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Wanting to read more this year than last, I kicked off 2018 with a trio of classics: The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, and Anabasis by Xenophon. My better-educated friends are stunned I hadn’t read any of these classics before, but I had the typical public school education. My English teacher would assign hot garbage like The Great Gatsby and I’d go home and read my dog-eared copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
If memory serves, I was assigned Gatsby three times (Lord, I hate that book). Meanwhile, my 10th-grader is reading Rousseau and Solzhenitsyn in her charter school. Not only am I filling my many gaps in the Western canon, if I don’t read, she’ll end up being way smarter than me. (Is “me” right or should it be “I?” I’ll ask my daughter when she gets home.)
I read the trio in the order listed above and the reading got better with each title.
The Iliad is epically epic, rendered in a stiff dactylic hexameter with many, many, many repeating phrases. Between “rosy-fingered dawn” and “the wine-dark sea,” Homer’s epithets lull the reader into a trance, which I suppose was the point in oral storytelling. As a result, the myriad battles and names start blending together.
But, man, those battles are brutal. The semi-divine soldiers are walking Cuisinarts, leading to lovely vignettes like this:
Next Erymas was doom’d his fate to feel,
His open’d mouth received the Cretan steel:
Beneath the brain the point a passage tore,
Crash’d the thin bones, and drown’d the teeth in gore:
His mouth, his eyes, his nostrils, pour a flood;
He sobs his soul out in the gush of blood.
Spoiler alert: Erymas didn’t make it. As you can see, I read the older translations of these works; the above is Alexander Pope’s translation. I wanted the feel of the original, so I didn’t hunt down the modern versions. All three books are decidedly un-“woke.”
For The Odyssey, I chose the Harvard Classics version translated by Samuel Butler. This epic was far more interesting (and fun!) than the grim, brain-splattered Iliad. Ulysses slides into a Mediterranean port, feasts on great food, charms exotic women, grabs a pile of loot, and is off to the next isle.
Granted, the fellow gets in a few scrapes along the way, even being forced into love slavery by an eternally gorgeous nymph (poor guy), but returns home after 20 years to wreak vengeance on the cads trying to bed his wife. (Monogamy was pretty much a one-way street in ancient Hellas.)
After reading both of Homer’s works, I think The Iliad is geared toward young men, especially those of a military mindset. It’s all heroism, glory, and honor. I really should have tackled this in my Navy days.
The Odyssey is an even better adventure, but its themes of home, wisdom, fatherhood, and marriage are aimed squarely at those of us with more mileage on the drivetrain. The heroes still kill their share of monsters and men, but Ulysses always chooses brains before brawn.
The real revelation for me was Anabasis by Xenophon. How Hollywood hasn’t released a trilogy of this epic is beyond me. (No, The Warriors doesn’t count.) Here are the Cliffs Notes for this real-life tale:
Cyrus the Younger wants to topple his brother Artaxerxes II from the Persian throne, so he recruits 10,000 Greek mercenaries (including Xenophon) to help. They march 1,500 miles from the west coast of modern-day Turkey to the middle of modern-day Iraq and, in the first big battle, Cyrus is killed.
Now, the entire Persian army opposes the Greeks. The pro-Cyrus Persians say, “No actually, we were for Artaxerxes the whole time!” and turn against the Greeks. The Hellenic generals ask the King for safe passage … and he murders them.
Xenophon is more philosopher than soldier, but he gives an inspiring speech, the troops elect him leader, and they all hightail it due north while anyone, everyone, and everything tries to kill them.
They cross deserts and rivers and mountains through searing heat, waist-deep snow, and constant attacks from ahead and behind by an ever-hostile collection of bronze-age barbarians. Upon hitting Turkey’s north shore, they finally enter a Greek colony. Happy ending, right? Well, that’s when the soldiers start turning on each other.
Granted, Anabasis is an amazing war story, but it also serves as a history, an ancient travel guide, and a primer in leadership, group dynamics, and human nature.
If you haven’t read any of these three books, you should make up that deficit. But even if you have read Xenophon, I recommend picking it up again. You can get copies dirt cheap (or free) and many audiobook options are available.
I can also recommend a few excellent podcast discussions of these works:
- National Review’s The Great Books podcast on Xenophon here.
- BBC’s In Our Time on Xenophon here.
- BBC’s In Our Time on The Odyssey here.
- BBC’s In Our Time on The Iliad here.
Since the Ricochetti are more well-read than I (or me?), what are your impressions of these three Greek epics?