Things I did not know until this year

• According to a drama major in one of my classes, a theater (-er) is a place, while theatre (-re) describes the acting profession. And here I thought it was just a British variant spelling still acceptable in the US.

• “Thespian” to describe an actor derives from Thespis of Icaria; “Thespian” as a demonym describes someone from Thespiae in Boeotia. These Thespians were with the Spartans at Thermopylae (not that the movie 300 shows them).

Thoughts on Book 4 of the Histories of Herodotus

Of all the people described by Herodotus, the Scythians seem the most “barbaric,” in both senses of that word (according to 46, though, they are quite “clever”). The Scythians are to the Persians what the Picts are to the Romans, or the Mongols to the Chinese: semi-nomadic invaders from the north, who cause nothing but trouble. Unfortunately their barbarian nature makes them hard to conquer, or so Darius discovers.

The Scythians are not the only people detailed in Book 4. Along with Scythian neighbors (such as the Budini, Issedones, and Hyperboreans), the reader is also treated to some details about Libya – in Herodotus, a general name for Africa, or at least North Africa. Herodotus explicitly compares Scythia with Libya in 29-30, through the lens of climate: Scythia is cold, and Libya is hot, and this affects the growth of animal horns: in Libya they grow quickly, and in Scythia hardly at all (also 129: “there is not in the whole country of Scythia an ass or a mule at all, because of the cold”; see also Herodotus’s remarks on the thickness of Persian and Egyptian skulls in 3:12). At this point, Herodotus invokes “the testimony of Homer,” citing a line from the Odyssey about horn-growing Libyan sheep as “correct” evidence for his theory. One certainly gets the sense here that Herodotus is aware of Homer’s prestige, but that he is writing a different sort of work; he cites the poet, but minimizes his overall importance. (Interestingly, Herodotus does not cite Homer when discussing the Libyan Lotus-Eaters in 177, even though they appear in book nine of the Odyssey.)

In 151, the Oracle tells the Thereans to colonize Libya, and they found Cyrene, to the west of the Nile, under Battus. After a rocky start the Oracle recommends a Mantinean commissioner for reform (in 161), to help the Cyreneans organize themselves as a proper polis. They have an influence on their Libyan neighbors, like the Asbystae, who “more than any others of the Libyans, are drivers of four-horse teams to the chariot, and in most of their customs they imitate the Cyrenaeans” (170). Otherwise, Libyans are strange: among the Auschisae it is the custom for “each man to have many wives, but their enjoyment of them is in common” (172). The Garamantes “avoid everyone and the company of anyone. They have no warlike arms at all, nor do they know how to defend themselves” (174). The Auseans “enjoy their women in common. They do not live in couples at all but fuck in the mass, like cattle” (180).

The successful Greek colonization of Cyrene contrasts with the unsuccessful Persian attempt against the Scythians. Herodotus reveals his bias in this book – and suggests that he is better than Homer, or at least a worthy successor.

Thoughts on Book 3 of the Histories of Herodotus

I gave a short lecture this evening on Book 3; my comments are reprinted below:

Book 2 deals largely with Egypt, and Book 3 marks a return of Persia to the narrative, although we get the usual Herodotean diversions, including Samos and Corinth in the Greek world; and India, Arabia and Ethiopia on the periphery. Of course, the farther afield you go, the more exotic the people’s customs, like the Ethiopian crystal coffins or the Indian use of ants to collect gold.

An important episode in Book 3 is the so-called Constitutional Debate, starting at section 80. A group of seven Persian conspirators has deposed and killed the Magi who have usurped the throne. They then hold a debate on what sort of constitution they should adopt for their new regime. Otanes goes first, and speaks in favor of popular government (isonomia, or equality before the law), although this speech is more anti-monarchical than pro-democratic and reminds me of Samuel’s speech on the dangers of monarchy in 1 Samuel 8. Essentially, by giving monarchs absolute power, it absolutely corrupts them. Equality before the law acts as a check on this tendency. Megabyzus then speaks in favor of oligarchy, or rule by a few, on the principle that the masses are fickle and feckless. Oppression by kings is bad, but at least kings act deliberately; mobs do not. The next best thing is to adopt a constitution favoring rule by a few – included, of course, would be all the conspirators themselves. Finally Darius speaks in favor of monarchy. It is best to have one ruler – provided he is the best. Oligarchy leads to violent quarrels among the members of the ruling clique, from which a victor, and thus a monarch, emerges – so why not just pick a monarch right off the bat? Democracy, too, leads to faction and partisanship, and then the advent of a people’s champion (a monarch again) who promises to break it up. And anyway, says Darius, Persia has always been a monarchy – why change now? The remaining four conspirators find this speech convincing, and vote for it. So Persia does indeed remain a monarchy.

Now it is highly unlikely that this debate actually occurred. Herodotus himself claims that “some Greeks refuse to believe the speeches took place, nevertheless they did” – without providing any further evidence. It is easy to see why people would be skeptical. Discussing the ideal constitution was a Greek pastime (as the works of Plato and Aristotle confirm), and really only applicable at the level of the polis, where one could afford such constitutional experiment. Ancient democracy, or even oligarchy, did not really scale up; empires required emperors. So of course Darius won the day with his vigorous defense of the traditional arrangements – as though there was ever really another choice.

We have talked about how Herodotus is genuinely curious about and even respectful of other peoples’ customs. But it seems to me that ultimately The Histories is pro-Hellenic, since ultimately it is a Greek history of the Persian Wars. It makes sense that the Persians should choose the form of government that suits them – as Herodotus says in 38: “if anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably, after careful consideration of their relative merits, choose those of his own country.” But I would say that Herodotus, the Greek, in this case ultimately looks down on the Persian system. Darius claims that monarchy is good if the king is “the best” – but how does one guarantee this? Does monarchy really serve Persia well when someone like Cambyses is on the throne? Cambyses of course is the Persian successor to Cyrus, and defeats the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus, thereby incorporating Egypt into the Persian empire. He executes numerous Egyptians who offer him resistance, humiliates the family of Psammetichus, burns the body of the Pharaoh Amasis in defiance of both Persian and Egyptian custom, and in a fit of anger sends his men on an expedition into Ethiopia without proper supplies, leading to the loss of most of them. But his greatest crime is the impious killing of the Apis bull in Memphis, for which the gods punish him with madness. In this state he kills his brother and sister, shoots a boy through the heart with an arrow, arbitrarily buries twelve Persians upside down, kills the men who had not carried out an order that he had come to regret, and many other crimes. He is put out of his misery when a self-inflicted wound becomes gangrenous.

This is the major drawback of monarchy. There is no guarantee that you’ll get the best man for the job.

Karl Marx proposed that history always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. He was referring to the advent of Louis-Napoleon in nineteenth-century France, but he might as well have been referring to Book 3 of the Histories. As we read, it is Darius, the defender of monarchy, who becomes monarch. Having agreed that they should have one king, the conspirators devise a method to see which one of them should assume the office. Rather than selecting the one most likely to rule well, they essentially cast lots for the job by seeing whose horse would neigh first at dawn. Of course, this process is gamed by Darius through the judicious use of the pheromones of a mare in heat. Herodotus can’t resist a story of cleverness, and perhaps, he implies, such skills are precisely what a monarch needs to have. But I can’t help but feel that the whole thing makes the Persian monarchy into a sort of joke.

Darius does not die until Book 7, and enjoys certain successes throughout his reign. But before Book 3 is out he is already executing his co-conspirators and their families because he has grown suspicious of them. This is another drawback of monarchy.

Thoughts on Book 2 of the Histories of Herodotus

Book 2 of the Histories largely concerns itself with Egypt. Herodotus is not just the father of history,* he is also the father of ethnography, and his description of the Egyptians suggests that they often do the opposite of whatever the Greeks do: in Egypt, women pee standing up, men sitting down; Egyptians, “preferring cleanliness to comeliness,” practice circumcision; women go to market and are employed in trade, while men stay home and do the weaving (which they do downwards, not upwards). But the Egyptians are not so odd that they have nothing in common with the Greeks. Although they may not be the oldest people in the world (the pharaoh Psammeticus ran a language deprivation experiment and determined that the Phrygians were older), they are certainly older than the Greeks. And Herodotus, being the lumper that he is, matched up Greek with Egyptian gods – and assumed that the Greeks derived their gods from the older Egyptians. (Elsewhere he suggests that the Greeks learned geometry and other things from the Egyptians as well.)

This is a touchy subject. If modern Europeans looked back on the Greeks with admiration, African scholars, in riposte, idealized the Egyptians. There is nothing essentially wrong with this, but the Herodotean notion of cultural priority was emphasized quite a lot by so-called Afrocentrists, including Marcus Garvey, George James, and Cheikh Anta Diop, and was developed into the charge that the Greeks stole everything from the Egyptians – just as nineteenth-century Europeans colonized Africa and expropriated its resources. (When I lecture on this topic I try to say that it is silly to hold the past hostage to present day concerns. Greeks are not stand-ins for “Europe,” nor is Egypt symbolic of “Africa.” They were different people in a different time, and interacted in various ways that may bear little resemblance to our current age. They should be studied as much as possible on their own terms.)

Herodotus is still our main source for Egypt’s Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (664-525 BC), but not for nothing is he called the “father of lies.” It seems that he can’t resist a good story, and I often get the distinct impression that his informants are pulling his leg, while he earnestly writes down everything they tell him. His theory of Egyptian cultural priority is an example of another characteristic: he often draws logical inferences from the facts as he discovers them, which may not actually be borne out by further investigation. Martin Bernal in Black Athena (1987) suggested that Europeans abandoned Herodotus’s Egyptian theory in the nineteenth century because their racism couldn’t bear the thought that the Greeks weren’t original, but Mary Lefkowitz in Not Out of Africa (1997) points out another reason: the decipherment of hieroglyphics in the 1830s meant that we no longer solely dependent on Herodotus for our information on ancient Egypt. As a consequence, we started to discover just how original the Greeks really were, and how Herodotus was simply wrong on this count.

*Patrick Wadden of Belmont Abbey College noted that Herodotus’s extensive discussion of the geography of Egypt, and how it has changed over time, is a topic that historians have only recently returned to.

Thoughts on Book 1 of The Histories of Herodotus

I am currently teaching a multi-institutional course on Herodotus through Sunoikisis, “a national consortium of classics programs.” Combined with the Council on Independent Colleges’ seminar on Herodotus that I participated in last summer at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC, I have been learning quite a lot about this most fascinating of ancient authors. Here are some notes on Book 1; others may follow.


“I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history.” Thus it begins: the father of history designates himself as the author of his own prose work, winning glory (and presumably taking responsibility for any errors that he may commit). Such a move, of course, contrasts with Homer’s call to the muse to help him sing of gods and heroes at Troy, in dactylic hexameter. So just as Herodotus puts himself forward as the author of his own work, the gods themselves play little direct role in the Histories – although the actors reverence gods in various ways, and frequently consult the Oracle, which is never proven wrong.

Herodotus, for the most part, acts as his own authority. He narrates events, including direct speech, as though he were a witness to them (e.g. 84: “This is how Sardis was captured”). But we know that he was not – how then did he get this information? He claims direct observation for his ethnographic descriptions (131: “I speak from personal knowledge [about Persian customs]”), and this we can accept, even if we are skeptical of some of the more outlandish stories he relates. We can assume therefore that his major source was simply conversations with various people in order to collect information about their past, and indeed he occasionally reveals that he has heard things, particularly when he encounters contradictory information, or when he disagrees with it. (20: “So much I know, for I heard from the Delphians that this was how it was. But the Milesians add this besides…”; 76: “I do not accept… the general report of the Greeks”; 172: “personally I believe that the Caunians have always lived in the same country though they themselves say they are from Crete”). But these are simply groups; he does not list any one person as a source.

(One instance of him consulting a historical record as such comes at the very beginning, when he invokes “Persian chroniclers.” He proceeds to dismiss them, however (5: “For my part I am not going to say about these matters that they happened thus or thus.”) A poem of iambic trimeters by Archilochus of Paros is also cited as corroborating evidence of the story of Gyges and Candaules in 12.)

Whether Herodotus is “true” is a question for which we would dearly love corroborating evidence of our own. We are heartened, however, to read that the author is unafraid, at least occasionally, to employ reason to test the veracity of his stories.

Minoans and Mycenaeans

From Smithsonian Magazine, news of a recently discovered tomb at Pylos, which has upended our knowledge of Bronze Age Greece. An excerpt:

“What brings about the collapse of the Minoans, and at the same time what causes the emergence of the Mycenaean palace civilization?”

The distinctions between the two societies are clear enough, quite apart from the fundamental difference in their languages. The Mycenaeans organized their towns with free-standing houses rather than the conglomerated shared buildings seen on Crete, for example. But the relationship between the peoples has long been a contentious subject. In 1900, just 24 years after Schliemann announced he’d found Homer’s heroes at Mycenae, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered the Minoan civilization (named for Crete’s mythic King Minos) when he unearthed Knossos. Evans and subsequent scholars argued that the Minoans, and not the Mycenaean mainlanders, were the “first” Greeks—“the first link in the European chain,” according to the historian Will Durant. Schliemann’s graves, the thinking went, belonged to wealthy rulers of Minoan colonies established on the mainland.

In 1950, however, scholars finally deciphered Linear B tablets from Knossos and Pylos and showed the writing to be the earliest known form of Greek. Opinion now swung the other way: The Mycenaeans were reinstated as the first Greeks, and Minoan objects found in mainland graves were reinterpreted as status symbols stolen or imported from the island. “It’s like the Romans copying Greek statues and carting them off from Greece to put in their villas,” says Shelmerdine.

And this has been the scholarly consensus ever since: The Mycenaeans, now thought to have sacked Knossos at around the time they built their mainland palaces and established their language and administrative system on Crete, were the true ancestors of Europe.

The griffin warrior’s grave at Pylos offers a radical new perspective on the relationship between the two societies and thus on Europe’s cultural origins. As in previously discovered shaft graves, the objects themselves are a cross-cultural mix. For instance, the boar tusk helmet is typically Mycenaean, but the gold rings, which are rich with Minoan religious imagery and are on their own a hugely significant find for scholars, says Davis, reflect artifacts previously found on Crete….

In their view, the arrangement of objects in the grave provides the first real evidence that the mainland elite were experts in Minoan ideas and customs, who understood very well the symbolic meaning of the products they acquired. “The grave shows these are not just knuckle-scraping, Neanderthal Mycenaeans who were completely bowled over by the very existence of Minoan culture,” says Bennet. “They know what these objects are.”…

Together, the grave goods and the wall paintings present a remarkable case that the first wave of Mycenaean elite embraced Minoan culture, from its religious symbols to its domestic décor. “At the very beginning, the people who are going to become the Mycenaean kings, the Homeric kings, are sophisticated, powerful, rich and aware of something beyond the world that they are emerging from,” says Shelmerdine.

This has led Davis and Stocker to favor the idea that the two cultures became entwined at a very early stage. It’s a conclusion that fits recent suggestions that regime change on Crete around the time the mainland palaces went up, which traditionally corresponds to the decline of Minoan civilization, may not have resulted from the aggressive invasion that historians have assumed. The later period on Knossos might represent something more like “an EU in the Aegean,” says Bennet, of the British School at Athens. Minoans and Mycenaean Greeks would surely have spoken each other’s languages, may have intermarried and likely adopted and refashioned one another’s customs. And they may not have seen themselves with the rigid identities we moderns have tended to impose on them.

In other words, it isn’t the Mycenaeans or the Minoans to whom we can trace our cultural heritage since 1450 B.C., but rather a blending of the two.

More at the link.


Tim Furnish shares an interesting article on Plato, who “was neither fully liberal, nor a totalitarian”:

Plato is not Ricardo or Locke or Hayek or Nozick. He was probably more optimistic about political authority than most classical liberals. But it’s a mistake to characterize him as a proto-totalitarian on the basis of the “ideal city” thought experiment in the Republic, which is really an argument in individual moral philosophy. He is very explicit about the allegorical nature of the analogy, and his non-allegorical political observations, such as the dangers of unrestrained democracy, are mostly spot-on. It’s not helpful to classical liberalism to rail against a totalitarianism that isn’t there, especially when the ethical insights are both intrinsically worthwhile and relevant to the philosophy of freedom.

More at the link.

Priam’s Treasure

Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War, a series of six hour-long videos that first aired on BBC2 in 1985, remains very interesting and is a great teaching tool. I enjoy showing episode one, The Age of Heroes, in my upper-level Classical Civilizations course. That title is ambiguous: it refers to Homeric characters like Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hector, and it also refers to the heroes of archaeology who opened up the field of Bronze Age Greece. The biggest name of all, of course, is that of Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), the self-made German businessman who, deciding that he wanted to do something significant, took up archaeology and excavated Hisarlik, a hill overlooking the Hellespont in northwestern Anatolia, thereby uncovering the ancient city of Troy. This was a remarkable achievement for which he remains justifiably famous, although Wood hints that Schilemann was a self-promoter and perhaps also a “liar.” Schliemann certainly seemed to enjoy remarkable strokes of luck at just the right times. His discovery of a treasure trove at Hisarlik in 1873 (from 25:45 in the video), right as his first season was about to end, is one such. A copper cauldron inside a stone-lined chamber contained “gold, silver and bronze vessels, bronze lance heads, several thousand gold finger rings and earrings, bracelets and necklaces, and two splendid diadems.” An ecstatic Schliemann dubbed it the “Treasure of Priam,” after the king of Troy in Homer’s Iliad (with the diadems being the “Jewels of Helen”), even though he had not yet discerned an archaeological layer that matched up with the traditional date of fall of the city, some time in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1250 BC). It turns out that this treasure was a thousand years too early to be associated with the characters of the Trojan War – and, admits Wood, may even have been planted by Schliemann as a way of attracting further attention! But Wood then interviews Donald Easton of the University Cambridge, who asserts that “despite all the hoo-ha” (contradictory field notes, and the false assertion that Schliemann’s wife Sophie was present at the time of the find), Schliemann did find the “Treasure of Priam” as a single hoard. Furthermore, it may have been dug down into the ground from a later period, i.e. it could very well have been a collection of grave goods deposited in the Late Bronze Age.

Unfortunately, the treasure disappeared from Berlin in 1945, and in the 1980s was unavailable for further tests of its authenticity. Wood implies that it was destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War – but as it turns out, it wasn’t destroyed, it was liberated by the Red Army and removed to the Soviet Union. It came to public attention in 1993 and is now on display in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Germany has asked for it back, but the Russians refuse to return it, claiming that they’re entitled to everything they stole as compensation for the damage they suffered in the war. (In 1998, in order to justify this policy, the Duma passed the gloriously-named “Federal Law on Cultural Valuables Displaced to the USSR as a Result of the Second World War and Located on the Territory of the Russian Federation.”)

So have any tests been done on it since 1993? Have we discovered something that reveals the whole thing as a hoax, like the Hitler Diaries or the Getty kouros? One Manfred Korfmann of the University of Tübingen has had the chance to examine some of the pieces, and found no evidence that they are fakes. But more details about the discovery of Treasure of Priam are available in David A. Traill’s Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit (1995), and they aren’t particularly savory. Essentially, the Treasure of Priam was not discovered at once – it was bundled together from a number of different discoveries, in order to be smuggled out behind the back of the Ottoman official supervising the excavation! Eventually Schliemann did hand over some of the treasure to the Ottoman government, as he was obliged to do, in return for the right to continue digging at Troy. Traill notes, however, that Schliemann had contracted with a Parisian jeweler to make reproductions of some of the items, which Schliemann was probably hoping to pass off to the Turks.

As you can see, a bit of a charlatan.

But for actual forgeries, we have to turn to the other great hero of Greek archaeology, Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), who excavated Knossos on Crete (and who is the subject of the second of Wood’s videos, The Legend Under Siege). What Evans uncovered on Crete was so different from was Schliemann uncovered at Troy (and subsequently at Mycenae and other sites on the mainland), that Evans gave the civilization a new name: Minoan, after the legendary Cretan King Minos. Evans seems to have been a man of greater integrity than Schliemann, although just as much of a fantasist: if Schliemann was bent on proving the Iliad true, Evans was keen on imagining a peaceful Bronze Age society, perhaps as an example to the warring Greeks and Turks that he saw around him (this is the thesis of Cathy Gere in her brilliant book Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism [2009]). The forgeries were produced behind Evans’s back by two people in his employ, a father and son both bearing the name Émile Gilliéron. The Gilliérons were in charge of cleaning and as much as possible reconstructing artifacts that the excavators uncovered, but according to Kenneth Lapantin in Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History (2002), the pair did far more than that. Working in their own building and paid by the piece, they constructed any number of Cretan “goddess” figurines from nothing much at all – or at least, according to Lapantin, “the combined evidence of history, style, imagery, technique, and science… suggests that [the sculptures] are modern works.”

Just as Homer’s audience might have felt grateful not to be living in the Bronze Age, so also one feels gratitude that we’re no longer living in the “heroic age” of archaeology….


We’re currently exploring the Trojan War in both my intro-level and upper-level courses. This event is largely known through Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem of more than 15000 lines, composed in the eighth century BC, some five hundred years after the events it purports to describe: the siege and eventual destruction of the Anatolian city of Troy by a combined force “Achaeans” (Bronze-Age Greeks), who had come to retrieve Helen, the abducted wife of Menelaus of Sparta. The Iliad does not tell the whole story of the war, although it alludes to prior (and subsequent) events. The action takes place over a two-week period in the ninth year of the siege, and is primarily concerned with a dispute between Agamemnon, the incompetent king of the Greek coalition, and Achilles, his best warrior. In brief: Achilles goes on strike, the Trojans almost defeat the Greeks, Achilles’ friend Patroclus joins the fighting but is killed by the Trojan hero Hector, and Achilles returns and kills Hector. As a work of literature, the Iliad raises a number of questions, including: Must kings always be obeyed, or is it sometimes proper to defy them? Is it better to live a short and glorious life, or a long and unremarkable one? (The choice given to Achilles, whose death is foretold several times.) Is war glorious, or is it in fact disastrous? Etc. There are no clear-cut answers to these questions. Even its nostalgia is ambiguous. If you see it as Homer’s portrayal of the good old days, when gods walked among men and men could fight for glory, what sort of glory is it when grown men have public temper tantrums because their feelings are hurt? It might make a person feel glad to be living in an age of the polis and the hoplite phalanx.

Of course, the Iliad is not the only literary treatment of the Trojan War. It was but one part the now-lost Epic Cycle, which included the Cypria, the Aethiopis, and the Little Iliad. It formed a fit subject for Athenian drama, like Aeschylus’s Agamemnon or Euripides’s Trojan Women. Virgil added some details in the Aeneid, and both Chaucer and Shakespeare dealt with the story of the star-crossed Trojan lovers Troilus and Cressida. Every author added details or changed others, such that to write the whole thing down would fill volumes. I like to tell my students that the Trojan War was to the Greeks as the expanded universe is to Star Wars fans, wherein every minor character from the movies gets an elaborate backstory, with many more characters, planets, and subplots added for good measure.

To return to the Iliad, I was happy to have had the opportunity to read it freshman year in college. The version we read was by Richmond Lattimore, of whom we were all very proud because he was a Dartmouth alum. I still have my copy, along with a number of other translations I have acquired over the years. For no real reason, I reprint the opening lines below from all of them, plus two others (Butler and Murray) that I found online. Which do you like best?

Alexander Pope, 1715
Achilles’ Wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heav’nly Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unbury’d on the naked shore
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore:
Since Great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sov’reign doom, and such the will of Jove!

Samuel Butler, 1898 (available at MIT)
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

A.T. Murray, 1924 (for the Loeb Classical Library, available at Tufts)
The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus’ son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird; thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment, from the time when first they parted in strife Atreus’ son, king of men, and brilliant Achilles.

W.H.D. Rouse, 1938
An angry man – there is my story: the bitter rancour of Achillês, prince of the house of Peleus, which brought a thousand troubles upon the Achaian host. Many a strong soul it sent down to Hadês, and left the heroes themselves a prey to gods and carrion birds, while the will of God moved on to fulfillment.

E.V. Rieu, 1950 (for Penguin Classics, italics in original)
The Wrath of Achilles is my theme, that fatal wrath which, in fulfillment of the will of Zeus, brought the Achaeans so much suffering and sent the gallant souls of many noblemen to Hades, leaving their bodies as carrion for the dogs and passing birds. Let us begin, goddess of song, with the angry parting that took place between Agamemnon King of Men and the great Achilles son of Peleus. 

Richmond Lattimore, 1951
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
Hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
Of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreaus’s son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

Ennis Rees, 1963
Sing, O Goddess, the ruinous wrath of Achilles,
Son of Peleus, the terrible curse that brought
Unnumbered woes upon the Achaeans and hurled
To Hades so many heroic souls, Leaving
Their bodies the prey of dogs and carrion birds
The will of Zeus was done from the moment they quarreled,
Agamemnon, son of Atreus, and godlike Achilles.

Robert Fitzgerald, 1974
Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
That caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men – carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
Begin it when the two men first contending
broke with one another –

the Lord Marshal
Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

Robert Fagles, 1990 (for Penguin Classics)
Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

Stanley Lombardo, 1997

Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon –
The Greek warlord – and godlike Achilles.

UPDATE: I discover that Robert Graves also translated the Iliad in 1959! (Reinhardt’s edition of The Anger of Achilles was also illustrated by Ronald Searle of Molesworth fame.) Here is his proem:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son
And which, before the tale was done
Had glutted Hell with champions – bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, king of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Also, Check out Ian Johnston‘s list of (and links to) English translations of the Iliad, including his own, which begins:

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus—
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds—
all in fulfilment of the will of Zeus.

Start at the point where Agamemnon, son of Atreus,
that king of men, quarrelled with noble Achilles.

I think a major issue here is what the first word should be. In Greek it’s μῆνιν, the accusative of wrath/anger/rage, which is indeed the theme of the poem, although it doesn’t sound quite right in English to begin a sentence with its object. The second word, ἄειδε, is the imperative of sing, and the third, θέα, is the subject of the sentence: the goddess (presumably Calliope, the muse of epic poetry), whom Homer invokes to help him tell his tale. Personally I don’t think that much damage is done by beginning a translation with “Sing,” but maybe that’s only because I was introduced to Lattimore at an impressionable age.

(A classic compare-and-contrast exercise is that between the opening line of the Iliad, in which Homer asks for supernatural aid in singing of gods and heroes in the distant past, and the opening line of the Histories of Herodotus, which is simply “I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history” – a history of the recent past, written in prose – a human tale by a named human author, and a fitting monument to the classical age of Greece and the rationality it valued.)

Thoughts I have had while lecturing

I. An interesting shift: at one point African-American slaves took inspiration from Moses leading the Hebrew slaves out of bondage from Egypt, hence the spiritual:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land, Let My people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let My people go!
Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh To let My people go!

But of course Egypt is African, or judged to be representative of Africa, so starting in the twentieth century African-Americans began to look back with admiration on ancient Egypt, partly as a riposte to the European idealization of Ancient Greece (this is where the Afrocentric charge that the latter “stole” everything from the former comes from). Thus, for example, Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s first black fraternity, founded at Cornell in 1906 and which:

utilizes motifs from Ancient Egypt and uses images and songs depicting the Her-em-akhet (Great Sphinx of Giza), pharaohs, and other Egyptian artifacts to represent the organization…. This is in contrast to other fraternities that traditionally echo themes from the golden age of Ancient Greece. Alpha’s constant reference to Ethiopia in hymns and poems are further examples of Alpha’s mission to imbue itself with an African cultural heritage.

(This despite the fact that they use Greek letters to identify themselves – why not a couple of hieroglyphs?)

I suppose the fall of slavery in the United States lessened the appeal of the ancient Hebrews, allowing the shift toward sympathizing with the Egyptians.

II. One of my favorite records when I was in college features the novelty song “Istanbul (not Constantinople),” which dates from the 1950s and is (I suppose) a celebration of the rise of nationalist Turkey. By way of explaining the name change of that county’s most famous city, the song points out a parallel situation:

Even old New York, was once New Amsterdam.
Why they changed it I can’t say, people just liked it better that way.

But perhaps a more accurate assessment of this name change is that the British defeated their continental rivals the Dutch and took possession of the New Netherlands in 1664, and promptly changed the names of New Amsterdam and Fort Orange to New York and Albany respectively, after the Duke of York and Albany, the future King James II. Fort Orange was so called, of course, on account of “Orange” being the name of the ruling house of the Netherlands.

What’s ironic is that James II was a Catholic, and didn’t have the good sense to keep it to himself, and provoked the Glorious Revolution of 1688, whereby Parliament invited his daughter Mary Stuart to become queen, and her husband to become king… that husband being none other than William of Orange, king of the Netherlands. These two reigned as co-monarchs, hence the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

So an Orange was replaced by an Albany, who was replaced by another Orange (who opened up Ireland for Protestant settlement, hence the Orange Order, and Orangeman’s Day).