…Where does the Iliad’s timeless appeal (to different people and for different reasons) come from?
This kind of question is what inspired me to go back to Uni in 2012 for a one-year postgrad diploma in Classics.
I since found out that many of my friends and acquaintances from all walks of life have been touched by the Iliad or the Odyssey in one way or the other, from superficial curiosity to love of literature/history/myth/poetry to family history (“my father used to be obsessed with… / my Greek girlfriend…”).
This post is dedicated to all of them and the many others who have brushed past the brilliant, archetypal bard we call Homer.
For me, the attraction started with a love of classical languages and poetic structure. The academic environment forced me to go further, looking for and finding a veritable pot of gold: breadth, depth, texture (on so many levels) epically sewn into beautifully flowing streams of words.
One of the things that intrigued me in particular about the Iliad was the modern portrayal of Agamemnon (one of the Iliad’s central characters) as despicable, tyrannical and Achilles as an all-powerful hero (cue Brad Pitt in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 movie “Troy“).
…So I decided to make Agamemnon the subject of my dissertation, initially with the intention of putting forward an argument in his defence but soon ending up shedding all sorts of prejudice – including mine – in favour of a balanced investigation, i.e.: let’s research thoroughly first and then hopefully the “facts” will speak for themselves.
Deep I dived into the research tunnel and a few months later I finally decided on the objective of my thesis: to demonstrate – focusing on Agamemnon – how Homer’s multiplicity of narrators was masterfully used to provide different viewpoints on the same character and, in so doing, allowing the audience to judge Agamemnon by sympathising with the narrating voice they most identified with. Therefore, according to my thesis…:
- The fan of authoritarian rule will delight in the character’s overarching authority, display of might and extreme defence of his honour; however, he will not be misled into the assumption that absolute power guarantees impunity or peace of mind, for Agamemnon will lead him into his world of insecurity and self-doubt, where much energy is spent in trying to preserve the position of power. The narrating voice of Homer will steer the audience to consider subtler aspects of Agamemnon’s character, encouraging critical thinking by gently revealing the possible aberrations concealed behind the official portrait of the ruler.
- The religious authorities will rejoice with Chryses, virtually wiping his tears, one by one, against each of the many moments of uncertainty, humiliation and despair that Agamemnon faces throughout the poem as a result of his impiety; they will see in Calchas the defender of religious ‘truth’, and of the vulnerability of the weaker, reminding everyone of the ruler’s moral accountability.
- Representatives of the older generation will be appreciative of Agamemnon’s respect for tradition and for the counsel of a more experienced peer, and will join Nestor in pointing out errors and areas for improvement.
- The young crowd will be pleased to see Agamemnon shaken and impressed by Diomedes, and relieved to see that the eagerness of their hero is understood and tolerated by the man in charge.
- Homer also finds room for the crafty and the revolutionary: the former will draw comfort from Agamemnon’s inability to adequately pre-empt or contrast Odysseus’ wile; the latter will cheer Achilles in his demolition work against the ruler, and exult in Agamemnon’s fall from grace.
…it is this character polymorphism, this variety of viewpoints which – in my opinion – is at least one of the reasons for the Iliad‘s appeal and longevity: the same thing means different things to different people.
In more mundane terms …you can be horrible and still have friends, you can be a saint and still have enemies because some will see the good, others the bad in you. How reassuring / disturbing, how deeply true!
…True?!? How can Truth be sooo …subjective? See, this is what Homer does to you (among other things): he reminds you there is a world, a true world, where truth is not a given… it’s a quest (…an Odyssey?), it’s something you arrive at.
If and when you have the gifts of time and patience, here is the full dissertation:
OK, OK. Let’s suppose you like this stuff. …But how much of what Homer talks about is fact, how much is myth, how much is pure fiction? A guy called Moses Finley, only a few decades ago, said: “Homer is not only not a reliable guide to the Mycenaean tablets; he is no guide at all [to the Late Bronze Age]”. I had to construct an argument against this statement in an essay, and this is what I came up with: is Homer …reliable?
Enjoy this dusty stuff …revel in the Ancient!