When I was fifteen or sixteen I read a copy of the book In Search of the Trojan War by the British historian Michael Wood and was struck by the term ptoli-pórthios or “sacker, destroyer of cities”. According to Homer, the semi-legendary author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, it was one of the more desirable epithets among the kings and lords of the Late Bronze Age Aegean (some three thousand years ago). The tales reserved the phrase for warriors like Achilles, Agamemnon, Nestor and Odysseus, reflecting their exalted status in the pantheon of ancient heroes and gods. However it must have had a particular resonance for the peoples of the Mediterranean. Many of those listening to the oral recitations of the primitive Iliad would have lived in largely self-contained city-states, similar to those in the stories, where the risk of hostile action by near or distant neighbours was a constant worry. Of course, the cities of the late 2nd and early 1st millennium BCE would have been little more than fortified towns and villages by our modern standards, small conurbations a few hundred or thousand strong, surrounded by farmlands. In popular interpretations of the Homeric period the “city” aspect is somewhat overdone (think of the 2004 film, Troy).
Nevertheless the sobriquet has remained with me. Perhaps I recognise something almost Irish in its “Heroic Age” thinking. One could certainly imagine warriors like Conchúr mac Neasa, Cú Chulainn or Cormac mac Airt making a similar claim. Scriostóir na cathracha? However there is more to it than that. There is something about the name, “destroyer of cities”, that I find incredibly evocative. It simply won’t let go of my imagination. In my own writings I have toyed with a Fantasy literature setting where a world of city-states, dozens of self-governing towns, is terrorised by war-leaders each claiming to be a ptoli-pórthios.
JRR Tolkien’s First Age tales in Beleriand would have been far more interesting if they had turned on the machinations of rival Elvish kingdoms rather than the deus ex machina of Morgoth and his minions. Using the fictional history of the Kinslaying at Alqualondë, the landing of the Noldor under Fëanor and the animosity between the branches of the Eldar, a Shakespearean-like drama could have been crafted by the Oxford scholar. Gondolin falling not to an army of nameless orcs but to a host from Menegroth acting in concert with treacherous Maeglin. Add to that the intervention of the armies of Angband, and even Sauron, and there was a more epic tale waiting to be told. Perhaps such a story lay beyond Tolkien’s imagination or intent?
I suppose in some ways the American author George RR Martin has done all this in his A Game of Thrones universe, writing the sort of earthy, pessimistic fiction that his British counterpart could not. Though admittedly he wears his Tolkien inspirations quite heavy. Westeros is an obvious Middle-earth analogy, the Wall is a linear version of Ithilien or the March of Maedhros, while Beyond the Wall is simply Angband or Mordor. That said, it works and works well. But I would still like a ptoli-pórthios in there. Maybe I’ll write it myself?