Essays on Homer’s Iliad





[This essay, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), Canada, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without charge and without permission, provided the source is acknowledged; released August 2005. For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad. References to the text of the Iliad are to the online translation (by Ian Johnston) available here. The references in square brackets are to the Greek text. For comments and questions please contact Ian Johnston]



The most important feature of Homer’s Iliad is the most obvious: the central issue in this poem is warfare. In fact, the Iliad is our oldest, most famous, and most enduring story about men in battle. So one might well begin by exploring certain features of this particular war narrative. How does Homer depict the war so as to emphasize some features rather than others?


Such a question is necessary, because the phrase war story does not reveal very much about any particular fiction. After all, warfare, particularly the Trojan War, can be and has been used to develop an astonishingly wide range of the different stories—dramatic adventures, chivalric tales, amusing satires, bitter social commentaries, historical epics, various styles of comedy, romance, and so on, often in combination. For war is a very fecund basis for all sorts of different tales, as one might expect, given that it includes so many narrative possibilities. So we might start by seeing if we can get a sense of some of the more salient features of Homer’s treatment of the war.


One of the most initially surprising things about the Iliad is how many well-known details of the full Trojan War story Homer leaves out. The poem gives us no detailed sense of how the war started (either the short-term cause of Paris’ and Helen’s elopement or the long-term causes in the wedding of Thetis and Peleus and the Judgment of Paris), nor are many of the most famous incidents in the opening or closing stages of the war given any attention (for example, the sacrifice of Iphigeneia, the recruitment of Odysseus and Achilles, the abandonment of Philoctetes, the Trojan Horse, and the fall of Troy, among many others). There are many references to the fact that Troy will eventually fall, but no details are provided. First-time readers of the Iliad who have some familiarity with details of the famous narrative frequently comment, often with a sense of disappointment, on how few such incidents are included here. One would think that any poet interested in holding his audience’s attention with some exciting narrative events would make much better use of at least some of these. But one searches the Iliad in vain for most of one’s favourite stories from the Trojan War.


Instead, the Iliad focuses on few weeks in the tenth year of the war. The action covers considerably less time than that, of course, because there are some major gaps (e.g., the nine days’ plague in Book 1, the twelve-day wait for Zeus, the twelve-day maltreatment of Hector’s corpse), and the focus is almost exclusively on what is going on in that relatively short time. There’s an interesting double chronology at work. Events move quickly from one battlefield experience to another—there is lots of exciting action. At the same time, while there is little attention paid to a precise chronology, we also get a sense that a lot of time is going by; this war is dragging on and on, without anything changing very much (other than people being killed). We do not experience this war as a complete event, with a beginning, middle, and end, an experience with clearly understood causes and a series of events leading to a definite conclusion. We start the poem in the midst of warfare, and we end the book, several weeks later, in exactly the same place. The only thing we know for sure at the end is that the fighting will continue, as before.


The warfare is also unremitting. One bloody encounter is always followed by another without significant variety in the basic nature of the encounters and without pause. All attempted truces are doomed to failure, other than those the parties make, ironically enough, to collect or celebrate the dead. Even at night, when the fighting has generally stopped, the war dominates people’s actions, thoughts, and dreams. There is none of that sense, so prominent in the Odyssey, that an evening’s meal and sleep bring something to a conclusion, so that when Dawn appears the next day, something new and different is about to begin.


This narrative structure creates a sense that this war is less a particular and unique historical campaign than it is a lasting condition of life. These warriors are doing what they have always been doing and what they will continue to do (a sense that is strongly reinforced, as we shall see, by their memories of the past and their hopes for the future). There has been no clear beginning to all this, and there will be no clear end. Of course, if we bring to the poem a knowledge of the details of the Trojan War, we know that the tradition tells us it does eventually end. But the Iliad does not encourage us to think about that in any detail, apart from the references to the fact that Troy will fall some day, and, if we do, there is little in the poem to suggest that such an event would change anything very much (more about this later).


In addition, the absence of any sense of enterprising romantic adventure in the poem (in spite of the fact that the traditional story of the Trojan War includes all sorts of possibilities for such events) generates a sense that individual resourcefulness in tactics, strategy, or trickery (a common feature of the Odyssey and of countless popular war fictions) is out of place here, because this war is larger than the efforts of any one man or small group of men. It is not something which the individual warrior can, through his individual efforts, alter in any significant way. Whatever he and his comrades do today, then tomorrow, if he is still alive, he will have to continue doing. By the end of the Iliad we have witnessed some extraordinary human conduct, glorious courage, horrible destruction, and more, none of which has changed the course or the nature of the war in the slightest. Confronted with this situation, the men seem trapped, as Odysseus observes:


Zeus sees to it that from our youthful days
to our old age we must grind away
at wretched war, till, one by one, we die. (14.104) [14.85]


Some readers find this narrative rhythm disconcerting. Where are we going with the story? There is a lot of action, but overall nothing is changing and there is little if any sense of closure. For those who expect other things from a war fiction, it is rather surprising and perhaps disappointing to discover that most of the exciting narratives we associate with this war come from other sources—the OdysseyAeneid, and Metamorphoses, for example—where the vision of war is very different from what Homer is developing in the Iliad.


I would like to suggest that all these relatively obvious details help to create a sense that this vision of war is thoroughly fatalistic. The war is neither a temporary problem nor a discrete historical event nor a unique adventure. It is, rather, the basic, unchanging, and inescapable condition of life itself. It is man’s fate.


Before exploring this point further, we should first clarify precisely what the terms fate, fatalism, and fatalistic mean here, for in these modern, decidedly non-fatalistic times we may not all grasp the concept clearly. To assert that Homer pictures the war as man’s fate is to claim that Homer views it as the essential condition of life into which these men are born. They do not choose to have the world this way, and many of them express their dissatisfaction with this state of affairs and their desire for something different. But there is nothing they can do to change that condition. Whatever started this war and whatever will end it (if it ever does end) are beyond human control.


It is necessary to add here the important point that, understood in this sense, these terms carry no necessary sense of optimism or pessimism. It is possible to be a confirmed fatalist and yet sense that the basic conditions of life are as good as they possibly could be or are arranged for man’s benefit (as in, say, a faith in providential Christianity), or, alternatively, to have a decidedly pessimistic sense of the world one is born into. All these terms indicate, as I say, is that life is, so to speak, a game where the rules are made up and controlled by others and where human beings have no ability to change the situation.


The terms fate and fatalistic also do not mean that human actions are predetermined. This point is crucial to grasp for an understanding of the Iliad and almost all classical Greek literature. Human beings may be unable to alter the situation, but in at least one essential sense they are free agents. They are free to choose how to react to these given conditions. In the Iliad the men have chosen to be warriors; more than that, most of them are determined, in their freedom, to act as heroically as they can, to live up to a code which insists that they confront this grim fatal reality with a range of human qualities (courage, loyalty, physical strength, and so on). We will be going into this feature of the poem in greater detail in another essay. For the moment it’s essential to grasp the point that central to lives of these men is their free assertion of their individuality in the face of a harsh fate which they cannot alter.
This fatalistic quality of the poem emerges also in the way Homer insists upon the universal scope of war. As we read the story, we are always dealing with a particular event involving specific individuals, but we are also aware of a larger picture, for these events are part of a much longer time period. The famous digressions, which have occasioned a certain amount of hostile comment, serve to remind us again and again that warfare is a condition of life itself. Flashbacks to earlier times insist that personal armed combat is what life is about (e.g., Phoenix’s long tale of Meleager, Aeneas’ boasts about his ancestors, Andromache’s story of her family, the constant reminders of the achievements of Diomedes’ father, Tydeus, and so on). The particular events of this battle are always being played out against a historical backdrop of very similar incidents. One of Nestor’s important functions in the poem is to remind us all the time, both by his presence and by his reminiscences, that human life has always involved fighting on the battle field:


“Son of Atreus, yes, indeed, I wish                                                       
I were the man I used to be back then,
when I cut down lord Ereuthalion.
But gods don’t give men everything at once.    
Then I was young. Now old age follows me.
But I’ll be with my horsemen, advising them,
giving them their orders, an old man’s right.
Fighting with spears is for the younger men     
born after me, men who rely on strength.” (4.373) [4.318]


Similarly, when Hector thinks of his young son’s future, the best he can envisage for him is that he will be a great warrior, victorious in battle (6.583), a situation all the more poignant, of course, because many readers bring to the incident a knowledge of how Hector will soon die and how the young infant will be killed when the Achaeans sack Troy. Hector has already acknowledged that he will die fairly soon, and no one in the poem has more to lose from continuing the battles than Hector. Nonetheless, the only future he can imagine and desire for his son is one which has produced the situation he and Andromache now face.


Homer’s treatment of the combatants also serves to bring out the universal, fatal condition of this war. The Iliad contains hundreds of different names of people from all over the known world. It is virtually impossible to keep track of everyone (and one doesn’t really have to, since most of the major actions involve relatively few people), but it is equally impossible to escape the sense that on this canvas we have representatives from all parts of civilization, not simply two separate groups fighting their own private quarrel. And what’s even more remarkable, all these combatants are decidedly similar. Most of them speak the same language, worship the same gods, live by the same code of life, share the same rituals in prayers, sacrifices, burials, and so on. Warriors on opposite sides are members of the same extended family, and their forefathers have entertained each other and fought as allies in the past. Some of those on different sides have the same name (e.g., Agelaus, Antiphus, Adrestus, Medon, Noemon, Orestes, and so on). Such a marked similarity between the two main groups of allies works against any attempt to find a rational cause of this war in some ethnic or religious conflict and thus adds weight to the impression that warfare transcends any geographical or cultural differences between the groups fighting each other.


We need to dwell on this point for a moment. In our Western traditions, we have for a very long time coped with the disturbing aspects of war by subjecting it to moral analysis. We like to see warfare as an army of righteousness against an army of evil, good versus bad, with the forces of goodness prevailing, so that we can justify the inescapable horrors war brings with it. And many critics have extended this tradition to the Iliad, seeking to establish some moral basis for the war which would make its atrocities somehow more palatable. I’ll have a good deal more to say about this tendency in a later essay. What I want to insist upon here is that Homer appears to go out of his way to make this division between the opponents difficult to sustain. This war has not arisen out of cultural or political or economic conflict. It is something bigger than all such conflicts, and it has the effect of making all the combatants, whatever minor differences one wishes to point to here or there, all equally subject to its force.


After all, why are these men fighting? Or, more importantly, why do they believe they are fighting? The treatment of Helen, the ostensible cause of the war, makes her, for all her importance in the received tradition, relatively insignificant. She is hardly a sufficient explanation for what is going on. If the abduction counts at all, it is a minor pretext for what these men do all the time anyway. The suggestion that the Trojans might debate the issue and give her back (7.402) evaporates almost immediately, and the war continues as before. King Priam expressly indicates that Helen is not to blame (3.175), since the only sensible way to account for this war is to ascribe it to the gods.


Such a view of war is profoundly different from what most of us now believe. We think we have the ability to avoid warfare and that, if we must fight it, then we will do so only when we have a moral imperative to do so (i.e., when we are the “good guys” and our opponents “the bad guys”). And even under such circumstances we will expect the war to be as short as possible. The notion that war is not a temporary and unwelcome intrusion upon human life but a fatal condition of life is thus potentially disturbing, a challenge to beliefs we particularly cherish. A central thrust of these essays is that such a challenge to our sensibilities is one of the most important things about this poem, because it is a vision of the world which contradicts what we wish to believe about it. Of course, many of us can and do seek to evade that challenge by attempting to convert the grim fatalism into a reassuring moral allegory in line with our traditions, but that, it strikes me, removes from the work its most valuable qualities.




One does not have to read very far in the Iliad before one begins to sense an ironic tension at the heart of Homer’s depiction of warfare. On the one hand, the fighting here is a brutal enterprise. Men are killed horribly, and the readers are forced to confront the most visceral details of individual and mass butchery. On the other hand, the fighting often evokes from the combatants an inspiring sense of valuable human qualities—courage, beauty, loyalty, and comradeship—of life lived with a maximum emotional intensity. To seize on only one aspect of this dichotomy—to argue, for example, that the Iliad is a passionately anti-war or pro-war poem—is to miss an essential feature of Homer’s treatment of battle. For at the heart of this vision of life is an equally poised balance between these two aspects of the central enterprise.


No one can deny that in the Iliad battlefield deaths are brutally direct and detailed. There is no attempt here to camouflage what is going on with a language of romantic chivalry or euphemism: 


Death then came to Diores, son of Amarynceus.  
He was hit by a jagged rock on his right shin,
near the ankle. It was thrown by Peirous,
son of Imbrasus, captain of the Thracians, 
who’d come from Aenus. The cruel rock crushed both tendons 
and the bone. He fell onto his back down in the dust.   
There he reached out with both hands for his companions.                                             
His spirit left his body with each gasp he took.
Peirous, who’d thrown the rock, ran up and speared him in the gut.  
His bowels spilled out onto the ground. Darkness hid his eyes. (4.598) [4.518]


That said, he threw his spear. Athena guided it                
straight to Pandarus’ nose, directly by the eyes.  
It smashed through his white teeth. The tireless bronze 
sliced through his tongue, at its root, coming out his chin,          
right at the tip. Pandarus fell from the chariot,
his brightly shining armour rattling round him. (5.345) [5.290]


But then he was hit by Peneleus,
below his eyebrows, just underneath his eye.
The spear knocked out the eyeball, went in his eye,
drove through his neck, and sliced the tendons at the nape.
Ilioneus collapsed, stretching out his arms.
Peneleus drew his sharp sword and struck his neck,                        
chopping head and helmet, so they hit the ground, 
the spear still sticking from the socket of his eye. (14.575) [14.492]


Idomeneus’ pitiless bronze then struck Erymas
right in his mouth—the spear forced itself straight through,
below his brain, splitting his white skull apart,
smashing out his teeth. His eyes filled up with blood.
More blood spurted from his nose and open mouth.
Then death’s black cloud enveloped Erymas. (16.404) [16.348]                       


These examples, picked almost at random, make the point sufficiently clear. The descriptions have a clinical precision and an almost cinematic frame-by-frame quality as we see the progress of the weapon through flesh and bone, stage by stage. The poem forces us over and over again to confront what really goes on when soldiers fight.


There are two other features of Homer’s style in these killings that significantly reinforce the effect. First of all, almost all the warriors, even the insignificant ones, are introduced to us before they die. Each of them has a name, often a family identity (with parents, wife, and children), a distant homeland. We cannot take refuge here in the anonymity of death (as we can in so many more comforting war fictions, where the identity of the killed is kept at a distance so that we do not have to dwell on the cost of the enterprise—as in the Odyssey, for example, where Odysseus loses all his companions but only a few have names and almost none has any family identity). This particular death, Homer reminds us, even among so many, is unique. What has just been destroyed is a specific part of a human family and community.


Secondly, Homer typically concludes a killing with a reminder that what was once, a few moment ago, a gloriously vital human being is now forever gone, transformed into inert material. As he falls, the proud boasts or challenges which began this fight have become a dull “thud” or “rattle” of the armour, reminding us that the armour is now, in a sense, empty. The frequent laconic phrases about darkness veiling the eyes or teeth grinding in the dust or corpses left as carrion for dogs and birds act as a cryptic and harsh litany, insisting on the finality of this death. And we have no sense here that there is a future world, some afterlife where the warrior will be rewarded or punished for his conduct on the battlefield. Even the appearance of the ghost of Patroclus to Achilles confirms this sense, for he conveys to Achilles and to us a sense of the utter meaninglessness of Hades. Hence, the death of the beautiful, brave individual is final, the loss absolute. 


On the basis of passages like these, one might very well make the case that the Iliad is hardly a poem which will encourage people to admire war. But, of course, that is only part of Homer’s picture. For here war also prompts human beings to live up to their most glorious potential, to manifest some of the highest virtues of human experience. The stress of combat challenges a man to stand up courageously in the face of mortal danger, to stare at fate unwaveringly, and to meet it on his own terms. A later essay will be dealing with this point in further detail, but we might note here just how much Homer’s warfare creates in men a powerful exultation, a passionate joy, an intense feeling of personal fulfillment and comradeship. It’s no accident that Athena, goddess of wisdom, is also a deity who presides over battles, summoning from soldiers the most deeply felt sense of vital life:


                         With them strode Athena,
her eyes glittering, holding up the aegis—
her priceless, ageless, eternal aegis,
its hundred golden tassels quivering,                                                
each finely woven, valued at a hundred oxen.                                  
With this, she sped on through Achaean ranks,                                              
like lightning, firing soldiers’ hearts for war.
As she passed, she roused in men that hot desire                                 
to fight, to kill. At once she made each man feel war
far sweeter than returning home, finer than sailing
in the hollow ships back to his dear native land. (2.523) [2.445]


Homer is here acknowledging something which is particularly painful for many modern readers, the deeply pleasurable emotional intensity of warfare. To write this off as some psychopathology may be comforting, but it is also extremely naive, for astute observers have always acknowledged that there is something in warfare that answers to the most deeply felt passions people experience about life (even Immanuel Kant, William James, and Bertrand Russell, hardly militaristic types, paid tribute to the creative powers fostered by warfare and to the fact that many people are much happier in wartime than during peace). Nor is this something which has disappeared from modern warfare, at least to judge from the following description of the war in Vietnam (among many others):


But once it was actually going on, things were different. You were just like everyone else, you could no more blink than spit. It came back the same way every time, dreaded and welcome, balls and bowels turning over together, your senses working like strobes, free-falling all the way down to the essences and then flying out again in a rush to focus, like the first strong twinge of tripping after an infusion of psilocybin, reaching in at the point of calm and springing all the joy and dread ever known every known by everyone who ever lived, unutterable in its speeding brilliance. Touching all the edges and then passing, as though it had been controlled from outside, by a god or by the moon. (Herr 143)


The ironic tension I have been describing lies at the heart of Homer’s vision of warfare. War exalts men and impartially destroys them; it releases joyful passion and extinguishes life forever; it realizes many of the supremely human virtues and leaves them in the dust. War includes Athena the beautiful and Ares the brute, the divine siblings, permanently patrolling the battlefield together.




This paradoxical ironic tension at the heart of Homer’s vision of war is particularly apparent in his treatment of the first clash between the rival armies in Book 4. The preparations for combat draw our attention to the passionate individuality of these warriors, who define themselves by their participation in battle. As Agamemnon tours the front lines, he calls attention to a series of great warrior leaders: Idomeneus, Ajax, Oilean Ajax, Nestor, Odysseus, Diomedes, and Sthenelus, each of whom appears before us as a proud, brave, loyal individual, intensely caught up in the test of his own excellence which this fighting represents. Then the whole mass of armed men gathers together under the irresistible and beautiful force of war:


Just as thundering ocean surf crashes on the sand, 
wave after wave, driven by the West Wind’s power, 
one wave rising at sea, then booming down on shore,
arching in crests and crashing down among the rocks, 
spewing salt foam, so then Danaan ranks, 
row after row, moved out, spirits firmly set on war.
Each leader issued his own orders to his men.                          
The rest marched on in silence. You’d never think                               
such a huge army could move out keeping its voice                                 
buried in those chests, in silent fear of their commanders.
As they marched, the polished armour on them glittered. (4.494-504) [4.425 ff]


The description evokes the awe-inspiring power and beauty and threat of battle, the paradoxical combination of fascination, loveliness, and danger, conveyed, for example, in the later images of fire and in a word like glitter, rich with a sense of attractiveness and threat.


But once the fighting starts the emphasis shifts, as the proud heroic control of the opening gives way to something increasingly desperate. The combatants start “attacking like wolves, man against man,” transforming the superb human display to an animal frenzy. The final images of Book 4, however, take us further. We are given the details of the deaths of Diores and the immediate retribution meted out to his killer Peirus. Death for death. At the very end we see the results of the enterprise which began only a few moments ago as a display of glorious heroic splendour:


                                 And so those two warriors
lay stretched out in the dirt beside each other—
one Thracian chief, one captain of bronze-clad Epeians.
And many other men lay dead around them.  (4.618-621) [4.536-538] 


                                                        For on that day,
many Trojans and Achaeans lay there side by side,
stretched out together, face down in the dust. (4.626) [4.543-544]


This final image in Book 4 brings this narrative moment to a halt in the mutual anonymity and finality of death, heroic young men, so vitally alive a short while ago, now stretched out in the dirt together, enemies now united in a common fate.


We see here, too, what emerges consistently throughout the poem. Homer does not load the ironies one way or the other. The pathetic slaughter does not undercut the quality and value of the heroic individual. Nor does the evocation of military glory seek to mitigate the horror of the slaughter. Homer’s treatment of war keeps the tone evenly balanced. Warfare is not, in any easy conventional sense, good or bad. It is what it is, an eternally fated contradiction.



[For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad.]