Tag Archives: Iliad

Among the functions of the Iliad is to preserve the names of those who fought valiantly in the Trojan war, and thereby to give to them the eternal glory they had earned. So it is intriguing to come across this passage, in the middle of book 17.

Around the corpse they kept pressing hard
With sharp spears and killing each other.
Some Greek would say from his bronze mask:

“Friends, there’s no point in returning
To the hollow ships. It would be better
For the black earth to swallow us here
If we’re going to let the Trojans haul him
Back to the city and win all the glory.

Or some Trojan would say:

“Friends, even if we’re all fated to die
By this body, don’t take a step back.

These words would lift everyone’s strength.” (17.424-35, tr. Lombardo)

The corpse is that of Patroclus. Hector has killed him and stripped him of Achilles’ armor (which he was wearing). The Greeks and Trojans are now fighting to gain possession of his body. On both sides, we see the soldiers rallying themselves with the thought that glory is worth the price of death, and that shame is a fate worse than death.

What is curious is that these speeches are anonymous, spoken by “some Greek” and “some Trojan.” Why? For one thing, this allows the poet to suggest that many soldiers give speeches along these lines. But the reason, I think, goes deeper. There is a basic tension in the Iliad. It is, on the one hand, a story about a relatively small number of central heroes, flanked by a few more minor characters noteworthy enough to be named. Yet, on the other hand, it is also a story of war, of a fight between large masses composed of individuals who cannot all be named and honored.

In making these speeches anonymous, the poet seems to acknowledge this tension, to acknowledge that, for most of those seeking glory in war (at least glory of the sort the poets can offer), they will fail, whether or not they survive. They will remain anonymous, recognized only by the actions typical of “some Greek” or “some Trojan.”

In Book 12 of the Iliad, as the Asius and his troops storm a Greek wall, soldiers on the wall throw stones to repel them. Homer describes it as follows:

……………………The stones fell like snow

Down to the ground, falling, falling, like flakes
A cold wind from the shadowy clouds
Drives thick and fast upon the bountiful earth.
(12.162-65; tr. Lombardo)

This is an astonishing simile, and provides insight into the general manner in which Homer’s similes operate. Though they begin from a conspicuous, generally visual similarity, they gain their power and poignancy from their operation on other levels. In this instance, there are at least four salient movements in the comparison.

The first movement is the obvious similarity that sparks the simile: the stones fall thickly from the wall, like snow. By a natural extension of the simile, we arrive at an implied hyperbole: the stones cover the ground to the point where the earth is invisible. We may likewise imagine the stones thick enough to seriously obscure the Trojan soldiers’ vision.

But this perception of similarity soon gives way, and we are struck by the stark differences between the two scenes. There is something calm and peaceful about the snow-covered earth, however thickly the snow falls. We imagine the earth devoid of action, tranquil—completely unlike the conflict between Trojans and Greeks.

This second movement gives way in turn, however, to the third. We realize that Homer has called attention to the fact that the earth is bountiful. Yet we see it in a snowstorm, in winter, when its productive function is at its lowest point, and we still await the rebirth of spring. Winter, though the most beautiful season, is also the harshest, and its association with death suits it for comparison with war.

But this, too, moves in the opposite direction. Winter is only a temporary cessation of the earth’s productive function. In directing our attention toward that function, Homer invites a contrast with its other function: as the permanent resting place of the dead. The Greek stones render the earth—the bountiful earth—a graveyard.

In the end, the simile does not resolve itself one way or another. The stonestorm is and is not like a snowstorm. The visual similarity provides the opportunity to be struck successively by both sides of the comparison. I might note that, of the four motions described above, I felt only the first two during the regular flow of reading. Only when I stepped back and began to dwell on the tension between those two did the third and fourth reveal themselves. This is one reason why I like Lombardo’s choice to set off Homer’s similes in italics: it encourages one to spend with them the time they require to bloom.

The transition between book six and book seven of Virgil’s Aeneid is the turning point of the poem. Crudely considered, it is the moment the Aeneid changes from a Roman Odyssey to a Roman Iliad. And Virgil marks this transition with an invocation of the muse Erato:

And now, Erato, who were the kings
And what was the state of ancient Latium
When this foreign army landed in Italy?
Help me, Goddess, your sacred poet,
Recall the prelude to the hostilities,
For I will tell of war’s horror, of pitched battle,
Heroes driven by courage to meet their doom,
Of Etruscan squadrons, and all Hesperia
Pressed into arms. A higher order of things
Opens before me; a greater work now begins.

Curiously, however, these are the 44th through 53rd lines of Aeneid book seven. Why the longish preamble?

A first pass at an answer might be as follows. Book six ends with Aeneas leaving the realm of the dead and sailing to Caieta’s harbor. From there, Aeneas must still make one last voyage to reach the Tiber, the main center of action for the remainder of the poem. That voyage must be described before the invocation of Erato is proper. Since that would make for an anticlimactic ending to book six, it functions much better as the intro to book seven.

All of that is true, but shallow. Virgil accomplishes much more in those forty-three lines than simply conveying a necessary plot point. The way he describes the voyage from Caieta’s harbor to the Tiber itself signals the conclusion of the first half of the story and the beginning of the second, in two ways.

First, before the voyage even begins, death claims one more member of Aeneas’ party: Caieta, who nursed him when he was an infant. (It is from her that Caieta’s harbor takes its name.) So far as I can recall, Caieta is the last remaining familial link between Aeneas and Troy. His wife Creüsa was lost in book two and his father Anchises in book three. There is, of course, still Iülus, but he represents the Aeneas’ future line in Latium, and is not so strictly tied to Troy. Caieta’s death thus symbolizes a complete break with Troy except as a memory. Much more than the invocation of Erato, her death declares that what follows is to be something different.

Only after she dies do they set sail for their final landing spot. One reason why this trip can be described so briefly (<40 lines) is because it conspicuously lacks drama. Virgil doesn’t hide this fact; rather, he makes sure we are aware of it:

And from those shores could also be heard
Lions roaring and snapping at their chains
Late into the night, the raging of bristled boars
And caged bears, and huge wolf-shapes howling.
All these were men whom Circe had cruelly drugged
And clad in the hides and faces of beasts.
But Neptune, to save the good Trojans
From these monstrous transformations,
Kept them from landing on those deadly shores,
Filling their sails with wind, and bearing them past
The seething shoals and out of danger. (7.19-29)

What is interesting in this episode is what does not happen: the Trojans do not land on Circe’s shores, are not turned into wild beasts. They reach the Tiber without incident. Where Caieta’s death signaled Aeneas’ break with Troy, this non-episode signals the Aeneid’s break with the Odyssey.

To see this, compare this scene to that in book three, in which Aeneas and his crew land in Sicily and pick up Achaemenides, a member of Ulysses’ crew left behind to fend for his own against the Cyclopes (see my posts here and here). One reason why that scene appears in the Aeneid is to draw a parallel between Virgil’s poem and Homer’s (and, of course, to use this parallel as a way also to highlight their differences).

By contrast, in book seven, Virgil draws attention to the fact that the opportunity for another such parallel was present, but not taken. It was not taken because it was no longer appropriate: the time had come for something new.

Only after these two severances—the breaking of Aeneas’ last living tie to Troy, and the breaking of the Aeneid/Odyssey parallel—was Virgil ready to begin his “greater work,” and to ask Erato’s aid in his task.


It occurred to me to make a list of books I think I might like to read in 2017, though I cannot call this list a “plan.” I will be very surprised if I read everything on here, or even most. But it will be interesting, at least for myself, to compare at the end of the year my expectations with the reality.


Homer – Iliad (tr. Lombardo)
Homer – Odyssey (tr. Lombardo)
Virgil – Aeneid (tr. Lombardo)
John Milton – Paradise Lost
Robert Frost – Collected Poems (Library of America)
Geoffrey Hill – Broken Hierarchies (parts of it)
John Peck – Cantilena (finish)
19th Century American Poetry vols. 1 and 2 (Library of America)
4+ as yet unchosen books of contemporary poetry


Fernando Pessoa – The Book of Disquiet 
Yuriko Saito – Everyday Aesthetics
Abraham Lincoln – Speeches and Writings (2 vols.; Library of America)
Ulysses S. Grant – Memoirs
Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America
Wu Yubi – The Journal of Wu Yubi
Willa Cather – My Antonia; O Pioneers
Witold Gombrowicz – Diary (tr. Vallee)
Herodotus – The History (tr. Grene)
Wilfrid Thesiger – Arabian Sands