With the gruesome thunder of war raging in Europe once again, it may be time to go back to the oldest war story in European history, Homer’s “Iliad.”
The classic poem is a celebration and condemnation of war. Written by Homer in the eighth century B.C., it is a 15,693-line poem written in hexa-fingered script, in an ancient dialect of Ancient Greek, which no one ever spoke.
Homer and his relationship to the text of the “Iliad” and the other great ancient poem, “The Odyssey”, have likely been the subject of heated debate over the course of 28 centuries. The poem appeared first in oral form and was written later. I emerged from the four centuries of silence that followed the period of the Trojan War.
The story of the Trojan War is well known. Ancient legends tell us that Helen of Sparta was the most beautiful woman in the world and was the wife of Menelaus of Sparta. Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, visited Sparta and there kidnapped or seduced Helen, and returned her to Troy. An angry Menelaus turned to his brother, Agamemnon, who forged a massive Greek confederation to punish the Trojans and bring back Helen. By the famous wooden horse’s stunt, the Greeks were able to enter the city and put it at the edge of the sword.
However, the “Iliad” does not know the story of the Trojan Horse or many of the legends associated with it. Instead, it describes only about 60 days at the beginning of the tenth year of the war, when the two sides had fought to a standstill and incurred many losses.
The Greeks’ relationship with the Trojans is important to understanding the poem. The poem was written in Greek and was sung aloud by poets to Greek warlords in actual history, many of whom claimed to be directly descended from many of the characters mentioned in the Iliad. But to show and celebrate the heroism and skill of the Greeks on the battlefield, it takes an enemy worthy of their bravery. The Iliad doesn’t tell us how the war ended, but everyone knew that their Greek ancestors must have won that day.
In the ten years of slaughter and stalemate, the immortal gods of Mount Olympus watched the struggle, just as modern football fans watch modern play, with bloodthirsty glee. The king of the gods, Zeus, forbids the gods to directly participate in combat, giving the Greeks the opportunity to demonstrate their human martial skills.
But the gods themselves are divided over war. The majority of the deities, including the mighty Hera, Athena, and Poseidon, prefer the Greeks. But the twins Artemis and Apollo, as well as Aphrodite, support the Trojans. The division of the gods themselves shows the asymmetry of power between the two sides. Apollo is a good archer, but he is more associated with non-combat skills like poetry and learning. Artemis is usually described in Greek mythology as a stubborn teenage girl. Aphrodite is the goddess of sexual love, but was widely seen as the least competent of all the deities who cause more problems than they solve. Sometimes love is like this in real life.
But apart from the antics of the pagan deities, Homer has a message for the modern age. Certainly there is a celebration of military prowess and the bravery of warriors is described in detail. Descriptions of warriors’ clothing and preparation for battle show great admiration for the beauty of battle armor and swords. The armor of Achilles is described in minute detail. However, war trials prove valor and prove the fame of warriors. By analogy, had it not been for World War II, who would have known the leadership skills of Winston Churchill, and had it not been for the war in Ukraine, how many people would have known the leadership skills of its current president?
At the same time, Homer has few illusions about the horrors of war. We read of men impaled with spears and thrown aside, of chariots that crash and killing their riders, and of young men who are cut off in the prime of life, leaving young widows behind. Homer has many times described men being struck straight in the face with a spear and we read descriptions of their brains strewn all over their helmets. In a particularly impressive passage, Homer describes a man who was struck with a spear in the buttocks so hard that the tip of the spear sticks out of his stomach through his bladder. We read twice about men who smashed so hard in the back of their heads that their eyeballs protruded and rolled on the ground.
Although the “Iliad” was written primarily by a man for male warriors, Homer does not neglect the suffering of women. Queen Hecuba of Troy must see her son cut down in one battle before her eyes. Andromache, Hector’s wife, worries what will happen to her son if his father dies. Helen questions the fate of her two brothers and surveys the battle from the top of the Trojan wall to see them, but the narrator tells us that both are already dead and buried far from their homes. Even the opening chapter describes the argument of Agamemnon and Achilles over the fate of two women, who were both captured in war and assigned to the bed of a Greek warrior. Homer wants to tell us that in any war, women are always the losers.
Towards the end of the story, we see a wonderful grief for Achilles, when Hector kills his best friend, Patroclus. Achilles had left the Greek army after his earlier arguments with Agamemnon, but now he directs all his bitterness into a fatal battle where he kills everyone in his path including the men trying to surrender. When he meets Hector in a one-on-one fight, he refuses Hector’s request for a proper burial, saying, “What deal do lions make with the lambs?” After killing Hector, Achilles vented his anger by torturing the corpse by dragging it daily around bound Troy in his chariot.
The long poem ends with the war continuing, but with a secret meeting arranged by the gods for the enemies of King Priam and Achilles. Both men survived meaning that Priam lost his son Hector to Achilles, and Achilles lost his closest friend to Hector. Both men are doomed to die soon and they know it. They cry together over their losses but in their sorrows they find a moment of admiration for each other, like Lee and Grant in Appomattox Junction.
Thirty-two centuries separate us from the Trojan War and 28 since the composition of the “Iliad”. It is less than 1,000 miles between the ruins of Troy and the ruins of Kyiv. But if by chance Achilles, Hector, Andromache, and Agamemnon can look at the ruins of Kyiv, there is much more they can identify.