The rage of Achilles—sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief
and hurled down to Hades the souls of so many fighters,
leaving their naked flesh to be eaten by dogs
and carrion birds, as the will of Zeus was accomplished.
Begin at the time when bitter words first divided
that king of men, Agamemnon, and godlike Achilles.
–Mitchell lyric translation The Iliad
That is the opening seven lines of the quirky, modern, lyric translation of Homer’s The Iliad by Stephen Mitchell. This was my third read of The Iliad, arguably the foundational work of literature in Western Civilization, which I consider the finest book ever written. Like many, I grew up fascinated with the Trojan War, my volume of The Iliad in decorative binding beckoning to me from my bookshelves since I was about twelve years old. That edition, the prose version by Samuel Butler, which I read for the first time with some dramatic impact in middle age, reproduces those same lines as:
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.
–Butler prose translation of The Iliad
Verse may have been too great an obstacle for me on that first, untrained read, but my experience with the nineteenth century Butler version—which lacks poetic beauty and, worse, employs the associated Roman names for the Greek gods—nevertheless sponsored an obsession with the history and literature of ancient Greece that has carried me with great fervor for nearly two decades hence. And it inspired my next read, some years later, of the beautiful lyric translation by Richard Lattimore, which renders those lines as:
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.
–Lattimore lyric translation of The Iliad
Now that is poetry! It sounds even better in Greek than English, of course, but I can yet imagine something like that rhythm as bards recited the epic to audiences thousands of years ago! The Iliad is an epic poem written in dactylic hexameter meter that depends on the differentiation between long syllables and short syllables for the rhythm in its verse. It was written in Homeric Greek in 15,693 lines that later were divided into 24 books—23 books in the Mitchell edition, but more on that later. Here’s what those opening lines look like in Greek:
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
–The Iliad in Greek
Archaeology has demonstrated that the existence of Troy—ancient Ilium, now the site of multiple layers of excavated ruins going back to 3000 BCE at the tell of Hisarlik in northwestern Turkey—is not a myth, even if history cannot prove that the legendary conflict between a coalition of Mycenaean Greeks and Troy ever occurred. Still, while Homer’s account was certainly fictional, most accept that the war was a historic event, if only because the Trojan War cuts such a deep groove in the memory of the ancient Greeks that it seems unlikely that it was created out of whole cloth. There is evidence that the archaeological level denoted as Troy VIIa—likely a vassal state of the Hittites strategically situated near the mouth of the Hellespont (today’s Dardanelles)—was destroyed by war circa1184 BCE, at the cusp of the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean World. This remains the best candidate for the city that tradition said succumbed to the decade-long warfare and siege at the swords of the Greeks.
But The Iliad is not actually about the Trojan War. Rather, The Iliad—although it indeed takes place during the Trojan War—is instead specifically about what has come to be called “the wrath of Achilles.” The Iliad covers only about fifty-one days in the tenth and final year of the war. The events leading up to the war and its conclusion—the abduction of Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, by Paris, Prince of Troy, which sparked it, and the subterfuge of the Trojan Horse that finally brought the city to ruin—would have been well-known to the ancient Greeks and thus receive little or no attention in this narrative. (This is no less true of the many episodes of the war revealed in non-Homeric tales contained in what has come to be called the “Epic Cycle,” or the stories of its aftermath told in Homer’s Odyssey.)
The Iliad opens as the Greek army is beset by plague sent by Apollo because Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek forces, refuses to return the daughter of a priest of Apollo he has abducted as a spoil of war. Eventually Agamemnon capitulates, but then takes in her place a woman belonging to Achilles, King of the Myrmidons, an allied force from Thessaly. This sparked the famous wrath of Achilles, a great hero who in his anger withdraws in a sulk from the fight. Achilles is the son of a goddess whom he asks to prevail upon Zeus to favor the Trojans in the war so that the Greeks—known variously here as Achaeans, Danaans or Argives—will come to appreciate in their suffering how essential Achilles is to any hope for victory. In addition to intrigue, much of what follows includes some of the greatest scenes of warfare ever written, with an unsparing eye for the blood and gore of battle. This is also a story with much complexity. The characters—gods and humans—are extremely well-crafted, there is outstanding dialogue, as well as some of the finest applications of analogy as a literary device in the entire canon of western literature. The Achaeans suffer mightily as Achilles spitefully sits out the war. Eventually, Achilles’ closest friend Patroclus borrows his armor and goes out to fight in his place, only to be slain by Hector, the mighty hero who is brother to Paris and son of King Priam of Troy. Now Achilles settles his differences with Agamemnon, magnificent new armor is forged for him by the gods, and he returns to battle, killing Hector and dragging his body by chariot around the walls of Troy to defile it in the eyes of his father. Later, Priam visits and supplicates himself before Achilles, begging for the body of his son so he can properly perform funeral rites. Moved, Achilles grants his wish. The Iliad concludes with the merciless sacrifice of Trojan prisoners upon the pyre of Patroclus, and elaborate funeral games presided over by Achilles.
The ancient Greek audience would know the rest of the story: that Paris, Priam and Achilles would all forfeit their lives, that Troy would fall, that Helen would return to Sparta with Menelaus, that Agamemnon would return to Mycenae only to be murdered by his wife and her lover. But none of that has any importance to this tale, which is always and ever about Achilles. Achilles, half-god and half-man, has always seemed to me to be the mirror-image of humanity for all of its grace and its savagery. Achilles can be ugly: Achilles would see his friends and allies slaughtered to redeem his spite; Achilles revels in envy, in anger, in unparalleled sulk; Achilles is savage, is vengeful, is merciless, is unrepentant. But yet Achilles is also beautiful, physically and spiritually. Achilles is remarkably courageous, fiercely loyal, is capable of irrepressible love and grace and kindness and empathy. Achilles could be your very worst enemy as well as your very best friend, in a single heartbeat. Achilles is the Bronze Age. Achilles is the blood-spattered twentieth century. Achilles is our god and our devil. Achilles is you and me.
The Iliad, a story equally of gods and men, is the closest the ancient Greeks ever had to something like the Christian Bible. It was born out of an oral tradition, and no doubt was recited from memory for generations before it was written down. The civilization of the Mycenaeans collapsed along with the Bronze Age; the subsequent “Dark Age” saw Greeks lose literacy as their “Linear B” writing system went extinct. When they rediscovered writing centuries later—borrowing the alphabet from the Phoenicians and brilliantly adding vowels—the very first thing they seem to have written down was Homer’s epics, circa the mid-eighth century BCE. It is unknown whether Homer himself was the real author or even a real person, or simply a literary construct, but that controversy hardly seems to matter, for The Iliad, and its companion quasi-sequel, The Odyssey, are without question outstanding literature that resonate far beyond their tales or their age.
But in English translation, each version is a different story of sorts, hence the temptation to read it again and again, channeled through different masters. And there are many. In addition to Butler, Lattimore, and Mitchell, there are celebrated versions by Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald; I personally also own translations by A.T. Murray and Andrew Lang. That is but a mere handful of the available choices. There is a beauty in reading The Iliad, every time, in every iteration, but for me the Mitchell translation was the most eccentric, and it left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, and on the plus side, Mitchell literally takes no prisoners as he renders the brutal, sanguinary battle scenes as the fast-moving action narratives they were meant to be. On the other, the realism in the modern vernacular occasionally sacrifices authenticity in the work; Mitchell has Achilles refer to Agamemnon as a “son of a bitch,” which reminded me unfavorably of how the literary splendor of the King James Version of the Old Testament is often painfully cratered by modern “hip” translations. Mitchell also opts to reduce redundancy in the narrative by eliminating the repetition of such famously descriptive epithets as “swift-footed” Achilles, “horse-taming” Hector, and “white-armed” Hera, that underscore the poetry in motion; the final product suffers for this omission. Homeric scholars most object to Mitchell’s deliberate excise of The Iliad’s “Book Ten,” a tale of Odysseus and Diomedes on a nighttime adventure between the battle lines, which some hold to be a later addition to the Homeric canon worthy of deletion. For myself, I see little merit in his decision, but neither does the cut inflict a fatal wound upon the epic.
Yet, for all of that, there is indeed outstanding literature in Mitchell’s Homer, as in this excerpt from Book Seventeen:
But apart from the battle, Achilles’ horses were weeping;
they had not stopped since the moment they learned that Patroclus
had just been cut down at the hands of man-killing Hector.
Automedon did whatever he could; he hit them
again and again with his whistling whip, and he tried
persuading them with soft words, then angry threats.
But the horses refused to budge; they would not go back
to the ships, nor would they go forward into the fighting.
Motionless as a gravestone that has been set
upon the funeral mound of some lord or lady,
they stood there in front of the chariot, hanging their heads.
Hot tears flowed from their eyes and fell to the ground
as they mourned for their charioteer, who was gone forever,
And their long, luxuriant manes became filthy and trailed
in the dirt, from the collar on either side of the yoke.
Now that is a great translation! I am not certain that I would recommend Mitchell to the uninitiated for a first time read of The Iliad, but neither would I necessarily dissuade it. My own favorite version remains Lattimore, which I think best catches the spirit and the cadence of the work, but I do not regret my time with Mitchell. His was a fine effort that deserves praise for turning out something new and beautiful from something old and wonderful. There truly can be no fault in that.