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The Fall of Troy is an epic poem about the destruction of a city. Made famous by Homer and buried by the passage of time, Troy was rediscovered in the 1860s and 70s by the pioneering archaeologists Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann. As their excavations near Hisarlik, Turkey, revealed layers of a citadel once consumed by fire, the modern world awoke to an interest that had long preoccupied the ancient. What had become of the civilization of King Priam? The Iliad, the most authoritative literary source, ends in a cliff-hanger. With its most famous defender dead, Troy itself gamely fights on. People in antiquity wanted to know exactly what had happened after the funeral of “Hector the breaker of horses” and before the Greeks returned home in triumph. At first this need was met by a series of poems known as the Epic Cycle. By the time of the later Roman Empire these works had faded from general knowledge, and Quintus of Smyrna undertook to tell the story anew. Reinforcements bring hope to the beleaguered city of Troy, even as new champions arise for the besiegers. Amid the ferocity of the ensuing battles more than physical survival is at stake. The very definition of human heroism hangs in the balance. When the Greeks climb down from the wooden horse and fire the city, the flames illuminate something truly timeless: What gives meaning to mortal life within the constraints set by Fate and the divine.
Very little is known about Quintus. Passages from The Fall of Troy suggest he was a native of Asia Minor who wrote toward the end of the third century CE. In Book 12 he describes himself as a youthful shepherd. The reality was likely more complex; he may well have been a teacher with students for ‘sheep.’ His invocation of the Muses shows that Quintus viewed himself as the ambitious successor of Homer, Hesiod, and other poets whose literary challenges and accomplishments were enormous. Help from these goddesses of song was thus indispensable, and elevated a man far above his mortal peers. Quintus’ embrace of this pagan tradition is all the more interesting given his family circumstances. He likely had a son Dorotheus who became a Christian priest and was put to death during the persecutions of the emperor Diocletian.
To understand the magnitude of Quintus’ achievement, consider the task he set himself. Emulating Homer meant that every line of The Fall of Troy had to be written in archaic Greek verse of a sort known as dactylic hexameter. This regular alternation of long and short syllables (as measured by the length of their vowels) limited the poet’s vocabulary and complicated his syntax. Nor did Quintus have a free hand in choosing his theme. Unlike Homer, he could not shape a unified topic like “the wrath of Achilles” or “Odysseus of many turns” to suit his purposes. The basic outlines and events of his story had been set by his predecessors centuries ago and could not be omitted or drastically altered. His solution was to write what we might term an episodic (or chronological) epic.
The Fall of Troy begins with the arrival of a pair of unusual Trojan allies: a woman (the Amazon queen Penthesilea) and a black man (Memnon, from Ethiopia). These two are in turn slain by Achilles, who does not long savor his victory. He is shot by Apollo, burned and buried by the Greeks, and honored with funeral games. Ajax and Odysseus soon fight over his armor; Ajax loses and commits suicide. Thereafter Paris, the Trojan who brought Helen to Troy, dies in battle. Unable to capitalize on their temporary advantage, the Greeks send emissaries to fetch unlikely reinforcements, Achilles’ young son Neoptolemus and the crippled Philoctetes. Despite the valiant exploits of these two, the Greeks remain stymied until they turn from force to guile. On the advice of Odysseus, they build the infamous wooden horse, and the sack of the city follows. Helen is reunited with her husband Menelaus and the Greeks set sail homeward, some to happiness and others to grief.
The sheer diversity of his material required Quintus to draw on a wide variety of sources. The most important of these were Greek: the poems of Homer and Hesiod; Jason and the Argonauts, by Apollonius of Rhodes; and the tragedies of Sophocles (Ajax, Philoctetes) and Euripides (Hecuba, Suppliant Women). He also relied on summaries of ancient mythological handbooks (the Library of Apollodorus and the Chrestomathia of Proclus). He may have made use of Latin literature as well, especially epic (Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses) and Senecan tragedy (The Trojan Women). Quintus’ lasting achievement was to link a series of self-contained, individual episodes within an elegant framework organized by repetition and symmetry, contrast and chiasmus (ABBA order). He also relied on traditional epic devices such as ring composition, formulaic epithets, similes, and foreshadowing to smooth out any remaining disparities. The result is a brilliant mosaic which is at once an accomplished imitation of Quintus’ Homeric models and a literary success in its own right.
The most striking feature of The Fall of Troy is its ability to innovate successfully while remaining faithful to the complex traditions of ancient epic. Quintus’ quiet originality shows up consistently in ways both large and small. Consider the role of the gods. As in Homer, they debate on Mt. Olympus, back the Greeks or Trojans, whisk their mortal favorites to safety under the veil of cloud, and even take part in the fighting. Yet Quintus’ Zeus is “distinctly un-Homeric” in that his authority is generally immune to challenge. Once he makes his displeasure or desires known, other immortals like Dawn, Ares, and Athena swiftly fall into line. Moreover, even the great Father of gods and men is not himself a totally free agent, “because to Fate the might of Zeus must bow.” Many scholars have linked Quintus’ concept of an all-powerful Fate to the influence of Stoicism. Indeed, The Fall of Troy is filled with the moralizing observations known in antiquity as sententiae. Some of these are uttered by the characters, others by the narrator. Taken together, they demonstrate Quintus’ familiarity with both contemporary philosophical thought and the rhetorical commonplaces of the time. Similarly, Nestor’s supportive speech to Podalirius, whose brother has been slain, bears the strong imprint of the Roman philosopher Seneca’s Consolation to Marcia.
The Fall of Troy’s treatment of its characters is likewise innovative. Quintus has a clear tendency to idealize his most important heroes. For instance, when the Greeks compete for Achilles’ armor, the slow-wittedness of Ajax, the duplicity of Odysseus, and the pettiness of Agamemnon familiar from other accounts are all substantially toned down. Quintus’ attention to more minor characters is also telling. He is keenly aware of “the sufferings which the war brings to people in general, combatants and non-combatants alike.” And some of the poem’s most important moments are brought into focus by otherwise unimportant figures. As Troy begins to totter, it is an unnamed sailor at sea who spots the flames and reads in them the sign of the times: “For strong Fate oversees all works of men,/ And the renownless and obscure to fame/ She raises, and brings low the exalted ones./ Oft out of good is evil brought, and good/ From evil, mid the travail and change of life.” One of the poem’s strengths is to have taken the heroic world and linked it to that of Everyman in a way that elevates the latter without sullying the former.
The originality of The Fall of Troy is also apparent at the level of individual detail. At the beginning of Book 5 Quintus describes the shield made for Achilles by the god Hephaestus. This passage is indebted to other ecphraseis (lengthy descriptions of works of art) contained elsewhere in ancient epic. The Iliad, for instance, contains a depiction of the very same shield. Quintus’ shield is similar to Homer’s in that both contrast two very different places, a city of war and a city of peace. But Quintus has made two significant changes within this framework. First, he has placed at the very center of the shield a steep mountain where Virtue sits enthroned upon a palm tree and reaches toward heaven: “All round her, paths broken by many rocks/ Thwarted the climbers’ feet; by those steep tracks/ Daunted ye saw returning many folk:/ Few won by sweat of toil the sacred height.” Byre notes that this image “clearly derives from the long tradition in which the alternative courses of human life are symbolized by paths leading to, or over which one is lead [sic] by, personifications representing good and evil.” Unlike Homer, Quintus does not stress the universality of humanity, whereby all are subject to the fortunes of war and share in the fruits of peace. Instead, he offers a moral allegory emphasizing the differences among us: The paths to Virtue are steep, and few make it to the top. Moreover, Virtue (or, differently translated, Excellence) is not, as so often in Homer, a function of noble birth or divine favor. It is accessible to all, comes at the price of hard labor, and is rewarded in the afterlife with ease and comfort
The second major change to Achilles’ shield is in the marriages it depicts. In Homer, several unnamed brides are led through a city with torchlight and song, while Quintus shows preparations for a specific match, that of Peleus and Thetis. In this way he establishes a direct thematic connection which is central to much of the sorrow in The Fall of Troy. First of all, Thetis frequently regrets her own wedding, which leads to the birth of Achilles. Achilles in turn uses the shield while slaying Trojans. After his demise, it becomes a source of strife among the Greeks and leads to Ajax’ death. Finally, the shield protects Achilles’ son Neoptolemus as he cuts down King Priam and sacks Troy. Thus in Quintus’ hands the ecphrasis becomes a powerful means of linking shield and story.
Quintus’ poem does more than innovate within the epic tradition; it also reflects his own cultural circumstances. Several sections of The Fall of Troy touch on important concerns of the day such as the observation and treatment of disease. Book 5 describes in agonizing detail the stages of Ajax’ madness, Book 12 those of Laocoon’s blindness. Elsewhere wounds are bled with leeches and bandaged with a variety of salves. Quintus’ attention to anatomical detail reaches its height in the battle scenes of the later books. In macabre moments reminiscent of Lucan, a severed head rolls away while straining to speak, and Hellus’ arm, shorn from its body, convulsively brandishes its spear. In a lighter vein, several references suggest that the author was fond of a recent technical manual on fishing, Oppian’s Halieutica. The most topical section of The Fall of Troy occurs in Book 4. Here Quintus alters the games honoring the dead Achilles to reflect the order and nature of contests in his own day. Like all successful literary works, the poem is a not only a product of an artistic tradition, but of a particular time and place as well.
The Fall of Troy was a popular success, and rapidly became the standard supplement to Homer. Manuscripts of the poem were recopied and preserved throughout late antiquity and the medieval period, especially in the Byzantine East. One such manuscript was eventually discovered by Cardinal Bessarion in the monastery of St. Nicholas of Casoli near Otranto in Italy shortly after 1453. This find reintroduced Quintus to the West, and led to many editions and translations of his work. The Fall of Troy had an impact on several European writers, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose 1833 poem Oenone explores the situation of Paris’ first wife, jilted in favor of Helen. Struck by an arrow in battle, Paris had begged Oenone to save him with her healing arts. She had refused, and he had crawled off to die. Tennyson focuses on Oenone’s subsequent remorse as she travels to Mt. Ida to fling herself atop her faithless husband’s funeral pyre. The English translation printed here is that of Arthur Sanders Way, which was first published in 1913. The most authoritative Greek text of The Fall of Troy is now that of Vian.
Quintus too-often suffers by comparison with Homer. Yet if we want to take the true measure of his achievement, we need to look beyond the shadow cast by his gigantic predecessor. Shaped by modernism and postmodernism, we should feel a particular empathy for the “shepherd” of Smyrna and the difficulties he faced in confronting and appropriating a daunting literary legacy. The Fall of Troy stands out in this regard, and not simply as a sturdy link in the great chain of ancient epics. In its capacity for unassuming innovation and its fidelity to its own cultural roots, the poem is an unqualified literary success.
Geoffrey W. Bakewell holds a Ph.D. in Classical Philology from Brown University and is the Michael W. Barry Professor at Creighton University, where he directs the Honors Program and teaches in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies. His publications include works on ancient Greek history, literature, and philosophy.