Classics Professor Finds New Perspectives on the 'Iliad'

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Samantha Koon:

April 21, 2011 — Jenny Clay wanted to get inside the head of Homer, the Greek poet.

For her new book, "Homer's Trojan Theater," and an accompanying website, Clay, a professor of classics in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, has stepped out of her comfort zone and applied psychological research to her study of Homer's "Iliad" to reveal clues about how the masterpiece was conceived and committed to paper.

"The book started from a simple question," Clay said. "If there is a cast of over 300 characters in the 'Iliad,' how does the poet not lose people?"

Clay thinks that Homer consulted a detailed mental map of the battlefield in writing the epic poem.

"He visualized it," she said. With the help of this imagined map, Homer could freely move from one side of the battlefield to the other without getting lost or confused.

In order to develop her argument, Clay studied the psychological concept of cognitive mapping as well as mnemonics. She learned that the act of seeing and the act of imagining to see use the same areas of one's brain.

"The battlefield is envisaged from a specific point, and that point does not change," Clay explained. Homer maintains this exact orientation throughout the many battle scenes depicted in the "Iliad." For instance, he will reference what would have been left and right direction to the Greek soldiers, but "when a Trojan talks about left and right, he uses different words like 'the edge of the battlefield,'" she explained. This subtle detail keeps the already complicated action from spiraling out of control.

"If he didn't, it would get too confusing and wouldn't work," she said. Homer also relies on constant boundary markers, like the Greek camp, to keep the reader oriented.

Often, people studying the "Iliad" get frustrated with what she referred to as the "battlefield books." Books 12, 13, 15, 16 and 17 are action-filled battle scenes. Though they are critical to a complete understanding of the poem, many readers skim over these "boring parts," Clay said.

She hopes that her research will inspire people to take time to carefully study these sections. "It's not just one killing after another. There is an order and a sense to what is going on," she explained.

Clay thinks that the detail with which Homer constructed these complex battle scenes makes him all the more admirable as a poet.

"It's more meaningful when you realize what the poet is doing," she said. "There is a real coherence to these books."

From a classical perspective, Clay's research is all the more significant because it supports research about themes in ancient literature.

"Not only does the poet see the battlefield, but he allows his audience to see it also," she said. "Vividness is something that the ancients saw as a real virtue in poetry and writing."

Clay's book is finished and available for purchase, but she said that the accompanying website is still "a work in progress." Online, readers can view interactive maps outlining the action in the battlefield books and watch color-coded soldiers act out the scenes. 

Ultimately, Clay hopes that her research will inspire others to take a closer look at similarly complicated scenes from literature and history. She said she is even interested in helping to create a Trojan War video game to accompany the site.

"I'm hoping people will now look at other tales of battles – literary ones or historical ones – to see if this is true of descriptions of other complicated actions," she said, adding that she was curious about the battle scenes in Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" as well as the detailed spatial descriptions in Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis."

— By Samantha Koon

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