The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War

October 30, 2009


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you for joining us.

Caroline Alexander is our speaker. She will be discussing her most recent book, The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War.

The Iliad is one of the greatest war stories ever told. Although it is generally believed to have been composed around 750 to 700 B.C., Homer's epic poem about the Trojan War has been in circulation ever since. On the surface, it is a story of warfare, heroism, and adventure. But if you dig deeper, you will uncover that it has as much to offer modern readers as it did for those in Homeric times. Although the Iliad covers just a few weeks of the ten-year-long war at Troy, the underlying humanity, insight, and profound philosophy are remarkable, especially for a work now almost 3,000 years old.

In her book, The War that Killed Achilles, our guest today points out that while the poetry and tragic vision of the Trojan War were much extolled during ancient times, this epic's blunter message about war and the devastation it inflicts on civilians, man, woman, and child alike, tended to be overlooked.

Ms. Alexander's dismay over America's prolonged and troubling wars led to her to see that many of the same issues that soldiers are concerned with today have ample precedent in the classical era. In an attempt to uncover the meaning of war and what it has to teach us, she deconstructs the Iliad and closely examines the behavior of Achilles, greatest of warriors, greatest of heroes. In searching for answers, our speaker asks such questions as: Is a warrior ever justified in challenging his commander? Must he sacrifice his life for someone else's cause? How is a catastrophic war ever allowed to start? Why, if all parties wish it over, can it not be ended?

For those of you who have read Ms. Alexander's works, The Endurance, in which she wrote about the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, or The Bounty, in which she retold the familiar story of the South Pacific misadventures, you will already be familiar with her gifts for narrative and her facility for latching onto complicated, fate-tossed historical beings, while taking a fresh look at the dramas that span continents and centuries.

Ms. Alexander is a Rhodes Scholar and a lecturer at the University of Malawi, where she established the Department of Classics. She has written for The New YorkerGrantaCondé Nast TravelerSmithsonianOutside, and National Geographic.

We are delighted to have her with us this morning. Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today, Caroline Alexander.


CAROLINE ALEXANDER: Who in here can tell me where the University of Malawi is? Malawi is in Southeast Africa. 

I think this could be the subject of another discussion, but I was asked to go there and set up a Department of Classics and did not know that it was a political appointment. How, you think, could it be a political appointment? It turned out that the dictator of the country, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the longest-ruling dictator in sub-Saharan Africa at the time, the Ngwazi, or savior, of his people, was a classicist. He had modeled Malawi on Plato's Republic—truly, really—with himself as philosopher king and guardians below and so on and so forth.

Some years after I left, with a fledgling classics department, I returned for Granta magazine to cover the trial of Hastings Banda, who was at that time in his late 90s and being tried, under palace arrest, for conspiracy to commit murder of one of the government ministers, who had been there when I was there. I walked into the defense team's office and found that one of my former students was defending him.

He said to me, "Madam, you always told me classics would prepare me for anything in life."

Indeed, apparently it had, and Banda was acquitted.

I don't know quite what the point of that might be. But a remarkable experience.

My student arranged an interview with Banda at that time, who was not compos mentis. It was conducted in one of his palaces, with a leopard skin down the table, facing me. The roar faces the common speaker. He could remember nothing except his classics. So my interview with the longest-ruling dictator in sub-Saharan Africa consisted of exchanging lines from Caesar'sGallic Wars, where he would recite at great length. It was quite surreal.

I always remind particularly younger audiences that if they have any hankering for the subject, they should do it, because it could take them anywhere they wanted to go.

I'm going to begin my talk about the Iliad with a quotation from a decidedly non-Iliadic source. This may be familiar to some of you here. It explains how World War I got its name. I had always assumed, as perhaps many of you had, that World War I was named after World War II, that it was a historian's distinction to try and separate two great European catastrophes. 

But in actual fact, World War I was named in September of 1918. The event is recorded in the diary of a Colonel Charles Repington, who was the Times correspondent for the war. He was a disgraced officer who found redemption in journalism, highly well connected and as conversant with war policy as probably anybody in England.

In his diary—I'll paraphrase, but closely paraphrase—he said, "Today a group of us got together to discuss what we would call this war. 'The war' works well enough when the war is under way, but that's going to be quickly forgotten. We decided against 'the Great War,' because that sounded too Napoleonic, and 'the German War' gave too much flattery to the Boche."

He said, "I came up with 'the European War,' and then we refined that to 'the World War.' Then we decided that as a reminder to those millennium folks, we would call it 'the First World War,' because the history of the world is the history of war."

So in 1918, with eight million military casualties, this group of people were already projecting that there would be another war.

I think this tragic wisdom is what is embedded in the Iliad. In other words, its antiquity is part of its message. Not only is it 2,700 years older than us and we can read it and respond to the familiarity of every single scene, every single dilemma, and every single issue, but it was also, in itself, old by the time that this poem was composed, around 700 or 750 B.C. 

We can tell from linguistic evidence and from references in the poem to some artifacts that can only be located in centuries earlier that the origin of this poem lay in Mycenaean Greek or the Bronze Age around 1600 or 1550 B.C. You can at least posit that there's some poetic tradition going back that far.

Centuries of storytelling have refined a story and brought it down to its perfection in Homer's time, in the so-called Greek Dark Ages. So this is already a poem that's replete with collected wisdom before it even comes to us. I believe that the fact of its antiquity is part of its potency. It's not just that it tells a wonderful story and has beautiful language. There is something profoundly tragic in confronting something that is so old and presents such a complete vision of the devastation of war.

Now, the Iliad, just by way of background for those of us who, I'm sure, already know it intimately but would just like to see how I would describe it, is an epic poem of some 15,693 lines or verses. So it's a long poem. It's divided into 24 books, or chapters. They are called books by convention. 

It tells the story of events within a few weeks' time in the last of the ten-year-long war. It does not tell of the abduction or seduction of Helen of Troy and it does not tell of the fall of Troy or the wooden horse. In other words, the two events that bookend this saga, which everybody knows, don't occur in the Iliad. They occurred in other epics that are lost to us, but which we have summarizing fragments that give us a clue of how, perhaps, these other stories were told. The Iliad itself refers to some of them—not to the Trojan horse, but certainly to Helen's role in the war.

If it isn't about the fall of the war and it isn't about the start of the war, what is it about? Well, first of all, it's interesting that it's about the period where nothing much is happening, where the war has become a stalemate, just a siege of a city that can't quite be cracked. 

The Greeks are the invaders or, as Homer calls them, the Achaeans. They have a counterpart in history with the Mycenaeans. They are all the same people. This is done by classicists to trip everybody up. The Mycenaeans are the historical Bronze Age Greeks, named after the city of Mycenae. The "Achaeans" is Homer's term. There is evidence, I think, now generally accepted evidence, that they are referred to as such in Hittite documents. So that seems to have been their own historical terminology. We know them, perhaps, as Greeks versus Trojans.

Troy is a real city. We know that now from archaeology very securely.

So why would Homer choose this least consequential period of this legendary war, the part where there is the least action and, in some sense, the least consequence? This is the first clue that this epic is trying to do something more interesting than just tell a slugging story.

The first scene I will try and evoke, and give you an idea of the approach that I take in my book. I believe that what is of interest to the poet at this time are the enduring conundrums of warfare. It's not a screed against them and it's not a denouncement. It is a wise and tragic vision that these are the problems that are insoluble, but they must be looked at. 

These scenes that I choose to discuss in my book are extended scenes. I'm very adamant about that. In other words, The Iliad is like any other great text, like the Bible. You can find anything in it that you want to. So one has to be very careful to lay out the text, I feel, so that people know that what they are encountering are the extended deliberate scenes, not just a random comment that one can catch at and turn to effect.

The first great extended scene is the confrontation between Achilles, greatest of the Greek heroes, and his commander-in-chief Agamemnon. This is usually summarized in survey courses— which is now, alas, the only place that the Iliad tends to be encountered—abbreviated in the following way: Achilles is dishonored by having his prize taken from him on this quarrel, and therefore he leaves from the war. This is about his honor.

But that's only the end of the encounter. You need to trace the beginning of the encounter to get the entirety of what Achilles stands for in this scene.

What happens is, the Iliad opens with a great plague on the Greek army, on the Achaean army. Why is there a plague? Achilles calls the assembly—and a priest comes forward and says, "Apollo is angered at us." Apollo is angered because one of his priests has a daughter who has been taken as a war prize by the Greeks. If she's given back, the plague will go away. But it turns out that the war prize is now in the possession of the commander-in-chief of the Greek army, Agamemnon. He doesn't want to give back his prize, even though, the Iliad has made very clear, all the men are dying around him of this plague.

It's at this point that Achilles begins to get an edge in his voice and to say, in the first of several magnificent speeches, "Look, give the girl back. When we take Troy, we'll give you four times as much afterwards. But give her back. The people are dying."

Agamemnon's response is, "I'm the one to give my prize back? I'll take one of yours."

Then Achilles ups the tone of his language and says, among other things, "You wine sack. You dog-eyed coward. Never once have you gone into ambush with us," and so on.

But the most telling thing he says in this is, "The Trojans have never done anything to me. The Trojans have never stolen my cattle. They've never raided my sheep. Indeed, there's a lot of land between us, the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea. We have come here for your sake, and you forget this. We are here to do you a favor."

Then the prize is taken. Then Achilles withdraws from the war. Then the whole dynamic of the Iliad starts. But this cannot be overlooked. This is about questioning why they are there at all.

The follow-up of this—this conflict flows over from Book 1, the opening book of  the Iliad, into the early part of Book 2. We are still very early in the epic. That's important to remember, because these are the setting tones and terms of this epic as it presents its subject to an audience.

Achilles retreats. He prays to his mother, who conveniently is a goddess, and he says, "I've been dishonored. I was promised honor. What happens now?"

His goddess mother says, "All right, I will go to Zeus and make sure that your honor is met."

So she does this. Zeus then ponders how best to achieve this event, how best to honor Achilles. Obviously, the best way to honor Achilles is to have the Greeks lose while he's absent. It's like having the star quarterback injured. If he's not there, then they will lose, and they will miss him and regret that he's not there. So how best to make the Greeks lose?

This is, first of all, the king of the gods. We know gods can send plagues, because we have already seen that in the opening scene. We know he's the god of the thunderbolt, so, presumably, he could just throw something and zap everybody. He could make a beast appear from the sea. There is anything in the world he could do to turn the tide of battle against the Greeks.

But here's what he decides. He decides that the best way to undo the army is to send a dream to the commander-in-chief. The dream comes to the commander-in-chief and whispers as he sleeps, "Get up. You will take Troy today." Agamemnon rises, summons all the men, and says, "Today we're going to take the city of Troy."

Think about that. What he's saying is that the most effective way to undo a great army is to send a delusional dream of victory to the commander-in-chief. This is an extended scene. He comes up with the idea. He sends the dream down. The instructions are repeated by the messenger of the god. We are shown the scene itself.

Then Homer does something quite rare. He rarely editorializes. Usually this is descriptions and speeches. But in this place, as Agamemnon gets up and puts on his freshly washed mantle and takes up his spear, Homer says, "Fool, for he thought he would take Troy on that very day."

This is pretty electrifying stuff. Again, we're in the early part of what's going to be 24 books about this war.

Somewhere between waking up from sleep and going to meet his men, Agamemnon comes up with his own bright idea, which seems to just come from nowhere, which is that he will test his army.

Now, this is a time-honored tradition. We know from certain Near Eastern examples that this is a motif. We know where this is meant to go. What you are meant to do is stand up and say, "Men, I don't think we can make it," and then the men say, "Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can! We'll stand by."

Then the commander-in-chief says, "Thank you, men."

So Agamemnon comes up and he says to this gathered assembly, "I don't think we can take this city. We've been here ten years. Our ships are rotting and the cables are gone. Our wives are waiting for us"—this is a great psychological way of rallying your men—"our wives are waiting for us at home, and we miss them and our families. I think we should go home."

As one man, the entire army rises to its feet and runs to the ships. Agamemnon stands there. It's Odysseus, one of the other heroes, who runs up to him, takes the scepter of command from his impotent hands, and holds back the men. He says, "Don't go. Don't go. He didn't mean it. We'll find out what he means." Even the symbolism of having to have the scepter removed and put in the hands of a wiser man is very telling.

So here at the outset, in the opening scenes of this great war epic, we have established the following: that there is no common cause for this war, that the leader is delusional, and that every man in the army wants to go home.

I end my first chapter by saying that this is, at the very least, a remarkable way to begin a great war epic.

My intention in writing the book was to give, on the first order, just a commentary. There's a lot of wonderful material that has been accumulating over the past 30 to 40 years that, unless you were in an inner circle of Homeric scholars, you would never hear about. It just doesn't percolate down. Again, this is due to several factors. One is increased specialization within academia. There is much material that even other classicists wouldn't know about. But it's also due to the fact, again, that the Iliad tends to be taught in survey courses. You get two weeks. You are going to look at the great purple scenes. There isn't time to go into all of this.

So my first thought was just to have a commentary that you could enter at one end of the story, ride the story all the way through, and along the way, you would get the kind of material you would presumably get in an up-to-date and exciting course.

But my other intent was to bring to the fore, in an unambiguous way, the implications of these extended scenes. I can say, as somebody who has studied about 13 years, all in all, of Homeric studies in one way or another, never in a single classroom did anybody ever even use the word "war" in the abstract sense.

We talked about characterization. We talked about similes. We talked about those great components of oral literature, the heroic formula, to numbing extent.

We talked about how the organization of the Iliad possibly mirrored painted pottery. We talked about everything under the sun, but I can say never in any class—and I had very good teachers—did anybody ever talk about war. This is like trying to discuss, say, romantic poetry ofWordsworth without mentioning the Lake District. This is what it's about.

The press release that talked about "Caroline Alexander's growing anger with the American policy" was not penned by me, but, I think, reflected somebody coming to why I did this. I was certainly moved by headlines to acknowledge the continued relevancy of the war. But I would like to make very clear that I did not intend to come out with a polemic or anything revisionist. I am a humble disciple of Homer, and my first intent was to make this epic accessible to general readers with no knowledge of Greek, possibly no knowledge of the story, on its own terms.

In the crafting of this, in trying to do this commentary, when I had to actually organize my own chapters and make my own divisions, the natural, instinctive way to do it was to do the breaks around the great scenes. As the shape of my book took place, it became apparent that each of these great scenes—I have given you merely one, at the beginning—all the way through the epic—the parting of Hector with his wife, the death of Achilles' companion Patroclus—all of these, when examined and opened out, show an exploration of something that we could call one of the enduring facts of war: the chain of command, the difficulty that a soldier has in fighting for a cause that is not his own or of being subjected to the orders of a lesser man, this whole business of who is friend and who is enemy, something that the Iliad is fascinated with.

At one time everybody wanted to be Achilles, but now people are more sympathetic to Hector.

But how could you have in a Greek epic a hero from the enemy ranks who was always competitive with the Greek hero for the sympathies of the audience? The showdown between Achilles and Hector, which ends in the death of the Trojan enemy, is one of the most lamentable and heartrending places in the whole epic. How can that be? Some of that, which I can't go into now, is unraveled when you realize the journey the Iliad took, the specific geographical journey.

In its early origins, it began on the Greek mainland, this early tradition and formation. When the Mycenaean world collapsed, refugees or immigrants from Thessaly in the north of Greece carried this tradition of their great Thessalian hero Achilles, as they migrated looking for a new home. 

They settled on the island of Lesbos, which is a Greek island today, but within half a day's sail away from Troy. Archaeology has shown that the inhabitants of the island of Lesbos at the time of their arrival, with their stories and their own cities fallen behind them, shared the same material culture as the Trojans.

So the Iliad was incubated for a formative period within sight of the fallen city of Troy, virtually, and with a people who were allied to Trojans. I think this can be seen, possibly, to account for this sympathy.

In sum, I would say that this is a work that bears great study for people who are interested in wars past and wars present. I believe that it can add something that even the best and finest memoirs coming out of the contemporary wars of today cannot quite provide. One is the total vision of war, the totality of the destruction. The Iliad, as it applies to enemy and ally, to man and woman, to civilian and soldier, is the most complete image of the devastation of war that has been conjured.

The other thing, again, is this sense of the weight of history. It is a sobering experience to read something to which we respond so instinctively and naturally, and know that it is 2,700 years old. This is perhaps the most tragic part of the Iliad, because it shows how very old and very unchanging these central truths are.

Thank you. I'll take questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Do Greek students today read the Iliad

CAROLINE ALEXANDER: From what I gather, yes, and read it in Greek. I don't know about the formal curriculum, but in travels there I have always been met respectfully, as it were, when I said what my interests were. I have a feeling that it's read somewhat as we read it in the West, which means not necessarily the entirety of it.

Here, if somebody says, "Yes, I read the Iliad," there is a sense that it is something they don't particularly hold dear to their heart, whereas I have found in Greece, even if it was in the same excerpted tradition, there was a sense of reverence. It was understood that this was a national text, possibly.

 Following the World Trade Center attacks, our country launched military expeditions against two targets, which have lasted many years. Even the 3,000 deaths in those attacks don't seem to have precluded growing questions about whether there was sufficient cause for what has turned out to be a very bloody and expensive expedition.

I have always been struck by how thin the pretext for the origins of the Greek expeditions was. I just wonder if Homer provided any explanation that is more persuasive to modern readers.

CAROLINE ALEXANDER: In other words, does Homer provide a persuasive rationale for the war? He actually does the very opposite. Within the Iliad, there are many competing traditions from which our Iliad was forged. It wasn't as if this was like a solo flight through darkness. There was a mass of oral literature and a mass of tellings of epic tales. Part of what I tried to do in the book—there are certain junctures where you get a hint of what the alternate variant might be. Those are always intriguing, because they help clarify that the Iliad turned right instead of left or took a certain direction.

One of them has to do with the character nature of Helen of Troy. The general view is that she was abducted by Paris, the young Trojan prince. This is referred to, certainly, once by one of the Greek counselors, who says, "We must avenge Helen in all her lamentation." But one of the great portraits and characterizations in the Iliad is of Helen herself. Every time she speaks of herself, she says, "Slut that I am," or kunos, dog. "I wish that I had never left my husband." It's fascinating. Number one, it's saying she was seduced. She ran away with Paris.

This contrasted very deliberately with the relationship between Hector and his wife,Andromache—Hector, who will die for this war, Andromache, who will be widowed and enslaved as a result of this war. It's very telling. Helen is treated with affection, almost, by the poet. It's not that he condemns her, but you see a character caught in some power that she doesn't understand, the power of Aphrodite, as it's explained.

The other interesting thing is that every Trojan who ever refers to Paris himself, the cause of the war—and this includes Hector, mild-mannered, dutiful Hector, the brother of Paris—says, "Would that he had died on the day he was born," "Would that the earth had never allowed him to live." "If we Trojans had any wisdom, we would cover him with a mantle of stones," meaning, "We'd stone him to death."

There is even a scene where the herald is sent from the Trojans to the Greeks to say, "Look, we'll give back"—and this is another thing; Helen is always referred to as "Helen and all her possessions," so this is about more than Helen—"we'll give back all the possessions, but we won't give back Helen. Paris says he won't return her. And we can just be done with this whole war."

In the Iliad, the convention is, whatever the king says to the herald, he replicates exactly, word for word. "Go and tell him this and this and this and this," and then the herald appears and he says, "He says this and this and this and this."

But in this scene the herald interjects a single line of his own. He says, "And Paris, would that he had died on the day he was born, says that he will give back the possessions, but not Helen."

So unambiguously and consistently, this is shown as being about a private thing gone wrong, with a woman who was not—by putting some of the blame on Helen, it reduces, as it were, some of the blame on Paris. So the cause isn't quite as righteous and straightforward as it seems. But this interesting shadowing of the figure of Paris, almost like a tribal loyalty, is the only thing that's keeping the Trojans from just killing him outright.

So the cause of the war becomes even more diffuse and fractured than if it had been a picture of a woman being held captive against her will and there was some sense that the release was honorable.

QUESTION: I was struck by what you said about how the central theme of war has been absent from a lot of the academic discussion of the Iliad. I wonder if you could comment a little more on the—that seems to me to be a result of the marginalization of the Iliad to academia, in a sense, in, as you said yourself, the survey courses. Could you elaborate on that a little? Is the Iliad taught, for example, in war colleges in the way that Thucydides still is? Is this a phenomenon that is unique to the Iliad or is it common to the classics in general?

CAROLINE ALEXANDER: It's a good question. There are several very clear answers, I believe, to why this is.

The first is that the primary venue for the Iliad before it entered survey courses in the West was elite institutions of education, such as, in Britain, Eton and Harrow and then Oxford and Cambridge, where the entire curriculum for some time, going back to Victorian and Edwardian times, was classical and the Iliad had centrality of place. On this side of the Atlantic, it would have been the prep schools and the Ivy League colleges, because these were the only places that taught Greek. In those days, you learnt the classics by reading the Greek. You didn't just pick up a paperback edition of Richmond Lattimore or Fagles.

So part of it was about belonging to a club. One went to a public school in Britain in order to be able to rattle off these phrases. It was like wearing a school tie. It showed that you were of the proper sort who had had this kind of education.

But the other thing about these venues is that these were institutions of authority and power. There are a lot of very interesting studies that have been done about the objectives of education at this time. Most were about telling young men about the honor and duty to die for king and country. The Iliad is the central text. But if you look, as many people have done, this was about character, the war. The Great War was won on the playing fields of Eton. This is what you did as a young man. You went into public service, and if war came out, which it was always expected to, you laid down your life and died.

When I was pitching my book in Britain—it was fascinating—there were two clear lines, which were divided very distinctly by class. Non-public school [i.e. state school]—"Don't even tell me about this book. That's for toffs," because it was so determinedly associated with this type of education. The other, who had been to the public school, said, as one editor said to me, "Well, I always thought the whole point was, it didn't matter what you did, as long as you died well."

In the middle of this, you have this character Achilles, who challenges the whole rationale of the war. This is where this whole idea of Achilles sulking in his tent was constructed. If you can marginalize and defuse Achilles, you can reshape the Iliad. Again, nobody is reading it start to finish. They are reading the great purple scenes.

They are reading Hector dying and saying, "Now I'll do some great thing that men to come will know of." So the terms were skewed from a very early stage, even before they entered our survey courses.

I believe that what happened in the survey courses in this country is that they were part of a liberal education. Everybody knows that Homer is the Everest of literature. Everybody knows that this is central to everything we do. How can something so magnificent be about a subject as sordid as war? I think there has been real squeamishness in just reaching in and looking at it.

So, because it's had this uneasy and rather lengthy period of never being read in its entirety and never being read straight, what we have are very fragmented views or reactions to it.

I first read it in translation at age 14. I think that that was a very good time to read it. I was heedless enough of the complications that I just read it straight. And it is very apparent when you just read it straight. I blipped over all the difficult names. I blipped over many of the battle scenes. But what it allowed to filter through was just the sense of this tragic portrait.

I think at one point it was a determined approach to edit the work, back in Victorian and Edwardian days. I think now it's just a lazy acceptance that this is the way it is, and the scenes are now by rote. They are always going to be the same scenes that people study, and they just fit a certain context. Then you move on after that to Sappho.

QUESTION: You evoke this thought of the enduring conundrum of warfare. You also spoke about delusions. It made me think about this great antiwar film, Grand Illusion by Jean Renoir. In fact, your evocation of World War I made me think about that. The grand illusion of the film is that there would never be another war after World War I.

Did Homer think that war itself was inevitable, that one of the enduring conundrums was recourse to war?

CAROLINE ALEXANDER: When I have to stand in for Homer, there's always this fear that some force is going to pull me back at some time, when I speak with great authority about what he intended. As my publisher put on the press release, "Caroline Alexander will tell you what Homer really meant," which is terrifying.

It is wrong to call the Iliad an antiwar statement. It is not a screed against war. It is not militating against war. It is a tragic given of the human condition. There are two themes that are inescapable, that you keep running into. One is the tragic fact of mortality, under any circumstances, and the other is the tragic fact of war. I believe that Homer accepted this throughout. And I'm sure this had to do with the long tradition through which the poem itself had been refined, which is probably a war or conflict at every stage of its telling, resonating with every audience that it was told to over five centuries before it took its final shape. I believe that it is presented as one of the tragic truths of the human condition.

QUESTION: Could you tell us more about the role of women? So far you've mentioned women as captive and their fate determined by the men around them. Or you say the men wanted to go home to their wives after ten years. What are the women doing in all of this? Where does the Lysistrata approach come in, where the women will go on strike? Is there any role for them?

CAROLINE ALEXANDER: The main female characters—actually, there are a number of scenes. There are no women warriors at Troy. The Amazons arrive in one of the later epics, alas. So the only fighting women we have do not occur in Homer.

The women of power, emotional power, in the Iliad are numerous, in a way. You have Hector's wife, Andromache. You have Helen. You have Hector's mother, Hecabe. There is care taken even with the war prize that starts the whole conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon,Briseis. She is a cipher at the very beginning and then she comes into her own with the death of Achilles' companion Patroclus. She comes out to lament his death. In a remarkable speech of some length, she mourns him and she says, "I left you when you were living and now here you are dead. You were kind to me always. You told me that you would make me Achilles' wedded wife."

There is a sense in this, and indeed when she is taken from Achilles—just a single line that says, "She went all unwilling."

Then Achilles, in one of his speeches, says, "Are the sons of Atreus," meaning Agamemnon and his brother, "the only mortal men who love their wives?"

That relationship is dignified, but also somehow brought to the fore, by that kind of characterization.

The fate of women, the fate of children, the fate of civilians of Troy are utterly in the hands of the men fighting before Troy. That includes all noncombatants. For example, possibly the most poignant, impotent non-fighter is King Priam, who is beyond the age of fighting and who paints a particularly devastating projection of what will happen to him when his city falls, how the dogs who he has fed at his table will come and eat his dead body. Indeed, we know from later tradition that this what they believed happened.

In that sense, the women are not singled out. It's that you have the warriors on the plain, and whoever is in those walls at Troy—the child, the child of Hector and Andromache, who, again, later tradition knows will be flung from the battlements of Troy and killed, the old man, the many old men, the older women, the young women, the captive women—all will be destroyed by whatever the outcome is of this fighting. The women are wholly impotent.

But the tradition of the Iliad—and if we extend it also into the Odyssey, with Penelope, the faithful and scheming wife of Odysseus—there is, I would say, evidence of care in characterization, which means an interest in the psychological human that's being projected. 

You can find many other kinds of war epics where this is not the case. You could interchange names for the women, and that would be done with it. But here we have very realistic and carefully imagined portraits of women, and also extending that to the gods. The most memorable, perhaps, of the gods, other than Zeus, is Athena, who is very much an active agent, in mischief. But she's the goddess of war, amongst other things.

QUESTION: The people who are supposed to know the most about war are the military professionals. There was a question about this earlier. I can say that a lot of what military professionals know about the theory and nature and the manner of war comes from Clausewitz. I would say he is the main text who is taught to teach people about sort of the deep meaning of warfare.

I wonder if you have thought at all about the possibility of using Homer as a military theory text. Can he be a complement or a corollary to Clausewitz, as it's being taught to the people who are supposed to know about war the best, which I know from personal experience, but from books, too?

CAROLINE ALEXANDER: You know what my answer is going to be: Yes, it can.

I think that the issues that are addressed, again, breaking down into this issue of command—the exploration of the dynamics between somebody who gives orders and somebody who must take them, and what the implications are of insubordination, which is ultimately what the first scene between Achilles and his commander-in-chief is all about—are profound enough and vexed enough that they would, at the very least, invite very good, heated discussion. You can move all the way through the Iliad like that. The scene with Patroclus and the death of Patroclus and the implications of that to Achilles and his men are very much—today one of the leading causes of war trauma is loss of one's buddy. That's recognized almost medically.

You watch this man Achilles virtually implode when his comrade goes down, and he feels guilt for it.

So there are themes that I think you could throw out there. I know that's not quite what you are talking about. It isn't about strategy. But I think that the dynamics of the implications of being a soldier are explored thoroughly from one subject after another. You could almost do a seminar by the great beat in the Iliad, and it would certainly make young men and women today have to ponder certain things that they might have been taking for granted.

What we know about the Iliad is that the time that Homer is actually composing, the eighth century, is a period of enormous social innovation and change. The circumstances under which the story would have been told have also been changed. What you sense is that some old hidebound military epic is now, in a new light, a new kind of social unrest where the word of a king is not taken as being from God, is being explored. I think that is a situation you could replicate very well in a [military] classroom, to better effect, possibly, than in a civilian classroom, because you would actually have people who had some real experience to put into it and just get beyond the poetry. I think that would probably be more faithful to the tradition.

It's very unfortunate that academics have sort of appropriated this, I feel, because it's bigger than that.

QUESTION: I would like to ask you to speak a little bit more about the ambiguity, as Homer portrays it, between friend and foe. Listening to you, I thought about our own great destruction, the Civil War, where that was very much present.

CAROLINE ALEXANDER: There are two levels that one can do this. One is at the textual level, looking at Homer himself, and the other is the historic background that we can see informs this.

In the textual level, one of the most striking characteristics—again, always brought out in the survey courses—is that many, many men are killed in the Iliad. I knew it at one point, but I can't tell you off the top of my head now. They are described in realistic-seeming detail, these deaths. But the majority of them are never just names. So it will be "Hephates (phonetic), who was a kind man, who helped any wayfarer who came by his door," or "So-and-so, who was the son of a priest and left his father to grieve." There are these little potted biographies, just a few lines, that accompany the names of the men who are killed. Four times as many Trojans are killed in this Greek epic as Greeks.

In practical terms, what should be apparent to any writer—it's not like this happened and Homer wasn't aware of what was going on—what this means is that this epic is threaded with pathos for the enemy/foe. That in itself is immediately a little disconcerting, because it means there is no victory where you, the audience, stand unambiguously on the side of the person who does the killing. There's never anything to celebrate. Some of the men who are doing the killing are not first-rank heroes.

You don't even have the sense, "Thank goodness Ajax has survived and will be with us through the epic." It's just death following death following death, and all are pathetic. There's nobody there where you feel, "Good, I'm glad he's dead." Every dead of the lowest is pathetic, and of the high-rank heroes, the death of Patroclus is devastating, the death of Hector is devastating, and although the Iliad doesn't show it, we know we're looking at Achilles doomed when the last words of the Iliad close. We're as good as looking at him dead. That is also heartbreaking.

So within the text, there is this blurring.

There is also a very famous scene which occurs in Book 6—possibly strategically in Book 6—ahead of the great parting scene between Hector and his wife Andromache, again watching the enemy say goodbye in the most loving and unambiguous way to his loving and adoring wife, a scene that you cannot read without hoping they both live, and yet they are both Trojans and this is a Greek epic.

But prefatory to that is a scene between two soldiers, Diomedes, the great Greek hero, andGlaucus, who is a sort of first-rank Trojan ally. They meet on the battlefield. He says, "Who are you?" Then come out the long genealogies—"I'm the son of so-and-so and he went here and he did this."

Then Diomedes says, "Ah, then you are my guest-friend, because my father also went there and there, and he entertained your grandfather and he gave him this cup. I have seen it in my house. Therefore, let's us exchange gifts and let's avoid each other on the field of war."

The epic itself works hard to blur these lines, and you are always a little off-foot.

Now, in terms of some of the details that you can tease out from history, one thing that is very intriguing is that there are number of phrases in the Greek that are clumsy idioms. They don't quite ring true. We know what they mean, but they sound a little clumsy. A few of these, a handful—and I have to read this from the scholarship; I'm not a Hittitologist—linguists have shown that these are actually Hittite idioms. Hittite is the language of the Anatolian people at this time. The Trojans were Hittite-related people. The Trojans spoke Luwian, which is a dialect related to Hittite.

So the fact that you have in this Greek epic idiomatic language from the other side shows some mixing that is more than—perhaps it's just commercial, but it shows an awareness of people when you start picking up their terminology. 

In archaeology, studies now, right now, that are happening—I think for the next ten years—are going to be exploring more about the nature of who these people are that we categorize so neatly as Mycenaeans and Hittites. We know that the Mycenaeans were raiding, for example, Hittite women. There's a Hittite text that shows that 7,000 people in one raid, men and women, were transported from Anatolia to Greece. Those people intermarry, have children, speak language, carry their customs. So I think there was much more familiarity historically, and this may be reflected also in the epic.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you very much for this tutorial. I will no longer be able to say the Iliad is Greek to me.

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