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?