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.


  1. Very good!
    I for one am sick of these Classics books full of mumbo-jumbo marketed for the public at large.
    Oops, did I just accidentally say that loud enough for my peers in the Classics establishment to hear?

  2. Thanks LH. This one was on my fifth-level list of possible legenda. I’ll expunge it now, since life is short.

  3. John Emerson says

    Is he the same Robin fox who wrote a pop sociobiology book with Lionel Tiger? That seems to be a glib book too. Fox has also written about anthropology.
    He reminds me (naming no names) of the 19th century gentlemanly Oxbridgean tradition of facile, self-assured generalist erudition.
    But certainly, “Lionel Tiger” and “Robin Fox” are fantastic names for sociobiologists. Too good to be true, really. I have grave suspicions.

  4. This classicist is not that Robin Fox, who has not just written about anthropology but is a genuine anthropologist (he’s the founder of the anthro department at Rutgers). And yes, he and Lionel Tiger do make a great pair, especially given their interest in biological anthropology…

  5. Bill Walderman says

    Thanks for a thoughtful and well-written review. I started to read the book myself, but it’s so disorganized, dashing from topic to topic, and so full of unsupportable speculation, that I put it down. I think any attempt to go beyond concrete archeological evidence in the 8th century is futile.
    We don’t really know anything for certain about the state, if any, of Homeric and Hesiodic poetry in the 8th century (although plenty of scholars are willing to speculate). Personally I suspect the 8th century is too early for a written text of the Iliad, but who knows?
    And I don’t see what profound significance identifying “ein Arimois” with Ischia has. It’s just a passing reference in a Homeric simile to some place with seismic activity, which is compared to the earth-shaking effect of Achilles’ horses in motion. Arimoi could well be Ischia, but so what?

  6. Yes, exactly, so what? For all my annoyance with Beckwith’s quirks, he presents overlooked material about a hugely important realm of history, and his basic point, that there are no “barbarians” and that the word and concept are profoundly detrimental to a proper understanding of both history and a large chunk of humanity, is a vital one. This, by comparison, is trying to decide which angel stands on which side of the pin. Fun, if you like that sort of thing, but hardly the major contribution to understanding he presents it as.

  7. John Emerson says

    Pita Kelekna’s “The Horse in American History” (Cambridge, 2009) covers a lot of the same ground as Beckwith, and also Anthony: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language. (By this I mean that someone interested in the other two books will want to read Kelekna, not that it’s repetitive.)
    Kelekna isn’t as argumentative as Beckwith — the opposite in a way, since she simply states things boldly without acknowledging objections. She relies on archeology, technological history, history, tradition, and myth. Basically it’s an equinocentric story of world history.
    Everyone who reads the book will be raising their eyebrows pretty often, in amazement or incredulity, but there’s tons of good stuff I haven’t seen before (and I’m a big fan of Barclay’s “The Role of the Horse in Human Culture”. I say it’s a must-read, and sort out the problems afterward.
    I am completely supportive of the new trend toward “big history”. I vividly remember reading archaeologists twenty years ago who refused even to try to identify their finds with historical peoples (Scythians, Saka, Huns, Celts, et al)

  8. John Emerson says

    Contra Beckwith, my inclination is to go punk rock and just say that the barbarians made major contributions to human life, that most of us are descendants of barbarians, and that it’s a good thing that Empire never was unchallenged for long.

  9. John Emerson says

    I was thinking of:
    My name is Benjamin Jowett.
    I’m the master of Balliol College.
    Whatever is knowledge I know it;
    and what I don’t know isn’t knowledge.

  10. Bill Walderman says

    “He reminds me (naming no names) of the 19th century gentlemanly Oxbridgean tradition of facile, self-assured generalist erudition.
    “I was thinking of:
    “My name is Benjamin Jowett.”
    With all due respect, this is a little unfair to Jowett, who, nothwithstanding the epigram, was a great scholar, thinker, educator and educational reformer. In fact, among other achievements, he was instrumental in opening admission to Oxford to poorer students, and he re-examined Plato’s writings in ways that were controversial and ground-breaking at the time but are accepted today. His translations of Plato’s works are still in circulation.

  11. It’s supposed to have been written by Jowett himself so students wouldn’t mispronounce his name.

  12. Wait! That is easily refuted:
    In 1880, seven mischievous undergraduates at Balliol College, Oxford, published The Masque of B-ll–l, a broadsheet of forty quatrains making light of their superiors — the Master and selected Fellows, Scholars, and Commoners — and themselves. The outraged authorities immediately suppressed the collection, and only a few copies survived, three of which found their way into the College Library over the years, and one into the Bodleian Library.
    The Masque of B-ll–l
    1First come I. My name is J-W-TT.
    2There’s no knowledge but I know it.
    3I am Master of this College,
    4What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.
    (H. C. Beeching The Masque of B-ll–l (1881), line 1.)

  13. I love the way they wrote B-ll–l and J-W-TT, like that’s really going to get them off the hook if anyone finds out.

  14. I think I have mentioned David McKie’s Gazetteer: A Local History of Britain before. It is a great book. Four or so pages of its 655 are about Jowett.

    Once he asked a student what words the young man supposed were written over the gateway to hell. Interrupting his stammering answer, the Master furnished his own: ‘Ici on parle français,’ he said.

  15. They say the History Channel has the same flaws. I wouldn’t know as I’ve never had cable–the Powers That Be were slow in approving cable for the city since they couldn’t figure out how to skim money off of it, so we didn’t get it when the suburbs did.

  16. John Emerson says

    Rome went 797 years between sacks, from 387 BC to 410 AD. That’s an impressively long time, and Jesus’ 15th birthday was almost exactly in the middle of that period.

  17. For the record, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, coauthors of “The Imperial Animal”, first met at the London zoo (by the gorilla cage, I think).

  18. David Marjanović says

    I vividly remember reading archaeologists twenty years ago who refused even to try to identify their finds with historical peoples (Scythians, Saka, Huns, Celts, et al)

    On the other hand, my sister still had a history teacher who called everything pre-La-Tène “Illyrian”. He also believed that peoples could die out, and that the Illyrians had done so.

  19. Kathy Simpson says

    It was supposed to have been written by Jowett himself so students wouldn’t mispronounce his name. I agree.
    anti aging

  20. Richard J says

    That’s an impressively clever bit of spam there.
    But, anyway, I like RLF’s books (Pagans and Christians and the Unauthorised Version are both very very good), but he does have a habit of making very large deductions from a very small evidence base – the case which comes to mind is where he, at least in his view, establishes, based on a few small phrases in it, that a particular speech that’s been floating around as an unplaceable bit of detritus of the late classical era was actually the one given by Constantine at, IIRC, the Council of Nicaea…
    Of course, speaking as a graduate of the institution, the best bit of poetry to come out of Balliol is the Gordouli.

  21. Preachy Preach says

    Apparently, according to the official history[1], Gordouli was a popular brand of Turkish cigarettes in the late 19th/early 20th century, and so was the nickname given to a Trinity student from, IIRC, Egypt (parts east of Italy, certainly). Bobby Johnson, after a dinner shortly before WWI, commented on his resemblance to a ham, and it sort of spiralled from there.
    [1] Whose author I have seen with my own two eyes bellowing the song out.

  22. Excellent—that’s the kind of historical detail we try to promote here at LH.

  23. Ah, here‘s the official history; why didn’t you tell us that “Gordouli”‘s name was Arthur Mario Agricola Collier Galletti di Cadilhac? That’s just the kind of thing that makes history come alive.
    And here is a fascinating rundown of Oxford rivalries (“After the Christmas bop last term, a particularly vocal performance of Balliol’s traditional anti-Trinity song, the ‘Gordouli’, led to reprisals. A Christmas tree mysteriously disappeared from the Balliol JCR.”).

  24. Preachy Preach says

    To be fair, my own copy is currently two hundred miles away on a shelf in my parent’s house, so I didn’t exactly have it to hand…
    Does Gordouli mean anything in Arabic, BTW?
    The reference to H Lime in the footnote is one of the more mysterious (and not strictly extant as a corporate body) collegiate myths – the Harry Lime society. The name (almost certainly a reference to the Third Man) is used as a very tenuous cover wanting to play pranks on Trinity. (Which for the benefit of those not familiar with Oxford geography, is separated from Balliol only by a not particularly high garden wall.)

  25. I’m beginning to get the impression that “Richard J” and “Preachy Preach” could be one and the same.

  26. Preachy Preach says

    Oh, they are. It’s an old pseud I’ve used for years – as I get older I’m less enamoured of it, but it’s luck of the draw which one I use, TBH.

  27. I assume that most readers will be as ignorant as myself of the Gordouli, so I will share the results of my googling: the Gordouli. (Trinity is a rival college.)

  28. And TBH? Another of your sock puppets? King Harald went to Balliol and it may be where he acquired his English accent, which is better than mine (as is his Norwegian accent).

  29. Preachy Preach says

    To Be Honest. Sockpuppet is a bit harsh, I think. It’s not as if I’ve ever used them for evil, I just switch between my real name and my pseud fairly randomly in blog-comments. Nothing malicious about it, just laziness and a poor memory…
    The Balliol JCR itself (as a physical object, not the abstract entity) is named after King Harald, you know.

  30. Just a feeble attempt at a joke, Preachy, sorry.
    Probably wise to name it after Harald, a seemingly decent man who enjoys sailing, rather than say Christopher Hitchens.

  31. Does Gordouli mean anything in Arabic, BTW?
    No. I guessed it was from a Greek Γορδουλη(ς), but it could be some sort of Mediterranean mishmash of Italian, Greek, Turkish, and any of the other languages running around the Levant back then.

  32. Bredon went to Balliol
    And sat at the feet of Gamaliel.
         And just as he ought,
         He cared for naught,
    And his language was sesquipedalial.
    Exception was taken to the final word, but a replacement fifth line was never written, though we do hear someone running through rhymes: “hail you all, impale you all, jail you all …”

  33. Preachy Preach says

    A.J.P Taylor> Not to worry, irony is a tricky thing on the Internets, as I really should know myself by now…

  34. Bredon went to Balliol
    That’s a very nice link, John Cowan.
    Preachy, I’ll assume that was meant ironically.

  35. Heh – I knew lord Peter was a Ballian, but not king Harald. Something stirs in the back of my mind about Hitchens, but I’d forgotten it till now.
    Can anyone explain why there are two ls in there when the a is long? (/bɛɪlɪɔl/ as I recall from my visit, lo, these many years ago.)

  36. Over a decade later:

    Balliol Spelling Variations
    Spelling variations of this family name include: Baliol, Balliol, Belyall, Balliole, Baliole, Balliol and many more.

  37. If I hadn’t read and been appalled by Lane Fox’s “amazing” earlier book, I might have been intrigued by his new one, Homer and His Iliad; as it is, I’m content to quote the relevant bits from Nick Lowe’s TLS dual review of it and Emily Wilson’s new Iliad (see this post), adding that with my previous experience I can see exactly how much credence to give his “bracingly unapologetic positivism”:

    Robin Lane Fox pivots between the two movements of his book, on how the Iliad came to be and why it remains compelling, with a stunning, perhaps stunningly obvious, thought: what if the Iliad is able to be all these things for us precisely because we have lost the power to understand the processes of mind and world that made it possible?

    Unlike most people who have taught the poem for half a century, Lane Fox is primarily a historian, with a particular flair for framing abstract questions experientially, and he looks at the poem with the eye he brought to his amazing book on the eighth century BC, Travelling Heroes (2008), to which this is partly a sequel. As the quietly provocative possessive “his” in the title announces, Lane Fox believes that one illiterate poet made everything except the ship-catalogue-map and the pitch-dark farce of Book 10’s night escapade, in which Odysseus intercepts the Trojan spy Dolon; that he dictated it to a scribe in the 740s after a lifetime of immersion in the soon-lost poetics of oral epic and deep personal familiarity with the Trojan region, its environs and its contacts; that he performed it first to troops (intake of breath down most chambers of the rabbit-hole here) and at festivals, but not at banquets; and that he may even have been called Homer, despite this personal name being unattested until centuries later.

    Lane Fox makes the case well for a single textualization event and presents effectively the strong arguments for an eighth-century date, while disposing less convincingly of the remaining good objections. (Emily Wilson is more circumspect, having lived in the US through the heyday of its cranky infatuation with an idea of gradual recording of the poem over generations; her answer to the question “Who and When Was Homer?” is “Somehow or other, the written poems had been produced by the late sixth century”.) He is particularly good on what we have learnt in the post-Soviet era about the Kyrgyz Manas epic, and why it may now be a better model for Homeric orality than the guslari of Serbia and Bosnia fetishized by the last century’s oralist patriarchs Milman Parry and Albert Lord as living specimens of extemporized epic performance.

    The author spends several chapters telling us what happens in the best bits, a thankless mission dutifully executed, but his book shines when he is giving us his personal Homer rather than an upmarket Cliff’s Notes. In 1976, we learn, Lane Fox emulated Alexander by running naked around what were then thought to be Troy’s walls, an image not easily unseen; and the projection here, while ballasted with terse but well-informed scholarly endnotes in the tiniest type permitted, has something of an “If I were a horse, which way would I run?” feel to it. But Lane Fox, who knows his horses and writes wonderfully about them in one of his book’s longest chapters, is only too aware that his bracingly unapologetic positivism amounts to imagining Homer in his own image, with an uncanny eye for historical geography and gardening. So, astride our own hobbyhorses, do we all.

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    The only thing of his I’ve read is Pagans and Christians, which I found fascinating at the time but seems less and less substantial (or persuasive) in retrospect.

    Though still grok his central thesis, viz that Christian polemic and philosophically sophisticated accounts by highly educated pagans are not a good basis for assuming that we know what ordinary Roman or Greek religious experience was actually like.

    In fact (he added after a bit) this reminds me of Tony Naden’s very sensible caveats about trying to read too much into contemporary accounts of “pagan” cultures by (a) Christian missionaries and (b) locals who’ve been largely acculturated to Western academic ways and may no longer be quite as representative of their own culture as they themselves suppose.

    The second of these is more of a snare than is sometimes appreciated. It can be a bad idea to point this out sometimes, too. Nobody likes to have it implied that they’re deracinated …

  39. David Marjanović says

    Evidence against a single Homer, even one who kept revising his works throughout his lifetime.

    I also have to wonder if there could really have been such a thing as a Greek scribe as early as the 740s BC.

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