The War that Killed Achillies – Book Review
The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War. Caroline Alexander. Penguin Books, 2010. 296 pages. Hardcover. $26.95.
"Poetry and tragic vision were much extolled, the epic’s blunter message tended to be overlooked."
Caroline Alexander, a scholar and author of bestsellers on the Bounty mutiny (The Bounty) and the Shackleton expedition (The Endurance), has turned her attention to ancient military history. But in The War that Killed Achilles she focuses less on the historical record than on ancient literature, mythology and epic poetry.
- Subscribe to Armchair General Magazine
- Subscribe online and save nearly 40%!
Her book is a summary and exposition of the story of the Trojan War as told by Homer in the Iliad, not essentially a history of the war itself. She does provide the historical background and the cultural understandings of the war through time, as well as discussing the final collapse of Troy and the post-war lives of some of the main characters. But the Iliad only covers a few weeks of the Trojan War; her main focus is on Homer’s arrangement and purpose.
The title of the book itself is rather unfortunate, as Alexander doesn’t consider the death of Achilles as the seminal feature of the war, and his death does not actually occur in the Iliad. The major importance of Achilles’ death is in how it was foreshadowed and understood by Homer’s listeners. Though The War that Killed Achilles is in large part a summary of the Iliad, Alexander highlights how the poem revolves around Achilles’ anger, his motives for quitting the fight and his further decision to again don his armor. The book includes in its entirety the chapter narrating his fight with Hector (translated by Ms. Alexander herself).
A major argument in the book is her description of the ultimate pointlessness of war, and how participants must individually justify their own meaning and come to their own conclusion about why they fight and what they are fighting for. As she stresses after summarizing the opening passages of the poem, listeners would have been discontented with the idea that Achilles and the other Achaeans are fighting solely on Agamemnon’s behalf in order to satisfy his brother’s shame in losing his wife. So what Homer has shown is that “the demoralized Achaean army fights under failed leadership for a questionable cause and wants to go home.” This makes the idea of the Trojan War as heroes fighting honorably in an honorable cause quite questionable indeed. In this sense, Alexander’s book explains difficulties posed to the fighters in the war and how they question their leaders’ motives, tactics and strategy.
She begins with a brief account of the translation history of the Iliad into the Western canon, especially its translation into English, and shows how the lesson of the Iliad and the character of Achilles changed through time, depending on what was important to society at the moment: “Poetry and tragic vision were much extolled, the epic’s blunter message tended to be overlooked.” The Trojan War tended to be seen as a catastrophe, but that changed when it gained status as a heroic venture, as an object lesson in instructing a nation’s warriors on “the desirability of dying well for their country.” Under this point of view, Achilles’ contempt for authority and his sullen refusal to fight were ignored or treated with disdain. Aeneas was the consummate heroic figure (with Odysseus of course) while Achilles was mocked.
Throughout, she analyzes the Iliad within the context of other versions of the Trojan War and within epic tradition. Much of what would have been understood by listeners was not actually spelled out in the poem but nevertheless would have colored the audience response, based on other traditions concerning Achilles and Greek mythology and history.
Alexander lays out the questions Homer introduces about war and warriors, about how warriors find meaning in their sacrifices, how they question their leaders, and why wars are begun and fought. Homer poses these questions in the context of Achilles’ life and in how he conducted himself in the war. The Iliad begins with an explication of his confrontation with Agamemnon, and his anger with Agamemnon’s policies. This results in Achilles’ own personal drawdown, brought on by Agamemnon’s appropriation of what Achilles considers his rightful war booty—a Trojan woman to be his slave. The Iliad ends, after explaining how Achilles was drawn back into the fight due to his desire for revenge for the death of his cousin (and possibly lover), Patroklos, and with his deadly fight with Hector. It would have been clear to any listener, that, for Achilles, the only possible significance for him in the war were his personal struggles. In fact, according to Alexander, the main focus of the Iliad is not on the “launching of fleets or the fall of cities,” but “on the tragedy of the best warrior at Troy, who … will die in a war in which he finds no meaning.”
Alexander’s discussion of the female characters in the Iliad is interesting and of more depth than these characters are usually allowed but shows with what ambiguity women are described. Helen herself is allowed to be seen as deeply ambivalent about her position, remorseful about what she has done and wishing it had never happened, yet powerless to change anything. Indeed, according to Alexander, the relationship between Helen and Paris is “most starkly defined by Helen’s loathing of her Trojan husband and herself.”
But she sees the scenes between the two as designed to “set at best advantage” the relationship between Hector and his wife, Andromache, where Andromache, desperate to circumvent the destiny she knows Hector to face, deigns to give him military advice. Hector is also humanized in their relationship as he disarms to play with his son, and makes it clear that he fights out of a sense of familial honor; otherwise, he disdains the war. Again, Alexander stresses the back-story of the characters, emphasizing that an audience would know how it comes out, what is to become of Andromache and his son (sexual slavery for her, death for him). In doing so, she emphasizes how much their scene together humanizes them for the audience, and makes them come off as sympathetic, not as an enemy and, “if the Trojans are not the enemy—who is?”
Yet Alexander’s book is not meant only to resonate as an intimate study. Throughout, she draws parallels and suggests relevance to modern wars, though sometimes she leaves it to the reader to make the obvious specific connections, re: Iraq. “The Iliad’s evocation of war’s devastation, then, is as resonant today—perhaps especially today—as it was in Homer’s Dark Age. Now, as at any time, Homer’s masterpiece is an epic for our time.”
At the conclusion, the author describes the later endings and sequels of the story of the fall of Troy and the sad ends that many of the characters meet: Agamemnon murdered by his wife (and her by their daughter), Achilles’ son’s exile, Odysseus’ long journey home, etc. But for the Greeks, “Glory, fame, renown—stand at the heart of epic.” And many characters of the Iliad gained such renown, principally because of the Iliad. Yet Achilles “never waivered” in his belief that “life is more precious even than glory.” He did not sacrifice for glory, but for Patroklos. Indeed, according to Alexander, in spite of its characters achieving a measure of historical glory, the message of the Trojan War was that it was always seen as a disaster. She feels that the Iliad having become later in history seen as “a martial epic glorifying war is one of the great ironies of literary history.”
But Alexander resurrects Achilles—not necessarily as a figure of heroism, but as someone who embodies Homer’s ambiguity about the nature of war. She brings out how the poem embodies the empty, ugly, un-heroic side of war; that, in the end, it leaves nothing good.
Douglas Sterling is a bookseller and freelance writer from Northern Kentucky who has published works on Julius Caesar’s army, the later Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War and World War II. He has Master’s Degrees in Military History and American History.