Article - Summer 2019

Crossing the Wine-Dark Sea

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.

This compassion for the enemy is one of the Iliad’s most astounding hallmarks and the foundation of some of its most profoundly memorable scenes: Hector’s parting from his wife, Andromache, for example, or the death of Hector, and the grieving to the point of madness of the family members who survive him. This Greek national epic, forged from Greek experience, composed in the Greek language about a victorious Greek military campaign, depicts the enemy with pointed, unqualified compassion, and I know of no other war story that treats the “other” so evenhandedly. The explanation for this treatment, I believe—and recent scholarship is confirming this—lies in the Iliad’s own journey.

The map of this journey is the epic’s language. The poem is composed in the Ionic dialect, which colonists from the eastern Greek mainland carried with them to the central region of western Anatolia (modern Turkey), from where, as ancient tradition has it, Homer himself came. Yet running through the poem like a thread of linguistic DNA is Aeolic, a dialect characteristic of Thessaly, its neighboring region Boeotia, and the island of Lesbos, located in the eastern Aegean, not far from the Turkish mainland. One theory for this complexity holds that several distinct oral traditions evolved in parallel, with the Ionian eventually “winning,” but with poets folding in old Aeolic forms to give the epic a desirable archaic gloss. Another long-established view, which I support, is that an old Aeolian tradition eventually passed into Ionian hands. This theory rests not only on linguistic analysis but also on the fact that so many of the epic’s central places and characters are Aeolian. And so my own quest to follow the Iliad’s journey began in old Aeolia, now Thessaly, with those landmarks so indelibly associated with the epic’s unshakably Aeolian hero: Achilles, son of Peleus, who ruled over Aeolian Phthia.

The heart of ancient Phthia lies somewhat to the north of the Spercheios valley, in what is now the modern administrative district of Phthiotis. The kingdoms associated with many of the Iliad’s principal Greek warriors have yielded significant archaeological remains—Agamemnon’s Mycenae, Menelaus’s Sparta, Nestor’s Pylos, for example—but little found in present-day Phthiotis hints at a Homeric past. Nonetheless, Achilles is a regional presence, and in the market town Pharsala, a modern bronze statue of the warrior, spear upheld, dominates the town square, and a number of streets bear names associated with him. Local historians have anointed a hilltop fortress of uncertain date west of the city as his actual palace, and so there I gamely went. Climbing up to the summit’s broad plateau, with shimmering pine needles overhead and the chime of sheep bells from below, I gained a sweeping, imperious view across the plain.

In the Iliad, few warriors speak of their homelands with any particular feeling. Achilles, however, continually recalls Phthia, is haunted by Phthia and by the prospect of return. Phthia, where the rich earth breeds warriors, separated from Troy by shadowy mountains and clashing sea. Phthia, only three days’ fair passage across the fish-filled Hellespont. Phthia, where Achilles’s father, Peleus, holds his inheritance, letting fall soft tears for his only son, away waging war on foreign soil. Phthia, where the captive Briseïs was to have been made his wedded wife.

Peleus himself is the Iliad’ s most enigmatic character, both a potent force in the life of his warrior son and hauntingly absent from the action, sidelined by old age. Judging from his name, scholars believe his character was closely associated with Mount Pelion, another striking Thessalian landmark, north of his own realm. One of the most densely forested regions in the whole of Greece, it was once roamed by deer, wolves, and boar; during World War II, resistance fighters hid from the Germans in its woods. Today the long Pelion range is mainly visited by hikers. From strategic places along the ridge—and a long way down—I could see the glittering, turquoise sea. But on the heights the forest dominates, and even in autumn, with foliage fallen, stands of oak and chestnut canopy the roads and byways. It can be a spooky place, its forest trails dank with pools and grottoes and pale moths staggering out of woodland shadows.

Legend has it that the Olympian gods gathered here for the wedding of Achilles’s parents, Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis, at whose celebrations the malevolent goddess Strife cast her apple of discord—an act that led in a roundabout way to the Trojan War. (Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite vied for the apple, which mortal Paris awarded to Aphrodite in exchange for the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen.) These mountain forests were said to be the haunt of centaurs, creatures the Iliad knows by their Aeolic name, Phêres, including the righteous centaur Chiron, who reared Achilles to run wild with animals and taught him the arts of healing. And from these forests, too, came Achilles’s trademark spear:

heavy, massive, powerful; this no other of the Achaeans could
wield, but only Achilles knew how to wield it,
the spear of Pelian ash, which Chiron gave to his beloved father
from the heights of Mount Pelion to be death to warriors.

Archaeological evidence shows that Thessaly marked the northern edge of the Greek Bronze Age civilization (which archaeologists have dubbed Mycenaean). Apart from the wealth of the port city Iolkos, the region was something of a backwater. The Spercheios valley, Mount Pelion, even Phthia were of little consequence and can reasonably be assumed to have held only local interest. Yet the poets who wove the Iliad’s tradition must have cared about these places—so, too, their audiences—for they would continue to memorialize these lands as they migrated eastward. It is difficult not to take the tenacious memory of these places, along with Achilles’s nostalgia and concern for his aged, abandoned father, as backward glances toward the old Aeolian homeland.

Scholars have long sought to understand the nature of the pre-Homeric Iliad—what story it told, which characters were in it—by peering into the murk of early epic and mythology and mining the poem’s words, images, metrical phrases, and themes for clues. “Man-slaying,” “raging like fire,” “possessed of weapons eager to fly,” and other Indo-European heroic attributes indicate a martial subject possibly dating back to pre-Greek steppe culture. More specifically, old Aeolic phrases such as proti Ilion hirên (“toward sacred Ilion”) show that Ilion (Troy) featured in the old Aeolic epic. Similarly, when in Book 21 Achilles returns to war to avenge Patroclus’s death, he encounters a young Trojan warrior who, on his knees, begs for his life. Achilles’s reply is merciless:

Before the day of fate reached Patroclus, it is true,
until then my heart chose to spare
the Trojans, and many I took alive and sold.
But now there is no one who will escape death, whom god
puts in my hands before the gates of Ilion.

“Before the gates,” or “in front of Ilion.” The phrase in Greek is Iliou proparoithen, which does not fit the epic’s poetic meter. When expanded to the older original form, however—Ili-o-o proparoithen—it does. This contraction of vowels is thought to have occurred between 1070 and 1050 B.C., indicating that early bards were already singing of Greek warriors fighting at Ilion before this time.

View looking down from a mountainous height onto the valley belowThe Thessalian plain of central Greece represents the heart of old Aeolia. According to local legend, the palace of Achilles was located in the region. (Alamy)

By then the bards had likely left Thessaly, for around 1200 B.C., the wealthy, internationally connected Mycenaean kingdoms collapsed, along with other civilizations throughout the Aegean, Anatolia, Cyprus, and the Levant. By 1100 B.C. the demise of the Mycenaean world was complete. Explanations for this catastrophe range from drought to foreign invasion, economic implosion, and overextension. Whatever the causes, the collapse of cities and states set in motion great waves of migration as people sought to escape chaos at home and find new lives in new lands.

The effect of this upheaval on working poets is impossible to calibrate. Little enough is known about how they performed in settled, “normal” times. The Odyssey, the Iliad’s epic sequel, offers three extended scenes of poetic performance. In two of these, the bard Demodocus (whose name means “welcomed by the people”) performs in a great hall before aristocratic audiences who divide attention between the poetic entertainment and the copious meat and wine before them; in a fourth scene, Demodocus’s lyre provides music for dancing. Both Achilles in the Iliad and Odysseus in the Odyssey appear in bardic roles, Achilles, lyre in hand, “singing of the glorious deeds of men,” and Odysseus like a bard of his own epic, relating his experiences of the Trojan War before a spellbound audience that includes both women and men. An astonishing fresco from the 13th-century B.C. Mycenaean palace at Pylos (which the Iliad assigns to the aged counselor Nestor) depicts a seated bard thrumming his lyre-like phorminx, from which an exuberant bird flies forth—a literal conjuring of the “winged words” that Homeric gods and heroes often speak.

This meager evidence suggests that early bards enjoyed aristocratic patronage, or at least idealized themselves as doing so, and performed in somewhat formal venues—the palace room at Pylos, or the feasting halls of local kings. The collapse of the Mycenaean palace states surely changed all this. It is tempting to imagine the bards gamely following along with knots of migrant families as they wended their way east, keeping spirits alive in settlement camps along the way by singing familiar stories from the days of old, or perhaps enjoying the sea air from the deck of a wealthy patron’s ship. In truth, we know nothing about how bards operated during this period of disruption, but it is necessary to remember that poets, like other peddlers of elite wares, had long been traveling in the other direction, which is to say from east to west. Recent work by scholars examining Near Eastern influences on Greek epic has established the extent to which professional poets of oral traditions were bilingual, suggesting the international character of the poetic trade. Professional poets, then, or successful poets, at any rate, may well have been to some extent itinerant, and better equipped than most to weather the disruption.

Apart from written accounts of the migrations dated centuries after the events, little exists that sheds any light at all on this critical period. But it is possible, I believe, to detect a memory of migration, of the momentous experience of changing homelands, in the Iliad itself. In Book Six, Glaukos, an ally of the Trojans from Lycia, in southwestern Anatolia, boasts of his genealogy. His forebears, it turns out, came from Ephyre, near modern Corinth—an Aeolian city—and he is the great-great-great grandson of Aeolus, the eponymous hero of the Aeolian people. His grandfather, Bellerophon, was exiled to Lycia. There he lived in happiness and prosperity for some years until he was exiled yet again for some obscure crime, and “hateful to all gods, / he wandered alone across the Aleian plain, / consuming his own heart, avoiding the paths of men.”

Similarly suggestive is how Peleus attracts a cluster of stories about exile. Peleus himself first came to Thessaly as a refugee, fleeing his homeland after accidentally killing his half brother. Achilles’s companion, Patroclus, fled to Phthia as a child after accidentally killing a young friend, taking up residence in Peleus’s house. The Myrmidon warrior Epeigeus flees to Phthia; Phoinix, the faithful family retainer who cares for the young Achilles, flees to Phthia after killing his father. All these men find happiness and prosperity in the new land that embraces them, and with which they fiercely identify.

Finally, there is a strange phrase that Achilles utters on two occasions, complaining of his treatment by Agamemnon: “He degraded me / the son of Atreus / as if I were some worthless metanastên”—one who has left his home, a vagabond, a migrant, a refugee.

A map of the lands surrounding the Aegean SeaBecause of the mass migrations that took place across the Aegean Sea, the Iliad was made up of different linguistic threads, with the ancient poets journeying between Thessaly and Anatolia. (Map by David Herbick)

The island of Lesbos lies only 150 miles from Thessaly’s ancient port Iolkos (modern Volos), in a direct line across the Aegean—the prevailing north-south winds providing the sailor with an ideal broad reach across this route, which was undoubtedly used in ancient times. Today, however, no ferry service takes this tack, and the island is most efficiently reached by daily flights from Athens, or, somewhat more in the spirit of my quest, by sea from Piraeus, which has served as the port of Athens for two and a half thousand years.

On board the Blue Star ferry, I slept through the night and woke to see dawn shine on the coast of Turkey. By the time we docked in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, the day was fully formed. Rows of Ottoman-era houses, with their carved wooden shutters and bright doors, lined the streets overlooking the city’s two harbors, in which were anchored or moored all the usual craft of an Aegean port—white yachts, battered and peeling fishing boats, smart sailing cruisers, and humble sailboats.

And, less traditionally, a British naval destroyer. For as in antiquity, Lesbos, sitting as it does less than 10 miles from the Turkish shore, serves as a steppingstone between East and West. Since 2015, an estimated one million refugees streaming out of Africa and the Middle East toward Europe have made landfall here, an especially staggering figure when measured against the 90,000-some inhabitants who live on the island’s 630 square miles. Many of the searing television images of this historic exodus—floundering rubber dinghies and people struggling through cold surf—come from Lesbos. Although the flood of refugees has abated, everywhere the island’s watchfulness as well as generosity were evident. My hotel on the coastal road outside Mytilene served as a base for military police, and its quaint, high-ceilinged Ottoman-era parlor, filled with chain-smoking men dressed in black, had the heightened atmosphere of a military ready room.

When the Aeolian refugees arrived on this same island, with its two deep bays and many beaches, its rolling hills and well-watered valleys, its rich forests of oak and beech, it was already inhabited. Throughout the island, evidence of settlements from the Early through Late Bronze ages indicates close affinity with the cultures on the Anatolian mainland nearby. In terms of its pottery, the archaeologist’s principal tool in calibrating dates and cultures, the Bronze Age settlements throughout Lesbos show, to quote the most recent archaeological report, that “culturally the island was an extension of northwestern Anatolia and the Troad.” In other words, in the wake of the collapse of their own kingdoms, Aeolic-speaking immigrants from Greece had come to the country of the Trojans.

There is hard evidence, beyond oral poetry, of interaction between Mycenaean Greeks and Anatolians in general, and on Lesbos in particular. The Mycenaeans had long acquaintance with the western Anatolian seaboard, which they had ranged widely, seeking commodities—copper, gold, ivory—and trade of their own wares, even establishing trading outposts. They had also scouted for cheap labor, and Mycenaean palace records offer ample evidence of the extent to which Anatolian workers were living in Greece. Mostly captive women, they worked as spinners and weavers, treaters of wool and linen, corn grinders, and attendants of the bath. They are listed according to their place of origin—“women of Knidos,” “women of Lamnos,” even “woman of Troy.” Other records tell of quantities of perfumed oil offered to an “Asian goddess” in a context suggesting that migrant or captive women had carried their own deity and its cult of worship with them from Anatolia. A 13th-century B.C. Hittite text, a letter from King Hattusili to an unnamed Greek king, complains of the activities of a notorious Achilles-like figure called Piyamiradu, who lured or carried off 7,000 people from southwestern Anatolia to Greece—an astonishing displacement of people.

On Lesbos, Mycenaean pottery from as early as the 15th century B.C. reflects, at the least, trading ties. The imperial records of Anatolia’s Hittite kings, written in cuneiform on clay tablets, tells us that Lesbos, referred to as “Lazpa,” was a dependency of a Hittite vassal state called the Seha River Land. Around 1320 B.C., the ruler of this state broke his allegiance with the Hittite king to ally with the king of Ahhiyawa—home of Homer’s Achaeans, the Greeks we call Mycenaeans. Additionally, one fragmented text refers to a group of islands off the Anatolian coast being given as a dowry for the marriage of an Anatolian princess to the king of Ahhiyawa. Many scholars believe that Lesbos was among these islands. If this interpretation is correct, Lesbos had once been a Mycenaean possession. Very possibly, then, many Aeolian Greek newcomers were rejoining settlements of distant kin.

In the Iliad, Lesbos is an ally of Troy. Although identified with a legendary early king named Makar, the island represents the southern extent of Priam’s kingdom. Here Achilles carried out the raids and won his war prize Briseïs. In their momentous final meeting, Achilles almost wistfully recalls Priam’s former power, before the coming of the Greeks:

And you, old man, we have heard, were blessed in time before;
as much as Lesbos, seat of Makar, contains out there within its boundaries,
and Phrygia inland and the boundless Hellespont,
all these, they say, old man, you surpassed in sons and wealth.

Material evidence for the important transitional period that saw the arrival of Aeolian Greeks is scant. In great part this is because so few large-scale excavations have been conducted on Lesbos—only four in the past century and a half. But the Greek newcomers also appear to have had very little influence on the island’s existing culture. The far more prolific evidence from the later Archaic Age (700–480 B.C.) hints at what likely transpired during the opaque transitional period of settlement by revealing a society composed of both Anatolians and Aeolic Greeks, who shared the same region but retained their own ceramic, architectural, and religious traditions—less a single blended population than two populations living in parallel. Religious sanctuaries in two sites, for example, show that Anatolian and Greek deities were worshipped side by side. Whether this was a relaxed coexistence or something more uneasy, with each side warily asserting its presence by the resolute continuance of its own customs, is impossible to know. Regardless of whether the two peoples saw themselves as being competitive, when the Archaic Age arrived, the dominant culture on Lesbos was no longer Anatolian but Greek.

My own quest on Lesbos was directed by a handful of landmarks associated with shadowy Iliadic traditions. The place where Achilles allegedly made landfall to shatter Makar’s realm lay on the rocky northern coast, just beyond the village of Petri. Here a footpath leads to the Achilliophigada, or Well of Achilles, where, according to local legend, Achilles quenched his thirst. Makar’s seat itself, the redoubt of the old king, may lie on an extreme tip of the Gulf of Kalloni, at a lonely site called Makara. Here, at the end of a fragmented track that crosses land as bare and brutally broken as a moonscape, a tower of sorts emerged from the massive red-brown boulders. Settlement evidence dates from the Early to Late Bronze ages—after which there is a suggestive break of many centuries.

Back around the bay, a road led south to Vrissa, a small town of close-pressed houses with tiled roofs and whitewashed walls set a few miles inland. The streets were vacant, and a school building appeared to be undergoing radical renovation: a whole section had been recently demolished. Just beyond it stood a house reduced to rubble. Slowly, it dawned on me that the entire pretty, brightly painted, sweetly shuttered town had been smashed and abandoned, and this could only have been done by an earthquake. I later learned that a powerful temblor in 2017 had left 70 percent of the town’s houses uninhabitable. Turning a corner, I came upon a man—the only human to be seen—sitting on broken steps and talking to his cats.

In Greek, Vrissa is spelled Brissa, the Greek letter b sounding as the English v. Brissa, the town of Briseïs—the woman over whom Achilles nearly came to blows with Agamemnon. Somewhere along the banks of the river outside town, amid dry sedge and grass and wild autumn crocuses, lay another Well of Achilles, also known as the Well of Briseïs, but although I searched until the sun was low, I never found it.

Oral poetic traditions, fragile living threads, require for their survival generations of working poets performing before generations of receptive audiences. In post-migration Lesbos, Aeolic bards were now unfolding their old epic tale of sackers of cities and war to a different people. Troy itself, the physical ruins of the legendary city, lay a few hours’ sailing away, and the poets’ audiences included not only descendants of the long migration east, for whom obscure names like Spercheios and Pelion still struck a chord, but also the indigenous population—those long-standing, millennia-old allies of the Trojans.

And it was not simply the composition of the audience that had changed; poets of the Iliadic tradition were now exposed to and absorbing other poetic traditions.  Recently, scholars have paid renewed attention to the ways in which Anatolian and other Near Eastern traditions, which survive in written form, influenced the Greek epic. One scholar in the vanguard of such studies is Mary Bachvarova, professor of classics at Willamette University. “When two cultures have enough in common about a single thing, that allows other borrowings around it,” Bachvarova said. What Greeks and Anatolians had in common was Troy. How long this interest had been shared is impossible to know, but a tantalizing 13th-century B.C. fragment of poetic text in Luwian, the language believed to have been spoken by the Trojans, suggests it could go back as far as the time of the putative Trojan War: ahha-ta-ta alati awienta wilusati (“when they came from steep Wilusa”). The Homeric epithet for Ilion—or to use the old Mycenaean form, Wilium—is “steep.” Is this a stray snatch of ritual song? Or was there once a Trojan epic about the Trojan War?

“I believe Troy was a place that attracted specific traditional storylines—from both sides,” Bachvarova told me. Her own work examines ancient Near Eastern city laments, poems of mourning for destroyed cities—Uruk, Nippur, Eridu, Ur, Argade—that survive in numerous Near Eastern languages. Readers of the Hebrew Bible will recognize a late expression of this theme in the cry for Jerusalem in the Book of Lamentations: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the cities has become a vassal.”

The list of fallen cities in the Iliad is long. Achilles alone claims to have sacked 23—12 from his ships and 11 by land—and the elderly Greek counselor Nestor endlessly relates tales of conquests past. “Sacker of cities” is an epithet of warriors, and sacking cities was surely part of the old Aeolian epic theme—but now the poets were absorbing other traditions that emphasized the cost of these acts of war.

Our Iliad, the epic tradition’s final iteration, honors heroic military prowess but also serves as an extended elegy for the doomed city of the Trojans. The fall of Troy, Ilion, is the Iliad’s defining subject, and the epic evokes this imminent event in one fashion or another throughout its narrative, as for example when Hector is killed:

[N]ow his mother
ripped her hair and flung her shining veil
far away, shrieking her grief aloud as she looked on her child.
His beloved father cried out pitiably and around them the people
were gripped by wailing and crying throughout the city—
it was as if the whole of
lofty Ilion, from its topmost point, were consumed with fire.

‘Ili-o-o proparoithen’—as you know,” said Bachvarova, “this shows that by the time the contraction of vowels occurs, stories about Troy already exist. But one of the significant points is it means ‘in front of Ilion,’ from the point of view of the outsider attacking Troy. The Anatolian storyline that is the lament—that brings one inside Troy. What would either be without the other?” She laughed triumphantly. “And that’s the beginning of Western literature—right there.”

Ruins of an old city dot a grassy hillside with treesExcavated remains of the site known as Troy VI, Hisarlik, Turkey, date to the Late Bronze Age, when the late Hittite and Mycenaean empires flourished. (Alamy)

I had a last pilgrimage to make on Lesbos, to the small town of Perama, situated on the sandy shores of the Gulf of Gera. On the road south from Mytilene, black-robed women walked heavily beside the traffic, always under male escort. Amid the roadside dust, men wearing knit hats knelt in prayer. Everywhere, I was told, the refugee crisis had ebbed, the numbers being a fraction of what they had been before, but still the local news reported that the main refugee camp in Moira was overcrowded by several thousand.

In Perama few people were about. The town was once a center of olive-oil processing, and though its handsome stone factories were abandoned long ago, traces of its past prosperity survived, as in the fancy ironwork of its lampposts. Although this area has never been excavated, earth mounds on the seaward side have yielded significant ancient finds of locally made imitations of Mycenaean pottery. Analyzing this clutter of fragmented shards, the author of the seminal archaeological survey of the region, Nicholas Bayne, concluded, “Perama may be a settlement of poor Mycenaean refugees fleeing the destruction.” The report was written in the 1960s, and the author’s emotive language is out of favor today; additionally, many now dispute his claim. Nonetheless, his words invite imaginative engagement with those fleeing. A place like Perama, snug in the narrows of the generous bay with its soft sand shore and the forest at its back—to the first refugees, life here must have looked promising.

It may be that the Greek bards who performed and adapted the Iliad’s tradition coolly exploited their audiences’ emotions by feigning sympathy for the Trojan enemy. But possibly the sympathy was unfeigned, the outcome of long reflection on such matters as the fickleness of fate, a shared history of loss, and the cost of war. Like modern Turks and Australians, whose forebears died fighting each other in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of World War I, across the Dardanelles strait from Troy, Anatolians and Aeolian Greeks may have found a unique bond in the shared disaster of the Trojan War. “Revere the gods, Achilles, and have pity upon me, remembering your father,” King Priam of Troy beseeches, having come through the night to the Greek camp to beg for the body of Hector, his slain son,

“for I am yet more pitiful,
and have endured such things as no other mortal man upon the earth,
drawing to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.”
So he spoke; and he stirred in the other a yearning to weep for his own father,
and taking hold of his hand he gently pushed the old man away.
And the two remembered, the one weeping without cessation for
man-slaughtering Hector as he lay curled before Achilles’ feet,
and Achilles wept for his own father, and then again for
Patroclus; and the sound of their lament was raised throughout the hall.

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