Ancient Depictions of Scenes from Everyday Life
Dog owners and lovers will be familiar with the following scene:
“Dogs fuss over their owner, knowing he will have treats in his pockets, as he returns
Those loving, brown eyes gaze soulfully at you, you release the treat, you may get a thanks, and your canine friend bounds away (or goes to sleep). What may surprise you (although the Classicists among you will probably be quite familiar with the quotation) is that the above passage was written nearly three millennia ago, likely in the 8th or 7th century BC. It comes from Homer and is in face used as a simile in Book 10 of the Odyssey. Odysseus is describing his experience on Circe’s island. Eurylochus has set out with a small group of Odysseus’ men and they find the house of Circe. Mountain wolves and lions throng her house, creatures already bewitched by Circe’s drugs. These creatures approached Odysseus’ men, not in attack mode, but like the hopeful dogs of the simile lovingly circling their master for a treat. The charming, domestic scene adds a poignancy to the description. The wolves and lions indeed hope for a treat – freedom. The simile takes us from the realm of mysterious, magical, and malicious Circe, to the every day picture of the owner with his pets. It is an exquisite detail that would resonate with the audience of the bardic performer and adds pathos to the tragic scene.
There are beautiful descriptions of such touching every day and domestic scenes by ancient authors, that ultimately remind us that like us they were human with human feelings, relationships, and lives. I would like to bring you a few more in this short article.
One of the most moving has to be the scene towards the end of Iliad 6, where Andromache sees her husband Hector for the last time. With her is the nurse carrying their baby son, Astyanax. There is a tenderness between Hector and Andromache, yet a painful awareness on her part that she will probably never see Hector again. Young Astyanax cries and buries himself in his nurse’s bosom when he first sees his Daddy in his magnificent helmet with billowing plume. Husband and wife laugh, and once Hector removes it, he smiles and takes up his son, enjoying a cuddle just like any parent. And like any parent, he hopes for the best for his son.
Another Homeric simile furnishes my next example, this time from the Iliad (4.130-131). Athena, meddling in the action as she always does, rescues one of her pet Greek warriors, Menelaus, from what would otherwise have been a serious or even fatal wound. She is powerful (and just, well..cool!) and deflects the arrow with ease. The ease is likened to a mother brushing a fly away from her child as he sleeps. I am sure all parents can identify with this one. Brushing a fly away from the sleeping baby, or a pesky wasp from the little one as he/she plays calmy or eats an ice-cream with impressive slowness. It adds a great deal to the action of the scene. The arrow becomes a mere fly that legs it immediately as the maternal hand draws near. Athena’s power redirects it at a mere flick. The maternal analogy may also suggest her care for her beloved Greeks, protecting them as a mother would her child. A darker side is that the helplessness of the child suggests the helplessness of mortals versus the gods. However, by itself the simile is a sweet domestic scene that brings human feeling and experience to the high epic drama.
My final Homeric example comes from book 16. Warriors crowd around the body of the fallen hero Sarpedon, son of Zeus, in thick numbers, which Homer likens to the flies buzzing around the buckets full of the new milk. The farming-life scene jars, but yet wonderfully enhances the grim battle scene. So many warriors swarm around the body, that they are like flies in an amorphous, indistinct crowd. Their droning buzz perhaps corresponds to the confused din of battle. The fresh milk of Spring contrasts with the dead Sarpedon in the gentle simile, bringing the everyday to the grim reality of the epic battle.
I shall end with one of my favourites from the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid, the book which was my A Level Latin set text. Not a simile this time, but a description which shows a touching attention to detail. As Aeneas and his family flee Troy, Aeneas clasps the hand of his little son Iulus and recalls th situation thus:
“dextrae se parvus Iulus
implicuit sequiturque patrem non passibus aequis.”
‘And my little Iulus clung tightly to my right hand
following his father with unequal steps.’
The adorable detail of the toddler Iulus struggling to match his father’s strides with his own tiny steps brings a moment of sweetness to the otherwise chaotic scene of the fallen city, with a tinge of fear that the little boy is finding it hard to keep up. The charming, tottering walk of the toddler is exquisitely captured by Virgil, who composed some of the most moving, tearful moments in all of ancient poetry.
If you needed a reminder that they were as human as we are, and that studying these wonderful writers is a brilliant, sobering, alarming, but also beautiful lesson in what it is to be human, I hope this article has achieved that.