"The Iliad" By Homer 750 BC
Speculation by Eldon Quick

There was a Trojan war. There must have been a Trojan war. There must have been a war that so affected the Greek-speaking people of its time that the memory of it would be passed from generation to generation for centuries and centuries to follow. It would have been one of a number of wars taking place in the 13th and 12th centuries BC between cities, tribes, empires, or kingdoms, whatever; whenever two entities desired to control the same territory, there would be a war. Some wars were big, some wars were tiny, all wars from this time have disappeared into the mists of history, except for two, the war of the Jews to conquer Canaan, and the Trojan War. The stories of the war of Canaan were preserved, (written?) in the “Old Testament”. The stories of the Trojan War were preserved in the oral poetry and story telling of the rhapsodes of the Greek-speaking people of the Aegean Sea, and the lands surrounding it.

If there were so many wars, and there must have been, why do these two so stand out above all others in our historical mythology? I'll leave the reasons for the Canaan war to religion and the Bible, and concentrate on the reasons for the fascination with the Trojan War. The Trojan War, I propose, had enduring interest for the Greek-speaking people because it was such a disaster.

It was a disaster for the Trojans, of course, because their city was destroyed, their men slaughtered, (except for a few who made it to safety in the hills) their girls raped, their women and children taken as slaves.

But it was a disaster for the Achaeans, as well. For the great Achaean army made up of the Achaean Kings, their Princes, the champion fighters, the heroes, the best of the Achaean world set out to sea to avenge the wrong done them by the Trojans, to fight for the honor and glory of all Achaia, and they didn't come back. Many were killed on the battlefield, for the war was long, and the Trojans were fierce fighters fighting to defend their city, their women and children. Many died of disease, for terrible plagues swept the Achaean camps. Those who survived the war and the plague and were present when Troy fell, plundered and looted the city loaded their ships with booty and slaves and set sail for home. But the Achaean fleet with the surviving Achaeans was caught on the open sea by a terrible storm. The ships overloaded and lying low in the water, were easily swamped and capsized. Those that made it to safety in the shelter of islands were then hit by a great earthquake that sent boulders tumbling down the mountainsides to smash the ships, and if that wasn't enough the earthquake set off a great tidal wave that washed back and forth across the Aegean Sea smashing more ships against the rocks. Those that managed to ride out the storm and survive were blown so far off course it would take them years to find their way back home.

Not all were killed, some made it home because they had not sailed with the main fleet, but they found there had been many changes in their absence, and their return was not necessarily welcome. The great Agamemnon was given a hero's welcome but then murdered by his wife with an axe in his bath; for she had taken another for her lover and wished him to be king instead of Agamemnon. Menelaus made it back to Sparta with Helen, and so the story goes, they lived out the rest of their lives uneventfully.

When the Achaean people learned the war was over, but their loved ones, their fathers, their husbands, their sons, and brothers would not return, they wanted to know what happened; how did they die?

It now became the task of the Singers of Songs to compose their funeral songs, to tell their stories, to sing their eulogies. These songs which told how the heroes came to Troy, who they fought with, who they killed, how they died, and finally who was left at home to mourn for them, were memorized by their descendants and passed down from generation to generation. They also continued as parts of the storyteller's repertoire, and to which new stories were added. Stories that told how the gods had caused the war in the first place and men had been helpless to prevent it, stories which embellished the deeds of some heroes, making them god like in their powers, stories that made the women more beautiful, the city greater, the armies larger, and the war longer than one can possibly believe today.

These stories, were preserved in the minds of the rhapsodes and the descendants of the heroes, and they lasted for many generations, hundreds of years. But the Achaean world did not. For without their Kings, their Princes, their Champion Warriors, without authority and leadership, the Achaeans, within a generation, gave way to chaos and anarchy. One by one the Achaean cities were burned and abandoned. Some say there was an invasion by the Dorians who came down from the North and conquered the Achaean empire. Others say the Dorians were there all along. They were the original inhabitants of the land and were conquered by the Achaeans, and when the Achaeans were weak, they rose up and overthrew their oppressors. Whatever the cause, the result was the same; the Achaean empire crumbled and disappeared. The Dorians reverted to their old way of life and occupied the land as nomadic Shepards and small plot farmers. The surviving Achaeans were scattered, many took to the sea to become pirates and raiders, and were known as “The Sea Peoples” others immigrated, some to the West coast of Anatolia where they became known as the “Ionians”; some to the coast of Canaan where they became known as the “Philistines, ” and a great 'Dark Ages' settled on the lands of the Greek speaking peoples. Only the stories remained to remind them that they had once been a great people, and that a terrible war had brought about their downfall.

The 'Dark Ages” lasted some 400 years. During that time, no new cities were built, the art of writing was lost, pottery was dull and primitive, buildings made of mud and sticks did not survive, only the farmers made slow progress toward a better life. They learned to better manage their land, devoting each type of land to its best use, low lands to wheat and crops, hills, to vineyards and orchards, and high land to pasture and animals. They discovered the art of grafting, so the plant of the strong root was grafted to the plant of abundant fruit. They rotated their crops so each season would have its task and the workload was spread evenly through the year. With these changes the land became more productive and able to support larger families. The individual farm gave way to farming communities and social organization, the artistic now had time decorate the pottery, the strong had time to practice the art of warfare and prepare to defend their property. The industrious began to once again cut and build with stone. The Dark Ages were coming to an end.

Around this time, 800 to 700 BC, a young man, we will call him Homer, decided that when he grew up he wanted to be a Rhapsode, a 'singer of songs.' This young man had exceptional talent. He was a 'savant' of story telling. He had the ability to remember, on only one hearing, the entire eulogy of an ancient Greek hero, and he could store that memory for future use. He trained himself to improvise poetry, to speak in verse as naturally as we today speak in prose. He must have traveled for he collected a great many songs, not only the stories of the Greeks, but the stories of Anatolians as well.

One particular story apparently caught his attention and interest. This was the story of the young Greek hero Akhilleus, the young super-hero of the War. In this story, “The Wrath of Akhilleus,” Akhilleus quarrels with Agamemnon over a girl. As a result of the quarrel, Akhilleus quits the war, and vows to fight no more. Without Akhilleus, the Achaeans are too weak to defeat the Trojans and the Trojans gain the upper hand in the war. The Trojans break through the Achaean defenses and are about to push the Achaeans into the sea when Akhilleus' dear companion Patroklos begs Akhilleus to allow him to don Akhilleus armor and join the fight in Akhilleus place to defend the ships. Akhilleus agrees on two conditions; Patroklos must not pursue the Trojans if they retreat, and above all, he must not face Hector, the Trojan prince, in battle. The appearance of Patroklos in Akhilleus' armor inspires the Achaeans, disheartens the Trojans, and turns the tide of battle. But in the excitement of the battle, Patroklos forgets his promise, pursues the Achaeans across the plain, faces Hector and is killed.

The death of his companion so enrages Akhilleus that he becomes a monster of death. Overnight the gods make for him a new set of armor, and when dawn comes Akhilleus leads the Achaeans into battle, routs the Trojans, chases them back to their city, catches Hector, the last man outside the city gates, and kills him. Without Hector, the Trojans are doomed. It will be only a matter of time before the city falls.

Using the story of Akhilleus as a foundation, and his knowledge of the eulogies, Homer began to compose his version of a Trojan War story. But Homer wasn't interested in just telling another Trojan War story with heroes and gods, magic and monsters, and the love of a beautiful woman, though all of that would be in his story. The story he wanted to tell was of the nature of man, or at least the nature of man back in the days when men were heroes, the nature of the gods, the nature of woman. To do this he invented, or if he didn't invent, he used far more effectively than ever before, the technique of telling a story with dialogue. The characters in his story speak to one another, often in long passionate speeches. And, Homer doesn't just report to his audience what the characters said, he doesn't quote them for the audience's benefit, he becomes the character. He speaks as the character. He speaks with the passion and purpose of the character. What this does is to open a window for the audience to see deep into the heart and soul of the character. To see the nature of that man, that god, that woman.

This technique of telling a story must have worked well for Homer, for his story grew, and grew with each retelling. More detail was added, more characters were introduced events from other stories were incorporated till it reaches a length of some 24 hours. That is, it would take about 24 hours to tell the entire story if one were to attempt to tell it all in one sitting. Obviously no one would ever attempt to do this, so Homer must have spread the telling of his story over many evenings. -- If he were a traveling storyteller there would be a definite advantage in having a story that took a long time to tell, and allowed him weeks, perhaps months in the service of a wealthy lord before he had to move on. -- His story, and his technique of telling it apparently became very popular, for he attracted apprentices, young men who wished to work with Homer to memorize his story and his way of telling it. (They would not necessarily memorize it word for word, but point for point, character for character. That way the story stayed intact, though individual words may differ.) They were known as the “Sons of Homer”, and they spread his story through out the Greek speaking lands of the Aegean Sea, till every Greek was familiar with the story and many could perform favorite passages from it. “The Iliad” has become a sort of national anthem for the Greek-speaking people.

I may be just a coincidence, or maybe there was some cause and effect, but the spread of Homer's story, “The Iliad,” occurs at about the same time the Greeks begin to arouse themselves from their long slumber. The first Olympic games are held in 776. Travel is safer. Trade is more profitable than piracy and raiding. The Greeks are viewing themselves once again as masters of their fate, as heroes of their own stories.

At some point Homer's long epic poem is written down and preserved. Some contend it was Homer who wrote it down, inventing as he did so the New Greek alphabet, which included letters representing vowels. Others insist Homer, the Sons of Homer, or any other storyteller had no need for a written version of the story. It was far easier to memorize a story than to write it down, and quicker too. There was however, a particular event for which a written version of “The Iliad” would be handy, in fact necessary. The Panathenaea festival at which every fourth year, a major part of the celebration was an “Iliad” recital contest, contestants would begin at dawn, and recite “The Iliad” from beginning to end. The performers never knew which part of the poem they were to recite. They sat and waited till the judges commanded, “stop” to the performing contestant and pointed to the next performer who was to continue the song from where the previous contestant left off. A contest for who was the best performer of “The Iliad” would certainly have much opportunity for disagreement over who was miss reciting or leaving out parts of the poem. Therefore it would be necessary for there to be an official version to which all contestants could be compared. This official version, so the story goes, was commissioned by the Greek Tyrant Pisistratus, and later came into the hands of Aristotle, who used it to tutor his young student Alexander. This copy supposedly ended up in the library at Alexandria and was destroyed when Caesar burned the library in 48 BC. The complete copy we have today was discovered in a monastery in Constantinople in the 10th or 11th centuries AD. Other copies were certainly made, as scraps or partial books have been discovered, some in the sands of Egypt, which have additional lines or omit lines that are in the Constantinople copy.

The writing down of “The Iliad” both preserved it and destroyed it. It preserved the words of “The Iliad,” but it lost the song. “The Iliad” was not created to be read, it was not created to be specific words in a specific order, it was created to be sung. It was created to be sound in the air between the performer and his audience. It was to be improvised by a poet who created it as he performed it, much as a jazz musician today improvises on, in, and around a melody, but always ends up on beat and on pitch. It was not intended to be done exactly the same way every time, in fact no two performances would ever be alike.

So to look at our copy of “The Iliad” as to be some sort of representation of an original “Iliad” is to miss it altogether. And to quibble over whether or not there really was a guy named “Homer” who “created” “The Iliad” as an author today creates a novel, or a Broadway Musical, is to again go down a dry path. What was “created” was a technique for telling a story, and a subject for that story. What was “created” was a view of the human being, and the god, as both noble and base, both heroic, and cowardly, as magnificent and as flawed as a real human being. This ability to display a human being as he or she is and let the audience decide if, in total, is that one to be admired and emulated, or is that one to be condemned and avoided was to set the Greek mind on a road that would eventually lead to some of man’s greatest works of art and philosophy.