homer’s iliad – not so long ago…
my penguin classics translation by e. v. rieu is a bit snugly, comfily, into the scene, i-group stuff, gungho the hype –that’s inevitable and better in the long run – but it’s the result of a definite spin. but it’s a tentative enough spin and it’s otherwise a clear and honest and reasonably literal translation.
the book seems to have been already well-known in the greek world that survived the 13th centuryish decline of constantinople. dates are treacherous before the widespread use of the gregorian calendar. nothing is known of the age of the copies, although during the 14th century (this is a pre-gregorian and therefore unreliable date) ‘more reliable copies’ of it were available. boccaccio had leonzio pilato make a ‘rough’ translation of it into latin and thus made it accessible to scholars keen to reconstruct the fallen greek glories. boccaccio had made pilato reader in greek at the ‘studio’ which was the old name for the university of florence. from this and many similar ‘rough’ translations the basics of the ancient greek lexicon still in use was made.
it consists of a whole lot of what i’m prepared to call eye-witness accounts each of which is an entity unto itself, along with general accounts of the wider scenario which was evidently still common knowledge at the time of recording. they’ve been put together as one narrative with a thread of explanatory comment giving continuity and shaping it into a narrative.
it is likely that this thread was added by pilato, but it is also likely that some changes were made when the ‘more reliable copies’ were made. ‘more reliable’ may mean ‘doctored to fit the beliefs of the time’. see quixote and a keating’s history of ireland for accounts of ‘up-dates’ to other peoples’ texts.
in the iliad, sometimes two or three differing accounts of one sequence of events are put in one after the other so that they appear to be different events which followed each other in quick succession. the stories of apollo/achilles, chrysias/brisias for example are striking examples of this, put in sequence as being closely related and then, perhaps later when their near-identity had been forgotten, interwoven in an attempt to make it make sense and reconstructed as the current version for the sake of smooth reading.
the resulting story cannot now be separated into two accounts of the same events, but it is not hard to see how two similar but slightly different versions may have come through different dialects through indifferent translators and recorders from the same events maintained in memory by soldiers either from stories extant among the military tales of the day, or actually witnessed and participated in by themselves. there is no reason to suppose that the carriers of them would have preferred ancient tales to recent ones. the wars and upheavals of the times were exciting enough to eclipse earlier histories. they might be ancient memories of gods and heroes, but there’s no evidence to support a date for the book or any of its content earlier than the decline of constantinople.
i see flaws in the translation from homer’s greek to english, but the briseis/chryseis problem indicates that there were already linguistic difficulties in recording the accounts of the eye-witnesses, and perhaps translating them from their various languages into whatever language homer translated them from.
homer himself indicated that there were about 150 languages at the time. a favourite theme in comedies and sometimes tragedies of the pre-gregorian era is confusion resulting from mistakes made in translating from one language to another.
the extent to which the two pleached accounts of apollo/achilles differ offers a kind of ‘doppler effect’ by which to estimate the distance in time between the events and the accounts given.
however, if the difference results from translation errors, it could happen in one retelling. but if it results from unreliable memory, it would not have been within the life-time of the teller homer got it from, because personal memories and recent family memories tend to be preserved very accurately. these are memories of a real war, miracles being due to the renaissance gloss, and as such are most likely to be memories of a recent war, since there was most certainly one, resulting in the collapse of an empire, the memory of which was taken from eye-witnesses, known to be mere earthly history, the ‘gods’ being a high up officialdom, the thunderbolts of zeus being cannon, the many other little miracles being errors of the imagination where the translator’s knowledge ran out. this was written out – as poetry or not, we don’t know now – and later polished up as a poem or poems and then filled out as a narrative in the style of epic poetry of the day.
the notion that homer was ever learned by heart or comes from an ancient oral tradition is a whimsical notion unsustained by any evidence but popularised at the time. it may be that the famed bards of serbia, for example, who remember several day- long ballads (not harder than learning an operatic diva’s repertoire) are remnants of an ancient oral tradition preserving poems of homeric grandeur and length, but it is at least as likely that the serbian bards have patriotically ‘reconstructed’ a tradition that never existed, beyond the usual high-turn-over repertoires of ballad-singers and troubadours, whose performances were not longer than the illiterate could be bothered with.
the difference in the forms of personal names apollo/achilles, and chryseis/briseis shows that they are originally from accounts given in different accents/dialects (in this case one is a p-form and the other is a k-form) of the same sequence of events cobbled up into a single sequence probably during the renaissance reconstruction period.
the original recorders would have been aware that they had two versions of the same story in different languages. perhaps all main episodes of the whole of the iliad were published in some of the ‘less reliable’ copies circulating after the fall of constantinople, without the distortions produced by the need to come up with an epic. there’s no doubt that achilles is a k form of apollo and that chryseis is a k form of briseis. the amount of distortion and the kind of distortion necessary to conflate these two tales into one without identifying apollo as achilles and chryseis as briseis is another ‘doppler effect’ indicator, giving an idea of what sort of hermeneutical license was considered acceptable in the pre-gregorian 14th century, whenever that may have been.
but before the conflation attempt, the two tales existed side by side, so the enquiry becomes a matter of whether the differences in those now lost accounts arose because of memory lapses in the minds of the tellers as the events themselves slipped away into the misty past, indicating a longish time had passed during which small details had begun to be forgotten and personal biases had had enough time to warp the tale a bit, or because they were taken down in the languages of the tellers and then mistranslated at least once on their way towards reaching their final form before being conflated in homer’s greek, or both.
in view of the fact that the world was still resounding to the clashes of culture with their wars and imperialistic pomp and splendour, it is unlikely that the greek-speaking communities of the time were bothering to preserve archaic texts, so the reconstructionists’ claims for the antiquity of the content or of the events described in them, which are not substantiated by any evidence, should not be regarded as reliable by 21st century readers.
the homeric texts have no reliable history until the renaissance, when they appeared in libraries. constantinople had fallen and its treasures included books.
the greek-reading world diminished with great rapidity. most people tended not to keep books in languages that could no longer be understood, even if they had been prestigious. so the 14th century survivors of book burnings were retrieved from obscure sources and they enter our historical records without any historical or hermeneutical contexts. the lore that scholars since then have filled books with concerning the content is all conjectural, and yet is treated as fact by 21st century scholars who ought to know better.
with only ‘corpus’ to go on, we have no clear knowledge of the linguistic situation of the time, except that it was certainly complex and in a state of constant flux, and we don’t know to what extent the ancient greek language was having to be reconstructed (as the cornish is now, with many texts in good cornish appearing annually.) it’s possible that when the continuity passages were added when the homeric tales were translated into latin by the florentines, in their best scholar’s best attempts at deriving the language from the texts – no doubt they derived a lot of help from speakers of the local languages surviving from the melange.
the greek language evaporated rapidly, so if pilato knew any form of it, it was already a remove from homer’s own. it seems evident now that the modern greek language, which is clearly a true direct descendent of the homeric greek, and so there’d be no very serious errors of translation, because there has always been a large population of greek’s speaking a continuation of it who could still easily understand it. this is so even now, so it would have been more so in the 14th century. but that fails to take into account that the greek language was reconstructed from the old texts and greeks filled with national pride sent their brightest scholars to boccaccio’s university to learn their ‘own’ (reconstructed) language, precisely because they’d lost it as a natural language. it’s as if the people now reconstructing the cornish language denied the possibility of error and passed laws enforcing the compulsory education of all children of anyone who is anyone in reconstructed cornish while inculcating a contempt for english.
with the power the wealthy universities of the renaissance had, it would be possible to replace native languages with the artificial greek retrieved from near extinction. this would mean that modern greek is not a direct descendant of ancient greek, but only of reconstructed renaissance greek, and it is distinctly possible that that is what it is. so appeals to it to confirm renaissance translations are tautological and therefore invalid.
constantinople’s libraries would have contained the most popular books from all over the world translated into greek for the convenience of the literati. there is no reason to believe that the events described in the iliad happened anywhere near greece. the hellenes were in western and northern europe (helvetia, helsinki, hel, helga etc) all the way over to britain.
boccaccio ‘produced a number of reference works, including two massive classical encyclopaedias. one is a topography of the ancient world, listing all the places such as woods, springs, lakes and seas mentioned in Greek and Latin literature, arranged alphabetically.’
hugely influential at the time it is still unjustifiably regarded as authoritative. we have no other geographies concerned with the same place names to check the latin and greek sources against, and no way of checking claims of any place to being truly the one named in the literature. in modern times it’s common for people to carry familiar names with them from far places: the new jerusalem was far from the site of the old one, new englands are fairly common in the colonies, and australian towns and suburbs, for example have names like newcastle, kensington, and perth. the place names listed in renaissance geographies should be looked for elsewhere in the world and all possibilities taken into account. for example, when the etymological data is all opened out, olympus seems to be a form of the same word lambeth is a form of, and lambeth is a form of bethlehem. lesbos = e-liza-beth. there’s a iona off the coast of scotland and a ionia in greece. cretan = britain/breton/pretani etc. if some of the greek texts are translated into greek from british or other western languages, the word ‘ionic’ might at least sometimes refer to the scottish iona, not the greek ionia, which may have been named by guesswork in efforts to reconstruct by reconstructionists who wrongly believed the events to have been ancient, hellenistic greek history. that there are also greek names for these places/schools/people doesn’t make it originally greek or place it in the classical geographies. there is a lot of evidence that the action of the iliad takes place in western europe before the rise of constantinople in the east.
reconstructionists at and around the time of the archaeological discovery of the city still believed to be troy are very probably responsible for attributing to ruined polises and other remnants of older civilisations in greece homeric place names which the greeks had never called them by until taught to by the reconstructionists. but there are places whose names are arguably forms of those in the iliad in more hellenic regions that fit far better.
the latin addition of the book was a best seller during the renaissance, and its content would not have been saved if not recent because the last enclaves of greek-speakers would not have been troubling themselves to keep archaic books. but they would have kept the tale of their own recent downfall, the fall of their city, the biggest event of their own millennium. but the literati of the renaissance wanted archaic stuff, having a vision of a golden antiquity that these texts let them touch the garments of. even if it survived three or four hundred years in greek-speaking backwaters before being released as a great find in the 14th century, it is not more than a thousand years old.
many archaeologists besides schliemann, fired with reconstructionist enthusiasm, have claimed to have found proof of the truth of the homeric tales in sites around greece, basing their geography on boccaccio’s encyclopaedia. they have supported their claims to the antiquity of the epic by finding ruins and buried objects which they claim to have been able to date by the various means available to them. but the scholarship supporting schliemann’s claim that his site was the old bronze age troy is academically speaking substandard, and though the dating techniques of past centuries are not up to today’s standards, which surely can no longer claim accuracy except in rare cases, the chronologies are still unquestioned. one reason is that they fit the biblical chronologies, with the egyptian ones (still debated) fitted in around it. because no events in the greek/asiatic world within living memory or recorded in any texts resemble the events described here, yet they were obviously major events, they must have happened either somewhere else or long ago. modern renaissance scholars seem to have opted for ‘long ago’, and the widespread use of bronze weaponry and armour has been cited in support of this. this is ‘bronze age’ stuff.
but controversy has also raged over when the bronze age was. with no reliable dating methods, it isn’t possible to know the age of rusty iron finds in archaeological sites, nor is an oldest find of so perishable a metal a first appearance. the hellenes whose history this is were defeated, and it looks like it was the ‘cold steel’ that defeated them, and their dependence on bronze may be the reason for their defeat. chretien de troyes is who to bale up if you’re looking for the real troy imo.