So, a new job and a move half way across the country (with my Great Books packed up) caused this blog to go quiet for much longer than I intended. But I am back and will post more regularly. In the meantime, here is a review I wrote about a book that considers Homer’s Iliad.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Caroline Alexander’s thesis in this is book is that the Iliad “used conventional epic events and heroes to challenge the heroic view of war.” She argues that Achilles chooses revenge over a long life and that he feels like the war is a waste of lives. Alexander also discounts Achilles desire for everlasting glory by noting that in the poem he described that living is the best thing.
While I agree with her that the Iliad clearly shows the awful nature of war and is sympathetic to the Trojans, I am not sure that I agree with her reading of the book’s message. She argues that the poem shows how awful war is and is in effect and anti-war poem, and, as I mentioned, that Achilles saying life is more valuable than anything else shows how the idea that Ancient Greek warriors strove for glory above all things is a misreading of the poem. She writes that “…Achilles does not belong in the warrior company at Troy. He did not cross the wine-dark sea for the common cause, nor did he come for glory. Achilles came to Troy because he was tricked into doing so.”
But she does not seem to account for the fact that Achilles could choose to go home and live a long life well before Patroklos is killed. Achilles tells the other Greeks who come to persuade him back into battle, “For my mother Theits the goddess of silver feet tells me I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either, if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans, my return home is gone, but my glory shall be ever lasting; but if I return hom to the beloved land of my fathers, the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.”
Achilles does not ask Thetis to go to Poseidon to make sure he will have a safe voyage home. He asks her to go to Zeus to make sure he will win glory. Achilles is not some indifferent warrior, tricked into coming to Troy. He is a hero wgho “longed always for the clamour and fighting” and who the rest of the Greeks believe will come back tot he battle “whenever the time comes that the heart in his body urges him to.”
While I disagree with Alexander on these points, I enjoyed her book because I thought it rasied interesting questions about the nature of war and command and military service. I think challenging the idea of the Greek warrior’s glory is a good thing. Is it glorious that they are all fighting over one woman, or should everything be settled in a duel. On one level, I think she is right in that Homer sees the war as a tragic, and wasteful thing. But on another level, I think she is ignoring the reason that drives these men on to fight in a misguided war. It is this notion of glory that is driving them. There is the promise of plunder and material reward, but there is also a way of thought in the culture that says this is a necessary thing to do. Ultimately Achilles could not break that.
Another issue that comes up in the Iliad and thus in Alexander’s book is the notion of fate. Are they all fated to be there based on the actions of the Gods? What is the agency of the men in this extreme situation?
I think Alexander’s reading of the Iliad is a decidedly modern one, and an interesting one, but I argue with her fundamental thesis. Still, this book would be an interestin read to anyone with an interest in studying the Iliad.