The War That Killed Achilles

A quarter of the way into the Iliad, in the midst of the section known as the Excellence of Diomedes (aristeia Diomedous), the great Greek warrior closes with a Trojan. Fearing that he is about to fight a god — the immortals of Olympus have been wreaking havoc throughout the battlefield — Diomedes asks his opponent to identify himself. Glaukos replies:

High-hearted son of Tydeus, why ask of my generation? As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity. The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning. So one generation of men will grow while another dies.

More than 100 generations have grown and died since these beautiful words were recorded, and in none of them has the Iliad been forgotten. It is one the founding documents of Western culture. Beyond providing the framework through which we interpret war — our most constant industry — it has been the inspiration of innumerable works of art, works as disparate as Rubens’s tapestry cycle (c. 1630) on the life of Achilles and Christopher Logue’s brilliant War Music (1959-2005).

For 400 years, it has also been subject to the harsh love of translators, from Chapman and Pope to the recent bestselling version of Robert Fagles (1990). One of the landmarks in the history of the Iliad in English is Richmond Lattimore’s 1951 version. It inaugurated the great race of Anglo-American epics — Mandelbaum running on the outside, Fitzgerald moving up the inside — and introduced American high school and college students to the ancient world for a half century. Lattimore tried for as much accuracy as English would allow, translating the Greek line for line no matter the grammatical costs and mimicking all of Homer’s word repetition. The verse is stark, seductive, and markedly alien in places. While students may have had moments of struggle following the highly referential narrative in Lattimore’s rendering, there is simply no better way of thrusting yourself into Homer’s world.

Caroline Alexander certainly believes so. She made her name with popular works of nautical history, but was trained as a classicist and has made the Lattimore translation the centerpiece of her new book — “It was Lattimore’s translation that introduced me to the Iliad at the age of fourteen and inspired me to learn Greek. My appreciation of its plain diction but epic gravitas and tone has only increased over the years.” The War That Killed Achilles is a diffuse book. The subtitle, “The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War,” and the jacket copy indicate a historical or social study focused on the meaning of war. But this is no thematic or interpretive work. Alexander instead retells the epic, from Agamemnon’s angering of Apollo through the funeral pyre of Hector, and fetters her analysis to the tick-tock of a summary of the poem. Her interpretive flights are held in check by the need to take the story forward, and the attempts at contemporary relevance — references to Vietnam and Afghanistan, Haditha, and combat trauma — are only fleeting.

Alexander’s is a solid overview of the major thinking in Homeric scholarship. Yet as I read, tripping with her from idea to idea, I wondered just who the book is aimed toward. I couldn’t imagine a reader moving from it back to the epic, which is the absolute test of this sort of work; the book rather seemed a substitute for reading the original. Nor is her main interpretive point particularly original. She’s of the “pity of war” school:

Honoring the nobility of a soldier’s sacrifice and courage, Homer nonetheless determinedly concludes his epic with a sequence of funerals, inconsolable lamentations, and shattered lives. War makes stark the tragedy of mortality. A hero will have no recompense for death, although he may win glory.

This is true, and part of the many-faceted point Homer is making. But if we take such a literalist view, the Odyssey is an Aegean travel guide and the Aeneid is about real estate. The Iliad is not about war but rather a war. Its retelling of a well-known story was shaped by its author as meditation on fate and action. Even Zeus, who has the power to alter events, acknowledges that, facing the death of his beloved son Sarpedon, he is hemmed in by the society he leads and cannot simply do as he pleases.

When Glaukos recites his genealogy to Diomedes, a speech that contains the lines about life quoted above, the two warriors discover that their grandfathers were host-friends, a sacred bond in ancient Greece. The pair agree to avoid “each other’s spears, even in the close fighting” and trade armor — a famed exchange as Glaukos’s gold armor was many times the value of the Greek’s. Diomedes is the wisest and finest of the Greek host, the Achaean equivalent to Hektor, and this digression helps Homer contrast him to the only warriors of greater skill fighting on the Greek side: Achilles and Ajax. Diomedes through Glaukos is recognizing the true pity of this war, which is not shattered lives, but that they are much the same — Greek and Trojan — and when the war is done will be indistinguishable. Achilles and Ajax have no such understanding, and their martial prowess is undone by brutality and selfishness.

The final agent of a long oral tradition, Homer turned well-known stories and characters into a moral education. That he also gave a portrait of a whole world — not the Bronze Age Mycenean one of Agamemnon, but rather the dark age that followed — was the major point of Moses Finley’s still unbettered World of Odysseus (1954). Finley elucidated an entire culture from the words of the Iliad and the Odyssey. And a generation ago, Jasper Griffin wrote a compact and decisive study about what it meant to be a hero in Homer. Homer on Life and Death (1980) is learned, accessible, and will deepen your understanding of the Homeric epics with each page. It is against such works that The War That Killed Achilles — solid though it is — must be measured. Alexander’s main message is laudable if short: Read the Lattimore translation.