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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 25 April 2015
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 25 APRIL 2015 13 FEATURE ‘the beautiful city’ First there is the beautiful Athena, daughter of Zeus, born from her father's head, the goddess of courage and heroism, wisdom and strategy. In Homer she combines the idealised attributes of the male in human society - especially beauty, courage and heroism - together with the ideal female aspects of beauty, loyalty and wisdom. The other war god is Ares, a son of Scenes from The Iliad in the Tablinium of the house of Vetutiu Placidus in Pompeii. Anzac Cove, 1915. Strange as it may seem, many participants at Gallipoli took the time out to ponder the beauty of the landscape. PHOTO: MATTIA NOTARI halting in those titanic fights which their shades perhaps wage nightly in the old battlefields of Troy, halting to gaze in wonder and amazement on the strange spectacle unfolded before them - modern war, that is, and all its attendant horrors. Hector, Achilles and Agamemnon in their golden harness - their old enmities forgotten - must surely gaze in astonishment on the warlike deeds and methods of another age than theirs.” HOMER'S GALLIPOLI The idea of a war taking place in a beautiful setting, of course, has its mythical parallel in Greek epic accounts of the struggle for Troy. In The Iliad the beauty of the natural landscape around Troy, not to mention the city itself, serves as a fundamental background to the horrors that take place on the battlefield: “The heroic landscape is fittingly beautiful.” So the rivers at Troy are lovely, fine horses graze on the beautiful fields, the city itself is rich, sacred, and beautiful. Mount Ida is lofty and beautiful and with abundant timber - the appropriate location for Zeus, the king of the gods, to spend much of his time in the poem. The Greek epic poets tended to idealise the world of their warriors, such that it was quite distinct from the everyday world of their audiences. Everything tends to be larger, better, and more beautiful than within the poet's own world. The Iliad ends before the final acts in the life of the city are played out, but the loveliness of the physical setting at Troy plays its part in anticipating the terrible loss to be endured by the defeated. And in the case of the Trojans, they lose everything. A NATIONAL EPIC In the 20th century in Australia Gallipoli became the nearest thing to a national epic. It became a special conflict around which many people could rally to express their national identity, not unlike the way that the Greeks rallied around the story of Troy, or the Persian wars, or Alexander's eastern conquests. British writers such as John Masefield and Compton Mackenzie even compared the Australian men with heroes from old poetry - and they did so with considerable hyperbole. In the case of Homer he was not just a good poet. The Iliad manages to capture the essence of what it means to be Greek. The great issues of human existence are its subject - life and death and family and community - and the action is played out in a beautiful and exotic setting in a war against a foreign adversary. We may be thankful there were no epic poets around about in Australia to tell the tale of Gallipoli. But epics can be formed without the need for poets skilled in formulaic verse structures. The creation of a national epic in the modern context is a social phenomenon, not so much a poetic one. It is not determined by a single hand, or by a group of good poets, but by a much broader collective impulse. And in the case of Gallipoli the mechanisms and genres of modern society played their parts in the process - literature and historiography, art and architecture, film, political discourse. The result has been that Gallipoli's place in the psyche of modern Australia is nothing short of astonishing. If you explore this phenomenon of epic formation against a background of comparative epic poetry from many countries, it becomes clear that it is an ancient process manifesting itself within a modern social context. The other side of this process of epic formation in the case of Gallipoli was that people were inclined to turn away from the western front, for all PHOTO COURTESY STATE LIBRARY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA. its unrelenting horror. It is hard to grasp, intellectually or psychologically, the extent of the losses on both sides in France and Belgium. If the perceived physical setting of Gallipoli was well-suited for a national epic of heroism and suffering, and courage in the face of adversity, the western front was seen as far too real and far too confronting. No sea to cross, no beaches or hills to scamper up, little in the way of a tactical struggle. No stark heights and ravines to confront. No Aegean sun beating down. No exotic Troy just across the waterway. No obvious beauty in the landscape. Just the reality of terrible and scarcely imaginable slaughter on the grey, flat plains. DISTORTIONS OF THE CLASSICAL PRISM We classicists are sometimes accused of seeing the modern world through a kind of classical prism, so that modern events are made to conform to ancient ideas and patterns. The accusation is not at all unreasonable, especially in my case. The Greek writers and mythmakers have a lot to say about war. Some of the most imaginative treatments of the subject of war come from ancient Greece. It is through war narratives that the Greeks tended to investigate the world through the Trojan war, the Persian wars, the Peloponnesian war, and so forth. They don't confine their narratives to the fighting itself, of course. But rather, they always have one eye on the broader human implications of it all. Why do we fight wars? What happens to human society when we do? How is it that we perpetrate terrible acts on one another? What are the consequences for the people who do so? It is very revealing about Greek attitudes to this subject that in their pantheon of gods they had two gods of war, not just one. These two gods represent different, though not mutually exclusive, aspects of warfare. Zeus and Hera. He is god of the blood and the guts and the cruelty of war. In The Iliad he is defeated by a human warrior, Diomedes, together with Athena's help. After he is defeated he scurries back to Olympus, only to receive abuse from his father Zeus. It says a lot about the Greek attitude to war that Ares is humiliated in both Homeric poems, The Iliad and he Odyssey. To the Greek mind, Athena could represent something good about war, which people could aspire to and admire. Her presence and her identity signify that there can be major social benefit from courage and steadfastness and wisdom in war. Athenian mythology even made Athena a divine participant in the battle against the Persians at Marathon. The glory of that battle, so few against so many, could be attributed to her support. But Ares, in his main function, was the terrible face of human suffering in war. GAZING AT THE BEAUTY OF GALLIPOLI We don't have gods of war today, but heroism and courage and strategy still operate alongside the gruesome realities of the killing and the wounding. The process of epic formation and heroisation almost always privileges the former over the latter. An epic such as Homer's Iliad is not grounded in the actual horrors that occur in the war, despite the fact that these take place all around. Rather, it is grounded in the perceived higher levels of military conduct within it - the courage and the passion, the determination and the renown. The process by which history is turned into myth, or into epic, usually involves us fixing our gaze upon Athena, rather than looking Ares full in the face. And this has been the experience with Gallipoli in Australia. When we ask ourselves why Gallipoli is the subject of so much mythmaking, rather than the western front, it is worth bearing the dichotomy of Athena and Ares is mind. The characteristic beauty and nature of the landscape of the Dardanelles, and the adjacent world of Homer's Troy, both feed into the narrative in an irresistible kind of way as a fitting place for heroic conduct. * Source: http://theconversation. com/long-read-gallipoli-thebeautiful-city-29581 * Chris Mackie is professor of Greek Studies and head of the School of Humanities at La Trobe University.
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