Black Achilles and White Matthew

[Note: I wrote this post a month ago and have been tinkering with it on and off since. Given that the show premiers tonight in the UK (possibly already) and it’s framed as if we don’t know how the show turns out, I figured it was now or never to post it!]

Human beings have strange obsessions. When the actor Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond in the early noughties, there was an angry reaction based on the colour of his hair. “Bond not blond” was the cry – in those halcyon pre-Twitter days, there was no hashtag – a cry which largely died down when Casino Royale was released and was largely well-received.

The cry arose in another direction in 2015 when writer Anthony Horowitz said that Idris Elba – a fan and Sony executive favourite to play the spy – was ‘too street’ to play James Bond. Based on the long history of the use of the word ‘street’ in racialised contexts, this comment was interpreted as racist – Elba could not play James Bond because he was black. (It’s worth noting that when this was pointed out to Horowitz he rescinded his statement in horror.) Meanwhile, watching Elba act or seeing him in any context in which he is allowed to be suave shows that he could have been a fine Bond indeed.

Concerns over the casting of James Bond goes back to the early 1960s, when Bond-creator Ian Fleming opposed the casting of Scottish actor Sean Connery for his refined and sophisticated character. After watching Connery, however, Fleming’s opinion changed (or so the story goes). The next Bond book Fleming wrote – You Only Live Twice – introduced Bond’s Scottish ancestry. If you’re convinced by a performance, it can change your idea of what a hero can be.

Continue reading


Good Greeks

As I implied in my last post, when I found out that Ursula K. Le Guin had died, my instinct was to dive into her words and worlds to find solace for the surprising amount of sorrow I was feeling. Thus, I ordered the collection No Time to Spare from my local library, which collects several of Le Guin’s blog posts.

While at the library, I decided to pick up their copy of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, even though I had been listening to the audiobook. I was trying to write something about that novel for Ancient World Magazine (which has since been published), and I wanted to check certain references (easier to do with a physical copy).

These withdrawals turn out to be a little more thematic than I had intended. No Time to Spare includes Le Guin’s June 2013 essay on Homer, “Papa H”, in which she says (p. 53):

People keep going to him and discovering new things, or old things, or things for the first time, or things all over again, and saying them. This has been going on for two or three millennia. That is an amazingly long time to mean anything to anybody.

Much of what she goes on to say is more her area than mine – Homer as fantasy – and cannot be applied to the more historical approach to the texts I take in my work. But there is a point here about how mythological stories can have a meaning beyond that which they had in the ancient world (something I tried to apply to the Return of Hephaestos in an earlier AWM piece). As Le Guin wrote in her October 2011 blog post “Readers Questions” (p. 41):

Meaning – this is perhaps the common note, the bane I am seeking. What is the Meaning of this book, this event in the book, this story . . . ? Tell me what it Means.

But that’s not my job, honey. That’s your job.

In my piece on The Song of Achilles, I quoted one scholar, discussing the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, who thought that teasing out the subtext seemed “to concern more the reader-response than the explicit intentions of the texts.” (Marco Fantuzzi, Achilles in Love. Intertextual Studies (2012) p. 190-91). But when you can produce a story as good as Miller’s Song of Achilles, I wonder if reader-responses aren’t more interesting. This is especially true of ancient reader responses, if we can discern them at all.

It was with this in the back of my mind that I read an Aeon article by Catherine Nichols yesterday, “Why is pop culture obsessed with the battle between good and evil?” The article has several themes: nation building while the Brothers Grimm were collecting their fairy tales; the idea that nations have a particular ‘character’ , othering other nations. She points to the Iliad and the Mahabharata as examples of older tales that avoid this dichotomy. Le Guin, too, argues that the true tragedy of the Iliad is that Homer doesn’t take sides (No Time to Spare, pp. 53-54):

“The Trojan War is not and you cannot make it be the War of Good vs. Evil. It’s just a war, a wasteful, useless, needless, stupid, protracted, cruel mess full of individual acts of courage, cowardice, nobility, betrayal, limb-hacking-off, and disembowelment.”

After reading the article, I Tweeted about whether or not I thought this was true. In modern versions of the myth, it seems to me, the Trojans are increasingly becoming the ‘good’ side of this war. The creator of the forthcoming BBC/Netflix series Troy: Fall of a City claims to be telling the Trojan side of the story – but this is what Homer did, as well as the tragedians of fifth-century BCE Athens. I can’t think of a version of the story that presents the Greeks as blameless. Even Le Guin admits that the Trojans are her favourites (No Time to Spare, p. 56):

Hector is a good guy on any terms – kind husband, kind father, responsible on all counts – a mensch. But right does not make might. Achilles kills him.

Whether or not we agree with Le Guin’s assessment of Hector, we can admit that the actions of the Greeks take some work to fit with modern social values. In The Song of Achilles, Miller’s Patroclus cannot be taken as an ancient character, and even Chiron and Odysseus spout ideas that are thoroughly modern. In this setting, Achilles seems quite strange. His pursuit of fame, even at the cost of his life, is so alien to the modern world, as are the reactions to Agamemnon’s threat to it. Le Guin can’t stand him – “a sulky, self-pitying teenager” (ibid. pp. 55-56) – but does not mention the artistic skills, which Miller’s Patroclus thinks should be his true glory: “His skill with the lyre. His beautiful voice.” (Song of Achilles, p. 366)

But then there is Briseis, the most difficult obstacle for the modern rehabilitation of Achilles. Le Guin isn’t having it: “his big snit is over a girl he was given to rape but had to give back to his superior officer, which to me rather dims the love story.” (No Time to Spare, p. 56). In Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) the attempt to make the story true love is undermined by the fact that she is his war captive – it all feels very unsavory, as I suspect Le Guin would agree. (I go into more detail about this on a forthcoming AWM podcast, so look out for that!)

Miller avoids this difficulty in part because Achilles’ true love is Patroclus – he distrusts Briseis and is happy to see her taken by Agamemnon (the subtext being that he suspects Patroclus’ closeness to her). But Briseis in turn distrusts Achilles because he slaughtered her family and her people – his values cannot be modern, but at least he can avoid being a mass rapist. (Incidentally, Patroclus’ insistence that Achilles take the captured girls so that they would not suffer at the hands of another king feels like one of the more obviously modern parts of the story.)

If I have a concluding point, it’s that one of the values of Miller’s work is that she manages to maintain some of that ancient tragedy by not making the Trojan War ‘Good vs. Evil’, even as she gives the characters modern moral stances. For all that Le Guin and Nichols praise the Iliad for not being the war between good and evil, the actions of the Greeks mean that it is difficult for their side to easily elide with modern morality. Miller has to cut Achilles’ sacrifice of twelve Trojan captives on Partroclus’ funeral pyre, for example (but maintains the sacrifices of Iphigenia by Agamemnon and of Polyxena on Achilles’ tomb by Neoptolemus, comfortable immoral or amoral characters). The Iliad may not be the war of good versus evil, but the modern world appears to have chosen a side.

Blog Name Change

I changed the name of this blog (and the theme, incidentally). The old one has been irrelevant for a few years now, and as I am hoping to keep this up for the foreseeable future, I thought it was time for a change. Then again, I didn’t really think much about what to change it to, so we’ll see if this sticks.

Furthermore, that seems like a really silly reason to write a blog post on its own. So I thought that I would add that I have an article on wine in the ancient Mediterranean in the current Ancient History. For more about the issue, look here. Here’s a picture of the heading of my article:



But it is important what we make of these stories. What meaning we find in them, as wanderers by the seashore find first one shell, then another, and then form them into a chain of their own making.

Vandana Singh – “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”

At the start of this year Goodreads and publishers on Twitter did their usual thing of asking people what their ‘reading goals’ for the year are. I used to set myself reading goals, which I didn’t meet, until 2015 when I far exceeded my Goodreads challenge. Goodreads then proceeded to use my ‘achievement’ to shame my friends who had read far fewer books, failing to acknowledge (a) that some of those friends could not reach their targets for medical reasons and (b) that reading a ridiculous number of books – including some very good books – hadn’t stopped 2015 from being a pretty miserable year. For 2016, I resolved to read fewer books and it was a better year for me personally (despite the utter horror of events more broadly). In 2017 I repeated that resolution and added that I wanted to reflect more on the books I read, in part by trying to maintain this blog more regularly and in part, as Singh puts it in one of the short stories I have been reading this year, stringing more shells together as I read both fiction and non-fiction.

[Content Warning for violence against women]

Continue reading

Did the Trojan War Actually Happen?

According to the third-century BCE mathematician Eratosthenes, 11th June 1184 BCE was the date on which the Achaeans stormed the walls of Troy. That makes this Saturday, 11th June 2016, the 3,199th anniversary of the most famous military ambush of all time: the Trojan Horse. Of course, most of us accept that the Trojan War didn’t really happen, or at least that, if it did, elements such as the capture of Helen, the ten year long siege, and the Trojan Horse are mythological embellishments. But some people are more open-minded. Since Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at Hisarlik, in modern Turkey, uncovered the remains of Troy some have felt that this supported the story of the war; others too have pointed to the Hittite texts which seem to reference a series of wars in northwest Anatolia as the ultimate proof that the Trojan War actually happened.

So, did the Trojan War actually happen? I think the case is far from proven. Those who believe it has been are exercising an extreme form of the Positivist Fallacy, which is usually understood as assuming what is archaeologically visible is historically significant, but here also includes the assimilation of historical events that may have absolutely nothing to do with one another and their correlation with archaeological remains.

The date of the war

Modern scholars, if they believe in the War, tend to date it to the thirteenth century BCE. In his Very Short Introduction to the Trojan War Eric Cline more vaguely states: “If the Trojan War did take place, both ancient and modern scholars agree that it was fought towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, near the end of the second millennium BCE.” Cline gives no impression of having any doubt that the war did take place and asserts that it was actually fought between the Mycenaean Greeks and the Hittites of Anatolia. Meanwhile, the excavations at Hisarlik revealed several levels of occupation at Troy in the Late Bronze Age, including a significant destruction ca. 1300, at the end of Troy VI, originally believed to be Priam’s Troy. Subsequent excavation, however, suggested that this may have been the result of an earthquake, and Troy VIIa, destroyed ca. 1190 BCE, is now the most popular choice for ‘Priam’s Troy’.

The ancient sources are a little less certain about the date. Eratosthenes, as already mentioned, dated the sack of Troy to 1184 BCE, but the date derived from Herodotus is ca. 1250 BCE, while the Parian Chronicle provides the dates 1217-1208 BCE. Other dates derived from ancient sources vary from the fourteenth to the twelfth century. While there seems clear consensus among ancient sources that the Trojan War was historical, they generally don’t claim to know the details of this long ago war in their ancient past.

The Hittite documents that are believed to reference the war are dated to the thirteenth century. The documents are letters between several great kings, including the king of Ahhiyawa, believed to be Mycenaean Greece. In one of these discussions, the Hittite king Hattusili III mentions that he and the king of Ahhiyawa went to war over Wilusa, which is likely to be Ilium (an alternative name for Troy), and is located in northwestern Anatolia, i.e. Hisarlik. So certainly it appears that there was a war at Troy in the thirteenth century. This war, however, is too early for the destruction in Troy VIIa, which was as much as half a century later.

What is the Trojan War, anyway?

The connection made between the Hittite texts and the Trojan War reveals another question that must be answered before we can safely say we have proof of the Trojan War: what do we mean when we say the Trojan War?

Perhaps the most famous aspect of the Trojan War is the wooden horse in which the Greeks hid in order to get inside the unbreakable walls of Troy and ambush the unsuspecting Trojans. Alternatively the most famous might be Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world, who ran away with (or was raped by) the Trojan prince Paris (or Alexander) and whose husband united the whole of Greece to fight to get her back. Finally, there are Achilles and Hector, the greatest warriors on either side, one of whom was the almost invulnerable son of a goddess, the other of whom was but a mere mortal. How much of this story needs to be true if we are to have found the Trojan War?

This question might be unfair. Rather, what we want to find is the historical basis that inspired the Trojan Epic Cycle. The question must then be: how can we do so? What evidence could be brought to bear that would show us that it was this war that inspired the story that we read in the epics? For some, it is evidence enough to show that a war probably happened at probably the right place at about the right time, with not quite the right people, but near enough that it probably makes no difference. Personally, I find this an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Does it matter?

Arguably, it doesn’t matter if some people want to believe that the war between the Hittites and the Ahhiyawa was the basis of the Trojan Cycle. It only really affects them and it makes them happy, so who cares? I have three problems with this approach. The first is that the search for Homer’s Troy did massive damage to the archaeological site when Schliemann began his excavations in the 1870s. Many of those who believe in the Trojan War and Priam’s Troy mock Schliemann for calling a treasure hoard from the third millennium ‘Priam’s Treasure’ when it dated a thousand years before the date at which they place Priam, when really it is an example of why hunting for the origin of the story was a terrible idea in the first place. Secondly, in associating the historical events recorded in the Hittite documents with the Epic Cycle that we know from several centuries later we are doing a disservice to an exciting historical discovery in its own right that can tell us interesting things about conflict and conflict resolution in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean, without relying on poems that we only know from several centuries later.

Thirdly, and related to the second point, there are just far more interesting questions to be asked about this material.

Alternative approaches

One alternative is that the Epic Cycle is much older, and if the ‘Trojan War’ actually happened then it may be that existing oral poetic forms were adapted to it, rather than new poems written about it. There are clues to this in both the poetry and the archaeological record. Susan Sherratt has pointed out that many of the features of the poem, such as the boar’s tusk helmet and Ajax’s ‘Tower Shield’, are much older than the thirteenth century, and may date as early as the sixteenth. In this case, it would be interesting to know first about the conditions represented in the Hittite documents and then to see if this affects our reading of the surviving Trojan epics – but it must be done this way around.

Another alternative is to embrace the variety in the epic tradition before it congealed into the poems that survive. Until the eighth and seventh centuries BCE there was much variety in the epic stories which intermingled and were adapted into one another, with regional differences and focus, but which were whittled down to two surviving epic traditions by the eighth and seventh centuries – the Theban Cycle and the Trojan Cycle – before the Homeric versions of the Trojan Cycle became so widespread that alternatives were almost inconceivable. However, variations survive in seventh-century art and even as late as the plays of Euripides, such as the story that Helen was in Egypt while a mirage went to Troy, or the replacement of Iphigenia with a deer before she could be sacrificed. Gregory Nagy has proposed that the epic goes through stages of change and development, before it became so well-known in the sixth century that only very minor changes could be made.

The existence of these variations makes the identification of a kernel of truth in the epic even more doubtful. Rather, they suggest an alternative way of thinking about the poems: understanding how they changed and how they reflect the periods in which they were popular and developing. It is absolutely clear that the epic cycle does not appear from nowhere in the seventh century, but how has it developed in previous centuries? Why and how does it remain relevant?

Ultimately, ‘did the Trojan War actually happen?’ sounds like an interesting question, but it obscures the much more fascinating histories of the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean and the development of the Epic Cycle from the sixteenth to the seventh century and beyond.