Homer’s Iliad begins with a pandemic.
At an early stage of the war, Agamemnon took Chryseis prisoner. She was the daughter of Chryses, a Trojan priest of Apollo. Chryses tries to buy her freedom. He takes gold to Agamennon, but the leader of the Greek forces refuses to return the daughter. So Chryses begs Apollo for help. In Pope’s translation:
Latona’s son a dire contagion spread,
And heap’d the camp with mountains of the dead;
There is something both scary and prosaic about illness. War, even mythic war, comes with dangers beyond the battle field. Without an understanding of the causes of disease, plague could be deadly.
Homer’s Iliad is not just about war, but about the human condition in all its ugly, and beautiful, truth.
I visited the exhibition Troy: myth and reality at the British Museum, in its last week just as Britain felt itself on the…
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