A grand new Iliad translation – and it’s an English triumph

Achilles Receives Agamemnon's Ambassadors (1801, detail) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Achilles Receives Agamemnon's Ambassadors (1801, detail) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - Hulton

Why are our contemporaries so keen on buying, and presumably reading, new translations of the Iliad’s Iron Age reminiscences of Bronze Age combat? Some years ago, I asked the same question at the start of a lengthy article on the composition and editing of the Greek text in Alexandria’s great library, which I cheekily titled ‘Homer Inc’.

I never did answer the question, because at the time, I was in Beijing, where the fourth edition of the Iliad rendered in Chinese characters was selling well at the big Wangfujing bookshop. That brought me to the belated realisation that only a blockhead would pass up the opportunity to read the Iliad again with the excuse of a new translation. My own Greek gives me Prokopios transparently, but only a dull sense of Homer’s Ionian-inflected musicality – which is rather odd, actually, because Prokopios, like every other non-illiterate in the eastern Empire, had been brought up on Homer in his schooldays.

(Parenthetically, it also occurred to me that if the Iliad was selling well in China, it was not as entirely a Eurocentric affectation as influential academics were suggesting at the time, which was enough to induce the shrinkage or outright closure of classics departments. Princeton’s, mysteriously, is still open even after abandoning the Greek or Latin language requirement – it used to be both – in the name, of course, of inclusion.)

There are widely admired Iliad translations that I dislike, including Robert Fitzgerald’s for betraying the Greek text even as he paraded a semblance of authenticity with his “Akhilleus” instead of Achilles (and so on). But I have not disliked reading Emily Wilson’s. A key reason is her solution for the notorious problem of Homer’s dactylic hexameters, which are good for chanting to a lyre in Greek, but do not declaim at all well in English – and an Englished Iliad must of course be declaimed.

Wilson tells us that she (very sensibly) prayed for the help of Calliope, the muse in charge of epics, who (very sensibly) told her to find her meter in the English poetry she liked best. If the reader therefore hears Milton’s unrhymed iambic pentameters in Wilson’s Iliad, that’s just as well, because no English text is better declaimed than Paradise Lost, and Milton read his Homer most intensively, judging by his own heavily annotated Iliad.

The Quarrel Between Agamemnon and Achilles (c1695) by Giovanni Battista Gaulli
The Quarrel Between Agamemnon and Achilles (c1695) by Giovanni Battista Gaulli - Heritage

Wilson could not have favourites among the books – it was the editors of the great library of Alexandria who divided both Iliad and Odyssey into 24 books – but because my own war experiences were in raids rather than battles, I have always particularly liked book 10, titled Espionage by Night by Wilson. Many others have particularly disliked it: one Stephen Mitchell excluded the book altogether from his translation because of its cruelty, he wrote, and the old contention that it was somehow less authentic.

I, on the other hand, would hold that it is the most authentic of all books, because it features a boar’s head helmet that was archaic even then. Wilson begins:

The finest fighters from the whole of Greece
slept through the night beside the ships. Soft Sleep 
bound all of them – except Lord Agamemnon, 
the son of Atreus, the people’s shepherd. 
Sleep sweetness could not hold him while his mind
was troubled by so many cares and worries…
His inmost spirit trembled. Every time 
he gazed towards the Trojan plain, he marvelled 
at all the fires that burned in front of Troy…

Here is Agamemnon showing why he deserved to be the commanding officer in spite of all the insults directed at him: awake while all others sleep, just like a modern brigade commander in war, because he is troubled by the fires – which are in the wrong place, “in front of Troy” instead of inside its mighty walls.

Why? To find out, he sends Odysseus and Diomedes to sneak towards Troy in the night, but they have not ventured far when they capture rich-boy Dolon, who tells them everything when promised his life: so many allies have arrived to help Troy that there’s no room for them inside. The most formidable new force is the Thracian cavalry that the ship-borne Greeks cannot possibly match, a most dangerous threat that the two heroes nullify by stampeding the horses all the way to the Greek ships, after violating their promise by killing Dolon.

Yes, cruel and dishonourable, but realistic: a pair of infiltrators cannot take a POW with them, nor safely release him. There, as everywhere in the Iliad, Homer’s glorification of violence is paired with empathy for the suffering victims at the receiving end of glorious combat, and notoriously he follows the spear all the way in as it cleaves flesh.

Emily Wilson has followed her Odyssey with a new version of the Iliad
Emily Wilson has followed her Odyssey with a new version of the Iliad - Norton/Elijah Ellis

The only false note in Wilson’s edition occurs in her Introduction, where she unaccountably finds it necessary to complain about enslavement and rape in ancient wars, activities deemed natural long after the Iliad was composed. Moreover, her complaint is especially inappropriate in this case, because Agamemnon swore that he had never violated the priest’s daughter he had so unfortunately captured, while Achilles swears that he loves his captive Briseis very deeply, as much as any beloved wife, even though he had won her with his spear.

I find it charming that Wilson is so smitten with the greatest work of Western literature that she refuses to go out of her way to deny its historicity; indeed, she identifies Troy with the Wilusa of the Hittites – the name occurs in cuneiform correspondence deciphered with an unpardonable delay – plainly derived from the Iliad’s Ilion. She even provides maps. For my part, I am tempted to replace my Andrew Lang, Walter Leaf and Ernest Myers 1883 prose Iliad with Wilson’s poetical one: it is that accurate.

Edward N Luttwak, author of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, is a strategic adviser to the US government. The Iliad, tr Emily Wilson, is published by Norton at £30. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books