Tom Holland assesses a memorial to the first and greatest epic in European literature
Interminable though the Chilcot inquiry might seem, it has nothing on a far earlier attempt to make sense of a ruinous invasion. In the earliest days of their history, so the Greeks recorded, a city in Asia by the name of Troy had been besieged by their ancestors for 10 long years, captured, and burnt to the ground. Why? Responsibility for the conflict was pinned on Paris, a Trojan prince whose abduction of Helen, the fabulously beautiful daughter of the king of the gods, had set in train a truly calamitous sequence of events. Not only Troy had ended up obliterated, but so, too, had the age of heroes. War had consumed the world.
No wonder, then, that the Greeks should have been torn between a desire to find some meaning in this terrible conflagration and a suspicion that it had never had any meaning at all. In the 5th century BC, the historian Herodotus concluded that “the utter ruin of the Trojans, and their annihilation, had served to demonstrate to humanity how terrible crimes will always be met, courtesy of the gods, with a terrible vengeance”. Elsewhere, however, he reported an entirely contrary view: that the rape of Helen had been barely a crime at all, and that the Greek response had been grotesquely disproportionate. The implication of this was potentially most unsettling: that the destruction of Troy, far from demonstrating the workings of a divine order, reflected instead a chill and unheeding universe. “Why should I call to the gods?” Such was the question that the Athenian tragedian, Euripides, put into the mouth of the queen of fallen Troy in his tragedy, The Trojan Women. “Long have I raised my voice to them, but they do not listen.”
When the National Theatre staged the same play in 2007, the director, Katie Mitchell, was perfectly explicit about the mirror she felt that the death agony of Troy might hold up to the present. “World events,” as she put it, “lead me to the Greeks.” So also have they led Caroline Alexander, in her new book, to the primal representation of the Trojan war: Homer’s Iliad. The first and greatest epic in European literature, it has never ceased to be interpreted in the light of the contemporary. Alexander’s claim that it is “as resonant today – perhaps especially today – as it was in Homer’s Dark Age” has a two and a half thousand-year-old pedigree.
Yet that does not make it any the less convincing. The entire history of warfare over the past century, so Alexander argues, is to be found prefigured in the pages of Homer’s epic: from the phantom bowmen who supposedly shadowed the British retreat from Mons in 1914 to the American servicemen dragged by their heels through the streets of Mogadishu. That “combat trauma undoes character” is a lesson which can be applied equally to the plain of Troy and the streets of Fallujah. Even the environmental ruin that modern warfare has invariably brought in its wake, so Alexander suggests, is foreshadowed in the Iliad: for when Achilles, the deadliest of all the Greek heroes, advances into battle, a divinely sent fire follows in his wake, “parching the plain, drying the land, and burning the many corpses”.
Above all, however, what Alexander distinguishes in Homer’s epic is an attitude to warfare that would do credit to anyone who marched against the invasion of Iraq. A poem that back in the 19th century was seen as the very thing to instil martial virtue in the future rulers of the British empire is recast as history’s first protest song. After all, as Alexander justly points out, the conflict it commemorates “established no boundaries, won no territory, and furthered no cause”. Its consequences were nothing but destruction and misery. Even Achilles himself, the glorious and terrifying hero of the Iliad, knows in his heart that there is no glory in life worth the blank dullness of death. When we meet him in Homer’s sister epic, the Odyssey, it is as a ghost who declares flatly that he would rather be a slave in the land of the living than “a king over all the perished dead”.
This, in Alexander’s somewhat forced reading of his character, makes him a peacenik – albeit one with an occasionally murderous temper. Yet the truth is surely grimmer. “The life of a man,” Achilles declares bleakly, “can be neither retrieved, nor stolen, nor bought.” All very existential – and yet it is precisely his consciousness of how precarious life is that prompts Achilles not only to live it to the full, but to do so by ending the lives of others. Even when he chooses not to fight, his principal motivation is a brooding desire to see his former comrades wiped out. It is the very pointlessness of war, freely acknowledged by Achilles, which enables him to grace his own life, not with meaning, but rather with a blaze of integrity. Such is the keynote of what has proved to be his deathless fame.
The War that Killed Achilles is certainly a worthy memorial to Homer’s poem: compassionate, urgent and unfailingly stimulating. Yet it is hard to escape a nagging feeling that the image which Alexander sees reflected in the Iliad is too much her own. The Iliad is indeed, as she claims, an “evocation of war’s destruction”; but it is also repeatedly complicit in the sense of joy that can accompany slaughter. If Homer is our contemporary, then that does not prevent him from being simultanously, and terrifyingly, alien. “The true story of the Iliad”, as Alexander subtitles her book, is more ambiguous, perhaps, and more unsettling, than she is willing to allow.