Ancient History & Civilisation


Was there such a siege? We only know that every Greek historian, and every Greek poet, and almost every temple record or legend in Greece, took it for granted; that archeology has placed the ruined city, generously multiplied, before our eyes; and that today, as until the last century, the story and its heroes are accepted as in essence real.66 An Egyptian inscription of Rameses III reports that “the isles were restless” toward 1196 B.C.;67 and Pliny alludes to a Rameses “in whose time Troy fell.”68 The great Alexandrian scholar Eratosthenes, on the basis of traditional genealogies collated late in the sixth century before Christ by the geographer-historian Hecataeus, calculated the date of the siege as 1194 B.C.

The ancient Persians and Phoenicians agreed with the Greeks in tracing the great war to four abductions of beautiful women. The Egyptians, they said, stole Io from Argos, the Greeks stole Europa from Phoenicia, and Medea from Colchis; did not a just balancing of the scales require that Paris should abduct Helen?*69 Stesichorus in his penitent years, and after him Herodotus and Euripides, refused to admit that Helen had gone to Troy; she had only gone to Egypt, under constraint, and had merely waited there a dozen years for Menelaus to come and find her; besides, asked Herodotus, who could believe that the Trojans would fight ten years for one woman? Euripides attributed the expedition to excess population in Greece, and the consequent urge to expansion;70 so old are the youngest excuses of the will to power.

Nevertheless it is possible that some such story was used to make the adventure digestible for the common Greek; men must have phrases if they are to give their lives. Whatever may have been the face and shibboleth of the war, its cause and essence lay, almost beyond doubt, in the struggle of two groups of powers for possession of the Hellespont and the rich lands lying about the Black Sea. All Greece and all western Asia saw it as a decisive conflict; the little nations of Greece came to the aid of Agamemnon, and the peoples of Asia Minor sent repeated reinforcements to Troy. It was the beginning of a struggle that would be renewed at Marathon and Salamis, at Issus and Arbela, at Tours and Granada, at Lepanto and Vienna. . . .

Of the events and aftermath of the war we can relate only what the poets and dramatists of Greece have told us; we accept this as rather literature than history, but all the more for that reason a part of the story of civilization; we know that war is ugly, and that theIliad is beautiful. Art (to vary Aristotle) may make even terror beautiful—and so purify it—by giving it significance and form. Not that the form of the Iliad is perfect; the structure is loose, the narrative is sometimes contradictory or obscure, the conclusion does not conclude; nevertheless the perfection of the parts atones for the disorder of the whole, and with all its minor faults the story becomes one of the great dramas of literature, perhaps of history.

(I)* At the opening of the poem the Greeks have already besieged Troy for nine years in vain; they are despondent, homesick, and decimated with disease. They had been delayed at Aulis by sickness and a windless sea; and Agamemnon had embittered Clytaemnestra, and prepared his own fate, by sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia for a breeze. On the way up the coast the Greeks had stopped here and there to replenish their supplies of food and concubines; Agamemnon had taken the fair Chryseis, Achilles the fair Briseis. A soothsayer now declares that Apollo is withholding success from the Greeks because Agamemnon has violated the daughter of Apollo’s priest, Chryses. The King restores Chryseis to her father, but, to console himself and point a tale, he compels Briseis to leave Achilles and take Chryseis’ place in the royal tent. Achilles convokes a general assembly, and denounces Agamemnon with a wrath that provides the first word and the recurring theme of the Iliad. He vows that neither he nor his soldiers will any longer stir a hand to help the Greeks.

(II) We pass in review the ships and tribes of the assembled force, and (III) see bluff Menelaus engaging Paris in single combat to decide the war. The two armies sit down in civilized truce; Priam joins Agamemnon in solemn sacrifice to the gods. Menelaus overcomes Paris, but Aphrodite snatches the lad safely away in a cloud and deposits him, miraculously powdered and perfumed, upon his marriage bed. Helen bids him return to the fight, but he counterproposes that they “give the hour to dalliance.” The lady, flattered by desire, yields. (IV) Agamemnon declares Menelaus victor, and the war is apparently ended; but the gods, in imitative council on Olympus, demand more blood. Zeus votes for peace, but withdraws his vote in terrified retreat when Hera, his spouse, directs her speech upon him. She suggests that if Zeus will agree to the destruction of Troy she will allow him to raze Mycenae, Argos, and Sparta to the ground. The war is renewed; many a man falls pierced by arrow, lance, or sword, and “darkness enfolds his eyes.”

(V) The gods join in the merry slicing game; Ares, the awful god of war, is hurt by Diomed’s spear, “utters a cry as of nine thousand men,” and runs off to complain to Zeus, (VI) In a pretty interlude the Trojan leader Hector, before rejoining the battle, bids good-by to his wife Andromache. “Love,” she whispers to him, “thy stout heart will be thy death; nor hast thou pity of thy child or me, who shall soon be a widow. My father and my mother and my brothers all are slain; but, Hector, thou art father to me and mother, and thou art the husband of my youth. Have pity, then, and stay here in the tower.” “Full well I know,” he answers, “that Troy will fall, and I foresee the sorrow of my brethren and the King; for them I grieve not; but to think of thee a slave in Argos unmans me almost. Yet, even so, I will not shirk the fight.”71 His infant son Astyanax, destined shortly to be flung over the walls to death by the victorious Greeks, screams in fright at Hector’s waving plumes, and the hero removes his helmet that he may laugh, weep, and pray over the wondering child. Then he strides down the causeway to the battle, and (VII) engages Ajax, King of Salamis, in single combat. They fight bravely, and separate at nightfall with exchange of praise and gifts—a flower of courtesy floating on a sea of blood, (VIII) After a day of Trojan victories Hector bids his warriors rest.

Thus made harangue to them Hector; and roaring the Trojans applauded.

Then from the yoke loosed their war-steeds sweating, and each by his chariot

Tethered his horses with thongs. And then they brought from the city,

Hastily, oxen and goodly sheep; and wine honey-hearted

Gave them, . . . and corn from the houses.

Firewood they gathered withal; and then from the plain to the heavens

Rose on the winds the sweet savor. And these by the highways of battle

Hopeful sat through the night, and many their watchfires burning.

Even as when in the sky the stars shine out round the night-orb,

Wondrous to see, and the winds are laid, and the peaks and the headlands

Tower to the view, and the glades come out, and the glorious heaven

Stretches itself to its widest, and sparkle the stars multitudinous,

Gladdening the heart of the toil-wearied shepherd—even as countless

‘Twixt the black ships and the river of Xanthus glittered the watchfires

Built by the horse-taming Trojans by Ilium.

Meanwhile the war-wearied horses, champing spelt and white barley,

Close by their chariots, waited the coming of fair-throned Dawn.72

(IX) Nestor, King of Elian Pylus, advises Agamemnon to restore Briseis to Achilles; he agrees, and promises Achilles half of Greece if he will rejoin the siege; but Achilles continues to pout, (X) Odysseus and Diomed make a twoman sally upon the Trojan camp at night, and slay a dozen chieftains, (XI) Agamemnon leads his army valiantly, is wounded, and retires. Odysseus, surrounded, fights like a lion; Ajax and Menelaus cleave a path to him, and save him for a bitter life, (XII-XIII) When the Trojans advance to the walls that the Greeks have built about their camp (XIV) Hera is so disturbed that she resolves to rescue the Greeks. Oiled, perfumed, ravishingly gowned, and bound with Aphrodite’s aphrodisiac girdle, she seduces Zeus to a divine slumber while Poseidon helps the Greeks to drive the Trojans back, (XV) Advantage fluctuates; the Trojans reach the Greek ships, and the poet rises to a height of fervid narrative as the Greeks fight desperately in a retreat that must mean death.

(XVI) Patroclus, beloved of Achilles, wins his permission to lead Achilles’ troops against Troy; Hector slays him, and (XVII) fights Ajax fiercely over the body of the youth, (XVIII) Hearing of Patroclus’ death, Achilles at last resolves to fight. His goddess-mother Thetis persuades the divine smithy, Hephaestus, to forge for him new arms and a mighty shield, (XIX) Achilles is reconciled with Agamemnon, (XX) engages Aeneas, and is about to kill him when Poseidon rescues him for Virgil’s purposes, (XXI) Achilles slaughters a host of Trojans, and sends them to Hades with long genealogical speeches. The gods take up the fight: Athena lays Ares low with a stone, and when Aphrodite, going for a soldier, tries to save him, Athena knocks her down with a blow upon her fair breast. Hera cuffs the ears of Artemis; Poseidon and Apollo content themselves with words, (XXII) All Trojans but Hector fly from Achilles; Priam and Hecuba counsel Hector to stay behind the walls, but he refuses. Then suddenly, as Achilles advances upon him, Hector takes to his heels. Achilles pursues him three times around the walls of Troy; Hector makes a stand, and is killed.

(XXIII) In the subsiding finale of the drama Patroclus is cremated with ornate ritual. Achilles sacrifices to him many cattle, twelve captured Trojans, and his own long hair. The Greeks honor Patroclus with games, and (XXIV) Achilles drags the corpse of Hector behind his chariot three times around the pyre. Priam comes in state and sorrow to beg for the remains of his son. Achilles relents, grants a truce of twelve days, and allows the aged king to take the cleansed and anointed body back to Troy.

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