During the Bronze Age, combined Greek forces under the command of King Agamemnon are entering their tenth year of laying siege to the city of Troy. The foremost Greek hero, Achilles, stops participating in the war when enraged by Agamemnon’s theft of a fair maiden won in battle by Achilles. Without him and his immense fighting prowess, the Greeks’ fortunes take a turn for the worse, and the Trojans are suddenly in with a chance of victory.
My observations below contain a few spoilers, which doesn’t really matter, since The Iliad itself is pretty good at spoiling its upcoming events. Also bear in mind that I’m no expert. On anything.
I was too young the first time I read The Iliad. My impression of it was an endless number of pages of two armies kicking each other’s asses back and forth across a plain while Zeus and the other gods behaved like playground bullies. I still find this description valid as far as it goes, but my younger self managed to miss all the things that make The Iliad a great work of literature and a singularly intriguing instrument for spying into a long-vanished mindset.
Troy did exist, and it was besieged more than once, longer ago than most human minds can readily comprehend – mine certainly can’t absorb the time span involved. These wars were ancient history even when the version of The Iliad which has come down to us was fixed in written form about 2,700 years ago. Between the actual events and “our” Iliad there were centuries of oral tradition retelling the tales, embellishing them, and adding mythical elements to them before they were assembled into a whole and were further refined into the magnificent epic of ancient fantasy that we know. This process is evidently known as “epic fermentation”, but that only makes me think of really strong beer, so let’s leave that to one side.
Considering this immensely long period of development, it’s no wonder that The Iliad has been polished like a stone in a stream until reaching a smoothness of near perfection. In the written version, much remains of the oral tradition that preceded it, like the standing epithets, standardized depictions of sacrifices and other actions, and the verbatim repetition of certain speeches and formalized events – all designed to provide mnemonic resting points and simplify memorization for the rhapsodes who had to learn it all by heart before the dawn of literacy. These linguistic artifacts are beautifully formulated and work almost like the refrains of a song … which to all intents and purposes is what The Iliad originally was.
There are many other stylistic peculiarities that stand out in the eyes of a modern reader, particularly the liberal use of the “epic simile”, in which it isn’t enough to state, for instance, that a warrior fights like a lion, but like a lion that shakes its mane in rage as it attacks a poorly herded flock of sheep in the wooded mountains while the shepherds and their dogs quiver in fear nearby, afraid to throw their javelins at the rampant beast that is hungry for blood and intestines. These elaborate digressions can, it must be admitted, be a damned nuisance when they interrupt a particularly exciting action scene, but in and of themselves they are gorgeous little mini poems, almost like haikus marbling the main text.
Another specific characteristic of the ancient epic, Iliad included, is of course the hexameter verse, with the strange syntax and circumlocution needed to fit the story into the meter. The hexameter furnishes much of The Iliad’s heavy, regally rolling atmosphere, since it even makes the act of washing one’s face or slicing a loaf of bread sound like events of thunderous importance. The translation I’ve read (a Swedish one from 1908) is rather archaically worded, but I rather like that, as I think it retains the dignity and grandeur of the poem; Plato’s and Socrates’ conversations, by contrast, are rather informal and can productively be rendered in a colloquial modern idiom, but The Iliad is a heroic epic and should – I firmly believe – sound like one.
The style is far from being the most remarkable and perhaps alien aspect, however. More striking, and perhaps alarming, is the mentality current with every single male character (and most of them are male): war and slaughter are beautiful things; it’s as honorable to butcher sleeping enemies as it is to meet them face to face; it’s unthinkable to do anybody a favour without being richly rewarded with loot for one’s trouble; fallen enemies should be robbed and preferably mutilated; women are merely commodities (although rather valuable ones, some being worth as much as four oxen); hundreds of cattle and sheep should regularly have their throats cut to appease the gods (who rarely care anyway); and if you see a grand city with spectacular towers and gleaming spires, your first thought should be to raze it to the ground for laughs. Yes, all this supposedly took place in times ancient even to the ancient Greeks who read or listened to The Iliad, and it’s all enacted by heroes and demigods of legend, but The Iliad was still considered a sound moral guideline in classical Greece. This is easy to tell if you read a few of the blood-soaked but didactically intended tragedies written in that period. We tend to regard the ancient Greeks as highly civilized and sophisticated, and in many ways they were, but there was also much of the primeval in them with their fondness for looting, slavery, randomly ordered executions and violent battles.
And oh my, are The Iliad’s battles ever violent. Much of the poem is in fact overwhelmingly violent, with the deaths of scores of warriors described in gleefully sadistic detail, severed heads, spraying blood and squirting brains and guts flying everywhere. These descriptions grow gorier the further you read, and a case could be made for The Iliad being the most brutal bit of “high culture” ever composed.
All the deaths of brothers in arms generate a fair amount of weeping on the part of our main heroes, but there aren’t very many characters who – at least to 21st Century sensibilities – come off as human. Most of the warriors sigh a bit before returning to their former enthusiasm for killing as many people as possible. The very motivation for the war itself, the famous abduction of the fair Helena by Trojan prince Paris, is unbelievable, and most of the characters’ reasoning follow the same bizarre lines: ostentatious but unrealistic, everyone apparently inspired solely by greed and a lust for blood-drenched glory.
A couple of characters stand out as partial exceptions, among them the greatest Trojan hero, Hector, in whom one can sense a touching desperation in his fervour to defend his home city. He is also a family man, with a beloved wife and a toddler son lending him a human dimension lacking in most of the other protagonists. Achilles, arguably The Iliad’s lead character, has personality to spare too, but it’s of an archetypal and not overly well-rounded kind. He’s insanely rancorous and implacable, and by his sulky inaction permits hundreds, perhaps thousands of his comrades to die. At the same time he’s paradoxically pining for as much glory in battle as he can get, since fate has decreed that he will not live long. Incidentally, there is no mention in The Iliad of his famed invulnerability, his arm actually getting lightly wounded at one point. And he’s certainly not emotionally invulnerable: when his special friend Patroklos dies (which is really Achilles’ fault), he goes absolutely ape in his grief. This does not please the Trojans, because Achilles is an immensely powerful force – him returning to the war effort is a lot like a fairly even fight where one side suddenly gets reinforced by the Incredible Hulk.
In all the testosterone-dripping psychosis that permeates The Iliad, it’s amusing to see how all the boasting and fighting spirit goes out of our heroes as soon as they sense that the gods are getting involved: “Oh, it could possibly be that Athena or Ares is helping them now, better run screaming like little children”. This complete prostration before the various deities is rather comical, as is the professed love and respect for them, given their cheap tricks, fickle minds (especially Zeus’) and incredibly bitchy attitudes; sometimes they literally slap the weapons out of the hands of someone they’ve decided should lose a fight. Strangely enough, not even Zeus is the highest authority, since most of the gods’ seemingly arbitrary decisions are mandated by what they term “fate”. If even the gods are only the servants of Fate, then what is the point of them? It all feels like they’re a bickering branch of redundant middle-management in a poorly organised bureaucracy.
I hope it’s obvious by now that The Iliad is weird and amazing, while also quite perplexing in many of its constituent parts. Just take the fact that the story begins in the final year of the siege and still doesn’t tell us how the war ends. That whole Trojan Horse business and the predestined death of Achilles? Nowhere to be found in The Iliad. It’s just an excerpt from an even longer tale, a gruesome anecdote that’s really about the consequences of the “wrath of Achilles” and about his eventual catharsis.
It’s hard to read The Iliad without preconceptions and baggage: it is the oldest extant European work of literature, and one that formed much of the later Greek notions of duty, fealty, honour and war. Of course, the more you know about Greek mythology and history, the more you’ll get out of it, but it does stand splendidly on its own as a harsh and bleak fantasy epic. Its literary legacy is immeasurable. In ancient times it inspired countless tragedies, some of them (like Aeschylus’ Agamemnon) direct sequels, as well as the later Roman homage/ripoff The Aeneid (whose main character Aeneas appears in The Iliad). Comic book superheroes owe their debt to The Iliad, as do the metric tons of fantasy novels filling the shelves of book stores. It’s the European granddaddy of the genre, and it is also electrifying if slightly demented poetry of no small brilliance.
I won’t go into the Homeric Question (did Homer exist, and if so, who was he and blah blah blah?), but the other great epic attributed to him, The Odyssey, is just as essential reading as The Iliad. And please, don’t watch the stupendously bad movie Troy in the belief that it captures the essence of The Iliad.
Rating: 10 of 10.
Artist’s representation of Homer.