Study Guide

The Iliad Warfare

By Homer


Book 5

Meriones in turn killed Phereklos, son of Harmonides,
the smith, who understood how to make with his hand all intricate
things, since above all others Pallas Athene had loved him.
He it was who had built for Alexandros the balanced
ships, the beginning of the evil, fatal to the other
Trojans, and to him, since he knew nothing of the gods' plans. (5.59-64)

This is one of many poignant reminders in the Iliad that the members of the Trojan and Achaian armies have lives outside of warfare. How do you think this type of reminder contributes to the Iliad as a whole?

Book 7

Tall Hektor of the glancing helm answered him: "Aias,
son of Telamon, seed of Zeus, o lord of the people,
do not be testing me as if I were some ineffectual
boy, or a woman, who knows nothing of the works of warfare.
I know well myself how to fight and kill men in battle;
I know how to turn to the right, how to turn to the left the ox-hide
tanned into a shield which is my protection in battle;
I know how to storm my way into the struggle of flying horses;
I know how to tread my measures on the grim floor of the war god." (7.233-241)

In Ancient Greek, the same word, ergon, is used to refer to "work" done in an everyday context and "deeds" done on the battlefield. Hektor's speech to Aias emphasizes this connection, treating warfare as a skill much like any other.

Now the sun of a new day struck on the ploughlands, rising
out of the quiet water and the deep stream of the ocean
to climb the sky. The Trojans assembled together. They found
it hard to recognize each individual dead man;
but with water they washed away the blood that was on them
and as they wept warm tears they lifted them on to the wagons.
But great Priam would not let them cry out; and in silence
they piled the bodies upon the pyre, with their hearts in sorrow,
and burned them upon the fire, and went back to sacred Ilion.
In the same way on the other side the strong-greaved Achaians
piled their own slain upon the pyre, with their hearts in sorrow,
and burned them upon the fire, and went-back to their hollow vessels. (7.421-432)

In this scene, the poet shows us the essential similarity between the Achaians and the Trojans, even though they are on opposing sides of a long war. Can you think of other moments in the Iliad that place such emphasis on shared humanity?

Book 13

[…] there man's courage is best decided,
where the man who is a coward and the brave man show themselves clearly:
the skin of the coward changes colour one way and another,
and the heart inside him has no control to make him sit steady,
but he shifts his weight from one foot to another, then settles firmly
on both feet, and the heart inside his chest pounds violent
as he thinks of the death spirits, and his teeth chatter together:
but the brave man's skin will not change colour, nor is he too much
frightened, once he has taken his place in the hidden position,
but his prayer is to close as soon as may be in bitter division […]. (13.276-287)

In these words spoken to Meriones, Idomeneus says that war reveals the true nature of a person's character. Do you think this is true of stressful situations generally? What do you make of Idomeneus's distinction between someone who has courage and someone who lacks it?

'Hektor, you are too intractable to listen to reason.
Because the god has granted you the actions of warfare
therefore you wish in counsel also to be wise beyond others.
But you cannot choose to have all gifts given to you together.
To one man the god has granted the actions of warfare,
to one to be a dancer, to another the lyre and the singing,
and in the breast of another Zeus of the wide brows establishes
wisdom, a lordly thing, and many take profit beside him
and he saves many, but the man's own thought surpasses all others.' (13.726-734)

Poulydamas's advice to Hektor is similar to Nestor's advice to his son Antilochos in Book 23, lines 318-325 (quoted in our discussion of the theme of "Competition"). Nestor's advice, of course, doesn't have to do with war, but rather with how to win a chariot race. Both figures point out that brawn isn't everything—you've got to have brains too.

Book 14

Now I utterly despise your heart for the thing you have spoken;
you who in the very closing of clamorous battle
tell us to haul our strong-benched ships to the sea, so that even
more glory may befall the Trojans, who beat us already,
and headlong destruction swing our way, since the Achaians
will not hold their battle as the ships are being hauled seaward,
but will look about, and let go the exultation of fighting.
There, o leader of the people, your plan will be ruin. (14.95-102)

Try to think about these lines (spoken to Agamemnon) alongside those by Aias quoted below from Book 15 (lines 733-741). Here, Odysseus is saying that the Achaians will only stay in battle formation if they know they are all in it together. Do you think Aias would agree with him?

Book 15

Friends and fighting men of the Danaans, henchmen of Ares,
be men now, dear friends, remember your furious valour.
Do we think there are others who stand behind us to help us?
Have we some stronger wall that can rescue men from perdition?
We have no city built strong with towers lying near us, within which
we could defend ourselves and hold off this host that matches us.
We hold position in this plain of the close-armoured Trojans,
bent back against the sea, and far from the land of our fathers.
Salvation's light is in our hands' work, not the mercy of battle. (15.733-741)

Aias's words show a terrifying moment: the moment when you realize there is no way out except the way you make yourself. Have you ever been in such a situation? (It could be studying for a test, training for a sporting event, acting in a play, etc.)

Did the knowledge that you had no choice make it easier or harder for you to act? Can you connect this experience with other moments in the Iliad when characters act under the influence of necessity (for example, under the influence of fate)?


He who among you
finds by spear thrown or spear thrust his death and destiny,
let him die. He has no dishonour when he dies defending
his country, for then his wife shall be saved and his children afterwards,
and his house and property shall not be damaged, if the Achaians
must go away with their ships to the beloved land of their fathers. (15.486-488, 494-499)

In these words, Hektor reminds the Trojans of everything at stake in their battle against the Achaians. From what we know of the fall of Troy from other literary works, such as the Odyssey and the Aeneid – not to mention the predictions of Andromache, quoted at the end of this section – Hektor's fears sound more than justified.

Book 18

On it he wrought in all their beauty two cities of mortal
men. And there were marriages in one, and festivals. […]
But around the other city were lying two forces of armed men
shining in their war gear. (18.490-491, 509-510)

The designs Hephaistos puts on Achilleus's shield have been interpreted as a complete picture of the natural and human worlds as Homer's society understood them. Why do you think the god would include these two cities in that picture? Do you think the Iliad views war as an inevitable part of human life, or can it be avoided?

Book 24

My husband, you were lost young from life, and have left me
a widow in your house, and the boy is only a baby
who was born to you and me, the unhappy. I think he will never
come of age, for before then head to heel this city
will be sacked, for you, its defender, are gone, you who guarded
the city, and the grave wives, and the innocent children,
wives who before long must go away in the hollow ships,
and among them I shall also go, and you, my child, follow
where I go, and there do much hard work that is unworthy
of you, drudgery for a hard master; or else some Achaian
will take you by hand and hurl you from the tower into horrible
death, in anger because Hektor once killed his brother,
or his father, or his son; there were so many Achaians
whose teeth bit the vast earth, beaten down by the hands of Hektor.
Your father was no merciful man in the horror of battle. (24.725-739)

Andromache's words to her fallen husband, Hektor, come near the very end of the Iliad. What do you think they say about the nature of war, as portrayed in the book?

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...