Homer In Syria

The war has been going on for longer than anyone wants to remember. The fighting has swayed to and fro; there have been catastrophes on all sides; cities have been trashed; allies have broken away; some have refused to fight; and many precious men have been lost, almost always horribly, with no dignity or beauty in the deaths. The Iliad describes Syria 2014.

Nor, within the body of Homer's epic, is there any sense of an ending. Of course the audience knows, and Homer knows, that the war will end one day, and that the Greeks will exact from the city and its inhabitants the most brutal and horrifying of prices, but that is far off, and no hint of a Trojan Horse appears in the Iliad. That resolution-by-trickery appears only in the Odyssey, in retrospect, in tales told long after the war is over, with the combatants dispersed and little but grief remaining to remember the war by.

For now, though, the war, it seems, is going on forever. Its acts of violence are generating acts of violence, continuously, symmetrically. War is a trap in which human beings are condemned to toil, like slaves on a treadmill, summoning all those images of endless, repetitive pain to which the Greek mythic imagination is consistently drawn: Sisyphus and the boulder that will always slip out of his grasp and back to the bottom of the hill; Tantalus and the fruit that always lifts just beyond him as he reaches for it; Prometheus whose liver will be eaten for ever by the eagle than feeds on it by day, only for the liver to grow back at night; the Danaides spending eternity trying to fill a bath with water they must carry to it in sieves.

The Iliad does have an ending, a kind of resolution, or at least a wished-for resolution. The poem ends before Troy falls, but Homer orchestrates something subtler and richer than the hideousness of any military triumph. After Achilles kills Hector the Trojan prince, the whole of Troy goes into horrified despair and mourning. The women wail, the men cover themselves with dung scraped up from the streets. This moment of hopelessness is the pit of the poem. Achilles is threatening to eat Hector's body raw. It looks as if everything the city enshrines means nothing in the teeth of the Greeks' triumph. Priam, the king of Troy, resolves to go to their camp across the plain to find Achilles and beg him for the body of his son.

The old king slowly prepares and gathers carts full of the best that the city can offer, including beautiful cloths: robes, mantles, blankets, cloaks and tunics, as if wanting to drown Achilles in the woven. But that is the point. Priam is going to take the qualities of the city out into the plain. That has been the place where in book after book, death after death, the wrong thing has been done. Priam's journey is a kind of healing laid across that theatre of horror. He travels slowly, at night, with his mule carts: no heroic northern chariots here. He comes at last into the shelter of Achilles's camp, and without announcement the old king kneels down next to Achilles, clasps his knees and 'kisses his hands, the terrible man-slaughtering hands, the hands that had shed so much blood, the blood of his sons'. That old man's kiss is the moment of arrival. Achilles thinks of his own father in Greece, and comes to understand something beyond the world of violence and revenge he has so far inhabited. Both men give way to grief.

Priam wept freely
For man-killing Hector, throbbing, crouching
Before Achilles's feet as Achilles wept himself
Now for his father, now for Patroclus
And their sobbing rose and fell in the house.

Food is cooked for them, mutton souvlaki:

They reached down for the good things that lay at hand
And when they had put aside desire for food and drink
Priam gazed at Achilles marveling now how tall he was,
And how beautiful
And Achilles looked at the nobility of the old king
And listened to his words.

They gaze at each other in silence, and that exchange of admiring looks is the Iliad's triumph. Priam has brought the virtues of civility into Achilles's heart. The body of Hector will now be returned to his father and will be buried with dignity outside the city. In that way, Troy has won the war. Achilles has absorbed the beauty of Priam's wisdom, of his superhuman ability to admire the man who has killed his sons, and from the mutuality and courage of that wisdom, its blending of city and plain, a vision of the future might flower.

We know, as Homer's audience knew, that this is not the true ending. It is nothing but a moment. Achilles will soon be dead, Troy will soon be broken, the Trojan men will soon be slaughtered, Priam among them, horribly murdered by Achilles's own son, their women abused and enslaved. Only here, in poetry, in passing, a better world is momentarily seen.

Homeric wisdom does not age. The Iliad's understanding of the continuous nature of war, and the fragile place that the desire for peace has within it, is as meaningful now as it has ever been, in this era of wars that don't end, that don't have the result they were intended to have, that leave little but damage in their wake.

Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has recently described how, 'between airplane flights' in August 2012, she had a cup of coffee with Kofi Annan, who had just stepped down as the international community's special envoy on Syria. 'Speaking with deep sadness,' Mathews has written, 'this consummate international negotiator said he'd never worked harder on a problem with less to show for it.' Translated into the medium of the 21st century, those are Priam's words.

Adam Nicolson is the author of Why Homer Matters.

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