Nor could my soul the lessons of my youth
So far forget, whose boast it still has been
In the fore-front of battle to be found,
Charg’d with my father’s glory and mine own.
Yet in my inmost soul too well I know,
The day must come when this our sacred Troy,
And Priam’s race, and Priam’s royal self,
Shall in one common ruin be o’erthrown. – Hector, The Illiad, by Homer.
We visited Troy last Friday. Troy is probably the most famous archaeological site in the world, and that’s what it was- unlike Ephesus and Pharselis which were ruins lying above ground, exposed to the sun and the elements, Troy (or what’s left of it) is buried underground and has to be dug up.
When the city was destroyed by natural disasters or enemies, new people would come and live there, either straight away or much later. This is why there have been nine different settlements at Troy, each one replacing and building on top of the other. These different settlements are called “layers” because when you dig them up, you can see one layer of buildings from one settlement and then a layer of buildings from a later settlement on top. This made it difficult to get your head around Troy, because as you walked around you would see buildings from three or four, or sometimes even seven, different cities all in the same excavated trench.
Of course, Troy is only famous for Homer’s Illiad: the story of the Greek and Trojan heroes who fought an epic ten year war outside the city walls. The ironic thing is that even though Schliemann found the city of Troy, and archaeologists have been excavating it for years, we still don’t know that Homer’s war really happened. Sure, the sixth settlement (usually held to be the city that would have existed at the time of the war) was destroyed by fire, but if the place really was sacked by the Greek army after an epic battle you would expect to see more bodies and spears and arrow-heads lying around, but so far they haven’t found enough to prove the truth behind Homer’s story.
So if we don’t know if it’s true, why is Homer’s story so renowned? Reading some of his Illiad driving to Troy I think it’s partly because it sounds beautiful. Even translated into English, Homer is stirring and moving. Beauty makes something worth reading.
And then there is the storyline and personalities. Alongside ferocious fighters like Diomedes, Ajax, noble Hector and (my personal favourite) the crafty Ulysses the poem centres on the story of Achilles, the greatest warrior of them all, who is doomed to either die at Troy and become a by-name for glory for ever more, or return home alive and let his glory die. The whole poem revolves around Achilles’ choice- live quietly, or die famous?
This question still appeals to us. We still desire glory, even if we seek it off the battlefield. We still like being famous, or renowned, and sometimes, we want to fight for what we believe in. The very idea of leaving tombstones, like the ones we saw at Gallipoli, and memorials for our soldiers, is because we want our name to live on when we are gone. We understand this, and for as long as humanity desires greatness, renown, respect, glory, we are going to appreciate the Illiad.
For the record, Achilles chose to fight and die, with all his glory. But in the end, he regretted it. According to Homer, as cunning Ulysses makes his slow way back home he has to visit the underworld, and sees Achilles reigning as a king in Hades. Ulysses admires his glory, but Achilles is not appeased.
Do not speak of ruling this dolorous gloom,
Or think vain words, he cried, can ease my doom.
Far better to be the slave of some poor hind toiling for bread,
Then reign, the sepulchred king of the dead.
Glory is no comfort to the dead. Which is why it is striking to compare Achilles’ glory-hunting, aimed at making his name great, with the self-sacrifice we saw a day later at Anzac Cove. Achilles died to make he famous, but the Anzacs died so that other people could be free.
Achillies’ glory was hollow, but it has lasted 3,000 years and if Australia lasts that long, I’m sure the Anzacs’ fame will too- but who has the better glory?
I think the Anzacs do.