Books discussed in this essay:
The Iliad, translated by Stephen Mitchell;
Simone Weil's The Iliad or the Poem of Force, edited and translated by James P. Holoka;
The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore;
All Day Permanent Red: The First Battle Scenes of Homer's Iliad Rewritten, by Christopher Logue;
War Music: An Account of Books 1-4 and 6-19 of Homer's Iliad, by Christopher Logue;
Kings: An Account of Books One and Two of Homer's Iliad, by Christopher Logue;
The Iliad, translated by Anthony Verity;
Chapman's Homer: The Iliad, translated by George Chapman, edited by Allardyce Nicoll; and
The Iliad, translated by Alexander Pope.
What we know of ancient war, we have learned in large part from Homer. Though Homer is a poet and not a historian, what he shows us of the way men kill and die appears true. True in large part, one ought to qualify again: for Homer's poems concern gods and heroes, the latter being men more than human in their terrible grandeur, bigger, faster, stronger than even the fiercest warriors of later times, and possessed of a violent ruthlessness in the pursuit of personal glory or vengeance or, sometimes, justice. Homeric epic is patently fantastic, then, but also undeniably real. The heroes' deeds may be outsized beyond belief, yet their motives, and their brutal deaths, are universally familiar.
Of all the wars of antiquity, the Trojan War is the most famous, and it is chiefly the Iliad that has made it so. Is the war merely a poet's invention? Hard to say. Herodotus placed the date for the war at about 1250 B.C., and other ancient Greek historians dated it a century or so on either side of that. As one learns from Richard Martin's invaluable introduction to the new edition of Richmond Lattimore's 1951 translation of the Iliad, the vastly influential 19th-century British historian George Grote, author of a 12-volume History of Greece, denied that the Trojan War ever took place, or at least indicated that Homer cannot be trusted as a historical source, and most serious people believed him implicitly, for about 25 years. Beginning in 1871, however, the pioneer German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann followed the lead of another dedicated amateur antiquarian, Frank Calvert, and excavated several layers of the ancient city of Troy: two of the layers correspond in age to the ancient historians' estimates, and certain remains resemble Homer's description of the city.
Homer's poem was likely not written down until the 8th century B.C. or even later. As Stephen Mitchell speculates in the also invaluable introduction to his new translation of the Iliad,
[Homer] was trained in the ancient tradition of oral poetry, and he used a traditional language that had evolved over centuries, bearing signs of its history in its many archaic features and its mixed dialect. As an epic singer, he went from town to town, or from noble house to noble house, to find new audiences, and he sang his poems to them in partly extemporaneous performance, accompanying himself on the phorminx (a four-stringed lyre), like the bards described in the Odyssey (Book 8, lines 62-73).
In the Iliad Homer concentrates on several weeks of action during the tenth and last year of the war that the Greeks fought against the Trojans to recover Helen, the wife of the Lacedaemonian lord Menelaus and the most beautiful woman in the world, who had been seduced by and had absconded with the Trojan prince Paris. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, had played a fateful role in the sexual disorder. Above all the poem focuses on the consequences of the anger of the supreme Greek hero, Achilles; the opening lines invoke the Muse that will sing of this anger and the devastation it sows. Achilles suffers a galling wound to his honor, which is not unconnected to his erotic possessiveness. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Achaeans (or Argives, or Danaans, as Homer calls the Greeks), had taken as a war prize the beautiful girl Chryseis, daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo. Chryses' attempt to ransom his daughter fails, but his prayers to Apollo bring down a plague upon the Greeks. Pressed by Achilles, who harangues him with brazen loathing, Agamemnon agrees to return Chryseis to her father; but he insists on having Achilles' choice slave girl, Briseis, as compensation for his sacrifice. Achilles concedes in turn, but the dishonor goads him to fury, and he vows to withdraw from the fighting. His mother, Thetis, an immortal Nereid, implores Zeus to give the advantage in battle to the Trojans until the Greeks see they cannot do without Achilles and do right by him. Should Zeus refuse her, Thetis says, she will know herself the most dishonored of the gods: like mother, like son. Zeus complains that his wife, Hera, will give him grief for helping the Trojans more than he already does, but he gives in to Thetis' entreaty. That's Book 1, of 24 books.
Fury, Honor, Destiny, Death
The rest of the poem, or most of it, is war. This includes not only the carnage of hand-to-hand combat described in vivid grisliness, but also disputes among the gods, who are as touchy about their honor and order of rank as the most sensitive heroes, and sententious reflections by both mortals and immortals about the sad brevity of human life and the craving to win the greatest possible glory during one's fleeting stay on earth. If men lived forever, says the Lycian hero Sarpedon, who fights on the Trojan side, existence would be a featherbed: there would be no point to war, because the real point to war is the struggle for individual distinction in the face of the ultimate fear—to win honor by dealing out death to others and confronting one's own. Heroic men fight because they know they will die, and the more likely one's death will come soon, the greater the glory (12.322-328, in Lattimore's translation). Sarpedon is the son of Zeus by a mortal mother, and though Zeus knows Sarpedon has to die he is loath to see it happen, and even considers sparing him from his appointed destiny. When the supreme god decides his son must die after all, he weeps tears of blood. Achilles' closest friend, Patroclus, nails Sarpedon with a spear cast through the heart, and the hero goes down like a falling tree, or a bull torn by a lion (16.477-489).
Patroclus, who has convinced Achilles to let him wear Achilles' armor, will die in turn, at the hands of Hector, the greatest Trojan hero, though really Apollo contrives his destruction (16.784-796). Patroclus' death will move Achilles to rejoin the battle, and he will kill Hector, who is wearing Achilles' armor, taken from Patroclus. After Achilles has driven his spear through Hector's neck, the dying man begs his killer not to let the dogs feast on his corpse. Achilles replies that the dogs will eat their fill of Hector; he would like to hack Hector's flesh away and eat it raw himself (22.337-350). Under pressure unhinged savagery can burst from the heroic character; in some men it never lies far from the surface, and Achilles' desolation at the killing of his bosom friend sends it roaring into action.
Achilles' anger endangers him—indeed, dooms him. With his dying words Hector warns Achilles with clairvoyant precision: "Be careful now; for I might be made into the gods' curse / upon you, on that day when Paris and Phoibus Apollo / destroy you in the Skaian gates, for all your valor" (22.358-360). Paris' arrow will of course strike fatally in Achilles' heel, the one spot on his body unprotected by his mother's prophylactic wonder-working. Thetis has already informed Achilles that his destiny depends on his own choice:
...I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly (9.411-416).
And Xanthus, one of Achilles' horses, is granted the power of speech by Hera just long enough to tell Achilles that his death looms (19.407-417). Achilles retorts that he knows it well, but he has bloody work to attend to. His rage masters him; anger is a tyrannical emotion, and impels him to acts of repulsive cruelty. Achilles butchers 12 Trojan captives and burns the bodies on his friend's funeral pyre. What he does to Hector's corpse is more spectacularly barbaric: he drags it behind his chariot for days, doing laps around Patroclus' tomb. Only the gods' intercession prevents the dead body from looking like road kill.
Gradually Achilles' fury abates, though it still seethes. In Book 23 he sponsors several sporting contests for his Greek comrades; competitive at everything, the warriors get angry at each other over various insults and infractions, and Achilles steps in to restore collegial amity. Such beaming geniality is a side of him one is not a little surprised to see. Stephen Mitchell quotes Friedrich Schiller as saying of Book 23, "No matter how unhappy your life has been, if you have lived long enough to read [it], then you can have no complaints."
Achilles' new generosity of spirit extends not only to his own but to the enemy. In Book 24, when the aged King Priam of Troy comes to him to beg for the return of Hector's body, and weeps for Hector and his other slain sons, Achilles weeps too, because Priam reminds him of his own father, whom he will never see again; nor can he stop thinking of Patroclus. Yet when Priam makes too much of Achilles' mercy, Achilles declares that he is still angry enough that he could kill Priam if he were rubbed the wrong way, and the old man trembles. Achilles does let Priam take the body, however, and the Trojans burn it and bury the remains with all due ceremony. Death is everywhere, the city's destruction on the horizon, but there is a respite from violence to honor the fallen hero who excelled at violence; there is even a feast. The supreme Greek poem ends by honoring Trojan suffering, and offers at least a brief interlude of peace, though everyone knows there is more pain to come.
Neither the moment of rest from war nor the pleasure of victory in war lasts long enough to be more than a distraction from enduring desolation. "But the auditors of the Iliad knew that the death of Hector would be but a brief joy to Achilles, and the death of Achilles but a brief joy to the Trojans, and the destruction of Troy but a brief joy to the Achaeans." So declares Simone Weil in "The Iliad or The Poem of Force" (1940-41), her landmark essay which remains the most influential piece of writing on Homer at least since Matthew Arnold. "The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.... To define force—it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing." Most obviously, the corpses the war produces in heaps were men and now are things. Less obviously, the living men who succeed in turning others into corpses are also things, or else embodiments of inanimate force. "Herein lies the last secret of war, a secret revealed by the Iliad in its similes, which liken the warriors either to fire, flood, wind, wild beasts, or God knows what blind cause of disaster, or else to frightened animals, trees, water, sand, to anything in nature that is set into motion by the violence of external forces." War annihilates the souls of fighting men, those who die and those who kill and survive.
So much more beautiful, then, are the instances of extraordinary courage and love that stand out against the general slaughter. After first fleeing ignominiously from Achilles, Hector finds his soul as he prepares to meet the Greek hero utterly on his own, knowing he is up against his superior, and that the odds are not good. Tender sentiments as well as hard ones figure gloriously in the poem. Filial, paternal, maternal, fraternal, and conjugal love are all movingly evoked. The words of a soldier to his wife when he is about to die, or of a widow to her dead husband, are crushing in their sorrow. And the friendship of comrades-in-arms is surpassed only by "the purest triumph of love, the crowning grace of war,...the friendship that floods the hearts of mortal enemies. Before it a murdered son or a murdered friend no longer cries out for vengeance." Such flashes of moral splendor are nothing less than miracles, Weil writes, and they fade fast. They relieve the prevailing horror and almost manage to redeem it.
Weil and Sarpedon tug at the understanding of war from opposite ends, and neither quite gets at the whole Homeric effect. Sarpedon's is a noble but short-sighted view of human nature and the divine. For the gods are given to contention that periodically erupts into brawling, and though they cannot kill one another, they can dish out some heavy punishment. Men and gods alike just like a good fight. Honor does go to those who are best at fighting, but the heart of war, Homer teaches, is the pleasure in war itself. Men and gods would not fight otherwise. Weil cannot abide the thought that pleasure in combat—in men's killing and braving death, in the immortal gods' throwing their weight around—might be a legitimate end. That Homer might endorse it as the ultimate moral reality, so bleak and barren, seems a criminal perversion. For her war is essentially hell, though some rare men and women might get a glimpse of starlight even there; only the aspects of war that are most unlike war deserve approbation or even respect. In Weil's eyes the activity that men and gods so esteem is really wholesale murder.
In this inferno all suffer together. Homer exhibits sublime impartiality to Greek and Trojan, so that one can hardly tell which he is himself. The sense of equity, as Weil calls it, which makes the death of an enemy as piercing to the reader as that of a friend, characterizes the Iliad, while a fierce uncharitable partisanship marks the Aeneid and the 11th-century Christian epic The Song of Roland. Weil's passing hint in this direction provides a fruitful lead. In the Iliad, the Trojans pray to the same gods as the Greeks do; with the Franks and the Saracens it's a different story. As the stalwart Roland puts it, "The pagans are in the wrong and the Christians are in the right." In the Old French poem, the Muslims worship some deities other than Allah, which emerge from the pestiferous side of the Christian imagination, and it is dangerous to be a goddess or prophet when she or he fails to come through in battle: "And [the Saracens] tear out Termagant's carbuncle and hurl the image of Mahomet into a ditch for pigs and dogs to devour and befoul." The most impressive Muslim warrior is still a Muslim, and therefore to be despised. Hector, on the other hand, appears at least as good a man as Achilles. Although he quails before his rival and loses the fatal contest, nevertheless he is a true hero, who loves his wife and children and his city, and while he is adept at killing he is not a berserker. Of course he does want his young son to grow up to be a formidable manslayer just like his father, but then no warrior in the poem hopes his boy will become an actor or play the flute.
Both Greek and Trojan possess as complete a humanity as their dehumanizing calling will allow. Homer's warriors are not chivalrous like certain ideal knights in the romances of Thomas Malory or Wolfram von Eschenbach. The white-on-white spiritual radiance of Galahad or Parzival would not interest Homer. Perhaps the Homeric world remains fascinating precisely for its alien yet familiar wholeness.
Englishing the Illiad
So translators continue to produce new versions of the Iliad for an English-speaking, and almost entirely Greekless, readership. Indeed, they produce enough versions that the Greekless reader hardly knows how to choose among them. In the classic series of lectures "On Translating Homer," (1860-61) Matthew Arnold insisted that only the experts can rightly determine a translation's success or failure: the translator "is to try to satisfy scholars, because scholars alone have the means of really judging him. A scholar may be a pedant, it is true, and then his judgment will be worthless; but a scholar may also have poetical feeling, and then he can judge him truly; whereas all the poetical feeling in the world will not enable a man who is not a scholar to judge him truly." Arnold's standards, and those of many true scholars, disqualify me to judge translations of the Iliad. I do not know Greek, and thus any poetical feeling I might have is rendered inert. So I took on this assignment, happily, but with an acute sense of my limitations. My descriptions of the translations will necessarily confine themselves to how they work in English, and I hope to point out the main lines of approach to Englishing the Iliad, and to give the general reader some idea which ones he might prefer to have a look at.
Over the past 60 years students and general readers have likely read Richmond Lattimore's version more than any other. Lattimore (1906-1984) was a professor of Greek at Bryn Mawr and a poet in his own right. The experts say his translation adheres closely to the original, and the non-expert can see it has a deliberately archaic flavor. Vladimir Nabokov famously observed that a translation is like a woman: if beautiful, then not faithful; if faithful, then not beautiful. Lattimore's is an austerely handsome rendering; if it were a woman, she would be stately and elegant and somewhat forbidding—not the type everybody falls for, but exceptionally alluring for men of high fastidiousness, and given to mating for life. It is not in the details but in the "general effect" that a translation wins or loses, according to Matthew Arnold, and the general effect of Homer for him is "that of a most rapidly moving poet, that of a poet most plain and direct in his style, that of a poet most plain and direct in his ideas, that of a poet eminently noble." Lattimore's Homer would have pleased Arnold, and that is high praise. Garry Wills despises it as wearisome prosing, and that might be higher praise.
For Wills's taste runs to the other best-known recent rendition, by the English poet Christopher Logue, in three slim volumes: Kings: An Account of Books One and Two of Homer's Iliad; War Music: An Account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of the Iliad; and All Day Permanent Red: The First Battle Scenes of Homer's Iliad: Rewritten. What Logue does with Homer cannot honestly be called a translation at all, though Wills hails it as "the best translation of Homer since [Alexander] Pope's." Logue's account or rewriting is a de Kooning monster woman, with just enough resemblance to the original that you can suspect it has devolved therefrom somehow, but defiantly singular in its ever-so-modern grotesquery. If you go in for the screamingly garish and the droolingly boorish, there will be much here to entertain you. Listen to the paragon of ignobility, the Greek soldier Thersites, badger Agamemnon, "in his catchy whine," to bring the troops home now:
"What do you want?
More bronze? More shes? Your tents are full. And yet,"
Turning to us, "who was the last man here to hear
Lord Agamemnon of Mycenae say: ‘Have this'—
Some plate—‘brave fighter' or ‘share this'—
A teenage she.
One thing is sure,
That man would be surprised enough to jump
Down the eye-hole of his own knob."
No such anatomical unlikelihood enlivens any other version I have read, and it is a safe guess that the other translators have not bowdlerized Homer here. Admirers of Logue might justify outlandish vulgarity like this by insisting that in our day Thersites must play as more rank than in Homer's time just so we get the point; Shakespeare, after all, made his Thersites obscene as a venereal lesion in Troilus and Cressida, and that was some while ago. But similar points accumulate to create a pervasive cheesiness. There is Aphrodite "Running her tongue around her strawberry lips / While repositioning a spaghetti shoulder-strap." There is the exchange between Zeus and Athena about the Trojans' oath to return Helen if Menelaus defeats Paris in single combat:
Picking a cotton from his sleeve: "Pa-pa," Athene said,
"This is not fairyland. The Trojans swore an oath
To which You put Your voice."
"I did not."
"Father, You did. All Heaven heard You. Ask the Sea."
"I definitely did not."
"Did-did-did-did-and no returns."
All the same, Logue does hit upon some rare beauties.
Dust like red mist.
Pain like chalk on slate. Heat like Arctic.
The light withdrawn from Sarpedon's body.
The enemies swirling over it.
Certain battle scenes are vividly terrible and clear, catching the general Homeric effect, even if they are done with an impressionist's brush and depart from Homer in the details. It is a pity that the fashionable modern artist's obligation to sneer at the ancient pieties and graces so often soils a sometimes eloquent recasting of the original.
Rapid, Plain, Direct, Noble
All proper translations of the Iliad seem tame beside Logue's werewolf howling. Tame needn't mean boring: a leopard on a leash provides enough excitement to suit most people. Anthony Verity, retired master of Dulwich College, translator of Theocritus and Pindar, has produced an Iliad that might threaten boredom nevertheless; it is evidently designed to supplant even Lattimore as the old reliable and thus to become the version of choice for students compelled to read the poem for class, like it or not. Verity states unabashedly that he has no pretension to poetry, and prides himself on getting the numbered lines of English to match up perfectly with the Greek. That doesn't sound promising for the general reader, but the result is not as dowdy as one might fear, for Homer in the hands of a capable scholar can endow him with some poetical feeling he didn't know he had.
As in anxious entreaty Tros tried to touch Achilles'
knees with his hands, he struck him in the liver with his sword,
and the liver slid out of his body, and the dark blood from it
filled his lap; he lost hold of his life and darkness covered his eyes. (20.468-471)
Although "anxious entreaty" sounds like a phrase that an anxious student construing didn't quite know what to do with, the rest of the passage is rapid, plain, direct, and noble. There is not that much to choose between Verity and Lattimore here:
...now Tros with his hands was reaching
for the knees, bent on supplication, but he stabbed with his sword
at the liver
so that the liver was torn from its place, and from it the black blood
drenched the fold of his tunic and his eyes were shrouded in darkness
as the life went. (20.468-472)
Stephen Mitchell, who has translated everything from Rilke to Gilgamesh, manages to be more supple and swift here without lapsing into raciness.
As Tros was trying to clasp his knees and to beg him
for mercy, Achilles plunged his sword into his liver,
and the liver slid out through the gaping wound, and the blood
poured out all over his belly and soaked his lap,
and darkness covered his eyes as the spirit left him. (20.395-399)
Begging for mercy secures the point more tellingly to modern ears than anxious entreaty or being bent on supplication. Mitchell does lapse on occasion into raciness, or even slanginess, which just sounds affected: chastising Thersites for his churlish outburst, Odysseus admonishes "that if ever I catch you spewing such nonsense again / I will strip you naked and whip your ass out of here / and send you back to the ships, howling and bawling." (2.246-248) Mitchell appears to have picked up an unhappy trick or two from Logue, though he never wanders nearly as far from Homer. Mostly this is an impressive piece of work, and highly recommended—though one should be warned that Mitchell makes the audacious editorial decision to omit Book 10, which relates the killing by Odysseus and Diomedes of their unfortunate captive Dolon, and which Mitchell declares "has been recognized as an interpolation since ancient times, and by modern scholars almost unanimously." Just the same, other translators unanimously leave it in, so the excision of this book and of some 500 other lines deemed interpolations is a renegade move.
The Whole Truth
Lattimore, Logue, Verity, Mitchell: these exemplify in one way or another the modern alternatives among Homeric translations. But two translations hardly recent continue to tower in repute above the rest: George Chapman's version of 1611, and Alexander Pope's of 1720. Chapman was a poet and dramatist, and he translated both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Pope was one of the supreme poetic wits ever, and he too translated both Homeric epics, the Odyssey in collaboration with William Broome and Elijah Fenton.
Here is Chapman's rendition of the killing of Tros:
He gladly would have made a prayre, and still so hugg'd his knee
He could not quit him: till at last his sword was faine to free
His fetterd knees, that made a vent for his white liver's blood
That causd such pittifull affects: of which it pour'd a flood
About his bosome, which it fild even till it drownd his eyes
And all sense faild him. (20.415-420)
The ponderous fourteeners lurch and thud along; the padding and the telescoping subordinate clauses blunt the horror and pathos of the scene. For the most part blank verse better suits the needs of the tragedy of blood, which the Iliad emphatically is in large measure. Sometimes, however, Chapman's simple Anglo-Saxon diction hustles the verse along at a ferocious clip: "His brother croucht for dread, / And, as he lay, the angrie king cut off his armes and head / And let him like a football lie for everie man to spurne" (11.134-136). (Lattimore, Verity, and Mitchell all have Hippolochus' shorn trunk rolling like a log; Chapman clearly takes liberties, but the effect is winning.) T.S. Eliot, in the essay "Seneca in Elizabethan Translation," calls Chapman's Iliad "a poem of brilliant passages rather than sustained success"; and Eliot's poetic judgment does not fail him. Still, one must not forget the ecstasies of John Keats's worshipful sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." The best of Chapman does "speak out loud and bold," and it is glorious.
In certain battle scenes Alexander Pope deploys the language of revenge tragedy from Chapman's day, almost parodically it sometimes seems, and he gets to the bloody point with merciless address:
While yet he trembled at his knees, and cried,
The ruthless falchion oped his tender side;
The panting liver pours a flood of gore
That drowns his bosom till he pants no more.
All this is smooth, sure, adroitly turned. But the impeccable workmanship may get a bit showy, one must admit, and sometimes Pope cannot resist an effect so elaborately bejeweled it risks bizarrerie: "Warm'd in the brain the brazen weapon lies, / And shades eternal settle o'er his eyes." (Book 4, page 79 [no line numbers in the Wildside edition]) At least according to the other translations, Homer does not warm weapons in his heroes' brains. But let that pass: Pope's translation shows what one poetic genius can make of another, however time and temperament might separate them. This 18th-century Iliad is a lasting treasure of English literature.
Yet by no means is it the last word on Homer. Every age has an English Homer, or several Homers, of its own, and one is grateful that able scholars and poets continue to produce Iliads for us. The past 50 years have seen notable English versions besides the ones treated above, by Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles, and Stanley Lombardo, each of which some admirers have held up as the translation of our time.
Of course, the Iliad, and war itself, are not what they used to be. Although Simone Weil detests war's devastating inhuman force, Alexander the Great loved war and the gods who made him supremely warlike; and both of them take thought from the anger of Achilles. As Plutarch relates, Alexander at Troy anointed the gravestone of Achilles and ran naked with his friends around the hero's sepulcher, in accordance with the ancient custom; having taken a very precious casket from the defeated Persian emperor Darius, Alexander kept his copy of the Iliad in it, and slept with the treasured book and his dagger at the head of his bed. There is something monstrous about Alexander; there is something monstrous about Achilles. They are destroyers of men, paragons of anti-life. Yet there is something magnificent about them both as well. They embody courage and will and ardor, and are thus exemplars of titanic life-force.
Homer is large enough to hold those who revere his hero and those who fear him. Indeed, the reverence and the fear are inseparable when one begins to understand Homer correctly; and that is why we so need Homer today, when war tends to be either carelessly glorified or mindlessly abhorred. The paradox of superb brutality is disturbing and irreducible; and we need the whole truth. Few other writers tell as much of the truth about war as Homer, and honor belongs both to him and to the classicists who keep him alive. For all those who translate old books and still teach that they are indispensable, our thanks can never be sufficient.