THE TROJAN WAR: The Chronicles of Dictys of Crete and Dares the Phrygian

Translated and annotated by R. M. Frazer Jr.; Edited by Timothy D. Arner

Indiana UP (2019, new edition) p/b 185pp £24.99 (ISBN 0780253043429)

Originally published in 1966, this useful translation of Dictys’ and Dares’ supposedly eye-witness prose narratives of the Trojan War is now reissued with a brief preface and updated bibliography. Although often ignored by classicists (for good reason), these texts were influential in forming the medieval stories of Troy. Both are translations of Greek originals (probably 1st C AD), both have an introductory letter explaining how they were found. Dictys, it is claimed, was discovered in the reign of Nero when an earthquake damaged his tomb and revealed a tin box that contained the text in an early alphabet. Cornelius Nepos writes to Sallustius Crispus that he found Dares’ history in Athens. One wonders whether to laugh or groan at each obvious hoax. 

Dares’ de excidio Troiae historia is the shorter of the two. His account begins with the voyage of the Argo whose reception by Laomedon at Troy so angered Hercules that he returned to take a brutal revenge. Priam was away, but ‘his father was killed, his fellow-citizens decimated, his country plundered, and his sister Hesione carried off.’ So Dares lays the foundations for hostilities. There are some frankly laughable moments in Dares’ work. His description of battle is repetitive and dull with the cycle of armies led out, clashing with great slaughter (with a list of killings) followed by truce and burial of the dead. He does like trivial detail and he ends his ‘journal’ with some precise ‘fake news’:

‘The war against Troy lasted 10 years, 6 months and 12 days.’ ‘The number of Greeks who fell … was 866,000 and the number of Trojans 676,000.’ In section 14 he lists the Greek leaders and the number of their ships, in section 18 he lists those who joined the Trojan side. But while the former owes much to Iliad 2, it is preceded by two lists describing the appearance and salient characteristics of Trojan and Greek. Thus we learn that Hector spoke with a slight lisp, as did Neoptolemus who was also ‘good-looking, with hooked nose, round eyes and shaggy eyebrows.’ The story has some surprises. No wooden horse, but treachery let the Greeks into Troy—even Aeneas, not so pius here, is in the plot and in the end he sails off into the sunset with 3,400 followers in 22 ships.

Dictys’ narrative is longer, divided into six books, the last of which deals with the aftermath of the war where, among much else, there is a ‘reduced’ Odyssey or, perhaps better, a traduced Odyssey in which the brothers Cyclops and Laestrygon ‘treated them badly’ and Cyclops’ sons Polphemus and Antiphates ‘killed many of them’ until king Polyphemus took pity on them. And there is much more in the same vein. There are many other divergences from the Homeric tradition. For example, the death of Achilles, who is drawn by his love for Polyxena into an ambush and then stabbed by Alexander (as Paris is always named), is quite unheroic. Priam’s visit to Achilles to ransom the body of Hector happens at daybreak and he’s accompanied by Andromache, her sons Astyanax and Laodamas, Polyxena, and carts full of ransom. They enter Achilles’ hut with the leaders of the Greeks. It’s no surprise that the intense emotional intimacy is lost, but there is plenty of emotion, especially in Priam’s appeal and his own frailty

The translations are clear and seem to capture the simple style of the Latin, as the pseudo-Nepos claims to have translated into Latin ‘following the straightforward and simple style of the Greek original.’ There is a distinction highlighted in F.’s introduction: whereas Dictys writes simple and fairly good Latin, Dares’ Latin is in Gilbert Highet’s words ‘of extreme simplicity, verging on stupidity’. F. hopes not to replicate the stupidity. Helpful notes elucidate obscure details and provide useful cross-references between the two accounts. F.’s introduction sets them in their cultural context and discusses shared ‘anti-Homeric’ features before introducing each separately. In comparison with Homer, they both have a much-reduced role for the gods: the plague afflicting the Greek army before sailing (Dictys 1.19) was the result of ‘heavenly wrath or atmospheric contamination’. The narrative points to the former since Agamemnon had speared a she-goat in Diana’s shrine, but the attempted rational explanation somewhat undermines the divine apparatus. Anyone with an interest in the myths of Troy in the late Roman Empire and beyond now has the versions of Dictys and Dares in accessible form. 

Alan Beale

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