This was my third or fourth time through the Iliad, this time with a translation by William Cowper from 1791. Although it is in blank verse, I found it to be both more poetic and better put-together as a piece for study than the modern translations which I’ve read before.
For starters, each book in the poem comes with a synopsis, so it becomes a whole lot easier to remember what’s going on without going to an external reference. It took a little adjustment for me to remember all the Roman names for the Greek gods (I couldn’t remember who Vulcan was), but once that was done, I could enjoy it properly.
This is going to be a bit more of a personal post, because I assume most of you have been assigned the Illiad at one point or another by your school.
A good understanding of the Iliad is core to understanding many of the other works in the Western canon. The various references that show up in speeches, novels, plays, and artwork are generally not going to make any sense to you if you are not very familiar with the poem, the characters, and the actions contained within it. Christianity also makes no sense whatsoever unless you understand something of what the Greco-Roman culture was actually like.
At the heart of the poem’s plot is the affirmation of patrimony and property. Paris makes off with Helen and boats full of treasure besides, and the Greeks sail off to Troy to avenge the insult. This is not a story in which sensitivity, understanding, and effeminacy win the day. It was virtù:
Thus they, throughout all of Troy, like hunted fawns
Dispersed, their trickling limbs at leisure cool’d,
And, drinking, slaked their fiery thirst, reclined
Against the battlements. Meantime, the Greeks
Sloping their shields, approach’d the walls of Troy
And Hector, by his adverse fate ensnared,
Still stood exposed before the Scaean gate.
It is also easier to understand the historical importance of culture if you start to understand that the Greeks and the Romans crushed many of their competitors because they were better at transmitting historical lessons relating to military excellence across their own culture and down through the generations. Homer’s poems came down from the preliterate time, but maintaining them through literacy is one of the reasons why Alexander and the Romans were able to both conquer so much territory.
It also helps to explain why, by comparison, the culturally shallow Mongols wound up absorbed by the cultures which they had conquered only a generation or two after that empire reached its territorial peak.
Modern pedagogues tend to break down the Iliad into sections and try to teach each book while ‘testing’ for memorization without really demanding much comprehension at all. It is probably being taught less now because it is such a problematic poem by social justice standards.
Women are, after all, taken and passed around as slaves, and one of the central conflicts of the first portion of the poem is a dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon and demands Briseas as compensation.
When Vulcan forges a set of armor for Achilles, it may seem like it doesn’t matter all that much in a European context, but consider that entire continents full of people, even with rather sophisticated agricultural civilizations (like the Mayans, Aztecs, and various minor African empires) never figured out advanced metal armor or complex metalworking. Considering that — even that a culture would have a god associated with metalworking as well as untamed natural fire — is significant and rather relevant to that culture’s ability to develop powerful technology.
[Ed: Jay Fivekiller notes that iron smelting and metallurgy was known in ancient West Africa among various kingdoms.]
It is sometimes said that the Greeks and Trojans in the Iliad are foreign to how we are today, but I would rather feel more at home with the Greeks and more alienated against the pseudo-people that we have today. To the extent that more people identify with the classical heritage and feel disdain and revulsion for the contemporary ‘last man’ is the extent to which we will be on our way back to excellence.
The consequence of abandoning the lineage of the Greeks is total annihilation — not metaphorical ‘annihilation,’ but physical destruction; the machete to the neck. People who fear the physical and spiritual West do what they can to suppress this culture because it is so vastly superior to most of its competitors, at an almost incomprehensible relative scale. It is the difference between the rocket ship and the rain dance, the steel cuirass and the cotton jaguar warrior costume.
This is perhaps why relative numbers don’t bother me so much. Being outnumbered was a problem for Cortez when he landed in the new world, but it wasn’t insurmountable.
The compulsive deference and obsequious respect that many Westerners have for inferior cultures might go away once again if we spend some more time and effort emphasizing the cultural heritage of military and artistic excellence.