Scarcity, Precarity, and Simile: 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, re-reading, being surprised, and then trying to learn something new.

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 the ‘literature’ that followed them. 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 it 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 the story and how it also  shapes the poem.

Right after this, there’s another simile.

Iliad 12.427-438

“Many were struck across their flesh by pitiless bronze
Whenever they turned and bared their backs
As they struggled, although many were also struck through their shields.
The towers and walls were decorated everywhere with the blood
Of men from both sides, from Trojans and Achaeans.

Yet, they still could not force the Achaians to flee—
No, it held as when an honest weaving woman holds
The balance and draws out the weight and the wool on both sides
to make them equal so she might earn some wretched wage for her children.
So the battle and the war was stretched even on each side
Until Zeus gave the glory over to Hektor
Priam’s son, who first broke through the wall of the Achaeans.”

πολλοὶ δ’ οὐτάζοντο κατὰ χρόα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ,
ἠμὲν ὅτεῳ στρεφθέντι μετάφρενα γυμνωθείη
μαρναμένων, πολλοὶ δὲ διαμπερὲς ἀσπίδος αὐτῆς.
πάντῃ δὴ πύργοι καὶ ἐπάλξιες αἵματι φωτῶν
ἐρράδατ’ ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἀπὸ Τρώων καὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν.
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἐδύναντο φόβον ποιῆσαι ᾿Αχαιῶν,
ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα γυνὴ χερνῆτις ἀληθής,
ἥ τε σταθμὸν ἔχουσα καὶ εἴριον ἀμφὶς ἀνέλκει
ἰσάζουσ’, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα μισθὸν ἄρηται·
ὣς μὲν τῶν ἐπὶ ἶσα μάχη τέτατο πτόλεμός τε,
πρίν γ’ ὅτε δὴ Ζεὺς κῦδος ὑπέρτερον ῞Εκτορι δῶκε
Πριαμίδῃ, ὃς πρῶτος ἐσήλατο τεῖχος ᾿Αχαιῶν.

Schol D + bT ad Il. 12.433-435 ex.

“The equal balance of those fighting, [Homer] compared to the beam of a loom, again. For nothing is so precisely similar to an even balance. And the one weighing this out is not the mistress of the household—for she does not often trouble this much for so small an equal bit—nor is it one of the household maids—for they would not seek to make so precise a measure since they are fed by the household’s master and do not risk their nourishment if they mess up on the loom weights—but it is a woman for hire who must provide what is needed for living by the effort of her hands.”

ex. | D ἀλλ’ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα<—μισθὸν ἄρη-ται>: πάλιν τὸ ἰσοπαλὲς τῶν μαχομένων παρέβαλε ζυγῷ· οὐδὲν γὰρ οὕτως ἀκριβὲς πρὸς ἰσότητα. καὶ ἡ ταλαντεύουσα οὐκ ἔστι δέσποινα οἰκίας (ταύτην γὰρ οὐ λυπεῖ πολλάκις τὸ παρὰ βραχὺ ἴσον), ἀλλ’ οὐδὲ θεραπαινίς (οὐ γὰρ αὗται ζητοῦσι τὸ ἀκριβὲς εἰς τοσοῦτον, ἅτε δὴ ὑπὸ τοῦ δεσπότου τρεφόμεναι b [BCE3E4] T καὶ οὐκ ἐν τῷ διαμαρτεῖν περὶ τὸν σταθμὸν κινδυνεύουσαι περὶ τροφήν), T χερνῆτις (433) δέ, ἡ χειρὶ τὰ πρὸς τὸ ζῆν πορίζουσα, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα (435) φησίν.

This passage has long  moved me too because, as with the earlier simile, the great ‘epic’ themes and images of war were reduced to something simple, daily, and completely understandable. Even in the ancient world where many members of the audiences probably had considerably more experience of violence than we do and where most aristocratic audience members would certainly have nothing but contempt for working for a living, many probably heard a crucial echo of their own lives in this surprising comparison.

I also appreciate the way that the scholiasts here home in on how dire this woman’s position is, making the dubious but nonetheless striking claim that the household servants led less precarious lives than the woman of the simile who draws the weight so precisely because her pay—and the lives of her children—depend upon it. In a crucial way, this simile evokes the same sense of scarcity as that of the men on the field—but it adds that an all too familiar anxiety from the precarity that emerges when one lives constantly with the sense of how scarce those things we value are.

It may seem a stretch, but the image of the weaving woman evokes for me the creative power of women presented elsewhere in Homer–Helen weaves the story of her own kleos, Penelope weaves shroud whose images are never revealed. In a way, the tension prepared by the woman’s hands within the simile is a comparison for the balance of war and a metaphor for an act of creation. The epic’s plot and the audience’s experience are similarly drawn out in the narrator’s hands.

Indeed, the scarcity and precarity evoked by this simile and the one that precedes it extends the transitional moment begun with the image of the farmers to create anticipatory tension in the audience. At the epic’s middle, before we move from book 12 to 13 and to the slaughter of the Achaeans at the ships, the balance hangs ever briefly before it breaks. Hektor surges through the Achaean fortification: the balance of action fails just as the balance of the plot will too—the story of Achilles’ withdrawal will now translate into the slaughter he asked Zeus to precipitate leading to the death of Patroklos, Hektor and, ultimately, Achilles too.

These similes stand at the middle of the poem and convey the sense of tension at the passing of this moment and the spinning of the tale itself. The nameless men and the nameless woman stand in contrast to the named heroes who will suffer and die in the following books. But they are also vehicles moving between the lives of the audiences and the heroes’ deeds marking off the small stakes for which all are struggling and the limited life by which we are all constrained.

 

 

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

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