Commentary

Chapter 19: The Trojan Saga and the Iliad


The Iliad. The Iliad is unique as the fundamental literary work of all Greek and Roman literature, and it is impossible to summarize the infinite number works of literature and music that interpret its episodes. Its portrayal of the all-too-human weaknesses of the Olympian gods and its presentation of passionate emotions (especially anger and grief) led Plato to exclude it from the educational curriculum of his ideal state. In recent years its primary role in western literature has been the target of social and political criticism, a sign of the continuing significance of the poem (for supporters and critics alike) in education.The universality of the Iliad and the devastating truth of Homer’s depiction of war and its hero Achilles find powerful confirmation in a brilliant book which illuminates the experiences and sufferings of Vietnam veterans through a study of the Iliad, and in particular the character and emotions of Achilles: Jonathon Shay, Achilles in Vietnam (New York: Atheneum, 1994). Dr. Shay, a psychiatrist, who appreciates Homer’s contemporary value, finds parallel themes such as these: betrayal of “what’s right” by a commander; the shrinkage of social and moral horizons; intense comradeship reduced to a few friends; the death of one of these special comrades followed by feelings of grief and guilt, culminating in a berserk rage.While the Iliad refers to events (especially the fall of Troy) outside the frame of its narrative, most of the Trojan War was narrated in a series of epics, now lost, known from summaries given by Proclus (of uncertain date, perhaps 5th. century A.D.). The Iliad, despite its concentration on a very short period in the ten-year war, became the dominant survivor of the epic tradition because of its unmatched poetical power, its portrayal of the Olympian gods and their interaction with mortals, above all, its representation of the full range of human nobility and meanness, seen in the words and actions of the Greek and Trojan heroes, of whom Achilles is supreme.The interaction of the Olympian gods with each other and with mortals in the Iliad is the canonical and fundamental version, important in that it is one that was accepted in all of Greece, as opposed to local legends and cults or works concerned with a particular legend (e.g., tragedies). The gods of later epic are variations on the Homeric gods, even where there are fundamental changes, as with Jupiter in the Aeneid of Vergil (see MLS, Chapter 26). In art and music, similarly, the Homeric gods are the foundation of subsequent interpretations.Every person and every age, it seems, looks into its cultural heritage and sees, so great is the temptation, a reflection of itself. We look into Homer’s Odyssey and we see the tale of the wandering hero, who endures all trials, perseveres through all torments, until at last true justice is meted out, a home is regained and a great love reconsummated, husband reunited with wife and father with son. We see the indomitable will of the female in relation to this hero and the interplay of the sexes appears equable. The Odyssey is romantic, comic, and it has a happy ending; it has fared better than its counterpart the Iliad in grasping the imagination of the modern world. But why? The Iliad was preferred by the Greeks, if preference can be made for these two seminal works. It is high tragedy and ours is an age in which an appreciation of tragedy does not come easily. We look at the Iliad and we see a story about the greatest of human follies, war. We look at the Iliad and we see a world in which the warrior takes center stage, who blusters and brags before he mercilessly kills his opponent. We see an existence in which more mundane and homely dramas are out of place, in which the women involved in the struggle are shunted to the side, dependent on the male for their very survival. We see injustice in a piratical, greedy, and savage assault upon a city which we would not judge so harshly by the transgressions of merely one of its members. We see the ultimate outrage perpetrated upon a hero more at home in his home, with his mother, wife and child, than on the battlefield, and the victory in this final contest given to one we would have judged inferior by comparison. We see all this and more and we disassociate ourselves from the entirety of the vision that it provokes. We see with our own eyes from the vantage at the end of the twentieth century and we are disgusted. We do not wish to give credence to this vision. But the Iliad will not have it so. Even in our abhorrence to its panorama we are irresistibly drawn and still it has tremendous power to provoke. Could we but move beyond our own preoccupations and ideologies we might see in the Iliad an experience to compare with the Odyssey. What age has not known war, despite our condemnation of it? Who of us never missteps? Who does not care about how one is seen by others? Who has never let rage control action? Who has never treated a fellow human being as an object to an end? Who not faced an encounter, quailed before a coming battle, and questioned his own courage? Who has never felt controlled by a greater power, which cares little for the human lot? Who has never felt that it is injustice which rules our lives? From its tragic promontory the Iliad appears as the burning intensity of reality, and the Odyssey a dream.Since the Iliad War has served as one of the greatest themes in all literature, which has little to do with how one judges war; it is a universal human experience, one which lays bare with revelatory light the extremes of human character and relationships. Through the Iliad and the tragedies about the Trojan War, this War has become a mirror through which we see war and all representations of war reflected. In the last analysis the position of the women in general must not detract from an appreciation of the depth and grandeur of individual depictions: Andromache, the deeply devoted wife of Hector and mother of Astyanax; Hecuba, the aged Queen who is soon to lose her husband and all her children, reduced to utter desolation; Helen, trapped by her own passion, as she herself admits, between two opposing forces, a woman of grand stature, and the focal point of the entire struggle.Helen. Worshipped as a goddess at Sparta, Helen is usually thought of as the most beautiful of women. In the Iliad she is a lonely figure, disillusioned with Paris and despised by the Trojans, except for Priam and Hector, over whose corpse she makes the final lamentation in the poem. In the Odyssey she entertains Telemachus at Sparta, where she is living peacefully with Menelaüs. Her beauty has inspired countless poems: Christopher Marlowe made her an object of sensual desire in Dr. Faustus (1604, revised 1616), with the lines beginning “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / and burn’t the topless towers of Ilium?” For Goethe, in Faust (Part 2: 1832), she symbolized all that is beautiful in classical antiquity. The tradition hostile to her is represented in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus (458 B.C.: lines 681–749) and in Vergil’s Aeneid (2. 567–88), lines that Vergil himself may have wished to excise. The poem of Stesichorus is called the “Palinode,” (i.e., a reversal of a previous tale), and the tale that Helen was protected in Egypt by Proteus is the basis of Euripides’ drama, Helen (412 B.C.). A feminist study reveals just how controversial Helen continues to be: Helen, Myth and the Culture of Misogyny, by Robert Emmet Meagher (New York: Continuum, 1995). We add to the observation on the dust jacket: “This is a book that will fascinate all feminists and infuriate most men” and enrage many scholars of both sexes.The Fall of Troy. This was the subject of a lost epic, Iliou Persis (“The Sack of Ilium”), and episodes were the subjects of several tragedies. Of these the Trojan Women of Euripides (415 B.C.) is especially moving. It focuses on the sufferings of Hecabe and Andromache, as well as the fates of Cassandra, Polyxena, and Astyanax. It looks forward to the sufferings also of the victors during and after their return home, and ends as the survivors leave Troy to go into slavery. The Troades of Seneca (mid-first century A.D.) conflates elements from the Trojan Women with the Hecuba of Euripides. By far the most detailed surviving account of the fall is the narrative of Aeneas in Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid (MLS, Chapter 26). The lost epic, Aethiopis (possibly 8th. century B.C.) included the deaths of Penthisilea, Memnon, and Achilles.The Works of Dictys Cretensis and Dares Phrygius. In the ages when Greek literature was lost to the west the narrative of the Trojan War was known through two Latin prose works, both forgeries. Dictys Cretensis is the purported author of an eye-witness diary of the war and the heroes’ return from the Greek point of view: the Latin version (the Greek original does not exist) probably dates from the second or third century A.D.The work of Dares Phrygius (mentioned as a priest of Hephaestus at Iliad 5.9), De Excidio Troiae, purports to be a diary of the war from the Trojan point of view (the Latin dates from perhaps the sixth century A.D.). These works were the sources for the Roman de Troie, the huge (30,000 lines) French romance by Benoît de St. Maure (ca. 1160). Benoît first developed the legend of Troilus and Cressida, which found its way through Latin and French paraphrases to William Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historye of Troye (1471) and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1380), and eventually to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Although the ambush of Troilus by Achilles appears on the François Vase (ca. 575 B.C.), the literary form of the legend was developed in the late middle ages as a romance, and it is not classical. A dull summary of the Iliad is the Latin hexameter poem called the Ilias Latina, dating from about 60 A.D.