University of Glasgow


Part of the Library and University Services

Please note that these pages are from our old (pre-2010) website; the presentation of these pages may now appear outdated and may not always comply with current accessibility guidelines.




Book of the Month

March 2009


The Iliad

Venice: 1640
Sp Coll Hunterian Cn.2.38

Our chosen volume for March 2009 is one of the oldest and arguably greatest works in the history of world literature. Homer's Iliad is a fantastic adventure story full of memorable characters, high drama, romance, tragedy, comedy and pathos: in fact, it is a story about life itself. It has had an incalculable impact on western civilization for almost three thousand years, and continues to enthral and excite new generations of readers. This copy is a beautifully printed 17th-century reprint of the first edition of the work to be translated into Modern Greek. It is illustrated by magnificent woodcuts.

Book 1: Apollo with his silver bow attacks the mules, dogs and then the men of the Greek army (folio A2v)

Attributed to Homer, the Iliad (or Tale of Troy) is an epic poem about events during the Trojan War. It is arranged in twenty-four books, although this division may have been made some time after its original composition.

The ancient Greeks believed that the Trojan War was fought against the city of Troy by the Greeks (Achaeans) because Prince Paris (also called Alexander) of Troy stole Helen from her husband Menelaus, the king of the Greek city-state, Sparta.

The war is a pivotal event in Greek mythology. It is the subject of many works of Greek literature which together recount the legends of Helen of Troy, the Wooden Horse, the wrath of Achilles and the wanderings of Odysseus. The Iliad describes a part of the last year of the siege of Troy, while its continuation the Odyssey describes the journey home of Odysseus, one of the Greek leaders. Other parts of the war were told in a cycle of epic poems, which has only survived in fragments. Episodes from the war also provided material for Greek tragedy and later for Roman poets like Virgil and Ovid.


The origins of the war stemmed from a quarrel between the goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite. Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, gave them a golden apple, sometimes called the Apple of Discord, which was marked "for the fairest". Zeus appointed Paris, Prince of Troy, to be the judge; he chose Aphrodite as the fairest, and gave her the apple. To reward Paris, Aphrodite made Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, fall in love with him, and he took her to Troy. This led to the campaign to bring back Helen and to the outbreak of war.

The Ancient Greeks thought that the Trojan War was an historical event that had occurred in the 13th or 12th century BC; they believed that Troy was located in modern day Turkey, near the Dardanelles. But by modern times, both the war and the city were widely assumed to have been imaginary, literary creations. However, in 1870, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated a site in this area which he identified as Troy. This claim is now generally accepted.


Book 20: Gods gathered at Olympus (folio N4v)

Book 4: wounding of Menelaus (detail: folio C4v)

Many scholars today believe that there may have been an historical basis to the poem. However, this may mean no more than that the Homeric stories are an amalgam of various tales of sieges and expeditions by Mycenaean Greeks during the Bronze Age. Those who believe that the stories of the Trojan War derive from a specific historical conflict usually date it to the 12th or 11th centuries BC, which corresponds approximately with the archaeological evidence.

In the Trojan war story, the Iliad deals specifically with the wrath of the hero Achilles: caused by a dispute with Agamemnon (the commander of the Greek force) this argument has fateful consequences for the interests of the Greeks at Troy.

As a result of the quarrel, Achilles withdraws from the fight, and refuses to return even when the Greeks promise him fabulous rewards. It is only when his friend Patroclus is killed in the fighting that he re-enters the war, wearing splendid new armour crafted for him by the god Hephaestus. The Iliad ends with the single combat between Achilles and Hector (a prince of Troy and champion of the Trojan warriors) and Hector's death and funeral.

Throughout, the main story line is interspersed with numerous and often lengthy episodes which digress from the theme of the main narrative, as well as short groups of verses. Although the action covers only a few weeks, the whole ten years of the war is suggested by reference to previous events.

Although in Homer's original text the story ends with Hector's funeral, in our volume the story continues to the end of the Trojan War, which is brought about through a masterful trick engineered by the "wily" Odysseus. Odysseus devises the construction of a giant, hollow, wooden horse - an animal that was sacred to the Trojans. It is built by Epeius, under the direction of the goddess Athena, from the wood of a cornel tree sacred to Apollo; it is inscribed with the words: The Greeks dedicate this thank-offering to Athena for their return home.

The hollow horse is then filled with soldiers led by Odysseus, whilst the rest of the Greek army burn their camp and sail for Tenedos. When the Trojans discover that the Greeks have gone, they think the war is over. Rejoicing, they drag the wooden horse inside the city while they debate what to do with it: some think they should destroy it, but others want to dedicate it to Athena. The Trojans decide to keep the horse and then celebrate the end of the war with a night of riotous partying. Sinon, a Greek spy, signals to the fleet stationed at Tenedos at midnight and the soldiers from inside the horse emerge and kill the Trojan guards, opening the gates of the city of Troy to the returning Greek force. The Greeks enter the city in triumph and a great massacre follows. The war (and our text) finally ends with the sack of Troy.


Continuation: the wooden horse of Troy (folio Q8v)


Book 6: Hector and his wife Andromache with baby son Astyanax  (folio E3r)

Sadly, nothing at all can be said with absolute certainty about Homer. Most scholars now date him to within fifty years of 750 B.C., and tradition maintains that he was a Greek from the Ionian region of Asia Minor or the island of Chios (judging by the dialect used in the poems). By tradition, he was blind, and is therefore referred to in literature as "the blind bard".

Book 12: wall built by Greeks to protect their ships
(folio I1v)

In ancient times it was almost universally accepted that one man authored both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Most scholars nowadays also agree that a single author wrote both epics, rather than it being assembled from several oral poems, as was once thought. However, the matter remains controversial and some academic experts prefer to see both epics as being the written versions of oral poems which have evolved over a long period out of the vast body of material dealing with the Troy saga.

The Iliad certainly dates from the transitional period between oral and written poetry, and documents the use of stylistic devices that were originally invented for oral purposes. In this sense, it "documents the emergence of literature in a way unmatched by any other extant work in world literature ... and represents the earliest and perhaps most impressive record of the ancient Greek World and its people".1

Book 9: Achilles plays lyre in a hut accompanied by Patroclus (folio G3r)

Book 24: Priam ransoming Hector's body (folio P8r)

Book 24: removing Hector's body for burial (Q1r)

In common with Shakespeare, Homer is famous for the language that he created. As Mantinbrand points out, it is noble, dignified and moving, with sharp characterizations, vivid similes, and phrases that have become stock epithets (for example, "rosy-fingered" dawn, and "wily" Odysseus). Its universality of human emotion - especially compassion and sympathy - and love of the natural world are just some of the reasons why the Iliad is still regarded as the pre-eminent work of Greek literature.2 The Iliad deserves the devoted readership it has gained down the centuries. It is interesting to note, for example, that Alexander the Great was never parted from his copy of the book; he kept it in a golden casket that he had won from the spoils of the Persian King Darius.

Book 14: Aphrodite gives Hera her magic strap (folio K2r)

This text of Homer's work is a paraphrase into Modern (Demotic) Greek by Nikolaos Loukanis. It is particularly significant for being the first translation into a modern vernacular language of the Iliad to be printed: it is therefore the forerunner of the thousands of translated editions available today.

Loukanis's translation was based on an earlier paraphrase made by Konstantinos Hermoniakos. It follows the Byzantine Homeric tradition of appending the story of the Fall of Troy which is told in the Aeneid, poems of the Greek Epic Cycle and the anonymously authored work known as the Byzantine Achilleid. These sources include key stories such as that of the wooden horse, described earlier.

Very little is known about Loukanis, except that he was from the island of Zakynthos and that he was one of the first students to attend the Greek school (Gymnasium) founded by the Medici Pope Leo X in Rome in 1514. This school was directed by Ianos (Janus) Laskaris, a noted Greek scholar who was born around 1445 and died in Rome in 1535.

Pope Leo X was a significant patron of literature, science and art, who encouraged the collection of Greek manuscripts and books. During his papacy Rome consolidated its position as the centre of the literary world.

Book 14: Hera annoints herself with perfumed oils (folio K1r)

Book 8: chariots in the heat of battle (engraving used twice) (folio F4r)

Nikolaos Loukanis's version of the Iliad was first printed in Venice in 1526. This edition was the most lavishly illustrated of any vernacular Greek work yet printed, accompanied by 121 wood-cuts (three of which were repeats). The illustrations were possibly made by the Nicolini da Sabbio family; they were active printers in Venice of Greek books using woodcut blocks from around 1512 until 1600.3

The woodcuts were fashioned in the Venetian style of the period, and portray the Greek gods and heroes in costume typical of the 16th century. This seems rather comical to the modern reader and appalled classical scholars of the 19th century who found them crude and inappropriate.

The set of woodcuts were re-used to illustrate other modern Greek texts - among them, editions of the Alexander the Great romance, the Imberios romance, and others.

Device at colophon (folio R2r)

Perhaps because of its length, the 1526 Loukanis' Iliad was not reprinted until 1603 and then again in 1640 - the edition of our featured copy. The illustrations in our later edition of 1640 are made from exactly same blocks as those used for the first edition of 1526. In our later volume, the woodcuts are clearly rather worn, with some breakages and cracks (as can be seen in the illustration below). Still in use over 100 years after their creation, this gives an idea of the impressive longevity of woodcut blocks.

Book 22 (24 in modern editions): Achilles' drags Hector's body (folio O7v)

Our volume was printed by the Pinelli family who had a long tradition of printing books in Greek, especially liturgical works. The text here is printed in an early Greek typeface that aimed to reproduce the ordinary handwriting of the day.
This book is from the library of Dr William Hunter (1718-1783). Hunter owned works from almost all the important presses of Renaissance Europe. He had a passion for typography and became particularly interested in the origins of printing in Greek characters. His extensive manuscript notes on the subject are held in the library (Ms Hunter 230-240). He purchased many editions of Greek and Latin produced by the scholar printers of Venice, Florence and Paris.

Today Hunter's books are considered rightly to be treasures of the Library's collection, and this is one of many gems to be found in his wonderful collection.

Book 23: preparing a funeral pyre for Patroclus (folio P2r)


Other early printed editions of the Iliad:

Homer Homeri Ilias Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1524 Sp Coll Hunterian Bd.4.3 (early printed edition in classical Greek)

Homer Homeri Ilias Edited by Antonius Francinus. Venice: L.A. Juntael, 1537 Sp Coll Hunterian P.8.7 (early printed edition in classical Greek)

Homer Homeri Ilias, id est de rebus ad Troiam gestis Paris, Adrien Turnebe, 1554 Sp Coll Hunterian M.8.25 and Sp Coll BD2-h.28

Works edited by Janus Lascaris:

Homer Scholia ton panu dokimon eis ten Homerou Iliada. Rome: Angelos Kollotios, 1517 Sp Coll Hunterian Cz.1.1 and Sp Coll Hunterian P.4.15

Porphyrius Platonicus Porphyrii Philosophi Homericarum quaestionum liber Rome: Medici Gymnasium, 1517 Sp Coll Hunterian Cn.2.31

Anthologia diaphoron epigrammaton Venice: Laurentius Franciscus de Alopa, 1494  Sp Coll Hunterian Bw.3.25

The following have been useful in creating this article:

Jack Baldwin William Hunter: Book Collector Glasgow: 1983 [Exhibition Catalogue] Sp Coll Reference

Horatio F. Brown The Venetian Printing Press. An historical study London: John C. Nimmo, 1891 (Level 11 Bibliog B56 1891-B)

Albrecht Dihle A History of Greek Literature London: Routledge, 1994 (Level 10 Main Lib Classics E2 DIH)

L.V. Gerulaitus Printing and publishing in fifteenth century Venice Chicago, American Library Association, 1976 (Level 11 Bibliog B56:1 1976-G)

Bettany Hughes Helen of Troy London: Jonathan Cape, 2005 (Level 10 Classics D15.R5H3 HUG)

The Italian book 1465-1800 Edited by Denis V. Reidy London: The British Library, 1993 (Level 11 Bibliog B56 1993-R)

Paul Lejay "Janus Lascaris." In The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Web available on web: [page accessed 7/10/2008]

Albert B. Lord The Singer of Tales Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960, 1997 (Level 9 Main Lib Gen Lit G505 LOR)

Martin Lowry The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979 (Level 11 Bibliog B56:2 1979-L)

Martin Lowry Nicolas Jensen and the Rise of Venetian Publishing in Renaissance Europe Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991 (Level 11 Bibliog B56:1 1999-R)

James H. Mantinband Concise Dictionary of Greek Literature London: Peter Owen, 1962 (Level 10 Classics E4 MAN)

[Greek] Ministry of Culture Greece, books and writers Athens: National Book Centre of Greece, 2001 PDF file available on web: [page accessed 25/11/08]

Betty Radice Entries on Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey from Who's Who in the Ancient World London: Blond, 1971 (Level 10 Classics D5 RAD)

Routledge encyclopedia of translation studies Edited by Mona Baker, assisted by Kirsten Malmkjaer. London: Routledge, 1997 (Level 9 Gen Lang C831 BAK2)

Sotheby's Catalogue of the Library of the Earls of Macclesfield removed from Shirburn Castle. Part twelve: continental books and manuscripts (Sale L08406; Thursday 2 October 2008) London: Sothebys, 2008  [entry for copy of 1640 edition of the Iliad for sale, lot 4550, p. 185] (Level 11 Bibliog Bibliog D5-S4 P1)

References cited in text

1 Dihle, p. 4
2 Mantinband, p. 208
3 Sotheby's, p. 185

Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page
Go to previous Books of the Month

Fiona Neale March 2009