Study Guide

The Iliad Competition

By Homer


Book 1

Yes, old sir, all this you have said is fair and orderly.
Yet here is a man who wishes to be above all others,
who wishes to hold power over all, and to be lord of
all, and give them their orders, yet I think one will not obey him. (1.286-289)

When Agamemnon makes this complaint during his big argument with Achilleus, he reveals an underlying factor in their contest: the competition for political authority. Did you ever wonder why, when someone seeks political office, we say that he or she is "running" for it? Or, for that matter, why we call it a race?

Forever quarreling is dear to your heart, and wars and battles;
and if you are very strong indeed, that is a god's gift. (1.177-178)

Even though Agamemnon is talking about Achilleus as a warrior, what he has to say could be applied to any sort of competition. Basically, he's saying that Achilleus isn't any better than he is, because whatever advantage he has is because some god has helped him. The modern-day controversy about doping in sports comes out of similar feelings as Agamemnon's. What do you think about the role of doping in sports? Is it fair when someone has access to an advantage that no one else does?

Book 3

But when the other drove to his feet, resourceful Odysseus,
he would just stand and stare down, eyes fixed on the ground beneath him,
nor would he gesture with the staff backward and forward, but hold it
clutched hard in front of him, like any man who knows nothing.
Yes, you would call him a sullen man, and a fool likewise.
But when he let the great voice go from his chest, and the words came
drifting down like the winter snows, then no other mortal
man beside could stand up against Odysseus. (3.216-223)

Can you think of any activity in the Iliad that doesn't lend itself to some form of competition? Here, Antenor is praising Odysseus for his incredible speaking ability, which he contrasts with that of Menelaos (immediately before these lines). Although Menelaos and Odysseus are not going head-to-head with each other in a formal contest, it still makes sense to think of them as competing in some underlying way. At least Antenor seems to think so.

Book 9

The son of devious-devising Kronos has given you
gifts in two ways: with the sceptre he gave you honour beyond all,
but he did not give you a heart, and of all power this is the greatest. (9.37-39)

In these lines, Diomedes tells off Agamemnon, who earlier was saying that he didn't have any courage. Now Diomedes turns the tables on him, saying that he, Agamemnon, doesn't have courage (this is what he means by "a heart"). Here Diomedes expresses a deep truth about competition: nobody is the best at everything. How does this connect up with the role of Achilleus within the book? Doesn't he think he can go it alone?

Book 20

'Son of Peleus, never hope by words to frighten me
as if I were a baby. I myself understand well enough
how to speak in vituperation and how to make insults.
I know that you are great and that I am far weaker than you are.
Still, all this lies upon the knees of the gods; and it may be
that weaker as I am I might still strip the life from you
with a cast of the spear, since my weapon too has been sharp before this.' (20.432-437)

In these lines, Hektor speaks up for every underdog. Even though the other guy has all the advantages, there's always room for an upset. The only trick is to hang on to a glimmer of hope – even if it's only hope for luck, or, as Hektor puts it, for the help of the gods. In the summary of Book 20, we compared this passage to the following famous lines from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which present the same idea: "I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

Book 22

They ran beside these, one escaping, the other after him.
It was a great man who fled, but far better he who pursued him
rapidly, since here was no festal beast, no ox-hide
they strove for, for these are prizes that are given men for their running.
No, they ran for the life of Hektor, breaker of horses. (22.158-161)

It is passages like this – from the scene when Achilleus is chasing Hektor around the walls of Troy – that make even experienced readers of Homer amazed at his complexity. Later on (in Book 23) we will see extended scenes of athletic competition that echo, in various ways, the earlier scenes of warfare. But what is Homer saying? Is he saying that warfare is really like a game, or is it that games are really a form of warfare? Or is the truth something else? Is there a third thing that both resemble – some underlying human need to be the best?

Book 23

He spoke, and a man huge and powerful, well skilled in boxing,
rose up among them; the son of Panopeus, Epeios.
He laid his hand on the hard-working jenny, and spoke out:
"Let the man come up who will carry off the two-handled goblet.
I say no other of the Achaians will beat me at boxing
and lead off the jenny. I claim I am the champion. Is it not
enough that I fall short in battle? Since it could not be
ever, that a man could be a master in every endeavour.
For I'll tell you this straight out, and it will be a thing accomplished.
I will smash his skin apart and break his bones on each other.
Let those who care for him wait nearby in a huddle about him
to carry him out, after my fists have beaten him under." (23.667-675)

Some things never change. Compare this passage with some of Muhammad Ali's speeches. Notice any similarities?

If both of them had had to run the course any further,
Menelaos would have passed him, and there could have been no argument
But Meriones, strong henchman of Idomeneus, was left
a spearcast's length behind by glorious Menelaos. (23.526-529)

If there's one major difference between warfare and athletics (okay, so there are many differences), it's that in athletics there are rules. Just because you're the fastest doesn't mean you win, so long as you can't do it within the duration of the game.

Can you think of any moments during the Iliad's battle scenes where characters act as if there are rules in war? Here's a hint: sometimes this is clearest when somebody thinks the rules of war have been broken.

Aias, surpassing in abuse, yet stupid, in all else
you are worst of the Argives with that stubborn mind of yours. Come then,
let us put up a wager of a tripod or cauldron
and make Agamemnon, son of Atreus, witness between us
as to which horses lead. And when you pay, you will find out. (23.483-487)

What is it about sports that can make the spectators as engaged (if not more) than the competitors? Does this challenge to a bet seem similar to or different from other scenes of rivalry in the Iliad?


By skill charioteer outpasses charioteer. He
who has put all his confidence in his horses and chariot
and recklessly makes a turn that is loose one way or another
finds his horses drifting out of the course and does not control them.
But the man, though he drive the slower horses, who takes his advantage,
keeps his eye always on the post and turns tight, ever watchful,
pulled with the ox-hide reins on the course, as in the beginning,
and holds his horses steady in hand, and watches the leader. (23.318-325)

Here Nestor is playing the role of coach to his son, Antilochos. Do you think he is giving good advice? Would his advice hold true for every situation in the Iliad, even outside of athletic competition?

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