War times

Does The Iliad glorify or condemn war?

A yes or no to the above question will not suffice for an epic as great as The Iliad and for a genius like Homer, although it’s difficult to conclude whether it was one person who penned The Iliad or if it’s the work of an entire community. But for the sake of convenience, I’ll assume that authorship of The Iliad belongs to Homer.

Homer is too wise to tell us whether war is good or bad; he leaves it to his readers to come to their own conclusion. Such binaries of good and bad are not a luxury the reader has while reading The Iliad. Having said that, Homer builds The Iliad as an anti war poem. There is no effort to glorify war or the hero and instead there is a conscious attempt to depict ugly images of war, not to disgust the reader, but to show war as it is. The Iliad doesn’t show the death of Achilles or the burning of Troy. Of the Trojans, only Aenas will survive and of the Greeks, Odysseus. This information plays on the reader’s minds throughout and it leads one to wonder how a war that started because of the lustfulness of one man resulted in the end of two civilisations.

In the second book of The Iliad, in the rare instance that Homer makes a comment, he says about Agamemnon: “He little knew what Zeus intended, nor all the sufferings and sorrows he had in store for both sides in the heat of battle.” The scenes of communal cremation in book 7 are symbolic of Homer’s philosophy of Hellenic Humanism. He shows that the enemy is no different. When the end for both the Greeks and the Trojans is the same, then there really is no purpose of war. Antenor in book 7 questions why they are fighting the battle. He says: “Enough is enough, let us give Helen back to Agamemnon and Menelaus, along with all the property that came with her. By fighting on as we are doing, we have cheated on the oaths. No good that I can see will ever come out of that, unless we act as I suggest.”

Homer does not gloss over the ugliness of war. Nestor, the oldest and the wisest of the Greeks, in book 2, talks about rape as a tool of war as does Hector in book 6. He doesn’t hide from Andromache her fate after his death. She will become a slave to a Greek warrior (Achilles’ son Neoptolemus’ slave). Homer shows us that violence recoils on the perpetrator — just as Patroclus dishonours Sarpedon in death, Hector dishonours him and his body will be unrecognisable.

The unpleasant pictures of dead bodies, of the earth running red with blood and the red turning to black contribute to the epic being an anti war poem. Homer paints hideous images of war with the horrific scene of the struggle over Patroclus’ body and the brutal manner in which Achilles drags Hector’s body from the towers of Ilium back to the Greek camps. Book 14 onwards, every man who dies is given a name, an identity and history. We can no longer look at them as dead bodies piled up on a cart, detached from the tragedy of death. The dead now become individuals who had families, had wives and children, who they’d never seen. In book 17, when Hippothous dies, Homer honours him with a personal touch: “He was a long way from fertile Larisa and could never repay his parents for their care; his life had been too short when Ajax’s spear cut him off.”

Homer undercuts the glory of war using his heroes. When Hector meets his mother Hecuba and his wife Andromache in book 6, he’s almost tempted to leave the battlefield. In the beautiful moment when Hector the warrior takes off his helmet to play with his son Astyanax for one last time, the man in Hector realises the futility of war. He detests Paris, his brother because of whom Troy has been fighting for nine long years. The warrior thus hates war. Odysseus himself didn’t want to come to battle. When Achilles returns to the battlefield, he no longer believes in war. He doesn’t return because he believes in the cause, he only fights to rid himself of the guilt of being responsible for Patroclus’ death. He has finally understood that there is no glory in war. In the end, his only wish is to meet his father Peleus and to return home.

Like the image of home and hearth Homer paints in book 6, he uses homeric similes and imagery from nature to build an alternate world without war. The shield of Achilles is a symbol he uses to show that conflicts can be resolved without war and violence, without disturbing the pastoral world and the domestic world. The shield contrasts marriage which represents man’s ability to create and war which represents man’s ability to destroy. It contrasts the black of the grape with the black of congealed blood and the gold of corn and the gold of fire.

Homer is careful not to show the glory of war. Hector, the mainstay of Ilium dies and there is no mention of the glory that follows after. Perhaps because there is no glory; there is eternity, but no glory.

Homer concludes this build up with a final tragedy of war; that in which parents bury their children instead of the other way round. Alexander Pope said ‘Nature and Homer were the same.’ Thus it’s fitting that Homer’s subtle way of condemning war is showing that it goes against the organic order of life and of nature.

(an assignment written in first semester in college)