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The Anger of Achilles: Homer's Iliad, Page 2

Robert Graves

  The Iliad, though popular throughout Greater Greece in the sixth century, as vase paintings and other works of art prove, earned little reverence until jurists and grammarians treated it as a Bible: for instance, Xenophanes of Colophon (about 500 B.C.) complained of Homer’s ‘imputing to the gods all that among men is shameful and blameworthy’. But Thucydides, writing about 420 B.C., already discusses Homer as a reputable theologian, if sometimes inclined to figurative language; and it is odd to find the later grammarians of Rhodes, Athens and Alexandria commenting ponderously on passages which were no less satirical, in their tragic way, than Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

  When I ‘did’ Book 23 at my public school, the ancient classroom curse forbade me to catch any of the concealed comedy in the account of Patroclus’ funeral games, which distinguishes them from Anchises’ tedious funeral games in Virgil’s Aeneid. Thus: Nestor, too old to compete in the chariot-race, gives his son Antilochus advice before he drives the Pylian team, confessing that the horses are slow and hinting that the race can be won by gamesmanship alone. Antilochus dutifully spurts to overtake Menelaus in a bad part of the track which, as they both know, will soon become a bottle-neck, and declines to slacken his pace. Menelaus, rather than be involved in a crash, lets Antilochus drive ahead, and cannot afterwards retrieve the lost ground. When Menelaus complains of a deliberate foul, Antilochus voluntarily forfeits his prize, though he has recently saved Menelaus’ life in battle. Achilles, as President of the Games, thereupon awards Nestor a consolation prize. Nestor, in a gracious speech of acceptance, tells a long story of how, when young, he won all the events at King Oedipus’ funeral games—or all except the chariot-race, in which Actor’s sons scandalously jockeyed him. Homer leaves his audience to grasp that Achilles sympathizes with Antilochus, and that Nestor means: ‘Yes, we cannot blame my son for boldly putting Menelaus to a test of nerves. It was a different matter at Thebes, long ago, when a rival chariot deliberately crossed my lane and headed me off. Yet my rivals were the Moliones who, though putative sons of Actor, claimed Poseidon, God of Charioteers, as their real father; so, of course, I could make no protest.’

  In the subsequent foot-race Antilochus, the fastest runner of his age-group—the early ‘twenties—is out-distanced by Odysseus, a man old enough to be his father, but makes a polite comment on the athletic pre-eminence of veterans. In fact, Antilochus purposely lost, to rehabilitate himself as a true sportsman—and this becomes clearer when Achilles shows gratitude by doubling the value of his third prize. Agamemnon then sees an opportunity of winning a prize himself: he enters for the javelin-throw, confident that Meriones, his sole opponent, will have the politeness to scratch. Achilles does not even give Meriones the chance, but sarcastically announces that Agamemnon, the best warrior in the world, may as well take both first and second prizes—a contest would be sheer waste of time!

  Nestor, Homer’s favourite butt after Agamemnon, can never refrain from boasting of his youthful prowess and, though rated the sagest Councillor among the Greeks—as Polydamas is among the Trojans—consistently gives bad advice which Agamemnon always adopts; whereas Polydamas consistently gives good advice, which Hector always rejects. Thus the Greeks would never have suffered such a heavy defeat on the plain if Nestor, instead of encouraging Agamemnon to act upon the false dream sent by Zeus, had done as Priam later did—tested its truth by demanding a sure augury. Again, the Trojans would never have been allowed to break into the Greek camp, if Nestor had not advised Agamemnon to build a grandiose defence system of rampart and fosse—without also suggesting a sacrifice to placate Poseidon’s jealousy. Nor would Patroclus have been killed, had Nestor not advised him to borrow Achilles’ armour and fight in it.

  When a Trojan arrow wounds Machaon, and Nestor agrees to drive him out of danger, Homer’s humour is at its driest. Once back at the Greek camp, they settle down to a refreshing beverage of onion juice, honey and barley-water in a great golden beaker, or tureen, to which the slave-girls add wine flavoured with cheese; and Nestor embarks on a long story of his own youthful adventures at Pylus. He makes no attempt to remove the arrow still protruding from Machaon’s shoulder, though after fifty years of warfare he can hardly have avoided picking up a little simple surgery; nor does he send for Patroclus, a competent surgeon who, we know, was not busy at the time; nor does he even return to the battlefield and encourage his hard-pressed troops. He is still droning on when the Trojans swarm over the rampart. Then he hurriedly excuses himself: ‘Pray continue drinking, and one of my slave-girls will wash the blood off your shoulder.’ Nestor later dishonestly explains his absence from the field as due to a wound; and the Iliad ends with no further mention of Machaon who, for all Nestor cared, may have succumbed.

  Menelaus, although despised by his brother Agamemnon, comes well out of the story. Conscious that this bloody war is being fought to avenge the wrong which Paris did him, he shows common sense and dignity, keeping up a steady average of kills in various battles, and has even on one occasion decided to spare a suppliant prince—when Agamemnon, bustling up, officiously murders him. Moreover, Menelaus does not protest against Achilles’ usurpation of the army command which, when Agamemnon gets wounded, should be his. Nevertheless, (Book 13) Homer jokingly makes him rage against the Trojans as insatiable in their love of war—as though he had not himself been attacking them for the past ten years—and then plunge back into battle.

  Homer treats Achilles with irony rather than humour. Though we are enlisted at the start as this ill-used hero’s partisans, Achilles is soon discovered to be the real villain of the piece, who heartlessly watches the massacre of his comrades, just to spite Agamemnon. We believe his assurance to the Assembly that whenever he sacks cities and adds their treasures to the common stock, Agamemnon awards him only a trifle and takes the lion’s share himself; later, we find Achilles’ hut chock-full of loot—he has been selling captured prisoners as a side-line and pocketing the proceeds. We also believe his assurance to the Assembly that he was sincerely enamoured of Briseis; but when Agamemnon at last repents and offers to surrender her, untouched, together with an enormous compensation for his insults, Achilles tells the envoys that he does not really want the girl—she means nothing to him—and that he despises treasure. (Of course, Agamemnon also lied by pretending to have done no better out of the war than Achilles.)

  Achilles’ famous love of Patroclus, the kindest-hearted and most unselfish soldier in the Greek camp, proves to be pure self-love which grudges his comrade pre-eminence in battle. Patroclus dies, and Achilles, leaving his body unburied, announces that when he can get a new suit of armour, he will kill Hector and collect twelve Trojan prisoners for a human sacrifice at the pyre. Homer emphasizes Achilles’ real object—which is to show that he can outshine Patroclus—when the miserable ghost appears in a dream, altogether uninterested in these barbarous works of vengeance, and complains of the delay. Until his body is duly burned, the Infernal Spirits are refusing him entry to Hades’ kingdom, and he must wander from gate to gate, a homeless exile. Achilles answers brusquely that he is doing everything possible to make the funeral a success, and resents having his elbow jogged. Eventually Achilles gets Briseis back, accepts Agamemnon’s heavy compensation—though not destined, he knows, to enjoy it—and also insists on Priam’s paying a tremendous ransom for Hector’s corpse: a transaction which he dishonestly hides from the Privy Council. Nor does he respect Patroclus’ wishes by honourably marrying Briseis, but continues to treat her as a convenient bed-fellow and chattel.


  Homer the satirist is walking on a razor’s edge and must constantly affirm his adherence both to the ruling aristocracy, however stupid, cruel or hysterical, and his belief in auguries and other supernatural signs. The most sensible and telling speech at Agamemnon’s Assembly, in Book 3, is made by the anti-monarchical commoner Thersites, whom Odysseus thereupon flogs. To dissociate himself from Thersites’ sentiments, Homer presents him as bow-legged, bald, hump-backed, hor
rible-looking, and a general nuisance; but the speech and Odysseus’ brutal action stay on record. And Homer’s real feelings on the subject of auguries are put into Achilles’ mouth—he thinks birds are simply birds and fly about on their own lawful business without divine instruction—for Achilles is angry and despairing and can therefore be pardoned. An inveterate hatred of war appears throughout the Iliad; and Homer smuggles into Book 23 a bitter comment on the monstrous slavery it entails, by awarding the winner of the wrestling match a copper cauldron worth twelve oxen, and the loser a captive Trojan noblewoman valued as highly as four, because she is skilled at the loom.

  He feels entitled to modernize elements of the out-of-date tradition which he has inherited—very much as Malory’s Morte d’Arthur puts the pre-Christian legends of the Welsh awenyddion (strolling minstrels) into courtly mediaeval dress. Homer distorts his material less than Malory, because he is not working from a foreign language and knows the physical geography of Troy; but can be caught out in frequent inconsistencies. His account of immense earthworks built around the Greek camp adds entertainingly to the legend—it has been suggested that, since the Iliad omitted any Greek assault on Troy, a Trojan assault on these defences was invented to supply the lack—but sometimes he forgets that they are there, and allows free passage between camp and plain. However, for listeners who knew the site of Troy well, he remarks how as soon as the war ended, Poseidon angrily washed away all trace of the earthworks.

  Numerous other mistakes occur. At one point a parenthesis explains that, since the beach could not accommodate every Greek ship, the latest flotillas to arrive were hauled up the strand in three rows. Very well: yet when Hector attacks the hindmost row, he sets Protesilaus’ flagship on fire—the first vessel, as we have been told, to be beached.

  Nor do we ever get a clear battle picture. To earn his slices of fat roast mutton and his cup of honey-sweet wine at court, Homer often had to strain his imagination in describing novel varieties of manslaughter, which he credited to the ancestors of his hosts. Even Agamemnon, from whom the aristocracy of Lesbos claimed descent, was allowed his day of glory (Book 11); though he made as much fuss about a slight wound as though he had been overtaken by the pangs of childbirth. These passages are perfunctory, in the main and, except for the pleasant similes that embellish them, can be skipped without offence to Homer. He is so careless, too, about the names of Trojans killed—Greek sword-fodder—that Erymas, Acamas and Chromius get dispatched twice, and Chromius lives to tell the tale. Books 16 and 17 are a sad muddle as regards time and weather continuity: first sunset, then bright sun and no cloud, then a rainbow, then a thunderstorm, then a long spell of fighting, then night falls. Hence the Latin tag: ‘Our good Homer himself occasionally nods.’ Yet some of the major discrepancies are inherent in the prose-tradition; thus the Apple of Discord was flung at the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, just before the Trojan War—which Achilles nevertheless joined, mysteriously grown to sudden manhood.

  Two main reasons prevented Homer from making his battles realistic. One was that the feats or fates of common soldiers did not interest his patrons, who cared to hear only of duels between noblemen. No man-at-arms ever kills a nobleman, even by mistake; which seems odd, since they are all clad in full armour, with corslets, greaves, helmets and shields. The second reason was that, while light-chariot races were still in vogue, the heavy-chariot fighting described in the story-cycle had gone out altogether by Homer’s day. So, though chariot combats occur frequently in the Iliad—Hector even drives a quadriga and orders a couple of mass-charges—the relation of chariotry to infantry remains obscure. Homer feels most at ease when his heroes forget their chariots and fight shield to shield in an unbroken line, so close that their spears almost get entangled. This unbroken line is a post-Mycenaean development of Greek infantry tactics, and implies a changed social organization. The chariot-riding Mycenaean prince—unless he happened to be a Pandarus or Teucrus and fancied himself as a bowman—used a long thrusting-lance, a tower-like figure-of-eight body-shield, and a heavy bronze broadsword. Thus prepared, he challenged enemy nobles to single combat, and his crowd of leather-jerkined pikemen, standing in the background, moved forward only if he fell wounded. (Little Ajax and Amphius wore linen corslets not from sheer foolhardiness, but because they carried body-shields.) The free citizens of Homer’s day, however, fought in a close line, like the Roman legionaries, and their weapons were a couple of throwing-spears, an iron stabbing-sword, and a small, round targe with a pointed boss. Archers, slingers, and cavalry supported them. Homer omits cavalry but, though Ajax fights in true Mycenaean style and so at times do Hector and Achilles, he feels obliged to modernize most of the fighting in order to hold his audience; and often cannot decide whether a particular hero is armed with the single lance and body-shield or with two throwing-spears and a targe.

  The Mycenaeans buried their noble dead without burning their corpses or their funeral offerings; Homer makes both Greeks and Trojans practise the modern total cremation. The forging of Achilles’ bronze shield is described in a way that shows his total ignorance of Mycenaean metallurgy: Hephaestus goes to work as though he were a blacksmith. And simple woodmen wield iron axes, though no iron but the rare and immensely valuable meteoric sort (containing a high proportion of nickel) was known at Mycenae—ore-smelting came in later.

  Future events are often anticipated by careful pointers of warning or prophecy. One important pointer is never taken up: Andromache’s pre-occupation, in Book 5, with the weakness of the Western curtain, where the wild fig-tree grew, and where Great and Little Ajax, among others, had been pressing their attacks. From Dörpfeld’s excavations at Troy, we learn that although the Western curtain would first invite attack, its masonry did not match the other walls. Pindar and his scholiast tell us that only this part of Troy had been built by a mortal—Aeacus, as opposed to the Gods Poseidon and Apollo—and that Aeacus’ descendants Great and Little Ajax made their final assault exactly here. The ‘Trojan Horse’—according to the Odyssey, not the Iliad, the instrument of Troy’s capture—was, Pausanias says, a simple siege engine (perhaps a scaling tower faced with wet horse-hides as a protection against fire?) rather than a secret receptacle for armed Greeks. Which is one of many reasons why I decline to believe that the Odyssey and Iliad are by the same hand.

  Troy itself is no fiction; nor is the burning of the city (which archaeologists call ‘Troy VIIA’) by an expeditionary force of Greeks in the thirteenth century B.C.—1230, not 1287, is the date now favoured. But, though the occasion of the war was perhaps a Trojan raid on the Peloponnese, the cause will rather have been a decision reached by the Aeacids, and their allies, to re-open the trade-route through the Hellespont from which the Trojans had lately debarred them. Achilles was a leading Aeacid, and the Cretan followers of Prince Scamander are named by Strabo as among the founders of Troy; which would explain their descendants’ participation in the war under Idomeneus.

  A tradition quoted by Hesiod makes Helen’s numerous suitors sacrifice a horse at Sparta, stand on its bloody joints, and swear that they will defend the chosen husband against anyone who resents his good fortune. Thus, he says, Helen’s rejected suitors organized the expedition against Troy when Menelaus was wronged by Paris. Yet it has been convincingly shown by Professor T. B. L. Webster, in his admirably up-to-date From Mycenae to Homer, that Helen’s abduction formed no part of the original Trojan legend; Homer borrowed the tale from some source dependent on the early Ugaritic epic Keret. In the opening lines, Prince Keret mourns that ‘his lawful wife surely went away, his rightful spouse, whom he had won with a bride gift, indeed did depart.’ Thereupon the God El tells him to besiege Udm and demand the King’s daughter Huray—apparently this same lawful wife. Keret does so, and in the end the King of Udm surrenders her, after an attempt to buy him off. Homer’s Paris likewise offers to restore with interest the treasures which he has carried off, if he may keep Helen; but this does not satisfy Menelaus.

ofessor Webster’s discovery of an external source for the Helen-Paris relationship strengthens the contention I made in my Greek Myths:

  This is to suggest that the mnēstēres tēs Helenēs, ‘suitors of Helen’, were really mnēstēres tou hellēspontou, ‘those who were mindful of the Hellespont’, and that the solemn oath which these kings took on the bloody joints of the horse sacred to Poseidon, the chief patron of the expedition, was to support the rights of any member of the confederacy to navigate the Hellespont, despite the Trojans and their Asiatic allies. After all, the Hellespont bore the name of their own goddess Helle.

  In the first nine years of war, the Greeks seem to have blockaded but not besieged Troy, limiting themselves to punitive raids on the Trojan allies all along the Asian coast, and doubtless sailing home every autumn. The unbroken ten-year siege is a dramatic fiction often contradicted by internal evidence: thus Sarpedon the Lycian still has an infant son at home, though he came to Troy with the first allied contingent. And, in Book 11, Othryoneus from [Cilician?] Cabesus has just heard of the Greek landing. The mythographer Hyginus records an earlier legend: that King Priam’s allies arrived in the tenth year. Also, excavation proves that ‘Troy VIIA’ could house no more than two or three thousand men, as opposed to the many thousands mentioned by Homer as having spent the entire war there.