The Empty Bath

by Colin Burrow

IliadHomer: ‘The Iliad’ translated by Peter Green

At sandy Pylos (as Homer calls it) on the western coast of Greece it’s still possible to see the bathtub of Nestor, who figures in the Iliad as an ancient, well-meaning but rather long-winded hero. Nestor’s bath is a substantial piece of decorated terracotta fixed into a weighty base. It has sat in its present position since the late Mycenaean period (1300-1200 BC), which is roughly when the historical figures behind Homer’s epics are thought to have strode the earth.

Bathtubs play a small but significant role in the Iliad. At the end of Book 10 the Greek heroes Diomedes and Odysseus go into the sea to wash off the sweat they have worked up during a night mission in which they have slaughtered a dozen Thracians and captured their horses. Then they ‘climbed into polished bathtubs and bathed themselves’. The Greeks (or Achaians as Homer calls them) have been camping out on the shore near Troy for nine years, so it’s conceivable that they had equipped their huts with a full Nestorian en suite. Or maybe they packed portable baths in their hollow ships as they set off for Troy, on the principle that for a long siege you would need a lot of kit including if not the kitchen sink then at least the bath. Alternatively the presence of these bathtubs may be a sign that the free-standing episode related in Book 10 (traditionally called the ‘Doloneia’) was, as most scholars now believe, composed by someone other than ‘Homer’, who was a bit more prone to nod than the writer he emulated. But the magically appearing bathtubs at the end of Book 10 are a marker of a very deep-seated feature of Homeric poetry. Objects can be conjured out of the air by a set of rules for narrative plausibility which are not ours. Diomedes and Odysseus are rich and powerful. They are exhausted and they have been successful. Rich and powerful warriors have baths, so the bathtubs have to be there and must be ‘polished’. The way Homeric narrative deals with objects is determined not by probability or the laws of physics, but by social ambience, and by what a poet thinks an audience is likely to expect.

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