The Iliad: The Original Heroic Epic

The Iliad: The Original Heroic Epic

Introduction and Summary

The first thing to note about the Iliad is that, contrary to popular belief, it is not the story of the Trojan War. Like every other kid born in the early 90s, I saw the Brad Pitt movie Troy after it came out in 2005 and thought it was more or less a direct adaptation of the Iliad. I was expecting the poem to open with Paris’ abduction of Helen from her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta, proceed eventually to Achilles’ death via poisoned arrow to the heel, and end with Odysseus’ idea of the Trojan Horse and the sacking of Troy. I quickly learned this was not the case.

The Iliad is derived from an oral tradition of poetry reaching back hundreds of years before it was ever written down for the first time, and as an oral tradition, its primary method of transmission for those hundreds of years was performances for live audiences by traveling poets. It did not stand on its own, and was not meant to, but was part of a much larger mythology that would have been common knowledge to audiences in ancient times. Ancient Greek audiences would have been generally familiar with the overall series of events and mythology surrounding the Trojan War, similar to the way in which we today are generally familiar with the outline of, for instance, World War II. The Iliad does not tell the story of the Trojan War overall, but actually tells a much smaller story set against the larger backdrop of the Trojan War, in much the same way that to modern audiences, a film such as Saving Private Ryan tells a relatively small but still epic story set against the backdrop of World War II.

The Iliad, at its core, is the story of Achilles’ rage. Taking place over the course of just a few days in the tenth year of the Trojan War, it begins with Achilles becoming angry over a personal quarrel with Agamemnon and ends when Achilles finally calms down and gives the corpse of his enemy Hector back to King Priam of Troy to be properly mourned and buried.

As the story opens, we find that the Achaean army led by King Agamemnon of Mycenae has recently sacked a Trojan-allied city and carried off, among many other spoils of war, two girls: Chryseïs and Briseïs. Chryseïs is given to Agamemnon as a prize, and Briseïs to Achilles. Unfortunately for Agamemnon, Chryseïs happens to be the daughter of a priest of Apollo named Chryses, who comes to Agamemnon offering a rich ransom for his daughter. When Agamemnon rudely refuses to ransom Chryseïs, Apollo becomes angry at the mistreatment of his priest and sends a plague against the Achaeans, killing many.

Once it is discovered that Apollo is causing the plague, Agamemnon’s advisors urge him to give Chryseïs back to her father, this time without a ransom and with many other gifts in addition in order to appease Apollo. Agamemnon agrees to do so, but only if he is compensated for the loss with Achilles’ war prize, Briseïs. Achilles is furious and wants to kill Agamemnon on the spot, but Athena speaks to him and calms him down for the moment, and he settles for refusing to fight again until Briseïs is given back to him and Agamemnon apologizes. Additionally, Achilles complains to his mother, the immortal sea goddess Thetis, asking her to entreat Zeus on his behalf to cause the Achaeans to lose in battle until he returns to the fight. Zeus agrees to do this, and the next day the armies line up for battle on the plain in front of Troy.

The two sides agree to a man-on-man duel between Menelaus and Paris, the men whose personal quarrel started the war in the first place: if Menelaus wins, the Trojans will hand over Helen and all her possessions to him and the Achaeans will leave; if Paris wins, he will keep Helen and her possessions and the Achaeans will return home empty-handed. Menelaus easily defeats Paris, but before he can kill him, Aphrodite wraps Paris in a mist and spirits him away from the battlefield and back inside the walls of Troy. Menelaus claims victory in the duel due to Aphrodite’s interference and Agamemnon demands the return of Helen, but Athena, wanting the war to continue, influences a Trojan archer named Pandarus to shoot an arrow at Menelaus. He only superficially wounds Menelaus, but the pact has been broken and the battle between the armies begins.

The bulk of the poem describes the battle raging back and forth over the plain in front of Troy for the next several days, with the armies only stopping for nightfall, and once to call a brief truce to collect their dead. The Trojans gradually gain the upper hand, and the Achaeans eventually fall back to the defensive wall they have constructed on the shoreline to protect their ships and camp. The situation becomes truly desperate for the Achaeans when the Trojans breach the wall, pouring through and trying to burn the Achaean ships.

As the Achaeans desperately fight to protect their ships, several of them plead with Achilles to let go of his anger towards Agamemnon and rejoin the fight with his elite Myrmidons, but he refuses. The last man to plead with him is his best friend Patroclus, and when Achilles again refuses to fight, Patroclus asks his permission to lead the Myrmidons into battle in his stead. Achilles agrees to this, and Patroclus dons Achilles’ highly distinctive armor and charges out to battle at the head of the Myrmidons, striking fear into the hearts of the Trojans when they mistake him for Achilles because of the armor.

Patroclus succeeds in turning the tide of battle and pushing the Trojans all the way back to the walls of Troy, but tries to overplay the hand destiny has dealt him, assaulting the walls and trying to push his way into the city. As he does, he is killed in a team effort by Trojan heroes Hector and Euphorbus, assisted by Apollo, and Hector takes Achilles’ armor as a prize.

When Achilles hears of Patroclus’ death, his anger shifts focus from Agamemnon to Hector. He quickly gives up his grudge against Agamemnon and enters the battle wearing a new set of armor made for him by the god Hephaestus, killing many Trojans as he drives toward Troy looking for Hector. The bulk of the Trojan forces retreat back inside the walls, but Hector stays outside to fight Achilles. Just before Achilles and Hector finally come to blows, Hector requests a pact: that the winner will ensure the loser is returned to his countrymen to receive a proper burial. Achilles angrily refuses, and makes relatively short work of Hector. He then drags the body behind his chariot back to the Achaean camp.

After twelve days, Hector’s father King Priam, with the assistance of Hermes, enters the Achaean camp and meets with Achilles man to man, placing himself completely at Achilles’ mercy and begging to have his son’s body returned. Only after this does Achilles finally let go of his anger and return the body, and the poem closes with the Trojans conducting Hector’s funeral rites.

Honor, Shame, and Honor Culture

At first glance, the personal grudge between Achilles and Agamemnon appears incredibly petty to the modern eye. Agamemnon is upset that he doesn’t get to keep a female slave that he won in war, so he takes Achilles’ slave, which infuriates Achilles. Achilles goes so far as to pray to Zeus for the deaths of his comrades-in-arms because of how furious he is at being forced to give up Briseïs.

This conflict mirrors the grudge between Paris and Menelaus that started the Trojan War in the first place. Both are fights between two men over a woman, and both eventually lead to hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths. Both appear incredibly petty and reckless, unless we view them through the lens of honor culture.

It is important to understand what Chryseïs and Briseïs actually are. They are not simply girls that Achilles and Agamemnon want to sleep with, but are actually status symbols, along with all the other spoils of war. The importance of status symbols can only be understood through the lens of the honor culture in which the story takes place.

These men live in an environment without any formalized power structures or governments, and anyone in a position of great leadership or authority has earned their way to the top through a king-of-the-hill style power game. To be in a position of power in this society is to be constantly under threat from everyone else, because everyone wants more power for themselves and they’ll do whatever they can to get it, including killing the people currently in power if they can. Maintaining a position of power, and perhaps one’s very livelihood, depends greatly on making outward demonstrations of one’s power. In other words, the guy at the top has to let everyone around him know that he is powerful, competent, and capable of maintaining his position.

One of the ways these men demonstrate power is through possessions and spoils of war. After Agamemnon is forced to give up Chryseïs, Achilles has better spoils of war than him. Agamemnon can’t allow that because he occupies a position of greater power and authority than Achilles, so if he allows it he will lose face with the rest of the Achaeans. In a society in which losing face can very possibly mean death in some cases, his reaction makes much more sense. Agamemnon has to do something to outwardly demonstrate that he is still a better and more powerful man than Achilles, so he chooses to take Briseïs for himself. Achilles reacts in a similar manner to Agamemnon because he can’t afford to lose face with the rest of the Achaeans either, so he needs some kind of compensation before he is willing to fight for Agamemnon again.

In the end, their beef isn’t really about the girl at all; it’s about a contest of dominance between Achilles and Agamemnon. Neither wants to lose face with their men because their reputation (which is to say their honor) will be diminished and it’s very likely that they will pay a serious price for that, a price that may well be as high as their lives. When viewed in this light, these men’s reactions to each other begin to seem far less petty.

This isn’t necessarily a defense of these men’s actions, but rather an explanation for them. Most of us today would probably look at a culture that facilitates this and think it barbaric and brutal, and to some degree, rightly so. However, a certain subset of our modern population, in which I would include both myself and my podcast co-host Michael, have a tendency to look on honor culture in at least a somewhat more positive light. There is something about a culture which rewards personal achievement that appeals to us on some primal level.

One integral component of honor culture, or at least the ancient Greek version, is the necessity for men to be tested against each other in various areas: physical strength, prowess in battle, oratory skills, athleticism. As a competitive athlete myself, I certainly understand the appeal of this. However, the act of competing serves a different purpose for athletes today than it did for ancient Greeks. For us, competing in sports offers an opportunity to improve our health, socialize with others, and simply have fun, all of which contributes to a greater sense of self-worth. For the ancient Greeks, there was no such thing as an inner sense of self-worth. Honor, and therefore worth, was a purely public thing, a thing which had to be proven and could be lost through an unwillingness to engage in the contests by which it could be proven.

This culture’s disdain for men who were unwilling to engage in these contests is embodied perfectly by Achaean hero Diomedes (absolutely my favorite character, by the way) in one of the absolute best trash talk speeches I have ever read. Diomedes is wounded in the foot with an arrow by Paris, and makes the following speech:

You archer—braggart, hair-curled dandy, ogler of girls!
If you were to face me in a trial of strength, in full armor,
you would get no help from your bow and your showers of arrows;
and now you have but scratched the flat of my foot, and yet you boast.
I am no more troubled than if a woman or a careless child had hit me,
for the arrow of a cowardly, worthless man is a feeble thing.
Quite different is the sharp spear that I throw, which takes
a man’s life there and then, even if it only grazes him;
his wife tears her cheeks in grief, his children are made orphans,
and he reddens the ground with his blood and rots away,
and there are more vultures gathered round him than women.

--Iliad 11.385-95 (Diomedes)

Diomedes uses “archer” as an insult, which showcases the contempt shown among warriors for men unwilling to engage in tests of honor. Paris is repeatedly portrayed as an unmanly playboy, and his wounding of Diomedes is an example of this. He has wounded a man clearly better than himself without taking the risk of engaging him in combat. This element of risk, or the willingness to put one’s life on the line to prove one’s honor, is a key component of the honor culture system.

A man’s willingness to engage in combat is itself an outward demonstration of his honor. Though the greatest men in the society are those who do not simply engage in combat, but excel at it and have the spoils of war to prove their excellence; simply being willing to engage and test oneself grants a man a baseline level of respect afforded to a warrior. A man such as Paris who avoids face to face combat by using a bow is not granted this baseline respect, but is only reviled by other men.

Fate and Destiny

Destiny is a major theme in the Iliad, and Homer, along with the characters in the story, clearly believes in some form of determinism. The general feeling of the characters in the story towards their destinies is summed up well by Hector in book 6:

No man is going to dispatch me to Hades before my due time;
and as for that time, no man, I say, can ever escape it,
whether coward or brave, when once he has been born.

--Iliad 6.487-9 (Hector)

Free will is nearly nonexistent for the characters in this story; every man’s destiny is assigned at birth by the Fates, and even the gods act deferentially towards men’s destinies. The gods make important decisions that impact the story’s mortal characters in a major way, but even those decisions seem to be bound by the will of the Fates. Zeus uses his golden scales of fate to determine important outcomes twice throughout the story: once to decide the outcome of the first pitched battle between the two armies, and once to decide the winner of the duel between Achilles and Hector. Zeus himself is responsible for either directly intervening in these events or instructing the other gods to intervene, but in deciding how to intervene and what outcome to bring about, he consults the Fates through the use of his golden scales.

Only once in the story do we see a mortal making any choices about his own destiny, and even then it is a very limited choice. Achilles states in book 9:

My mother, Thetis of the silver feet, tells me that there are
two spectres carrying me towards the end of death:
if I remain here and fight around the city of the Trojans,
I shall lose my homecoming, but my fame will never die,
while if I go back home to my dear native land,
my noble fame will be lost, but my life will be long,
and the end of death will not come quickly upon me.

--Iliad 9.410-6 (Achilles)

Achilles has been given a choice between staying to fight at Troy and dying young in a blaze of glory or going home and living out a long life in obscurity. He chooses to stay and fight for reasons we will discuss later, but even though this choice is more of a choice than any other mortal character seems to have, Achilles’ destiny is still very narrowly constrained by the Fates.

Because fate plays such a major role in this story, and because Homer’s contemporary audience would have been familiar with the mythology surrounding all the major heroes, the poet is not at all shy about telling us exactly what will happen both later in the Iliad itself and afterwards. There is near constant foreshadowing of the destinies of Achilles, Hector, and the city of Troy, and sometimes the foreshadowing almost ceases to be foreshadowing at all and just becomes explicit statements of how a character will meet his end.

This style of storytelling is somewhat foreign to modern audiences, who generally expect to go into their first experience of a film, novel, or other story unaware of the ending. We expect spoiler warnings before reading or listening to discussions of our media and avoid giving away endings and major plot points to friends who have not yet seen a film or read a novel because we want to feel a sense of uncertainty about what will happen next in a story. Ancient Greek audiences on the other hand would have already known about the fates of Achilles and Hector and the outcome of the Trojan War, even if they had not yet listened to a performance of the Iliad. Thus, in Homer’s work, the drama is derived not from the audience’s uncertainty of what will happen next, but from how characters in the story deal with their knowledge of the inevitable outcome of the situation.

War and the Reasons for It

It becomes apparent very early in the story that the reasons the war is continuing have little to nothing to do with the reason the war started in the first place, aside from the fact that honor is involved. After the first day of fighting, the Trojan leaders try to convince Paris to give back all of the possessions he took from Menelaus, and he agrees to give back all of it and more, except Helen. The Trojans send a messenger to the Achaean camp with the offer.

Diomedes responds, refusing the offer on Menelaus’ behalf and going one step further. He says that even if Helen were to be included in the offer, Menelaus should still refuse. The Achaeans ostensibly came to Troy in the first place for the purpose of getting Helen back, but it seems now that purpose has been all but forgotten, even by Menelaus. This begs the question: why do the armies continue to fight if the reason for the war no longer matters?

It seems to me that the reasons this war continues all revolve around honor culture. War, being the means by which men win honor for themselves, is necessary for the Greek honor culture to function. War is so ingrained in the culture that it is simply a way of life, and therefore is inevitable. Seen in this light, the proximal cause of any particular war becomes simply a pretense. If Paris hadn’t taken Helen, there would have just been a different war between different combatants, undertaken on a different pretense. Wars are fought for the sake of war itself, because war is an absolutely integral part of the culture.

We modern people have a completely different way of viewing war today, and I found myself struggling to grasp this way of looking at war as I read because it seems so foreign to my twenty-first-century American mind. To us, starting a war for the sake of war itself, or even for the sake of personal glory, seems like an unambiguously reprehensible thing to do, and would be rejected out of hand by any individual wishing to adhere to the principle of jus ad bellum.

In order to make any sense at all out of the events of the Iliad, I first had to understand the radically different way the ancient Greeks must have viewed war. When I first started reading I hadn’t yet grasped this idea, so the premise of entire nations going to war over a woman seemed like a romantic storytelling device at best, and downright ridiculous at worst. As I kept reading, I could almost feel my viewpoint start to shift as I better understood the way the characters in the story viewed their situation. It all makes perfect sense in the light of a different way of viewing war.

Duty

No one in this story embodies duty better than Hector. Unlike the Achaeans, the Trojans have a very pressing reason for fighting this war apart from war itself. For them, the war is a fight for survival. They are fully aware that the Achaeans will not stop until they have sacked the city or their army is destroyed, especially after the offer of payment to Menelaus is refused and Diomedes says that even the return of Helen ought not be enough.

In book 6, Hector takes a break from fighting the battle to return to the city and bring out his brother Paris, who has been relaxing with Helen in his bedroom ever since being whisked away from the battlefield by Aphrodite in book 3. While inside the city, Hector visits his wife Andromache and infant son Astynax, and Andromache, fearing his death, pleads with him to stay inside the city and let other men do the fighting. Hector answers his wife with the following speech:

Wife, all this concerns me too; but I would feel terrible shame
before the Trojans and the Trojan women with their trailing robes
if I were to hang back from the battle, like a coward.
Nor does my heart order me to do this, since I have learnt
always to be brave and to fight among the foremost Trojans,
winning great glory for my father and for myself.
For I know full well in my mind and in my heart
that the day will come when sacred Troy will be destroyed,
and Priam and the people of Priam of the fine ash spear.
Yet I am not as troubled by the Trojans’ future pain,
or by what Hecuba herself will endure, or lord Priam,
or my brothers, the many and brave men who will
fall in the dust, overcome by our enemies, as much as
by your pain, when some bronze-shirted Achaean
leads you weeping away, robbing you of the day of freedom;
to be in Argos, weaving at the loom at another woman’s command,
and carrying water from the spring Messeïs or Hypereia,
much against your will; and a harsh necessity will lie upon you.
And some man when he sees you shedding a tear will say:
“That is the wife of Hector, who was always the greatest
of the horse-breaking Trojans, when they fought around Ilium.”
That is what they will say; and it will be a fresh grief for you,
widowed of a man who might have saved you from the day of slavery.
May I be dead, and hidden under a mound of the heaped earth,
before I hear your cries as you are dragged captive away.

--Iliad 6.441-65 (Hector)

Hector seems fully aware that he is destined to die and that Troy is destined to fall, but even so, he chooses to continue fighting out of a sense of duty to his city.

What force is strong enough to compel men to fight for a cause they know is doomed to fail? The obvious possibilities in this case might be honor, duty, or fear of shame, but what is the point of any of those things if a man knows he is destined to die in vain? This question cuts to the heart some of the most fundamental and elusive problems humanity has faced ever since we gained the ability to contemplate our own existence: What is the meaning of life? What is the point of doing anything at all?

For the ancient Greeks, ultimate meaning was found in gaining immortality through one’s deeds in life. The ultimate goal for men like Achilles and Hector was to gain enough honor and glory in life that they would be remembered for generations upon generations to come, and thus become immortal. Given that people still read and discuss the Iliad almost 3000 years after the time of the Trojan War, I think it’s safe to say that both Achilles and Hector achieved this goal.

I think this striving for immortality is the real driver behind Hector’s sense of duty, and for that matter behind the ancient Greek honor culture as a whole. It explains why Hector is willing (one might even say eager) to lay down his life for a doomed cause, it explains why Achilles explicitly chooses a short and glorious life over a long and unremarkable one, and it explains why men within the honor culture place such a high importance on their reputation and on proving their honor to their peers. Immortality through name repetition into the future is vastly more important than life itself.

Role of the Gods in the Iliad

The gods play a prominent role in the story and actively involve themselves in the mortals’ war, with some fighting on the side of the Trojans and others on that of the Achaeans. Their loyalties have been decided largely by previous events in the Greek mythological canon outside of the Iliad itself, on which I won’t go into detail here.

One might presume that, given the gods’ immortality and power far greater than that of mere mortals, the conflicts among them would constitute the grandest and most consequential events of the story. On the contrary, it turns out that the gods’ immortality actually dictates that their dealings with each other are significantly less consequential than anything going on among the mortals. The gods’ fights among each other most often take on the character of family squabbles and often even serve as comic relief as Zeus the exasperated father grows impatient with the petty sibling rivalries of all the lesser gods. The gods are all immortal and thus incapable of killing each other, or even inflicting any permanent harm on each other, so their battles are entirely free of consequences for them.

In fact, the only beings who suffer any lasting consequences of the gods’ actions are the mortals involved in the war. We know from prior Greek mythology that Paris’ abduction of Helen, and thus the entire Trojan War, was instigated by a rivalry among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite over who was the most beautiful. At many points in the Iliad, the gods either assist human warriors in wreaking havoc or oppose them, grant mercy or destroy life, as they see fit based on their own whims and shifting alliances. The gods are arguably more petty and vindictive than the mortals in this story, and it is the mortals who must suffer the consequences.

If gods generally are seen as reflections of the cultures that create them, it makes perfect sense that the Greek gods would seem petty and vindictive. The way the gods react to each other’s slights and insults is very similar to the way the mortals react to theirs. It seems that honor is just as important to the gods as it is to the mortals; the only difference is that the gods aren’t capable of killing each other for honor’s sake.

Concluding Thoughts

The Iliad has survived for thousands of years for good reason. The best stories are more than just stories; they teach us something about the human experience that we didn’t know before, and they leave us thinking about them long after we’ve closed the book on the final page.

I felt a little apprehensive about starting this Great Books project. I think the prospect of reading a story written over 2000 years ago would be at least a little intimidating to most people, and for me it was no different. I expected it to be somewhat tedious, but worth it for the sake of my own intellectual development. What I actually found is that it was not at all tedious except for one section of the book (the Catalogue of Ships and Catalogue of the Trojans in book 2, in which all the various contingents of each army and their commanders are painstakingly listed for almost 400 lines of the poem). Even for readers who care nothing for thinking deeply about the meaning of life and the human experience, the Iliad can be read simply as a highly entertaining epic adventure story. It is not the least bit dull, and I’d estimate that probably upwards of 75 percent of the book is comprised of battle scenes. For readers who are interested in delving more deeply into the material, the Iliad only becomes more interesting and engaging and presents more layers of commentary on the human condition.

Since my expectations of tedium have been assuaged, I find myself even more excited to start the next book in this project, the Odyssey. I’m sure some books in this project will turn out to be more tedious, but this was not one of those.

Watch the Philosophication Podcast’s Iliad Discussions on YouTube:

The Odyssey: Wanderings of the Man of Many Turns

The Odyssey: Wanderings of the Man of Many Turns