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• Last updated: December 19, 2022

Podcast #857: Why Homer Matters

Even though the legendary poet Homer wrote the Iliad and Odyssey thousands of years ago, my guest would say that these epic poems are just as relevant and significant today, and even represent a kind of scripture.

His name is Adam Nicolson, and he’s the author of Why Homer Matters. Today on the show, Adam makes the case that the Iliad is really the story of a collision between a more rooted, civilized way of life, represented by the character of Hector, and a nomadic, honor-bound gang ethos, represented by Achilles. We talk about how this collision birthed the character of Odysseus — who was both great warrior and subtle diplomat — and the whole Greek consciousness. And we discuss how that consciousness is also our consciousness, as we’re still wrestling with the warring impulses, dramas and dilemmas, and big questions of human experience Homer gave life to.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Even though the legendary poet Homer wrote “The Iliad and The Odyssey” thousands of years ago, my guest would say that these epic poems are just as relevant and significant today and even represent a kind of scripture. His name is Adam Nicholson and he’s the author of “Why Homer Matters”. Today on the show, Adam makes the case that the Iliad is really the story of a collision between a more rooted, civilized way of life, represented by the character of Hector, and a nomadic honor-bound gang ethos, represented by Achilles. We talk about how this collision birthed the character of Odysseus, who was both a great warrior and subtle diplomat, and the whole Greek consciousness, and we discuss how that consciousness is also our consciousness as we’re still wrestling with the warring impulses, dramas and dilemmas, and big questions of human experience Homer gave life to. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at All right, Adam Nicholson, welcome to the show.

Adam Nicholson: Thanks so much for having me.

Brett McKay: So several years ago, you wrote a book called “Why Homer Matters”, where you explore the world of Homer, the Odyssey, the Iliad. You really took a deep dive. So what was going on in your life where you decided to take a deep dive into this ancient poet, Homer?

Adam Nicholson: Well, I’d been really intrigued by Homer for a long time. I had tried to get that book off the ground about 10 years before I actually did. So maybe 20, 25 years ago now and the reason being, well, I, of course, had been exposed, as many people like me were to Homer at school in Greek. It was incredibly difficult. I never really understood it. I never got the point. It was like, I always thought, sort of hearing from people you don’t know very well what their previous night’s dreams had been about and I kind of just was not into it, and peeking through this difficult Greek, it’s not even classical Greek, it’s pre-classical Greek. It’s… If you are familiar with the great playwrights of fifth century Athens, this was like reading Anglo-Saxon to their English. And so I had been alienated from it when I was a boy, but then in the middle of my life, as they say, when I was about 40, I think, I went on a long sailing trip with a friend of mine up the wild west coast of the British Isles. It’s on the outside the Atlantic side of Cornwall Island, the Scottish islands, and then right up into the north into the Faroes and nearly to Iceland.

And it had been a very big, exciting sea adventure with a friend of mine. And on that trip, I took with me a copy of Robert Fagles’ translation. It was the Odyssey. I thought, well, why not? I threw it in my rucksack almost casually, not really thinking much reading was going to be done. And then after a really rather grievous passage from the southwest of England to the southwest of Ireland, so 200, I think 250 miles of big Atlantic and things had gone wrong as they do on sailing trips, and eventually we got into a little harbor there, Baltimore, the original Baltimore. And then lying in my bunk there kind of recovering from this bruising two or three day journey, I started reading Fagles’ account of The Odyssey and suddenly had a revelatory moment. I suddenly saw in it somehow an account of what it was to be alive, what it was to voyage through the world. The world is a kind of place full of hazard and temptation and struggle and violence and love and all the dimensions of life seem to be animated in the story of this man, Odysseus, who has these wonderful qualities.

He’s strong, but he buckles, he bends, he’s resilient, he doubts himself. There’s one point in which Odysseus compares himself to a sausage being turned on a grill amazingly that he tosses to and fro. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know where he is. He’s besieged by life and destiny. And so it was just miraculous exposure to a kind of set of ancient explorations of the human condition and that really, really set my mind on fire.

Brett McKay: So in midlife, you finally heard the song of the muses.

Adam Nicholson: I suddenly heard it and thought how very odd this is, isn’t it? That this is something written… Well, when it was written, there’s a question about the whole or composed, but a very, very long time ago. I’m… Certainly 3,000 years ago with roots going 1000 years earlier than that maybe, and yet, despite that amazing distance and the whole how different a worldview could you imagine than me, a 20th, 21st century Englishman and a Greek adventurer 3,000 years ago. And yet amazingly, these questions of who you are and who you need to be are as alive in that text as any I’d ever encountered. I mean, that was what dazzled me. How come Homer matters?

Brett McKay: So there’s a lot of debate about the figure of Homer himself. Like, did he actually exist? Were his poems written by a bunch of different people? What are the common theories about Homer and is there one that you subscribe to?

Adam Nicholson: Yes. Well, I mean, obviously these epic poems were made by people. I mean, they didn’t kind of emerge from the atmosphere or weren’t found inscribed on a rock. They are human artifacts and basically the theories about it divide into, first of all, that they are a sort of compendium of lots of different folktales all pushed together and made into these grand, long epic stories. Another version, of course, is that there was a great man, a poet, a mysterious poet called Homer, who composed them both. There is a kind of an amalgam of those things, which is that there is a long inheritance of stories which a great man called Homer made these poems out of. There were other epics that other poets made other epics out of and my own feeling about it is that they are so clearly made and shaped and subtle in their architecture and psychology that they, “The Iliad and The Odyssey”, can only have been made by a great poet. Almost certainly there are two Homers, the Homer of the Iliad and the Homer of the Odyssey and both of them drawing on ancient stories, but each of those two Homers, Homer one and Homer two, separated maybe by a generation or so.

And the Odyssey poet, the later, because the Odyssey clearly knows the Iliad very well, quotes the Iliad, uses chunks of lines from the Iliad, and yet never kind of repeats or is boring about what the Iliad had to say. It knows it and it assumes that its audience knows it and so can play against it and it is like the kind of almost the ironical sequel to the Iliad. And so that is my picture, that these poems have very, very deep roots going back to 3000 BC and maybe earlier to places far away from Greece and the Mediterranean, but they were both made by people of genius perhaps in about 750 BC, 700, 600, 650, that kind of thing just when writing was appearing in the Greek world for the first time, an import from the Near East, from the Phoenicians. And so as they were made, these two poems, they were written down having not been written down before. They were clearly in their earlier forms, oral and composed orally and there are many, many signs in both poems that the original conception and the form of composition is what the scholars call composition in performance.

 You stand before your audience, you know the story you need to tell, you have lots of ingredients, lots of phrases. And so the both texts that we now have are in a way like flash-frozen versions of that very dynamic, very liquid, very performative origin. So a long, long, long spoken, sung, probably accompanied with a lyre poems, which at some point, soon… Nobody knows when, 650, 600 BC became the texts that we know.

Brett McKay: Okay, so around that time, there was maybe one, maybe two individuals who composed the Iliad and then later the Odyssey, but you were saying that these stories go back thousands of years, 3000, but you even go deeper. You say that the stories and the motifs in “The Iliad and The Odyssey” go back even before the Greeks were Greeks. Tell us about the world of these pre-Greeks and then how did it influence the poems in “The Iliad and The Odyssey”?

Adam Nicholson: Yes, I mean, this is all highly speculative and I got into terrible trouble for saying this in the book with the people I like to refer to as the grownups, but my picture of this is, okay, take the Iliad. In the Iliad, the basic situation and the poetic power of the thing, the reason that the story grips you, is that you have two warring parties. One, the Trojans are based in the city. They live a sophisticated life, all their women are with them. The women weave constantly. The weaving and the woven is incredibly important to the whole atmosphere of Troy. It is the great instituted familial world where Priam, the great old father of the city presides over his family and the young princes, their wives and their children. And it is a deeply settled and deeply organized world, which is not unlike one of the great cities of the Near East. The Near East in the Bronze Age is what we’re talking about, was a place of highly organized city life in Mesopotamia and in Egypt and in Canaan on the shores, the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

It was a world where the city and the monarchical city with the great king presiding over everything that went on in them was the basis on which life was organized. That is on the one side. On the other side, in the poem of the Iliad, on the far side of the Plain of Troy, a big, wide, open, consistently windy place. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but the north wind blows relentlessly across the Trojan Plain. You look for shelter, you look for somewhere away from this sort of terribly exposed place. And on that plain in the Iliad, you find a camp of warriors living in sheds built up against their ships that are drawn up on the beach there. Their ships are rotting, the rigging is rotten.

The sheds themselves are not good. There were dogs that crawled across the battlefield, eating the corpses. It is a bleak, homeless, disorganized place in which the leaders of the bands of Greek, this is not the Greeks as the great sort of champions of classical civilization. One has to banish that idea from one’s mind. These are a kind of ruthless gang of marauders trying to get at the city and all its riches.

They’re arguing amongst themselves. There’s no sense of real authority, they are harboring resentments, they’re foul-mouthing each other, they’re threatening violence to each other. They are a gang of nomadic warriors. And so this sort of deep poetic and psychic structure of the Iliad seemed to me, and does seem now to me still not to reflect something that is going on in sort of seventh, eighth, ninth century BC, but something much earlier, which is when people from the steppes, the great grasslands of Asia that stretch all the way from the Black Sea, from the Ukrainian steppe, all the way through to Tibet, a great kind of swathe of grasslands in which mobile warriors and not great cities were the people living there in the early Bronze Age. And those people who buried their kings in great mounds with masks and gold when they had it, those people are the ancestors of the Greeks archaeologically, and all the great remains found, for example, in Mycenae are clearly descendant of steppe rituals, social practices, social structures. And so it seemed to me that this story, this Iliad story, is the story of those steppeland warriors arriving in the land of the great cities, the Mediterranean.

The Greeks actually had no word for sea, their word for sea, Thalassa, is not a Greek word. Nobody knows where that word came from. They did not know the sea. And so the Iliad is a picture of what happens when Greek nomadic warrior band arrives in its dangerous and fissive condition at the gates of the great city whose riches they want to acquire and that is why I think it has this very, very deep root.

Brett McKay: And the case you make is that this… What we’re seeing here, this collision of the nomadic Greek with the Eastern city world is you’re seeing a collision of these two ways of being and you’re seeing the birth of what you call the Greek consciousness.

Adam Nicholson: Yes. I mean, I think, yes, it’s very interesting that in some ways the easiest way to see this, I think, is to think of the great emblematic heroes. On the Greek side, you have Achilles, who is a completely unaccommodated, highly idealistic, wild, beautiful, terrifying man capable of really terrifying violence in the Iliad. A man undoubtedly of the steppe. He is not a man of cities and then opposed to him, you have Hector, the great champion of the Trojans. He is his father’s son, his wife’s husband, his son’s father. He is absolutely of the city, completely bound in with that kind of social world. And in some ways, hamstrung by it that Achilles kills him. Achilles who knows no limit to the violence he’ll wreak ends up chasing Hector round and round the walls of Troy with the whole city on the walls, his family, his father watching. It’s just the most horrifying scene. And if you have so, so you have Achilles opposed to Hector, man of the steppe, man of the plain against man of the city, man of the family. That’s the kind of deep opposition of the Iliad, but the third term of those is Odysseus.

Odysseus is also a great warrior, but he’s also a subtle diplomat. He is a man of, obviously, of adventuring, of being out there on the sea, but also a man who endlessly longs for home, for his wife. And so Odysseus, I see this as a kind of dialectic. If Achilles meets Hector, the outcome of that meeting is actually Odysseus and Odysseus stands right at the heart of Greek consciousness both city-based and the kind of ruthless adventurer. And so in that way, the two poems take the story on. If you have the kind of root original meeting in the Iliad, the Odyssey is about… So asks the question, what happens if you fuse these categories? What actually becomes of the man when he is both Achilles and Hector?

Brett McKay: And you get Odysseus. We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. Well, I think that you make the point when you’re describing the characters of the Iliad. So I’m talking about Achilles and Agamemnon. I think, I don’t know, for some reason, whenever I imagine these characters, I think of like classical Greeks, like Plato or Aristotle or, you know, wearing, you know, wearing hoplite, Greek hoplite armor. They’re kind of sophisticated, but they’re warriors. But I don’t know why I do that. Maybe it’s just kind of pop culture has done that to me. But the way you describe these Homeric characters in the Iliad, it’s something much more primitive. It’s more like the Epic of Gilgamesh than the plays of classical Greece. How would you describe the worldview of these Homeric characters and like, you know, what role did violence play in their lives?

Adam Nicholson: Well, I mean, it’s not as if, you know, the great tragedies are without violence. I mean, there are… Some terrifying things go on in there. But I think this is right. I think that you have to rid your mind of those wonderful statues. You know, you’ve got to rid your mind of the Parthenon or any sense of civility, actually. Although course, Troy is itself an emblem of civility. And so the Iliad kind of looks to Troy almost with envy. And the end, I mean, the end of the Iliad is such an incredible thing, which I think the end of the Iliad does speak to your question. You know that so Achilles has killed Hector and it is a horrifying moment for Priam, his father, the king of Troy. And he, and there’s terrifying, terrible scenes of grief in Troy at the death of their beloved son. And Achilles has threatened to eat Hector. And his, Achilles promises cannibalism, really, as a sign of the sort of depths to which he has sunk. And he’s driven there by grief over the death of his own lover, friend, Patroclus. And so you have it as polarized as it ever is in the entire poem, almost at the very end.

But then, then this incredible scene where Priam gets some carts organized and fills carts with all the most beautiful cloths that Troy can weave, the woven as the heart of the Trojan idea, the bringing together of things. And at night, guided by Hermes, crosses the Trojan plain at night and comes secretly and quietly to the Greek camp and to the tent of Achilles. And he kneels down in front of Achilles and begs Achilles for his son, for Hector’s body, which is lying there. And the two of them, the old king of Troy and this unaccommodated, ferocious gangster, really, the man of violence, whose entire value system at this point is bound up with unforgiving violence and whose only sense of justice is revenge against the killer of his friend. At this point, at the end of the Iliad, violence stops and the two of them gaze into each other’s eyes and hold each other’s hands. And Achilles is always described as one of these formulaic descriptions which kind of fit into the verse. He’s always described as having man-slaughtering hands. And it says that even now, even at that point where Priam is kneeling in front of him.

He holds Achilles’ man-slaughtering hands and they are reconciled in a kind of love. And it’s like the whole of human civilization is bound up in this moment. This poem, the Iliad, which is a poem of violence and a poem of force, does not in the end arrive at the point where force or violence is endorsed. The very opposite actually, that at the end of it all, violence is kind of neutralized or kind of almost blanded out by that scene, that love scene between Priam and Achilles. And so I think that that transition, which you only get to obviously after thousands and thousands of lines of kind of terrifying blood spilling, but that end is in a way what the Iliad means. That this is a very kind of grievous world that we live in. At some point, I think one of the Trojan warriors says, do you not see that huge dragnet that is sweeping across the world and sweeping the whole of humanity in front of it? Kind of terrifying vision of really of pain just dragging across the plains of the world. In the end, that is redeemable by the meeting of these two.

And so I think we can say primitive, but I kind of hate that word, that it’s kind of, there’s nothing primitive about that understanding. It’s as wise a recognition as has ever been made. And it only, of course, means what it does because you’ve been, you waded through the blood for book after book. If it just said an old man met a young warrior and they looked in each other’s eyes, it wouldn’t count for anything. It means it because I think this is the core virtue of Homer, actually, that Homer looks at the pain of the world without cavil or fear. Nothing is unlookable at in Homer. It really, really hurts. And yet, having been there and known that, it can establish a kind of scene like that. It’s wonderful to me.

Brett McKay: I love how you did a great job in helping make the world view of these Greeks in the Iliad relatable. You kind of, you compare them to a modern day gang. Like modern day gangs, It was very, they were very honor bound. Honor was like the coin of the realm for them. There was no set leaders. The leadership kind of came from who was the most charismatic, who could just sort of get people going to follow them. Agamemnon was kind of a sort of a leader, but not much. It was, it wasn’t like he was elected to that. It was more like, well, we’ll just follow you because you’re getting this thing going, so we’ll follow you. And that’s how modern day gangs are. There’s not like a set leader. It’s just sort of whoever can get people to follow them, that’s who they’re going to follow. And then if you fall out of favor, well, then you’re going to get knocked out.

Adam Nicholson: It is. I think that’s absolutely true. And there are lots of kind of implications that ripple out of that. That one of the things that works as a leader of that kind is obviously not instituted authority. You’re not depending on an election contested or not. You’re depending on whether you can do it there then. And one of the things that makes you capable of doing it there then is your ability to talk. It’s actually very, very verbal that you, you know, trash-talking goes on in the Iliad as it does in modern gangs. There are curious parallels between that sort of constant testing of authority, the constant sense that authority is not valid unless it has been reproved there and then. Also this sense that revenge is the only justice, that there is no justice beyond the acts that you then perform yourself to bring the balance up right.

That there is actually no law. The only law is winning. I know that sociologists who have made close studies of gang cultures have recorded that, the gangs will talk about the great acts that were done 20, 30, 40 years before even and in a way you could see these epic poems as incredibly high versions of that.

That only by knowing, only by sensing the perpetuation of honor from the act into the future does the honor itself have validity. It is actually the lastingness of honor. In Greek, it’s deathless Atheon Kleos, it’s deathless glory. It’s that despite death being an ever-present fact in this sort of provisional world, it’s where everything is provisional and almost the only thing that is not provisional, or things not provisional, are death and honor. Death is a constant and honor is the only conceivable denial of it. And so I think that these sort of as I was saying earlier that, this is not a description, the Iliad is not a description of a historical moment, it’s a description of a particular human predicament which does not have a time associated with it. It is what happens when that is the structure of life. And I think that is a reason that Homer matters now, that we must put it in some sort of, as you say, kind of Hollywood category of the over. This isn’t over. This is the situation that develops when you do have no law. Law is the only thing that prevents the conditions, the gang conditions of the Iliad from prevailing.

Brett McKay: What I find interesting about the Iliad when I read it, even though I’ve grown up in this, you know, the 20th century, 21st century where there’s laws and I’ve controlled myself, whenever I read about Achilles getting really upset that Agamemnon stole his war treasure and his war bride, I get the indignation of it. It’s like, it’s not actually about, I understand it’s like, it’s not about the thing that he stole, it’s like the respect. And I think all of us had those instances where someone does something to us. And it’s not really that the thing that happened doesn’t matter. It’s not so much like, we don’t, we could care less if they gave us our money back. It was just the indignation and like the resentment you feel because you feel like you lack respect. And then you might get all hot and bothered about it and get, oh, you’re stomping around. I’m gonna get that guy. But then eventually, hopefully this is what happens, you become Achilles at the end of the Iliad, where you don’t succumb to those, I don’t know, we’ll call them baser human emotions.

Adam Nicholson: Yeah. I mean, I think the great actor there is not Achilles. Achilles is the recipient of it. Priam is the great actor. Priam takes it into some other place. And yeah, the nature of forgiveness, they say the only thing you have to forgive is the thing you can’t. And I think that it’s an absolutely dazzling Copernican revolution what happens at the end of the Iliad. Suddenly this entire value system that you’ve been living in for this long, long, long poem is turned on its head. And it’s phenomenal. And it’s as deep a transformation now as I think is the difference between the Olds and the New Testament. You know, it is not about vengeful justice. It is about the coherence of love. And it’s extraordinary that that should have been written and or conceived of then.

Brett McKay: Who do you relate with more Achilles or Odysseus?

Adam Nicholson: Oh, I’m an Odysseus man all through.

Brett McKay: Yeah, same here.

Adam Nicholson: Achilles is living in this sort of almost like existential nowhere. He’s sort of unbound. He just does not have boundaries. He doesn’t have location almost. He’s burning like a star. And so this is kind of terrifying like the dog star, this kind of flame and light that burns from him. He says this brilliant translation of a one phrase. Someone says looking into the the eye slits of Achilles is helmet, it’s like looking into a furnace door ajar. You know, when you’d have a furnace and the door is just slightly open and that absolutely unlookable at hot light in there. And that… That’s Achilles is scarcely of this world. He’s not human, really. But Odysseus is marvelously human and beautifully human.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think, I forgot who it was. There was someone, some literary critic in the 20th century described… Said Odysseus is the complete man. Achilles is just a one-dimensional character.

Adam Nicholson: There is a humanity to Achilles. There is a humanity to him. It isn’t true. He is not a person, but he embodies that bit of us, which perhaps it’s like us when we’re young, you know, that we are uncompromising. We do believe in what we believe in. We will not be put upon by stuffy old Agamemnon figures, but we will stand up for, we will defend the ones that we love and take revenge on those who hurt them and so on. He is part of the human being. I think it is, yeah, you’re right to say he is nothing, there is nothing complete about Achilles, but he is the kind of radiant burning aspect of what it is to be alive.

Brett McKay: And Odysseus is more of a middle age. Like once you get to middle age, you relate to Odysseus more. I just want to survive, man.

Adam Nicholson: I do. I’m old now. I’m in my sixties now. And so I do. I love Odysseus’ nifty cleverness. I love, but also I love his emotionality. When he goes and visits the people in Scheria, the Phaeacians, this beautiful palace, and they have a great banquet to welcome him and they have a bard, so Homeric bard, who begins to tell stories and the bard in the palace, Arkinis in Scheria, begins to tell the story of Troy, of the battle, and then of the journey’s home of all the warriors, which Odysseus has failed yet to get home. And as the bard tells the story, Achilles sits there and Homer says, he pulls over his head, his sea blue cloak, because he can’t bear, he cannot bear to weep in front of these people as he remembers all the suffering he’s witnessed. It’s wonderful. You know, there is the idea that these are primitive scenes is kind of ridiculous ’cause that’s as lovely and subtle a bit of psychology, this great world straddling hero actually kind of shuddering with grief at his memories when surrounded by everyone looking at him at a party, you know, marvelous.

Brett McKay: So Homer shows us characters who they revel in violence. They’re full of hubris, avarice, duplicity. They’re not great people to model your life after. So why should we pay attention to these guys? Why does Homer matter in the 21st century?

Adam Nicholson: I think Homer matters because it models many different ways of what it’s like to be alive. And there is an extraordinary and strange ability that we all have if we read it carefully and generously to empathize with these figures that we can in some ways actually become these figures who we all know in obviously less heroized, less dramatized ways what it is to suffer, what it is to lose, what it is to long for, what it is to be betrayed. We all know these things. And this is really a drama of the landscape of human experience. And because it is expressed in this, I mean, it’s a word I’m quite anxious about in a way, but there is something extremely noble in the way in which Homer deploys these different predicaments that there is a kind of grand dignity to the pain and the longing that it is like, for me, it is like a form of scripture, actually, which is not dependent on an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-determining God, but a scripture that is actually about the nature of the human heart. Wordsworth famously said, wrote in the Prelude that there is a grandeur in the beatings of the heart, and I think that could stand as a motto.

Brett McKay: For those who are listening, that’s like, I want to start reading Homer. Are there translations you recommend?

I really love Robert Fagles’ translation. I mean, it’s mid-20th century. There’ve been many others, but I love his understanding that this should not be kind of dressed up in a Hollywood kit, it is about human beings that are like us, and yet at the same time requires a sort of epic distance in the language, a certain largeness of language. It is in everyday language, but it isn’t sort of endless breastplates and helmets. It’s about living people, but seen in this very enlarging way, and I would vote Robert Fagles’.

Well, Adam, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Adam Nicholson: Well, the book was published in the States by Henry Holt. I think it’s still around. I think it’s in Paperback, and that’s the place to go.

Brett McKay: Okay. All right. Well, Adam Nicholson, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Adam Nicholson: Me too. Thank you so much, Brett. Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Adam Nicholson. He’s the author of the book “Why Homer Matters”. It’s available on Check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

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