Learning lessons from the Trojan War: Briseis and the theme of force.
Before coming to either of those works, however, it is necessary to examine the way that the Iliad presents war, since it is the Iliad that is the ultimate source text for both the movie-makers and Simone Weil. This essay is divided, therefore, into two parts. In the first, I argue that the Iliad, the first and paradigmatic representation in literature of conflict between East and West, has a remarkable appreciation for the consequences of war for both sides, and especially for its victims: the warriors on the losing side, the women that get taken captive, and their children. By highlighting the mortality of the hero and the death of warriors at the peak of their youth and beauty, the laments, imagery, and similes of Homeric epic mourn both sides equally. In the second part of the essay, I trace the continuum of this equanimity in the literary, artistic, intellectual, and performance traditions of later centuries that seek to learn from Homer. In the end, I will compare the way in which both Weil and the makers of Troy have used the character of Briseis to grapple with the conflicts of their own times, highlighting the effects of war on the powerless by way of her character. My conclusion speculates about the nature of the Iliad as a didactic text and why so many generations of audiences have sought truth in the Iliad.
I The Victims of War
In Greek literature, appreciation for the consequences that war brings about for its victims has a long history, beginning with the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. (3) This is particularly true of the plight of the female victims of war. In Book 8 of the Odyssey, Odysseus is famously compared to a lamenting woman, fallen over the body of her husband, as she is being dragged away into captivity.
The renowned singer sang these things. But Odysseus melted, and wet the cheeks below his eyelids with a tear. As when a woman laments, falling over the body of her dear husband who fell before his city and people, attempting to ward off the pitiless day for his city and children, and she, seeing him dying and gasping, falling around him wails with piercing cries, but men from behind beating her back and shoulders with their spears force her to be a slave and have toil and misery, and with the most pitiful grief her cheeks waste away, So Odysseus shed a pitiful tear beneath his brows. (4) (Odyssey 8.521-31)
The simile is so striking because the generic woman of the simile could easily be one of Odysseus' own victims. (5) Although the woman of the simile does not actually speak, the language of the simile has powerful associations with the lamentation of captive women elsewhere in epic, with the result that the listener can easily conjure her song. (6)
An equally striking simile is applied by Achilles to his own situation in Iliad 9:
Like a bird that brings food to her fledgling young in her bill, whenever she finds any, even if she herself fares poorly, so I passed many sleepless nights, and spent many bloody days in battle, contending with men for the sake of their wives. (Iliad IX.323-27)
Achilles too draws on the suffering of captive women in order to articulate his own sorrow, as he struggles against his mortality and the pleas of his comrades that he return to battle. By using a traditional theme of women's songs of lament, that of the mother bird who has toiled to raise her young only to lose them, Achilles connects on a visceral level with the women that he himself has widowed, robbed of children, and enslaved. (7)
The setting of the Iliad is the Trojan War, a war in which Greeks besiege and ultimately destroy a foreign city. The poem is remarkable for the way that its preoccupation with mortality and the human condition extends even to the enemy. In the words of Simone Weil, who was struck by the equity of compassion with which the suffering of the Greeks and Trojans is narrated: "The whole of the Iliad lies under the shadow of the greatest calamity the human race can experience--the destruction of a city. This calamity could not tear more at the heart had the poet been born in Troy. But the tone is not different when the Achaeans are dying, far from home" (Benfey 2005, 31).
The enslavement and sexual violation of women and the death of husbands are realities of war that are neither condemned nor avoided in epic poetry. (8) As Michael Nagler has shown, the taking of Troy is explicitly compared in the Iliad to the tearing of a woman's veil and hence characterized as a rape. (9) In Iliad 11, Diomedes mocks Paris for the minor wound that he has inflicted on him:
I don't care--it's as if a woman or senseless child struck me. The arrow of a worthless coward is blunt. But when I wound a man it is far otherwise. Even if I just graze his skin, the arrow is piercing, and quickly renders the man lifeless. His wife tears both her cheeks in grief and his children are fatherless, while he, reddening the earth with his blood, rots, and vultures, not women, surround him. (Iliad XI.389-96)
The horror that Diomedes describes, culminating in an unlamented corpse that will be eaten by vultures, will in fact be the fate of countless Trojans. But the Iliad is not without lamentation. The laments of such figures as Andromache and Hecuba are some of the most memorable passages in the entire poem, and yet the suffering they highlight is most often that of the Trojans, not the Greeks.
The Farewell of Hektor and Andromache
The first lament of the Iliad is not actually a song of lament for the dead, but, as John Foley has shown, it actually conforms in every way to the traditional patterns and structure of a Greek lament (1999, 188-98). In this scene, the Trojan Hektor comes back to Troy briefly from the battlefield and meets his wife Andromache there, together with their infant son Astyanax. Our impression is that this is the last time they will ever see each other. I print Andromache's words here in three parts, reflecting the typical three-part structure of traditional laments.
(I) Andromache stood near to him, shedding a tear, and she reached toward him with her hand and spoke a word and addressed him: "What possesses you? Your own spirit will destroy you, neither do you pity your infant son nor me, ill-fated, I who will soon be your widow. For soon the Achaeans will kill you, making an attack all together. It would be better for me to plunge into the earth if I lost you. For no longer will there be any comfort once you have met your fate, but grief. (II) Nor are my father and mistress mother still alive. For indeed brilliant Achilles killed my father, and he utterly sacked the well-inhabited city of the Cilicians, high-gated Thebe. And he slew Eetion, but he did not strip him, for in this respect at least he felt reverence in his heart, but rather he burned his body together with his well-wrought armor, and built a funeral mound over him. And mountain nymphs, the daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus, planted elms around him. I had seven brothers in the palace; all of them went to Hades on the same day. For brilliant swift-footed Achilles killed all of them among their rolling-gaited cattle and gleaming white sheep. But my mother, who was queen under wooded Plakos, he led here together with other possessions and then released her after taking countless ransom, and Artemis who pours down arrows struck her down in the halls of her father. (III) Hektor, you are my father and mistress mother, you are my brother, and you are my flourishing husband. I beg you, pity me and stay here on the tower, don't make your child an orphan and your wife a widow. (Iliad VI.405-32)
Upon Hektor's departure, moreover, Andromache returns home and initiates an antiphonal refrain of lamentation among her serving women:
So he spoke and brilliant Hektor took up his helmet of horse hair. And his dear wife went home, though frequently she turned back, shedding abundant tears. And when she quickly reached the well-inhabited house of manslaying Hektor, and found inside her many attendants, she initiated lamentation in all of them. They lamented Hektor in his own home, although he was still alive. (Iliad VI.494-500)
Hektor and Andromache are the subject of one ofWeil's most notable comments in her essay on the Iliad. She quotes the lines in Iliad 22, which come soon after the account of the death of Hektor:
She ordered her bright-haired maids in the palace To place on the fire a large tripod, preparing A hot bath for Hector, returning from battle. Foolish woman! Already he lay, far from hot baths Slain by grey-eyed Athena, who guided Achilles' arm. (Iliad XXII.442-46)
Weil comments: "Far from hot baths he was indeed, poor man. And not alone. Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from warm baths. Nearly all human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths" (Benfey 2005, 4).
The Laments of Iliad 24
We have just looked at the tender farewell between Hektor and his wife Andromache and their baby son. The killing of Hektor in Iliad 22 is a victory and a moment of extreme satisfaction for the central hero of the Iliad, Achilles, and yet the epic camera immediately shifts, as we witness the gut-wrenching reactions of Hektor's mother, father, and wife to his death. Similarly the Iliad ends with the funeral, not of Achilles, the Iliad's central figure, but instead with the funeral of Hektor. Achilles' own short life and coming death resonate throughout the laments that are sung for his deadliest enemy. The Iliad ends with the haunting songs of women who are soon to be the Greeks' captive slaves--widowed, foreign, old and young, they are the antithesis of the Greek citizen ideal, the ultimate other. (10) But the grief they initiate is a communal grief, a communal song of mourning that on the surface laments Hektor, but, from the perspective of the Iliad's Greek audience, is even more fundamentally Achilles's own song of sorrow. (11)
First and foremost there is the lament of Andromache, Hektor's wife and chief mourner:
When they had carried the body within the house, they laid it upon a bed and seated professional mourners round it to lead the dirge, whereon the women joined in the sad music of their lament. Foremost among them all Andromache led their wailing as she clasped the head of mighty Hektor in her embrace. "Husband," she cried, "you have died young, and leave me in your house a widow. And our son is still very much a child, the one whom you and I, ill-fated, bore, nor do I think that he will reach manhood. For sooner will this city be utterly sacked. You, its guardian, have died, you who protected it, you who shielded its cherished wives and helpless children, those who will soon be carried off in the hollow ships, and I among them. And you, my child, will either follow me and perform unseemly tasks, toiling for a cruel master, or else one of the Achaeans will hurl you from a tower, taking you by the hand--a miserable death--angry because Hektor killed his brother or father or maybe even his son, since very many of the Achaeans bit the dust with their teeth at the hands of Hektor. For your father was not gentle in the midst of sorrow-bringing battle. Therefore the people grieve for him throughout the city, and you, Hektor, have brought unspeakable lamentation and sorrow upon your parents. But for me especially you have left behind grievous pain. For when you died you did not stretch out your arms to me from our marriage bed, nor did you speak to me an intimate phrase, which I could always remember when I weep for you day and night." (Iliad XXIV.719-76)
All the things that Andromache fears come true (as we know from Proclus's summaries of the now lost Epic Cycle and other attested myths). Andromache's words are reproachful, as is typical of Greek laments for the dead, and tell Hektor of the suffering that she and their son will have to endure, now that Hektor has abandoned them in death. But at the same time her lament establishes the memory of Hektor as the guardian and sole protector of Troy for all time. His death means the city's destruction, the death of the men, and the enslavement of the women and children. But these same words initiate his heroic kleos, his glory that will live on after him in song. Her grief, and the city's grief, are Hektor's glory.
The laments of Andromache and the other women of the Iliad therefore have a dual function. On the level of narrative they are laments for the dead, the warrior husbands and sons who inevitably fall in battle. They protest the cruel fate of the women left behind, and narrate the bitter consequences of war. The grief expressed by these women is raw and real. But for the audience of ancient epic the laments for these husbands and sons are also the prototypical laments of heroes, who, for them, continue to be lamented and mourned on a seasonally recurring basis. (12) The poetry of epic collapses the boundaries between the two forms of song. (13)
In the Iliad, grief spreads quickly from individual to community. As each lament comes to a close, the immediately surrounding community of mourners antiphonally responds with their own cries and tears. It is not insignificant then that the final lament of the Iliad and indeed the final lines of the poem, sung by Helen (who is the cause of the war), ends not with the antiphonal wailing of the women (as at Iliad VI.499, 19.301, XXII.515, and XXIV.746), but of the people: "So she spoke lamenting, and the people wailed in response" (XXIV.776).
The Iliad looks at humanity without ethnic or any other distinctions that make people want to kill each other. It is not a poem that is anti-war: war was a fundamental and even sacred part of Greek culture. But it is poem that can transcend ethnicity and lament the death of heroes in battle, whether they are Greek or Trojan, and it can even lament the death of the greatest Greek hero of them all, Achilles, by lamenting the death of his greatest enemy. It is a poem that can view Achilles through the eyes of his victims, through the sorrow that he generates, and at the same time experience and appreciate his own never-ending sorrow.
Thetis's Lament for Achilles in Iliad XVIII
Achilles too, of course, is lamented directly throughout the poem. His own upcoming death is constantly being foreshadowed, even though he doesn't actually die in our Iliad. One of the ways that his death is foreshadowed is through the death of his nearest and dearest companion Patroklos, who goes into battle in his place, wearing his armor, and who dies in the same way that Achilles will die. (14) Notice the reaction to Patroklos's death:
A dark cloud of grief fell upon Achilles as he listened. He filled both hands with dust from off the ground, and poured it over his head, disfiguring his lovely face, and letting the refuse settle over his shirt so fair and new. He flung himself down all huge and hugely at full length, and tore his hair with his hands. The women whom Achilles and Patroklos had taken captive screamed aloud for grief, beating their breasts, and with their limbs failing them for sorrow. Antilokhos bent over him the while, weeping and holding both his hands as he lay groaning for he feared that he might plunge a knife into his own throat. Then Achilles gave a loud cry and his mother heard him as she was sitting in the depths of the sea by the old man her father, whereon she screamed, and all the goddesses daughters of Nereus that dwelt at the bottom of the sea, came gathering round her.... The crystal cave was filled with their multitude and they all beat their breasts while Thetis led them in their lament. "Listen," she cried, "sisters, daughters of Nereus, that you may hear the burden of my sorrows. Alas how I am wretched, alas how unluckily I was the best child bearer, since I bore a child that was faultless and strong, outstanding of heroes. And he shot up like a sapling. After nourishing him like a plant on the hill of an orchard I sent him forth in the hollow ships to Ilion to fight with the Trojans. But I will not receive him again returning home to the house of Peleus." (Iliad XVIII.22-60) (15)
As soon as Patroklos is dead everyone starts lamenting--not just for Patroklos, but also for Achilles. This is because now Achilles's own death is inevitable. He is now officially "the most unseasonal of them all," as he calls himself in XXIV.540. He is going to go back to battle to avenge the death of Patroklos, at the cost of his own life.
Briseis, the captive concubine of Achilles, likewise laments Achilles on the occasion of lamenting Patroklos. (16) In fact these are the only words she speaks in the entire poem, and we must tease out almost everything we know about her from these few words:
Then Briseis like golden Aphrodite, when she saw Patroklos torn by the sharp bronze, falling around him she wailed with piercing cries. And with her hands she struck her breast and tender neck and beautiful face. And then lamenting she spoke, a woman like the goddesses: "Patroklos, most pleasing to my wretched heart, I left you alive when I went from the hut. But now returning home I find you dead, O leader of the people, So evil begets evil for me forever. The husband to whom my father and mistress mother gave me I saw torn by the sharp bronze before the city, and my three brothers, whom one mother bore together with me, beloved ones, all of whom met their day of destruction. Nor did you allow me, when swift Achilles killed my husband, and sacked the city of god-like Mynes, to weep, but you claimed that you would make me the wedded wife of god-like Achilles and that you would bring me in the ships to Phthia, and give me a wedding feast among the Myrmidons. Therefore I weep for you now that you are dead ceaselessly, you who were kind always." So she spoke lamenting, and the women wailed in response, with Patroklos as their pretext, but each woman for her own cares. (Iliad XIX.282-302)
Briseis's lament for Patroklos mourns in advance her would-be husband Achilles--much as Andromache laments Hektor while he is still alive. As we will see, this is an important passage for Weil, who interprets it slightly differently than I do here. Weil's interest in Briseis is as a captive woman, a slave subjected to the force of her Greek captors. For her, the passage shows us that slaves are not given the opportunity to weep for their own cares except when their masters suffer loss. I cite it here, however, as yet another example of the conflation of the deaths of Patroklos and Achilles in the Iliad.
The preparations for Patroklos's funeral too are merely a prelude to Achilles's own. In fact, they will be buried together. In Iliad XXIII, the soul of Patroklos comes to Achilles in a dream and accuses him of neglecting his funeral rites:
"One prayer more will I make you, if you will grant it; let not my bones be laid apart from yours, Achilles, but with them; even as we were brought up together in your own home ... let our bones lie in but a single urn, the two-handled golden vase given to you by your mother." (Iliad XXIII.82-92)
This urn is a symbol of Achilles's future immortality as an immortalized hero, and Patroklos is asking for a share in that when he asks that their bones be combined after their deaths. (17) So when the Greeks build Patroklos's tomb they are also building it for Achilles: "All who had been cutting wood bore logs ... they threw them down in a line upon the seashore at the place where Achilles would make a mighty funeral mound for Patroklos and for himself" (XXIII.123-26).
The Death of Euphorbus
The theme of the hero as a plant that blossoms beautifully and dies quickly is important in Greek lament traditions, as we saw in Thetis's lament for Achilles. (18) It is also a metaphor that encapsulates what glory means in the Iliad. One of the primary metaphors for epic song in the Iliad is that of a flower that will never wilt:
My mother the goddess Thetis of the shining feet tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight around the city of Troy, my homecoming is lost, but my glory in song [kleos] will be unwilting: whereas if I reach home my kleos is lost, but my life will be long, and the outcome of death will not soon take me. (Iliad IX.410-16)
Here Achilles reveals not only the crux of this choice of fates around which the Iliad itself is built, but also the driving principle of Greek epic song. The unwilting flower of epic poetry is contrasted with the necessarily mortal hero, whose death comes all too quickly. (19)
The Iliad quotes within its narration of Achilles's kleos many songs of lamentation that serve to highlight the mortality of the central hero as well as underscore the immortality of song. The traditional imagery of these quoted laments, as sung primarily by Thetis, spills over into epic diction itself, with the result that similes, metaphors, and other traditional descriptions of heroes are infused with themes drawn from the natural world.
The depiction of the death of the Trojan warrior Euphorbus in the Iliad is one such place where epic diction draws on the botanic imagery that pervades Greek laments for heroes. Euphorbus, like Achilles, is compared to a young tree: Euphorbus topples like a tree that is overcome by a storm. (20)
The point went straight through his soft neck. He fell with a thud, and the armor clattered on top of him. His hair was soaked with blood, and it was like the Graces, as were his braids, which were tightly bound with gold and silver. Just like a flourishing sapling of an olive tree that a man nourishes in a solitary place where water gushes up in abundance, a beautiful sapling growing luxuriantly--blasts of every kind of wind shake it and it is full of white blossoms, but suddenly a wind comes together with a furious storm and uproots the tree so that it is stretched out on the ground--even so did the son of Atreus, Menelaus, strip the son of Panthoos, Euphorbus with the ash spear, of his armor after he had slain him. (Iliad XVII.49-60)
The plant imagery in this passage is intensified by two references to blossoms. In the simile, the tree to which Euphorbus is compared blossoms with white flowers. Moreover, scholia in medieval manuscripts of the Iliad reveal that this comparison between Euphorbus and the tree with its blossoms is even closer than might appear at first glance. According to the scholia, kharites, translated here as "the Graces," means in the Cypriote dialect of Greek "myrtle blossoms." (21) The flecks of blood in Euphorbus's hair look like myrtle blossoms. Since the Arcado-Cypriote dialect layer of Homeric diction contains some of the oldest elements of the oral poetic system in which the Iliad and Odyssey were composed, it is likely that in the most ancient phases of the Iliad tradition Euphorbus's hair was understood to look like myrtle blossoms. (22) Thus we find that the comparison of a dying warrior to a flower is an ancient theme at the core of the Greek epic tradition.
I have argued that the death of glorious young men in battle and the sadness of that death is a central theme of the poem. This theme is something that, as we will see, Weil seizes on in her essay. But one point on which I disagree with Weil is her denial that the Iliad also celebrates those deaths as the most glorious way to die. (23) So I will conclude this section of my essay with one final passage from the Iliad:
Tell me now you Muses that have homes on Olympus, who was first to face Agamemnon, whether of the Trojans themselves or of their renowned allies? It was Iphidamas son of Antenor, a man both brave and of great stature, who was raised in fertile Thrace, the mother of sheep. Cisses brought him up in his own house when he was a child--Cisses, his mother's father, the man who begot beautiful-cheeked Theano. When he reached the full measure of glorious manhood, Cisses would have kept him there, and wanted to give him his daughter in marriage. But as soon as he had married he left the bridal chamber and went off to seek the kleos of the Achaeans with twelve ships that followed him. (Iliad XI.218-28)
Unlike Hektor, Iphidamas is not lamented by his bride in our Iliad. Instead his compressed life history, with its account of his recent marriage, serves as the lament for this doomed bridegroom. (24) The narrator points out something very important. Iphidamas gave it all up to become part of the kleos of another man. It was worth it to him to become a part of the unwilting song that is our Iliad. Hektor of course chooses likewise, and Achilles too, motivated as he is by the death of Patroklos. Achilles's withdrawal from battle, his struggle with the value he places on his own life and his articulation of the choice that he has between a homecoming and glory in song, as well as such memorable passages as Hektor's farewell to Andromache, and finally the laments that women sing for their dead warriors, are the best illustrations of all these young men have to give up to become a part of that song. But they accept it as worthy compensation for their brief lives.
II The Lessons of War
On a large funerary pithos dated to around 675 BCE from the island of Mykonos, one of the very earliest surviving representations of the fall of Troy in art, a series of panels shows the Trojan women taken captive and their children slain before their eyes. (25) The creator of that pithos knew what war was and depicted it with perfect clarity. Already in 675 the experiences of the Trojan women were iconic and emblematic of wartime suffering. Concern for the victims of war, as exemplified by the Trojan women, is one of the many continuities that unite Archaic and Classical Greek poetic and artistic traditions. As I noted at the beginning of this essay, the significance of the Trojan War and the lessons taught by it have changed with each new era of history, and yet the emotional dynamic that I have traced in Part I remains remarkably constant.
In my recent book I explored the significance of the Trojan War for Classical Athens. There I pointed out that recent scholarship has shown that such vital cultural institutions and monuments as Greek tragedy, the Parthenon, and other monumental art on the acropolis did not celebrate the Greek victory at Troy, but rather explored the horrors of war, very often from the perspective of the defeated Trojans. The destruction of Troy is consistently represented in Athenian literature and art as a sacrilege that rouses the retribution of the gods. (26) In fact, in the wake of the Persian sack of Athens in 480 BCE the Athenians seem to have identified more with the Trojans than with the Achaean Greeks.
Greeks of the fifth century BCE seem to have been all too aware that in the act of sacking a city one is particularly susceptible to committing hubristic outrage. (27) The historian Herodotus marked the Persians as exemplifying this kind of excessive violence when they sacked Sardis, the capital city of the Lydians (Herodotus 1.89.2). The Athenians themselves were in position to act as the Persians did on many occasions over the course of the fifth century BCE, as they developed their own aggressive naval empire. In 475, after besieging and capturing the city of Eion, they sold the entire population into slavery and established a colony there. Eion was the first of many cities to be enslaved by the Athenians in the fifth century, with some victories more brutal than others. Thus the sack of Troy must have resonated with the Athenians on many levels. On the one hand it prefigures the sack of their own city and the desecration of their temples at the hands of a foreign aggressor. On another level, the myth is a warning against the excesses of brutality that often come with victory and empire.
In the remainder of this essay I would like to turn my attention from ancient Athenian attempts to apply the Trojan War to their own experiment with empire, and focus instead on modern attempts to draw lessons from the Trojan War. This war still today seems to be emblematic of all war, and specifically, as it was for the ancient historian Herodotus, the ultimate paradigm for understanding the divide between East and West. Before focusing on Simone Weil's essay and its World War II context, however, I'd like to set this essay in context by looking briefly at a few other examples. These examples are intrinsically connected with wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: World War I, the Vietnam War, and the current on-going hostilities in Iraq. They are offered as snapshots of history, selected episodes that I think have important connections with the reading of the Iliad I have presented so far.
A modern poem that resonates with the foregoing discussion of Achilles is the following by Patrick Shaw-Stewart, a British officer who was killed in action in France in 1917 during World War I. He wrote this poem on leave from Gallipoli, the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the war. The Peninsula of Gallipoli is located just across the Dardanelles from Troy. (28)
I saw a man this morning Who did not wish to die I ask, and cannot answer, If otherwise wish I. Fair broke the day this morning Against the Dardanelles; The breeze blew soft, the morn's cheeks Were cold as cold sea-shells But other shells are waiting Across the Aegean sea, Shrapnel and high explosive, Shells and hells for me. O hell of ships and cities, Hell of men like me, Fatal second Helen, Why must I follow thee? Achilles came to Troyland And I to Chersonese: He turned from wrath to battle, And I from three days' peace. Was it so hard, Achilles, So very hard to die? Thou knowest and I know not- So much the happier I. I will go back this morning From Imbros over the sea; Stand in the trench, Achilles, Flame-capped, and shout for me. (29)
The geographical proximity of Gallipoli to the generally accepted site of Troy inspires Shaw-Stewart to compare his own brief respite from war to that of Achilles in the Iliad. The poem, moreover, is packed with allusions to Greek literature that go far beyond the Iliad. Most notable is the play on Helen's name, a clever imitation of a similar play on the name in Greek in Aeschylus's Agamemnon 681-90. Like Achilles, the author of this poem struggles with an unwillingness to die, coupled with an intense questioning of the purpose of the fighting. Both will ultimately return to battle after a brief withdrawal, Achilles to his certain death, and the author of this poem to an uncertain fate. As for Achilles, it is Shaw-Stewart's confrontation of his own mortality, in the spot where so many heroes of epic died in song, that inspires his questioning of the war.
The campaign of Gallipoli, in which the British attempted to seize control of the Dardanelles, and which lasted almost eight months, had many important historical consequences, including, at least in part, the weakening of the British empire. Another consequence was the astronomical rise to power of a Turkish officer, Mustafa Kemal, later known as Attaturk, the enormously influential leader who is now viewed as the father of modern Turkey. Attaturk had a memorial set up at Gallipoli with the following remarkable inscription:
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well. (Ari Burnu Memorial, Gallipoli)
In an incredible recognition of the commonality of their suffering, Attaturk, speaking for Turkey as a nation, shares in the grief of the mothers of Turkey's attackers and embraces the British war dead as though they were his own sons. But once again, the tradition of the Trojan War looms large, and we find that this kind of compassion was conceived of long before Attaturk.
As I have been trying to argue throughout this essay, and as we will explore again when we come to Simone Weil, the Iliad's portrayal of war is so affective on an emotional level even today in large part because both sides are portrayed with a compassion that does not distinguish between attacker and attacked, winner and loser, Greek and foreigner. Greek tragedy, though composed and performed in a world in which the Persian Empire dominated the Anatolian peninsula and had become Athens' greatest enemy in the first half of the fifth century BCE, inherits and extends epic's treatment of the defeated Trojans. An extraordinary passage in Euripides' Hecuba goes even further. The chorus of Trojan women, as their city smolders not far away, imagine and pity the suffering of the Greek women who have lost their loved ones in war:
"Pain and compulsion, even more powerful than pain, have come full circle; and from one man's thoughtlessness came a universal woe to the land of Simois, destructive disaster resulting in disaster for others. The strife was decided, the contest which the shepherd, a man, judged on Ida between three daughters of the blessed gods, resulting in war and bloodshed and the ruin of my home; and on the banks of the beautifully flowing Eurotas river, some Spartan maiden too is full of tears in her home, and to her grey-haired head a mother whose sons are slain raises her hands and she tears her cheeks, making her nails bloody in the gashes." (Hecuba 638-56)
Here the distinction between Greek and Trojan is blurred and even subverted. (30) Not only that, the Athenians watching this drama are in the midst of the decades of hostilities with Sparta that we call the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians in the audience, therefore, are being asked to witness the grief of the Trojan women as they empathize with the grief of their attackers, the Spartans, who just so happen to be, many centuries later, the Athenians' current foe and longstanding rival in the Greek world. And we must remember, too, that it is non-professional Athenians acting in the role of this chorus of Trojan women. (31) More than twenty-three centuries after Euripides's drama, Attaturk's appreciation of the grief of the British mothers is yet a further extension of the Iliad's ultimate humanitas.
As the French scholar Nicole Loraux has meditated upon quite recently, in 1965, the French existentialist novelist, philosopher, and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre produced his version of Euripides' Trojan Women (Loraux 2002, 1-13). He made a number of adaptations to the ancient Greek play in order to give it meaning for his contemporary audience. The adaptations he made added an explicit anti-war message to the play, and specifically an anti-Vietnam War message. Now, one could argue that the Trojan Women in its original fifth-century BCE form is anti-war, and specifically anti-Peloponnesian War. The play has often been understood that way, because it focuses so directly on the effects of war on women, and presents an unfiltered look at the lamentation and suffering of the wives and mothers of the Trojans. (32) It is easy to read the play as protesting the actions of the Greeks of the play (that is, the victors in the Trojan War), who might easily be equated with the Athenians of Euripides' audience.
I and many others have argued that the play is much more subtle than that, (33) but there have been many productions of this play that with little to no adaptation are nonetheless anti-war in their sentiment. The Royal Shakespeare Company's 2005 production of Euripides' Hecuba, which likewise dramatizes the grief of the Trojan women after the sack of Troy, had merely to put some American-style camouflage tents in the background to suggest the Iraq War. It did not have to go much further than that. (34) Loraux points out that what Sartre did by contrast was to excise the long songs of lament that comprise the bulk of the play, and replace them with speeches and dialogue dominated by explicitly political, anti-colonialist rhetoric. In so doing Sartre made the play much less moving, and therefore much less effective as an anti-war statement. This was certainly not his intention. But by tying the play too closely to contemporary events, Loraux notes, Sartre limited its universality, and its emotional force, a force that transcends politics.
The Royal Shakespeare Company's 2005 production of the Hecuba was by no means an isolated event. Indeed, in that summer there were major productions in New York City and Washington, D.C., of Euripides's Trojan Women and Aeschylus's Persians. (35) Each of these productions sought to connect with its audience by adding an anti-Iraq War twist. Clearly, audiences of the twenty-first century are able to view Greek tragedy as relevant to current events. Arguably it is these plays' status as "classics" that makes them seem both universal in their emotional impact and educational in their ultimate effect. The producers and directors of contemporary productions of these tragedies do not seem to question the original anti-war intent of these tragedies, despite the fact that they are by no means always understood this way by scholars. (36) Many classicists do in fact argue that Athenian tragedy was necessarily didactic and civic in nature (while not denying the creativity and autonomy of the playwrights), but there is little agreement as to what individual tragedians and particular plays sought to teach the Athenian citizens in the audience. (37) It seems clear that each play likely evoked a multiplicity of responses, and that no one message would have been obvious. This seems to be the crucial difference between modern productions that seek to protest a specific war (whether Vietnam or Iraq) and the ancient dramas, which must have resonated with contemporary events but were not explicitly tied to these events.
There is another contemporary genre that is perhaps better suited to the didactic goals of the more obviously politically motivated revivals of Greek tragedy: the newspaper editorial. On the eve of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Nicholas Kristof published in the New York Times "Cassandra Speaks," in which the Americans' strategic use of Turkey as a launch point leads him to argue that Troy and the Trojan War should be a warning to the United States:
The instruments of war have changed mightily in 3,200 years, but people have not; that is why Homer's "Iliad," even when it may not be historically true, exudes a profound moral truth as the greatest war story ever told. So on the eve of a new war, the remarkably preserved citadel of Troy is an intriguing spot to seek lessons. (38)
By culling a variety of mythological sources from antiquity, Kristof manages to connect episodes in the Trojan War to such central and controversial issues as the use/misuse of intelligence, the importance of allies, and the so-called "Bush doctrine."
Also in the New York Times, Edward Rothstein's "To Homer, Iraq Would Be More of Same" (June 4, 2004), explores the Iliad and the actions of its central hero Achilles as a lesson in "being human" that has important messages for those engaged in the current conflict. Rothstein's piece takes as its occasion both the sixtieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the premier of Wolfgang Petersen's Troy. Much as Loraux does with Sartre's take on the Trojan Women, Rothstein criticizes Petersen for the superimposing of the Iraq War on the Homeric Troy, but then goes on to suggest the ways in which we can legitimately learn from the Iliad. Both Kristof's and Rothstein's editorials are remarkable in the way in which they seek to place the Iraq war into a continuum that stretches far back into antiquity and suggest ways in which we could use the lessons of Troy to do things differently.
World War II
In 1939, Simone Weil embarked upon a similar exercise. Weil, who graduated first in her class at the Ecole Normale Superieure in philosophy, was a pacifist with an ascetic drive that impelled her to share in the sufferings of others. Just after France declared war on Germany (after the invasion of Poland) and just before the occupation of France by the Nazis, Weil composed and published "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force," a philosophical essay that never explicitly refers to contemporary events, but which no less clearly than the editorials cited above seeks to understand current conflict in light of the Trojan War. This was one of many essays inspired by the Iliad that Weil composed between 1939 and her death in 1943 at the age of thirty-four. (39)
The essay begins straightforwardly with Weil's bold thesis about the true subject of the Iliad:
The true hero, the true subject matter, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and loveliest of mirrors. (Benfey 2005, 3)
Weil builds her essay around the argument that the Iliad is not, at its heart, about the Trojan War or the anger of Achilles, but rather about a much more abstract concept: force. Equally important for Weil is her assertion that the force that is at the center of the Iliad is the same force driving all of human history, including the events of the current day. We can see from these introductory statements therefore that Weil's essay is as much about contemporary events as it is about the Iliad. (40)
We can summarize Weil's principal arguments about force briefly as follows. First and foremost, it dehumanizes. Force turns humans into objects. A person who has been made a thing through force is denied agency, and the freedom to express his/her will, thoughts, and emotions. According to Weil, "memory itself barely lingers on" (Benfey 2005, 9). At several points in the essay Weil uses the captive concubine of Achilles, Briseis, to illustrate her points. As an example of how force denies agency to the individual, Weil cites the wailing of the captive women mentioned earlier in this paper, who respond to Briseis's lament for Patroklos in Iliad XIX with antiphonal cries:
And what does it take to make the slave weep? The misfortune of his master, his oppressor, despoiler, pillager, of the man who laid waste his town and killed his dear ones under his very eyes. This man suffers or dies; then the slave's tears come. And really why not? This is for him the only occasion on which tears are permitted, are, indeed, required. A slave will always cry whenever he can do so with impunity--his situation keeps tears on tap for him. (Benfey 2005, 9)
Weilat this point goes onto examine why slaves feel love for their masters, arguing that in part because all other outlets for emotion are barred, and in part because the master can offer the hope of becoming a person again (instead of an object), a slave like Briseis is able to forget the horrors inflicted upon her: "To lose more than the slave does is impossible, for he loses his whole inner life. A fragment of it he may get back if he sees the possibility of changing his fate, but this is his only hope" (10).
Secondly, force operates in a cyclical fashion, affecting both winner and loser equally:
Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. The human race is not divided up, in the Iliad, into conquered persons, slaves, suppliants, on the one hand, and conquerors and chiefs on the other. In this poem there is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force. (Benfey 2005, 11)
Weil cites the hero of the Iliad himself, Achilles, as an example of a man subjected to force when Briseis is taken from him by Agamemnon. But the balance of power soon shifts, and Agamemnon finds himself begging Achilles for forgiveness. The intoxicating nature of force is such that those who have it don't realize they will soon lose it and be subject to force in turn:
These men, wielding power, have no suspicion of the fact that the consequences of their deeds will at length come home to them--they too will bow the neck in their turn.... For they do not see that the force in their possession is only a limited quantity; nor do they see their relations with other human beings as a kind of balance between unequal amounts of force. (Benfey 2005, 14-15)
Here Weil is speaking primarily in reference to those who fight the battles, but the implication of her arguments is that Briseis, too, will have her day.
"Moments of grace," as Weil calls them, are scattered throughout the poem, in which the pure love of sons for parents, parents for children, and brothers for one another, the friendship of comrades, and even the friendship of enemies are "celestial moments in which man possesses his soul" (Benfey 2005, 29-30). These moments, striking because they are few and far between, serve to impress upon us, by their very contrast, what force does to people it acts upon in war, namely that it turns a person into "stone." (41) As I have indicated already, what I find striking about Weil's reading is her insight into the equity of compassion with which Greeks and Trojans are portrayed, and her attempt to find the reasons for this. The theme of force and the way it affects, according to Weil, everyone in war equally puts the victors and the vanquished over the course of time on a level plain, or at least in an alternating cycle. In this reading, the distinction won in war is not glorified by the Iliad, because it is in fact the purpose of the Iliad to reveal that that distinction is short lived at best, and won at the expense of the humanity of the loser.
It is not my purpose here to evaluate the merits and weaknesses of Weil's unique interpretation of the Iliad, an interpretation which has been long admired even if not universally agreed with. Many Classicists have praised it as a beautiful intellectual and spiritual exercise. (42) I would not go so far as to assert that Weil's reading can be "correct," by which I mean only that it cannot have been Homer's intention (however Homer is conceived) to compose the Iliad in order to teach us about the concept of force. That the Iliad does teach, however, seems to me irrefutable. So far we have explored many uses of the poem as a source of wisdom in troubled times, from the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BCE to conflict in Iraq in the twenty-first century CE. Weil reflects on what she perceives to be the continued use of force through the centuries, culminating in the force that was dominating the Europe of 1939, namely the Nazi party. Though she never names it directly, we can only assume from her opening statement that the warning implicit in her arguments about the cyclical nature of force is aimed squarely at Hitler. (43) In the final section of my essay I propose to look at one last example of finding lessons in the Trojan War that perhaps offers the same warning, this time aimed squarely at us.
III Force and the Movie Troy
Does the 2004 blockbuster Troy try to teach us anything about war? I'm not certain that it is actually attempting to do so, but there are many aspects of the film that connect directly with the themes of the Iliad that I have discussed and with Weil's arguments about the theme of force in the Iliad. Moreover, as New York Times columnist Edward Rothstein points out, in interviews with the press the director of Troy, Wolfgang Petersen, has frequently made explicit comparisons between the Trojan War and the war now being waged in Iraq. I will quote Rothstein's synthesis of some of Petersen's most telling statements here:
Last month, before the film's premiere in Berlin, its German director, Wolfgang Petersen, said: "It's as if nothing has changed in 3,000 years." In a German interview, he said of the Homeric epic, "People are still using deceit to engage in wars of vengeance." And he argued: "Just as King Agamemnon waged what was essentially a war of conquest on the ruse of trying to rescue the beautiful Helen from the hands of the Trojans, President George W. Bush concealed his true motives for the invasion of Iraq." (44)
I now propose to explore how Petersen's (and screenwriter David Benioff's) recreation of the characters of Agamemnon and Briseis, heavily based on the Homeric Agamemnon and Briseis but with significant changes to their story, exemplifies both the cyclical and dehumanizing nature of force described by Weil. (45) As we will see, Petersen and his team, in order to tell the "true story" of the Trojan War, have made the tale one of force and its consequences.
The True History of the Trojan War
In addition to having a political subtext that is, as we have seen, common to so many modern revivals of the Trojan War theme, I suggest that Troy is in many respects emblematic of a modern obsession with the historicity of the Trojan War myth, an obsession that goes hand in hand with the search for lessons that has been the subject of this essay. The obsession with proving the historicity of the Trojan War began with Heinrich Schliemann, the self-educated businessman turned archaeologist who in the 1880s was the first to excavate the site that we now call Troy. (46) It is well known among scholars, even if not often admitted, that we have very little evidence that would lead us to think that the Trojan War was an historical event or that Troy was a real place, other than the fact that the later Greeks thought that it really happened and because we admire the Iliad so much as a work of literature that we want it to be history as well. (47) At the site we call Troy, there is no inscription or archaeological evidence of any kind labeling it as Troy, and the evidence for a destruction by siege is sketchy at best. Nevertheless, we persist in believing it was all true--well, but not all of it, right? We think going to war over Helen is not very believable, and of course we can't believe in the pagan gods and their motivations for starting the war--the judgment of Paris, and all that.
To be fair, the makers of Troy have not, to my knowledge, claimed outright that their film narrates history, per se. In the production notes published on the official website for the movie, the director, Wolfgang Petersen, speaks of the authenticity of characters and emotions, not historical fact. (48) In discussing the differences between Troy and the Iliad, he comments:
I don't think any writer in the last 3000 years has more graphically and accurately described the horrors of war than Homer ... But in his epic works, the human drama was overshadowed by the brutality. A contemporary audience needs to come into the story through the lives and the passions of the real people caught up in this terrifying experience. (my emphasis)
Producer Diana Rathburn makes similar assertions about the goals of the movie in these same production notes:
It is very hard sometimes to relate to classic literature as it feels distant, of a different time, a different world, but there's something about this story that's so easy to connect with, it's about emotions--whether they were experienced thousands of years ago, or today.
Petersen and Rathburn make a claim for a reality within the history and legend of Troy that consists of real people and real emotions. Neither claims to know whether the Trojan War actually took place (this topic is discussed in the production notes without giving a definitive answer to the questions raised), but they nevertheless assert that there is a "reality" that can be found in the legend.
In keeping with this quest for the reality behind the legend, Troy leaves out the gods from the action, and instead tries to show the viewer an historically plausible version of the Trojan War. Petersen notes on the film's website:
One respect in which we diverged from Homer's telling is that our story does not include the presence of the gods. The gods in the Iliad are directly involved in the story--they fight, they help out, they manipulate. Not in our story. The religion is there, the belief is there, but the gods are only mentioned--they are not made a part of it. It wouldn't have been in line with the level of realism we wanted to achieve in the film. (my emphasis)
Even Achilles's divine lineage is suggested as being rumor which may or may not be true. It is this assertion of realism that I wish to explore further now. The way the film is constructed is in fact a fine example of finding the truth behind the legend. Helen is the pretense for going to war, but what Troy is really about is Agamemnon's desire to amass an empire that includes Troy and its trade routes through the Dardanelles. The character, motivations, and fate of Agamemnon in particular comprise a major portion of the plot of the film. This plot exemplifies in fascinating ways some of Weil's central ideas about force.
One of the first scenes in the movie Troy shows Agamemnon on the point of conquering Thessaly with a massive army. (Thessaly was an historical region of Greece, but since it is the area that Achilles was believed to have been from in Greek myth, I feel compelled to point out this odd choice on the part of the filmmakers.) The opposing king says, "You can't have the whole world, Agamemnon." This scene sets up the driving theme of the movie, namely Agamemnon's ambition to do just that. Agamemnon is already a sinister and unlikable (not to mention unattractive) figure, and this portrayal only intensifies as the film continues.
We are shown next the festivities that result when Sparta (the kingdom of Agamemnon's brother Menelaos, and of course Helen) concludes a peace treaty with Troy. But once Helen has been stolen Agamemnon has his chance to conquer this city too. Agamemnon says to Menelaos, consoling him after the departure of Helen, "Peace is for the women and the weak.... Empires are forged by war." Later, alone with his personal counselor, he says "I always thought my brother's wife was a foolish woman, but she's proved to be very useful." By now it is clear to the viewer that Agamemnon, Darth-Vader-esque in his evil intensity, does indeed want to conquer the whole world, and that his greed is destined to bring him to a bad end.
Agamemnon's opportunity is nearly lost when the less than war-like Paris offers to settle the whole matter with a one-on-one duel after the Greeks have landed at Troy and gained the upper hand over the Trojans in the first day of battle. Whoever wins gets Helen, and everyone else can go home. Enraged at the prospect, this time Agamemnon states his true motivations outright: "I didn't come here for your pretty wife, I came here for Troy." This proposed duel is inspired by the duel between Paris and Menelaos that takes place in Iliad 3, though much changed. (49) In her essay, Simone Weil points out that in the Iliad too the Greeks cease to be content with the return of Helen, once all of Troy seems within their grasp.
At the end of the first day of combat described in the Iliad, the victorious Greeks were in a position to obtain the object of all their efforts, i.e., Helen and all of her riches.... In any case, that evening the Greeks are no longer interested in her or her possessions:
"For the present, let us not accept the riches of Paris; Nor Helen; everybody sees, even the most ignorant, That Troy stands on the verge of ruin." He spoke, and all the Achaeans acclaimed him. What they want, in fact, is everything. (Benfey 2005, 16)
Helen is by no means the only woman used as a prize in this way. Just as the plight of Achilles's captive concubine Briseis was of great interest to Weil as she sought to illustrate the operation of force on the individual, so too in the movie Troy does Briseis become in many ways emblematic of the victims of war. In general, the film focuses a great deal of attention on the women of Troy, especially Briseis and Andromache, the consummate lamenting women of the Iliad. As I have pointed out elsewhere in connection with the Iliad, Briseis is a woman of royal birth who has been widowed by Achilles and made his captive concubine, and yet in her lament of Iliad XIX she constructs him as an erotic figure and indeed her bridegroom-to-be (Due 2002, 67-81). The Iliad's plot is initiated by the taking of Briseis from Achilles by Agamemnon. Troy makes the romance of Achilles and Briseis and her seizure by Agamemnon central elements of the plot. Andromache's story parallels that of Briseis, but in the film her story proceeds in the reverse direction. She is the beloved royal bride of the Trojan champion Hektor for the moment, but we are all too aware that she is destined to share the captive fate of Briseis. The Iliad, Weil, and the filmmakers are thus united in their concern for these characters.
I would like to suggest that Briseis's killing of Agamemnon in the movie, an invention on the part of the filmmakers that occurs nowhere in Greek literature, is a perfect illustration of Weil's ideas about how force comes full circle. Before exploring this thought further, I must point out that the character of Briseis in the movie is actually a conflation of two women in the Iliad and (very likely) one woman of the larger epic tradition as well: she is Briseis and Chryseis and Cassandra all in one. Chryseis in the Iliad is the daughter of a priest of Apollo, a captive woman assigned as a prize to Agamemnon. The Iliad begins with the refusal of Agamemnon to accept a ransom for her from her father. For a modern audience at least Agamemnon comes off very cruel and selfish in his refusal: "I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my bed" (I.29-31). When Apollo sends a plague indicating his displeasure, it is Achilles who insists that Agamemnon give Chryseis back, thereby provoking Agamemnon into taking Achilles's prize, Briseis. The Trojan Cassandra on the other hand is not featured in our Iliad, but in other works of archaic Greek literature and art she plays an important role in the events surrounding the fall of Troy as a priestess of Apollo. (50) She is eventually assigned to be the prize of Agamemnon, and he brings her home to Mycenae, where they are both killed by Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra. (51)
The Briseis of Troy is, like Cassandra, a priestess of Apollo; she is captured by Achilles's men in the temple of Apollo when they first storm the shore. Early in the film Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilles as a way of pulling rank on him, then treats her very cruelly, giving her to the men to do with as they wish. This act, which perhaps more than any other is emblematic of Agamemnon's merciless, rapacious, and above all power-obsessed character, comes to completion for the viewer at the very end of the film, when Agamemnon finds Briseis alone, praying in the sanctuary of Apollo as Troy is being sacked. Grabbing her by the hair, he hisses: "You'll be my slave in Mycenae. A Trojan priestess scrubbing my floors. And at night...." Briseis stabs Agamemnon in the neck at this moment and he falls dead. Agamemnon's words in this scene about scrubbing floors in Mycenae and his unfinished threat of what will happen at night are no doubt meant to be the equivalent of what Agamemnon says about his prize woman Chryseis in Iliad I.
Petersen and screenwriter David Benioff have taken the seemingly minor character of Briseis in the Iliad and constructed a whole new story line for her, in order to provide a satisfying culmination of their characterization of Agamemnon. (52) But perhaps unintentionally they have also made the movie perfectly illustrate one of Simone Weil's central arguments about the Iliad, that it is about force, about how war and its reliance on force turn people into objects, and about how no one escapes force's effects. Those who seem to have force under their command soon lose it. The slave and concubine Briseis becomes symbolic of this principle in Wolfgang Petersen's interpretation.
Agamemnon is Hitler; Agamemnon is George W Bush. Two very different works have dealt with the compassion that the Iliad has for the Trojans by making the work a moral lesson, a lesson whose didactic reach extends through millennia. Weil never removes the Iliad from the realm of literature in her examination. For her, it was a poem that had a great deal of insight into the human condition. But if I may go back to the essay's opening words, we can see that Weil is grappling with the Iliad from an historical perspective as well:
For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and loveliest of mirrors. (Benfey 2005, 3)
The creators of Troy seem just as eager to show the Trojan War as history. Their artistic and plot choices are driven by this goal, and though the emphasis in their own production notes is on the universal truth of human emotion in war, a comment like, "It's as if nothing has changed in 3,000 years," suggests that there is more to Petersen's assertions of realism. Unlike Athenians of the fifth century BCE, we in the twenty-first century believe that history, not myth, teaches. For Petersen, Troy had to be at the very least believable and realistic or it could not convey the unstated moral message behind the film. In my conclusion, I would like to explore this thought a little further.
IV Conclusion: In Search of the Trojan War
Why does the historicity or ahistoricity of the Trojan War matter to us? Note the attitude of Lord Byron, who addressed the question several times in his published and unpublished work. (53) This poet and passionate philhellene who fought in the Greek war for independence, carved his name into the temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, and swam across the Hellespont in imitation of Leander, emphasizes the continuity of Troy through the centuries:
High barrows without marble or a name, A vast untilled and mountain-skirted plain, And Ida in the distance, still the same, And old Scamander (if'tis he) remain: The situation seems still formed for fame-- A hundred thousand men might fight again With ease; but where I sought for Ilion's walls, The quiet sheep feeds, and the tortoise crawls. (Don Juan Canto IV, 77)
We may compare: "I've stood upon Achilles' tomb, / And heard Troy doubted; time will doubt of Rome" (Don Juan Canto IV, 101). Byron's own diary gives us a great deal of insight into these verses: "We do care about 'the authenticity of the tale of Troy'.... I still venerated the grand original as the truth of history (in the material facts) and of place. Otherwise it would have given me no delight" [written in his diary in 1821].
Byron was writing in a world in which the emerging Homeric Question was quickly becoming the fierce intellectual debate that it remains today. This "question" (which is, in reality, many questions) was at first concerned with authorship. Did the Iliad and Odyssey have the same author? If so, when did he live? If not, how did the poems come to be in the form that we now have them? Fierce opposition arose between scholars who believed in Homer, a single genius and creator of the two foundational epics of Western civilization, and those who saw the Homeric texts as the products of potentially many poets composing over many generations. But another branch of the question was concerned with the relationship between myth, epic, and history. Did the Trojan War take place? If so, how closely does the Iliad reflect what actually happened? In 1769, Robert Wood published his Essay on the Original Genius of Homer, in which he made deductions about changes in the topography of the area around the Hellespont since ancient times. Another key thinker early in the debate was Jean Baptiste Lechevalier, who proposed that the site of Troy was at the Turkish mound known as Burnabashi. He asserted the historicity of the Trojan War, thereby sparking fierce debate throughout Europe. Those interested in the debate scrutinized the Iliad's poetic accounts of the topography of Troy, including such traditional epithets as "well-walled," "steep," and "windy" as they searched for the historical Troy.
Nearly a hundred years after the birth of Byron, a self-made wealthy businessman, Heinrich Schliemann, astonished the world when he uncovered the remains of a Bronze Age citadel, presumed to be Troy, in a mound known as Hisarlik in northwestern Turkey. Soon after, he excavated the wealthy Bronze Age citadel of Mycenae in mainland Greece, where Agamemnon was said to have ruled. Schliemann had famously set out from the beginning to find the Troy of the Homeric poems, claiming that he had been determined to prove Homer's veracity since he was a young boy. He quite literally bulldozed his way towards that goal, destroying most of what would turn out to be Bronze Age Troy. Later, when he uncovered a corpse covered in gold and wearing a gold mask in a Mycenaean tomb, he sent a telegram to the king of Greece, proclaiming that he had looked upon the face of Agamemnon.
The movie Troy, as have a spate of documentaries produced in the last thirty years that claim to uncover the true history behind the Iliad, seems to me to tap into this same feeling expressed by Byron and acted upon so aggressively by Schliemann. We seem to think that if we take out the parts that aren't believable to us, and replace them with contemporary concerns about trade, empire, and politics, we can prove the historicity of the legend, and just as importantly, we can learn from it. If I seem critical of such attempts, it is not my intention. Myth is by nature a dynamic entity, evolving and constantly being reinterpreted over generations. It cannot be static, or it ceases to maintain its truth value. (54) The Trojan War and its historicity have become, in part because of films like Troy, an essential part of our own twenty-first-century global mythology. And so I will end my essay on a futuristic note, with a quotation from Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the conclusion of an episode in which Captain Picard has found a way to communicate with a potentially hostile alien race that expresses itself solely via its own, culturally bound system of metaphor, Riker, Picard's second in command, finds him reading the Homeric Hymns. (55) Picard explains that the Hymns are "one of the root metaphors of our own culture":
Riker: "For the next time we encounter the Tamarians ..." Picard: "More familiarity with our own mythology might help us relate to theirs."
Indeed, more familiarity with our own "mythology" concerning the facts about Troy and the truth in the Trojan War can help us to see how the truth of the Iliad doesn't have to depend on it being "true" as historical fact. The Trojan War may well have taken place; perhaps a king named Agamemnon did once rule at Mycenae. But in the twenty-first century and beyond the lessons that we learn from the Iliad transcend the facts of any one time or place. The poem urges us to view and seek to understand the plight of our enemy, allowing us to appreciate the essential sameness of our experience in war, and it does this regardless of whether or not the Trojan War really happened. (56)
(1) See Due (2006). Portions of the first section of my essay have been adapted from this book.
(2) Of course, we are only 6 six years into this century. I expect there will be more spectacle to come.
(3) On this point see also "Death, Pathos, and Objectivity" in Griffin (1980, 103-43).
(4) Translations in this essay are my own unless otherwise indicated.
(5) On the internalized lamentation of Odysseus and the identification of the lamenting woman see Nagy 1979 (100-01). On Odysseus as one of his own victims see also H. Foley (1978, 7).
(6) See Due (2002, 5-11) and the introduction and Chapter 1 in Due (2006), where I discuss the traditional patterns in the form and themes of Greek lament from the examples in ancient epic to those sung at modern day Greek funerals.
(7) For this simile's associations with both women's lamentation for children and also vengeance in the context of both epic and tragedy, see Due (2005 and 2006, Chapter 5).
(8) On this point, see also Scodel (1998), who cites Iliad II.354-55: "Let no one hasten to return home before sleeping beside a wife of the Trojans." It should be noted, however, that this is said in the context of paying the Trojans back for the theft of Helen (11.356: "and getting payment for his struggles and groans in connection with Helen").
(9) See Nagler (1974, 44-63) and Monsacre (1984, 68-69). See also Seven Against Thebes 321-32, which likewise equates the tearing of a woman's veil with the capture of a city.
(10) Helen's lament is a special case. As I argue elsewhere, Helen (the wife/stolen concubine of Paris) evokes the captive woman in a foreign land, longing for legitimate status. This is especially true when she laments Hektor. See Due (2002, 67).
(11) See "Lamentation and the Hero" in Nagy (1979, 94-117) and Due (2002, 67-81), both of which assert that laments for heroes are at the heart of Greek epic in both form and function.
(12) On the history and archaeology of Greek hero cults, see Snodgrass (1987, 159-65). Two pathfinding general works on hero cults are Brelich (1958) and Pfister, (1909-1912). Specialized works include Pache (2004) and Gallou (2005).
(13) On this point see also Thomas Greene, "The Natural Tears of Epic" (Tylus, and Wofford 1999). Greene argues that lamentation in epic collapses the boundaries between the audience and the heroic past, producing "a hallowed communion between the two." He argues that in fact the goal [telos] of most of the European poetry known as epic is tears, and that through tears the communion between past and present is most accessible (195).
(14) On the death of Patroklos as a preview of Achilles's death see Whitman (1958, 199-203), Nagy (1979, 33, 72, and 292-93), Sinos (1980), Lowenstam (1981), and Due (2002, 6-7 and 76).
(15) Translation of this passage is based loosely on that of Samuel Butler (1898).
(16) On Briseis's lament for Patroklos as a lament for Achilles see Due (2002, chapter 4).
(17) For more on this idea see Due (2001, 44-45) with further references to the golden amphora and scholarship ad loc.
(18) On plant imagery in laments for heroes and the death of Euphorbus, see also Due (2006, 66-67).
(19) See especially Nagy (1979, 174-84). Nagy shows that the root phthi- in the Greek word aphthiton ('unwilting') is inherently connected with vegetal imagery, and means "wilt."
(20) Comparison of the dead to a tree is one of the most common and ancient themes in the Greek lament tradition. See Alexiou (1974, 198-201), Danforth (1982, 96-99), Sultan (1999, 70-71), and note 18, above. Virgil takes this traditional image for the fallen warrior and uses it for the death of the entire city of Troy at Aeneid 2.626-631.
(21) Makedones de kai Kuprioi kharitas legousin tas sunestrammenas kai oulas mursinas, has phamen stephanitidas. See the forthcoming publication of the 2002 Sather Lectures by Gregory Nagy.
(22) For the best account of the dialectic layers that form the Homeric system see Parry (1971, 325-64). See also Householder and Nagy (1972, 58-70).
(23) See also note 42, below.
(24) On the pathos of this and other "bridegroom" passages in the Iliad, see Griffin (1980, 131-34).
(25) This pithos is more famous for the depiction on its neck of the wooden horse. On the Mykonos pithos see Ervin (1963), Caskey (1976), Hurwit (1985, 173-36), and Anderson (1997, 182-91).
(26) Anderson (1997). The fall of Troy is one of the most popular subjects in Attic vase-painting from the mid sixth century BCE to the mid fifth century BCE, with representations increasing significantly after 490 (the year of the first Persian invasion, in which the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon). See, in addition to Anderson, Ferrari (2000, 120). On the fall of Troy (including the death of Astyanax and the capture of women) as a recognizable theme already in archaic art, see also Friis Johansen (1967, 26-30 and 35-36).
(27) Cf. J. Winkler (1985, 37) and Croally (1994, 47).
(28) The geographical significance of Gallipoli and this poem's allusions to the Trojan War have been pointed out by Michael Wood in his documentary and accompanying book, In Search of the Trojan War see Wood (1985/1998).
(29) For more on Patrick Shaw Stewart and this now well-known poem see the historical website maintained by Balliol College, Oxford: http://web.balliol.ox.ac.uk/history/miscellany/shawstewart/index.asp.
(30) The commonality between Greek and Trojan is also articulated by Odysseus elsewhere within the Hecuba: "Among us are grey-haired old women and aged men no less miserable than you, and brides bereft of excellent bridegrooms, whose bodies this Trojan dust has covered" (Hecuba 322-25).
(31) On the experience of the non-professional chorus, young Athenian men singing and dancing the role of captive Trojan women, see Due (2006, 23-25).
(32) See Due (2006, chapter 5) for an overview of possible interpretations of this play.
(33) See especially Croally (1994, 253).
(34) A few other aspects of the performance, including a reference to a "coalition force," might be justifiably interpreted as direct allusions to the American invasion of Iraq. See e.g., the review of Peter Marks in the Washington Post: "'Hecuba': Redgrave's Blazingly Controlled Fire" (May 27, 2005).
(35) On productions of ancient tragedy in the United States see Thomas Jenkins's forthcoming work, American Classics: Transformations of Antiquity in Postwar America. For more on the reception of Greek tragedy from the Renaissance to the present (a burgeoning academic field), see most recently Hall and Macintosh (2005), Hall, Macintosh, Michelakis, and Taplin (2006), Martindale and Thomas (2006), and Michelakis (2006).
(36) See Due (2006, Chapters 2 and 5) for an overview of scholarly reactions to these two plays.
(37) On the didactic nature of tragedy, see, e.g., Goldhill (1986, 140) and Gregory (1991, passim).
(38) "Cassandra Speaks," New York Times, 18 March, 2003.
(39) On the influence of the Iliad on Weil's writings, see Benfey 2005, x-xvi. Weil died of heart failure brought on by a combination of tuberculosis and self-starvation. For more on Weil's life and work see retrement 1976, Panichas (1985), and Nevin (1991).
(40) For similar arguments see Ferber (1981, 66), Summers (1981, 87), and Nevers (1991 x; cited in Holoka 2003, 13, note 15).
(41) See Weil: "those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone." (Benfey 2005, 26).
(42) For the cover of a recent critical edition of the essay (Holoka 2003), Jasper Griffin has written: "The Iliad is arguably the most influential work in the whole of Western literature. No discussion of it is more precious than the passionate, profound, and penetrating essay of Simone Weil, who uses the Greek epic to illuminate the human condition and the tragic theme of destruction and war." Cf. Macleod (1982, 1): "I know of no better brief account of the Iliad than this." Macleod's commentary on Iliad 24 argues for an interpretation of the poem that is similar to Weil's: "The Iliad is concerned with battle and with men whose life is devoted to winning glory in battle; and it represents with wonder their strength and courage. But its deepest purpose is not to glorify them, and still less to glorify war itself. What war represents for Homer is humanity under duress and in the face of death" (Macleod 1982, 8). I disagree with Weil's and Macleod's assertion that the Iliad does not glorify death in battle. See above, p. 238-39.
(43) I don't mean to imply that it is as simple as that, or that the point of Weil's essay is patriotic or nationalistic. I mean only that as the ascendant power in Europe, Hitler was on the up side of a cycle that would inevitably turn downwards.
(44) "To Homer, Iraq Would Be More of Same," New York Times, 5 June, 2004.
(45) The screenplay for Troy was written by David Benioff, but it went through many rounds of revision before and during filming. On this point I am grateful for Robin Mitchell-Boyask's presentation on the film's script(s) at the 2005 American Philological Association annual meeting.
(46) For more on the life and accomplishments of Schliemann, see Traill (1995).
(47) See further below. A vividly narrated documentary and accompanying book. In Search of the Trojan War, by Michael Wood (1985/1998), is a good introduction to the many controversies surrounding the possible historicity of the Trojan War and the possible locations of the historical Troy. See also the more scholarly work of Allen 1999. Latacz 2004 is a forcefully argued book that takes the opposite view of what I have asserted here, namely that "Homer's backdrop is historical" and "There probably was a war over Troy" (the quoted phrases are from the table of contents of that work, and are in fact the conclusions reached by the author after careful consideration of archeological and other evidence). I would have to write a book of my own in order to fully explain why my view is so much more skeptical than that of Latacz. Let me just say here that it is not that I can't believe that Troy was a real place, and that we have found it, and that there was a war there. I am far more interested, however, in the way that the myth of Troy has a life of its own that is independent of any historical event. Also, because I am a scholar who believes that the oral tradition in which the Iliad was composed had a very long history, one that extended at least as far back as the early Bronze Age if not earlier, I have difficulty accepting that a war as late as 1200 BCE had such a definitive impact on the creation of our Iliad. These are highly controversial matters, however, that unfortunately cannot be fully engaged here.
(48) For the following quotes from the production notes of Troy, see the film's official website at http://troymovie.warnerbros.com/.
(49) Here as elsewhere in the film a crucial change is the removal of the gods from the action. An even more radical departure in this particular case, however, is the death in the film of Menelaos at the hands of Hektor--a death that has serious consequences for many other works of Greek literature!
(50) For more on Cassandra's role in the sack of Troy see Due (2006, 143-45).
(51) This occurs most famously in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, but Agamemnon tells the story in the underworld in Odyssey 11 and the deaths of Cassandra and Agamemnon are also depicted on several archaic Greek vases.
(52) It is interesting to note that other modern adaptations of the Iliad have altered Agamemnon's end in a similarly radical fashion, for the same element of satisfaction. In the Helen of Troy miniseries that first aired on the USA network in 2003, Clytemnestra comes to Troy all the way from Mycenae and kills him in the bath as he basks in his victory over the Trojans.
(53) I am indebted to Michael Wood's (1985/1998) In Search of the Trojan War for these quotations from Byron and for the title of this section.
(54) For myth as a conveyor of a given society's truth values see Nagy (1992 and 1996, 113-45).
(55) In "Darmok," Star Trek: The Next Generation, episode 102.
(56) A collection of essays entitled Troy: From Homer's Iliad to Hollywood Epic was published in late 2006 (Oxford University Press, with a copyright date of 2007), after this essay had been prepared for publication. Some of the themes discussed here are also addressed in that volume, including the relationship between poetry and history and the use of the Trojan War as a lens through which to understand contemporary conflict, and I urge the reader to consult that volume for more on these topics.
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Casey Due is associate professor of Classical Studies in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at the University of Houston. Her publications include Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis (2002) and The Captive Woman's Lament in Greek Tragedy (2006).
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