In the Iliad, soldiers are “more loved by the vultures than by their wives”. Stripped of armour and honour, their pale bodies lie draped across Troy’s battlefields in a bitter picture of the futility of love. An image of something beautiful gives way instantly to an image of bloodshed at many points in Homer’s epics, not because the poet relished the contrast between them, but because he felt that he owed them equal reverence. As Adam Nicolson illustrates in a book that overflows with power, confidence and the joy of self-discovery, we find in Homer a pleasure for the sights and sounds of death.
Nicolson’s quest is to discover why Homer matters, and where his poetry came from. It will come as little surprise that much of this book is therefore dedicated to exploring the poems’ origins in oral tradition. Moving between passages of autobiography and literary criticism, Nicolson takes us through the scholarship of Milman Parry, the early-20th-century classicist who found — in the course of writing his doctoral thesis no less-evidence for the origins of Homer’s poems in performance by studying their epithets (“resourceful Odysseus”, “rosy-fingered Dawn”). These epithets often clash with the contexts in which they are applied, so dirty linen can still be called “gleaming”, which led Parry to argue that they were merely the building blocks of song.
While Nicolson departs from Parry on many points, he maintains his interest in the importance of the poems’ song-like metre, the dactylic hexameter, which he does a very good job of illustrating. The more one immerses oneself in this world of oral poetry, the more aware one becomes of our inadequacies as listeners compared to the audiences of antiquity.
There are moments in the Iliad where we know we would struggle to keep pace. Book II is perhaps the hardest to digest. That is the book in which the poet provides a “catalogue” of men who went to fight at Troy, a long list with little accompanying detail, just scores of names and the foreign places from which they came. Where the Hellenes of the 8th century BC found monumentality in roll-calls like this, today we must seek it elsewhere. When Nicolson ploughs the past for clues about Homer’s origins, it is really this alternative sense of monumentality that he is seeking. Nicolson is forever reaching out for something more tangible than the faceless welter of orality.
One may speak of oral composition, but an oral poem, he correctly observes, need not be composed on the spot ex nihilo. Composing a poem orally might involve reviving a story a father or grandparent told long ago. The nature of oral epic, Nicolson suggests, is such that it may preserve phrases and stories and references from a much earlier age.
The Homeric epics therefore emerge as monuments of memorialisation, as much as monuments of human achievement. “Epic is different from life. The present moment might be seen as a kind of blade, cutting the past from the present, severing now from then, but poetry binds the wounds that time inflicts,” he writes with characteristic lyricism.
Nicolson might have stopped there. But it is as if he wants to know how many generations have elapsed in the process of memorialisation. He may be searching for the impossible here, but one can hardly scorn his curiosity.
Could the Homeric epics really “remember” more than meets the eye? If Nicolson is right, traces of these memories may be used to reinterpret the date of the Iliad and Odyssey. By his reading, the Homeric epics are the product of the merging of the Eurasian steppes (the area north and west of the Black Sea) and the cities of the eastern Mediterranean in around 2000 BC. This puts them at least a thousand years earlier than when most scholars believe they were written down, in the 8th century BC.
This, it must be said, is an outlandish theory, but encourages Nicolson to introduce some fascinating material to support it. Among the sources he mines for clues are the shaft graves at Mycenae, which once contained the fine accoutrements of warriors, including what is now an iconic gold mask. There is little reason to doubt that these finds date to the 16th century BC, but they evoke for Nicolson rather the kingly extravagance of the Greeks who fought in the Trojan War, which is usually put at 1200 BC.
Few scholars will be swayed by Nicolson’s attempts to push the Homeric poems so far back in history, even by means of poetic memory, but that does not matter when there is so much to enjoy in his use of the material. He writes with such interest and excitement that one cannot help but be drawn deeply into the ancient text.
He offers a particularly engaging parallel, for example, between the gold mask and Homer’s description of Agamemnon as he powers over the battlefield in the grip of aristeia, one of the elusive Greek words which he captures well as a “power-drive towards supremacy, his best moment . . . his excellence, his moment of prowess”.
Agamemnon and Achilles are memorable as characters, so the title of his book pays homage to the larger group of men and women around them, who find “might” through the immortality of Homer’s stories and our eagerness to keep them alive. One realises, quite in step with Nicolson, that the monumentality of the Homeric epics lies not in the detail or roll-calls of names, but indeed in memory, an inherited memory of warfare that has proved ever too relevant to forget. With the thud of each body on the battlefield comes the beautiful realisation that the fallen are not alone.