Article - Summer 2019

Crossing the Wine-Dark Sea

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In search of the places that inspired the Iliad—and the traces of upheaval, conflict, and migration that led to its creation

By Caroline Alexander | June 3, 2019
The city of Mytilene on
the island of Lesbos. The area has yielded significant evidence of interaction between Mycenaean Greeks and Anatolians. (Alamy)
The city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. The area has yielded significant evidence of interaction between Mycenaean Greeks and Anatolians. (Alamy)

The Spercheios river—which, legend tells us, was dear to the warrior Achilles—marks the southern boundary of the great Thessalian plain in central Greece. I arrived there in late October, but it still felt like summer, and few people were around. Away on the left, the foothills of Mount Oiti were hazed with heat. On my right, at some distance from the road, screened by cotton fields and intermittent olive groves, flowed the Spercheios. At the village of Paliourio, road and river converged, and leaving my car, I wandered down a track that led to a shattered bridge shored with makeshift planking. The river itself was sparkling, picturesquely overhung with oak and wild olive, but on closer inspection I saw machinery and discarded appliances rusting in its shallows.

It is this river, as Homer tells us in Book 23 of the Iliad, that Achilles recalls as he stands grieving by the funeral pyre of his slain companion, Patroclus:

Then swift-footed godlike Achilles thought of yet one more thing;
standing away from the pyre he cut his tawny hair,
which he was growing luxuriant and long for the river Spercheios,
and troubled he then spoke, looking out to sea as dark as wine:
“Spercheios, in vain did my father Peleus vow to you
that returning there to my beloved fatherland I
would cut and dedicate my hair to you.”

I was on a quest that I had long wanted to make, following the journey of the Iliad—or, more specifically, following the route taken by the pre-Homeric Greek poets who carried the oral tradition that would become the Iliad out of Thessaly and Greece, eastward to new people in new lands. It has long been recognized that individual poets performed and developed the early epic, generation after generation, from at least the 13th century B.C., and very probably much earlier, until the age of Homer himself, around 750–700 B.C. Like any other half millennium of human activity, this period spanned times of colossal upheaval, including a mass migration of populations out of Greece—which scholars increasingly recognize as central to the evolution of the Iliadic story.

Some background: the Iliad tells of events in the 10th and final year of the legendary Trojan War. A coalition of Greek forces led by Agamemnon, the powerful king of Mycenae, has come to Troy to regain his brother Menelaus’s beautiful and errant wife, Helen, who had eloped with the Trojan prince Paris. The war is at a stalemate, with the Greeks (whom Homer calls Achaeans, Argives, and Hellenes) settled into a camp around their beached ships, below the besieged city of Troy, which is also called Ilion. Strikingly, the epic’s dramatic action arises not from hostilities between Greeks and Trojans but from a bitter quarrel between two Greeks—Achilles and Agamemnon—over a woman, Briseïs, captured in a local raid and claimed by Achilles as his war prize. The quarrel is resolved only after the loss of many lives, including two of the most likable characters in the epic: Achilles’s comrade, Patroclus, and Troy’s premier warrior, Hector.

The oldest surviving work of Western literature, the Iliad takes us from Achilles’s rage at his commander to his grief for Patroclus and his merciless revenge on Patroclus’s killer, Hector, to unexpected compassion for Hector’s father, King Priam. The epic credibly moves, then, from blinding, godlike wrath to openhearted compassion, and to read the Iliad is to be taken to the heart of what it means to be human and mortal.

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