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 way the warriors behave in the Iliad stems directly from what they believe about the world and their place in it. They are, to paraphrase a line from George Grant, imitating in action their vision of the nature of things. And we cannot reach any useful understanding of them (let alone make value judgments about them) without exploring how their conduct arises out of how they see the world.


To start with, we might notice that these warriors have not embraced war unequivocally. Many of them express a wish for a world without warfare or, at any rate, a different arrangement where they do not have to kill others and then, in their turn, die on the battlefield. But there is no altering the given conditions of the world. There is no safe haven they can retreat to, because conflict exists everywhere, a final death is inevitable, and warfare has been established by the divine will. Since they have no option, they accept their condition with a grim candour:


“Oh Father Zeus, people say for wisdom
you exceed all others, men and gods alike.
Yet all this comes from you. . . .” (13.744) [13.631]


“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) [14.631]


Even the most famous evocation of the warrior’s faith, the speech of Sarpedon to Glaucus, makes the point that the glories of the warrior life would not be worth it if human beings had a way of escaping fate:


“Ah my friend, if we could escape this war,
and live forever, without growing old,
if we were ageless, then I’d not fight on 
in the foremost ranks, nor would I send you   
to those wars where men win glory. But now,
a thousand shapes of fatal death confront us,
which no mortal man can flee from or avoid.
So let’s go forward, to give the glory
to another man or win it for ourselves.” (12.347) [12.321]


If life were not life, Sarpedon asserts, he would not fight. Whatever pride he takes in his achievements and standing as a mighty leader, Sarpedon can imagine how much finer human existence would be if the universal conditions were different.


Similarly, the eagerness with which the soldiers stream to the ships under the mistaken impression they are going home (in Book 2) indicates that, whatever is keeping the armies in front of Troy, it is not an unalloyed pleasure in the fighting. Both sides share an equally intense desire for peace:


Then every Trojan and Achaean held up his hands,
praying to the gods:


“Father Zeus, ruling from mount Ida,
mighty, all-powerful, of these two men,
let the one who brought this war to both sides     
be killed and then go down to Hades’ house.
And grant our oath of friendship will hold firm.”  (3.355) [3.318]


In their hearts, the men might desire a cessation of combat and a binding friendship on all parties, but any attempt to bring that about, like the truce in Book 4, is doomed to failure, because such attempts contradict the given conditions of the world.


To understand the warrior code, the rules by which these men live, we need to recognize it as a response to what they see as the inescapable, perilous, fated condition of human life. The only certainties are constant strife and inevitable death. Turning one’s back on the endeavour or trying to walk away from the fighting group simply guarantees that death will come sooner rather than later. Those who run get a spear in the back.


The warriors’ sense of their fatal condition expresses itself in their religious attitudes. They diligently worship gods who will, they know, keep the war going forever (here at Troy or elsewhere) and destroy each man in his turn, no matter how he behaves. Such piety demands an extraordinarily tough acceptance of a harsh, unreasonable fate, and all the characters in the Iliad have the courage and will to believe in and to celebrate that faith (what Nietzsche in the Birth of Tragedy calls the “pessimism of the strong”). They approach their gods with a clear idea of what life has in store for them. Their prayers and formulaic oaths express an acute sense of the individual warrior’s chances in this unchanging situation: if he honours the gods, they may help him on this occasion. A prayer for divine help may be answered.


This stance is not like Pascal’s wager that, since we do not know whether there is life of rewards and punishments after death or not, we had better accept belief as the more prudent option. These warriors know they have nothing special to win from the gods in a later life. Their attitude expresses rather a hard, open-eyed acceptance of the fatal reality of life on its own terms. Hence, military disaster, the clearest sign that the divine rulers are not heedful of the warrior’s prayers, does not shake their faith in the gods, who have on this occasion disappointed their hopes. When the Trojans triumph over the Achaeans, Agamemnon does not question his earlier sacrifices. He accepts the fact that on this day “Zeus’ mind has changed./ His heart prefers Hector’s sacrifices” (10.50). Perhaps tomorrow Zeus will distribute his favours differently, and perhaps not.


With this awareness of his common fate, the Homeric warrior chooses to live as fully as he can, to stand up in the front lines celebrating his individual ability to confront his inevitable destiny as fearlessly and successfully as he can for as long as he lasts. Since there is no escape from war and death, he will impose his own presence on the battle, declaring by his brave stance that he counts for something. Unlike so many fighters from later ages, the Homeric warrior does not risk his life for a political or religious cause. He is not seeking to extend the power of any particular side. Even the oath to Agamemnon matters less than the individual’s sense of his own stature which he can protect and enhance only by standing in the front lines alongside his companions against the best and the bravest opponents.


“Don’t you hear frenzied Hector encouraging
his men. He’s frantic now to burn the ships.
He’s inviting them to fight, not to a dance.
For us there’s no better choice or tactic
than to bring our arms and warrior strength,       
against them in combat hand to hand.
It’s better to settle this once and for all—
whether we live or die—than be hemmed in,
fighting a long grim battle, as we are now,
among our ships against inferior men.” (15.596) [15.508]


Those who survive to reach old age are, paradoxically, unfortunate, because they cannot share the fighting stature of the younger warriors (unless, like Nestor, they are still capable of participating in battle). They win no further glory, since they lack the strength to resist and thus become mere victims of war, unable to assert themselves against the fatal conditions closing in around them, as Priam observes:


“When a young man dies in war,            
lying there murdered by sharp bronze, that’s all right.
Though dead, he shows us his nobility.
But when the dogs disfigure shamefully
an old man, chewing his gray head, his beard, 
his sexual organs, that’s the saddest thing 
we wretched mortals see.” (22.90) [22.71]


Thus, the warrior fights because in an irrational, hostile universe he wants his life to mean something, to have value, to earn respect. If he cannot establish his worth as an individual, the only alternative is to accept the passive anonymity of the non-combatant. In that sense, the men do have a choice, as Achilles does, for example. But if they want to confer some significance on their lives under these conditions, then they must go to war. The men who paid money to avoid the war are denied the chance to prove their human value. The Achaean Euchenor is told he could go to war and die or else stay at home and suffer from a long and eventually fatal sickness (13.786). He goes to war and is killed by Paris, thus avoiding the fine and the illness at home. These penalties are not just a financial loss and a physical ailment, but the spiritual sickness of anonymity and worthlessness in a world where one’s value emerges only in battle. The warrior does not wish to die. He would prefer an existence where he could escape that unwelcome fate, especially since death is final, the end of everything. But, like all men, he wants his life to have some purpose and to be recognized as having an enduring value. And if he must risk violent death in order to achieve that, then he will live as gloriously as he can, even if such conduct leads to death more quickly than does inaction at home.


Even though life is transient—in part because it is so—one may give it the permanence of renown. And the static quality of the chief characters is a way of showing that if a man is to achieve this immortality he must choose one course of action rather than another.Through his choice, of course, he gives up the infinite possibility on which the characters of Hamlet or Prufrock are based; he renounces it in order to wrest something from the finite and actual which will not be merely fleeting. The result for the Iliad is, if we consider this one quality apart from the rest of the poem a simple concept of character. But far more significantly the result is a “placing” of man, a showing of the way in which his glory and his limitations combine. (Knight 37)


Thus, the social group in the Iliad commits itself to the search for value through individual achievement in battle. What a warrior can win in combat defines his worth to the group and, beyond that, to the irrational universe. By demonstrating his superiority over other men in the front lines, in the supreme test of hand-to-hand fighting, the warrior gives his individual existence value and purpose and confirms in his own eyes that his life has a significance, for only in that way can he acquire what openly displays his worth to others and to himself, his public status, a preoccupation with which governs his every action. His value to his peers and his sense of himself are based on his ability to carry out the actions required in warfare, and that depends not simply on god-given physical attributes but also upon the number of soldiers he leads, his past successes, his family’s reputation the quantity and quality of his weapons (many captured from fallen enemies), the publicly acknowledged factors which announce the esteem in which his comrades and his enemies hold him.


The social group organizes and controls the behaviour of the fiercely individualistic warriors through the conventions of status. In fact, their resolution in the most stressful moments, when the danger is fiercest, is bolstered by reminders that what is on the line here, as always, is their publicly acknowledged value:


“Friends, be men. Let sense of shame from all men
fill your hearts. Remember, each of you,                       
your children, wives, possessions, and your parents—
whether alive or dead. They’re not here,
but, on their behalf, I beg you to stand firm.
Don’t let yourselves turn round and run away.” (15.769) [15.661]


Nestor here makes no appeals to their safety or to the justice of their cause or their promise to Agamemnon, no reminders of how nasty the Trojans can be, no references to a glorious fatherland or a splendid afterlife, none of the traditional appeals generals make to their troops. He reminds the men of who they are and exhorts them to live up to the status they have acquired, their standing in the eyes of the world. For Nestor, the most experienced warrior leader in the army, understands that in an undertaking as metaphysically irrational and as emotionally and physically demanding as warfare, the fighter’s principal motivation comes from a desire to maintain or increase his value in the eyes of the group (and from an equally strong desire not to forfeit his reputation). Without that motivation, he could not face the terror.


Obviously, such an emphasis on status requires a shared belief system, so that the warriors instantly agree on what confers or detracts from an individual’s status and can resolve any disputes within the context of that system. And the relative ranking of each man is a matter of public consensus. In seeking to arbitrate the initial quarrel, for example, Nestor admits that the gods have given Achilles a military prowess greater than Agamemnon’s, but he urges Achilles to follow the king’s orders because Agamemnon leads more troops (1.310). Nireus may be the most beautiful leader after Achilles, but he is relatively feeble because he has few soldiers with him (2.748). The potentially dangerous dispute in the results of the chariot race are quickly resolved by Antilochus’ open recognition that Menelaus has a higher status than he does. Once that point is publicly acknowledged, Menelaus can generously return the favour by paying tribute to Antilochus’s value and giving him the prize (23.748). As we shall see in a later essay, one measure of the extraordinary experience Achilles is going through emerges from his refusal to abide by the customary rules of status, when he rejects Agamemnon’s magnificent offer in Book 9. Such behaviour is unheard of.


The demands of the group also require that a warrior never stray too far from his peers, for status (and its converse, shame) can only be conferred if the actions are observed by others. In this society, a warrior’s sense of identity and of his relationship to others is derived from the group, which is always observing and remembering his actions. It’s significant that the most important breach of the warrior code, Hector’s panic and attempt to flee, occurs when he is alone and that he recovers as soon as he thinks he has someone alongside him. The fact that conventions of status can only operate within a common group indicates the importance of mass displays. Only in a public show can this society affirm the importance of what it is doing, reassure individuals of their places within it, and overcome any doubts about their common enterprise. The famous parade of the different contingents (in Book 2), which originates in a suggestion from Nestor about how to deal with the crisis in morale among Achaean troops, serves not only to list the participants, but also to demonstrate in public the group’s solidarity at a difficult time. In addition, it reminds everyone of the relative ranking of the more important leaders. The frequent religious rituals, prayers, and assemblies, even the funeral games, have the same purpose: they assert the communal identity and provide an opportunity for each warrior to confirm and celebrate his own worth, to recognize in public the status of each of his comrades and, in turn, to be recognized by them.


This feature of the Iliad stands in contrast to the Odyssey, in which, for all the continuing emphasis on status, a great many group activities, particularly the feasting and entertainment, celebrate the joys of social interaction for its own sake and where the identity of each person is often less important than the conventions of civilized hospitality. The name and status of a guest, for example, can emerge during the leisurely social event rather than (as in the Iliad) being proudly declared at the outset of an encounter. In the Odyssey, the hero is willing to conceal or lie about his status as an appropriate stratagem or patiently endure insults and physical abuse from his inferiors, so as to win out in the end. In the Iliad candid public assertions of status are the constant preoccupation of the warrior’s life, so that when he moves from the assembly and the parade, when the time for action arrives, his sense of himself as a valuable person and his awareness of how others see him sustain him during the perilous fighting (1).


why are we two awarded special honours,
with pride of place, the finest cuts of meat,
our wine cups always full in Lycia,
where all our people look on us as gods?
Why do we possess so much fine property,
by the river Xanthus, beside its banks,
rich vineyards and wheat-bearing ploughland?
It’s so we’ll stand in the Lycian front ranks
and meet head on the blazing fires of battle,
so then some well-armed Lycian will say,
‘They’re not unworthy, those men who rule Lycia,
those kings of ours. It’s true they eat plump sheep
and drink the best sweet wines—but they are strong,
fine men, who fight in the Lycians’ front ranks.’ . . .” (12.332) [12.310]


In this well-known speech, Sarpedon pays tribute to the fact that the entire structure of his society, the only one available to him and Glaucus, rests on the warrior code. He is the product of that society, proud of his status within it and willing to live up to its personal and social ideals. However much he might prefer a less strenuous and dangerous life where he does not have to die in action, he does not question what this code requires of him. The attractions of life at home do not tempt him to waver, because the quality of his life there depends upon his status as a celebrated fighter in the front lines.


The Iliad repeatedly makes clear, however, that the faith in this code, although common to all the leaders, is a tense affirmation of a sometimes fragile order and that close beneath this tough creed lurks the chaos of a world from which social order or a sense of personal identity has disappeared completely. Agamemnon’s apparent denial of the traditional code precipitates an instant disintegration of the army (in Book 2), and the structure of the group, apparently so solid, well disciplined, and ancient, immediately turns to wild disorder. And when Hector, just before his death, momentarily loses faith in the warrior code, he can no longer control his terror and runs away in an absurd panic (in Book 22). Moments such as these help us recognize that the warrior code, like all significant systems of belief, is not a complacent faith in comforting axioms but a challenging, tense, and sometimes vulnerable way of creating worthy purpose in human life, where without such faith human existence would be pointless.


The group code establishes certain conventions in the fighting. Even the fiercest combat, for all the animal frenzy it unleashes, follows a certain traditional pattern (except for Achilles’ aristeia, which, as we shall see, falls outside the norm). The warrior typically begins by selecting an opponent and declaring his identity to his enemy, announcing his worth by describing his family or past achievements or both. The ensuing fight is almost always a personal one, involving two named warriors, and with those of highest worth, it takes place at close quarters (hence, the contempt which spearmen sometimes express for archers, who fight from a distance). When a warrior falls, another takes his place, seeking to recover the body and to prevent the enemy from obtaining the weapons and armour of the dead man. Losing the fallen comrade and his gear brings dishonour on the group, and securing the weapons and armour from a fallen enemy brings high status. Frequently, a warrior will gloat over an enemy he has killed or a spear that has missed. A defeated warrior may offer to pay ransom, and certain characters have in earlier times escaped death in this way. The victor makes the decision however, and in the battles around Troy, the offer is customarily refused. In some instances a warrior may decline to fight, as Diomedes does, on the ground that he and his family enjoy a special relationship with the family of his opponent. The heroic code thus makes very specific demands, and each leader knows what he must do in any particular situation.


We should note that the heroic code does not demand suicidal bravery. Under certain conditions a warrior may withdraw from a fight against impossible odds or against an opponent whom a god is obviously favouring.


“My friends, we’re so amazed prince Hector
is such a spearman, so courageous, warlike.
But he’s always got some god beside him, 
to ward off destruction. Right now, it’s Ares
he’s has with him, looking like a mortal man.
Stay turned towards the Trojans, but fall back.
Don’t try to fight it out with gods.”  (5.705) [5.601]       


To run from battle brings disgrace, but an orderly retreat in the face of a divinely inspired enemy makes good sense. No normal man has to fight against the gods. This option provides those rare moments when a warrior has to ponder a choice: Should he stay in the front-line or move back? Typically, he has to weigh the demands of the group against the power of what he is confronting. Sometimes, as in the above example, he invokes the gods to justify an orderly retreat. At other times, his sense of personal honour keeps him where he is:


Now famous spearman Odysseus was left alone,
no Achaean there beside him, for fear gripped them all.
Greatly troubled, he spoke to his proud heart:

“Here’s trouble. What’s going to happen to me?
If I run away from this crowd in fear,
I’ll be badly shamed. But to be trapped here,
all alone, that could be worse. For Cronos’ son
has made the rest of the Danaans flee.
But why’s my fond heart arguing all this?
I know that those who leave a fight are cowards.
The man who wants to fight courageously
must stand his ground with force, whether he’s hit,
or whether his blows strike the other man.” (11.457) [11.404]


In this case, Odysseus determines that he has more to lose by retreating than by staying, so he fights on. A little later, he is wounded and retires from the battle, for the code does not require injured men to remain at the front lines. Thus, the unwritten but well-understood rules of warrior conduct are flexible enough to provide a range of limited options, but firm enough so that the warrior does not have to deliberate at length about what to do.


If the quest for status establishes the group’s shared values and channels the fighting energies in a single direction, the desire to avoid a loss of status makes doubly sure that no one contravenes the code. For the greatest harm that can occur to a particular warrior is shame, the community’s public recognition that he has let the group down or failed to live up to its shared rules. The initial argument between Agamemnon and Achilles arises over a question of status and shame. Briseis herself is of relatively little importance. What really matters is the recognition of worth which possession of her as a prize won in battle confers and the shame which will come with a public loss of what she represents. In openly depriving Achilles of a military honour, Agamemnon shames Achilles so much that the latter withdraws from the fighting. The personal insult outweighs any sense of responsibility to a common cause. No one questions the appropriateness of Achilles’s actions. Nestor tries to persuade him to return by appealing to the code, but acknowledges that Agamemnon is acting improperly. Later, of course, Agamemnon tries to win Achilles back with a huge catalogue of gifts worth a great deal more than what he took from Achilles in the first place. The fact that Achilles is unwilling to settle their quarrel on those terms indicates just how far he has by then moved away from the normal practices of the group.


Throughout the poem we witness repeatedly the warriors’ preoccupation with avoiding shame. When Nestor wants the Achaeans to volunteer to fight Hector, an obviously unwelcome assignment, which no one is immediately eager to undertake, he so shames his colleagues, characteristically recalling his past exploits, that several leaders quickly step forward (in Book 7). As is commonly observed, the Greek word nemesis, which we associate with divine retribution, a principle of cosmic justice, in the Iliad means shame, the social punishment for failing to live up to the standards established by the group. And nemesis in this latter sense exercises a decisive control over the warriors, “the strongest moral force which Homeric man knows is not fear of the gods, but respect for public opinion. . . .” (Dodds 18). Just how powerful this force can be we see near the climax of the final battle between Achilles and Hector, when Hector finds himself stranded outside the city and has to decide whether to stand and fight Achilles or move back into the safety of the city.


                                            “What do I do?
If I go through the gates, inside that wall,
Polydamas will be the first to blame me,
for he told me last night to lead the Trojans
back into the city, when many died,
once godlike Achilles joined the fight.
But I didn’t listen. If I’d done so,
things would have been much better. As it is,
my own foolishness has wiped out our army.
Trojan men will make me feel ashamed—     
so will Trojan women in their trailing gowns.
I’m afraid someone inferior to me
may say, ‘Hector, trusting his own power,
destroyed his people.’ That’s what they’ll say.
For me it would be a great deal better
to meet Achilles man to man, kill him,
and go home, or get killed before the city,
dying in glory. (22.122) [22.99]


The dramatic moments leading up to this crisis show us that Hector has every possible reason to retreat into the city. He’s alone and has just witnessed the rout of his soldiers. His aged parents, Priam and Hecuba, have made the most urgent and pathetic appeals to him from the walls, in the name of the citizens and the safety of Troy. And Achilles, we know, is on a murderous rampage. Moreover, we have earlier seen Hector as a loving husband and parent, so we understand well what he risks if he stays to confront Achilles. But none of these factors is sufficiently persuasive to overcome his fear of what people with think of him if he declines to fight.


This incident raises the question of the relationship between shame and the actions caused by divine interference. If Agamemnon can invoke the goddess Folly to escape the shame his countrymen might direct against him for his treatment of Achilles, and if other warriors can draw back against impossible odds because the gods are assisting their opponents, why cannot Hector do that here? There is no absolutely clear answer to that, except to observe that shame applies to conduct which falls within the normal business of the war, that is, to lapses from habitual behaviour. The appeal to divine interference applies only to extraordinary circumstances. Hector will be shamed here because, in the course of a battle, he has pushed his quest for glory too far, violating the prudence that warriors sometimes require and overlooking the urgent advice of his comrade Polydamas. Moreover, if he refuses to face Achilles, he will contravene the most basic tenet of the heroic code—personal courage in individual hand-to-hand combat. He will be running away from an encounter that many other Trojans, lesser men than he, have already had the courage to undertake. Hector can hardly refuse, in the name of prudence or divine interference, to risk his life, as they did.


The poem provides some insight into the relationship between nemesis and prudence in the conversation between Nestor and Diomedes in Book 8. In the midst of battle, Nestor urges retreat, citing the usual reason:


                                                  “Son of Tydeus, 
wheel your sure-footed horses round. Go back.
Don’t you see Zeus is not protecting you? 
Today the son of Cronos grants Hector glory.                             
Tomorrow he’ll give victory to us,
if that’s his will. No man stops Zeus’ plans, 
no one, not even the most mighty warrior.
For Zeus’ force is more powerful by far.” (8.159) [8.139]


Diomedes, more impetuous and less experienced than Nestor, has doubts about what people will think if he retreats. He does not wish to risk being shamed:


“Everything you say, old man, is true enough.
But this brings fearful pain into my heart and chest. 
For Hector then will speak out in Troy.      
He’ll say, ‘The son of Tydeus, in fear of me,
scurried off, back to his ships.’ That’s what he’ll boast.                
Then let the wide earth open up for me.” (8.168) [8.146]


Nestor reminds Diomedes that, having done his best, he has nothing fear from later talk of disgrace by moving back from impossible odds:


“Son of fiery-hearted Tydeus, why talk like that?
Even if he slanders you and calls you coward, 
he’ll not convince the the Trojans or Dardanians, 
or Trojan wives, married partners of brave men
you’ve thrown into the dirt, still in their prime.” (8.175) [8.152]


This exchange clarifies the code somewhat. A commitment to glory has its limits. One does not challenge the gods, and they must be operating on behalf of one’s enemies if one has done one’s best and is still in dire peril. But Hector standing outside Troy does not have this option. Achilles is only one man, and Hector, for all his threats, has not faced him squarely yet. The code requires that Hector fight. In escaping the situation by moving inside, Hector would be contravening the ethic which has made him, according to Sarpedon’s earlier observations to Glaucus, the most honoured of the Trojans (2).


In his treatment of the warrior code, as with all aspects of the poem, Homer constantly reveals how the demands of the group expose the ironic contradictions of combat. For if the heroic code inspires men with courage, loyalty, and a constant striving for excellence in a dangerous enterprise, at the same time it stifles in men any latent desires to answer natural impulses which do not meet the often harsh, narrow rules of the group. When Menelaus, for example, is moved to spare the life of a defeated Trojan, Agamemnon points out in the most brutal terms that this battle has no room for mercy:


“Menelaus, you soft-hearted man,
why are you sparing men’s lives like this?
In your own home, Trojans treated you
exceptionally well, did they not?
So don’t let any one of them evade
a terrible destruction at our hands—
not even the young child still carried                               
in his mother’s belly. Let no one escape.                                   
Let everyone in Troy be slaughtered,
without pity, without leaving any trace.” (6.63) [6.57]


And so Adrestus is slaughtered, in spite of his moving plea to Menelaus and the latter’s agreement. Duty to the group does not permit an individual to answer to personal feelings beyond the limit set for appropriate behaviour on the battlefield, and on this occasion that does not include sparing anyone, for ransom or any other reason. And, as we have seen earlier, Homer typically places the killing of a particular warrior within the context of an absent family, thus reminding us what the warrior code costs, so that we are always aware of the ironic shadows cast by the quest for status in the fighting group. Thus, the human potential of each man, although superbly realized in some respects, is also enormously limited. The rules which establish and enhance a human being’s value also annihilate the embodiment of those values—his own courage kills him.


The ironic combination of the highest forms of human excellence and utter destructiveness manifests itself also in the final goal the warrior sets for himself. For the greatest thing he can achieve is a glorious and lasting memory of his actions. Time will inevitably bring about his death in battle, but through his heroic fame his importance can live on in his family and community. And so the Iliadic warrior leader seeks as the highest purpose of his life not happiness or riches but enduring fame. From this arises the importance of the funeral ceremonies, above all the funeral mound, the lasting memorial for future generations, and of the stories of past heroes, whose achievements live on in the memories of these warriors and in the songs they listen to about past exploits. Helen observes that the only justification for the terrible suffering is the urge it fosters to keep the memories of great heroes alive: “Zeus gives us an evil fate,/ so we may be subjects for men’s songs/ in generations yet to come” (6.442). The heroic code thus channels the vital energies of these men into the paradoxical search through killing and being killed in war for something that will transcend time. The warrior becomes most famous only when he has perished (3).


What [Homer] exalts and sanctifies is not the triumph of victorious force but man’s energy in misfortune the dead warrior’s beauty the glory of the sacrificed hero, the song of the poet in times to come—whatever defies fatality and rises superior to it, even in defeat. (Bespaloff 79)


No matter how paradoxical the ironies of the heroic code, the warriors’ adherence to it is unambiguous. None of the leaders directs at the group ethic any overt criticism, and they can be very severe on a colleague who fails to live up to its demands, as Diomedes shows when he criticizes his superior, the commander-in-chief (in Book 9). Again and again, the reader sees in their actions, ambitions, and beliefs the complex irony of their lives, but the warriors accept the situation without question. Achilles, of course, becomes something of an exception because, in his isolation from the group, he acquires a new perspective on the code and then, in his climactic aristeia, discovers for himself the inescapably self-destructive contradictions at the heart of it. But for the normal warrior leader, like Diomedes, Odysseus, Ajax, Sarpedon, and Idomeneus, the road to fame (and thus the purpose of life) always remains firmly inside the parameters set by the shared heroic code, and he thus remains unaware of the complexity of the experience in which he plays an integral part.


These ironic limitations of the heroic code become even more evident if we start examining the live of the non-combatants: the women, children, and old men. Obviously these groups cannot compete for status in this society, unless, like Nestor, they can remain in the front lines. So they must derive their sense of worth from their relationship to a warrior as part of his identity. This is obvious enough from the depiction of women in the poem, many of whom are treated more or less as objects to be awarded to warriors as part of their status. The first prize in the wrestling match, for example, is a tripod worth twenty oxen, and the second prize is a woman skilled in handicrafts worth four oxen. Well, why not? The warrior needs a tripod to clean up after the battle. A gifted female artisan has far less use in warfare. Similarly, Agamemnon offers Teucer as a fitting reward a tripod or chariot or a woman who will go to bed with him. In the Iliad, the realities of war shape human values, and those who cannot contribute directly to the war have a relatively low value compared with people or objects of direct military utility. These details stand in marked contrast to the Odyssey, where women, especially those gifted in art, music, and domestic life have a much higher esteem. For similar reasons, old men generally count for little if their days of fighting have passed. They have become like “cicadas perched up on a forest branch, chirping their soft, delicate sounds” (3.164), good for nothing but irrelevant chatter. Even Priam, king of Troy, acknowledges the pathetic weakness of the old. We are reminded again and again that this warrior life, for all the values it confers on certain human qualities, rigidly excludes many aspects of human experience.


One particularly eloquent moment in the poem reveals these contradictions in detail, that is, the meeting between Hector and Andromache and their son in Book 6. In fact, this extraordinary scene’s major purpose is to expose the limitations of the warrior’s creed. In response to Andromache’s lament for the slaughter of her family and her plea to her one remaining protector, Hector outlines his understanding of the paradoxical code which requires him to fight on:


all this concerns me, too. But I’d be disgraced,
dreadfully shamed among Trojan men
and Trojan women in their trailing gowns,                            
if I should, like a coward, slink away from war.
My heart will never prompt me to do that, 
for I have learned always to be brave, 
to fight alongside Trojans at the front, 
striving to win fame for father and myself.
My heart and mind know well the day is coming
when sacred Ilion will be destroyed,
along with Priam of the fine ash spear
and Priam’s people.” (6.539) [5.440] 


But Hector’s awareness of the destruction of his people, all the more significant because we know Achilles will soon claim Hector as another victim, does not lead Hector to criticize the heroic code. So devoted is he to it, that in imagining the disaster which will overtake the city, he acknowledges that the most painful thought of all is the knowledge that, even though he will be dead, his name will be shamed by the public humiliation of Andromache. His priority here echoes the reaction of Agamemnon earlier when he witnesses his brother’s wound. For all his fraternal concern, Agamemnon’s major worry is that his reputation will suffer if Menelaus dies.


Then Hector reaches for his son. The child, understandably terrified by the metallic figure of the armed warrior, wails in distress. In the most intimate domestic moment in the entire poem, both the parents find the child’s response mildly comical and together they laugh in unison. Their mutual amusement at the cries of their baby son is understandable enough, but even here the affection of the moment has its complexities. For Hector armed, a man transformed into a metallic apparition ready to do battle, is a fearful sight, and the child’s fright is a natural reaction. But to those who life is defined by the heroic code, both Hector and Andromache, the infant’s distress is a source of amusement. It stems, in part, from the parents’ complete acceptance of the normality of war and their lack of awareness of any alternative. Hence, being upset by the sight of a warrior is amusing.


Moments later, as he looks lovingly at his baby son, Hector’s hopes for the lad’s future confirm just how incapable he is of fully understanding the culture which has destroyed and will destroy so much human life, including his own:


                              “Zeus, all you other gods, 
grant that this child, my son, may become, 
like me, pre-eminent among the Trojans, 
as strong and brave as me. Grant that he may rule
Troy with strength. May people someday say, 
as he returns from war, ‘This man is far better 
than his father.’ May he carry back
bloody spoils from his slaughtered enemy,
making his mother’s heart rejoice.” (6.583) [6.476]


The speech presents quite impartially the ironies of the warrior’s life. Hector and Andromache understand slaughter. They have seen and lamented its consequences, and they know it will overtake them and their fellow citizens sooner or later. Yet the only ambition Hector has for his son is a successful participation in the process that has exterminated or soon will exterminate all the child’s immediate relatives. Some observers see a tension in Hector here (“Hector’s loyalties are divided,” Schein 174), but Hector’s proud unambiguous ambitions for himself and Astyanax reveal no conscious confusion or doubt on his part. However much Andromache weeps for the killing of her family and whatever Hector’s pessimistic vision of the future, neither of them pushes their emotional attitude to a criticism of their way of life, in which their faith remains unwavering. The irony in the scene is all the more eloquent because of the genuine love we feel Hector and Andromache have for each other and their child and because we know what will happen to them all soon enough. That they should continue to accept their way of life without any critical sense of the destructive ironies at the heart of it reminds the reader all the more vividly of the complexity of the picture Homer is developing.


The way in which Hector’s and Andromache’s loving laughter directs a critical insight into the adequacy of the heroic code brings to mind other moments in the poem where the shared intimacy of mutual laughter in the midst of affectionate comradeship evokes an unmistakable irony. In Book 10, for example, after Odysseus and Diomedes carry out an extraordinarily bloody raid against the Trojan allies, an episode which Homer describes so as to bring out the utmost pathos and revulsion against slaughter, the book ends with general laughter at the expense of the enemy.


“Brave Diomedes killed their master,
along with all twelve of his companions, 
their finest men. There was a thirteenth killed,
a spy we captured near the ships, sent there
by Hector and the other haughty Trojans,
to scout around our camp.”


Odysseus finished. Then he laughed with triumph,
driving the sure-footed horses past the ditch.
Other Achaeans came after him, rejoicing. (10.669) [10.559]


In the laughter of Odysseus and his comrades we recognize a natural reaction, but the reminder of the brutal killing of defenseless, sleeping soldiers and a helpless captive qualifies our assent. According to the warrior code, Odysseus and Diomedes have done well and are fully entitled to gloat. What in the scale of human values, we may wonder, has that exultation cost? Homer insists upon the question, but leaves the answer up to us.


The most celebrated moment of human laughter in the Iliad takes place in the incident with Thersites in Book 2. Here we must not let the literary descendants of the man, especially Shakespeare’s portrayal of him, warp our judgment of what he actually says. For Thersites’s objection to the entire enterprise, the only speech we have from a common soldier, deserves close attention:


“Son of Atreus, what’s your problem now?
What are you missing? Your huts stuffed with bronze, 
plenty of choice women, too—all presents
we Achaeans give you as our leader,
whenever we ransack some city.
Or are you in need of still more gold, 
a ransom fetched by some horse-taming Trojan
for his son tied up and delivered here
by me or by some other Achaean?
Or do you want a young girl to stash away,
so you can screw her all by yourself? 
It’s just not fair that you, our leader, 
have botched things up so badly for us, 
Achaea’s sons. But you men, you soldiers,
cowardly comrades, disgraceful people,
you’re Achaean women, not warriors. 
Let’s sail home in our ships, leave this man, 
our king, right here in Troy to enjoy his loot.
That way he might come to recognize
whether or not we’re of some use to him.” (2.261) [2.225]


The language may be colloquially rough, and Thersites may be the ugliest looking soldier on the expedition, but the speech calls into question the basic assumptions of the group in a manner unlike anything else in the poem. For Thersites is essentially challenging the value of the warrior code. He directs at it what we might call (stretching things a bit) a reasonable moral objection: Look here, this war is not fair to me and my fellow common soldiers, so why don’t we all stop fighting and go home? Why should I keep risking my life to enrich these leaders? In his reply to Thersites, Odysseus does not even meet the objection on its own terms—perhaps because this concept of fairness is entirely alien to him or else because he recognizes only too clearly the dangers of engaging Thersites in an argument of this sort. Instead he berates Thersites verbally and attacks him physically until Thersites whimpers and cowers away from the blows. The soldiers then laugh at the sight of the “rabble rouser” in pain. Their reaction closes the group against Thersites and confirms their adherence to the warrior code which he has just challenged. But the reader, standing outside the group, sees the ironic implications of “noble” Odysseus’ response. In this way of life, there is no place for Thersites’s way of thinking. To admit it would be to undermine the entire fabric of the society. My own sense is that Odysseus does not here display his legendary duplicity, concealing his appreciation for Thersites’s thinking behind a necessary stratagem. As an orthodox warrior leader who subscribes to the conventional group belief, Odysseus does not even comprehend what Thersites means. Odysseus sees the objection as a challenge to Agamemnon’s authority, which it is, and he acts accordingly. By making the soldiers laugh at the pain he is inflicting he, in effect, neutralizes that challenge (4)


In his play Comedians, Trevor Griffiths calls attention to two common forms of the joke. The first confirms people’s shared attitudes. The laughter expresses a group’s response to what its member perceive as something outside themselves which they wish to exclude or distance themselves from. A joke releases any tension or unease they may feel about a challenge to their habitual ways of thinking and thus reinforces the limitations of the group’s shared belief. The most common form of this sort of joke is something racist or sexist (many comedians, of course, get very rich on this form of humour). The second style of joke “has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation” (Griffiths 20). Such laughter educates the group into a new awareness of itself. The laughter of the men in the Iliad, and there is not very much, always belongs in the first category. It acts as a quick and often harsh confirmation of the community’s standards at the expense of anyone who might threaten to open a momentary breach in the closed awareness of the group, and thus their humour possesses none of the educational effects of the type of laughter which transforms. As readers we probably don’t find these incidents particularly funny, but we are not meant to. We can appreciate, however, how the communal merriment exposes the limitation of the faith which enables these men to keep going.


One might note here the funny story Hephaestus tells against himself in order to deal with a potentially dangerous domestic moment on Olympus at the end of Book 1. The incident brings out the rich joys of the second type of comedy, which enables the joke teller to cope with strife through self-deprecating wit rather than through confrontation. But such humour is available only among the gods, for no warrior ever does what Hephaestus does here to “change the situation.”




(1) I don’t mean to suggest with these remarks that Odysseus’s sense of status in the Odyssey is not of enormous importance to him. Obviously, that is a major concern of his and one of the reasons he repeatedly gets into trouble (out of a desire to enhance his reputation by making himself known throughout the world). But the competition for status is not so insistently present in Odyssey, and the hero’s attitude towards it is a good deal more flexible than that of the characters in the Iliad[Back to Text]


(2) The apparent ambiguities of the code will be understandable enough to anyone who has played strenuous team sports, especially those which involve a lot of physical contact. In such events, there are moments when a player has to stand up and risk being seriously hurt, and there are moments when a prudent refusal is quite acceptable. This point is especially true for those sports where there are a lot of rowdy spectators. [Back to Text]


(3) It may well be that we owe to these songs celebrating the dead heroes of the past the origin of tragic drama (a much disputed subject). The songs themselves would re-tell the hero’s greatest exploits, culminating in his final battle. One can easily imagine such recitations developing into drama as soon as the leader of the chorus begins depicting the hero’s actions, that is, once he becomes an actor impersonating the dead hero. [Back to Text]


(4) Some commentators have drawn comparisons between Thersites’ objection and the initial outburst of Achilles. So, for example, Whitman observes, “Few things are more subtle in the Iliad than the way in which this ‘good-for-nothing,’ the social and physical antitype of Achilles, reiterates the resentment of the hero. . . .” (16). The significant differences between the two episodes, however, should not be overlooked. Achilles’s objection comes from a man who believes in the code and who has been rewarded handsomely by it. His faith in it fuels his anger at the loss of status, and his accusations, made in extreme fury, are not altogether justified (as we shall see in a later essay). Thersites’s comments, on the other hand, come from someone with very little status, who is rejecting the code because it is inherently unfair to those who must risk the dangers without the concomitant rewards. [Back to Text]




[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.]