CJ Online Review: Ready, Character, Narrator, and Simile in the Iliad

posted with permission:

Jonathan L. Ready, Character, Narrator, and Simile in the Iliad. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. x + 323. Hardcover, $93.00/£55.00. ISBN 978-0-521-19064-0

Reviewed by Rebecca M. Muich, Xavier University

In this thoroughly-researched, stimulating work, Jonathan Ready argues that similes can function as mechanisms of competition within the Iliadic narrative. Ready’s introduction lays out in broad terms his conception of the “competitive dynamics” created by the poet, the characters, and the narrator of the Iliad. Similes construct the competitive dynamics of the Iliad in the following ways: 1) characters use similes to compete as verbal artists; 2) characters use similes to compete with the narrator, in the sense that they will “seek to top” (4) a simile used by the narrator with their own; 3) the narrator uses similes in his description of the competitions between characters, especially on the battlefield; and 4) the narrator uses similes as a means of conferring narrative attention, a honor for which the characters are striving.

In Chapter 1, Ready deconstructs the “A is like B” proposition of similes, showing that the nuance of a simile is not revealed in a direct comparison between A (the tenor) and B (the vehicle), but rather in the degree of actual likeness between A and B. A simile is defined by the degree of difference, or distance, between tenor and vehicle; the comparison by the degree of similarity, or proximity, between tenor and vehicle; and the likeness is defined by an ambiguous distance. The assessment of degree of actual likeness plays a central role in Ready’s later analyses.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 address how similes are used in character-text to distinguish the speakers as competent verbal artists. In Chapter 2, Ready analyzes several stand-alone similes in a variety of discursive contexts to demonstrate how similes can enrich the rhetoric of a speech. In Chapter 3, as a preparation for following chapters, Ready outlines how characters can challenge a speaker’s deployment of a simile by reusing and/or recharacterizing that simile in his own speech. Chapter 4 is the first analysis of such sequences of similes, with Ready paying particularly close attention to how the “recycling” character challenges the message or intent of the originating character. In chapters 5 and 6, Ready expands his scope to include similes spoken by the narrator. In Chapter 5, he claims that similes spoken by characters might expand upon or exploit the narrator’s similes, or they might challenge or repudiate the rhetoric of the narrator’s similes by reusing or recharacterizing the motifs in their own similes. Chapter 6 focuses solely on the narrator’s use of simile to describe characters in martial contests. When the narrator uses similes or sequences of similes in his descriptions of battlefield valor, he amplifies the exploits of one character at the expense of the rest. Ready claims that this method has an “agonistic orientation” (211), as it contributes to the conception of characters as competitors for the narrative “spotlight,” hoping to accrue “narrative status” (222).

Ready’s strength is the care he takes in unpacking each simile, whether it stands alone or is in sequence. His treatment of the simile sequencing between Achilles and Phoinix in Book 9 is an especially fine example of how this works: in the course of his rejection of Agamemnon’s offerings, Achilles compares himself to a mother bird, working hard to bring nourishment back to her chicks, but enjoying none of the spoils herself; Phoinix, in response, offers another simile of parenting in comparing Peleus’ love for him (Phoinix) to the love of a father for an only son. Ready’s close reading reveals how Phoinix recharacterizes parental love in a way that emphasizes love for a child rather than the work that goes into meeting his needs, offering a more mature understanding of obligation to home and community than Achilles can understand. Readings like these are the highlight of each chapter, and shine a bright light on the rhetorical value of comparative figures. Yet the sharpness of Ready’s insight is blunted somewhat by his attempt to find comparable competitive dynamics at both the story level and text level of the Iliad. The chapters focusing on character-text are successful because Ready begins by assuming that Iliadic characters speak in competitively-charged atmosphere, and that each verbal engagement offers an opportunity to display virtuosity. Not all of the similes he examines are spoken in explicitly competitive contexts, yet the argument holds that the successful manipulation of comparative figures would distinguish a speaker among his peers. But Ready does not completely succeed in convincing the reader that the text level is governed by similarly competitive dynamics. He couches his argument that characters and the narrator compete via simile in a discussion of metalepsis (or paralepsis), the phenomenon of factual seepage between text and story levels that allows a character to remark on more than he ought to know within the logical confines of the story. But simile reuse and recharacterization is not dependent on knowledge of plot points, but rather, as Ready himself explains, on a facility with improvisation. Similarly, the “agonistic orientation” of the narrator’s extended similes names the narrator as the orchestrator of the competitive dynamic, not the characters. Ready’s point that the characters display a marked interest in how their personal narratives will unfold after their death is well-taken, but does not lend immediate support to the suggestion that if they knew their battlefield exploits were being narrated, they would want to be in the spotlight as much as possible. These arguments distract somewhat from Ready’s otherwise engaging readings, but ultimately do not diminish the final result. In his conclusion, Ready reminds his reader that his goal was not to assess similes as mnemonic or interpretive aids, or as clues about the nature of life in the Bronze Age, but rather as rhetorical weapons deployed in competitive verbal contests. At this he is largely successful.

Looted Hippodrome Relief

I watched the Seven Wonders of Ancient Rome (see next post) in the hopes that it might go into some detail about chariot racing … it does, but doesn’t mention what I hoped it would as a sort of introduction to this piece. Ages ago (indeed, I’m sure she’s given up on me) Dorothy King passed along a link to a page on her Lootbusters site which includes this  relief stolen from the Castel Sant’ Elia:

via Lootbusters

As Dr King notes, this item has been published:

Lise Vogel, “Circus Race Scenes in the Early Roman Empire,” The Art Bulletin Vol. 51, No. 2 (Jun., 1969), pp. 155-160

As Vogel relates, the relief was found in 1948 at Castel Sant’ Elia and originally was associated with an inscription, some of the letters of which are apparently still visible but not in the available photos (Dr King has another photo on her site mentioned above). The relief shows two quadrigae running left to right in front of a spina, with a third quadriga pursuing. Expanding on this description, we note that it appears that the first two have just crossed the finish line and it is what in modern times would be called a photo finish. There is an important detail in the back which isn’t mentioned and is a bit of a rarity in artistic depictions of chariot races: the ‘eggs’. As readers might be aware, these ‘eggs’ were used to mark the number of laps completed in the race. As a lap was completed, the ‘egg’ was ‘dropped’, so to speak. With one ‘egg’ remaining, this is obviously the final lap. As such, this is one of a few depictions that I’ve seen which actually use the eggs to highlight what section of the race is at and clearly this is the finish of what must have been a very famous race — most other depictions of races which include the eggs tend to have them at the same level, probably indicating the start of a race or not really being concerned with that sort of thing. Here’s one piece of comparanda from a sarcophagus in the Pergamon Museum (via the Database of Ancient Art):

via the Database of Ancient Art

Whatever the case, the inscription which accompanied the Sant’Elia relief likely referred to the race either in the context of the person sponsoring them or (more likely) the charioteer who won. It is an important piece, obviously, and hopefully it will be recovered …

Documentary of the Day: Seven Wonders of Ancient Rome (2004)

As always, not sure how long this one will stay up:

Seven Wonders of Ancient Rome (IMDB)

This documentary is not bad/pretty good and looks at the Circus Maximus, Trajan’s Forum and Market, Aqueducts, the Baths of Caracalla, Roman Roads, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum. When it is just talking about the buildings and their construction, it is very good, but in obvious places it tends towards sensationalism and seems obsessed with the idea that assorted emperors were doing these things to mend tarnished reputations with the people. There is an obsession, it seems, with ‘impressive statistics’, the sources of which are unclear to me. It also is kind of ‘blurry’ chronologically at times.

Despite that, there is a good list of talking heads:

My random notes as I watched:

Circus Maximus

– focus on Trajan and the spina (“the broken back of Rome’s enemies”)

– “newly discovered miracle building material” (!)

– assorted events

– 50 died every year (source?)

– charioteer celebrities, e.g. Scorpus, colours, and betting

Trajan’s Forum and Market … first the Forum

– Apollodorus the architect

– funded by the Dacian campaign

… then the Market

– construction methods (brick, rubble, concrete)

– corn dole on the 5th floor (source?)


– 900 million litres of water to Rome a day

– Vitruvius, Frontinus

– 416 km network; purification tanks

– all about the arch and how it was made

Baths of Caracalla

– built to reverse a failing image

– soundbite from the psychiatrist declaring Caracalla a “genuine psychopath”

– a big list of statistics; not sure where they’re from

– strange shots of Pompeii frescoes under water when talking about mosaics in the baths

–  the hypocaust system

– what folks did there


– Appian Way

– 288,000 km network, eventually

– claim that 1/2 a km a day was being built at one time

– “core of Roman communication system” (but not explained)

– how road was built


– built by Hadrian (no mention of Agrippa!)

– Hadrian’s architectural obsession (including his villa)

– repeated mention that we don’t really know the Pantheon’s function

– five types of cement

– Hadrian and Apollodorus didn’t get along (executed)


– “the most infamous building in the world”

– Vespasian had to win back public support after Nero (?)

– usual stuff about building, seating, the awning

– V dies before completion; Titus’ opening games (usual)

– usual gladiatorial stuff; claim that 700,000 died there

Some good potential excerpts on Roman construction techniques, but not one which you’d probably show in its entirety to a class ..