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  • Stupid, Pointless Wars*
  • Ruth Scodel

In Iliad 3, as Helen arrives at the walls of Troy, the Trojan elders on the walls speak among themselves:

οὐ νέμεσις Τρῶας καὶ ἐϋκνήμιδας Ἀχαιοὺςτοιῇδ’ ἀμφὶ γυναικὶ πολὺν χρόνον ἄλγεα πάσχειν·αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν·

(Il. 3.156–58)

It is not wrong for the Trojans and Achaeans who wear fine shin armor to suffer pains for a long time for a woman like this—she terribly resembles the immortal goddesses in appearance.

Nemesis is the justified indignation people feel at a violation of social norms, or, as here, behavior that gives rise to such indignation. This is a shifty thing for the Trojan elders to say, since by treating one moral issue—whether Helen is worth fighting over—they obscure a simpler one on which there can be no real doubt. Taking Helen was wrong, and it will soon be revealed to be even more decisively wrong after the violation of the truce. So considering whether she is, in herself, worth fighting over, if one had some legitimate claim to her, is an evasion. This may be a real question for the Achaeans, but not for the Trojans. But even if we take the remark at face value, it invites criticism. It is possible for a character to say that something is not nemesis or nemesseton as a litotes, where the speaker means that it is absolutely the correct thing to [End Page 219] do, as Odysseus says at Il. 19.182 that it is not nemesseton for a king to pay compensation when he has started a quarrel. Fighting over Helen, however, is clearly not a positively good thing to do. The elders’ statement is more like Agamemnon’s assertion at Il. 14.80 that it is not nemesis to flee evil, even by night, or Telemachus’s insistence at Od. 1.350 that it is not nemesis for the singer to perform the return of the Achaeans, as Penelope has just asked him not to do. Generally, one does not insist that something is acceptable unless there is reason to think someone else would think that it is not.

That is, I think that the Iliad is aware of the anti-Trojan War tradition. In the Iliad, the Trojan War is a great heroic enterprise—sad, ambiguous, but impressive. In the alternate view, it is stupid. This strand of tradition finds its strongest expression in the versions that place Helen in Egypt, so that the war and all its sufferings are the result of a mistake. Herodotus’s version (2.115–16), in which the Trojans insist that Helen is not in Troy, but the Greeks refuse to believe them, has a touch of nineteenth-century French boulevard comedy—is Helen in the closet? Under the bed? Behind the screen? Yet even without this twist, the war for Helen can easily seem not worth it, indeed, so obviously not worth it that the Greeks, or their leaders, seem reckless. This is the view of the angry citizens whose mutterings the chorus reports in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (448–49): ἀλλοτρίας διαὶ γυναικός (“because of someone else’s wife”). This is the view of the Persians in Herodotus:

Τὸ μέν νυν ἁρπάζειν γυναῖκας ἀνδρῶν ἀδίκων νομίζειν ἔργον εἶναι, τὸ δὲἁρπασθεισέων σπουδὴν ποιήσασθαι τιμωρέειν ἀνοήτων, τὸ δὲ μηδεμίανὤρην ἔχειν ἁρπασθεισέων σωφρόνων·


For they believe that abducting women is the action of unjust men, but making a serious effort at getting vengeance when they have been abducted is that of fools, while not caring about abducted women is that of the moderate.

This view seems to be as old as the heroic version of the story, its invariable shadow. I am going to argue that this tradition is important for the Cyclic epic Cypria, even if the poem’s meager remains do not permit an argument that it was consistently or coherently hostile to the war. Indeed, the evidence does not indicate that it was consistent in any way. Still, I have also come to suspect that the Cypria was, if not exactly funny or a parody—and I am not in this context interested in defining generic boundaries—permeated by a certain black humor about its subject. Then I shall turn to another hexameter text about a stupid war, the Batrachomyomachia.

In the Cypria, Nemesis was Helen’s mother, born after Zeus raped the goddess, who had done her best to...


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