"Let me not then die ingloriously and without struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter."
One of the themes of world history is the increasing complexity of man, society, and ideas over time. The further we travel back in time the fewer of the distinctions we recognize will apply, for the world was, if not simpler in a metaphysical sense, at any rate simpler to live in, in ancient times. For instance, the earliest written documents of most societies (along with temple records) are epic poems, which were not then, as they are now, works of art, entertainment, or curiosity. Or, rather, they were not only those things, but complete perspectives on life – at once the religion, the art, the science, the entertainment, the history, and in short the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the people who produced them. The Mahabarata, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Song of Roland, and our present example, the Illiad, are all examples of the epic poetry genre, and all share similar features.
To appreciate them in their own time, we must forget what we know about our own, and, indeed, that we are even reading them at all – for these were spoken, personal performances, recited rhythmically from memory, and their power is much-impaired simply by the act of seeing, rather than listening, to them. The poet would have stood in the court of a king or lord, or perhaps in a market square before a crowd gathered specifically to hear him, and they would have listened (if he was skilled) with rapt attention to a story they knew by heart, but which nonetheless came alive again with every retelling.
“Sing, O goddess,” the performance began, “the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.” These are indeed the themes of the poem from beginning to end – anger, violence, and the feud between the immortal Achilles, who has agreed to trade his life in return for glory, and the brutal tyrant Agamemnon.
The scene is of course Troy, a city in Asia Minor which the Achaeans have been laying siege to for a decade. The war was brought on by the Trojan prince Paris, who, asked to judge a beauty contest between Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena, accepted (foolishly), and chose Aphrodite. She returned the favor by allowing him to seduce Helen, the beautiful wife of Agamemnon’s brother. They pursued Paris back to Troy, Paris refused to return Helen, so the Achaeans laid siege to the city. Early in the campaign, Agamemnon took a young woman as a slave. When her father begged for her return, Agamemnon refused – so he prayed to Apollo, who struck the Achaeans with a plague. When the Achaeans realized the only way to end the plague was to return the girl to her father, Agamemnon took it out on Achilles, and demanded one of his slave-girls in compensation. Indignant, Achilles was about to kill him, but Athena persuaded him to relent. So instead he swore to sit out the rest of the war, no matter what happened.
Ten years later, the Achaeans are on the verge of defeat, for no one can stand up to the Trojan champion, the noble Hector. Achilles’ lover, Patroclus, has been sitting out the fighting as well, but before what seems the Achaean’s resolve will falter, he takes Achilles’ armor and challenges Hector to a duel. Hector kills him, and for a moment believes he has killed Achilles. But when Achilles learns of Patroclus’ death he swears to rejoin the fight and kill Hector in revenge.
Over the course of several further battles, Hector refuses to face Achilles, for he knows he cannot beat him. When he does resolve to fight him, his courage fails, and he flees. Achilles chases him, and again Athena comes to his aid by tricking Hector into fighting. Achilles has his revenge, and refuses Hector’s dying request to return his body to his father, so it can be properly buried. Achilles angrily refuses, reminding Hector how he killed Patroclus. With his last words Hector reminds Achilles that he too must lose his life before the campaign is over. Achilles ties Hector’s corpse to his chariot and rides victory laps around the walls of Troy, signaling his pride in triumph, his utter contempt for honor or tradition, and the certain doom of the Trojans.
At the Achaean camp, where they are celebrating since they now seem certain to take the city, Patroclus’ ghost visits Achilles and asks him to return Hector’s corpse, but not even the ghost of his beloved can sway him. When the Trojan king Priam comes, however, and Athena informs him that he must return the corpse, he relents, and allows Priam to bury his son.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is where the poem ends. Not with the Trojan horse, the death of Achilles, or anything else we might like to know, for our concerns are very different from the poet’s. For him, the siege is an event of no real consequence – it is simply another battle, like any other, and he does not dwell on where and why, and tells us practically nothing about when, it was fought. What he cares about is the violent passions and immortal deeds of heroes, who always occupy the center stage. Indeed they are presented to us, as they would have been to his audience, as inhabiting a realm beyond time.
This is because, in a very real sense, the people who created this poem had no past. What they saw, when they looked backward and forward in time, was a changeless, featureless, pointless desert of time, in which one generation succeeded another, living and thinking and believing and acting just as the others had, on and on without any definite beginning or end. There might be a creation myth or several, and a time of legends such as Achilles and Hector inhabited, but how that had turned into the present was never quite clear. What mattered about the past, rather, was that “once upon a time” great things had happened there, and that, by imitating those deeds, one could reconnect to that distant time in one’s own life, if only for a moment. Put another way, their concept of time was one of overwhelming continuity, with few, unspecified, and uninteresting moments of change. For similar reasons, their concept of space was also unclear. The land of Troy was “far, far away,” and that was all that mattered about it.
There is also very little sense of collective identity among either party. The only thing that seems to distinguish them is that they are fighting each other, for they have the same gods, the same rites and rituals, and the same basic beliefs about the world. What matters is, again, the great man – an attractive feature in any poem designed to be recited for aristocrats who fancied themselves the descendants of gods and legendary heroes of old, and who saw in Achilles and Agamemnon models of martial prowess whom they could imitate. Little people, by contrast, don’t count. For similar reasons, the basic values and assumptions of the world they inhabit are never questioned. On the contrary, the poet affirms them repeatedly, for they enjoy the sanction of the gods and time immemorial.
In short, the Illiad, and indeed all epic poems, depicts a world in which change in our sense of the word is almost unthinkable, in which differences in time and space have very little meaning, and in which there is no sense of collective identity, and hence no subversive ideas to undermine it. It is a very simple view of the world, but not, for that, one without meaning or appeal. The moral of epic poetry is indeed timeless, and persists in much historical writing today. It is that the past exists to provide inspiration in the present, for those who model their lives on the heroes of old share in their immortality, and can, like them, transcend time and space and enter into everlasting glory.
(Part of a Series on Philosophy of History II of XXXV)