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.


Fatherhood in the Great Books I: Fathers of The Trojan War

There is little doubt that there are few roles as important to society today as is fatherhood. And as a testament to this thought, even in the Great Books from the “Homeric” period was fatherhood described and pictured as both complex and difficult. In honor of today, we will take a look at some of the major characters from Greek mythology and their profiles as fathers: whether it be the tricky and deceitful character of Odysseus attempting to escape the Trojan War or Agamemnon who sacrificed his own daughter to earn favorable winds, or even the dubious position of soft-hearted Priam of Troy, there is a fundamental tension in the role of fatherhood: where is one’s first allegiance owed–to one’s people, one’s self, or to one’s family.

Let us take the example of Odysseus first. Before the Trojan War, Odysseus received an oracle saying that if he engaged in the Trojan War he would return twenty years later as a beggar. Odysseus, being an enterprising sort, decided that such a fate was not his best option, and fair as Helen was (who Paris had stolen, inciting the war), he would prefer to tend to his lands, family, and self without the added stress of twenty years abroad pursuing and fighting for the wife of another king. So, when an Achaian envoy came to recruit Odysseus, he acted as if he were crazy, and he plowed his fields while sowing salt on them. Palamedes, a clever Achaian in his own right, laid Odysseus’ infant son in front of him (or threatened him with a sword by another account), and Odysseus then broke character and allowed himself to be conscripted. He would later plant evidence in Palamedes’ tent (buried under it) and have Palamedes stoned for being a traitor (more on the story from Apollodorus’ Epitome here).

All this said, if one looks on either side of the war, Odysseus showed a remarkable level of care for his family and lands. In the first place, as written above, Odysseus did not want to leave his family at all. It may be objected, of course, that Odysseus, acquisitive as he is, simply did not want to lose his riches and place in Ithakan society–especially, if one considers the fact that the oracle is borne out, and that Odysseus comes home to meet 108 fine suitors eating up his substance in his stead. The lynch-pin of the argument, however, is that Odysseus chooses to save the life of his son, Telemachos, rather than maintain his charade, and he chooses war and poverty over giving up his own son. This shows a remarkable love for his family, and perhaps for the descent of his line, over even his own personal wealth and kleos (glory in Achaian time as measured by possessions and deeds of valor). This care and love for both home and family maintains itself through Odysseus’ entire odyssey home as he fights through Cyclopes, Laistrygones, and gives up the beds of two goddesses (Circe and Kalypso) in order to return to his lands, wife, son, and father. Though Odysseus is often thought of as the consummate cunning and amoral man (responsible for stealing the Paladium, ambushing King Rhesos and the Thracians with Diomedes, and the idea for the Trojan Horse), he shows himself as the perfect mixture of mastermind and family man, ever striving to be home and to fight alongside those he loves and cares for (so long as they are loyal to him).*

In one other way, too, Odysseus shows himself as an effective father. Because he allows (with the help of Athene and Mentor) his son to step out of his shadow by allowing his son, alongside his father, to have a place in the killing of the suitors as well as the fighting against the families of the suitors. Unlike in the case of say the Heraclids (the sons of Herakles), the greatness of the father does not stunt the development of the son, Telemachos.

This balance, however, of family life and place in society did not extend quite so elegantly to every Achaian hero, and from here, let us continue with Agamemnon as a father. When Helen was first taken from Menelaos by ignoble and “womanly” Paris, Agamemnon in support of his younger brother, called all the Achaian captains together who had once convened as suitors to Helen in the lands and court of Tyndareus, Helen’s putative father. Because, again, of Odysseus’ cleverness, all the former suitors of Helen had sworn an oath to forever protect the husband and person of Helen should any trouble befall them. The reason for this oath was that Tyndareus feared that with such a mass of suitors convened that whomever he chose would spark an attack or massacre, so Odysseus (vying for Penelope by suggesting this deal) suggested that all suitors swear an oath to protect whomever was chosen along with Helen herself.

In the first stages of having these captains and their men together ready to assault Paris and Troy for stolen Helen, tragedy struck. Either Agamemnon killed a sacred stag of Artemis, or he had foolishly boasted that he was a a greater hunter than she was; in any case, Artemis turned the winds at Aulis against the fleet and stranded the whole army there until expiation could be done. The prophet Calchas, who Agamemnon would come to hate, declared that nothing would appease Artemis besides a sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigeneia.

Agamemnon, thus, was caught between his duty as a brother, as a field-marshal, and as a father. Which duty of his should come first? In the end, he was convinced by Odysseus to sacrifice his daughter due to the fact that Iphigeneia was not his only daughter (he still had two other daughters, Elektra and Chrysothemis, and a son, Orestes) and that he had but one brother, and as a a leader of people, his duty was to his men, not simply to his family. Was Agamemnon therefore a better leader and brother than he was a father? Is one’s highest duty to one’s people and army as a general and king, or is one’s duty to one’s own daughter? What a choice.

In any case, after the war, during the Returns, Oeax, brother of executed and disgraced Palamedes, effectively convinced Klytaimestra ( Clytemnestra, Fabulae 117) to conspire to kill Agamemnon because of his outrageous choice to sacrifice their shared daughter, and because Oeax claimed that Agamemnon would be bringing a daughter of Priam, Kassandra, as a concubine to replace Klytaimestra. Klytaimestra was convinced, and with her new lover Aigisthos, cousin (and raised brother of Agamemnon), they slaughtered Agamemnon while he was sacrificing just after he arrived home.

All this tragedy behind him, Orestes, son of Agamemnon, as much as he would have preferred a living and healthy family, did have the opportunity to avenge his father and win eternal fame because of his murder. So highly regarded was he that when Athene first appears to Telemachos in Homer’s Odyssey “to start him on his journey to being a man”, Bk I lines 299-303 (Lattimore tr.), she says, “Or have you not heard what glory was won by great Orestes among all mankind, when he killed the murderer of his father, the treacherous Aigisthos, who had slain his famous father?” She passes over in silence his murdering of his mother, Klytaimestra, as well, and seemingly maintains that as tragic as Agamemnon’s death is, the glory of his son is very great.

Standing in stark contrast and as foil to Agamemnon, too, is soft-hearted Priam, the king of Troy. Rather than making the difficult choice Agamemnon did, to value his people above his family when Paris returned home from Sparta with his stolen bride, it was Priam that promised that he would never give Helen back up to Menelaos and the Achaians. Even nine years into the war, with several of his sons slain, countless of his allies and his citizens fallen, when Antenor, his esteemed advisor spoke against Paris, and suggested, wisely, that Helen finally be returned with reparations to the Achaians, Priam again listened to his son (Iliad, Bk VII 365-379), and ignored counsel.

So, because Priam was incapable of choosing against one of his family members, during the course of the Iliad, he watches his favorite son, champion of Troy–Hektor–fall before his very eyes and get dragged and desecrated behind Achilleus’ chariot around the Trojan city three times. Then Priam must finally, in Bk XXIV, kiss the hands of his son’s killer in order to receive his body back. Oh, and then, after Homer’s Iliad, his city is destroyed alongside most of his fifty sons, and his wife is enslaved by Odysseus. Difficult choices a father faces–even more difficult in sight of his own destiny and with concern for the destinies of those about (and under) him. Did Priam fail, perhaps, the stoic ideal, or was being generous to a strange woman and to his own son the kind of man and king he wished to be known and remembered as, regardless of the cost? Did he choose wisely, or was he out of his wits?

Beyond these figures there are countless other fathers who were heroes, leaders, and complicated characters in the Homeric times and beyond. One has the image of pious father Aeneas as something of the perfect political and family father–dutiful beyond all reason, and then one has Achilleus as the image of the absentee father who only cares for how his son represents him in the world after he has died–almost as an extension of his own kleos or glory. There are many more fathers in the Great Books to choose from, and the theme of considering the relationship of one’s own destiny against providing for the destiny of those under one’s care is one of the fundamental moral and political questions in the life of a man. On today, father’s day, such a question is honored here, and it will continue to be honored in future installments of this series.

*For those of you, however, who do not care for Odysseus, check the Telegony here for his ultimate fate according to the Epic Cycle for some serious irony.