Although the Greeks never doubted that Homer had existed, the precise details of his life were a puzzle to them. His dates, his place of birth, even the number of poems that he might have written – all were endlessly debated. Like the heroes born of gods, and like the very gods themselves, he defied all attempts to provide him with a consistent biography. Perhaps, however, this was only fitting – for Homer himself, to the Greeks, was a figure touched by a certain quality of the divine. Some went so far as to claim that his father had been a river and his mother a sea-nymph; but even those who accepted that his origins had been more mundanely human stood in awe of his achievements. “Best and most godlike of all poets”: so he was hailed by Plato. Certainly, the mystery that surrounded Homer’s life and death was as nothing compared to the mystery that hedged about his poems. The two epics which no classical biographer ever disputed were his, the Iliad and the Odyssey, provided the Greeks with their surest sense of the numinous. No more authoritative window onto the workings of the gods, and of their relationship to mortals, could be imagined. When the Greeks read Homer’s poems, and the Iliad especially, they found themselves face to face with the very foundations of their world.
Hardly surprising, then, that it should have been the Iliad which provided them with the perfect metaphor for Homer himself. At the heart of the poem there stood the peerless and deadly Greek warrior, Achilles, who in the course of the narrative comes to be supplied, courtesy of his sea-nymph mother, with an entire panoply of divinely-forged armour. Most stunning of all the items designed and fashioned for him by Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, is a shield decorated across its vast expanse with “the earth, the heavens, and the sea”: a world entire in itself. “And girdling it, around the outermost rim of that indestructibly welded shield, the god set the mighty power of the River Ocean.” It was from this same River Ocean, so the ancient geographers believed, that all the world’s streams and rivers derived – just as all poetry, all drama and all beauty of language had derived from Homer.
And still, even today, the metaphor holds good. From Virgil to Dante, from Racine to Joyce, the entirety of western literature can indeed seem enfolded within Homer’s encircling embrace. Certainly, the fact that Europe’s earliest epic should also be its greatest puts paid decisively to any notion that the history of creativity might be equated with progress. Homer remains what he has always been: the writer who, more than any other, has served to feed the well-springs of the western imagination. Meanwhile, as in classical times, so now, any attempt to arrive at an understanding of the Iliad in terms of Homer himself is doomed to failure. Awesome though the poem is in its sweep, yet it has neither a definable origin, nor even a definable creator. A veritable ocean indeed.
Granted, there are aspects of the Iliad that modern scholarship has fathomed with more certainty than did the ancients. There is a broad consensus that the version of the poem we have now can be dated to the second half of the 8th century BC – the very period when the Greek alphabet was first starting to be used. It is also agreed that there is material embedded within the Iliad which is considerably older, and derives from a palpably oral tradition: epithets worn smooth with the retelling, descriptions of cups or helmets such as had not been used for centuries, scattered phrases from forgotten Anatolian languages. Yet in many ways, our understanding of this has only intensified our sense of the murk which shrouds the poem’s origins. Was there one Homer, or many Homers? Was the epic written or dictated? Who was its original audience, and how was it performed? Here are questions to which no definitive answers can be given.
Yet they continue to be asked, and to haunt us, for they touch, of course, on far more than literary history. The issue of how the material contained within the Iliad might have come to be written down around 750 BC hints at what, for its readers, has always been the most tantalising question of all: was the story that Homer tells us based on actual events? Strip away the obviously fantastical elements, and there are hints of an episode that does indeed sound grimly plausible. The Iliad is so called because it tells the story of a citadel named Ilium, or Troy, a stronghold which some five hundred years before the time of Homer was supposed to have overlooked the Hellespont, as the straits of the Dardanelles were then known. It was against this same city that a taskforce of various Greeks – or Achaeans, as Homer calls them – had launched an amphibious operation. The invaders had lain siege to the city, stormed it, and burnt it to the ground. Nothing else was achieved. Reduced to its bare bones, the campaign might have seemed as unmemorable as it had been pointless.
Yet it was the achievement of Homer to make of this squalid episode something so haunting and brilliant that almost everyone who has ever read about it has yearned for it to have been true. “Where Troy once stood,” wrote the Roman poet Ovid, “there are now only fields”: a reflection that finally, by the 19th century, had led most people to the reluctant conclusion that the Iliad was no more based on fact than was Cinderella or Snow White. Then, in 1870, a German adventurer by the name of Heinrich Schliemann travelled to the Dardanelles, dug up a small hillock called Hisarlik, and exposed to the light of day what he promptly declared to have been none other than Homer’s Troy. Nor was that all. Thanks to Schliemann’s flamboyant efforts, and to those of the archaeologists and scholars who followed in his wake, a hitherto unsuspected Bronze Age civilisation was found to have existed in Greece: one which had flourished around the very period that the Trojan war was supposed to have taken place. A city such as Mycenae, which in Homer’s own time ranked as little more than a village, but which in the Iliad had been given a starring role to play, was shown to have been exactly as described in the poem: “rich in gold”. Solid proof at last, it appeared, that the whole fabulous edifice of Homer’s epic had been raised upon a bedrock of fact.
Except that even now, a century and more on from Schliemann’s first excavations, there still exists no irrefutable proof that Hisarlik was indeed the site of Troy, or that the Trojan War was ever fought. The balance of probability must be that some such campaign was conducted; it is also possible, as the Athenian historian Thucydides long ago suggested, that the return of the conquerors to Greece contributed to “a state of ferment in nearly all her cities,” and that this in turn resulted in their ultimate ruin. What is certain, however, is that, with the collapse of Mycenaean civilisation, there was little left to the Greeks except for the shadowplay of memories, and the consciousness of a vanished age of heroes. Not for nothing are the centuries that followed it known to historians of ancient Greece as ‘the Dark Ages’. In the weed-covered shells of the once mighty Mycenaean cities, there were no longer any high-gabled palaces to be seen, no golden necklaces, or bristling chariots, but only phantoms.
It was precisely this drear and haunted backdrop, however, which made the Iliad itself appear all the more radiant, all the more lustrous by comparison. There has never been a poem so vivid with a sense of brightness. The play of light is everywhere in its verses. It is what gives beauty to even the most mundane of activities: the hunkering down by watchfires which blaze “as stars in the night sky glitter round the brilliance of the moon when the air falls to a sudden, windless calm”, or the washing by “the wives and all the lovely daughters of Troy of their glistening clothes”. It is also what gives to the poem’s huge roster of protagonists the authentic quality of the epic: for there is barely a character in the entire Iliad who is not cast as luminescent. No woman so insignificant that she cannot be described as “white-armed”; no man so fleetingly mentioned that he cannot be referred to as “bronze-cloaked”. The queen who dresses herself does so by putting on robes that dazzle the eye. The warrior who prepares himself for battle sheathes himself in reflugence:
“Then over his shoulder Agamemnon slung his sword,
golden studs at the hilt, the blade burnished bright
and the scabbard sheathed in silver swung on golden straps,
and he grasped a well-wrought shield to encase his body,
forged for rushing forays – beautiful, blazoned work.”
Yet as this passage unsettlingly suggests, it is the quality of the beautiful in the Iliad that it will invariably hint at violence. Indeed, beauty is precisely what has served to drive the whole world of the poem mad. It is not any lust for gold or power that has brought the Greeks in their well-benched ships to Troy, but rather the loveliness of a mortal woman. Helen, the daughter of Zeus, greatest of all the gods, has been abducted from her hometown of Sparta by Paris, a prince of Troy; and it is in the cause of winning her back that the invaders have left their own wives and homes behind. Already, two centuries on from the time of Homer, and Herodotus, a historian who traced the entire cycle of wars between Greece and Asia, could report how ridiculous it appeared to the Persians that the Greeks should have dispatched such a massive taskforce “simply to get back the wife of a single Spartan”: a judgement which potently demonstrates the difference between epic and history. In the Iliad, both sides are perfectly aware that the war is insanity; and yet still the war rages on. As Helen glides along the ramparts of Troy, so the elders of the city gaze at her, and murmur softly to themselves:
“Ah, no wonder
the men of Troy and the Achaeans under arms have suffered
years of agony all for her, for such a woman.
Beauty, terrible beauty!
A deathless goddess – so she strikes our eyes!
ravishing as she is, let her go home in the long ships
and not be left behind… for us and our children
down the years an irresistible sorrow.”
So they say; but still, the Trojans never hand Helen back.
Why not? The ultimate answer lies, not with the Trojans or the Greeks themselves, but with the gods. How telling it is that Helen’s beauty is described as “terrible” precisely for being divine: for in Greek, the word, ‘ainos’, is pointedly double-edged. The gods, as they are portrayed in the Iliad, are “terrible” in two senses: they embody to its ultimate pitch all that is most glorious about mortals, and they chill the heart. Sometimes they will descend onto the battlefield, and fight in the cause of their favourites, making the whole plain of Troy to shake; and when they first alight to do so, they will quiver with anticipation, “like nervous doves”. At other times, they are more like vultures, “carrion birds, settling atop the broad towering oak sacred to Zeus,” there to enjoy the spectacle of slaughter. Most chilling of all, however, is when they strike at one another, not amid the dust and clamour of battle, but sat in council in their own golden halls, sacrificing whole cities, whole peoples, to their enmities. So it is, at the beginning of the Iliad, when it appears that the war is to be resolved, that Hera, the queen of the gods, whose loathing for the Trojans is something terrible, demands of her husband that he sacrifice Troy, which he has always loved above all other cities, to her quenchless hatred. Zeus demurs; but Hera, rather than permit Troy to survive, shows herself willing to pay for its destruction at the cost of everything that she in turn holds most precious.
“The three cities that I love best of all
are Argos and Sparta, Mycenae with streets as broad as Troy’s.
Raze them – whenever they stir the hatred in your heart.”
Here, of course, was a foreshadowing of the collapse of Mycenaean civilisation: a glimpse into a future that was already, for Homer’s audience, their past. Virgil and Dante, when they led their heroes into the underworld and showed them visions of what was to come, would deploy the same technique: due acknowledgement that epic, if it were to soar in the authentically Homeric manner, had an obligation to span the limits of time as well as space. It is certainly not the least astounding feature of the Iliad that it is forever offering, in a tantalising manner, hints of an entire cosmos of wonders and stories, mere tasters which subsequent writers, with a voracious gratitude, would seize upon and make their own: “slices from the great banquet of Homer,” as the tragedian Aeschylus put it. The magic of the Iliad, and the measure of its author’s seemingly limitless resources of creativity, is the way in which it hints at a universe immeasurably vaster even than the one contained within its verses.
And yet the Iliad, despite that, is also a profoundly intimate poem. Although set against the backdrop of a war that has already dragged on for nine whole years by the time that it opens, the span of its action covers barely two weeks. Just as it states in its opening line, it tells of the rage of Achilles: what provokes it, and what calamities follow in its wake. Sometimes, like a master cinematographer, Homer will pull back his camera, and show us the entire world of the battlefield, with all its many “bodies made carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds”; but then, at other times, he will provide us with the very closest of close focuses. A great king, believing his brother to be mortally wounded, shudders and grasps his hand: “Die now, and how terrible will be my grief!” A child shrinks and cries, terrified by the nodding of the plume on his father’s helmet; the father removes the helmet, kisses the boy, and both he and the mother laugh. An old man, frantic to recover the body of his dead son, kneels before the killer, who has tossed the body onto a dung heap: “I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before,” the father sobs. “I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Passages such as these, once read, will never be forgotten. As vivid now as when they were written more than two and a half millennia ago, they bear witness to how a world unfathomably alien to ours can simultaneously make us blink back tears with a sudden jolt of familiarity. It is for this reason that the Iliad ranks as the most heart-stopping, the most terrifying, the most tragic poem ever written. Still, to this day, Homer remains worthy of the plain but glorious title by which the ancients knew him. He is, quite simply, ‘The Poet’.