Homer and Troy

Diane Thompson, NVCC, ELI

Homer is the main reason we still know about the war at Troy. He composed two magnificent epic poems about the Trojan War, the Iliad and the Odyssey, around the eighth century BCE. This was about five hundred years after the war may have taken place. Probably one reason that the Trojan War became so important to later Greeks such as Homer was that they considered the Greek victors their ancestors. Another reason was that the Trojan War, if it occurred, came at the time that the Mycenaean Bronze Age collapsed. Thus, its fall represented, at least in story, the last great victory of the Mycenaean Greeks before the collapse of their civilization. Homer lived in a less glorious age. Although Greeks had colonized Asia Minor after the Trojan War, they were no longer as prosperous (or as piratical) as during the Bronze Age. There still was a town of Troy in Homer’s day, and Homer may have lived in the vicinity, earning his living by telling stories about the glorious past of the Greek conquerors.

Homer was said to be blind, but his vivid images and stories of Troy have survived and thrived for nearly three millennia. Homer’s Troy is a mixture of some fairly accurate details of the Bronze Age, mixed with details from his own time, and bound together by poetic imagination and elegant, swift-moving language. The Iliad and Odyssey have been so frequently praised, criticized, translated, borrowed from, adapted and imitated that a study of Homer and his literary descendants can easily become a study of the history of Western literary culture, from Troy to the twenty-first century. People have continued to read and imitate Homer because he was a wonderful poet.

The Iliad is the poem of Troy; it takes place in the Greek camp, below the walls of Troy, and within the city itself. It is the ninth year of a ten year siege. Achilles, a Greek leader and hero, quarrels with Agamemnon, the high king of the Greek army. They fight over women war-prizes—Chryseis and Briseis. Achilles pushes Agamemnon to return his war-prize woman, Chryseis, to her father, a priest of Apollo, in order to stop plague in the Greek camp. Agamemnon, furious, takes Achilles’ war-prize woman, Briseis, as his compensation. Achilles, even more furious, vows to stop fighting until the Trojan warriors push through the Greek camp up to their ships at the shore. Achilles also gets his goddess mother, Thetis, to petition Zeus to keep the Trojans killing the Greeks until this happens. Zeus agrees and the game is set. Many Greeks are killed, Achilles sulks in his tent, finally Achilles’ best friend Patroclus is killed and then at last Achilles rampages, slaughtering Trojans. Even the gods get into the battle, fighting one another until Zeus declares a stop to the chaos. The poem ends rather peacefully with two funerals, one for Hector, who killed Achilles’ friend Patroclus, and one for Patroclus. Soon Achilles will die; next year Troy will fall.

Clearly, Achilles and Agamemnon are not suitable role models for more civilized societies, and this became a problem for later generations. Even worse, stories of the gods quarreling and even engaging in wild battles, became unacceptable to more pious generations. And Homer’s vision of the relationship of mortals to gods is chilling—to Zeus, human beings are like the poppies of the field, they bloom briefly and die. The gods are rather like spectators betting on a violent football game that gets out of hand until Zeus finally calls an end to it. But Homer’s language, the power of the narrative, and Achilles’ heroic character are unforgettable, and have not only survived, but flourished, carrying memories of Troy into the twenty-first century.

Homer's Greeks are winners; his Trojans, losers, yet the Trojans and Greeks share many traits, such as the love of warfare, excellence, gold, adventure, trade, women, and horses. In the Iliad, Trojans often seem more civilized than the Greeks. Priam is a better king and father than Agamemnon; Hector a kinder man than Achilles; Andromache a far better wife than Helen. Nonetheless, Homer's Troy is not Greek. Priam is an oriental ruler who has fifty sons and twelve daughters, some by his wife, Hecuba, and many by his concubines in an oriental harem.

There is something exotic and decadent about Troy. The Trojans are not as politically astute, nor as aggressive, as the Greeks. Paris is a no-brain fop, but the Trojans allow him to act in ways that are disastrous for their city. Helen is pure trouble, yet the Trojans let her stay, even though her presence dooms them. Hector is the finest Trojan warrior, yet in his final test of will against Achilles, Hector breaks and tries to run away. Troy is rich, ancient, past its prime, even effete, an oriental kingdom to admire and plunder.

Even the gods have decided that Troy is ripe to fall. Zeus is ultimately on the side of the Greeks. Elsewhere in the Troy Cycle, there are stories of Priam's father, King Laomedon, who was mean spirited and politically foolish. He tried to avoid paying his debt to the gods and refused hospitality to Jason and Hercules. Troy, for all its power and elegance, has smudges on its reputation. Excellence, and therefore victory, is clearly on the side of the Greeks.

However, the Trojans must display sufficient excellence to provide glory to their conquerors. And so they do. Indeed, they are good enough to inspire later civilizations to make them into their ancestral heroes. This is a wonderful irony of the Troy stories--the winners become transmuted into losers, the losers into winners, in the great culture wars of later civilizations.

 (c) Thompson: 7/10/98; updated: 08/11/2005