The Anger of Achilles: Homer's Iliad
The Anger of Achilles
The Anger of Achilles
Copyright © 1959 by The Trustees of the Robert Graves Copyright Trust
Copyright © 1959 by Robert Graves, renewed 1987 by Beryl Graves
Cover art, special contents, and Electronic Edition © 2014 by RosettaBooks LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
Cover jacket design by Carly Schnur
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795337079
To Kenneth Gay
in gratitude for twenty-five years
of patient critical help.
BOOK ONE: The Quarrel
BOOK TWO: The False Dream: also ‘Catalogue of Ships’
BOOK THREE: Paris Duels with Menelaus
BOOK FOUR: Agamemnon Inspects His Army
BOOK FIVE: Diomedes’ Day of Glory
BOOK SIX: Hector and Andromache
BOOK SEVEN: Hector Duels with Great Ajax
BOOK EIGHT: An Indecisive Battle
BOOK NINE: A Deputation to Achilles
BOOK TEN: The Dolon Incident
BOOK ELEVEN: Agamemnon’s Day of Glory
BOOK TWELVE: The Trojans Attack the Greek Camp
BOOK THIRTEEN: The Greek Defences Are Breached
BOOK FOURTEEN: Hera Outwits Zeus
BOOK FIFTEEN: The Greeks Rally
BOOK SIXTEEN: Hector Kills Patroclus
BOOK SEVENTEEN: Menelaus’ Day of Glory
BOOK EIGHTEEN: Hephaestus Forges Arms
BOOK NINETEEN: The Reconciliation
BOOK TWENTY: God Fights God
BOOK TWENTY-ONE: Achilles at the Ford
BOOK TWENTY-TWO: Death of Hector
BOOK TWENTY-THREE: Funeral Games for Patroclus
BOOK TWENTY-FOUR: The Trojans Bury Hector
The Homeridae (‘Sons of Homer’), a family guild of Ionian bards based on Chios, enlarged their ancestor’s first short draft of the Iliad to twenty-four books, and became comprehensively known as ‘Homer’. They earned their livelihood by providing good popular entertainment for such festivals as the All-Ionian at Mount Mycale in Lydia, the All-Athenian at Athens, and the four-yearly homage to their patron Apollo at Delos; also, it seems, by going on circuit to various small royal courts where Greek was spoken, from Asia Minor to Sicily, and perhaps even visiting Spain and Western Morocco.
If modem scholars overlook the entertainment motive, dominant in the Iliad, and treat Homer as a Virgil, Dante, or Milton, rather than as a Shakespeare or Cervantes, they are doing him a great disservice. The Iliad, Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s later plays are life—tragedy salted with humour; the Aeneid, the Inferno and Paradise Lost are literary works of almost superhuman eloquence, written for fame not profit, and seldom read except as a solemn intellectual task. The Iliad, and its later companion-piece, the Odyssey, deserve to be rescued from the classroom curse which has lain heavily on them throughout the past twenty-six centuries, and become entertainment once more; which is what I have attempted here. How this curse fell on them can be simply explained.
Other professional story-tellers must have been active in Homer’s day, but since not a line of their original work, nor any tradition of it, has survived, we are justified in assuming that, like their ancient Irish, Welsh and Gaelic counterparts, they used prose; reserving verse for incidental passages of religious or dramatic importance only, when they took up their lyres and sang what are still called ‘lyrics’. It is probable, however, that court poems had been recited in the glorious Mycenaean civilization of Greece, destroyed by the Dorian invasion not long after the fall of Troy; that they had much in common with those of Ugarit, Accadia, Sumeria and the Hittite kingdom; but that, on the destruction of the Greek royal courts at Mycenae, Pylus, Thebes and elsewhere, prose versions of the tales, adorned with numerous poetic tags, passed into the hands of popular story-tellers.
Such story-tellers survived in Ionia until the Christian era, when Apuleius borrowed their ‘Milesian tales’ for his Golden Ass. Others, called sgéali, still practise in Western Ireland, direct successors of the ancient court bards of Munster and Connaught. One characteristic common to them all is an emphasis on departed glories, power and riches, and a love of magnificent, repetitive, old-fashioned language; thus Homer’s Greek idioms were no more contemporary in the mid-eighth century B.C., than is the ‘fine, hard Old Irish’ of the modern Galway sgéali. But when a renascence of civilization among the Ionic settlers on the coast of Asia Minor finally closed the Dark Ages, which had lasted from about 1050 B.C. to about 750 B.C., Homer put one of these traditional tales back into verse. What is more, he used the new alphabetic script borrowed from the Phoenicians, to record it in writing. Verse made The Anger of Achilles so easily learned by heart, and also exercised so compulsive a charm on his audience (relaxing with wine at their elbows in some royal courtyard), that it became a valuable legacy to Homer’s story-telling sons. Their additions are nearly all composed in the spirit of their father, though certain stylistic differences tempt experts to date the various books, or parts of books, from internal evidence.
The dactylic measure which Homer chose may have been an ancient one, since the formal epithets, attributable to Mycenaean days, fit it well; but is less likely to have been used for court epics than for dance-songs around altars. Many of the pastoral, agricultural, and hunting similes which strew the later books and seldom quite suit their contexts, seem authentic festival songs—but of Ionian provenience, because those ruthless lions constantly mentioned in them as preying on flocks and herds were not a feature of Mycenaean Greece, except as motifs in Palace art. The caesuras that break hexameter lines suggest brief pauses for a stamp or clap; and the final spondee, a longer pause announcing a new forward movement.
The Iliad presupposes an earlier story cycle about the events leading up to The Anger of Achilles. These were the birth of Helen from Leda’s famous swan-egg; the wedding of Peleus and Thetis; the Apple of Discord, thrown by the Goddess Strife, which provoked the Trojan War by causing the Judgement of Paris and his elopement with Helen; the unsuccessful Greek embassy sent to Troy demanding the surrender of Helen and her treasures—we gather that King Priam refused, on the ground that his aunt Hesione, carried off by Heracles from an earlier Sack of Troy, was still a captive in Greece—the recruitment of heroes for the punitive expedition, their landing at Troy, and the first nine years of desultory warfare. The cycle was versified by Stasinus of Cyprus (whom tradition makes Homer’s son-in-law) in the nine books of his Cypria, composed soon after the Iliad. But the Iliad assumes popular knowledge of these legends, as also of The Seven Against Thebes, The Labours of Heracles, and other cycles unconnected with the Trojan War.
Later poets continued the Trojan story, using the same Homeric hexameters: Arctinus of Miletus (Homer’s pupil) began his Aethiopis where the Iliad ended, and closed it with Great Ajax’s suicide; Lesches of Lesbos, in his Little Iliad, then described the death of Achilles and the departure of the Greeks from Troy. Next came Arctinus’ Sack of Troy, and Agias of Troezen’s Return of the Greek Heroes. The Odyssey is apparently a rewriting of one such Return. That the Homeridae ascribed its authorship to Homer means only that it formed part of their stock-in-trade, and was written by a poet who, for some reason, preferred to be anonymous.
The traditional corpus of prose tales meanwhile remained in being. Though an authorized edition of the Iliad and Odyssey, published by leading Homeric bards under the patronage of Peisistratus, tyrant of Athens (mid-sixth century B.C.) had given the Homeridae immense prestige, their version of a dramatic event was often rejected by later mythographers in favour of a more popular, and usually more archaic, one. Peisistratus, whose chief adviser Solon travelled widely through the Middle East, saw the advantage of giving his official welcome to a reconstituted Mycenaean epic, which recorded a strong Greek confederacy and could be treated as a holy scripture of the Oriental sort. Since Homer claimed to have been inspired by the Muse; since he glorified Nestor, Peisistratus’ ancestor; and since the Homeridae ranked as honorary Athenians—Homer having reputedly been born at Smyrna, a colony of Athens—these revised texts of the Iliad and Odyssey would serve his purpose well enough. The Athenian Theseus cycle survived only in prose; otherwise he might have used that.
Yet though the original Mycenaean court epics must have had much in common with the Accadian Creation epic, the Hittite Song of Ullikummi, the Ugaritic Baal, and similar works, a great gulf separated all of them from the Iliad. Their authors had been endowed Temple priests who set themselves to exalt their gods and praise their rulers, and did not need to think in terms of popular entertainment. Homer, on the other hand, instead of praising his rulers, satirized Agamemnon, High King of Greece and Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces before Troy, as a weak, truculent, greedy, lying, murderous, boastful, irresolute busybody who almost always did the wrong thing.
Now, the original High King of the Achaeans was a living god; his palace, a temple; his courtyards, holy ground. He corresponded on equal terms with the High King of the Hittites, a fellow-god. But by Homer’s time this religious High Kingship had perished, all the great cities had fallen, and the semi-barbarous princelings who camped on their ruins were ennobled by no spark of divinity. It is clearly these iron-age princes—descendants of the Dorian invaders who drove his own ancestors overseas—whom Homer satirizes in Mycenaean disguise as Agamemnon, Nestor, Achilles and Odysseus; and of whom Hesiod, a late contemporary of Homer’s, was thinking when he wrote, in a lugubrious vein, that the divine race of men had been destroyed at ancient Thebes and Troy.
The Homeridae, being sacrosanct servants of Apollo, could risk satire, so long as they remained serene and unsmiling throughout their performances, pointed no finger, cocked no eye, tipped no wink. Homer’s wit is at its most merciless in Book 2, when Agamemnon calls a popular Assembly and tests his troops’ morale by offering to abandon the siege of Troy. Members of the Privy Council have been warned to shout protests and demand a vigorous assault; but Agamemnon so over-acts his defeatist part that he convinces even himself, and the war-weary soldiers at once rush cheering down to the ships. A fiasco! The Goddess Athene is obliged to intervene. Homer makes Agamemnon superbly ridiculous again in Book 4, when the armistice has been broken and he addresses his wounded brother Menelaus:
‘Alas, my poor brother! I fear that the oath which pledged you to single combat in no-man’s-land has proved your ruin: the Trojans have broken the armistice and transfixed you with an arrow… I am more than ever assured that Troy’s doom is sealed, also that of King Priam the Spearman and his subjects. Zeus, Son of Cronus, indignant at this outrage, will shake his shield threateningly at them from the Olympian throne; thus the armistice will not have been concluded in vain. Nevertheless, I should be most unhappy, brother, if you succumbed to your wound.’
Agamemnon does not send for a surgeon at this point, but continues self-pityingly and once more in a defeatist strain:
‘Your death, by removing the cause of war, might set my men clamouring for home—how ashamed I should be to find myself back on the thirsty plains of Argos, having allowed Priam’s people to make good their old boast of keeping Helen. Your bones would rot in Trojan soil, and the proud Trojans capering on your tomb would scoff: “I pray the gods that ill-tempered Agamemnon will have no greater success in his other ventures than in this! He has sailed away empty-handed, and noble Menelaus lies here beneath our feet, his mission unaccomplished.” Rather let the earth swallow me alive than that they should say such things!’
Menelaus has, however, only been scratched. Battle is resumed, and Agamemnon stalks from contingent to contingent of his army, encouraging the commanders; but merely succeeds in setting their backs up by his ill-chosen phrases. Idomeneus is barely civil; Diomedes preserves a resentful silence; Odysseus and Sthenelus are downright rude to their High King.
In Book 9, Agamemnon’s flood of tears and thunderous groans, after a severe defeat due to his own stupidity, introduce further comic scenes. He wakes Nestor, with the odd excuse that he must no doubt be suffering from insomnia. Nestor, courteous though sarcastic, revenges himself by waking everyone else of importance. But for what? He has no idea. Nor has Agamemnon. They solemnly call a Council, and decide to send out a small patrol. Diomedes leads this, and when asked to choose a partner, picks Odysseus as the bravest present; yet he remembers Odysseus’ cowardly desertion of him in battle, and Odysseus knows that, unless he redeems his good name, a spear will be driven between his shoulders. He offers Diomedes a half-apology.
Homer is utterly cynical about the Olympian gods. Zeus rules them by fear and cunning, not love, and must keep on constant guard against a palace revolution. In most myth-making societies, what is alleged to happen in the courts of Heaven reflects what happens in the royal palace below; but Homer lets his gods behave far worse than the one royal family to whom he introduces us, namely the Trojan. Priam, in Book 24, may rage at his surviving nine sons as malingerers and playboys who have dared outlive their forty-one heroic brothers; but his curses are doubtless intended to avert Nemesis, and so protect them. On all other occasions the domestic atmosphere in the Trojan palace is irreproachable, despite the presence of Helen, prime cause of their continued sufferings.
Zeus, on the other hand, hurls horrible threats at his wife Hera and the rest of the Olympian family, too well aware of their jealousies, grudges, deceptions, lies, outrages, and adulteries. Hera is a termagant, so cruel and sly that she manages to convert her only virtues, marital chastity and an avoidance of direct lies, into defects. She would like to eat the Trojans raw—and all because, long ago, Paris rejected the bribe she offered for a verdict in her favour, and instead gave Aphrodite the prize of beauty. We are left wishing that Hera would commit adultery with some River-god or Titan, to be taken in the act, and thus compel Zeus to chain her down for ever in the Pit of Hell. Zeus’ spoilt daughter Athene shares Hera’s grudge against Paris—she also entered for the beauty prize—and Homer does not ask us to approve of her mean behaviour when the lovable Hector at last faces Achilles, a far stronger champion than himself, and she robs him of his advantage. Athene shines in comparison only with the foolish and brutal Ares. Of the three Olympians who come pretty well out of the tale, Apollo the Archer was the Homeridae’s patron; Hephaestus the Smith ruled Lemnos, one of the Ionian Islands; and Hermes the Helper had invented the lyre and protected travellers. Then there is Poseidon, whom Homer clearly despises for not standing up to Zeus, and for being so touchy about his reputation as a master-mason; but abstains from ridiculing him because the Pan-Ionian Festival falls under his patronage.
Homer’s audiences burned sacrifices to the gods, and celebrated annual festivals; yet they felt, it seems, no more and no less religiously sincere than most cradle-Catholics and cradle-Protestants do today—though supporting their Churches for the sake of marriage and funerals, keeping Christmas and Easter holidays, and swearing oaths on the Bible. Libations and sacrifices, the Ionians agreed, might be useful means of placating angry gods—a splash of wine and the thighbones of the victims on which one feasted cost little—and in the interests of law and order one should never swear false oaths, nor break the sacred bonds of hospitality. But they appear to have lacked any spiritual sense, except such few of th
em as had been admitted to the Eleusinian, Samothracian, Orphic, or other soul-stirring Mysteries. That Demeter and Persephone and Iacchus, the main figures in these Mysteries, are kept out of Homer’s Divine Harlequinade, suggests that he, and his sons after him, were adepts—hence their poor view of official religion.
Perhaps it was the very cynicism of the Iliad and Odyssey that made them acceptable Holy Writ in Peisistratus’ day, when the Greeks were already practising free philosophic speculation—Thales was an old man by 560 B.C. Homer soon became the basis of all Classical Greek culture, and when Rome conquered Greece, of all Roman culture too. Nobody could be thought educated who had not studied him under a ‘grammarian’, and many bright youths knew both his epics by heart. The grammarians (which meant professors of language and literature) discussed Homeric texts with as much zest and minuteness as the third-century rabbis devoted to commentaries on the Pentateuch. Homer was quoted in season and out: an apt reference, however irrelevant to the context, might win a doubtful case at law—where again the rabbinical parallel is tempting. Peisistratus, who claimed prime historical importance for the Iliad, managed to interpolate a line in the ‘Catalogue of Ships’ by which Great Ajax the Salaminian was credited with beaching his small flotilla at Troy next to the larger Athenian one. This he offered as evidence in a court action against Megara. Athens was laying claim to the Island of Salamis—and managed to fool the Spartan judges.
Athenian participation in the Trojan War, by the way, seems itself spurious. That the material contained in the ‘Catalogue of Ships’ cannot be reconciled with the main body of the work was once thought a proof of its lateness; but scholars now make it a survival of the earliest tradition. Still, the praise there given to the Athenian contingent and their King Menestheus, ‘ablest commander alive, save for old Nestor,’ is suspiciously fulsome. (Perhaps it records the gratitude of Ionian refugees from the Dorian terror, who crowded into Athens before sailing to their new homes in Asia Minor, and felt that an Athenian contingent must have fought at Troy.) Thus King Menestheus never figures in Agamemnon’s Council meetings, though he has brought fifty ships, and is hardly mentioned outside the ‘Catalogue’. In Book 12, he shows little military skill and has to summon Great Ajax. Here his name may have been substituted for that of Idomeneus of Crete; since we learn from a passage in Book 10 that Ajax and Idomeneus’ flotillas lay close together at one end of the camp.