Scarcity, Simile, and Reading the Iliad

Homer, Iliad 12.421-426

“But, just as two men strive over boundary stones,
As they hold their yardsticks in hand in a shared field
and they struggle over a fair share of the limited earth,
So did the fortifications separate them.
But over them still they struck one another
On their oxhide circles and winged shields.”

ἀλλ’ ὥς τ’ ἀμφ’ οὔροισι δύ’ ἀνέρε δηριάασθον
μέτρ’ ἐν χερσὶν ἔχοντες ἐπιξύνῳ ἐν ἀρούρῃ,
ὥ τ’ ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ ἐρίζητον περὶ ἴσης,
ὣς ἄρα τοὺς διέεργον ἐπάλξιες· οἳ δ’ ὑπὲρ αὐτέων
δῄουν ἀλλήλων ἀμφὶ στήθεσσι βοείας
ἀσπίδας εὐκύκλους λαισήϊά τε πτερόεντα.

Schol. T ad Il. 12.423b

“This is about the intensity. For those who possess more might look down on [fighting like this?”

ex. ὀλίγῳ ἐνὶ χώρῳ: εἰς ἐπίτασιν· οἱ γὰρ πλείονα κεκτημένοι ἴσως καταφρονοῦσιν. T

As some already know, I am a Homerist by practice and training, which means I have spent the better part of the past 20 years, reading, thinking, and writing about the Homeric epics. After all this, I am still regularly surprised by how much I don’t understand and often shocked by the fact that I have spent so many years doing just this.

The truth is, there was a time when I had little regard for the Homeric epics. I started reading them because I wanted to understand everything that came after. About the same time I started reading Homer in the original, which was transformative on its own, I read both epics again in translation. The oceanic gap between the experience of the Greek and the translations rattled my confidence in my own aesthetic judgments (and in the act of translation).

But the difference between Homeric phraseology and Vergil (the Latin author with whom I had the most familiarity at the time) was striking: nearly every line of Homer is a self-contained unit of sense. Rather than being hypotactic (subordinating and delaying meaning), Homeric poetry is paratactic, building by adding. It is useful to know the language and stories of the Iliad before you start reading; but it is not necessary for enjoyment: the epic constructs itself in front of you as it tells its tale.

The simile above is one of the first things that I carried around with me everyday once I started reading Homeric Greek (I eventually made investigating it into a senior thesis). It is such a small, nearly forgettable moment. But its simplicity belies a compact and complex representation of the way Homeric poetry works and why it still matters.

In the middle of the battle over the walls the Greek have constructed against the resurgent Trojan defenders, the warring sides are compared to two men fighting over measuring their share of a common field. Even to this day, this comparison seems so disarmingly true as it reduces the grand themes of the struggles between Trojans and Greek, Agamemnon and Achilles, to that of two men over shared resources. The Iliad, at one level, is all about scarcity: scarcity of goods, of women, of honor, of life-time, and, ultimately, the scarcity of fame.

This simile works through metonymy to represent not just the action on the field of battle at this moment, but the conditions that prompt the greater conflict and those that constrain human life. It leaps through time and space and indicates how this poem differs from simple myths. The normal mortals who love this poem aren’t kings or demigods; we live small, sometimes desperate lives, the conditions of which are improved or exacerbated by how well we work together to make fair shares of our public goods.

The scholiast’s comments above, then, are doubly laughable. If I am reading them right (and the verb καταφρονοῦσιν without an object can be annoying), the commentator is imagining that these men in the simile are struggling over this small bit of land because they are poor and that wealthier men would not bother. Not only is this a tragic misunderstanding of human nature (wait tables or tend bar for only a few weeks and you will discover that the good tippers are not the wealthiest ones), but it is a poor reading of the epic, where the wealthiest and most powerful men alive are more than happy to keep fighting and ensuring that their people die.

The point of the simile is that provides a meeting point between the actors of the poem and the worlds of the audiences; the line that separates imaginative story in the audience’s minds from the lives they live becomes permeable and the hero meets the mortal in the shared experience. This is how the world becomes a part of but also shapes the poem.

This simile isn’t what interested me in Classics in the beginning, but it put me on the path I could not turn from. Anyone else have a similar tale?

Venetus A Book 12
Iliad 12, from the Venetus A Manuscript (via the Homer Multitext Project)

11 thoughts on “Scarcity, Simile, and Reading the Iliad

  1. I think that my conversion started with the Odyssey in translation, but when I really look back on it, I think that a lot of the *reception* of Classics made me feel that I absolutely had to make it my life. I think that a broad smattering of discursive reading throughout the ages made me aware that knowing Greek and Latin was in some fundamental way essential to a complete education.

    I wish that I had kept a journal. I have a vague recollection of those being heady and exciting days, but I cannot claim to *clearly* remember how I came to devote so much of my life to ancient texts. I do, however, remember that those early explorations in Classics were some of the happiest days of my life.

    1. Truly, the moments of discovery are always exciting for their newness and the boundless possibility. One of the things I love about continuing in Classics is that there is so much still to discover. And, one of the few pleasures of growing older is finding new things in texts that are old to me.

    2. I think it’s much the same with me, in that I can’t wholly remember. My early engagement with the ancient world was just that, with a world, and while Greek (and therefore Latin) won – handily, easily, quickly – it jostled with Sanskrit, Egyptian, Akkadian etc.

      I miss that childish exuberance. Study is rewarding, new knowledge is exciting and all that but I don’t think I’ve ever managed to recapture that feeling. Reading the Iliad is probably the closest I get.

      1. For me, some of the exuberance returns in the classroom as I rediscover the texts with students. I don’t think a semester passes without my understanding being challenged and enriched by these discussions. But there is also the addition of new things to understanding the poems–my life experiences (especially losing my father and becoming a father) have made the Odyssey a completely different poem to me!

      2. That made me smile. I’m glad others find joy in teaching even though I very much doubt its for me. If there’s one thing our subject is good at, it’s producing great teachers, as so many examples on this site prove…

  2. Η μπαλάντα του κυρ Μέντιου – 1980

    Lyrics: Kostas Varnalis
    Music: Loukas Thanos
    First version: Nikos Xylouris

    Other versions:
    Notis Sfakianakis
    Manolis Lidakis

    They do not bend, dead sticks of wood, and being ruined hurts
    limping one and limping two, in the wreckage of life
    Dayworker, foreign worker, they all used beatings bosses workers
    all workers boss and they left me with an empty stomach
    and they left me with an empty stomach

    Space above and space below, uphill downhill
    and with dagger and rain until my soul left
    Twenty years of donkey labor, I lifted all the quarry
    and I built, in the entrance of the village, the church
    of the village, the church

    Come on, you victim; come on, you easy prey, come on, centuries-old symbol
    if you wake up all of a sudden the world will be turned upside down
    the world will be turned upside down

    And yoked with the ox, one thing the height and another the foot,
    organs in the streams, in the land belonging to the boss
    And in the war, all for all, I carried a machine-gun
    so the peoples kill each other for the boss’s meal
    for the boss’s meal

    Come on, you victim; come on, you easy prey,… (etc)

    Look, the others have made a movement, creation has become red
    another sun has come out, in another sea, on another earth

    Come on, you victim; come on, you easy prey,… (etc)

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