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.