Teaching Homer's Iliad

by

David J. Schenker
Assistant Professor of Classics
University of Missouri

My subject today is Homer's Iliad , a poem that once enjoyed an unusual status, for several centuries and throughout a large part of the Mediterranean world; it was not just a core text for that time and place, but the core text. Of course, for much of its life it was not a text at all, but a narrative transmitted orally throughout the Greek world. The temporal and geographical extent of its pre-literate roots is evident in its unique combination of various Greek dialects and its regular juxtaposition of items or customs that, archaeologists tell us, existed centuries apart. Once it was written down -- sometime in the 8th-6th centuries BC -- it was more often copied than any other text, as the manuscript tradition and the sands of Egypt continue to attest. And in the library of Alexandria, it was the center of great scholarly industry, the favorite subject of textual criticism, commentary, and interpretation. Not surprising, then, that all we think of as Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic Greek literature is so thoroughly steeped in Homer, and especially Homer's Iliad . Greek tragedies, for example, are so filled with allusions to Homer, subtle and explicit, that we can assume from them alone a broad familiarity with the works of Homer in the 5th century, at least in Athens. Aeschylus refers to his plays as "slices from Homer's banquet." I find it impossible to teach Greek drama to students who have not read the Iliad , and so require it as prerequisite. Even leaving aside the tremendous influence of the Iliad , it's also a fun poem to read, and to teach, endlessly rich and rewarding even after the millennia that intervene since its composition.

When we read the lliad, we engage in a process of bridging gaps -- temporal, spatial, cultural, linguistic; and if the Iliad speaks to us in any meaningful way, that's a sign not only of the power of the poem, but also of our ability to transcend the narrowness of our own immediate contexts. That job is made easier, because, in some important ways, we are indeed all Greeks, as long as we limit the scope of "we"; but it's equally true that the Greeks are alien and different, and that in order to reach the Greeks we so admire and emulate, we have to peel back layer after layer of sometimes offputting differences. The fact that we so often can and do succeed in that process bodes well in a world, both in and out of the academy, that increasingly calls upon us to recognize, appreciate, and even incorporate differences.

I'd like to comment here on two aspects of Homeric differences, two ways in which Homer is "the other" -- first, briefly, the style and manner of composition, and then, at greater length, the values espoused by Homeric characters, especially as they seem to be based on conflict and competition.

Homeric language is straightforward and syntactically simple, the vocabulary is concrete, the images precise, a perfect choice for first or second year Greek students. But it is a long narrative poem, and that's a long way from Stephen King or John Grisham. More significant, though, are the many traces the poem bears of its oral formulaic composition, traces that cause some discomfort to the uninitiated -- I mean here the repetitions of speeches, for example, the highly structured scenes of dining, arming, or fitting out a ship, and, of course, the epithets. Why is Aphrodite "laughter-loving" as she leaves the battlefield wounded? I find the Fagles translation invaluable in getting past some of the hurdles, but still important is some understanding of the oral tradition that produced the epic. My goal is never to offer the oral tradition as an apology for what seem infelicities, but rather to suggest that there can be different, or at least slightly modified standards of evaluation. We can, of course, treat the Iliad as we might a l9th or 20th century novel, created by a single individual with pen, typewriter, or keyboard in hand, and we can learn much from that approach; but at a certain point, that strategy breaks down, and then comes our opportunity, in the particular to explain something about the workings of oral composition, and, more generally, to introduce the possibility that our preconceived notions about how to approach literature will not always work when we face the Homeric poems.

The problem is similar, although the stakes are higher, when we confront the moral or ethical background of the Iliad . Why do the characters in the Iliad behave as they do? What do they think valuable? What is worthy of praise, or of scorn? Is it possible to construct value apart from the battlefield? We can apply familiar modern parallels, try to put ourselves in the position of the characters and evaluate them by our own standards, and again, as in treating the Iliad as a novel, some progress can be made that way, but there are limits. Homer nowhere spells out the moral background of his epic, but he does give us clues throughout about some of the norms, among both Greeks and Trojans. At the same time, what he presents in the wrath of Achilles is a powerful challenge to those norms, one that leaves us wondering about their validity even as we are trying to establish exactly what they are. First, the norms: Agamemnon rallies his heroes in Book 4 by reminding them that they always get the best portions at feasts and banquets, and must fight in the front ranks to deserve that status. (Fagles, 156) And Sarpedon, an ally of the Trojans, says the same thing to his friend Glaucus: we have all the trappings of nobility, all the external signs, now is the time to show that we deserve them. Hector, back inside Troy briefly in Book 6, states the case most clearly in response to his wife, Andromache, who has been trying to dissuade him from returning to the field of battle, where both of them know he'll surely die. But go he must, saying to her,

I would die of shame to face the men of Troy
and the Trojan women trailing their long robes
if I would shrink from battle now, a coward.
Nor does the spirit urge me on that way.
I've learned it all too well. To stand up bravely,
always to fight in the front rank of Trojan soldiers,
winning my father great glory, glory for myself. Fagles, 210

The goal for all is to avoid shame and gain glory, and that glory is something palpable, something physically, visibly measurable. In the Iliad both shame and glory are measured largely, if not exclusively, by external standards. The question each hero asks is not primarily "Am I acting honorably or shamefully" but "Am I seen by others to be acting honorably or shamefully."

For Achilles, though, these rules aren't working. Despite the fact that he is "the best of the Achaeans" in terms of achievement, he is not treated as such in the distribution of prizes, that external measure of glory. When achievement does not bring glory, Achilles decides to sit out. And in the longest speech of the epic, his response to Odysseus in Book 9, he explains his reasons:

One and the same lot for the man who hangs back
and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits
for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death,
the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion.
And what's laid up for me, what pittance? Nothing --
and after suffering hardships year in, year out,
staking my life on the mortal risks of war. Fagles, 262

This sentiment runs counter to all we've heard from others, and is particularly stunning as a response to Agamemnon's apology. Through Odysseus, Agamemnon has offered kingly gifts -- not just the woman he took from Achilles, but tripods, gold, cities to rule, even his own daughter in marriage. If glory is to be measured externally, then these gifts would seem to place Achilles above all others. Yet he rejects them, and in so doing rejects what others in the epic value. Instead, he'll go home, to peace, quiet, a long life without glory. His mother has told him that his life can follow one of two paths: either he'll live long in obscurity, or die in Troy and gain everlasting fame and glory. And, for the reasons we just heard, he tells Odysseus he has chosen a life of obscurity. But we know that's impossible, we know that Achilles really has no choice -- and we know that not only because we know how the story goes. There is also our recognition that Achilles cannot be Achilles and choose to leave Troy. Peaceful obscurity is for characters like Thersites, who wants to make a run for the ships. Thersites:

Here was the ugliest man who ever came to Troy.
Bandy-legged he was, with one foot clubbed,
both shoulders humped together, curving over
his caved-in chest....
Achilles despised him most. Fagles, 106

Not until the Odyssey do we find heroism in going home, in leaving behind the competition for glory. Even though Achilles will not accept the norms and standards that motivate the other Greeks, even though he will not sit down with them to eat before battle, he will return to the fighting, and he will win for himself undying glory, despite his claims in Book 9.

Achilles' choice raises larger questions about the possibilities open to the other heroes as well. All of them, so devoted to the pursuit of glory, have consigned themselves to a life of combat, or at least conflict and competition, for only there can they win a name for themselves. None of them, it seems, can retire to a peaceful life back on the farm. Is the Iliad , then, a glorification of this competitive spirit? Simone Weil considered related issues in her 1940 essay, The Iliad or the Poem of Force , written just before the occupation of France. Bernard Knox, drawing implicitly on his own wartime experiences, comments that "we are still lovers and victims of the will to violence, and so long as we are, Homer will be read as its truest interpreter." (29) And more recently still, we have Achilles in Vietnam , Jonathon Shay's insightful commentary on the similarities between Achilles and the Vietnam veterans he has treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Amidst the vividness and immediate reality of violence and its effects, is there any room for cooperation here on the plains of Troy?

I think there is, and that the Iliad reveals throughout, albeit less explicitly, the merits of the quiet life of obscurity. One of the subtle beauties of the Iliad is the constant presence within it of the world beyond the fighting. While our focus is kept on the Greek camp, the plain stretching up to the city, and, rarely, inside the city itself, we do catch glimpses of wider vistas, glimpses of life outside of battle, scenes that are set in counterpoint to the conflict or competition, and that suggest, if only implicitly, that the values of the battlefield are only one option. Among the most common of those glimpses are the brief epitaphs attached to the dying, the particularizing stories that personalize the general butchery, as a reminder, often, of all that is lost. As soon as the fighting starts in Book 4, we hear of this meeting:

And Telamonian Ajax struck Anthemion's son,
the hardy stripling Simoisius, still unwed...
His mother had borne him along the Simois' banks
when she trailed her parents down the slopes of Ida
to tend their flocks, and so they called him Simoisius.
But never would he repay his loving parents now
for the gift of rearing -- his life cut short so soon.

Simoisius is hardly a central character, but here in his death, we are reminded of his parents' love for him, the pastoral life he left behind, and the marriage he'll never have. And the battle scenes are full of descriptions like this. Similar is the geographical detail that intrudes into Achilles' final pursuit of Hector in Book 22, around the walls of Troy; the poet tells us how they pass by the springs of Scamander:

And here, close to the springs, lie washing-pools
scooped out in the hollow rocks and broad and smooth
where the wives of Troy and all their lovely daughters
would wash their glistening robes in the old days,
the days of peace before the sons of Achaea came...
Past these they raced, one escaping, one in pursuit... Fagles, 546

The poet stops, for a moment, the climactic battle between the two greatest heroes in the epic, and gives us an image of women washing clothes. These are reminders of peace within the world of the epic, as it were, visions of the less bellicose side of those who are participating in the war. And we find more of those in our brief intrusions inside the walls of Troy, as in Book 6, where the social and political world is so much more balanced than in the Greek camp.

But the poet also incorporates peaceful or cooperative images from much further afield, most often in the parallel world he creates with his similes. As he tries to describe the fury of battle, the magnitude of the troops, even the emotions of a single combatant, one of Homer's favorite tools is the simile, where he often calls upon worlds far from the battlefield to make his point. To choose one example from many, in order to convey some idea of the number of troops gathering, in Book 2 the poet compares them to

the swarm of flies, seething over the shepherds' stalls
in the first spring days when the buckets flood with milk --
so many longhaired Acaheans swarmed across the plain
to confront the Trojans, fired to smash their lines. Fagles, 115

A bold image, and one that takes us in the space of a single line from the glory of the battlefield to the seclusion, the anonymity, the smells, and the simple pleasures of a fly-infested barn on a spring day. Even more extraordinary, or at least more singular in the epic, is the description, in Book 11, of the pain Agamemnon felt from the wound in his forearm:

as soon as the gash dried and firm clots formed,
sharp pain came bursting in on Atrides' strength --
spear sharp as the the labor-pangs that pierce a woman,
agonies brought on by the harsh, birthing spirits,
Hera's daughters who hold the stabbing power of birth. Fagles, 305

There, in the midst of so much death, and used as a means to explain the misery of it, is a reminder of a more productive type of pain, one that he seems to think his audience might be able to understand. Particularly surprising in this, I think, is the elevation of a feminine experience to the level of the masculine. We might compare the line that so outraged the Athenian audience in 431 BC, when Euripides' Medea claimed that she would much rather stand in the front line of a battle three times than bear one child.

Finally, similar, but larger in scale is the ekphrasis in Book 18, the detailed description of Achilles' shield. Achilles is on the brink of reentering the battle, just about to engage in the bloodiest fighting of the entire epic, not driven by the desire for glory, but so eager for revenge that he refuses even to share a meal with his fellow combatants; and the poet pauses, forces us to pause, to hear the description of Achilles' new shield. And on it is depicted the whole world, in all its diversity, not only geographically, but also temporally, politically, and even morally. Just as Achilles is about to follow the path to a short life, with glory, we are reminded of all he is giving up, all the quotidian pleasures of a long life in obscurity. And into the battle, where the carnage is greater than anywhere else in the epic, he carries this reminder of the full range of human possibilities.

What I am suggesting is a complexity here -- on the one hand competition is all that matters to these heroes, and the poem presents them as admirable for succeeding in the various conflicts that engage them. At the same time, the poet keeps ever before us reminders of all that a devotion to this sort of life not only precludes, but even destroys. In that wider sense, the poet does indeed present the choice of Achilles, a choice between conflict and cooperation, between glory and obscurity. These are immediately pertinent issues, and if we can hear them, and some of the many others in the epic, speaking to us from a text so far removed, how much easier with those closer to home.

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