By Tom Winnifrith
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Extra info for Aspects of the Epic
The Homeric epics created an image of the Trojan war that exerted a controlling influence on the way that war is presented in fifthcentury tragedy. Even after the Persian wars had provided a counter-image of conflict between Greeks and non-Greeks as a struggle between civilisation and barbarism, between freedom and slavery, the Trojan war remained essentially what it is in Homeric epic: an image of human struggle in which the heroism of Hector is-not less than, nor different in kind from, the heroism of Achilles, and in which the suffering that war brings is embodied above all in the women of Troy, in Hecabe and Andromache.
Everyone knows the scene in which Hector finally tracks down his wife Andromache by the Scaean gate. She has a nurse with her and their baby son Astyanax, who is frightened by his father's great helmet-plume when Hector tries to pick him up, so that both parents break the tension by laughing. Suddenly we are carried into a softer and more human world than that of ordinary heroic confrontation - but are soon reminded that its values penetrate even there. For 20 ASPECTS OF THE EPIC when Hector takes off his helmet and places it shining on the ground, he kisses the baby and dandles it and prays to Zeus as follows: 'Grant that my son here may become like me conspicuous among the Trojans, as physically strong and as powerful a ruler over Ilios.
We have, after all, learnt over the past two or three decades to think of the consciousness of fifth-century Greece, and above all of Athens in the fifth century, as something radically different from that of 34 ASPECTS OF THE EPIC earlier centuries, and to think of tragedy in particular as the characteristic expression of that new consciousness. I mean what Jean-Pierre Vernant and others have called 'le moment tragique' and all that is implied in that phrase. The thesis, briefly, is this. The development in new forms of social organisation and in new political institutions that marks the transition from the 'archaic' world of the seventh and sixth centuries to the 'new' societies of fifthcentury Greece, and above all that of democratic Athens, accompanied by the gradual spread of literacy in the Greek world, brought about a shift of consciousness, a new spirit of rational and critical enquiry, a new readiness, even a compelling need, to re-examine and to attack traditional assumptions that brought the societies of ancient Greece (and again Athens is the prime example) across the divide that students of social development such as Jack Goody see as separating 'traditional' from 'modern', 'primitive' from 'advanced', 'cold' from 'hot', The experience of open discussion of fundamental assumptions about society and about political and legal decision-making had created in men a radical and a cumulative scepticism about traditional wisdom and a new sophistication in the analysis of human behaviour and motivation.