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6 September 2023

Homer’s history of violence

Emily Wilson’s translation of the Iliad reveals a bleak vision of the self-interest and savagery of humankind.

By Rowan Williams

In 1940, that great and idiosyncratic French philosopher Simone Weil published an essay on the Iliad as “the poem of force”. Despite a grating and drastically misconceived couple of paragraphs contrasting it with the imaginative world of Hebrew scripture, the essay has a good claim to be the most penetrating reflection on Homer’s masterpiece written in the 20th century, and still conveys an exceptional sense of moral and intellectual concentration.

What Weil argues is that the poem is about the actions and processes that reduce persons to things. Not only are we ourselves helpless in the face of fate, we are active in reducing others to greater levels of helplessness; and in so doing, we simply show ourselves to be unfree at a deeper and deeper level. Homer’s unsparing description of human conflict (not just battle and bloodshed but malice, rivalry and terror) shows us a world in which mechanism triumphs over grace – “grace” being understood by Weil as anything that leaves us free to step aside from the tyranny of the ego and make room for one another, free to absorb and not to transmit violence.

The miracle is that this overwhelmingly bleak vision is embodied in a text of such beauty. The story – which covers only a couple of weeks within the ten years of the siege of Troy – is set out in painstaking detail, each encounter gravely and almost ritualistically narrated, with extended metaphors to make us attend more deeply to the events and interactions; yet the pace feels astonishingly light and rapid.

One of the great strengths of Emily Wilson’s superb new version (at least as good as the Odyssey she gave us some years ago) is that she sustains this pace so brilliantly. The decision to use unrhymed iambic pentameter for the translation is a highly successful one; it is a kind of default rhythm for so much English poetry, especially for long narrative poems, a metre that unobtrusively maps on to ordinary speech patterns and holds our attention just enough to keep us in the circle during the less vivid passages.

As Wilson noted in introducing her Odyssey translation, epic poetry does not have to continually make us notice how interesting its own poetic voice is. It will have long sequences of “routine” exposition and description, but it will also let us know when we need to wake up and pay full attention – not by formal cleverness but by intensely coloured word-painting and by the choice of startling and lively imagery. Robert Graves in his versions of Homer notoriously dealt with this by alternating prose passages with poetry; but it is surely better to keep something like Homer’s own steady background beat. The same language needs to be used for the ordinary and the extraordinary, the tragic and the banal.

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Wilson’s wonderfully readable version avoids, with only very few exceptions, jarring colloquialism, settling instead for clarity, unfussiness, a degree of earthiness. Yet the Iliad will never be “easy” reading for a modern audience. English classical education over the centuries normalised aspects of the poem’s world-view for a male elite; George Steiner associated English enthusiasm for Homer – evident, for example, among the officer class in the First World War – with the cult of what he called “lyric masculinity”. But this now feels a long way off. We are more aware today of the sheer strangeness of the depiction of the gods, the utterly desolate fate of all the women in the poem, the manic concern with status and not losing face. It takes a while for this to open out into a “distant mirror”, a poetic journey that interrogates our contemporary imagination rather than just offering a fascinatingly exotic entertainment.

Wilson’s introduction helps us here, showing how the poem moves towards a low-key affirmation of possibilities beyond the naked contest of male honour, by ending the last book with three women delivering brief, impassioned elegies for the dead Trojan hero Hector. But the background remains unrelieved. The poem tells us what we already know about mortality and loss: “You will die. Everyone you love will also die…Your knowing changes nothing.” Wilson argues that this should resonate with a contemporary readership living in a world facing unprecedented crisis; like the doomed Trojans, we are living in “a city that will soon be burned to the ground”.

The Iliad is not, however, as Wilson acknowledges, a work of social critique; nor is it a simple celebration of the warfare of the heroic age (an era already distant when Homer wrote, somewhere around 700 BCE). The opening word of the poem is menin, which Wilson translates as “cataclysmic wrath”. The quarrel that opens the Iliad, between the warrior Achilles and the Greek king Agamemnon, is about whether Achilles has been treated in a way inappropriate to his status and honour as the foremost fighter among the Greek troops.

Achilles’s fury at the insult he believes he has received leads him to withdraw from battle, and the result is a near-fatal weakening of the Greeks’ military capacity. But for this fury to be described as menis is significant. The word is normally used of the gods, not human beings; it designates an outraged disgust provoked by offences against the cosmic order, a stance of absolute repudiation.

[See also: Still fighting the history wars]

So the problem is that Achilles regards his own honour as if it were an essential aspect of the most sacred rhythms of nature. His response is dangerously disproportionate, and it has terrible consequences for everyone in the poem (Achilles included). When he finally returns to the field, to take a bloody revenge for the death of his intimate friend Patroclus, the disproportion is still in evidence: in a startlingly vivid episode, the river running through the plain of battle protests at being choked with corpses. What Wilson describes as “superhuman” rage and rejection lead to a deepening wound in the order of things, the kind of offence against nature that does indeed merit menis.

Achilles rejects his fellow warriors with the absolute condemnation of a god. Nothing will mend the fearful consequences of this rift; but, Wilson suggests, the last two books of the poem tentatively propose two ways in which something can be salvaged. In Book 23, describing the funeral games in honour of Patroclus, Achilles, though he has slaughtered a dozen Trojan children over Patroclus’s funeral pyre in another act of excessive savagery, manages to limit the risks of competitive frenzy in the games, distributing prizes shrewdly and generously so that there are few actual losers. This, suggests Wilson in her introduction, is “a model for how a group of ultra-competitive people might be able to share wealth and power without deadly quarrels”.

Book 24 probes this idea further. Achilles has killed the Trojan champion Hector and abused and humiliated his corpse. Hector’s father, King Priam, decides he must go to make a personal appeal to Achilles to return the corpse for proper cremation and burial; and, in one of the most unforgettable scenes in the poem, he arrives at night in the Greek camp and kneels before the killer of nearly his entire family of sons to beg for pity, urging Achilles to remember his own father, “standing over/the final threshold between age and death”. At least Achilles’s father can hope to see his son again. Not so Priam. Achilles weeps for his father and for his own loss of Patroclus, lifts up the old man and promises the return of Hector’s body.

There is a moment of recognition, in other words. Before Priam sets out on his mission, he prays to Zeus, the ruler of the gods, that he will be received by Achilles as philos, a word that came to mean “friend” but has here a stronger meaning – someone you take seriously as having a claim on you, someone who is part of your network of mutual obligation. Wilson boldly and helpfully translates this as a prayer for “kinship”. And the prayer is – if only fleetingly – answered: something happens between Achilles and Priam as they both collapse in uncontrollable tears. It is a fragile exchange.

Achilles shows a moment of resentment at being pushed too far, Priam is frightened by what Achilles may still do, let alone the other Greeks. But they share a meal and Achilles provides a couch for the night outside his tent; the body is taken back to Troy, and the ceremonies are observed, with Hector’s widow and mother lamenting him, and Helen joining them in a particularly poignant eulogy for someone who protected her from the hostile shaming she constantly faced in Troy.

Just as earlier we have been told that Patroclus showed kindness and respect to Briseis – the subject of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon – who had been raped and enslaved, so here we have a brief recognition that it is possible to respect rather than blame victims. The laments of the last two books of the Iliad, for Patroclus and for Hector, are a quiet denial that the obsessive world of masculine honour culture always has the last word. Recognition of the suffering stranger breaks in even where least to be expected.

If there is a narrative arc, not just a narrative sequence, in the Iliad, it seems to be this. Homer lays out dispassionately what happens when human beings arrogate the absolute dignity of gods, how this leads to a systematic denial both of the dignity of humans as humans, and to a violent and toxic disruption of the world’s good order. Nearly the entire poem is about this; but then we are pointed back to something else, something more like the “grace” Weil holds up in opposition to the great catastrophe of universal force.

Life, even for the hero, is short and vulnerable; Achilles knows he will die before the war ends. The fates of individuals are fixed and even the highest of the gods would be ill-advised to meddle with this. What is left? Making sure that honour and status are properly observed, that you have the right place reserved at feasts and the appropriate solemnities after death. That is why honour matters so intensely: there is nothing else to work for. Yet working for it as Achilles does is fraught with risk and constantly rips apart the ordinary well-being of the world.

Homer never argues or rebukes: but he diagnoses the sickness. The confusion between humanity and deity, the identification of self-interest with the eternal order of things, is the root of murderous and uncontrollable strife. It appears wherever we turn our eyes, but Homer, it seems, wants us to know that it is something we choose, not something we are doomed to repeat everlastingly. Yes, everyone you love will die. But you have some choices about how far you go on reinforcing the patterns that kill them hideously and prematurely.

One of the striking things about the Iliad’s narration of deaths in battle is that Homer almost always individualises the event, not only describing in graphic detail the precise nature of deadly wounds, but also giving each victim a name, a family, a place of birth. “Grace” is the poet taking the time, even in the middle of the deafening chaos of the battlefield, to notice that every loss is unique.

Grace is not a gift from Olympus but something that humans must learn to make real for one other; it has to do with recognition, the solidarity of fragility, making sorrow “part of a shared story”, as Wilson says. The gods are there to offer some rather inadequate building blocks for making a coherent story out of the mess of human violence. They sometimes push the boundaries a bit by postponing death for a preferred figure; but they cannot and will not save. They regret the loss of their favourites, but can contemplate large-scale human disaster without too much painful emotion. At one point, Homer starkly compares some of the gods, as they take their seats to view proceedings, with vultures perching in a tree. Their involvement is like that of teenagers playing video games – heated, partisan and quickly forgotten. 

It is we, not the gods, who are capable of recognition, acknowledging a philos, turning away from endless homicidal competition for the sake of a shared story, understanding why menis – pseudo-divine, annihilating repudiation of the other – is “cataclysmic”. As Simone Weil saw, understanding grace means being ready to reconsider all that we thought we knew about divine power. But Emily Wilson’s beautiful, fluent, memorable translation tells us once again that the Olympian gods and the would-be superhumans who want to emulate them are not yet dead in our world.

The Iliad
Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
WW Norton, 720pp, £30

[See also: Europe’s race delusions]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain