The Greek Wall and its Gates
A translator's struggle to visualize the wall.
By Herbert Jordan, July 2009
Occasionally, in an effort to grasp what Homer described, I resorted to sketches which enabled me to visualize objects and put them more accurately into English than might otherwise have been possible.
Other modern translators sometimes differ in their descriptions of the same objects, perhaps because of imprecise visualization. The details of these descriptions may seem insignificant to the reader, but they loom large to the conscientious translator in the process of rendering Homer's lines.
In book 7, as the tide is turning against the Greeks, they construct a wall around their beached ships, dig a trench outside the wall, and plant sharpened stakes in the trench. (lines 436-441). The poet does not describe how the wall was constructed or what materials were used.
More is revealed in book 12, where the Trojans assault and ultimately surmount the wall. The poet alludes to two main features of the wall (τεῖχος): πύργοι and ἐπάλξιες. See 12.258, 308, 373-5, 430.
Twentieth Century translators variously rendered these features as "ramparts and breastworks," (Fagles, 12.499), "towers and battlements," (Fitzgerald, 12.480), "battlements and bastions," (Lattimore, 12.430), and "pickets and battlements," (Lombardo, 12.266-7).
Fagles, Fitzgerald and Lattimore avoid describing what materials the wall was built of, although Bernard Knox in a note to Fagles' 12.205 describes it as a "rock wall." Lombardo opted for a "wooden wall," (12.298, 452), despite lines 177-8 of the original which contain the following sentence:
"πάντῃ γὰρ περὶ τεῖχος ὀρώρει θεσπιδαὲς πῦρ
This sentence must refer to a "stone wall," λάϊνον being an adjective in the accusative case in agreement with its neuter noun, τεῖχος. (Lombardo is not alone in ignoring the plain reference to stone in line 178; the authenticity of lines 175-81 was rejected by three ancient grammarians: Aristophanes, Zenodotus and Aristarchus).
In an effort to visualize the parts and materials of the wall, so as to be able to render book 12 in a way both sensible and faithful to Homer, I prepared a schematic sketch, reproduced below. In the course of doing so, I became convinced that the wall was built of stones and had two component features: sections of relatively low wall (ἐπάλξιες) punctuated periodically by commanding towers (πύργοι) from which the entire structure could best be defended. This conviction underlies the way I translate the passages in book 12 relating to the wall.
At the end of book 12 Hector smashes through one of the pairs of gates, hurling a huge stone.
"ὣς Ἕκτωρ ἰθὺς σανίδων φέρε λᾶαν ἀείρας,
αἵ ῥα πύλας εἴρυντο πύκα στιβαρῶς ἀραρυίας
δικλίδας ὑψηλάς· δοιοὶ δ' ἔντοσθεν ὀχῆες           455
εἶχον ἐπημοιβοί, μία δὲ κληῒς ἐπαρήρει.
στῆ δὲ μάλ' ἐγγὺς ἰών, καὶ ἐρεισάμενος βάλε μέσσας
εὖ διαβάς, ἵνα μή οἱ ἀφαυρότερον βέλος εἴη,
ῥῆξε δ' ἀπ' ἀμφοτέρους θαιρούς· πέσε δὲ λίθος εἴσω
βριθοσύνῃ, μέγα δ' ἀμφὶ πύλαι μύκον, οὐδ' ἄρ' ὀχῆες 460
ἐσχεθέτην, σανίδες δὲ διέτμαγεν ἄλλυδις ἄλλη
λᾶος ὑπὸ ῥιπῆς·"
From this it appears that the gates were made of planks (σανίδων), sturdily fitted together (στιβαρῶς ἀραρυίας), that the gates were double (δικλίδας) and tall (ὑψηλάς). The gates were held fast by two crossing bars inside (δοιοὶ ὀχῆες ἐπημοιβοί), and a single bolt (μία κληῒς). Hector's stone smashes the above parts, as well as hinges (θαιρούς) on both sides.
I prepared another schematic sketch to help visualize the gates clearly, and to serve as a guide when rendering the climactic lines at 12.453-460:
The resulting translation:
so Hector carried that stone and faced the planks
that covered one of the pairs of sturdy gates.
Fastened inside the thick boards were two bars, 455
crossing aslant, backed by a heavy bolt.
Hector raised the stone overhead and threw,
first planting his feet to strengthen the cast.
The rock flew inside, breaking all four hinges,
as well as the useless bolt and crossed bars."   460
The other translators mentioned above varied in the ways they described the gates.
Fagles visualized and described the gates in substantially the same way as I have. He has "two bars on the inside, crossing over each other, shot home with a bolt to pin them firm." (12.528-9).
Fitzgerald has "high double doors of heavy timber.... Two crossbars inside were rammed in place and one pin fastened them." (12.507-9).
Lattimore has: "double door-bars on the inside overlapping each other closed it, and a single pin bolt secured them." (12.455-6).
Lombardo describes "A set of heavy double doors, solidly built and bolted shut by interlocked inner bars." (12.479-80).
None of the latter three grasped the essential feature of the two bars: they crossed each other as in the sketch. Fitzgerald's "crossbars" suggests parallel bars crossing the opening from side to side, not crossing each other. Lattimore's "overlapping" and Lombardo's "interlocked bars" convey no clear image of what is referred to, and certainly do not connote bars crossing each other as in the sketch.
Click to return to translation issues besides the wall.