Conversations with Students X: The Sacking of Troy and Beginning of an Odyssey

In transitioning from Homer’s Iliad, his story of war, high emotion, and the toll that such emotion takes on mortal lives, to the far-blown fame and person of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, we first took a moment to look at the summaries that still remain of “The Epic Cycle”, and then we moved forward through the first book of Homer’s Odyssey (Lattimore’s translation). Thus begins our second seminar series.

We discussed all that happened between the Iliad and Odyssey, with the sage help of Proclus who preserved summaries of the six lost epics of the Epic Cycle (found here or here) These lost epics: The Cypria by Stasinus of Cyprus (staged as immediately preceding Homer’s Iliad), The Aethiopis of Artinus of Miletus immediately afterward, The Little Iliad of Lesches of Mitylene, The Sacking of Troy also by Arctinus of Miletus, The Returns of Agias of Trozen, and eventually, after Homer’s OdysseyThe Telegony comprise the story called “The Epic Cycle”. Together they form the events which lead up to the Trojan War, the Trojan War, and the after-math of the war for the Achaians. Traditionally, they would have filled in many, many gaps left by the Iliad and Odyssey as a pair, but sadly, over time, and lack of reproduction, each of the other six epics was lost to time. This was not, however, the deepest tragedy, says Aristotle in his praise of Homer’s unity of plot and criticism of The Cypria and The Little Iliad in his Poetics (1459a-b)

“So in this respect, too, compared with all other poets Homer may seem, as we have already said, divinely inspired, in that even with the Trojan war, which has a beginning and an end, he did not endeavor to dramatize it as a whole, since it would have been either too long to be taken in all at once or, if he had moderated the length, he would have complicated it by the variety of incident. As it is, he takes one part of the story only and uses many incidents from other parts, such as the Catalogue of Ships and other incidents with which he diversifies his poetry. The others, on the contrary, all write about a single hero or about a single period or about a single action with a great many parts, the authors, [1459b] [1] for example, of the Cypria and the Little Iliad. The result is that out of an Iliad or an Odyssey only one tragedy can be made, or two at most, whereas several have been made out of the Cypria, and out of the Little Iliad more than eight, e.g. The Award of Arms, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Eurypylus, The Begging, The Laconian Women, The Sack of Troy, and Sailing of the Fleet, and Sinon, too, and The Trojan Women.”

For though we have lost the other six epics, apparently they were not of the same caliber as are the two epics we have remaining to us. So, confident that two masterpieces will do and summaries filling in our knowledge where it is lacking will suffice, let us move forward to consider the fates of several heroes we knew well during the interim between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The students were shocked by the men who died during and after the war, and some felt emotion even for the basest Achaians. Achilleus, Paris, both the Aiantes, Antilochos, Priam, Astyanax, Deiphobos (many Trojans during the sacking, of course), Phoinix, Thersites, and even Agamemnon, but the deaths which are most shocking are each of the Aiantes, Agamemnon, and some students even showed sadness for poor hunched-backed Thersites. So we know, Achilleus died either by the hand of Paris and Apollo or Apollo alone. Not a surprise to the students given the several prophecies of Achilleus’ death the Iliad. That Paris should get the winning shot was a true moment of humility for all students, though the fact that Apollo helped him along helped to alleviate the sort of “Evil David vs. Good Goliath” effect.

Aias the Greater’s death was more of a disappointment to the students. During the Iliad, he was a brave and supreme hero. He went on the Embassy to Achilleus, was clear in his purpose, and twice almost killed Hektor. He, unlike Achilleus, Menelaos, Eurypylos, Machaon, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, was one of the few major champions who remained uninjured throughout the fighting. He was glorious and bold, and the fact that through his pride and folly that he took his own life in suicide was a bitter disappointment to the students. Naturally, they learned that it was because according to his code, he was disgraced, and by his code he died: he lost the speech-contest to Odysseus for the “arms of Achilleus” and proceeded to attempt to kill Odysseus, Menelaos, and Agamemnon, but he was thwarted by Athene “mazing” his vision so that he only killed cattle. Feeling disgraced and abandoned by the gods, Aias felt that his final dignity would be to deny his former friends the glory of ending his life, and thus was the fate of Aias the Greater.*

Aias the Lesser met with considerably less pity. In an attempt at raping the cursed prophetess daughter of Kassandra in the temple of Athene, Lokrian Aias defamed and damaged an image of Athene therefore earning her ire for himself and the rest of the Achaians. The students did not care for how quickly Athene turned on the Achaians, but in matters of sacrifice and honor to the gods, the students have learned that the gods come first to the gods. Aias, then, when accosted by a great storm sent by Athene is nearly drowned with his ship and men, but after Poseidon saved him, Aias lost his mind, and recklessly declared his supremacy to the gods. Poseidon then used his trident to break the rock onto which Aias was clinging and send him to a watery doom. The students almost universally said, “that was so stupid.”

Agamemnon will later receive an article essentially all his own, but for now it is enough to mention that the students remembered his betraying of Klytaimnestra by deceiving her into sending Iphigeneia to be sacrificed at Aulis under the pretence of marriage to Achilleus. Many students said that this was justice, but further conversation will be reserved until later.

Moving from the time between and the many, many questions which we will return to (like do the students feel OK with the fact that Troy was taken by cunning, not strength), we then considered the importance and difference between the proems (first few lines) of each of the poems and how their themes, tones, and manners of presentation may be different.

Homer’s Iliad (1.1-1.7)

SING, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

Homer’s Odyssey (1.1-1.10)

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.

We immediately notice some distinct differences between the two proems. The Iliad sings of the emotion of a semi-divine man and his feud with a “leader of men” and the many men on their side of battle who will die because of this. The Iliad is also sung (aeide). The Odyssey is the telling (ennepe) of the many struggles of a suffering man who fails to save his companions due to their own recklessness. The distinction between the Iliad being sung and the Odyssey told (though of course both would be sung in dactylic hexameter by rhapsodes) is one the students made a strong attempt at. Emotion, they say, is a higher theme, or at the least, song is more appropriate to conveying of emotion–it is more emotional the students say, and “gut-wrenching” does seem a word more aptly ascribed to painful dirges. (Viz. (or rather Aud.) Adele’s Hello).

Another important difference is that the focus of the book will shift from the interplay between the will of the gods and man to how man inevitably adds to his own suffering and destruction. In fact, this theme of wild “recklessness” (atasthalia) is repeated in the words of no smaller a figure than Zeus, king of the gods, not twenty lines later:

“Oh, for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness (atasthalia) win sorrow beyond what is given…” (1.32-35)

So, though the students gave a detailed list of times when the gods seemed to add to the suffering of mortals, the most provocative of which is likely during Book III of the Iliad when Hera and Zeus agree to let Ilion be destroyed and Athene convinces Pandaros to break the truce between the Trojans and the Achaians, we will remain sensitive to the statement that mortals create their own suffering and that their own lack of resiliency, perseverance, discernment, or fidelity lead to their destruction during the Odyssey.

In conclusion, as an extra treat, I will include here major themes we will consider, and which will be present all through Homer’s Odyssey and our seminars on it:

(1) Father and son relationships and their complexity;

(2) Concealed (kalupto) or veiled truths and the art of misdirection;

(3) Perseverance and the “hero’s” journey;

(4) Homecoming (nostos) and what makes a home (so important);

(5) The Xenia or guest/host relationship and its importance;

(6) Detainment, both mental and physical, and its hateful nature.

And bonus number two is a list of Relevant Quotes to the first Seminar which may well earn their own post soon:

1.347-349 Telemachos blames Zeus for all mortals’ troubles.

“They [the suitors] all would find death was quick, and marriage a painful matter.” (1.266)

“You should not go on clinging to childhood. You are no longer an age to do that.” (1.296-297)

“The gods have not made yours a birth that will go nameless…” (1.222)

Nobody really knows his own father.” (my bold; 1.216)

“Your words to me are kind…what any father would say to his son.” (1.307-308)

“Do not detain me any longer, eager as I am for my journey.” (1.315)

“The daughter of Ikarios, circumspect Penelope, heard and heeded the magical song from her upper chamber, and descended the high staircase that was built in her palace, not all alone, since two handmaidens went to attend her. When she, shining among women, came near the suitors, she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery, holding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it, and a devoted attendant was stationed on either side of her.” (1.328-335)

“But if she continues to torment the sons of the Achaians, since she is so dowered with the wisdom bestowed by Athene, to be expert in beautiful work, to have good character and cleverness, such as we are not told of, even of the ancient queens, the fair-tressed Achaian women of times before us, Tyro and Alkmene and Mykene, wearer of garlands; for none of these knew thoughts so wise as Penelope knew;” (2.115-122)

*Greater detail will be given to Telamonian Aias during our seminar on The Ajax of Sophocles.

Conversations with Students IV: The Embassy to Achilleus and Death of Dolon

This seminar focused on two particular episodes and in its own way two particular characters: the embassy to Achilleus as it is known, from Book IX, and the Doloneia, the potentially interpolated episode of the traitorous Dolon, and his unfortunate run-in with Diomedes and Odysseus. Even though this seminar only covers Books IX and X of Homer’s Iliad, they are packed full of information, complexity, and interesting questions. Let us first examine the structure of the two books.

After the Trojans route and defeat the Achaians during Book VIII, mighty Hektor decides to camp on the Trojan Plain, outside the walls of Ilion, for the first time in the nine years that the war has been ongoing. This, understandably, freaks Agamemnon, leader of the Achaians out, and in a true testament to his meddle as a commander, his first instinct is to instruct all the men to flee back to their homes by ship. Diomedes, who has recently seen his star in ascent (Cf. his aristeia of Bk. V), immediately declines and derides the course of action, and Nestor, wisest and eldest Achaian on the battlefront, assents with him, but “completes his argument,” with the suggestion that an embassy of trusted men should be sent to propitiate and placate Achilleus (9. 95-113). Agamemnon agrees to this action saying that “[he] was mad in the persuasion of [his] heart’s evil.” Nestor then with great politic suggests that Aias the Greater, Phoinix, and Odysseus be sent to placat Achilleus without allowing or forcing Agamemnon to nominate himself. Here ensues the first question we considered during seminar:

1) Why were these three men chosen, and would the embassy have had a greater effect had Agamemnon led it himself?

The first thing which must be noted in answer to this question is that Nestor suggests these three men before the reader ever finds out the thoughts of imperious Agamemnon. Regardless of exactly what Agamemnon might have planned–and in fact the plan to even supplicate Achilleus comes from Nestor–it is Nestor’s wise and guiding hand which determines who will be sent. That said, seeing as the last time Achilleus saw Agamemnon Athene had to prevent Achilleus from slaying Agamemnon, the three men chosen will undoubtedly have a more positive ethos and rapport with Achilleus. And as we see in the speeches of Phoinix and Odysseus in an obvious way (speaking of “glory like an immortal”, Odysseus, and childhood memories, Phoinix), there is plenty of pathos too. Even Aias, terse as he is, offers arguably the best logic of the three.

In Aias’ speech he very quickly observes a potential flaw in the reasoning of Achilleus. He mentions that even when a man’s brother is killed, he will accept a blood-price and be placated, but Achilleus, pitiless as he is, is now offered back his woman, and seven more, and he will not accept them. (9. 630-639) Is Aias’ reasoning here correct, or is the hypocrisy of Achilleus fighting for a man who has stolen his “woman” too much? One has to wonder: in Book III, Menelaos seemed very willing to fight against Paris for Helen, though she was very much “sullied” by him in the way that men and women lie together. And Menelaos, angry as he was, did accept the terms that if he won, the Trojans would keep their city after paying recompense and returning Helen. Is Achilleus’ character simply stronger than Menelaos’? Or is he pitiless, as he is described?

After the three men and two heralds return from their embassy in failure, Book X begins, and Agamemnon and Menelaos cannot sleep. With the Trojans camped right outside their walls, on the plain, the war is finally going to make its way to the Achaians’ ships–without the aid of their greatest soldier, Achilleus. Something must be done: so Nestor, Diomedes, the Aiantes’, Odysseus, Meges, and Idomeneus are roused. A spy mission, then in close-council, is suggested, and Diomedes, recently having achieved some glory for himself (his aristeia in Bk V, his bold words in defense of the war at the beginning of Book IX (9. 31-49), and his callous remarks about Achilleus after he does not agree to return (9. 696-705)) is keen to volunteer, but he requests a second man because: “When two go together, one of them at least looks forward to see what is best; a man by himself, though he be careful, still has less mind in him than two, and his wits have less weight.” (10. 223-226). Agamemnon then gives Diomedes free-reign to choose whichever man he thinks will be best equipped to handle the situation (while secretly worrying that Menelaos will be chosen (10. 240-241)); and naturally, Diomedes chooses the most cunning and capable Achaian to join him: Odysseus.

The two of them traipse through the night in search of the Trojan camp and Hektor to view the position of the Trojans and decipher their plans for the next day. Unbeknownst to the Achaians, however, Hektor has himself asked for volunteers to do the same thing, and a fool, Dolon, has volunteered to spy, on the condition that he be given Achilleus’ chariot and horses should he be successful and is described as, “an evil man to look on, but was swift-footed; moreover he was a single son among five sisters.” (10. 316-319) In the physical and masculine culture of the Archaic Greeks, Dolon already has two major strikes against him, being womanly and ugly–but he is also covetous and delusional. He claims that he will go straight to the tent of Agamemnon–somehow getting past the seven-hundred sentries and wall and ditch that the Achaians have recently built. A major question which is asked the students is this: does Hektor show his inability to lead as a strategic commander in this situation? Now, there is ample literature calling Book X itself an interpolation, and even more claiming that there is a Greek nationalist bias present in Homer. But from a purely literary standpoint, the students are rather unimpressed here with Hektor’s lack of foresight. They do, however, suggest that at least he chose an expendable man–but that reasoning does not hold up under scrutiny, because after Dolon is caught, he quickly and with little prodding reveals the location of the new Thracian camp–which leads to the death of 13 men, including their king Rhesos, and the leading off of their horses which were fated to save Troy should only they drink from the waters of Xanthos/Skamandros. So, Dolon, in all his traitorous nature, could be argued to be a man who cost the Trojans the war.

800px-Rhesos_MNA_Naples Diomedes and Odysseus (Lycurgus, @360 BCE)

The students thought that it would be difficult to dislike a character more than Pandaros or Thersites. Dolon, however, is universally despised for his cowardly and traitorous nature. If Aristotle is correct, therefore, in saying: ”

“For moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle 1104b 9-13, Barnes tr.)

Then, perhaps our students have a chance. For Dolon is certainly hateful, and he is justly despised even by the young.