UH Moment: "The Illiad"

High school students are very familiar with the epic poem The Iliad by Homer. Some UH undergraduate students got very familiar with a 10th century manuscript.

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus—
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds—
all in fulfilment of the will of Zeus.

--The invocation of the muse in Homer's The Iliad

An ongoing project puts undergraduate students up close with a 10th century manuscript of the epic poem, the most complete text available.

"It's an amazing document that contains not only text of the poem, but commentary in the margins that come from the scholarship of antiquity," said Professor Casey Due Hackney. She directs the University of Houston Classical Studies Program and is co-editor of the Homer Multi-Text Project, an effort to create a complete web-based edition of the 10th century manuscript of The Iliad.  "The students are transcribing the folios of the manuscript, not just the text of The Iliad, but the commentary all around it."  

Students Megan Truax and Christopher Rivera were selected to participate in a two-week project in Washington, D.C. Working in teams, they translated from Greek and then transcribed the ancient scholars' handwritten commentary of Book 10.

A manuscript of Homer's The Iliad, preserved since the 10th century
A manuscript of Homer's The Iliad, preserved since the 10th century

"They (ancient scholars) have symbols, critical signs, abbreviations and shorthand. A lot of this is wow!" Truax said. "They'll say 'this doesn't make sense, why would he (Achilles) say that?' Or 'I don't think this line belongs.  I think that's the wrong word.' Or even, 'I think he (Achilles) is acting stupidly.'"

Rivera says the commentary of the ancient scholars contained some information that resonates with contemporary debates about whether Homer was one person or a compilation of many who passed down the story of The Iliad.

"One commentary said, 'The poet said in another line.' It's interesting that they say the poet.  Even at those times, they believed there was one true Homer."

Truax and Rivera participated in the Homer Multi-Text Project through the UH Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.  

"I think it's difficult sometimes, as an undergrad, to know how you can get involved in research," Rivera said. "So that's what really drew me in."

Homer, whoever he or they may be, may be gratified to know that the story of The Iliad survives to this day in many translations, in English classes around the world.   

"I believe that The Iliad is a great work of art that has a lot to do with human character.  Even if it is removed by thousands of years, it is a part of us and still relevant," Truax said.  

The Iliad is part of what's happening at the University of Houston.