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Professor rescues classic, controversial poem on Achilles' childhood

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

LAWRENCE — “Bring back the story” reads the first line of a University of Kansas professor’s English translation of “Achilleid,” a Latin poem by the Roman poet Statius that presents the childhood of the Greek hero Achilles.

The words are representative of what Stanley Lombardo, professor of classics, is trying to achieve by translating the poem that was an important part of medieval education and inspired operas in the 17th and 18th centuries, but later fell out of the literary canon, likely due to Victorian distaste for some of its erotic themes. The 1,200 lines of the poem, the beginning of a projected full-length epic on Achilles that Statius was not able to finish before he died, dramatizes the childhood of Achilles, the great hero of the Trojan War.

“The project is to bring a classic work out of the obscurity into which it has fallen, and show how timeless and fresh it is after 2,000 years, and how relevant to current social issues,” said Lombardo, who joined the KU faculty in 1976 and is a renowned translator of Greek and Latin poetry, including Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” and Virgil's “Aeneid.”

Lombardo and Marjorie Curry Woods, the Blumberg Centennial Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, are at work on an edition of the “Achilleid” to be used for college courses and to bring the poem to a wider audience. The “Achilleid” has been virtually impossible to read if you don’t know Latin, he said.

Lombardo and Woods say that Statius presents themes that make for interesting psychological study, including a rough childhood with a demanding foster-father, an overprotective mother and other issues such as transvestism, sexual violence and the forced maturation of Achilles into heroic manhood.

"This is the sort of background we don’t have for most mythological heroes," Lombardo said. "What was his childhood like, what were his formative influences?”

The view into Achilles’ childhood in the poem includes his mother, Thetis the sea nymph, whisking him away from his upbringing in the Centaur Chiron's cave to a remote island kingdom because she wanted to prevent him from going to war. She also gets Achilles to pretend to be a girl as part of his hiding. He initially refuses until he sees how beautiful one of the girls is. Achilles’ absence is holding back the Greek army from invading Troy.

He is later tricked into revealing himself as Achilles and not the warrior’s sister that his mother passed him off as, when the Greek hero Odysseus shows him weapons and he hears the sound of a war trumpet. By this time Achilles has impregnated the king’s daughter, Deidamia, who will bear him a son.

“Achilleid” explores serious and complex issues, but Statius approaches those issues with humor. “The poem has a freshness and a certain kind of ironic hilarity,” Lombardo said.

The poem was very popular in the Middle Ages, and medieval teachers would use it because it contained scenes that would pique attention of young students to keep them interested in learning Latin, the language of intellectual discourse for centuries.

It’s also an important poem because it was the first work to mention “Achilles’ vulnerable heel,” which is a common English expression today, he said. Part of Lombardo's inspiration to translate “Achilleid” — and its presentation of gender issues — came when he learned former student Monica/Nico Peck had written a long poem, “The Pyrrhaiad, a Queering of the Iliad,” inspired by a question posed in “Ulysses” by James Joyce about what Achilles’ name was when he was a girl.

“In a way, poetry is a really good forum for exploring the complexity of gender and sexuality, because poetry itself is complicated,” said Peck, a 1999 KU graduate who is currently an adjunct professor at San Jose State University.

Lombardo said he hoped the translation would bring more awareness to “Achilleid” and the issues presented and return it to being as widely read and studied as it once was centuries ago.

“Once something slips out of the canon, it has a hard time recovering its lost status,” he said. “Even so, it’s surprising to me that a poem as dynamic as Statius' 'Achilleid' hasn’t yet done so.”