk about the death of notable men, how come he omitted the deaths of Achilles, Memnon, Antilochus, Ajax, and Paris himself? How did he pass over the expedition of the Amazons, and the fight of Achilles and Penthesilea which was said to have been so wondrous and so incredible? Especially since he made a river fight with Achilles because he said something marvelous, and even depicted the fight of Hephaestus and Scamander, and of the other gods against each other, and even their reverses, defeats, and wounds, all under the influence of a lack of deeds, though many such were left out. It is necessary, in light of this, to agree that Homer was an unknowing and trifling judge of affairs so to take up the sillier and more trivial things while leaving to others the treatment of the greatest and most important themes; or perhaps he was unable, as I said, to work up his fictions and to display his poesy in those cases when he wanted to hide how things really happened.

He does the same thing in the Odyssey, when he speaks about Ithaca and the deaths of the suitors, though he did not have the power to speak the greatest of his falsehoods – all that crap about Scylla, the Cyclops, the drugs of Circe, and the descent of Odysseus to the underworld. Instead, he made Odysseus narrate these things to Alcinoos. There he had Demodocus go over the story of the horse and the sack of Troy in a song of a few words. It seems to me that he didn’t set all of this out at the beginning, since these things didn’t happen, but as the poem went along and he saw that people were easily persuaded of everything, he took to despising them and, favoring the Greeks and sons of Atreus, mixed everything up and changed the ending. At the beginning, he says,

Sing goddess, of the destructive rage of Achilles son of Peleus, which afflicted the Greeks with thousands of sufferings, and hurled many noble souls to Hades, as it fashioned their bodies a plunder for the dogs and a dinner for the birds, accomplishing the will of Zeus.

Here, he says that he will only talk about the anger of Achilles and the misfortunes and destruction of the Achaeans, since they suffered many terrible things, and many of them died and remained unburied, as though these were the most important facts and most worthy of poetic record, and he says that the will of Zeus was fulfilled in all of this, as it actually happened. But he set aside the later shift of fortunes, the death of Hector, and the capture of Ilium, which would be pleasing topics. Likely, he was not at that time planning to turn everything around. Then, when he wanted to lay out the cause of all the suffering, he set aside Alexander and Helen, and screwed around talking about Chryses and his daughter instead.


εἰ δέ γε ἤθελεν ἀνδρῶν ἐπισήμων εἰπεῖν θάνατον, πῶς ἀπέλιπε τὸν τοῦ ᾿Αχιλλέως καὶ τὸν τοῦ Μέμνονος καὶ ᾿Αντιλόχου καὶ Αἴαντος καὶ αὐτοῦ τοῦ ᾿Αλεξάνδρου; πῶς δὲ τὴν ᾿Αμαζόνων στρατείαν καὶ τὴν μάχην ἐκείνην τὴν λεγομένην τοῦ ᾿Αχιλλέως καὶ τῆς ᾿Αμαζόνος γενέσθαι καλὴν οὕτως καὶ παράδοξον; ὁπότε τὸν ποταμὸν αὐτῷ πεποίηκε μαχόμενον ὑπὲρ τοῦ λέγειν τι θαυμαστόν, ἔτι δὲ τοῦ ῾Ηφαίστου καὶ τοῦ Σκαμάνδρου μάχην καὶ τῶν ἄλλων θεῶν πρὸς ἀλλήλους, τροπάς τε καὶ ἥττας καὶ τραύματα ,ὑπὸ ἀπορίας πραγμάτων τοσούτων ἔτι καὶ ηλικούτων ἀπολειπομένων. ἀνάγκη οὖν ἐκ τούτων μολογεῖν ἢ ἀγνώμονα ῞Ομηρον καὶ φαῦλον κριτὴν τῶν πραγμάτων, ὥστε τὰ ἐλάττω καὶ ταπεινότερα αἱρεῖσθαι, καταλιπόντα ἄλλοις τὰ μέγιστά τε καὶσπουδαιότατα, ἢ μὴ δύνασθαι αὐτόν, ὅπερ εἶπον, ἰσχυρίζεσθαι τὰ ψευδῆ, μηδ’ ἐν τούτοις ἐπιδεικνύναι τὴν ποίησιν ἃ ἐβούλετο κρύψαιὅπως γέγονεν.

οὕτως γὰρ καὶ ἐν ᾿Οδυσσείᾳ τὰ μὲν περὶ τὴν ᾿Ιθάκην καὶ τὸν θάνατον τῶν μνηστήρων αὐτὸς λέγει, τὰ δὲ μέγιστα τῶν ψευσμάτων οὐχ ὑπέμεινεν εἰπεῖν, τὰ περὶ τὴν Σκύλλαν καὶ τὸν Κύκλωπα καὶ τὰ φάρμακα τῆς Κίρκης, ἔτι δὲ τὴν εἰς ᾅδου κατάβασιν τοῦ ᾿Οδυσσέως, ἀλλὰ τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα ἐποίησε διηγούμενον τοῖς περὶ τὸν ᾿Αλκίνοον· ἐκεῖ δὲ καὶ τὰ περὶ τὸν ἵππον καὶ τὴν ἅλωσιν τῆς Τροίας διεξιόντα τὸν Δημόδοκον ἐν ᾠδῇ δι’ ὀλίγων ἐπῶν. δοκεῖ δέ μοι μηδὲ προθέσθαι ταῦτα τὴν ἀρχήν, ἅτε οὐ γενόμενα, προϊούσης δὲ τῆς ποιήσεως, ἐπεὶ ἑώρα τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ῥᾳδίως πάντα πειθομένους, καταφρονήσας αὐτῶν καὶ ἅμα χαριζόμενος

τοῖς ῞Ελλησι καὶ τοῖς ᾿Ατρείδαις πάντα συγχέαι καὶ μεταστῆσαι τὰ πράγματα εἰς τοὐναντίον. λέγει δὲ ἀρχόμενος,

μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληιάδεω ᾿Αχιλῆος

οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ ᾿Αχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,

πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς ἄϊδι προΐαψεν

ἡρώων· αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν

οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι· Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή.

ἐνταῦθά φησι περὶ μόνης ἐρεῖν τῆς τοῦ ᾿Αχιλλέως μήνιδος καὶ τὰς συμφορὰς καὶ τὸν ὄλεθρον τῶν ᾿Αχαιῶν, ὅτι πολλὰ καὶ δεινὰ ἔπαθον  καὶ πολλοὶ ἀπώλοντο καὶ ἄταφοι ἔμειναν, ὡς ταῦτα μέγιστα τῶν γενομένων καὶ ἄξια τῆς ποιήσεως, καὶ τὴν τοῦ Διὸς βουλὴν ἐν τούτοις φησὶ τελεσθῆναι, ὥσπερ οὖν καὶ συνέβη· τὴν δὲ ὕστερον μεταβολὴν τῶν πραγμάτων καὶ τὸν τοῦ ῞Εκτορος θάνατον, ἃ ἔμελλε χαριεῖσθαι, <οὐ φαίνεται> ὑποθέμενος, οὐδὲ ὅτι ὕστερον ἑάλω τὸ ῎Ιλιον· ἴσως γὰρ οὐκ ἦν πω βεβουλευμένος ἀναστρέφειν ἅπαντα. ἔπειτα βουλόμενος τὴν αἰτίαν εἰπεῖν τῶν κακῶν, ἀφεὶς τὸν ᾿Αλέξανδρον καὶ τὴν ῾Ελένην περὶ Χρύσου φλυαρεῖ καὶ τῆς ἐκείνου θυγατρός.


Leave a Reply