Sympathy for the Trojans

So many of the classic legends can be traced to Herodotus’ Histories, such as the tales of Gyges and Candaules, Solon and Croesus, and the Babylonian Queen Semiramis. But of most interest to me is his treatment of the Trojan War. As an inhabitant of Halicarnassus on the southwest coast of Asia Minor, Herodotus grew up in fairly cosmopolitan culture. He was more tolerant of foreign viewpoints than the mainland Greeks. When describing Paris’ abduction of Helen, he says

Thus far there had been nothing worse than woman-stealing on both sides; but for what happened next the Greeks, they say, were seriously to blame; for it was the Greeks who were, in a military sense, the aggressors. Abducting young women, in their opinion, is not indeed, a lawful act; but it is stupid after the event to make a fuss about avenging it. The only sensible thing is to take no notice; for it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she not does not wish to be…. [T]he Greeks, merely on account of a girl from Sparta, raised a big army, invaded Asia and destroyed the empire of Priam.

While Herodotus does not officially commit himself to this version of events, I think that most people who read Homer’s epic about the Trojan War come away with a pronounced sympathy for the other side. The English poet Dryden evidently felt this way: “Science distinguishes a man of honour from one of those athletic brutes whom, undeservedly, we call heroes. Cursed be the poet, who first honoured with that name a mere Ajax, a man-killing idiot!” Ajax was one of the Greek warriors.

I think Dryden was right, although it speaks well of Homer that he describes the Trojans (aside from the playboy Paris) in a way that elicits our admiration. As for the invaders, the exploits of Agamemnon and Achilles appear as the vain, petulant foolhardiness of tribal chieftains. Nor does the raid on Troy as a reprisal action for wife-napping prevent the Greek heroes from abducting women along the way.

To my mind, the real hero of The Iliad is the tragic Hector, deemed one of the “Nine Worthies” according the Medieval chivalric code. He is a family man who defends his homeland against a host of pirates who sack Troy and kill the aged Priam. Alas, poor Troy. Yet the ill-fated city had its poetic revenge, when the Roman Virgil cast a refugee Trojan as hero of the Aeniad.

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