Homer’s Turk: How Classics Shaped Ideas of the East by Jerry Toner - review by Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin

Virgil among the Ottomans

Homer’s Turk: How Classics Shaped Ideas of the East


Harvard University Press 306pp £22.95

Many years ago I was in the same creative writing class as an eccentric would-be novelist who explained to the rest of us how a novel should be written: first, all the relevant locations should be described, then one should provide detailed portraits of the novel’s protagonists, and only after all this had been got out of the way should the actual story start. A reading of Homer’s Turk brought this procedure back to mind, since Jerry Toner’s technique is a little bit similar. His preface is followed by fully sixty pages of methodological throat clearing and preliminary generalities and only then does the detailed argument get under way. Yet, despite this reservation (and others, which I shall come to), the main thing to be noted is that Toner’s thesis is both convincing and important. Greek and Roman literature did crucially shape subsequent Western perceptions of the Orient and, in doing so, was only slightly less important than biblical references and Christian theological preoccupations.

Classical writings provided British gentlemen and scholars (usually the same thing) with a grab bag of insights, precedents, analogies and tags that could be used to dress any sort of argument about Islam, Arabs, Turks or Persians. Citation of ancient texts also helped establish the credentials of anyone proposing to

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