Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The War That Killed Achilles:The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War

Genre: History
Author:Caroline Alexander
"Sing, goddess, of Achilles ruinous anger
Which brought ten thousand pains to the Achaeans,
And cast the souls of many stalwart heroes
To Hades, and their bodies to the dogs
And birds of prey." --The Iliad, Book One

"True, Homer was blind and that explains why he dated those odd-looking women."--Woody Allen.

Most of us come across Homer's epic "The Iliad" at some time in our secondary school or college careers. My time came in my first year of college, when a teacher devoted much of a Western Humanities course to this one book. At one time, knowledge of this work and the companion volume, "The Odyssey" was considered vital background for a gentleman, especially if he had learned it in Greek.

The story concerned kings of Greek fiefdoms during the Mycenaean Age (circa 1600--1200) who ruled little parts of the islands and the mainland around the Aegean Sea. They all sailed to a small Hittite City called Troy, apparently to avenge the kidnapping of the Queen of Sparta, Helen, who was whisked off--for or against her will-- by the Trojan Prince Paris. Helen was beautiful and was the prize given to Paris for picking Aphrodite over two others in some kind of Olympic beauty contest. Trouble was she was married at the time to Mendaleus, the King of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon. The latter is the titular leader of the whole show and a son of the cursed House of Atreus.

So the whole war party sails to Troy to get Helen back and all the other loot Paris and she probably ran off with. They besieged Troy for ten years (!) and the poem beings in the concluding phase of the war.

I came away from studying this book weeks later a little alienated. Yes, you could see it was a gripping story, set in that distant Bronze Age. But hardly any actual regular soldiers had speaking roles. And what was the reason for this war? One woman who may or might not have left of her own volition? Well, possibly, but Alexander points out that research into the surviving "Linear B" tablets from the ruins of Mycenaean settlements confirm that the coast of Anatolia (or modern Turkey) was a place of trade and plunder for the people who lived in the Bronze Age sites across the Aegean.

Then there were long periods of "The Iiad" with catalogues of how many ships and men each Achaean King had. The Greek Gods were in the whole mess, apparently getting amusement out of the fray but also (in the case of Ares and Apollo) sometimes coming to the battlefield to help their favorite side for the moment.

Indeed, the whole "Wrath of Achilles" aspect to the story comes from his losing a female war prize when the war chief Agamemnon gives back his captured woman to a priest of Apollo to stop a plague. Being an idiot, the King of Mycenae takes Achilles' girl for himself. Achilles is their best fighter, and he loses all interest in helping out. His tardiness from the battlefield will ultimately cost both these men dearly. Before he goes to his tent for a good sulk however, Achilles lets the leader of expedition have it,calling him a "wine-sack" and questioning his bravery. Then Achilles casts a chill on the whole raison d etre of the war:

"But why must the Argives fight
the Trojans? Why did Atreus' son assemble
and bring us? Wasn't it for Helen's sake?
Are Atreus' sons the only men who love their wives?"

Eventually Achilles decides his honor has been served enough after his friend, Patrocklus, is killed wearing Achilles special armor and so he finally sallies forth and enters the fray. He kills the Trojan Prince Hector, a good family man and possibly the one truly sympathetic figure in this story.

His speech to his wife as goes out to battle, leaving her and his son behind, is one of the most poignant summations of men doing their duty in wars they themselvess never started I've ever read:

"No man, against my fate, sends me to Hades'.
And as for fate, I'm sure no man escapes it,
Neither a good nor bad man, once he's born."

After Hector is dead, old King Priam comes down from Troy's walls and asks for his son's body back. Achilles, the son of a mortal man and a sea goddess, Thetis, shows pity on the man and for a time a bit of decency is restored.

This is a good book for someone, like myself, who wants to revisit this epic tale of war--the natural state of mankind it seems all too often--but wants a brisk and not-too detailed and footnoted guide. Ms. Alexander cuts through the obscure passages and brings one up to date on modern scholarship and also show how "The Iliad" echoes more recent and bloodier wars in modern times.


  1. Here is the author in an interview from 2009.

  2. Caroline Alexander has a rare gift - the ability to approach ground-well-trod and find something new. Her book "The Bounty" laid to rest many speculations about the nature and origin of the mutiny on the namesake vessel, plus answered many questions about the personalities involved.

    While this one's been out for several months now, it's still one which I have yet to get around to reading. I'm hoping Ms. Alexander will bring her painstaking style to this subject, also.

    Thanks for the review! Further motivation, indeed, to do more reading!

  3. I will have to come back and re-read. I am not prepared for such an intuitive conversation

  4. Tough to keep up on a small part of the good books out there--just on historical subjects alone!

    I've been made interested in reading these other two books that are featured among her works, particularly "The Bounty" mutiny story, which, as you mention Astra, has a lot of layers I'd like to cut through from my now-distant reading of the Nordhoff and Hall novel to get at what we know now about these famous events.

  5. This is an interesting review of the Iliad and the complexities of Greek classics and the metaphors they contain. Epic themes explicated here by Caroline Alexander, so is that what Lloyd Blankfein CEO of Goldman Sachs means when he says he is doing 'Gods work' Doug?.... because Zeus wanted to bankrupt the Greeks and now after a 2 or 3 thousand years Goldmans have finally done it for him?

    It's all starting to make sense now then I think.

  6. LOL.

    Darn that Zeus! He's more subtle than the old days of lightning and planting false dreams fro kings to swallow as prophecy, but still a first-class weasel who now uses banksters to visit grief on mortals.

    But what goes around comes around, as my old Great Uncle Moab would say just before tipping over in his rocker. Blankfein better watch his back when he's making deals with Olympians, AA. Remember what Zeus did to his old dad Cronus!

  7. Yes, the old rock instead of a baby trick, AA. Cronus was no epicurean that's for sure.

    Old Hesiod would have been lost in the alternative music scene without a guy like Frank Zappa to show him the ropes.

    Zeus' first girlfriend was named Suzy as well.

  8. Not half Doug, I wouldn't mind a pound for every time its been played on me.

  9. I thought it was Hera Creamcheese Doug.... but maybe she wasn't the first?

  10. You too, AA? I've fallen for that almost as much as the Spot The HIdden Rock in One of Three Shells Game.

    Blasted Greeks probably invented that too.

    Lot of good money lost from that venture let me say.

  11. Nothing would surprise me with a guy like Zeus, AA. The God of the Sky had more "pick-ups" than the Ford Motor Company in its heyday.