This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
There’s something engrossing about more or less anthropomorphized animals engaging in human activities. Witness, for example, the success Brian Jacques’s Redwall series of novels (1986-2011), or Richard Adams’s 1972 lapine epic Watership Down, recently adapted by the BBC and Netflix as a mini-series that was, on the whole, a lot more family-friendly than the sometimes disturbingly violent – and more faithfully adapted – 1978 animated film.
Anthropomorphism has a long history, stretching back to the Stone Age, when pictures and objects were made that mixed animal and human characteristics. Perhaps more familiar to readers of Ancient World Magazine is the instance in which one of Achilles’ horses talks to his master. The Greek hero, angry over the death of his comrade Patroclus, rebukes his steeds and tells them not to abandon him, like his friend, on the battlefield. The horse Xanthos, as Homer puts it, is given voice by the goddess Hera and responds that Patroclus’ death was the result of divine will (Iliad 19.408-417).
Of course, casting animals in human or human-like roles can also be used to humorous effect. Such is the case with an epic poem known as the Batrachomyomachia, which is usually translated as the “Battle of Frogs and Mice” (German offers a more literal rendering: Der Froschmäusekrieg). This is a short epic – also known as an “epyllion” – that is a deliberate a parody of the Iliad. It is a perennial favourite that has inspired other writers, such as George W. Martin (not to be confused with the writer of the Song of Ice and Fire books!), who took this mock epic as the basis of his The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice: A Homeric Fable (1962), featuring illustrations by Fred Gwynne.
Despite the popularity of the work, there has never been – if the back cover is to be believed – an English language commentary on the poem. This issue is resolved with the appearance in 2018 of The Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice, edited by Joel Christensen and Erik Robinson, and published by Bloomsbury in their Bloomsbury Greek Texts series. The book – a slender volume with a neat cover design – makes a good first impression. The contents do not disappoint.
The introduction offers extensive information about the poem. The first issue that the editors tackle is, of course, the date and authorship of the poem. While often attributed to Homer, the poem dates from after his presumed floruit; the poem’s internal evidence (meter, vocabulary, and so on) shows Hellenistic and Roman influence, with the editors only in a later section (p. 34) concluding that “its author, like a Philo or a Scopelian, worked in a center of Greek learning and culture, but lived in an increasingly ‘Roman’ world.” The editors next write briefly about the manuscript tradition (pp. 4-5) and the structure of the poem (pp. 5-6), before tackling the “tradition of fable” (pp. 6-12).
This section on fable discusses the problems associated with defining the term, with the editors noting that there are “lots” of fables that “are animal tales, true, but many fables also deal with people” (p. 8). The Batrachomyomachia shares a lot of similarities with fables, and especially with the “Frog and Mouse” tale from the Life of Aesop, even if the exact relationship between the two is unclear.
The editors next devote a relatively large number of pages on “epic parody/parodic epic” (pp. 12-23), seeking to understand the exact nature of the poem, before concluding that it “does not have any true peers”, because we lack “additional examples of animal parody” (p. 23). These sections are especially useful for understanding the complexities in defining genres and fitting them in their proper historical contexts.
The remainder of the introduction then delves into issues regarding the language of the poem: “Homeric language and meter” (pp. 23-27), the use of “formulaic language” (pp. 27-32), complete with useful examples, “Some conclusions about date and authorship” (pp. 32-34), “Divergences from Attic Greek” (pp. 34-36), and finally a note on the translation and a list of references. Many of these sections are useful and will serve students of ancient Greek particularly well.
The poem itself is short: the Greek text is printed on pp. 43-53, followed by a more or less literal translation into English on pp. 53-63. Personally, I’m always fascinated by the choices translators make in rendering the often humorous names of the characters in the poem. The translators certainly hit their mark in that respect: basileus Physignathos, for example, is here rendered as “King Bellowmouth”. The remainder of the book consists of a line-by-line commentary, a comprehensive glossary, and – much to my surprise – a very detailed index.
In their preface, the translators/editors point out that they’re aim was not just to present the text, but to make it comprehensible also to “readers who are less interested in the Greek language and more concerned with the history of literature” (p. xii). Indeed, the extensive introduction, the long commentary, and the useful glossary ensure that the book is suitable for almost any reader.
The hardcover edition of this book retails at a little under $100. Fortunately, there is also a cheaper paperback, at around $40, and a Kindle version at half that price. A book this accessible, interesting, and affordable gets an unreserved recommendation from me.