Charlotte Higgins on the continuing relevance of a 3,000-year-old poem.
Many wishing to make sense of wars in their own time have reached for The Iliad. Alexander the Great, perhaps the most flamboyantly successful soldier in history, slept beside a copy annotated by his tutor, Aristotle. "He esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge," according to Plutarch's biography. Simone Weil's essay, "L'Iliade ou le poème de la force", published in 1940, holds that "the true hero, the true subject at the centre of The Iliad is force", which she defines as "that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing".
Her contemporary Rachel Bespaloff, a Geneva-raised philosopher who wound up in the United States, also turned to Homer's poem as a "method of facing" the second world war. For her, it tells a profound, human story – "Suffering and loss have stripped Hector bare," her essay "On The Iliad" begins.
We are still turning to The Iliad, amid our own wars: the Australian writer David Malouf's recent novel, Ransom (Chatto & Windus), is about the encounter between Priam and Achilles in The Iliad's final book, while Caroline Alexander's new study of the poem, The War that Killed Achilles (Faber), sees it as a meditation on the catastrophic effects of conflict. While she does not indulge in crass equivalences, it is hard not to be alerted by her reading to the devastation caused by the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Trojan war – a more or less mythical event – was a 10-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greeks, its purpose to restore Helen to her Spartan husband, Menelaus. The Iliad charts not the famous causes of the conflict (the Trojan prince Paris's abduction of Helen) nor its spectacularly bloody end (the Greeks' ruse of the wooden horse and the brutal sacking of the city). Instead, the subject of the poem is menis, fury – specifically, the wrath of the Greeks' best warrior, Achilles.
That wrath is provoked by his commander-in-chief Agamemnon's misguided decision to seize Briseis, Achilles's captive woman, as compensation for his own bit of living loot, Chriseis, whom he has been obliged to restore to her Trojan father. Achilles, his pride and honour outraged, withdraws from the fighting and persuades his mother, the goddess Thetis, to ask Zeus to turn the tide of war against the Greeks, knowing that they will suffer appalling losses. He stubbornly resists all appeals to return to battle, but eventually agrees to send his beloved comrade, Patroclus, into the fray.
When Patroclus is killed by the Trojans' best fighter, Hector, Achilles whirls into a frenzy of redoubled, redirected rage. He joins the fighting, and begins a lengthy and pitiless slaughtering spree. Finally, he kills Hector in single combat and attaches the corpse to his chariot, dragging it triumphantly around the walls of the city. (In 2004, the bodies of American contractors were attached to the backs of cars and dragged through the streets of Fallujah.) At the end of the poem Hector's frail and eldery father, Priam, enters the Greeks' camp and persuades Achilles to restore to him his son's body.
[...] The Iliad still has much to say about war, even as it is fought today. It tells us that war is both the bringer of renown to its young fighters and the destroyer of their lives. It tells us about post-conflict destruction and chaos; about war as the great reverser of fortunes. It tells us about the age-old dilemmas of fighters compelled to serve under incompetent superiors. It tells us about war as an attempt to protect and preserve a treasured way of life. It tells us, too, about the profound gulf between civilian existence and life on the front line; about atrocities and indiscriminate slaughter; about war's peculiar mercilessness to women and children; about friendships and sympathies across the battle lines. It tells us of the love between soldiers who fight together. Most of all, it tells us about the frightful losses of war: of a soldier losing his closest companion, of a father losing his son. [Read More]