Greece Reading List: The War That Killed Achilles

Book number two in my Greek history reading list! The first book was Thomas Martin’s Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, which was both a good overview and a tiny bit frustrating when I got interested in the Peloponnesian War and Martin was ready to move on before I was.

After briefly touching on about a dozen different topics with my first read, I was excited to dig into a specific topic. Caroline Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles was a reread for me; I finished it almost exactly ten years to the day after the first time I picked it up. I had remembered it being more about the war itself and less about the Iliad (I was partly led astray by the subtitle, “The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War”). Still, I appreciated this book more this time around, even though it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. There’s an argument to be made I really should have read In Search of the Trojan War instead of this one, because it seems to be more about archaeology and history whereas this book is very focused on the Iliad. But the Iliad is so worth reading about! Since the first time I picked this book, I have read The Song of Achilles, a brilliant novelistic take on this story, and having that in the back of my mind really enriched Caroline Alexander’s commentary here.

Alexander isn’t interested in writing about the ruins of ancient Troy or the historical roots of the myths around the Trojan War. What she wants to write about is War with a capital W, and how the themes of an epic poem about ancient war still resonate. In some ways, Homer’s work even anticipates the spectacle of modern warfare. This passage reminded me forcibly of sitting in my office with coworkers in 2003, watching a video of bombs being dropped on Iraq:

Yet, as the Iliad makes clear, notwithstanding the attractions of their abode above the clouds, the gods cannot tear themselves from the world of men. This is not only because mortals provide the savory savory burnt offerings and sacrifice they find so gratifying but because the lives and deeds of men are objects of endless fascination to them. The war at Troy provides the gods with excitement and stimulation. Seemingly, they cannot get their fill of watching it, arguing about it, and participating in it; the Trojan War is the best show playing.

The War That Killed Achilles is uneven; sometimes I wished for a clearer thesis or a bit more of a narrative flow. Sometimes it felt as though Alexander had forgotten that her readers did not know the plot events and characters of the Iliad as well as she did. One chapter is devoted entirely to Alexander’s own translation of a scene from the Iliad, which felt jarring and a little self-indulgent. But overall this is a moving and thoughtful discussion of the themes of the epic, and Alexander makes her case that the work is not simply a celebration of valor in glorious battle. “The Iliad . . . never betrays its subject, which is war,” Alexander writes. “Honoring the nobility of a soldier’s sacrifice and courage, Homer nonetheless determinedly concludes his epic with a sequence of funerals, inconsolable lamentation, and shattered lives. War makes stark the tragedy of mortality. A hero will have no recompense for death, although he may win glory.”

Book Review: Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times

Cover of Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times

I’ve always had a bias toward secondary sources. I’m not proud of this. But something in me seeks the highlights, looks for someone to explain a text to me instead of puzzling it out myself. So when my husband and I sat down to plan to vacation in Greece this September, to celebrate both the end (ish) of the pandemic and our newly empty nest, I immediately sat down and composed a twenty-two-book reading list because of course I did. And I left off Homer and Sophocles and Aristotle because. Because I don’t have time. Because how good are the translations anyway? Because will I even understand it without a good teacher? Because do I even have a good idea of what I should read? Because I have four months and I just need a survey of the main points.

I chose Thomas R. Martin’s Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times to get a quick overview of the history of ancient Greece, because I haven’t really studied it since I took  Search (a two-year-long survey of western civilization at Rhodes College) in 1990. And if an overview is what you’re looking for, this is the book for you.

The sheer sweep of this book can be sobering. America’s piffling 240-odd-year history looks paltry indeed, set against Greece’s history, which begins before people were bothering to write things down and is still going on these several thousand years later. This 283-page book covers roughly four thousand years, give or take, although it really zeroes in on the Archaic and Classical Ages (750 to 323 BCE).

Martin surveys the major highlights of ancient Greek history as well as a few biographical sketches and a few paragraphs on major philosophers and playwrights. Reading this book can be an exercise in frustration at times, because you get interested in something (the Peloponnesian War was much more interesting then I remembered it being, and Alcibiades was a hot mess, y’all) and then Martin briskly moves on after a page or two.

Martin does a great job of pointing the reader toward additional resources. He especially encourages us to read primary sources: Plato! Aristotle! Herodotus! Thucydides! But as I said above, my brain immediately goes to the books that will explain the primary sources to me instead of the sources themselves. (In a passage apparently directed specifically to me, Martin scolds, “The best way to learn about ancient Greek history and form one’s own judgments is to study the ancient evidence first and then follow up on particular topics by consulting specialized works of modern scholarship.”) But I’m probably not going to read the works of Plato before September, nor will I most likely get around to the Greek playwrights. I feel bad about that. I did not appreciate Plato’s Republic or Oedipus Rex when I read them in college, and now that I have the right perspective for them I don’t have the mental energy to apply to them. At least that is what I tell myself.

But how amazing it is that scraps of philosophy and history and plays have survived thousands of years so that Socrates and Aeschylus and Euripides can continue to talk to us. What a miracle that we can still find so much of what they say relevant! Or maybe it is just proof that human beings never change, not really — over dozens of centuries we just keep making the same mistakes, or at least the same choices, over and over again.