Press Coverage

Real lessons of ancient tales more than just movie fodder

Daily Herald, May 15, 2004
By Burt Constable

If you expect the ancient dramas in blockbuster movie "Troy" to take your mind off our modern real world woes, consider this a warning.

Oh, the attractive Diane Kruger as the iconic Helen of Troy, whose face launched a thousand ships, will distract some viewers. Others might prefer to fantasize about the hunky Brad Pitt as Achilles, the Greek warrior who's all sweaty and smellin' of Troy. Or you might just lose yourself in the general Homer-eroticism, that giant Trojan horse or the epic battle scenes.

But behind this drama based on the ancient story depicted in Homer's poem, "The Iliad," lies a very real connection to our modern world.

While viewers might think the movie glamorizes war and its warriors, "The Iliad" actually delivers the "ultimate anti-war" message, says Robert Emmet Meagher, professor of humanities at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.

"It's one of the most fierce and lucid attacks on the warrior code," he says.

A visiting chair and professor at many prestigious schools, Meagher is an acclaimed translator and author of "The Meaning of Helen: In Search of an Ancient Icon" and other works published by Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers in Wauconda.

Change a few names, and the stories of the ancient world sound as if they could be Newsweek cover stories today.

The movie version has the Trojan War starting in retaliation for the Trojan prince Paris running off with Helen, the queen of Sparta. But Euripides, in his play "The Helen," says the Spartan leaders misled their people into war with sort of an Iraqi weapons of mass destruction take on Helen.

"He has Helen in Egypt, not in Troy," Meagher says of Euripides' account. "The Trojans don't give Helen back because they didn't have her."


"History is a collection of the blunders people made and whether or not they get out of them," says Rose Williams, author of books such as the charmingly irreverent "The Labors of Aeneas: What A Pain It Was To Found The Roman Race," also published by Bolchazy-Carducci.

"We've repeated word for word some of the mistakes that Romans made in the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.," Williams says of our nation. She explains how the powerful and arrogant Romans invaded nations where they didn't understand the history or culture.

"You go plowing in and say, 'We're going to set you free,' " Williams says, referring to our war with Iraq. "Whatever your viewpoint, I don't think anybody can deny there have been major blunders, and they are the same blunders the Romans made."

Meagher says the most pertinent lessons from the ancient world come from Imperial Athens and the Peloponnesian War. Like the United States, Athens established itself as the world's superpower and defender of democracy. 
But then the story turned.

To the amazement of Meagher, Vice President Dick Cheney (the one in the administration who does read) often makes reference to Athenian leader Pericles, the Peloponnesian War and Athens' philosophy of bringing democracy to the world.

"They have to follow the war to the conclusion," Meagher says of our current leaders. Pericles dies, and Athens, led by what Meagher calls a "foolish and misguided" administration, soon finds itself in a quagmire.

The government and its people lose their moral compass, the war drains the economy, and the once-powerful democracy comes to a ruinous end, Meagher says.

"They went from being the savior of the free world to the tyrant of the free world," Meagher says of Athenians. The collapse took 60 or 70 years. But in our modern times, we can do everything faster.

"We could do it in eight years," Meagher warns. "That's two terms."