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 III: Defeat, Destruction, and Catastrophe on the Trojan Plain

The body of text that we covered in preparation for this seminar was technically Homer’s Iliad Books VI-VIII, and just through the very beginning of Book IX. During that time, the students encountered the odd exchange between Glaukos and Diomedes of vows of friendship and an exchange of armor of wildly disparate values (Glaukos’ gold armor was worth 100 oxen and Diomedes’ 9), but the students were quick to remind that at least Glaukos left the encounter with his life, so perhaps the 91 oxen difference is value is at least one or two short of the value Glaukos lays on his life.

Much of the remainder of Book VI is given to Hektor briefly leaving the battlefield in order to order a sacrifice to Athene within the walls of Troy, to collect his brother Paris, who is sitting about his bedchamber, doing nothing, like a pale shadow of Achilleus, and for Hektor poignantly to see his son, Astyanax, and his wife, Andromache for the last time.

Book VII then carries on with the fighting and Apollo and Athene decided that yet another one on one combat between champions is in order: Apollo chooses Hektor, the greatest warrior of the Trojans, and when Hektor calls out his challenge to the Achaians, only Menelaos attempts to accept it–but his older and more prudent brother, Agamemnon, stops him from volunteering, insisting that Hektor is “by far the greater man”. Nestor, the wise old counselor of the Achaians, then tells a story in typical fashion about him once defeating a great champion named Ereuthalion, and the Achaians now shamed and full of fighting spirit have 9 intrepid champions volunteer to fight: Agamemnon, Diomedes, Aias the Greater, Aias the Lesser (The two Aias’ are called the “Aiantes” when referred to together), Idomeneus, Meriones, Eurypylos, Thoas, and Odysseus. Each man then has a lot assigned, and with a prayer for Diomedes, Aias the Greater, or Agamemnon to be chosen, Nestor shakes the helmet and shoots the lot. Aias’ lot is chosen, and he proceeds to seriously task Hektor during the fight: penetrating his shield twice a spear, tearing Hektor’s neck, and crushing his shield inward with a rock while sustaining no damage himself. Unfortunately, night comes and the two champions are separated by the heralds, Idaios and Talthybios.

Book VII then ends with the Trojan advisor, Antenor, sagaciously suggesting that the Trojans just give Helen and the stolen possessions of Menelaos back to the Achaians, but Paris demurred, and for some reason, his father Priam, king of Troy, agrees to send the possessions back but not Helen. Of course the Achaians take this as a slap in the face, and they do not accept the fulsome offering from the Trojans. All this said, the seminar we had to today largely focused on why the Achaians and Trojans are still fighting after 9 long years of war. Several suggestions ensued.

1) Helen is a political object which was possessed by Menelaos, king of Sparta, and she was stolen by a foreign dignitary, Paris, and therefore an act of war was made by Troy against Sparta. In the background to this is the fact that many of the great men around then Achaia, Argos, and what would come later to be called Hellas or Greece had all been suitors to Helen before Menelaos was chosen as winner. During this process, Odysseus, seeking after his own interest in winning Penelope, niece of Tyndareus (father of Helen) suggested that Tyndareus have every suitor honor the decision of Helen and Tyndareus on husband and promise forever to protect Helen and her husband. The idea behind this oath was to keep the suitors from outright murdering Helen, her father, and her new husband in a collectively spurned rage. Little did any of them expect that they would later be honor-bound to mass armies, cross the Aegean Sea, and fight a ten year long war, which few enough of them would return from.

2) The second reason that the students gave for why the war rages on is the champions/heroes’ desire for further enlarging and expanding their kleos or honor. This claim might see some evidence with Pandaros, fool that he is, being persuaded by Athene to shoot his arrow at Menelaos in a misbegotten attempt to win honor at the expense of continuing the war on (4. 115-140). Also, Diomedes several times distinguishes himself as a great battler, susceptible to shaming (4. 425-430) and desirous of wonderful honor during his heroic and god-like deeds during his aristeia all throughout Book V. But the problem with this perspective was that in the first nine books of Homer’s Iliad there are five attempts by the Achaians or the Trojans alone or in tandem to draw the war to a quick end–all five of which occur during a Two day stint (Books III-VII are one long day of fighting, Book VIII another long one during which the Trojans rout the Achaians with the favor of Zeus, and Book IX begins on the same night as Book VIII).

The first time the Achaians show their weakness and desire to leave is actually the same day spoke of in Book III but is found back in Book II. Agamemnon devises a “reverse psychology” sort of speech where he tells the Achaians that they should just go home because Zeus must have falsely promised Agamemnon Troy (2. 119-153). Instead of having their battle spirits raised, the men of the Achaians just start heading back towards their ships, and it takes a command by Hera to Athene to rouse the men back up through the voice of Odysseus and then the liquid-honey voice of Nestor to get the men to stay. The point is though Odysseus suggests that it is disgraceful to return home after a long time empty-handed, that these men are all tired and beaten down.

The second time both the Achaians and Trojans show a desire for a quick end is when Paris suggests to his brother Hektor single-combat against Menelaos, winner take Helen, receive war-restitution, and the items stolen from Sparta alongside Helen. Menelaos hears of this opportunity, and with the assent of all his people (and likely the Trojans too), proceeds to beat Paris senseless (its true; he knocks him over with his spear, breaks his sword over Paris’ head, and then attempts to choke him with his own helmet’s chin-strap) (3. 375-400). Unfortunately for both sides, Aphrodite then saves Paris and deposits him safely back in his bedchambers with Helen, who all too humanly, is disgusted with her wretched and cowardly husband.

The third time both Achaians and Trojans, and even the gods Athene and Apollo, show a desire to end the war is when in Book VII a second single combat (on the same day as the first) is suggested between Hektor and an unnamed Achaian champion, who after a rousing speech by Nestor, and nine men volunteer, ends up being Aias the Greater, who is chosen by lots (as summarized above as well). This battle is less one-sided than the Paris and Menelaos battle in a way, but Aias essentially dominates it until the heralds Talthybios and Idaios stop it do to the onset of darkness, and ostensibly, because both men are so beloved, that neither side really wants to see either die on account of pathetic Paris.

The fourth and most pathetic attempt to end the war (until we see the fifth at the beginning of Book IX) is Antenor’s suggestion to the Trojan council that the Trojans just give Helen back to the Achaians with Menelaos’ possessions and be done with it all. After two failed attempts at ending the war that day, Antenor reasonably assumes that the will of the people is to end the war, with Troy not being sacked. As reasonable as his perspective is, Paris demurred, and for some reason, Priam places the desires of Paris above the will of his people. Is this perhaps because he would prefer to see Troy destroyed than it further suffer disgrace at the hands of his beautiful but weak son? One is led to wonder, but the thought is never confirmed by him.

After Book VIII and Zeus’ decree that the Trojans shall smash the Achaians back until Achilleus retakes the field of battle (after his friend Patroklos dies), Agamemnon begins Book IX disconsolate. He is so disconsolate that now, without using reverse psychology, he suggests to his counselors that they just retreat (9. 18-31). Zeus is just too strong! Naturally, Diomedes, the young and name-making Achaian, who had just fought with the gods Ares and Aphrodite is sick of this sort of attitude and claims that if he and Sthenelos were left alone on the battlefield that they would sack Troy themselves. But all that said, over a span of two days, the men show just how tired, worn-out, fatigued, exhausted they are. Though kleos might be the immortal measure of a man’s life and power, his mortal limits apparently must be taken into account.

In the end, the students were asked just who was keeping this war going, gods or men, and in two of the accounts gods stepped in to keep the war from ending (examples 1 and 2), but in the following three (Examples 3,4, and 5) it was mortal men who continued to fight. What keeps them going? Or is it who? With these questions we left seminar, though the issue of Helen, her acute ability to spot Aphrodite through her deceptions, her keen hand for weaving and her take on all this remains for us to discuss another day.