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The Iliad, Page 2


  The roofs of some great houses have extended welcome shelter to the translator and his work. Theodore and Mary Cross have turned Nantucket into Ithaca West with their Homeric hospitality. The Rock efeller Foundation provided a resident fellowship at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio during May 1985. Princeton University gave me leaves of absence in the spring semesters of 1982, 1985 and 1989, and, more important, the chance to study Homer with many students who have been an education to me. The Program in Hellenic Studies at the university twice appointed me to a Stanley J. Seeger Fellowship, first to begin the translation on Greek terrain, then to complete it there years later. The secretariat of Comparative Literature, from its leader, Carol Szymanski, to Gary Fuchs, to the Quietwriter and lately, the LaserJet, have been invaluable in helping to prepare the final manuscript. And close to the zero hour Deborah Fryer shared the task of placing the Greek line numbers throughout the text.

  To produce the book at hand, my editor, Kathryn Court, assisted by Caroline White, has treated the writing and the writer, too, with energy, affection and address. Beena Kamlani's efforts to copy-edit a fairly large and unruly manuscript have been heroic. Ann Gold, with all her artistry joined by Amy Hill's, has designed a volume to companion the two that came before it. Anita Karl and James Kemp have drawn up the fine maps to guide the reader through the wilds of Homer's world. Mary Sunden has labored long and hard with Joe Marcey and Peter Smith to find this version of the Iliad some readers. And the good people at Viking Penguin--Michael Jacobs, Christine Pevitt, Leigh Butler, Paul Slovak, Marcia Burch, Faye Darnall, Maureen Donnelly, Daniel Lundy, Cynthia Achar, Roni Axelrod--all have been loyal allies in New York. In London Peter Carson and Paul Keegan have been generous hosts to the latest Homer in the house. Before he left the publisher my former editor, Alan Williams, who saw me through the troubles of Aeschylus and Sophocles, gave my plans a happy push toward Troy. Prior to the present volume, Ben Sonnenberg graciously opened the pages of Grand Street and ran three books of the translation. Reginald Gibbons gave another book a timely berth in TriQuarterly. And through it all, without the unfailing stay and strategies of my friend and agent Georges Borchardt, assisted by Cindy Klein, this Iliad might never have been published.

  "The Classics, it is the Classics!" Blake exclaimed, with pointed reference to Homer, "that Desolate Europe with Wars!" The violence of the Iliad can be overpowering, as it was for Simone Weil and many others, yet, as the Introduction observes, Homer makes that violence coexist with humanity and compassion, as close together as the city at war and the city at peace emblazoned on Achilles' shield. If the translation offers any sense of this, it is because the translator has often consulted the familiar spirits of Adam and Anne Parry, and always relied on the Muses summoned in the dedication, chief among them Lynne.


  Princeton, New Jersey

  June 17, 1990


  This printing contains minor revisions of the text.

  R.F and B.K.

  June 2001



  "Iliad" is a word that means "a poem about Ilium" (i.e., Troy), and Homer's great epic poem has been known as "The Iliad" ever since the Greek historian Herodotus so referred to it in the fifth century B.C. But the title is not an adequate description of the contents of the poem, which are best summed up in its opening line: "the rage of Peleus' son Achilles." The incident that provoked Achilles' rage took place in the tenth and final year of the Achaean attack on Troy, and though Homer does work into his narrative scenes that recall earlier stages of the war (the muster of the Achaean forces in Book 2, for example, and Priam's first sight of Agamemnon and the other Achaean chieftains in Book 3), the rage of Achilles--its cause, its course and its disastrous consequences--is the theme of the poem, the mainspring of the plot.

  Chryses, a priest of Apollo, whose daughter has been carried off by the Achaeans in one of their raids, comes to the camp to ransom her. But she has been assigned, in the division of the booty, to the king who commands the Achaean army, Agamemnon, and he refuses to give her up. Her father prays for help to Apollo, who sends a plague that devastates the Achaean camp. Achilles, leader of the Myrmidons, one of the largest contingents of the Achaean army, summons the chieftains to an assembly. There they are told by the prophet Calchas that the girl must be returned to her father. Agamemnon has to give her up, but demands compensation for his loss. Achilles objects: let Agamemnon wait until more booty is taken. A violent quarrel breaks out between the two men, and Agamemnon finally announces that he will take recompense for his loss from Achilles, in the form of the girl Briseis, Achilles' share of the booty. Achilles represses an urge to kill Agamemnon and withdraws from the assembly, threatening to leave for home, with all his troops, the next day. The priest's daughter is restored to him, Apollo puts an end to the plague, and Briseis is taken away from Achilles' tent by Agamemnon's heralds.

  Achilles turns to his goddess mother Thetis, asking her to prevail on Zeus, father of gods and men, to inflict loss and defeat on the Achaeans, so that they will realize how much they need him. Zeus is won over by Thetis (to whom he is indebted for help on a previous occasion), and in spite of the vehement objections of his wife Hera (who, like his daughter Athena, hates the Trojans and works for their destruction), he turns the tide of battle against the Achaeans. The Trojan leader Hector, son of Troy's old King Priam, drives the Achaeans back on their beached ships, round which they are forced to build a wall and ditch. At the urging of his chieftains, Agamemnon sends ambassadors to Achilles, offering him rich prizes and the hand of his daughter in marriage if he will return to the fighting line. The offer is refused, but the pleas of one of the ambassadors, Phoenix, an older man who belongs to Achilles' household, do have some effect: Achilles withdraws his threat to leave the next day; he will stay until Hector and the Trojans reach his own ships.

  The battle resumes and now the Trojan onslaught breaches the wall and threatens the ships. The Achaean chieftains--Agamemnon, his brother Menelaus, Diomedes and Odysseus--are wounded one by one. Achilles' closest friend, Patroclus, sent by Achilles to find out how things stand in the Achaean camp, brings back the news and also pleads with Achilles to relent. He does so only partly; he agrees to let Patroclus go into battle with Achilles' troops, wearing Achilles' armor. This is enough: the Trojans in their turn are thrown back. But Patroclus is killed by the god Apollo, Troy's protector, and by Hector, who strips off Achilles' armor and puts it on himself.

  Achilles' rage is now directed against Hector, the killer of his dearest friend. He is reconciled with Agamemnon, and as soon as his mother brings him a splendid suit of armor, made by the smith-god Hephaestus, he returns to the battle, and after slaughtering many Trojans, meets and kills Hector. He lashes Hector's corpse to his chariot and drags it to his own tent; he intends to throw it to the dogs and birds of prey. For Patroclus he holds a magnificent funeral, complete with athletic contests and human sacrifice. Whenever renewed grief for the loss of his friend overcomes him, he drags Hector's body around Patroclus' grave. But the body has been preserved from corruption by divine intervention, and the gods now decide (not unanimously, for Hera and Athena object) to send a message to Achilles through his mother: he is to release Hector's body for ransom paid by King Priam of Troy. Achilles agrees, but what he does not anticipate is the arrival in his tent of Priam himself, alone, in the middle of the night. Instead of sending a herald, he has brought the ransom himself and begs for the body of his son. Achilles is reminded of his own father, also an old man who will never see his son again; Achilles knows, for his mother has told him, that his death is to come soon after Hector's. He sends Priam safely back with Hector's body to Troy and so, runs the last line of the poem, "the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses" (24.944 in the translation). We know already that the death of Troy's main defender seals the fate of the city and that, as Thetis told Achilles: "hard on the heels of Hector's death your death / must come
at once" (18.112-13).

  This summary is the bare bones of an epic poem that consists in the original Greek of 15,693 lines of hexameter verse, composed--probably in the late eighth or early seventh century B.C.--by a poet known to later ages as Homer, for whose life and activity no trustworthy information has come down to us. The poem, in other words, is some 2,700 years old. How, the reader may well ask, did it survive through such an expanse of time? By whom, for whom, and how and in what circumstances was it composed? Perhaps the best way to proceed to an exploration of these questions (no one can promise a complete and certain answer) is backward--from the text of this book.

  It is a translation, by Robert Fagles, of the Greek text edited by David Monro and Thomas Allen, first published in 1902 by the Oxford University Press. This two-volume edition is printed in a Greek type, complete with lower-and uppercase letters, breathings and accents, which is based on the elegant handwriting of Richard Porson, an early-nineteenth-century scholar of great brilliance, who was also an incurable alcoholic as well as a great wit. This was of course not the first font of Greek type; in fact, the first printed edition of Homer, issued in Florence in 1488, was composed in type that imitated contemporary Greek handwriting, with all its complicated ligatures and abbreviations. Early printers tried to make their books look like handwritten manuscripts because in scholarly circles printed books were regarded as vulgar and inferior products--cheap paperbacks, so to speak.

  Back to 1488, then, there is a continuous history of the printed text of Homer, differing a little from one editor to another but essentially fixed. Before that Homer existed only as a handwritten book. Such handwritten copies had been in circulation in Italy for a hundred years or so before the first printed edition. Petrarch had tried to learn Greek but gave up; Boccaccio succeeded and also in 1360 had a chair of Greek founded in Florence. But before Petrarch, Dante, though he put Homer in his limbo of non-Christian poets, had never read him, and could not have read him even if he had seen a text. For the best part of a thousand years, since the end of the Roman Empire, the knowledge of Greek had been lost in Western Europe. In the fourteenth century it was reintroduced into Italy from Byzantium, where a Greek-speaking Christian empire had maintained itself ever since Constantine made the city the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The knowledge of Greek and the manuscripts of the Greek classics, Homer included, came to Italy just in time; in May 1453 Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turks, and the Greek empire of the East came to the end of its thousand-year career. During its long life it had carefully preserved, copied and recopied a select number of the Greek masterpieces of pre-Christian times, Homer prominent among them. The immediate predecessors of the printed edition of Florence were bound manuscript books written on vellum or on paper in a cursive minuscule script complete with accents and breathings. These books were the final phase of the process of copying by hand that went all the way back to the ancient world. In the ninth century the new minuscule handwriting had been adopted; since it separated words, it was easier to read than its predecessor, a hand consisting of freestanding capital letters without word division--the standard writing of the ancient world. In the second to fifth centuries A.D., the form and material of the books had changed: parchment with its longer life had replaced papyrus, and the codex form, our book form--folded quires of paper sewn at the back--had replaced the roll. In the ancient world the Iliad consisted of a number of papyrus rolls, the text written in columns on the inside surface. The rolls could not be too big (or they would break when opened for reading); a long poem like the Iliad might require as many as twenty-four--in fact it is possible the so-called books of our text represent an original division into papyrus rolls.

  In this form the poem was known to the scholars who edited it and wrote commentaries on it in Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander before he set out on his epic march to India in the late fourth century B.C. And it was in this form (though, before the Alexandrian scholars made a standard edition, with many variations from one text to another) that copies were to be found all over the Greek world of the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. There must have been texts in circulation in the sixth century too, for we hear of official recitations at Athens and find echoes of Homer in sixth-century poets. In the seventh century B.C., we are moving back into the dark. In the poets of this century (whose work survives only in fragments) there are epithets, phrases and even half-lines that are also common in Homer. Though these poets--Tyrtaeus, Callinus, Alcman and Archilochus--may be using tags common to a general epic tradition, it seems more likely that these echoes betray acquaintance with the work we know as Homer's. There is also a vase, discovered on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, and dated to before 700 B.C., which has an inscription that seems to refer to the famous cup of Nestor described in our Iliad (11.745-53). And echoes in art are also found in the early seventh century--illustrations of scenes from the Odyssey, for example, on vases dated in the 670s.

  But back beyond about 700 B.C. we cannot go. Evidence for this period is rare; in fact we know very little about Greece in the eighth century, still less, if possible, about Greece in the ninth. All we have is the archaeological record--geometric pots, graves, some weapons. It is the era of Greek history known, because of our almost total ignorance about it, as the Dark Age.

  All we have is the tradition, what the Greeks of historical times believed they knew about Homer. Herodotus believed that he lived four hundred years, not more, before his own time; that would put him in the ninth century. The great Homeric scholar Aristarchus of Alexandria believed that he lived about 140 years after the Trojan War; since the Trojan War was generally dated (in our terms) around 1200 B.C., Aristarchus' Homer was much earlier than the Homer of Herodotus. Men might disagree about his date, but everyone believed that he was blind, and though some thought he came from Chios (a so-called Homeric hymn mentions a blind singer from Chios), others traced his origin to Smyrna. It was also generally assumed that Homer, though he speaks of singing and probably did sing in performance, was a poet using the same means of composition as his fifth-century successors--that is, writing. Even those who thought that his poems were not combined into their present shape until long after his death (that, for example, the last part of the Odyssey is a later addition), even those who believed that different poets wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, the so-called Separatists--everyone assumed that Homer was a poet composing as all poets since have done: with the aid of writing. And so did all succeeding centuries down to the eighteenth. Pope, whose translation of the Iliad is the finest ever made, speaks of Homer as if he were a poet like Milton or Shakespeare or himself. "HOMER," so begins his Preface, "is universally allow' d to have had the greatest Invention of any Writer whatever ..." Homer, it is taken for granted, wrote.

  There had been one skeptic in the ancient world who thought differently. He was not a Greek but a Jew, Joseph ben Matthias. He wrote in Greek (for which, as he admits, he had a little help) a history of the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in the first century A.D. and its savage repression by the emperor Titus--events in which he had played a prominent role. But he also wrote a pamphlet, countering the claim of a Greek writer, Apion, that the Jews had no history to speak of, since they were hardly mentioned in the works of Greek historians. Besides defending the historicity of the Old Testament chronicles, Josephus (to give him his Greek name) counterattacked by pointing out that the Greeks did not learn to write until very late in their history. The heroes of the Trojan War were "ignorant of the present-day mode of writing," he said, and even Homer "did not leave his poems in writing"; his separate songs were "transmitted by memory" and "not unified until much later."

  It is true that (with one remarkable exception, which is discussed later) no one in the Iliad--or, for that matter, the Odyssey--knows how to read or write. The Mycenaean scribes had used the complicated Linear B syllabary--eighty-seven signs for different combinations of consonant and vowel. It was a system only professional scri
bes could handle; in any case, all memory of it was lost with the destruction of the Mycenaean centers in the twelfth century B.C. The Greeks did not learn to write again until much later. This time, they took over an alphabet of fewer than twenty-five letters from the Phoenicians, a Semitic people whose merchant ships, sailing from their cities Tyre and Sidon on the Pales tinian coast, reached every island and harbor of the Mediterranean Sea. The Phoenician alphabet consisted of signs for consonants only. The Greeks appropriated their symbols (Alpha and Beta are meaningless words in Greek, but their Phoenician equivalents, Aleph and Beth, mean "ox" and "house"), but by assigning some of the letters to the vowels, they created the first efficient alphabet, a letter system that provided one, and only one, sign for each sound in the language.

  Just when this creative adaptation took place is a subject of scholarly disagreement. Some of the letter shapes of the earliest Greek inscriptions look as if they had been copied from Phoenician scripts that date from as far back as the twelfth century. On the other hand, the earliest examples of Greek alphabetic writing, scratched or painted on broken pottery and found all over the Greek world from Rhodes in the east to Ischia off the coast of Naples in the west, are dated, by their archaeological contexts, to the last half of the eighth century B.C.

  But it was not until the eighteenth century that the possibility of Homeric illiteracy was once again proposed. The English traveler Robert Wood, in his Essay on the Original Genius of Homer (1769), suggested that Homer had been as illiterate as his own Achilles and Odysseus. The German scholar F. A. Wolf elaborated the theory in a learned discourse entitled Prolegomena ad Homerum, and the Homeric Question was launched on its long and complicated career. For if Homer was illiterate, Wolf declared, he could not possibly have composed poems as long as the Iliad and Odyssey; he must have left behind him shorter, ballad-like poems which, preserved by memory, were later (much later, in Wolf's opinion) put together in something like the form we now possess. Wolf's thesis was almost universally accepted as soon as published. It came at the right time. Almost a century before this, the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico had claimed that the Homeric poems were not the creation of one man but of the whole Greek people. The spirit of the age now sought to find works of untutored genius, songs and ballads, the expression of a people's communal imagination--a contrast to the artificial culture and literature of the Age of Reason. The Romantic rebellion was at hand. Everywhere in Europe scholars began to collect, record and edit popular song, ballad, epic--the German Nibelungenlied, the Finnish Kalevala, Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. And this was the age that saw the popularity, especially in Germany and France, of a forged collective bardic epic: the story of Ossian, a Gaelic hero, translated from the original Gaelic and collected in the Highlands by James Macpherson. In spite of the fact that Macpherson was never able to produce the originals, "Ossian" was admired by Goethe and Schiller; it was the favorite book of Napoleon Bonaparte. They should have listened to Samuel Johnson, who called the book "as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with."