Achilles’ heel, a Muse, a Nestor, a Trojan Horse: just some expressions we have borrowed from the Iliad and Odyssey, the great poems of the legendary Greek bard Homer. Their contents used to be common knowledge, at least among people with a higher education, but it possible that this type of literacy is now in decline. For example, I often see a car in my street, apparently owned by a travel agency called Odysseus, after the Homeric hero who witnessed the death of every single one of those who accompanied him on his voyage.
For those who want to know more about Homer, classicist Caroline Alexander published The War that Killed Achilles. She guides us through the Iliad, from the moment on which Achilles decides to abandon the fight until the burial of his enemy Hector, which means that both the death of Achilles and the fall of Troy have become inevitable. Alexander offers a well-written and detailed summary of that most classic of all classics, and makes this part of the Greek legacy accessible again.
Often, she interrupts her story to insert quotes: sometimes one line only, but in one instance several pages. The reader of The War that Killed Achilles will not only understand the plot and significance of the Iliad, but will also have a taste of the poem’s tone and vocabulary. Alexander also explains various aspects, like the nature of the gods, the eastern predecessors of Homeric poetry, or the biography of this or that hero. However, you never have to wait long until she returns to the Iliad.
To stress that Homer deals with universal themes, Alexander offers many parallels with other civilizations, especially those of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. So, Achilles drags the body of Hector behind his chariot like Somalians drag dead Americans behind their cars through the streets of Mogadishu, the gods appear to warriors like “the angel of Mons” appeared to British soldiers during the First World War, and Achilles’ mother Thetis searches for a panoply like the parents of American soldiers buy ballistic vests for their sons in Iraq.
If Alexander tries to introduce the Iliad to a new audience, she has succeeded. However, I must add that I am prejudiced: as an ancient historian, I share many of her assumptions. Not everyone else will be convinced. In the first place: if she wants to prove that Homer’s themes are universal, she has to define what universality means, because otherwise her parallels are just intriguing without being convincing. In the second place, it is necessary to indicate why – or at least in which aspect – she believes the primitive Homeric society can be compared to our own, complex society. In other words, what justifies the comparandum if two dissimilar types of society are compared? Because she ignores these problems, The War that Killed Achilles is only convincing for those who are already convinced that the aristocratic Iliad has a message for people in an egalitarian, postindustrial world.
Another remarkable shortcoming is that Alexander almost ignores non-English scholarly publications. She quotes German books and articles in translation only and references to French scholarship are conspicuous by absence. As I already indicated, I find this unacceptable. Furthermore, in a book with so many comparisons to modern warfare, the absence of any reference to the often very good internet archives strikes me as rather odd. Nor is this an innocent omission: now that about a quarter of the people are skeptical about the results of science and scholarship, it is more important than ever that scholars present arguments without visible holes.
Alexander writes for those who are already convinced about the Iliad’s importance. As it happens, I belong to that group and that is why I read this book with pleasure, in spite of the sad subject. I think most of the readers of this little blog belong to the same group and will appreciate the book as well. However, another group of readers will think that a discipline has become irrelevant if its scholars do not explain their comparisons, ignore foreign literature, and are unaware of modern media. Although my sympathies are with the first group, I agree with the second,