When I first read the Iliad, in the magnificent Richmond Lattimore translation, back in 1974, the only resources I had were the text, my excellent teacher, and a few essays one might rustle up by spending a few hours in the stacks at the University of Minnesota library, and then, of course, photocopy at 10 cents per page.
I suppose I have read the Iliad a dozen times in my life. This most recent read was inspired by the ten-day adventure I just had in Greece with my daughter, who just graduated in classics from the University of Columbia.
I’m reading Caroline Alexander’s new translation of the epic. She was a Rhodes classmate of mine at Oxford. She is unquestionably “the best of the Achaeans.” But I am alternating reading her translation with those of Lattimore, Fagles, Fitzgerald, and George Chapman (but not Alexander Pope). Moments ago I finished reading Alexander’s introduction–strong but not as
good as those of Lattimore and others.
I’m only getting started here, but the online resources for a study of the Iliad are superb. Just this morning I have printed out a list of all the contingents and all the commanders who sailed to Troy; a list of every death in the epic, and the name of the killer; maps based on the Catalogue of Ships; a complete list of all the children of Priam, daughters and sons, and what happened to each of them in the course of the epic; and Phyllis Taylor’s The Iliad: A Practical Approach. I’m certain if I persevered I could soon amass a set of materials that would constitute the best-ever “apparatus” for reading and understanding one of the world’s greatest works of literature. And this does not include documentary films, online lectures, animations, and the immense supply of visual images that can be regarded as a nearly definitive “annotation” system for the poem.
When I last taught the Iliad in a college course, at the University of Nevada at Reno, the western traditions course I was teaching had 180 students in it. It was the first humanities course that most of those students had taken in college. Most had never encountered Homer in any way in their previous educations. I had selected Lattimore’s outstanding translation. On the first day of the Homer section, I spoke about the magnificence of the epic, its influence on western literature, its unending relevancy in a world still characterized by incessant wars, etc. I told the students they would have to “read on tiptoe,” at full alert, to understand the poem, but that I was there to help, and they should develop a form of “triage” in looking things up. Look up things that you need to know to keep reading, but don’t let every unknown proper name, place name, epithet, minor goddess, or obscure myth trip you up, because if you do, you will never finish the poem.
The students looked at me as if I were a subordinate guard at Guantanamo. Nobody in that large lecture arena showed signs of delight in facing the greatest of all epic poems.
Afterwards, I was walking back to my office. I saw one of my male students on a pay telephone (yep) talking to his girlfriend. As I walked by he said, “If this guy thinks I’m going to try to read this f…g shit, he’s insane.”
That was then. Today I would approach the poem differently, thanks to the explosion, the revolution, of resources that can now be brought to the study of Homer. I’d be tempted to show clips (but not the whole) of the Brad Pitt film Troy. I’d have plenty of power point slides. I’d have lists of websites that are helpful, as well as YouTube lectures students might wish to watch as they worked their way through the first four books of the poem.
Just at the time when the great texts of western tradition are in danger of collapse–in our postmodern, post-literate age–the resources are finally in place to make a run at the Iliad as easy as it has ever been. In my opinion, there is no longer any excuse for bad teaching, because even a lazy and indifferent teacher now has access to resources so rich that s/he need only assemble them and get out of the way to succeed.
Tonight I am going to reread book two (the catalogue of ships) with three computers open to provide maps and animations and lists, and with all the printed materials near at hand, and then two “ancient” book commentaries on the Iliad. Plus photographs from my recent sojourn in Homeric Greece. If I can find them, I’m going to rescue old early digital photographs I took at Troy. I’d give anything to have the postcards I sent to the genius Donaldus back in 1987. I’m still marking all the similes in each translation I read. I have a tripod manufactured by my personal Hephaestus Robin M., and I will drink red wine from an appropriate vessel.