WHEN we read about the past - The Iliad, for
example, as I've lately been doing - what do we hope to learn?
Not merely a knowledge of the military procedures of
pre-Hellenic Greece, surely - although you certainly learn a good
deal about archaic armour, battle strategy, ships, and the ancient
arts of hospitality, in the process of reading. But we also learn a
good deal of human psychology.
Some of that discovery might be novel. For example, Homer's
heroes - pretty much every man jack of them - at the slightest
setback sit and weep. Achilles, the poem's central figure, is
always at it - deprive him of a slave girl, or put his nose even
slightly out of joint, and there he is, sitting on a rock,
From this, we learn that, in the period of Homeric Greece,
probably around 800 BC, it was not an anomaly to be a hero and to
weep. It looks very much, in fact, as if weeping is part of what
heroes did; just as they took slaves and made them their
concubines, and threw young children from battlements.
Although we may learn these and other interesting "facts", I
doubt it is the true source of our pleasure in The Iliad.
If we read it other than out of simple curiosity, or as a kind of
dutiful exercise, I suspect that we do so because - for all the
ways in which it emphasises our differences from the Ancient Greeks
and Trojans - it defines our similarities.
When Hector bids farewell to his wife, Andromache, and his young
son, Astyanax, on the battlements of Troy, he weeps, not as an
ancient hero might, but as a man who knows that to fight Achilles
is to risk death, and yet fight him is what he has to do.
Equally, when Achilles learns that his dearest friend,
Patroclus, has been killed by Hector, his grief and rage are
entirely comprehensible to us. And when, as a consequence, he
enjoins battle against his best friend's slayer, he does so
knowing, because he has been forewarned, that this will lead
ultimately to his own loss of life - and again he weeps, for the
dolorousness of life, for the awful things we do to each other, and
for the consequences that we seem unequal, as human beings, to
THE ILIAD has two scenes which, for me, are two of the
finest moments in all literature. One is when the grief-stricken
Achilles, in mourning for his friend Patroclus, has the body of
Hector - Patroclus's slayer - dragged round and round his dead
friend's funeral mound.
The second is when the figure of Hector's father, King Priam,
comes by night in a mule cart to beg Achilles to return the body of
his son for decent burial.
Although these two scenes are set in a time that is wholly
unlike our own, what is striking is their wholly recognisable
universal quality. Achilles's senseless action is a brilliant image
for the sterile yet savage patterns of anger - patterns that are
reflexive, take us nowhere, and become a kind of pointless
From this, we know how wounded and mortified Achilles is. We can
infer, too, that he also feels guilt because his friend was slain
in his place when he refused to fight. And when the old King comes,
without the trappings of state, and falls on his knees and kisses
the hand of his dead son's killer, how extraordinarily human and
touching this is, too. Which of us can fail to be deeply moved by
What interests me is how, in moments such as these, we learn
something afresh that is, at the same time, wholly familiar to us.
We see something about the character of Achilles - maybe what makes
him a real hero rather than, like his colleague Ajax, a mere
fighting machine - but we also learn anew something about
One of the things that we learn is that human nature does not
change very much, and that, across time and culture, we have, as
human beings, much more in common than in difference. Not a bad
lesson to keep in mind in today's troubled times.
Salley Vickers's latest collection of stories, The Boy
Who Could See Death, is to be published by Viking Penguin in