When you approach the Ionian island of Ithaca through Yathi’s beautiful natural harbour and moor alongside the undistinguished road leading into town, turn left and tucked away on a high plinth you’ll find a small bust of Odysseus. Given the tourist trade an understated homage to Homer - assuming there was an individual Homer. And Odysseus probably ruled the once-an-island Paliki peninsula on neighbouring Kephalonia. But wherever home for Homer’s hero might be, Greece can make you feel the lack of a classical education, especially if you have never turned a page of the Greek classics. Like the old FT advertising slogan, no Odysseus, no Iliad, no comment.
In the words of Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) - son of Rugby’s reforming headmaster, a major poet, and himself a school inspector - classical education must convey the best that has been thought and ‘’of the best, the classics of Greece and Rome form a very chief portion and the portion most entirely satisfactory”. For some that belief in a classical education lasted another century. In the 1950s my own single-sex Grammar school, with an eye on Oxbridge requirements, taught us Latin. After several years of careful teaching I still believed that Caesar’s Gallic Wars were fiction. Well, in mitigation, I did know Virgil’s Aeniad was an epic poem and I do remember the opening storm at sea. But by the mid-1950s with discoveries such as DNA science was more exciting than the classics.
Better late than never, I recently set to and read Bernard Knox’s excellent introduction to Robert Fagles fine translation of the Iliad, a doorstop of a Penguin classic, and, with their aid and encouragement, dipped into Homer’s glorious poetry. You can imagine a well-feasted Greek gathering, enjoying the rhythms of the verse as the story unfolds. Perhaps with news daily of war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine, it was not the best of times to plunge into the gory details of the Greeks’ - Achaeans’ - war with Troy. But the gore, the relish for graphic depictions of butchered bodies in the Iliad, came as a surprise. Homer’s contribution to the classics, at least for me, was not as Arnold would have it “most entirely satisfactory”. A screen-play by Homer would not be family-viewing.
Homer describes a world in which honour and warrior heroism, illustrated and demonstrated by savage killing and savagely being killed, were the true measures of a man. Was this what middle and upper class boys at Rugby and the other English public schools were absorbing at the turn of the twentieth century? Is this why they volunteered as officers in the First World War to slaughter and be slaughtered? Is this where the Greek values of honour and courage led? Or was Homer giving a terrible warning forgotten or ignored in a paroxysm of 20th century patriotism?
Of course there is, and was, vastly more to the Greek contribution to classical education, according to Arnold, than Homer: Saint Paul, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus and the lyric poet Pindar for example. Yet, the Iliad offers insights into the motivations for war beyond male honour, rivalry and personal jealousy. The purpose of war was booty whatever could be taken - Priam, the King of Troy’s treasure. Loot. And, amongst valuable kinds of property, women. Helen was to be restored to her husband and true owner. In agricultural society, the two necessary elements of production were the fertility of women, new generations of labour in the fields, and the fertility of the land itself. Women were ‘prizes’, desired in every sense, the spoils of war for Achilles and Agamemnon to quarrel over.
What has changed? Whether for Trojans, Myrmidons and Achaeans to possess, or for Soviet troops to rape entering Germany in 1945 or, from 2011-December 2017, for ISIS to use as sex-slaves, women are still treated as booty. Rape is a constant in war. Despite declared national, imperial and ideological causes of war, and despite the rules of law in bello that evolved and were finally formulated in the Geneva Conventions, the original purpose of war has burst out down the ages: control of land and women. And sadly some forms of religion, with their own justifications for controlling women, can make matters worse just as Homer’s Gods could play a malign role.
Homer single-mindedly celebrates warrior virtue, heroism in combat, whilst he portrays war as a raid on property. What survives of Homer’s portrayal of warfare is war as control of territory and celebration of warrior heroism. The ease with which we laud from safety the heroism of Ukrainians in defence of their country, should make us uneasy watching the dying, the killing, and the war crimes in what is in many ways our proxy war. We are like ancient Greeks listening in comfort to epic poems of faraway savagery.
The Truss government recently invited a plane-load of journalists to witness military aid sent to Ukraine being delivered to a destination they could not divulge for security reasons. Not exactly gripping breaking-news. So why? Boris Johnson shone briefly on the world stage when sending arms and himself to Ukraine. Does the heroism of the Ukrainian people somehow rub off and refurbish political profiles and the stories politicians tell? Not a story-line Homer or his Greek audience would have countenanced.
See TheArticle 13/10/2022