The More Things Change…

Being somewhat of a classics buff, I overcame my aversion to Hollywood and went out this weekend to see the recent production of Homer’s Troy. The movie itself was decent, with splendid scenery, credible acting, and reasonable fidelity to the ancient epic’s tale of the conflict which embroiled the Mediterranean several millennia ago.

In addition, the casting was pleasantly imaginative. Brad Pitt was a sensible choice for Achilles, and his ripped abs should be enough to attract the female demographic. The actress chosen to play Helen held my attention, as she is without doubt gorgeous enough to launch a thousand ships…though her acting was a tad flat (but at least they didn’t turn her into an Amazon warrior queen, as so often happens to female leads nowadays). Peter O’Toole added gravitas and his dramatic screen presence to the character of Trojan King Priam. On the downside, the actor portraying Hector was too effeminate to convincingly capture that hero of Troy. And the Greek warrior Ajax was given short-shrift in the screenplay.

But as the movie progressed, one couldn’t help but draw parallels with our current foreign policy predicaments. The great thing about Homer is that his epics were not merely white-hat/black-hat adventure stories, but were rather complex literary explorations of some of the most profound issues that still plague mankind. His tales transcend time and place…and still speak to all of humanity.

As the movie progressed, I saw four themes that are relevant to America at this crucial stage of our history.

Lesson #1: The reasons given for wars are usually lies.

Homer actually blames the genesis of the conflict on the Gods (which is left out of this movie version). In the Iliad, the goddess of discord, Eris, is not invited to the wedding of Thetis and Peleus. She gets her revenge by rolling a golden apple into the wedding hall with an attached note saying that it is "To the Fairest." Of course, a quarrel immediately erupts between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite as to whom this note refers. The goddesses attempt to convince Zeus to decide, but he displays an unusual burst of wisdom and refuses to be put on the spot (one can think of this as an Olympian version of "does this dress make me look fat?"). He passes the buck to Trojan Prince Paris, who is widely held to be a great judge of beauty. After receiving a bribery offer from each goddess, he picks Aphrodite. Her gift to Paris is that he will be loved by the greatest beauty in the mortal world…Spartan Queen Helen.

But the movie version sticks to the terrestrial explanation. Specifically, Paris and Helen fall in love during a state visit to Sparta. Spartan King Menelaus is a slob who ignores and mistreats his wife. Paris pleads with her to return with him to Troy, and she accepts. Menelaus’ honor is stained, and he is forced to take up arms to recapture Helen.

But at several points along the way, Menelaus and his brother, Mycenae’s King Agamemnon, pointedly note that Helen is just a convenient excuse to attack Troy. Agamemnon has dreams of empire, and the conquest of Troy will make him master of the Aegean. It is clear that Menelaus doesn’t really love Helen, and that he intends to kill her if he recaptures her in order to cleanse his name.

One can thus think of Helen as sort of a Bronze Age "weapon of mass destruction." Her elopement with Paris gave the Greek Kings the excuse they need to rev up their propaganda machine and launch a war which has obvious ulterior motives. They were planning this conquest for some time, and the infidelity merely gave them the pretext they needed to enact their scheme (does anyone know how to say "Office of Special Plans" in Greek?).

Lesson #2: Everyone generally loses in war.

All of the major characters each had their own passionately held desires. Agamemnon coveted empire. Menelaus craved revenge. Helen wanted freedom. Paris sought love. Achilles thirsted for glory. They each came to the conclusion that war was the best way to achieve their wishes.

What they got was pillage, plunder, and death.

But such is seemingly the fate of mankind. War always looks better on the front-side than it does in hindsight (and it looks even worse in real-time).

And even if one attains one’s goals, there are usually second thoughts.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Greek King Odysseus leaves Troy at the end of the war and embarks on the journey home. He endures numerous obstacles on his trip, and takes years to finally make landfall in Greece. Along the way, his adventures take him to the Underworld. There, he meets the shade of his old comrade, the war hero Achilles. In a somber scene, Achilles’ ghost tells him sadly that he would trade all of his fame and glory for the chance to return again to his life.

Unfortunately for Achilles, (and all victims of war right up to the present moment), there is no "do-over." Achilles is in Hades to stay.

Lesson #3: Heroes and villains are more complex than everyone likes to think.

For the modern American, Homer can be somewhat frustrating. His characters are like actual humans, which is to say that they are of mixed character. They have strong and weak points that are each displayed as the story unfolds. He never allows his audience to lapse into a Manichean, good/evil dichotomy that is so often craved by our contemporary psyche.

Just when you begin to emotionally identify with Achilles as the hero, he retreats to his tent to sulk like a spoiled teenager. Just as one marvels at his bravery and honor by defeating Hector in one-on-one combat, Achilles ties his body to a chariot and hauls it around in a thoroughly unbecoming fashion.

Just when one comes to believe that Paris is an unredeemable coward, he confronts Achilles and kills him.

Homer is a master of the human condition. He displays remarkable understanding of the full spectrum of mankind’s traits. This is no fairy tale, because military conflict isn’t either.

Lesson #4: The human spirit lives on.

As Troy is burning near the end of the movie, Paris retreats to the bowels of the city to the mouth of a secret escape tunnel. While bidding farewell to his female relatives, he asks a nearby young man his name. "Aeneus" is the reply. Paris gives him the sacred Sword of Troy and instructs him to lead the refugees to another land. So long as there is a group of Trojans in possession of the Sword, he states, their people will endure.

The scene passes quickly and without elaboration. But this youth is, of course, the hero of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. In that story, Aeneus leads the stragglers on a long journey across the Mediterranean that eventually ends in Italy. It is there that his descendants found a new village…a town that will one day be called Rome.

Despite the fact that Troy is now a smoldering ruin…and despite the lying leaders, the treachery, and the ruinous warfare that has befallen them…hope is never abandoned. Though a civilization is gone, its values and beliefs endure to rise again in another time and place. Even in the darkest moments, Homer and Virgil admonish their audiences to remember that while the human spirit can be trampled, it can never truly be crushed.