From Asianic Elements in Greek Civilisation, The Gifford Lectures in the University of Edinburgh, 1915-1916, by Sir William M. Ramsay, D.C.L., LL.D., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1928; pp. 105-117.

Asianic Elements in Greek Civilisation.



Chapter X


TWO questions suggest themselves to every reader. First, why was tradition so clear and certain that the war before Troy lasted so long as twenty years? The Iliad, our oldest and best authority, and the unanimous tradition of the Greeks are agreed as to this long continuance. Yet even the Iliad does not describe the fall of Troy. The greatest hero of the Achaeans had to give his life after the poem ends, before the city could be captured; and it was captured only by stratagem. Its fortifications were impregnable.

Secondly, why does the poem end with a burial and a grave? That is characteristic of the later custom and the religious law of Asia Minor, as attested by innumerable inscriptions. Nothing is more true to the land and to its way of contemplating man and God (as we see that custom in Graeco-Roman time) than that the climax of the poem should be a grave, and that the last words should describe the rites of a burial.

It will prove most convenient to take the second question first, for it is easier to catch the Anatolian point of view, as revealed to us in the inscriptions of the Graeco-Roman period.

The greatest compliment which a man could pay his wife according to Anatolian ideas was that he should prepare a grave before her death for her. This was the fullest proof of his respect and affection. It was of course his duty to do so if she died, unless her everlasting home had already been made by 106 his father or her father, who allowed her the right of interment in a grave which one or other had already constructed (or in certain districts cut out of the living rock). In a modern law-court the preparation of the grave and the quick ceremonial for a living healthy woman would be regarded as an indication that the husband was not unwilling to be rid of the wife. In ancient Anatolia the same action was the greatest sign of his love for her; and epitaphs often add that the grave was prepared by the living for the living as a proof of loving forethought.

Absolute contradiction in regard to fundamental ideas about human life1 make it difficult for peoples to understand each other. What seems to the greatest of Anatolian or Old-Ionian poets to be the proper and necessary conclusion of the poem seems to us to be very difficult to feel in sympathy with or comprehend.

Cowper said, “I cannot take my leave of this noble poem without expressing how much I am struck with the plain conclusion of it. It is like the exit of a great man out of company, whom he has entertained magnificently; neither pompous nor familiar, not contemptuous, but without much ceremony.” This explanation leaves us unsatisfied.

Where is the climax of the Iliad? To the modern mind the single combat of Achilles and Hector would seem to be so. The guardian of Troy was now dead, and the spirit of Troy had departed. The end was near, and a veil was nobly drawn over the last scene of anguish in a great city. A line would suffice to indicate the inevitable conclusion.

To the Anatolian mind, however, the grave must be the end. A hero could not be left unburied. The end must be the sepulchral feast. Thus, and thus only, could fitting honour be paid to the protector of the great city. Not even a grave, but a feast or a “wake” was the proper end. See p. 117.


As Pope renders the last lines of the poem:

Assembled there, from pious toil they rest,
And sadly shared the last sepulchral feast.
Such honours Ilion to her hero paid,
And peaceful slept the mighty Hector’s shade.

The funeral feast was usually held at the grave; but an attack from the Greeks was dreaded, and scouts were posted to report any assault or approach of the enemy. The ceremonies had to be curtailed as much as possible. It is remarkable that nine days were free to the Trojans to make the funeral pyre, and pile the stones over the grave. Did the Greeks for once, under the dominant will of Achilles, show some chivalry, a modern quality notoriously wanting in their character? The Trojans, at any rate, did not believe that, for they had watchers to report any movement among the Achaean soldiers.

The end of the poem, therefore, is drawn from pure Anatolian ideas of proper life.

It is remarkable that the heroes are supposed never to have come face to face during that long war. Helen must point out in Book III. from the walls of the city, and mention by name, Ulysses, Ajax, Idomeneus. The rest she knows but refrains from enumerating, because she is looking in vain for her own brothers Castor and Pollux, and wondering what had been their fate.

The war before the action of the Iliad begins must be understood as being occupied in distant engagements, with forays to cut the communications which Troy had maintained; and it was only slowly that the battle was concentrated in the plain of Troy. That fact needs some consideration. Troy was essentially a robber city, levying dues on trade, but not being geographically a commercial city. It was not a centre of roads, nor a place to which traders would naturally come.

Hence arises the long duration of the Trojan War; that is a big fact, and needs some plain thinking. Trade was at a standstill, and 108 Greece, a barren rocky country for the most part, had to live by trade. A ten years’ effort implies great expenditure of men and provisions for food and drink and fighting in many ways that are not even mentioned in the tradition or in the Iliad. The Greeks could not live and work or fight without wine to stimulate them. Every battle, every foray costs lives, yet the numbers of the army must be maintained. In ordinary course of human things, there must be deaths from natural causes among such a number. The Achaean army could not live off the enemy’s country, which was not in their possession. The Trojans were far safer in Troy than the Greeks in their narrow camp. The natural increase in the population of Troy continued: boys at the beginning of the war were fighting in the ranks at the time when the Iliad opens. There was no such natural increase among the Achaeans; they had not brought families with them.

To take the Catalogue of the Ships and mariners in Book II. Does it mean the number at Aulis when the fleet assembled, or the number when the tenth year and the story of the Iliad began? “Ships are but boards: sailors but men.” If the men were dying off in the ordinary way according to the usual average, so the ships were decaying, hauled up on shore and exposed to the alternation of fierce sun in summer and great cold in winter. Many ships which were seaworthy at Aulis were far from seaworthy after nine years, and required constant refitting, caulking of the seams, and so on.

We cannot answer these questions; there is no information; such details are beneath the dignity of history; but such are the facts. The war of Troy is a real fact of history; but we cannot write its economic history.

There are some hints about sources of supply. The Greeks had halted at Lemnos and had feasted there, before making their first descent on Troy, Iliad viii. 230 f. They knew that in Lemnos there were abundant supplies of oxen and wine. Then, before 109 the war had actually begun, they boasted in true Greek style that every Greek was equal to a hundred and even two hundred Trojans. Hera, the steadfast friend of the Greeks, went to Imbros, Iliad xiv. 201. But to provision the army from those islands, even though Troy had no ships to impede the passage, meant expenditure of money and time; and the sea was not always quiet, as every sailor in those waters knows.

Yet Troy was involved in difficulties quite as great as those that beset the Greeks. In the circumstances, it could not save itself except by bringing in force to aid it from without. Allies were needed. Tory was not by nature a commercial city. No place could have been selected less suited for trade. It was essentially a robber city. It preyed upon the ships that sought to trade up the Straits; it exacted dues from them; it made these dues so prohibitive that the Greek nations, which sought to prosecute this trade, were forced to unite against the robber. The same happened later in 222-218 B.C., when the Byzantines tried to exact more than fair dues from the traders going up the Bosphorus, and so roused a coalition against themselves and a five years’ war. The Byzantines were in a sense compelled to that suicidal course by the exactions of the Thracian tribes; but there is no sign of any such cause in the case of Troy. In his youth King Priam had fought on the banks of the Sangarios against the Anatolian Amazons. The way (not an easy road)2 was open to him towards the inner country. Before his old age Priam had built up a robber city, and was fighting for his power and his life.

It must be borne in mind that Troy was not situated at a convenient crossing of the Hellespont. No one would ever dream of passing the Straits there. The Narrows at Tchanak-Kalesi, 18 miles up, form the one important passage of the great salt river in its lower course. The importance of Troy lay in the fact that it commanded absolutely the place where traders ascending 110 the Hellespont must naturally lay up. These traders came from the Aegean Sea: they were the old Ionians, the Achaeans, the Achivi.

The Greek traders, seeking entrance to the riches of the Black Sea, were in the position that they must put an end to Troy, or at least so humble it that it could no longer impede their trade. They could not do this by open attack. There was, however, another obvious way. Troy, though not naturally a commercial city, was a big city for that age, with impregnable fortifications, full of wealth acquired in the past days of peace. But money is of no use except to purchase luxuries or dainties. Troy was not content to be a comfortable town living on its own agriculture and its small but fertile land. Possessing wealth, it attracted trade. Merchants came to it with wares to sell. During the war the city acquired allies. Traders from the east and the south, having once established a commercial connexion, were unwilling to have this connexion disturbed or broken.3 They had a good market open, and they were not eager to destroy their market. Thus in spite of nature Troy became the resort of traders; and, while it is difficult to make a market, it is equally difficult to break it up again and to destroy established channels of commerce.

Hence Troy depended on allies and on trade to feed itself and its allies. Walter Leaf even hints at “mercenaries.” That is, after all, quite probable, though it does not sound well in an epic poem. Some of the “allies” were paid with the hoarded gold of Troy. All required food. We never learn where the Trojan allies camped. That they could all be accommodated in the city is obviously impossible; but there was room under the safety of the walls far from the limited range of the Greek forces. Yet even this seems hardly consistent with the pursuit of Hector by Achilles round the walls.

Allies of Troy and a catalogue of these allies form a necessary 111 part of the history. How or when the catalogue was composed is a different question.

Dr. Leaf rightly says, in his Troy, chapter vi., that, for such a large city with many allies gathered to aid it, trade in food and the other necessaries of life and of war was essential. Even a “robber city” must develop some trade. It had taxed the sailors and ships that sought to enter the Black Sea, and accumulated “much gold”; but it would starve unless it could use its much gold. It must attract trade; but this trade was artificial. The long war, and the Greek wide reaching forays, and “the hiring of mercenaries,” wasted its life-blood; there was no fresh supply coming in. The Achaeans could not capture the city by battle; but they wore it down by a long war of ten years.

Accoringly the ten years’ duration of the Trojan War is an important fact. It proves that the struggle was a war of attrition. Neither side could win in “the stricken field.” The powers of the two sides were too nearly balanced. Zeus must hang out from heaven the scales of justice. Man cannot decide. Justice and right must be determined by the gods,4 or rather by the power which is supreme over gods and men, the sense of right and justice, Necessity or Nemesis.

Walter Leaf points out well, in the sixth chapter of his Troy, how equally balanced the Trojan War was. The Greeks had not an army sufficient to invest, or even to besiege the city in the literal sense. There is a war, but not a siege. The fighting takes place in the open plain. There is no attack on Troy the city: the Greek army was not strong enough. In Iliad vi. 433 ff. Andromache recalls to Hector’s memory that an assault on the city had been thrice made and had failed. The Iliad relates the events of the time when this inability was fully recognised. It is the Grecian camp that is in danger and is saved with difficulty. The Iliad does not even refer to any defeat of the Trojans in the open 112 field as having ever taken place. The plain between Troy and the sea is barely closed: the Trojans cannot use it, but the Greeks also cannot use it freely. Only a strong armed force can traverse it safely.

The Narrows about Sestos and Abydos, beside the modern town of Tchanak-Kalesi, formed the really critical point in the navigation of the Hellespont, and there is no sign that the Greeks ever penetrated so far. They lay in their camp, and the Trojans lay in their city. Until the Greeks commanded the Narrows, they could not invest or surround Troy, or cut off its communications.

Andromache entreats Hector to act on the defensive.

That quarter most the skilful Greeks annoy,
Where yon wild fig-tree joins the wall of Troy;
Thou from this tower defend the important post;
There Agamemnon points his dreadful host
That pass Tydides, Ajax, strive to gain,
And there the vengeful Spartan fires his train.
Thrice our bold foes the fierce attack have given
Or led by hopes, or dictated from heaven.
.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .
Stay my Hector here, and guard his Troy.

But Andromache entreated in vain. Hector would fight nobly and die in the field. In the Iliad there is no beleaguering of Troy. It is the Greek camp that is assaulted, the wall is breached, and the ships are in imminent danger of being burned. The besiegers are almost destroyed by a determined attack made by the besieged enemy. Such is the scene amid which great part of the Iliad lies.

It is true that the poem begins with the terrible pestilence, which was the natural result of the total neglect of sanitation, while the Greek army was cooped up in their narrow camp. Other examples have been given in Chapter III. The pestilence began with mules and dogs, and then attacked the soldiers. It was some quick form of plague and lasted nine nights. The Greeks search their conscience to find where lies the sin. How have 113 they offended the god Apollo, who is slaying them with his arrows? The last thought in their minds is a medical reason. Achilles calls a council of the chiefs, and proposes to leave the fatal shore, but first to consult a prophet who can tell the reason —

But let some prophet, or some sacred sage,
Explore the cause of great Apollo’s rage,
Or learn the wasteful vengeance to remove
By mystic dreams, for dreams descend from Jove.

Then “Calchas the wise, the Grecian priest and guide,” who knew the present and the future and the past, expounds the situation and the cause. The Achaean king had scorned Chryses, the priest of Apollo, and refused the priest’s offer of ransom for his daughter Chryseis, whom the king had enslaved. The priest and the priest’s daughter bear the name and represent the god. This insult to the god has been the sin, and the sin must be confessed and expiated. The daughter of the priest must be released without ransom: and a hecatomb must be sent to propitiate the god. The people suffer for the sin of their king.

This is the regular accepted course of the numerous “Confessions,” which remain in inscriptions of the Roman period near certain great centres of the old Anatolian religion. The individual suffers some injury or disease or loss; he searches his conscience, and remembers some sin against the god or the goddess; he makes public confession and atonement: and thus propitiates the offended deity; the god accepts the atonement; the sin is forgiven; the punishment ends, and the inscription records the whole course of punishment, sin, and atonement as a warning and example to others not to offend the god.

Thus the Iliad begins with a purely Anatolian religious action, and ends with another. The main mass of the poem is occupied with the consequences of the initial action, due to the pride, the quarrels, and the bravery of individual heroes. The people play 114 no part. There is no democratic spirit in the Achaean host.5 The subjects do what they are told by their special lords, and by their overlord Agamemnon.

It is characteristic of the unchanging East that the captive Chryseis, daughter of Apollo’s priest, is praised by Agamemnon not merely for her beauty but for her skill in the works of the household; and the same word (ἔργα) is used to designate these works by the “king of men,” as in late Phrygian dirges, where the husband laments the loss of his wife (see p. 103).

Modern discovery through excavation has convinced the world that under the heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey there lies some reality and truth. The massive walls of Troy and their situation prove to every student of history that looks for facts, and does not content himself with mere theory, that a great event, now by us called the Trojan War, occurred about 1200 years before Christ. Such walls would not have been built without a purpose. Their scale is astonishing even to modern minds; but, regarded in their true historical perspective, they indicate the determination conceived by some one with a big plan in his mind. The walls were a marvel to later generations; only divine aid could have constructed them: they proved that no ordinary men could have made such a work. The gods, therefore, were called in by mythopoeic fancy to be the constructors of those fortifications.

This fact, a discovery due to Schliemann, has changed the point of view taken by modern scholars generally; but there are distinctions to be made, and modern ideas must not be applied to those ancient times without consideration. That the divine machinery is not literally true is obvious. Achilles may be a true hero, and Hector and Priam; but Apollo was not a real god, actively aiding the Trojans, and harnessed of old to the building of the walls of Troy, or restoring (as Pausanias says) the walls of Megara. Such 115 elements in the tale are mythical; but even they conceal truth behind and underneath them.

Homer wrote about four centuries after Troy was destroyed. He wrote poetry, not history. We have to distinguish between the facts of 1200 B.C. and the poetry of 800 B.C. It must be done, and the distinction can be made; but it would be a wrong method to take poetry for pure history, just as it was formerly to assume that history was mere poetry and mythology: yet the latter was the fashion as late as fifty or a hundred years ago. Homer wrote what had come to be believed in his time regarding a great ancient event. He had been preceded probably by a number of bards, but he rewrote the tales that they and the mythopoeic fancy of Greece had read into trustworthy tradition and history. All this material he took and fashioned into the greatest of poems. Doubtless he believed it. The gods were to him as real as the heroes and the men and the walls of Troy, and the capture. He could never have written so great a poem unless he had believed it. Milton suffers in comparison with Homer in this respect. Milton wrote what was to him only allegorical and even sometimes fanciful. His only hero is Satan, a real person to him; but he knew that his machinery was largely a veiling of truth by fancy. Satan was (as Milton felt and knew) the being that, corrupting man and himself,

Brought death into the world and all our woes,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat.

But there is in the poem much pure poetic conventional machinery. Milton fancied for poetry’s sake that Satan

Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal man, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf,
Confounded, though immortal.

He is merely imitating Homer and Hesiod, to whom “nine days,” or “nine days and nights,” was a stock term, a round number, 116 based on the division of the month into periods of eight days (as we in modern arithmetic count), though the ancient method of counting called such a period nine days.6

To Milton, the size of Satan is pure fancy and poetry: apart from Satan’s head

                                 . . . his other parts besides
Prone on the flood, extended long and large,
Lay floating many a rood; in bulk as huge
As whom the fables name of monstrous size
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warred on Jove.

This, and the following lines, which need not be quoted here, show that Milton is only following a stock Greek model, because such was poetry and poetic rule, not to be believed, because belief meant to him paganism. And likewise Satan’s

                                      . . . ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large, and round,
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders.

So also

His spear, to equal which the tallest pine,
Hewn on Norwegian hills to be the mast
Of some great ammiral, were but a wand.

These, and many more passages, were poetic fiction, intended to inspire in the reader’s mind an idea of gigantic power. Milton believed fully in that enormous power; but his imagery is unreal, derived from literature, and not from life. Homer’s descriptions and imagery were to him real, drawn from the facts of Asia Minor, pictures of life as he saw it (or, according to the story, had ceased to see it, when he became “the blind old man”).

It is necessary to distinguish what Homer knew and believed in 800 B.C. from the real facts of 1200 B.C. Troy was captured, 117 sacked and burned, as a menace and constant danger to trade; but the wooden horse (not mentioned in the Iliad), and gods or men fighting against gods and wounding one another, were invention. When we say that the story of the Iliad is a picture of history and truth, we must hold apart from this story the ancient Asiatic legend (as of the two hawks perched on a tree near the gate of Troy)7 and the other machinery and legend, some more ancient than 1200, some built into “the tale of Troy divine” during the four centuries that separated Homer from the events that he describes.

Homer tells what he believed and had seen. What did occur at Troy must be studied by itself. We must always ask in regard to each detail, Is this the narrative of 800 B.C. or the fact of 1200 B.C.? Some of the latest and most advanced modern scholars mix these together, and assume the former is the latter.

The similes are taken from the life of Asia Minor. In Milton also the similes are often derived from his personal knowledge and sight, before he became blind. He introduces Satan’s shield as poetic conventional machinery; but he says with truth and knowledge that the broad circumference hung on his shoulders

                    . . . like the moon, whose orb
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening from the top of Fesolé
Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands,
Rivers or mountains in her spotty globe.

NOTE (to p. 106). — In Beowulf (p. 104) the hero’s adventures culminate in his burial: his corpse is burned, his warriors ride round the pyre, chanting his praises, the women lament. The poem ends on a minor key, as the Iliad does, and yet the end is the climax in both poems. In Milton, Satan is the hero in the sense that his rapid deterioration through sin and malignity is the chief subject of the poem. In his attempt to ruin man he ruins himself.



 1  We may add “divine life,” for the dead man becomes a god and his tomb was his temple.

 2  It seems to be implied in Pausanias x. 31. 7.

 3  The Thracians were a barbarous people until Rome civilised them, and there seems to be no sign of commerce between Troy and Thrace.

 4  Compare p. 56 f. above.

 5  Only Thersites stands for the commons; and he is described as a hateful and ludicrous figure.

 6  In Homer often “nine days’ is to be taken as a stock number, e.g. probably in Iliad, xxiv. 784.

 7  See above, Chapter VII.