There’s been an odd bit of tension in the reviews of Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s Iliad as readers have celebrated the work for making Homer modern, championed it for keeping Homer strange and ancient, or complained to some extent that her Iliad is too barbarous, or not barbarous enough. I don’t think any of these responses reflect poorly on Wilson; instead, they represent a range of assumptions about differences between the ancient world and our own.
People who teach and read Homer often struggle with these somewhat divergent impulses to make ancient epic relevant for today or to read it in its terms. Over the past few months, I have found myself struggling deeply with that dichotomy, believing instead that deep engagement with Homeric epic both explodes the notion that human ‘civilisation’ has changed that much at all and also makes me wonder if we have too often turned from the savage witness epic bears on who we are today.
Living through twenty years of vicarious war has partly shaped these reflections. Americans and their allies, have watched our soldiers march on punitive and allegedly liberating missions in response to 9/11.
I don’t know of any American politician who claims that this period of American imperialism was even remotely successful. We have not even begun to reckon with the damage we left behind regarding lives ended and hopes foreclosed.
Over the past year, in turn, we have also watched conflicts unfold in foreign lands, and our pundits here have complained of the war crimes committed by other nations and non-governing groups. We hear the common refrains of barbarism and savagery levelled at the war crimes committed in nearly every theatre.
Our columnists lament this is not who we are; these acts are not those of a ‘civilised’ age. Yet, if we look at ourselves, our history, and the pasts we idolise, the sickening truth is that this is who we are and who we have always been. As Bruno Latour has argued, we use the shield of scientism and modernity to cast ourselves as somehow fundamentally different from our forefathers. Yet, the character of our behaviour remains so much the same.
Soon after the first missiles hit Israel on October 7, followed by the bombs dropped on Gaza for the next month, we have been treated to a macabre daily count of dead citizens, non-combatants, and children. This is not the way we hear; these are war crimes.
Such claims are used to dehumanise the Palestinians and demonise the Israelis, all the while more innocents suffer. I have long thought about how our canonised texts shape how we view the world and what we expect in it.
Too often, when we characterise Homeric epic, we consider it heroic or ennobling. But, it is also blood-riven and filled with gore. A spear thrust to the gut or a sword through the neck, while gruesome, doesn’t touch the military policies we see Homeric leaders making.
The Iliad presents elderly Nestor advocating for mass sexual assault of Trojan women to pay them back for Helen’s betrayal in book 2; in book 6, Agamemnon tells his brother, Menelaos, they can leave no Trojan male alive, not even infants in the womb. As Hektor stands to face Achilles in book 22, his father Priam cries that if Hector dies, he will see his sons murdered, his daughters dragged off to be enslaved, and his grandsons murdered before him.
It may be argued that these actions are couched as excessive, as products of deep enmity, a lengthy war, and the inhuman rage of semi-divine Achilles. However, ancient Greek history, as Kathy Gaca explores, is filled with cities carrying out a very intentional policy of enslavement, sexual violence, and massacre.
This is, I fear, the true Western way of war, standing starkly against any claims to the contrary. State violence isn’t an accident of anger; it is a matter of policy. One of the exciting things about the Iliad, however, is that the Trojans don’t seem to engage in the same excess.
This is partly an accident of their narrative: they are besieged, desperate, and not in a position to take their rage too far.
I think there’s something important in the poem laying the worst offences at the hands of the aggressors. The real tragedy here is that besiegers have a choice: they don’t have to fight; nothing compels them to commit acts of horror. They do it out of calculation.
This is part of the story of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. The democratic city of Athens voted more than once to condemn other cities to enslavement and murder, and we know that they carried it out. We should not sweep these truths aside when we talk of the glory that ancient Greece left us.
Another way to read the Iliad is as a record of what happens when the conventions of ‘civilization’ are cast aside. One could argue that the extremes pursued by the Greek warriors are conditioned by Agamemnon’s refusal of ransom at the beginning of the epic and Achilles’ internecine rage.
They pursue a senseless cycle of vengeance that will never end. When we read the end of the epic, Achilles’ ransoming of Hector’s body to Priam and their meal together is seen as a reconciliation that affirms their shared humanity. I have been reading it differently lately: the epic forces us to witness our shared inhumanity first.
Perhaps this means we cannot even begin to lay claims about being human without accepting the starkest truth of who we are.
Joel Christensen is Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs at Brandeis University. He has published extensively and some of his work include Homer’s Thebes (2019) and A Commentary on the Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice (2018). In 2020, he published The Many-Minded Man: the Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic with Cornell University Press.