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Siege of Troy—tight sketch

The Iliad

The Iliad is an epic poem written by the blind poet Homer in the 4th century bc, about events that happen during the siege of Troy—known back then as Ilium—in the 12th century bc.

In those days poems like the Iliad were recited in front of an audience. They were written with a specific rhythm and often-repeated phrases in order to help the poet memorize the whole thing. The Iliad is mostly about war, the destruction it causes, and a code of honor that was part of Greek culture.

Because I’m a swell guy, I condensed the whole Iliad in to one sentence. You can take a really deep breath and recite it without stopping:

Nine years into the Trojan War the Greeks attack a town on Troy’s side and make off with a couple of Trojan girls Chryseis and Briseis Agamemnon takes Chryseis and Achilles who is the Greeks’ best warrior takes Briseis to be their girlfriends Chryseis’s dad offers to pay to get her back but Agamemnon says no dice Dad prays to Apollo Apollo inflicts a plague on the Greeks and a lot of them die Agamemnon figures out making Chryseis his girlfriend is the cause of this plague so he gives her back but he still wants a girlfriend so he makes Achilles give him Briseis this ticks Achilles off so he says he’s not going to fight for the Greeks anymore and even asks his mom Thetis who is a sea-goddess remember she married the mortal Peleus and wouldn’t invite Eris to their wedding to ask Zeus to help the Trojans who are the Greeks’ enemies so Zeus is on Troy’s side now and Achilles won’t fight so the Greeks get their hats handed to them there’s lots of fighting with some featured fights between Paris the shepherd with the good judgement who stole the beautiful Helen and Menelaus who is Helen’s husband and Hector and Ajax the Greeks don’t do so good the Trojans beat the Greeks back as far as their ships Diomedes and Odysseus get some inside info about the Trojans’ battle plans but the Trojans set one of the Greek ships on fire so things are looking pretty bad for the Greeks because without the ships how do they get back home Achilles still won’t help his pals but Nestor says let Patroclus wear Achilles’ armor so the Greeks will think yay Achilles is back in the game Patroclus is good but Apollo sees what’s going on and knocks Patroclus’ armor off of him and Hector kills him the Greeks and Trojans fight over the body and armor Hector gets the armor the Greeks get Patroclus’ body Achilles feels like a heel and tells Agamemnon okay I’ll fight those Trojans now Achilles’ mom Thetis the sea-goddess gets the god Hephaestus to make Achilles some new armor and Achilles goes out to fight the Trojan army who for some reason are sleeping outside the city walls and when they see Achilles coming they say feet do your stuff and try to beat it back inside Troy but they’re not fast enough and Achilles kills every Trojan he sees he even fights the god of the river Xanthus who complains about all the dead bodies Achilles sees Hector and chases him around the city three times until Hector stops running and fights Achilles but Achilles kills Hector and ties Hector’s body to the back of his chariot and drags it back to the Greek camp Patroclus gets a big funeral Achilles drags Hector’s body in circles around Patroclus’ coffin every day for the next nine days Hector’s dad the king of Troy tells Achilles come on man that’s not right Achilles says yeah you’re right I’m sorry and returns Hector’s corpse to the Trojans Hector gets a big funeral and everybody stops fighting for a while.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I’m interested in how people thought about time. Homer’s poem is about things that happened 800 years before he was born. Maybe the Iliad was a comment on wars happening in Homer’s own time. It was definitely a way of remembering events long gone.

The Iliad is an epic story, but too fanciful to be considered a history. We’ll have to look to another Greek to see who invented the idea of history.

Thanks to Spark Notes

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

My big beautiful Greek goddess wedding

Mr. Good Judgement Skills

Whoops!

Literally hundreds of alert readers have pointed out that I really made a boo-boo with that last post, The Judgement of Parrots. Turns out, it should have been The Judgement of Paris! Is my face red!

Maybe I should start over.

The Greek gods were different from regular humans—they were immortal and ruled over parts of the physical or mental/emotional world. Kind of like having a super power. The more you read about Greek gods, the more they sound like characters the Marvel guys Jack Kirby and Stan Lee would’ve invented.

For instance, Zeus ruled over the sky (and the other gods); Poseidon ruled over the seas. Ares was the god of war. Athena was the goddess of wisdom; Aphrodite the goddess of love & beauty.

On the other hand, the gods had the same character flaws that mortal humans do. They weren’t necessarily virtuous. They could be petty and vain and selfish and sometimes interfered in mortals’ affairs to further their own interests.

Homer was a blind poet who wrote epic poems, like the Iliad and the Odyssey. They are stories that are set against the Greeks’ wars with the Trojans around 1200 bc. Troy was a city in Turkey. Homer’s poems tell about historical events and include the Greek gods as characters.

According to the myth, the Trojan War started when the mortal Peleus and his sea-goddess sweetheart Thetis got married and invited all the gods to their wedding. Well, all the gods except Eris, goddess of discord. When Eris showed up at the reception the bouncers kept her out. Eris was ticked off, but she knew how to get back at the other goddesses. She tossed a golden apple marked, “To the Most Beautiful” into the crowd. Three goddesses—Aphrodite, Hera and Athena—each said she deserved the apple and started throwing wedding cake and chairs at each other. Zeus stopped the argument by setting up a beauty contest. Paris (a Trojan shepherd known for his good judgment) would pick the most beautiful. The three goddesses agreed. They weren’t above a little bribery, just to be on the safe side. Hera offered Paris power to rule the world and Athena offered him wisdom. But Paris chose Aphrodite, who offered him the love of Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman in the whole world. The only catch was that Helen was already married to Menelaus, king of the Greek city of Sparta. With Aphrodite’s help, Paris stole Helen away from Sparta. This cheesed off Menelaus and he (with the kings of other Greek cities) declared war on Troy—leading to years of slaughter, destruction and the eventual fall of Troy.

Homer’s poems pick up the story from there.

By the way, does any of this remind you of The Sleeping Beauty—and the evil fairy Maleficent who wasn’t invited to a christening?

The Judgement of Parrots

In Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, the Trojan War got started because of a beauty contest, known as The Judgement of Parrots. The contest was between the three most beautiful goddesses of Mount Olympus—Aphrodite, Hera and Athena—and the winner got a golden apple. As best as I can tell, the goddesses must have asked some parrots to declare who was the most beautiful of them. I found many paintings of this scene, but all the great masters forgot to include the parrots, so I drew it myself. If you want something done right, do it yourself, as they say.

Greek gods

Zeus hurling lightning bolts at the mortals.

Everybody wonders, “Where did we come from? Why are we here?” At least I’m pretty sure everybody does.

The Greeks tried to answer those questions with myths—religious stories about how the world and people came to be. They believed in many gods and goddesses who mostly lived on the top of Mount Olympus. These gods sometimes came down to interact with the mortals—regular people like you and me. The god Poseidon (po-SIGH-den) ruled the sea and lived in it. Hades (HAY-deez) was the god who ruled the Underworld—where the ancient Greeks believed we go when we die. Zeus (ZAY-oos—I know, I know, everybody says ZOOS) ruled the other gods and the sky from Mount Olympus.

The Manders School Visit World Tour

For the past week or so I had the great honor to give presentations to the students at Rowan Elementary School (who put a pirate ship in the middle of their library!) and Bedford Elementary School (whose walls are adorned with giant artworks created by the graduating classes through the years). Many thanks to my hosts/hostesses for inviting me and sharing my work with the kids. I was treated like a rock star and I’m grateful.

I’m gassing up the garishly-decorated double-decker tour bus to be at Cranberry Elementary School later this month. If you’d like me to visit your school, contact bookings@johnmanders.com

The Greeks

Athena, Goddess of Wisdom

Let’s travel north from Egypt, across the Mediterranean Sea, to the island of Crete and the Greek mainland. It’s the Bronze Age, everybody!—from 3200 to 1100 bc—because some genius figured out smelting. Smelting is melting down 2 or more metals at very high heat, then combining them so when they cool, they’re a new metal, called an alloy. If you smelt the metals copper and tin, you get the alloy bronze. Bronze is stronger than copper or tin. Bronze was a handy material for making weapons and armor.

Like the Sumerians and Egyptians, the Greeks were farmers. Because Crete and the Cyclades are islands, they spent some time zipping around the Mediterranean in ships and trading with other people who lived along the sea. They used coins for conducting business—first made out of electrum, an alloy of gold & silver, later replaced with coins of pure gold and pure silver.

When we talk about the Greeks as a civilization, we’re talking about a bunch of individual city-states—like Athens, Sparta, Thebes and Corinth—who shared language, religion and culture. Sometimes they fought with each other, sometimes they banded together to fight a common enemy.

The Greeks were polytheistic—they worshiped many gods. Polytheism: poly= many; theo/deo=god.

These city-states were ruled by kings, but in Athens they began a system of government called democracy, where citizens can vote on who rules them.

The Greeks introduced theater; created statues and pottery; wrote epic poetry and songs; and developed a style of architecture using weight-bearing columns.

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An example of ancient Egyptian humor

Measuring length in ancient Egypt

One thing about a civilization: people are always building things or buying & selling things. The Egyptians built some impressively big things. When you’re putting together something as big as a pyramid, you need to get all the measurements right. The Egyptians traded things as well. If you’re selling or buying a plot of land, or a roll of fabric, or a quantity of wheat, both buyer and seller need to agree on how much is being traded.

What you need are standardized measurements. Before the Egyptians started building a pyramid, they had to figure how big the base of it would be so that the sides could come to a point at the top at the right height. If an Egyptian were buying a roll of fabric, she’d need to use the same measurement as the seller to describe how much fabric was being sold.

What do you do if you don’t have a ruler or a tape measure or a yardstick? Or, what if you have a ruler or a tape measure or a yardstick but yours is different from somebody else’s?

Here’s what the ancient Egyptians did: they used the good old human body for measuring.

A grown man’s foot is more or less the same length as every other grown man’s foot. Sure, some are longer, some shorter—but not by very much. The average grown man’s foot can be used as a standard measurement. Those clever Egyptians imaginatively named this measurement a ‘foot.’

The length of a grown man’s forearm—from elbow to the tip of the middle finger—is more or less the same length as every other grown man’s forearm. This measurement was known as a ‘cubit.’ The Latin word ‘cubitum’ means elbow. In the Hebrew Bible, cubits are used to describe the size of Noah’s Ark, or how tall Goliath was, or how long to make the curtains for the Tabernacle.

From the middle of a man’s chest to the tip of his middle finger is two cubits. From fingertip to fingertip of both outstretched hands is four cubits.

Using a grown man for measuring.

One ‘palm’ equals 4 digits (fingers) of a grown man’s hand. There are 7 palms in a cubit, or 28 digits. A digit is roughly 3/4 of an inch. A palm is just under 3 inches.

That’s how the Egyptians standardized their measurements. You can find grown men just about anywhere! If not, they had cubit rods marked with cubits, feet, palms and fingers.

Cubit rod.

Time & space

Yes, yes, I know—my phone has been ringing off the hook with people calling to complain that this history of Western Civilization seems to be a history of telling time. Maybe you have a point. Maybe I have been concentrating too much on how the ancients reckoned time.

This history is about ideas. I want to tell how Western Civilization was shaped by innovation and invention. Look, would it make you all happier if I added a second topic? I admit, so far (even though we’ve only gotten as far as the Sumerians and Egyptians) I *have* been a little obsessed with timekeeping. How about if I start talking about how we’ve measured space?

What if we discovered that there’s a connection between time and space?

For instance: how far can you walk in an hour? If you keep up a steady pace, you’ll cover 3 miles. A long time ago, this unit of measurement was called a league. Most people traveled by walking. They knew that in an hour they could be somewhere 3 miles away. They were using time to measure distance.