The Iliad Abides …

Nice little opEd  in the Irish Times by Helen Meany on the enduring appeal of the Iliad … here’s the first bit:

Amid the remembrance of the first World War, a poignant detail emerges. Many soldiers went to the Western Front carrying a copy of Homer’s Iliad. One soldier, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, inscribed a poem of his own on the flyleaf, in which he entreats the warrior Achilles to stand with him in battle, as a protector. “Stand in the trench, Achilles/ Flame-capped and shout for me,” it concludes. He was killed at Gallipoli in 1917.

Stand in The Trench, Achilles is the title of a recent book that traces classical references in the poetry of the war, not only by the celebrated war poets, but by men of all backgrounds, who were steeped in knowledge of Greek and Latin authors. Through close readings, the scholar Elizabeth Vandiver shows the extent to which Homeric ideas and images sustained the soldiers. Or more precisely, Homeric ideals.

Idealism endures, but it also mutates. The English writer and historian Adam Nicholson has Homer written on his heart. His new book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, is a form of pilgrimage, “a passionate pursuit” of the origins of the poems: both a journey undertaken by him around the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, and a vivid history of their interpretation. Reading it, there is a sense of entering into a dialogue with all the commentators and translators of the epics who have gone before, and that those layers of interpretation have become almost as important as the Homeric texts themselves.

We are in an immensely rich period of creative re-workings of the Iliad, from this year’s version for the stage by poet Simon Armitage, The Last Days of Troy, to Christopher Logue’s poem sequence, War Music, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial, with what she calls her “reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem,” omitting Achilles and Agamemnon entirely. Madeline Miller’s best-selling novel The Song of Achilles invented a youthful back-story for Achilles’s beloved companion Patroclus, and cast the two men, unambiguously, as lovers.

Oswald and Miller join other women writers such as Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad) and Christa Wolf (Cassandra) tilting the perspective on the Homeric texts, extracting the voices of minor characters, or presenting the narrative through the lens of the female characters.

The effect of these imaginative shifts is to create a Homeric world that is more palatable to our contemporary tastes. So, if reading the original Iliad makes us uncomfortable, there are multiple alternative versions, as well as new critical takes on the age-old question: does the Iliad glorify war?

American classicist Caroline Alexander in her recent book, The War That Killed Achilles, highlights the ways in which the Iliad emphasises the pain and destructiveness of war, pointing out that both the Greeks (Achaeans, as they are known in the poem) and the besieged Trojans long for the war to end and to return to their families. […]

… the rest: Standing with Homer in the trenches of the Western Front

Mapping the Odyssey

This past weekend the Journal (Ireland) had a feature on an interactive map of Odysseus’ travels which had just been created by Gisele Mounzer  … I can’t get it to actually come up to test out the interactivity (which is probably a function of our school’s security measures), but you might want to check out the article at least:

… and try out the map (here’s the url in case the article disappears):

Such a map would obviously be useful in many Classical contexts …

Soldiers’ Nostoi and the Odyssey

Excellent extended essay by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian … here’s the incipit:

Last month, the 7th Armoured Brigade, the “Desert Rats”, arrived at Camp Bastion in Helmand: the last major deployment to Afghanistan before the UK pulls out its combat troops at the end of next year. Britain’s wars, for now, are coming to an end. But what does that ending mean for the soldiers coming home? David Finkel, author of Thank You for Your Service, a new account of the travails of the returning warrior, puts it brutally: it means coming “out of one war into another”.

Homer’s Iliad is the first and greatest poetic account of the first type of war. But it is the Odyssey that takes on the second kind: the war of the homecoming.

The Odyssey is a poem that we tend to remember as the hero’s colourful, salt-caked adventures on the high seas: his encounters with witches, nymphs and cyclopes, his journey to the land of the dead, his shrewd and quick-tongued and fast-witted outsmarting of the terrors in his path as he strives for a decade to reach his home after the sack of Troy. He drags his crew bodily away from the island where the inhabitants gorge themselves on the memory-wiping, pleasure-giving lotus; he withstands the ruinous song of the Sirens, who long to lure him to his death, by having himself lashed to the mast by his crew, whose ears he has stopped with wax; he outwits the glamorous enchantress Circe, who turns his men into pigs; he steers his ship between the maneating, many–headed Scylla and the deadly whirlpool Charybdis. He is the original unlikely survivor, the man who always struggles free of the car crash and walks clear of the wreckage as the flames curl out: the latest iteration of the type, which runs through storytelling from archaic Greece to Hollywood, is Sandra Bullock’s character in Alfonso Cuarón’s blockbuster, Gravity.

But, as Aristotle put it in the Poetics, these are “episodes”. The essence of the story is that of a veteran combatant who, after a long absence, must find his way back into a household he finds threatened by outside forces and dangerously altered.

He is at first unrecognisable to his wife (he has come back “a different person” – literally, in that he has disguised himself and assumed a false name, but military spouses will understand the metaphor of the warrior utterly changed by war). The necessary process of recognition and reintegration is accomplished, but only violently, painfully. And so the Odyssey speaks urgently to our times. It did, too, in the post-Vietnam era, when the psychologist Jonathan Shay, who worked with veterans of the conflict, used the epic in his book Odysseus in America as the overarching metaphor for the postcombat warrior’s psychic traumas.

The Odyssey invites us to ask: can soldiers ever, truly, return home? Will they “recognise” their family, and vice versa? Can they survive not just the war itself, but the war’s aftermath? Will they, in some dread way, bring the war home with them? The Odyssey says: you thought it was tough getting through the war. Now, see if you can get through the nostos – the homecoming. […]

… plenty more follows …

Classics Confidential | Michael Squire on the Imagines and Tabulae Iliacae

I think I missed these … a two-parter; here’s the blurb for the first part:

This week’s interview features Dr Michael Squire of King’s College London, talking about his current research project on the Imagines. This text, which was written by the third-century AD Greek author Philostratus the Elder, contains accounts of 65 paintings displayed in an (imaginary?) gallery on the Bay of Naples. Mike introduces us to some of the paintings described by Philostratus, including a representation of the Cyclops Polyphemus and an image of the Trojan river Scamander. He touches on questions of authenticity and fiction, ecphrasis and imagination, and explains how the images in Philostratus’ gallery relate to one another, as well as referring out to other ancient literary texts including Homer and Sappho.

You can read more about Mike’s work on Philostratus on the Leverhulme Trust website:…

The blurb for part II:

Last week we posted the first half of an interview with Dr Michael Squire from King’s College London, about his work on Philostratus’ Imagines. Here in Part 2 he tells us about a fascinating group of objects called the Tabulae Iliacae – miniature marble tablets dating to between the end of the first century BC and the early first century AD, which represent scenes from the Homeric epic cycle and other mythological and historical subjects.
For related links and images of the objects Mike discusses in the video, please visit the interview page at…

Pondering the Historicity of the Trojan War

Over at the OUP Blog, Eric Cline has keyboarded an interesting post … here’s a bit in medias res:

[…]According to the Greek literary evidence, there were at least two Trojan Wars (Heracles’ and Agamemnon’s), not simply one; in fact, there were three wars, if one counts Agamemnon’s earlier abortive attack on Teuthrania. Similarly, according to the Hittite literary evidence, there were at least four Trojan Wars, ranging from the Assuwa Rebellion in the late 15th century BCE to the overthrow of Walmu, king of Wilusa in the late 13th century BCE. And, according to the archaeological evidence, Troy/Hisarlik was destroyed twice, if not three times, between 1300 and 1000 BCE. Some of this has long been known; the rest has come to light more recently. Thus, although we cannot definitively point to a specific “Trojan War,” at least not as Homer has described it in the Iliad and the Odyssey, we have instead found several such Trojan wars and several cities at Troy, enough that we can conclude there is a historical kernel of truth — of some sort — underlying all the stories.[…]

Lecture: Greece and Asia in the Late Bronze Age: The Historical Background of Homer’s Iliad

The intro:

Dr. Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier, Director of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens, speaks. In 1924, Swiss archaeologist Emil Forrer announced a new discovery relating to the Trojan War. After examining texts found at Hattusa, once the capital of the Hittite empire in Asia Minor, he identified the Hittite words for Troy (Wilusa) and Mycenaean Greece (Ahhiyawa), and concluded that there was evidence for conflict between them. While Forrer’s “Greek Hypothesis” was once widely attacked by other academics, recent research and excavations have confirmed his theory, which offers exciting insights into the historical background of Homer’s Iliad.

Classics Confidential: Jenny Strauss Clay on Homer, Mapping, and Mnemonics

The intro:

Jenny Strauss Clay is famous for her work on Homer, the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod, with a focus on how these archaic Greek hexameter poems maps out an epic cosmos. But today she will talk about a different kind of mapping, based on what has been labelled the “spatial turn” in Classical studies. Her recent book, Homer’s Trojan Theater, exploits digital technology, cognitive mapping and mnemonics to analyse visualization in Homer, especially in relation to the Homeric battlefield.

Milman Parry on BBC 4

Tip o’ the pileus to Ian Spoor for alerting me to this one which is coming up on BBC4:

Episode Six of a thirty-part series made in collaboration with the British Library Sound Archive.

In 1933, a young classics scholar called Milman Parry made a journey through the hill villages of the Balkans to record poets and singers. He captured an oral tradition that has all but died out – peasant performers who recited epic tales over days without any form of prompt.

Professor David Hendy of the University of Sussex explains how ancient tales were remembered and passed down, and travels to the ancient Theatre of Epidaurus in Greece to find out what the audience would have made of it all up in the ‘gods’.

Featuring archive extracts of traditional stories from the Balkans, Kyrgyzstan, West Africa, and India.

Audio for this one will be available “soon” … here’s the Noise: A Human History home page.

An Odyssean Quest of Sorts

Tip o’ the pileus to Bret Mulligan for alerting us to this one … the incipit of a piece in Newsworks:

“When he had the bow in his hands, the godlike Odysseus,
Easily did stretch the string, and shoot through the axe-heads:
Then he sprang up on the platform, and poured out the arrows before him…”

Thus did the ancient Greek hero Odysseus arrived in Ithaca to reclaim his home and wife. Having revealed himself as the true Odysseus, he laid waste the layabout suitors vying for his Penelope.

“…as heads were stricken, a dreadful
Groaning arose: and the floor ran deep with the blood of the slaughtered.”

That last image was perhaps too gory for N.C. Wyeth, who, in 1929, was commissioned to paint 16 scenes from “The Odyssey” for publication. He instead chose the first part, “The Trial of the Bow,” to illustrate the scene.

“He worked in so much color — it’s quite iridescent,” said Kathleen Foster, curator American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “While he was telling a great story — and “The Odyssey” is a great story — he’s employing all the skills of the artist. He’s a great painter.”

Over the years, that set of 16 “Odyssey” paintings dispersed into the the market; most landed in unknown private collections. Only five could be accounted for, including one at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa. This one, which has just been donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, makes six.

“We’re still looking for the other 10,” said Foster.

Painting missing longer than Odysseus in epic tale

“The Trial of the Bow” was thought missing for 30 years until it was recently discovered in the Philadelphia headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company, just a few blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Since the late 1980s, it had been in a hallway just outside an executive office. Few employees had any idea it was something special.

“We knew we had a Wyeth,” said Ray Milora of GlaxoSmithKline. “I think the importance of it was less known.”

Milora does not know how or why the company acquired an original Wyeth canvas. The company became aware that the painting was part of a set of missing Wyeths when GSK prepared to move to new headquarters in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. […]

… the original article has a bit of a slideshow of the one piece mentioned above, of course, and I’m sure some folks will recall seeing one or more of this series. Palmer’s translation of the Odyssey (whence comes the painting) is available at and various other places, but I can’t find an edition with the paintings in them.