Reading History #11: Introduction to ‘The Iliad’

Copyright @2015 by Robert M. Shurmer

Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away. (The Iliad)


The poet Homer first wrote down the epic story of a battle that raged on the Plain of Scamander before the gates of Troy, or Ilios as the Greeks knew it, around the year 800 BCE. It is likely that the story, or rather a combination of many stories, had been chanted around Greek fires for several hundred years prior to Homer’s recording it. The 5th century Greek historian Herodotus referred to the tale as The Iliad, literally meaning ‘pertaining to the city of Ilium’, and thus is the name we know this most special of all the Classics, the first piece of great literature of Western Civilization.

A hundred years ago, most historians thought that the history of Greece began around 1100 BCE or so, when relatively unsophisticated Greek-speaking peoples began moving into the region surrounding the Aegean Sea. The blood-pumping epics of Homer, The Odyssey and The Iliad, speak of an earlier period, however. Most scholars, therefore, considered these stories mere legends, fantasy tales from a past that never really existed. In the 1870s, however, an amateur archaeologist from Germany, Heinrich Schliemann, armed with a pick-axe and a copy of The Iliad began excavating a site in the Ottoman Empire south of Istanbul. His work transformed our understanding of ‘historical’ nature of The Iliad.

After a series of discoveries, Schliemann was convinced that he had found the long-lost, and considered by most mythical, city of Troy. Both in Turkey and in Greece, Schliemann uncovered the remnants of a previously unknown Bronze-Age civilization, which he named the Mycenaeans after one of the primary cities uncovered in Greece. Further excavation of the site in Turkey revealed a once powerful and wealthy city, one that had been destroyed by fire and sword sometime around the year 1180 BCE. Schliemann’s and subsequent archaeologist’s work has, in fact, revealed that a great fight had raged around this city, one very much like that described in Homer’s Iliad.

In every civilization there are moments in history that stand apart, Golden Ages of prosperity and flourishing arts or dangerous times that demanded heroic action and collective sacrifice. These special moments become part of the historical heritage of a people. The stories about ‘that one time when’ get passed on from generation to generation until they are embedded in the cultural memory of the population. Yet anyone who has ever played the old children’s game of ‘telephone’ understands how much a story can change as it passes down the line. The Greeks, when they emerged from the chaos that beset the Mediterranean world during the so-called Dark Age (c.1200-900 BCE), began constructing one of the more enduring and culturally and intellectually significant societies of the ancient world. We now know from the cryptographic work of Michael Ventris that these ‘new Greeks’ shared at least one thing with the older Mycenaean civilization, the remnants of which were scattered about the Greek mainland: language. They spoke what was essentially the same language as the thier ancestors (thought the written script had changed) and over the intervening years had been playing a big game of telephone to preserve their ‘history’ as a people. The Iliad, therefore, is the Ur-text of Ancient Greek and Roman culture.

Though the Greeks were never unified as a single political state, they did share a great story, a story about the gods, a story about heroes, a story about how one should live, a story about the great deeds of ancestors, a story about a time in which collective action and sacrifice was demanded to salvage communal honor. In fact, the Greek peoples that began organizing their city-states around 900-800 BCE or so possessed much more than a shared story, they shared a common history. And embedded with the epic of The Iliad is a record of, though not a history strictly speaking, of the great moment in history that brought an allied Greek fleet of warriors to the coasts of Asia to fight together against a common foe, a people the Greeks identified as Trojans.

The so-called Trojan War occurred during a time when the Aegean World was collapsing. We now know that rebellions broke out in north-western part of the Hittite Empire c.1430 BCE immediately after the defeat at Megiddo at the hands of Thutmoses III. A group of people known as the Assuwu, who dwelt in the region of the Hellespont, allied to fight against the authority of the kings at Hattusas. From Hittite accounts we learn that that the Hittite king personally lead an army against the rebellious cities, defeated them, and brought back to his capital along with the plundered booty, six hundred Assuwan chariot teams and ten thousand prisoners of war. Assuwu was wiped out. But, posits Cline, its legacy lives on primarily in the modern name of ‘Asia’ and the city know as Troy.  What Dr. Cline suggests is that the rebellion of the Assuwa (c.1430 BCE), a people he identifies as Trojans, drew in Mycenaean warriors from mainland Greece in support of the twenty-two confederated cities fighting against the Hittite king. And this occurred about 200 years before the final destruction of the city of Troy c.1180 BCE. This, of course, would mean that the Greeks had actually once fought with the Trojans as allies against the Hittites. One fragmentary letter discovered in the ruins of Hattusas does textually link Mycenae to the rebellion. 1

There may have been another player in this anti-Hittite coalition. If the Mycenaeans were engaged in a war against the Hittite king, it is quite possible that their military campaigns came to the attention of Egypt since the Egyptians did maintain contact we both Greeks and Hittites. We also know that Amenhotep III, another warrior-king of Egypt (c.1350 BCE), dispatched — dispatched, not received! — a delegation to the states of the Aegean. “If an Egyptian embassy had been sent,” states Cline, “it might have had a dual mission: to affirm connections with the old and valued trading partner (the Minoans) and to establish relations with the new rising power (the Mycenaeans).” What resulted from the embassy may have been the earliest example of a trade embargo, agreed to by Egypt and Mycenae against a common foe, the Hittite Empire.

We may never know the exact circumstances that brought Mycenaean Greeks into a war in north-eastern Anatolia at the end of the Bronze Age, or when, for that matter, they were there. Was it 1430 BCE during the Assuwan Rebellion or was it 1180 BCE when most scholars think the Trojan War was fought? Perhaps there were two separate wars fought against the Trojans? (This theory is textually supported in The Iliad: book 5, 638-42.) The evidence is simply too scant for precision. But that does not mean that we lack a foundation for informed speculation. Archeologists now confirm that the city identified as Troy suffered catastrophic destruction twice during the late Bronze Age, once by an earthquake c.13o0 BCE and a second time at the hands of men between 1190-1180 BC. The archaeological remains show that the city was besieged and and brought down by fire and sword. Excavators have even discovered bodies in the streets with burned feet and arrowheads embedded in the walls, both signs of intense street fighting.

Homer’s Troy, then, is the first recorded city in Greek history. And while it is certainly depicted as advanced and on par with, if not even more spectacular than, Greek cities, Troy is not, according to the poet, part of Greek civilization. The city is familiar, “a vision of civilized life,” with its splendid palace, assembly spaces, landmarks, and great wealth. And yet all those hearing The Iliad know that Troy is also doomed to fall by fire and sword. The imminent destruction of the city is perhaps the first and greatest use of literary irony (meaning you know what the characters do not) in the Western canon. All Greeks would understand the terrible importance carried in the destruction of a city. The story of Ilium, then, may be a cautionary tale about the civilized, wealthy city that is about to die. As Bernard Knox wrote in his introduction to the text:

The images of the night assault — the blazing palaces, the blood running in the streets, old Priam butchered at the altar, Cassandra raped in the temple, Hector’s baby son thrown off the battlements, his wife Andromache dragged off to slavery — all this, foreshadowed in the Iliad, will be stamped indelibly on the consciousness of the Greeks throughout their history…the stern lesson of Homer’s presentation of war. 2

And so it begins….

Sing, O goddess, the rage of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Zeus fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another. 

And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was Apollo, the son of Zeus; for he was angry with the king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people, because the son of Atreus had dishonored Chryses his priest. Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand the sceptre of Apollo wreathed with a suppliant’s wreath and he besought the Achaeans, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs. 

[ INTERESTING:      The book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,is one of those gangly, overwritten academic books that is undoubtedly wrong, but wrong in such an interesting way that readers, on finishing it, find that they think about the world quite differently. The book begins, “O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind!” Jaynes was a psychology professor at Princeton, back in the days before psychologists had walled themselves off from literature, when he noticed that the gods in the Homeric epics took the place of the human mind. In the Iliad we do not see Achilles fretting over what to do, or even thinking much. Achilles is a man of action, and in general, he acts as the gods instruct him. When Agamemnon steals his mistress and Achilles seethes with anger, Athena shows up, grabs him by the hair, and holds him back. Jaynes argued that Athena popped up in this way because humans in archaic Greece attributed thought to the gods—that when the ancient kings lived in those strange beehive Mycenaean palaces, when social worlds were small and preliterate, people did not conceptualize themselves as having inner speech. Jaynes did not think that the role of the gods in the Iliad was a literary trope. He thought that people who did not refer to internal states used their brains differently and—the cognitive functions of speaking and obeying split across their unintegrated hemispheres—actually experienced some thoughts audibly. “Who then were these gods that pushed men about like robots and sang epics through their lips?” Jaynes asked. “They were voices whose speech and direction could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard by certain epileptic and schizophrenic patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices.”

Excerpt from T.M. Luhrmann, ‘Living With Voices,’ in The American Scholar, Summer, 2012.]

End Notes:

  1. Eric Cline, 1177 BCE: The Year Civilization Collapsed, (Princeton, 2014), pp.35-40.
  2. Bernard Knox in The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagels (Penguin, 1990), p.37.

Photo: Kupferstich von Tommaso Piroli nach einer Zeichnung von John Flaxman (1755 – 1826).


One response to “Reading History #11: Introduction to ‘The Iliad’

  1. Pingback: Homework for the week of 10 Nov 2014 | Cities and Civilization

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