On Homer’s Iliad Book III

Trunks of three mature trees on concrete wharf; strait beyond
Yeniköy (Νιχώρι) on the Bosphorus
Sarıyer, Istanbul, December 11, 2022
The Paphlagonians must have passed by here
on their way to join the Trojans
as they did according to Iliad II.851–5
as mentioned in the Wikipedia article “Cytorus
created by me in 2010

In Book III of the Iliad, we learn about Menelaus, Paris, Hector, Helen, and Priam. Having learned about Agamemnon, Achilles, and Patroclus in the first two books, now we know all of the players in the following summary of the epic.

As leader of the Achaean forces at Troy, Agamemnon dishonors his best fighter, Achilles. The Trojan War is being fought, ostensibly for Helen, who was wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, but was then stolen by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy. The Achaeans themselves capture women in raids, and when Agamemnon has to give up his own prize woman to appease a god, he takes the one of Achilles. The latter man then refuses to fight the Trojans. His companion Patroclus fights in his place, when the Achaeans start losing; but then he dies by the hand of Paris’s brother Hector. Now Achilles seeks revenge against Hector instead of Agamemnon. Achilles kills Hector and abuses the body, until Priam comes to beg for it back, and Achilles agrees.

Perhaps no summary will tell you whether a whole work is worth reading, unless perhaps the work is technical; and then the whole may well not be worth reading. As Molly Roberts wrote in The Washington Post,

it’s easier to argue that you can learn everything you really need to know about the history of securities regulation from a cleverly constructed issue brief than it is to insist that if someone tells you Elizabeth Bennet ends up marrying Mr. Darcy, you’ve absorbed the sum total of “Pride and Prejudice.”

Having read Jane Austen’s novel, if you say it is about how this woman ends up marrying this man, then perhaps you have not absorbed much; but if you observe that the marriage requires both parties to have overcome their pride in themselves and their prejudices about one other, then you may have got the point of the novel, unless you are just drawing an inference from the title (which was originally supposed to be First Impressions).

It tells us little that the Iliad is about a war; it may tell us almost everything that over the course of the epic, a man overcomes his anger. Nonetheless, such a summary leaves out

  • the ease with which the gods in heaven forget us, as at the end of Book I;
  • the graphic scenes of violence that they tolerate or encourage on earth;
  • the aesthetic pleasure of the Homeric simile;
  • the particular simile that Glaucus will tell to Diomedes in Book VI (lines 146–50).

Socrates alludes to that simile in Book VIII of the Republic; it runs thus:

As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another
dies …

The translation is Lattimore’s. In my copy of this, I bracketed the verses above in ninth grade, when they were emphasized by George Constantinople, our teacher of ancient Greek history. Had I never read the Iliad again, I might have remembered its chief lesson to be the evanescence of humanity.

In writing of what summaries leave out, Molly Roberts in the Post was responding to the infamous statement of Sam Bankman-Fried,

I would never read a book … I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. I think, if you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.

What Roberts goes on to say is certainly apt for the Iliad:

what SBF is missing is the experience. You’re supposed to read not in spite of the digressions and diversions that stand between you and the denouement, but because of them; the little things aren’t extraneous but essential.

I would only suggest that you are not really supposed to read in any particular way, or even to read at all, unless you are a student; and in that case, the point should be to gain the ability to decide for yourself what and how to read. If you are the kind of person who values friendship, then you may also value having books in your life—as long as you have learned to read them; and this is what school ought to teach you.

There is recent commentary on the issue also by L. M. Sacasas in “Reading As Counter-Practice” (as I learned from a Mastodon post):

I suspect [Sam Bankman-Fried’s] views are rather widely held. What he expresses can perhaps be understood as reading under the regime of technique.

Technique, in Jacques Ellul’s sense, appears as the imperative to optimize for efficiency. That much is evident here. Why can’t a book be a six paragraph blog post? … I’d argue that the deeper problem, also related to technique, is the unstated assumption that the point of reading is always information transfer. That someone might read for the sake of aesthetic pleasure or in order to see some sliver of the world through the eyes of another or to cultivate certain capacities or even virtues seems not to enter into the picture at all.

To read for aesthetic pleasure or the cultivation of virtue is still to read for a purpose. I think Sacasas does go on to suggest that we may read for no purpose at all: “we should occasionally resist the imperative to optimize all experiences for efficiency.” I am still concerned about his remarks near the beginning of his essay:

It is easy to forget that writing is a technology, a tool for communication that was invented and variously iterated over time … My thoughts, some small bit of my interior life is transmitted to you in another time and place through an incredibly simple technique of arranging two dozen or so symbols on a page.

I might have thought communication was just a word for information transfer, which is not all that reading (and therefore writing) is.

Do sentences exist, fully formed, as part of Sacasas’s interior life, before they get transcribed by the “incredibly simple technique” of writing? If one imagines that the Iliad existed as a poem sung from memory, before it was ever written down, then Caroline Alexander has an opposing argument (which I brought up in “Creativity”):

The Iliad’s dramatic speeches serve as much to reveal a speaker’s character as to further epic action, for example, while traditional oral poetry, being intensely communal, is not similarly invested in individual characterization.

In the first three books of the Iliad, we get a sense for all eight of the characters whom I named earlier. Note for example what Paris tells his brother in lines 59–66 of Book III, now in Murray’s translation:

Hector, seeing that thou dost chide me duly, and not beyond what is due—ever is thy heart unyielding, even as an axe that is driven through a beam by the hand of man that skilfully shapeth a ship’s timber, and it maketh the force of his blow to wax; even so is the heart in thy breast undaunted—cast not in my teeth the lovely gifts of golden Aphrodite. Not to be flung aside, look you, are the glorious gifts of the gods, even all that of themselves they give, whereas by his own will could no man win them.

The analogy between Hector’s heart and a shipwright’s axe: Paris makes it, but Homer could have made it in his own voice. Thus the analogy may tell us nothing about Paris, unless perhaps no other character is given to such poetic language. This is something that I have not investigated so far.

Meanwhile, Paris also asserts that he is God’s gift to women, while denying any belief that it is to his own credit. This would seem to tell us a lot about the man. So does the way he first comes on stage, in lines 15–20 of the same book:

Now when they were come near, as they advanced one host against the other, among the Trojans there stood forth as champion godlike Alexander, bearing upon his shoulders a panther skin and his curved bow, and his sword; and brandishing two spears tipped with bronze he challenged all the best of Argives to fight with him face to face in dread combat.

Perhaps no finite number of words should be able to change a character from a type into an individual; and yet somehow they can, just as a finite number of brushstrokes can.

Three quarter view of woman with white ruff
Portrait of a Forty‑Year‑Old Woman,
possibly Marretje Cornelisdr. van Grotewal

My example of how the latter is possible is a 1634 portrait by Rembrandt that stood out to me among the Dutch and Flemish paintings hanging in a room in the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, when I visited in the 1990s. It seemed to me that one could not see such a contrast in the museum that I had grown up visiting. This museum had been established by an Act of Congress stating,

no work of art shall be included in the Permanent Collection of the National Gallery of Art unless it be of similar high standard of quality to those in the Collection acquired from the donor.

That donor was Andrew Mellon; my source is page 38 of John Walker, National Gallery of Art, Washington (revised edition, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984). In a room full of Rembrandts, such as one could visit at the National Gallery, one might not see how special each one was.

We are faced here with something like the “rule-following paradox,” which I saw mentioned in a thread of tweets last month (on November 1, 2022). The paradox is traced to Wittgenstein, who says in Philosophical Investigations 201:

This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if everything can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.

Apparently Saul Kripke wrote about the paradox; he had died a couple of weeks before the tweets (on September 15, 2022).

Infinitely many persons could fit a description by a poet or a depiction by an artist; and yet some poets and artists are able to convince us that only one person (who may be purely imaginary) does fit.

That Homer’s characters should be individuals: I wonder how this illuminates the following remarks of George Will.

Modernity’s greatest blessing—individualism: the celebration of individual agency—depends on a sense of one’s interior, of self-consciousness. This is facilitated by deep literacy that, unlike the oral communication of premodern groups, requires solitude for the reader’s private repose. Modernity, and eventually democracy, advanced through Protestantism’s emphasis of individual engagement with writing—the Bible made accessible to personal reading in various languages.

Will wrote those words in a 2020 column, which provoked me to write “Reading Shallow and Deep” soon afterwards.

I don’t know why Will calls individualism a blessing, instead of using a neutral term such as feature. One might suggest that Protestantism is only an elaboration of the individualism introduced by the removal of tribalism from Judaism in the original creation of Christianity. I have asked about the connection between Plato and Christianity in the post of that name, where I quoted

  • Ved Mehta as writing, “My father always said that Christians, who believed in personal salvation, had compassion in a way that Hindus, who were fatalists, did not”;
  • Somerset Maugham as saying, through the character of Larry in The Razor’s Edge, “Christianity absorbed so much of Neo-Platonism, it might very easily have absorbed that too,” namely the transmigration of souls.

Now there is the question of what Modernity, Protestantism, Christianity, and Plato have absorbed from Homer.

In the first three books of the Iliad, in addition to the memorable characters named above, we have met others, such as

  • Odysseus, who supports Agamemnon;
  • Nestor, who advises all of the Achaeans.

There will be more, such as

  • Diomedes, son of Tydeus, on the Achaean side, to whom, as noted, Glaucus on the Trojan side will speak;
  • Sarpedon of Lycia on the Trojan side.

One could count gods and goddesses as major characters, but what they do is of interest, only as it relates to human beings.

Though it is not personified as a divinity, one may say that the main character of the Iliad is the anger of Achilles towards Agamemnon; but this will be in the background till Book IX.

The women involved in the strife between Agamemnon and Achilles have names, derived from their fathers’ names.

  • Chryseis was Agamemnon’s prize, taken in a raid on Thebe; Odysseus returns her to her father, Apollo’s priest, Chryses.
  • Briseis was Achilles’s prize, taken a raid on Lyrnessus. (We learn the name of the town in the Catalogue of Ships in Book II, lines 689–91.) When he is about to slay Agamemnon for taking her from him, Achilles remembers (with Athena’s help) that revenge is well eaten cold. (I have learned that the modern expression of this idea goes back to an 1841 novel of Eugène Sue, who wrote there, La vengeance se mange très-bien froid.) In talking with his goddess-mother, Achilles mentions (in line 392 of Book I) that the woman whom Agamemon has taken from him is daughter of Briseus.

Achilles asks Thetis to secure Zeus’s help in taking revenge; meanwhile, on Thetis’s advice, Achilles will not fight. Zeus starts to give his help in Book II, by telling Agamemnon in a dream that he can take Troy; then, when he tries, presumably Agamemnon will learn that he needs Achilles to be successful. To test the Achaeans, Agamemnon suggests they all go back home; Odysseus helps tell them not to, and beats Thersites for urging otherwise.

Here is a summary of Book III, more detailed than the one I supplied in 2017 while reading Chapman’s translation:

  • Paris (introduced as Alexander) offers to fight somebody.
  • Menelaus steps forward.
  • Paris steps back.
  • Hector chides him.
  • Paris (in the speech whose beginning I quoted) agrees to fight Menelaus, provided
    • everybody shall watch,
    • the outcome shall decide the war.
  • Hector delivers the message.
  • Menelaus agrees, saying that
    • the Trojans should bring two lambs, for Gaea and Helios;
    • the Achaeans will bring another, for Zeus;
    • Priam should be summoned.
  • In the guise of Laodice, who is
    • sister of Paris,
    • wife of Helicaon, who is son of Antenor,

    Iris tells Helen to watch the duel.

  • At the Scaean Gates, Helen joins Priam and other old men of Troy.
  • Priam
    • tells Helen she is not to blame for the war;
    • asks her to identify some of the men he sees.
  • Helen names Agamemnon and Odysseus.
  • Antenor recalls meeting the latter with Menelaus when they came seeking Helen’s return.
  • Helen names also Aias (Latinized as Ajax).
  • She doesn’t see her brothers, Castor and Polydeuces.
  • They are dead and buried back in Lacedaemon.
  • Alerted by a herald, Priam goes out with Antenor for the sacrifice that will initiate the duel; but he will not stay to watch.
  • From his helmet, Hector shakes out the lot of Paris.
  • Paris’s spear does not kill Menelaus.
  • Menelaus’s sword shatters on Paris’s helmet.
  • Menelaus grabs that helmet, but the chin-strap breaks, and Aphrodite takes Paris back into Troy.
  • Though reluctant, Helen obeys the command of the goddess to gratify the desires of her current husband.

While reviewing the book in 2017, I went off on some tangents, investigating for example

  • the war of cranes and Pygmies, which Homer mentions because, in coming to battle, the Trojans sound like the cranes;
  • the lily-like voice of cicadas, which for Homer the old men of Troy are speaking with as they watch the battle and Helen approaches them;
  • Autolycus, maternal grandfather of Odysseus, described in the Odyssey as a liar and a thief, as Socrates recalls in Book I of the Republic; I went into this, because when Priam asks Helen about the man who is shorter by a head than Agamemnon, but broader of shoulder and chest, Helen says he is Λαερτιάδης πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς (line 200), “Laërtes’ son, Odysseus of many wiles.”

I talked about how Paris was shameless and had to be, to be the lover he was. Perhaps I did not note one more piece of evidence, that if he was going to fight Menelaus, he needed the attention of all of the warriors, both Achaean and Trojan.

In reviewing Book II, I talked about how it may be difficult, if not impossible, for

  • a man to know what it means to be a woman,
  • me to know what it means to be Achilles.

Can Homer know what it means to be Helen? I have read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, which (as I recall) interprets the killing of the servant women in the Odyssey as being provoked by Penelope, because they have been witnesses to how Penelope actually did sleep with the suitors. This assumes that Homer has told us a real story as he sees it. In reading Book III of the Iliad, we may ask:

  • Without such divine intervention as we are unlikely to believe in, and when every other Trojan will want to make sure that he really does fight Menelaus to the death, how can Paris escape and go home?
  • Will Helen really go minister to him, despite her contempt?

Aphrodite threatens Helen with death if she does not go to Paris. I can think of a few possibilities for what this means.

  • Helen’s own erotic passion may cause her to suppress the revulsion that she has come to feel for Paris and her life with him.
  • If she loses the support of Paris, then the other Trojans—and if not them, the Achaeans—may kill her for causing the war, regardless of how Priam may try to intervene.
  • For some of us, the loss of our allure is itself a fate worse than death.

That last possibility is seen in a story recounted by Somerset Maugham in which a man called Ferdy Rabenstein thought it would be

fitting … that the loveliest woman of this generation (this was in the [eighteen] eighties) should pay her respects to the loveliest woman of the last.

After the proposed encounter, the younger woman wept, because, “For the first time she had realised that beauty dies.” Her story takes up but a paragraph in a longer story, “The Alien Corn,” about a Jewish family trying to become English, though the eldest son resists. (I looked at this in “Biological History.”) Maugham introduces the story that Ferdy told him by saying,

It struck me so that I have never forgotten it, but for one reason or another I have never had occasion to tell it again. I give it here because it is a curious little incident concerning persons whose names at least will live in the social history of the Victorian Era and I think it would be a pity if it were lost.

The Iliad too features stories within stories. Paris’s simile of the shipwright’s axe is a little story in itself, having no particular relation to the larger story of the whole epic.

I use blog posts to note things that it might be a pity (for me at least) to lose. Let me close then by noting that Menelaus takes two terse lines (103–4) to describe the sacrifice to be made before the duel:

οἴσετε ἄρν᾽, ἕτερον λευκόν, ἑτέρην δὲ μέλαιναν,
Γῇ τε καὶ Ἠελίῳ: Διὶ δ᾽ ἡμεῖς οἴσομεν ἄλλον:


  • οἴσετε and οἴσομεν are future forms of φέρω “bring”;
  • ἄρν᾽ probably stands for ἄρνε, the dual accusative of what would be ἀρήν “sheep or lamb of either sex”, except that this nominative form appears only in inscriptions, not in Homer;
  • ἕτερον and ἑτέρην (as in our “hetero-”) are masculine and feminine respectively.

Literally the verses read something like,

You will bring a sheep pair, he white, she black,
for Earth and Sun; and for Zeus, we shall bring another.

English may be deficient in gender, but has an abundance of animal terms, so that Murray can say,

Bring ye two lambs, a white ram and a black ewe, for Earth and Sun, and for Zeus we will bring another.

Lattimore ignores gender:

Bring two lambs: let one be white and the other black for
Earth and the Sun God, and for Zeus we will bring yet another.

It is not entirely clear (to me) whether Earth and Sun are to be considered as patron deities of the Trojans, as Zeus is of the Achaeans. This can be something to watch.

Edited May 18, 2023

7 Trackbacks

  1. By On Homer’s Iliad Book IV « Polytropy on December 19, 2022 at 7:15 am

    […] « On Homer’s Iliad Book III […]

  2. By On Homer’s Iliad Book VI « Polytropy on January 2, 2023 at 5:04 pm

    […] A teacher of mine at St Albans School was excited by the analogy, as I recalled in writing about Book III of the Iliad. In an address that he delivered three years later, George Constantinople spoke of the […]

  3. By On Homer’s Iliad Book VII « Polytropy on January 14, 2023 at 9:25 am

    […] saw cooperating belligerents also in Book III, when the two sides in the Trojan War agreed to let the outcome be decided by a duel between Paris […]

  4. By Femininity (Iliad Book XIV) « Polytropy on March 3, 2023 at 5:22 am

    […] Lysistrata and Helen. I don’t know what one sees in the TV miniseries about Helen, but in Book III of the Iliad, while we see power of her looks, we get no account of any conscious use of them […]

  5. By Masculinity (Iliad Book XV) « Polytropy on March 9, 2023 at 7:52 am

    […] in Books III and […]

  6. By Focus (Iliad Book XVI) « Polytropy on March 17, 2023 at 1:35 pm

    […] I can refer to comments of Iliad translator Caroline Alexander, which I quoted in the context of Book III and at greater length in “Creativity,” to the effect that people who have actually grown up in […]

  7. By Dawn (Iliad Book XXIV) « Polytropy on May 12, 2023 at 5:55 pm

    […] Book III, to bring Priam for the ceremony before the duel between Menelaus and Hector: […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: