A walk through your favourite classics, one book at a time.
Michael A. Arnold
Who enjoys playing war games? Me. Call of Duty, Battlefield, You do too (I assume) they are so much fun! But as we die and respawn over and over, because one mission is just too hard, it is worth thinking about what actual conflict is really like. There is a book that talks about the morality of war, from the point of view of soldiers living and fighting in one: The Iliad.
The Iliad is a 3,000 year old poem, and one of the oldest war stories ever told. Written by a mysterious figure we only know as Homer. It tells a story toward the end of the legendarily ten year long Trojan war, but it is not the end of the war. By the end, the fighting is still going on.
Since it is not about the end of the war, it is reasonable to ask what the poem is about, especially since it does not mention the famous Trojan Horse – the eventual winning strategy for the Greeks.
The poem is one of the longest works that survives from Ancient Greece, and has been adapted and appropriated several times in recent centuries. People may know the names of many of the characters despite never reading the work itself, like: Ajax, Hector, Priam, Odysseus or Achilles. Here is a deep drive into The Iliad:
Book one is probably the most complicated. Starting in the middle of another story, the war has been going on for almost ten years and there has been an outbreak of plague in the Greek camp. It was cursed with a plague by Chryses (a Trojan priest of Apollo) because the leader of the Greek armies, King Agamemnon, would not return his daughter Chryseis who was taken prisoner. The Greeks meet to try to appease the gods and exercise the plague, and Agamemnon agrees to return Chryseis – but as compensation takes another girl, Briseis, from Achilles. This makes Achilles, who is the best fighter in the Greek army, extremely angry. ‘I swear a might oath upon it … a yearning for Achilles’ will strike Achaea’s (Greece’s) sons’ he says, refusing to fight until his pride is satisfied, and he prays for tide of battle to turn against the Greeks. But the plague in the Greek camp is lifted.
Book two is famously called the ‘catalogue of the ships’, and is a list of all the various forces that make up the combined Greek army under the command of Agamemnon, as they take their place on the battlefield. The Trojan army then gathers, and there is a list of all the forces making up the Trojan army.
The two armies approach each other. Trojan arrows are launched against them and the battle starts. There are some really gripping and violent depictions of ancient warfare:
At last the armies clashed at one strategic point,Book Two, The Iliad
they slammed their shields together, pike scraped pike
with the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze
and their round shields pounded, boss on welded boss,
and the sound of struggle roared and rocked the earth.
Eventually the Trojan prince Hector rallies the Trojans and retreats, stopping a rout of their army. As the two sides return to their respective camps the point of view follows Hector into Troy itself. As he walks through the Trojan palace he sees Helen, who feels deep remorse for her part in starting the war, before he sees his family – his wife Andromache and young son Astyanax. This is quite an interesting part, humanizing the Trojan side. They are honorable, even frightened of a Greek victory that they seem to know is coming. Hector himself is shown to be especially noble, showing that this war is not simply one of the Greeks being good and the Trojans being evil. There is an especially touching scene where Hector stands on the walls of Troy thinking about his wife and son, and despite seeming to know that they will soon die he prays to the gods:
Oh Gods, let my son be a good man. Let him lead men in battle, and let them say ‘he is a better man than his father ever was.’Book Two, The Iliad
At the end of this book, Hector leaves the walls of Troy and the battle begins again. The Trojans start to win, the Greeks are forced back to their ships.
Achilles sends Patroclus to check on the Greek casualties. Patroclus becomes worried the Greeks will lose and decides to join the fight. Achilles allows him to, lending him his armor. Patroclus then leads Achilles’ men into battle and the Trojans are pushed back once again. The Trojans retreat all the way to the gates of Troy, where Patroclus is killed by Hector.
Achilles hears of the death of his friend, and is inconsolable with grief and rage. He stands at the Greek walls and roars with rage. The gods make Achilles new amour for the fight ahead, which includes a new shield, and a long and strangely complicated description is given of it – it has a number of oddly pastoralist images and scenes worked into it. Scholars are divided on what this means.
Then Achilles rides out to the frontlines in his chariot, and smashes the Trojan armies by himself. Hector covers the retreat at the city gates. As the last Trojan soldiers get through the gates of Troy are closed on Hector, trapping him outside with Achilles.
The two men stare each other down, but Hector’s nerve breaks and he runs to find another gate into the city. Achilles chases Hector around the walls of Troy. In another book it would have made a great comedy sketch, but here it feels weighty, poignant. When Hector finds that all the city gates have been shut he decides to stand and face Achilles alone.
But their duel is short; Achilles wins.
Everyone from both sides is shocked at the death of Hector, and the Greeks take Hector’s body to their camp. That night, Achilles dreams of Patroclus, who asks Achilles to make sure the proper burial rites are conducted, so Patroclus can rest in the underworld. The Greeks hold a series of funeral games for him.
During the funeral games Achilles retreats to his tent but finds Priam, the king of Troy, waiting for him. Seeing Achilles, Priam falls to his knees and begs ‘Please, let me suffer as no man has suffered before, let me kiss the hands of the man who murdered my son.’ Achilles is shocked and brought to tears by this, and deeply respects the bravery it took for the enemy king to sneak into the Greek camp to ask for this. Achilles not only agrees to return Hector’s body to the Trojans, the two men have dinner where they lament all the loss of so many good people in war, and agree to a truce so the dead can be buried with honors. As the poem ends Hector’s body is buried, and the Trojans mourn his passing.
It is not until the end that we see Achilles as something other than a brilliant if savage fighter, or as a grumpy and over-proud man, he is actually someone with a deep respect for bravery and forthrightness. He becomes more human. Achilles’ respect for Priam reminds him of his own mortality. So many of Achilles’ friends and loved ones are dead, as are many of Priam’s loved ones too. The bond between them is a suggesting that in war all people are equal.
The book is fun to read, the descriptions of battle can be exciting, but there is also a strong sense, all through the book, that war is inevitable, and there is a kind of melancholia about humanity’s propensity for war and conflict throughout. Hector wishes for his son to lead men into battle in the future, even though he knows his son will soon die. The Iliad is not just about the morality of war; rather, it is about the transient nature of life.
About the Contributor
Michael A. Arnold is a graduate of the University of Sunderland and Northumbria University. He is based in North East England, and has previously published essays and short fiction. His influences include George Orwell and Robert Frost.