Posts Tagged With: The Trojan War

Arrian I.11.1-8

In This Chapter
Return to Macedon and Departure for Asia Minor

Alexander conquered Thebes in the autumn of 335 BC. After settling matters with Athens, he returned to Macedon where he made sacrifice to Olympian Zeus in a ceremony (?) first established by his predecessor, Archelaus (who reigned from c.413-399). Later, he celebrated Olympic Games – not the famous one – at Dion (Arrian incorrectly says it was held at Aegae). Arrian notes that according to some sources, Alexander also celebrated ‘games in honour of the Muses’.

Around the time that Alexander was holding these celebrations, he received word that a statue of Orpheus in Pieria had started to sweat continuously. A number of seers made prophecies based on this occurrence but Arrian records only one. According to a seer named Aristander, who had served under Philip and would do so under Alexander to at least Bactria-Sogdia, the sweating meant that ‘all the composers of epic and lyric and choral odes’ would have much work to do in ‘celebrating Alexander and his achievements’.

***

Arrian now fast forwards to Spring 334 BC.

In late April or early May, Alexander lead his army to the Hellespont. Twenty days after leaving home, he arrived at Elaeus on the south-eastern tip of Thrace.

As you can see from the map, he chose the shortest sea crossing possible to Asia Minor Alexander never shied away from danger and indeed could sometimes be reckless in the face of it but he clearly knew there was a time and a place for everything. And the crossing to Asia Minor was not it.

At Elaeus, Alexander sacrificed to Protesilaus who was shot dead straight after setting foot on Asian soil following the crossing from Greece at the start of the Trojan war. Alexander wanted his expedition to go better.

Not all of the army went to Elaeus with him. Most of it had stayed with Parmenion a few miles up the road at Sestos. Alexander’s most senior general now oversaw its passage in one hundred and sixty triremes and an unspecified number of freighters to Abydos.

Alexander, meanwhile, sailed for Troy. While at sea – halfway between Thrace and Asia Minor – he sacrificed a bull and poured a libation into the sea. Once he reached Asia Minor, Alexander leapt off his ship – in full armour, no less.

Having already erected an altar at Elaeus, Alexander now had another built at his ships’ landing site. It was dedicated to Zeus ‘the protector of Landings’, Athena and Herakles. Leaving the shore, he marched to Troy, or the run down tourist trap that now claimed to be the same, where he sacrificed to ‘Trojan Athena’. He left his panoply there and took in its place weaponry that dated back to the Trojan War. At the end of his visit, he also sacrificed to Priam so as to ‘avert his anger at the race of Neoptolemus’ from which Alexander was descended (on his mother’s side).

Thoughts
This chapter forms a bridge between the Greek Campaigns and Campaign in Asia Minor. It is dominated by religion. Alexander changed as a person during the thirteen years of his kingship but some things remained constant – his belief in and loyalty to the Olympian gods. The various sacrifices that we see being carried out here are mirrored by those that he conducted during his last illness in June 323 BC.

On a few occasions in this chapter, Arrian distances himself a little from his sources: ‘The prevailing consensus is…’, ‘They also say…’, ‘The prevalent account…’. I take this wording to mean that the relevant information does not come from Ptolemy or Aristobulos?

The above three quotations all relate to Alexander’s crossing of the Hellespont and visit to Troy. Why might Ptolemy and Aristobulos not been interested in recording it (and Arrian vice versa)? We don’t know. Perhaps it never happened – the whole Alexander-Achilles thing is a later invention. Perhaps it did happen but still not with the significance that was later attached to it so Ptolemy and Aristobulos only mentioned it in passing. As for Arrian, perhaps he knew his readers would like the story.

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I wrote this review in November 2013 whereupon it went into my drafts folder in anticipation of being edited before I pressed the ‘publish’ button. Fourteen months later and I think it’s fair to say the time for editing has long since passed. If I was going to do that I would need to read the book again, which I don’t have time to do. As the review is perfectly readable (and, I hope, understandable) I thought I would publish it “as-is”.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Book reviews on The Second Achilles are few and far between but I could hardly ignore this one.

We all know the story of how Achilles was dipped into the Styx by his mother so that he was invulnerable except at the heel; how he fought in the Trojan War, only to be dishonoured by Agamemnon; how he died after being shot by Paris in the one place that he was vulnerable.

Similarly, we all know of his friendship with Patroclus. The Iliad doesn’t say as much but the ancient Greeks generally believed that they were lovers. Miller takes that view as well, and so her book is Patroclus’ account of how they met and fell in love.

Oh yes, and died; we shall come back to that.

Madeline Miller is a good story teller. She can turn a phrase well and is at ease with her characters. She wears her learning lightly (according to the author’s biography in the book she has two degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek and teaches both subjects) and has made me want to read The Iliad again. I understand she is writing a book based on The Odyssey; on the strength of The Song of Achilles I shall certainly be keeping an eye out for it.

If you have the feeling that a ‘but’ is coming, I applaud you prescience, for here it is.

But…

The Song of Achilles had – for me – a number of faults that stopped me from regarding it as a first class effort.

Most profoundly, I did not feel that it made clear why Achilles was attracted to Patroclus. One minute Patroclus is sitting by himself at the table, the next Achilles has noticed him, the third they are bosom buddies for the rest of their lives and beyond.

I felt that the book suffered from a number of disconnections.
i. Achilles is portrayed as an utterly carefree boy and then as a man obsessed by his honour. How and when did this change take place? We are given no indication (that I can recall, anyway) that justified his hardline stance after Agamemnon took Briseis.
ii. Achilles carries out no great deeds as a youngster. Except for at meal times, it seems, he lives apart from other people. Yet, when he returned to Phthia after a period of time in Scyros, the men are cheering him to the heavens. Why? Why are they so convinced by him? Is it just reputation alone? If it is, I wish it wasn’t. I wish Miller had given them a more solid reason to cheer him.
iii. Thetis’ appearances were very disjointed. I appreciate that this may have been deliberate to emphasis her apartness from the mortal world but it grated nonetheless, especially because her character remained static for the whole story.

There were three plot elements to The Song of Achilles that I thought were big mistakes to include. The first was the Scyros episode. Again, I appreciate that this is part of the myth of Achilles (although that does not mean Miller was obliged to use it) but it felt very out-of-place as far as the story was concerned. Are we really supposed to believe that Achilles would not have sought to return to Patroclus before the latter went to him? Perhaps Miller was telling us something either about his character or his regard for his mother. If only we had a better sense of his relationship with her beforehand.

Similarly, I was not convinced by Achilles’ dressing up as a woman. Was his appearance altered by magic? That’s what I thought at first but then it appeared not to be the case. Granted that Achilles is not big like Ajax or Sarpedon but really didn’t anyone notice who he was? I’m sure I’m missing out on what made his deception convincing but I don’t know what it is. The manner of his unmasking was rushed and felt farcical.

The second plot element that I thought a mistake to include was Neoptolemus. The line in child-tyrants has, in recent years, been dominated by Joffrey in Game of Thrones and he is one more one-dimensional, irritating, blood thirsty brat than fiction really needs. Neoptolemus is now another. He added nothing to the story for me. If anything, he took away from it with his needless arrogance and acts of cruelty. How he was not poisoned by the other captains I will never know. The only justification I can think of for his inclusion is that he was Thetis’ Revenger. If that was the case, though, he did not choose his targets very competently.

The final element was Patroclus’ narration after he died. I would much rather a second narrator had taken over at this point. Patroclus’ continued involvement diminished the value of his death, and therefore, the merit of Achilles’ mourning.

I would like to finish as I started – with some positives.

Although Patroclus came across as rather a bland person, I still liked him. At least he tried and loved. In regards the latter, I thought that his love for Achilles, and indeed their relationship in general, was very sweetly handled. I cannot say how much I liked Miller’s Odysseus – clever, witty, smart… but never arrogant or vain. I hope very much that her Odyssey book is focused on him. Similarly, Odysseus ‘double act’ with Diomedes was great to read.

Finally, I really liked the book’s fusion of myth and reality. To be sure, there was a way in which it didn’t work (the demythologised Achilles worked well as a man but less well as a warrior) but I enjoyed the appearance of Chiron very much, as well as references to heroes such as Herakles, and the first appearances of Thetis and Apollo, as well as the more oblique appearance of Zeus.

In conclusion, I think Madeline Miller has given us something that adds to our creative understanding of Achilles. For all its faults, it was a good first novel, and although it should not have won the Orange award, I saw enough in it to make me think that Miller will grow and continue to improve as an author. My copy came signed by her. I wish it had come without the praise of Bettany Hughes and Donna Tartt on the front cover as they raised unrealistic and unfair expectations.

I commend it to you.

Categories: Books, Fiction | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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