Why the Iliad – about a fame-obsessed society wracked by war and disease – is a tale for our times

Brad Pitt in a scene from Troy, 2004
Brad Pitt in a scene from Troy, 2004 - Alamy Stock Photo

Louis MacNeice’s long autobiographical poem, Autumn Journal (1939), includes a ­famous passage in which he draws on his experiences as a teacher of ancient Greek and Latin literature, and contrasts his own world – in Britain on the brink of war – with that of those long dead, conclud­ing memorably:

And how one can imagine oneself
among them
I do not know. 
It was all so unimaginably different And all so long ago.

And yet MacNeice could, at the same time, at least begin to ­imagine those long-dead ­people, not through the pieties of the ­classroom (“the Glory that was Greece, put it in a syllabus, grade it page by page”), but through a ­mental leap that would enable him to ­envision a ­different history, whose ­inequalities and painful struggles were less calmly rational, less distant from the mess of the contemporary world, than the textbooks might have you believe. “I think instead of the crooks, the adventurers … I think of the slaves”.

As a translator of the Homeric poems, the Odyssey (published in 2017) and now the Iliad, I have thought ­frequently of this passage, and of the dilemma MacNeice ­articulates so well: whether it is ever poss­ible to imagine oneself among the ancients – or to create a new but truly authentic voice for this centuries-old poetry.

The first and most necessary step was to recognise the impossib­ility of the task. Understanding the ­original poems, as deeply as a modern ­person can after many decades of immersion in both the language and the world of Homeric scholarship, is only a tiny fraction of the necessary work. Even when the original is crystal-clear (as is often the case with the Homeric poems, which are not syntact­ically difficult or dense), there can be no obvious way to produce anything like an equivalent effect in modern English. Plonking down the dictionary definitions of each word, without considering style, rhythm, mood or character, will result in a barely comprehensible, turgid mess – a betrayal of this sublime epic. It takes hard work to make a poem easy to read.

Author Emily Wilson
Author Emily Wilson - Elijah Ellis

For the first two years of ­working on the Iliad, I was more or less completely stuck. I read and reread lines and passages from the original out loud, then read and reread my own early, stillborn failures, experimenting with phrasing, line length and rhythm, rejecting one unsatisfactory solution after another, and hearing, repeatedly, the vast gap between my grasp and my reach.

Gradually, my task became clearer – as when Zeus clears the thick fog from the battlefield in Book 17, so that the mortals who struggle to claim the dead Patroclus can at least die in the light. Slowly, I began to understand with more precision how my Iliad translation must necessarily be different from my Odyssey.

The Odyssey, which describes the wily Odysseus’s successful journey back to Ithaca, is a magical poem, set over multiple locations, time-lines and alternative homelands. To translate Athena’s epic required a fluid sequence of disguises, ­supple and strong as an olive branch ­winding through stone.

For the Iliad, I needed a voice of bronze, a voice of wind, a voice of fire. The Iliad is set in the claustrophobic space between the city of Troy and the sea, and focuses on a furious quarrel between two Greek leaders, and the massacres and grief it causes. For this much darker epic, I needed to forge greatness without hyperbole, power without pomposity: as massive as a mountain, as soft as night, as powerful as sleep.

I thought constantly of how even the Homeric narrator acknowledges the impossibility of telling a tale of this magnitude without divine inspiration:

I could not tell or name the 
not even if I had ten tongues, ten 
a voice that never broke, a heart of 
bronze …

So much of the world of Homer is strange to us. This includes the basics of what Homeric people eat (elaborate meaty feasts, not a fresh vegetable in sight), and what they wear (gleaming bronze helmets matched with breast-plates, leg armour and sharp bronze weapons). The social customs, armour and food pose fairly straightforward challenges for the translator, such as whether readers will know what “chine” is (the highly honorific cut of meat from the back of the animal), or whether “fatty pork” sounds disgusting rather than delicious. I decided, with much regret, that some lovely words such as “joust” and “lance” sound too specifically medieval to put on a Homeric fighter – although when the ­original uses an unusual word for shield, I felt it was legitimate to use “buckler”, to echo that strangeness.

But Homeric characters are not simply modern characters who wear strange costumes and eat weird food. There is also ­something alien about how these characters inhabit their bodies, feel and express their most intense emotions, and imagine life and death. In creating a translation of this ancient poem, I hoped to enable the reader to experience the characters and their feelings as directly and viscerally as an ancient listener might have done – without ever giving the sense that the narrator of the poem views them with anything other than deep empathy. I tried constantly to echo the unfamiliar imagery with which Homer describes these emotions. A modern person might simply “get angry” or “break down in tears”. But in Homer, grief, desire, sleep, rage and a zeal for fighting have an almost material quality: a person can be “seized” by rage, which enters the body, as Achilles says, “sweeter than honey” until it “swells like smoke”; the enraged person is suffocated from within by his own anger. Sleep, sorrow, death or desire may “wrap around” or “enfold” a person. In a poem so thoroughly focused on the deadly, material consequences of rage and grief, it seemed to me essential that the translation should not “normalise” or modernise the ways in which these emotions are represented and experienced: the reader must understand that they can be felt as a physical presence in the body, with their own agency and life.

Trojan Horse from Troy (2004)
Trojan Horse from Troy (2004) - Alamy Stock Photo

Perhaps one of the strangest things about the Homeric poems, for the modern reader, is simply that they are poems: composed in a beautifully musical metre (dactylic hexameter), a regular pattern of long and short syllables, beating through the words like waves lapping on the shore. Contemporary Anglophone readers tend to have little experience of long narratives that are not novels, so it is no surprise that the vast majority of 20th and 21st-century translators have “domesticised” Homer’s poetic form, by using either straight prose (with no line breaks) or lineated prose (with line breaks, but no regular rhythm). In the 1960s and 1970s, Robert Fitzgerald avoided using “too much iambic”, on the advice of Ezra Pound. But Homer was not a modernist free-verse poet. The lack of regular metre in most contemporary English translations creates a reading experience that is radically different from the auditory experience of immersion in a long narrative poem, where metre is always present, however it may ebb and flow to fit the rhythms and moods of speech. As a lover of Anglophone metrical poetry – a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages, but remains fully alive in the 21st century – I felt that this particular kind of strangeness in Homer was not in fact impossible for contemporary readers to hear and enjoy. Many children’s books use metre, precisely because it makes the experience of reading out loud more pleasurable for both reader and listener. I wanted to honour the poems’ oral heritage with a ­regular, audible rhythm and with language that would, like the original, invite performance. I aimed to use a natural-sounding rhythm ­regular enough that it could be felt in the body and the mouth, accessible even to readers who might not ­consciously notice metre: ­iambic pentameter.

Some translations of the Homeric poems seem to present the original as inherently foreign and only partially comprehensible, in the way it might be for a new student of Ancient Greek. They resemble the peculiar language produced by my students for homework or exams, to demonstrate that they have laboured through the syntax.

Rossana Podesta and Jack Sernas in Troy (1955)
Rossana Podesta and Jack Sernas in Troy (1955) - Getty Images/Hulton Archive

I have not adopted this approach. I have also tried to resist the tendency of many of the more “domesticising” free-verse translations to liven things up with English or American colloquialisms and slang – even when they import metaphors and idioms that are alien to the original. Having published ­English translations of Seneca, Euripides and Sophocles, I felt sure that Homer in translation, as in the originals, must sound entirely different from each of them: these epics must have none of the clever, allusive bombast of Seneca, none of the urbane wit of Euripides, none of the dense, difficult metaphors of Sophocles. Homeric Greek has a limpid clarity and freshness that needs to sparkle in the English, like the clear, almost painful brightness of sunlight on bronze. My task was to make this ancient poem about death feel vividly, unarguably alive.

Consider, for instance, the terrible clarity and energy of Achilles’s words to Hector just before he kills him:

“Remember all your skill and all  
your courage.
Now is the time for bravery in battle.
Now you must be a warrior, a fighter.
Now all your chances to escape are  

Characters in Homer are never more alive than in the brief moment before their limbs unravel and they fall, bronze armour clattering around them.

Homer transports us to a world that is very distant from our own. And yet, I hope that readers of my translation will find multiple ­surprising points of connection when they allow themselves to become immersed in the mythical setting of this great poem. Current attitudes towards “celebrity” may be quite different from the Homeric representation of fame, glory, honour and renown, but the Iliad is familiar in its evocation of a society where people are obsessed with being seen as “winners”. For a 21st-­century reader, there is nothing unfamiliar about a partisan society riven by constant striving for ­dominance and attention, where rage and outrage are constantly whipped up by extreme rhetoric and the threat of humiliation, and where grief and loss constantly bleed into yet more rage and aggression. In the Iliad, the bitterest conflicts are not between one society and another, but between members of the same community.

Homer’s warriors are almost fused with the technology that enables their success, and that so often leads to their deaths – and we, too, often find our human bodies fused with our technical devices, our phones and our computers, which may, like the shield of Achilles, provide a glimpse of the whole world, but which cannot save us from death. The Iliad begins with a disease that sweeps through the Greek encampment: the theme of a medical crisis, which in turn causes a leadership crisis and massive further damage, is hardly unfamiliar in 2023. The Iliad evokes a desperate community of people in their last days, living with the knowledge that their home will soon be uninhabitable – a theme that is strange to us, in these days of climate crisis, only because it is so nearly impossible for us to bear to believe it.

The Iliad – an extract

After his leader, Agamemnon, dishonours him, the Greek warrior Achilles prays to his sea-goddess mother to restore his lost honour. She achieves this  by ensuring that the Greeks suffer terrible losses while he sits out of battle – thus demonstrating that they cannot succeed without him. But the losses include the death of Achilles’s own dearest comrade, Patroclus – after which swift-footed Achilles, now dressed in divinely forged armour, joins battle for the first time in the Iliad, ready to avenge his dead friend by slaughtering the Trojans. 

Then Tros, Alastor’s son, approached and clasped
Achilles by the knees because he hoped
that he might spare his life and take him captive,
not kill him, once he saw their ages matched.
The poor fool did not know he would not listen.
Achilles had no sweetness in his heart,
no softness in his mind. He was riled up
with frenzied eagerness to fight and kill.
The Trojan clasped his knees and tried to pray.
Achilles plunged his sword into his liver,
which slipped out and the black blood drenched his    
The darkness veiled his eyes as he was losing
his life. And then Achilles stood beside
Mulius, stabbed him through his ear, and drove
the bronze right out the other ear. He used
his hilted sword to strike Antenor’s son,
Echeclus, through the middle of his skull.
Submerged in blood, the blade grew warm. Red death
and strong fate seized the man and veiled his sight.
Achilles killed Deucalion. He struck
his elbow, where the tendons meet, and sliced
right through the arm with his bronze spear. The 
impeded by his injury, could not move
out of his killer’s way, but looked directly
towards impending death. Then with his sword
Achilles struck his neck and chopped his head off
and threw it far away, helmet and all.
The marrow burst out from the vertebrae.
The torso lay stretched out upon the ground.
Then he pursued the son of Piros, Rigmus,
who came from fertile Thrace. Achilles threw
his bronze spear at his middle, and it pierced
his belly. From the chariot he fell.
The charioteer, Arethous, was turning
the horses round, but with his sharp bronze spear
Achilles struck his back and made him fall
out of the chariot. The horses panicked.
As fire from heaven rages through deep glens
and wind whirls everywhere and whips the flames,
Achilles with his spear swept everywhere,
pursuing those he killed. The ground flowed black
with blood. As when a farmer yokes two oxen
with flat, broad faces, so that he can garner
white barley in a well-built threshing floor—
they bellow as they work, and soon the grain
is turned to husks beneath their hooves—just so
the strong-hoofed horses driven by Achilles
trampled the shields and corpses, and the axle
beneath the chariot was doused in blood,
as were the rails around it. They were spattered
by droplets from the wheels and horses’ hooves.
Achilles, son of Peleus, still yearned
to win himself more glory and success.
His lethal hands were always drenched in gore.

The Iliad by Homer, tr Emily Wilson (WW Norton, £30) is out on Tuesday