Image Description

The Odyssey: The Trojan War

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

The Trojan War was arguably the greatest event in Greek history. Never mind whether it was fought for the return of Helen, wife of King Menelaus, who was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris, never mind whether it lasted ten years, never mind whether Troy fell because of the ruse of the wooden horse. Modern historians often say something along the lines of "the Trojan War is probably based on a kernel of truth," meaning there's a substratum of truth – a naval expedition to destroy a city that was blocking access to the rich wheat fields of the Black Sea, which ended in victory for the Greeks but at great cost. Who knows what caused it? Something happened, of that I'm sure, that burned itself into the Greek memory for all time. It's the subject, of course, of Homer's other great poem – assuming one person composed both poems – the Iliad, "Iliad" meaning the poem about Ilion, Ilion being another word for Troy. And the Greeks, as I said in the last lecture, certainly believed it was historical.

So did the German archeologist called Heinrich Schliemann, who was obsessed with proving that the Trojan War actually took place. Hissarlik, the modern name for the site that is thought to have been Troy, was his discovery. He started excavating at Hissarlik in 1873. Three years later, he began excavating at Mycenae, the richest and most important site of the Greek people who fought at Troy, after whom their civilization, known at Mycenaean, is named. Mycenaean civilization flourished from 1600 to 1050. The Trojan War is thought to have taken place around 1250 BCE, and it was shortly after that that Mycenaean civilization began to decline. One theory for the decline is that the Trojan War had exhausted its resources.

The Odyssey takes place in the aftermath to the Trojan War. The Greeks won the war after a siege that lasted ten years, but for more than one of them it was a bitter homecoming. The commander-in-chief of the Greek army, Agamemnon, was murdered on his return by his wife Clytemnestra, who had been having an affair with a man called Aegisthus. Odysseus was shipwrecked, lost all his men, and was marooned for nearly ten years. The Greeks who shaped their nation's memory of the Trojan War understood all too well that victory comes at a price.

By the way, the Greeks didn't win the war because of their superior skill or superior military tactics. They won it by the ruse of the wooden horse. They built a hollow horse, filled it with men, left it outside the walls of Troy, and pretended to sail away. The Trojans took it into their city, and the rest is history. It is to the credit of the Greeks that they did not flinch from presenting themselves as schemers, who only won the war through deception. Deception will be an important ingredient in our poem.

In the time frame of the Odyssey, which takes place nearly ten years after, the war is merely a memory – a subject of song. It serves, in other words, as a diversion. Well, that's only true if you aren't actually invested in the war, either as the relative of someone who has served in the war or as a survivor. When Odysseus visits the court of the fabulous Phaeacians, the bard Demodocus begins singing of the Trojan War. To the Phaeacians, the song means nothing, whereas to Odysseus, it evokes the pain and the suffering that he went through, and he has to conceal his face with his cloak to mask his tears. Likewise, when the bard Phemius begins singing about the war, Penelope becomes distressed because it provokes her grief for her absent husband. That is a profound insight on Homer's part. We are entertained by the depiction of terrible events, whether in literature or on the stage or in film or in art, so long as we aren't invested in them ourselves.

The Trojan War is always in the background of the poem. The memory of it is still raw because it is so recent. At the same time, it has already begun to assume its place in history. The world of the poem is one of wealth and abundance, whereas the world of Homer's audience was far more modest in scale. When Mycenaean civilization collapsed, Greece entered a Dark Age that lasted for about two to three hundred years. The art of writing was lost, no sculpture was produced, trade ceased, the world collapsed in on itself. I think of Homer's audience listening to the Odyssey with a sense of nostalgia for a bygone age when Mycenae truly lived up to Homer's description of it as "rich in gold." In the next lesson, I want to more about Homer and his audience so that you will be able to imagine yourself actually listening to his poem.

Image Description
Written by

Robert Garland