Discover more from PREVAIL by Greg Olear
Sunday Pages: "The Iliad"
An epic poem by Homer
Yesterday, I went to New Jersey to visit my mother. By chance, two old, dear friends were also in town, and I was able to enjoy their company for an afternoon.
During the three hours we spent together, we managed mostly to avoid talk of Hamas-Israel. The war came up briefly, and it called to mind something one of these friends said many years ago, an observation in the wake of a post-Columbine school shooting.
“Our parents’ generation, and the one before that, went off to fight in a war when they were 18,” he said (and I’m paraphrasing, because this was 25 years or so ago). “For centuries, that was how young men discharged their innate rage and violent impulses. Our generation didn’t have a Vietnam. Maybe all of this violence is a way of compensating?”
I should add that my friend is a pacifist. He’s not a violent or angry person and never was. He was only pointing out a possible pattern of human behavior. I reminded him of this yesterday, and he expounded on it: “For most of human existence, there has been war,” he said, and again I’m paraphrasing. “Maybe that’s something in our DNA—something we no longer want or need, but that we have nevertheless to contend with.”
To be clear, he was not advocating for more war, not at all, just making an astute observation that had not occurred to me. It’s true that throughout recorded history, there have always been wars. Indeed, recorded history is mostly a chronicle of those wars. It’s also true that two successive generations of American twentysomethings—Gen X and the Millennials—only joined the military if they wanted to, and a third, Gen Z, is almost out of the woods in that regard. At this precise moment, the vast majority of Americans have never seen active duty on a battlefield. The warrior class, a staple in so many ancient societies, doesn’t really exist here in the same way. Is that meaningful?
Plotted on a graph, a data set of U.S. war deaths by year looks like a wave. There are high peaks—Revolution, 1812, Civil War, Great War, Second World War, Korea, Vietnam—and deep troughs in between. We are in such a trough now. Since 1980, there have been 5,687 active duty military killed in hostile action. In 2022, the number was zero. This is remarkable, considering we fought twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan during that period. By contrast, in 1970 alone, 6,173 Americans died in Vietnam.
Is this all just cyclical? Is war something that chronically breaks out because we are genetically coded to go kill each other every so often? Were my friends and I extremely fortunate to have been born just as one of the troughs was beginning? And: What can our earliest literature tell us about our collective human attitude towards war?
With this idea in mind, I pulled from my shelf the lovely Doubleday edition of The Iliad (1973), translated by Robert Fitzgerald, and read through Book One. While I had some vague idea of the characters and the plot, this is not a work I’ve ever read or am all that familiar with. It is attributed to Homer, although we’re not totally sure who wrote it, or if the author was one person or many people spread out over time. We also don’t know when it was written. The Greek historian Herodotus, who died in 425 BCE, placed it at 850 BCE, and scholars agree that it could not have been written after 630 BCE. Either way, it is the oldest work of literature that exists in the Western canon, such as it is. The Iliad was itself influenced from earlier material, specifically The Epic of Gilgamesh, but we didn’t realize that until recently. Homer’s epic poem is the foundational text of European literature.
The action begins in medias res—in the middle of the story. As we open, the siege of Troy has already been going on for nine years. The Akhaians have been away from home, and their families, for all that time, and tensions are starting to flare up. Nine years is a long time for a siege. The legendary but emo warrior Akhilleus, or Achilles, on whose virtual immortality and battlefield might the invaders’ strategy depends, gets pissed at the commanding general, Agamemnon, for, basically, being a prick. Agamemnon has acquired, as one of the spoils of war, a comely slave girl, Khryseis, and is refusing to return her to her father, a local priest with a direct line to the god Apollo, despite the priest saying and doing all the right things. As punishment, Apollo then infects the Akhaians with plague. When Akhilleus figures this out, he insists that Agamemnon give the girl back, which Agamemnon reluctantly does, but only after claiming for himself a different but equally comely slave girl—the one Akhilleus was given by the soldiers. Agamemnon is signaling his Alpha Male dominance over Akhilleus. To put it crudely, The Iliad begins with the first-ever literary dick-measuring contest. It’s Red Pill yuck.
(NB: no one, either on Earth or Mount Olympus, seems bothered by innocent young women being taken as sex slaves and subsequently trafficked by an occupying army. Nor do any of the characters, or Homer himself for that matter, point out the irony of the fact that the same warriors waging war to rescue a woman—Helen of Troy—from her kidnappers are themselves kidnapping women. I guess acknowledging this would have been too…what’s Ionic Greek for “woke?” But then, Helen’s abduction only happened because Aphrodite won a beauty contest, and the two divine runners-up, Hera and Athena, got jealous. Thus, Olympian goddesses are blamed for the same war that brings mortal women so much woe. Homer, folks: the O.G. banner-raiser of the patriarchy!)
Earlier translations of The Iliad, notably George Chapman’s, force a rhyming couplet scheme onto the text. I find this clunky and hard to process. This is how Fitzgerald, a superior translator in my opinion, opens the epic:
Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men—carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
Begin it when two men first contending
broke with one another—
the Lord Marshal
Agamemnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.
There it is. The very first word in the very first work of Western literature: μῆνιν. Anger, wrath, rage, desire for revenge. That’s what drives the narrative: one man’s unquenchable anger.
Some of the thematic concerns of The Iliad are not as relevant these days. For example, Homer takes great pains to explain the pedigrees of the various characters: this guy is so-and-so’s son, etc. We don’t really care about that sort of thing now. World War II literature doesn’t extol the nobility of Eisenhower’s parents, or claim MacArthur was the child of Thetis, the minor sea goddess.
Too, Homer makes a big deal about battlefield glory—κλέος or kleos—and also νόστος or nostos—homecoming; in the poem, Akhilleus must choose between the two, and he opts for kleos. This tracks. The popularity of war movies and all those History Channel documentaries on the Second World War may be attributable to our deep-seated, perhaps genetically-encoded reverence for wartime valor. There was something stirring, was there not, about the Ukrainian soldier in the spring of 2022 saying, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself,” or the old Ukrainian women giving the Russian soldier sunflower seeds, so that when he dies, flowers will grow, and his life will then have had some purpose. That sort of thing is Homeric—and not something me and my coevals, Gen X New Jersey natives alive during the Pax Americana, have ever seen up close.
The Iliad spends almost as much time delving into the fractious relationships between the Greek gods as it devotes to the humans. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes posits that the consciousness we now take for granted—the left brain communicating seamlessly with the right—is a fairly recent phenomenon, and that the “gods” in Homer’s work are how the ancient Greeks explained the right brain’s occasional, incoherent attempts to talk to the left. Per Jaynes, Apollo isn’t a god; he’s a voice in Agamemnon’s head, his own consciousness, telling him what to do. That theory makes as much sense as anything else, when there are deities who presumably have free will bowing to the inalterable vicissitudes of Fate.
Bottom line, the world of the ancient Greeks—who, not long after Homer wrote The Iliad, invented the democratic government we are now desperately trying to defend—has little in common with the here and now, other than egregious misogyny and a propensity for long, unnecessary wars in far-flung locales. This suggests that my friend is right, that there is something baked into our culture, if not our DNA, banging the drumbeat of war. What we do about this, how we reconcile it, I cannot say, but if it exists, we should be aware of it.
Surprisingly, the epic poem ends without discussing the two most famous aspects of the story: that Akhilleus dies when an arrow strikes his heel (hence, Achilles’ heel), and that the war is won by the gambit of leaving a wooden horse full of Greek soldiers for the Trojans to bring inside the city walls (hence, Trojan horse). Why did Homer omit these essential elements of the story? Could he not stick the landing? Did some greedy Peloponnesian corporate executives cancel The Iliad before the final season could be generated?
The Trojan War that Homer describes, assuming it was not a product of the author’s (or authors’) imagination, took place centuries before, some time around 1200 BCE—three and a quarter millennia ago, give or take. This was at the onset of the Late Bronze Age Collapse of 1200-1150 BCE, when all of the ancient societies of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East abruptly went dark simultaneously. Between the fall of Troy and The Iliad of Homer is a gaping historical hole of some 400 years, known as the Greek Dark Ages, during which all writing simply stopped.
Before 9 pm last night, I had never heard of the Greek Dark Ages, but I spent my extra Daylight Saving hour diving down into that ancient rabbithole. Scholars have different theories on what caused the Late Bronze Age Collapse—climate change, earthquakes, plague, famine, invasion by the so-called Sea Peoples, a breakdown of the prevailing societal order—but no one knows for sure. There were palaces and courts, and then there weren’t. There was Linear B writing, and then there wasn’t. There was trade, and then there wasn’t.
And there were cities, and then there weren’t. In The End of the Bronze Age, the historian Robert Drews notes, “Within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century [BCE], almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again.”
And here, we come full circle. Ancient, elemental forces are awakening from a long slumber—or so it seems. One of the Bronze Age cities that was either destroyed or abandoned during the Collapse was Tell es-Sakan, once a small but important port on the Eastern Mediterranean.
It lies just outside of Gaza City.
We did The Five 8 “neat” on Friday—no guest:
And our original song of Mike Johnson, Speaker of the House:
Photo credit: Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BCE. From Vulci.