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The great poem
Why the Iliad matters
When I read the Iliad in high school and college its chief allure for me lay in the game of turning as much of Homer’s Greek into English as I could, as fast as I could. In graduate school, the 16,000-plus lines of this 8th-century B.C. poem served me mainly as a source for early Greek history—my specialty at the time. In my early years teaching at Boston College it became a study in a distant, rather exotic, and (as I supposed) less “advanced” culture and worldview.
Now, I read the Iliad as a tragedy of violence and war, pity and compassion that strikes closer to my heart than almost any book I know. Three modern commentators have helped me to reach my present understanding. The late Bernard Williams, who passed his academic career educating the students of Cambridge, Berkeley, and Oxford, saw in the Iliad and in early Greek thought in general a kinship with our own postmodern sensibility. In an elegant and poignant statement at the end of his 1993 book Shame and Necessity, Williams wrote:
We [late 20th-century Western intellectuals] . . . know that the world was not made for us, or we for the world, that our history tells no purposive story, and that there is no position outside the world or outside history from which we might hope to authenticate our activities. . . . In important ways, we are, in our ethical situation, more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime.
By “human beings in antiquity” Williams meant primarily the characters whom we meet in Greek epic and tragedy, who live, struggle, and destroy one another and themselves—usually by their own mistakes—without being provided by their creators with an adequate cover story, divine or human, to help make sense of it all. According to Williams, Plato, writing some 400 years after Homer, was the first in a continuous series of Western thinkers to offer an overarching theory of life’s meaning. Hegel, in the early 19th century, was the last. Now we have no one.
What can we hope for in such a world? The Oxford classicist Colin MacLeod puzzled much over that question and over the moral relevance of ancient literature. In his brief but brilliant commentary on Book 24 of the Iliad, published in 1982, he concluded that
the Iliad is great not least because it can speak authentically for pity or kindness or civilization without showing them victorious in life. Its humanity does not float on shallow optimism; it is firmly and deeply rooted in an awareness of human reality and suffering . . . . And so to enjoy or appreciate the Iliad is to understand and feel for human suffering . . . to feel whatever sorrows we have as part of a common lot, and so to endure them more bravely.
MacLeod himself did not endure. He committed suicide at Oxford in 1981 at the age of 38.
The French philosopher Simone Weil (1909–43) offered somewhat more comfort in her essay “Iliad: Poem of Force.” Written just after the fall of France in 1940, the essay looks beyond tragedy and mere endurance:
For the sense of human misery is a pre-condition of justice and love. He who does not realize to what extent shifting fortune and necessity hold in subjection every human spirit, cannot regard as fellow creatures nor love as he loves himself those whom chance has separated from him by an abyss. . . . Only he who has measured the dominion of violence, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.
Weil died in exile in England at the age of 34, of tuberculosis aggravated by her refusal to eat enough because she knew that people in France were starving. She saw a close kinship—closer than most critics would allow—between the Iliad and Greek tragedy on the one hand and the Gospel story on the other. Jesus did not exempt himself from the human condition at its most violent, she said, and it was precisely for this reason that he was able to redeem it.
Weil also thought that one must first seek truth and then Jesus. Faith and doctrine are no substitute for experience of the world as it is; they must somehow grow out of that experience. There is an opening to something better in the lived realization that violence does not exist apart from any one of us, that we are all implicated. And the more fully we are able to enter into this tragic view of the world, the more we can hope to transcend our personal, limited visions, to learn compassion and forgiveness and join with others for the sake of us all. Ironically, a tragic view of the world can become a step toward a clearer glimpse of the viewpoint of God, which is the only firm basis for the service of others.
This is quite a range of claims to make for one poem: postmodern anomie (Williams), deeply rooted humanism (MacLeod), and an opening to the Gospel (Weil). I have come to believe that the Iliad is equal to them all.
We can forget what a surprising story the Iliad is. Homer’s announced theme is that of Greek heroes at odds with one another (“our story starts with the strife that divided godlike Achilles and [Agamemnon] the son of Atreus, king of men”). There is also the larger war with the Trojans, of course, but what the poet cares most about is not the glory of mortal combat; it is the destructiveness of human passions—on all sides. No one is exempt from the toll of violence, including those who inflict it. “The War God is impartial. He kills the killer,” the poet says. In Homer’s tragic conception, it is this recognition—and only this one—that breeds pity and compassion.
There is no Valhalla in the Iliad. Death for heroes is without salvation, without consolation, “down into Hades.” The greatest of heroes meet their end confused, protesting, resentful of their fate. Their best hope is for an honorable death by combat, in a cause victorious or otherwise, and then a decent burial. Often enough they do not get even that. Nor does Homer claim (as Virgil later would in the Aeneid) that any of this serves a higher purpose.
Certainly the gods provide no cover story. The “plan of Zeus” that is fulfilled is simply that countless Greeks should die as a favor to Achilles’s mother, Thetis, to restore her son’s “honor” after Agamemnon has insulted him. In the larger story, Troy must fall. This outcome is necessary and just, for Paris, son of the Trojan king, Priam, broke Zeus’s law by stealing Helen, the wife of his host, Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus.
At the same time, the destruction of a city, the symbol of civilization, is the greatest imaginable tragedy, as Homer shows by his elaborate descriptions of Troy, with its broad streets and well-built walls, its courtly customs and tender scenes of family life.
Why then do men fight? For the same reasons that they always have: They like to and they have to. Sarpedon, a Lycian noble fighting on the Trojan side, goes into battle “like a hungry lion.” He has a visceral need for combat, to kill or be killed. But first he pauses to ask his companion Glaucus about the meaning of it all:
Glaucus, why is it that we are honored most of all men in Lycia, with the seats of honor, the best wines and the choicest cuts of meat? Why do they all look on us as gods and assign us the best lands? . . . They do, and so now we must take our stand in the first ranks of the Lycians and share in the fierce fight. Then any one of our well-armed countrymen who sees us will say: “Not without renown are the kings who rule in Lycia. They feed on fat flocks and drink sweet wine. But noble also is their strength, since they fight in the first ranks of the Lycians.” But my friend, what if we could escape this war and somehow be ageless and immortal? Then I would not fight in the first ranks myself, nor would I send you into glorious battle. But now, as it is, there are 10,000 fates of death standing near, and no mortal can flee or escape them. So let us go, to win glory or to yield it to others.
On one level, the nobles fight to justify their economic and social privileges. On a deeper level, they face death in battle precisely because they must die. In the end, there is no escaping death, but glory gained by killing others in combat can bestow a kind of immortality. It is a cruel paradox that the only way to resist death is to deal it out to others. This is the meaning of glory, and it both inspires Homer’s respect and moves him to grief. Death is sad; so too is the remedy.
As Troy’s champion, Hector fights not only for personal glory but also for his city and family. Both he and they are doomed. His role in the logic of the Iliad is to evoke in us the greatest possible pity for the defeated enemy, and his encounter with his wife and son in Book 6 is one of the pillars of the story. In the field, Hector is a killer like the rest, only better than most. At home he is a son, brother, husband, and father. When he meets his wife, Andromache, on the rampart of the city during a lull in the fighting, a nurse stands by holding Astyanax, their son, “beloved, tender, like a beautiful star.” Hector “smiles silently” when he sees him. Andromache pleads with her husband to stay lest his courage be the death of him. Her father and brothers have been killed in the war. Her mother is dead too. She has no homeland anymore. Hector and the boy are all she has left.
Hector understands fully about pity and love of family, but he is also a public man and cannot change course now.
All this concerns me too, but I simply could not face the Trojans and their ladies with the flowing gowns, if I were to shrink like a coward from the war. Nor do I wish to do so, since I have been taught to be brave always and to fight among the front ranks of the Trojans, and thus to win great glory for my father and myself. For in my heart and spirit I know this well: The day will come when sacred Ilion [Troy] will fall and Priam with it and spearman Priam’s people too.
The ultimate outcome is not in doubt. And for that reason Hector must fight in a manner worthy of himself. He has no hope, but neither does he despair. There is no self-pity. Nor is it only fear of shame that drives him. Hector accepts and makes his own the expectations of his father and his countrymen. But he feels his private loss keenly. Similarly, the poet Homer affirms warrior virtues and pities the warrior, for he knows the cost. Hector answers his wife:
But it is not so much the future woes of Troy that pain me or even the loss of Hecuba or of king Priam or of my brothers, so many and so valiant, who will fall in the dust at the hands of their foes. Rather it is the thought that some bronze-shirted Achaean [Greek] will drag you off in tears and make a slave of you.
Helpless to prevent his wife’s fate, Hector can only pray that he will die before he sees that day. He reaches for his son, and the child shrinks in fear at the sight of his father’s flashing helmet. The parents laugh. Hector lays aside the helmet, kisses the boy and prays that he will be a greater warrior than his father and make his mother proud when he returns from war bearing the bloody spoils of a dead enemy—a double pathos and a double irony, for Astyanax will be dashed to his death by the victorious Greeks from the walls that Hector is trying to protect. Sadder still is the truth that, even if the boy had been destined to grow to manhood, the best that his father can imagine for him—at this moment, in this context—is the bloody career that he chose for himself.
Hector returns the boy to his mother. “Smiling through her tears, she presses the child to her fragrant bosom.” Hector pities her and takes her hand.
Dearest, do not be too much grieved on my behalf. No man will hurl me into Hades beyond what is fated. And I think that no man has ever escaped his fate—neither brave man nor coward—once he has been born. Go back to the house now and attend to your own work, the loom and the distaff. Bid the servants to do their work too. Let us men worry about the war—every man of Troy, but most of all myself.
The greatest heroes live under sentence of death and they know it. In Homer’s tale, pity and love lose out to destiny and honor. And all of these together make the poem what it is.
For much of the Iliad the godlike Achilles, principal champion of the Greeks, refuses to fight, because his honor has been offended. He rejoins the battle only in order to avenge his best friend, Patroclus, whom Hector has slain with the help of Apollo (a god partial to Troy) and Euphorbus, an inexperienced warrior who attacks like a coward from behind. Hector finishes off Patroclus (who wears Achilles’s helmet) and taunts him as he falls. Patroclus’s dreams of glory end in bitterness and confusion. He is a victim of the plans—or the whims—of the gods, the unfair attack by Euphorbus, and his own and Achilles’s mistakes.
As the violence intensifies, so too does Homer’s pitying voice. Euphorbus is the next to fall, and the description of his death is one of the most touching in the entire Iliad. Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon and himself a king, drives his spear point straight through the young man’s “soft” throat. Euphorbus falls in the dust.
His locks, which were like those of the Graces and bound with gold and silver pins, grew wet with blood. Imagine the hearty shoot of an olive which a man cultivates in a lonely place and generously waters, and it blooms beautifully. And the breaths of all the winds cause it to tremble, and pale flowers burst forth from it. Then suddenly a storm comes up with mighty blasts and rips it from the ground and lays it flat. So it was with Euphorbus, the son of Panthus, when Menelaus killed him and stripped his armor off.
A veteran Greek fighter easily and brutally dispatches a young Trojan. And Homer’s simile evokes another, quieter world, by alluding not only to the youth and androgynous beauty of the victim but also to the long and tender care that went into his growth and the silent collaboration of nature in the process—all wasted at a stroke.
And now Achilles must fight and kill Hector and then die himself. This is foreordained and he knows it. Thetis, his sea-goddess mother, comes up from her underwater cave and, powerless to help, “she weeps and holds Achilles’s head in her hands.” Her son has gotten the recognition that he demanded from Agamemnon and his fellow Greeks. Now all he wants is to deal death and then to die.
Now I shall go to meet Hector, the killer of my dear friend. And then I shall accept my own death at whatever time Zeus and the other gods may wish to bring it. Not even Heracles escaped death. . . . So I too, if a like fate awaits me, shall lie down and die. But for now I must win noble glory. And I shall cause some one of the deep-bosomed Trojan women to weep bitterly and wipe the tears from her soft cheeks with both her hands.
Achilles has achieved a kind of cold objectivity about the meaning of glory and the consequences for himself and for his victims, including the innocent ones. The contrast between the hero’s clarity and power on the one hand and his ultimate helplessness on the other fills the poem from now until its end. Achilles can neither bring back his friend nor save his own life. He lays his “murderous” hands on his comrade’s corpse, and weeps. He weeps for the promises he can never keep and he pledges to cut the throats of 12 innocent victims on the funeral pyre—Simone Weil imagined their bodies “like flowers on the grave”—and to see to it that Trojan women mourn for Patroclus.
Given over to violence and death, Achilles drives the panicked Trojans before him. Suddenly he comes face to face with Lykaon, an enemy whom earlier he had taken prisoner and sold into slavery. Lykaon had meanwhile been ransomed back and had returned home, where he enjoyed 11 days of freedom with his family. Now on the 12th day, exhausted and unarmed, he again falls into Achilles’s hands. Achilles is astonished and reflects: How many times do I have to kill these Trojans? Can it be that men return from the dead? He throws his spear and misses. Lykaon pleads for mercy: We have broken bread together. You can ransom me again for three times the price. Zeus hates me. My mother bore me to be short-lived. You have already killed my brother. I am not born of the same mother as Hector.
Though nearly berserk with rage, Achilles still can glimpse the humanity he shares with his victim—and their common mortality. He calls him “friend.”
Die too, my friend. Why do you lament so? Patroclus died, and he was a much better man than you. Do you not see what a man I am, how big and handsome? I had a noble father and a goddess for a mother, but death and harsh destiny await me as well. A dawn will come or an afternoon or a noontime when someone will take away my life in war, whether with an arrow or a spear.
Achilles runs Lykaon through with his sword and with cruel taunts flings his body into the river to be food for the fish. The scene summarizes the tragic paradox of the poem, and of war in any age. Soon, Achilles meets Hector and savagely kills him. As he dies, Hector foretells Achilles’s death at the hands of Paris and Apollo.
And as he spoke the end of death covered him over and his spirit flew from his limbs and went down to Hades, bemoaning his fate and leaving his young manhood behind.
These are the same words with which Homer had described the death of Patroclus. In the Iliad, all the deaths are linked. Fate and the gods, hatred and human error bind the actors together. None can escape. And glory is no answer.
Revenge brings Achilles no peace. He buries Patroclus and makes up with his fellow Greeks, but he remains tormented. Nights he spends wandering the beach; each dawn he drags Hector’s corpse three times around the funeral pyre. Violence and vengeance have run their course yet there is no satisfaction, no solution. Finally, the gods intervene, for even they are shocked: “See how he outrages the dumb earth in his fury.” They tell Achilles to return the body of Hector and they send Priam, Troy’s king and Hector’s father, to receive it. The final scene between the two great enemies all but defies commentary.
The king enters Achilles’s hut unnoticed, throws himself at his tormentor’s feet, and kisses the “terrible, murderous hands that had slain so many of his sons.” Achilles and his companions are stunned. They can only look at one another in silence as Priam makes his plea.
Godlike Achilles, remember your own father, a man the same age as I, at the doorstep of hateful old age. . . . He at least hears news that you are alive. He can be glad and get through each day in the hope that he will see his dear son return from Troy. Fate has been less kind to me. I had noble sons in broad Troy. Now not one of them is left, though there were 50, when the sons of the Achaeans came. . . . There was one left and he protected us. Now you have killed him too. . . . Hector, I mean. I have come to get him and bring him home. I have abundant ransom with me. Respect the gods, Achilles, and have pity on him. Think of your own father. I am yet more wretched and I have endured what no other mortal man ever has: I have kissed the hand of the man who slew my son.
The utter humiliation of Priam and loving thoughts of his own father—who in fact will not see his son again—move Achilles to tears. He takes the old man’s hand and gently pushes him away.
And the two of them remembered. Priam, curled up at the feet of Achilles, wept for man-slaying Hector, while Achilles shed tears for his own father and again for Patroclus. And their groaning filled the hut.
When Achilles has had his fill of mourning, he rises and lifts Priam to his feet, “pitying his grey head and beard.” He also admires Priam’s courage and consoles him as best he can:
Come sit with me and we shall let our pain lie quiet in our hearts though we are sorely grieved. Nor is there any gain in these sad tears. This is what the gods decree for us poor mortals: to live in pain, while they themselves are free from cares. . . . To my father, Peleus, the gods granted brilliant gifts from birth. He excelled all other men in wealth. He prospered and was king of all the Myrmidons. He married a goddess. But heaven gave him evils too. . . . He had but one son, and that an ill-fated one. And I am no help to him in his old age, since I sit at Troy far from home, a source of sorrow for you and for your children.
The gods give and the gods take away, and there is no accounting for how or why they do so. Whatever we may think of this arrangement, we mortals “cannot afford to be cruel and indifferent among [ourselves],” as Colin MacLeod observed. There is, MacLeod said, a “morality which still can exist despite human violence and divine indifference.” Achilles understands this too, now that he sees himself and his father caught in the same tragic destiny as Hector and Priam.
But Achilles is still Achilles—still menacing as he struggles with his grief and guilt. When Priam asks to be given the body immediately, the warrior’s anger flares. He fears he might lose control and harm Priam and offend Zeus. He orders Hector’s body to be bathed and anointed. Then, still fearful of his own anger and with apologies to the dead Patroclus, he lifts the body “with his own hands and places it on a couch” in a place where Priam cannot see it.
And then Achilles invites Priam to dine with him. The king has not eaten or slept since Hector died. After they finish, they sit in silence for a moment.
Priam gazed in wonder at Achilles, at his size and beauty and how like a god he seemed. And Achilles gazed at Priam, looking on his noble face, listening for his noble speech. And they took pleasure in this looking at one another.
Hector’s funeral is held the next day, and the poem ends with a single hanging line: “Thus they performed the funeral rites for horse-taming Hector.”
And so the Iliad‘s last words are of pity for the slain enemy hero, his family, and his city. There is pity for Achilles too, but muted and implicit, and for all human beings. There is pity, but not the possibility of change. The war will go on.
It would be wrong to suppose that Homer was “antiwar” in anything like the modern sense. For the poet and his contemporaries, war was simply a fact of life; and it is unlikely that he or they could have imagined a world without it. The genius of Homer is that he saw war whole and so captured its tragic irony.
Simone Weil saw a link to the Gospel in the Iliad. Maybe. One does see it in the pity, in the acts of kindness amidst the slaughter, in the suggestions of an alternative world of peace and civilized pursuits, but most of all, I think, one sees it in the way Homer makes clear the complicity of all sides in the tragedy of violence. Weil is right in saying that we shall have grasped the Iliad when we “learn how to accept the fact that nothing is sheltered from fate, how never to admire violence, or hate the enemy, or to despise sufferers.” She is also right when she says, “It is doubtful if this will happen soon.”
The world of the Iliad is in many ways a strange and distant one. Those proud, violent warriors are trapped in a losing game. Honor, the gods, fate, passion, family, society, mortality hem them in, Greek and Trojan alike. This common vulnerability becomes the central fact about heroes—grounds for pity and grounds too for seeing a link between their struggles and our own.
David Gill, SJ, ’56 has taught classics at Boston College since 1969. In recent years he has also been pastor of a small Catholic parish in the Roxbury section of Boston. The translations of the Iliad in this essay are his own.