History : Jul-Aug 2017
ever settling, one before the other, with ringing cries, and the meadow resounds— so the many tribes of men from the ships and shelters poured forth onto the plain of Scamander . . . (Book II) Similarly, the shield that Achilles carries is deco- rated with scenes from peacetime: And on it he made two cities of mortal men, both beautiful; and in one there were weddings and wedding feasts, and they were leading the brides from their chambers beneath the gleam of torches through the city, and loud rose the bridal song; and the young men whirled in dance . . . (Book VIII) These glimpses of peace constantly remind readers of what is at stake in war. Through such poetic artistry, the mysterious master poet called Homer transformed an ancient tale of one obscure campaign into a sublime and sweep- ing evocation of the devastation of every war, of any time. While these immigrants had lost a great deal, they still brought with them much of value, such as their gods, their language, and their stories. Here in the region of Lesbos, memories of the lost Mycenaean world were handed down in stories and poems: tales of great cities rich in gold, muddled memories of battles fought and types of armor, exploits of warriors who fought like lions and communed with the gods, and a Thessalian superhero called Achilles. Eventually the tradition was passed on to po- ets using another dialect, that of Ionic Greek. Nonetheless, it is tempting to speculate that this period, in which Aeolic poets shaped the tradi- tion while living in the shadow of Troy, accounts for the Greek epic’s emotional investment in the tragedy of the Trojans. Did the Aeolic poets hear tales of the war from the Trojan side? Words of Peace Most of The Iliad’s action is the work of war. Yet the epic is also consistently shot through with powerful scenes of peace. Great soaring similes compare human events to nature and keep the epic grounded in a world beyond the battlefield: [A]s great flocks of winged birds, of geese or cranes or long-necked swans, in the Asian meadow amid the waters of the river Cayster, flying hither and thither exulting in their wings, A REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR TO NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, CAROLINE ALEXANDER IS AUTHOR OF THE WAR THAT KILLED ACHILLES (RANDOM HOUSE PENGUIN) AND AN ACCLAIMED TRANSLATION OF THE ILIAD (ECCO), EXCERPTS OF WHICH HAVE BEEN QUOTED IN THIS ARTICLE. 60 JULY/AUGUST 2017 DEA/GETTY IMAGES LOOKING FOR TROY In 1871 Heinrich Schliemann began excavating a site near Hisarlik in Turkey, believing it to be the actual place where Homer’s poem is set. Ruins of a Roman-era theater (left) stand there today.