Over the past twelve months or so I’ve been banging on about some sort of thesis or other that I have been writing. Well, as of Tuesday (three days ago), that thesis is in the past. Finished, submitted it and there’s a thin A4 sized book as proof that I wasn’t actually making it up over all those months in an attempt to gain sympathy. I thought it would be a good idea fill my legion of fans (hi mammy!) in on what it was all about. Sure what else would ya rather be doing than reading about something so obscure it won’t benefit your life in any way?
As you know, I was doing an M.A. in Classics in University College Dublin. And if you didn’t know then you do now. I prefer studying Ancient Greece, particularly the literature and mythology of it. If you’re interested in learning about some of the myths, I discuss some here. For my thesis though I wanted to focus on literature and my favourite text is the Iliad. The Epic Poem can be regarded as the first great work of Western Civilisation and one of the most famous pieces of literature of all time.
Let me hit you with some facts that you can impress your friends with…or lose them. That line is sometimes a little blurry. It was composed by Homer in c.750 B.C. and wasn’t written down until later. In the meantime, they had to develop a functional alphabet with vowels and all that. The title, Iliad, translates as “story of Ilium”. Ilium in turn translates as Troy. It is broken up into twenty-four separate books which sounds incredibly daunting but really these books are like chapters. Something I discovered recently (I should have really known it already but heck, better late than never!) is that it wasn’t divided up into these twenty-four books until Alexandrian scholars got their hands on it and decided it would work better this way. This is due to the Greek alphabet having twenty-four characters in it. I hope all that is right although like most things to do with the Ancient Greeks, there are probably multiple theories out there.
The Iliad is a story about the Trojan War (yes, that’s the one with the big wooden horse) and the great warrior Achilleus and many, many other topics. Basically, the thing has layers, like an onion…or Shrek. If you’re interested in seeing a movie on it, 2004’s Troy is a good one to watch. It stars actors such as Brad Pitt, Brendan Gleeson (the guy is a total legend), Eric Bana, Diane Kruger, Brian Cox and Orlando Bloom and while it isn’t exactly true to the original text, it’s a fun watch all the same.
The story is pretty straightforward. Helen of Sparta is married to Menelaus. Paris, prince of Troy comes over and falls in love with Helen and elopes with her to Troy. Menelaus gets mad and goes to his brother Agamemnon who also happens to be the leader of the Achaean forces. He amasses them and they sail off the attempt to breach the so-called unbreachable walls of Troy. This war last ten years although the Iliad covers only fifty days towards the end of it.
There was good reason too for Menelaus being upset. Helen was said to be the most beautiful woman in the world and for this she has earned the name, “the face that launched a thousand ships” in the English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. That is quite a popular quiz question so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Now, here we come to my thesis topic. “Finally,” I hear you cry…or perhaps those are snores. So, when the lesser heroes die in the Iliad they are, for the most part, mentioned by name. There are over two hundred and fifty deaths in the Iliad but Homer decides to shed light on these fallen warriors. A small number of these are given what could be described as “obituaries” such as information about their lives. It was these obituaries that I was examining to find out what they meant with relation to the Iliad as a whole.
But Ian, hasn’t that been done already? I mean, the Iliad is almost three thousand years old.
Yes and yes but I believe scholars have reached the wrong conclusion (I feel so uppity writing that!) and that they are examined in an incorrect manner.
Are you mad?
Why are these obituaries even important?
They’re important because they add a moral aspect to the Iliad where the more warriors who die, the more we get of these emotional obituaries that exist in stark contrast to their deaths. Think of watching a war movie, let’s take Saving Private Ryan for arguments sake. In the opening scene on Omaha Beach soldiers get shot left, right and slightly off-centre and we never know anything about them other than that they were soldiers and they died in battle. Homer shows us that these warriors, most of whom are only introduced at the moment of their death, are more important than simple numbers in a death toll. And for that to come from a society that we would deem primitive and barbaric by today’s standards is pretty damn cool.
I should probably note that this is my interpretation of the text. A lot of other scholars think they’re just there to give greater glory to victorious warriors who slay their opponents, which is pretty much exactly what I argued against.
If you have managed to read this far down then you have earned yourself a big bualadh bos (that means “applause” in Irish for the benefit of my massive overseas readership) and I hope that you have learned something new.
A quick thank you to my thesis supervisor throughout the year, Professor Michael Lloyd and all in the UCD Classics Department.
If you want to ask me a question about the Iliad/my thesis/life in general, do feel free to comment on this, on the Facebook page or on Twitter. I’ll leave you go now to carry on with your wonderful lives.