THE ILIAD, by Homer. Translated by Emily Wilson.
“War is a task for men,” the Trojan prince Hector says to his wife, Andromache, in Emily Wilson’s propulsive new translation of Homer’s “Iliad.” “For every man/born here in Troy, but most especially, me.”
Of all the questions this poem raises — about war, death, rage and grief — none is more resonant than this: What does it mean to be a man? And specifically, what does it mean to be a man during conflict? How do you respond when your city is attacked, when your honor is questioned, when your loved one dies?
The first word of the poem is menin: “cataclysmic wrath,” as Wilson renders it. The mighty Achilles is so angry after a public slight that he refuses to fight alongside his fellow Greeks and prays to the gods to help the Trojans. His comrades endure catastrophic losses. You can see immediately what Wilson — a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania — is up against in trying to keep her translation concise.
The “Iliad,” composed around the eighth or seventh century B.C. by one or more poets we call Homer, is a poem of contradictions. It is the ultimate war narrative, but it covers only a month and a half near the end of the 10-year Trojan conflict. It is a poem of vast scope but intimate precision, so the reader never loses sight of the countless tragedies that combine to create an epic narrative. And all of its devastation begins with an apparently petty squabble between two Greek warriors, Achilles and Agamemnon.
The Greeks have been encamped outside Troy for a decade in their fruitless attempt to reclaim Helen, wife of Menelaus. After recent raids on neighboring towns, Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon has laid claim to a young woman named Chryseis. The status of a warrior is reflected by the prizes awarded to him by his comrades: women, horses, gold. But when Chryseis’ father comes to demand his daughter’s return, he does so as a priest of Apollo. Agamemnon nonetheless insults him and refuses. He is immune to the parallels between himself and the priest: each man trying to take possession of a woman he feels has been wrongly taken from him.
Apollo heeds the angry prayers of his servant and sends plague to devastate the Greek camp. After nine days of sickness and death, the men support Achilles when he tells Agamemnon to return the priest’s daughter and make his apologies to the god. Agamemnon responds by demanding that he be given Achilles’ prize — a young woman named Briseis — as compensation.
Achilles is on the verge of attacking Agamemnon when the goddess Athena appears behind him “and grabbed him by his chestnut hair. She was/invisible to everyone but him.” Athena prevents bloodshed but Achilles withdraws from battle. The greatest warrior the Greek world has ever known will spend 18 books — three-quarters of this war poem — fighting no one.
Emily Wilson’s sparkling translation of Homer’s “Odyssey” was published to huge acclaim in 2017; she has been working “intensively” on her version of the “Iliad” for six years. Her thoughtful, scholarly introduction helps a modern reader to understand that however petulant we may find the behavior of Agamemnon and Achilles as they snatch at women as though they were objects and consider little beyond their individual status as warriors, they are reflecting the values of the time. This is a world before written records, where a warrior can gain kleos — immortal fame — by competing against friends as well as enemies, and accruing the material rewards that accompany their victories. But, as Wilson observes: “Those who are the greatest winners can be damaged most by any loss. Privilege entails terrible vulnerability.”
The “Iliad” offers many archetypes of masculinity, not just the performative machismo that Achilles and Agamemnon display. We see the persuasive tongue of Odysseus in action when, in Book 2, he addresses the Greeks who want to leave Troy. “I do not blame the Greeks for growing restless/behind the curving ships,” he says, Athena standing beside him in support. “But it is shameful/to stay so long and then go back with nothing.” We see Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion, stepping up to heal injured men as they come limping off the battlefield. We see Hector, the Trojan warrior, talking with his wife, smiling at his child. And we listen to the wisdom of Priam and Nestor — Trojan king and Greek leader, both long past fighting age — as they offer advice to younger men.
Wilson’s translation of Homeric Greek is always buoyant and expressive. There are occasional slips in register that seem a little out of place: When “Achilles, son of Peleus,/was deeply troubled, and his inmost heart” splits in two, it seems jarring that the heart resides in a “hairy chest” rather than, perhaps, a bristling one. But Wilson wants this version to be read aloud, and it would certainly be fun to perform.
In Book 3, we meet Helen of Sparta, now Helen of Troy, “weaving a massive double-layered cloth/in dazzling colors, patterning upon it/the many troubles, tests, and tribulations/that Trojan horsemen and bronze-armored Greeks/suffered at Ares’ hands because of her.” It is a gorgeous moment in both the poem and the translation: the beautiful Helen revealed by Homer as the creator of a war narrative, just like him. The contemporary reader sees a double reflection: Helen at her loom, weaving the same story Homer is telling, the same one Wilson is weaving.
THE ILIAD | By Homer | Translated by Emily Wilson | 761 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | $39.95