Homer & the record of the Trojan War

Early Greece measured its achievements against a distant benchmark – The Age of Heroes. It was evidently considered to be background knowledge, at least to the reasonably informed. Homer didn’t bother to give it any context – he assumed his audience knew the build-up to the fifty odd days covered in the poem. But his characterisation of Helen was picked up and modified by later literature: firstly by Sappho, Plato, Aeschylus, Euripides; then by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Virginia Woolf, Camus.

Homer probably wrote sometime in the eighth century BC whereas the putative date for the Trojan War is the thirteenth century BC – i.e. around 500 years before Homer was around. [We will come back to attempting to date it more precisely.] Between the two there was a darker period of Greek history and writing had probably only been reintroduced a few decades before The Iliad. Although not given any attention in the book, the intervening period from around 1200 BC to 750 BC covers periods usually known as Sub-Mycenaean and Geometric.

Papyri of teh Iliad were collated into hand-written texts in Mediaeval times and then to the 1488 Florentine edition. However, to date there is no evidence of any of ‘Homer’ having been written down before about 550 BC – perhaps 200 years before the bard himself. Therefore, it is possible that Homer was still operating in a fully oral tradition.

In truth, we still don’t know whether he is really one person or two (or more). After all the styles of Iliad and Odyssey are so different. And we don’t know why he carries the strange name, which literally means ‘the hostage’.

The Bankes Homer – British Library, public domain in EU excluding UK

It is not only Iliad which is important to Helen’s story. In Odyssey she is back in Sparta, is re-united with her estranged daughter and even entertains War veterans. [Is this normal, human behaviour?]

However, there is relatively little reference to Homer in Hughes’ book – and there could have been much more. I think that the first surviving European poet (from Asia Minor) is worthy of some potential diversion here. For the Iliad’s arrangement is quite strange. It announces its subject in the first line with no previous context, opening in the tenth year of the Trojan War. There is no ‘story so far’. The quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon sets the entire context of the poem. The old priest, Chryses, arrives at the Achaean camp to seek the release of his daughter, Chryseis (and, just to be more confusing, they are from Chryse – an island which might once have existed not far from Lemnos). Despite adequate ransom, Agamemnon dismisses him and the god, Apollo ravages the Achaean camp with a terrible plague. We are straight into the framework of the poem; one which shows the world of man and the world of the gods as echoes of one another – but only one of these has true suffering.

It is Book 3 which really introduces us to Helen. The Achaeans and the Trojans are contrasted, the former silent and focused, the latter ill-disciplined. And the really ill-disciplined one is Paris. He is presented as beautiful but also foolish whereas, his [supposed] brother, Hector, is more of a man focused on the arts of war. That’s interesting in itself because Hector may have been borrowed from some older story.

It is often speculated that a couple of the heroes – Ajax and Hector – have come from some other source, something even older. They seem to carry a completely different type of shield – across their backs. They may simply have been incorporated.

The Trojan’s attitude towards Helen is evidently ambivalent: they see her beauty but they also know that she is ultimately the cause of all their suffering – and the suffering of the Achaeans too.

It is also in Book 3 that she is drawn into the position of being the one who knows the characters on both sides and Priam, King of Troy (her father-in-law – and we will come back to the name) has her identify the key players. Antenor can verify his identification of Odysseus because the latter was there before in an attempt to negotiate rather than to go to war. It is also here that Helen mentions her brothers – who she cannot see: Kastor and Polydeukes. (Theoretically Kastor is only a half-brother (although not in Odyssey) whilst Polydeukes and Helen share the same father as well – awkwardly, the god, Zeus – who was incidentally, only a minor deity in Bronze Age Greece.)

The dialect is Ionian – in theory, the same as Hesiod’s. However, the texts we have inherited are necessarily somewhat of an amalgam. Book 10, for example, has a completely different feel and a different focus. Did someone insert it at a later date? It seems almost certainly the case.



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