Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.
to e-mail us:
support the site
- Return to top of the page -
B+ : great stories, if crowded and uneven in the telling
See our review for fuller assessment.
(*: review of an earlier translation)
From the Reviews:
- Return to top of the page -
The complete review's Review:
Homer's Iliad gives only a partial account of the Trojan War -- missing famous episodes including the death of Achilles and the classic Trojan Horse-ploy -- while the Odyssey only begins after the fall of Troy.
Several works -- the so-called 'Epic Cycle', of sometime around the seventh century BC -- did cover this in-between time, but only fragments of the component-works survive; Quintus Smyrnaeus' Posthomerica, written roughly a thousand years later, is the most complete account of the rest of the battle for and then fall of Troy.
Other works, which Quintus likely was familiar with, covered episodes that are also treated here -- Sophocles' Ajax, for example, or the Aeneid -- while later authors also covered this same period (John Tzetzes (ca. 1110 to 1180), for example, wrote: "his own Posthomerica, a prosaic coverage of Quintus' subject matter in 780 faulty hexameters", as another translator of Quintus, Alan James, puts it), but Quintus' large-scale epic -- 14 books, almost 8800 lines -- is the most thorough and extensive narrative filling the gap between Iliad and Odyssey.
Εὖθ᾽ ὑπὸ Πηλείωνι δάμη θεοείκελος Ἕκτωρ(Compare also the Alan James version, which also divides up some of the sentences:
Hektor the equal of gods had been killed by the son of Peleus.Hopkinson's admirably succinct Introduction notes the basic similarities and differences between the Posthomerica and the Homeric epics, including that:
Quintus' diction and style are recognizably Homeric, although he avoids the rare and controversial words, extensive verbatim repetition, and metrical inequalities of Homer.Among the interesting smaller differences:
Reflections on morality and human behavior are uttered not only by the characters, as in Homer, but also by the narrator.Quintus of course had great material to work with: the Trojan conflict continued to be drama- and action-packed even after the events presented in the Iliad. Quintus gets right to the action -- as Hopkinson notes, he: "dispenses with the customary invocation of the Muses in order to make his first line continue from the end of the Iliad" -- and Posthomerica gets off to a rousing start with the next would-be savior arriving on the scene -- a confident and fearsome female warrior, Penthesileia.
Penthesileia comes to Troy both itching for battle and fleeing: "a hateful slur on her reputation" (as "her own people kept reproaching her for the death of her lamented sister Hippolyta"). She's a great warrior, and confident in her abilities -- and promises the Trojans ... not the moon, but arguably more: "to slay Achilles, destroy the great army of the Achaeans, and set the fleet in flames". Quintus leaves little doubt that she's bitten off more than she can chew: "Innocent fool !" (νηπίη), he can't help but blurt out -- as:
She had no idea how far Achilles and his ashen spear excelled in the murderous mayhem of battle.Nevertheless, the tide would seem to turn for a while, as Penthesileia demonstrates her mettle, and fighting abilities; only when Ajax and Achilles are roused ("Just as the ships were about to be set on fire at the hands of the Trojans" ...) to action -- since defeat of the Argives and loss of the fleet would bring disgrace on them. Of course, once they get in on the action, the outcome is clear: Penthesileia can thrown her spear at Ajax, but: "it was fated that no painful spear thrown in battle by an enemy should draw blood from him", while Achilles famously is, save his one small heel of vulnerability, basically unkillable. And while Penthesileia goes down in style -- "She fell to the ground decorously, her noble body modest and showing nothing shameful as she stretched out prone, struggling convulsively round the spear" -- down she does go. The killing of the beautiful woman stirs up feelings, too -- in Achilles, who is mocked for them by Thersites (foolishly -- Achilles smashes his face in and kills him), as well as Penthesileia's father, Ares, torn by how to react.
Book II follows a similar basic arc: an outsider arrives who, briefly, gives the Trojans hope -- only to die at the hands of Achilles. Here it is the warrior Memnon, arriving: "with his countless clans of black troops from Ethiopia". He is expected -- but while they wait the Trojans debate the ongoing war, with Polydamas even going so far to suggest: "It would be better, even at this late hour, to give renowned Helen back to the Danaans", a radical solution that is greeted with a mixed reaction (and, of course, not pursued much further), with Paris giving Polydamas an earful .....
Memnon's fighting prowess again turns the tide for the Trojans -- but, again, only so far. After a great battle, it comes down to a clash between Memnon and Achilles -- enhanced by yet more divine intervention: "Zeus, well disposed to both, increased their strength and stature and made them tireless, godlike, more than human". If the outcome is not in doubt, the battlefield scenes are at least dramatically put, including:
Whinnying horses and charging troops trampled the dead lying thick as numberless leaves in a grove as winter comes on at the end of fertile autumn.Among the difficulties with the Greek myths are the all-powerfulness of the gods -- allowing for a convenient deus ex machina at any point -- and the near-invulnerability of some of the actors. So, in the first two Books here, Penthesileia and Memnon can put on a good show but, for all their prowess, they still don't stand a chance, once Achilles gets in on the action; clearly, as long as he's around, the Greeks remain undefeatable. So then it comes as a relief in Book III that Apollo, fed up with: "the sight of the countless clans of heroes being massacred" calls on Achilles to stand down ("Get away from the Trojans ! You are not to let loose this awful doom on the foe any longer") and, when Achilles doesn't, shoots an arrow, fatally, into Achilles' ankle (yes, σφυρόν). [Quintus has Phoebus/Apollo shoot the arrow -- after making himself: "invisible among the clouds"; Paris does not figure in this version.]
Achilles' death is, of course, a big deal -- and is a signal change. As the Greeks lament:
You are dead, son of Peleus, foremost of all the Danaans: you are dead, and you have left the great Achaean army without its bulwark: after your death we are easier prey for our enemies. And your fall has left great joy to the Trojans, who used to run away from you like sheep scattering before a lion: now they eagerly carry the fight right up to our swift ships.The Trojans do get cocky, but before the conflict can resume Thetis organizes: "splendid funeral games at her son's tomb" -- athletic competitions that dominate Book IV.
Book V offers a different sort of competition: Achilles' wonderful armor, with its shield with with countless scenes wrought on it: "by the hands of the ingenious god Hephaestus", are described in vivid detail, and Ajax and Odysseus: "are keen to enter into a violent argument" about which of them deserves to next don the armor of this man whose: "excellence was in slaughter and mayhem". It's an entertaining battle of words, each arguing their case (and belittling the other ("What a windbag you are, Ajax !"; "Odysseus, you schemer and most insufferable of all men", etc.)), with, ultimately, a unanimous judgment in Odysseus' favor. A furious Ajax is not a gracious loser, however, and the only way to prevent his wreaking catastrophe is by Athena striking him temporarily mad and leaving him raving -- dramatic scenes, too, that culminate in Ajax realizing how he's been fooled and taking his own life.
The conflict gets properly going again in Book VI, with yet another outsider coming to the Trojans' aid, Eurypylus, leader of the Cetaeans (and a grandson of Heracles). (He is not to be confused with the other Eurypylus (good luck with that ...), fighting for the other side -- who will, in fact, be one of those who hide in the Trojan horse.) An admirable fighter, he leads the Trojans into battle -- and since there's no Achilles to face, the long-term outlook looks brighter again. There are quite a few gory battlefield descriptions here, from Eurypylus' spearing Machaon (whose dying words then are the warning: "Eurypylus, you yourself are not long for this world: grim Doom stands beside you on the Trojan plain as you go about your wicked work"), to everyone else getting in on the bloody action:
Meriones stabbed him with his deadly spear above his private parts [αἰδοίων], and instantly diseboweled him: his spirit instantly rushed down to the darkness. [...] Nestor’s mighty son speared godlike Acamas just above the knee as he rushed at him, and he underwent horrible agonies from that deadly wound: he quitted the battle and left the fighting to his companions, with its tears aplenty: he had no more appetite for war. Next Thoas’ comrade Deïopites the wise was struck just below the shoulder by one of glorious Eurypylus’ attendants. The cruel spear went near his heart and, mingled with the blood, a cold sweat oozed from his limbs. As he turned to flee, the might of Eurypylus caught up with him and severed the tendons that gave him speed; for all his eagerness to flee, his feet were rooted to the spot where he received the blow, and immortal life left him.Things are not going the Greeks' way -- by nightfall: "a great area was crowded with heaps of fallen Argives" -- and it's only the thick mist that comes with night that prevents the Trojans from burning the fleet (not the last time a cloud-like cover saves the day ...). Meanwhile, however, Odysseus and Diomedes had set out to enlist Neoptolemus -- Achilles' young (still beardless) son, and a ringer for his dad -- for the cause.
The lad's mother tries to talk him out of it, sensibly arguing:
My child, where has your good sense flown ? Why do you want to go with these strangers to Ilium, that city of tears, where even men expert in war and ghastly mayhem are dying in droves in the grim battle lines ? You are only young: you know nothing yet about those fighting skills which can keep the evil day at bay.But she can't convince him -- and she underestimates him. Neoptolemus is eager to go into battle -- everyone here is always eager to go into battle ... -- and he certainly looks determined: "his expression a grim frown, his eyes darting glances bright as fire, his face handsome but such as to inspire chilly fear as he charges along, a fearful sight even for the gods themselves". His joining the fray also sets up the contest between him and Eurypylus that then dominates Book VIII, with both successfully leading their respective armies in a "mutual slaughter". Yet while: "Eurypylus brought baneful doom on many of the enemy", he meets his match in Neoptolemus, who bests him (with his father's spear).
The carnage continues -- with Neoptolemus in the thick of things, still:
killing victims one after another: just as a young boy wafts his hand at flies coming near the milk, and they give up the ghost all around the vessel, vanquished by so light a blow, and the boy is kept entertained: such was the joy which the illustrious son of Achilles took in his victims.Yet as the Greeks look to smash the gates and walls of Troy ... the gods interfere yet again, Zeus moved by Ganymede's plea:
to shroud the famous city of Priam in clouds vast and dense, so that the murderous battle was obscured in mist and none of the attackers could any longer make out the position of the wall, which continued to be shrouded in thick cloud.The battles continue soon enough, while Odysseus and Diomedes again setting out to round up another vital cog for victory, Philoctetes (and Heracles' great bow, which he has with him) -- suffering on Lemnos, in: "incurable agony" (which is then soon cured, "more quickly than the speed of thought" ...). Once he's fit again, Philoctetes joins in the fight -- and is a great success with his great bow, eventually also injuring Paris. Paris' only hope is the wife he abandoned for Helen, Oenone, leading to the dramatic scenes of him begging her to help him, her turning him away ("Go to Helen" to whine there, she suggests), and then, grief stricken after his death, Oenone leaping into his funeral pyre to perish there.
The battles continue -- at one point even rousing the gods, taking sides, to square off against one another in another, secondary battle theatre, a strange little interlude of the immortals getting carried away in their own little (well, big ...) realm, making sure also that:
mankind was not put in fear -- it was the godsí will that men should remain ignorant of that divine conflict. They meanwhile broke off crags of the range of Ida with their hands and hurled them at one another, and these simply shattered into tiny fragments like sand when they met the godsí irresistible limbs.(This rather pointless fighting soon comes to a stop, but this odd little eruption does suggest how very much on edge everybody involved is, and how everyone picks a side.)
Of course, things culminate with the famous Trojan horse, a clever tactic that is well-related by Quintus. Of course, the gods play a (too) central role again: Laocoön advises his fellow Trojans to burn the damn thing rather than pull it into town, but Athena nastily strikes him down with a painful blindness -- and when that isn't enough, sics two mighty serpents on his sons in some very vivid-horrible scenes. Then it's Cassandra who prophesies catastrophe -- warnings that fall on deaf ears.
The fall of Troy, then, is the culmination of the story, the battle here entirely almost one-sided -- and as devastating as one might expect:
Everywhere the earth overflowed with streams of black blood as the Trojans and their foreign allies were massacred. Some lay in blood in the streets, conquered by chill death, while others breathed their last and fell over their bodies. Others again stumbled pitifully through their houses clutching their entrails; others, their feet amputated, crawled among the corpses with bloodcurdling screams; many who had bitten the dust as they fought tooth and nail had their hands -- and their very heads -- cut off; others, attempting flight, were pierced in the back with ash-wood spears, which emerged through their chests; other spears penetrated as far as the groin, above the private parts, where the spear of tireless Ares gives most pain. All through the city arose a gloomy howling of dogs mingled with the horrid groans of the dying, and every dwelling seemed to echo with endless shrieks.Other highlights in the aftermath include Menelaüs being reunited with wife Helen -- and being restrained from seeking vengeance -- and then Neoptolemus' sacrifice of Polyxena, daughter of the Trojan king, Priam (at the behest of his dad, who came to him in a dream ...). The scenes of her slowly being led to slaughter -- weeping so much as she is dragged there that her: "dress below was drenched" -- and then her cruel, calm dispatch ("as she gave one last pitiful groan") are a nice contrast to the battlefield frenzy -- all the more heartbreaking for her mother Hecuba's having to follow the murder.
The Trojans can just bury their dead -- and watch their womenfolk be led off, bounty for the Greeks ... -- but the Greeks also fall just short of the oh-so-close happy ending. Sure, they triumph completely on the battlefield -- but getting home proves another matter:
The Argives would all have crossed the deep sea and reached the sacred soil of Hellas untroubled had not Athena, daughter of Zeus the thunderer, been angry with them.And so: "Fate allotted them a variety of deaths, all wretched" .....
Among those trying to reach home is, of course, also Odysseus -- but Quintus defers to Homer here, ending his story to dovetail back into the master's classic epic.
Quintus' Posthomerica has a pretty grand sweep, and the story would probably be fairly exciting regardless of how it is related, but his presentation is quite good throughout (if a bit uneven). At times, the narrative can bog down in a litany of slaughter, Xs killing Ys, and a blur of names, but overall there's more than enough variety to hold the readers' interest. The funeral game-competitions are a bit of an odd turn, but otherwise the action moves quickly -- sometimes too quickly -- and consistently engagingly. (The names, however, can be confusing -- not least because so many characters are referred to inconsistently, including by their relations (so-and-so's son) or odd variations (Athena is referred to -- among other names -- as Pallas, Tritogeneia, and Tritonis, for example).)
Among the few weak points of the story is the convenient interference of the all-mighty gods, a deus ex machina that can, at some turns, be annoying. Even beyond that, working on the two planes -- mortal and immortal -- is always a difficulty in Greek myth, and Quintus does his best to achieve some sort of balance; it works reasonably well here.
There's quite a bit of vivid description -- some of which is particularly impressive (if generally also quite gory). The warriors' dedication is nicely captured in the scene where:
His arm, severed from his muscular shoulder by that lethal sword, was still eager to brandish his spear and ready for the fight -- in vain, since the man himself was not in control of it, but was thrashing around with randomly convulsive movements.And some of the deaths are particularly nicely presented:
With these words, he cut off the head of that venerable man as easily as if he were harvesting a dry ear of grain in the hot summer season. It gave a loud gasp as it rolled across the ground a good distance from those limbs which make a man move.Hopkinson's prose version is certainly more readable than the Way-version, and for the most part reads very well. Even some of the perhaps more jarring choices have a solid foundation: "the shameless bitch Helen" (VI. 24; both Way and James leave it at 'shameless') is arguably etymologically justified -- it's Ἑλένης τε κυνώπιδος in the original, after all -- while speaking of: "many who had bitten the dust" (XIII.94) might sound a bit odd, but , hey, it's almost begging for the idiom to be used (Way has: "Lay now in dust"). (Occasionally, Hopkinson does seem to reach too far, e.g. "the moil and mêlée of that day" (II.517; Way has: "in the strife of that dread day"); indeed, five mêlées in the text seem like ... five too many.)
The Posthomerica is an underappreciated work that conveniently collects many of the greatest stories of the Trojan war -- including its conclusion ! -- and presents these entertainingly and well. A.S.Way's version certainly had its appeal but one can see how it might have also posed a hurdle to finding a larger readership; with Alan James' The Trojan Epic and now Hopkinson's more accessible renderings one hopes Quintus' work might now find more readers. And as a Loeb volume -- meaning a bilingual edition, the Greek original facing the translation --, and a fine translation beside that, Hopkinson's should now be the preferred edition.
- M.A.Orthofer, 2 December 2018
- Return to top of the page -
- Return to top of the page -
Quintus of Smyrna (Quintus Smyrnaeus; Κόιντος Σμυρναίος) lived around the 4th century.
- Return to top of the page -