War document: Iliad, Book XVI, verses 297 – 341

By lambert strether

For Memorial Day Weekend, I thought I’d curate a few documents on war. Here’s the second:

The translation is Richmond Lattimore’s. The Trojans have set fire to the Greeks’ beached ships, but the Greeks (Danaans, Achaians) are now driving them back from the shore:

[297] And as when from the towering height of a great mountain Zeus
[298] who gathers the thunderflash stirs the cloud dense upon it,
[299] and all the high places of the hills are clear and the shoulders out-jutting
[300] and the deep ravines, as endless bright air spills from the heavens,
[301] so when the Danaans had beaten from their ships the ravening
[302] fire, they got breath for a little, but there was no check in the fighting;
[303] for the Trojans under the attack of the warlike Achaians
[304] had not yet turned their faces to run away from the black ships.
[305] They stood yet against them, but gave way from the ships under pressure.
[306] There man killed man all along the scattered encounter
[307] of the leaders, and first among them, the strong son of Menoitios,
[308] threw and struck Areïlykos in the thigh, as he turned
[309] back, with the sharp point of the spear, and drove the bronze clean through.
[310] The spear smashed in the bone and he fell to the ground headlong
[311] on his face. Meanwhile warlike Menelaos stabbed Thoas
[312] in the chest where it was left bare by the shield, and unstrung his limbs’ strength.
[313] Meges, Phyleus’ son, watched Amphiklos as he came on
[314] and was too quick with a stab at the base of the leg, where the muscle
[315] of a man grows thickest, so that on the spearhead the sinew
[316] was torn apart, and a mist of darkness closed over both eyes.
[317] Of the sons of Nestor one, Antilochos, stabbed Atymnios
[318] with the sharp spear, and drove the bronze head clean through his flank, so
[319] that he fell forward; but Maris with the spear from close up
[320] made a lunge at Antilochos in rage for his brother
[321] standing in front of the corpse, but before him godlike Thrasymedes
[322] was in with a thrust before he could stab, nor missed his quick stroke
[323] into the shoulder, and the spearhead shore off the arm’s base
[324] clear away from the muscles and torn from the bone utterly.
[325] He fell, thunderously, and darkness closed over both eyes.
[326] So these two, beaten down under the hands of two brothers,
[327] descended to the dark place, Sarpedon’s noble companions
[328] and spear-throwing sons of Amisodaros, the one who had nourished
[329] the furious Chimaira to be an evil to many.
[330] Aias, Oïleus’ son, in an outrush caught Kleoboulos
[331] alive, where he was fouled in the running confusion, and there
[332] unstrung his strength, hewing with the hilted sword at the neck,
[333] so all the sword was smoking with blood and over both eyes
[334] closed the red death and the strong destiny. Then Peneleos
[335] and Lykon ran up close together, since these with their spear-throws
[336] had gone wide of each other, and each had made a cast vainly.
[337] So now the two of them ran together with swords. There Lykon
[338] hacked at the horn of the horse-hair crested helm, but the sword blade
[339] broke at the socket; Peneleos cut at the neck underneath
[340] the ear, and the sword sank clean inside, with only skin left
[341] to hold it, and the head slumped aside, and the limbs were loosened.

The Greeks were led in this foray by Patroclus, wearing Achilles’ armor. At the end of Book XVI, the Trojan Hector kills Patroclus, who dies prophesying Hector’s death. By the end of the epic, Hector dies by the hand of Achilles, who has returned to battle, enraged at Patroclus’s death.

So Book XVI may be seen as the pivot on which the plot turns. I recall Book I verse 1 as “This is the story of the wrath of Achilles,” but Lattimore has “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus,” and the more literal prose translation from The Perseus Project has “The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus’ son, Achilles,” putting wrath first. As it should be?

Readers, thoughts?

NOTE I’m even less a Greek scholar than I am a Civil War scholar; and although I’m not sure Lattimore’s translation is the most musical, it seems to the one that’s online; readers more expert than I am can post their own sources or versions in comments!

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. andrew

    There’s a solid tradition of regarding the first words of Iliad (/menin/, “wrath”) and Odyssey (/andra/, “man”) as announcements of the respective themes of the poems. The only commentary I have to hand just now is Willcock’s, but he says:

    “1. /menin/: the first word (‘wrath’,’anger’) shows that the plot of the Iliad is to be primarily psychological, and that we do not have here a simple chronicle of the fighting at Troy. Similarly the Odyssey begins with the key word /andra/, the man.”

    Well, maybe (of course we do not have here a simple chronicle of the fighting at Troy! but that doesn’t mean you have to sign up for the rest of it).

    The most reductive sense of this tradition (not that you have to sign up for the most reductive sense, either) promotes the Odyssey as the poem of brains, and the Iliad as the poem of brawn, making a sad caricature of both. I suppose it’s worth noting here that Achilles’ wrath is the anger of discovering that work and merit are not rewarded equally, and that the CEO is a coward and thief who suspends the laws at his discretion; worth noting too that, on discovering this, Achilles manages to overcome the instinct to violence against the CEO, instead giving the finger to the war and walking out. Not to defend him unequivocally; but it’s a complex story that deserves complex evaluation.

    The truth, too, is that Homer gives us a highly sanitized picture of war. The horrible wounds he describes (not just in the passage above, but everywhere) end instantly, mercifully, in death; the battlefield is free of wedding guests bombed by drones and other noncombatants. Homer’s war is background, a servant to the development of character and drama that is his real aim. A true document would have much worse to say, I think.

    FWIW, I think the Lattimore translation is wonderful, and readily holds its own against more recent offerings. No shame in leaning on it here.

    1. CMike

      Yale Professor Donald Kagan, an eminent scholar of ancient Greece, a neo-con and the father of the especially detestable neo-con Frederick Kagan, at one point in the third of his introductory lectures makes this point about the Homeric epics:

      [49:31] And here’s another thing, if you go to the end of the Greek story, when you think about political theory there’s Plato, and when he lays out the ideal society in his view in the Republic, we find there are multiple rulers and these, of course, turn out to be the winners of the Jeopardy contest playoffs. But it doesn’t matter, [rather] there’s never one king, it’s always a group of people that is the best government, and they will be the best. In this case defined chiefly by their intelligence but other things, too. Well anyway, in Greek political thinking the aristocracy of birth is the default position. Anybody who wants to argue for a different kind of political arrangement will have to make the case uphill against all tradition.

      [50:29] I hope that you’ll have that in the back of your head when we get to the story of Athens and the invention of democracy because it was off the wall from the perspective of Greek tradition. And of course anybody from time to time, there are individuals who thought that monarchy might be a fine thing, they came up — ran against something that was even much, much more — regarded with much more hostility by the Greeks. When they’re through — you know, when they’ve reached their peak — their notion of monarchy is [that it is] something fit for barbarians, but not for Greeks. A free man may not live under a monarchy and the roots of that, I think, are visible in Homer.

      [51:17] In passing, I just want to say that Homer, of course, is the basic text, the basic document for all Greek thinking in every area that you can imagine throughout the rest of Greek history. Over time it becomes not the only one, but it never ceases to be the best known, the most influential, the most powerful. If it were a religious document, primarily, we would speak of it as the Greek Bible, but it isn’t, nonetheless –. Well, some examples, later on in history there’s a quarrel between Athens and Megara as to who controls the island of Salamis. They decide to call in an arbitrator, so they call in the Spartans and the Spartans say, “O.K., we’ll decide.” And they decide that it belongs to Athens. Why? Well, if you look at the catalog of ships in Homer’s Illiad, then the island of Salamis had its ships lined up next to [those] of Athens. Ballgame. It’s just, you have to realize how potent this is….

      Then in his fourth lecture, getting to the subject of the thread, Kagan goes on:

      [12:28] Now, if you look at the story of Western civilization it provides a very interesting contrast within it — I’m sorry, the Greek experience that I’m talking about now, based upon what you see in Homer, provides a contrast with and a competition to the other great tradition of Western civilization which is the Judeo-Christian tradition. And, I just want to make a few small points to indicate how that works.

      [13:00] The Illiad begins, the first word in the Illiad is the accusative noun mēnin, it’s wrath, anger. “I am singing about the wrath, the anger of Achilles which brought so many men to their doom,” is what Homer says. The first thing is the emotion of an individual man. The Odyssey begins even more strikingly with the word andra, the accusative of anêr, the accusative case of a man. And he says, “Sing to me goddess about that man, that man of many devices, that clever man Odysseus. The Aeneid of Virgil, based of course on the Illiad and Oddyssey, begins, “Arma virumque cano,” I sing of arms and the man, the man Aeneas.

      [14:04] Now what are the Greeks talking about? I’m talking about individual men, extraordinary men and the events that emerge from them and the life they lead. But let’s look at our Bible. It begins — this will be news to most of you — it begins, “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.” And it, the book goes right on to talk about God; what he does, sometimes why he does it, what is the effect of what he does. But the center of our book is God, not man. And there’s some — it’s not just an accident that reveals the characteristic of each one of these cultures. The Greeks had a humanistic outlook on life. They believed in the gods, they were religious people but the core of their lives were shaped by things human, different from what was true of the Hebrews and the Christians later on, versus a divine view. The secular approach is very, very Greek versus a religious approach….

      1. LeonovaBalletRusse

        Shame on Yale. What a horrible writer Donald Kagan is, revealing his low mind.

      2. andrew

        Nice tie-in. I think there’s a real hubris in Kagan’s derivation of democracy from Greek humanism and Homer, as some sort of Manichean irreducible (I say this as a confirmed apostate who honors Homer this side idolatry …). Bruno Snell argues convincingly (somewhere in the collection of essays available in English under the title “the Discovery of the Mind”) that this rational, human Greek culture was only first able to develop in the Greek colonies of Asia Minor, viz. in places that had physically escaped from the shadow of the mystical, earth-bound hero-cults of Greece proper; most traditions hold that Homer came from the colonies as well. Sounds liberating, until we remember the brutality that colonization entails (or if we forget, we go read Xenophon to refresh our memories). These rational principles have always been bound up with brutalities in the human stewpot, and the neocon professors flogging the former are preaching a poison gospel.

  2. Ien in the Kootenays

    Smile. The very first verse of the Iliad, in Greek, is one of the fragments of a gymnasium education that stuck. Once upon a time I knew and loved Greek, though I never liked the Iliad.
    All that horrid fighting. Anyway, literally, it starts with; The Wrath, sing Goddess, of Peleus’ son Achilles……

    1. rotter

      I saw an interview with Michael Wood several years ago where he talked about why he remains interested in the Trojan war and his answer was essentially that if youve seen the Trojan war youve seen all of them (wars). It was not long after the Somallia fiasco and the footage of the militias dragging the stripped naked body of an American serviceman around that crashed helicopter, as they dragged Hectors stripped naked body around the walls of Troy.

      1. LeonovaBalletRusse

        Maybe because “boys will be boys” as justification for brutality sells?

        1. rotter

          No sure i follow you on that one. I think i agree with the general sentiment but not if its a swipe at Wood. Hes no more commercial than any other popular historian, and probably less so than most of the Americans.

    2. GDC707

      The Trojan War presents a nice study on idiotic reasons for going to war. How I would have loathed being a foot soldier and exposing myself to the horrors and dangers of a war to retrieve some honcho’s wife.

      Similarly, why didn’t the Trojans simply grab the babe and toss her back to the Greeks, thereby avoiding a terrible conflict that ended in the elimination of their society?

      The reason for both sides? Honor. Honor! Now if that isn’t the stupidest frickin’ reason to cause and suffer mass murder I don’t know what is.

      1. Min

        “Honor! Now if that isn’t the stupidest frickin’ reason to cause and suffer mass murder I don’t know what is.”


      2. propertius

        Euripides was of the opinion that the Trojan War was started by the gods, in order to reduce the surplus human population.

        1. Nathanael

          Euripedes is always good reading, provided you know the context; consistently subversive, revisionist, and political.

    3. Glenn Condell

      ‘though I never liked the Iliad’

      Me neither. God knows I’ve tried. It’s on my phone and I have read at least half over the last year or two, on boring train trips and the like. It didn’t liven them up.

      It’s virtue is it’s age and pre-eminence, it’s historical centrality. If I took it to a publisher today it wouldn’t get looked at let alone published.

      It’s not alone; though I have loved some bits of Beckett (Krapps Last Tape, All that Fall) I have tried and failed in the last few years to get thru Malone and especially No How On. If you think the Iliad is hard graft, give that a try.

      Bugger the highbrow, back to the lowbrow where I belong!

      1. casino implosion

        Glenn, I usually don’t have time for the highbrow stuff either, and mostly it’s more work than it’s worth. However, the Malone trilogy, and especially the mighty “Unnameable”, actually reward all the very hard work of getting through it. It’s one of the bleakest, most harrowing, truest things ever written.

        1. Nathanael

          Shakespeare’s plays were intended as lowbrow entertainment at the time, and are best watched that way….

          1. proximity


            Nathanael says:
            May 28, 2012 at 10:53 pm

            Shakespeare’s plays were intended as lowbrow entertainment at the time, and are best watched that way….


            Utter, utter nonsense.

    4. patricia

      “….if youve seen the Trojan war youve seen all of them (wars)” and “….nice study on idiotic reasons for going to war.”

      Yes. Jonathon Shay wrote two excellent books based on those premises and their results on soldiers: “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America”.

      Among other things he talks about “moral bad luck”, finding one’s self in a place where no matter what one does, great destruction follows, and how one does/doesn’t reconcile to the consequences.

      1. David Clay

        This resonated with me:

        “moral bad luck”, finding one’s self in a place where no matter what one does, great destruction follows, and how one does/doesn’t reconcile to the consequences.

        Doesn’t moral bad luck pretty much describe where we all are with respect to living daily life these days, where even modest consumption contributes to the final demise of an unsustainable system.

        1. LeonovaBalletRusse

          “Moral bad luck” certainly is being an American facing the general election 2012.

  3. Richard Procter

    I read “Achilles in Vietnam: combat trauma and the undoing on character” recently and found there a painful testament to the evil of war and to the deep, lasting and reverberating trauma its blows inflict on human beings:

    ‘Achilles’ commander betrays ‘what’s right’ […] his closest friend dies […] profound grief and suicidal longing take hold of [him] […] he goes berserk and commits atrocities against the living and the dead. […]

    This was also the story of many combat veterans, both from Vietnam and from other long wars. […] I have brought them together with the “Iliad” […] to promote a deeper understanding of both, increasing the reader’s capacity to be disturbed by the “Iliad” rather than softening the blow of the veterans’ stories.’

      1. Mark P.

        The reference is probably to Eisenhower’s final speech with its reference/warning about “the military/industrial complex.” However, you might make even better use your time by looking at Eisenhower’s Cross of Iron speech from 1953.


        Excerpt —

        What can the world, or any nation in it, hope for if no turning is found on this dread road?

        The worst to be feared and the best to be expected can be simply stated.

        The worst is atomic war.

        The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealthand the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.

        Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

        This world in arms in not spending money alone.

        It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

        The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

        It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

        It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

        It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

        We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

        We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

        This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

        This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

  4. rps

    Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and The Blade, offers an illuminating perspective that points to critical cultural transformations from peaceful agragarian societies into our current dominant warrior model insanely driven on chaos theory. In other words, critical systems branching or bifurcation points such as agrarian cultures captured by a warrior race, and in turn, the rapid transformation of a whole system/civilizations may occur. Five thousand years later we are still on the same path of invasion, destruction, and capturing populations that are then modeled upon the dominant warrior culture.

    Eisler references the ancient poet Hesiod who lived in the 8th century BCE, probably about the same as Homer. Hesoid tells us there once was a “golden race. All good things, were theirs. The fruitful earth poured forth her fruits unbidden in boundless plenty. In peaceful ease they kept their lands with good abundance, rich in flocks and dear to the immortals.” But after this race, which he calls “pure spirits” and “defenders from evil,” came “a lesser race of silver,” who were in turn replaced by “a race of bronze, in no way like the silver, dreadful and mighty sprung from shafts of ash.” These were the Bronze Age Achaeans, who brought with them war. “The all lamented sinful works of Ares were their chief care.” Unlike the two earlier peoples, they were not peaceful agrarians: “they ate no grain, but hearts of flint were theirs, unyielding and unconquered.”

    Hesoid also speaks of the another race after the bronze, the “fifth race of men,” whom he descended from. Hesoid writes, “Would I had no share in this fifth race of men. would that I had died before or afterwards been born. For now one man will sack another’s city….Right shall depend on might and piety shall cease to be.” The fifth race were the Dorians, ” who with their war technology; iron weaponry, destroyed the Mycenaean strongholds and took the land for themselves.”

    The fifth race of men with their iron sticks was the turning point of sudden and fundamental change from a harmonious agrarian civilizations (Garden of Eden), to war driven civilizations that thrived upon male dominance, stealing of resources, slavery of populations, women, children, and elderly were viewed as economic deadweights, and finally, the idolization of war for unjust profit. As Eisler states in her book, “tells a story that begins thousands of years before our recorded or written history: the story of how the original partnership direction of western Culture veered off into a bloody five-thousand year dominator detour.”

    1. F. Beard

      Your comment reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2:31-45 of a huge statute made of gold, silver, bronze, iron and with feet that were part iron and part clay.

    2. LeonovaBalletRusse

      “Phallic tyranny” in action. Fundamental change would require sex hormone management. See: “ADAM’S CURSE” by Bryan Sykes.

    3. Glenn Condell

      This sounds very much like Robert Graves’s theory of a peaceful early Europe populated by a matrilineal culture which fell to the patrilineal and warlike Indo-Europeans on their steeds. He explores this at length in White Goddess and The Greek Myths; the idea itself is derivative of older interpretations of prehistory, and it later found some academic clothing in the work of Marija Gimbutas on the kurgan cultures. It is a powerfully attractive story, a legend really, and more recent research seems to have poured some cold water on it’s veracity.

      1. readerOfTeaLeaves

        Alphabetic writing, the development of the metal trades and metallurgy throughout Asia Minor (centered in cities where metal statues of the gods were worshipped) affected the cultures and oral literature of the Bronze Age.

        Feeding the forges to produce metal required timber; timber cutting led to deforestation, which led soil erosion and climate change. This sequence of disasters seems to have produced migration patterns and population pressures, some of which come down to us as the literature of the Iliad.

        Notably, in the Iliad, Achilles uses metal weapons; Paris is described as using a bow, which because it could kill from a distance was apparently regarded by the Greek heroes as ‘cowardly’, implying that Paris didn’t fight fair. In the end, both men were undone by wounds to their heels; Achilles by an arrow almost certainly dipped in poison, and Paris possibly from the bite of a poisonous viper (probably associated with some cult or female diety).
        The words for ‘arrow’ and ‘poison’ are evidently related in Homer; poisoned arrows were dreaded; in contrast, metal was ‘clean’.

        The first word of the Iliad, ‘menin” is roughly translated as “menace”: Achilles’ implacable resentment produces social chaos that destabilizes and nearly destroys his community.

        In the passage Lambert gives us here, many of the men described were probably kinsmen: siblings, cousins. The Greeks were still a cluster of tribes; they scorned the polyglot Trojans, who had to rely on mercenaries.

  5. Aquifer

    And the women? Left to mourn the sons they had borne. Mothers, don’t let your sons (or daughters) become soldiers ….

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      DP, the goddess you entreat may sing through your pen. Please continue.

    1. F. Beard

      I wished I had said that and almost did!

      To describe how well our bodies are made and yet glorify(?) their destruction is PrOn.

      Or was that the author’s point? To sicken us of war? It worked with me.

      1. Susan the other

        I thought the same thing. Written with a matter-of-fact style. More shocking for us since slaughterhouses do our food carnage.

        1. Mark P.

          From the Christopher Logue version of THE ILIAD

          Emptying her blood-red mouth set in her ice-white face
          Teenaged Athena jumped up and shrieked:
          “Kill! Kill for me!
          Better to die than to live without killing!”

          1. andrew

            It occurs to me that people might read “the Christopher Logue version of the ILIAD” and think that this is actually a translation of Homer; just to clarify, Logue is a poet in his own right, whose last great work (he died just a few months ago, the project sadly unfinished) was a sort of fantasia on the Iliad. Very cool stuff, but definitely Logue, not Homer.

    2. andrew

      Lambert, with all due respect (“even Homer nods,” ha), I don’t see how you can read the Iliad and come away with that impression. If you’re reading this passage out of context, maybe, but you really shouldn’t do that — whatever else it is, it’s a poem of immense compassion. Let me quote Simone Weil, from her famous essay _The Iliad, or the Poem of Force_:

      “However, such a heaping-up of violent deeds would have a frigid effect, were it not for the note of incurable bitterness that continually makes itself heard, though often only a single word marks its presence, often a mere stroke of the verse, or a run-on line. It is in this that the Iliad is absolutely unique, in this bitterness that proceeds from tenderness and that spreads over the whole human race, impartial as sunlight. Never does the tone lose its coloring of bitterness; yet never does the bitterness drop into lamentation. Justice and love, which have hardly any place in this study of extremes and of unjust acts of violence, nevertheless bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent. Nothing precious is scorned, whether or not death is its destiny; everyone’s unhappiness is laid bare without dissimulation or disdain; no man is set above or below the condition common to all men; whatever is destroyed is regretted. Victors and vanquished are brought equally near us; under the same head, both are seen as counterparts of the poet, and the listener as well. If there is any difference, it is that the enemy’s misfortunes are possibly more sharply felt.”

      Give the piece a chance.

      1. SR6719

        Although I haven’t read Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force”, it’s worth noting that it was first published on the eve of World War II in 1939, and has been read by some as a pacifist manifesto.

        1. andrew

          Yes, very much so, that is my point — Simone Weil, regarding the Iliad as the finest thing ever produced by European civilization (“nothing the peoples of Europe have produced is worth the first known poem that appeared among them”), considers it a natural cornerstone for her famous plea on behalf of peace. I can only imagine that the folks reading a glorification of slaughter in the above lines haven’t actually read the poem.

          I should have linked to the translation from which I took the earlier excerpt:


          1. LeonovaBalletRusse

            Thanks for the link. Translation from the French by Mary McCarthy, moreover. “A Poem of Force.” Right, “phallic tyranny.”

        2. SR6719

          Andrew: “Simone Weil, [regarded] the Iliad as the finest thing ever produced by European civilization…”

          Enjoyed reading your comments, Andrew. Based on the only book I’ve read by her (“La Pesanteur et la grâce”), it’s clear that Simone Weil was an extraordinary genius.

          As for civilization…

          “America is the only nation in history to go from barbarism to decadence with no civilization in between.”

          (Graffiti found in May 1968 in Paris)

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        By “it,” I should have made it clear that I meant “this passage.” That said, the Iliad, considered as a whole, does read (a) like a butcher’s manual, and (b) like pr0n, except it also reads like (c)…, and (d)… etc., as you point out. Etherealized or sentimental the Iliad is not. A good deal of the content is about exactly how to go about slaughtering the human animal, and memorializing those (men) who do. Of course the full spectrum of human emotion flows from the slaughter and the memories and the consequences and the telling of it all, how not?

        And that said, compare:


        [314] … was too quick with a stab at the base of the leg, where the muscle
        [315] of a man grows thickest, so that on the spearhead the sinew
        [316] was torn apart….

        The pr0n comparison is left as an exercise for the reader.

        1. andrew

          I see; this gets us closer to common ground. Speaking of this effect specifically, I would have said that it is not so much to glorify the skilled butcher (or to inflame the appetite a’ la pr0n), but to say: here’s a man, with a name and a provenance; even if you see him now only for his last seconds on Earth, be reminded that his life was unique, even the manner of his meeting with death was unique; and now he’s gone. And now another one, with a name, and a family, and a unique end, gone. Et cetera. And if for the moment you are able to tell the butchers and the butchered apart, you know that the distinction doesn’t have a shelf life. Nobody wins here. It’s just loss.

  6. SR6719

    The following quotes are excerpted from Guy Debord’s notes on war and strategy in Panegyric (Vol I and II).

    The Iliad quotes are from the E.V. Rieu translation, 1950.

    “Why ask my lineage? The generations of men are like those of leaves. The wind casts the leaves to the ground, but the fertile forest brings forth others, and spring comes round again. So it is that the human race is born and passes away.” (Iliad, Canto VI)

    “The particular wears itself out fighting. A historical project can hardly expect to preserve an eternal youth, sheltered from every blow.”

    “Sentimental objections are as vain as pseudo-strategical quibbles.”

    “Yet your bones will waste away, buried in the fields of Troy, your mission unfulfilled.” (The Iliad, op. cit.)

    The world of war presents at least the advantage of not leaving room for the silly chatter of optimism. It is common knowledge that in the end everyone is going to die. No matter how fine defence may be in everything else, as Pascal more or less put it, “the last act is bloody.”

    On a battlefield King Frederick II of Prussia rebuked a hesitant young officer: “Dog! Were you hoping to live forever?”

    And Sarpedon says to Glaukos in the Twelfth Book of The Iliad: “My friend, if you and I could escape this battle and live forever, ageless and immortal, I myself would never fight again. . . But a thousand deaths surround us and no man can escape them. So let us move in for the attack.”

    When the smoke clears, many things appear changed. An age has passed. Don’t ask now what good our weapons were: they remain in the throat of the reigning system of lies. Its air of innocence will never return.”

    1. nonclassical


      now you have summarized Joyce’s, “Finnegan’s Wake”..

      one knowledgeable professor suggested reading Joyce-FW, at night, as wind
      blows through trees, out load, by candlelight…to allow the lesson-sound, proper perspective..

      ..or Lao-Tzu: “…blown like the wind blows straw dogs”..(ornaments used seriously during the ceremony, then cast aside into the dirt)

      1. SR6719

        @ nonclassical

        Speaking of Finnegans Wake, it’s worth noting that while Joyce tried to complete his book, he was also going blind as well as constantly grieving over the mental state of his schizophrenic daughter Lucia.

        He was desperate to keep her at home, but his wife, Nora, as well as friends, patrons and assistants (people he depended on due to poor eyesight) insisted she be institutionalized so that he could finish the book.

        They won out in the end, Lucia was institutionalized, and Joyce was able to complete Finnegans Wake.

  7. Doug Terpstra

    Ah, those were the days — when wars were fought up-close with blades, spears, axes, and bludgeons. One could see the red mist and feel its hot, sticky spray; smell the blood and fear and shit; see the gristle, marrow, and steaming entrails; hear the crunch of bone and finally revel in the screams of agony and the lung-rattling gasps of death! Such gore and glory makes slaughtering children and families at funerals and weddings so utterly humdrum and dreary! We can now kill in mass quantity with such remote, mechanical efficiency, it’s hardly sporting.

    1. andrew

      See my reply to Lambert above, but I think reading this passage as glorification of gore is wrong-headed. Thousands of years’ readers have valued the poem as something very different; maybe they’re on to something?

      (My viscera would like me to write something in the direction of “dude, Homer is so on your side, you have no idea,” if that explains why I care …)

      On Lambert’s President-as-FPS quip, I actually think that charge can be levelled at Homer fairly. In the Iliad, it’s always the nobles that fight, always the one-on-one that decides the battle. But as I said in my first comment, I don’t think it makes sense to weigh Homer’s work as a war document in that narrow sense — he has an agenda with a fixed set of characters and uses war as a canvas on which to develop it; unless you’re willing to cast moral aspersions on the ends he or she has chosen, that’s an artist’s license. There are other poets who have written of scenes like the above with a truly documentarian spirit; Siegfried Sassoon is the one who for some reason comes to my mind today, may he rest in peace:


      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        If Obama were a Homeric hero, I would be much, much happier.

        NOTE The point of the “first person shooter” metaphor is the narcissism and solipism of being the single player in the game, shooting at whatever comes at you. Fine, I suppose, for a game, but not so fine in RL. Also, too, drones.

        1. andrew

          Apologies if I muddied the waters here en route to a literary side point. I am in total, and aghast, agreement with you about this.

        2. LeonovaBalletRusse

          LS, not “Also, too, drones,” but use of drones in real life to Square the Circle of Commander in Chief as first person shooter with drones for death for real. Maybe (“first person shooter”)squared?

  8. aeolius

    Seeing the Hummer did near the target wily Ali picked up his cellphone and pushed the button. The concussion jellied the brains of Katz and Jones. A sharp spearlike steel entered Alonzo’s throat just below his adams apple. Flames burned off half of Brown’s skin until the darkness washed over him.

    1. rotter

      or if togas dont do it for you how about chain mail shirts

      In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
      ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
      Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
      in battle with sword edges
      around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall,
      they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
      The sons of Eadweard, it was only befitting their noble descent
      from their ancestors that they should often
      defend their land in battle against each hostile people,
      horde and home. The enemy perished,
      Scots men and seamen,
      fated they fell. The field flowed
      with blood of warriors, from sun up
      in the morning, when the glorious star
      glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
      eternal lord, till that noble creation
      sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
      by spears destroyed; Northern men
      shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well,
      weary, war sated.

      The West-Saxons pushed onward
      all day; in troops they pursued the hostile people.
      They hewed the fugitive grievously from behind
      with swords sharp from the grinding.
      The Mercians did not refuse hard hand-play to any warrior
      who came with Anlaf over the sea-surge
      in the bosom of a ship, those who sought land,
      fated to fight. Five lay dead
      on the battle-field, young kings,
      put to sleep by swords, likewise also seven
      of Anlaf’s earls, countless of the army,
      sailors and Scots. There the North-men’s chief was put
      to flight, by need constrained
      to the prow of a ship with little company:
      he pressed the ship afloat, the king went out
      on the dusky flood-tide, he saved his life.
      Likewise, there also the old campaigner through flight came
      to his own region in the north–Constantine–
      hoary warrior. He had no reason to exult
      the great meeting; he was of his kinsmen bereft,
      friends fell on the battle-field,
      killed at strife: even his son, young in battle, he left
      in the place of slaughter, ground to pieces with wounds.
      That grizzle-haired warrior had no
      reason to boast of sword-slaughter,
      old deceitful one, no more did Anlaf;
      with their remnant of an army they had no reason to
      laugh that they were better in deed of war
      in battle-field–collision of banners,
      encounter of spears, encounter of men,
      trading of blows–when they played against
      the sons of Eadweard on the battle field.

      Departed then the Northmen in nailed ships.
      The dejected survivors of the battle,
      sought Dublin over the deep water,
      leaving Dinges mere
      to return to Ireland, ashamed in spirit.
      Likewise the brothers, both together,
      King and Prince, sought their home,
      West-Saxon land, exultant from battle.
      They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses,
      the dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven
      and the dusky-coated one,
      the eagle white from behind, to partake of carrion,
      greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal
      the wolf in the forest.

      Never was there more slaughter
      on this island, never yet as many
      people killed before this
      with sword’s edge: never according to those who tell us
      from books, old wisemen,
      since from the east Angles and Saxons came up
      over the broad sea. Britain they sought,
      Proud war-smiths who overcame the Welsh,
      glorious warriors they took hold of the land.

      1. LeonovaBalletRusse

        “I’m a main. I spell M – A – N, main.” And that’s what it’s all about.

  9. p78

    Neither a native English or Greek speaker here, but in my native language the first verse was translated identically to this:

    “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus” (Lattimore)

    And if you would hear it, it has a special rhythm to it too.

  10. proximity1

    The translator of the Homeric text you cite is Richmond Lattimore, rather than Richard– it’s a common mistake.

      1. proximity1

        You’re welcome.

        For me, anyway, Robert Fitzgerald’s translations (Iliad and Odyssey) are “the” versions for readers of English.

        Compare any section of his translation with Lattimore’s and see what I mean.

  11. AliasBob

    For Memorial Day, another bit from Homer. The dead Achilles answers Odysseus.

    And there came up the spirit of Achilles, son of Peleus, and those of Patroclus and of peerless Antilochus and of Aias, who in comeliness and form was the goodliest of all the Danaans after the peerless son of Peleus. And the spirit of the swift-footed son of Aeacus recognized me, and weeping, spoke to me winged words: `Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, rash man, what deed yet greater than this wilt thou devise in thy heart? How didst thou dare to come down to Hades, where dwell the unheeding dead, the phantoms of men outworn.’

    [477] “So he spoke, and I made answer and said:`Achilles, son of Peleus, far the mightiest of the Achaeans, I came through need of Teiresias, if haply he would tell me some plan whereby I might reach rugged Ithaca. For not yet have I come near to the land of Achaea, nor have I as yet set foot on my own country, but am ever suffering woes; whereas than thou, Achilles, no man aforetime was more blessed nor shall ever be hereafter. For of old, when thou wast alive, we Argives honored thee even as the gods, and now that thou art here, thou rulest mightily among the dead. Wherefore grieve not at all that thou art dead, Achilles.’

    [486] “So I spoke, and he straightway made answer and said: `Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.


  12. Hugh

    It was a warrior society. If the Trojan War hadn’t been about Helen, it would have been about some other shiny prize. If the Greeks had stolen Helen from the Trojans, then they would have celebrated that in song too.

    I have always been struck by the chaos that runs through Classic Greek literature. Life is so unstable, often brutish and short. It is at once chance and fate that calls the tune. The most that anyone can do is act out their role as best they can. I mean other than just doing it to do it what was the war for? The victors scarcely make out better than the vanquished. Many of the Greeks are killed in the war, and most of the rest never make it back home. The few who do face bad ends, like Agamemnon, or ignominious ones, like Menelaus, rich yes but saddled with a treacherous wife. Even Odysseus’ return is just a final hurrah before old age sets in. No one wins, everyone loses. The only thing that endures is the story, and perhaps that is the point.

    There is also this that the very quality that sets someone apart from the rest is what destroys or compromises them. The Greeks called this hubris, Achilles is too wrathful, Agamemnon is too arrogant, Ulysses is too clever, Paris is too lustful, etc. It’s really just a way of saying that whatever (bad) happens the individual brings it upon him or herself. And even in those cases where no hubritic cause can be found, as with Hector, well, then he’s just doomed.

    For me, it is a fairly pessimistic view, that we are all puppets of the gods, but at least we can be puppets with style.

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      As the Bard averred: seeking “the bubble reputation in the canon’s mouth” is just one of those universals in the seven ages of man. Peak sex hormones.

  13. skippy

    ROFLOL…. The oldest exscuse… the gawd[s made me – us, do it! Created imperfect as to put on delights for their[s enjoyment. All with the addtional task of achiving some semblance of god like qualitys (a vertical enterprise IMO), life is art, the world a play! Aaaaa…. hahahaha!

    Skippy… would life be better served if humanity still used gord – strap ons – and engaged in ritual mock battles? Naw… that would be to primitive… eh… I mean the god[s wage war right? Whom are we to question the creator[s?, too the top!

  14. mch

    Wow, had no idea that late on Memorial Day night, as I come down from an(other) semester of teaching the Iliad and Odyssey (and a long day in my garden), I might come upon this at Naked Capitalism.

    I always start teaching my Iliad/Odyssey course (Sophocles’ Ajax and Euripides’ Trojan Women thrown in at the end) with the honest truth: the Iliad is my desert island book. Later, I share with them my appreciation of the Odyssey’s competing perspective: you can’t mourn forever. Get on with it. (Grubby as getting on with it is, in the Odyssey’s view. Well, that’s probably fair enough. Getting on with it is bound to be grubby. I’m fresh from the garden, after all.)

    Cannot in a comment here evoke the way the Iliad engages us in just about everything we need to think about. Let me recommend, as a primer, Seth Schein’s The Mortal Hero. But that’s only the beginning.

    I love the way students take the poem in so many directions (even if I am eternally frustrated by many students’ wrong turns, e.g., gods as puppeteers — ever heard of limits? of happenstance and luck? well, late adolescents haven’t worked all that out yet — not that full adulthood guarantees working all that out). And I can only hint at, lay the groundwork for (for those who may go on to explore such things in other contexts — some do), the poem’s examination of EXCHANGE (hello, naked capitalism) and fetishized standards of exchange (Helen, gold standards) and the erotics of battle — well, all sorts of issues. Is there no end? No (hence, my desert island book). And all is loss — but then, we’re all dead, in the end. (Which is why we need the Odyssey.)

    Sent an email to my spring semester Iliad/Odyssey students earlier tonight (semester a couple of weeks over now), with this link:


    Anything like this in the Iliad? Yes, say, Ajax and Hector in Iliad 7, or Priam and Achilles in 24. But the Iliad doesn’t frame things quite like this. Maybe we need to talk about Vergil?

    1. CMike

      Greetings mch. Is there a particular translation of the Illiad or a one or two volume history of Ancient Greece that you would recommend above the others?

      I’m just getting started with the Christine Hayes introductory lectures on the Old Testament. In Lecture 2 she introduces the ideas of Yehezkel Kaufmann, namely that the differences between the teachings of polytheism and monotheism are fundamental and irreconcilable. Do you have any readings on that subject to recommend? (I don’t think I’m going to have access to the Kaufmann book.)

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