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From Greek and Roman Mythology & Heroic Legend, by Professor H. Steuding, Translated from the German and Edited by Lionel D. Barnett. The Temple Primers, London: J. M. Dent; 1901; pp. 99-105.


Heroic Poetry

X.  The Achaian and Trojan Cycle.   § 175.  The excavations carried on from the year 1871 by H. Schliemann and his able collaborator W. Dörpfeld have made it highly probable that a real prehistoric event underlies the siege of Troy described in Homer’s Iliad. Upon the hill of Hissarlik in the plain of the Troad depicted by Homer, and on the same site as the later Ilion, arose over the remains of five older foundations a mighty citadel with circling walls five metres in thickness, built of great limestone slabs. It had four gates and a doorway in the north-eastern tower; on the eastern side were three towers, of which one protected the gate and another enclosed a well. Along the inside of the wall ran a line built over with magazines, the roof of which was probably a sheltered passage. Further inwards the citadel rose in terraces; the main streets were paved in the centre with gypsum, and drains and walled wells were also found. The whole foundation moreover seems to have been suddenly consumed by a terrible fire. In this sixth stratum sherds of earthenware jars certainly manufactured in Mykenai, especially the hooped jugs peculiar to that city, are everywhere mixed with the native pottery, which demonstrates not only that this stratum was contemporary with the palmy days of Mykenai (about 1400-1200 B.C.), but also that the two cities had commercial relations with one another. Under these circumstances the view generally accepted in later times, which dated the destruction of Troy in the year 1184 B.C., may approximate to the truth, despite the inadequate grounds which may have given birth to it.

§ 176.  The whole mass of legend was handled in several epics, which, with their reputed authors and dates, are — 1. The Kypria of a Cypriote poet, perhaps Stasinos, which arose after the completion of the additions inserted into the Iliad;  2. the Iliad of ‘Homer,’ probably about 900 B.C.;  3. the Aithiopis of Arktinos of Miletus, about 750 B.C.;  4. the Little Iliad of the Lesbian Lesches, from the 100 first half of the seventh century;  5. the Destruction of Ilios (λίου πέρσις), also by Arktinos;  6. the Home-comings (Νόστοι) by Agias of Trozen, later than Arktinos and the Odyssey;  7. the Odyssey, about 800 B.C.;  8. the Telegoneia of Eugammon of Kyrene, about 570 B.C.

§ 177.  Apart from fragments and scanty epitomes, there survive only the Iliad and Odyssey, which the ancients already recognised to be the noblest flowers in the garland of epic poetry. Both of these were formerly ascribed to the single and unequalled poetical genius of ‘Homer,’ although the great discrepancies displayed both in the descriptions of social conditions and in religious conceptions lead inevitably to the conclusion that there were several authors of these poems, at any rate in their present form. Seven cities disputed with one another for the honour of claiming Homer as their own; Smyrna, which is first mentioned in the list, seems to have the best right, for the Iliad itself shews that the poet probably knew the country in the lower course of the Hermos. In its original form the Iliad described only the disastrous conflict between Achilleus and Agamemnon. Into this oldest epic, which was the nucleus of the whole cycle of Trojan story and contained the germs of all other poems in it, insertions of many sorts were later made, and the whole was probably worked over; but even in its present form the underlying and dramatically shaped plan is so clearly discernible that there can be no doubt that this nucleus was the deliberate creation of a single poet.

§ 178.  Corresponding with the so-called ‘introductory accord’ of the drama, the Iliad begins with a description of the pestilence brought in the tenth year of the siege of Troy upon the Greek host by Apollon on account of an insult to his priest Chryses. The pride of Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief, is responsible for the heavy loss and defeats of the Greeks in the course of the main action; and here he excites the anger of Apollon by his refusal to give back to the supplicant priest his abducted daughter. This is at once followed by the ‘exciting moment’; Achilleus, the noblest 101 hero in the Greek camp, demands of Agamemnon in the name of the perishing army the restoration of Chryseis. Thus the knot is tied; Agamemnon indeed agrees to his demand, but takes away from him Briseis, whom Achilleus had received as a gift of honour from the army. Achilleus now wrathfully withdraws from the contest, and at his entreaty his mother Thetis prays Zeus as guide of battles to vouchsafe victory to the Trojans until her son should have received full satisfaction.

§ 179.  In Books II. — VII. We have the first thickening of the plot in the form of counterplay. First Agamemnon tries to bring about a conclusion of the war without Achilleus by means of a duel between Paris, the abductor of Helena, and her lawful husband Menelaos; the former is defeated, Aphrodite rescuing him, but the compact is immediately broken by a treacherous bow-shot of the Trojan Pandaros. The Achaians now press forward, and in their advance Diomedes, the son of Tydeus and ruler of Argos, who is specially protected by Athena, and Aias the son of Telamon of Salamis, the bravest of the Greek heroes after Achilleus, distinguish themselves by single combats. Agamemnon now fancies himself near to victory over Troy and at the same time over his opponent Achilleus; but Zeus, in compliance with the promise given to Thetis; forbids the gods to take further part in the conflict. The Greeks in consequence are driven back into their camp; and here begins the second thickening of the plot, this time in the main action (Books. VIII. — XII.).

§ 180.  Lest he should be compelled to humble himself before Achilleus, Agamemnon makes the proposal, originally no doubt in all seriousness, to entirely give up the siege. But Diomedes and old Nestor, the ruler of the Messenian and Triphylian Pylos, who is remarkable beyond all the other generals for wisdom and eloquence, oppose him (Book II.). The Greeks then make another bid for victory in the open field, but suffer a complete defeat; Agamemnon himself, like most of the other heroes, is wounded (to Book XI.).


The climax of the action and the apparently imminent victory of the dramatic hero, Achilleus, are marked by the ‘battle about the ships’ (Books XIII. — XV.). Hektor, the most valiant son of King Priamos of Troy, and Apollon press into the Greek camp and set fire to the ships, by which the destruction of the whole host becomes almost inevitable. Now at the moment of supreme necessity comes the turning-point (peripeteia), which is moreover due to the vacillation of Achilleus himself. Half relinquishing his decision, he sends his friend Patroklos in his own panoply at the head of his Myrmidones to aid the distressed Greeks. They drive the enemy out of the camp; but when, contrary to his friend’s command, Patroklos pursues the Trojans, he is slain by Hektor (Book XVI.).

§ 181.  Here begins the declining action (Books XVII. ૼ XXI.). The moment of final intensity consists in the restoration of Briseis to Achilleus and the humiliation of Agamemnon. But now Achilleus’ victory is but the semblance of a victory, as he himself fully recognises. For he too, hero as he is, has brought on his head the guilt of pride (hybris) by having for so long looked in inaction upon the ruin of his people in revenge for the personal insult done to him by Agamemnon. This guilt of his brings about the death of Patroklos, and therewith the catastrophe (Book XXII.). After getting through his mother new arms from Hephaistos, Achilleus slays Hektor, although he knows well that he himself must die soon after the fall of this foe, and the fatally wounded Hektor himself reminds him of his now impending doom. The action dies away in the burial of Patroklos and Hektor and the wail of Achilleus for the loss of his friend, in which he prepares himself for his imminent death, so that the latter in Homer only in a certain sense takes place behind the scene.

§ 182.  The Odyssey, said to have been the model for all poets describing the home-coming of the heroes of Troy, is also clearly based on a uniform plan, and afterwards expanded by insertions. To the latter notably belongs the whole 103 Telemacheia (Books I. — IV.), in which is described Telemachos’ journey to Pylos and Lakonia, as well as the greater part of the last book and the poems treating of the passage of Odysseus into the nether world, which though inserted in late times may itself be very old. To gain information as to the abode of his father Odysseus, who has been absent nearly twenty years, Telemachos visits old Nestor and then Menelaos. Both tell him of the home-coming of themselves and the other heroes; from the latter he also learns that his father is detained in the far West upon the island of the nymph Kalypso. But before Telemachos returns to Ithaka Odysseus himself has already arrived there. Thus his enterprise has no influence on the course of events.

§ 183.  The old Home-coming of Odysseus, which was created out of disjointed primitive lays, depicted only the last year, i. e. the proper catastrophe, while preceding events were mentioned in the course of the narrative, as in the Iliad; and this proves that the author was an imitator of the poet of the Iliad, which he used as a model. After Odysseus, the ruler of the little island of Ithaka, has lost his comrades and ships on his wanderings in the return from Troy, he lives for seven years, consumed with longing for his home, on the island of Ogygia with Kalypso (‘Concealer’), who strives to bind him permanently to herself. In Ithaka he is awaited with equal yearning by his faithful wife Penelope, who is wooed by numerous arrogant suitors. Moved by Athena’s requests, Zeus at length commands the nymph to let Odysseus go. He sails on a raft until close to the island of the Phaiakes. Here, however, Poseidon shatters his craft; and it is only with the aid of the goddess Ino-Leukothea that he can swim to the beach.

§ 184.  Nausikaa, the daughter of King Alkinoos, gives him clothing and leads him into the palace of her father. At mealtime he recounts himself his previous adventures. He lost many of his comrades in the battle with the brave Kikones; others, who had tasted the sweet fruit of the lotus in the land of the Lotus-eaters (lotophagoi), he had been compelled to drag 104 by force back to the ships, for enjoyment of the lotus had made them forget fatherland and friends. Then he fell into the cave of the one-eyed Kyklops Polyphemos, who devoured several of his shipmates, but at last was made drunk and blinded by Odysseus as he slept. Polyphemos being a son of Poseidon, the latter was now wroth with the returning travellers. They came to Aiolos, the ruler of the winds, and he graciously confined all the contrary winds in a skin, so that they would have reached home in safety if Odysseus’ comrades had not secretly opened the skin.

§ 185.  All the ships except the one on which was Odysseus himself were now shattered by the gigantic Laistrygones. With the last he landed on the island of the enchantress Kirke, who first turned a part of his crew into swine; but when threatened by Odysseus himself she restored them to their human shape, and all were now kindly entertained by her. Instructed at length by her as to the way leading home, they prepared after a year’s stay to continue their journey. Passing the island of the vulture-shaped Sirens (Seirenes), who enchanted men by their song and then slew them, he voyaged on between the seats of the sea-monsters Skylla and Charybdis to the island of Thrinakia1, where under the influence of hunger his shipmates slaughtered kine from the sacred herds of Helios. As punishment for this the lightning of Zeus shattered the last ship; only Odysseus himself, who had not shared in the sin, escaped on the mast, and after being tossed about for nine days reached the island of Kalypso.

§ 186.  Alkinoos touched with compassion at this narrative, now sends the man of many woes with rich gifts to Ithaka in a swift ship. Lest he be at once recognised, his guardian goddess Athena gives him the semblance of an old beggar. In this form he visits his herdsman Eumaios, and hears from him of the arrogance of his wife’s wooers. Only to his son Telemachos does he reveal who he is; but his old hound and his nurse Eurykleia also recognise him, despite his transformation, 105 whilst he is staying in his own house as a beggar. Penelope has just announced that she will wed him who can bend the bow of her dead husband and shoot an arrow through the eyes of twelve axes placed one behind the other. The suitors all strive in vain; at length Odysseus fulfils the task. He now reveals himself, and with the support of his son and the two faithful herdsmen Eumaios and Philoitios lays all the suitors low after a furious battle. Penelope now receives the news of her husband’s return. Lastly he visits his old father Laertes, who cultivates a farm in the neighbourhood.

The works of art relating to the Theban and Trojan cycles of legends are collected in Overbeck, Bildwerke zum thebanischen and troischen Heldenkreis.

NOTE. — The view summarily set forth in § 176 above, that the Iliad and Odyssey are the oldest of the great epics, and the models of all others, is that held by Aristarchos in antiquity and by many other scholars. None the less it is hardly tenable. There is no sufficient evidence, internal or external, that as a whole the other epics were later. They contained doubtless late passages; but so does the Iliad. The whole mass of these epics really formed a Corpus; the earliest and best tradition known to us assigned the authorship of the whole to ‘Homer.’ On the other hand, later traditions assigned one poem to Arktinos, another to Stasinos, and so forth (§ 176). The inference is clear. There were once famous minstrels — Homeros, Arktinos, Stasinos, and others — whose names survived in local legend, sometimes perhaps attached to a particular poem. The most renowned was Homeros, and hence many attributed the composition of all the epics to him; later, when popular favour had selected two poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, as the best of the whole series, these two were alone ascribed to him. Meanwhile students disinterred the names of Stasinos and the others from local legends, and assigned to each of them the authorship of one of the now anonymous poems, and thus was formed the catalogue of § 176.


1  Apparently the name Trinakria given to Sicily is the same word, but altered by popular etymology, which connected it with ἄκρα.

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