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.


Are We Romans Yet?

“I live in Sicily as a foreigner, but I love this country More than any other. This is my home now, My true dwelling place.” –Ovid, Metamorphoses Bk V 572-557 (Lombardo tr.)*

Consider the diverse peoples who came together to form and defend Troy: Lykians, Aethiopians, Amazonians, et alia. At one time, and for one lucid moment, these people were united in a just and singular goal: defend home. Then imagine them scattered to the wind in the wake of their defeat. Many of the surivors–those not enslaved–followed Aeneas, forever stopping and starting in cities that would never be called home. Later, after his own women burned many of his ships, King Acestes of Sicily would take the less warlike and honor-driven people in, and for many, their journey ended there: et in Sicanis ego.

But the journey was not over for Aeneas; ever did the signs point to Latinum and War;  war, with a seven year long journey sandwiched between it and the Ten year long Trojan War before it. Twenty years of suffering–When ever do we find home? When ever do we, like Aeneas’ followers, become Romans? Is home our birthright, or do we, like poor Helenus and Andromache risk falling for pale illusion? Or like poor Polydorus and Palinurus, do we simply lack the fate or strength to make it home? Is home, perhaps, a little more difficult to attain than one might at first suspect?

When we came together; some from undergraduate colleges in the Southwest, others from the Northeast, others from being cooks in the south, and others from the deep colds of the Midwest, we were disparate and many. At St. John’s we became one. We were Johnnies, or put more correctly, we were GI’s. We were friends united in learning and transforming our natures and lives, substantially. But St. John’s is no end point, no telos. One must be-at-work-while-staying-at-self-and-then-go. The gates of ivory close; the cave must be returned to; the heights of the Empyrean precede the inevitable return to the mundane; Jacob’s or Plato’s ladder must be scaled down. One leaves through the gate of horn. We then multiply and become plentiful. But though we came as disparate people, did we leave as one people? Are we not now all Romans now, though once we were fallen Trojans of Phrygian, Thracian, Amazonian, or Near-Eastern stock? No, obviously not. A fallen Trojan does not a Roman make. Journeys, sufferings, losses, and war await one. St. John’s is a beautiful beginning, but a beginning all the same.

St. John’s offers a taste of home, but a taste, like the Lotus Eaters would attest, that one never can go without drinking from again. Just as Alcibiades was overcome by his desire to see within Socrates, to see his inner light, the light beyond the shadows of the cave—those inner depths sometimes called pristine heights, so must one afflicted by the gadfly which flits about plains less noble than Elyisum, restlessly, strive for Hyperborea beyond the clouds, or Rome beyond the Aegean sea. A distant point, hare-like in its elusiveness, the distance to which is only ever halved; Sicily may have to do. My lips are cracked, my breath dry. The air without is dry and arid. Where is home? The answer is so cruelly simple. Home must be built, not found. Such homes as exist ready made for others are denied you now, Brother Aaron.

I say this not to discourage, but like Teiresias in Homer’s underworld, or Anchises in Vergil’s, to counsel. To return home, or where once was home, like Agamemnon, expecting all as it was, is to invite severe misfortune. All is not as it seems, though once that was all one’s eyes could darkly see. One must now, with scales fallen out from eyes, mist parted, see that which is, and actually bring about what once could safely exist in hope alone.

My evenings at St. John’s involved pleasant conversation, thoughtful debate, and were often followed by giving Dionysos his due after Apollinian days. The Even-star fell on my days where happiness was equal during morning hours to those hours covered by Selene’s cool light. My nights now are largely solitary, and though my knowledge and wisdom daily increase, so does my loneliness and estrangement from those around me. I continue my work in isolation; I grow strong, my life’s work is happening, and yet I long for my former Troy, the company of my dear Creusa. My work continues. I strive onward hoping for Athene’s counsel; avoiding Poseidon’s wrath.

I miss my home. I know it does not exist; it must be founded at yet unknown costs. And yet still do I linger on un-spun thoughts, restless sentences dripping from worn-through keys. A barista, rude in tone, low in thoughts, calls me back to the mundane. Doesn’t she know from what heights she drags me down from? My fall is Luciferian. Pandemonium will not do. Only Rome. Such grasping hands belong not alone to baristas: the ignoble belly. I hold a lowly steward’s grip on Agamemnon’s weathered staff—molding youth, expressing knowledge, transmitting culture. All are excaliburs of thought. What gives me happiness and long-lingering hope causes pain all the same. I have never been without this feeling. Is this what the Pious son of Venus and swift-footed Peleion felt with goddess mothers? Such simple and short-enduring pride, exaggerated with filial love when they were present, followed by such keen pain at their eternal and inevitable passing by?

To reach a crescendo, Ovid’s Tristia comes to mind:

“When the saddest image of that night recurs which was for me the final moment in the city, when I recall the night in which I left behind so much dear to me, a tear now also glides from my eyes. Now the day was nearly at hand in which Caesar had ordered me to depart from the bounds of farthest Ausonia.”

But this is no elegy; it is the beginning of an epic. Suffering and nostalgia for what is lost is not this life’s major theme. Suffering is but hand-maiden, constant companion to something greater.

All this goes to show the layers with which life and fate conspire to confound and confront one. I am, perhaps arguably, a success in terms of the thinking of St. John’s, though I once declared its program a failure (in terms of finding one opportunities to share one’s acquired wisdom for a wage). Two years after graduating I am responsible for developing four years of Great Books course-work in a Charter school system—truly avant garde–not having accepted what was already laid down. Many of my fellows chose Carthage or Buthrotum, burning their ships, but I, possibly with the love of some Venus or Minerva, sailed on, ever in search of Lavinia, which I must build.

This is the life I wish to live. This is the life the moirai set out for me. And yet, like Aeneas, I was not warned by Helenus nor Celaeno of the sorrows I would face. Perhaps, though, I was? A life of meaning is not at all times happy. I feel the nagging sorrow, the tristia, and loneliness of those who travel West, those who approach the great Ocean’s border, and I am as of yet still unsure how to fill this void. I long for meaningful company and conversation, and I require more and more the farther I progress. I know these are the long days of struggle on the sea, but clarity can be difficult as the Dog-Star rises on the horizon, or the Sun sets in Capricorn, causing fear to all sailors braving the wine-dark sea.

*Written for all those who once knew home at St. John’s or some other brief Eden and are now on their nostos, wherever that may be.