I have just finished the extraordinary book ‘The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War’ by Caroline Alexander. I have previously read the Iliad in various translations, especially the more recent on by Robert Fagles. But it has taken this new book by Caroline Alexander to really uncover what Homer’s Iliad is really all about, by the way it is set in the archaeological and historical context of when Homer is writing.
Essentially despite its use over the years for martial purposes, the Iliad is essentially an anti-war tract setting out the total purposelessness of the Greeks spending ten years besieging Troy for the sake of one woman: Helen. Provoked by an insult from his king Agamemnon, Achilles withdraws to his tent and refuses to fight. The martial version sees this as ‘sulking in his tent’ and a sign of egoism. This new account makes it clear that Achilles has finally seen the futility of the war and Homer’s audience in later times would know subsequent history that proved him right. Not only did Troy fall but the Greeks subsequently suffered major decline probably accelerated by the waste of wars such as the siege of Troy. So the Illiad is a cautionary tale of the cost of war for both sides. Caroline Alexander points out that 250 deaths of warriors are described in the Iliad often in graphic anatomically accurate detail, and often after the character of the warrior killed has been described to make him human.
Put in terms of the conflict model of this blog, the Trojan War was a stupid positional conflict carried on over ten years at enormous cost to both sides and ultimately did nothing to further the real long term interests of both sides. Tragically as this account of the Iliad shows, Homer suggests that both Achilles and Hector, whom he kills, realize this and think about a just settlement that would return Helen to the Greeks and save both Troy and the Greeks from further cost.
I would like to end with some quotation from the end of the book:
‘Writing in the early first century BCE, Strabo summarized the far reaching consequences of the disastrous war at Troy as it was understood by later history. ‘For it came about that on account of the length of the campaign, the Greeks of that time, and the barbarians as well, lost both what they had at home, and what they acquired by the campaign, and, so after the destruction of Troy, not only did the victors turn to piracy because of their poverty, but still more the vanquished who survived the war.
That after the roll of centuries, this same Iliad, whose message had been so clearly grasped by ancient poets and historians, came to be perceived as a marital epic glorifying war is one of the great ironies of literary history. Part of this startling transformation can undoubtedly be attributed to the principal venues where the Iliad was read – the elite schools whose classically based curriculum was dedicated to inculcating into the nation’s future manhood the desirability of ‘dying well’ for king and country….
Homer’s insistent depiction of the war as a pointless catastrophe that blighted all it touched was thus adroitly circumvented.
This is driven home in a short extract that Caroline Alexandra quotes from the Odyssey when hearing the story of the fall of Troy, Odysseus breaks down:
As a woman weeps, lying over the body
of her dear husband, who fell fighting for her city and people
as he tried to beat off the pitiless day from city and children;
she sees him dying and gasping for breath, and winding her body
about him she cries high and shrill, while the men behind her,
hitting her with their spear butts on the back and the shoulders,
force her up and lead her away into slavery, to have
hard work and sorrow, and her cheeks are wracked with pitiful weeping
Such were the pitiful tears that Odysseus shed from under
Footnote: Despite the clear purpose of this account of Homer, as cited in the quotations above, the military author Tom Brokaw manages to the review the book as follows: This riveting tale of ancient wars, legendary warriors and mythical gods is at once a great adventure story and a cautionary tale of the enduring perils of hubris and ego. Achilles’ life and death are instructive lessons for us all today.’ The use of the Iliad as heroic spur lives on! Tom Brokaw can make of the Iliad what he wishes, but he might at least have the courtesy to acknowledge, or even contest what Caroline Alexander is saying: ‘Homer shows war sucks!’