The wrath of Achilles – Iliad Book 1, lines 1-90

“Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles.” That’s the most popular translation of line 1 of the Iliad. And it’s a good one.

Lattimore goes for the more literal “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus.” Lattimore is my guide to the Iliad. His literal translation is wonderful for the mid-level student. Fagles is more flowing for the English reader, but when you want word-for-word, Lattimore is the man.

This blog is not a translation nor a summary of the Iliad. Rather it is about my effort to read it in ancient Greek. That will necessarily involve some summary and some translation, but only to share the process of learning and reading. I’ll include words and phrases that troubled me, general comments about the Iliad, or whatever suits my fancy as I proceed.

Word order in Homeric Greek constantly gives me fits. Line 12 is a good example.

ὴλθε θοας ὲπι νηας Ὰχαιων – he came to the swift ships of the Achaeans

In different languages, word order varies, and it makes perfect sense to have an adjective follow a noun or to put the verb at the end of a sentence, although those uses are not English. But Greek, especially Homeric Greek, is fond of “post-positive,” where a leading or connecting word, such as a preposition, follows the first word of the sequence. Thus here θοας is ‘swift,’ επι is ‘to,’ and ωηας is ‘ships.’

That’s enough Homeric grammar for the first post.

It’s generally accepted that the Iliad is about the wrath of Achilles. Wrath “μηνιν” is the first word of the poem and Homer then tells us that the wrath of Achilles is the subject. But it’s more than that. Wrath is a personal emotion. Achilles’ indulgence in his own pride, wrath, and other emotions dooms the Greek army. The tension between the individual and the group is the broader conflict.

The Iliad emerged during the so-called Greek Dark Age, well after the fall of the Mycenean civilization, when anarchy certainly reigned and the Greek city-state, the polis, was emerging. Think about it. During the Dark Age, it was every man for himself; we don’t know much about it, but there could not have been much social organization. As the polis emerged, it imposed demands on its citizens. (There’s a lot of scholarship on all this history; this paragraph is the barest skimming summary.) The polis offered protection, peace, security, and maybe even a way to prosperity, for its citizens. To make this group success possible, individual appetites had to be subordinated to the common good. A great hero-warrior like Achilles could afford to indulge his anger, his lust, etc. as long as he was only in charge of himself. But in the social group, his interests must be subordinated, or the group suffers.

The character of Agamemnon is revealing too. He’s a weakling; he’s selfish; in Book 2 Homer explicitly calls him a fool, νηπιος, a very rare editorialization in the Iliad. But that’s just the point. Agamemnon the individual may or may not be so great. But what he represents, the Greek nation, the tribe, the polis, is great. It’s not a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong in the silly, pig-headed dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon. The point is that the group, the Greek people, suffers. First, as we learn in these first few pages, Agamemnon’s behavior brings a plague upon the army. Under pressure, he agrees to make it right, sending back his prize, the girl Chryseis, but demanding Achilles’ girl instead. And so it goes.

Everyone’s character is defined by how their actions affect the group. This is the theme of the Iliad – the necessary subordination of individual needs & wants to those of the polis.