The inspiration for the Iliad was a ruin. The nine pancaked layers of an Asian city referred to as Wilusa on Hittite clay tablets – and known as Ilios or Troia to the ancient Greeks – lie under a mound called Hissarlik in north-western Turkey. The events of the Iliad supposedly take place around the time of the collapse of the Bronze Age in the 12th century BC. By the time the poem was composed, several hundred years later, Troy was abandoned, its history constituted by rumour and myth. ‘Only those who are belated,’ Susan Stewart writes in The Ruins Lesson (2020), ‘can observe a ruined form.’ What seems like a dawn to us was belated to begin with. As Emily Wilson says in the introduction to her new translation of the Iliad, it ‘came at the end, not the beginning, of a long poetic tradition. Whoever created the Iliad used the myths, tropes and techniques developed by many generations of oral poets, and reinvented them to create an extraordinarily original and surprising written epic.’
Wilson’s Iliad is clear and brisk, its iambic pentameter a zone of enchantment. ‘The vast majority of contemporary English translations of the Homeric poems render the regular metre of the Greek into prose or nonmetrical free verse,’ she says. Yet metre is the enduring relic of a time when poetry was entirely oral, performed for audiences, and if not strictly memorised then studded with mnemonic devices that the regular metre reinforced. The catalogues and battle scenes (themselves catalogues of liquidation) are transformed from slough into song. When read aloud, ‘the long lists of names become music.’ Ancient critics praised Homer for his enargeia, often now translated as ‘vividness’. George Puttenham in The Art of English Poesie said enargeia ‘geueth a glorious lustre and light’. In Memorial (2011), her anti-heroic, radically pared-back version of the Iliad, Alice Oswald renders it as ‘bright unbearable reality’. While Wilson’s version has moments of throwaway beauty – Poseidon is ‘the god who wraps around the world’ – her goal, she says, was ‘immediacy’:
The wife of Hector so far still knew nothing.
No messenger had come to bring the news
that he had stayed outside beyond the gates.
Up in an inner chamber of the house
She wove a double-layered purple cloth,
and in it stitched elaborate designs.
She called the house slaves with their braided hair
to heat a mighty tripod on the fire,
so that the washing water would be hot
for Hector when he came back home from battle.
Poor fool! She did not know that very far
from any bath, he was already dead.
Does it matter that this is a woman’s translation – specifically, a translation of a war poem centred on the agon of its male warriors? (Wilson is not the first woman to translate the complete Iliad into English; Caroline Alexander did it in 2016.) The Homeric epics are superficially gendered: ‘The Ilias he made for the men, and the Odysseïs for the other sex,’ Richard Bentley declared in 1713. Samuel Butler’s The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) is the apotheosis of the idea (later picked up by Robert Graves) that the Odyssey is too charming to have been written by a man, and that, moreover, no man would make a heroic journey out of a return to a middle-aged wife. But women are not incidental to the Iliad. Helen’s abduction has caused the war, and the tussle over Chryseis and Briseis kickstarts the poem’s plot. It is Thetis, Achilles’ mother, who coaxes Zeus to punish the Greeks on her son’s behalf, driving the action of two-thirds of the poem. Aphrodite saves Paris from certain death (which would have ended the war prematurely) by means of a cloud of mist. If Athena hadn’t materialised and pulled Achilles’ hair in the war council in Book 1, he would have run Agamemnon through then and there. Hera hate-fucks Zeus, ensuring that he falls into a post-coital slumber and misses a crucial opportunity to defend the Trojans. Perhaps it takes a woman to point out, as Wilson does, that in the Iliad we have the first instance of a woman gearing herself up for a date as if for war:
the general structure of an arming scene – typically used to describe male warriors preparing for an important battle – is used when the goddess Hera ‘arms’ herself with a great outfit, fabulous skin creams and the perfect accessories, before setting out for her ‘battle’ to seduce her brother-husband, Zeus, and distract him from his military plan.
These are goddesses, but the poem is electrified by mortal women: when Andromache runs to intercept Hector at the Scaean Gates, taking their infant son Astyanax with her, to beg him not to go out to fight. Or when Helen walks on the ramparts and greets Priam, fanning the resentment of the superannuated old men watching the battle, though they grudgingly admit her gorgeousness. Helen has a wealth of bitter experience to regret. She doesn’t want to go to Paris’ bed the afternoon he skulks away from combat, and drips with sarcasm as she accuses Aphrodite of deceit. She is keen to recognise the few people who showed her kindness in Troy, such as Priam and Hector. Captive Briseis, mourning Patroclus, also emphasises his kindness to her. ‘When women are marginalised, enslaved and silenced, very few men will be capable of any form of kindness,’ Wilson remarks. It is no small thing for Homer to have noticed.
As for the men, not only are their lives cut short ‘in small war on the heels of small/war’, in Robert Lowell’s chilling phrase, but their warrior code locks them into destructive status competitions, like the one between Achilles and Agamemnon that almost routs the Greeks. The idea of losing face is appalling: Hector refuses to return within the walls for fear of being shamed. They seek glory, which will allow their names to live on after they die. These days, glory and fame are disaggregated, and our ways of gaining success or distinction are so tawdry that Wilson says she struggled to find adequate translations for such ‘semiarchaic’ words as honour and renown. Robin Lane Fox thinks that Simone Weil’s conception of elemental ‘Force’, which turns humans into objects, is too reductive to apply to Homer’s heroes, but on rereading Weil’s essay on the Iliad I shared her sense of an almost smothering desolation at the heart of the work. Still, Wilson sees no ‘straightforward misogyny’ or ‘straightforward militarism’ in Homer. From the poem’s dispassionate authorial viewpoint, the armies are not divided into good guys and villains. As Achilles tells Priam:
Two jars are set upon the floor of Zeus –
from one, he gives good things, the other, bad.
When thundering Zeus gives somebody a mixture,
their life is sometimes bad and sometimes good.
There are some whose lives emanate from one jar – ‘unmixed suffering’ – but even the luckiest man doesn’t have his life ladled out just from the good jar.
As Wilson writes, ‘how, where, when exactly and by whom the poems were made, we do not know.’ (Giambattista Vico suggested in the 18th century that ‘the Greek peoples were themselves Homer.’) Oswald has written that Homer
is simply not there. And nothing is known about him, not even whether he was one poet or several … So Homer’s hiddenness, which is really just his embeddedness in other voices, gives him access to things unseen, and puts no mediating obstacle between the unseen and the audience.
Lane Fox’s book, however, is a work of rapturous advocacy for the idea that there was a man called Homer who created the Iliad (or even, as the inscription on an Egyptian potsherd from 250 ad puts it, ‘Homer a god, not a mortal’). It’s unlikely to persuade everyone, but it is exciting when Lane Fox argues that Homer’s mortal feet walked south along the eastern Aegean seashore, for instance, past the island of Tenedos, the path Apollo’s priest Chryses follows in the Iliad after being rebuffed by Agamemnon. Lane Fox is far from the first historian to have travelled to the site to attempt to verify geographical details, although he may be the first to have run naked (nearly fifty years ago) around the excavated citadel of Troy VI, the layer most closely associated with the Mycenean Age, because Alexander the Great ran around what was then presumed to be the tomb of Achilles in 334 BC. He climbs Mount Gargaron to describe the carpet of golden crocuses and hyacinths on which Zeus and Hera have their tryst: ‘On this plant bed they lay,/surrounded by the lovely golden cloud,/which sprinkled shining drops of dew upon them.’ (One of Wilson’s best endnotes: ‘The dew provides an elegant and funny way of describing Zeus’s ejaculation … unsuitable for an epic poet to narrate directly.’) And he summarises the way various similes appear to demonstrate the author’s detailed knowledge of particular places, all helping to locate him somewhere on the north-eastern Aegean coast, the westernmost reaches of Asia, at a time when the Greeks were colonising it, after the Hittite powers had collapsed.
‘Homeric Greek,’ Wilson writes, ‘is a mixture of dialects from different areas and periods, never spoken simultaneously by any single person – just as no speaker would employ Chaucerian, Victorian, Glaswegian, Californian and Australian phrases and forms of English together in any normal conversation.’ The poem also combines artefacts and customs from different eras. There is no mention of any innovations more recent than c.680 BC, but some of Homer’s phrases ‘have been claimed to go back not just to c.1200 BC but early Mycenean c.1400 BC’, Lane Fox says. None of this, he argues, is incompatible with the idea of a single author. He more than once compares the amalgam of the Iliad to modern costume dramas: we have no problem superimposing modern English, and even modern social relations, on men in medieval dress. ‘The mixture of compression and fullness with a strictly controlled use of past and future,’ he says, ‘is not easy to reconcile with theories of the poem as a patchwork.’
He speculates that Homer composed his poems orally and then had them transcribed – the alphabet was a newfangled invention from Phoenicia – perhaps as an inheritance for his children (though he acknowledges that ‘we do not know, of course, that Homer married or had children, but even if not, he had other family members for whom he might wish to leave his great legacy’). It is estimated that transcribing the Iliad’s more than fifteen thousand lines would have required the skins of 86 average-sized goats.
The Iliad inspires feats of counting. Perhaps one reason is the poem’s delight in numbers, from Achilles’ nine dogs to Priam’s fifty sons (only nineteen of them with Hecuba). In the hierarchical Homeric world, the pecking order always follows the numbers: ‘I am the best of all the goddesses,’ Hera says to Zeus, ‘because I am the eldest and because/I am your wife and you rule all the gods.’ Lane Fox observes that the time frame of the poem spans fifty days (of a ten-year war), with a focus on twenty of them; fighting occurs on four, which account for four-fifths of the poem. The war’s ‘longest day’ accounts for eight books, a third of the poem: ‘170 battles are described and a further 130 are mentioned … but only eighteen involve more than one blow, and a mere six of these involve more than a single exchange of blows.’ Between the end of Book 4 and the beginning of Book 6, 54 individuals are killed; in the whole poem 189 named Trojans die but only 43 Greeks. About 60 per cent of the Iliad is made up of speeches. There are about 340 similes in the poem; forty of them involve lions.
Beyond the main cast is an even larger number of minor characters: some get only a few lines as they perish by spear or arrow, others emerge with a speech at a council then fade into the background, adding a density to the poem that makes rereading a continual revelation. There’s Phoenix, Achilles’ old tutor, who is kicked out by his father after seducing ‘a prostitute my father fell in love with’ at his mother’s tearful request. And Phylas, the old man who took in his infant grandson and ‘cuddled him, took care of him, and raised him/as if he were his son’, because he had been born out of wedlock and his mother’s new husband didn’t want him. Out of such microdramas, Homer’s descendants fashioned lyric poems: Ovid gives Briseis a dramatic monologue in the Heroides; Cavafy borrows from the scene where Achilles’ immortal horses weep for Patroclus and Zeus berates himself for setting the noble creatures up for grief.
Behind this fine detail lies a design. Not only does the poem follow an inexorable plot, it also has a ring structure, engaging in a pattern of scene-doubling, or mirroring, that is both aesthetically satisfying and dramatically ironic. In the beginning, a living daughter (Chryseis) is returned to her father (Chryses); at the end, a dead son (Hector) is returned to his father (Priam). Agamemnon’s seizure of Briseis is an echo of Helen’s abduction. There are two scenes of afternoon sex, one in Book 3 in which Helen is reluctantly outfitted by Aphrodite for Paris’ pleasure, the other in Book 14 in which Hera ‘arms’ herself, also with Aphrodite’s help, to entice Zeus; both men, beholding their wives, declare themselves (comically) more overcome with desire than ever before. In Book 6, the Trojan Glaucis and Greek Diomedes exchange armour in acknowledgment of the friendship between their families despite their enemy status; in Book 16 Achilles allows Patroclus to don his own armour, leading to his death in a case of mistaken identity.
All these different kinds of armour are described in close and admiring detail, the compliment perhaps that one master craftsman pays to another, wordsmith to bronzesmith. As Hera is preparing to visit Zeus:
in her well-pierced lobes
she placed a triple-clustered set of earrings,
with drops like mulberries, and the effect
Nestor’s ‘cup of great magnificence’ is described in Book 11, ‘studded with golden rivets, with four handles,/round each of which two golden doves were pecking’. And when Odysseus, Ajax and Phoenix visit Achilles’ tent in Book 9:
He was playing
a well-tuned lyre of ornate craftsmanship,
whose bridge was silver, which he got as war loot
when he destroyed the town of Eëtion.
It brought him joy. He sang heroic songs
of famous men.
These descriptions foreshadow the great set piece in Book 18, when Thetis goes to Hephaestus and asks him to forge new armour for Achilles to replace what Hector stripped from Patroclus’ body. Hephaestus decorates the armour with an intricate cosmos that mirrors the Iliad, juxtaposing war and peace; a wedding and a murder trial; agricultural rites and a lion attacking a herd. The final scene is of ‘handsome young men and pretty teenage girls’ dancing to music with complicated steps. Homer stands both inside and outside the description. It gives an eerie sense of a narrative Möbius strip between Patroclus’ death and Hector’s – a momentary suspension of grief.
The foreshadowing is layers deep. When we hear of Achilles singing ‘heroic stories/of famous men’ while Patroclus listens, we should think back to Helen at her loom telling Hector in Book 6: ‘Zeus set an evil lot upon us all,/to make us topics of a singer’s tale/for people in the future still unborn.’ Meanwhile, on Helen’s loom is a tapestry of the war itself – yet another miniaturised Iliad. So there is Achilles the bard – a stand-in for Homer. And there is Helen, bitterly anticipating becoming a character in a bard’s heroic song. And there is the lyre, one of several objects plundered from Eëtion, king of Thebes, which surface casually throughout the poem as Achilles gets closer and closer to killing Hector – the husband of Andromache, Eëtion’s daughter. Andromache’s father and all seven of her brothers were slain by Achilles, and she knows he’s coming for her, too. So when we see him strumming Eëtion’s lyre, we must wonder: if Achilles shares Homer’s gift, does Homer share Achilles’ wrath? Does it take ‘cataclysmic wrath’ to work a deathless poem?
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.