“An angry man-there is my story; the bitter rancour of Achilles”
Although Homer’s famous epic poem, The Iliad hs conceived some 2700 years ago, it reflects much earlier myths and stories. In particular, it is built around ancestral memories of the fabulously rich and exciting Mycenaen civilization, which had flourished and decayed in Greece many hundreds of years before Homer’s time. From its inception, right up to our own time this great epic has been continuously read, translated, imitated, taught, written about and used as inspiration for the arts and literature. The Iliad commemorates the rise of Greeks into a sea-power during the Bronze Age. With the collapse of the ancient Minoan civilization in Crete about fourteen hundred years before Christ, the Achaians largely took over the Minoans as traders. They particularly wanted the wealthy trade of the Black Sea. At the entrance to that sea on the Hellespont, now called the Dardanelles, treacherous and narrow straits, contrary winds and fierce currents could sometimes hold up a ship for weeks on end. On a hillock on the Asian shore near the Aegean end of the Hellespont stood the ancien6t and powerful city of Troy.
Founded some three thousand years before Christ, Troy straddled the trade routes that brought wine, swords, gold and white horses from Thrace; timber, silver, vermillion and wild asses from the Black Sea; and slaves ivory and Egyptian wares up from Asia minor. Part trader, part robber its great fortress against greek hopes of entering the black sea or Asia across the Hellespont. It had to fall, At the beginning of the twelfth century before Christ, a greek and Cretan expedition probably led by Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae sailed against troy, which was helped by the neighbouring people of Asia Minor. There was a long siege perhaps nine years and more told by Homer. Troy was razed, its defenders killed or scattered, and the Greeks were now free to expand into the black sea and Asia Minor.
This is the probable historical background of the Iliad. Yet Homer’s epic poem was more a tribute to his genius than to the importance of the sack of Troy. Perhaps he knew this when he restricted the Iliad to a mere period of fifty-two days between the angry retirement of the Greek hero Achilles and his emergence to slay the Trojan hero Hector and give him up for burial. The fall of Troy takes place after the end of the Iliad and is not mentioned except in Homer’s other epic poem Odyssey. Troy and the Gods who fought there. What was a trade battle compared with the legend of Helen and Paris? What was Greek expansion compared with the will of Zeus? Men and nations have often confused their history with destiny. Poets can hallow this confusion for prosperity.
For modern readers, however, a brief account of the events leading up to the Iliad could open with the goddess of strife, Eris throwing down a golden apple marked “For the Fairest” at the wedding feast of Peleus and Thetis, the later parents of Achillies. The apple duly brought strife between Hera, Zeus’s wife and the most powerful goddess; Athene the god of Wisdom; and Aphrodite the goddess of love. Zeus wanting to keep peace in heaven if not on Earth wisely refused to give the apple to any of three goddesses, he left the choice to Paris, the beautiful son of Priam, King of Troy. The goddesses showed themselves naked to Paris and he gave the apple to Aphrodite when she promised him the love of Helen, Queen of Sparta and wife of Menelaos. Paris went to Greece and ran off with Helen and her treasure back to Troy. The greeks demanded her return, The Trojans refused, a Greek expedition was collected, the siege of Troy began. In the nine years’ war, each god and goddess choose his or her favourite heroes on both the Greek and the Trojan side and backed their men in the battles. But finally, it was the will of Zeus which decided all.
Translators and scholars have translated the main works attributed to Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey, from the Homeric Greek into English since the 16th and 17th centuries. George Chapman published his translation of the Iliad, in instalments, beginning in 1598, published in “fourteeners”, a long-line ballad metre that “has room for all of Homer’s figures of speech and plenty of new ones, as well as explanations in parentheses. At its best, as in Achilles’ rejection of the embassy in Iliad Nine; it has great rhetorical power.” It quickly established itself as a classic in English poetry. In the preface to his own translation, Pope praises “the daring fiery spirit” of Chapman’s rendering, which is “something like what one might imagine Homer, himself, would have writ before he arrived at years of discretion.” John Keats praised Chapman in the sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (1816). John Ogilby’s mid-seventeenth-century translation is among the early annotated editions; Alexander Pope’s 1715 translation, in the heroic couplet, is “The classic translation that was built on all the preceding versions,” and, like Chapman’s, it is a major poetic work in its own right. William Cowper’s Miltonic, blank verse 1791 edition is highly regarded for its greater fidelity to the Greek than either the Chapman or the Pope versions: “I have omitted nothing; I have invented nothing,” Cowper says in prefacing his translation.