Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

The Best of the Akhaians

  [New Straits Times, 4 September 1991]

memorial To test whether you are dealing with a true Greek-freak, say "Homer." His eyes should glaze over in rapture, his mouth fall open, and if you've got a real enthusiast on your hands, he should pour out a stream of verse with such vehemence and gesture that you may back out of the room, thinking there's a madman in front of you.

Homer deserves such love. Homer is the first and greatest western poet, and without Homer there wouldn't be any western literature. How can I convince you? Read him!

The Iliad and the Odyssey are astonishing creations. The Greeks knew of no poetry before Homer, and except for a bunch of accounts scratched on clay tablets, they are the first written documents in a western language. Yet Homer's poetry is fully developed, perfect. You can find an example of every literary technique and poetic beauty in his epics. Nor does Homer, even in 12,000 lines, waste words. Later writers may have equalled Homer, but never surpassed him.

We have all heard of the Trojan War, and how the Greeks fought King Priam's men to recover the kidnapped Helen. Homer in the Iliad concentrates on one episode of about 60 days in the last year of the ten year siege. He does not, as Horace says, bore us with the whole story "from the egg that hatched Helen."

Homer's story starts with another indecent wrangle over women. Agamemnon, the Greek general, has had to give back his concubine captured from a neighboring city. In return, he demands Akhilles' woman. Akhilles, the Greeks' chief warrior, refuses to fight after this insult, and the Greeks come very near to being destroyed by the Trojans, until at last Hektor, chief warrior of the Trojans, kills Akhilles' best friend, Patroklos. Akhilles fights again, and kills Hektor after a desperate chase around the walls of Troy.

Homer weaves many varied incidents into the frame of this plot, and every detail adds to the main story. If you plunge into the Iliad for the first time you may be surprised by the large cast of characters. The gods and goddesses of Olympos each take sides in the war, each has an important role. The heroes and women both Greek and Trojan have their own individuality.

An epic, says Ezra Pound, is a poem containing history. Each people of the earth owns its own long poem to which they look for the ultimate expression of their identity and character. The English have Shakespeare's history plays. The Indians have the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. In Malaysia we have the various syair and the Sejarah Melayu, though written in prose, and the heroic poems of the Kelabits. The Greeks---and now all of us--have the Iliad.

Homer's poetry is a marvel of efficiency, made, so to speak, out of interchangeable parts. He composed his poems by ear and by memory. He was, they say, blind. The traditional epithets (Akhilles is always "swift-footed") and repetitions of formulas helped the poet compose and the audience grasp the parts of the story.

It seems strange to us moderns that a man can put together a lengthy poem without the help of ink and paper. But where writing is unknown, people develop very sharp memories.

The Trojan war was the shattering fact of the early Greek world---their world war. It really happened, or rather, it happened several times. Troy had been built, burnt down, and built again over the course of a thousand years on the same spot. (Mr. William Willetts has been discussing the fate of Troy and its culture in admirable recent articles in the Business Times.)

Priam's Troy fell somewhere around 1200 B.C. Bards made up songs about the heroes of the Trojan war, and succeeding generations passsed them on some four to five hundred years by memory until the time of Homer, who refashioned them into what we have today.
Homer's world is primitive, heroic, and harsh, a world of strong individualism, honour, and conflict. To later Greeks the Iliad was the warrior's handbook, and its heroes---above all, Akhilles---the models for what a man should be, for until the Romans conquered them for good and all in the second century B.C., the city-states of Greece were constantly at war with one another.

War is a sad fact of life. As long as there are grasping and turbulent people in the world, even the peaceful must practise the virtues of the warrior in defence of themselves and their countries. Homer knew that, and certainly he does glorify heroism and bravery. Does he then glorify war itself?

I first read the Iliad back when the Vietnam war was raging, a war to which I had a ticket in the form of a draft-card.

I am convinced that the Iliad is, and was meant as an antiwar poem, and believe that Homer's anti-war view makes the Iliad the greatest of epics, for it is not nationalistic propaganda nor an attempt to justify war's unjustifiable misery.

Akhilles is the son of a goddess, a demigod, though mortal. His prowess overmatches that of any other fighter on either side. He is "the best of the Akhaians." At the time he was recruited for the Trojan war, he had a choice: he could go to Troy, win undying fame, and be killed, or he could stay at home and live a long life in obscurity. A heroic youth, he chooses the former. But as the poem goes on, Akhilles finds that he stands to lose more than his life. He suffers disgrace and disillusion through the political wrangling of the generals, and at last he loses the man dearest to him. Neither revenge nor the glory of it can console Akhilles for Patroklos' loss.

The last book of the Iliad is almost unbearably moving. When his son Hektor is dead, King Priam knows that without Hektor's leadership it can be only a little time before Troy itself is destroyed. As the last meaningful act of his life Priam goes with the help of the gods to confront Hektor's killer and beg his son's body for burial. He comes to the Greek camp all alone, unarmed, at night. Priam finds Akhilles in his hut, kneels before him and graps his hands:

Remember your father, Akhilles like to the gods,
A man of my years, on the deadly threshold of old age.
The tribes that live around him, perhaps, wear him away,
And there is no one to ward off war and destruction.
Yet when he hears that you are alive
He rejoices in his heart, and he hopes all his days
To see his dear son come back from Troy.
But I, I am hapless, since I fathered noble sons
In broad Troy, and not one is left...
Him who was last to me, who protected the city and the people,
You killed as he protected his country,
Hektor. For him I now come to the ships of the Greeks
To ransom him from you, and I bear costly gifts.
But reverence the gods, Akhilles, and pity him,
Remembering your father. I am much more pitiable.
I have dared what no other man destined for death
On this earth has dared,
To kiss the hand of the man who slayed my sons."

Akhilles weeps. He remembers his father, and the sad and terrible choice he has made never to see him again. Astonished he, says that Priam must have a "heart of iron" to have come into the arms of his enemy, a courage far greater than the courage of the battlefield. Akhilles learns that, as General Sherman said, war is hell, human desolation, its glory all moonshine, even for the most terrifying hero on the field.
[The Iliad has been translated many times. Especially recommended are the versions by Richard Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald.]