Homer’s Iliad, a poem perched on the cusp of recorded history, is as enigmatic as it is magnificent. Like the earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Koran, the Babylonian Enuma Elish and the Mahabharata, it exerts its prodigious grip on the collective imagination precisely because it is so mysterious.
The Iliad was for the ancient Greeks the foundation stone of all civilisation, the classic of classics, but it was as much a mystery to them as it is to us. It was usually assumed in antiquity that Homer was a real person, but other biographical details were simply guessed at or extrapolated from the text and contested. Later Greeks began to fantasise about interviewing the poet’s ghost so as to settle all the questions once and for all. The comic satirist Lucian imagines a trip to the underworld, where he encounters Homer. When asked about his identity, Homer replies that he had once been a Babylonian called Tigranes, but he changed his name when he was taken as a hostage (homēreusas) to live among the Greeks. Why did he begin the Iliad with the wrath of Achilles? ‘No reason: that was just what came to mind.’
Robin Lane Fox – ancient historian, travelling enthusiast, gardening correspondent for the Financial Times and cavalry commander in Oliver Stone’s Alexander – is the latest to turn his hand to this form of philological necromancy. The Iliad is a poem he has known and loved since his schooldays at