1993-03-04: The Iliad

The Iliad (c.850 BCE)

by Homer (c.850 BCE)

tr. Robert Fagles (1933-2008)

Depicting the mortal conflict between the Achaen warlords and the civilized people of Ilium, the Iliad is a classic confrontation between cultures. The doom of Troy is known at the outset, of course, but Homer builds sympathy for the loss to come in a sensitive scene between Hector and Andromache. The dedication of the Achaeans to their war-lust is shown in the relations between the men, with only occasional reference to the women and children they have left behind. The lack of dedication of the Trojans to the fight is shown repeatedly in the offers to buy off the Achaeans with ransom and compensation for the dishonor of the seduction of Menelaus’s Helen by Paris, and of Paris’s own reluctance to enter the fight. Civilization has softened the Trojan’s fighting spirit.

Andromache’s grief over the coming loss of her husband is balanced by a scene after Patroclus’s death. As the battle rages over the hero’s corpse, Achilles’s team of immortal horses stands head-down nearby, grieving for the fallen hero. The contrast between the human feeling on the Trojan side and the circumscribed range of feeling on the Achaean side is ridiculously unbalanced.

Behind all the clash and gore of battle, the Olympian immortals strive for their favorites and against one another; the mortals are mere pawns in their trivial bickering.

The reflective conflict is between the values of the Achaeans and the Trojans. The Achaeans are depicted as a primitive warrior society (obviously with subservient classes at home) whose values are honor and respect among their fellows, and the merit they earn by heroic acts. The motivations applied by their leaders are the shame and disgrace they will suffer if they fail to fight hard, and the plunder they will receive if they succeed. Never do the leaders promise them success; this is left in the hands of the gods. Yet the gods favor those who do their best.

The Trojan values are more civilized; they expect their wealth to buy them out of a hard position, underestimating the dishonor the Achaeans would see in accepting money for the ‘abduction’ of Helen. As Hector, they fear or regret the fate to befall their women and children if Troy falls, more than their own reputations to posterity. They have not abandoned warrior values, but they don them with their armor, whereas the Achaeans wear them all the time. They feel their responsibility to their great city to a much greater extent than the Achaeans feel to their families and estates at home.

(An interesting reflection of underlying values: when one warrior wishes to insult another, he calls him a girl or a woman. This is still true today.)

There are two social conflicts. The first is between the Achaean Menelaus and the Trojan Paris, over the seduction of Helen. This led the Achaeans to rally behind Menelaus and Agamemnon to sack Troy and seize its treasure. The second is between Agamemnon and Achilles, over the insult given when Agamemnon took Achilles war-prize, the beautiful Briseis. This makes Achilles sulk by the ships, witholding his forces from the battle. As the Achaeans’ position deteriorates the pressure mounts on them both to reconcile.

When Agamemnon’s embassy tries to convince Achilles to rejoin the battle, two social values are mentioned by Phoenix. He mentions “the great leveler, war” and “debate where men can make their mark.” These are the democratic values of the Achaeans (at least of the warrior class). They allow a man to achieve greatness by his own efforts, regardless of his father’s position (within the warrior class). Wealth among the Achaeans seems to have been based on the plunder obtained in battle, or awarded by the war-chiefs for great achievement. (Whether these ideals were expressed in practice or not, they were evidently a part of at least Homer’s cultural milieu.)

The context of the war is brought out in the shield fashioned by the smith-god Hephaestus for Achilles. It portrays scenes of peace and war, of human joy and battle’s gore. The description of the shield epitomizes the poem. Behind all the talk of heroes and glory is the sense of the waste of men and women.

This is the earliest known work of reflective literature. It’s success (at being copied and preserved) has depended primarily on its effects in the Social Realm, where it must have reinforced many values of the Greeks who succeeded the Achaeans. It would be interesting to know the opinions of the ordinary Greeks who heard (or read) it through the centuries, as well as the opinions of the scholars who have attempted to understand it. As a work of poetry, it clearly contains passages that were driven more by the need to fit form than the need to communicate clearly, so it contains archaisms and unfamiliar (even to Homer’s contemporaries) words and phrases. Some of these may be incidental, and some may be attempts to soften or conceal a criticism of a value.

I think most American readers of today must see in it a condemnation of the waste of war, and hence of the classes that promote and profit by it. But did the Greeks of Homer’s time, or of Athens golden age? Did the Romans of the Empire? What of the English who financed the American colonies, or the colonists? The English who ruled India? What of Theodore Roosevelt and Americans of his era? What would Africans of any time in the last few millennia think, or Chinese or Japanese? What did Germans of the World Wars think, and what of those today? These may be obvious questions, but I don’t know the answers; and I think the answers might be important.

(An interesting archeological note: there are references to a previous razing of Troy by Heracles, some time before the present war. Clearly, Troy was a prize to be repeatedly fought over, sometimes destroyed and rebuilt.)

From the memetic point of view, The Iliad is a rich collection, shown from three sides. The memes behind the gods’ actions are the least important. Those behind the Achaeans’ and Trojans’ are crucial. A careful catalog of these memes, and the interactions between them should be a fruitful way to analyze this work. Then an analysis of reaction from people holding later memes should be possible.

Fagles has made a clear prose translation, unencumbered with footnotes. The introduction and endnotes by Bernard Knox are helpful in understanding the background as Homer’s listeners or readers would know it. At no point is it really necessary to interrupt the reading to refer to the notes. They also point out places where the interpretation is difficult, but to my mind the way the work hangs together is proof enough that such dilemmas have been solved satisfactorily.


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