From Listeners to Viewers: Space in the Iliad

  Tsagalis, Christos. 2012. From Listeners to Viewers: Space in the Iliad. Hellenic Studies Series 53. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Part I: Viewing Simple Story Space in the Iliad

In this part, I will explore how the narrator organizes and “views” simple story space in the Iliad. The tripartite mapping of mortal space (the plain, the Achaean camp, the city of Troy) and the twofold division between the areas of mortal and immortal activity intersect with a bipartite distinction between the base-level setting—the battlefield—and other framing spaces such as the Achaean camp, the city of Troy, and places of solely divine access. More specifically, the plain of Troy is presented as both a dynamic martial space, where most of the fighting takes place, and as a static space containing either certain microsettings where martial activity is replaced by other activities (like oath-taking or assemblies) or specific locus-images (such as the oak tree of Zeus and the fig tree, the river and ford of Skamandros, etc).

The Achaean camp, the city of Troy, and the divine world represent background and closed spaces that communicate only temporarily with the base-level space of the battlefield. The threefold organization of human space with the plain at the center and the city of Troy and the Achaean camp on the edges of a notional map aims at keeping the audience’s attention on the action and the actors. By refusing to describe the landscape or any setting at length, the Iliadic tradition was able to focus on character interaction as dictated by the unraveling of the plot. Unfailing reluctance to promote impressionistic descriptions and spectacular scenery was a conscious choice, true to the perception of the heroic code that this epic tradition fostered. [1] The scenic frugality of the locale and the concentration on a visually limited space gives special weight to the narrated events and makes character delineation all the more significant. Moreover, the story space shifts as the plot unfolds: from the plain of Troy and the massive fighting between the two sides in the beginning of the epic, the narrator’s lens briefly zooms in on the city of Troy, preparing Hektor’s impressive return to the battlefield; the audience is then transferred in front of and inside the Achaean camp, up until Patroklos’ intervention and his subsequent death; when Achilles returns to the war to avenge the death of his friend, the focus is again on the battlefield until the fated duel with Hektor; and the epic comes to an end with a touching view of the Achaean camp and the city of Troy filled with grief and lamentation for Patroklos and Hektor respectively. Mapping the plot in terms of spatial shifts reveals that the narrator aims at signaling to his audience the most grim realization of this, and any war: namely that the only spaces shared by enemies are those of death and grief.

The triple division of the world of mortals between the plain, the city of Troy, and the Achaean camp is so characteristic of the Iliad that it is almost taken for granted. [3] Scholars have rarely questioned this division or asked how it came into being. This might seem like trivial quibbling, given that it is virtually impossible to discuss such thorny topics without a considerable degree of speculation. Yet this tripartite structure of the Iliadic story space conforms with what one could call the default mode of all military confrontations: two camps, one for each adversary, and the plain between as a “disputed area” for combat. This basic visual imaging is at odds with that of a city under siege, where the set of icons in the audience’s minds would no doubt normally be those of the defending army inside the city and only the attacking army outside the city walls. The awkward thing about Iliadic story space, which is of course directly connected to the city of Troy, is that there is no real siege, but a clear confrontation in the vast, open area of the plain separating the city of Troy and the Achaean camp by the sea. This choice, however, must have been a conscious and deliberate one on the part of the tradition crystallized in our Iliad, since it has two important advantages for the plot. First, it invites the audience to concentrate on a contested space, and therefore to appreciate the denser action that takes place in this space; and second, it allows the principal heroes of the two armies to engage in close combat. The effect of this second choice is noteworthy, since the high pitch and deep pathos of Iliadic fighting presuppose personal contact between the opposing warriors, something unlikely if the Trojans fought the Achaeans from the city walls. In fact, the Iliad constantly capitalizes on such themes, as when Priam and Hekabe beg Hektor to return to the safety of the city and avoid fighting Achilles on the battlefield (Iliad XXII 38–40, 84–85). Moreover, this tripartite organization of mortal space accords with the Aristotelian notion of the “eusynoptic landscape or object being of a size that cannot exceed the capacity of the human eye, and also, by extension, the limits of human memory.” [4] The tripartite division of story space is thus closely linked both to the aim of visual comprehensiveness that would be effectively grasped by the audience and to the dramatic tension of the epic, almost a prerequisite for actively engaging the listeners in a dense plot, devoid of variant settings and attention-catching scenery but replete with pathos, tragedy, and grief.


[ back ] 1. Contrast the “attitude” of other epics with respect to one aspect of story space, i.e. the setting or landscape. The Cypria, the Nostoi, the Odyssey, and even epics such as Eumelus’ Titanomachy, Corinthiaca, and Europia include multiple settings. For this aspect of the Odyssey, see Parry 1957; Nestle 1968; Treu 1968:82, 87–101; Elliger 1975:103–156; Andersson 1976:37–45. On the sociology of space in the Odyssey, see Finley 2002; Thalmann 1998; Purves 2006a; Vidal-Naquet 1996; Haller 2007. On taxonomic approaches to landscape, see E. Bucholz 1871; Bonnafé 1984:119–175. On Eumelus and a Corinthian epic tradition, see West 2002a; see also Bethe 1907; Bowra 1938; Dunbabin 1948; Will 1955; Capovilla 1957; Bowra 1963; Huxley 1969:63–64, 67–68; Untersteiner 1971; Drews 1976; Lecomte 1998; Debiasi 2004:19–69.

[ back ] 2. On the Homeric gods, see Willcock 1970; Tsagarakis 1977; Griffin 1980:144–204; Thalmann 1984; Erbse 1986; W. Kullmann 1992; Emlyn-Jones 1992; Yamagata 1994; Kearns 2004.

[ back ] 3. The tripartite division of the world of mortals in the Iliad corresponds to three zones, two peripheral and one central, of fluctuating sharpness and resolution: the city of Troy and the Achaean camp are less “sharp” and more liminal with respect to the dramatic tension of the plot. Such a cognitive map allows for a balanced construction of narrative space that is based on the symmetry between mental topographies and narrative action. For the use of an equivalent, four-zone model, see Ryan 2003, who studies Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

[ back ] 4. Purves 2010a:63. On Aristotle, see Poetics 1450b34–1451a6 and 1459a30–34; see also Purves 2010a:24–64.