what does the iliad teach us about war

In his book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, American psychiatrist Jonathan Shay finds parallels between the pathologies of ­Vietnam veterans whom he has treated, and Homer's Achilles. For a discussion of the Iliad in the context of other ancient Greek epics, see Greek literature: Ancient Greek literature: The genres: Epic narrative. . Would history really have turned out differently? Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you. The war was started by a fight between the gods. When their kingdoms collapsed around 1200 BC, even this limited use was lost. "This war is stupid and pointless. Compare this account, by John Charles Austin, from John Carey's Faber Book of Reportage, describing the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in June 1940: "A horrible stench of blood and mutilated flesh pervaded the place . From such texts we know how right, and how wrong, Hector is. The Iliad, in contrast, is a linear tale, circumscribed in geography and time-frame: we are placed variously in the Greeks' camp, the plain outside Troy, the city itself, and in the gods' home on Mount Olympus. Yes, the Iliad glorifies war in that it portrays warriors, such as Achilles, as heroic figures. This is a long way from ramrod backs and stiff upper-lips. Achilles, his pride and honour outraged, withdraws from the fighting and persuades his mother, the goddess Thetis, to ask Zeus to turn the tide of war against the Greeks, knowing that they will suffer appalling losses. In the original, Robert Fagles was said to have recited the 1,000 lines of The Iliad in Greek during a West Point visit. How much faith do the Trojans and Achaians have in omens? The famous Homeric similes, for example, evoke the familiar, verifiable, natural world. The Iliad is about revenge, forgiveness and the horrors of war. The epic is a work of fiction, and relates the events of a few weeks in the tenth and final year of the Trojan War fought between Greeks and Trojans over beautiful Helen, the Greek queen who deserted her husband to elope with a Trojan prince. Yet this is an aberration: life does have meaning in The Iliad, a meaning that is bound up both with a warrior's kleos, the glory he achieves in the field, and, paradoxically, with a hero's willing, onward surge towards death. An epic adventure poem from the beginning of Greek literature, The Iliad has long been attributed to the poet Homer, though most scholars believe it's a story passed down in the oral tradition through many generations. In book 16 – shortly before he agrees to let Patroclus enter the fighting – Achilles finds him weeping: Like a girl, a baby running after her mother. Perhaps because war is inextricably bound up with humanity's urge to tell stories. These verses reflect a central claim of epic poetry – that through the inspiration of the Muses, daughters of Memory, it can preserve the knowledge of people and the events of the past – a formidable power in the non-literate, oral cultures in which the Iliad evolved. Hector picks him up, and Andromache smiles through her tears. . He prays that the boy might one day be prince of the Trojans, their best fighter, better even than his father, "a joy to his mother's heart". He is at the same time a mass slaughterer and the gentlest of men. Achilles sings stories of heroes' deeds in battle, and Helen embroiders scenes of fighting on an elaborate textile. What follows is a synopsis of some of the most important events that happen after The Iliad ends. It is "all day permanent red", to borrow the memorable title of one of ­Christopher Logue's ­poetic reimaginings of The Iliad. Less quantifiable, and also more profoundly haunting, were the ways in which the Iliad compelled its audiences, down to the present time, to confront such bedrock facts of human experience as mortality and morality – the difficult, dark regions that lie at the nexus of identity and religion. The Trojan War has not yet ended at the close of The Iliad. What does this section of the Iliad teach us about how to reconcile differences so vast both sides willingly slaughter the other? probably familiar with battles that have taken place in the past century Most commentators consider this scene to be the most moving in the Iliad. . A central idea in the Iliad is the inevitability of death (as also with the earlier Epic of Gilgamesh). The lad is on sentry duty in the trenches. In its earliest form, then, the Iliad was likely performed before mostly Greek audiences, but closer to Homer’s time the audience was also Anatolian, most likely with Trojan sympathies. The military language of the conflicts even brings with it distant echoes of Homer: Operation Achilles was a Nato offensive in 2007 aimed at clearing Helmand province of the Taliban. She is already a victim of war: her father and seven brothers have been killed in a previous conflict by Achilles himself; her mother is dead, too. The regiment was initially reluctant to host a female journalist, but she was later told by the driver of the personnel carrier that became her home "Don't worry, I will never, ever leave you. Its characters are nearly all soldiers and gods, with mere bit parts for women, children and other non-combatants. . The shield constitutes only a tiny part in this martial saga, a single piece of armor on a single man in one of the armies—yet it provides perspective on the entire war. Look at the endless miles that lie between us . Take its regularly used epithets: these familiar phrases ("wine-dark" sea, "rosy-fingered" dawn) have often been seen as simply as the more or less meaningless metrical building blocks that would have helped a bard to improvise lines of verse on the hoof. The main theme of the Iliad is stated in the first line, as Homer asks the Muse to sing of the "wrath of Achilles." We love to tell stories about war. The conflict began when Paris, the son of Troy’s king Priam, seized a willing Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, from the Achaean king Menelaus. "Homer and Tolstoy have in common a virile love of war and a virile horror of it," Bespaloff wrote in "On The Iliad". Odysseus famously has a scar in The Odyssey – it is the means by which his childhood nurse, Eurycleia, sees through his ­disguise as she bathes him on his return to Ithaca – but this he acquired in a boar hunt. The next day, Zeus summons the gods to assembly, forbidding them to interfere any further in the war. Most of all, it tells us about the frightful losses of war: of a soldier losing his closest companion, of a ­father losing his son. Simone Weil's essay, "L'Iliade ou le poème de la force", published in 1940, holds that "the true hero, the true ­subject at the centre of The Iliad is force", which she defines as "that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing". It follows the hero Akhilleus (or Achilles) during the end of the Trojan war. War and the Iliad is a perfect introduction to the range of Homer’s art as well as a provocative and rewarding demonstration of the links between literature, philosophy, and questions of life and death. There's a curious resonance between that line and an account, again published in Carey's collection, by a young farmhand who fought on the other side of the Dardanelles, in Gallipoli, in 1915. . During his outburst to Agamemnon in book one, Achilles says: The Trojans never did me damage, not in the least, they never stole my cattle or my horses, never, in Phthia where the rich soil breeds strong men. Former Guardian war reporter Audrey Gillan was, in 2003, embedded with the Household Cavalry in Iraq. There is a great deal of talking and one principal activity to stop the speeches and provide some excitement and variety: war. The Iliad tells us that we’ll always have to make this decision. At the same time, people established cults to the Iliad’s human heroes, adopting them as their heroic ancestors. View this answer. The Iliad is mainly the story of the final period of the Trojan War, with a special focus on Achilles' experience of this time period. What if they had been deaf to the ongoing history of war and displacement they encountered? Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force is one of her most celebrated works—an inspired analysis of Homer’s epic that presents a nightmare vision of combat as a machin Yet The Iliad still has much to say about war, even as it is fought today. Or perhaps, ­after all, it was the ­account of Agamemnon's brutal military prowess that transfixed him, the commander knocking the life out of every young Trojan he encounters, deaf to their cries for mercy: "And he pitched Pisander off the chariot on to earth, and plunged a spear in his chest – the man crashed on his back as. As Hector's soul departs his dying body, it does so "wailing his fate / leaving his manhood far behind, / his young and supple strength". Though they are never lacking in drama, they are frequently implausible, even to a civilian eye, not least in the way that soldiers die – ­impossibly cleanly and instantaneously. It seems glorified but on the other hand Homer shows the brutality and injustice of it. The child Astyanax recoils at the sight of his father's frightening plumed helmet. I will pick you up and carry you if I have to.". Why is the first book a book about war? The Trojan war – a more or less mythical event – was a 10-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greeks, its purpose to restore Helen to her Spartan husband, Menelaus. After the loss of Patroclus, all life – ­Lycaon's, his own – is, for Achilles, utterly meaningless. . Finally, he kills Hector in single combat and attaches the corpse to his chariot, dragging it triumphantly around the walls of the city. Upon Reading through this classical epic poem, especially for the first time, and hearing the clamor of brass armaments and the mortal blows described in unmitigated detail, it would appear that this is a book firstly about a war. The Iliad takes place in a single location. The agony of death-throes, the cries of pain from soldiers too wounded to move, are absent from the poem. The baby will be flung over Troy's ­ramparts by the victorious Greeks – a scene that appears in The Trojan Women. Through The Iliad, historians have learned about the Trojan War, the defining conflict of the era. Probably not; but something of consequence would have been lost to the world. That glory is inextricably allied to wrenching loss. We are all going to die; we (or at least you) may as well die now. In The Iliad, two characters have the narrative urge, and something approaching a synoptic view of the scenes surging around them. I lost all my mercy.". 1. when some brazen Argive hales you off in tears. This is a hard world: the war isn't "for" anything, certainly not some greater good, but is merely part of the blind workings of an inexplicable fate that even Zeus, king of the gods, must bow to. Every time you lost a friend it seemed like a part of you was gone. Occasionally, such images contain their own violence, blurring into to the scenes they are helping us conjure. Andromache appeals to her husband to use defensive tactics, to stop leading his men from the front. The Odyssey is a poem as full of twists and turns as the mind of its wily hero, Odysseus. Both men have supplicated the Olympian gods at different times in the epic, and had their prayers denied. Made some of the hurt went away [sic]. One feature of the poem is that it accords equal dignity to both sides in the war: the Trojans are not dehumanised into "ragheads" or "gooks". How Does Homer Depict War in The Iliad? As the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war holds the country in thrall, Charlotte Higgins reflects on the enduring power of a 3,000-year-old poem, Echoes of Homer: Operation Achilles, a Nato offensive in Afghanistan in 2007 Photograph: Corporal Adrian Harlen/PA Images. At Achilles’ knees, Priam supplicates: “Revere the gods, Achilles, and have pity upon me,remembering your father; for I am yet more pitiful,and have endured such things as no other mortal man upon the earth,drawing to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.”So Priam spoke; and he stirred in the other a yearning to weep for his own father,and taking hold of his hand he gently pushed the old man away.And the two remembered, the one weeping without cessation forman-slaughtering Hector as he lay curled before Achilles’ feet,         and Achilles wept for his own father, and then again for Patroclus; and the sound of their lament was raised throughout the hall. Nor do the heroes of The Iliad suffer the long-term consequences of injury – a fact for which the disparity between ancient and modern medical practice cannot alone account. / Pity me please," she begs. Do the same now. Achilles is not off the hook. It tells us about the age-old dilemmas of fighters compelled to serve under incompetent superiors. . In book 21, he downs the Trojan prince Lycaon. The Iliad is an extremely compressed narrative. ", Such fierce tenderness is echoed in the conversation of today's British troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the warriors die, there are no flights of angels to sing them to their rest, only the prospect of a ghastly, ghostly, absence of meaning. but they are deceived only too readily," he wrote. In these ways the Iliad directed not only the course of the arts, but of social history. 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. (In 2004, the bodies of American contractors were attached to the backs of cars and dragged through the streets of Fallujah.) In book 13, an arrow bounces off Menelaus's shield like chickpeas off a shovel; the following book has a boulder thrown by Ajax that sends Hector "whirling like a whipping top". The poets adapted accordingly and one of our Iliad’s most striking characteristics is its consistent sympathetic treatment of the Trojans, who are portrayed as fellow victims of the war, not merely enemies. It is the Trojans, meanwhile, who provide the most obvious focus for the fragility of civilian life, and the horrors that await the city's old, its women, and its very young. but not before he's had his fill of feed. How could they? Now he fell back with a great scream and a look of surprise – dead.". Why moan about it so? The Mycenaeans themselves knew of writing, but appear to have used it only for bureaucratic bookkeeping in their palace states. The epic’s poetic meter, the dactylic hexameter, is ideally suited to the Greek language, allowing expressions of rage, indignation, bravado, remorse, and grief to ebb and flow in natural cadence. did they lay water my crops. "That is nothing, nothing beside your agony. He had found ­nothing to emulate in either Agamemnon or Achilles – until he read through to book 11 of the poem, when he "got" it. The 1,000 plebes in his audience must now be in command positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the 11th book, the Greek warrior Ajax slowly withdraws from a bout of hand-to-hand fighting: Like a stubborn ass some boys lead down a road . It is a portrait of the warrior at home, war forgotten as he watches his son play and talks with his wife. The image of Priam begging Achilles for his son Hector’s body has appeared in many artworks – including this 1824 painting by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov (Credit: Alamy). Homer, he thought, must have been "very bookish" and "a house-bred man". The Greeks' greatest warrior is Achilles, Mr. Invincible, but he is now … Not all soldiers have seen the point. You could see his skin changing colour and his eyes were dilated. ", (Here, as throughout, the translation is Fagles's for Penguin Classics. How are we, then, to read the poem amid the horrors and contradictions of our own wars, conflicts that have destroyed countless Andromaches and Astyanaxes? Caroline Alexander was the first woman to publish a full-length English translation of The Iliad (Penguin, 2015). In essence, the wrath of Achilles allows Homer to present and develop, within the cultural framework of heroic honor (see Critical Essay 1), the … With his pronouncement made, Zeus flies to Mount Ida, near Troy, to conduct the affairs of the war by himself. The Iliad celebrates war and the men who wage it: man-killing Hector, lord of men Agamemnon, and swift-footed Achilles, whose rage is cited in the poem’s famous opening line. The poignancy of life and death is enhanced by the fact that the victims of war are usually young. It is futile to look to Homer for a condemnation of war: "People make war, they put up with it, they curse it, they even praise it in songs and verses, but it is not to be judged any more than destiny is. groaned a voice from the ground just in front of us. Lost peacetime is, however, most often conjured up through the poet's imagery – in which we are often invited to imagine an act of great violence with the help of similes drawn from a pastoral world far from the battlefields of Troy. The Iliad was composed around 750-700 BC, but its origins lie at least some five centuries earlier, deep in the Mycenaean Bronze Age – the world the Iliad poetically evokes. Alexander the Great, perhaps the most flamboyantly successful soldier in history, slept beside a copy annotated by his tutor, Aristotle. Achilles is Seriously Miffed. That the victor shares the humanity of the most vulnerable of the vanquished; that there is no such thing as unalloyed victory in war. While the question of whether the Trojan War played out … Achilles is not simply an unfeeling "thing", reduced by the unspeakable power of force. In the 12th book, the armies are said to fight like farmers rowing over a disputed a boundary stone – war writ small. It tells us that war is both the bringer of renown to its young fighters and the destroyer of their lives. ), The onward rush of these almost joyful descriptions of slaughter in The Iliad might cause some modern readers to question the values of the poem, or at least to measure out the long distance between us and the society from which it sprang. That wrath is provoked by his ­commander-in-chief Agamemnon's misguided decision to seize Briseis, Achilles's captive woman, as compensation for his own bit of living loot, Chriseis, whom he has been obliged to restore to her Trojan father. Achilles responds: "Come, friend, you too must die. The power of this scene derives not just from storytelling genius, but from the Iliad’s attentiveness to its own history. His choice of the latter marks him out as heroic, and gives him a kind of immortality. The Aftermath of the Iliad. Water . He slakes his bloodthirst by felling men, by filling the waters of the Scamander so full of bodies and gore that the river deity himself rises up from the depths in anger. "He esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge," according to Plutarch's biography. He cannot sleep or eat; he thinks only of killing: "what I really crave / is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men". Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust, tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands . . One of its most arresting characteristics, however, is the way it casts us forward and back, hinting at both a lost, peaceful world "back home", and the horrors of the post-conflict world to come. This is the section known as Agamemnon's aristeia – his day of glory in the field. Oral storytelling was a way of preserving memory and knowledge for centuries (Credit: Alamy). Throughout the Iliad there is a deep sense that everything that will come to pass is already fated to happen. Once again, Hektor is the perfect contrast to Achilles. Hektor's family becomes a symbol for all the soldier's families, what their lives could be if there were no war. According to Herodutus, Homer “gave the gods their names, and determined their spheres and functions, and described their outward forms” (Credit: Alamy). Hippolochus leapt away, but him he killed on the ground, slashing off his arms with a sword, lopping off his head, and he sent him rolling through the carnage like a log. Such humble, almost humorous images have a cumulative effect, creating a lightly sketched vision of a parallel world that sits at the back of the mind as we absorb the "foreground" action of the battle for Troy. "I knew the next sentry up quite well. In 2008, Gillan spoke to soldiers from the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment who had been involved in a particularly brutal firefight in Basra four years earlier. Homer was no peacenik. Many wishing to make sense of wars in their own time have reached for The Iliad. Blokes were screaming out and crying." At the end of the poem comes the scene between Priam and Achilles, when the frail, grieving father finds it in himself to kiss those "terrible, man-­killing hands / that had slaughtered Priam's many sons in battle", when ­Achilles sees reflected in the face of Priam the likeness of his own beloved father. The Iliad is the first great book, and the first great book about the suffering and loss of war. It tells us about war as an attempt to protect and preserve a treasured way of life. Lance Corporal Martin Hill remembered the end of a fellow soldier: "He was dead. • This article was amended on 2 February 2010. Back to Top of Page. This is a passage of tenderness and tearing grief, as we witness the hero's love for his wife and hers for him; and the sweet fragility of their child. But we also know that his aspirations for his son are empty; even the infant's name is a cruel joke ­(Astyanax means "lord of the city"). Find in this comfort, if you can. And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am? This page is designed to be a jumping-off point to help you overcome some of the common difficulties readers have with Homer's Iliad, and also to provide tools to enhance and deepen your reading of the poem. It contains flashbacks, embedded narratives, exotic locations, fairytale characters and a chronology – sometimes stretched, sometimes compressed – that covers a decade. 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