Saturday, 24 March 2012

Heroes and villains: comparing the Greek sacking of Troy to the Turkish conquest of Constantinople



I had the misfortune to watch the dreadful, contemptible blockbuster Troy last night, which purports to bring to the screen Homer’s Iliad. I’d seen the film a few years ago and remember disliking it then, but had forgotten how bad it was and decided to watch it again.

Everything about the film is awful and wrong. The worst butchery in the film is not that which we see on screen in the fight scenes but that inflicted on Homer, whose narrative is mutilated not to bring out any new or interesting points about the Iliad, but to pander to the most facile Hollywood clichés. (In this travesty, Hector kills not only Menelaos and Ajax but Briseis slays Agamemnon. Can you believe it?).

Anyway, the film isn’t the point of this post. The point is how the Iliad is not some patriotic diatribe – like Virgil’s dreadful Aeneid – aimed at extolling the virtues of the Greeks and denigrating the enemy Trojans. Indeed, as we all know, in the Iliad, the Trojans are, generally, more sympathetic and sophisticated than the Greeks. Priam is a much more noble king than the odious Agamemnon; Hector is more honourable than Achilles and when Troy is sacked (this is not in the Iliad but is recorded elsewhere in the Epic Cycle), the Greeks admit that this was accompanied by slaughter, rape and looting, crimes of hubris that will be paid for.

What we have in Homer, then, is a very early example of how in Greek culture it was imperative to admit your own shortcomings, examine your own motivations and to look to the ‘other’ for your better self. Indeed, this impulse towards self-criticism and self-loathing reflects that part of Greco-Western civilisation which is prone to self-destruction. This isn’t to say that the Greco-West always and necessarily sympathises with the other – often, it doesn’t and hasn’t – but the point is that it’s an essential component of our Greco-Western culture.

But, again, this isn’t really the point of my post, or it is but it’s not an original point. It’s been made a million times before. My point is to compare how Homer – 2700 years ago – dealt with the Greek siege of Troy and how Turkish culture has recently dealt with the siege and fall of Constantinople in the film Conquest 1453, which has been packing them in in Anatolia. According to this review, we have pious, heroic, fair-minded Turks against debauched Greeks:
‘The Ottomans are devout and resolute; the Byzantine emperor, Constantine, and his aides drink and lounge with women in wispy outfits. When Mehmet finally enters the gates, he tells cowering Orthodox Christians that they are free to worship. They smile in wide-eyed, wondrous gratitude.’
What nonsense, and what a disturbing inability to look at history critically or intelligently; and what fascist propaganda, showing how retarded and dangerous Turkish national ideology remains. We will know when Turkey has grown up – and ceased to pose a threat to Greece – when a film is made in Turkey about the Fall of Constantinople that reveals the Turks as villains and the Greeks as heroes.

(The clip above is the fight scene in Troy between Achilles and Hector, which I quite liked).

3 comments:

Θάνος Δ. said...

You could also talk about “The Trojan Women" by Euripides or even “The Persians" by Aeschylus.
But I guess a lot has already been said/written about that…

John Akritas said...

Exactly, Thanos. Exactly. Impartiality begins with the Greeks, as they say.

Hermes said...

In fact there is more to this. Basil Digenis Akritas, the great Byzantine border warrior, is half Roman and half Arab but of course he is wholly Greek/Roman in culture and reflects the virtues of Hercules, Achilles, Alexander and the simple Christian (so much for not having cultural continuity with ancient Greece - why don't these poems hark back to Roman or Jewish heroes???) as depicted by Paphlagonian poet-bards. The Arabs or Saracens are sometimes depicted as being just as noble and chivalrous as the Greeks. Even in Song of Armouris, one of the other long poems in the Akritic cycle, the Saracens are seen as having some positive virtues when fighting the warrior, Arestis.