The Iliad, Homer’s extraordinary epic poem, begins with Apollo, the god of light, zooming down from heaven “like night,” bringing plague to the Greek camp before Troy. Many days later, after the Trojan Hector’s funeral rites, the poem ends, at dawn. The light god brings darkness; dawn brings the doom of Troy. Such are the ironies that underpin the epic, revealing it as a work of supreme artistry, probably composed by one hand alone.
For decades, I have lived in the light and shadow of The Iliad, reading it at first piecemeal in Greek, then in various translations, then all the way through in Greek (an experience both taxing and exhilarating). My Loeb edition, its prim English translation opposite the raw Greek, is never far from my side. In it, even the immortal gods are precarious, trapped in bronze containers and hung in chains; humans struggle below. Every time I open it I discern new echoes, deeper resonances.
There are many puzzling things about The Iliad: How it was composed, when, why, by whom and, not least, why none of its numerous cast eat fish, despite being right next to the sea. All of which is to say that The Iliad casts a numinous spell. Why, exactly, this is so is the subject of much discussion, and both Emily Wilson and Robin Lane Fox — the former in a translation of the poem, the latter in a critical study — provide their own answers.
Wilson, whose recent translation of The Odyssey received much acclaim, becomes the first woman to publish a translation of The Iliad in English (Anne le Fèvre Dacier translated it into French in the seventeenth century, influencing Alexander Pope’s ornate English version). Her critical introduction is lucid, particularly on the poem’s understanding of love and honor. For Wilson, the fighters — Achilles, Hector and the rest — are “tragically solitary,” caught in a bind between their zest for “individual glory” (what Homer calls “kleos”) and “fighting for one’s people.” Their ethical systems are destructive, yet they understand that the “ultimate form of love is to see no difference between the self and the beloved.”
Although the introduction is (mostly) untouched by fashionable jargon, it is jarring to read that when the soldier Thersites (one of the few non-aristocratic characters) calls his fellows “girls, not men,” he’s impugning their “gender identity”; similarly, Thersites himself, stunted and crooked, “reinforces” the poem’s “ableist preference for the aristocratic and sturdy warrior ideal,” which seems simultaneously obvious and ridiculous. A warrior society that wasn’t ableist? Hey guys, come on in, the plunder’s yours.
Nonetheless, Wilson’s love and appreciation of the poem shine, though she finds in it a gloomy paradigm: “A new kind of heartbreak can be felt in The Iliad’s representation of a city in its last days… a city that will soon be burned to the ground, in a landscape that will soon be flooded by all the rivers, in a world where soon, no people will live at all, and there will be no more stories and no more names.” Few remember that Zeus is said to have ordained the Trojan War to control the excess population: this ecological aspect becomes more pressing.
For the poem itself, Wilson has chosen that most English of metres, the iambic pentameter, which thumps along: in her very first lines, “Goddess, sing of the cataclysmic wrath / of great Achilles,” the emphases on the hard “c” of “cataclysmic” and “Achilles” signal the poem’s harsh power; the choice of “cataclysmic,” a Greek-derived word, is a forceful way of conveying the original “oulomenen,” usually glossed as “devastating” or similar.
Wilson has a keen sense for sound: when the sea-goddess Thetis supplicates Zeus, she “stayed there, / and kept on grasping at his knees, as if / grafting herself to grow there.” Those repeated “grs” convey both the intimacy and the desperation of the goddess. There are many striking metaphors: “Disaster has been fastened to the Trojans by Zeus” precisely transmits inevitability; when a soldier dies, “Red death pressed his eyes,” while blood is “storm-black.” And Wilson brings to life even the most seemingly mundane moments: Agamemnon “sat up straight, put on a fine, soft tunic, / new made, and wrapped his big cloak round himself, / and tied his sandals to his well-oiled feet.”
Moments of more intense emotion are dealt with finely, as when Achilles’ love for Patroclus is brought into astonishing relief:
‘If only the whole multitude of Trojans would die, and all the Greeks, and we alone, the two of us, survived the devastation, so we alone together could destroy the sacred crown of Troy.’
After Patroclus dies, Achilles states: “I wish anger did not exist.” A literal translation of the Greek would go something like “would that strife be destroyed.” Using the first person and strengthening his desire renders the statement beautiful and deadly: with no anger, there would be no poem (“wrath,” “menin,” is its first word, and it was the goddess Strife who first threw down the golden apple at the feet of the goddesses, leading to Aphrodite’s giving of Helen in marriage to Paris, thus causing the Trojan War). Achilles here is asking for an impossible world, something only one of his heroic temperament can demand.
It seems a little callous to pick at a work so evidently inspired by intelligent passion, but there are infelicities, to my ear at least: “go eat your dinner,” says Agamemnon to his troops, and he talks of “a massive win”; Hector, meanwhile, has obviously attended some management seminars: “Stay focused,” he advises his Trojans. Sometimes the use of more modern terminology can be very striking, as when the Trojan Aeneas says to Achilles: “Both of us can keep generating insults,” or when Achilles is fighting the river Scamander, who calls upon another river to “Stir up a mighty wave, like a tsunami.” The Japanese word doesn’t stick out, condensing the Greek, and calling to mind destruction. Other times, it doesn’t quite work, as when Hector thinks about “teenagers” chatting. Even later Greeks had no idea how old they were, as they didn’t have precise calendars; and the term is so new and specific, I think of bubblegum and jukeboxes.
Though the iambic pentameter does become wearying towards the end, and Wil- son’s conscious eschewing of weightier or more ornate vocabulary can result in a curious flatness, the translation nevertheless achieves a fluid and consistent vision. As I read, the Greek lay behind it like a shadow: but Wilson throws it into new, and sometimes startling light.
Robin Lane Fox’s Homer and His Iliad is the product of a lifetime’s contemplation and study. Lane Fox is a horseman, a gardener, a classicist and an Oxford don; he famously refused a fee for Oliver Stone’s film Alexander, for which he served as historical consultant, wanting only to lead one of the cavalry charges.
He sets out what little evidence we have for the poem’s composition, drawing much from the poem itself and from history and later anthropological fieldwork, particularly that of Milman Parry, an American scholar who recorded Serbian bards composing long poems. Lane Fox’s own interests — horses and gardening — come very much to the fore, and there is a wonderful chapter on the ethics of horses in the poem. As a young man, Lane Fox ran round the city of Troy; this athletic enthusiasm brings vitality to the book.
We know that The Iliad is at least 2,600 years old, or, in Lane Fox’s characteristically vivid touch, was “composed some fifty lifetimes before our own.” Although we do have evidence (from Hittite tablets) of a people called the Ahhiyawa (the Achaioi [the Greeks] of the poem) and a city called Wilusa (Ilius, or Ilion, another name for Troy), Lane Fox argues that the events of The Iliad are not based on historical reality but were later invented and romanticized.
He does, however, firmly believe that not only was Homer a single real person (rather than a fictionalized bard, or a series of real ones), but that he visited Troy. An illiterate oral poet, brought up by poets in a coastal settlement, Homer dictated his version, and it is this which forms (after much transmission) the basis for ours, deprived of its original glory, but still wonderful. It’s a compelling argument, particularly as it is delivered with such passion. Lane Fox can also be very funny, as when he mentions the scholar who “took up sexology… and argued that sex was very important for the understanding of heroic poems. Perhaps it is, but nobody has yet explained exactly how.”
This is a stirring introduction to the sometimes alien Homeric world: and Lane Fox almost makes you believe that he was there himself. He does not agree with Wilson, seeing the warlike mores of the heroes not as destructive, but as a continuum of their way of life, highlighting the courteous and ethical behavior of Achilles both in the funeral games and to King Priam. He concludes: “The values of The Iliad are not a remote historical oddity. Shame and fame, honor, rage and disgrace engage us because they are still at large.” Though very different from Wilson’s interpretation, both books demonstrate just how important this poem is, and how lucky we are to still have it. Bursting out from the dawn of recorded time, it yet shows us who we are, though through a glass darkly.
As to why the heroes don’t eat fish: well, that remains a mystery.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2023 World edition.