Daily Archives: 28 February 2022

The Iliad: Progress report 3

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998), Books 7 to 9

With some interruptions, I’ve kept up my daily reading of The Iliad over the past month.

Natalie Haynes’s 24-minute version of the epic (link here) summarises some Books with a single word: ‘Fighting.’ The fighting in those books has a hideous physicality, as we are told precisely which body parts are pierced or hacked off. This month’s reading has included a couple of such books. Perhaps because of the current news from Ukraine, I wasn’t enthralled by the violence or by the descriptions of beautiful armour and bickering gods that punctuated it. I began to wonder if the full text actually added much to the Classics Illustrated comic I read when I was 11 or 12.

Then along came Book Nine, and I’m enthralled. At the end of Book 8, the Greeks/Achaeans have suffered terribly at the hands of the Trojans, who are led by Hector and backed by the capricious Zeus, and are in danger of having their ships destroyed. Book 9 is the night that follows, and it boils down to a series of persuasive speeches. Agamemnon sends a delegation to plead with Achilles to return to the fight. The delegation is welcomed by Achilles as friends. They eat and drink before getting down to business (I don’t remember who is supposed to have the motto, ‘First we eat, then we do everything else’, but they may have stolen it from the ancient Greeks). Odysseus lays out his case; then Phoenix, who regards Achilles as the son he never had, makes his appeal. Achilles firmly, civilly, even affectionately, hold firm and sends them packing, and all the time Achilles’ friend Patroclus is a silent presence, behaving like a head servant who ensures that the guests are made welcome and oversees the preparation of bedding for Phoenix, who stays the night.

The speeches are long, and persuasive. It feels that Achilles must yield. Then he answers, revealing the imperviousness of his hatred for Agamemnon, the intensity of his wounded pride, and – this was the revelation to me – the depth of his love for Briseis, the enslaved woman who was taken from him. One way or another, women are definitely chattels in the Iliad, but individuals stand out: not just Helen and Andromache, but also the women taken as booty. When the delegation have left and Achilles and Patroclus go to bed for the night, Homer tells us the names of the woman that each of them sleeps with – in case you’re interested, they are Diomede daughter of Phobus, and Iphis from Scyrus respectively.

You know how I like to compare translations. I looked up Alexander Pope’s version of the sleeping arrangements and was interested to find that while Pope definitely suggests sexual activity, Fagles is careful to remove any such suggestion. Here’s Pope(I probably don’t need to say that here ‘Lesbian’ means ‘from Lesbos’):

But in his inner tent, an ampler space,
Achilles slept; and in his warm embrace
Fair Diomede of the Lesbian race.
Last, for Patroclus was the couch prepared,
Whose nightly joys the beauteous Iphis shared

Fagles, line 810–814, has this:

And deep in his well-built lodge Achilles slept
with the woman he brought from Lesbos, Phorbas' daughter,
Diomede in all her beauty sleeping by his side.
And over across from him Patroclus slept
with the sashed and lovely Iphis by his side

Naturally I looked further, and found Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation (link here):

But Achilles slept in the innermost part of the well-builded hut, and by his side lay a woman that he had brought from Lesbos, even the daughter of Phorbas, fair-cheeked Diomede. And Patroclus laid him down on the opposite side, and by him in like manner lay fair-girdled Iphis

And lest this be seen as contemporary US and Victorian prudishness joining forces, I found a 2009 translation by Englishman A S Kline (here) that likewise refrained from mentioning Pope’s embraces or nightly joys. I don’t know what this means, unless that 18th century Englishmen saw sex everywhere while we moderns are much less obsessed with it. Hmm.