The Iliad and the Long War
I am re-reading Robert Fagles’ masterful translation of The Iliad, and felt chills when I encountered this passage in Book II. It is especially powerful if you consider that Zeus is not merely an ancient god, but stands in for all the forces from on high that act upon individual soldiers in the battlefield–the fog and friction of war, chance, senseless chaos, the vagaries of policy handed down from distant leaders halfway across the globe. King Agamemnon is speaking to his weary men:
Zeus is a harsh, cruel god. He vowed to me long ago,
he bowed his head that I should never embark for home
till I had brought the walls of Ilium crashing down.
But now, I see, he only plotted brutal treachery:
now he commands me back to Argos in disgrace,
whole regiments of my men destroyed in battle.
So it must please his overweening heart, who knows?
Father Zeus has lopped the crowns of a thousand cities,
true, and Zeus will lop still more–his power is too great.
What humiliation! Even for generations still to come,
to learn that Achaean armies so strong, so vast,
fought a futile war… We are still fighting it,
no end in sight, and battling forces we outnumber–
And now nine years of almighty Zeus have marched by,
our ship timbers rot and the cables snap and fray
and across the sea our wives and helpless children
wait in the halls, wait for our return … And we?
Our work drags on, unfinished as always, hopeless–
the labor of war that brought us here to Troy.
Even more interestingly, this passage is part of King Agamemnon’s speech testing his soldiers by asking them to give up and sail for home. He hopes they will not do so; despite the long and futile years of war, he wants to make one more assault and win a decisive victory. Ultimately the Achaeans do go on to take Troy, but perhaps there is more truth in Agamemnon’s deceptive speech than he wanted to admit. Victory came, but at a price that few ever imagined they would have to pay.
P.S. If you like The Iliad as much as I do, read Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay
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