homer the iliad

The Iliad #

Iliad - Song of Ilium

For Aristotle, Homer was more a legend than a man. In his Poetics, the philosopher credits the poet with inventing epic, drama, and comedy.

“It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skilfully,”

he writes with evident ambivalence. Herodotus, known as the first historian, saw Homer, along with the poet Hesiod, as having invented Greek mythology, calling them the first to “give the gods their epithets, to allot them their several offices and occupations, and describe their forms.”

We need to consider whether Homer is an example of Poe’s Law; an adage questioning whether unless some tone indicator is used, it is impossible to tell the difference between an extreme view being sincerely espoused and an extreme view being satirized.

Homer lavishes supreme praise on all, with little appraisal, but it remains their actions which we are required to judge his characters on.

The poem begins with an invocation to one or all of the nine muses. “Voke has an emotive or spiritual dimension”:

Invoke, vocative, evoke, evocative, provoke, provocative. Devote, votaries, votive – offerings – a paean to Calliope?

According to C.M. Bowra, Landmarks in Greek Literature, the Greeks were conscious of what they owed to the past; our inherited stories. Memory was the Mother of all Muses. Poets must be the masters of inherited stories.

As part of the creative process, the Muse speaks to the poet or through them as the inspiration to tell them what to say. It was only through divine aid that a poet could pass beyond the limitations of everyday speech.

The Iliad, attributed to Homer, is likely the product of multiple authors, based on oral tales told over a period of 500 years. Recorded in Ionian Greece of the 8th century, it tells the tales of the Myceneans five centuries earlier.

It begins in the tenth year of the siege of Troy and covers only seven weeks of the war.

BkI:1-21 Invocation and Introduction #

Here are three different translations of Homer’s invocation:

Goddess, sing me the anger, of Achilles, Peleus’ son, that fatal anger that brought countless sorrows on the Greeks, and sent many valiant souls of warriors down to Hades, leaving their bodies as spoil for dogs and carrion birds: for thus was the will of Zeus brought to fulfilment. Sing of it from the moment when Agamemnon, Atreus’ son, that king of men, parted in wrath from noble Achilles. A.S. Kline

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, Hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, Great fighters’souls, but made their bodies carrion, Feasts for the dogs and birds, And the will of Zeus was moving towards its end. Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed, Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles. Robert Fagles

RAGE: Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon–
The Greek warlord–and godlike Achilles.
Poetry. Com

War is caused by unresolved conflict provoked by disrespect and anger. As a result of unresolved internal conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles great fighters are turned into fodder.

Most writers condemn the waste of youthful lives - Shakespeare - describing bloody corpses seen “larding the plain” and foreshadowing Wilfred Owen’s “Men dying as cattle” - the senseless slaughter as the cannon fodder of modern war.

The Greeks regarded intelligence as the highest gift bestowed on man and insisted it be used in trying to understand their ways through persistent, candid, and ruthless inquiry. Faith or belief had little meaning for them.

It was Literature that endeavours to reflect the struggles, changes, and irking uncertainties of mankind.

Some useful resources on Utube:

Summary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faSrRHw6eZ8

Dr Erwin Cook: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XD0FEcK9smE

Natalie Haynes BBC podcast: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000d7p2

Women as victims of war #

Emiy Wilson of the New Yorker, reveals a feminist take. Apollo sparks the conflict that will engulf them. One of his priests is a Trojan ally with a cherished daughter, “beautiful Chryseis.” Achilles captures her in a raid, and Agamemnon, the Greek commander, claims her as his war trophy. The priest offers to ransom her with a priceless treasure, which Agamemnon spurns rudely, and Apollo punishes this sacrilege with a plague. Only after the Greek armies have been decimated does their general relent and send Chryseis home. But then he consoles himself by mortally offending his greatest warrior: he confiscates Achilles’ trophy from an earlier looting spree, “fresh-faced Briseis.” And with that puerile quarrel between stubborn warlords over the right to own and to rape a girl, Western literature begins.

Wilson writes, describe them as “sluts” or “whores,” terms that don’t figure in the Greek. Instead, she calls them what Homer does: “slaves,” or, in an echo of plantation culture which felt apt to her, “house girls.”

Wilson’s translations are the first in English to jettison slurs or euphemisms that mask the abjection of women in a society where a goal of war, according to the Iliad, was to rob men of their women, and where female captives of every rank were trafficked for sex and domestic labor.

The Argument: #

Note how polarised and heated the debate becomes. In the ninth year of the seige of Troy, the Greeks have raided a nearby settlement in search of “comfort women”. Agammemnon has unknowingly captured the daughter of a priest of Apollo and refuses a request from him to give her back.

When a priest of Apollo begs Agamemnon for the return of his daughter, Chryseis, Agamemnon answers him thus:

….I won’t give up the girl. Long before that,
Old age will overtake her in my house, in Argos,
Far from her fatherland, slaving back and forth
At the loom, forced to share my bed!

Apollo sides with the Trojans with pestilence - pre-covid - and joins the battle. The Greeks hold council to solve this problem.

Bk I:53-100 Achilles and Calchas speak:

And when they had assembled, and the gathering was complete, swift-footed Achilles rose and spoke:

‘Son of Atreus, if war and plague alike are fated to defeat us Greeks, I think we shall be driven to head for home: if, that is, we can indeed escape death. But why not consult some priest, some prophet, some interpreter of dreams, since dreams too come from Zeus, one who can tell why Phoebus Apollo shows such anger to us, because of some broken vow perhaps, or some missed sacrifice; in hopes the god might accept succulent lambs or unmarked goats, and choose to avert our ruin.’

He sat down again when he had spoken, and Calchas, son of Thestor, rose to his feet, he, peerless among augurs, who knew all things past, all things to come, and all things present, who, through the gift of prophecy granted him by Phoebus Apollo, had guided the Greek fleet to Ilium. He, with virtuous intent, spoke to the gathering, saying:

‘Achilles, god-beloved, you ask that I explain far-striking Apollo’s anger. Well, I will, but take thought, and swear to me you’ll be ready to defend me with strength and word; for I believe I’ll anger the man who rules the Argives in his might, whom all the Achaeans obey. For a king in his anger crushes a lesser man. Even if he swallows anger for a while, he will nurse resentment till he chooses to repay. Consider then, if you can keep me safe.’

Bk I:101-147 The argument begins

When he had finished speaking, Calchas sat down, and Agamemnon, the warrior, royal son of Atreus, leapt up in anger; his mind was filled with blind rage, and his eyes blazed like fire. First, he rounded on Calchas, with a threatening look:

‘Baneful prophet, your utterance has never yet favoured me; you only ever love to augur evil, never a word of good is spoken or fulfilled! And now you prophesy to the Danaan assembly, claiming the far-striker troubles them because I refused fine ransom for a girl, Chryses’ daughter, and would rather take her home. Well I prefer her to my wife, Clytaemnestra, since she’s no less than her in form or stature, mind or skill. Yet, even so, I’d look to give her up, if that seems best; I’d rather you were safe, and free of plague. So ready a prize at once, for me, I’ll not be the only one with empty hands: that would be wrong: you see for yourselves, my prize now goes elsewhere.

Then swift-footed Lord Achilles spoke in answer:

‘Great son of Atreus, covetous as ever, how can the brave Achaeans grant a prize? What wealth is there in common, now we have shared our plunder from the cities which cannot be reclaimed? Give up the girl, as the god demands, and we Achaeans will compensate you, three or four times over, if Zeus ever lets us sack high-walled Troy.’

Then Lord Agamemnon answered him with insulting language:

“You are nothing to me – you and your overweening anger!
I will be there in person at your tents To take Briseis in all her beauty, your own prize-
So you can learn just how much greater I am than you…”

Bk I:223-284 Nestor speaks

But then soft-spoken Nestor rose, the clear-voiced orator of Pylos, from whose tongue speech sweeter than honey flowed. He had already seen the passing of two mortal generations born and reared with him in holy Pylos, and now he ruled the third. He spoke to the assembly, then, with benevolent intent:

‘Well, here is grief indeed to plague Achaea. How Priam and his sons would rejoice, and the hearts of the Trojan throng be gladdened, if they could hear this tale of strife between you two, the greatest of Danaans in war and judgement. You are both younger than I, so listen, for I have fought beside warriors, better men than you, who ever showed me respect….

Atreides, do not seek to rob him of the girl, leave him the prize that the Achaeans gran> ted; and you Achilles, son of Peleus, do not oppose the king blow for blow, since the kingly sceptre brings no little honour to those whom Zeus crowns with glory. You have your power, a goddess for a mother, yet he is greater, ruling over more. Agamemnon, quench your anger, relent towards Achilles, our mighty shield against war’s evils.

Bk I:285-317 Nestor’s advice ignored

‘Old man, indeed you have spoken wisely’, replied Agamemnon. But this man wants to rule over others; to lord it, be king of all, and issue orders, though I know one who will flout him. What though the immortal gods made him a spearman; does that give him the right to utter such insults?’

Achilles then interrupted, saying:

‘A coward, and worthless, I’d be called, if I gave way every time to you no matter what you say. Command the rest if you wish, but give me no orders, I’ll no longer obey. And here’s another thing for you to think on: I’ll not raise a hand to fight for the girl, with you or any other, since you only take back what you gave. But you’ll take nothing else of mine by the swift black ships, against my will. Come, try, and let these men be witness: your blood will flow dark along my spear.’

Achilles is an angry young man. When Agamemnon forces him to give up his prize booty, a young maiden called Briseis, from raiding nearby Trojan town, Achilles, in high dungeon simply refuses to fight anymore, giving the Trojans the advantage. Was this the first “strike” in history? Any soldier speaking to a General like that would likely be charged with insubordination.

It is only after Hector kills his best friend, Patroclus, that Achilles, gets new armour to mow his way through the Trojans to get Hector. Once he re-enters the battle, Agamemnon restores Briseis to him and Achilles declares his love for her.

Anger has words, but rage does not. When we become violent, we have moved into this wordless territory that so often becomes confused with simple anger. Unless rage is assuaged it becomes destructive. When language is inadequate we resort to violence. When destructive people have nothing else to destroy, they become self-destructive.

Marcus Aurelis counsels: “The best revenge, is not to become like the wrongdoer”.

Nietzsche advises: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.

In our wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, did we became worse than our enemy?

Controlled or measured anger, resulting from a slight, wounded psyches or gross injustice, can be transformative leading to shifting cultures as in civil rights, suffragettes and Black Lives Matter. If you seek to constructively avenge, rather than destructively revenge, rage can lead to change for collective good, like the cleansing of a thunderstorm.

Christ, Tolstoy, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and many others have demonstrated that passive, assertive resistance is more effective in the long run.

Rage can be accompanied by inexpressible grief and feelings of abandonment and disempowerment. Synonymous with: Ineffable, inexpressible, indescribable, unspeakable, beyond words..

Rage is passion; passion finds solutions, however at times we can suffer a paralysis of rage. We careen from outrage to outrage in a rollicking attention-deficit society that most perpetrators are able to outwait or outshout.

In Homer most conflict is resolved adversarialy; not by reason, compromise or reconciliation, but by blood. Is war glorified and heroic? Even the gods revel in it. Goriness and violence is graphically depicted, but is it celebrated? Kleos?

Agamemnon fails to demonstrate the qualities of a great leader, resorting to pulling rank and attacking the person (ad hominon arguemtns), rather than sound reasoning.

Characters #

Homer conforms to the tradition of the oral epic poetry reaching back over generations. Characters are attributed ornamental epithets; high sounding labels such as Achilles is “god-like, or swift-footed”. Millman Parry claimed they merely assisted in fitting into the metrical patterns needed in dactylic hexameter.

Homer is impartial depicting the heroes on both sides with superlatives all round. Is he partial to the more cultured Trojans than to the warrior Philistine Greeks?

Hannah Arendt traces the tradition of literary political representation to:

“the moment when Homer chose to sing the deeds of the Trojans no less than those of the Achaeans, and to praise the glory of Hector, the foe and the defeated man, no less than the glory of Achilles, the hero of his kinfolk."

This had happened nowhere before; no other civilization, however splendid, had been able to look with equal eyes upon friend and foe, upon success and defeat.”

Agamemnon – Son of Atreus, brother to Menelaus, King of Mycenae. Epithets: “shepherd of the people, lord of men, wide ruling, brilliant”.

As commander in chief is tactless and manages to ruffle feathers on all sides. Described as imperious with unfettered arrogance.

Agamemnon, whose daughter Iphigenia, was sacrificed to Artemis (Diana) as an offering for good sailing conditions to Troy, encounters another kind of father in the Greek camp, a priest of Apollo, who has taken an unprecedented risk and come to the enemy camp to ask for his beloved daughter, Chryseis, to be released from Agamemnon’s household.

Agamemnon refuses. In the coarsest speech of the epic, he insults the priest and gratuitously, pornographically, forces on the father a haunting vision of his daughter’s future as the king’s sex slave and household drone. She will never again be free or safe, since Agamemnon’s impulses are sovereign; she is his to beat or to kill, if he wants.

Agamemnon dismissed the priest harshly, and dealt with him sternly:

‘Old man, don’t let me catch you loitering by the hollow ships today, and don’t be back later, lest your staff and the god’s ribbons fail to protect you. Her, I shall not free; old age will claim her first, far from her own country, in Argos, my home, where she can tend the loom, and share my bed. Away now; don’t provoke me if you’d leave safely.’

The priest beseeches Apollo to punish the Greeks, and the god responds, sending a devastating plague.

Today we would question Agamemnon’s leadership style. Enlightened, egalitarian managers have less of a servant-master mentality in leadership. This requires a levelling out of hierarchies. This does not mean getting rid of hierarchies - these have their proper functions - but rather ensuring hierarchies are focused on a culture mutual respect, collaboration and equivalency; not power and status.

Odysseus married to Penelope with a son Telemachus. Skilled in diplomacy – sweet tongued with a great voice but wily.

Agamemnon entrusts him to deliver Chryseis back to her father, the priest of Apollo.

Epithets: noble 17, noble long-suffering 2, that man of resource, Zeus’ peer in wisdom, 2, wily, 13, cunning 3, sacker of cities, 5, words and counsel, godlike, 3, Zeus’ equal in counsel, regal, Nimble-witted 6, excels in guile, ‘Praiseworthy, Doughty, inestimable, tireless, fine spearman, great-hearted…

Achilles, son of Peleus and Thetis (a sea nymph goddess) controls the myrmidons, today known as followers or subordinates of a powerful person, (Patroclus) typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly. Homer uses the simile of “a horde of wasps” to describe their ferocious attacks. (Minions, lackeys, servant, slave, underling….)

Achilles must decide between two kēres or ‘fated ways’ (IX 411): either he dies at a ripe old age after a safe nostos, ‘homecoming’, to his homeland Phthia or he dies young on the battlefield in Troy – and thereby wins for himself a kleos, ‘glory’, that will last forever (IX 413).

Mother tells me, the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet, that two fates bear me on to the day of death.

If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.

If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies. true,
but the life that’s left me will be long,
the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.

Achilles, when questioned by Odysseus in Hades, claims:

“I would prefer to be a workman, hired by a poor man on a peasant farm, than rule as king of all the dead”.

According to The Conversation’s Chris Mackie, Professor of Greek Studies, La Trobe University, Achilles comes from the north of Greece, and is therefore something of an outsider, because most of the main Greek princes in the poem come from the south. Achilles is young and brash, a brilliant fighter, but not a great diplomat. When he gets into a dispute with Agamemnon, the leading Greek prince in the war, and loses his captive princess Briseis to him, he refuses to fight and remains in his camp.

He stays there for most of the poem, until his friend Patroclus is killed. He then explodes back on to the battlefield, kills the Trojan hero Hector, who had killed Patroclus, and mutilates his body.

Diomedes surrogate or understudy of Achilles used to replace him while he is in social withdrawal.

Pallas Athene gives strength and courage to Diomedes, so he will be conspicuous among the Argives and win noble fame. Diomedes of the great war-cry, the son of fierce Tydeus, the horse-tamer, loyal to Agamemnon and his fellow fighters, takes centre stage while Achilles spends time in social isolation.

Now Pallas Athene gave Diomedes, Tydeus’ son, strength and courage to prove himself the finest of the Argives and win glory and renown. She made his helm and shield burn with unwavering flame, like that of Sirius the star of harvest, who when he has bathed in the Ocean depths rises to shine brightest of all. Such was the fire that streamed from his head and shoulders, as she thrust him into the heart of the fight where the enemy were strongest.

Now, there was a rich and peerless Trojan named Dares, priest of Hephaestus, who had two sons Phegeus and Idaeus, trained in all manner of warfare. These two detached themselves from the ranks and advanced in their chariot to meet Diomedes, while he charged forward on foot. When they were within range, Phegeus first let fly his long-shadowed spear, whose point flew over Tydeus’ shoulder without touching him. Tydeus replied, and the bronze-tipped shaft sped from his hand, striking his enemy in the chest, and knocking him from the chariot.

Yet when glorious Pandarus, Lycaon’s son, saw Diomedes rage across the plain, routing the army ahead, he swiftly bent his curved bow, and aimed at him, striking him firmly, as he ran, on the right shoulder-plate of his cuirass, so the sharp arrow pierced clean through, and the armour ran with blood. Pandarus cried aloud in triumph: ‘On now, brave Trojans, you horse-prickers! The best of the Greeks is hurt, and that arrow means he’s done for, if Lord Apollo, born of Zeus, truly blessed my journey here from Lycia

To the Greeks, Archery was considered ignoble and cowardly as it didn’t involve hand to hand combat.

Diomedes prayed so that Pallas Athene and speaking her winged words in his ear:

‘Courage, Diomedes, I have filled your arteries with your father’s strength, that indomitable strength of Tydeus, shield-wielding horseman. I have driven the mist that veiled them from your eyes what’s more, so you may know both men and gods.

Later Diomedes attacks Aeneas and injures Aphrodite but is stayed by Apollo and Ares. Aphrodite retreats to Mt Olympus to recover. Later Athene becomes his chariot driver and he manages to injure Ares as well. Defiance!

The Gods: #

Zeus is nominally neutral but does occasionally interfere on requests from other gods. Dues ex machina.

On the Trojan side, Aphrodite, having received the apple Paris, sides with him. Apollo, Ares and Poseidon favour them too.

The Greeks are aided and abetted by Athene, Hera, (in spite against Paris) and Hephaestus.

Thucydides and Plato decried Homer as the fake news of the ancient world. These heroes were the wrong kind and the myths containing their stories had to go due to their lack of morality. Wars can be avoided if enemies respect each other, as the early arguments between Agamemnon and Achilles show and Priam’s advice to Achilles indicate.

Plato seemed desperate to displace Homer. His teacher Socrates was offered as an antidote to the sullen, self-centred, violent heroes of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Socrates was a new hero for a new time, a hero of logos (reason) for a new era where the reed would be mightier than the sword.

So too with Thucydides. Throughout his history of war and plague, he demonstrated with scientific observation the futility of appealing to gods and myths. What good did sacrifices to the gods do the Athenians? How did faith in a higher justice serve the Melians or the people of Mytilene?

Thucydides wrote of the wars of Sparta and Athens and took the practice of writing history away from the realm of mythology to the realistic examination of human motives.

Graphic brutal savagery of conflict. #

The classical depiction of violence is tragic, but celebratory; willingly and joyfully sacrificing yourself for a greater cause for glory and eternal fame. Homer appears to celebrate war as an epic definition of man; “stive to do your best

The aim of war according to Glaucus’ father is:

“Ever to be the best and surpass all others in action”.

Yet conversely and ambiguously, The Iliad also demonstrates its dehumaning effect.

War was a way of life in most societies until 1815. Pax Romana, a rare exception.

However, even in Homer, soldiers who have come back from duty, soldiers who saw their mates killed and had other horrific experiences commonly suffer shock, generally develop symptoms of traumatic illness.

Dr Erwin Cook cites Jonathon Shay’s book, Achilles in Vietnam to illustrate the relevance of The Iliad today.

Shay attributes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as arising from feelings of betrayal resulting in a shrinkage of soldier’s social and moral horizons until it only includes a friend or two. Unresolved conflict combined with guilt, can result in surface anger where they go beserk.

Psychological injury is due to higher-ups violating the victim’s sense of what is right and wrong. Others refer to it as a “moral injury

Wronged people will respond with violent rage followed by social withdrawal and isolation under such circumstances. Rage and withdrawal leave us vulnerable.

The psychological damage is real and can be permanent.

Therapy is complex and varied.

  • Honoring the demonised enemy helps.
  • Proper grieving for the dead
  • communalizing grief and trauma through narrative can reult in healing.

Vietnam veterans suffered the indifference of the public back home. We need to recognise and acknowledge the soldier’s sacrifice. It is important for their well being and the well being of society to make them feel welcome and communalise thier grief and suffering.

Once Patraclus is killed by Hector, Achilles’ guilt prompts a killing spree. He goes beserk for two whole chapters.

Later in Chapter 23, Achilles dreams of Patroclus, but when he attempts to embrace him, his hallucination vanishes. The intense bonding of soldiers is a recurring phenomenon in most wars.

It is his ability to give in to Priam’s pleading for Hector’s body, that restores Achilles’ humanity.

War narratives are hugely attractive because of the existential tragedy of man and the drama and psychological effects that accompany it. Epic battles on the scale of Homer are massive, random chaotic and all but too grotesque, making it impossible for us to relate or identify with.

Homer does not spare us the ugly, brutal, harsh reality of war. He depicts it graphically in an attempt to shock our senses. How do the grisly, ghoulish, and macabre scenes affect us? Grotesque depiction can have an alienating affect on us.

“Men die in The Iliad in agony; they drop screaming, to their knees, reaching out to their beloved companions, gasping their life out, clawing the ground with their hands” - Robert Fagle.

Examples gruesome deaths: #

Then Achilles went after godlike Polydorus, Priam’s youngest son, lost his life to swift-footed Achilles, who caught him with a cast of his spear, as he shot by, in the back where the corselet overlapped and the golden clasps of his belt were fastened. The spear point emerged beside the navel, and he slumped to his knees with a groan, clutching his guts in his hands, as darkness enveloped him.

But Meriones pursued him and hurled his spear, catching the man midway between crotch and navel, where Ares gives greatest pain to wretched mortals. There the spear stuck and Adamas doubled over the deep-set shaft, writhed around, like a bullock that mountain herdsmen have roped, and drag along by force against its will. For a little while he struggled, till Meriones reached him and dragged his spear from the wound, then darkness filled Adamas’ eyes.


Achilles reached Asteropaeus and struck him with his sword. It took him in the belly by the navel, his guts spilled out on the ground, and as he lay gasping for breath darkness shrouded his eyes.

Was Shakespeare influenced when Macbeth:

Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements.

Does Homer offer us an alternative?

On the contrary, perhaps the most touching scene is where Diomedes and Glaucus meet for a duel. Diomedes taunts Glaucus by saying he was just “another born to die”, but then asks him his lineage.

They discover they are distantly related.

Glaucus responds with:

“Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth.
Now the living timber bursts with new buds
And spring comes round again. And so with men:
As one generation come to life, another dies away.

When Glaucus outlines his lineage, they realise that their grandparents came from the same region and their fathers were acquainted.

Diomedes cries out:

“we are sworn friends from our father’s days…..then clasped hands and traded armour.

Zeus stole Glaucus’s wits away. He traded his gold armor for bronze with Diomedes,
the worth of a hundred oxen just for nine”.

The two men reconcile, with Diomedes’ moral sensibilities raised, regaining their humanity.

Shield of Achilles: #

Although the Iliad is largely the tale of a brutal war, it contains many reflections of the peacetime life of the ancient Greek civilization. For the characters of the poem, war is something that is connected with the other parts of life, something that every man must undergo as he defends his city.

The most important sign of the relationship between war and peace is found in Book 18, when the god Hephaestus forges the new shield of Achilles. On the shield is a magnificent picture of all of Greek life, including two cities, one at war and the other at peace. Killing enemies is part and parcel with harvests and weddings. Homer supports this idea with the images he uses in the poem, often describing battle scenes by comparing them to scenes of rural Greek life. The battalions of soldiers gathering, for instance, are compared to flies swarming around a pail of milk or shepherds defending their flocks from raging lions.

Supplication of Thetis #

Thetis had not forgotten her promise to her son, and at morning, emerging from the waves, she rose to the broad sky and Olympus. There she found Zeus, he of the far-thundering voice, sitting apart on the highest peak of ridged Olympus. She sank in front of him, clasped his knees with her left arm, raised her right hand to touch his chin, and so petitioned the son of Cronos:

‘Father Zeus, if ever I helped you by word or deed, grant me this wish, honour my son, who is doomed to die young. For Agamemnon the king shows disrespect, arrogantly seizing his rightful prize. Avenge my son, Olympian Zeus, lord of justice; enhance the Trojans’ power, till the Greeks honour and respect my son and make amends.’ Book I 488.

The Achaean soldiers frequently refer to the lives they left at home, their wives, children, flocks, estates, and everything else left behind in order to go to war with the Trojans. Similarly, the Trojans sometimes refer to what life was like before the long siege of the war.

However, war also shifts the importance of the arts practiced in peacetime. For instance, speechmaking and verbal ability are often scorned throughout the Iliad as the sign of someone who is not willing to simply act boldly. Similarly, the bonds of love and family felt by Hector are diminished by the pitiless nature of war, as he will not be strong enough to come home to his wife and child. Even Aphrodite is a lesser goddess within the context of the war, where the mortal Diomedes is able to wound her easily.

W.H. Auden faithfully appropriates this in his modern day poem:


Domestic scenes:

The most poignant domestic scene is between Hector and his wife, Andromache.

With this Hector placed the child in his dear wife’s arms, and she took him to her fragrant breast, smiling through her tears. Her husband was touched with pity at this, and stroked her with his hand, saying: ‘Andromache, dear wife, don’t grieve for me too deeply yet. None will send me to Hades before my time: though no man, noble or humble, once born can escape his fate. Go home, and attend to your tasks, the loom and spindle, and see the maids work hard. War is a man’s concern, the business of every man in Ilium, and mine above all.’

The eight-year-long conflict in Syria gives the lie to that age-old view.

Achilles and Patroclus #

Achilles and Patroclus intense bond is universal. All soldiers develop strong ties to their mates or buddies in the face of brutal struggle and extreme danger. To see your mate die next to you, is traumatising.

As Wilfred Owen describes his traumatic dream:

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, … And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–

When Patroclus dies, wearing Achilles’ armour and shield, at the hands of Hector, Achilles’ rage becomes physical and he goes beserk - rampaging through the Trojan lines for two chapters until he finally faces Hector, brutally killing him, dragging his corpse around the wall of Troy three times in front of Hector’s family. Even that does not assuage Achilles anger.

Later, in Chapter 23, Patroclus appears in Achilles’ sleep, asking to be buried. Achilles wakes up and tries to embrace him, but he vanishes. PTSD victims tell of haunting dreams.

The crisis of Achilles is a dual one, with two distinct manifestations, caused by a double loss: the outburst of pride and sorrow of losing Briseis, at Agamemnon’s order, whom he sanctions by withdrawing at the back of the front line and, on the other hand, the atrocious suffering caused by Patroclus’s death, which leads to Achilles’s return to the military operations theatre and the expedition for punishing Hector, assumed by the Peleian as his own. Moreover, the double loss leads Achilles to two completely different decisions, by means of which he passes from one version of his destiny to another one: initially, a long life, but wasted in anonymity at home, in Thessaly, towards which he is drawn, disappointed and still angry with Agamemnon, on the very eve of the loss of Patroclus; then, the premature death, covered in glory, at Troy which he had chosen by changing his decision as soon as Patroclus perishes by the hand of Hector

Supplication of Priam: #

Priam and Achilles BkXXIV:468-551 Priam moves Achilles’ heart

Great Priam slipped in unobserved, and reaching Achilles, clasped his knees, and kissed his hands, the fearful, man-killing hands that had slaughtered so many of his sons. Achilles was astonished at the sight of godlike Priam, as were his friends. They stared at each other, astounded.

But Priam was already entreating Achilles:

‘Godlike Achilles, think of your own father, who is of my generation, and so is likewise on the sad threshold of old age. Perhaps his neighbours are troubling him, and there is no one to protect him from harm, or ward off ruin. But he at least can rejoice in the knowledge that you live, and each day brings the hope of seeing you return from Troy. While I, I am a victim of sad fate. Of the best of my sons, the best in all of Troy, not one is left. Fifty sons I had, when you Achaeans landed, nineteen by the one wife, and the rest by other ladies of my court. Most of them have fallen in furious battle, and the defender of the city and its people, my prime recourse, Hector, you have killed, as he fought for his country. I come now to the ships to beg his corpse from you, bringing a princely ransom. Respect the gods, Achilles, and show mercy towards me, remembering your own father, for I am more to be pitied than he, since I have brought myself to do what no other man on earth would do, I have lifted to my lips the hand of the man who killed my sons.’

His words had moved Achilles to tears at the thought of his own father, and taking the old man’s hands he set him gently from him, while both were lost in memory.

Achilles raises Priam to his feet and sits him in his chair gently, speaking to him in awed admiration:

what daring brought you to the ships alone?

He comforts the man, orders his minions to clean Hector’s body while a banquet is prepared for Priam. Suddenly Achilles is able to put himself into Priam’s shoes and forsee all the pain, agony and suffering in store for Priam’s destiny.

Priam remembered man-killing Hector, and wept aloud, at Achilles’ feet, while Achilles wept for his father Peleus and for Patroclus once more, and the sound of their lament filled the hut.

In some translations, Priam advises Achilles,

“even your enemies must be respected”.

Achilles appears to finally sees himself as others see him and begins a healing process towards regaining his humanity.

Although the Iliad is largely the tale of a brutal war, it contains many reflections of the peacetime life of the ancient Greek civilization. For the characters of the poem, war is something that is connected with the other parts of life, something that every man must undergo as he defends his city.

Homer’s attitude to war is ambivalent. While he clebrates war as a definition of men striving to be the best for immortal fame, there is a strong sense of the wasteful destructive nature and its effects on innocent victims.

It took thousands of years to learn this lesson. European religious wars needlessly killed thousands of young men. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, France had lost most of its young men for no real gain. The Treaty of Wesphalia and The Congress of Vienna were futile attempts at halting this senseless slaughter - for 99 years - until we experienced the butchery of WWI.

Technique #

For Aristotle, Homer was more a legend than a man. In his Poetics, the philosopher credits the poet with inventing epic, drama, and comedy.

“It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully,”

Homer writes with evident ambivalence. Herodotus, known as the first historian, saw Homer, along with the poet Hesiod, as having invented Greek mythology, calling them the first to:

“give the gods their epithets, to allot them their several offices and occupations, and describe their forms.”

Epic means different things; larger than life, transcendence. Oral tales of super heroes: Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, King Arthur…..There is Epic literature; epic tales and epic theatre – the same and yet different.

Epic Poems are defined as long, narrative, on a serious subject written in a grand style, centred on a larger than life hero. Characteristics include a vast setting, superhuman and supernatural characters, elevated style written in an objective point of view to cultivate a cerebral response. Conventions include an invocation to the muse, opening statement of theme, beginning in “medias res”, formal speeches, and uses of Epic similes. While classic drama is confined to one day, epic poems have unlimited time. – The Odyssey extends to ten years, The Iliad to about seven weeks of a ten year war.

Sumerian stories like The Epic of Gilgamesh to the five cycles of the Homeric tradition, Latin Aeneid, to Indian, Scandinavian, Beowulf, Germanic heroic epic and its late Renaissance echoes very likely influenced by the Mesopotamian one from the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. Beowulf, like Hamlet, is a pagan tale retold by a Christian Monk for a christian audience.

Epic History is often a literary patch- work. Much is clearly the result of the editing together of various earlier sources—not a single original work written by an individual or group of authors at one time. The texts contain jarring discontinuities, snatches of poetry, quotations from other works, and geographical lists interspersed with long passages of narrative.

Epic Drama is distancing - non identifying - disrupting. Plato preferred it to Action drama because it appealed to the mind. Brecht regarded conventional theatres of illusion as soft thinking; a narcissistic romanticism, - a desire to use the theatre for escapism. Brecht does not want us to suspend our disbelief. The principle of Einfuhlung (empathy) was regarded as theatrical seduction which clouded the minds of the audience to the true issues. He tries to divorce the audience from sentimental involvement or engagement and detach, distance or alienate us from the characters on stage. We are not meant to identify or empathise with them, rather stand back and judge them critically.

Greek literature is not a thriller, depending on suspense. Originality of plot is not paramount. The ending of familiar stories is already known and our interest relies on how and when the dramatic actions are disclosed. He often gives his characters confidential asides presenting dramatic irony – Achilles believing destiny will let him get home unscathed and heroic.

The delayed action – we know what is coming, but not when or how. Achilles is introduced in Book I, but then disappears until Book IX.

  • Characters are revealed by what they do and say.

Homer invented theatre before it was actual theatre.

  • Mixture of Myth and History – Not fully accurate. While he invokes the glamour of the mythical past, he is drawing on contemporary models.

  • He is fascinated by war, but does not glorify war?

  • All his characters regardless of which side are all noble, peerless, brave, wise and excellent. The women are all lovely, well dressed with hair done beautifully. Does he favor the Trojans over the barbaric Greeks?

  • We need to accept their belief in the intervention of the supernatural into the natural. All inexplicable phenomena are attributed to special powers of the gods. Duex ex machina.

The Iliad, as most Greek literature, uses a number of literary devices to keep the audience anticipating.

  • Oral, based on rhythm with lots of formula.

  • Emphasis on having the characters speak – to make us feel we are actually there.

  • Homer likely the oral teller who spoke it the best.

  • Homer does not always describe his characters at length, rather he allows them to disclose themselves by what they say and do.

  • Homer already obeys (introduces?) the consistency of his characters. Thetis, who always has a grievance, is consistently obsessive in her attempts to safe-guard her ill-fated son, Achilles.

  • Artists, tell the truth through an artifice of lies – or myth.

  • Truth is subjective, relative and elusive.

  • Reality can be identified. But then Plato argues even that could be an illusion – shadows of the cave.

  • Homer gives us confidential asides or insider information just as the chorus will later do in Greek drama. Most of the characters are described in glowing terms as being noble, wise, brave, or excellent.

Alienation Effects #

A new trend called ‘slow cinema’ is characterised by long shots, minimal or observational style and a de-emphasis on plot. Simultaneously, distancing and identifying, it can be haunting. Cuarón’s, Roma, Kantemir Balagov’s, Beanpole.

“The aim is to collide different genres—history, analysis, reportage—so that reality emerges in the collision between them, Montage creates the space for meaning.” Peter Pomerantsev.

Dramatic irony; we know things the characters are unaware of, such as Achilles’ repudiating Agamemnon. We know that Achilles will eventually be dragged back into conflict and that he will die a young heroic death.

Hector’s wife drawing a bath for his heroic return is ironic, because we know he will not be returning from battle.

The artifice of suspense is not what is going to happen, but how and when. While Achilles is in the forefront in the beginning, his absence for the next eight books creates tension.

Another device Homer introduced is comic relief. When the pain and suffering become unendurable, he creates some mischief between the gods or between the characters.


Hannah Arendt turns to literature, as rooted in the “disinterested pursuit of truth”:

“The political function of the storyteller—historian or novelist—is to teach acceptance of things as they are. Out of this acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment.”

Arendt does not mean “acceptance” as a form of political quietism. She means “truthfulness,” as opposed to propaganda, which is partial—biased, incomplete information.

She traces the tradition of literary political representation to:

“the moment when Homer chose to sing the deeds of the Trojans no less than those of the Achaeans, and to praise the glory of Hector, the foe and the defeated man, no less than the glory of Achilles, the hero of his kinfolk. This had happened nowhere before; no other civilization, however splendid, had been able to look with equal eyes upon friend and foe, upon success and defeat.”

This is not humanizing Hitler, but rather offering a broader view of humanity, while maintaining a keen awareness of who is friend and who is foe.

This is what Keats praised in Shakespeare as “negative capability.” To be sure, authors often feel the need to imagine themselves into others. But that act of empathy is instrumental, not ethical as such—writers are not historically renowned for being good people—and ideally, it is in the name of a greater impartiality and equality.

Themes of The Iliad #

Australian law already understands that sometimes individuals are going to suffer in the pursuit of a greater good.

Glorification of War

The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. Man’s only purpose is to kill his enemy before he himself gets killed.

The dogs of war are unleased to create an irresistible violence for the warrior blood pulsing to the drum beat of war. His own life is nothing, merely something willingly sacrificed to his mates and country. Both Achilles and Hector are acutely aware, their defeat and death are inevitable; to be faced with courage and valour.

Andrew Hastie reminded troops that their main job, at the end of the day, was to kill people

According to Robert Fagles, the 50 some Greek city states were continually at war with one another, sometimes as allies, other times as enemies. The permanence of war is echoed by Homer and Plato. We Achaeans, says Odysseus:

“the men who Zeus decrees, from youth to old age,
Must wind down our brutal wars to the bitter end
Until we drop and die, down to the last man.”
(14.105 – 7)

In the final book, Achilles and Priam, in the most poignant of settings, reflect upon the fate of human beings and the things they do to one another. Priam raises the prospect of avoiding war by respecting even your enemies – diplomacy?

Plato writes: “Peace is just a name. The truth is, by natural law, engaged in a perpetual undeclared war with every other city state”.

Athens, during the fifth century was at war on land and sea for more years than they were at peace. They fought Persia, allied with Sparta from 480 BCE, but in 460 fought with Sparta. After defeating Persia decisively, after 15 years of peace, in 431 began the Peloponnesian war against Sparta for 27 years, surrendering with the loss of her naval supremacy and ending democracy.

The industrial revolution was an opportunity for civilisations to prosper; instead, it merely resulted in nations to make more efficient weapons to kill each other.

America’s Military Industrial Complex is essential to keeping its economy afloat. As Eisenhower warned, “ we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex … We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

Orwell’s 1984, predicts that the three superpowers also engage in continual war with each other switching alliances.

The central message of John Gray’s Straw Dogs is as stark as it is startling. Human progress, declares Gray, was a myth. “If we thought we were steadily becoming more civilised, then we were delusional. Instead, human beings are “weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing”.

DEATH is the final reality of human life, and not just for the banal reason that we are all destined to die in the end but, more importantly, because the finiteness and vulnerability of our existence in this world is what gives urgency, meaning and even nobility to human life.

Homer saw this, in The Iliad, with a burning clarity. Mortality is what lends poignancy to our experience, gravity to our moral choices. His heroes love life, strength and beauty, but their duty, their noble rank, and the position in which fate has placed them leaves them no noble choice but to face death with the courage befitting a warrior. CHRISTOPHER ALLEN

Comparitive Epics #

There are seven epics of ancient Greek literature about the Trojan War.
Only the two above were fully preserved. The others were largely lost but with fragments and references we can identify them.

The Cypria is the fifth epic of the Epic Cycle; it is attributed to Stasinus, Homer, or Hegesias, It tells the events leading up to the Trojan War, and describes everything that happened before the beginning of the Iliad.

The Iliad– Tells the story of only seven weeks during the ninth year of the war.

Aethiopis - Tells the entire history of the Trojan War in epic verse.

Little Iliad - Describes the construction of the Trojan Horse.

Iliou Persis- The sack of Troy and the escape of Aeneas.

Odyssey - Adventures of Odysseus taking ten years to find his way home.

Telogony - After Odysseus returns to Ithaca two books by Eugammon of Cyrene, tell of how the suitors of Penelope are buried by their kinsmen. Odysseus then goes to Thesprotis where he marries Callidice, queen of the Thesprotians. Polypoetes, one of two sons of Odysseus, succeeds to the kingdom. The other, Telegonus, kills his father, Odysseus unwittingly.

In all the three epics, Gilgamesh, Iliad, The Odyssey, there is also a common scheme of the psychological evolution of characters; their emotional state covers several essential states and moments: attachment, loss, crisis, cathartic recollectedness. For example, Achilles’s attachment to Briseis and Patroclus, Gilgamesh’s attachment to Enkidu, Ulysses’ feelings for Ithaca and his people. Then, the loss of Enkidu, Briseis and Patroclus, the endangering of the family and wasting of wealth along with the onrush of suitors who seize the house of Penelope, encouraged by the master’s long absence. The crisis of Gilgamesh manifests through the shock caused by the unexpected and incomprehensible end of Enkidu that eventually turns into a fear of his own death.

The crisis of Achilles is a dual one, with two distinct manifestations, caused by a double loss: the outburst of pride and sorrow on parting from Briseis, at Agamemnon’s order, whom he sanctions by withdrawing at the back of the front line and, on the other hand, the atrocious suffering caused by Patroclus’s death, which leads to Achilles’s return to the military operations theatre and the expedition for punishing Hector, assumed by the Peleian as his own. Moreover, the double loss leads Achilles to two completely different decisions, by means of which he passes from one version of his destiny to another one: initially, a long life, but wasted in anonymity at home, in Thessaly, towards which he is drawn, disappointed and still angry with Agamemnon, on the very eve of the loss of Patroclus; then, the premature death, covered in glory, at Troy which he had chosen by changing his decision as soon as Patroclus perishes by the hand of Hector. Also, a moment of crisis along the hero’s inner path and of tension in the unfolding of the epic is Ulysses’ outburst of righteous rebellion who punishes the greed of the suitors, recovering his house and fortune. All these critical moments imply a decisive confrontation: with death and his own anguish in the case of Gilgamesh, with Agamemnon and Hector in the case of Achilles, with the greedy suitors in the case of Ulysses.

The endings of all the three epics include the heroes’ stories in a metaphysical, ethical and sapiential horizon that relies on the previously narrated events, but project them onto another level of significations.

Each of them – Gilgamesh, Achilles, Ulysses – comes to terms with his own destiny. Healed of the fear of his end, Gilgamesh accepts his mortal condition, busying himself with his family. Achilles knows what awaits him, but is able to look death in the eyes as long as part of him is already there, in the other world, through Patroclus’s death.

The end of The Epic of Gilgamesh and that of The Iliad echo the same idea: a solidarity of condition that renders people similar, equally vulnerable in the face of destiny and death – death as fate. We are mortal.

Because life is short, we must crowd it with achievement.