Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Archaeology and the Homeric Question, Part 1

[511] Those who inhabited Aspledon and Minyan Orchomenos

In this post I propose to explore the relationship between the discipline of archaeology and the Homeric Question, taking Orchomenos as a jumping off point. In so doing my aim is not so much to show something new about this relationship or to offer a new interpretation of the verses concerning Orchomenos, but rather to take this opportunity to give an overview of an important topic within the history of Homeric scholarship that has many implications for our understanding of the oral tradition in which the Iliad and Odyssey were composed. This post will focus on the history of the relationship between archaeology and the Homeric Question; future posts will address more theoretical aspects. 
As I have noted in a previous post, the work of scholars such as E.S. Sherratt and Gregory Nagy demonstrates that we should not be searching for a single era of history or a single political reality to be reflected in the Catalogue of Ships. The Catalogue of Ships—its content, its formulaic diction and structure, and its poetics—evolved as the Iliad evolved. But in fact it has been common in the history of Homeric scholarship to attempt to link the Catalogue to particular historical eras. These attempts have been closely linked to developments in archaeology, which have offered the possibility of connection between material reality and the poetry that has come down to us. 
Fragment of a 13th century BCE fresco from
Orchomenos depicting warriors in boar tusk helmets.
Boiotian Orchomenos makes an excellent case in point. Orchomenos was an important Bronze Age palatial center with frescoed walls and tholos tombs. Its first excavator was none other than Heinrich Schliemann, the first excavator of Hisarlik, which is the site believed by many to be the Homeric Troy. Schliemann went looking for Orchomenos precisely because he remembered Orchomenos as one of only three places in the Iliad said to be "rich in gold" (Schliemann 1884:303). The other two places are of course Troy and Mycenae, both of which, as we will see, Schliemann himself excavated with spectacular results. We will turn to these more famous excavations momentarily, but let us note for now that Schliemann seems to have been mistaken about the text of Homer. I can find no passage where Orchomenos is described as being polukhrusos ("rich in gold"), though Achilles does cite it as one of the two cities, along with Egyptian Thebes ("where the greatest amount of possessions lie stored in the houses"), whose riches he would reject if Agamemnon offered them to him (Iliad 9.381). And its so-called "treasury of Minyas" (a Bronze Age tholos tomb like those found at Mycenae), was said by the Greek travel writer Pausanias to be one of the greatest wonders of the world (9.38.2). (For more on the Minyans, stay tuned for the next post!) In any case, Schliemann's excavations revealed Orchomenos to have been in fact a wealthy Bronze Age center, thus making it an important early example of a phenomenon that has caused scholars to want to understand the Catalogue of Ships as having its origins in Bronze Age. Like Orchomenos, many places in the Catalogue seem to have been at the height of their power and prominence in the Bronze Age, but were significantly less so in later eras. Orchomenos continued to be inhabited after the Bronze Age, but many other places in the Catalogue were not. Simpson and Lazenby (1970: 38-39) point out, however, that the Catalogue's description of Orchomenos does not actually capture it at the peak of its power when it controlled a series of settlements on the Northern shore of Lake Copais. In the Catalogue, these places appear to be in the domain of the Boiotians. Achilles' comment about the wealth of Orchomenos perhaps hearkens back to Orchomenos' heyday, but in the Catalogue at least, Orchomenos is not characterized as the wealthy and powerful place it once was. We have, it seems, more than one chronological reality for Orchomenos reflected in our Iliad.

Orchomenos
Image by Gerhard Haubold via Wikimedia Commons
I would like to emphasize already now how closely poetry and archaeology have been intertwined in the case of Orchomenos. Schliemann wanted to excavate it precisely because it was spoken of as a wealthy city in the Iliad. The prospect of Bronze Age gold was certainly a motivation, but so too was the desire to find a historicity in the poem. By finding and excavating the major cities featured in the poem, Schliemann hoped to prove the truth of the Iliad. His excavations at Hisarlik were inextricably bound up in this same desire, and so too have all subsequent excavations been - even, I would argue, contemporary excavations that profess not to be. The result is that we cannot separate the archaeology of the Troad, nor even the Greek Bronze Age more generally, from the Homeric Question. They have gone hand in hand from the beginning.

Schliemann and his excavations at Troy, Mycenae, and Orchomenos

Heinrich Schliemann
Image from Selbstbiographie (Leipzig, 1892)
In the late nineteenth century a wealthy businessman, Heinrich Schliemann, took it upon himself to excavate the mound known as Hisarlik in northwestern Turkey. Schliemann, who was born in 1822 and died while excavating at Hisarlik in 1890, was explicitly searching for the Troy of the Homeric poems, claiming to have had a desire since childhood to find the walls of a historical Troy. (See, for example, the "Autobiographical Notice" included in Schliemann's 1875 account of the first excavations at Hisarlik, Troy and its Remains.) Few people believe Schliemann's romantic tale about this childhood dream, as Schliemann had a well documented gift for embellishing the events of his life in his letters and diaries. (The evidence for embellishment and outright falsification of events and discoveries has been gathered primarily by William Calder and David Traill; see Calder and Traill 1986 and Traill 1993. A balanced account of Schliemann's life may be found in Moorehead 1997. For more critical views, see Traill's 1995 biography and Allen 1999, with further bibliography ad loc.) In fact, when Schliemann first visited the Troad in 1868, the precise location of Troy was being hotly debated by scholars throughout Europe, and it is in that context that Schliemann likely first conceived of digging up the "real" Troy. 
The Iliad is full of topographical details that invite us to imagine Troy as a real place. It is clearly situated in the northwest corner of the Troad just across the Hellespont from what is now known as the Peninsula of Gallipoli, i.e. the Thracian Chersonnese (where the sanctuary of the Greek hero Protesilaos, the first to die at Troy, was located in later times). The city is depicted as being near the Scamander and Simoeis rivers, and within view of various islands such as Samothrace, Tenedos, and Imbros as well as Mt. Ida. (For more on the topographical details present in the Iliad, see Cook 1973 and Luce 1998.)
The ancient Greeks themselves believed the Trojan War to be a historical event (as we find it discussed for example in the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides), and they dated it to around 1250 BCE (though there were competing alternatives). The ancients also believed they knew where Troy was located: a place called New Ilium (which was inhabited from approximately 700 BCE to 500 CE) was said to have been built from the ruins of Troy. This city was founded at a time when many different groups were staking claims to epic poetry and the Trojan War. Probably the Iliad and Odyssey were crystallizing into the forms in which we now read them around this time, and this development may explain the intense interest in the region. (For scholarly arguments, see Nagy 2010: 142-146. For a more general overview of the topic, see Wood 1998: 19-46.) Multiple tumuli in the area were believed to be the tombs of heroes such as Achilles and Ajax (Burgess 2006). In antiquity this presumed site of Troy was visited by Xerxes, Alexander the Great (“He ran naked to the tomb of Achilles and laid a wreath there, while his close friend Hephaistion performed similar rituals at a nearby mound identified as the tomb of Patroklos.” [Burgess 2006]), Julius Caesar, Constantine, Julian, and Mehmet II. 
But in Schliemann's day debate about the true site of Troy was fiercely raging. The modern search for Troy has its origins in the work of Robert Wood, whose Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer with a Comparative View of the Ancient and Present State of the Troade (1769) made deductions about changes in topography since ancient times (it was also one of earliest formulations of arguments concerning oral composition and transmission of the Homeric poems). Wood's speculation on the possible historicity of the Trojan War and the location of Troy itself inspired countless others, including Jean Baptiste Lechevalier (1791) who argued that the site of Troy must be at a place called Burnabashi [Pinarbaşı] and asserted the historicity of Trojan War, which sparked fierce debate. Although some scholars had singled out the mound of Hisarlik, the acropolis at New Ilium, as the most likely candidate for the Homeric Troy, few seem to have given it serious thought, and when Schliemann visited the Troad in 1868, Burnabashi was the focus of his attention (Allen 1999: 5-9).
It was only after visiting Burnabashi that Schliemann encountered Frank Calvert, an Englishman from a diplomatic family that lived in Turkey. Calvert had conducted small scale excavations all over the Troad and was convinced that Troy was located at Hisarlik (near New Ilium), and attempted to persuade the British Museum to fund systematic excavations there. He was not successful, but eventually he bought some of the mound himself and conducted trial excavations beginning in 1865. These excavations, while preliminary, convinced Calvert that he found an important Bronze Age city and very likely Troy itself. When Schliemann visited in 1868, Calvert discussed his theories with him. Schliemann became determined to dig there, and after negotiations with Calvert and the Turkish authorities, he began digging in 1870. (For more on Calvert as the inspiration for Schliemann's work and their difficult relationship, see Allen 1999.)
Because Schliemann was specifically looking for the Troy of the Iliad, he had no interest in the Classical and other ruins present at the site. We now know that Hisarlik was continuously occupied for 4000 years, from approximately 3000 BCE to 1000 CE. (For an overview of all nine layers of occupation see Bryce 2006: 29-86 and 151-179.) It is one of the longest continuously inhabited settlements in human history, which should not surprise us given its strategic location. Schliemann assumed that the Homeric Troy would be at the bottom of the mound, not realizing that the site had been occupied for nearly two millennia before the traditional date of the Trojan War. He therefore proceeded to plough through the upper layers, destroying much of the Bronze Age remains (and everything else). At the second layer from the bottom (contrary to current archaeological practice, Hisarlik's layers are numbered from the bottom up) Schliemann found a fortified citadel that arguably resembled the Homeric Troy. Troy II (as it is now conventionally called, on the assumption that Hisarlik is indeed Troy) was a highly prosperous community with advanced metal technology. The city had two main gates, a steeply rising monumental ramp, stone walls, impressive, sloping fortifications, and a large megaron style building. Elites lived in spacious buildings on the citadel, while others probably lived outside the walls. 
These details fit with the image of Troy that Schliemann had from the Iliad, as we find in such passages as this one from Iliad 21:
The old man Priam stood on a wondrous tower and took note of huge Achilles as the Trojans fled panic-stricken before him, and there was no resolve left in them. He came down from the tower with a groan, and went along the wall giving orders to the exceedingly glorious warders of the gate. “Keep the gates wide open till the people come fleeing into the city, for Achilles is hard by and is driving them in rout before him. I see we are in great peril. As soon as our people are inside and have respite, shut the closely fitted gates, for I fear lest that terrible man should come bounding inside along with the others.” (21.526-536; translation adapted from that of Samuel Butler)
Troy II, moreover, was destroyed by fire. For Schliemann, all the pieces fit together to support his thesis that a Trojan War had taken place on this site and given birth to a monumental epic poem that chronicled its events with historical accuracy. 
Schliemann's wife, Sophia,
wearing the "Jewels of Helen"
Schliemann was convinced that he had found the Homeric Troy and began to publish his findings, but the scholarly world was skeptical. Troy II is only 100 yards in diameter. Could such a small place be the Troy of the Iliad? In 1873, with criticism mounting and the third and final full season of excavation coming to a close, Schliemann astonished the world with a spectacular discovery. On a day when the Turkish overseer was working at another part of the site Schliemann claims to have found in the remains of Troy II a horde of precious objects that he termed the “treasure of Priam,” or as they came to be quickly known, the “jewels of Helen.” (Let us note once again the immediate connection made between the archaeology and the poetry here. Schliemann never seems to have doubted that a real king Priam ruled at Hisarlik, or even that Helen was a real individual with jewels that could be found.) It is abundantly clear that Schliemann fabricated many details of his various conflicting accounts of the discovery and even the exact find spot, though most scholars accept the finds as genuine (Allen 1999: 3 and Bryce 2006: 50). Some have expressed doubt that the objects come from a horde; they may have been discovered over the course of several weeks or months and assembled to make a more impressive find. (See especially Traill 1995: 110-124.) In any case, the publicity surrounding the treasure caused public opinion to turn in Schliemann's favor, and it seemed the Homeric Troy had been found. 
We now know that this level at Hisarlik (the so-called Troy II) dates to 2500-2200 BCE, a thousand years before the conventional date of the Trojan War, or, as the scholar Trevor Bryce puts it, "far too early for Priam's Troy" (Bryce 2006: 50). Of course, there is no reason why we must assume a Trojan War occurred at this site at all, or that it took place, if it took place, circa 1250 BCE. As we will see, however, later excavators who, like Schliemann, were looking for the Homeric Troy found another level of habitation that is a far more likely candidate for the setting of the Iliad. This layer, known as Troy VI, flourished for approximately five hundred years between 1700 and 1200 BCE, temptingly in range of the dates given in antiquity for the Trojan War. Unfortunately, most of the remains of Troy VI were destroyed by Schliemann's excavations. 
The so-called "Mask of Agamemnon"
from the shaft graves at Mycenae
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Ignorant of this chronology and in deep trouble with Turkish authorities after smuggling "Priam's Treasure" out of Turkey, Schliemann turned his attention to Greece. He had found Troy, so why not excavate Mycenae as well, the home of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces at Troy? Unlike Troy, there had never been any question as to the location of Mycenae; its ruins, including the massive "Cyclopean" walls and lion gate had been described by Pausanias and visited by modern travelers before Schliemann, including Lord Elgin. But no one had dug it up, and during excavations in Fall of 1876 once again Schliemann made spectacular finds that stunned the world, this time in the form of shaft graves containing large amounts of gold and other precious materials. These tombs were immediately associated with the Homeric heroes, as they had been already in Pausanias' day. A particularly spectacular funerary mask came to be known as the "mask of Agamemnon" and an impressive tholos tomb was called the "treasury of Atreus" (as they are still called to this day). 
It is clear that Schliemann had uncovered an important Bronze Age civilization, one that was previously unknown in modern times. He discovered it because he was looking to prove the historicity of the Iliad, and in the sense that he proved the existence of a palatial civilization at the end of the Bronze Age in Greece, one resembling the wealthy and powerful Mycenae of the Iliad, he was arguably successful. The Homeric world of kings and palaces, so foreign to later eras of Greek history, was shown to have once existed. But as always, Schliemann's archaeology was skewed by his desire to match up the archaeological remains with the Iliad. In fact the gold of the shaft graves, which have since been dated to the 16th century BCE, postdates Troy II by more than seven hundred years, and predates the traditional date of the Trojan War by three hundred years. 
It is in the wake of these spectacular finds at Mycenae that Schliemann went on to excavate Orchomenos and Tiryns. Tiryns proved to be another spectacular and massively fortified Bronze Age citadel in keeping with it's Iliadic description (it is called "walled" at Iliad 2.559, one of only two cities so designated.) Orchomenos he left after only a few weeks, not having found any gold after all despite what the Iliad has to say. What he did find at Orchomenos was a type of pottery that he called "Minyan Ware" (after the Minyans of Greek myth). Schliemann himself did not make the connection, but this type of pottery had also been found at Troy, at a level that Schliemann did not believe to be prehistoric (Wood 1998: 71-72). This level would turn out to be Troy VI, the one now regarded by many as the Homeric Troy.
Schliemann also attempted to get permission to dig at the site of Knossos on Crete, where he might have uncovered the Minoan civilization later discovered by Arthur Evans, but he was not able to get permission to dig there, as Crete was fighting for independence from Turkey. And so Schliemann returned to Troy, this time with the architect Wilhelm Dörpfeld, with whom he had excavated at Tiryns. He was determined to prove that there were links between Mycenae, Tiryns and Troy II. But it seems that even he had doubts that so small a place could be the subject of the Iliad. In his account of Schliemann's excavations, Michael Wood quotes a letter in which Schliemann writes: "I thought I had settled the Trojan question forever... but my doubts increased as time wore on. ... Had Troy been merely a fortified borough, a few hundred men might have taken it in a few days and the whole Trojan War would either have been a total fiction, or it would have had but a slender foundation." (See Wood 1998: 87.) These words reveal a great deal about Schliemann's hopes and assumptions concerning the relationship between the archaeological remains, the history of the Bronze Age, and the poetry of the Iliad. To discover that the Iliad was an entirely poetic creation, with no basis in historical fact, would have been a tremendous disappointment to Schliemann. Even the idea that the Iliad might contain a kernel of historical fact that had been embellished by time and poetry was unacceptable. Schliemann's sentiments are in keeping with an often quoted diary entry of Lord Byron, who wrote: “We do care about ‘the authenticity of the tale of Troy’… I still venerated the grand original as the truth of history (in the material facts) and of place. Otherwise it would have given me no delight” [written in his diary in 1821].

After Schliemann: Troy as Dream and Reality in the 20th Century and Beyond

Subsequent excavators of Hisarlik have likewise sought to provide this same historical authenticity to the Iliad via their excavations. In the final weeks of Schliemann's life, Dörpfeld began to uncover what was left of the remains of Troy VI, and to believe that he had found the historical Troy. Here is how Troy VI is described in Trevor Bryce's (2006) The Trojans and Their Neighbors:
From the ashes of Troy V a splendid new settlement emerged, which, at the height of its development, far overshadowed its predecessors in size and magnificence, and provided the setting for the most famous epic in Western literary tradition. For this was the place where Homer located the kingdom of Priam. Before its walls, Greek and Trojan forces repeatedly clashed, and Achilles and Hector fought to the death. At least that is what tradition tells us.  
Impressive new fortifications built of squared limestone blocks protected the citadel of Troy VI. The walls, surmounted by mudbrick breastwork, once reached a height of over 9 metres. Several watchtowers were built into these walls, the most imposing of which is the huge north-eastern bastion, which served to reinforce the citadel's defences as well as affording a commanding view over the Trojan plain. It calls to mind Homer's great watchtower in the Iliad. Five gateways provided access to the citadel, the most important of which was the southern gate, 3.3 metres wide, protected by a tower and giving access to a broad way ascending steeply into the citadel. Archaeologists have suggested that this was the famous Scaean Gate, where Hector bade his wife Andromache farewell and where Paris inflicted the fatal wound upon Achilles' heel. (Bryce 2006: 58)
Bryce was writing more than a century after Dörpfeld, but his description captures the spirit with which Dörpfeld conducted his work, following in the footsteps of Schliemann himself. Poetry and archaeology are made to reinforce one another in order to create a vivid historical picture of a real Homeric Troy at Hisarlik, where the events of the Iliad could have actually occurred. (For the ecstatic reception of Dörpfeld's findings among academics of the time, see Wood 1998: 89-93.) After Dörpfeld came Carl Blegen, an American archaeologist who excavated at Hisarlik from 1932-1938. He too was looking for a Troy at which the events of the Iliad and the Trojan War of the larger epic tradition took place and he believed that Troy VIIa, the level immediately following Troy VI, was the Homeric Troy. Unlike Troy VI, which showed little evidence of war as a cause for destruction, Troy VIIa was a town arguably destroyed by siege some time around 1180 BCE. As Bryce notes, however, this would be "too late to be linked with a concerted Mycenaean invasion from the Greek mainland" (Bryce 2006: 67). The Mycenaean palaces had collapsed by this point, as had many power centers around the Mediterranean and the Near East. Once again the reality of the archaeological remains of Hisarlik fails to match our preconceived poetic and historical narratives. 
And yet we continue to look. Because Troy VI seems so tantalizingly like the city of the Iliad, we can't let it go. And so the excavations have continued. In 1988, fifty years after Blegen, new excavations began under the direction of Manfred Korfmann and continued after Korfmann's death in 2005 until 2012. Korfmann's team identified a a previously unknown extensive lower town surrounding Troy VI, fortified by mudbrick walls and ditches. (We should note, however, that there has been considerable revisions to the dates and renaming of the various levels.) These findings suggest that Troy VI was much bigger even than previously thought and an important regional power. Korfmann stated repeatedly in interviews and on the project website that his team was not interested in proving or disproving the historicity of the Trojan War. It is noted in his New York Times obituary, for example, that for Korfmann, the Trojan War “was merely an illustrative and metaphoric episode in a series of many wars that undoubtedly were waged through the centuries in the power play at this strategic place” (New York Times Obituary, 8/19/2005). Korfmann urged us to see Hisarlik as an archaeological site well worth studying in its own right. 
But it is a fact that Korfmann's findings were seized upon by Homeric scholars wishing to prove the historicity of the Trojan War, as narrated in the Iliad. Joachin Latacz, described as "one of Korfmann's closest collaborators" on the back of his 2005 book Troy and Homer: Towards a Solution of an Old Mystery, argues forcefully on the basis of Korfmann's evidence that the Iliad transmits historical events from the late Bronze Age. 
In 2001, the findings of the excavation were the subject of a special exhibition in Germany entitled Troia: Traum und Wirklicheit ("Troy: Dream and Reality"). The title alone perfectly encapsulates the problem of separating fact and fiction when it comes to the site of Hisarlik: Troy is a dream that archaeologists have time and again sought to prove a reality at Hisarlik. The exhibit was fantastically well attended and ignited a media firestorm after one of Korfmann's own colleagues at the University of Tübingen, Professor Frank Kolb, accused him of falsifying his results and deliberately misleading the public. While I do not endorse Kolb's accusations, I can understand his skepticism. Once again the archaeological site of Hisarlik was being used to support century old arguments about the historicity of the Iliad
Indeed, I would argue that modern scholars are no less romantic than Schliemann himself when it comes to the archaeological aspects of the Homeric Question. How far have we come since the days of Schliemann in our understanding of the relationship between the archaeology of the mound called Hisarlik in Northwestern Turkey and the Homeric poems? An instructive example can be found in Trevor Bryce's 2006 book, The Trojans and their Neighbours, which is an excellent scholarly treatment of what we know about the archaeological evidence at Hisarlik, situated in the wider context of the Bronze Age Mediterranean and the Near East. It is one of the latest, most up to date textbooks on this subject and I use it in my own classes. 
The book is full of problematic assumptions about the relationship between Hisarlik and the Homeric epics, including the following. 
  1. Homer was an individual living in the 8th century BCE on the coast of Anatolia. He may have seen Troy. His compositions were known as such by his contemporaries. (Bryce 2006: 9-16)
  2. Troy was a real place. (Bryce 2006: passim) 
  3. The Trojan War happened, though not necessarily exactly as the Iliad describes. (Bryce suggests "the Trojan War story was the outcome of a whole raft of traditions reflecting conflicts spread over a number of centuries and finally distilled into a single ten-year episode" but then goes on to warn against being "too skeptical" about the abduction of Helen as a cause for the war [Bryce 2006: 186-187].)
  4. The Trojan War happened at roughly the time that was guessed by writers in the Classical period and later, all living more than 800 years after the event they were attempting to date. (See examples cited above.)
  5. The site of Hisarlik (as opposed to Burnabashi or anywhere else) contains the remains of Troy. (Bryce 2006: 181) 
A modern Trojan Horse at Hisarlik
It is important to understand that all of these are assumptions, and all have a chance (in some cases a very strong chance) of being incorrect. So why does Bryce assume them? He does so for the same romantic reasons that all scholars and archaeologists who research the site of Troy have, in varying degrees. It is the reason there is a monumental wooden horse at the site of Hisarlik today. Elsewhere I have argued that contemporary notions of poetic genius have influenced our understanding of the authorship of the Homeric epics in profound ways (Dué 2006). As I conclude in the article I have just cited, "Our evidence is such that however we dream up Homer it is of necessity a matter of faith and will always be rooted in current conceptions of poets and poetry." The archaeological search for Troy, I submit, is similarly wrapped up in modern conceptions about not only poetic genius but also the weight and significance of history, and a desire to find a kind of gravitas in the Homeric epics that we moderns do not typically associate with myth.

I would like to conclude this lengthy meditation on the history of Bronze Age archaeology and the Homeric Question by quoting an article I have already cited by Jonathan Burgess, "Tumuli of Achilles," in which he surveys the history of our understanding of where Achilles’ tomb was in antiquity, and shows how it was imagined to be in different places in different time periods, noting that a real Bronze Age tomb of Achilles has never been found. In his conclusion, Burgess argues that we shouldn’t be looking for such a tomb - that it in fact diminishes the poetry of the Iliad to do so rather than enhances it:
The larger issue raised by my survey of the localization of Achilles' tumulus is the relation between myth and reality. The spectacular discoveries of Schliemann gave license to a historicist approach to the myth of the Trojan war that turned out to be unwarranted, even if much valuable historical evidence was uncovered in the process. The Homeric poems are not guides to Bronze Age history and their allegiance is to mytho-poetic narrative, not reality. Especially troubling has been a disrespect for myth displayed by some explorers and archaeologists, an attitude that is readily applauded by our modern culture. The search for the “truth” behind the Trojan war is essentially a reductionist exercise designed to transform myth into a more valued reality. The oft-quoted comment by Byron, “We do care about ‘the authenticity of the tale of Troy’… I still venerated the grand original as the truth of history (in the material facts) and of place. Otherwise it would have given me no delight”, is emblematic of this attitude, all the more regrettable because it is the expression of, astoundingly, a poet. It is depressing to face the constant pressure from the media and our students to play the antimythology historicist game. For these reasons we should resist attempts to identify a “real” tumulus of Achilles (and, I would argue, a “real” Trojan war). 
Yet topography and archaeology provide important contexts for philological research. It would be unnecessarily limiting for philologists to consider the Trojan war narrative an exclusively notional construct. In terms of origins, it is significant that there was a Bronze Age city of Troy, in existence when Mycenaeans were prominent and war was common… The ancients valued their direct experience of the actual world featured in Greek mythology. The viewing of topography provided a very strong and immediate contact with a traditional past that was immanent within the physical landscape. Any opportunity for us in the modern world to see topography associated with myth should always be illuminating. 
The middle ground that Burgess offers here seems absolutely right to me. What is important for fully appreciating not only the poetry itself but also the reception of that poetry in ancient times is not whether or not the Trojan War really happened or precisely when. As the poetic tradition evolved, the Trojan War came to be associated with a particular landscape and topography and the ruins of a particular place, and likewise that particular place became imbued with the poetry, such that they became over time inseparable for the poets and their audiences. It is for that reason that we should look for Troy. A better understanding of the topography of the Troad and the ruins of Hisarlik gives us insight into what ancient composers imagined when they sang songs about the Trojan War, and what the ancient audiences imagined when they heard them. What actually happened there seems beside the point, at least from the point of view of understanding the poetic tradition. (From the point of view of understanding the workings of the Hittite Empire and it's relationship with the Mycenaean Greeks in the Late Bronze Age, obviously the archaeological remains are of great historical value.) 

Schliemann's Legacy

Schliemann’s methodology, naiveté, and shady dealings have been fiercely and rightly criticized by modern archaeologists and historians, but his accomplishment, namely the discovery of a previously unknown Bronze Age world not unlike that depicted in the Homeric epics—the world now known as Mycenaean Greece—had a lasting and profound impact on our understanding of the Iliad and Odyssey and the historical context in which they were generated. In future posts I plan to explore how our knowledge of some the reality of Bronze Age Greece affects our understanding of the poetry. But on an even more fundamental level, we can now appreciate the Iliad and Odyssey as works that spans many centuries of composition and reception. What philologists and linguists have observed in the diction of Homeric poetry (namely, that there are very old forms alongside much newer forms of words) can now be observed on a material level, thanks to Schliemann and those who have succeeded him. In terms of the Catalogue of Ships, we can now understand it to be the product of, or at least have its origins in, a Bronze Age world. As I have already suggested in the case of Orchomenos, the Catalogue entries do not only reflect the Bronze Age, or even a single era within the long span of time that we call the Bronze Age. But understanding the Catalogue to be the product of such a long evolution helps us to appreciate why the poetic significance of a place like Orchomenos can shift within the poem, and why we should not look for a single reality to inform our understanding of the poetry.

The Ruins of Orchomenos
Edward Dodwell, Views in Greece (London 1821)

Works Cited
Allen, S. 1999. Finding the Walls of Troy: Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik. Berkeley.
Bryce, T. 2006. The Trojans and Their Neighbours. New York.
Burgess, J. 2006. "Tumuli of Achilles." Classics@ 3. Eds. R. Armstrong and C. Dué. Center for Hellenic Studies.
Calder, W. and D. Traill. eds. 1986. Myth, Scandal, and History: The Heinrich Schliemann Controversy. Detroit. 
Cook, J. 1973. The Troad: An Archaeological and Topographical Study. Oxford.
Dué, C. 2006. "The Invention of Ossian." Classics@ 3. Eds. R. Armstrong and C. Dué. Center for Hellenic Studies.
Latacz, J. 2005. Troy and Homer: Towards a Solution of an Old Mystery. Oxford. 
Lechevalier, J. 1791. Description of the plain of Troy with a map of that region, delineated from an actual survey. Edinburgh.
Luce, J. 1998. Celebrating Homer's Landscapes: Troy and Ithaca Revisited. New Haven.
Moorehead, C. 1997. Lost and Found: Heinrich Schliemann and the Gold That Got Away
Nagy, G. 2010. Homer the Preclassic. Berkeley.
Schliemann, H. 1875. Troy and its Remains: A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries Made on the Site of Ilium, and in the Trojan Plain. London.
Schliemann, H. 1881. Orchomenos. Leipzig.
Schliemann, H. 1884. Troja: Results of the Latest Researches on the Site of Homer's Troy. London.
Traill, D. 1993. Excavating Schliemann. Illinois Classical Studies supplement 4. ed. W. Calder. Atlanta.
Traill, D. 1995. Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit. New York.
Wood, M. 1998. In Search of the Trojan War. Berkeley. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Dancing Places and Doves: Place-names and their Epithets in the Catalogue of Ships

[495] and Arkesilaos and Prothoenor and Klonios
[496] who inhabited Hyria and rocky Aulis
[497] and Skhoinos and Skolos and many-peaked Eteonos
[498] and wondrous Graia and Mykalessos with its broad dancing places
[499] and those who inhabited Harma and Eilesios and Erythrai
[500] and those who held Eleon and Hyle and Peteon
[501] Okalea and Medeon the well-built citadel,
[502] Kopai and Eutresis and Thisbe of the many doves

In my previous post I explored the notion of "walk-on characters" in the Iliad, those characters who appear in the narrative seemingly only to die or who fade from view after only a brief mention. In that post I argued that such characters are as integrated into the traditional system in which the Iliad and Odyssey were composed as more prominent characters, and that the Catalogue of Ships in particular functions much like an index to the totality of the epic tradition. I conclude by quoting Mabel Lang (In Carter and Morris, The Ages of Homer [1995], 161): "Speculative in the extreme? Yes, but sensible if ones sees the Catalogue of Ships not as a survey of actual political geography, but as a poetic attempt to list as many famous heroes as might possibly have fought in the Trojan War, although in the Iliad at least, several have little or no part. These heroes must have been known to the bards, complete with epithets and epitheted place-names, from their local exploits."

In this post I want to explore the much vexed question of the "epitheted place-names" to which Lang refers. Was there a real place named Mykalessos and did it actually have broad dancing places? Why is Medeon a "well built citadel" but Okalea is not described at all? Did Thisbe really have many doves, and if so how do we know? How did such places and epithets make it into the epic tradition to begin with? I don't expect to be able to thoroughly answer all of these questions in one blog post, but I would like to at least make a start by exploring further the epithets used of Mykalessos and Thisbe. In so doing I will build on previous work in which I have discussed the poetics of various other kinds of noun-epithet combinations, and here as always I am much indebted to the work of Milman Parry, whose first doctoral thesis was entitled L’Épithète traditionelle dans Homère; Essaie sur un problème de style homérique (= The Traditional Epithet in Homer). (See especially Dué and Ebbott 2010 ad 10.3 and 10.283 for definitions and the history of scholarship on epithets.)

Lang's work suggests that the walk-on characters in the Iliad are in fact local hero heroes whose deeds in the Trojan War and/or other epic narratives would have been sung in particular places. At some point what had previously been local songs came to be performed more widely and by other, non-local singers, or at the very least, their heroes came to be incorporated into a wider narrative tradition that eventually resulted in our Iliad. By making it into the Iliad, these local heroes became part of a Panhellenic poetic tradition at some distance removed from the local songs from which they originated. If this conceptualization is correct, we have to understand that different singers and different audiences may have known more or less specific information about these heroes and the towns from which they hailed, depending on their familiarity with the local traditions that formed these characters' back-stories. And yet, as a notional totality at least, the full biography of these more local heroes was at some point known to the epic tradition as a whole.

Likewise, this notional totality that I am invoking had a broad knowledge of the geography of Greece, though it is clear that much as the dialect of the Homeric epic evolved to incorporate Aeolic and Ionic and even Attic elements, so too did new places come into the system, sometimes (no doubt) at the expense of other places which fell out of circulation. I have argued with reference to the character of Briseis that some audiences (e.g., archaic or earlier, Aeolic) would have had a clear understanding of her own unique life story, while other, later, and more Panhellenic audiences would have understood her story only paradigmatically (Briseis as a typical captive woman from a town sacked by Achilles, the daughter or wife of the local king). (See Dué 2002.)

A place like Mykalessos or Thisbe then may have had syntagmatic associations, that is details that were true and specific to the actual towns, as well as paradigmatic associations (characteristics that they share with other epic places, details that may or may not have had anything to do with their "real" geographical features). Each place may have at one time had a set of particular epithets and formulas that were used of that place in particular by bards familiar with that place. Some or all of that formulaic language may have at one point become a part of the larger, more Panhellenic epic tradition, but not all of what came into the system stayed in the system. As the tradition and its formulaic diction evolved so too did the poets' and audiences' understanding of those places evolve.

It is this evolution that explains at least in part why the political geography of the Catalogue of Ships cannot be tied to one particular era. Some towns mentioned in the Catalogue (e.g., Eutresis in 2.502) were uninhabited after the end of the Bronze Age (though Eutresis was reoccupied beginning in the 6th Century BCE; see Simpson and Lazenby, The Catalogue of Ships in Homer's Iliad [1970], 27), suggesting a Bronze Age date for the Catalogue (as argued by Simpson and Lazenby), but others, such as Sparta, were not particularly important in the Bronze Age and flourished only in later times. (Sparta seems to have displaced the Bronze Age Therapne completely; see O. Dickinson, "Catalogue of Ships," in The Homer Encyclopedia [ed. M. Finkelberg, 2011].) Athens, so important a city from archaic times onwards, was a relatively minor fortified citadel in the Bronze Age, which might explain why Athens is barely featured in our Iliad and might be another indication of a Bronze Age date for the Catalogue. And yet the geographical evidence preserved in the Bronze Age Linear B tablets often does not match up with that of the Homeric texts. (An example would be Pylos, whose territory as revealed by the Linear B tablets does not match what is described in the Catalogue; see again Dickinson 2011.)

The work of E. S. Sherratt noted in my last post suggests that we should not be looking for a single political reality reflected in the Catalogue of Ships, and that it would be fruitless to attempt to separate Bronze Age geographical details from later ones. Elements from more than one reality entered the system of formulaic diction and were seamlessly integrated over time. At the same time, as this process was on-going, the reality of any particular location (its particular natural features, precise geographical location, etc) faded in importance, and instead its poetic/epic identity superseded it. A place like Mykalessos was understood within the tradition to have broad dancing places, and it may well have had them at one time, but poets of later eras need not have known whether or not this was this was the case. Within the poetic tradition, Mykalessos had broad dancing places.

Mykalessos was not the only place to have broad dancing places, however; Sparta and two other cities as well are described this way in the Odyssey (Elis 4.635, Thebe 11.265, Sparta 13.414 and 15.1). Archaeological remains are not sufficient to tell us whether these places actually had broad dancing places. A place that certainly did have them was Knossos on Minoan Crete, which is intriguingly remembered on the shield of Achilles as having a dancing place made by Daidalos for Ariadne (Iliad 19.590-592):

ἐν δὲ χορὸν ποίκιλλε περικλυτὸς ἀμφιγυήεις,
τῷ ἴκελον οἷόν ποτ᾽ ἐνὶ Κνωσῷ εὐρείῃ
Δαίδαλος ἤσκησεν καλλιπλοκάμῳ Ἀριάδνῃ.

And on it a dancing place was wrought by the very famous god who was lame in both legs,
like the one which once in broad Knossos
Daidalos made for Ariadne of the beautifully braided hair.

Here the dancing place is not said to be broad; instead Knossos itself is described as broad (εὐρείῃ).

I see two possibilities here. One is that Mykalessos really did have a spacious dancing place, more so than other places, and this detail about the town has been preserved in the epic diction. Another is that the memory of great cities of the Bronze Age past such as Knossos (whose preserved frescoes and seals from the Mycenaean period depict what appears to be choral dancing) has resulted in the creation within the poetic diction of a generic and ornamental epithet analogous to "good at the war shout" (βοὴν ἀγαθὸς), which Mary Ebbott and I have discussed extensively in connection with Iliad 10.283. (See Dué and Ebbott 2010 ad loc.) As we write there:
But let us notice first that Parry does not say here that this epithet has no meaning at all; he says only that it does not specify one hero in a way that it specifies no other hero. In other words, the heroes designated βοὴν ἀγαθός are, indeed, good at the battle shout. The fact that more than one hero is so designated suggests that such a skill would have been considered a good and useful one for a warrior, just as the formula itself is good and useful for the singer who is composing in performance.
Just as being good at the war shout was considered a good quality for the epic hero to have, so too it seems that having broad dancing places was a quality associated with ancient cities.

(For more on Bronze Age connections to the dancing place for Ariadne see S. Lonsdale, "A Dancing Floor for Ariadne [Iliad 18.590-592]: Aspects of Ritual Movement in Homer and Minoan Religion" in Carter and Morris, The Ages of Homer [1995].)

Geoffrey Kirk, in the section of his commentary on the Iliad that introduces the Catalogue of Ships, argues that all of the epithets used to describe cities in the Catalogue, "save about eight can be divided into one or other of four general categories of meaning" (Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. 1, p. 175). The categories are as follows: well-built town; rocky, steep, high; fertile, broad, by sea/river; lovely, holy, rich. I have some disagreements with Kirk's classification (for example, he groups πολυτρήρωνά ["of the many doves," on which see below] with adjectives meaning rocky or steep and he does not include εὐρύχορον in his groupings at all) but I can see his point. Most cities in the Catalogue are described in ways that might be considered generic and ornamental, that is to say, not particular to any real city of any particular era. They have characteristics that would be good and useful for any city. Mykalessos may have at one time been renowned for its dancing places, but later audiences more likely understood the epithet along the lines of "having broad dancing places, in the way that all good cities do" or possibly "having broad dancing places, in the way that all cities of the heroic past did."  Whatever syntagmatic meaning the epithet once had has given way to a more paradigmatic one.

Thisbe on the other hand is an example of a place with a particular natural feature that seems to have been preserved within the tradition, not unlike the way that the very ancient vestiges of the Arcado-Cypriote dialect have been preserved within formulaic diction. (See the work of Milman Parry on the Homeric dialect cited in my last post.) Modern travelers (James Frazer in his edition of Pausanias [vol. 5 p. 162], Michael Wood in his book and documentary In Search of the Trojan War) have observed that the place believed to be ancient Thisbe (as evidenced by inscriptions) is indeed inhabited by many doves, as its epithet πολυτρήρωνά suggests. (See also Strabo 9.411, who observed them near the port.) Could this be an example of an epithet with syntagmatic meaning — meaning specific to the real Thisbe — that has persisted within the system? If so it is not the only such place: Messe (in the region of Sparta) is likewise designated πολυτρήρωνά at Iliad 2.582 in the same metrical position. Messe too has been observed by modern travelers to be a home to birds: "The identification of Messe with the site at Tigani receives some support from the constant din created by the 'pigeons and seafowl' in the cliffs of Thyrides to he south, which calls to mind the Homeric epithet πολυτρήρων" (Simpson and Lazenby 1970, 77).

I have been suggesting that places, like heroes, and, at a more basic level, formulas, had to enter the system of Homeric diction at some point, and that the formulaic diction associated with those places evolved as the system evolved. Some formulas persisted and may have retained something of their original meaning for centuries, until the epics crystallized into the form in which we now have them, while most other formulas evolved to become more generic, in that they were associated with cities in general. Mykalessa and Thisbe are just two examples of places whose traditional epithets underwent this evolution. Singers from those regions or the towns themselves may have indeed known them to have particular characteristics, but later singers and later audiences from other places most likely only knew them by their poetic identities, which may or may not have maintained characteristics particular to them. The fact that only a handful of places are described as εὐρύχορον and πολυτρήρωνά in our surviving evidence is suggestive that the formulas were created and used because they were indeed true of those places, but we must be aware of the limitations of our evidence. As Mary Ebbott and I note with reference to βοὴν ἀγαθὸς, if the Iliad did not survive and we had only the Odyssey, we might think that only Menelaos was ever so described. If more epic poetry survived, and especially if more catalogue poetry survived, we might find many such cities described as having dancing places and being full of doves. Even so, as I have tried to argue here and elsewhere, the fact that multiple cities are described as εὐρύχορον and πολυτρήρωνά does not make these traditional descriptions devoid of meaning, it just gives them meaning of a different kind, a kind that is quite typical of oral poetry.

Note: For more on the identification of Mykalessa and Thisbe and other named towns with actual historical places see Simpson and Lazenby (1970), though not all identifications of places mentioned in the Catalogue are universally accepted.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Haven’t we had this discussion before? Iris’s message and the Trojan assembly


Just as the Catalogue of Ships is much longer and more elaborate than the catalogue of the Trojans and their allies, so it seems that my posts will be shorter than Casey’s. But the Iliad’s oral, traditional poetry shows us that such compression for what comes second is part of the poetics. In addition to the example of the two catalogues, we can also compare the version in the Venetus A of the arming of Paris and Menelaos for their duel. (Lord used this example for illustrating compression and expansion, Lord 1960/2000: 89–91.) Paris’s arming scene is composed in 11 lines (Iliad 3.328–338), detailing each piece of equipment he dons, while Menelaos’s is summed up in just one line “Similarly Ares-like Menelaos put on his war gear as well” (Iliad 3.339). [I specify the Venetus A’s version has only one line because P40 records three partial lines following this one in which Menelaos putting on some war gear is described!] The benefit for me in going second is that I can likewise refer back to Casey’s masterly explanations in what I am addressing. 

For example, Casey noted in her latest post that the evolution of the epic over time allows for it to organically recompose themes and episodes that in other ways of telling the story would happen earlier within the narrative than the tenth year of the war. Thus the Catalogue of Ships, or any roster of fighters, might be though of as appropriate to the beginning of the war, but it can be (and has been!) recomposed to become a integral part of the Iliad. I of course agree completely with what Casey is saying, and I want to extend the discussion by noting that the traditionality of the theme or episode allows  it to evoke those other ways of using it as well. That is, the Catalogue of Ships certainly is integrated into the narrative of the Iliad in the tenth year of the war, but if it was ever sung as part of the telling of the beginning of the war, it can also maintain that trace of those earlier events within the current performance. The Catalogue comes at a point in this tenth year when the Achaeans could have left, but instead they renew their commitment to the war and resume the fighting. Thus the war “restarts” and the contingents fighting for both sides are recomposed into this action sequence. 


In my last post, I examined the lines in which the Trojans are introduced to us with the arrival of the divine messenger Iris and looked at the meanings of the formulas “ἠμὲν νέοι ἠδὲ γέροντες” (2.789) and “ἀγγελίῃ ἀλεγεινῇ” (2.787) and the deeper connections they create by way of their other uses in the epic. Now I will continue looking at the message Iris brings, to see how it, too, is both organic within this narrative and also possibly evokes ways of singing such an episode at the very beginning of the war. So what I hope to show here is that (1) Iris’s message to and about the Trojan assembly both belongs to the tenth year of the war and evokes the very beginning of the war through its deployment of its traditional language, And (2) that it can do both simultaneously adds depth of meaning (a phenomenon we see frequently with traditional language).  Here is the fuller passage, again using the Venetus A manuscript’s version:


786 Τρωσὶν δ᾽ ἄγγελος ἦλθε ποδήνεμος ὠκέα Ϊ῀ρις
787  παρ Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο σὺν ἀγγελίῃ ἀλεγεινῇ·
788  οἱ δ᾽ ἀγορὰς ἀγόρευον ἐπὶ Πριάμοιο θύρῃσι
789  πάντες ὁμηγερέες, ἠμὲν νέοι ἠδὲ γέροντες·
790  ἀγχοῦ δ᾽ ἱ¨σταμένη προσέφη πόδας ὠκέα Ϊ῀ρις·
791  εἴσατο δὲ φθογγὴν· υἱέϊ Πριάμοιο Πολίτῃ
792  ὃς Τρώων σκοπὸς ΐζε ποδωκείῃσι πεποιθὼς.
793  τύμβῳ ἐπ ακροτάτῳ Αἰσυήταο γέροντος
794  δέγμενος ὁππότε, ναῦφιν ἀφορμηθεῖεν Ἀχαιοί·
795  τῷ μιν ἐεισαμένη προσέφη πόδας ὠκέα Ϊ῀ρις·
796  ὦ γέρον. αἰεί τοι μῦθοι φίλοι ἄκριτοί εἰσιν·
797  ὥς ποτ᾽ ἐπ᾽ εἰρήνης. πόλεμος δ᾽ ἀλίαστος όρωρεν·
798  ἤδη μὲν ῆ μὲν δὴ μάλα πολλὰ μάχας εἰσήλυθον ἀνδρῶν.
799  ἀλλ᾽ οὔ πω τοιόνδε τοσόνδέ τε λαὸν ὄπωπα·
800  λίην γὰρ φύλλοισιν ἐοικότες ἢ ψαμάθοισιν
801  ἔρχονται πεδίοιο μαχησόμενοι περι προτι ἄστυ·
802  Ἕκτορ· σοὶ δὲ μάλιστ᾽ ἐπιτέλλομαι· ὧδε δὲ ῥέξαι·
803  πολλοὶ γὰρ κατὰ ἄστυ μέγα Πριάμου ἐπίκουροι
804  ἄλλη δ᾽ ἄλλων γλῶσσα πολυσπερέων ἀνθρώπων·
805  τοῖσιν ἕκαστος ἀνὴρ σημαινέτω οἷσί περ ἄρχει·
806  τῶν δ᾽ ἐξηγείσθω κοσμησάμενος πολιήτας·

[786] To the Trojans Iris with wind-swift feet came as a messenger
[787] from aegis-shaking Zeus with a troubling message. 
[788] They were speaking in assembly at the doors of Priam,
[789] all of them gathered together, both young men and old.
[790] Swift-footed Iris stood close by and spoke,
[791] and she likened her voice to that of the son of Priam, Polites,
[792] who was sitting as a lookout for the Trojans, confident in the swiftness of his feet,
[793] on the highest point of the burial mound of the old man Aisyetes
[794] awaiting the time when the Achaeans would make a start from their ships.
[795] Resembling him, swift footed Iris spoke:
[796] “Old man, always dear [philos] to you are words [muthos] without decision,
[797] so it was once in peacetime, but unavoidable war has come about.
[798] Indeed [v.l. Already] so many times I have entered battles with men,
[799] but not yet have I seen so many and such great warriors.
[800] As numerous as leaves or grains of sand
[801] they come across the plain to fight around [v.l. against] the city.
[802] Hektor, to you most of all I give commands: do the following.
[803] Since there are throughout the great city of Priam many allies,
[804] and the language of one group differs from the language of the other men from all over,
[805] let each man give signals to those whom he rules.
[806] And once he has arrayed his citizens, let each be the leader of them.”

Iris comes in the guise of Polites, son of Priam, who is acting as a lookout. It certainly makes sense to have lookouts posted for the movements of the Achaeans even now in the tenth year of the war, so that the Trojans can be alerted when they are on the attack, but the details of what Iris says evoke the Achaeans’ very first landing at and attack against Troy. She contrasts “peacetime” with the fact that war is now upon them (Iliad 2.797)—a contrast easily made at the beginning of a conflict with a call to action. Another detail that recalls the beginning of the war is when she says that she has never seen so many or such great warriors (Iliad 2.799). Since the Trojans, including Polites, have been seeing these warriors for over nine years now,  this description of the overwhelming force of the Achaeans, like the renewed commitment to the war on the Achaeans’ part earlier in Book 2 that prompts the Catalogue of Ships, similarly conjures up the beginning of the war, when the arrival of the Achaeans could have been announced in this same language. As Casey was pointing out about the Catalogue itself, this statement’s evocation of the beginning of the war does not mean it is inappropriate or poorly integrated here, but rather that traditional language can operate on both levels simultaneously. (David Elmer [2013: 102] also shows how the poetry can operate at the levels of the past and present at the same time when he argues that the Catalogue of Ships becomes the “ultimate emblem” of order and the epic tradition as it “appears to describe not just the various components of Agamemnon’s fleet when he sailed for Troy but also the units into which the leaders divide the army on the present occasion.” The Catalogue, Elmer goes on to say, “also exhibits the poetic order imposed by the narrator with the help of the Muses.”)

One other aspect of Iris’s speech also suggests the way the language here could have been used to sing the beginning of the war, and, if it had been used in such a way, could for a traditional audience bring to mind that episode. David Elmer’s work brought my attention to Iris’s opening description of this Trojan assembly, where their words are ἄκριτοι (2.796, “without decision” in my translation, “that do not arrive at a result” in Elmer’s, 2013: 134). Elmer contrasts this habitual lack of consensus and decision-making among the Trojans that Iris describes (instead, right after her speech, Hector alone makes a decision and takes action) with the collective decision making of the Achaeans (Elmer 2013: 134–135). (Elmer also notes the communication problem of speaking different languages that Iris points to at 2.803–806 as part of the problem for “true collective action” among the Trojans.) This contrast, Elmer points out, is similarly seen in Iliad 7 when both the Achaeans and the Trojans hold assemblies after the day’s battle has been concluded. The Achaean leaders all express their approval of Nestor’s suggestion to build their defensive wall (Iliad 7.344), and meanwhile, the Trojans hold an assembly that is “angry and full of discord” (Iliad 7.345–346, Elmer’s translation of δεινὴ τετρηχυῖα, 2013: 133). 

What the Trojans discuss at that discordant assembly in Iliad 7 brings me back to how Iris’s characterization of Priam’s speeches as “without decision” can evoke the beginning of the war. In the assembly in Iliad 7, the proposal discussed (and rejected by Paris) is the return of Helen to the Achaeans. If the Trojans were in assembly when Polites or Iris brought the message that the Achaeans had arrived (for the first time) to make war on Troy, we can imagine that the subject of deliberation was whether or not to return Helen. That their public speeches (μῦθοι) then were also ἄκριτοι is evidenced by the fact that they are still in the tenth year considering whether they should return Helen, as seen both in the assembly in Iliad 7 and in the words of the Trojan elders in Iliad 3, who when they see Helen say that she is worth fighting for, but even so, she should go back in the ships and not remain with them (Iliad 3.154–160). We are not told in this scene in Iliad 2 what the Trojans were discussing in their assembly—but its associations with other Trojan assemblies (such as that in Iliad 7) and the whole scene’s associations with the beginning of the war draw our attention to that crucial decision that the Trojans could never make, even to save themselves. Iris’s message therefore gives not only a sense of that first landing of the Achaeans at Troy but also fulfills her opening description— it tells us that no matter how many times the Trojans deliberate over how to prevent or to end this war, their speeches are always without a collective agreement, without a final decision about what to do about Helen. Thus the assembly in the past, when the Achaeans first arrived, and this assembly in the present when the war is renewed, can use the same traditional language and themes and thereby give us a sense of the war at those two points in time—and even as a repeating continuance from the beginning to the “now” of the story. 

Work cited:
Elmer, David F. 2013. The Poetics of Consent: Collective Decision Making & the Iliad. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.