Pseudo-Plutarch, On Homer


1 Introduction

It is rather absurd that Homer is so widely read today, with the understanding that he can give us an insight into the distant past, while all the materials the ancients themselves relied upon to make sense of his poetry are so thoroughly neglected. Of course, one can still learn a great deal from a straight translation of the Iliad and Odyssey, without any notes or commentary, but the lessons an unguided modern reader will draw from them are often drastically different from those which ancient readers found there. This is natural, and not a problem in and of itself; but it rather undermines the idea that the Homeric text alone teaches us about “antiquity”.

Out of the long tradition of ancient Homeric scholarship, the present piece – the second of two works On Homer falsely ascribed to Plutarch – is in my view the most accessible, comprehensive and representative that has survived. It is not sectarian or excessively technical, nor written in the cramped style of many ancient grammatical texts. Rather, it seeks to showcase all the diversity of knowledge to be found in Homer, thereby both reinforcing the privileged status of the Iliad and Odyssey above all other literature, and sowing the seeds of all further learning within the “first poet”. And it does so in simple language, at least in the original. In English, my own best attempts to recreate this simplicity must unfortunately suffice, as there is currently no other translation than this work in progress.

2 Translation (based on the edition by J.F. Kindstrand)

general introduction

1. Since Homer is the first poet – ahead of most in time, ahead of all in ability –, we fitly read him first,¹ and derive the greatest benefit in expression, ability to think (diánoia), and knowledge of many subjects. So, let us speak about his poetry, first recalling his origin in brief.

1: With its simple language, this text is ideally suited to beginning students reading Homer.

2. Now, Pindar said that Homer was from Chios and Smyrna, Simonides from Chios, Antimachus and Nicander from Colophon, the philosopher Aristotle from Ios, and the historian Ephorus from Cyme. Some have not even shrunk from saying that he was from Salamis on Cyprus, others from Argos, and Aristarchus and Dionysus Thrax from Athens. But he is said to be the son of Maeon and Critheïs by some, but of Meles the river by others.

3. And just as the facts of his origin are debated,¹ so is the question of the time in which he was born. The followers of Aristarchus, for their part, say that he was born in the time of the settlement of the Ionians (in Asia Minor), which occurred sixty years after the return of the Heracleidae; and the events around the Heracleidae happened eigthy years after the Trojan war. The followers of Crates, on the other hand, say that he was born before the return of the Heracleidae, so that he is less than eighty years after the Trojan war. But by most, it is believed that he was born four-hundred years after the Trojan war, not long before the foundation of the Olympian Games, from which the number of the Olympiads is counted.²

1: The modern explanation is that ‘Homer’ is not one historical person.
2: This last is essentially the current view.

4. His poetic works (poiḗseis) are two, Iliad and Odyssey, both divided into the number of the letters,¹ (a division made) not by the poet himself but by the grammarians around Aristarchus. For these, the Iliad contains the deeds of the Greeks and the barbarians in Ilium, relating to the abducation of Helen, and especially prowess shown by Achilles in that war. The Odyssey contains the return of Odysseus to his home country after the Trojan war; how long he remained on his journey home in his wanderings; and how he punished those plotting (to usurp) his household. From these things, it is clear that he commends the skill (andreía) of the body through the Iliad, and the nobility of the soul through the Odyssey.

1: I.e., 24 books named after the Greek letters.

5. If Homer depicts not only the virtues, but also the vices of the soul in his poems, the griefs, pleasures, fears and desires, it is not right to cast blame at the poet. Being a poet, he is obliged to imitate not only moral behaviors but also immoral ones – as marvellous actions cannot take place without these –, from which the audience can distinguish the better deeds.

And he has the gods meeting with human beings, not only for the sake of delight and awe, but also to show by this that the gods are concerned with humans, and are not indifferent to them.

6. And in general, the narrative of events is constructed to be marvelous (parádoxos) and mythical (mythṓdēs), so that, by the abundance of anguish and wonder, the audience is furnished with an awe-inspiring listening experience (akróasis). It is for this reason that he has said certain things that go against verisimilitude; for he does not always follow the plausible when he is aiming at the marvelous and exalted. For this reason, too, he not only elevates deeds above what we are used to, and changes them from what is familiar, but also does the same with words. That his novel and unusual expressions are always admired and win over his audience is obvious to all.

Besides, in those mythical passages, if one considers them not casually, but each of the passages in detail, it will become clear that there are all kinds of rational science and expertise in him, and that he offers many starting-points and seeds, so to speak, of all kinds of ideas and practices for those after him, and not only for the poets, but also for the writers in prose, in history and in philosophy (lit. ‘speculative discourses’, theōrēmatikoí lógoi).

But we shall first consider the variety of his speech, and then the variety of learning in its contents.

homer’s language

Now, all poetry, with its composition of words in a certain arrangement, is delimited by rhythm and meter, because the smooth and melodious, being both solemn and pleasant, makes the audience attentive through their delight. And so, one is not only delighted by what is striking and charming in it, but also easily persuaded by the elements that are of benefit to virtue.

7. The verses of Homer use the most perfect meter, that is, the hexameter, which is also called the heroic (meter). It is called hexameter because each line contains six (héx) feet. Of these, one kind consists of two long syllables; this is called a spondee. The other, of three syllables, one long and the other two short; which is called a dactyl. And they are equal in length, because two shorts have the same duration as one long (syllable). So, placed together indifferently, the fill the hexameter verse. And it is called heroic because the deeds of the heroes are narrated using it.

8. With his use of varied vocabulary, he combined the characters of every Greek dialect. From these, it is evident that he traversed all of Greece, and every people.


introduction to philosophy

92. Theoretical (or ‘speculative’) discourse (theōrētikòs lógos) is that which encompasses the so-called theories (theōrḗmata), which are the knowledge of truth that comes to be through technical (or ‘systematic’) expertise (tékhnē). From them, one can apprehend the nature of beings, both divine and human things,¹ to distinguish virtues and vices in morals (êthos),² and to learn whether one can reach the truth by some rational skill (tékhnē logikḗ).³ These things are what those who practice philosophy concern themselves with; the parts of philosophy are the physical, ethical and dialectical. Indeed, if we should observe that, in all these things, Homer produced the first principles and seeds, how would he not be worthy of amazement before all?

And if he indicates his ideas by means of symbols (ainígmata) and certain mythical accounts (mythikoí lógoi), it must not be considered strange. The reason for this is poetic (convention) and the custom of the ancients – that those who love learning, and whose souls are won over by a sense of culture, may easily inquire and find the truth, while the unlearned will disregard that which they are unable to attain. And indeed, somehow what is indicated subtextually spurs us on, whereas what is said clearly is of little value.

1: Physics or natural philosophy.
2: Ethics or moral philosophy.
3: Logic, also called dialectic.

natural philosophy: the elements

93. Well then, let us begin from the first principle and origin of the universe, which Thales of Miletus referred to the substance of water, and we may consider whether Homer first understood this, when he said, “Oceanus, who was the origin of all” (Iliad 14.246).

After him came Xenophanes of Colophon, who set forth that the first principles are water and earth, apparently taking his starting-point from the following Homeric words, “But may you all become water and earth!” (Iliad 7.99). For he signifies the dissolution into the original elements of the universe.

But the truest opinion brings together four elements, fire, air, water and earth. And Homer shows that he knew these too, mentioning each of them in many places.


96. And when the poet says that Hera cohabits with Zeus, although she is his sister, this seems to be said allegorically,¹ because Hera is understood as the air, that is, the moist substance (hygrà ousía); for this reason, he also says, “and Hera spread out thick air before them to hinder them” (Iliad 21.6–7). And Zeus is aether, that is, the fiery and hot substance: “Zeus was allotted broad heaven, in the aether and the clouds” (Iliad 15.192). But they seemed to be siblings because of their connection, and their similarity in a certain respect, because both are light and in motion; and cohabitants and bed-fellows, because all things are produced from their connection. For that reason, they also mingle on Mt Ida, and the Earth sprouts forth herbs and flowers for them (Iliad 14).

1: This allegorical interpretation means that, in the passages at hand, what is apparently said about the gods really refers to something else. But Pseudo-Plutarch also thinks that much of what Homer says really does refer to the gods. He is thus closer to Heraclitus the Grammarian’s Homeric Problems than to the Stoics, by whom these interpretations are strongly influenced. The Stoic philosophers would see the elements themselves as being gods, and thus speak of symbolism more than allegory (which implies a transference between two different spheres).

97. The same logic applies in those passages in which he describes Zeus suspending Hera, and hanging two anvils, that is, the earth and the sea, from her feet (Iliad 15.18–20). And he especially treated the account concerning the elements in what Poseidon says to him, “For we three are the sons of Kronos, whom Rhea bore, Zeus and myself, and Hades third, who rules over those below” (Iliad 15.187–188), and “All things were divided threefold, and each received their honor” (Iliad 15.189), and that in the division of the universe, Zeus was allotted the substance of fire, Poseidon that of water, and Hades that of air; for he calls it “cloudy darkness” (Iliad 15.191), because it does not have its own light, but is illuminated by the Sun, the Moon and the other Stars.


natural philosophy: the gods

112. All right-thinking people believe there are gods, and Homer first of all, since he continually mentions the gods, as when he says “blessed (mákares) gods” and “gods who live with ease”. Since they are immortal, they have an easy and ceaseless nature of living, and they do not require nourishment, as the bodies of mortal animals do: “They do not need food, they do not drink fiery wine, because they are bloodless and are said to be immortal” (Iliad 5.342).

113. But because poetry requires the gods to act, he gave them bodies, so that they could be presented to the senses of the audience. But no other kind of body is indicative of knowledge and rationality than that of the human being. So he likened each of the gods to it, while embellishing their size and beauty. And this taught us to set up images and statues of gods in the likeness of human beings, to remind the less intellectual that there are gods.

114. The best philosophers believe that the leader and ruler of all these is the First God, who is incorporeal and graspable only by intellect, and Homer appears to think the same thing, as he calls Zeus “father of men and gods” and “o our father Kronides, highest of lords!” Zeus himself also says, “I am so far above the gods, and so far above human beings” (Iliad 8.27). And Athena says to him: “And we can well see that your strength is unyielding” (Iliad 8.32).

Now, if this too must be investigated, whether he knew that this god is (only) intelligible, he does not say this directly in his poetry, which is full of mythical contents, but nevertheless, it can be inferred from the lines in which he says: “She found wide-eyed Kronides seated apart from the others” (Iliad 1.498), and those in which he says: “But I will remain seated on the glen of Olympus apart, from here I will gaze and gladden my heart” (Iliad 20.22).

For this solitude and his not intermingling with the other gods, but delighting in being and deliberating with himself, keeping quietude and eternally ordering all things – this represents the nature of the intelligible god. And he knew that intellect is the god who knows all things and manages the universe; for Poseidon says: ” Both have the same ancestry and parentage, but Zeus is older and wiser” (Iliad 13.354–355). And the following (occurs) often: “But then he bethought himself again.” This means that he is eternally thinking.

115. On the thought of the god depend providence and fate, about which there are many treatises by the philosophers. Homer provided the starting-points for all of these. For concerning the providence of the gods – what could one say, when throughout all of his poetry, they not only talk with each other about humans, but even descend to the earth and meet with people? Let us consider a few lines for the sake of example, in which Zeus says to his brother (Poseidon): “You know, Earth-Shaker, the plan in my breast, for the sake of which I called the assembly; even as they are destroyed, I care for them” (Iliad 20.20–21), and elsewhere: “Oh alas! With my own eyes, I see a man dear to me being pursued around the walls; my heart laments!” (Iliad 22.168–169.)

116. Further, (Zeus) shows his royal dignity and philanthropic behavior when he says: “How then could I forget the divine Odysseus, who is beyond all mortals in intelligence, and beyond all, has given sacrifices to the immortal gods, who hold broad heaven?” (Odyssey 1.65–67.) In these lines, it is (to be seen) that he commends the man first for possessing intelligence, secondly for his revering the gods.

117. How he depicts the gods meeting with human beings, we can learn from many passages, as when Athena once (talks) to Achilles, and always to Odysseus, or Hermes to Priamus and again to Odysseus. For he believes that in general, the gods always help human beings; for he says: “And the gods appear as strangers from far away, taking on all kinds of shapes, and they visit the cities to observe the transgressions and righteousness of people” (Odyssey 17.485–487).

118. It belongs to the providence of the gods to wish that humans live justly, and the poet says this very clearly: “The blessed gods do not love cruel deeds, but honor justice and the just deeds of humanity” (Odyssey 14.83–84), and “Zeus, who is full of anger and wrath against men who with violence give crooked judgements in the gathering-place” (Iliad 16.386–387).

And just as he introduces the gods as having forethought for humanity, so he has people be mindful of the gods, whatever their luck. The successful general says, “In good hope, I pray to Zeus and the other gods to drive out from here the fate-borne dogs” (Iliad 8.526–527), and the person in danger, “Father Zeus, deliver the sons of the Achaeans from the darkness” (Iliad 17.645). Again, the person who has killed says, “Because the gods have granted us to kill this man” (Iliad 22.379), and the one who is dying: “Now take heed, lest I become a cause of wrath for the gods” (Iliad 22.358).

119. From this and from other passages, that doctrine of the Stoics is (to be derived), namely that the cosmos is one, and that gods and people are common citizens within it, sharing in justice by nature. And when he says “Zeus commanded Themis (‘Justice’) to summon the gods to council” (Iliad 20.4), or “Why, you of bright lightning, have you summoned the gods to council? Are you devising something concerning the Trojans and Achaeans?” (Iliad 20.16–17) – what else do these show than that the cosmos is ordered and that the gods give decrees in the manner (nómos) of a state (pólis), while the father of gods and humans presides over them.

120. And his opinion about fate (heimarménē), he shows clearly in the following verses, “I declare that there is no one among men, bad or good, who has fled his fate (moîra) once he was born” (Iliad 6.488–489), and in other places where he reinforces the power of fate.

Now, he has the same opinion as the most esteemed among the philosophers, Plato, Aristotle and Theophrastus, that not all things come about according to fate, but that there is also something up to humans.

But while someone may have freedom of action, somehow necessitation is also attributed to them, as when someone falls into (a situation) they did not wish because they have done what they did wish. And he showed these things clearly in many passages, as in the beginnings of both of his poems. In the Iliad, he says that the wrath of Achilles was the cause of destruction for Greeks, and that the will of Zeus was fulfilled thereby. In the Odyssey, the companions of Odysseus fell into destruction through their thoughtlessness; for they transgressed in laying hands on the sacred cattle of the Sun, when they could have abstained from them; for it was said beforehand, “If you leave them unharmed and are mindful of your journey home, then indeed you will reach Ithaca, though you may suffer evils; but if you hurt them, then I foretell destruction to you” (Odyssey 11.110–112). So, it was up to them not to do injustice, but once they had committed it, it followed by fate that they were destroyed.

121. There is also the ability to escape things that might have happened differently by providence (prónoia), as he describes in this passage, “Then, wretched Odysseus would have died beyond his fate (móros), if the goddess Athena of the gleaming eyes had not placed this in his mind: he rushed and grasped the rock with both his hands; with groans, he held on, until the great wave passed by” (Odyssey 5.436+427–429). For here he was saved by providence out of the contrary, when he was at risk of being destroyed by fortune (týkhē).

natural philosophy: the soul

122. And just as, concerning divine matters,¹ many and various accounts (lógoi) have been brought forth by the philosophers, who took most of their starting-points from Homer, so it is also concerning human matters, of which we shall first inquire about the soul. Now, of the doctrines (about the soul), that of Pythagoras and Plato is the most noble, namely that the soul is immortal; […]

1: Referring both to the discourse about gods strictly (including fate and the gods’ providence), as well as that about the elements, which are also ‘divine things’ (theîa).