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The World of Homer By Andrew Lang Characters: 10915

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

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On the fringe of the horizon, in Homer's day as in our own, always hung the cloud of war. In war, men were as cruel as they have usually been. A successful siege of a city involved the slaying of its defenders, and the carrying away of the women, "to make another's bed, and draw water from another's well." Hector, when the broken oaths of the duel[1] make it certain that Troy must perish, looks for no better fortune to befall Andromache; may the earth be mounded above him before that day!

Though a truce is granted for the cremation and burial, with one common cairn, of the men who fall in a great battle,[2] it is not Achilles alone who would fain refuse burial, and rest in the House of Hades, to an enemy. Hector intends to give the body of Patroclus to the dogs of Troy, and to fix his head on the palisade above the wall.[3] The fury of Achilles, when he learns from Iris the intentions of Hector, has thus more excuse than is usually supposed. Homer himself found such deeds in the tradition; and though he regards them with horror, he cannot expurgate them. The insults lavished by Achilles on the dead Hector are ?εικ?α ?ργα, deeds of shame.[4] But the deeds of Hector would have been as shameful. The treatment of Hector was not sensational enough for the refined taste of the Athenian tragedians. Sophocles and Euripides make Achilles drag the wounded but living Hector.[5]

The tragedians here followed a tradition that was not Homer's; it may have come, Mr. Murray suggests, from the lost Cyclic poem Iliou Persis, the Sack of Ilios. The Cyclic poets of 750-650 B.C. are in all ways more superstitious and barbarous than Homer; theirs is the taste of a later age than his, and, as we shall see, they are usually followed by the Athenian tragedians. They preferred the "sensational" and the "harrowing," and did not shrink, in the Andromache, as in the Ionian Sack of Ilios, from the brutal murder of Hector's child, Astyanax. Homer's men are never child-murderers. City sackings were as cruel as those of Cromwell in Ireland, of Monk in Dundee; our own dealings with Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo are more recent examples, and these were towns of our allies. But Homer's men do not, like the Assyrians, torture prisoners of war; such captives were starved, tortured, and literally caged, to extract ransom, during our Hundred Years' War with France; as Cromwell's prisoners, after Dunbar, were starved in Durham Cathedral. In Homer, ransom is sometimes accepted, in the earlier days of the siege. Achilles, especially, took ransoms and was merciful. Contrast the ferocity of Agamemnon, who refuses quarter, and slays a man to whom Menelaus was giving quarter.[6] Agamemnon actually cuts off the hands and head of one foe, and throws the head into the throng! He desires that not even the male child in the womb may escape! (Iliad, vi. 56-60). There are chivalrous passages, as when Hector and Aias exchange gifts after an indecisive passage of arms, and when Diomede and Glaucus recognise their ancestral friendship; but there are plenty of cases in which victors exult with cruel humour over their fallen foes, in the spirit of Arthur in Layamon's Brut. (1200 A.D.).

The dead, except in the case of Eetion on whom Achilles had ruth, were always stripped of arms and armour, if the victors were not impeded. The hut of Idomeneus held many such Trojan spoils. There are hints of a custom of tearing the tunics, or chitons,[7] but they are vague and unimportant. No doubt the act, when performed, was intended as an insult, but it is only alluded to twice or thrice: in one case the tunic is "of bronze," answering to the current term χαλκοχ?τωνε?, "bronze-clad."[8] The case is obscure.

A la guerre comme à la guerre. The morals of war in Homer are not unlike those of war everywhere in the matter of "atrocities." The siege operations were very inefficient. The Achaeans were not able to invest Troy, and they never dreamed of an escalade. Without a scaling-ladder Patroclus "thrice clomb on the corner of the lofty wall," and was only thrust back by Apollo.[9] But scaling-ladders are never mentioned; a night attack is never contemplated. The famous Wooden Horse is the only hint of an approach under a wooden cover on wheels (the mediaeval "Sow"); and if it was anything of that sort, Homer did not understand its nature. The efficient fighting in the open was done by chariotry (the owners usually dismounted and fought in line or column); as in most ancient oriental countries, Scotland in Roman times, and Ireland in the Late Celtic period, perhaps as late as 300 a.d., also in early Britain. By the date of the Black Figure vases (sixth century B.C.) and in seventh century art, the painters often introduce mounted men: the "late poets" abstained from doing so, it appears, except the late unspeakable Stümper of the Doloneia, according to Reichel.

The tactics, as far as we can make a coherent picture of them, were peculiar, but not unexampled.

At the beginning of a pitched battle the knights (owners of chariots) dismounted, and formed a thick and serried line of infantry: behind them came the nameless host, concerning whose armour we have no information. The light-armed archers and slingers showered their missiles, and the combat might last for hours. At "the break of the battle," when one side had broken the enemy's line, the victors pursued either on foot, or, more generally, in their chariots w

hich had been stationed behind them in the close combat; while the vanquished leaped into their chariots and fled, save the brave who retired face to the foe. After the break in the battle, the individual exploits of the mounted knights, the chariotry, fill the picture, till the beaten forces reach the wall of the Greek camp, or of Troy, when a rally occurs, followed by another battle in ordered ranks.[10]

As to the armour and weapons, Homer represents every man-at-arms as wearing a helmet, usually of bronze; and a huge shield, very long, like the three sorts of shield represented in Aegean art on the Mycenaean dagger blade showing lion hunters. Some shields in this art are in form like the figure 8, they belly out, and protect a man from neck to ankles. Others are merely doors, flat and oblong, of the same size; others are equally large, cylindrical, and partly protect the sides. All are hung from the shoulder by baldrics, not held in the hand, like the parrying bucklers of the eighth century and later. Homer thus describes such huge shields as these of Aegean art, with baldrics; but his language not infrequently conveys the impression that some shields are circular; indeed, it is only by wrenching the sense of the Greek that any other meaning can be obtained. The details are considered later; meanwhile Homer's shields are neither those of the Dipylon period nor of archaic Greek art, and in their size and their baldrics correspond to those of Aegean representations. The substance of the shields is layers of ox's hide, covered with a plating of bronze. Warriors also wear corslet, metal girdle, and metal-plated kirtle: the corslet was thin, and could be pierced by arrows. The greaves to cover the shins were probably of bronze, laced up with wire, as in a pair from Enkomi in Cyprus, of the Age of Bronze, now in the British Museum. No thigh pieces are mentioned, though they are commonly shown in the art of the seventh to sixth centuries.[11]

For offensive weapons the men-at-arms use two spears with heavy heads of bronze, these are usually thrown; and a sword of bronze, commonly a heavy cut and thrust blade (never the long Elizabethan rapier of an earlier Minoan time), with a handle of ivory, inlaid or studded with gold or silver, in some cases. The sheath is similarly decorated. Only once do we hear of a battle-axe of bronze; and the dirk, sometimes of iron, is never said to be used in battle. These weapons have analogues in certain swords and daggers found in Aegean graves.

Archery is not so highly considered as when "the man Heracles" and the great Eurytus were bowmen. Odysseus, the heir of the mighty bow of Eurytus, left it at home, and fought as a heavy-armed footman. Pandarus, on the other hand, left his horses and chariots at home, and came to Troy trusting in his bow.[12] Teucer, Pandarus, Paris, and occasionally Meriones, are the bowmen, among the princes, and Paris and Pandarus are taunted for their weak and cowardly missiles; honour was to be won with sword and spear. The Scots archers, in the same way, were always anxious to come to hand-strokes with their sperths, or battle-axes; the Highlanders threw down their muskets, after one discharge, and went in with the claymore; the French never reconciled themselves to the long bow; the Spartans despised it. This was the Homeric sentiment: the bow was scarcely the weapon for a hero. The arrow-heads were of bronze.[13] In Mycenaean graves at Kakovotos (Old Pylos) in Elis, the stone arrow points are of very fine neolithic work.[14] When archery declined yet lower, in historic times, the round or oval parrying buckler, carried on the left arm, came in, as a protection against spears and sword-strokes. This parrying buckler does not appear in Homer: efforts made to discover it are unsuccessful.

Thus Homer describes a given stage in the art of war: his pictures are not patchworks of "Mycenaean" fighting (about which we know nothing), and of civic Greek fighting in the age of civic heavy-armed foot.

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[1] Iliad, iii. iv.

[2] vii. 332-420.

[3] xviii. 175-177.

[4] Ferdiad, in the Old Irish Tain Bo Cualgne, also drags a dead man by his chariot wheels.

[5] R.G.E. p. 118. Ajax, 1031. Euripides, Andromache, 399.

[6] Iliad, vi. 37-65, xi. 122-147.

[7] Iliad, xi. 100, ii. 416.

[8] Ibid. xiii. 439, 440. That the bronze tunic is a softening of the sense by a late interpolator is not very likely, for Homer, we have seen, represents a warrior as cutting off a dead man's hands and head; and if he does not shirk this, if no later hand corrects him, why should he strain at tearing a chiton? Miss Stawell ingeniously remarks that the chiton-tearing is a proof of the prevalent use of corslet? If men fought without corslets, the chiton "must always have been getting torn in the mêlée, whatever the warrior's fate. But the sign would have been unmistakable if the tunic was usually covered by the corslet and could not be torn until that was taken off...." (Homer and the Iliad, p. 211). But, I fear, Homeric warriors did not come to such close quarters as at Rugby football.

[9] Iliad, xvi. 702, 703.

[10] See "Homeric Tactics."

[11] For details and discussion, see "Homeric Armour and Costume."

[12] Iliad, v. 193-205.

[13] On stone and bronze arrow-heads, see Tsountas and Manatt, p. 209.

[14] Kurt Müller, Alt Pyhs, p. 292. Attische Mitteilungen, 1909. Cf. plate xv.

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