War as topic vs. setting

“It is a pretty poem, Mr Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” Richard Bentley

If I had to pick one favorite statement about translation, Bentley’s would be it. The beauty of Pope’s translation—as with others’ from his time up to ours—can be intoxicating. In Pope’s case, the translation’s beauty inspired generations of Englishmen, military officers especially, to decide the Iliad is a poem about how excellent and meaningful war is. After a few rounds of world wars, though, survivors started to catch on that maybe this beauty, appealing though it may be, was a lie. Turns out something can be beautiful and terrible at the same time. If we paid attention to Homer, we might notice that seems to be what the Trojan elders say about Helen in book three. In any case, a 180 degree turn was called for, and now, the Iliad is often referred to as an anti-war poem.

Is it, though? Is the poem about a war or set at a war? What’s the difference? I’ll tell you what I think the difference is, and I am interested to hear whether you think there is one as well.

I think—not know, of course, because we can only chase the Iliad’s meaning, never catch it—the Iliad is set at two wars: the war between the Achaeans and the Trojans and the war between Achilles and Agamemnon. Both these wars provide a context for exploring the breakdown of community, the causes of that breakdown, and how to avoid it, theoretically at least (see book 23). In the Iliad the breakdown is attributable largely to the gods, which for me (not necessarily for ancients…I wasn’t there, so I can’t be sure, really) represent forces that we either cannot or struggle to control—selfishness, pride, etc. The larger Trojan war results from a breakdown of xenia, a divine law governing the relationships between strangers, guest and host. The internal war between Achilles and Agamemnon results from a refusal to accept that authority can take many forms, and all must be respected.

That’s about as much as I can say in a small space. I would love to hear your thoughts on the poem as well.

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