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.)