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2 March 2006 This essay is a page short but is still insightful
The Iliad: War and Warning
The subject of the Iliad is commonly thought to be the events of the Trojan War or the rage of the Greek hero Achilles, and to a certain extent, this is true. However, the war lasted ten years while the actions of the poem take place in a matter of weeks. Most of the poem is devoid of fighting, the first three and last two books being completely without bloodshed, and of the 665 tropes, or figures of speech, which Homer uses, no more than fifteen are related to the military (Scott). Through careful examination, we can see that the Trojan War is merely Iliad’s setting, not the subject. The true focus and greatness of the epic comes from Homer’s powerful portrayal of the human condition during times of war (Scott). The poem clearly illustrates the destructive nature of warfare on the three levels of human existence, namely: intrapersonal, interpersonal, and societal. Both sides, Greek and Trojan, are devastated and the participants face the loss of their own humanity, the death of their loved ones, and the threatened collapse of the state.
Achilles provides a prime example of destruction to the intrapersonal level of existence through the loss of one’s humanity; he becomes the embodiment of “all the worst characteristics of humankind” (Spires). When Achilles learns that Hector has killed Patroclus his infamous rage is kindled to its’ highest point in the poem and he begins a dehumanizing journey of self-destruction. Achilles embraces the animalistic aspect of his nature over the rational and the rage he feels becomes a physical manifestation: “…and crowning his head the goddess swept a golden cloud and from it she lit a fire to blaze across the field. As smoke goes towering up the sky from out a town cut off on a distant island under siege […] so now from Achilles’ head the blaze shot up the sky” (Homer XVIII. 237-247). In addition, he twice suffers a metaphorical death. The first death occurs when Patroclus is killed wearing Achilles’ armor (Gray). The second death occurs when Achilles kills Hector. Hector is wearing Achilles’ armor, which he got from stripping Patroclus; by killing Hector, Achilles is metaphorically killing himself. With the death of Hector, his animalistic rage takes over and his dehumanization is complete: “Would to god my rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw…” (Homer XXII. 408-409).
Achilles is by no means the only character to lose touch with their humanity. In Book 10, Odysseus and Diomedes capture Dolon, a Trojan spy, and promise to let him live if he will but answer their questions: “Death is your last worry. Put your mind at rest. Come, tell me the truth now, point by point” (Homer X. 448-449). After Dolon reveals the location of the Trojan encampment, Odysseus and Diomedes break their oath and kill him on the spot: “…Diomedes struck him square across the neck—a flashing hack of the sword—both tendons snapped and the shrieking head went tumbling into the dust” (Homer X. 525-526). After stripping the corpse, the two make their way to the Trojan camp under the cover of darkness and proceed to butcher the sleeping soldiers: “Each man he’d stand above and chop with the sword, the cool tactician Odysseus grappled from behind, grabbing the fighter’s heels, dragging him out of the way…” (Homer X. 564-567). There is no honor to be found in killing sleeping enemies, no test of martial excellence; like Achilles, Odysseus and Diomedes let their bloodlust rule in the place of logos.
Homer continues with the theme of dehumanization through his use of simile, often comparing warriors to “violent animals” (Gray). In keeping with the previous example of the night raid, Odysseus and Diomedes are likened to lions falling upon an unsuspecting flock: “As a lion springs on flocks unguarded, shepherd gone, pouncing on goats or sheep and claw-mad for the kill, so Tydeus’ son went tearing into that Thracian camp…” (Homer X. 561-563). Book 16, which contains one of the principle battle sequences, abounds with these violent animal similes. When the Myrmidons prepare for battle, they are compared to bloody jawed wolves: “Hungry as wolves that rend and bolt raw flesh, hearts filled with the battle-frenzy that never dies […] they gorge on the kill till all their jaws drip red with blood…” (Homer XVI. 187-190). Patroclus and Hector are both compared to lions during their duel, perhaps the most frequent simile used for warriors: “…as lions up on the mountain ridges over a fresh-killed stag—both ravenous, proud and savage—fight it out to the death” (Homer XVI. 880-882). The purpose of the animal simile is two fold. The primary function of the simile was to serve as an aid to the imagination; Homer’s audience was far removed from the warlike Greece of the Iliad, but they were undoubtedly familiar with scenes of hunting, and protecting their flocks from marauding predators would have been an everyday exercise. Secondly, the repetitive use of animal imagery further reinforces the idea of war as brutal, chaotic, and barbaric.
The interpersonal devastation of war describes the consequences experienced outside the self in relation to close friends and family members. Hector and his family offer the best examples for this particular aspect. When Hector meets his wife Andromache and their infant son Astyanax on the city wall, she reprimands him for his recklessness in battle and reminds him that she has already lost her father, mother, and seven brothers to the war: “I have lost my father, Mother’s gone as well. Father…the brilliant Achilles laid him low […] And the seven brothers I had within our halls…all in the same day went down to the House of Death, the great godlike runner Achilles butchered them all…” (Homer VI. 357-368). Hector, who is all she has left, is now her father, mother, brother, and husband. Hector’s death would leave Andromache and Astyanax, not to mention Troy itself, defenseless. They both know that should Troy fall Andromache will be taken as a slave and Astyanax will be killed: “Then far off in the land of Argos you must live, laboring at a loom, at another woman’s beck and call, fetching water at some spring…” (Homer VI. 408-410).
The third level of human existence threatened by war is that of society or the state. Homer uses the shield of Achilles, fashioned by the god Hephaestus, to illustrate this point. The motif of the shield consists of three interrelated scenes: a city at peace, a city at war, and a king’s estate. The first city, the city at peace, depicts a celebration: “…weddings and wedding feasts […] and the young men came dancing, whirling round in rings and among them the flutes and harps kept up their stirring call…” (Homer XVIII. 573-578). However, not all is well within the city: “…a quarrel had broken out and two men struggled over the blood-price for a kinsman just murdered” (XVIII. 581-582). The quarrel does not escalate; instead, the wise men of the city are summoned to resolve the case: “…the city elders sat on polished stone benches, forming the sacred circle…” (Homer XVIII. 587-588). Furthermore, their society honors reason and honesty: “Two bars of solid gold shone on the ground before them, a prize for the judge who’d speak the straightest verdict” (Homer XVIII. 591-592). This scene demonstrates that conflict, though inevitable, can occur without violence: peace can still prevail as long as reason rules over passion.
The second scene is a city at war: “But circling the other city camped a divided army gleaming in battle-gear…” (Homer XVIII. 593-594). Within this scene are examples of the dehumanizing effect of warfare by the killing of innocents or the unarmed: “…two shepherds […] playing their hearts out on their pipes—treachery never crossed their minds. But the soldiers saw them, rushed them, cut off at a stroke the herds of oxen, and sleek sheep-flocks […] and killed the herdsmen too” (Homer XVIII. 611-616). There is also a reference to the interpersonal consequences: “…loving wives and innocent children standing guard on the ramparts, flanked by elders bent with age…” (Homer XVIII. 599-600). The siege quickly turns into a chaotic bloodbath: “…they raked each other with hurtling bronze-tipped spears. And Strife and Havoc plunged in the fight, and violent Death […] So they clashed fought like the living, breathing men grappling each other’s corpses, dragging off the dead” (Homer XVIII. 622-628). No reason is given as to the cause of the conflict and there is no apparent victor, but we can assume that like Troy, the war will not end until one side has been destroyed. Here, there is no room for arbitration, no peaceful solution, only destruction (Gray).
The king’s estate is a paradise containing vineyards, fields of grain, herds and flocks, and dancing. Much of this scene, especially the dancing children is reminiscent of the wedding feast from the city at peace: “Here young boys and girls, beauties courted […] danced and danced, linking their arms, gripping each other’s wrists” (Homer XVIII. 693-695). Homer is drawing an unmistakable correlation between societies that are able to maintain peace through the exercise of reason and physical and emotional prosperity. If the city at peace is Homer’s model society, and the city at war shows what may befall a state that no longer adheres to those principles, then the king’s estate depicts that which we are gambling with when we jeopardize the state through war: youth, prosperity, and the home.
In summary, the focus of the Iliad is not so much the Trojan War itself, but rather the destructive nature of war and how those involved are affected by it. Homer shows the devastation to three levels of human existence: the first level, intrapersonal, in the form of dehumanization and degradation as shown primarily through Achilles, but also through other warriors and with the use of violent animal imagery; the second level, interpersonal, in the form of suffering loved ones as shown primarily through Hector and his family; finally, societal in the form of the consequences to the state depicted through the scenes on Achilles’ shield. The Iliad reminds us that though glory may be attained on the field of battle, the price is dear.
Gray, Wallace. “Homer: Iliad.” Homer to Joyce. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985. Rpt. in World Literature Criticism Supplement. Vol. 1. Literature Resource Center. Collin County Community College Lib., Plano, TX. 1 March 2006
Homer. The Iliad. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Sarah Lawall.
NYC: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002. 188-201.
Scott, John A. “The Iliad.” Homer and His Influence. Cooper Square Publishers, 1963. Rpt in Poetry Criticism. Vol. 23. Literature Resource Center. Collin County Community College Lib., Plano, TX. 1 March 2006 <http://galenet.galegroup.com>.
Spires, Michael J. “An overview of Iliad.” Epics for Students. Gale Research, 1997. Literature Resource Center. Collin County Community College Lib., Plano, TX. 1 March 2006
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