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.
The real problem with Petersen and Benioff’s reductive ideological updating of the epic story they tell is organic, not pedantic: the “realism” they’ve opted for goes against the grain of the genre they’re working in. For one thing, the authors’ jettisoning of Homeric codes of behavior makes a hash of much of the characters’ actions. In Homer, Agamemnon’s seizure of Achilles’ property, the slave girl Briseis, represents a catastrophic affront to Achilles’ sense of himself; his subsequent withdrawal from the war is the hinge of Homer’s plot, setting in motion awful consequences unforeseen by Achilles himself. (And, indeed, Agamemnon’s action is motivated by a similar desire not to lose face. He only takes Achilles’ girl after he’s told he has to give up one of his own.) But Benioff’s bitter and disillusioned Achilles doesn’t really believe in anything, and so you don’t really know why he bothers. A lot of the action of Troy, which blindly follows much of the epic cycle’s plot while providing none of the epic motivations, feels similarly hollow.
Or, indeed, downright ridiculous. What sets the climax of the Illiad in motion is the killing of Achilles’ beloved companion, Patroclus, at the hands of Hector—another loss, but this time one that propels the sulky hero back into vengeful action. Fueled, no doubt, by a desire to expunge the vaguest hint of homoeroticism from the proceedings—by classical times, the debate wasn’t so much whether Achilles and his beloved Patroclus were doing it, as rather, as in Plato’s Symposium, who was doing just what to whom—Benioff makes Patroclus Achilles’ “cousin,” a bizarre choice that (particularly in an era when family ties have never counted for less) has increasingly hilarious results as the action progresses. Watching Troy, you’d think that there was no higher value for the Bronze Age Greeks than cousinage. “He killed my cousin!” Achilles shrieks at Priam when the latter comes begging for his son’s body at the end of the story. “You’ve lost your cousin, now you’ve taken mine,” a mournful Briseis (in this version, Hector’s cousin) tells Achilles. “When does it end?” This film’s notion that entire civilizations were destroyed because of excessive attachment to one’s collateral relations is, surely, a first in world myth-making.
Similarly flimsy as motivations for the characters’ actions are the incessant references to a bona fide Homeric value: the glory heroes derive from being celebrated in song through the ages. And yet here again, the gritty twenty-first-century realism favored by Troy’s makers makes nonsense of a genuinely Bronze Age element they have nonetheless retained. For the endless references to immortality through future fame (“men will write stories about you for thousands of years to come,” one character says, blissfully innocent of the fact that there is no writing yet) are undercut both by the pervasive cynicism and by the grim modern character of the milieu Benioff works so hard to establish. There’s no reason to believe that men as disillusioned and irreligious as those we keep seeing here would ever believe in anything so fuzzy as “immortality” in the first place. Anyway, if the Trojan War was really no more than a territorial affair—“about power, not about love”—what about it, precisely, is worth celebrating at such great length in all those epics—epics which clearly include this movie itself?
And so Benioff ascribes convincing motivation to precisely one character, Agamemnon, who, we’re told, lusts for world hegemony, while neglecting the other 49,999 Greeks whom we constantly see in computer-generated battle scenes. Had Troy featured just one shot of the men gathered enchantedly around a blind bard who’s singing of someone’s great martial prowess, much of the movie would have made more sense; such a scene would have given depth and complexity to his otherwise monotonously hard-bitten warriors. But clearly this isn’t gritty enough for the creators of Troy—as with many genuinely Homeric elements alluded to here, the filmmakers slavishly invoke the idea of immortal fame while failing to be able to account for it, to integrate it.
But then, they’re making the wrong kind of movie for the message they want to convey. The notion of a deconstructed, anti-war Trojan War story, a grittily realistic story about men with cousins rather than codes of honor, a fable about the emptiness of heroic illusion, is of course one that the ancients themselves entertained—not, however, in epics, but in tragedies, such as The Trojan Women. The Greeks knew enough to realize that if you’re making an epic, the potency and grandeur of the epic action, the magnificence and scope of the genre itself, would undercut any attempts to subvert it from within. This is as true for epic movies as it is for epic poems. We go to films like these precisely to be overwhelmed by the bigness and wonder of it all, and it’s confusing to be told, even as we’re invited to attend a film like Troy because it’s a (I quote the recent ads for the film) “magnificent, opulent, passionate” and “sensational” “action spectacle,” that all the magnificence and opulence and spectacle are really worthless.
It is telling that the few critics who have really liked Troy are those who fail to perceive that the movie’s form works so disastrously against its “message”—which is to say, they think that Homer is, essentially, anti-war and anti-epic, too. In Slate, David Edelstein confidently announces that “the story” of Troy,
of course, comes to us largely from Homer’s The Iliad, and while artists over the centuries have added their own gloss, the thrust remained unchanged: For all the heroics of these legendary warriors, the Trojan War was a grotesque and needless waste of lives.
“The picture,” he goes on to say, “stays surprisingly true to its grim inspiration. The little stuff is often haywire, but the big themes are on the money.”1 Writing in a similar vein in The New Yorker, David Denby found Troy “both exhilarating and tragic, the right tonal combination for Homer.” Denby goes on to describe how, by the end of Petersen’s film, we see that at Troy “the Greeks don’t win anything worth winning”: “The Greek heroes and generals, showoffs with eagle pride, tell one another that poets will someday celebrate their exploits. But the bitterness of loss is what they will sing of….” This, he declares, “honors the intentions, if not the style or the means, of the poets.”2
It would be difficult to find more lopsided mischaracterizations of the Iliad and its themes than these. Whatever else war is in Homer, it’s anything but a “grotesque waste”: among other things, it’s the occasion for the song that Homer has composed, which in turn is the vehicle for the perpetuation of the fame of those who died—the thing Benioff keeps having his characters talk about without ever suggesting what it really means. For the characters (and, very likely, the audience) of Homer’s great songs, the celebration of one’s exploits in the song of poets, immortal fame or kleos, is the very linchpin of the heroic code—it is precisely the prospect of commemoration in song that makes the bitterness of war, and even more the horror of death, worth enduring. Those who have read the Iliad closely know that a standard modifier for battle is, in fact, “bringing-glory-to-men.”
Those, in any event, who have read Homer’s great poem carefully know, too, that as terrible as war can be in it, battlefield violence is something that heroes are eager for, rejoice and exult in, something they enjoy wholly apart from considerations of the glory it will bring them. Homer’s warriors are, as it were, professionals, and they enjoy a job well or even elegantly done: a memorable simile from Book 16, the book in which Patroclus is killed, likens the Greek warrior, who has driven a spear into the head of an enemy soldier, cantilevering the poor man out of his chariot, to an angler who, “perched/on a jutting rock ledge, drags some fish from the sea,/some noble catch, with line and glittering bronze hook.” As the classicist Bernard Knox reminds us, in his splendid introduction to Robert Fagles’s supremely fluent and elegant translation of the Iliad, from which I have just quoted, “one of the common words for combat, charmê, comes from the same root as the word chairô—‘rejoice.'”3 In Homer, war can be hell, but just as often it’s sheer heaven. If you don’t get this, you don’t get Homer—and you don’t, really, get epic either, a genre whose amplitude and grandeur are reflections not of the number of events that take place in it, but rather the splendor of its subject, which is as beautiful as it is terrible.
One thing that does follow—fatally—from the filmmakers’ decision to strip from the Trojan War the “heaven” implicit in its Greek epic donnée—the exultation of war, the grand and rigid notions of honor and glory and heroism that motivate real heroes, the golden-hued and sometimes rather charming Olympian interludes—is a disastrous failure in tone. It’s one thing to try to show the characters of myth as believable human beings, but quite another to vulgarize them, and vulgarize is what this film inevitably does again and again as it seeks, but never finds, an appropriate register for its unholy hybrid of contemporary ethos and mythic plot. Some of the dialogue is in a mode perhaps best described as faux-legendary—the kind typically accompanied by much clasping of forearms (“May the gods keep the wolves in the hills and the women in our beds!”)—whereas a good deal of it seems to have been airlifted from southern California. (“I’m making you another seashell necklace, like the ones I used to make you when you were a boy,” Thetis, Achilles’ mother, announces, clad in what appears to be a tie-dyed housedress.) It’s bad enough having both in the same film; when they clash in the same scene, it’s excruciating. “You are a Princess of Troy now!” Hector admonishes Helen. “And my brother needs you tonight!”
Visually, too, Petersen’s film is awkward—yet another instance in which the ideology of the filmmakers goes against the genre of the film. For a movie that cost $170 million, this one looks shoddy and—apart from a few impressive computer-generated action shots (not least, the rather thrilling first glimpse of the Greek armada sailing to Troy, which appears to number at least a thousand ships)—surprisingly sparse. The sets look cheap and are, to boot, inauthentic: there’s a scene in Menelaus’ palace that looks like a party at a Turkish bar, and Troy itself is a bizarre hodgepodge of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Myceanean motifs. I kept wondering why, given his Olympian budget, Petersen couldn’t have paid some classicist an absurd sum of money to tell him what these Bronze Age cities ought to look like. (There are a lot of gaffes which could easily have been avoided: one portentous title indicates that the seaside palace we’re looking at is in “the Port of Sparta,” which, given Sparta’s actual location, is a bit like setting a film in the “Port of Tulsa”; another scene depicts a confrontation between the armies of Agamemnon and those of the king of Thessaly in central Greece, whose subjects are, hilariously, repeatedly referred to not as “Thessalians” but, in a skip north to an entirely different region of Greece, as “Thessalonians.”) Worse, the battle scenes lack clarity and impact, and the crowd scenes are messy and unconvincing. Petersen’s fall of Troy appears to affect about thirty people.
Petersen became famous with the 1981 film Das Boot, about life aboard a German U-boat during World War II, and it may be that tight spaces bring out the best in him; he brings to Troy none of the visual panache that makes even the most imperfect of old Hollywood epics fun to watch. In Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 Cleopatra, overblown but not at all unintelligent, there’s an over-the-top sequence portraying the Egyptian queen’s entrance into Rome, and it’s a breathtaking showstopper not least because the director knows how to build up to a big moment; he doesn’t show you Cleopatra until you’ve had to sit through an endless parade of acrobats and fan-wavers, so that by the time Elizabeth Taylor appears, you’re as impatient as a Roman. In Troy, the entrance of the horse into the city—a moment of almost macabre poignancy, given that the Trojans think the fatal object is a peace offering—falls flat: Petersen shows you the horse first, and then a few people doing a line dance below. Then, anxious as ever to get to the next scene, he cuts away.
Virtually every big moment in Troy is sapped of impact in this way. Petersen either doesn’t know how to frame a scene—the final encounter between Achilles and Hector, which should feel overwhelmingly climactic, is particularly lifeless—or beautifully establishes a shot or a tableau that he doesn’t allow to sink in: a creepy shot of a panting Achilles, the first day of slaughter behind him, hunched on a parapet and looking, you suddenly realize, more leonine than human; an impressive-looking sequence showing the Greeks burning their dead at night; a macabre nocturnal funeral for Hector, with the royal womenfolk draped in black, sitting on an impossibly high dais. Just as I had begun to relish each of these, Benioff’s skittish script and Petersen’s anxious camera skidded along to the next scene, desperate to tick off the next Big Epic Moment, unaware that the real impact of epic lies precisely in the moments they’re abandoning, the moments that further our understanding of the action, the praxis.
Not surprisingly, given Petersen’s directorial strengths, the only scene that has even a frisson of genuine feeling is one that takes place in extremely close quarters. Toward the end of the film, old Priam sneaks into Achilles’ tent in order to try to persuade the implacable hero to surrender the battered body of his son so that the Trojans might give it a proper burial. Priam keeps trying to get close to Achilles, who keeps sliding away, at once repelled and embarrassed. The awkward physicality of this brief scene efficiently and quite movingly conveys some real emotions (whether they’re Archaic emotions is another matter): the old king’s awkward but necessary self-abasement, Achilles’ grief-stricken realization that the only people he can admire are the Trojans, his enemies, and the only father-figure he can admire is the father of the man he’s just killed. (It’s the only scene in the movie in which Brad Pitt warms up as an actor; you can tell that here, finally, he’s dealing with something he can understand.) This is an intriguing notion that could have been the basis of a valid rewriting of Homer, had Benioff and Petersen been interested in creating a coherent action instead of ticking off a list of events to be covered. Such a rewriting would, moreover, have been entirely Greek: the theme of unexpectedly riven loyalties in a young Greek hero looking for a father-figure is in fact what shapes Sophocles’ Philoctetes.
And so Troy goes, flitting from one event to the next, from one undernourished conceit to another, anxious simply to get to the inexorable end that we all know is coming and for which the producers, eager to show what nearly two hundred million dollars can buy in special effects, are clearly impatient. But there’s nothing to hold Troy together, apart from its lumbering momentum to the narrative finish line, following the outlines of the Greek legends while gutting them of any sense or meaning: no heroic code to motivate the characters, no ideal of honor or glory compelling enough to warrant the violence that we keep seeing, no relationship (other than first-cousinage) dramatized sufficiently to explain the homicides and revenges that the filmmakers nonetheless dutifully represent. The movie manages, in the end, to be (literally) a textbook example of everything an epic shouldn’t be, which is to say both tedious and overstuffed at the same time. Or, to use the correct Aristotelian diction (for of course Aristotle could have predicted all this), “too extensive and impossible to grasp all at once,” but also “far too knotty in its complexity.”
Three hundred years after Aristotle committed his thoughts on epic to paper, the Roman poet Horace addressed a verse epistle to a would-be littérateur from a wealthy and well-connected family. Although technically known as Epistles 2.3, this witty but quite canny verse handbook on the writer’s art has since been known as the Ars poetica, the “Art of Poetry,” and it contains a piece of advice about how to construct epic plots that is so famous that, like certain other Roman expressions—caveat emptor, for instance—we can utter it in the original and be confident of being understood. Here is the passage in which it occurs in David Ferry’s 1997 translation:
And don’t begin your poem the way the old
Cyclic “Homeric” poets saw fit to do it:
“I sing of the famous war and Priam’s fate.”
What’s to come out of the mouth of such a boaster?
The mountain labored and brought forth a mouse.
Ridiculous. He does much better who doesn’t
try so hard to make such grandiose claims….
He goes right to the point and carries the reader
Into the midst of things, as if known already;
And if there’s material that he despairs of presenting
So as to shine for us, he leaves it out;
And he makes his whole poem one.
“Into the midst of things”: in medias res. Whatever its claims to Homeric inspiration, however much it (inadvertently) invokes the lost “cyclical epics,” the only ancient texts that Petersen’s Troy ends up shedding light on are those works of criticism, very old but clearly still valuable, whose caveats the makers of this flaccid film have so powerfully if unintentionally proved valid. The ancients, who were less apt than we are to confuse size with import, knew that an epic without a focus—without a single action, a coherent plot, a single terrible point to make—was just a very long poem. Petersen’s very long movie boasts a budget of many millions, a cast of thousands, and a duration of several hours; but despite those “epic” numbers, the movie looks and feels small, for all the portentous wailing in the soundtrack and pretentious diction in the dialogue. You could say, indeed, that mountains of money, time, and talent have labored and brought forth a $170 million mouse. In more ways than one, this Troy is a Little Iliad.
June 24, 2004