Aias carrying the dead body of Achilles.
Monday, January 10, 2011


The vase in the picture above shows Aias (Ajax) carrying the body of the slain Achilles.

The book under consideration is The War that Killed Achilles by Caroline Alexander. The reader who picks it up, and expects an account of the actual history of the Trojan war will be disappointed. For an account of the historical basis of the Trojan war, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Nor will you find a summary of the material that precedes the Iliad. Some material does exist, and it has been translated and published, but it is fragmentary, and the consensus seems to be that the two surviving epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey are the best of the lot with the lost six poems of the epic cycle being of decidedly inferior quality. (For a summary of Cypria and the other poems of the epic cycle see here.)

While there are occasional references to our Mid-east wars, the author does not use these as pretexts for a diatribe against the evil Bush administration. She is more interested in using modern experience to show the applicability of the Iliad to the present. The post-mortem treatment of the dead at Mogadishu parallels the post-mortem treatment of Hector, and other events, from other wars, parallel events in the Iliad.

While she does take a somewhat pacifist stance, she sees war is omnipresent in the human condition. She stands in opposition to Tolstoy who, in his description of the war of 1812 says, “On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature.” While war may be opposed to human reason, it is not, as Alexander recognizes, opposed to human nature.

Much ink has been spilled, and many forests ravaged, in disputes over the nature of the relationship Achilles-Briseis-Patroclus. Was Briseis merely a prize and were Patroclus and Achilles lovers, or just good friends? Whatever events took place on the plains of Troy took place about 1200 BC, and the poem was written 500 years later, so we don’t know how the real Achilles-Briseis-Patroclus saw their relationship. What we have is Homer’s description of the events, which he leaves pretty much without commentary. Two centuries later we have commentary from Greeks in a society that honors pederastic relationships, so that society projected its own values and inclinations upon Homer’s characters. Affection and friendship between males has been expressed in different ways historically and culturally, so the effusive sentiments of one generation seem to be tinged with an eroticism, whose presence is questionable, to other generations. Alexander believes that there are genuine, heterosexual, bonds of affection between Achilles and Briseis, and that the bond between Achilles and Patroclus is not homoerotic. She cites as evidence the fact that after the embassy departs both Achilles and Patroclus bed down not with each other, but with two comely wenches. My personal inclination is to agree with her.

One reader on Amazon commented that Alexander had written a book that was close to a lecture. Bits of Homer, in Fitzgerald’s translation, some commentary, then more Homer, and so on. There’s some truth in this, and the quotations are so long that an argument can be made that there is less original material than there should be. Of course, there is a frequent tendency in writing academic material to overquote. The scholar gets so caught up in his or her material that becomes difficult to cut the quote, or insert ellipses in such a way that the meaning is not distorted, at least in the scholar’s eyes, and so quotes tend to run on. This is my own experience, whether it belongs to anyone else I leave to the reader to decide.

Next up is a science fiction/vampire novel from David Weber, Out of the Dark.