On September 18th '04 I attended a book talk by Thomas Cahill, author of Sailing the Wine Dark Sea, at the Salt Lake City Public Library. I have read and reread Wine Dark Sea and hoped to be able to express some of my opinions on the work to the author directly.
Cahill's forty minute talk was as lucid and as titillating as his book, but his two applause lines came during the Q&A and I found them telling. The first outburst came at the end of a short description of the Peloponnesian War elicited by my own question on Achilles and the Homeric Hero. Cahill delighted some in the audience by claiming that Athens lost the war because she had entered the fight without allies. The second time he got the crowd spontaneously clapping was as he "explained" the fall of the Greece-Roman world. He claimed that Rome fell because it taxed only the middle and lower classes while allowing the rich to pretend to pay. John Kerry's campaign talking points delivered as facts from history! The liberal agenda in "sheepskin" clothing. It seemed to me to encapsulate Cahill's "Histories."
A good share of Wine Dark Sea, along with a major theme of Cahill's book talk, deals with the Iliad and Cahill's interpretation of Homeric Hero. A view that crafts Hector a loving family man and Achilles a pouting adolescent. It was this view of Achilles I most wanted to challenge. My hand was the first up at the question and comment time. I challenged Cahill's view, one held by many "Romantics," that Achilles withheld his support for the Greek cause because Agamemnon "took his woman." A kind of "I'll take my ball and go home" fit, and that in the end Achilles reentered battle to choose "eternal glory" over home and family. This is the warrior hero Cahill extrapolates from Homer for us, a selfish teenager; only interested in sex and fame. This vision, he infers, drives the Western War Machine to march against distant and disinterested peoples throughout out the world. I claim, and in my question asserted, that Achilles is something else. "Isn't it true," I challenged, "that Achilles had other motivations? Was it not his desire to defend his "unalienable rights" that he challenges an unjust tyrant? Agamemnon had lead 1000 ships to ten years of war to recover a stolen wife, only to steal the beloved "wife" of Achilles. Was it not this recognition of tyrannical injustice, not his hormones that drove Achilles?" I slipped in a second point, Is it not true that Achilles did not choose glory but chose home and family and only returned to the battlefield when Cahill's "ideal husband," Hector, cut down Achilles friend, not in battle but as he stood naked and defenseless before him?"
Cahill rolled his eyes, admitted that it had happened so, but claimed it was honor not any understanding of rights that motivated Achilles. He then admitted that the hero was a complex character and either interpretation had merit. He then marched out the Spartan, the fall of Athens and John Kerry's talking points on the war in Iraq. There was no chance for rebuttal, no chance to point out to Cahill that it was Athena who held back Achilles hand when he would have cut down the tyrant; Athena, goddess of wisdom and justice, that delivered Hector to Achilles spear.
I knew I would only get one more comment as I presented my daughter's copy of Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea to the author for his autograph. "Don't you think," I asked as he scribbled, "that a better explanation of Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War is that parties and politicians at home in Athens, more interested in their own power than the safety of their city, lost the war by destroying the support of the people for their troops in the field?" Again the rolling of the eyes, a moment of reflection and then Cahill's "No!"
"You should read Thucydides!" I said as he handed up the book.
"I do read Thucydides!" he claimed as he dismissed me by reaching for the next proffered tome.
Then read him again, I thought as I turned away. Read Thucydides, the father of Objective History. Yes Thucydidies could be objective in his project to reveal the nature of war and the causes of victory and defeat. He wrote in a day before publishers, best sellers and book talks. He wrote history for the future in the days before history was for sale.
Johnny Bounty Application.
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