Who, contemplating the vast catalog of vanished works of literature from the ancient world, really regrets the lost epics about the Trojan War known as the Cypria and the Little Iliad? To have just one more complete poem by Sappho (bringing the grand total to two); to have any of the seventy-five lost plays of Aeschylus, the 116 by Sophocles, the seventy by Euripides; to recover Ovid’s lost Medea, or even a single one of the much-admired love elegies of Vergil’s friend Cornelius Gallus, which once comprised four whole books and of which a single line now survives; to have the crucial missing books of Tacitus’ Annals—for any one of these, there is very little that even the most upstanding classicist wouldn’t do. Any one of them, after all, would add immeasurably to our understanding of classical civilization; any one of them would, indeed, add unimaginably to the treasure house of world literature.
But for the Cypria and the Little Iliad, I suspect, no one apart from the most scrupulous philologue sheds a secret tear. These were just two of what was once a grand cycle of eight epic narratives in verse, composed at some point in the pre-classical Greek past, which together comprised many tens of thousands of lines and at least seventy-seven “books,” or papyrus scrolls, and narrated pretty much everything having to do with the Trojan War, from its remotest prehistory (the wedding of Achilles’ parents) to the final bizarre ramification of its most attenuated plotline (the murder of Odysseus, in his old age, by his son Telegonus, his child by the witch Circe). Of these eight, of course, only two survive: the Iliad and the Odyssey. But later summaries, paraphrases, and even quotations in learned commentaries on classical works that have survived give details about the other six. We know that the eleven books of the Cypria, for instance, made for rather an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink affair, covering all the action from the nuptials of Peleus and Thetis to the Judgment of Paris to the abduction of Helen, all the way through to the first nine years of the war up until the moment when Homer’s Iliad begins.
And we know that at some point after the Iliad came the so-called Little Iliad—also something of a laundry list of a poem, from the sound of it, narrating as it did much of the action after the death of Achilles, from the suicide of Ajax and the mission to fetch Philoctetes to the construction of the Trojan Horse, the deceitful embassy to the Trojans of the Greek soldier Sinon (who convinced the Trojans to take the wooden horse, saying that the Greeks, fearing plague, had returned home), and the Achaeans’ terrible entry into Troy. Various other poems filled in the blanks: the Aethiopis narrated the deaths of various ancillary characters like the Amazon queen Penthesilea and Memnon, an Ethiopian ally of the Trojans; another, called the Nostoi, or “Returns,” narrated the arduous homecomings of the Greek heroes after the war, particularly that of Agamemnon. It was presumably adjacent to the Nostoi in the epic cycle that the Odyssey once stood.
One reason that we don’t hugely regret the absence of most of the lost epics is, in fact, the greatness of the two surviving Homeric epics: each a masterpiece that stands easily on its own, neither needing a prequel or a sequel. Another reason is that much of the content of the lost epics was recapitulated in later Greek tragedies, to say nothing of Vergil’s Aeneid, the second book of which provides as harrowing and satisfying an account of the Fall of Troy as anyone could want. But there is still another reason that we shouldn’t mind too much the loss of poems like the Cypria or the Little Iliad. Apparently, they weren’t all that good.
In the twenty-third chapter of his Poetics, Aristotle suggests why. In this section, he somberly warns about some potential pitfalls in constructing the plots of epic poems; as examples of what can go wrong, he uses, as it happens, both the Cypria and the Little Iliad. “With respect to narrative mimesis in verse,” he writes (by which he means epic poems),
it is clear that the plots, as in the tragedies, ought be made dramatic—that is, concerning one whole and complete action having a beginning, middle, and end; clear, too, that its structures should not be similar to histories, which require the exposition not of one action, but rather of one period and all the events that happened during it to one person or more; and how each and every one of those things that transpired relates to every other…. But most of the poets, more or less, do just this. Which is why (as I have already said) in this, too, Homer may be said to appear “divinely inspired” above the rest, since he did not attempt to treat the [Trojan] war as a whole, although it had a beginning and an end; for the plot was bound to be too extensive and impossible to grasp all at once—or, if kept to a reasonable size, far too knotty in its complexity. Instead, taking up just one section, he used many others as episodes, such as the “catalogue of ships” and other episodes with which he gives his composition diversity. But the others construct one composite action about a single man or period, as for instance the poet of the Cypria and the Little Iliad.
For those who think that “epic” merely means “big” or “long,” it’s worth emphasizing that by “action” Aristotle clearly does not mean a long string of events—such as, for example, the suicide of Ajax, the Greeks’ attempt to lure Philoctetes and his magic bow back to Troy, the construction of the wooden horse, Sinon’s ruse, and the penetration of the Trojan walls by means of the hollow ambush, all of which, as we know, went into the Little Iliad. Such events are, in Aristotelian terms, merely linked together but do not form what he thinks of as a “plot,” a single action, what he calls a praxis, a word derived from the Greek verb prattein, “to do.” For Aristotle, a poem consisting of lots of little doings nominally linked by chronology (“everything leading up to the Trojan War,” say, or “everything that happened after Achilles died”) was one that, as even a brief summary of the Cypria or the Little Iliad suggests, was little more than a boring catalog.
A plot, by contrast, is what the Iliad has. For all its great length, the poem is precisely about what is proposed, in its famous opening line, as its subject matter: the wrath of Achilles, its origins, its enactment, its consequences. (So too the Odyssey, whose concomitant episodes all refract what it, in its famous opening line, purports to be about: the “man of many turnings who wandered wide”: no part of the poem does not illuminate his cleverness, his yearning for home, his humanity.) To be sure, Achilles’ rage, as it plays itself out through the poem’s twenty-four books, sheds light on a vast host of issues: the meaning of heroism, the nature of war and of peace, the sweetness and bitterness of human life. But the Iliad is able to illuminate so much precisely because of its searing focus on one praxis, which is what gives it its awesome weight and terrible grandeur. Which is to say, what makes it truly big, truly “epic.”
We do not, of course, possess either the Cypria or the Little Iliad, but what we know about them suggests that they have much in common with another failed epic: this summer’s big blockbuster movie, Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, a film that falters hopelessly for precisely the same reasons that those lost, bad poems did. Troy claims, in a closing credit sequence, to have been “inspired” by the Iliad, but however much it thinks it’s doing Homer, the text it best illuminates is Aristotle’s.
What the makers of Troy have is not a single unifying action, but a single unifying notion: that the Trojan War was a war like any other. “This is about power, not love,” the Trojan prince Hector (Eric Bana, an Australian actor who recently played the comic-book character “The Incredible Hulk,” and who looks not very different from someone you might see on the subway) declares early on to his new sister-in-law, Helen (Diane Kruger, a pretty blond cheerleader type). Such tough pronouncements are clearly meant to demonstrate that Petersen and his screenwriter, David Benioff, want to give us an epic for our times, and have, accordingly, stripped from Troy all traces of the supernatural, the mythic, and even the heroic. Gone are Homer’s mischievous gods and goddesses; gone, too, the elaborate shame-culture codes of honor, reciprocity, gift-giving, and booty-apportioning that inform every action taken by every character in Homer.
Benioff has exiled Homeric hero-ics in favor of something that modern audiences will feel more comfort-able with: global geopolitical Realpolitik. Here Agamemnon (played by a scenery-devouring Brian Cox, much given to wicked cackles) is driven not by considerations of family honor (it’s his brother, Menelaus, who’s been cuckolded after all) but by a desire for world hegemony: an opening title informs us that, having already subdued the cities of Greece, he lusts for Troy, the only city that stands between him and Aegean domination. Neither he nor any of the other characters, with the exception of the old Trojan king Priam (Peter O’Toole), believes in the Greek gods: during the first day of battle, when Achilles (Brad Pitt) and his Myrmidons storm the Trojan shore (a sequence shamelessly lifted from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan), he blithely desecrates a shrine of Apollo, slicing the head off the god’s golden cult-image. In Troy, meanwhile, Hector, responding to his father’s declaration that Poseidon will protect their city, snaps back, à la Stalin, “And how many battalions does the sea-god command?”
There is nothing at all wrong with toying with Homeric or epic characters and story lines: the classical canon is full of works that do just that, and if we were to dismiss on principle wholesale reconfigurations or adaptations of Homer, we’d have to start by junking, among much else, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Electra, and Ajax, and Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia Among the Taurians, Electra, Orestes, and Trojan Women. This is why, although Benioff makes some startling innovations to myth as we know it—beginning with the deaths of Menelaus and Ajax during the first major engagement between the Greeks and Trojans, and ending with the murder of Agamemnon during the Sack of Troy, all of which demises wreak havoc with the extant tragic canon—it’s pointless to criticize Troy on the grounds that it’s not “faithful” to the text of Homer, as so many critics have done. Most of the action of the film, at any event, is not based on the Iliad but instead recapitulates almost in its entirety the narrative once related by those lost epic poems of Troy, filling its nearly three hours with everything from pretty Paris’s abduction of Helen to the wide-screen destruction of the Trojan citadel itself.