True confessions: I was once a teenage geek with a passion for ancient Greece. Where this obsession came from I don’t know, but I do remember – in the remote Essex village where we lived – picking my way through the poems of Homer, charmed by the smooth, flowing script and the radiant phrases: the rosy-fingered dawn and the wine-dark sea.
In time I grew up and, bemused by my own geekiness, decided it was all deeply uncool and turned my attention somewhere else. But now along comes ‘The Mighty Dead’, Adam Nicolson’s love song to Homer, to remind me all over again of my teenage geekiness and my love affair with the mighty dead.
This is a beautiful book that will take you on a unexpected journey if you let it.
Nicolson believes that buried in the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ are traces of past eras that are laid down like archaeological layers. Bit by bit he unpicks these layers and takes you further and further back in time.
So first we go to Venice and the Biblioteca Marciana where, in 1788, a beautiful manuscript was rediscovered – 654 goatskin vellum pages on which is written the earliest complete version of the ‘Iliad’ to come down to us. It was compiled by a scribe in 10th century Constantinople and came west in the 15th century, just ahead of the fall of that city.
And from Venice we go to the deserts of Egypt where, in 1888, Flinders Petrie found the tomb of a young woman who had died sometime in the second century AD and who was laid out in her tomb with her head on a pillow made from papyrus. On this papyrus was written the Gathering of the Ships (aka Book 2 of the ‘Iliad’).
And from here we go back to Alexandria in the third century BC when the scholar-editors of that city took the great shoals of shimmering, shifting, unstable, different Homers (because every Greek city had a different version of the poems), and cut and shaped them. (With many indignant messages in the margins, noting Homer’s inconsistencies.)
And from here we go back again to the island of Chios – parched, rocky and brilliant in its simplicity – where legend persistently claims that Homer was born in the 8th century BC, and to where perhaps the alphabet first came from the Near East. This was the script in which the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ were first written down and is the same script in which I read them thousands of years later in the Essex village.
After that the story spirals back once more, from the written to the spoken Homer, to the world before 1200 BC, to the time of the bronze-age heroes, who in the poems carry daggers very like the ones they found in Mycenae, helmets made from boar tusks and shields as tall as towers.
But even this is not the end of the layers, because Nicolson believes that the story goes still further back, and that you can see traces in the ‘Iliad’ of the history of the very first Greeks, who were people from the northern steppes – mobile, nomadic warriors with nothing but the weapons, the gold and the pride that they stood up in – who came south to the Mediterranean in about 2,000 BC. In the ‘Iliad’ the Greeks who camped outside the walls of Troy are a memory of those first nomads, just as the Trojans are a memory of the palatial civilisations of the Mediterranean, with their palaces, their baths and woven textiles. (And it is true that the Trojans are so appealingly domestic in the ‘Iliad’, whilst the Greeks are glamorous thugs.)
So in this reading the ‘Iliad’ is not so much a clash between east and west, as between north and south – ‘what happens to the northern adventurers in a southern world.’
Nicolson’s story peters out somewhere in the northern steppes, in horizons so distant that our imagination stops imagining. It’s a beautifully written book and though it seems hard to believe that the memory of more than a thousand years could be traced through two spoken poems, Nicolson puts up a good argument.
So now I think that my early, over-sophisticated, twenty-something self was wrong and that my teenage, geeky self was right. Homer really is amazing.
Adam Nicolson, ‘The Mighty Dead’, published by William Collins in 2014