BOOK REVIEW: HOMER AND HIS ILIAD By Robin Lane Fox – ay 2024

Reviewed by Kathryn Grimshaw

Robin Lane Fox is an Emeritus Fellow at New College, Oxford University, where he taught ancient history for many years. He is the author of the award-winning Alexander the Great (a book I have read twice), Augustine, and The Classical World, among others. Homer and His Iliad is a work of great expertise but directed to the general reader. It is rich, wise, and beautifully written. I would happily read any of Lane Fox’s books, knowing I am in the hands of a scholar who knows exactly what he is doing, while making the subject accessible and enjoyable to a non-expert like myself.

  Was There Really a Trojan War?

Was there ever a Helen of Troy whose face launched a thousand ships? A huge wooden horse on wheels in which Greek soldiers were hiding? A ten-year war between Greece and Troy, resulting in a Greek victory and the destruction of the wealthy city of Troy on the Aegean coast of Turkey? And is the Greek poet Homer’s great work, the Iliad, historically accurate?

The Iliad tells us a great deal about how human beings behave in times of crisis, about what drives men to war, and how we experience great loss, individually and collectively.

“Sing, O Goddesses..,” the poem begins. You can almost hear Homer singing his first verses, accompanied by a lyre, then composing orally as he goes along. It is thought that Homer would dictate his verses to a scribe, because he himself was illiterate, although a man of profound knowledge. The time was between 750 and 740 BC, and the location was the Aegean coast of present-day Turkey. The audience had come to hear the performance of a poet whose reputation preceded him. Homer was telling the story of the Trojan War, many years past. The poem is long, but possesses great vitality, with beautifully controlled actions of many characters. Homer’s depth of insight into human psychology makes his verses vividly understandable across the centuries—love and loss, courage, pride, men at war and families waiting at home to learn their own destiny and that of their loved ones. His portrayal of women is especially perceptive and moving. In one instance, through the lens of a wife and child, Homer shows what is at stake in the entire fight for Troy: life itself.

At the center of the Iliad stands the city of Troy. A real location which pre-existed the poem. In the 1870s, the excavations established that Troy had been built and rebuilt nine times, creating layers of ruins. It is likely that Homer visited this site, perhaps more than once in researching for what he planned to say. Maps did not exist in his lifetime. It is believed Homer could not write. He composed his poem blending poetic license with a sense of the terrain as he remembered it.

As an example of turning memory into poetry, Homer recalled seeing two hot springs in the hills near Troy which fed into a pool of water suitable for washing clothes.

Where the wives and fair daughters of the Trojans

   used to wash their shining clothes

  In the days of peace, before the sons of

the Greeks came.

Could Homer have accomplished this masterpiece, being illiterate? Controversy abounds, but composition in performance in no way excludes repeated practice, improving and enhancing for an ever-finer effect. What we now read is the product of years of dedicated practice, learned from a culture that prized oral performance. Eventually, he dictated the version of the Iliad which is ours today.

Determining a realistic date for the composition of the poem has been a spider-web of scholarly complexity, testing Homer’s own words against what is known of Greek culture and historical events. Homer was working at a time when the Greek alphabet was just being invented. Arriving at the approximate date of 750-740 BC, without absolute proof, took centuries. But it is probably accurate, Lane Fox believes.

Did the Trojan War really happen as an historical event? Sadly, the answer is probably No. The factual evidence for its existence is missing, it appears, or never existed.

Historians have two types of evidence with which to assess the war’s reality. One is a limited number of ancient texts which have survived from the major ruling power at the time in Western Asia—the Hittites. These tablets do not show a siege of Troy, or its destruction by Greek invaders, the author has concluded after much study . The poem’s very cohesiveness has helped scholars to conclude that the work was accomplished by one man, working through repeated performances between 750 and 740 BC.

Today we read Homer’s Iliad as a work of galloping intensity to satisfy our curiosity about a time long past, and as a work of art of surpassing beauty.

Of two men who are about to go into battle, Homer writes, with great pathos:

My friends, if by deserting from this war

before us, you and I would be destined to

live forever, knowing no old age, we would

do it. I would not fight among the first;

I would not send you to the battle which

brings glory to men.

  But now, as things are, when the ministers

of death stand by us in their thousands, which

no man born to die can escape or even evade, then,

let us go.

Could there be a more moving expression of man’s tenuous hold on life?

And Homer’s ability to reach our innermost emotions is one reason why Homer’s Iliad remains alive and relevant, after 2,700 years and more.~