Agamemnon was the first to spring through and kill his man, Bienor, shepherd of his people – first him, then his fellow Oileus the charioteer: he jumped down from the chariot to face Agamemnon, but as he rushed straight for him Agamemnon stabbed him in the forehead with his sharp spear, and the heavy bronze of his helmet’s rim could not stop the spear, but it went through that and through the bone, and all his brains were spattered inside and the man brought down in his fury. Homer, The Iliad
Not for the faint-hearted. Violent. Probably get at least an “M” rating today – for mature audiences, 15 years or older. It’s difficult to imagine the story being told to children as it must have been back in those days. Spears crashing into eyeballs and piercing brains, shattering breastbones and jaws, make an interesting contrast with the flowery language comparing waves of Danaans and Trojans to stormy rivers washing out into the sea or the wind blowing through fields of wheat.
The lists of names are a bit excessive but back the heroes had to be remembered and inspire future generations to have their names written in the epics like Achilles and Hector. The index of names at the back of my copy goes for over fifty pages. This book was to the Greeks what the Bible is to today’s Christians as a source of moral values. The idea of a book governing the spiritual values of a people was NOT a Greek idea – for the working out and evolving of their spiritual values, the Greeks had contests (the Olympics), festivals and plays (the spring festival honouring Dionysus, god of the mask, with dramas).
It’s easy to get lost in the violence and the names. All those names are as tedious as all the begats in the Bible. I read the Iliad twice before I am emale fully comprehended a unified plot at work here: the story of Achilles and Agamemnon’s conflict, the war machine versus the State apparatus, the individual and the familial.
Like all good stories, there is another side to the story, a dark reflection of the source, a double origin, and that dark sun shnies upon the Trojans. The rebellious Paris who risks his city and his family for the love of Helen – the bitch, the scheming horrible creature that I am! And the risk is well-portrayed at the micro logical level in the interconnecting fibre of individual human relations by the love Hector manifests for his family – witness the imploring plea his wife, Andromache, makes for him to stay and avoid the fighting (see Euripides’ play for the fate of Andromache).
This sacrifice augments the horror of Achilles’ actions and compounds the affect of grief in Priam’s and Achilles’ meeting of tears when Priam begs for the body of his son. The contest between the hero-warrior and the mother-country that bore him, is a violent battle in the Iliad where only the gods are victors. Achilles dies, Hector dies, Ajax commits suicide, Agamemnon is murdered by his wife’s lover upon his return and the journey back to Ithaca takes Odysseus ten years.
Unlike the film, Troy, the Iliad (which supposedly inspired the film and the writers’ did steal some tidbits from the book like the part when Hector is facing off against Achilles, asking for a diplomatic treaty to which Achilles replies there are no pacts between lions and deer) portrays Agamemnon as a warrior who gets his hands dirty. The gods are also completely missing from the modern re-telling (apart from a sentimental scene between Achilles’ mother and her son), not to mention the war only lasting two weeks when in fact it went for ten years in the Iliad. In any case, the plot in the Iliad is more concerned with honouring tradition, Fate and Necessity (not even Zeus could escape the powers of the Fates), than with a war where their names will be remembered forever (an egotistical, neo-liberal endeavour – if anything, the Iliad is tale about the hubris or excess of ego – Achilles’ pride costs him Patrokles).
In the times of the ancient Greeks, war was a terrible necessity. In modern times, there is little glory in wars fought with SMART bombs and napalm. Men and women still risk their lives for the love of country and are rightly honoured for their sacrifices. But the Archaic period was one where there was little security; war, starvation and plague posed real threats of extinction to whole communities. The vast majority of Greeks were farmers, toiling a living off the land in primary industry to produce enough food for the whole community.
That is rarely the case today in modern and developed societies. In the novel, Ulysses, Joyce already realised the ancient motif of warfare in modern societies with his pacifist, Leopold Bloom, as Odysseus. Men had to believe there was some reward for their fighting to go out and battle with a spear and a shield in a time when medical technology was next to none. To say the glory of war is still as relevant today in the Iliad as the filmmakers of Troy would have it, is ridiculous and a terrible misappropriation of the Greek tale.
But what can one expect from Hollywood, the land of rape and money where “stars become dreams and dreams become stars”?
I am emale gives the Iliad four stars.