The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, January 10, 2011

A lesson from the classics

Hector was first to speak. "I will-no longer fly you, son of Peleus," said he, "as I have been doing hitherto. Three times have I fled round the mighty city of Priam, without daring to withstand you, but now, let me either slay or be slain, for I am in the mind to face you. Let us, then, give pledges to one another by our gods, who are the fittest witnesses and guardians of all covenants; let it be agreed between us that if Jove vouchsafes me the longer stay and I take your life, I am not to treat your dead body in any unseemly fashion, but when I have stripped you of your armour, I am to give up your body to the Achaeans. And do you likewise."

Achilles glared at him and answered, "Fool, prate not to me about covenants. There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind, but hate each other out and out an through. Therefore there can be no understanding between you and me, nor may there be any covenants between us, till one or other shall fall and glut grim Mars with his life's blood." The Illiad

[Added for clarification: What a shit!]

Never make nice.



Except that Homer's message is that Hector is right and Achilles is wrong. Yes, Achilles wins the fight, but his abuse of Hector's body and refusal to return the body for burial incurs the anger of the gods, and in Book 24 his mother Thetis is sent to him by the gods to tell him to cease and desist. It is only when Achilles does for Hector what Hector promised to do for him that he fully lets go of his anger, and returns to the heroic code, and the Iliad ends.

Both parties understood that Achilles was the likely victor and so Achilles had little to lose if he agreed to Hector's offer. However, he had much to lose by defying divine protocol and defiling Hector's body, in addition to demonstrating a general meanness of spirit. Surely someone grappling with political enemies today would want to adopt a more pragmatic approach?

'Never make nice' is what I take the lesson to be for Hector. I'm not at all admiring the response of Achilles, who is acting like a complete shit.

Your opinion of Achilles was common in medieval times. Hector of Troy was one of the Nine Worthies, none of the Greeks made the cut. Nice guys can finish first in the history books, which is encouraging.

It's easy for us to look back at Achilles and judge him - yeah he's being a shit - but the Greeks did have a very complex relationship with cheating.

If they could win through tricks and magic then that was perfectly fine.

Good quote though! Your comment made me laugh. I could just see doomed hector saying that to Achilles as he's about to die.

re winning by tricks being fine, the Odyssey is the perfect example of this. To a modern reader, Odysseus, while having many stirring and exciting adventures and defeating the Evil Suitors, isn't exactly a paragon of virtue. When I re-read it recently I was appalled at the lies he told, especially those to his aged father, which caused his father a great deal of pain.

And it's not just modern readers that are appalled by this - the Romans thought that he was a cruel, deceitful villain.

Hi David,

Let's not forget that the Romans were terrible snobs who weren't opposed to borrowing what they wanted from the Greeks - while looking down their noses at anything else.

Whenever I look back at the Greeks I am struck by how alien and different they were. I find them a fascinating bunch.

By way of slight mitigation: a) Hector had after all just killed Achilles' best friend (and by some accouts, lover), Patroclus. Hector had of course been perfectly justified in doing so; Patroclus was part of an invading army and Hector was simply defending his homeland. But all the same, one can see why Achilles might be more hostile toward Hector than toward the average opponent. b) Achilles does somewhat redeem himself later when Hector's father comes to beg for the body back, and moves Achilles to tears.

In general, though, Homer does portray the Trojans more sympathetically than he does the Greeks. The fact that the Greeks selected Homer's work as their national epic despite this is interesting.

David and antihippy,

It's important to note that the Romans believed themselves to be the descendants of the Trojans, so of course they saw the Greeks as the villains in the Trojan War.

Also note that Dante depicts Ulysses all the way down in the 8th Circle of Hell, for false counselors.

Well, the Greeks muddied up Odysseus first; he's a much darker, more ruthless, cynical, amoral, unsympathetic character in Greek tragedy (e.g. Sophocles' _Philoctetes_ and Euripides' _Hecuba_ and _Trojan Women_) than he was in Homer. (He's rather nicer in Sophocles' _Ajax_, though.)

Roderick, I'm not really all that hostile to Achilles. It just struck me as a scene that summed up something I've learned.

Oh well, on to the Odyssey. I'm working my way through some of the classics, having discovered some embarrassing gaps in my reading.

And I'm not all that friendly to Achilles. He was offered by his semidivine mom the choice between living a short and bloody life killing lots of people who didn't deserve it and being remembered forever, or living a long, happy, peaceful life surrounded by friends and family but not being remembered long after death. And he chose the former. What a pest.

A trivia stumper: ask people to guess which Homeric epic mentions the Trojan Horse and they will always guess the Iliad. But it's the Odyssey.

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