THE GREEK SEARCH FOR WISDOM
By MICHAEL K. KELLOGG
Copyright © 2012 Michael K. Kellogg
All right reserved.
Chapter One HOMER AND THE HEROIC IDEAL
The Iliad was written, according to the latest scholarly estimates, sometime between 750 and 700. It celebrates the last year of the siege of Ilium (the capital of Troy) by a Mycenaean Greek expeditionary force, a war that took place (if it happened at all) more than four hundred years earlier, between 1200 and 1100.
Four hundred years is a long time. It would be as if a contemporary poet sat down to write an epic on the defeat of the Spanish Armada by England in 1588. And yet it would be completely different. We have written records and firsthand accounts of the Spanish Armada. We know specific dates and the names of the individuals involved. We wish we knew much more; records of that time were spotty to begin with and often lost in the intervening years. But a poet writing today about the Spanish Armada would still have a wealth of detail both to fire and to constrain the imagination.
The Greek alphabet (adapted from the Phoenicians) did not even come into existence until the eighth century. An earlier, syllabic form of writing archaic Greek, known as Linear B, appears to have been used only for accounting records and lists of household stores. Linear A, from the Minoan civilization, has never been deciphered. Linear B was derived from Linear A and applied to the Greek language when the Mycenaeans conquered Crete sometime around 1400. Linear B in turn disappeared from the Greek world during the so-called dark ages between 1100, with the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, and 776, the year of the first Olympic Games.
Homer, then, had no written sources upon which to rely for his account of distant Bronze Age battles. He did not even have the archaeological evidence available to us today. What he did have was an oral tradition, stories and poems handed down through the centuries, inevitably altered and romanticized according to the needs, interests, and customs of the various tellers of the tale. Itinerant bards sang of the fall of Troy at festivals and in princely houses. Two cycles of poems developed, telling not only of the war itself but also of the often-problematic return of the Greek heroes after the sack of Troy.
At some point, around 725, the Iliad was written down in the form we know it today, and it is surely fitting that its reduction to writing was among the first uses of the new alphabet. Some years later, a second poem, the Odyssey, was brought to term. Others in the cycles were presumably written down around the same time, but only the Iliad and the Odyssey have survived, and they survived due to their vital role as the collective bible of Greek culture. (The word bible itself originates from the Greek, ta biblia, meaning "the books," which is how the Hellenistic Jews referred to their sacred writings.) The Iliad and the Odyssey were the books for classical Greek education. The lost poems in the cycles were never accorded the same veneration.
The Iliad is not only the first written work in Greek, but it is the font of Western literature, a tradition that ultimately mixed uneasily, though fruitfully, with the tradition spawned by the Hebrew Bible, whose composition began around 950. Yet the Illiad's origins in prehistory are shrouded in mystery and conjecture.
We do not know if the Trojan War actually happened, though some such event surely formed the kernel of the tales that begat the poem. Indeed, it would be surprising if the powerful, colonizing Mycenaean Greeks and the Trojans did not clash, given the latter's control over the entrance, through the Hellespont, to the trade and material riches of the Black Sea. And the wealthy city—or rather succession of cities—uncovered in 1871 by the amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, arguably shows signs of destruction by fire in the stratum corresponding to the relevant time period.
Nor do we know whether Homer—the legendary blind bard of Chios or Smyrna or any of half a dozen other cities that claimed him as their own—was the poem's author, though a single genius must ultimately have shaped the poem and created it in the form we have it today. It is not just an evolving oral poem, with spontaneous accretions and variations by a succession of anonymous singers through the centuries that some scribe wrote down from whatever performance he happened to hear once the alphabet made it possible to do so. It is a beautifully crafted, organic whole that far surpasses any oral tradition of which we can plausibly conceive. Many elements of that tradition were certainly incorporated into the written poem—including the familiar formulaic phrases (those rendered in English as "the wine-dark sea," "the rosy fingertips of dawn," "swift-footed Achilles," and so on) essential to the hexameter lines—but no unlettered oral tradition could approach the intricate architecture and subtle details of this lengthy work. Homer may have dictated that poem to a scribe, rather than writing it down himself, but the Iliad is a poem with a single author responsible for its final form.
Nor, finally, do we know the related question of whether a single poet authored both the Iliad and the Odyssey, though, again, I believe that to be the case. The same consciousness pervades both poems, making them twin aspects of a complete worldview despite their differences in import and sensibility, just as Shakespeare wrote both Macbeth and The Tempest, and Stendhal both The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma. Indeed, the idea that two such surpassing geniuses happened to succeed one another yet were known by tradition under the same name seems eminently implausible.
Ultimately, however, these great questions of homeric scholarship pale before the astonishing beauty and power of the poems themselves. We read Homer, in the end, to understand ourselves and the greatness of our artistic heritage. As the art historian Bernard Berenson explained: "All my life I have been reading about Homer, philological, historical, archeological, geographical, etc. Now I want to read him as pure art only, as commensurate with the heart and mind while humanity retains both." The Iliad comes to us as a sudden burst of light out of the darkness of prehistory and forever helps define the possibilities of being human.
THE RAGE OF ACHILLES
The Iliad does not tell the story of the fall of Troy. It does not tell the story of the causes of the Trojan War. It does not even tell us very much about the protracted siege of Troy. It assumes knowledge of, and alludes to, all three, but the poem itself focuses on only a few weeks in the ninth year of the war.
That in itself is a remarkable starting point. For nine years, the members of the Greek expeditionary force have been living in tents next to their ships, pulled up on the beach. They are a loose confederation of allies. Homer collectively calls them Achaeans, from a region in the north central part of the Peloponnese, but sometimes he also refers to them as Danaans or Argives—the Greeks had no single national identity in what archaeologists call the Mycenaean period. Agamemnon, hereditary king of Mycenae and head of the House of Atrides, is their acknowledged leader by virtue of the great power and central role of his city; he also has the most ships and the most men under his command, and he is strongly backed by his brother, Menelaus, king of Sparta. But there are many kings and princes among the Achaeans, each with his own domain, his own ships, and his own troops—and each jealous of his prerogatives and honor. They are a fragile coalition, made more so by nine years of living in an armed camp, seemingly no closer to their goal of sacking Troy.
Agamemnon, moreover, is deeply flawed as a leader. He is touchy and grasping, with bad judgment, an explosive temper, and little real knowledge of his men. On one occasion, he tests the troops by suggesting that they give up the siege and return home. Instead of roaring their dissent and insisting on pressing the attack, the rank and file give a shout of joy and head for the ships; only Odysseus's quick actions and harsh words turn them back to the assembly. On two other occasions, when the battle is going poorly, Agamemnon gives way to despair and genuinely suggests flight. Each time he is promptly and rudely rebuffed by one of his warlords, first by Diomedes and then by Odysseus, who says to him,
"You are the disaster.
Would to god you commanded another army,
a ragtag crew of cowards, instead of ruling us."
It is unsurprising, then, that under Agamemnon's leadership tensions boil over into a quarrel with deadly consequences. Plague has ravaged the camp, and Achilles, the greatest Achaean warrior, calls an assembly to determine what is to be done. The fact that Achilles must take the initiative is itself telling. Calchas, a seer and prophet, says the plague came upon them because Agamemnon spurned Apollo's priest, who sought to ransom his daughter, Chryseis. Chryseis had been awarded as a prize to Agamemnon in an earlier raid, and Agamemnon is predictably furious. Indeed, Achilles has already goaded Agamemnon by promising to protect Calchas even if Calchas names as the cause of the plague Agamemnon himself, who "claims to be, by far, the best of the Achaeans." What Agamemnon claims is obviously not what Achilles believes, and he makes that clear to the entire assembly.
Homer brilliantly captures the steady escalation in angry rhetoric between the two men that leads to a decisive break. Much of the fault lies with Achilles, who—when Agamemnon demands an equal prize to replace Chryseis, "else I alone of the Argives go without my honor"—calls him the "most grasping man alive," "shameless," and "dog-face[d]," and suggests that Agamemnon lurks in the rear while the hard fighting is done and then steps forward to claim the lion's share of plunder. At one point, Agamemnon tries to defuse the quarrel—"Enough. We'll deal with all this later, in due time"—by urging that they defer all other issues and immediately send Chryseis back to her father to appease Apollo. But the suggestion that Agamemnon may later commandeer another man's prize to take her place infuriates Achilles, and he insults Agamemnon so brutally that Agamemnon must reassert his preeminence. He does so by taking Achilles's own prize, his beloved Briseis, and Achilles returns to his ships resolved to fight no more for the Achaeans.
"Someday, I swear, a yearning for Achilles will strike Achaea's sons and all your armies! But then, Atrides, harrowed as you will be, nothing you do can save you—not when your hordes of fighters drop and die, cut down by the hands of man-killing Hector! Then—then you will tear your heart out, desperate, raging that you disgraced the best of the Achaeans!"
This dispute may seem almost childish on both sides. Yet at stake are nothing less than kleos (honor) and timê (the marks of public esteem), which are the ultimate values of the homeric hero. Achilles demands that his superior fighting skills be honored and recognized through the award of greater prizes and other indicia of public esteem. Agamemnon insists that his superiority as a king and leader be afforded the first place, and he disparages Achilles as a mere "spearman." This jockeying for honor and glory—this sense by each that his skills and his contributions are the most valuable—is a fundamental aspect of the Greek character in ancient times. Prowess in war and wisdom in counsel are the two most valued qualities of the homeric hero—to be "a man of words and a man of action too." As Harold Bloom notes, "To compete for the foremost place was the homeric ideal." Falling short of that ideal—failing to obtain the kleos and timê that one believes one deserves-was a source of shame, a shame so sharp and so great that (as told in the Odyssey) mighty Ajax killed himself when his fellow Achaeans, following the death of Achilles, awarded Achilles's armor to Odysseus rather than to him.
For Achilles, the demands of kleos and timê are all the greater because his goddess mother, Thetis, has told him that he can choose between two fates: he can fight and die at Troy and achieve imperishable glory (kleos aphthiton), or he can stay at home and live quietly and unheralded, dying in old age with his family around him. Achilles chooses Troy and immortal glory. Yet now he has been deprived even of the timê that is his due. He has been shamed by Agamemnon.
None of the other warlords, moreover, has supported Achilles in his dispute with Agamemnon, not even old Nestor, who merely urges calm and discretion on both men. Yet Achilles called the assembly and pressed Calchas for an answer for the benefit of all. Agamemnon tells Achilles that "others will take my side and do me honor," and the silence appears to bear him out. Afterward, when Achilles's absence leads to disaster on the battlefield, the other warlords claim that Agamemnon "took from his tents the girl Briseis, / and not with any applause from us, far from it." But one must feel that their silence at the time was due not just to fear of Agamemnon but also to jealousy and annoyance at Achilles's arrogance and pride, and to their sense of their own worth. They undoubtedly respect his fighting skills, but the other warlords bear little affection for Achilles and almost seem eager to test their mettle against the Trojans without him.
Achilles in turn bears so little affection for his fellow Achaeans that he fervently wishes their deaths at the hands of the Trojans in order that his own worth and their need for him will be recognized. He appeals to his goddess mother, Thetis, to intercede with Zeus on his behalf and turn the tide of battle against the Greeks, and that is precisely what happens. So long as Achilles roamed the plains around Troy, the Trojans stayed largely within or close to their city walls. With him out of action, they press all the way to the camp by the sea and pin the Achaeans against their own ships.
Agamemnon's initial response, in the episode alluded to above, is to suggest flight. Instead, Nestor counsels him to send an embassy to Achilles to plead with him to rejoin the battle. Agamemnon chooses three emissaries—including Odysseus and Ajax—and recites at length the many splendid gifts he will give to Achilles as a "ransom paid for friendship." These gifts include the return of Briseis (with a sworn oath that he has not touched her), seven women from Lesbos skilled in crafts, a dozen stallions, gold and silver, the pick of prizes from Troy, and his own daughter in marriage along with seven citadels and the men who live within them. "All this," Agamemnon says, "I would extend to him if he will end his anger." But Agamemnon ends his recital by reasserting his own supremacy over Achilles: "Let him bow down to me! I am the greater king, / I am the elder-born, I claim—the greater man."
Odysseus, in his recital of these gifts to Achilles, wisely leaves off Agamemnon's last remarks, saying simply, "All this / he would extend to you if you will end your anger," and then adds that even if Achilles still hates Agamemnon he should take pity on "our united forces mauled in battle here," who will honor Achilles like a god if he returns to the fight.
Achilles should be receptive to these overtures. Homer portrays him as raging grimly by his ships "yearning, always yearning for battle cries and combat." And when the emissaries approach, they find Achilles playing the lyre and "singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes." Clearly, the heroic ideal and the desire for kleos and timê are still strong within him. The many gifts and the acknowledged need of the Achaeans will augment both. He can return to battle in a much stronger position than before his dispute with Agamemnon.
Yet Achilles rebuffs the emissaries, saying that he and his troops will sail for home the next morning. He gives two reasons for that response. First, his anger at Agamemnon is unappeased, and he refuses to be patronized by him. Indeed, he picks up on Odysseus's artful elision and senses Agamemnon's continuing insistence on his supremacy. In prefacing his own speech, which he promises will be straight and true, Achilles says, "I hate that man like the very Gates of Death / who says one thing but hides another in his heart." Achilles is the opposite in so many respects of Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, and the hero of Homer's second poem. Achilles neither dissembles nor adapts, and he can neither hide nor suppress his continued anger. Agamemnon has sent emissaries with bribes, but he has not come himself and has not proffered any apology.
Second, Achilles points out the irony of the whole expedition, which was ostensibly launched to win back the wife of Menelaus—the beautiful Helen, "with her loose and lustrous hair"—who ran off with the Trojan prince, Paris. Having the two great civilizations locked in a death struggle over Helen makes for excellent poetry both in Homer and later, as Christopher Marlowe showed in Doctor Faustus:
Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships, And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Excerpted from THE GREEK SEARCH FOR WISDOM by MICHAEL K. KELLOGG Copyright © 2012 by Michael K. Kellogg. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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