Jacqueline de Romilly, Hector (1997)

Finishing this book left me in a state of euphoria… It gave me the feeling (oh, I know that it’s only illusory and transitory), that the Iliad was wide open to me and gave out all its secrets. It sounds very presumptuous to write that I felt as if I understood everything about the Iliad, because obviously I don’t, but I got some essential keys, and it made my reading a lot more enjoyable.

A few weeks ago, I complained how reading the Iliad was a traumatic experience, as I had the feeling of going deeper and deeper into a field of corpses. From left to right there only were (much too) realistic scenes of violent death. The gods seem petty and immature with their constant quarrels, their disregard for human suffering and even for fairness, and their tricks played to fool men or one another. I felt lost and unable to understand what I was told. And no Who’s who of Olympus gods and heroes could help me.

I needed a guide for this travel to ancient Troy, not the Cliff notes kind of guide that allows you to bluff without reading the real thing, more like a wise shepherd who gives you some hints where to go explore by yourself. This I found in Jacqueline de Romilly, one of the most revered female historian of Antiquities of this country. The tone of the book was one of a conversation with friends, not obscured by specialist disputes or jargon. Indeed, a lot of scholars out there have devoted their lives to investigate whether Homer had written the whole thing, or to the study of weaponry. But naïve ignoramus as I am, I don’t read the Iliad to ask myself these questions. Romilly’s book is a very free essay, something French scholars rarely do for fear that it might compromise their credibility: facts about Hector and the Iliad mix with a very contemporary view of how we in the XXIst century can relate with Homer’s epic, and how parts of the poem relate to her own memories and emotions.

I realized that it was alright to feel overwhelmed by death descriptions, as the Iliad is really more of a human tragedy than a epic, which typically glorifies war and ends in triumphal peace: it’s a poem that starts with Achilles’ anger, looks at war both in its beauty and its horror, and ends with grief and appeasement over a dead man, Hector. It’s quite strange indeed that the poem concentrates on the enemy as main character and does not validate every deed from the “good side”. I learnt to appreciate Hector’s gentleness, as seen with his mother, his sister in law Helena, and his wife Andromaque, and see how Homer pities his tragic fate, fighting alone without a chance against a semi-god, Achilles, who is beside himself with grief over his fallen friend, Patroclus. I learnt that the horrible images of desecrated corpses were here to shock the audience (it still works after centuries!) and justify the respect basic rules of good conduct in war, as opposed to the law of the strongest.

Now I’m very near the end of the Iliad itself, and I can’t wait to read another Greek tragedy!

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