Our tragic will to violence

Achilles defeating Hector: detail from Peter Paul Rubens's painting from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Pau, France. Photograph: Bridgeman/Getty

Achilles defeating Hector: detail from Peter Paul Rubens's painting from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Pau, France. Photograph: Bridgeman/Getty


POETRY: The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of the Iliadby Caroline Alexander, Faber & Faber, 296pp, £20

IT WAS A 10-YEAR CONFLICT that “established no boundaries, won no territory and furthered no cause”, and yet, thanks to Homer’s epic poems and their manifold reworkings through the centuries, the Trojan War has come to signify all wars. The universality of the struggles depicted in the Iliadand the moral questions it raises preoccupy the American author and classicist Caroline Alexander, in her new book.

Reading the epic poem through the prism of contemporary geopolitics to see what it has to say about war, she draws parallels with more recent conflicts, including the first World War, Vietnam and Iraq, and considers the impact of combat trauma.

“Reaching deep into his already ancient story, Homer has grasped a savage and enduring truth . . . The ancient tale of this particular Bronze Age war was transported into a sublime and sweeping evocation of the devastation of all war of any time.”

Neither an essay nor a textual commentary in the strict sense, her book is a curious hybrid, whose intended readership is uncertain. While it initially suggests a study of the social and philosophical significance of war, based on Homer, it is, in fact, a spirited retelling of the entire Iliad, book by book, interspersed with somewhat diffuse background elucidation – demonstrating that she has learned a little of the art of digression from Homer.

Using Richmond Lattimore’s 1951 translation from the Greek, she quotes whole speeches and set pieces, from the bitter quarrel between the Greek warrior Achilles and his commander, Agamemnon, that sets the events of the poem in motion to the final scene of grief-stricken compassion between Achilles and the elderly Trojan king, Priam. The quoted excerpts are so extensive that her book could almost be a substitute for reading the text independently: one chapter is given over to her own translation of Book 22 of the Iliad, which describes the death of Hector, Priam’s son, at the hands of Achilles.

Her research is impressively extensive: detailed end notes for each chapter give an overview of the current strands of Homeric scholarship. While these seem to be aimed at the specialist reader, her main narrative assumes no prior knowledge of the text, and she fills in the historical and mythical background carefully.

Rather than attempting to add to the work of the scholars she cites, she is more concerned to highlight the ways in which the Iliademphasises the pain and destructiveness of war, stressing repeatedly that both the Greeks (Achaeans, as they are known in the poem) and the besieged Trojans long for the baneful war to end and to return to their families.

“The Iliadis ever mindful that war is about men killing or men killed . . . No warrior dies happily or well. No reward awaits the soldier’s valour; no heaven will receive him.”

Central to this antiwar theme is the hero, “god-like Achilles”, who starts by rejecting the authority of his flawed leader, Agamemnon, and then appears to question the point of the war. Alexander places considerable weight on the speech Achilles makes to the delegation of his comrades who visit his tent, attempting to persuade him back into the battle from which he has withdrawn in anger. Here, she argues, Achilles is rejecting the heroic code that defines these warriors, and Homer is making a “shocking, dramatic break” with an ancient epic tradition of the return of the hero to battle, and moving into “thrillingly new ground”.

Refusing to be appeased, Achilles threatens to leave Troy and return to his distant home, because he values his life more than the goal of a glorious death in battle. “But a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force once it slips through his clenched teeth,” he says.

It seems that in her admiration for Achilles (“the great leader the Achaeans never had”) Alexander overstates the extent to which he is really turning away from war, taking his words at face value and neglecting the overall context of this speech. He has withdrawn from the battle because of a public slight by Agamemnon to his all-important honour, which has not yet been retracted. Still feeling aggrieved, he holds out for something more than the delegation offers; the reader (the listener, in Homer’s day, to an oral recitation) knows that he has a different outcome in mind, and that he has enlisted divine intervention to ensure that it comes to pass. When his comrades have been beaten back to their ships by the Trojans and have suffered crushing defeats, he plans to rejoin the battle to prove that he is their pre-eminent, indispensable hero.

While Alexander views past tendencies to interpret the Iliadas a martial epic glorifying war as “one of the great ironies of literature”, she may be in danger of conversely downplaying its ambivalence about war. Many epithets throughout the poem refer to the joy of battle, as well as its horror. In the detailed descriptions Homer gives of hand-to-hand combat between warriors, a sense of excitement pulses through the revulsion. As Achilles goes on a killing spree after the death of his beloved friend Patroclus, brutality and thrill become difficult to extricate.

In a memorable essay on the Iliad, written on the eve of another war in 1939, Simone Weil explored this will to violence, an aspect of human nature that cannot be dispelled by wishful thinking. Violence compels and repels at the same time; Homer’s extraordinary achievement was to express this strange truth and to understand its tragic force.

Helen Meany is the editor of Irish Theatre Magazine