/ 29 October 2023

Lessons from the ancient past

Image (1)
‘The Iliad’, which was composed thousands of years ago, still offers us insight into the way people behave — which is why the classics matter

A prince from Asia Minor is a guest of the lord of Sparta in south-eastern Greece. The host, Menelaos, goes away on a state visit, leaving his wife Helen, of famed beauty, to offer hospitality to the visitor, Paris.

Granted by the goddess Aphrodite the power to seduce the world’s most beautiful woman, Paris violates the sanctity of the guest-host bond by whisking off Helen, and the bulk of Menelaos’s wealth, to his home city of Troy, where his father Priam is king. 

Enraged, Menelaos seeks to retrieve Helen with the help of his brother Agamemnon, king of Mykenai and foremost leader of the Greeks, and of other Greek royals and nobles and their fighting men.

The Greek armies set sail for Troy and lay siege to the city for 10 years, during which time their mission is hindered by the intervention of Olympian gods, Trojan heroism, and most pertinently of all, the withdrawal from the battlefield of their greatest warrior, Achilleus (Achilles), leader of the Myrmidons.

The poet Homer, by tradition blind, worked with this story as the basis for the epic that stands at the forefront of Western literary culture, The Iliad. Composed some time between 750 and 550BCE, the poem tells of a few weeks in a war that is estimated variously to have taken place between 1384BCE and 1184BCE. The great historian Herodotus fixed its date as 1250BCE.

There is much to note here. One is scholarly debate about whether a war as specifically depicted by Homer took place at all. The current “consensus” is that such events could have taken place at Hisarlik, in today’s Turkey, when allies of the Hittite Empire were defeated by Mykenaian Greeks.

Two is that the “Greeks” would not have recognised being so called, and would have puzzled over their homeland being named “Greece”, both those deriving from later Latin words. The world of The Iliad is one of Ilion (Troy; the word “Iliad” meaning a poem about Ilion, latinised version Ilium), Trojans, Achaians (“Greeks”) and Achaia (“Greece”). 

Three, most significantly, The Iliad does not tell the story of the Trojan Horse. That piece of guile and deception happens after the last lines of the epic poem, and is part of Homer the dramatist’s genius. 

Homer’s nods to the horse occur in The Odyssey, the other great work attributed to him (or to Homer and a gifted apprentice or poetic heirs and “colleagues”). There, in about 20 lines of Book Eight and 10 lines in Book Eleven, Homer compresses the story of the horse and the fall of Troy.

To those less familiar with The Iliad, this might seem distinctly odd, given that the Trojan Horse is still embedded in the popular imagination. But Homer has a far more profound subject to broach, which he announces in the first lines of the poem.

“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus/ and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,/ hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls/ of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting/ of dogs, of all birds …” (Book One, lines 1-5; Richmond Lattimore’s peerless translation)

Why is Achilleus consumed by rage and wrath? Agamemnon, leader of the Achaians, has had to give back Chryseis, a “prize of war”, to her father Chryses, a priest of Apollo. 

Ever unscrupulous and avaricious and most of all deeply jealous of Achilleus’s standing as the finest fighter, Agamemnon decrees: “… but I shall take the fair-cheeked Briseis,/ your prize, I myself going to your shelter, that you may learn well/how much greater I am than you…” (Book One, lines 184-186; Lattimore)

To modern sensibilities, this is awful. Women captured, enslaved, treated as chattel, forced into concubinage, and denied agency and voice, all because of two testosterone-charged males battling for supremacy and possession, with Achilleus declaring he will take no further part in the siege. 

Awful, but the reality of Homer’s world and even more so of the much earlier times of which he sang. And, shameful as it is, that is often the reality of our world today too.

It is not only in the treatment of women that The Iliad is a text for the present. The awesome assemblage of men and arms that is the Achaian invasion force, the relentless siege that will end in the butchery of Trojan men and boys and the seizure and enslavement of women and girls has far too many analogues in the past to need naming. 

Of all life forms on Earth, it is only humans who behave thus. To describe humans as behaving like animals is to malign animals.

Homer is steely in acquainting listeners in his day — the poem would be recited over several long evenings or sessions — and readers in ours with the horror of war and the ghastliness of death in combat. 

Interwoven with graphic descriptions of battle and bloody mortality is the awareness of the other world from which these fighters hail: the world of home, green pastures, bees, the wheel of the seasons.

Similes involving nature grab the hearer/reader and stay in the memory, such as: “Like the swarms of clustering bees that issue forever/ in fresh bursts from the hollow in the stone, and hang like/ bunched grapes as they hover beneath the flowers in springtime/ fluttering in swarms together this way and that way,/ so the many nations of men from the ships and the shelters/ along the front of the deep sea beach marched in order/ by companies to the assembly, and Rumour walked blazing among them, Zeus’ messenger, to hasten them along.” (Book Two, lines 87-94; Lattimore)


“But they, as wasps quick-bending in the middle, or as bees/ will make their homes at the side of the rocky way, and will not/ abandon the hollow house they have made, but stand up to/ men who come to destroy them, and fight for the sake of their children,/ so these, though they are only two, are unwilling to give back/ from the gates, until they have killed their men, or are taken.” (Book Twelve, lines 167-172; Lattimore)

When the Trojan ally Sarpedon falls in battle, Homer evokes the peace of home and eternity with perfectly judged poignancy:

“And Apollo gave Sarpedon dead to be borne by swift companions, to Death and Sleep, twin brothers, who bore him through the air to Lycia, that broad and pleasant land.” 

Sarpedon’s destination is the “Green, green grass of home” — 2 700 years before the pop song of that name.  

Lest we forget, the bloodshed and the savagery are ostensibly to prise Helen from the clutches of Paris. 

Historically, the lost fortune of Menelaos (latinised: Menelaus) and other plunder and booty were probably of at least equal importance to a Mykenaian civilisation facing environmental and other stress factors.

What is clear is that innocent Trojan citizens are being collectively punished for the deeds of Paris (more often referred to as Alexandros, his alternative name). Is this fair? Just? No, but it has a terrible inevitability.

Achilleus rejoins the war after his dear friend Patroklos ill-fatedly dons the armour of Achilleus and is slain by Hektor, son of Priam, battle commander of the Trojans and their stoutest fighter. 

Driven by grief, Achilleus is as filled with rage and wrath, but directed at Hektor and the Trojans rather than at Agamemnon. 

Before Achilleus re-enters the fight, he must wait for Hephaistos, the fire god, to make him new armour, helmet and shield.

It is here that Homer presents all of human life and endeavour, joy and sorrow, brilliance and folly. 

The shield he has Hephaistos forge depicts soft fields, tilled lands, a huge vineyard bearing heavy clusters of golden grapes, herds of straight-horned oxen with herdsmen and herding dogs, a large meadow and a valley glimmering with flocks of sheep and filled by homesteads and sheepfolds. This is humankind at peace.

But the obverse is shown by the two cities also sculpted on the shield. One is a place of marriages and festivals. The other:

“But around the other city were lying two forces of armed men/ shining in their war gear. For one side counsel was divided/ whether to storm and sack, or share between both sides the property/ and all the possessions the lovely citadel held within it./ But the city’s people were not giving way, and armed for an ambush./

“Their beloved wives and their little children stood on the rampart/ to hold it, and with them the men with age upon them, but meanwhile/ the others went out.” (Book Eighteen, lines 509-516; Lattimore)

The classics are so old that they are perpetually fresh and new. That is why they matter. And, as Homer reminds us in Book Six, don’t get ahead of ourselves:

“As is the life of the leaves, so is that of men. The wind scatters the leaves to the ground: the vigorous forest puts forth others, and they grow in the spring-season. Soon one generation of men comes and another ceases.” (Lines 146-150, translation by the great classicist HDF Kitto)