Poem of a Conquered People

I've been reading and discussing the Iliad with some of my students this year, and every time I do so, my admiration for the great classic increases. The amount of human emotion and tenderness that the author is able to evoke side-by-side with the most gruesome and horrifying descriptions of battle ever written is enough to bring any readers to tears who have given themselves over to the story. One of the most remarkable aspects of the poem is the even handedness with which the author deals with both sides. There is little in the text that would suggest whether the writer is Achaean or Trojan. In particular the scenes of Hektor saying goodbye to his family for the last time and of King Priam of Troy weeping with Achilleus, hero of the Achaeans, cannot fail to elicit an emotional response. How could a Greek writer come to understand so well the feelings of the conquerors and conquered alike?

I stumbled across a possible answer to this question while reading The Iliad, or the Poem of Force by Simone Weil, the Christian mystic and pacifist writer of the 1930s and early 40s. While there is much I disagree with Weil about concerning the actual message of the Iliad, her essay enriches the story greatly by showing how war changes men into mere objects of force. But, to the question at hand, she writes this:

"The tone of the poem furnishes a direct clue to the origin of its oldest portions; history perhaps will never be able to tell us more. If one believes with Thucydides that eighty years after the fall of Troy, the Achaeans in their turn were conquered, one may ask whether these songs, with their rare references to iron are not the songs of a conquered people, of whom a few went into exile. Obliged to live and die, "very far from the homeland," like the Greeks who fell before Troy, having lost their cities like the Trojans, they saw their own image both in the conquerors, who had been their fathers, and in the conquered, whose misery was like their own... Of course, this is mere fancy; one can see such distant times only in fancy's light."

If the historical Trojan War took place around 1250 B.C., just before or near the beginning of the Sea Peoples Movement, then this makes a lot of sense. If the authors of the oldest portions of the Iliad were Mycenaeans, driven from their homeland by iron-wielding Dorians, then we can see how their descendant Homer, 400 years later in Asia Minor, would blend the cultural memories of his ancestors with myth and legend to create what we know today as The Iliad. Once again, these are merely hypothetical scenarios, "mere fancy" in the words of Weil. But it seems a not at all improbable explanation of how the tone of one of the most profound works of human literature was achieved.

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