A few months ago, I decided to go back and start reading a few of the great books I had somehow missed along the way.
I started with Dante’s Divine Comedy.
I found it a bit unsettling, to be frank. Moving through the Inferno, the reader can’t help but wonder what circle of hell he most deserves. (I figured the best I could hope for is to wind up in Limbo, alongside Homer and the pagan philosophers.)
That story, in turn, led me to another book, one of the oldest, in fact.
Tolstoy called it “inexpressibly beautiful.” Alexander the Great slept with it under his pillow, esteeming it as “a treasury of all military virtue.” Goethe said, “Every time I study this priceless work, I am thrust into a state of astonishment.”
I’m referring to the Iliad, the long narrative poem that rests at the very foundation of the Western literary tradition.
This is one of the greatest stories ever told. Yet almost nothing is known about the author.
According to tradition, Homer was a blind Greek poet who lived around 700 B.C. However, by the third century B.C., readers were already questioning whether Homer ever existed or whether the epic - which had been handed down orally for generations - was even composed by a single individual.
I had twice before tried to tackle an English translation of the book by the esteemed scholar Robert Fagles. But each time I ended up setting it aside. However, a newer translation by Stephen Mitchell is tauter, leaner and completely captivating.
If you haven’t read this story, I recommend that you give it a try…
The basic plot of the Iliad is well-known. It begins when a young Trojan prince, Paris, seduces Helen, the famously beautiful wife of his host King Menelaus, and takes her back to Troy. In retaliation, Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon, the most powerful king in Greece, gathers a vast army and sails across the Aegean with a fleet of a thousand ships to recapture Helen and obliterate Troy.
One problem. Along the way, Agamemnon insults and dishonors his fiercest warrior, Achilles, when he takes away Briseis, a beautiful young woman given to him as a war prize and with whom Achilles had fallen in love.
The Iliad concerns itself mainly with the bitterness and rage of Achilles. How it begins, how it cripples the Greek army, how it ultimately gets directed toward the Trojans, and how it is only quelled - at the end of the story - when the Trojan king, Priam, kneels before Achilles and begs for the return of his son Hector’s body, so he can give him a decent burial.
Given all the centuries of poetic embellishment, there is more than a little doubt about most of the events in the Iliad. Scholars remain skeptical, for instance, whether Homer’s Trojan War - which supposedly happened around 1200 B.C. - ever really took place.
In addition, the story is full of contentious Greek gods, continually plotting and squabbling, occasionally having human children, and frequently interfering in the affairs of we mortals.
The Greeks called it fate.
Unlike most epics, the Iliad has no clear villains. Although the story is told from the Greek perspective, it doesn’t demonize the Trojans. Then again, it doesn’t have to. Both sides are vain and murderous. Both know that if they lose, the men will be butchered, their property stolen, and their wives and children abused and taken as slaves.
This was what conquering armies did.
The battle scenes are brutal, unsentimental and chillingly matter-of-fact. Like graphic scenes out of Braveheart, warriors are regularly cut, stabbed, hacked, gouged, slashed and severed in dozens of different ways.
The pervasive bloodshed and gore in the Iliad is the reason Samuel Johnson insisted the book hardened sensibilities, inspired violent emulators and had “done infinite mischief for a series of ages.”
But while Homer gives vivid descriptions of physical combat, he never glorifies it. At various times he refers to war as “dreadful,” “gruesome,” “cruel,” “wretched,” “miserable,” “ruinous” and “loathsome.”
Indeed, the carnage is always humanized by brief characterizations of the victims, making the violence more personal - and more real. The book makes clear that war doesn’t just destroy human beings. It breaks human bonds, tearing apart families and depriving the innocent.
Homer sees everything - and describes it all without judgment: fear, greed, anger, violence, stupidity. He seems to say that we are all tragically flawed but somehow life is beautiful anyway.
Why does this ancient story still speak to us today?
After all, most of it revolves around issues that - outside the culture of the military - are no longer part of our everyday lives: bravery, sacrifice, nobility, glory.
These are the motives that shape the characters' actions. (Or their absence brands them as cowards.) At one point a Trojan soldier sums up this mindset when he remarks to a comrade, “Let us go forward and either win glory for ourselves or yield it to others.”
Homer never moralizes. He simply observes.
Yet the Iliad is really about personal honor: The honor Paris steals from Menelaus when he runs off with Helen. The humiliation of Achilles when Agamemnon takes Briseis. And, the most moving part of the story, the way Priam honors the memory of his son - and a higher code of conduct - when he kneels before Achilles, kisses his “terrible man-slaughtering hands,” and begs for his son’s body.
The moment causes Achilles to remember his own father - and both men begin to sob.
Homer’s premise is that everything is impermanent, that conflict and suffering lie at the heart of human existence, that we can never know when death will knock, and that the best we can do is to live out the days we have left with joy and integrity.
In short, Homer tells us how we became who we are.
Thomas Jefferson, who preferred Homer in the original Greek to any English translation, wrote a friend in 1786, “When young, any composition pleases which unites a little sense, some imagination, and some rhythm, in doses however small. But as we advance in life these things fall off one by one, and I suspect that we are left at last with only Homer and Virgil, and perhaps with Homer alone.”
P.S. If you’d like to receive further inspiration from the ancient Greeks, sign up here for the complimentary e-letter Classical Wisdom Weekly, the brainchild of scholar Anya Leonard, a graduate of the Great Books program at St. John’s College. Or, better still, order her fascinating Essential Greeks video course. Highly recommended. For more information, click here.