A century ago this review would have been unnecessary. As a civilised, educated person you would already have been more than familiar with Homer’s Iliad – probably in the original Greek. Perhaps, like the doomed poet Rupert Brooke, you would have declaimed it across the Aegean on your way to Gallipoli; or carried the copy you won as a school prize to the trenches, as both consolation and inspiration. It is, after all, the first and arguably greatest work in Western literature about men and war.
So why is it so relatively little-read today? One reason, perhaps, is that it has become a victim of its own near-legendary status. It has a reputation so dauntingly huge that few dare broach it for fear of being either tragically disappointed or bored rigid by its epic worthiness.
Written sometime between 760 and 710 BC, and originally designed, of course, to be recited rather than read, The Iliad came before the main Greek philosophers, the Roman Empire, Christianity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This is Western civilisation in its rawest, wildest, most untutored state.
But The Iliad, which I read only in full (and in E.V. Rieu’s Penguin translation) myself the other day, is not remotely disappointing, boring or worthy. For lovers of literature it’s a thrilling opportunity to witness the birth of the canon, for movie buffs it’s a chance to meet those Greek gods and heroes in their original incarnations, for war enthusiasts it has violence that makes Saving Private Ryan look like Mary Poppins, and for drugs connoisseurs it’s quite possibly the trippiest thing you’ll experience outside the influence of LSD.
It’s a strange, fragmentary work which begins
in medias res. The Trojan wars have been raging for years in virtual stalemate, with the Greeks still camped by their ships on the beach, and the Trojans still secure in their city of Ilium.
At this point the Greeks are in trouble. Though fate has decided they’re eventually going to win, they’ve just lost their best fighter – the arrogant, petulant, angry, fickle, cruel and deeply unlikeable Achilles – who has downed tools and retired to his tent in an epic sulk, having been slighted by King Agamemnon, who has stolen his mistress.
We have entered a world whose values and outlook predate almost all the cultural influences that have shaped the way we think. Written sometime between 760 and 710 BC, and originally designed, of course, to be recited rather than read, The Iliad came before the main Greek philosophers, the Roman Empire, Christianity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This is Western civilisation in its rawest, wildest, most untutored state.
What, then, are its priorities? One, definitely, is piety. Neglect the gods, who control everything, and you are doomed. Show them real devotion, on the other hand, and they’ll see you right, as for example Zeus does to his beloved Achilles. (Well, until Achilles’s luck runs out – as the Fates have decreed it must, for not even gods can overrule the Fates). There’s a delightful moment in Book One, where Homer describes in loving detail how an ox is ritually slaughtered and its choicest bits are cooked over an open fire, put on skewers and offered to gods. “Wow,” you think. “This is literature’s first kebab barbecue.”
Equally important is personal courage. This, remember, is the Age of Heroes and wars appear to be won not by massed troops in disciplined formation, but rather by the extraordinary prowess of mighty individuals. They operate according to a pagan rule book rather shocking till you get used to it. For example, having killed their enemy in single combat their aim is to strip him of his valuable armour and then mutilate his body. In order to avoid this collective dishonour, those on the opposing side will resist with equal ferocity. “But he’s dead, it’s over!” you want to protest. No one’s listening to you, though. Their world, their weird code.
No man dies in The Iliad without your being told precisely what the spear did to his teeth or the sword to his entrails. You’re struck by how intimate both author and audience would have been with the niceties of violent death, inured almost to the point of indifference.
Apart from quality armour, horses, weaponry, ancestry, extreme weather, and predatory wild beasts – you can tell the preoccupations of the era by the detail lavished on them – The Iliad has an obsession with the physical details of death bordering on the surgical, or autoptical. No man dies in The Iliad without your being told precisely what the spear did to his teeth or the sword to his entrails. You’re struck by how intimate both author and audience would have been with the niceties of violent death, inured almost to the point of indifference.
Almost. There’s a wonderfully moving moment towards the end when Andromache, wife of the recently slain Hector, prophetically laments the miserable future of poverty and loneliness now to be endured by their son Astyanax “who used to sit on his father’s knees and eat nothing but marrow and mutton fat and when he was drowsy and tired of play slept in his bed, softly cradled in his nurse’s arms, heart full of contentment”.
This moment of human empathy reaches to us across the millennia in a way the stylised battle clashes never can. Deep down, you realise, our ancestors were just like us, really. They just needed a couple of thousand years more civilisation to polish up a few rough edges.