Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Homer's Greatest Talent

On the battlefield itself, there is no good or evil- only those who survive
Homer has been a big influence on my own fictional work. What I consider his greatest aspect as an author is his ability to severely blur the line between good and bad. Prevalent far more so in the Iliad than in the Odyssey (since the whole premise of the latter poem is that the suitors were violating the sacred laws of hospitality, which by default makes them evil and even unholy), it is difficult for the reader to truly draw the line between good and evil in the Trojan War.

While we know Achilles has some very negative characteristics- his overweening pride and his elevation of his glory before the livelihood of his own comrades, we are shown that he has good characteristics to him as well- his valor and courage on the battlefield, and the deep bond that he shares with his friends- Patroclus most of all. He does have the ability to realize that he made some terrible mistakes throughout the poem, and the guilt of owning up to them is part of what makes the scene between him and Priam at the end so powerful.

Hector, far and away the most noble of all the major characters to fight in the conflict, I have mentioned before, also has his dark side. He at times revels in the slaying of Troy's enemies and disregards the portents of the gods at times. Hector is probably the clearest example of how war can turn even noble men into savage beasts when the time comes.

It is not only the main characters that are blurred in their motivations and agency. The two warring factions are also hard to judge as to whether they should be put in the classically 'good' or 'evil' camp.

While the Greeks are motivated by revenge and greed, they also legitimately want justice to be served for the outrage Paris committed when he stole Menelaus' wife and a horde of priceless treasures. The Trojans, while wanting to defend their country, are themselves enablers of Paris' crimes by refusing to give him up.

Most brilliantly, the focus of the actual action is not so much on Greeks and Trojans- but human beings. Abstract ideals and morality is crushed, almost literally, in the clash between the two armies. When people die, they are painted in their full humanity just as it is being snatched away from them. Greek and Trojan labels are immediately cut away as men are being cut down. Sword, spear, and arrow don't care about nationality or status in society. A Greek casualty can easily be a Trojan casualty and vice versa. The lines between combating sides is erased utterly in actual combat.

This dynamic prevents the Trojan War story from devolving into a simplistic, one-dimensional clash between good and evil, and may be the most enduring reason why it is the standard for any great war story. I try to the best of my ability to follow this model in my own work, so that the two sides and their characters are fleshed out and easy to become enthralled by.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Embassy to Achilles


I've been neglecting this blog for too long and it's time for an update.

One of the most pivotal, and in my mind, well-written parts of the Iliad was Book IX- which is the same title as this blog entry. It entirely sums the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon and its failure would lead to the disastrous consequences of the second-third of the poem for Achilles, the result of his overweening pride and anger. There is also subtle gamesmanship going on, led by the master of that genre- Odysseus.

At the end of the day's fighting (in Book VIII), the Greeks are routed by Hector, with the blessing of Zeus. It was then that Agamemnon realized what a mistake he'd made by alienating Achilles at the beginning of the poem, and he sends an embassy to try and make peace with the raging leader of the Myrmidons. Three people are chosen to go to negotiate with Achilles, and each of them represents a different, desirable aspect to appeal to Achilles' honor:

Odysseus- wealth and power, the spoils of war
Phoenix- a warning of imminent ruin- and how overweening pride can cost the proudest dearly
Ajax- friendship and camaraderie

Achilles welcomes all three men into his tent, telling them that they are the comrades he loves most among the Greeks. After exchanges of pleasantries and the customary meal shared with friends and aristocratic peers, the embassy gets down to business.

Odysseus' appeal is the longest and most polished. The prizes that he offers Achilles would be enough to tempt most men into acquiescence to doing anything. Firstly, he conveys Agamemnon's offer of Briseis back to Achilles, along with an oath before the gods that he never touched her. In addition to Briseis, Agamemnon offers seven more beautiful women from Lesbos skilled in crafts plus twenty more of his personal picks of the captured Trojan women should the city fall, seven tripods, ten bars of gold, twenty cauldrons, a dozen horses, the hand of whichever of his daughters Achilles chooses in marriage, and seven cities to rule over. It is a monumental offer, and knowing Achilles' nature- his hunger for glory (which is partially recognized by the amount of loot one has taken), it seems like something that he would be foolish to spurn.

Odysseus did leave one thing out though- he did not tell Achilles that Agamemnon quipped: "Let him submit to me! I am the greater warlord, the greater man!"

Achilles however, sniffed a rat, and knew that Agamemnon's offer was not genuine. He is thus one of the few people in the Epic Cycle to see through Odysseus' deceptions. It wasn't that Agamemnon wouldn't have offered him the gifts, it was that Agamemnon would offer them as a price to pay for Achilles' service- and an affirmation of his own generosity rather than Achilles' worth on the battlefield. There is not a semblance of remorse from Agamemnon or admission that he had been in the wrong, and Odysseus made the fatal mistake (again, one of the few he makes) of not conveying the illusion that there had been one.

Achilles turns down Agamemnon's offer, stating to Odysseus that no amount of wealth could buy a life that was lost. He tells of his choice between the two fates laid down by his mother: a short life full of glory, or a long life full of love and happiness. Achilles opted to choose the former- so that his name would live on forever, but now that he has been denied this glory, he says he is choosing to go home, to choose life.

When Odysseus' appeals are turned down, Phoenix, a mentor of Achilles who had a large hand in raising him, moves to speak next. He tells the story of Meleager, whose refusal to fight nearly brought his country to ruin. As the enemies gathered in strength and stormed in, he still would not fight- even in the face of the offer of splendid gifts from his countrymen. Finally, Meleager was roused to fight by his wife, Cleopatra- but he paid the price of his refusal. He was able to fend off his enemies, true, but the gifts were refused him at the end, and his countrymen are not exactly grateful for his services. Phoenix warns Achilles not to make the same mistake.

But Achilles is still not moved. He could not care less about Agamemnon or his gifts, and refuses to concede. He does however relent on his resolution to sail home the next day, saying that he would decide in the morning whether to sail home or not.

Finally, Ajax is moved to speak. His speech was the shortest and and most direct, without any ulterior motives. He was open and honest, telling Achilles that they desired nothing more than to be his closest comrades and dearest friends. This moves Achilles to say that he will stay on with the army, but will not yet return to battle. He will only take up arms again when Hector rampages at his own ships.

With that, the three men leave to relay the bad news to Agamemnon.

There is subtle messaging and politicking going on throughout the chapter. Odysseus, as usual, is the most deceptive. Phoenix is more honest but certainly has a motive greater than Achilles at heart, at least according to Achilles' mindset. Ajax is the most honest and appeals directly to friendship. Nevertheless, Achilles refuses to yield. His status as the greatest warrior of the Greeks- and the respect that that position demands, is non-negotiable- even at the expense of the lives of Achilles' own comrades and all the earthly wealth that Agamemnon promises. The threat of their loss thus meant nothing to him, and from that point of view Phoenix is serving Agamemnon's, rather than Achilles' best interests. The embassy did not serve its purpose, and its failure would lead to the death of Patroclus in Book XVI of the poem.

In a way, Phoenix' warning came true after all. Achilles lost wealth- the wealth of friendship supplied by his best friend- and would enjoy none of what Agamemnon offers (or anything else he'd won in the war), for his own death was fated by the events that were set in motion. The embassy is thus a stark warning of what failure to negotiate can often lead to, and that pride often comes before the fall. Everyone lost due to the embassy's failure.

I wonder if Congress should be mandated to read this chapter of the Iliad?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Analytic vs Holistic Reasoning and the Homeric Question

Homer, by Rembrandt

I read an article outlining a famous prisoner's dilemma game given to indigenous peoples. It dovetailed with a problem in the social "sciences" (I don't like to call them sciences for a few reasons, but that's beyond the scope of this entry or probably this blog)- lack of diversity in the examination of test subjects. The outcome of this particular game was shown to challenge the assumptions of universality present in many of the social sciences like economics and psychology. It later goes on to detail how Westerners tend to think analytically- breaking things apart and analyzing the pieces, while most other cultures tend to think holistically- viewing and understanding the big picture of things.

This got me thinking about the classic Homeric Question- were the Iliad and Odyssey composed by the same author? Even further, was each individual poem composed by the same author or was it a collective effort of the entirety of a people over many generations? The attempts to answer this question illustrates in some ways the dichotomy between analytic and holistic reasoning.

The introduction in the Penguin Classics version of the Iliad goes over the question in great depth, and I will be citing it often.

During the 19th century, it was believed (probably for emotional rather than any coherent logical reasons) that the Iliad and Odyssey were a collective undertaking- a string of poems from different authors that merged together to form the modern epics. The onus was on Homeric scholars to take apart the pieces to construct this epic. It was the age of nationalism- the spirit let loose upon Europe after the French Revolution. It was also the age of equality- the great, collective efforts of the nation were in vogue over works of individual genius. This spirit was applied to the Homeric poems. They were seen to be the collective undertaking of the Greek people that merged together over time (Knox, 9). The problem of course quickly became apparent- nobody could agree on what constituted these separate poems. The 19th century rolled on and this basic problem could not be solved.

The points of contention were where the differences in the text indicated differences in authorship and time of composition. I've highlighted before the appearances of seemingly out of place technology within the text- iron tools and weapons for example, that the trained eye can find at certain points in the poems. Beyond this however, the culture seemed out of place. It's been pointed out numerous times that the Greek kings more resemble Dark Age warlords rather than the centralized monarchs operating out of sophisticated palace bureaucracies that were the norm for the Mycenaean period of the Late Bronze Age. Analytic scholars tackling the infamous Homeric Question enthusiastically pored over these differences in culture and technology, pointing out the inconsistencies that seem to suggest the hand of more than one author.

One other measure of the passage of time within the poem was the change in the language used to write it. The letter 'W' for instance, disappeared from the Greek alphabet early on (Knox, 13). Yet it is used frequently within the poems. Could this suggest that these particular parts of the poems came earlier than other parts of the poems that did not use the letter? Perhaps, but scholars were quickly confounded, as the letter appeared alongside other things that would suggest a later composition.

Another major avenue of inquiry was opened by Heinrich Schliemann, whose discoveries in the latter part of the 19th century of the sites of Mycenae and Troy opened a world that even the Classical Greeks did not know existed. Would there be physical evidence from these lost civilizations that correlated with the descriptions in the poems? Surely the world Homer was describing correlated with these fantastic civilizations, and not the comparative backwardness of Dark Age Greece, right? (Knox, 11)

To make a long story short for the purposes of this blog, all of these avenues were eventually exhausted. There was quite a bit of evidence that the poems coalesced and accreted over time, but there was no way to in any meaningful fashion point to specific places as definitively the work of a different author. They were simply too jumbled to make any analysis on these grounds meaningful. When the 20th century came, many scholars had given up. It seemed that the Unitarians- those who stressed that the overall style and progression of the poems suggested the hand of a single author, were correct. Unlike the Analysts, whose name suggests their style of viewing the poems, the Unitarians looked at the epics more holistically. What was important was not the inconsistencies (that can often be found even in the works of modern authors), but rather the big picture of the poems.

To the Analysts 'Homer' didn't exist. He was just an abstraction of the work of a whole people. To the Unitarians, 'Homer' may not have existed, but nonetheless the poems were written essentially by someone of the same name, as the famous adage in the field goes.

As the article linked at the top stated, analytic reasoning examines the pieces of the puzzle (which in my opinion can be very useful, as the scientific method has shown), but it can also take an object out of its larger context. This may lead to misunderstanding, as we can see with the comparative failure of the Analytic school in the 19th century.

An American scholar by the name of Milman Parry was the man that found the answer that best describes the Homeric riddle, and in some ways it was one that was a fusion between analytic and holistic reasoning. He found that the poems and whoever wrote them were the heirs of a long tradition of oral poetry. The poems did coalesce over time in countless oral performances (the structure of which can be seen through analysis), but their present form was given to us by a singular talented author that brought these different tales and short stories together to form a truly epic poem (the structure of which can be seen by looking at the big picture) (Knox, 21). Parry's work deserves its own entry, and so I will not go into it in detail here.

In my opinion the work of Parry is the best answer to the analytic/holistic dichotomy. One form of reasoning shouldn't be discarded in favor of the other. Both can be used in conjunction to give us the greatest understanding.

Sources Cited:

Bernard Knox, The Iliad (Penguin Classics Version) Introduction (New York: Penguin Group)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Odysseus' Infidelities

Odysseus Chasing Circe (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen at Wikimedia Commons)
In my previous post I mentioned in depth Penelope's steadfast devotion to her husband. No matter how much her refusal to be unfaithful to Odysseus was costing her- both materially and psychologically, she continued to hold out against the suitors, hoping for Odysseus' miraculous return. Her faithfulness and management of the household were as crucial to Odysseus' success as other allies like Telemachus, Eumaeus the swineherd, Philoetius the cowherd, and even Athena. Faithfulness can be seen to be in some ways the ultimate test of a good woman in the eyes of the Homeric audience. Penelope passed, so she was good. Clytemnestra failed, so she was bad.

These same rules however, did not apply to men. Odysseus did not pass the test of faithfulness to his wife, but he wasn't denigrated or scorned for it. On the other hand, Homer doesn't praise him for it either, it simply was.

We know of at least two affairs that Odysseus had, and they were with two goddesses- not too shabby, I take it? The likely answer is that he could have had more. He was one of the Greek commanders and as such was in a position to amass a lot of wealth while on the expedition against Troy, wealth that included slave girls who as a matter of routine would be expected to convey sexual favors to their masters.

Clearly not hypocrisy, right? Feminists understandably have a field day with these sorts of things, pointing to it as evidence of a suppression of female sexuality while glorifying male sexuality. While Penelope is suffering in her husband's absence, Odysseus is off fucking Calypso and Circe.

While Odysseus' actions simply can't be entirely explained away under a modern egalitarian lens, I wouldn't go so far as to label him entirely a hypocrite. Odysseus too, is clearly suffering from such a prolonged absence from his wife. The poem even begins by telling the audience that Odysseus sits on the shores of Ogygia (Calypso's island), longingly looking out to sea, crying every day, despite the fact that he shares the nymph's bed every night. He is clearly not enjoying his time with Calypso, and is desperate to go home. The most startling illustration of this is his refusal of Calypso's offer to make him immortal, and pointing out that though Penelope could never match the beauty of an immortal goddess, she is still his wife and he wants to be with her.

His affair with Circe is a bit more difficult to judge. After a year passed on Circe's island, Odysseus' men prompted him to set into motion events for which they would return home, implying that Odysseus may have grown content to simply stay there.

However the only reason Odysseus began his affair with Circe is because Hermes told him that it was necessary for him to- in order to rescue his men from her spell that turned them into animals. He started it out of a sense of duty and loyalty to his comrades, not lust.

There is a double standard, but this does not mean Odysseus isn't suffering as badly as Penelope is from their separation. The fact that he was willing to go through such hardships instead of giving up, and willing to go through them even when tempted with more immediately gratifying things, including immortality itself, speaks volumes as to his love and affection for her.

Ultimately I think the chief discrepancy between the treatment of male and female sexuality comes down to one simple biological reality- women bear children and there is thus no question as to maternity. However, in an age long before the advent of DNA testing, there was no way to tell who the child's father was unless the woman was having sex with one man and one man only around the time of the child's conception. Inheritance of property was a foremost concern and thus the legitimacy of the child needed to be above suspicion. Indeed, a central theme of the Odyssey is the estate that Telemachus would inherit. The continuation of the male line was of paramount importance, and the faithfulness of the mother was thus of equal importance as it was necessary for that continuation.

The logical response to this biological reality is that Odysseus, in theory, gets to sleep with other women (or goddesses) without anyone questioning the ethics of his actions. Penelope does not. But this isn't to say that Odysseus is terrible. One thing a romantic could take out of the Odyssey is that despite his affairs with two goddesses, Odysseus wanted more than anything to return back to the wife that bore him his son, the only woman he ever truly loved.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Penelope- The Most Fascinating Woman of Her Era

Penelope, Laertes, and Telemachus

The title is a dead-ringer for what this entry is all about. There are few notable women to compare her to, but Penelope stands head and shoulders above the other women of her era not only in terms of her intelligence, but the overall depth of her character. Even the infamous Helen serves as a rather one-dimensional persona- to tempt every man around her with her beauty, which often leads to their ruin.

Certainly Penelope is described by Homer as being a great beauty, even in her middle age during the events of the Odyssey. But the difference is that her beauty is incidental and doesn't define her. While Helen doesn't seem to be much of a life partner to anyone- whether that be Menelaus or Paris (although we see hints of a partnership during Helen's cameos in the Odyssey, perhaps as a sign of arranged marriage partners gradually warming to each other over the years), and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife is the ultimate example in the myths of a relationship gone bad (more on that later), Penelope is the ideal companion that any strong man even today would want. Like Agamemnon serving as Odysseus' foil throughout the Odyssey, Clytemnestra serves as Penelope's. The former's relationship disintegrated while the latter's stood firm despite all the signs throughout the poem that it should not have.

Penelope has been praised in the poem and for thousands of years for her faithfulness. Despite the fact that it would be common sense that Odysseus should be assumed dead after a decade of not returning home after the cessation of hostilities at Troy, Penelope cannot accept such a train of thought. Despite two decades of separation she still loves him dearly, even when continuing to be devoted to him is profoundly straining to both her emotional well-being and her son's future inheritance and interests. In modern economic theory, Penelope might be described as being irrational. She is hoping beyond hope that Odysseus is still alive, despite overwhelming evidence pointing to the contrary, and is seemingly acting against her own self-interest (and certainly the interests of her son) in holding out, spurning the suitors. The link between love and insanity is quite often described by scientists, and Penelope seems to fit the bill.

And yet Penelope is clearly not acting insane or irrational (in the common parlance of the terms) in the poem and throughout her ordeal with the suitors. She is shown to be extremely clever and manipulative, matching her husband's own infamous wiles. While Odysseus devised the Trojan Horse, tricked the cyclops Polyphemus, and masterfully donned a disguise to manipulate the suitors, Penelope kept the suitors at bay for three years with her famous shroud ruse. Telling the suitors that it wouldn't be right to leave her house without weaving a shroud for her elderly father-in-law Laertes, she would weave by day and unweave by night, until she was finally caught shortly before the beginning of the Odyssey and forced to finish. She makes it as hard on the suitors as she possibly can the entire way through, and ultimately sets before them the trial of the bow- the means of their destruction.

The bow raises some interesting questions into which Penelope's womanhood and faithfulness are intimately tied. Just as Odysseus returned home, it seems that Penelope is ready to marry another. Yet Penelope blurts out to the nurse Eurycleia to wash her master's feet when describing the stranger that is Odysseus. She quickly corrects herself by saying that the stranger was Odysseus' age only. Does Penelope know it was actually Odysseus or doesn't she? Homer gives us no definitive answer and the question is left ambiguous (this is a scene in which I particularly praise the TV miniseries in 1997 starring Armand Assente- it nailed the ambiguity spot-on). Perhaps Penelope simply knew that no suitor would be able to string Odysseus' bow, and could have used it as another ruse to wait out longer.

Regardless of the truth of the matter which we will never know, Penelope was instrumental to the suitors' destruction and setting things to rights. Without her steadfast resolve and her cleverness, Odysseus would never be able to have his aristeia of the poem- his triumphant return.

Agamemnon admits as much at the beginning of Book 24, when he praises Odysseus- not for returning home and defeating the suitors, but for choosing the right woman in Penelope as his wife.

Agamemnon serves somewhat as Odysseus' antithesis throughout the poem. While his journey home was short and without trouble, his time at Troy left him out of the loop regarding the goings-on in Mycenae. Unlike Penelope, who managed to withstand two decades of her husband's absence without infidelity to him, Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra was seduced by Aegisthus, and the two ruled Mycenae in his absence.

When Agamemnon returned, he suspected nothing and took no precautions. He proceeded to be murdered by the pair in his own home. This stands in contrast to Odysseus, whose journey home was the hardest of all the Greeks. Not knowing what went on in Ithaca in the two decades of his absence, Odysseus leaves his impulses behind and proceeds along a cautious route, winning him much praise from Athena in Book 13.

Likewise, Penelope held her fidelity to her husband, and was devoted to his interests. She is the opposite of Clytemnestra, who was unfaithful and devoted herself to causes opposing her husband's interests. A typical feminist might look at this as the reason why Clytemnestra is reviled while Penelope is praised. To a certain extent that's true, but it goes far deeper than that.

No one wants to be betrayed. The innermost sanctum of Hell in Dante's Inferno was reserved for traitors for a reason. It is probably the most insidious act humankind is capable of, and it rightly brings out strong emotions in the victims of betrayal- building trust and intimacy with a person only to see it come crashing down in the worst way possible when the deception is revealed. Infidelity in matters of the heart is the worst of all acts of betrayal since intimacy is the closest between romantic and sexual partners. Such betrayal by a woman he shared the closest possible bond with is what happened to Agamemnon, and he praises Penelope for keeping true to her heart and not betraying Odysseus.

There is one other caveat to this. Obviously in the world as written by Homer, it was expected that women would marry and not remain single. If her husband died, she would marry someone else. However, Homer makes clear just how inferior the suitors were as compared to Odysseus. They couldn't even string the man's bow. I highly doubt this would be the case if Odysseus' peers at Troy were amongst the suitors, but they weren't. The suitors, despite their noble lineage and ample wealth, were simply not Odysseus' peers- they were still lesser men.

Hypergamy- the act of marrying or mating 'up' in social status amongst women in particular, is a common notion in the field of evolutionary psychology. From a female perspective, it simply makes sense to mate with a man of higher standing than herself (for men it may in fact be somewhat the opposite). Yet the suitors, in addition to being rude and discourteous, were simply not in Odysseus' league, and Penelope was not attracted to them. It is not surprising that she was hesitant to remarry.

And? She shouldn't have had to to. Telemachus, despite lamenting at the loss of his inheritance, couldn't bear pushing his mother out against her will, showing his respect for her. Odysseus' triumphant return nulled that possibility.

Through their love and devotion to each other, against all odds and despite the high costs in emotional turmoil and drained wealth over the years, Odysseus and Penelope were reunited and their marriage seemed to be as strong as it ever was. They are the perfect companions- equal in status and intelligence, respectful of one another to the foremost extent, and united in their interests to have a strong family. They would never turn their backs on each other and would feel incomplete without the other's presence, supreme in their diametrical spheres (the battlefield and politics versus the domestic life at home).

Of course, Odysseus did in fact sleep with other women than Penelope during the two decades of his absence, but that's another topic.

Overall, Penelope is the most dimensioned, interesting, and threshed out woman in the Epic Cycle (the only other woman that comes close is Andromache, Hector's wife, but she is not given agency to the extent Penelope is). She is not merely incidental to the male action that is the central focus of the story of the war in Troy and the heroes that fought in it, but a crucial player in the life of one of the central characters, and thus becomes one herself. While other women in the story can simply be seen as sometimes dangerous status symbols conferred upon the heroes (Briseis and especially Helen come to mind), Penelope controls her fate in a way many others do not- and bears the at-times awful responsibilities of such agency in her world. She rises to meet these challenges, and unlike Clytemnestra (who is thus cast into the role of the evil, though one-dimensional villain for the hero to take revenge upon), does so in the best of ways, making her happy reunion with Odysseus all the happier.

Odysseus and Penelope, by Francesco Primaticcio

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bronze vs Iron: A Clarification

It's common amongst the average public and to a certain extent students and afictionados that are interested in military history to proclaim that iron is a superior metal to bronze, and that when people began to have the technology to create hotter furnaces that could smelt iron, it immediately replaced bronze tools and weapons, making them obsolete. The Bronze Age ended and the Iron Age began.

This is something that permeates even in circles that should supposedly know better. For instance, I still remember a 9th grade history textbook I had a long time ago (really, over ten years ago...I feel old!) that stated that a certain group of people (I can't remember which, sadly) established superiority on the battlefield because they wielded iron weapons, making their bronze-wielding opponents inferior.

In reality, this notion is as every bit as mythical as Achilles and the gods of Olympus tussling over the destruction of Troy. The end of the Bronze Age came as a result of many factors (natural disasters, the incursions of the so-called "Sea Peoples," the breakdown of old trading routes and organized bureaucratic centers of authority such as the grand palaces in Mycenae and Hattusa). The replacement of bronze with iron was not one of them. Indeed, it could partially be seen as a result of the collapse of the great Bronze Age civilizations that iron came to replace bronze.

The differences between iron and bronze simply explained.

So with these things in mind, how do they stack up against each other in a combat situation?

 Unfortunately I don't currently have any equipment available to conduct a test of my own (remind me to do that someday). However one historian attempted to clash the weapons against each other and both bronze and iron weapons sustained a lot of damage.

So as you can see there was no real battlefield advantage that iron conferred over bronze. In fact, some studies and many reports (including the one cited above detailing the differences between the two metals) suggest that iron was actually inferior to the older bronze weapons. It really wasn't until the advent of steel-making (alloying iron with carbon) that the old bronze tools and weapons were truly eclipsed in quality. But that didn't occur until centuries after the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Ages. Why then, was iron adopted over bronze, as passages in the Iliad and Odyssey clearly reference, if only in passing?

I'll borrow an oft-quoted catchphrase- "it's the economy, stupid!"

Bronze, again as we know, is an alloy made of copper and tin. Copper is very abundant in the world, moreover, it is a very recyclable resource. Tin on the other hand occurs only very rarely. The closest abundant tin resources to the centers of the large Bronze Age civilizations were in Iran and Afghanistan- nearly 1,000 miles away. This required an extensive trade network that, as we know, collapsed along with the civilizations that spawned them at the end of the Bronze Age.

Iron on the other hand is very abundant and found everywhere (even more so than copper), comprising 5% of the Earth's crust. Once furnace technology improved to the point of being able to work with it, and given its abundance (plus lack of tin available to make bronze), it isn't hard to see why iron would be an attractive alternative. More weapons could be produced with more readily available resources, meaning larger, more powerful armies that were less reliant on foreign trade and thus less vulnerable- more able to secure the state.

Related video.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Update & Why I Haven't Been Posting

Sorry for not updating the blog in a while. I've been busy with work and other projects. As of this moment I'm writing an entry regarding bronze vs iron and the transition between the Bronze and Iron Ages. That may take a few more days to complete. In the meantime I present you with the following link detailing some images of a rendition of the famous Shield of Achilles.

Didn't want to put the pictures themselves here due to copyright issues or what not.

Fell free to post your thoughts as to how accurate those images are.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sex & Violence: Eternal Companions

The Rape of Helen, by Tintoretto

 Yesterday I watched a show called In Search of the Real Helen of Troy, hosted by the British Historian Bettany Hughes. She traced the historicity of the Trojan War and investigated the myth of Helen (as the title suggests), delving into how high-status Mycenean women (such as Helen) would have looked and behaved, and explored the status of women in other societies in the Late Bronze Age such as the Hittites, where Queen Puduhepa was given some coverage. Women of this era were revealed to be more liberated than their Classical counterparts, which was probably an important allegory for the myths surrounding Helen.

Of course this wasn't the only thing that was covered. The archaeology of the civilizations, their sports, religious rituals, the trading center of Troy, the rituals surrounding hospitality (as seen in the Iliad and especially in the Odyssey) and their importance in international relations, and Bronze Age warfare and combat (complete with an appearance by Mike Loades, always a plus) were also given ample airtime. I'd recommend those that are interested in the Trojan War, Homer, and the myths to give it a go.

However there was one aspect of the program that was particularly intriguing, and that was that the treatment of sex and violence, which may seem diametrically opposed, was actually portrayed as two sides of the same coin. Both are base impulses leftover from our reptilian and mammalian brains in our evolutionary road to becoming human (Carl Sagan's Cosmos Episode 11: The Persistence of Memory covers this well). Both can subvert our 'higher,' human impulses such as logic and judgment and cause us to make poor decisions. In this way, our lust for flesh and our lust for blood are two manifestations of the same core, and Helen can be seen to personify both.

Helen's life is tied up in both sex and the violence that surrounds her sexuality. Her very conception was violent, as Zeus, in the form of a swan, raped her mother Leda. Then, while she was still a young girl, Helen herself was raped by the King of Athens, Theseus. Things didn't seem to be starting off well for this still young princess.

The show went into detail about the kinds of competitions that could be expected between suitors for Helen's hand (and as we've seen in the Odyssey, athletic competitions between suitors were not rare). Events included what could be termed Pankration- the Ancient Greek precursor to modern MMA. And although, as it was explained, the object of the competition was to get your opponent to submit (a not-so-subtle display of dominance akin to lions or rams fighting for a mate), this art was first and foremost something for the battlefield.

Throughout the Iliad, the contrast between beauty and battle is at times on display, mostly through the character of Paris. One of my old professors in college said, quite rightly, that "Paris isn't a pussy." And he isn't, but it is clearly shown that defending his country or even less nobly, prestige on the battlefield, is not where his top priorities lie. They are lying, quite literally, in Helen's bed. Hector reaps scorn on his brother more than once for his prioritizing. Paris can fight, but he's far from the best on the field. Nevertheless, it was Paris' womanizing ways which started the entire mess by giving a pretext for the Greek coalition to invade, but Helen is not absolved of responsibility either. It takes two to tango, almost literally. The show explains that while later storytellers popularized the tale that Helen was abducted, it really seems like she went willingly with Paris, an assertion that Homer would agree with. As we see especially in the Iliad but also in the Odyssey, Helen clearly regrets her actions and wants to go back to Menelaus. There would be no need for her to have such feelings if she did not go willingly. She would be absolved of responsibility.

Thus the violence of the war is not only tied to Paris' lusting, but to Helen's sexuality and desires as well. One could even argue that Helen is the ultimate fictional example of a cautionary tale surrounding female hypergamy, but that's a different (though related) topic.

After the show explains that situations reminiscent of Helen did in fact occur in history in the Late Bronze Age, it would again seem to add arrows to the quiver of sex and violence being linked. Few things are as emotional to the human consciousness as sex, and this can subvert our cerebral cortex and give root to the lower brain impulses: aggression and violence. At the same time that the contrast between beauty and battle are on display, they are linked too, as the elders of Troy, upon seeing Helen, can all agree that the extraordinary beauty of Helen is something that they shouldn't blame anyone for fighting over.

This is probably the reason why, no matter what culture or what age, sex and violence have been eternal companions. Sex and poor decision-making go hand in hand.

And what of Helen? Well, she does seem to live a peaceful life after the war in what few appearances she makes in the Odyssey, but Homer reminds his audience that she's still a dangerous charmer, as the show again explains. She slips drugs into the drinks of Telemachus and Menelaus to keep them up longer, so she can tell a story. While this instance is relatively benign, it leaves the reader in no doubt as to what she is still capable of, and is a not-so-subtle warning that she must be guarded closely.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Tweets of Achilles

The Rage of Achilles, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Twitter meltdowns are common entertainment these days, so this is just going to be a more or less humorous take on what Achilles would be doing if he were part of the Twittersphere during the events of the Iliad. Yes I know, 140 characters or less.

Book I:

 Army beset by plague. Time to call Chalcas. What's up with Apollo?

Chalcas says Chryseis must go. Agamemnon having a bitch fit. More at 11.

Agamemnon the f'ing ahole coming after my prize Briseis. Tells how greater he is than me. Outrage.

He wants us to obey his orders yet this cunt hasn't gone to battle ever. Fuck Agamemnon. Going back home.

Gonna kill this cunt.

Had a talk with Athena. Goddess checked my rage.

Agamemnon can go fuck himself. Better not come crying to me when Hector knocks his army flat.

Achaeans will beg to have Achilles back.

Handed over Briseis. Called mom. She'll get Zeus to hand me the glory.

Book IX:

So, Achaeans got their ass handed to them. Now Agamemnon sends Ajax, Odysseus, & Phoenix to beg. This gon b good.

Odysseus tells stories but Agamemnon offers many prizes but no hint of apology. Unsurprising.

If they think they can buy me back without question they're delusional.

Going home. This shit is just insulting. 

Mom told me I'd either win undying glory here or go back home and live a long life. Glory's  cut off now. Not worth it.

Phoenix now comes to beg.

He's telling me sob stories of us when I was young. I love the man, but I won't change my mind.

I have no interest in this Meleager shit.

He needs to stop his emotional diatribes. Time for sleep. Tomorrow I decide what to do.

Ajax now comes to get my attention.

Ajax says he longs to be one of my dearest friends and reminds me he offers seven beauties for the price of one.

Still, I'm staying here, until Hector fights near my own camp.

Then I'll put his rampage to rest.

Book XI:

Achaeans are getting their asses beat.

I think they're ready to kiss my ass this time.

Sending Patroclus out to see what's up.

Book XVI:

I'll relent. How can someone rage on forever?

Still, I'm not going out there. I'll send Patroclus out.

I'm confident he'll send the Trojans fleeing back to Troy. 


Antilochus just told me the news I feared.

I knew this would happen...I knew it!

Hector's killed my best friend! He has my armor!

 Mother tells me I'm doomed to die at the heels of Hector's death, so let me die at once!

Mother will get me new gear. Going out to stop the rampaging Trojans.

Roared at them, they fled like birds.

Patroclus' body brought tears to these eyes. Time to clean his body.

Before we lay him to rest...it's time for payback.

Book XIX:

Beautiful armor...time to go to battle!

Agamemnon wants a formal apology, Odysseus says the men need to rest.

I care not for such things.

To hell with these ceremonies! I want to drop some Trojans!

I will relent. Let my comrades eat and rest, but I will have none of it.

Who can eat when Patroclus' body isn't even cold?

It's time now. Mounting chariot. Time to kill.

Book XX:

Had an encounter with Aeneas. What a pushover!

Saw Hector. He escaped. I'll finish him next time!

Trojans falling like flies beneath my spear. Back2business.

Book XXI:

Look, it's Lycaon again.

Sold this guy into slavery. Now he's back before me!


Killing more, throwing them in this river.

What the....this river is trying to kill me!

How dare it tell Achilles to stop killing in its waters!

Hephaestus brought the river to heel.

Glory will still be mine! More killing!

Book XXII:

Flee! Fleee before Achilles you Trojan dogs! 

There's Hector!

Athena says she'll help me out, keep him outside the walls.

Chased Hector three times around Troy's walls, now he wants to fight!


His body...his body will be food for my dogs!

Driving his corpse back to camp.


The time has at last come to burn and bury Patroclus.

I have done all I could- monumental ornaments on the bier to send my dear friend off!

There will never be another Patroclus. A terrible loss to all of Achaea, to me most of all. 

At the funeral games. To the best will go the prizes!

Book XXIV:

Drove Hector's body around Patroclus' bier again.

Though dead, my enmity of Hector will not stop.

Mother tells me that the gods decree I must hand Hector back.

Fine, let Priam send his herald with a ransom.

Astonished...did not expect Priam to be here.

The man made sense. He did not tempt my wrath.

My father will never see his son again, nor will Priam.

I will make sure the Trojans have 12 days to bury Hector.

War makes us all inhuman. We only recognize it when it's 2late.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Human Sacrifice: Myth & Reality

Mentions of sacrifice to the gods litter the entirety of the Iliad and Odyssey. We hear of rams, cattle, goats, sheep, etc. etc. all being killed to honor the gods, and sacrifices in wine are also mentioned (pouring libations). In one instance in Book 6 of the Iliad, Hecuba, Hector's mother, the Queen of Troy, led a procession of the noble Trojan women to the temple of Athena to sacrifice a robe at the statue of the goddess' feet. The gods consistently claim these sacrifices as their rights (though they are certainly not obligated to help or even not hinder those that sacrifice to them, not too bad of a deal is it?). But what about human sacrifice, as has so often been supposed?

There are two cases (that I am aware of) in the myths that seem to involve human sacrifice. One is perhaps somewhat vague. The other is seemingly written without any ambiguity, but it can lead to more questions than answers. It's best not to jump to conclusions (as I did, more on that later).

The first of these (and the most studied) is the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Francois Perrier

There is some ambiguity about this story. First, let's detail the facts. The Greek fleet, moored at Aulis due to bad wind, cannot sail to Troy. The soothsayer Chalcas declared that the goddess Artemis was responsible for holding the fleet back and that to appease her, Agamemnon himself would have to sacrifice his own daughter at the altar.

We here have a decision that can only be agonizing. Our first expectation is that as a father, Agamemnon would outright refuse such an obscene request. Doing anything else would make Agamemnon a monster. Even merely thinking about such a request for a moment is tantamount to an unspeakable crime to our eyes. Unfortunately, Agamemnon did indeed think about it, and even agreed to go through with the, uh, transaction. That much we know. It's then clear that Agamemnon has motives of greed upon undertaking this expedition. No rational father could care so much about his brother's honor and its restoration (by retrieving his brother's wife) that he'd sacrifice his own daughter to get the opportunity (the outcome is by no means clear at this point) to do so. What else could motivate Agamemnon other than the riches of Troy?

Now that we've gotten our answer that Agamemnon is, indeed, a horrible father, even by the standards of his own time, we can now only ponder about the fate of poor Iphigenia. Fortunately, here is where things get a bit murkier.

There are conflicting accounts as to what exactly happened on the altar. Some stories suggest that the sacrifice actually was carried out, others say that Iphigenia was simply whisked away by Artemis, the goddess satisfied that Agamemnon was willing to carry out the deed. For the answers, we'll need to look at the Cypria, which details the events of the Trojan War prior to the Iliad.

You can read some fragments from the Cypria here (I listed it on the External Sites page on the navigation bar as well). Of the sacrifice, this is what the Cypria has to say (and we are very fortunate enough these fragments survived):

"Artemis, however, snatched her away and transported her to the Tauri, making her immortal, and putting a stag in place of the girl upon the altar." (Cypria, Fragment #1)

This suggests that the latter was true. What about some of the secondary sources by ancient authors whose texts have in fact survived?

Proclus' summary of the Cypria says the exact same thing.

So it seems that Iphigenia managed to escape a ghastly fate. But what about the second instance? This happens in Book 23 of the Iliad. Hector is dead, and Achilles is preparing to lay Patroclus to rest. It is here where he takes twelve Trojan prisoners, cuts their throats, and puts them on Patroclus' bier along with the other animals that were sacrificed to his friend.

Notice that this wasn't even a sacrifice to the gods, but to a dead mortal man. It is one of the final acts of utterly barbaric rage that Achilles displays in the poem.

Is there any connection to reality in this? We do know of rare instances of human sacrifice in the classical world done by the Romans- most famously during the nadir of the city's fortunes during the Second Punic War after its disastrous defeat by Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae. In this case, the Romans did it to reestablish favor with the gods, who had seemingly so obviously abandoned them.

Did Bronze or Dark Age people do similar things? The fact that there are similar stories centered around human sacrifice such as that of Isaac suggests that the phenomenon had a certain basis to it, but is there more concrete historical evidence?

One of the first things I found was the abstract of a scholarly paper by Dennis D. Hughes describing funerary killings in the literary record as "revenge killings" which certainly seems to fit the bill of Achilles' actions in Book 23 of the Iliad. He also describes the archaeological record as inconclusive, however describing a "funerary ritual killing" in a Mycenaean tomb.

Far from human sacrifice, the author concludes that there was none, not even in Homer. A preview of his book may go into further detail. In the archaeological chapter, he more or less elaborates on the same point.

Somewhat surprising, considering my initial predictions when first delving into the subject. Checking my translation of the Iliad again (Penguin Classics, Fagles translation of 1990), Achilles says on page 560:

"I'll cut the throats of a dozen sons of Troy in all their shining glory, venting my rage on them for your destruction." (Fagles, 560)

Note my emphasis by the underline on the word rage. This would seem to match Hughes' description of historical revenge killings.

Then when Achilles actually does it:

"And then a dozen brave sons of the proud Trojans he hacked to pieces with his bronze...Achilles' mighty heart was erupting now with slaughter- he loosed the iron rage of fire to consume them all." (Fagles, 565)

Thus far we seem to have relatively robust literal and archaeological evidence for Hughes' assertions that evidence human sacrifice as it is commonly understood was inconclusive at best in this period. The two prominent examples outlined show an aborted human sacrifice (though one with full intent) and one that can be misconstrued when it is more akin to a revenge killing than an actual sacrifice- an act of submission to the gods.

The scholarly literature in this area seems to be somewhat scarce, so if  any reader finds further information about human sacrifice in Bronze or Dark Age Greece, I'd be glad if you shared it. From what we've seen both in its treatment in myth and in the scholarly literature (at least as far as scratching the surface goes), it seems to have been of peripheral or misunderstood importance.

Sources Cited:

1. Cypria (fragments), (The Online Medieval and Classical Library) http://omacl.org/Hesiod/cypria.html 
2. Dennis D. Hughes, “Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece,” Bryn Mawr Classical Review (1991): Abstract
3. Robert Fagles trans, The Iliad (New York: Penguin Books), 560, 565

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Champions: Achilles vs Hector

The main event of the Iliad, and indeed, of the entire course of open hostilities during the Trojan War is the battle between Achilles and Hector, the two champions of the vast assemblage of forces doing battle in western Asia Minor.

The contrast between them, and their personal battle, was a microcosm, a personification, of the factions engaging in the war in Troy.

The Trojan, Hector, was a civilized, rational man that had to, and did, balance his priorities in life. The heir to Priam's throne, he was the commander of the Trojans and their allies, and it was his responsibility to ensure the safety of his city and its people. Privately, Hector is a model man about the house: a loving and devoted husband and father, a man who rightfully is concerned in the deepest possible way about his wife Andromache, and their infant son Scamandrius, nicknamed Astyanax (lord of the city) by the people. Like any man who has been through the thick of battle, his first concerns lie with them, but ever dutiful, Hector refuses to give in to his wife's pleas to command the action from atop the sturdy walls of Troy, explaining that he would be ashamed if he were to do such a thing- to hang back while his devoted troops die around him.

Hector's last visit with his wife and son
Hector was in essence, a man who put the well-being of his community above his own. He is the ideal character of the soldier that we all wish to see emulated to this day. He did have his dark side (as we all do), but even that was far more muted than the darkness within his contemporaries. Hector's personality lies in stark contrast to the Greeks and even to the notable captains on his own side (contrast Hector's behavior with that of his brother Paris- a womanizer whose greed and desire gave the Greeks their pretext to launch the expedition). He is the light of civilization, and the defender of that light.

His opponent, Achilles, was just the opposite, a man that was very much the personification of the wild savagery of the uncivilized. Achilles did have his courteous and gentlemanly side, and this was quite important in establishing the final notes that ended the Iliad, but it is merely incidental, not the focus of his character throughout most of the poem, just the same as Hector's own darkness is incidental to the overall character that we see as told by Homer.

In contrast to Hector, Achilles is a man that, when it comes down to it, cared nothing of others. He is consumed wholeheartedly throughout the Iliad in his self-absorbed rage- directed first at Agamemnon, and then at Hector. Feeling slighted at Agamemnon's confiscation of his prize, Briseis (the fact that she was a living human being was not considered important either by the standards of the heroes in the war or Homer who wrote about them), Achilles withdraws from the fighting, essentially telling the Greeks to not come crying to him when Hector and the Trojans start killing them in droves, and that their blood is on Agamemnon's hands. He even has his immortal mother Thetis get Zeus to intervene on his behalf to do just that very thing.

Achilles puts his honor and reputation above any human life. He isn't fighting for any noble cause, rather his goal for the contest is to secure everlasting fame, to have men speak of him through all the ages yet to be. To him it mattered not how many of his comrades died at the hands of the enemy, the only thing that mattered was the elevation of himself and his glory.

Achilles' refusal to fight, even after a half-hearted, though (mostly) good-intentioned overture from Agamemnon and the Greek high command (the embassy deserves its own entry) led to more deaths, including that of his best friend, Patroclus. Instead of being self-reflective and recognizing his own faults towards that happening however, Achilles blindly blamed Hector for the deed, and sought to utterly destroy him.

Again making it evident that he doesn't care for anyone, once properly equipped, Achilles seeks to rush headlong into battle, despite the fatigue of his comrades from yet another grueling day of fighting which included the battle for Patroclus' corpse. The council of Odysseus carries the day and the soldiers rest and eat, preparing for the next fight.

In that next fight, Achilles would confront Hector, and the climax of the Iliad, slowly built up by Homer through pools of blood and pools of tears, was at last at hand, and the two motifs: civilization and savagery would clash also.

The defense of the city and the community, the nobility and idealism of civilization is represented by and through Hector. In Achilles, we see the image of what the Greeks are actually there for: revenge, personal honor and glory, and greed. And yet, the reader is left in no doubt as to the outcome of the match. This biggest, main event of the Trojan War is a bit akin to an Undertaker match at WrestleMania, if you'll pardon the wrestling pun. Undertaker is undefeated on the biggest stage of that industry, just as Achilles is undefeated in direct combat, the master of war. We as the audience know going in that Undertaker won't lose, no matter what he has to do or how far he's taken, and we know that Achilles won't either.

Achilles, with the assistance of Athena, strikes Hector down, and responds to his pleading for civilized treatment with taunts that he'd drag Hector's corpse around his friend's funeral bier and feed it to his dogs. Darkness and light collided, and this time, darkness won.

Achilles dragging Hector's body
 Achilles does, of course, relent in this (his meeting with Priam again deserves its own chapter), and in so relenting would become more human again, but his goals and motivations remain unchanged. He has chosen to give up a long life with a loving family for fame and everlasting glory, even though it will kill him. He has chosen death.

Hector on the other hand, would have liked to have chosen life, but could not. His city was fated to die, and was now nearly defenseless with his death. He was motivated by the well-being of his community and loved ones.

The contrast between the two champions and the motifs they represent seems to echo even beyond the cessation of hostilities, as the Greeks, though victorious, would face many hard homecomings in the Nostoi and Odyssey, and though victorious, their arrogance or carelessness ruined or set back many of them. In the end many of them, including Agamemnon, were not fated to enjoy the full fruits of their victory, giving the laws of civilization something of an (incomplete) posthumous triumph.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Gods

The Olympians, from left to right: Hestia, Hermes, Aphrodite, Ares, Demeter, Hephaestus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena, Zeus, Artemis, Apollo (Wikipedia, Twelve Olympians)
The gods serve as a useful foil to compare to the drama facing the mortal heroes taking part in the struggle for Troy (and its aftermath). While the mortals are quite literally fighting for their lives and having to reckon with the new world their actions have created, the gods go on as they always have: aloof, relatively uncaring, and always self-centered. They are the same in the beginning of the conflict as they are at the end, and why should they change? The only thing they have to risk is a bruised ego. The only thing they have to lose is a temporary reduction in pride.

The war began over one such confrontation: a petty spat between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite over the golden apple thrown by Eris, goddess of discord at the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, which she was not invited to (which in itself was, a way for a god- Eris to soothe her bruised ego).

When the goddesses asked Zeus to judge who was fairest between them, Zeus was curiously not too enthusiastic with the prospect, so he did what any intelligent man would do in such a position: find some fool to do it for him, that fool being Paris. After each goddess gave a well-placed bribe in which they demonstrated that they cared nothing for the mortals their promise would affect (Hera offers mastery of Asia to Paris- wealth and power beyond imagination, Athena's offer was great glory so that his name would never die, Aphrodite's was the most beautiful woman in the world, who happened to be married), Paris chose Aphrodite, ran off with Helen (along with other priceless treasures for good measure), and the events of the Trojan War were set in motion.

That the gods are unaffected in any significant way, that they have nothing important to lose in the conflict is illustrated by the scenes in which they appear. They are in essence, especially in the Iliad but also somewhat in the Odyssey, nothing more than comic relief.

The scenes in which they fight are more or less comical compared to the brutal killing and dying that the mortals fighting the war have to go through. When Athena impels Diomedes to wound Ares at the end of Book 5, Ares shouts out and returns to Olympus, his ego wounded more than anything else. He complains about how Zeus lets Athena do whatever she wants, and Zeus responds by berating Ares. Contrast that with the ending in Book 4, where Homer describes soldiers killing, being killed, lying face down in the dust.

Towards the end of the Iliad, when Achilles returns to the battlefield and rampages against the Trojan forces, we are given brief shots of the gods on either side in combat with one another, but this too is both unrealistic and totally out of place compared to the combat of the mortals, as if it were children that were fighting in a tantrum-induced spat.

Then of course, there is the infamous scene in Book 14 where Hera, in an attempt to assist Poseidon in interfering in the contest after Zeus had forbidden any such interference by the gods, comes down to Mount Ida to seduce Zeus, with assistance beforehand from Aphrodite, who apparently couldn't care less about Hera's support for the Greeks against her opposing support for the Trojans anymore (though Hera wisely did not mention to the Goddess of Love what her true intentions were).

Zeus, smitten with Hera's Aphrodite-assisted getup, mentions his longing for her in comparison to all the other women, both mortal and immortal, he's bedded over the years, apparently not caring that this was his wedded wife who had a particular penchant for jealousy.

The scene can only be described as an immortal comedy, and it is the best illustration of the gods' stake in the conflict: namely, that there isn't really any. It is just mere entertainment for them, a way to satisfy their egos and one-up each other.

When Zeus tells Hera that he might just crush cities that she loves in exchange for Troy, which he laments must be fated to die, Hera eagerly agrees and offers him, among others, Mycenae. It is truly as if she has nothing to lose, and she doesn't. Being ageless and deathless all her days, why should she care about mortals so?

Ask yourself the same question. Would you care if an ant colony in your backyard got into an all-or-nothing fight with another nearby ant colony, even if you somewhat enjoyed watching the little critters from time to time? The answer is probably not. It isn't in your nature. Hera's nature in relation to humanity is much the same.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Curious Case of Out-Of-Place Technology

Mycenean artifacts (Ruth van Mierlo, photographer).

The Trojan War is supposed to have taken place in the late Bronze Age, but there are many curious cases that pop up in the myths, both cultural and in this case, technological, in which things seem out of place.


The use of iron was as yet, not widespread (hence why the age is termed the Bronze and not the later Iron Age). People in the late Bronze Age would likely have known about iron, but not how to use it for any useful purpose. Indeed, Iron is described in certain parts of the Homeric epics as lumps that are treated as prized commodities (as evidenced by one such lump being a prize for one of the games during Patroclus' funeral).

However there are other more or less isolated cases in which iron implements and weapons are described as being used: in the Iliad an arrowhead in Book 4, an axe also in Book 4, an iron knife used to slaughter animals in Book 23. In the famous contest with the bow at the climax of the Odyssey, the task was to shoot an arrow through iron axes. Similes alluding to the use of iron are also found periodically, such as iron gates, implying a high degree of familiarity with the metal, as one might expect.

Of course, the reason why iron would have only come into use later was because of its higher melting temperature. Bronze Age furnaces were not yet powerful enough to use the metal. Nowhere is steel described as being used (thus putting a definite end date prior to which the myths must have been created and transmitted).

While the overwhelming descriptions of tools in the myths are with bronze, how do you explain this seeming discrepancy? For over a century, scholars struggled with this question, and it seemed to lend credence to the so-called Analysts arguments that the myths were not written by a single person (more on them later to come).


Even rarer than the descriptions of iron are descriptions of horseback riding. These appears only in similes to Patroclus and in Book 10 of the Iliad. They appear nowhere in the Odyssey. It is an interesting historical anecdote that during the Bronze Age and up to around 1000 B.C., there are no texts or artwork concerning horseback riding. The use of the horse was always associated with chariots.

It seems that the reason for this is that the horse was not yet capable of bearing people on its back. It took thousands of years of selective breeding to create a horse that was capable of doing so.

It is also interesting to note that once horseback riding did appear on the scene, chariot use seems to have diminished dramatically, becoming utterly obsolete by the time of Alexander the Great, as he so amply demonstrated by his total destruction of Darius III's much-vaunted scythed chariots at the Battle of Gaugamela.

Obviously there were still far more chariots buzzing around the battlefields of the Trojan War than cavalry, but we seem to catch yet another glimpse at the future of warfare in these seemingly out-of-place descriptions.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Bronze Age Warfare: A Personal Affair


The events of the Trojan War take place in the late Bronze Age (around 1200 B.C.), a time where, as the name suggests, the use of bronze tools was widespread, and had fundamentally transformed every human society that came into contact with them. An alloy of copper and tin, bronze was a relatively durable metal that was vastly superior to any stone implements. It revolutionized how humans lived, making work easier.

As typical with humans, there is also a darker side to this story. The advent of bronze weapons also revolutionized warfare. It at once made killing more efficient and made armor more protective.

Bronze thus had the power to do well or ill for humanity.

Another crucial piece of military technology as the Bronze Age continued was the advent of the horse-drawn chariot. It allowed humans to travel faster, farther, and acted as a great mobile platform for troops in the field, particularly archers. A charioteer was a position of prestige, and chariot drivers are often said to be the "fighter pilots of their time."

Both bronze weapons and the chariot are on prominent display in the Epic Cycle of the Trojan War. The troops fight with bronze weapons and armor. Homer makes us see and hear the gruesome displays of bronze meeting flesh. Death could be slow and painful, as Homer makes clear numerous times in the Iliad. Recall that bronze is a metal which bends very often, meaning that it would bend inside a person's body when it penetrated.

Aside from the dying part, there is also the killing. I wonder if Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would have been far worse for soldiers that were afflicted with it after the Trojan War was over?

The battlefield for a soldier in the Trojan War was far more personal than it is today. No one shot anyone. There were no smart bombs and cruise missiles. There were certainly no drones. Killing was done up close and personal. Even the archers are described by Homer as knowing exactly who their targets were, and you could certainly see him up close, sweating in the thick of battle just as you were. Images of a soldier slitting open an enemy groin to navel, as Homer so descriptively writes on numerous occasions, had to have been very painful for anyone suffering from the condition. A story of such a soldier, with modern knowledge of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would certainly be very interesting to read.

The war in Troy was even more personal than this, however, as enemies often knew each other's names- at least as far as the captains of the two sides are concerned and which the stories are also. There are thus some instances of civility. Diomedes famously exchanges armor with the Lycian second-in-command Galucus, after the two learned (in the heat of battle) that their grandfathers were host and guest, respectively, which was a very important relationship in the Homeric era (as evidenced by the entirety of the Odyssey). Ajax and Hector agree to a one-on-one duel, and then exchange gifts when both of the armies call for a cease to it.

There is an inverse to this relationship though- bringing the reader back to reality after reading perhaps some pleasant fantasies that Homer penned, fantasies that would have no place on a real battlefield.

Taunts and insults are traded far more than gifts. Greeks shout to Trojans that they will kill them and then drag their women into slavery. Trojans defy the Greeks and dare them to try before their lives are ripped out beneath Trojan spears.

When a soldier can hear and see his enemy, and look into his eyes up close, the entire affair becomes far more personal. The courage it must have taken as a warrior in those days seems unimaginable to us today. War is fully humanized in the Trojan War, and seems to make it more tragic in many ways compared to more contemporary war stories.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Composition of the Forces

The Trojan War was the greatest armed enterprise ever conducted in Greek Mythology, and to the ancient Greeks- history itself. As they were fighting real wars against the Persians, and later, the terrible Peloponnesian War against one another, they could look back to the epics and say that they were not alone in these vast armed enterprises that went far beyond the squabbles of one city-state, or polis with another.

The armed parties taking part in this Aegean world war are described in detail in Book II of the Iliad. There are a total of 1,196 ships. Each ship had a crew of 120, except for Philoctetes/Medons' contingent, which had 50 to a ship. With other information given to us by Homer, an order of battle for both sides can more or less be constructed.

Greek Order of Battle:

Left Flank

Salaminians - Giant/Talemonian Ajax (12 ships, 1,440 men)

Cretans - Idomeneus (80 ships, 9,600 men)

Phylaceans, etc. - Podarces (40 ships, 4,800 men)

Locrians - (Little/Oilean Ajax 40 ships, 4,800 men)

Phocians - Schedius & Epistrophus (40 ships, 4,800 men)

Boeotians - Leitus & Penelos (50 ships, 6,000 men)

Aspledonians - Ascalaphus & Ialmenus (30 ships, 3,600 men)

Euboeans - Elephenor (40 ships, 4,800 men)

Athenians - Menestheus (50 ships, 6,000 men)

Mycenaeans - Agamemnon (100 ships, 12,000 men)


Cephallenians (including Ithacans) - Odysseus (12 ships, 1,440 men)

Argives/Tirynians - Diomedes (80 ships, 9,600 men)

Lacedaemonians (including Spartans) - Menelaus (60 ships 7,200 men)

Pylians - Nestor (90 ships 10,800 men)

Arcadians - Agapenor (60 ships, 7,200 men)

Buprasions - Thalpius, Amphimachus, Diores, & Polyxinus (40 ships, 4,800 men, each leading 10 ships personally).

Dulichions, etc. - Meges (40 ships, 4,800 men)

Aetolians - Thoas (40 ships, 4,800 men)

Rhodians - Tlepolemus (9 ships, 1,080 men)

Symeans - Nireus (3 ships, 360 men)

Nisyruseans, etc. - Antiphus & Phidippus (30 ships, 3,600 men)

(The original leader of this contingent was Protesilaus, who was the first Greek casualty of the war, the first off the ships being prophesied to die.)

Pheraens - Eumelus (11 ships, 1,320 men)

Methonians, etc. - Philoctetes/Medon (7 ships, 350 men)

(Philoctetes was wounded before he got to Troy at first. He would later be retrieved after the events of the Iliad.)

Triccans, etc. - Asclepius (40 ships, 4,800 men)

Ormenions, etc. - Eurypylus (40 ships, 4,800 men)

Argissans, etc. - Polypoetes (40 ships, 4,800 men)

Cyphusians - Guneus (22 ships, 2,640 men)

Magnesians - Prothous (40 ships, 4,800 men)

Right Flank

Myrmidons - Achilles (50 ships, 6,000 men)

That gives us a total number of approximately 143,030 men fighting for the Greeks. The relative positions of each unit are taken from Homer's descriptions as well as logical deduction:

- Homer constantly mentions the two Ajaxes fighting side by side, so it seems likely that they would have occupied adjacent positions on the Greek line, with the Little Ajax to Giant Ajax's immediate right.

- We do not know the exact positions of these two units, but Homer mentions that the Phocians occupied positions to the left of the Boeotians. From this point forward I'll simply go with Homer's order, since there's no reliable information as to exactly where each unit was.

- Homer seems to imply in Book 14 that Agamemnon's fleet is just upward of Odysseus' in the very center, meaning Agamemnon would occupy the center-left.

- Homer states Diomedes' fleet is next to Odysseus' in Book 14.

About the Trojans Agamemnon says the Greeks outnumber them by over ten-to-one, not including their allies. This implies that the Trojans would then have less than 14,303 men. The allies are said to be far lower in number than the Trojans.

We can complete a rough picture by the description given at the end of Book 8, where the Trojans are described as having 1000 campfires, around which 50 men stood. Obviously that equals 50,000 men for the Trojans and their allies. If we subtract that from the roughly 14,303 men that are Trojans, that equals 35,697 men that the Trojan allies have brought to the war between them.

The relative positions of the Trojan units are described in Book 10:

Trojan/Allied Order of Battle:

Left Flank:

Mysians - Chromis & Ennomus

Lycians - Sarpedon

Phyrgians - Ascanius


(Presumably, the remaining units, most prominently the Trojans themselves, would be here.)

Trojans - Hector (>14,303 men)

Dardanians - Aeneas

Zeleans - Pandarus

Apaesians, etc. - Adrestus & Amphius

Percotians, etc. - Asius

Cicones - Euphemes

Pahplagonians - Pylaemenes

Halizonians - Odius & Epistrophus

Ascanians - Ascanius & Morys (they join the battle the day during the events of Book 13. Homer describes them coming the day before, so they first arrived around the events of Book 8).

Right Flank:

Carians - Nastes

Paeonians - Pyraechmes

Maeonians - Mesthles & Antiphus

Leleges and Cauconians (a new unit that seems to be first mentioned in Book 10)

Pelasgians - Hippothous

Thracians - Acamas & Pirous (At least over 12 ships and 1,440 men as revealed in Book 11. Also note that this unit is described as occupying the furthest point on one of the flanks in Book 10, but nothing is mentioned as to which one. Strangely, the leader, King Rhesus, seems to be different from the two that are mentioned in Book 2.)

The Amazons under Penthesilea would later join the Trojans after the events in the Iliad, and Memnon would also later bring his contingent of Ethiopians.

Regardless of the exact details, the amount of soldiers in this war was truly gargantuan and obviously stretches the line of credibility. There's no way that in approximately 1,200 B.C. such a large force could be supplied for any length of time, much less ten years. In fact, armies of over 100,000 were rare in the West until the beginning of the 19th century.

Obviously any military action at what we believe to have been Troy would have been far smaller. Thucydides' assertion that Homer exaggerated the Trojan Wars' importance appears here to be verified. But truly from the standpoint of the Ancient Greek consciousness, the Trojan war dwarfed any they fought against the Persians or each other. To them the expedition against Troy was history and an example they would do well to remember. Book II first allows you to peer into that viewpoint.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Stakes

Cassandra Imploring Athena's Revenge Against Ajax by Jerome, Martin Langlois

Massive world wars are not fought over mere trifles. The stakes of the Trojan War went beyond mere honor or wealth. The war would also determine whether the Trojans as a distinct people would survive. What may be seen as a war for love was also simultaneously a savage war of annihilation, and genocidal tendencies are on display, as Agamemnon perhaps makes clear in Book 6 of the Iliad:

"So soft, dear brother, why? Why such concern for enemies? I suppose you got such tender loving care from the Trojans. Ah, would to god not one of them could escape his sudden plunging death beneath our hands! No baby boy still in his mother's belly, not even he escape- all Ilium blotted out, no tears for their lives, no markers for their graves." (Fagles, Penguin Classics translation, page 197)

There would be no mercy. We are told of the events of the sack of Troy: the men were killed, the women were raped and sold into slavery, babies (including Hector's infant son Astyanax) were flung from the city walls, and all of the wealth Troy had acquired was looted. The city was destroyed, and serves as an example for all time of the erasure of one community of humanity by another. In our times, the Greek heroes would probably be wanted by the international community so they could be tried for genocide and the long list of human rights violations that go along with it.

It is in the recognition of those facts that perhaps allows us to breathe a sigh of relief and pat ourselves on the back, congratulating ourselves for how far we've come in recent centuries and our improvements in how we treat one another.

And yet, when we look at recent events in places like Burma, Agamemnon's words come to life in our news stories. It seems that we as a species haven't changed very much at all. It begs the question- in times of chaos, when pretenses of civility are lost, will our humanitarian collective agreements still hold, or will we give way to the savagery in our hearts? Time and again, our nobler sentiments have been disappointed. Even Hector, the model soldier in the Iliad, had his darker characteristics, and was prone to giving into them more than once. Civilization is fragile, as is civilized behavior. We are probably less removed from the ghastly stories than we think.

It is this conflict between our humanitarian ideals and our instinctual bloodlust that is on display throughout the saga of the Trojan War, and is, from a modern standpoint, the most glaring flaw in all of the Homeric heroes.

The Trojan War was a fact of history to the ancient Greeks, and stood as a stark reminder of not only the consequences of failure on the battlefield against an enemy bent on your annihilation, but that everything we hold dear in this life is ultimately protected only by the successful use of force in defense of those things. A fanatical, homicidal attacker can't be bought off by wealth, as this exchange between Achilles and Lycaon in Book 21 of the Iliad attests:

"Achilles! I hug your knees-mercy!-spare my life! I am your suppliant, Prince, you must respect me! Yours was the first bread I broke, Demeter's gift, that day you seized me in Priam's well-fenced orchard, hauled me away from father, loved ones, sold me off in holy Lemnos and I, I fetched you a hundred bulls- and once released I brought three times that price."

Achilles responds:

"Fool, don't talk to me of ransom. No more speeches. Before Patroclus met his day of destiny, true, it warmed my heart a bit to spare some Trojans: droves I took alive and auctioned off as slaves. But now not a single Trojan flees his death." (Fagles, Penguin Classics translation, page 523)

The lesson? The failure or inability of a people to defend themselves from aggression means that they are at the complete and utter mercy of the aggressors- subject to whatever whim the latter desires.

Modern alien invasion stories are perhaps the most easily recognizable reminder in modern fiction of this fact, but they also let us see into our deepest fears. The alien invasion genre is probably more reminiscent of what we have done to each other than anything pertinent to ET- and the Trojan War is its greatest antecedent and illustration.