By Dr Jenny March
Lots of people have wondered what I am doing, now that I am no longer editing CA News, so let me tell you about my current classical project, one dear to my heart. You might almost say that I have been overtaken by missionary zeal. Charlotte Higgins wrote in her admirable little It’s All Greek To Me, “A life without Homer is a life half lived”, and my aim is to bring Homer within the grasp of absolutely anyone who might wish it. I am working on what I call A Pocket Homer, a condensation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey into one volume by using a combination of narrative and translation, the narrative to telescope the action and the translation of key passages to give a real flavour of Homer. And there will be a good introduction to Homer and the Homeric world.
There are many people out there, mostly students, probably mostly young, who have to come to grips with Homer. I want to give them a relatively easily acquired grasp of what Homer is all about, both Iliad and Odyssey, before they get down to studying their necessary passages in greater detail. There are countless more out there, not students, probably not so young, who would like — or feel they ought — to be familiar with Homer, but are put off by the length and apparent inaccessibility of his works. I want them to pick up my book and find that Homer is not so unapproachable after all. That, yes, he is within their reach. With luck they will go on to read either the Iliad or Odyssey, or both, in a full translation. They might even (dream on, Jenny) decide to learn Greek, so that they can come face to face with Homer in the original. Well, if they live anywhere near Tavistock in Devon, I am happy to teach them.
So what I want from you, dear readers, are your comments on all this. I have already done my condensation of the Iliad, but I have not yet been able to find a publisher and I am loath to embark on the Odyssey before I have some feedback on what I am aiming to do. So am I barking up the wrong tree, flogging a dead horse, or whatever? Or will this truly, as I hope, be valuable? Here is a sample of my condensed Iliad, the fateful quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon in Book 1.
Sing, Muse, the wrath of Peleus’ son, Achilles,
the accursed wrath that brought countless sorrows
to the Achaeans [the Greeks], hurled down to Hades the souls
of many brave heroes, and left their corpses
a prey for the dogs and all kinds of birds …
This is the beginning of the Iliad, with the very first word in the Greek being menin, “wrath”, the anger of Achilles that will reverberate through the whole work. This anger begins with a violent quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon over their war spoils. After a recent raid, Agamemnon has been awarded as one of his prizes a woman, Chryseis, to be his slave. Her father Chryses, a priest of the god Apollo, is distraught at the loss of his daughter, and he brings to the Greek camp countless gifts as ransom and begs for her release. The Greek army shouts out its agreement, but Agamemnon refuses and arrogantly drives the old man away under threat of violence:
“Let me not catch you, old man, by our hollow ships,
not loitering now nor coming back in the future,
for your staff and wreath of the god will never protect you.
The girl I shall not release. Before then, old age shall come on her
in my house, in Argos, far away from her country,
going back and forth at the loom and sharing my bed.
Be off, don’t anger me, so you may go the safer.”
Thus he spoke, and the old man in fear obeyed him.
Apollo the Far-shooter is outraged because of this slight to his priest, and coming to earth he strikes the Greek camp with plague:
Angered in his heart he strode from the peaks of Olympus,
carrying on his shoulders his bow and covered quiver,
and the shafts clashed on the shoulders of the angry god
moving in fury. He came as night comes down.
Settling far from the ships he let fly an arrow,
and terrible was the sound that rang from his silver bow.
First he killed the mules and the running dogs,
then shot his piercing arrows against the men,
and the funeral pyres burned thick and kept on burning.
For nine days the shafts of the god fell on the army.
On the tenth day the Greeks, summoned by Achilles, hold an assembly, in which Achilles calls on the seer Calchas to explain why Apollo is afflicting them. Calchas is understandably loath to speak out, afraid that Agamemnon’s wrath may fall on his head; but Achilles reassures him, promising his protection. At this, Calchas takes courage and explains the god’s anger, adding that the plague will end only after Chryseis has been given back to her father.
Agamemnon, although his heart is filled with rage, reluctantly accepts that he must give up Chryseis to appease Apollo. But this will leave him without his share of the spoils, which is a slight to his status, so he unwisely says that in recompense he will take the war-prize of some other man, maybe even of Achilles himself. The furious Achilles responds to this injustice by threatening to leave Troy and take his ships and men home to Phthia:
“You cunning, greedy man, garbed in shamelessness!
How could any one of the Achaeans readily obey your words,
to go on an expedition or to fight bravely in battle?
I never came here to war because of the spearmen of Troy,
for to me they are guilty of nothing. They never drove away
my cattle or horses, never in Phthia, rich land of heroes,
did they lay waste my corn, for many things lie between us,
the shadowy mountains and the loud-sounding sea.
But you we followed here, you heap of shamelessness,
for your pleasure, dog-face, to win honour for you,
and for Menelaus too, at the hands of the Trojans.
But you forget all this, or else you think nothing of it.
And now you threaten in person to take away my prize,
the one I fought for hard, the gift of the sons of the Achaeans.
Never have I a prize equal to yours, when the Achaeans
destroy a well-peopled stronghold of the Trojans.
No, the brunt of the painful combat do my hands bear,
but when it is time to share the booty, your prize is always
greater by far, while I go back to my ships with something
small, but dear to me, when I am exhausted by fighting.
Now I shall go back to Phthia, seeing it is better by far
to return home with my beaked ships. I do not intend
to stay here dishonoured and pile up your wealth and riches.
Agamemnon, furious in his turn, replies:
“Run away then, if so your heart urges you,
I’ll not beg you to stay on my account. With me are others
who will do me honour, and most of all ever-wise Zeus.
Of all the kings loved by the gods I hate you the most,
for always strife is dear to you, and wars and battles,
and though you are very strong, that is a god’s gift.
Go home then with your ships and your comrades,
be king over the Myrmidons. I care nothing for you,
nothing for your anger. But here is my threat to you:
Since Phoebus Apollo has taken away my Chryseis
… I shall come myself to your hut and take away
the fair-cheeked Briseis, your prize, and you will learn
how much greater I am than you.”
Achilles loves Briseis dearly: she is promised to him in marriage (19.297-9), and he calls her his “dear wife” (9.336). And he says, once she has been taken from him, “every man loves the woman who is his, and cares for her, just as I loved this one from my heart, even though I won her by my spear” (9.342-3). But there was more to it than this. Since a warrior’s heroic standing relied not only on prowess in battle, but on visible possessions and spoils of victory, Achilles now feels himself dishonoured by the loss of his prize, as well as pained by the loss of a beloved woman.
At first he is so angry that he considers killing Agamemnon. He has drawn his great sword half way from its sheath when the goddess Athene suddenly appears, visible to him alone, and catches him by the hair, telling him to channel his rage into words, not actions. He obeys her. He thrusts his blade back into its sheath and rages at Agamemnon:
“You drunken sot, with your dog’s eyes and deer’s heart,
never do you have the courage to arm with your people for battle,
nor to go into ambush along with the best of the Achaeans,
for that to you threatens death. Better by far, you think,
to go through the wide camp of the Achaeans and take away
the gifts of a man who speaks out against you. Men-devouring king,
it must be you rule over nobodies; otherwise, son of Atreus,
this would have been your last outrageous act.”
He is no longer willing to fight. He will withdraw from battle, and he swears a great oath to Agamemnon that they will all regret the loss of their best warrior. “I swear there will come a time when a longing for Achilles will be felt by the sons of the Achaeans, by every one of them,” he cries, “and on that day, for all your sorrow, you will be able to do nothing to help, when many of them drop and die before man-slaughtering Hector. Then you will eat your heart out in anger that you did no honour to the best of the Achaeans.”
Old Nestor, king of Pylos in Messenia and wise counsellor of the Greek leaders, tries to make peace between the two furious men, urging Agamemnon not to take Briseis, and Achilles not to rebel against his leader. They ignore his advice. Achilles withdraws from the fighting, taking his Myrmidon followers and his comrade Patroclus with him, and retires to his shelter. Agamemnon delivers Chryseis into the hands of Odysseus, to be taken home by sea to her father, then gives stern instructions to his heralds Talthybius and Eurybates: “Go to the hut of Peleus’ son Achilles. Take fair-cheeked Briseis by the hand and bring her here. But if he will not give her up, then I shall come in person with a body of men to take her for myself — and it will be the worse for him.”
The heralds obey him, though reluctantly, but Achilles gives them no trouble. He sends Patroclus to bring Briseis from his shelter, then the heralds duly return to Agamemnon:
… and with them, all unwilling, went the woman.
But Achilles, weeping, went and sat far from his comrades
on the shore of the grey sea, looking out on the endless deep.
Many times, reaching out his arms, he called on his mother:
“Since, mother, you bore me to have only a short life,
so at least Olympian Zeus, he who thunders on high,
should grant me honour. But now he gives not even a little,
for now the son of Atreus, wide-ruling Agamemnon,
has dishonoured me, has seized my prize for himself, and keeps it.”
His mother, the sea goddess Thetis, hears his sorrow and comes from the deeps of the ocean to comfort him. He begs her to intercede for him with Zeus, asking the great god to grant success to the Trojans in his absence, so that the Greeks will be sure to feel the lack of their supreme warrior. She explains that she cannot do this just yet, because Zeus and the other gods have recently left snowy Olympus for eleven days, visiting the Ethiopians at the great river of Ocean. When they return on the twelfth day, then she will do as her son asks.
Meanwhile Odysseus and his crew bring Chryseis home to her father, who takes her joyfully in his arms. They sacrifice to Apollo to win back his favour, while Chryses prays that the god will now lift the plague from the Greeks — and Apollo hears his prayer. Night falls, and they sleep. Then:
When early Dawn appeared with her rosy fingers,
then they set sail for the broad camp of the Achaeans,
and Apollo who works from afar sent them a favouring wind.
They set up the mast and spread out wide the white sails,
and the wind filled out the belly of the sails, and the dark wave
sang loud around the keel as the ship sped on her way,
running swiftly over the waves to the end of her journey.
But when they were come to the broad camp of the Achaeans,
they hauled the black ship up on the shore, high on the sands,
and underneath her set in line the long props,
then each went his way to his own ship and shelter.
But he was sitting in anger beside his swift ships,
divinely-born son of Peleus, swift-footed Achilles.
Never now did he go to assemblies where men win glory,
never did he go into battle, but stayed just here,
wasting his heart away, yearning for war-cries and combat.
Do write to me at the old address, Ward House, Walkhampton, Devon PL20 6JY (or email me at jennymarch[at]intamail.com) with your thoughts. It will be good to hear from old friends.