Change over Time

Comparing Homer’s Iliad to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, even just the opening lines of each work, is always revealing. Here they are:

Iliad: “Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.”

History of the Peloponnesian War: “Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.”

In just a few words we see certain differences, emblematic of shift from the Archaic Age to the Classical Age:

  Iliad History Peloponnesian War
Verb Sing Write
Author “goddess”
(i.e. the muse Calliope)
Thucydides himself
Actor Achilles Peloponnesians and Athenians
Subject Anger War
Promises Excitement Accuracy

Homer asks for divine help in performing a story for a live audience, while Thucydides writes in private and on his own authority (and, as revealed later, is really sweating over it, trying to determine what exactly happened). The gods make no appearance in the History of the Peloponnesian War – the human actors might perform rituals to them, but Apollo does not shoot his arrows at them, nor does Athena come down and prevent one person from killing another. It is a purely human story, but a wide-ranging one – it is an account of a war itself; the war does not function as a backdrop to a more personal conflict as it does in the Iliad (or in the movie Pearl Harbor, whose subject, according to one critic, was “a Japanese sneak attack on an American love triangle”).

Behold the rationality of the Classical Age! And the answer to one of the questions on the exam.

And for something slightly related, courtesy Tim Furnish: