Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter

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Overview

In Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, his fourth volume to explore ?the hinges of history,? Thomas Cahill escorts the reader on another entertaining?and historically unassailable?journey through the landmarks of art and bloodshed that defined Greek culture nearly three millennia ago.

In the city-states of Athens and Sparta and throughout the Greek islands, honors could be won in making love and war, and lives were rife with contradictions. By developing the alphabet, the Greeks ...

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Overview

In Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, his fourth volume to explore “the hinges of history,” Thomas Cahill escorts the reader on another entertaining—and historically unassailable—journey through the landmarks of art and bloodshed that defined Greek culture nearly three millennia ago.

In the city-states of Athens and Sparta and throughout the Greek islands, honors could be won in making love and war, and lives were rife with contradictions. By developing the alphabet, the Greeks empowered the reader, demystified experience, and opened the way for civil discussion and experimentation—yet they kept slaves. The glorious verses of the Iliad recount a conflict in which rage and outrage spur men to action and suggest that their “bellicose society of gleaming metals and rattling weapons” is not so very distant from more recent campaigns of “shock and awe.” And, centuries before Zorba, Greece was a land where music, dance, and freely flowing wine were essential to the high life. Granting equal time to the sacred and the profane, Cahill rivets our attention to the legacies of an ancient and enduring worldview.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A triumph 0f popularization: extraordinarily knowledgeable, informal in tone, amusing, wide ranging, smartly paced.” —The New York Times Book Review

“The best introduction to classical Greek culture yet written. . . . Learned, stylish and inspiring. . . . Well-informed, insightful and on the whole written in a sparkling style.” —Los Angeles Times

“Astonishing. . . . If anybody can get us reading about Homer, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Thucydides, Xenophon and more, Cahill will.” —Chicago Tribune

“Fascinating. . . . Commendable. . . . Cahill has an impressive knowledge of the Greek world. . . . His admirable skill at summing up movements of enormous complexity surface throughout the book.” —The Seattle Times

The New York Times
Thomas Cahill's Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea is the fourth book in a best-selling series that treats Western history as a long chain of gift-giving to the world, where the gifts are art, literature, political and moral values, science and philosophy. He is a talented writer, and his tour of Greek culture is a triumph of popularization: extraordinarily knowledgeable, informal in tone, amusing, wide-ranging, smartly paced. We learn much from him about Greek achievements, from Homer's epic vision to the importance of free speech, from the development of the disciplined war machine the Greeks called the phalanx to Plato's love of reason. Cahill has produced an updated version of Edith Hamilton's beloved Greek Way of 75 years ago, one that is much more sensitive to the Greeks' oppression of women and uncritical endorsement of slavery, their tinges of xenophobia and the fearsome nature of their war making. — Joy Connolly
The Washington Post
Cahill assumes his readers possess scant knowledge of classical history or literature and arranges each chapter like a chatty lecture, complete with introductory readings from original sources as springboards for expounding the ideas and ideals they portray. We even find a pronunciation glossary for the Greek cast of characters and, for those who could never read the signs over fraternity and sorority houses, the Greek alphabet with transliterations. He makes complex things simple without rendering them simplistic. — Tracy Lee Simmons
Publishers Weekly
Dukakis makes an oddly fine match for this learned, accessible and occasionally glib survey of early Greek culture and its contributions to Western civilization. While her gruff Boston accent may seem like a strange match for a historical work, it suits this text, which moves fluidly between quoting Sappho on one page and referring to the gods as keeping something "on the QT" on another. Indeed, Cahill's project aims not merely to explain the Greeks, but to enliven them. In an effort to take them off their crumbling pedestals and make a modern audience appreciate them as a complex people struggling to comprehend and improve their world, he quotes passages from well-known Greek works and writes comfortably and unassumingly in a colloquial, contemporary style. Perhaps this is why Dukakis fits right in. As an actress, she has more than enough skill to carry listeners through a lengthy excerpt from the Iliad, but she can also project a no-nonsense demeanor that makes the reader feel like she's sitting you down and telling you how it was. The result is a vivid, tangible look at who the Greeks were and what they have come to mean. Simultaneous release with the Doubleday hardcover (Forecasts, Aug. 25, 2003). (Nov. 2003) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
As part of his "The Hinges of History" series (e.g., Desire of the Everlasting Hills), Cahill once again presents an entertaining book. This one tells the English-speaking world why the Greeks are relevant to their current culture. He has taken a clever angle by dividing Ancient Greek influence into such categories as "How To Rule," "How To Think," and "How To Party." His enthusiasm and irreverence will prove infectious to most readers and outweighs his tendency to oversimplify certain issues, such as why certain texts survived and others did not. Cahill does not actually address with any depth the evolution of the Greek influence over the ensuing 3000 years but does admit to less attractive influences, such as sexism and slavery. Some may deem this as an updated version of Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way; Cahill stays focused on the Greeks and gives little space to the other influences in play at the same time, but one must concede that that is his thesis. Recommended for all public libraries and academic libraries without a Classics Department. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/03.]-Clay Williams, Hunter Coll., New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Cahill has set himself a daunting task in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, in which he seeks to make the ancient Greeks accessible to a modern audience. Yet he succeeds. The author examines ancient Greek civilization through a number of specific roles that underpinned that society, such as the warrior, the politician, and the philosopher. He delves into their development and shows how they exemplified and perpetuated the different aspects of behavior and thought that defined their times. The use of specific types with whom readers can relate makes for an effective means of bridging the gap between their civilization and ours. With this common ground established, Cahill can show exactly how ancient Greece has influenced western civilization today, such as in the approach to the military and in the creation of the system by which we organize our knowledge and methods of learning. Scholars of the subject might quibble with certain of the author's pronouncements, and he seems to have an overly dismissive attitude toward the civilization of ancient Rome. Yet there can be no gainsaying the fact that Cahill has succeeded in his goal; by the end of the book, readers can thoroughly understand why the ancient Greeks matter to us today.-Ted Westervelt, Library of Congress, Washington, DC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In highly readable fashion, Cahill explores the Greeks' great gifts to Western civilization, along with some less benign bequests that continue to grieve us. It might be hard for us retroject ourselves into the Greek consciousness, suggests Cahill (How the Irish Saved Civilization, 1995, etc.), who proceeds to make it simple, situating many of our most knee-jerk responses to social, political, religious, and ethical life within the orbit of the Greek worldview. Americans, too, are a blend of circumstances and the refinement or debasement thereof: still a warrior culture ("males always primed for battle and sexual conquest"), still a bellicose society ready for war ("terrible but innate to civilization"), still Greek-dependent for our views of morality and justice in a fated universe ruled by passion. We too strive for the resourcefulness of Odysseus, tempered by "the ability to sympathize, to mourn, and to cherish familial relationships," elevated for the Greeks by the influence of wonderful Sappho. We're pursued by the Furies of guilt, take pleasure in conviviality (think keggers, for the lowest common denominator), believe in innocence by dint of hung jury, question taboos by deliberation and choice. Yes, Cahill notes, the European Enlightenment was critical, but so was Athens' "wildly participatory" democracy, likely the fallout of an alphabet that spread literacy, demystification, and irreverence. The author parades a rogue's gallery of true subversives, from Homer to Solon ("a sort of Athenian Franklin D. Roosevelt, an innovative though basically moderate statesman"), from pre-Socratic notions of atomic theory and mystery to Socrates' questing and questioning to Plato's ultimateforms. Then, late in the Grecian formula, Pericles' resolve: "The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart." Like all things Greek, highly interpretable, allowing "the Greco-Roman turn of mind combined with Judeo-Christian values." Like having a worldly, well-versed, and imaginative uncle tell you a good story, tendering the known while fearlessly filling in the gaps with seamless, colorful graftings.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385495547
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/27/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 99,120
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.95 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

THOMAS CAHILL is the author of the three previous volumes in the Hinges of History series: How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, and Desire of the Everlasting Hills. They have been bestsellers, not only in the United States but also in countries ranging from Italy to Brazil. Cahill was recently invited to address the U.S. Congress on the Judeo-Christian roots of moral responsibility in American politics. He and his wife, Susan, also a writer, divide their time between New York and Rome.
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Read an Excerpt

I

THE WARRIOR

HOW TO FIGHT

Zeus, who controlled rain and clouds and held in his hand the awful thunderbolt, was Lord of the Sky and greatest of the gods, but not the oldest. He and the eleven other Olympians--the gods and goddesses who dwelt in the heaven at the top of Mount Olympus, Greece's highest mountain--had been preceded in their reign by the elder gods, the Titans, whom they had overthrown. The Titans had been formed by Father Heaven and Mother Earth, which had existed before any of the gods, having emerged from the primordial Chaos, whose children, Darkness and Death, had given birth to Light and Love (for Night is the mother of Day), which made possible the appearance of Heaven and Earth.

Zeus, son of the deposed Titan Cronus, was perpetually falling in love, wooing and usually raping beautiful women, both immortal and mortal, who would then give birth to gods and demigods, complicating considerably family relations on Olympus. Hera, Zeus's wife and sister, was perpetually jealous, scheming to best one rival after another with cruel retribution. But all the goddesses, even the virginal ones, were prone to jealousy; and it was this fault that helped bring on the Trojan War--which began, like Eve's temptation in Eden, with an apple.

There was one goddess, Eris, not an Olympian, whom the gods were inclined to leave out of their wonderful celebrations, for she was the Spirit of Discord. True to her nature, when she found she had not been invited to the wedding of King Peleus with the sea nymph Thetis, she hurled into the Olympic banqueting hall a single golden apple with two words on it, Toei kallistoei (to the fairest). All the goddesses wanted to claim it, but the three most powerful were finally left to fight over it: the cow-eyed goddess Hera, the battle goddess Athena--the child of Zeus who had sprung from his head--and Aphrodite, whom the Romans called Venus, the laughing, irresistible goddess of Love, born from the foam of the sea.

Zeus wisely declined to be judge of this beauty contest but recommended Paris, prince of Troy, who had been exiled as a shepherd to Mount Ida because his father, King Priam, had received an oracle that his son would one day be the ruin of Troy. Paris, Zeus averred, was known as a judge of female beauty (and of little else, he might have added). The three goddesses lost no time appearing to the astounded shepherd-prince and offering their bribes, Hera promising to make him Lord of Eurasia, Athena to make him victorious in battle against the Greeks, Aphrodite to give him the world's most beautiful woman. He found for Aphrodite, who gave him Helen, daughter of Zeus and the mortal Leda.

There was one small complication: Helen was married to Menelaus, king of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon of Mycenae, Greece's most powerful king. But with Aphrodite's help, Paris was able in Menelaus's absence to spirit Helen away from her home and bring her to Troy. When Menelaus returned and found out what had happened, he called on all the Greek chieftains, who had previously sworn an oath to uphold Menelaus's rights as husband should just such a thing as this occur. Only two were reluctant--shrewd, realistic Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who so loved his home and family that he had to be tricked into signing up for the adventure; and Greece's greatest warrior, Achilles, whose mother, the sea nymph Thetis, knew he would die if he went to Troy but who joined the Greek forces in the end because he was fated to prefer glorious victory in battle to a long life shorn of pride. Thus did the many ships of the Greek kings, each vessel bearing more than fifty men, set sail for Troy in pursuit of a human face, Helen's--in Marlowe's mighty line, "the face that launched a thousand ships."

How different in feeling the Judgment of Paris from the Sorrows of Demeter. If the earlier story is genuine myth, dramatizing recurrent, inexorable tragedy at the level of cosmic nightmare, the later seems a sort of old-fashioned drawing room melodrama about the characteristic foibles of male and female, in which matters spin monstrously out of control and end in tragic farce. If Demeter takes us back to an agricultural way of life that imagined Earth and its manifestations as aspects of maternal nurturing, the strident gods of Olympus, challenging and overthrowing one another, males always primed for battle and sexual conquest, females seizing control only by wheedling indirection, are projections of a warrior culture that set victory in armed combat above all other goals--or at least seemed to, for there are always, deep within any society, dreams that run in another, even in a contrary, direction from its articulated purposes. But first let's examine the obvious: the visible surfaces of this bellicose society of gleaming metals and rattling weapons.

The Mycenaean world that Schliemann discovered was the world of Agamemnon and his predecessors, the world sung by Homer in his two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, set, so far as we can judge, in Aegean Greece of the twelfth century b.c., an age I have called "protohistoric" because a cumbersome form of writing, Linear B, was then in existence, though usable only for accountants' ledgers. The stories of this age, however, were preserved as oral poetry by wandering bards and written down only much later when a far more flexible form of writing came into currency that permitted the recording of epics of massive length and graceful subtlety.

The Iliad begins not with the apple and the goddesses but with a far more earthly contest--between Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, and Achilles, the preeminent Greek champion. The Greek fleet has been long since beached on the Trojan shore and the army of the Greek chieftains is wearily besieging the well-fortified city, which has been able to withstand its assaults for nine years. But brilliant, unbeatable Achilles--whom Homer immediately calls dios or "noble," a word whose Indo-European root means "godlike" or "shining like the divine stars"--has left the field of battle in outrage at his treatment by haughty Agamemnon. For Agamemnon has commandeered Achilles's concubine, a girl Achilles won as war booty. Agamemnon feels justified in taking Achilles's concubine because he has had to accede to the unthinkable and give up his battle-won concubine. Her father, Chryses, priest at a nearby shrine of Apollo, called down his god's wrath upon the Greeks--whom Homer calls "Achaeans," "Argives," or "Danaans," depending on the needs of his meter. Homer's audience would already have known the details of the story, so they would not have been the least disoriented as he begins thus, summarizing the conflict between the two men, a conflict with fatal consequences for Greeks and Trojans alike:

Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,

murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,

great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,

feasts for the dogs and birds,

and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,

Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

What god drove them to fight with such a fury?

Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto. Incensed at the king

he swept a fatal plague through the army--men were dying

and all because Agamemnon spurned Apollo's priest.

Yes, Chryses approached the Achaeans' fast ships

to win his daughter back, bringing a priceless ransom

and bearing high in hand, wound on a golden staff,

the wreaths of the god, the distant deadly Archer.

He begged the whole Achaean army but most of all

the two supreme commanders, Atreus' two sons,

"Agamemnon, Menelaus--all Argives geared for war!

May the gods who hold the halls of Olympus give you

Priam's city to plunder, then safe passage home.

Just set my daughter free, my dear one . . . here,

accept these gifts, this ransom. Honor the god

who strikes from worlds away--the son of Zeus, Apollo!"

And all ranks of Achaeans cried out their assent:

"Respect the priest, accept the shining ransom!"

But it brought no joy to the heart of Agamemnon.

The king dismissed the priest with a brutal order

ringing in his ears: "Never again, old man,

let me catch sight of you by the hollow ships!

Not loitering now, not slinking back tomorrow.

The staff and the wreaths of god will never save you then.

The girl--I won't give up the girl. Long before that,

old age will overtake her in my house, in Argos,

far from her fatherland, slaving back and forth

at the loom, forced to share my bed!

Now go,

don't tempt my wrath--and you may depart alive."

The old man was terrified. He obeyed the order,

turning, trailing away in silence down the shore

where the battle lines of breakers crash and drag.

And moving off to a safe distance, over and over

the old priest prayed to the son of sleek-haired Leto,

lord Apollo, "Hear me, Apollo! God of the silver bow

who strides the walls of Chryse and Cilla sacrosanct--

lord in power of Tenedos--Smintheus, god of the plague!

If I ever roofed a shrine to please your heart,

ever burned the long rich bones of bulls and goats

on your holy altar, now, now bring my prayer to pass.

Pay the Danaans back--your arrows for my tears!"

His prayer went up and Phoebus Apollo heard him.

Down he strode from Olympus' peaks, storming at heart

with his bow and hooded quiver slung across his shoulders.

The arrows clanged at his back as the god quaked with rage,

the god himself on the march and down he came like night.

Over against the ships he dropped to a knee, let fly a shaft

and a terrifying clash rang out from the great silver bow.

First he went for the mules and circling dogs but then,

launching a piercing shaft at the men themselves,

he cut them down in droves--

and the corpse-fires burned on, night and day, no end in sight.

I have set out this generous quotation to remind you of Homer's splendor. If I could, I would now proceed to quote the whole poem before going further--it is so glorious, the foundation masterpiece of Western literature--in this immaculately forged new translation by Robert Fagles, which gives us much of Homer's precision, resurrecting the terrible beauty of Greece's Bronze Age in language as swift as Apollo's arrows--note the overwhelming inevitability of the half line "and down he came like night"--yet enclosing a gorgeous strength capable of burnishing each detail to brilliance.

The upshot of Apollo's plague is that all the Greeks come to realize the cause of their misfortune and that the priest's daughter needs to be returned to her father if the plague is to leave them. Their leader Agamemnon, forced to assent to their consensus, takes as his consolation prize Achilles's concubine, thus precipitating Achilles's withdrawal from the war. For most of the poem's twenty-four books Achilles sits in his tent in a rage, deliberating whether to remain on the sidelines or to abandon the Greeks altogether, raise his sails, and push off for home, along with the fellow countrymen who are under his command.

What a strange world this is, so far from our own. The theme of the poem, as Homer tells us in his very first word, is a hero's rage--"wrath" in the older translations--but rage and wrath seem to be everywhere: in Achilles, Agamemnon, Chryses, and Apollo, in every character to whom we are introduced in the course of the first fifty lines. Homer begins with a prayer of invocation--to the Muse of epic poetry--but within a few lines we hear a second prayer: from the priest to his many-named god, the consummately graceful but "deadly Archer" Apollo. And a third god is invoked: Zeus, to whom Achilles and Apollo are both "dear" and who, it is implied, is the hidden force behind the story, somehow pulling the strings of the action, for, as Homer tells us in an arresting phrase, "the will of Zeus was moving toward its end."

Homer has little time for comment on his characters. They reveal themselves in word and action, not in the poet's commentary. But we feel from the outset that the human characters are caught like strong swimmers in an undertow that is much stronger than their most strenuous strivings, an undertow that will take them where it will, despite their efforts. At the same time, this undertow is not entirely a substance apart: it is rather the sum of all the characters, both gods and men, for both gods and men are driven by their need for honor. Hera and Athena's dishonor at the hands of Aphrodite and Menelaus's subsequent dishonor at the hands of Paris have made the war inevitable; Apollo is dishonored by the dishonor shown his suppliant, Chryses; Agamemnon's need to appear as supreme commander clashes with Achilles's need to be honored as supreme warrior.

Somehow, we feel, these motivations--and others' yet to be revealed--are propelling the action of the poem toward its inevitable conclusion. As the seer Calchas says in his fear of Agamemnon's rage:

A mighty king,

raging against an inferior, is too strong.

Even if he can swallow down his wrath today,

still he will nurse the burning in his chest

until, sooner or later, he sends it bursting forth.

That's just the way of mighty kings; there's nothing to be done about it. But it's not as if Agamemnon can in his rage own the field. His rage must contend with the rage and will of others. When he taunts Achilles that he will come personally to take away Achilles's concubine--"so you can learn just how much greater I am than you"--Homer shows us Achilles's heart pounding "in his rugged chest," torn between alternatives:

Should he draw the long sharp sword slung at his hip,

thrust through the ranks and kill Agamemnon now?--

or check his rage and beat his fury down?

Only the intervention of Hera "of the white arms," who "loved both men and cared for both alike," prevents Achilles's wrath from finding its target. She speeds down to earth the battle goddess Athena, who, unseen by all but Achilles, constrains him, seizing his "fiery hair"; and Achilles submits, though, as he says, "his heart breaks with fury," so dearly would he love to see Agamemnon's "black blood gush and spurt around my spear!" But "if a man obeys the gods, they're quick to hear his prayer."

These conflicting forces--all the rages and outrages of gods and men--seemingly balanced in an endless seesaw, will in the end produce a result, the fall of Troy. In the view of the ancients, however, to which Homer is here giving expression, this result is but another swing of the seesaw, which will eventually be balanced in its turn by an opposite result. This view of the ancients, then, is a true worldview, that is, an attempt to see the reality of human experience as a totality, both psychological (in its assessment of human motivations) and theological (in its assumption that heaven intervenes in human affairs). The results of human motivations and heavenly interventions make for preordained results, but preordained only in a way so complicated and with so many conflicting strands that no one but a seer or prophet could sort it all out beforehand and identify in the present the seeds of future results. This means that human beings--and even to some extent the gods themselves--are caught, like figures in a tapestry who cannot undo their thread, playing out their assigned roles of hero or king, loving mother or sexual prize, divine patron of this or that person or city, with only flickering insight into what result their character and needs will have upon the whole of the human enterprise.

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First Chapter

I

THE WARRIOR

HOW TO FIGHT

Zeus, who controlled rain and clouds and held in his hand the awful thunderbolt, was Lord of the Sky and greatest of the gods, but not the oldest. He and the eleven other Olympians--the gods and goddesses who dwelt in the heaven at the top of Mount Olympus, Greece's highest mountain--had been preceded in their reign by the elder gods, the Titans, whom they had overthrown. The Titans had been formed by Father Heaven and Mother Earth, which had existed before any of the gods, having emerged from the primordial Chaos, whose children, Darkness and Death, had given birth to Light and Love (for Night is the mother of Day), which made possible the appearance of Heaven and Earth.

Zeus, son of the deposed Titan Cronus, was perpetually falling in love, wooing and usually raping beautiful women, both immortal and mortal, who would then give birth to gods and demigods, complicating considerably family relations on Olympus. Hera, Zeus's wife and sister, was perpetually jealous, scheming to best one rival after another with cruel retribution. But all the goddesses, even the virginal ones, were prone to jealousy; and it was this fault that helped bring on the Trojan War--which began, like Eve's temptation in Eden, with an apple.

There was one goddess, Eris, not an Olympian, whom the gods were inclined to leave out of their wonderful celebrations, for she was the Spirit of Discord. True to her nature, when she found she had not been invited to the wedding of King Peleus with the sea nymph Thetis, she hurled into the Olympic banqueting hall a single golden apple with two words on it, Toei kallistoei (to the fairest). All the goddesseswanted to claim it, but the three most powerful were finally left to fight over it: the cow-eyed goddess Hera, the battle goddess Athena--the child of Zeus who had sprung from his head--and Aphrodite, whom the Romans called Venus, the laughing, irresistible goddess of Love, born from the foam of the sea.

Zeus wisely declined to be judge of this beauty contest but recommended Paris, prince of Troy, who had been exiled as a shepherd to Mount Ida because his father, King Priam, had received an oracle that his son would one day be the ruin of Troy. Paris, Zeus averred, was known as a judge of female beauty (and of little else, he might have added). The three goddesses lost no time appearing to the astounded shepherd-prince and offering their bribes, Hera promising to make him Lord of Eurasia, Athena to make him victorious in battle against the Greeks, Aphrodite to give him the world's most beautiful woman. He found for Aphrodite, who gave him Helen, daughter of Zeus and the mortal Leda.

There was one small complication: Helen was married to Menelaus, king of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon of Mycenae, Greece's most powerful king. But with Aphrodite's help, Paris was able in Menelaus's absence to spirit Helen away from her home and bring her to Troy. When Menelaus returned and found out what had happened, he called on all the Greek chieftains, who had previously sworn an oath to uphold Menelaus's rights as husband should just such a thing as this occur. Only two were reluctant--shrewd, realistic Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who so loved his home and family that he had to be tricked into signing up for the adventure; and Greece's greatest warrior, Achilles, whose mother, the sea nymph Thetis, knew he would die if he went to Troy but who joined the Greek forces in the end because he was fated to prefer glorious victory in battle to a long life shorn of pride. Thus did the many ships of the Greek kings, each vessel bearing more than fifty men, set sail for Troy in pursuit of a human face, Helen's--in Marlowe's mighty line, "the face that launched a thousand ships."



How different in feeling the Judgment of Paris from the Sorrows of Demeter. If the earlier story is genuine myth, dramatizing recurrent, inexorable tragedy at the level of cosmic nightmare, the later seems a sort of old-fashioned drawing room melodrama about the characteristic foibles of male and female, in which matters spin monstrously out of control and end in tragic farce. If Demeter takes us back to an agricultural way of life that imagined Earth and its manifestations as aspects of maternal nurturing, the strident gods of Olympus, challenging and overthrowing one another, males always primed for battle and sexual conquest, females seizing control only by wheedling indirection, are projections of a warrior culture that set victory in armed combat above all other goals--or at least seemed to, for there are always, deep within any society, dreams that run in another, even in a contrary, direction from its articulated purposes. But first let's examine the obvious: the visible surfaces of this bellicose society of gleaming metals and rattling weapons.

The Mycenaean world that Schliemann discovered was the world of Agamemnon and his predecessors, the world sung by Homer in his two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, set, so far as we can judge, in Aegean Greece of the twelfth century b.c., an age I have called "protohistoric" because a cumbersome form of writing, Linear B, was then in existence, though usable only for accountants' ledgers. The stories of this age, however, were preserved as oral poetry by wandering bards and written down only much later when a far more flexible form of writing came into currency that permitted the recording of epics of massive length and graceful subtlety.

The Iliad begins not with the apple and the goddesses but with a far more earthly contest--between Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, and Achilles, the preeminent Greek champion. The Greek fleet has been long since beached on the Trojan shore and the army of the Greek chieftains is wearily besieging the well-fortified city, which has been able to withstand its assaults for nine years. But brilliant, unbeatable Achilles--whom Homer immediately calls dios or "noble," a word whose Indo-European root means "godlike" or "shining like the divine stars"--has left the field of battle in outrage at his treatment by haughty Agamemnon. For Agamemnon has commandeered Achilles's concubine, a girl Achilles won as war booty. Agamemnon feels justified in taking Achilles's concubine because he has had to accede to the unthinkable and give up his battle-won concubine. Her father, Chryses, priest at a nearby shrine of Apollo, called down his god's wrath upon the Greeks--whom Homer calls "Achaeans," "Argives," or "Danaans," depending on the needs of his meter. Homer's audience would already have known the details of the story, so they would not have been the least disoriented as he begins thus, summarizing the conflict between the two men, a conflict with fatal consequences for Greeks and Trojans alike:



Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,

murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,

great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,

feasts for the dogs and birds,

and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,

Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.



What god drove them to fight with such a fury?

Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto. Incensed at the king

he swept a fatal plague through the army--men were dying

and all because Agamemnon spurned Apollo's priest.

Yes, Chryses approached the Achaeans' fast ships

to win his daughter back, bringing a priceless ransom

and bearing high in hand, wound on a golden staff,

the wreaths of the god, the distant deadly Archer.

He begged the whole Achaean army but most of all

the two supreme commanders, Atreus' two sons,

"Agamemnon, Menelaus--all Argives geared for war!

May the gods who hold the halls of Olympus give you

Priam's city to plunder, then safe passage home.

Just set my daughter free, my dear one . . . here,

accept these gifts, this ransom. Honor the god

who strikes from worlds away--the son of Zeus, Apollo!"



And all ranks of Achaeans cried out their assent:

"Respect the priest, accept the shining ransom!"

But it brought no joy to the heart of Agamemnon.

The king dismissed the priest with a brutal order

ringing in his ears: "Never again, old man,

let me catch sight of you by the hollow ships!

Not loitering now, not slinking back tomorrow.

The staff and the wreaths of god will never save you then.

The girl--I won't give up the girl. Long before that,

old age will overtake her in my house, in Argos,

far from her fatherland, slaving back and forth

at the loom, forced to share my bed!



Now go,

don't tempt my wrath--and you may depart alive."



The old man was terrified. He obeyed the order,

turning, trailing away in silence down the shore

where the battle lines of breakers crash and drag.

And moving off to a safe distance, over and over

the old priest prayed to the son of sleek-haired Leto,

lord Apollo, "Hear me, Apollo! God of the silver bow

who strides the walls of Chryse and Cilla sacrosanct--

lord in power of Tenedos--Smintheus, god of the plague!

If I ever roofed a shrine to please your heart,

ever burned the long rich bones of bulls and goats

on your holy altar, now, now bring my prayer to pass.

Pay the Danaans back--your arrows for my tears!"



His prayer went up and Phoebus Apollo heard him.

Down he strode from Olympus' peaks, storming at heart

with his bow and hooded quiver slung across his shoulders.

The arrows clanged at his back as the god quaked with rage,

the god himself on the march and down he came like night.

Over against the ships he dropped to a knee, let fly a shaft

and a terrifying clash rang out from the great silver bow.

First he went for the mules and circling dogs but then,

launching a piercing shaft at the men themselves,

he cut them down in droves--

and the corpse-fires burned on, night and day, no end in sight.



I have set out this generous quotation to remind you of Homer's splendor. If I could, I would now proceed to quote the whole poem before going further--it is so glorious, the foundation masterpiece of Western literature--in this immaculately forged new translation by Robert Fagles, which gives us much of Homer's precision, resurrecting the terrible beauty of Greece's Bronze Age in language as swift as Apollo's arrows--note the overwhelming inevitability of the half line "and down he came like night"--yet enclosing a gorgeous strength capable of burnishing each detail to brilliance.

The upshot of Apollo's plague is that all the Greeks come to realize the cause of their misfortune and that the priest's daughter needs to be returned to her father if the plague is to leave them. Their leader Agamemnon, forced to assent to their consensus, takes as his consolation prize Achilles's concubine, thus precipitating Achilles's withdrawal from the war. For most of the poem's twenty-four books Achilles sits in his tent in a rage, deliberating whether to remain on the sidelines or to abandon the Greeks altogether, raise his sails, and push off for home, along with the fellow countrymen who are under his command.

What a strange world this is, so far from our own. The theme of the poem, as Homer tells us in his very first word, is a hero's rage--"wrath" in the older translations--but rage and wrath seem to be everywhere: in Achilles, Agamemnon, Chryses, and Apollo, in every character to whom we are introduced in the course of the first fifty lines. Homer begins with a prayer of invocation--to the Muse of epic poetry--but within a few lines we hear a second prayer: from the priest to his many-named god, the consummately graceful but "deadly Archer" Apollo. And a third god is invoked: Zeus, to whom Achilles and Apollo are both "dear" and who, it is implied, is the hidden force behind the story, somehow pulling the strings of the action, for, as Homer tells us in an arresting phrase, "the will of Zeus was moving toward its end."

Homer has little time for comment on his characters. They reveal themselves in word and action, not in the poet's commentary. But we feel from the outset that the human characters are caught like strong swimmers in an undertow that is much stronger than their most strenuous strivings, an undertow that will take them where it will, despite their efforts. At the same time, this undertow is not entirely a substance apart: it is rather the sum of all the characters, both gods and men, for both gods and men are driven by their need for honor. Hera and Athena's dishonor at the hands of Aphrodite and Menelaus's subsequent dishonor at the hands of Paris have made the war inevitable; Apollo is dishonored by the dishonor shown his suppliant, Chryses; Agamemnon's need to appear as supreme commander clashes with Achilles's need to be honored as supreme warrior.

Somehow, we feel, these motivations--and others' yet to be revealed--are propelling the action of the poem toward its inevitable conclusion. As the seer Calchas says in his fear of Agamemnon's rage:



A mighty king,

raging against an inferior, is too strong.

Even if he can swallow down his wrath today,

still he will nurse the burning in his chest

until, sooner or later, he sends it bursting forth.



That's just the way of mighty kings; there's nothing to be done about it. But it's not as if Agamemnon can in his rage own the field. His rage must contend with the rage and will of others. When he taunts Achilles that he will come personally to take away Achilles's concubine--"so you can learn just how much greater I am than you"--Homer shows us Achilles's heart pounding "in his rugged chest," torn between alternatives:



Should he draw the long sharp sword slung at his hip,

thrust through the ranks and kill Agamemnon now?--

or check his rage and beat his fury down?



Only the intervention of Hera "of the white arms," who "loved both men and cared for both alike," prevents Achilles's wrath from finding its target. She speeds down to earth the battle goddess Athena, who, unseen by all but Achilles, constrains him, seizing his "fiery hair"; and Achilles submits, though, as he says, "his heart breaks with fury," so dearly would he love to see Agamemnon's "black blood gush and spurt around my spear!" But "if a man obeys the gods, they're quick to hear his prayer."

These conflicting forces--all the rages and outrages of gods and men--seemingly balanced in an endless seesaw, will in the end produce a result, the fall of Troy. In the view of the ancients, however, to which Homer is here giving expression, this result is but another swing of the seesaw, which will eventually be balanced in its turn by an opposite result. This view of the ancients, then, is a true worldview, that is, an attempt to see the reality of human experience as a totality, both psychological (in its assessment of human motivations) and theological (in its assumption that heaven intervenes in human affairs). The results of human motivations and heavenly interventions make for preordained results, but preordained only in a way so complicated and with so many conflicting strands that no one but a seer or prophet could sort it all out beforehand and identify in the present the seeds of future results. This means that human beings--and even to some extent the gods themselves--are caught, like figures in a tapestry who cannot undo their thread, playing out their assigned roles of hero or king, loving mother or sexual prize, divine patron of this or that person or city, with only flickering insight into what result their character and needs will have upon the whole of the human enterprise.

Copyright© 2003 by Thomas Cahill
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Reading Group Guide

1) In his analysis of Homer’s Iliad, Thomas Cahill cites the epic’s intense depictions of loyalty, villainy, and the honorable way to fight. Yet Homer ascribes noble behavior to both Trojans and Greeks. What parallels do you see between Homer’s perception of heroism and our own? What do you make of the mythic justification for the Trojan war—a golden apple inscribed “to the fairest,” bestowed by the Spirit of Discord? Do the mythic aspects of the Trojan War reveal any truths about why we do battle?

2) The book addresses the question of luck versus prowess in the rise of a powerful civilization [see p. 49]. Intellect and drive obviously contributed to the Greeks’ success, but do you consider them to be fortunate also? If so, in what ways were they luckier than those they defeated?

3) The tragedies written by Greek playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides often feature tremendous violence, such as Oedipus’s blinding self-mutilation and the bloody conclusion to Antigone. One effect of this was catharsis for the audience, while demonstrating the power of the gods in determining our destinies. Do modern-day depictions of violence—in video games, films, and the media—serve a similar purpose?

4) In what ways was the Greek perception of sexual power reflected in male-dominated politics? How does Athena—the female goddess of battle—fit into this schema?

5) In your opinion, was Pericles’s version of democracy too inclusive or not inclusive enough? How did scales of economy shape Greece’s political landscape?

6) In the introduction, Thomas Cahill writes that his role as historian is not to expose breakthrough discoveries but to bring history to life. How would you characterize your role in this process? In what way do reader and writer serve to shape history? Does this process differ in ancient oral traditions?

7) What does our knowledge of homosexuality in ancient Greece indicate about this culture’s understanding of sexuality in general? What are the contemporary implications of this ancient approach?

8) Does Sappho’s “finishing school” represent a particular notion about the ideal woman?

9) In contrast to Sappho, instructors in Sparta attempted to excise all but the most brutish traits in their students. Do you consider the Spartan approach to military training to have been successful?

10) What did Plato’s writings reveal about the nature and reality of love, in its complete spectrum of manifestations? Did the death of Socrates contradict or reinforce those observations?

11) Discuss the emotional and psychological subtext conveyed by Greek art and architecture. Does it appear to glorify or subjugate humanity? What does it imply about the psyche of its creators?

12) The Greco-Roman world was in many ways a hostile locale for the seeding of Judeo-Christian values. Yet Greek became the language of the New Testament, and the geographic strongholds of the “Latin West” and “Greek East” survive to this day. In what ways did the ancient Greeks shape Christianity?

13) The book cites several Western poets, from Tennyson to Yeats to Auden, whose works often refer to classicism (a cornerstone of these poets’ schooling). Thomas Cahill, who first encountered Latin and ancient Greek in high school, provides us with a few of his own translations of Greek lyric poetry. Would it be valuable to make such a curriculum more widespread among twenty-first century American schools?

14) Was hubris at the heart of the Athenians’ fall from prominence? What lessons could they impart to today’s superpowers?

15) What common threads emerge in Greek pantheism, spanning the seasons of Demeter, the retribution of Icarus, the unbridled pleasure of Dionysus? How would you say the Greeks understood their faith?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2006

    Not bad...

    Cahill shows himself erudite, but ever the pop historian in this latest effort. Despite the occasional plug for his other books, and a bizarre penchant for showing ancient porn that really doesn't seem necessary to his thesis, he makes a pretty good case for that the Greeks really are the fathers of Western civilization. Includes a good intro to Homer, Greek theater, and sculpture.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2013

    Sam

    Lololol!!! I will store those away

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2013

    Fatyy

    U can breaty with yiur mouth open! Liar. Lol

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2012

    Not a bad book but not a great book

    This book was required reading for 9th grade at my children's school. Not a good choice. Many pointless sexual themes. Too many quotes from books no high school child will have read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 8, 2012

    I had the sense that the author would like to have had additiona

    I had the sense that the author would like to have had additional pages available for all he wanted to share. The books is filled with high level overviews of the history of the early Greeks, their worldview, their social lives, politics, philosophy and art. Each chapter picks a few specific examples to illustrate the key points (my favorite was inclusion of the famous “Funeral Oration” of Pericles, presented to illustrate the spirit of Greece in fifth century BC). So of course with over 800 years of history, art, etc. squeezed into 264 pages, much had to be omitted. Further reducing how much the author was able to include in the text was a marvelous section of photographs of Greek art and architecture. One big picture item I came away with from this book is that there were perhaps three broad categories of ‘ancient’ Greeks, these being the Greeks of Homer (tricky is good) , the Greeks of Apollo (reason is good), and the Greeks of Dionysus (religious ecstasy is best brought out by a good amphora of wine!).

    The subtitle of this book is ‘why the Greeks matter’ and I came away thinking the answer is that many of the problems we face today were faced by the Greeks. We have issues with our economy, over extended battlefields, divisive politics, major splits regarding who, if anybody, has the correct religion, rapidly changing moral values, etc. The ancient Greeks faced these same problems. So it’s interesting to learn how they handled these issues. This book points out that they weren’t always successful. But this book also points out that the Greeks of antiquity still gave us much to think about in our modern world. This is the perfect book to stuff in your backpack for a short vacation…clearly written with lots of surprise facts contained in the text.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2007

    Greek History 'Lite'

    Actually I was enjoying the book most of the way through. Cahill writes well, without every drab detail that most history textbooks include. My disappointment started around chapter 7 'Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian' where Cahill reveals his personal secular desire for separation of church and state. Worse, he takes it a step further and jumps on the Bush-bashing bandwagon, even specifically calling out Don Rumsfeld as an imperialist and criticizing the current administration for a 'dismissive' approach to the UN. Perhaps the author hadn't noticed the UN is filled with ruthless dictators and deep corruption. Sorry Mr. Cahill, you just alienated half of your fan base.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2007

    Interesting and entertaining

    I found this book interesting and fun to read. It's one of those rare finds in historical readings that actually engages the reader. Over all i would say that it was a good book. The only problem i saw with it is that it did get off track at some points.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2007

    Disappointing.

    While this book presents some interesting ideas, overall, I found it lacking and at times weak. This is pop-history. It is slanted in favor of the author's ancient Greek favorites, not simply in terms of who he presents as most significant, but also in terms of who he chooses to explore and explain (i.e. heavy on Athens and Plato very light on Sparta and Aristotle, etc). This book, like the others in The Hinges of History Series look very interesting, but now I have my doubts about the others. Even with such a short book, he could have done much more with this topic.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2005

    The Greeks matter and Mr. Cahill will tell you why!!!

    Wonderful introduction to Ancient Greek culture. Some points of his are striking to the reader, who would have never thought of such reality of the Ancient Greeks. It's amazing. It also features a number of images from artifacts, monuments and sculptures. I do remember there was one point, which I believe he saw too broadly... Blast, it's not coming to me now! Great book though!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2003

    very superficial

    I have enjoyed previous works but find this book particularly superficial and lacking any depth. Better options available.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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