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.
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?