Closer Readings Commentary

Visiting “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander”

On Friday afternoon, I leave work early, head north via Metro to the National Geographic Museum, and, press pass around my neck, visit the new exhibit, The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander. On display until October 10th, this collection brings together 550 objects from 21 Greek museums from Athens to Vergina to tell of gods and goddesses, heroes and scholars, aristocrats and kings.

 The galleries are crowded with people, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. The political principles of classical Greece underlie modern states; Greek architecture is echoed in banks, museums, and government buildings; and Greek mythology plays out in graphic novels, video games, and on cinema screens. And then there’s the Olympics.

There is one display, in particular, where my fellow museumgoers stop and stare, wowed by sheer glitz and archeological aura: the Mask of Agamemnon. It’s a thin disk with carefully-crafted eyes and a narrow nose. (I had to read the fine print to learn that the version on display is an electroformed copy.)

Businessman-turned-archeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the mask in the excavations of Mycenae in the late 19th century. Because his classical education had so emphasized the stature of Homeric heroes, he misattributed the ancient mask as belonging to Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king and military leader who, according to The Iliad, united the Greeks against Troy.

Both The Iliad and The Odyssey are attributed to Homer, who, in the mid-eighth century B.C.E., formalized the verses generations of bards had recited aloud. Scenes from Homer adorn some of the pottery on exhibit, black on rust-colored clay. One tall lekythos, or funerary oil jar, depicts Achilles’ father taking his child to the centaur Chiron to be educated. Achilles, of course, is the central figure of Homer’s The Iliad, a young super-warrior who aims to achieve glory through his manifest superiority in all contests he competes in.

The Greeks believed in the cultivation of excellence, arête, through a multidisciplinary education spanning athletics, music, ethics, and other subjects. The accompanying wall text says Chiron “teaches the boy everything he needs to know…exercising the mind and body; the arts of horsemanship, music, dance, and medicine; respect for the gods and his parents; and a desire for justice.”

Another lekythos, from the late Archaic period, depicts a story so brutal it makes my mouth twist. Bold, geometric strokes show a body being dragged behind a chariot; a warrior stands, profile proud, at the helm. The warrior is, again, Achilles, furious at the death of his friend Patroclus at the hands of Hector. After steadfastly refusing to fight and contemplating forsaking wartime fame and heading home, Achilles returns to battle to slay Patroclus’ killer then drags the corpse in relentless circles around the funeral pyre of his friend.

In looking at this vase, I’ve stumbled upon a key that opens up the The Iliad to my understanding. Homer pinpoints it in the very first lines of his work:

Rage: Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage,

Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks

Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls

Of heroes into Hades' dark** 


Rage, or mênis, being the first word in the Greek text, telegraphs the central theme: anger is both what makes Achilles a great warrior and also what causes his destructive conflict with his king, his friends, and himself.

Achilles cannot become a truly admirable hero until he learns to control his rage. He ultimately achieves this when he shows compassion to the father of Hector, King Priam of Troy, who comes begging for the body of his son. The aged figure of the man dressed in simple clothes rather than kingly garb reminds Achilles of his own father, whom he will never see again, and this insight into their common humanity transforms him back into a recognizable human being.

The questions Homer pondered are perennial. Who are our heroes, how are they to be educated, and what virtues should they embody? The myths and legends about Achilles inspired history’s famed commanders, starting with the military genius Alexander the Great, who brought Greek civilization to Egypt, Asia Minor, and as far as the Hindu Kush. The Greek biographer Plutarch says that Alexander always slept with a version of The Iliad edited by his tutor Aristotle under his pillow.

Even if our modern heroes do not read Homer or revere Achilles, they understand what it means to be recognized as “first” in their chosen field. How does Achilles’ drive for glory rather than mundane happiness play out in today’s society? How do these heroes’ codes of honor compare to our own?

To learn more about Ancient Greece, we encourage you to watch the PBS series The Greeks, a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded resource. Clips and full episodes are both viewable online for the time being. And if Alexander the Great and Hellenistic art piques your interest, view this video from the National Gallery of Art.

*Lila Thulin is an intern at EDSITEment and a rising senior studying Human Biology and Creative Writing at Stanford University.

**Homer, The Iliad, trans. Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 1.1-4.