“The wrath of Achilles is my theme, that fatal wrath which, in fulfilment of the will of Zeus, brought the Achaeans so much suffering and sent the gallant souls of many noblemen to Hades, leaving their bodies as carrion for the dogs and passing birds.”
So begins E. V. Rieu’s translation (for Penguin Classics in 1950) of Homer’s Iliad, a prose translation of Greek hexameter verse, telling of the story of an incident, over only a few weeks, in the interminable ten-year Trojan war. We begin in media res, with the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon which led to the former withdrawing from the fighting and the death in battle of his dearest friend and comrade, Patroclus, and Achilles’ later fiery vengeance.
Although I’ve had this book in my collection for years, I was only prompted to actually read it after reading Pat Barker’s excellent retelling of the Iliad from Briseis’s point of view (The Silence of the Girls), and I could not help filtering the Iliad through that lens. Briseis’s jaundiced view of the Achaean conquerors, who have enslaved her and the other women, make Homer’s descriptions of these men – “swift Achilles”, “battle-loving Menelaus”, “Nestor the clear-voiced orator from Pylos” – seem hollow, and ironic. Homer’s descriptions of battle, however, do not make it sound anything but sordid, despite the taunts each man hurls at his opponent, and the noble birth vaunted as a shield: as if one would achieve the more glory by killing a god’s son, or a rich man’s child.
Rieu’s translation is a little old-fashioned, and of course being in prose, one doesn’t get the sense of the original as poetry (unlike Caroline Alexander’s 2015 translation which I’ve just acquired as a sort of contrast).
There is, nevertheless, some humour in the bloody carnage: Nestor, the oldest man in the Achaean force, is always boasting about the great deeds he did when he was younger, for instance, and the gods and their quarrels are not always taken very seriously by the poet. It’s somewhat frustrating for a modern reader to hear about the direct intervention in events by the gods – this one whisking a favourite away from certain death, another filling a previously courageous soldier with cowardice, yet another giving false counsel – where ill luck is due to a god snapping a bowstring, or glancing aside a spear thrust. It makes the men in the story seem less, I think, to show them as mere playthings of fate. Yet, maybe that was a comfort to Homer and his audience, back in Bronze Age Greece, to know that they could not move without the knowledge of the gods. While their honour, and insults to it, are taken very seriously, the Achaeans (and the sympathetically portrayed Trojans) do not fear to show their grief for the loss of comrades and friends: the butcher Achilles weeps unrestrainedly at the death of Patroclus and no-one scorns his sorrow.
Despite the repetition of phrases, whole speeches, descriptions of men arming themselves for battle, the seemingly endless catalogue of the ships, the poem has an epic scope and propulsive power. The main characters, Odysseus, Diomedes, Hector, Priam, for example, and, above all, Achilles, seem real and rounded people. Even the women, to whom Homer only allows one or two speeches, come alive in their grief for others. It’s not an epic in the sense of spanning vast distances and many months or years, but it does show the futility of war and the inevitability of death.