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The Iliad of Homer by Richmond Lattimore

Posted by Tracy Poff on May 15, 2017

I’ve been trying to read the classics, and there’s nothing more classic than the Iliad. There are a wealth of translations available. As with my choice of translation for Aristotle’s Poetics, I wanted one that was as similar to the original as was reasonable. To that end, I selected Lattimore’s translation. As he says:

My aim has been to give a rendering of the Iliad which will convey the meaning of the Greek in a speed and rhythm analogous to the speed and rhythm I find in the original.

Rather than strive for poetical language, he aims for a plain and direct translation, as to better reproduce Homer’s directness of language:

I must try to avoid mistranslation, which would be caused by rating the word of my own choice ahead of the word which translates the Greek. Subject to such qualification, I must render Homer into the best English verse I can write; and this will be in my own “poetical language,” which is mostly the plain English of today.

So, what’s this Iliad thing all about, then?

In short, when the story begins, the Trojan war has been on for nine years. Chryseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo, has been captured by Agamemnon, and he quite rudely refuses to ransom her back. As a result, Apollo punishes the Achaians. To placate Apollo, Agamemnon agrees to return Chryseis to her father, but only if he is given Achilles’ captive, Briseis, in her place. This offends Achilles greatly, so he asks his mother, Thetis, to entreat Zeus to punish the Achaians in order to demonstrate his worth.

The bulk of the epic is a description of the battles between the Greek forces (particularly a few main actors such as Agamemnon, Odysseus, Diomedes, Ajax, and Nestor) and the Trojans, led by Hector, over the course of which the Achaians are pushed back to their ships, as Achilles begged of Zeus. Afterward, Achilles’ friend, Patroklos, is killed by Hector, and Hector is in turn killed by Achilles.

When the epic ends, the Trojans have been driven back into their city, which is yet uncaptured, and Achilles, though still alive, is soon to die.

The story is usually entertaining, but there are several sections which present the genealogy of some character or other, which I found to be of little interest, and the battles are often long strings of “Foo, son of Bar, beloved of Zeus, was struck by the spear under the nose, and it pierced through. The darkness closed over both eyes, and he fell to the ground, thunderously, and his armor clattered upon him.” Even bloody battles can be made dull by too much of this.

The most interesting part, I think, is how recognizable the characters’ motivations are. Achilles is motivated by anger at being slighted, and in the end by grief and rage at the death of Patroklos. Or take Athena, who is upset with Aphrodite. She grants Diomedes the ability to recognize who among the combatants are gods, and tells him:

Therefore now, if a god making trial of you comes hither
do you not do battle head-on with the gods immortal,
not with the rest; but only if Aphrodite, Zeus’ daughter,
comes to the fighting, her at least you may stab with the sharp bronze.

Or when Diomedes is struck by an arrow shot by Paris, who brags of his success, and replies with this boast:

You archer, foul fighter, lovely in your locks, eyer of young girls.
If you were to make trial of me in strong combat with weapons
your bow would do you no good at all, nor your close-showered arrows.
Now you have scratched the flat of my foot, and even boast of this.
I care no more than if a witless child or a woman
had struck me; this is the blank weapon of a useless man, no fighter.
But if one is struck by me only a little, that is far different,
the stroke is a sharp thing and suddenly lays him lifeless,
and that man’s wife goes with cheeks torn in lamentation,
and his children are fatherless, while he staining the soil with his red blood
rots away, and there are more birds than women swarming about him.

Lattimore’s translation is generally very easy to understand, though his choices for writing names can take some getting used to: he renders Ajax as “Aias” and Achilles as “Achilleus”, for example.

The direct, unpoetical language has its benefits, I suppose. The translation is never confusing by fault of overly florid language. But all the same I find myself a little disappointed how much it reads like ordinary prose; I enjoyed the more lyrical style of Cowper’s translation, though it was a bit harder to follow.

Overall, I enjoyed the Iliad and was satisfied with Lattimore’s translation. Even if it weren’t an important work of literature, I think the Iliad would still be worth reading. It’s not a quick read, by any means, but it needn’t seem intimidating, either. If the Iliad is on your reading list, go for it!

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