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)

Augustus Caesar, Maybe Not the Nicest Guy

Suetonius, Divus Augustus 15

“Following the capture of Perusia, [Augustus] turned his mind to vengeance on many people—facing those who were trying to beg forgiveness or make an excuse with one response: “you must die.”

Some authors record that three hundred people from both orders were picked out from the war-prisoners and slaughtered like sacrificial animals at the altar built to Divine Julius on the Ides of March. There are those who report that he turned to war with a specific plan, namely to trap his secret adversaries and those whom fear rather than willingness constrain and, once the model of Lucius Antonius* was offered, to pay the bonuses promised to veterans once he had conquered his enemies and liquidated their assets.”

Perusia capta in plurimos animadvertit, orare veniam vel excusare se conantibus una voce occurrens “moriendum esse.” Scribunt quidam trecentos ex dediticiis electos utriusque ordinis ad aram Divo Iulio exstructam Idibus Martiis hostiarum more mactatos. Exstiterunt qui traderent conpecto eum ad arma isse, ut occulti adversarii et quos metus magis quam voluntas contineret, facultate L. Antoni ducis praebita, detegerentur devictisque iis et confiscatis promissa veteranis praemia solverentur.

*Lucius (Marcus Antonius’ brother) had been a target of the siege at Perusia. Octavian [Augustus] let him live and sent him to serve as governor in what is now Spain.

Image result for ancient roman augustus perugia
Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, A Righteous and Religious Man

Some Brief Words on How to Live

Cornelius Nepos, Atticus 25.11

“It is difficult to explain everything and not really necessary. But I do want to make this one thing clear, that his generosity was not offered at advantageous moments or with specific calculation. This can be evaluated from the events and times themselves, because he never ministered to those in power but always rushed to help those in need.”

Difficile est omnia persequi et non necessarium. Illud unum intellegi volumus, illius liberalitatem neque temporariam neque callidam fuisse. Id ex ipsis rebus ac temporibus iudicari potest, quod non florentibus se venditavit, sed afflictis semper succurrit

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.47

“So one thing is worth much: to keep on living with truth and justice and in good will even among liars and unjust men”

Ἓν ὧδε πολλοῦ ἄξιον, τὸ μετ᾿ ἀληθείας καὶ δικαιοσύνης εὐμενῆ τοῖς ψεύσταις καὶ ἀδίκοις διαβιοῦν.

Image result for medieval hellmouth
Hellmouth from ‘The Hours of Catherine of Cleves (c. 1440)

Better citation from twitter:

Plato’s Sister and the Women Among His Students

Diogenes Laertius IV.1

“These facts are as accurate details about Plato as we are able to gather in our laborious research of the things said about him. Speusippus, an an Athenian son of Eurymedon, took over for him. He was from the deme of Myrrhinos and was the son of Plato’s sister, Pôtônê.

Speusippos was the leader of the school for eight years, and he began after the 108th Olympiad. He had statues of the Graces dedicated in the Museion which Plato built in the Academy. Although he remained an adherent to Plato’s theories, he was not like him at all in his character.  For he was quick to anger and easily induced by pleasures. People say that he threw a little dog into a well in a rage and he went to Macedonia to the marriage of Kassander thanks to pleasure.

Two women, Lastheneia of Mantinea and Aksiothea of Phlios, were students of Plato who are said to have heard Speusippus speak. Writing at the time, Dionysus says mockingly: “It is possible to evaluate your wisdom from your Arcadian girl of a student.” And, while Plato made everyone who came to him exempt from tuition, you “send everyone a bill and take money from the willing and unwilling alike!”

Τὰ μὲν περὶ Πλάτωνος τοσαῦτα ἦν ἐς τὸ δυνατὸν ἡμῖν συναγαγεῖν, φιλοπόνως διειλήσασι τὰ λεγόμενα περὶ τἀνδρός. διεδέξατο δ᾿ αὐτὸν Σπεύσιππος Εὐρυμέδοντος Ἀθηναῖος, τῶν μὲν δήμων Μυρρινούσιος, υἱὸς δὲ τῆς ἀδελφῆς αὐτοῦ Πωτώνης. καὶ ἐσχολάρχησεν ἔτη ὀκτώ, ἀρξάμενος ἀπὸ τῆς ὀγδόης καὶ ἑκατοστῆς Ὀλυμπιάδος· Χαρίτων τ᾿ ἀγάλματ᾿ ἀνέθηκεν ἐν τῷ μουσείῳ τῷ ὑπὸ Πλάτωνος ἐν Ἀκαδημείᾳ ἱδρυθέντι. καὶ ἔμεινε μὲν ἐπὶ τῶν αὐτῶν Πλάτωνι δογμάτων· οὐ μὴν τό γ᾿ ἦθος διέμεινε τοιοῦτος. καὶ γὰρ ὀργίλος καὶ ἡδονῶν ἥττων ἦν. φασὶ γοῦν αὐτὸν ὑπὸ θυμοῦ τὸ κυνίδιον εἰς τὸ φρέαρ ῥῖψαι καὶ ὑφ᾿ ἡδονῆς ἐλθεῖν εἰς Μακεδονίαν ἐπὶ τὸν Κασάνδρου γάμον.

Ἐλέγοντο δὲ αὐτοῦ καὶ αἱ Πλάτωνος ἀκούειν μαθήτριαι, Λασθένειά τε ἡ Μαντινικὴ καὶ Ἀξιοθέα ἡ Φλιασία. ὅτε καὶ Διονύσιος πρὸς αὐτὸν γράφων τωθαστικῶς φησι· “καὶ ἐκ τῆς Ἀρκαδικῆς σου μαθητρίας ἔστι καταμαθεῖν τὴν σοφίαν. καὶ Πλάτων μὲν ἀτελεῖς φόρων τοὺς παρ᾿ αὐτὸν φοιτῶντας ἐποίει· σὺ δὲ δασμολογεῖς καὶ παρ᾿ ἑκόντων καὶ ἀκόντων λαμβάνεις.”

Image result for plato women school

 

The Self in the Story: the Itinera Podcast

Homer, Odyssey 15.389–484

Then the swineherd, marshal of men, responded:

“Friend, since you have asked me and inquired truly of these things,
Listen now in silence and take some pleasure and drink your wine
While you sit there. These nights are endless. There is time for sleep
And there is time to take pleasure in listening. It is not at all necessary
For you to sleep before it is time. Even a lot of sleep can be a burden.
Let whoever of the rest the heart and spirit moves
Go out and sleep. For as soon as the down shows itself
Let him eat and follow the master’s swine.
As we two drink and dine in this shelter
Let us take pleasure as we recall one another’s terrible pains.
For a man finds pleasure even in pains later on
After he has suffered so very many and survived many too.
I will tell you this because you asked me and inquired.”

τὸν δ’ αὖτε προσέειπε συβώτης, ὄρχαμος ἀνδρῶν·
“ξεῖν’, ἐπεὶ ἂρ δὴ ταῦτά μ’ ἀνείρεαι ἠδὲ μεταλλᾷς,
σιγῇ νῦν ξυνίει καὶ τέρπεο πῖνέ τε οἶνον,
ἥμενος. αἵδε δὲ νύκτες ἀθέσφατοι· ἔστι μὲν εὕδειν,
ἔστι δὲ τερπομένοισιν ἀκουέμεν· οὐδέ τί σε χρή,
πρὶν ὥρη, καταλέχθαι· ἀνίη καὶ πολὺς ὕπνος.
τῶν δ’ ἄλλων ὅτινα κραδίη καὶ θυμὸς ἀνώγει,
εὑδέτω ἐξελθών· ἅμα δ’ ἠόϊ φαινομένηφι
δειπνήσας ἅμ’ ὕεσσιν ἀνακτορίῃσιν ἑπέσθω.
νῶϊ δ’ ἐνὶ κλισίῃ πίνοντέ τε δαινυμένω τε
κήδεσιν ἀλλήλων τερπώμεθα λευγαλέοισι
μνωομένω· μετὰ γάρ τε καὶ ἄλγεσι τέρπεται ἀνήρ,
ὅς τις δὴ μάλα πολλὰ πάθῃ καὶ πόλλ’ ἐπαληθῇ.
τοῦτο δέ τοι ἐρέω, ὅ μ’ ἀνείρεαι ἠδὲ μεταλλᾷς.

Today Scott Lepisto (@ScottLepisto and see his website) has released the second podcast to complete  our two-part conversation we had for the second season of the Itinera Podcast. If you listen to it, you will hear, for better or worse, me in all my chaotic, stream-of-consciousness, and, sometimes profane, rambling. There are echoes of stories I have told before when I have written about parenting and teaching,  studying classics and struggling with identity,  or problems with pedantry in our field. But these versions are easier and funnier. And that’s because they’re part of a conversation.

Scott deserves a lot of credit for what he is doing with this series because he brings such a soft touch to his interviews–but he does seem to have just a native knack of getting people to tell stories and share themselves with the world. Stories communicate who we are to each other and reciting them confirms and performs our identities.

The Itinera podcast is helping to create a community in Classics by allowing people to share their stories with wider audiences. Scott’s interviews from both seasons have such moments of sweetness and power that it seems we were living lives of deprivation (and desperation) before he started recording them.

So, listen to the podcast. I don’t think we actually ever get to talking about why this website exists or how it is related to the conversations we have, but we do talk a lot about the lives lived in, through, and by stories.

Menander (fr. 591 K.).

“The man who is sick in the body needs a doctor;
someone who is sick in the mind needs a friend
For a well-meaning friend knows how to treat grief.”

Τῷ μὲν τὸ σῶμα † διατεθειμένῳ κακῶς
χρεία ‘στ’ ἰατροῦ, τῷ δὲ τὴν ψυχὴν φίλου·
λύπην γὰρ εὔνους οἶδε θεραπεύειν φίλος.

Attributed to Socrates (in Stobaeus)

“The sick need doctors; the unlucky need encouragement from friends.”

Τοῖς μὲν νοσοῦσιν ἰατρούς, τοῖς δ’ ἀτυχοῦσι φίλους δεῖ παραινεῖν.

In honor of the stories told in the Itinera podcast, here’s a picture of me and my siblings with our great grandmother in 1994. I’m the one with a vaguely punchable face and glorious hair.

1994

Some Brief Words on How to Live

Cornelius Nepos, Atticus 25.11

“It is difficult to explain everything and not really necessary. But I do want to make this one thing clear, that his generosity was not offered at advantageous moments or with specific calculation. This can be evaluated from the events and times themselves, because he never ministered to those in power but always rushed to help those in need.”

Difficile est omnia persequi et non necessarium. Illud unum intellegi volumus, illius liberalitatem neque temporariam neque callidam fuisse. Id ex ipsis rebus ac temporibus iudicari potest, quod non florentibus se venditavit, sed afflictis semper succurrit; qui quidem Serviliam,

 

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.47

“So one thing is worth much: to keep on living with truth and justice and in good will even among liars and unjust men”

Ἓν ὧδε πολλοῦ ἄξιον, τὸ μετ᾿ ἀληθείας καὶ δικαιοσύνης εὐμενῆ τοῖς ψεύσταις καὶ ἀδίκοις διαβιοῦν.

Image result for medieval hellmouth
Hellmouth from ‘The Hours of Catherine of Cleves (c. 1440)

Better citation from twitter:

Pyrrho on Homer and the Eating Pig

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 9.11 on Pyrrho

“But Philo the Athenian, who was his friend, used to say that he often called to mind Democritus and then Homer, wondering at him and constantly saying “just as the generation of leaves so are the generations of men”. And he liked the fact that Homer compared human beings to wasps, flies and birds. He also used to add these lines: “But, friend, die too: why do you mourn like this? / Patroklos also died and he was much better than you.” He would recite that along with all the passages which attested to the uncertain and empty pursuits, the childish simplicity of humankind.

Poseidonios also passes down a certain story like this about him. When his shipmates were exceedingly anxious because of a storm, he was calm and unshaken in his spirit. After he pointed to a piglet on the boat who was eating, he said that it was right for a wise person to settle into such an untroubled state.”

ἀλλὰ καὶ Φίλων ὁ Ἀθηναῖος, γνώριμος αὐτοῦ γεγονώς, ἔλεγεν ὡς ἐμέμνητο μάλιστα μὲν Δημοκρίτου, εἶτα δὲ καὶ Ὁμήρου, θαυμάζων αὐτὸν καὶ συνεχὲς λέγων, “οἵη περ φύλλων γενεή, τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν·”

καὶ ὅτι σφηξὶ καὶ μυίαις καὶ ὀρνέοις εἴκαζε τοὺς ἀνθρώπους. προφέρεσθαι δὲ καὶ τάδε·

ἀλλά, φίλος, θάνε καὶ σύ· τίη ὀλοφύρεαι οὕτως;
κάτθανε καὶ Πάτροκλος, ὅ περ σέο πολλὸν ἀμείνων·

καὶ ὅσα συντείνει εἰς τὸ ἀβέβαιον καὶ κενόσπουδον ἅμα καὶ παιδαριῶδες τῶν ἀνθρώπων.

Ποσειδώνιος δὲ καὶ τοιοῦτόν τι διέξεισι περὶ αὐτοῦ. τῶν γὰρ συμπλεόντων αὐτῷ ἐσκυθρωπακότων ὑπὸ χειμῶνος, αὐτὸς γαληνὸς ὢν ἀνέρρωσε τὴν ψυχήν, δείξας ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ χοιρίδιον ἐσθίον καὶ εἰπὼν ὡς χρὴ τὸν σοφὸν ἐν τοιαύτῃ καθεστάναι ἀταραξίᾳ.

Image result for medieval manuscript piglet
Luttrell Psalter, British Library Add MS 42130 (medieval manuscript,1325-1340), f59v