Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Noble Enemy

or, The Heroes of Troy

Although The Iliad is a text from ancient Greece celebrating the Greek victory over the Trojans, it is also a tale full of noble Trojan soldiers and deeply sympathetic Trojan citizens.

Sometimes Homer gives us characterizations of shining heroism among the Trojan soldiers(here translated by Stanley Lombardo):

   And Hector left, helmet collecting light
   Above the black-hide shield whose rim tapped
   His ankles and neck with each step he took.

or later,

   Sunlight shimmered on great Hector's helmet.

In other passages, the Trojans are shown as a full community--including the women and children who are almost entirely absent in the Greek military fortifications:

   When Hector reached the oak tree by the Western Gate,
   Trojan wives and daughters ran up to him,
   Asking about their children, their brothers,
   Their kinsmen, their husbands.  He told them all,
   Each woman in turn, to pray to the gods.
   Sorrow clung to their heads like mist.

Perhaps most moving is the incredibly tear-worthy image of Hector's relationship with his own wife Andromache and their child:

   Hector alone could save Ilion now.
   He looked at his son and smiled in silence.
   Andromache stood close to him, shedding tears,
   Clinging to his arm as she spoke these words:
   "... Don't make your child an orphan, your wife a widow...."
   ...With these words, resplendent Hector
   Reached for his child, who shrank back screaming
   Into his nurse's bosom, terrified of his father's
   Bronze-encased face and the horsehair plume
   He saw nodding down from the helmet's crest.
   This forced a laugh from his father and mother,
   And Hector removed the helmet from his head
   And set it on the ground all shimmering with light.
   Then he kissed his dear son and swung him up gently.
   ...And he put his son in the arms of his wife,
   And she enfolded him in her fragrant bosom
   Laughing through her tears.

In The Iliad, Homer is creating a national myth extolling Greek power--but throughout his epic, we are shown again and again his deep respect for the Trojans as full human beings.  In fact, since the battles are fought on their own land, the Trojans cannot help but be connected to places as real as their own gardens and homes and to all the people of their community.  One of the little details that Homer includes is that a battle the soldiers fight takes place on land where the Trojan women hang the laundry to dry in the sun.

Barry Strauss argues in his 2006 The Trojan War: A New History that Homer might have heard a Trojan telling of the story of the Iliad. He points out that the Trojans had both written narrative and epic poetry--and their version of the story could have been passed down by either means.

Complex and sympathetic characters like King Priam, Hector, Hecuba, and Andromache might support the idea that Homer had access to a Trojan version.  But I don't think that is explanation enough for why Homer paints his Trojan characters with so much gentleness and in so much detail.

In our modern world, if we are unfamiliar with the story, it makes almost more sense to root for Hector than it does to root for Achilles (as Red points out in Thursday's comments she saw a group of 13yo kids do). Although Homer's audiences would not have done such a thing and were absolutely sure Achilles would win the day, they must have felt the deep humanity of the Trojan warrior.  They must have mourned for him in spirit right alongside his wife and parents.  (For those of you who have a copy of The Iliad lying around, flip through chapter 22 to see how much space Homer gives to their pain.)  The pain and loss of the Trojans highlights the great costs of the war--and perhaps of war in general.

As I will talk about in an upcoming post, the sympathetic characterization of Hector and his family might be necessary to facilitate one of the book's major turning points.  But I think Homer might have been up to something else here as well.  Although the Greeks were the definite victors in the Trojan War, they only won through a certain degree of dishonesty, cruelty, and cheating.  That legacy seems to haunt many of the Greek heroes after they leave the war--a theme explored by the Greek dramatists I will be reading soon.

I'd love to hear what you think.  What do you think Homer intended by creating such a sympathetic opposition?  Do modern readers take away additional messages that perhaps Homer did not intend from this portrayal?


  1. Because the beginning was so beautifully painted in regards to the Trojans, it really disappointed me when they got the scene that basically said, 'And then Hector showed that he was a loser and ran round and round the walls screaming like a little girl'. It felt so incongruous to the rest of the story (which I really enjoyed, far more than the Odyssey).

  2. But Hector redeems himself, utimately, by standing and fighting to the end!

    Lifetime, I responded to your comment on my Iliad blog post about why Homer made the Trojans so sympathetic, but I'll include it here as well:

    As to why Homer made the Trojans so sympathetic, perhaps he was trying to show that all Trojans were not like Paris? Really, the Trojans were kind of caught between a rock and a hard place, and I found it extremely interesting how much Helen really despised yet couldn't resist Paris!

  3. Slow, Plot-Driven ReaderFebruary 06, 2011

    I have two reactions to your questions, LTR.

    First, Homer was not the inspiration for recent American jingoist writers and film-makers who feel the need to demonize the opponent in war. Seeing the opponent as noble, may at times make the heros appear more valiant and even the war itself more worthy. Perhaps this was one motivation for Homer writing about the glory of the Trojan soldiers.

    This motivation, increasing the triumph of the Greeks by singing the praise of the Trojan army, would not explain why Homer humanizes the larger Trojan community. Knowing nothing about the context and realizing I may be very wrong, it strikes me that it is only our modern sensibilities that see Homer's portrayal of the lives and pain of the Trojans as an anti-war statement. I hope one of your learned readers will correct me if I am wrong. I wonder if one of the reasons Homer did this was because the war itself was already such distant history for the Greeks. Perhaps because the Greeks themselves had been on both sides of conflict, distant wars and wars in Greece, that Homer knew they would identify with both sides of this long ago conflict.

    Jumping ahead a few more centuries, do you think that Homer paved the way for Virgil's storytelling? And that possibly the versions of the Iliad that have come down to us, were selected for their complex treatment of the Trojans and that less sympathetic versions may have been less appealing to post-Greek book collectors?

    With apologies for my naivete.

  4. Slow Plot: I love your first point about seeing the Trojans as noble could elevate the whole endeavor. And I think you are right that it is probably a modern reading to see it as anti-war and we should remember that Homer didn't necessarily have that as a goal. Nevertheless, the fact that modern readers can get that from the text is one reason the book is such a classic, I think.

    Thinking about your question of whether Homer's audience would identify with both sides, I would suspect not. But perhaps they identified themselves somehow with the destruction the Greeks wrought.

    I'm thinking about southerners (again, as Jason knows since I commented on his blog yesterday about southerners). Having slaves among your ancestors is a horror that can be a source of righteous anger and an inspiration to fight for justice. Having slave-holders among your ancestors creates a very different kind of horror--and also creates a complicated identity rooted in guilt. Wonder if Homer would see any parallels?

    Will hold your question about Virgil until I get there--but I promise I will talk about the connection. The Aeneid is the book which inspired this whole project.

  5. Jason: Yes--I think you are right that Home is doing exactly what you say. Honestly, I was so caught up in the idea that Hector was being asked to die (and leave his wife and child and parents to grieve him), all because of his brother's stupidity. Turning tail to run away--that is, as I was reading it, questioning whether losing his life in this war is really a good idea--makes a certain kind of sense. Being a Hector-loving pacifist gives me certain kinds of blinders, I'm afraid.

    Read the Book: Ooh, interesting idea! Paris is such an unappealing character. I'm still trying to figure out Helen. What was she thinking during this whole war? (And honestly, why didn't Priam just send her home?)

    In a way, the idea that Homer was drawing out the distinction between the two brothers still begs the question of why Homer wanted us to recognize that some of the Trojans were all as icky as Paris.

    Even some fairly basic things point to the similarity of the Greeks and Trojans. They speak the same language, despite the fact that some of the Trojan allies twitter unintelligibly like birds as far as the Greeks are concerned. They worship the same gods even. Interesting choice.

  6. Although the Greeks were the definite victors in the Trojan War, they only won through a certain degree of dishonesty, cruelty, and cheating. That legacy seems to haunt many of the Greek heroes after they leave the war

    YES, I was thinking about this point even before you got to it in your entry, in terms of the alternate Oresteia I read back in December. Of course, Agamemnon and his family were already cursed before the war even got going, due to that whole "cook your son and feed him to the gods" issue, but there is also the question of how much sacrifice and murder needed to happen just to get their ships to Troy in the first place, which certainly came back to haunt Agamemnon. And the way Odysseus reenacts the violence of the war on Penelope's suitors when he arrives back home is also suggestive.

    It is interesting to me that the concept "War is hellacious and cruel and leads to the deaths of many brave, good people on both sides," and the concept "War is honorable and necessary, and the ultimate test of a man's valor" seem to coexist un-problematically in Homer, and in many, many writers after him as well. It is difficult to fathom with my modern mind.

  7. I have yet to read THE AENEID and see the other side of the story....When I read this, I don't remember much about the Trojans. I just really was fascinated by Achilles.

    I like the comments above. Can I just say 'ditto'?

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