SONG OF TROY
By: Anthony Esolen
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Sometime around the 14th Century before Christ, a wealthy city near the coast of modern Turkey was destroyed by raiders coming from the west, and the plains of windy Troy knew her no more. Then the raiders themselves and their civilization, centered, we believe, in the city of Mycenae in Greece, overrun by invaders, also passed away, along with their language and their system of writing, and centuries of cultural darkness descended upon the land. But the stories of Troy did not pass into utter oblivion. It is hard for modern men to grasp how powerful the human memory can be, when praise of the gods or of bygone heroes is crafted in song. Troy fell, but the names and the deeds of her legendary attackers and defenders, whether or not they existed in fact—Agamemnon, Achilles, Menelaus, Odysseus, Paris, Aeneas, Hector—did not.
Imagine journeying on foot through a vast cold upland desert, here and there littered with signs that men once dwelt there and flourished; a broken column, shards of pottery, an arm from a statue, a sword riddled with rust. Then you climb a high ridge and all at once you see below you a town bustling with action. There are gardens and orchards, and a broad deep river, and men building barges to float their goods to other towns downstream. There are large, handsome public buildings, with scribes recording the proceedings. There is a knot of boys sitting on the ground in front of a man with a white beard, instructing them in heroic song. Something like that is what happened when Greece awoke from her dark age, and, according to tradition, a blind poet named Homer, at the dawn of Western civilization itself, composed what many people consider to be our first and greatest songs, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Modern scholarship has not so much cast that legend in doubt as it has enriched it and made it appear, in some ways, more wondrous still. For whoever composed the Iliad—we may as well call him Homer—was living in an age that saw the beginning of what we know as the Greek polis, while “remembering” a civilization of kings and the brute ethics of the warrior. He was living in an age that saw the beginning of philosophical and scientific investigation, while “remembering” the intractable passions that beat in the heart of man. He wove together songs from the misty past for the people who lived in his own time, with many a mysterious word and custom surviving in his poem like clues to a world gone by.
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Even his religion partook of this strange, enriching half-memory. The peoples of the Mediterranean worshiped fertility gods, associated with the dark bowels of the earth-mother, the womb of all things and their destined tomb. The invaders who destroyed Mycenae, rich in gold, did not. They came from the steppes of Eurasia, with the great open sky above them. Their gods dwelt above, in light. They spoke an Indo-European language, related to what their cultural cousins would be speaking in Italy and Scandinavia and the British Isles and Persia and India. From them the Greeks derived their new, youthful gods of Olympus, dwelling atop the mountain where they drank not blood but ambrosia, where, along with the intrigue and violence that are inseparable from all polytheistic systems, they knew celebration and laughter and song. The fertility gods were banished to the underworld, where they too were “remembered,” just as Mycenae was remembered: Mother Earth, Night, Cronus, most of the Titans, the Furies, and Death, most hated of all the gods, because Death will not listen to appeal.
And so it was that the Greeks were fairly compelled to ask the questions that we associate with the height of their intellectual flourishing: What is the relationship between reason and the passions? What do we make of the conflict between a man’s desire for glory and his duty to his companions? What is the authority of a ruler when the common good is in question? In what does a truly good life consist? No matter what my beloved Plato said when he banished the poets from his imaginary republic, Homer had long ago asked the philosophical and moral questions that Plato asked, and we might justifiably say that only Greece, so strangely situated as she was, could have brought us both.