“…there is little respite in war.”
I finished reading The Iliad by Homer (translated by Martin Hammond), published by Penguin Classics. The edition I had included critical notes at the beginning, and an index of names at the end. The translation itself was written in prose form (like a story, as opposed to keeping poetic line breaks). There are 24 chapters (or books). 450 pages, soft cover. I’ve been wanting to read this for years, and I finally made it happen.
I couldn’t find the exact edition on Amazon, so the link above doesn’t match the actual book I read. The one I had looked something like this:
Wow! The book was so complex, it is hard to know where to begin!
The story takes place during the battle of Troy. Everything happens either in Troy, on the battle field just outside the city, or in the Achaian (Greek) camp, which is at the shore of a river by their ships. The reader learns the Achaians have been at war with the Trojans for 9 years. But the story isn’t just about the war. The war isn’t even over when the book ends.
What started the war was a Trojan named Paris kidnapped Helen, the wife of the Achaian, Menelaos. Menelaos and his brother, Agamemnon, raised an army to get Helen back.
The book is more so about Achilles, a hero fighting on the Achaian side.
There’s three active groups of characters in the story: the Trojans, the Achaians, and the Greek pantheon of gods.
The king of Troy is an old man named Priam. Paris is one of his sons. Even though Paris started the whole mess, he plays more of a minor role in the epic. Instead, his brother, Hektor, gets more stage time. The Trojans have been joined by several allies.
The Achaian army, led by King Agamemnon, is an alliance of many groups, led by various heros. Menelaos is there of course. We also have Achilles, Odysseus, Aias, Idomeneus, Nestor, Diomedes, and many others.
In fact, there were so many characters, the index at the back is 50 pages long.
Members of the Greek pantheon were actively involved in the story, sometimes drastically changing the course of events. Especially active were Zeus, Apollo, Hera, and Athena; with appearances from Thetis, Aphrodite, Hermes, Poseidon, Hephaistos, Artemis, Iris, Ares, and other spirits/divine beings. Also, there are many demi-gods on the battle field, on both the Trojan side and the Achaian side. For example, Achilles’ mother is Thetis (as sea-goddess. Daughter of Poseidon, I think?), while Zeus has a son on the Trojan side, Sarpedon.
The First Day (chapters 1-7)
The story opens in the Achaian camp, where Achilles and Agamemnon have a disagreement (Agamemnon stole his war bride). Achilles prays to his mother Thetis, and Thetis convinces Achilles to stay out of the fighting as a form of protest. Thetis then goes to Zeus and asks that the Trojans be given great success so that Agamemnon will see his folly and make things right with Achilles. Zeus doesn’t tell the other gods what he is up to.
After chapter 1, the reader begins to see the disastrous results of the prayer. The two armies muster and march out to the battle field. Achilles and the group he commands stay in their camp. Before the clash of battle, Paris and Menelaos agree to settle their differences with a duel. The two fight, and Paris is quickly overpowered. Before Menelaos can kill him, however, Aphrodite enters the scene, kidnaps Paris, and brings him back to his bedroom in Troy.
The armies then fight, spurred on by gods like Athena (helping the Achaians) and Ares (helping the Trojans). Athena encourages Diomedes to attack Aphrodite and Ares directly. After this, the gods withdraw from the battle, leaving it to mortals (not worth getting hurt!). Zeus tells the other gods to back off and not get involved. The Achaians are winning for the most part.
Hektor goes back to Troy, and finds Paris. He encourages him to get back out and fight. Near the end of the first day of battle, the armies settle down for another duel. Hektor fights Aias. Aias is winning, but it gets dark, so they stop fighting.
The Second Day (chapters 8-10)
The second day, the Trojans push back. When darkness comes, the Trojans camp on the plain instead of going back to the city. The Achaians are in despair at the end of the day, and King Agamemnon tries to make amends with Achilles. Achilles holds on to his simmering anger, however, and refuses to be reconciled. Chapter 10 takes place at night, with Odysseus and Diomedes spying on the Trojan camp, even killing the leader of one of their allies.
The Third Day (chapters 11-18)
The fighting on the third day is intense. Achaian leaders are being wounded- Agamemnon, Diomedes and Odysseus have to withdraw from the battle. The Trojans push the Achaians all the way back to their camp’s defensive walls. Sarpedon (son of Zeus) breaches the wall, and the Trojans start pouring in. During the battle, a son of Ares is killed, along with several Trojan heroes.
Meanwhile, the gods Hera and Poseidon want to help the Achaians, so Hera seductively distracts Zeus while Poseidon helps the army. The Achaians are able to drive the Trojans out. Zeus eventually gets back on the job and turns the battle around again. The Trojans fight all the way to the Achaian ships, and even set one on fire. Achilles is at the opposite end of the row of ships, and is still determined not to fight unless the battle actually reaches his own ships.
Achilles’ friend, Patrokolos, is tired of waiting around not fighting, and convinces Achilles to let him go out, commanding their troops and wearing Achilles’ armor. Achilles agrees.
Patrokolos marches out with his fresh troops, and they drive the Trojans out of the camp. There is a battle between Patrokolos and Sarpedon, and Sarpedon is killed. Patrokolos then faces off against Hektor, but Hektor wins, and Patrokolos is killed.
News reaches Achilles that his friend was killed, and this spurs him to act. He is grieved, and his mother Thetis comes to him. But he has no armor, so he simply stands nearby and yells at the Trojans. They are scared of him, and withdraw as the sun sets.
The Fourth Day (chapters 19-22)
Thetis brings Achilles some new armor, forged by the god Hephaistos. Achilles finally reconciles with Agamemnon. Now that Achilles is back in action, Zeus permits the other gods to be involved once again. Achilles goes on a rampage (aided by Athena), culminating in the death of Hektor.
Wrapping it up (chapters 23 and 24)
Achilles holds a funeral for Patrokolos, including funeral games (chariot races, archery, etc). They mistreat Hektor’s body. Eventually King Priam comes and ransoms the body back and the Trojans are then able to properly mourn Hektor, the protector of the city. The two sides agree to hold off on fighting for a couple of weeks while they go about their mourning.
Then the story abruptly ends! There had been much forshadowing that Troy would be sacked, and that Achilles would be killed, but these events are left to take place after the narrative ends.
I’ve had so many thoughts while reading this book, it is challenging to summarize my main impressions!
The story assumes the readers are familiar with the stories of Perseus and Hercules. Several references are made to them, and some of Hercules’ descendants are on the battlefield. (But the story is still understandable without knowing those legends).
An important feature in the book is the interaction between the immortal and the mortal. Positive things happen to both the Trojans and the Achaians, and it is attributed to various gods helping both sides. If the gods are not in agreement, it helps explain the chaos mankind sees around them. I think this observations helps me to understand this worldview a little better.
Everybody is Somebody
The battles were not described in the movements of battalions and groups as I’ve seen in some books. Instead, the battles were told as series of short episodes between individuals: so-and-so the Achaian fought so-and-so the Trojan. So-and-so won by stabbing him in such-and-such a location, and the loser crashed to the ground, his armor clattering about him. Every single combatant was named and had a back story. (As I mentioned above, the index of characters was 50 pages long!) Even if the character was only just introduced and died a moment later, a few details about him were given. Where was he from? What was his life like before he came to war? What was his mother’s name?, etc. The cumulative effect of reading this sort of thing page after page, chapter after chapter, is the thought that “everybody is somebody”.
As tragic as it was for Achilles to lose his friend Patrokolos, or for Priam to lose Hektor, that tragedy and emotional anguish was true for every single death that happened on that battle field- on both sides of the conflict. This is refreshing, given some of the violence on TV or video games these days- filled with the deaths of anonymous, nameless bad guys. War is terrible. For everyone.
I read this book as part of my 2017 reading challenge: a book from the Essential Man’s library. As such, I should ask myself questions about how this book interacts with the idea of what it means to be a man.
One thing I detested in the book was the treatment of women. Women were carried off as war brides. Women were awarded as prizes in contests, or as part of ransoms in payments. Women are people too, not property or the spoils of war!
The armies encouraged each other to “be men”, and qualified that with attributes like strength and courage. This doesn’t surprise me, but I’m not sure my ability to fight others should be the sole indicator of my manhood.
A more interesting idea that came up a few times was that various men were measured on two abilities: “A doer of deeds and a speaker of words”. Some characters were said to be strong in one or the other. High praise was given to characters who were strong in both. That seems an ideal a little more worth emulating- someone who can get something done, and is skilled in saying the right sorts of things.
Final word: In general, I’d recommend it as a worthwhile read. Some of the descriptions of death may be a little too much for some readers.