One of the things I’ve particularly enjoyed about the epic seminar this term is the opportunity to go outside the boundaries of what I normally teach and explore some of the ‘quirky’ epics which don’t always get the attention they deserve. My big discovery this term has been Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica, which I knew nothing about before preparing for the seminars, thus combining teaching and research in pleasing ways. From what we can tell, the poem was written during the late third century A.D. to replace poems of the Homeric Cycle that had been lost, possibly in the destruction of the library of Alexandria. The poem covers events from the end of the Iliad to sort-of the beginning of the Odyssey - the final book reports the great storm which threw the Greek army off course and provided the first impetus for the voyage of Odysseus.
I will admit that I approached the text with some trepidation. I am not Homer’s greatest fan; I find the Iliad uninspiring and the Odyssey patchy, so I wasn’t at all sure how I would find a work which deliberately sets out to imitate Homer’s style. I’ll be honest, there were some books which just didn’t grip me – but others were awesome. There is some really interesting, odd material in here, and I do not know why I didn’t meet this text until this late in the game.
I want to pick out a couple of points which I’d love to have the time to explore further, hopefully as a preliminary set of thoughts to come back to later and to do something more significant with. The first concerns the first book. Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons who comes to fight on the Trojan side, has a book dedicated to her exploits, although once she comes up against Achilles and Ajax she’s doomed. The book itself has a fascinating structure which Schmiel unpicks nicely, in that the central turning point is a vignette of the Trojan women thinking about imitating the Amazons, picking up arms and joining their men on the battlefield. They are dissuaded from this course of action, and once that happens, Penthesilea’s fortunes go downhill. The gender issues of her presentation are fascinating; she’s marked as adhering to female norms of beauty, but at the same time deviates so markedly by her martial prowess that her death is really the only way to inscribe her safely into a social order which she so clearly deviates from. Achilles praises her beauty and wishes he could have married her after he has killed her (a bit of a forerunner of Kleist’s Penthesilea there), thus wishing she could have adhered to a normative gender model whilst at the same time recognising that what made her unique meant she was unmarryable. The manner of her death, too, highlights a sense of the monster as well as the beautiful, highlighting tensions created by her presence in the poem.
The gender theme guides the other points I found fascinating as I read (as it so often does). Quintus does a nice line in personalising ‘the Trojan women’ en masse, representing their fears and concerns as a recognisable unit with shared interests. This is markedly different to the impression you get of the women in the Homeric texts. The trope starts right at that pivotal moment in book one with the temptation to jump into battle, and ends in the final book when the women suffer the storm and shipwrecks with gladness, since for many their deaths mean they won’t have to endure slavery under a foreign master. The collective psyche and consciousness is something I’m not aware of having seen in epic in quite this way, and is a marked innovation on the source material.
The final thing I’d pick out is Quintus’ choice to include Oinone, the abandoned wife of Paris, in his narrative of Paris’ death. She has the power to save him but refuses, only to kill herself on his funeral pyre and join him in death. Oinone is completely absent from the Iliad, to the best of my (admittedly imperfect) knowledge; her inclusion in the pathetic scene of Paris’ death on the mountains, away from the battlefield and from Helen, adds a deeper degree of emotional trauma to the episode. (As, incidentally, does the extremely graphic description of Paris’ wound, made especially ghastly since it comes from one of the arrows dipped in the hydra’s poisonous blood which Hercules had given to Philoctetes, and which is clearly influenced by Quintus’ familiarity with medical literature.) The contrast between Oinone’s anger and her grief at her estranged husband’s death creates a sense of the conflict that every Trojan has been battling with in the wider view of the poem, here turned into a microcosm of the city’s eventual fate.
So there’s clearly something interesting here about what Quintus is doing with women, and how he’s using them to advance the goals of the poem and represent wider themes and issues – and, for that matter, how he is letting them speak in their own persona far more than Homer ever did. But further thoughts on this are going to have to wait until I’ve got some time. So probably in 2015, then…
Schmiel, R. 1986. “The Amazon Queen: Quintus of Smyrna, Book 1,” Phoenix 40, 185-94.