(Charlotte Higgins's article appeared in the Guardian, 1/30.)

The Iliad and what it can still tell us about war

As the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war holds the country in thrall, Charlotte Higgins reflects on the enduring power of a 3,000-year-old poem

The Iliad is the first great book, and the first great book about the suffering and loss of war. We love to tell stories about war. Tony Blair wove his own when giving evidence at the Chilcot inquiry yesterday: the latest, unpoetic attempt to make sense of an east-west clash of powers. He might note that "spin " goes back to The Iliad: the first-century writer Dio Chrysostom argued that Homer, for reasons of his own, suppressed the truth about the Trojan war – in reality, the Greeks lost. "Men learn with difficulty . . . but they are deceived only too readily," he wrote.

Why is the first book a book about war? Perhaps because war is inextricably bound up with humanity's urge to tell stories. Civilisation – with its settlements, its boundary lines, its hierarchies – breeds conflict and narrative alike. In The Iliad, two characters have the narrative urge, and something approaching a synoptic view of the scenes surging around them. Achilles sings stories of heroes' deeds in battle, and Helen embroiders scenes of fighting on an elaborate textile.


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