Thursday, April 26, 2012

Life After Troy

The Burning of Troy, Francisco Collantes
Part of the sheer fascination we've always had with the Trojan War is its unbelievable death toll. The Iliad spends a whole chapter naming all the kings, sons of kings, and kings' lieutenants who sailed to Troy, only to describe in equally loving detail the manners of their deaths a chapter or so later. Morbid? Of course. But magnetic.

And it explains why imagination clings so desperately to those lucky few who make it out alive. Odysseus, Aeneas, Cassandra (for a while), Andromache, the house of Atreus - all are names to conjure with. They're the survivors. Be it luck, courage, or determination, they were still standing at the end. They're the ones we want to know more about.

But there's a very distinct line drawn even among the survivors. It's apparently not enough to survive a ten-year siege of nonstop brutality. The survivors who live past the war are the ones who get as far from the war as they possibly can.

Captive Andromache, Frederic Leighton
This dooms most of the women from the start. Women's fortunes in ancient Greece were tied directly to their men and their city. When both those mainstays disappear, the women have no status anymore. Andromache suffers the humiliation of slavery and gets lusted after by the son of the man who killed her
Ajax and Cassandra,
Solomon J. Solomon

husband. Cassandra - princess, priestess, and prophet - is raped by two Greek commanders and murdered as collateral damage in Clytemnestra's vengeance. (An alternate version lets her run away to start a new line, but while I'd love to believe it - Cassandra's one of my Iliad favorites - I can envision a bloodthirsty Clytemnestra mowing down everyone in her path much more easily than I can see an escape for Cassandra.) Hecuba, powerless to save her husband or her children, gets claimed as a slave by Odysseus, which means that unless she was on the ship he himself left Troy in, it's very likely that she drowned en route to Ithaca. Only Helen manages to be female and in a safe place by the end of the war, and even her peace comes through depressing self-slander. Women in a society shaped by fighting men have very few tools for forging their own paths beyond destruction.

Even among the men, it's tough to break away from the defining episode of their lives. Agamemnon is most obviously tripped by
Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Pierre-Narcisse Guerin
it, and through his death his entire family becomes accessory to the destruction of the Trojan War. Ajax of Locris earns the enmity of Athena when he rapes Cassandra inside her temple; his prideful refusal to atone, or to acknowledge the power of the gods, is so outrageous that Athena and Poseidon put aside their own feud to tag-team on drowning Ajax. Menelaus jumps at the chance to relive the war when Telemachus comes to visit. In the guise of telling the young man about his unknown father, he journeys back to the thrill of war, something he's evidently missed in the past ten years of domestic calm. Keep in mind here that Menelaus is by far the most successful, of the men who get back to Greece, in living beyond the war. Even he can't get over it.

Ulysses and the Sirens, Roman mosaic, 3rd century CE
What about Odysseus, you say? Well, sure, Odysseus is really good at making his own life. The Odyssey is arguably more famous than the Iliad. And he does indeed return home, to where his loving wife and valiant son await him. But don't forget that it takes him ten years to get home, on top of the ten years he spent fighting at Troy. Don't forget that one stupid remark to Poseidon's Cyclops son dogs him throughout those ten years. And don't forget - however much you might want to - that tradition, if not Homer, sends him on still further journeys after his return to Ithaca. Odysseus' success in shaking off the Trojan War wakes in him a wanderlust that he cannot ignore. He all but creates the archetype of the restless wanderer, searching for something new and different. His life is big enough to contain the war and his own travels, but one snares him as completely as the other snares the women.

Aeneas and Dido, Pierre-Narcisse Guerin
And then there's Aeneas. Flat-out awesome in the Iliad, with no ending given him by tradition, he gets co-opted into a spectacular piece of poetic propaganda written to justify the Roman Empire. He's the only one who gets a truly happy ending: his journey done, his quest fulfilled, his line and city firmly founded. Like Odysseus, he has rough seas to sail; unlike Odysseus, he knows what he's looking for and when he's found it. In one sense, of course Aeneas triumphs in the creation of a life free of the Trojan War; the rise of Augustus Caesar demands the legitimation that only Aeneas can provide. But even within the story, as a character, Aeneas tries harder than anyone to break free. He may be haunted by his failure to save his wife from Troy, but it doesn't stop him from falling in love with Dido or marrying Lavinia. Offered the chance to call it quits and rule Carthage, he refuses. He clings to his search for a new city, far from his home, precisely because it is the only way to escape Troy. He creates his own life on his own terms, refusing to be defined by the war, and he alone manages to get a satisfying happily ever after. (It's telling, too, that in the happy-ending alternate version of Cassandra's fate, she also finds a home and a life far beyond Troy or the Greek city-states. Getting out of Dodge is the only way to escape.)

The Trojan War is a paradigm-breaker. It's massive, spanning generations and continents; its consequences define "far-reaching." It makes sense that a world trying to patch itself back together in the image of the past is a world doomed to failure. Aeneas and Odysseus are the only ones who realize the impossibility of going home after the breaking of the world, and only Aeneas realizes it in time.

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