Homer’s Iliad—a 3,000-year-old epic poem—continues to shape how we think about war. “Every adjective evokes the destruction and tragedy of war,” says Caroline Alexander, author of The Iliad: A New Translation. Alexander, a frequent contributor to National Geographic, has made her name writing about modern-day epics like the Mutiny on the Bounty and Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. But Homer has been what the trained classicist calls “the abiding passion of my heart.” (Read Alexander’s article on how modern soldiers recover from brain injuries.)
Speaking from her home in Maine, she explains how her African students in Malawi immediately “got” The Iliad; why Hollywood would demand a rewrite of the epic; and how Homer still has much to teach us about war and the human condition. (Discover why Homer matters.)
Many people think The Iliad glorifies war and machismo. Is that fair?
It’s not so at all. In America, most people who’ve read The Iliad have read it in college in the first year of their humanities courses, as part of a survey of Western or other literature. You’re assigned a few books to read at break-neck speed and there’s this tradition that The Iliad is about war. It’s very easy to support that tradition by picking out four or five main scenes. But when one reads the entirety of the epic, it is unambiguously clear at every turn that the poem is evoking the blighting effect of this war on every single participant in it. Old men, civilians, children, captive women or wives, as well as the warriors, like Achilles—they all decry it. Every adjective evokes the destruction and tragedy of war. It’s literally a war of tears.
The action of The Iliad takes place not during the heat of battle but during a protracted stalemate. Hollywood would have demanded a rewrite, wouldn’t it?
Absolutely! [Laughs] Hollywood would make a clever, psychological thriller. The fuse of The Iliad is not the abduction of Helen of Troy, which started the war. The action opens at the end of the war, when nobody’s doing much of anything. The Greeks are restlessly waiting around, then stricken by plague. The Trojans are embattled in Troy. But by having so little background action, attention is focused on the eruption of trouble in the Greek camp between Achilles, the greatest warrior, and the commander-in-chief, Agamemnon.
The broad vision of the poem is that internal discord—disruption of the chain of command, subversion, even mutinous words—can be as fatal and destabilizing as a war between clearly drawn opponents. That’s where The Iliad declares that it’s going to be interested in things that are different from the martial epics of days of old. It’s interested in the minds and motivations and psychology of people as much as just the slugfest.
Achilles is one of the central characters. Why is he so pivotal?
He’s an interesting hero because he’s an outsider, an outlander. That kind of terminology is used even by serious scholars, who have analyzed how his language differs from those of other characters. He doesn’t quite belong. One very plausible theory is that, while the story of the Trojan War arose from an epic tradition, the legacy of Achilles originated in folk tales. If you look at traits of his—his magic armour or his horses, which speak in The Iliad—you can see the fairy tale context. He is such a wonderful folk-tale figure, who was so appealing and glamorous that he just had to be absorbed into this great, rolling story. Homer exploits that to very good effect. Achilles is central to the action. He’s the Achaeans’ absolute best warrior, the heart of the army. Everything he thinks and does is central to their fate. Yet he has a kind of distance that gives him the perspective to make the great speeches that he does in The Iliad, like the one in Book Nine where he declares that life is more valuable than glory.
You taught classics in Malawi in the 1980s. What did your African students made of Homer?
Back then, I was 25 and my job was to set up a new classics department. The living circumstances of most people in ancient Greece were very akin to the kind of environment my students came from: rural villages scattered about the countryside with a keen interest in communal entertainment, which included a lot of oral poetry. A Western classics teacher has to work very hard to set the context of the time—what it would be like if you were Medea and when you married your husband you had to move to a different region, with different people and had a fascination with magic. My students knew all of that from their own lives. So I came away with a very real appreciation for this glib phrase we use in the West, that the classics are “universal.” In Malawi, I realized they really are universal.
It turned out that the dictator of Malawi, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, was an ardent classicist. I interviewed him for an article many years later. He was an old man by then and not compos mentis. All he could remember was his Latin. So my encounter with the longest ruling dictator in sub-Saharan Africa was conducted entirely in Latin.
Other epic poems about the Trojan Wars did not survive. Why did The Iliad stand the test of time?
I believe it was simply because it was the best telling. In Malawi, I did a lot of reading about different oral traditions in Africa and how they transitioned into the literate world. I believe the best explanation for The Iliad is that it was born at exactly this pivotal time. You had a person, Homer, of unknown age, who had grown up listening to people spinning live oral traditions. Then there was social change disruptive enough to allow someone like him to do the unthinkable: fashion the epic material in a way that is not possible in living oral tradition, which holds you to the format people already know. Homer took advantage of a break in tradition, which enabled a master poet like him to understand that by tweaking this traditional material, he could do something wholly remarkable and novel—use this martial epic to evoke the tragedy of war.
Is there an actual first copy of The Iliad that you based your work on?
No, there is not. The earliest, best, and most complete Iliad is from 1100 or so A.D., in parchment. It’s in the Vatican library. From the name, Venetus A, we can assume it was made in Italy. What is particularly electrifying about that manuscript is that it has in the margins this wonderful scholarly commentary, which goes back to the ancient Hellenistic era, in the 4th century B.C. Later commentaries were made by the librarians in Alexandria, who were working from actual texts of Homer they had before them. There’s also an enormous amount of very painstaking, erudite technical work that’s been done over the centuries by modern Homeric scholars. The text I used, by Martin West, is the latest rendition of this. He went back and actually looked, either by physically holding in his hand or working from high resolution scans, at every single scrap of material, whether papyrus or manuscript, that had survived from antiquity with words of Homer on it.
Our world is again riven with war and conflict. What guidance can The Iliad give us today?
I believe that, tragically, war is inescapable. I know that’s not a very politically correct thing to say. But when you read the scenes of rampage and battle in The Iliad, which Achilles casually evokes when he says, “I’ve stormed these cities from my ship,” and then look at what is happening with, say, ISIS, and the carnage and brutality there, you can see a lot of similarities. But the fact The Iliad still speaks true doesn’t just mean that it has prophetic powers. It means that those truths have always been there. They are enduring truths.
One scholar calculated that if you went back and chose any century at random in the past 5,000 years, about 96 years of that random 100 would show large scale conflict in one part of the globe or another. The first thing that The Iliad underscores is that violence seems to be in our genes. Whatever we do, war drags us in, even presidents who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. You can’t escape it.
The other thing that The Iliad tells us is that there will be tragedy. Somebody will knock on the door and a woman will go out and see a soldier standing in dress greens on her doorstep; and her heart will sink because she’ll know that he’s come to tell her that her husband or son has been slain in war. The Iliad is not complete in addressing the question of whether there’s such a thing as righteous war. That’s where we have to use our own historical memory. I think few would argue that World War II was anything other than a necessary war. The Iliad tells us that we’ll always have to make this decision. The world is never going to revert to some peaceful state, and the decision to go to war will always bring with it multifaceted tragedy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.