The Genius Of The Iliad

About a year and a half ago, I listened to an audio book translation of the Iliad.  I like listening to audio books in my car as I drive around during the day; I can control the content of what I hear, and can avoid listening to the news.  It had been a long time since I had had any extended exposure to the poem, and was wondering if it might mean more to me than it did many years ago.  The full appreciation of works of literature, we all know, is often time-specific.  At one point in a man’s life, a book may seem like a tiresome bore; then, with a refreshing interval of years, the same work can hit you like a bolt of lightning, activating previously dormant or attenuated perceptions.

What matters is to be exposed to greatness, even if it is not fully appreciated.  The mind will find ways of appreciating it in time.  Sometimes we have to be ready when the good things come knocking; we need to be open to what they have to offer.  What struck me about the Iliad was how fresh, intense, profound, and bursting with violent action it was.  Anyone who is tempted to think that this old poem is a Milton-esque slumber party is in for a real surprise.  The action is violent, and continuous:  spears smash into faces, cleave through palates, shatter jaws and sinew, and spew blood over sun-baked helmets.  Combatants taunt each other with the crudest insults; animals and weapons of war kick up clouds of dust; salt sweat stings the eyes, and controlled chaos seems to have the upper hand throughout most of the narrative.  This is a heroic poem in every sense of the word:  it generates an atmosphere of action, intensity, moral purpose, and unadulterated vigor.

But at the same time, Homer is capable of expressing the tenderest emotions, the most heart-felt impulses, and the most unrestrained surges of rage.  Perhaps only Shakespeare was capable of such a range of dramatic intensity.  He is a supreme genius, of course.  But who was he, and from what environment did he emerge?  His poems are, first of all, the oldest literary works of the Greek-speaking world.  They are probably the earliest productions of European literature as well, for we know of no coherent narratives more ancient that are west of Babylon.  For his origins we have only traditions.  He was probably Ionian, and sprang from a rich tradition of oral storytelling, probably accompanied by musical instruments; “rhapsodist” actually means “ode-stitcher.”

As for the century in which he flourished, we cannot be precisely certain.  Most authorities date him somewhere between 900 and 700 B.C.  Smyrna seems to have the strongest claim to being his city of origin, although there are six or seven other respectable contenders.  Of course he had a great poetic tradition behind him to draw on; no great man springs up from nothing.  But this does not detract from his awe-inspiring originality and creative genius.

There are, of course, many fables and traditions that have sprung up around him.  One story tells us that, in his old age, he was warned by an oracle to beware of the “young men’s riddle.”  One day, when the old poet was walking around the island of Ios, he saw some boys fishing.  He asked them how their catch was that day, and they gave the following strange reply:

What we caught we left, and what we could not catch, we carried with us.

Homer, we are told, was unable to figure out the meaning of this riddle, and died of consternation.  He was buried, supposedly, on Ios.  According to one dubious tradition, he was buried near sea-shore, and inscribed on his gravestone were these verses:

Here Homer the Divine, in earthly bed,

Poet of heroes, rests his sacred head.

There are some who say that the name “Homer” was nothing but a convenient fiction, a name provided by history to lump together the work of many ancient poets.  They say that Homer never existed.  For my part I believe this is untrue.  Those who take this position remind me of the people who argue that Shakespeare could not have written the plays ascribed to him, since he was only a “lowly actor” with a second-rate education.  Whenever I hear talk like this, I can only shake my head.  It is difficult for many people to believe that genius has a way of cropping up in the most unlikely places, and that a bright, inquisitive mind can perform miracles given the right circumstances.  These critics, unable to work wonders themselves, refuse to credit them to anyone else.  I have no doubt that there was a historical Homer; perhaps he had assistants to wrote down the vast quantity of verse he had memorized, and he then edited the final product.

Anyone who has been exposed to the Iliad will notice that it has a unified plot and subject, consistency of characterization, and narrative cohesion.  It is, to me at least, undoubtedly the work of one creative mind, and not a collage of work done by different hands.  His characters are men like ourselves, who feel pain, joy, rage, and resentment.  Homer’s style is simple and direct, but fond of arresting simile and metaphors, imagery from nature, and even technical details about warfare and seafaring.

He can talk with authority on every detail of a ship at sea, a priest sacrificing an animal, or the residence of a king.  Household implements like drinking cups and helmets were described by him in great detail; and archaeologists have excavated items that have been found to match his descriptions precisely.  We have no doubt, when we read Homer, that we are in the presence of a true master.

A Mycenaean goblet, of the type described by Homer

He is concerned with the Trojan War, an event that to him was hundreds of years in the past.  We may be comforted to know that Homer believes the men of his era were poor imitations of the great warriors of old.  The actual Trojan War, we now believe, probably took place between 1194 B.C.–1184 B.C.  We are already expected to know that a coalition of Greek warlords set sail to the Hellespont to attack the city of Troy.  The events of the Iliad take place at the very end of the war, over a very short period of time.  Homer is not concerned with tracing the genesis of the war:  what matters to him is the rage of Achilles and its consequences.

Achilles feels slighted by his countrymen; he sulks in his tent, and stews with rage.  He is finally roused to action by the death of one of his close comrades, and he wreaks a terrible revenge on the Trojan champion, Hector.  The moral conflict between these two men–Achilles and Hector–is one of the fascinating threads that runs through the poem.  Achilles is pure masculine energy, youth, and passion, barely seasoned with judgment and restraint; Hector is more of the reliable, domesticated father and devoted husband.  But Homer’s range of emotion never fails to astound us.  Alongside battle scenes of blood-soaked ferocity, he composed scenes that show a great appreciation for the charms of women.  In this passage, for example, he describes the parting of Hector and his consort Andromache (VI.400-455):

Hector left in haste the mansion, and retraced his way between

The rows of stately dwellings, traversing

The mighty city.  When at length he reached

The Scaean gates, that issue on the field,

His spouse, the nobly dowered Andromache,

Came forth to meet him.


Then answered Hector, great in war:  “All this

I bear in mind, dear wife; but I should stand

Ashamed before the men and long-robed dames

Of troy, were I to keep aloof and shun

The conflict, coward-like.  Not thus my heart

Prompts me, for greatly have I learned to dare

And strike among the foremost sons of Troy,

Upholding my great father’s fame and mine;

Yet well in my undoubting mind I know

The day shall come in which our sacred Troy,

And Priam, and the people over whom

Spear-bearing Priam rules, shall perish all.”


Thus speaking, mighty Hector took again

His helmet, shadowed with the horse-hair plume,

While homeward his beloved consort went,

Oft looking back and shedding many tears.

Soon was she in the spacious palace-halls

Of the man-queller Hector.  There she found

A troop of maidens–with them all she shared

Her grief; and all in his own house bewailed

The living Hector whom they thought no more

To see returning from the battle-field,

Safe from the rage and weapons of the Greeks.

[Trans. by Wm. C. Bryant]

This parting scene is one of the most famous in poem.  Once we have drunk from Homer’s well, we can understand why these epic poems functioned almost as Bibles for Greek civilization for many centuries.  Every Greek was taught them; their stories and anecdotes were further sources of mythology and moral instruction.  As a practical matter, someone who is at least generally aware of the plots of the Iliad and the Odyssey will be able to understand ten thousand references by other authors to an assortment of  characters and stories.  The influence of the Homeric poems down the centuries has been immense; they are one of the pillars of the Western tradition.

I suppose the reader at this point has some practical questions about diving into the Iliad.  Should I buy a verse translation, or a prose translation?  Well, why not buy both!  Experiment with both of them, and see what speaks to you best.  I have verse translations by Bryant and Lattimore, and a prose edition by B.V. Rieu.  Each has its place.  If I can offer any suggestion, it would be this:  before attempting to read the Iliad, listen to it on audio book.  Your mind will absorb much of it, and you will get a good sense of Homer’s stately rhythms.  You can then, at your leisure, read him in print.

Experience the penetrating insights of the historian Sallust, startlingly relevant to our era: