So I’ve finished Robin Lane Fox‘s Travelling Heroes: In the Epic Age of Homer, and I feel compelled to warn others about it. The author is highly regarded, and it comes highly recommended; Mary Beard, for instance, contributes this blurb: “Lane Fox argues his case with tremendous style and verve. The book is full of wit and suspense… Detailed, learned, and always lively.” And the Guardian review by Oliver Taplin calls it a “seemingly effortless yet stupendously erudite book” and ends “This is someone who lives his history.” You will note, however, that Beard does not say that he proves his case or that she believes it, and Taplin, in between encomia, says “For all their seductive ingenuity, the criss-crossing, zig-zagging voyages of Travelling Heroes add up, in the end, to an intricate web of specialist speculation…. the whole is held together by a sticky tangle of ‘may’s, ‘might’s and ‘surely’s, stiffened by a passionate desire for them to be true.” And that, in what is supposed to be a history book, is far more important than the wit and suspense and verve.
But I’m going to go further than that, since I’m not a classicist and do not have to be nice to Mr. Lane Fox, who is doubtless both admired and feared in his field. I’m going to say that this is a bad book, plain and simple, and should not have been published in its present form. This pains me, because I am fascinated by Archaic Greece and love books that present history from a different perspective (like Beckwith). But facts are facts.
In the first place, he’s cramming two entirely different subjects into one book. One is a hypothesis about what Homer meant by “ειν ‘Αρίμοις” [‘in/at/on Arima’] at Iliad 2.783; he structures the whole thing as a detective story and doesn’t tell you until page 300 that he thinks it’s the island of Ischia. Of course, this isn’t a new idea; in the sixteenth century Ortelius, in the caption to his map of Ischia, wrote: “That this Island was formerly called Aenaria, Arima, Inarima and Pithecusa has been sufficiently witnessed by Homerus, Aristoteles, Strabo, Plinius, Virgilius, Ovidius and other good writers.” But he provides his own grandiose way of revealing this idea:
The first settlers called Ischia Pithecussae, the enigmatic “Monkey Island,” on which, though now lost to us, monkeys had lived and caught their attention. The island was not named at random. Here too the Greek settlers had asked for the local name, and from nearby Etruscans they learned it. Etruscans had a name for the island which meant, according to Greek sources, “monkey”: the Greeks, therefore, called it “Monkey Island” too. Our understanding of the Etruscan language is still slight, but its experts accept the word in question, transmitted hy Strabo’s sources and later Greek lexicographers, though not as yet found in an original Etruscan text. The word could hardly have been more significant: Arima.
It was not just a coincidence; it seemed an omen from the gods…
This wordy piece of hugger-mugger can stand in for the book as a whole. Every bit of speculation is foreshadowed, built up, presented with a flourish, and then treated as a solid fact that more inferences can be built on. Nothing in this book is “just a coincidence” (unless, of course, it contradicts his theories). And his evidence is often shaky; my worries about his “Betyllion” were well founded.
So that’s the first topic; it could perfectly well have been presented in a shortish paper called “Was Homer’s Arima in Fact Ischia? A Fresh Perspective.” But how many people would have read it ensconced in a classical journal? The second topic, a genuinely interesting one, is the putative peregrinations of the Euboeans in the eighth century B.C. He has a great deal to say about it, but again, it’s spoiled by his insistence on treating all of his clever ideas as incontrovertible truths and using them as building blocks. He genuinely seems to think that he’s revealed a hitherto unacknowledged and vitally important facet of the history of the period rather than presenting some intriguing suggestions. Again, the proper presentation would have been a series of articles, eventually collected in a book that would be ordered by specialist libraries and reviewed respectfully in The Classical Quarterly. But that’s not good enough, because he’s not just a classicist, he’s a best-selling author with a public that is not much interested in the details of evidence but loves broadly drawn generalizations with which they can impress people (“Did you know that Euboea was important way before Athens? They discovered just about everything!”).
Oh, and one big problem, as Taplin points out in his review, is that our two contemporary sources for the period he’s writing about, Hesiod and Homer, say respectively little and nothing about all this stuff he’s presenting as the truth about their time. I will pass over in silence what I find a grating style, because it may not strike everyone that way, noting only that he uses the word “brilliant” to modify every scholar, publication, and idea he agrees with. I will conclude by saying that it’s a great pity he chose to write this way, because he’s clearly (to use his favorite word) a brilliant man, and he loves the material. The place where it comes suddenly alive is in the very last chapter, when he recaps all his ideas by presenting them as elements in the life of an imagined character: “A Hipposthenes could have been born then, around 750 BC, to a Euboean father and a non-Greek mother…” He spends several pages on this fantasy, and it’s far more enjoyable than anything else in the book. If only he’d used his research, travels, and ideas to write a historical novel! He could have had a best seller without compromising the good name of history.