Homer and His Age, by Andrew Lang

Chapter 14

The Interpolations of Nestor

That several of the passages in which Nestor speaks are very late interpolations, meant to glorify Pisistratus, himself of Nestor’s line, is a critical opinion to which we have more than once alluded. The first example is in Iliad, II. 530–568. This passage “is meant at once to present Nestor as the leading counsellor of the Greek army, and to introduce the coming Catalogue.” 347 Now the Catalogue “originally formed an introduction to the whole Cycle.” 348 But, to repeat an earlier observation, surely the whole Cycle was much later than the period of Pisistratus and his sons; that is, the compilation of the Homeric and Cyclic poems into one body of verse, named “The Cycle,” is believed to have been much later.

It is objected that Nestor’s advice in this passage, “Separate thy warriors by tribes and clans” ([Greek: phyla, phraetras]), “is out of place in the last year of the war”; but this suggestion for military reorganisation may be admitted as a mere piece of poetical perspective, like Helen’s description of the Achaean chiefs in Book III, or Nestor may wish to return to an obsolete system of clan regiments. The Athenians had “tribes” and “clans,” political institutions, and Nestor’s advice is noted as a touch of late Attic influence; but about the nature and origin of these social divisions we know so little that it is vain to argue about them. The advice of Nestor is an appeal to the clan spirit — a very serviceable military spirit, as the Highlanders have often proved — but we have no information as to whether it existed in Achaean times. Nestor speaks as the aged Lochiel spoke to Claverhouse before Killiecrankie. Did the Athenian army of the sixth century fight in clan regiments? The device seems to belong to an earlier civilisation, whether it survived in sixth century Athens or not. It is, of course, notorious that tribes and clans are most flourishing among the most backward people, though they were welded into the constitution of Athens. The passage, therefore, cannot with any certainty be dismissed as very late, for the words for “tribe” and “clan” could not be novel Athenian inventions, the institutions designated being of prehistoric origin.

Nestor shows his tactics again in IV. 303–309, offers his “inopportune tactical lucubrations, doubtless under Athenian (Pisistratean) influence.” The poet is here denied a sense of humour. That a veteran military Polonius should talk as inopportunely about tactics as Dugald Dalgetty does about the sconce of Drumsnab is an essential part of the humour of the character of Nestor. This is what Nestor’s critics do not see; the inopportune nature of his tactical remarks is the point of them, just as in the case of the laird of Drumthwacket, “that should be.” Scott knew little of Homer, but coincided in the Nestorian humour by mere congruity of genius. The Pisistratidze must have been humourless if they did not see that the poet smiled as he composed Nestor’s speeches, glorifying old deeds of his own and old ways of fighting. He arrays his Pylians with chariots in front, footmen in the rear. In the Iliad the princely heroes dismounted to fight, the chariots following close behind them. 349 In the same way during the Hundred Years’ War the English knights dismounted and defeated the French chivalry till, under Jeanne d’Arc and La Hire, the French learned the lesson, and imitated the English practice. On the other hand, Egyptian wall-paintings show the Egyptian chariotry advancing in neat lines and serried squadrons. According to Nestor these had of old been the Achaean tactics, and he preferred the old way. Nestor’s advice in Book IV. is not to dismount or break the line of chariots; these, he says, were the old tactics: “Even so is the far better way; thus, moreover, did men of old time lay low cities and walls.” There was to be no rushing of individuals from the ranks, no dismounting. Nestor’s were not the tactics of the heroes — they usually dismount and do single valiances; but Nestor, commanding his local contingent, recommends the methods of the old school, [Greek: hoi pretoroi]. What can be more natural and characteristic?

The poet’s meaning seems quite clear. He is not flattering Pisistratus, but, with quiet humour, offers the portrait of a vain, worthy veteran. It is difficult to see how this point can be missed; it never was missed before Nestor’s speeches seemed serviceable to the Pisistratean theory of the composition of the Iliad. In his first edition Mr. Leaf regarded the interpolations as intended “to glorify Nestor” without reference to Pisistratus, whom Mr. Leaf did not then recognise as the master of a sycophantic editor. The passages are really meant to display the old man’s habit of glorifying himself and past times. Pisistratus could not feel flattered by passages intended to exhibit his ancestor as a conceited and inopportune old babbler. I ventured in 1896 to suggest that the interpolator was trying to please Pisistratus, but this was said in a spirit of mockery.

Of all the characters in Homer that of Nestor is most familiar to the unlearned world, merely because Nestor’s is a “character part,” very broadly drawn.

The third interpolation of flattery to Pisistratus in the person of Nestor is found in VII. 125–160. The Achaean chiefs are loath to accept the challenge of Hector to single combat. Only Menelaus rises and arms himself, moved by the strong sense of honour which distinguishes a warrior notoriously deficient in bodily strength. Agamemnon refuses to let him fight; the other peers make no movement, and Nestor rebukes them. It is entirely in nature that he should fall back on his memory of a similar situation in his youth; when the Arcadian champion, Ereuthalion, challenged any prince of the Pylians, and when “no man plucked up heart” to meet him except Nestor himself. Had there never been any Pisistratus, any poet who created the part of a worthy and wordy veteran must have made Nestor speak just as he does speak. Ereuthalion “was the tallest and strongest of men that I have slain!” and Nestor, being what he is, offers copious and interesting details about the armour of Ereuthalion and about its former owners. The passage is like those in which the Icelandic sagamen dwelt lovingly on the history of a good sword, or the Maoris on the old possessors of an ancient jade patu. An objection is now taken to Nestor’s geography: he is said not to know the towns and burns of his own country. He speaks of the swift stream Keladon, the streams of Iardanus, and the walls of Pheia. Pheia “is no doubt the same as Pheai” 350 (Odyssey, XV. 297), “but that was a maritime town not near Arkadia. There is nothing known of a Keladon or Iardanus anywhere near it.” Now Didymus (Schol. A) “is said to have read [Greek: Phaeraes] for [Greek: Pheias],” following Pherekydes. 351Leaf, Iliad, vol. i. 308.] M. Victor Bérard, who has made an elaborate study of Elian topography, says that “Pheia is a cape, not a town,” and adopts the reading “Phera,” the [Greek: Pherae] of the journey of Telemachus, in the Odyssey. He thinks that the [Greek: Pherae] of Nestor is the Aliphera of Polybius, and believes that the topography of Nestor and of the journey of Telemachus is correct. The Keladon is now the river or burn of Saint Isidore; the Iardanus is at the foot of Mount Kaiapha. Keladon has obviously the same sense as the Gaelic Altgarbh, “the rough and brawling stream.” Iardanus is also a stream in Crete, and Mr. Leaf thinks it Semitic —“Yarden, from yarad to flow”; but the Semites did not give the Yar to the Yarrow nor to the Australian Yarra Yarra.

The country, says M. Bérard, is a network of rivers, burns, and rivulets; and we cannot have any certainty, we may add, as the same river and burn names recur in many parts of the same country; 352 many of them, in England, are plainly prae-Celtic.

While the correct geography may, on this showing, be that of Homer, we cannot give up Homer’s claim to Nestor’s speech. As to Nestor’s tale about the armour of Ereuthalion, it is manifest that the first owner of the armour of Ereuthalion, namely Are’ithous, “the Maceman,” so called because he had the singularity of fighting with an iron casse-tête, as Nestor explains (VII. 138–140), was a famous character in legendary history. He appears “as Prince Areithous, the Maceman,” father (or grand-father?) of an Areithous slain by Hector (VII. 8–10). In Greece, it was not unusual for the grandson to bear the grandfather’s name, and, if the Maceman was grand-father of Hector’s victim, there is no chronological difficulty. The chronological difficulty, in any case, if Hector’s victim is the son of the Maceman, is not at all beyond a poetic narrator’s possibility of error in genealogy. If Nestor’s speech is a late interpolation, if its late author borrowed his vivid account of the Maceman and his casse-tête from the mere word “maceman” in VII. 9, he must be credited with a lively poetic imagination.

Few or none of these reminiscences of Nestor are really “inapplicable to the context.” Here the context demands encouragement for heroes who shun a challenge. Nestor mentions an “applicable” and apposite instance of similar want of courage, and, as his character demands, he is the hero of his own story. His brag, or gabe, about “he was the tallest and strongest of all the men I ever slew,” is deliciously in keeping, and reminds us of the college don who said of the Czar, “he is the nicest emperor I ever met.” The poet is sketching an innocent vanity; he is not flattering Pisistratus.

The next case is the long narrative of Nestor to the hurried Patroclus, who has been sent by Achilles to bring news of the wounded Machaon (XI. 604–702). Nestor on this occasion has useful advice to give, namely, that Achilles, if he will not fight, should send his men, under Patroclus, to turn the tide of Trojan victory. But the poet wishes to provide an interval of time and of yet more dire disaster before the return of Patroclus to Achilles. By an obvious literary artifice he makes Nestor detain the reluctant Patroclus with a long story of his own early feats of arms. It is a story of a “hot-trod,” so called in Border law; the Eleians had driven a creagh of cattle from the Pylians, who pursued, and Nestor killed the Eleian leader, Itymoneus. The speech is an Achaean parallel to the Border ballad of “Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead,” in editing which Scott has been accused of making a singular and most obvious and puzzling blunder in the topography of his own sheriffdom of the Forest. On Scott’s showing the scene of the raid is in upper Ettrickdale, not, as critics aver, in upper Teviotdale; thus the narrative of the ballad would be impossible. 353

The Pisistratean editor is accused of a similar error. “No doubt he was an Asiatic Greek, completely ignorant of the Peloponnesus.” 354 It is something to know that Pisistratus employed an editor, or that his editor employed a collaborator who was an Asiatic Greek!

Meanwhile, nothing is less secure than arguments based on the Catalogue. We have already shown how Mr. Leaf’s opinions as to the date and historical merits of the Catalogue have widely varied, while M. Bérard appears to have vindicated the topography of Nestor. Of the Catalogue Mr. Allen writes, “As a table, according to regions, of Agamemnon’s forces it bears every mark of venerable antiquity,” showing “a state of things which never recurred in later history, and which no one had any interest to invent, or even the means for inventing.” He makes a vigorous defence of the Catalogue, as regards the dominion of Achilles, against Mr. Leaf. 355 Into the details we need not go, but it is not questions of Homeric topography, obscure as they are, that can shake our faith in the humorous portrait of old Nestor, or make us suppose that the sympathetic mockery of the poet is the sycophantic adulation of the editor to his statesman employer, Pisistratus. If any question may be left to literary discrimination it is the authentic originality of the portrayal of Nestor.

347 Leaf, Iliad, vol. i. p. 70.

348 Ibid., vol. i. p. 87.

349 Iliad, XI. 48–56.

350 Monro, Note on Odyssey, XV. 297.


352 Bérard, Les Phéniciens et L’Odyssée, 108–113, 1902

353 In fact both sites on the two Dodburns are impossible; the fault lay with the ballad-maker, not with Scott.

354 Iliad. Note to XI. 756, and to the Catalogue, II. 615–617.

355 Classical Review, May 1906, pp. x94–201.


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