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Why the Greeks Matter

Written by Thomas CahillAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Thomas Cahill



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On Sale: April 21, 2010
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-75512-4
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Synopsis

In Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, his fourth volume to explore “the hinges of history,” Thomas Cahill escorts the reader on another entertaining—and historically unassailable—journey through the landmarks of art and bloodshed that defined Greek culture nearly three millennia ago.

In the city-states of Athens and Sparta and throughout the Greek islands, honors could be won in making love and war, and lives were rife with contradictions. By developing the alphabet, the Greeks empowered the reader, demystified experience, and opened the way for civil discussion and experimentation—yet they kept slaves. The glorious verses of the Iliad recount a conflict in which rage and outrage spur men to action and suggest that their “bellicose society of gleaming metals and rattling weapons” is not so very distant from more recent campaigns of “shock and awe.” And, centuries before Zorba, Greece was a land where music, dance, and freely flowing wine were essential to the high life. Granting equal time to the sacred and the profane, Cahill rivets our attention to the legacies of an ancient and enduring worldview.

Excerpt

I

THE WARRIOR

HOW TO FIGHT


Zeus, who controlled rain and clouds and held in his hand the awful thunderbolt, was Lord of the Sky and greatest of the gods, but not the oldest. He and the eleven other Olympians--the gods and goddesses who dwelt in the heaven at the top of Mount Olympus, Greece's highest mountain--had been preceded in their reign by the elder gods, the Titans, whom they had overthrown. The Titans had been formed by Father Heaven and Mother Earth, which had existed before any of the gods, having emerged from the primordial Chaos, whose children, Darkness and Death, had given birth to Light and Love (for Night is the mother of Day), which made possible the appearance of Heaven and Earth.

Zeus, son of the deposed Titan Cronus, was perpetually falling in love, wooing and usually raping beautiful women, both immortal and mortal, who would then give birth to gods and demigods, complicating considerably family relations on Olympus. Hera, Zeus's wife and sister, was perpetually jealous, scheming to best one rival after another with cruel retribution. But all the goddesses, even the virginal ones, were prone to jealousy; and it was this fault that helped bring on the Trojan War--which began, like Eve's temptation in Eden, with an apple.

There was one goddess, Eris, not an Olympian, whom the gods were inclined to leave out of their wonderful celebrations, for she was the Spirit of Discord. True to her nature, when she found she had not been invited to the wedding of King Peleus with the sea nymph Thetis, she hurled into the Olympic banqueting hall a single golden apple with two words on it, Toei kallistoei (to the fairest). All the goddesses wanted to claim it, but the three most powerful were finally left to fight over it: the cow-eyed goddess Hera, the battle goddess Athena--the child of Zeus who had sprung from his head--and Aphrodite, whom the Romans called Venus, the laughing, irresistible goddess of Love, born from the foam of the sea.

Zeus wisely declined to be judge of this beauty contest but recommended Paris, prince of Troy, who had been exiled as a shepherd to Mount Ida because his father, King Priam, had received an oracle that his son would one day be the ruin of Troy. Paris, Zeus averred, was known as a judge of female beauty (and of little else, he might have added). The three goddesses lost no time appearing to the astounded shepherd-prince and offering their bribes, Hera promising to make him Lord of Eurasia, Athena to make him victorious in battle against the Greeks, Aphrodite to give him the world's most beautiful woman. He found for Aphrodite, who gave him Helen, daughter of Zeus and the mortal Leda.

There was one small complication: Helen was married to Menelaus, king of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon of Mycenae, Greece's most powerful king. But with Aphrodite's help, Paris was able in Menelaus's absence to spirit Helen away from her home and bring her to Troy. When Menelaus returned and found out what had happened, he called on all the Greek chieftains, who had previously sworn an oath to uphold Menelaus's rights as husband should just such a thing as this occur. Only two were reluctant--shrewd, realistic Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who so loved his home and family that he had to be tricked into signing up for the adventure; and Greece's greatest warrior, Achilles, whose mother, the sea nymph Thetis, knew he would die if he went to Troy but who joined the Greek forces in the end because he was fated to prefer glorious victory in battle to a long life shorn of pride. Thus did the many ships of the Greek kings, each vessel bearing more than fifty men, set sail for Troy in pursuit of a human face, Helen's--in Marlowe's mighty line, "the face that launched a thousand ships."



How different in feeling the Judgment of Paris from the Sorrows of Demeter. If the earlier story is genuine myth, dramatizing recurrent, inexorable tragedy at the level of cosmic nightmare, the later seems a sort of old-fashioned drawing room melodrama about the characteristic foibles of male and female, in which matters spin monstrously out of control and end in tragic farce. If Demeter takes us back to an agricultural way of life that imagined Earth and its manifestations as aspects of maternal nurturing, the strident gods of Olympus, challenging and overthrowing one another, males always primed for battle and sexual conquest, females seizing control only by wheedling indirection, are projections of a warrior culture that set victory in armed combat above all other goals--or at least seemed to, for there are always, deep within any society, dreams that run in another, even in a contrary, direction from its articulated purposes. But first let's examine the obvious: the visible surfaces of this bellicose society of gleaming metals and rattling weapons.

The Mycenaean world that Schliemann discovered was the world of Agamemnon and his predecessors, the world sung by Homer in his two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, set, so far as we can judge, in Aegean Greece of the twelfth century b.c., an age I have called "protohistoric" because a cumbersome form of writing, Linear B, was then in existence, though usable only for accountants' ledgers. The stories of this age, however, were preserved as oral poetry by wandering bards and written down only much later when a far more flexible form of writing came into currency that permitted the recording of epics of massive length and graceful subtlety.

The Iliad begins not with the apple and the goddesses but with a far more earthly contest--between Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, and Achilles, the preeminent Greek champion. The Greek fleet has been long since beached on the Trojan shore and the army of the Greek chieftains is wearily besieging the well-fortified city, which has been able to withstand its assaults for nine years. But brilliant, unbeatable Achilles--whom Homer immediately calls dios or "noble," a word whose Indo-European root means "godlike" or "shining like the divine stars"--has left the field of battle in outrage at his treatment by haughty Agamemnon. For Agamemnon has commandeered Achilles's concubine, a girl Achilles won as war booty. Agamemnon feels justified in taking Achilles's concubine because he has had to accede to the unthinkable and give up his battle-won concubine. Her father, Chryses, priest at a nearby shrine of Apollo, called down his god's wrath upon the Greeks--whom Homer calls "Achaeans," "Argives," or "Danaans," depending on the needs of his meter. Homer's audience would already have known the details of the story, so they would not have been the least disoriented as he begins thus, summarizing the conflict between the two men, a conflict with fatal consequences for Greeks and Trojans alike:



Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,

murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,

great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,

feasts for the dogs and birds,

and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,

Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.



What god drove them to fight with such a fury?

Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto. Incensed at the king

he swept a fatal plague through the army--men were dying

and all because Agamemnon spurned Apollo's priest.

Yes, Chryses approached the Achaeans' fast ships

to win his daughter back, bringing a priceless ransom

and bearing high in hand, wound on a golden staff,

the wreaths of the god, the distant deadly Archer.

He begged the whole Achaean army but most of all

the two supreme commanders, Atreus' two sons,

"Agamemnon, Menelaus--all Argives geared for war!

May the gods who hold the halls of Olympus give you

Priam's city to plunder, then safe passage home.

Just set my daughter free, my dear one . . . here,

accept these gifts, this ransom. Honor the god

who strikes from worlds away--the son of Zeus, Apollo!"



And all ranks of Achaeans cried out their assent:

"Respect the priest, accept the shining ransom!"

But it brought no joy to the heart of Agamemnon.

The king dismissed the priest with a brutal order

ringing in his ears: "Never again, old man,

let me catch sight of you by the hollow ships!

Not loitering now, not slinking back tomorrow.

The staff and the wreaths of god will never save you then.

The girl--I won't give up the girl. Long before that,

old age will overtake her in my house, in Argos,

far from her fatherland, slaving back and forth

at the loom, forced to share my bed!



Now go,

don't tempt my wrath--and you may depart alive."



The old man was terrified. He obeyed the order,

turning, trailing away in silence down the shore

where the battle lines of breakers crash and drag.

And moving off to a safe distance, over and over

the old priest prayed to the son of sleek-haired Leto,

lord Apollo, "Hear me, Apollo! God of the silver bow

who strides the walls of Chryse and Cilla sacrosanct--

lord in power of Tenedos--Smintheus, god of the plague!

If I ever roofed a shrine to please your heart,

ever burned the long rich bones of bulls and goats

on your holy altar, now, now bring my prayer to pass.

Pay the Danaans back--your arrows for my tears!"



His prayer went up and Phoebus Apollo heard him.

Down he strode from Olympus' peaks, storming at heart

with his bow and hooded quiver slung across his shoulders.

The arrows clanged at his back as the god quaked with rage,

the god himself on the march and down he came like night.

Over against the ships he dropped to a knee, let fly a shaft

and a terrifying clash rang out from the great silver bow.

First he went for the mules and circling dogs but then,

launching a piercing shaft at the men themselves,

he cut them down in droves--

and the corpse-fires burned on, night and day, no end in sight.



I have set out this generous quotation to remind you of Homer's splendor. If I could, I would now proceed to quote the whole poem before going further--it is so glorious, the foundation masterpiece of Western literature--in this immaculately forged new translation by Robert Fagles, which gives us much of Homer's precision, resurrecting the terrible beauty of Greece's Bronze Age in language as swift as Apollo's arrows--note the overwhelming inevitability of the half line "and down he came like night"--yet enclosing a gorgeous strength capable of burnishing each detail to brilliance.

The upshot of Apollo's plague is that all the Greeks come to realize the cause of their misfortune and that the priest's daughter needs to be returned to her father if the plague is to leave them. Their leader Agamemnon, forced to assent to their consensus, takes as his consolation prize Achilles's concubine, thus precipitating Achilles's withdrawal from the war. For most of the poem's twenty-four books Achilles sits in his tent in a rage, deliberating whether to remain on the sidelines or to abandon the Greeks altogether, raise his sails, and push off for home, along with the fellow countrymen who are under his command.

What a strange world this is, so far from our own. The theme of the poem, as Homer tells us in his very first word, is a hero's rage--"wrath" in the older translations--but rage and wrath seem to be everywhere: in Achilles, Agamemnon, Chryses, and Apollo, in every character to whom we are introduced in the course of the first fifty lines. Homer begins with a prayer of invocation--to the Muse of epic poetry--but within a few lines we hear a second prayer: from the priest to his many-named god, the consummately graceful but "deadly Archer" Apollo. And a third god is invoked: Zeus, to whom Achilles and Apollo are both "dear" and who, it is implied, is the hidden force behind the story, somehow pulling the strings of the action, for, as Homer tells us in an arresting phrase, "the will of Zeus was moving toward its end."

Homer has little time for comment on his characters. They reveal themselves in word and action, not in the poet's commentary. But we feel from the outset that the human characters are caught like strong swimmers in an undertow that is much stronger than their most strenuous strivings, an undertow that will take them where it will, despite their efforts. At the same time, this undertow is not entirely a substance apart: it is rather the sum of all the characters, both gods and men, for both gods and men are driven by their need for honor. Hera and Athena's dishonor at the hands of Aphrodite and Menelaus's subsequent dishonor at the hands of Paris have made the war inevitable; Apollo is dishonored by the dishonor shown his suppliant, Chryses; Agamemnon's need to appear as supreme commander clashes with Achilles's need to be honored as supreme warrior.

Somehow, we feel, these motivations--and others' yet to be revealed--are propelling the action of the poem toward its inevitable conclusion. As the seer Calchas says in his fear of Agamemnon's rage:



A mighty king,

raging against an inferior, is too strong.

Even if he can swallow down his wrath today,

still he will nurse the burning in his chest

until, sooner or later, he sends it bursting forth.



That's just the way of mighty kings; there's nothing to be done about it. But it's not as if Agamemnon can in his rage own the field. His rage must contend with the rage and will of others. When he taunts Achilles that he will come personally to take away Achilles's concubine--"so you can learn just how much greater I am than you"--Homer shows us Achilles's heart pounding "in his rugged chest," torn between alternatives:



Should he draw the long sharp sword slung at his hip,

thrust through the ranks and kill Agamemnon now?--

or check his rage and beat his fury down?



Only the intervention of Hera "of the white arms," who "loved both men and cared for both alike," prevents Achilles's wrath from finding its target. She speeds down to earth the battle goddess Athena, who, unseen by all but Achilles, constrains him, seizing his "fiery hair"; and Achilles submits, though, as he says, "his heart breaks with fury," so dearly would he love to see Agamemnon's "black blood gush and spurt around my spear!" But "if a man obeys the gods, they're quick to hear his prayer."

These conflicting forces--all the rages and outrages of gods and men--seemingly balanced in an endless seesaw, will in the end produce a result, the fall of Troy. In the view of the ancients, however, to which Homer is here giving expression, this result is but another swing of the seesaw, which will eventually be balanced in its turn by an opposite result. This view of the ancients, then, is a true worldview, that is, an attempt to see the reality of human experience as a totality, both psychological (in its assessment of human motivations) and theological (in its assumption that heaven intervenes in human affairs). The results of human motivations and heavenly interventions make for preordained results, but preordained only in a way so complicated and with so many conflicting strands that no one but a seer or prophet could sort it all out beforehand and identify in the present the seeds of future results. This means that human beings--and even to some extent the gods themselves--are caught, like figures in a tapestry who cannot undo their thread, playing out their assigned roles of hero or king, loving mother or sexual prize, divine patron of this or that person or city, with only flickering insight into what result their character and needs will have upon the whole of the human enterprise.
Thomas Cahill

About Thomas Cahill

Thomas Cahill - Sailing the Wine Dark Sea

Photo © Robin Holland

Thomas Cahill’s appealing approach to distant history has won the attention of millions of readers in North America and beyond. Cahill is the author of five previous volumes in the Hinges of History series: How the Irish Saved CivilizationThe Gifts of the JewsDesire of the Everlasting HillsSailing the Wine-Dark Sea, and Mysteries of the Middle Ages. They have been bestsellers not only in the United States but also in countries ranging from Italy to Brazil. He is also the author of A Saint on Death Row.

www.thomascahill.com

Thomas Cahill is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (http://www.rhspeakers.com).
Praise

Praise

“A triumph 0f popularization: extraordinarily knowledgeable, informal in tone, amusing, wide ranging, smartly paced.” —The New York Times Book Review

“The best introduction to classical Greek culture yet written. . . . Learned, stylish and inspiring. . . . Well-informed, insightful and on the whole written in a sparkling style.” —Los Angeles Times

“Astonishing. . . . If anybody can get us reading about Homer, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Thucydides, Xenophon and more, Cahill will.” —Chicago Tribune

“Fascinating. . . . Commendable. . . . Cahill has an impressive knowledge of the Greek world. . . . His admirable skill at summing up movements
of enormous complexity surface throughout the book.” —The Seattle Times
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“A triumph of popularization: extraordinarily knowledgeable, informal in tone, amusing, wide-ranging, smartly paced.” —The New York Times Book Review

About the Guide

“Whatever we experience in our day, whatever we hope to learn, whatever we most desire, whatever we set out to find, we see that the Greeks have been there before us, and we meet them on their way back.” [p. 264]

Greek influence infiltrates Western art, politics, philosophy, language, storytelling, military maneuvers—virtually every defining aspect of the West’s viability. Why has the Greek imprint been so enduring, and so all-encompassing? In this fourth volume of his Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill invites us to join him on a voyage that explores the remarkable achievements and contradictions of ancient Greek society. Piecing together shards of myth, archaeology, and history, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea demonstrates how a passion for becoming aristoi (the best), combined with a significant amount of luck, produced a culture whose innovations and achievements make for singular legends and legacies.

A tour that spans warriors and politicians, thinkers and playwrights, and of course a pantheon of deities, this installment in the series captures crucial ingredients in the very creation of Western civilization. As Thomas Cahill points out the peaks and valleys of Greek experience, his enlightening anecdotes on everything from etymology to Athenian kitsch reveal a constant duality of sensibility and sensitivity. Perhaps this is what sets the Greek story apart: it echoes with a colorful response to the human condition, and to the quandaries that continue to permeate our daily existence.

Deciphering why the Greeks matter will enrich the lives of all who embark on the splendid journey offered in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea.

Discussion Guides

1) In his analysis of Homer’s Iliad, Thomas Cahill cites the epic’s intense depictions of loyalty, villainy, and the honorable way to fight. Yet Homer ascribes noble behavior to both Trojans and Greeks. What parallels do you see between Homer’s perception of heroism and our own? What do you make of the mythic justification for the Trojan war—a golden apple inscribed “to the fairest,” bestowed by the Spirit of Discord? Do the mythic aspects of the Trojan War reveal any truths about why we do battle?

2) The book addresses the question of luck versus prowess in the rise of a powerful civilization [see p. 49]. Intellect and drive obviously contributed to the Greeks’ success, but do you consider them to be fortunate also? If so, in what ways were they luckier than those they defeated?

3) The tragedies written by Greek playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides often feature tremendous violence, such as Oedipus’s blinding self-mutilation and the bloody conclusion to Antigone. One effect of this was catharsis for the audience, while demonstrating the power of the gods in determining our destinies. Do modern-day depictions of violence—in video games, films, and the media—serve a similar purpose?

4) In what ways was the Greek perception of sexual power reflected in male-dominated politics? How does Athena—the female goddess of battle—fit into this schema?

5) In your opinion, was Pericles’s version of democracy too inclusive or not inclusive enough? How did scales of economy shape Greece’s political landscape?

6) In the introduction, Thomas Cahill writes that his role as historian is not to expose breakthrough discoveries but to bring history to life. How would you characterize your role in this process? In what way do reader and writer serve to shape history? Does this process differ in ancient oral traditions?

7) What does our knowledge of homosexuality in ancient Greece indicate about this culture’s understanding of sexuality in general? What are the contemporary implications of this ancient approach?

8) Does Sappho’s “finishing school” represent a particular notion about the ideal woman?

9) In contrast to Sappho, instructors in Sparta attempted to excise all but the most brutish traits in their students. Do you consider the Spartan approach to military training to have been successful?

10) What did Plato’s writings reveal about the nature and reality of love, in its complete spectrum of manifestations? Did the death of Socrates contradict or reinforce those observations?

11) Discuss the emotional and psychological subtext conveyed by Greek art and architecture. Does it appear to glorify or subjugate humanity? What does it imply about the psyche of its creators?

12) The Greco-Roman world was in many ways a hostile locale for the seeding of Judeo-Christian values. Yet Greek became the language of the New Testament, and the geographic strongholds of the “Latin West” and “Greek East” survive to this day. In what ways did the ancient Greeks shape Christianity?

13) The book cites several Western poets, from Tennyson to Yeats to Auden, whose works often refer to classicism (a cornerstone of these poets’ schooling). Thomas Cahill, who first encountered Latin and ancient Greek in high school, provides us with a few of his own translations of Greek lyric poetry. Would it be valuable to make such a curriculum more widespread among twenty-first century American schools?

14) Was hubris at the heart of the Athenians’ fall from prominence? What lessons could they impart to today’s superpowers?

15) What common threads emerge in Greek pantheism, spanning the seasons of Demeter, the retribution of Icarus, the unbridled pleasure of Dionysus? How would you say the Greeks understood their faith?

Suggested Readings

John Boardman, The Oxford History of Classical Art; Walter Burkert, Greek Religion; James Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens; Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel; P. E. Easterling, The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy; Robert Fagles (trans.), Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey; Charles Freeman, The Greek Achievement; Edith Hamilton, Mythology; Victor Davis Hanson, The Wars of the Ancient Greeks; Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism; Melissa Lane, Plato’s Progeny; T. J. Luce, The Greek Historians; Allen Mandelbaum (trans.), Ovid's Metamorphoses; Orlando Patterson, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (volume I in Freedom); John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium; Andrew Robinson, Lost Languages; Oliver Taplin (ed.), Literature in the Greek World; Robin Waterfield, Herodotus: The Histories.

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