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The Twenty-First Century Illiad

Kicking off Ancient Studies Week, Ewing Professor of Greek Language and Literature and Professor of Classics at Princeton University, Andrew Ford gave a fascinating lecture on the plasticity of “The Illiad” in the Performing Arts and Humanities Building.

This epic poem of 24 ‘books’, written in 762 BC by the famous poet Homer, is a “classic that will grow with you over the course of your life,” said Ford. Each read takes on a new face and character whilst continuing to highlight the profound relationship of “Brothers in Arms.”

“The Illiad” itself is about the Trojan War in Ancient Greece. Main characters, Agamemnon (King of Mycenae), Hector (Trojan Prince) and the famous warrior, Achilles, face off in this epic about honor, brotherhood, revenge and war. The conflicts began mostly over women and some hurt feelings.

“Honor is in gifts,” Ford said, illuminating how in Ancient Greece, material wealth (of women, livestock, jewelry etc.) was needed to have status in the world. Achilles goes against the whole honor system, renouncing his quest for status and glory until his ‘brother in arms’, Patroclus, is murdered by Hector. This set Achilles on a murderous, savage rage that Ford called “going berserk”.

It is important to note that the ‘Berserker’ people, Ford explained, were ancient Norse warriors that were so savage, they fought in a trance-like spur of violence. They renounced civility and became animal-like, even wearing animal heads to battle.

Ford explained how this idea of ‘going berserk’ makes one rambunctious and uncivilized, much like Achilles throughout the “Illiad.” Today, one can see the continuation of this idea with British guards wearing bearskin hats and the Greek helmet plumes of horse hair on their helmets to invoke some of the ‘berserk’ culture of war and violence.

“The Illiad,” with its concepts of camaraderie and soldier PTSD, can also be seen as a parallel to the Vietnam War. Ford even went so far as to say that armies themselves are a “moral construction, a small group of comrades destroying trustworthy orders of the mind.”

Stories like the “Illiad” in Ancient Greece served as ways to grieve and learn about culture and history. While the Trojan War is thought to be an event that unified Greek-speaking people toward a common goal, “The Illiad” itself is about disunity and war, explains Ford.

Overall, the general consensus of scholars studying “The Illiad” is that it is an ever-changing piece of work, labeled a classic because of more than its age. As Ford said, every read is new.

Ancient Studies Week continued with a public reading of the Odyssey and will return next year for students of all majors to enjoy.