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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry / exegesis

Allegories of the Iliad

John Tzetzes

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To purchase Allegories of the Iliad

Title: Allegories of the Iliad
Author: John Tzetzes
Genre: Poetry
Written: ca. 1150 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 528 pages
Original in: ancient Greek
Availability: Allegories of the Iliad - US
Allegories of the Iliad - UK
Allegories of the Iliad - Canada
Allegories of the Iliad - India
  • Greek title: Ἀλληγορίαι εἰς τὴν Ἰλιάδα
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Adam J. Goldwyn and Dimitra Kokkini
  • This is a bilingual edition, the English translation facing the original Greek

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Our Assessment:

(-) : somewhat limited reading/analysis of the Iliad, but fascinating in part

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bryn Mawr Classical Rev. . (2015.09.45) D.J.Mastronarde
The NY Rev. of Books . 14/7/2016 Peter Brown
Speculum . 4/2017 Andrzej Kompa

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) long and curious work (.....) (A)n odd mishmash that bears the marks of its checkered history. It is partly brief plot summary (ὑπόθεσις), partly extended paraphrase of the epic in simpler Greek, partly allegorical explanation of almost all divine and supernatural elements, and partly self-advertisement of the author. (...) In general, Goldwyn and Kokkini have done well as translators in what must at times have been a tedious task. Readers whose Greek is not up to handling Tzetzes on their own and readers without Greek will be able to get a good sense of Tzetzesí interests and methods, although the limits on annotation in this series mean that the reader receives less help than might be needed to recognize Tzetzesís uses of etymological punning in his allegories or his allusions to other texts." - Donald J. Mastronarde, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In their Introduction translators Adam J. Goldwyn and Dimitra Kokkini explain that Allegories of the Iliad was apparently conceived of to help introduce Bertha von Sulzbach (empress Eirene), the Bavarian bride of Manuel Komnenos (Byzantine emperor Manuel I), to the culture and language and most important literary works of her new world. They do note that that intention isn't entirely clear -- "Even Tzetzes himself seems unsure about the work's aim" -- but it was commissioned by the royals; interestingly, a new patron (Konstantinos Kotertzes) was found starting with the 16th (of the 24) books of the work -- possibly because of Bertha's death in 1159 -- leading also to a change in the material presented (the later chapters featuring: "significantly more allegorical analysis and less plot summary").
       The prolific independent scholar and writer Tzetzes also sounds like an interesting character -- though as Goldwyn and Kokkini note:

almost all of what is known is derived from his own writings and therefore must be understood in light of Tzetze's own rather constant self-mythologizing as a misunderstood genius forced into poverty by an anti-intellectual and corrupt world.
       Indeed, he repeatedly inserts himself into this work, too -- pointing out, for example, in the Prolegomena:
τὸ μὴ κρατεῖσθαι χρήμασι· θυμὸς ἐπὶ δικαίοις
πῦρ πνέων, ὣσπερ Κάτωνι δευτέρῳ, παρυπῆρχε

[I am not ruled by money; my spirit attends me for just causes,
breathing fire like a second Cato.]

       There can be little doubt that he was extremely well-read, and comfortably familiar with the classics, and the works of Homer in particular; so, for example, in addition to this work, he also wrote an Allegories of the Odyssey, a verse 'Carmina Iliaca' (in hexameters), and filled in the pre-Iliad and between-the-Iliad-and-Odyssey stories in an Antehomerica and Posthomerica. His approach isn't entirely painstakingly academic -- and he apparently didn't always have ready access to the necessary source-material -- but he obviously had a good memory (and was always willing to barrel right ahead), admitting at one point, for example:
Ἐμοὶ βιβλιοθήκη γὰρ ἡ κεφαλὴ τυγχάνει,
βίβλοι δ' ἡμῖν οὐ πάρεισι δεινῶς ἀχρηματοῦσιν·
ὅθεν οὐ λέγειν ἀκριβῶς τὸν ποιητὴν γινώσκω.

[Because my library happens to be in my head,
and we have no useless books in there,
I cannot be sure where precisely the poet said this.]

       Presented over 24 chapters -- mirroring the Iliad -- and in verse (not Homeric, or particularly poetic), Allegories of the Iliad isn't so much a re-telling of Homer's classic as a summarizing and analysis, of sorts. Tzetzes also fills in some of Homer's blanks in the historical story -- noting already in the Prolegomena that Homer: "overlooked many other amazing commanders" active in the war, for example -- and occasionally also thinks Homer goes too far: "the six verses after this one should be rejected", he maintains at one point, for example. But, of course, as the title suggests, Tzetzes is particularly focused on allegorizing the Iliad -- he'll summarize what happened and then note:
     Ταῦτα μὲν εἶπον μυθικῶς ὡς κεῖνται τῷ κειμένῳ·
τὸ δ ̓ ἀληθὲς νῦν μάνθανε καὶ τὴν ἀλληγορίαν.

     [I have thus given the mythical account of the text;
learn here the truth and the allegory.]

       And, indeed, as he notes/warns: "ὁ Τζέτζης δ' ἅπαντα λεπτῶς ἀλληγορεῖ. Καἰ πρόσσχες." ('But Tzetzes subtly allegorizes everything. So pay attention !' (Prol.250)).
       This way of reading and interpreting a text can seem quite foreign to contemporary readers; certainly Tzetze's allegorization is also of his time -- strongly Christian-inflected, for one. It's not without interest, however -- even or especially in its foreignness, adding a perspective to some of the events and passages that might not occur to modern readers. While Homeric exegesis was fairly widespread at this time -- this was no dark ages, and the Iliad and Odyssey were truly central works -- the position of the text and this reading, historically, -- distant from the original Greek context, but also almost a thousand years removed from the contemporary world -- makes for an unusual, and other, middle ground to how Homer is generally seen.
       Still, much of this -- both the summaries and allegorization -- comes across as somewhat rough. The massive amount of material would, of course, allow for near endless speculation and interpretation, and Tzetzes' level of commitment is very uneven, ranging from the cursory, rapid-fire summary to some great flights of allegorical fancy. And while Tzetzes clearly is a great admirer of Homer, even he can find it all a bit much, occasionally making excuses about the lengths to which one can go with the text -- "Ἄν δὲ πολυλογήσωμεν, τὸν Ὅμηρον αἰτιᾶσθε" ('And if we go on at length, blame Homer')
       (This passage is another amusing example of Tzetzes pushing himself to the fore again:
And if we go on at length, blame Homer, who,
because of his very dense thought and haste, was forgetful,
and wrote the last things first and mixed things up again,
and because of the hidden depth of his ideas,
forced Tzetzes to write simply, concisely,
and then with extemporaneous speech to compose words
which no one dared, neither the ancients nor the moderns,
unless perhaps someone, after recomposing my words,
was mendacious enough to say that he himself composed it,
as they often do with my other compositions.

       Some of the observations and descriptions are noteworthy -- such as Tzetzes' treatment of Odysseus, whom he calls "παίγνιον Ὁμήρου" ('Homer's pet' in Goldwyn/Kokkini's translation, though 'plaything' might be just as apt (7.32)), but whom Tzetzes seems less won over by, first introducing him as:
     Ὁ Ὀδυσσεὺς μεσῆλιξ ἦν, λευκός τε καὶ προγάστωρ,
ἁπλόθριξ, στρεβλογνώμων δέ, πικρός τε και μακρόρριν

     [Odysseus was of average height, pale and potbellied,
with plain hair, a twister of meanings, bitter and long-nosed.]

              [Prol. 704-5]
       Tzetzes repeatedly refers to Homer as: Ὅμηρος ὁ πάνσοφος, ἡ θάλασσα τῶν λόγων (translated variously as, e.g.: 'Homer the all wise, the sea of words' (16.123) and 'Homer the all-wise, that sea of speech' (Prol. 51)) -- or even more elaborately:
     Φύσιν πλουτῶν ὁ Ὅμηρος ὑπὲρ ἀνφρώπου φύσιν,
ὢν τε φρενῶν θησαύρισμα καἰ νοῡς αἰθεροδρόμος,
καἰ θάλασσα καἰ πέλαγος ὠκεανὸς χαρίτων,
πασῶν τεχνῶν τε λογικῶν ἀσύγκριτος ἀκρότης,
πανσόφοις πάντα χάρισι τὸν λόγον κεραννύει,
ὣςπερ κἀντεῡθεν νῦν ποιεῖ συγκεραννὺς μυρία.

     [Homer, having a super-human nature,
and being a storehouse of intelligence and an ether-skimming mind,
and a sea and a gulf and an ocean of graces,
and having incomparable excellence in all arts of expression,
infuses his entire account with the most clever delights,
just as he here blends in countless elements.]

       Tzetzes immerses himself -- and the reader -- in τὸν μέγαν τὸν βαθὺν ὠκεανὸν Ὁμήρου ('the great and deep Ocean of Homer' (Prol. 28)). He does give himself room for interpretation by repeatedly praising Homer for saying 'one thing, while seemingly teaching another' (15.42), 'saying it without seeming to say it' (16.387), or -- in words directly addressed to the master -- 'you who tell the truth even if you do not seem to be telling it' (22.110). His Homerian praise makes for some of the nicer verse-expressions, too:
Ταῖς ἀλλοτρίαις τελευταῖς ὁ Ὅμηρος δὲ παίζων
δεικνύει λόγων δύναμιν ἐξαίρων τὰ τυχόντα·
καὶ τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἀεὶ δεικνύει τοῖς σκοποῦσιν,
ὅτι λόγον τὸν ἥττονα γυμνάζων ταῦτα λέγει

     [Homer, playing with other people's deaths,
shows the power of words in exalting the events,
and always demonstrates the truth to those who seek it,
because he says this using basic words]

       There are quite a few odds and ends of interest in Allegories of the Iliad, but it is a bit of a ragtag mix. Tzetzes energy -- and his love of the material -- comes across, but this also leads to parts of the work coming out in too much of a rush: typically, too, when Tzetzes gets to the end his last line already insists: 'time, like a herald, already cries out for another work' (24.331) -- Tzetzes perhaps already trying to solicit his next commission .....
       The lovely Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library edition has the original Greek facing the translation, so it's ideal in that respect -- but the translators did not opt for much annotation. What there is is helpful, and presumably familiarity with the Iliad -- and/or access to other supporting material -- is more or less taken for granted, but some more annotation, specifically of the more Byzantine (elements and understanding) would have been welcome.
       Allegories of the Iliad is hardly a first choice guide to the Iliad, but of some interest in looking beyond the basics -- and especially in illustrating some of the areas of particular interest, and ways of seeing them, of Tzetzes' time. As a literary-poetic work it doesn't stand out particularly -- but Tzetzes' inability to keep quiet, as it were, and self-confident surfacing in the commentary does add a nice (and often amusing) element, and at least Allegories of the Iliad really doesn't feel like dry scholarship.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 September 2018

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Allegories of the Iliad: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Byzantine author John (Ioannis) Tzetzes (Ἰωάννης Τζέτζης) lived ca. 1110 to 1180.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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