In 2008, Gillan spoke to soldiers from the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment who had been involved in a particularly brutal firefight in Basra four years earlier. Homer was no peacenik. Oral storytelling was a way of preserving memory and knowledge for centuries (Credit: Alamy). Rare are the cases in which the combatants are tended to by literature's first field surgeons, Machaon and Podalirius, or on one occasion by Patroclus himself, who turns medic to help his comrade Eurypylus. Andromache appeals to her husband to use defensive tactics, to stop leading his men from the front. We are all going to die; we (or at least you) may as well die now. Today's students at West Point, the elite US military academy where one may minor in "terrorism studies", study The Iliad as part of their literature course. Revenge is also most significant when Achilles vows to get revenge for the death … It is perhaps in the relationships between the combatants that modern soldiers might most readily see their own emotions mirrored. Back to Top of Page. War is the main stage in Homer's The Iliad, an epic poem that details the last years of the Trojan War. Achilles is youthful and headstrong, and has a goddess for a mother, but even he has to die. Achilles is not off the hook. The regiment was initially reluctant to host a female journalist, but she was later told by the driver of the personnel carrier that became her home "Don't worry, I will never, ever leave you. Hektor's family becomes a symbol for all the soldier's families, what their lives could be if there were no war. He had been hit so badly that there was no hope for him.". ), The onward rush of these almost joyful descriptions of slaughter in The Iliad might cause some modern readers to question the values of the poem, or at least to measure out the long distance between us and the society from which it sprang. 'Water . Achilles sings stories of heroes' deeds in battle, and Helen embroiders scenes of fighting on an elaborate textile. It is not so much the pain of his parents, his brothers, dying that haunts him, he says. The Iliad deals with only a small portion of the Trojan War; in fact, it covers only a few months during the tenth year of that war.The ancient Greek audience, however, would have been familiar with all the events leading up to this tenth year, and during the course of the Iliad, Homer makes many references to various past events. His choice of the latter marks him out as heroic, and gives him a kind of immortality. That's how you look, Patroclus, streaming live tears . Homer, he thought, must have been "very bookish" and "a house-bred man". We set our faces in the direction of the sea, quickening our pace to pass through the belt of this nauseating miasma as soon as possible. There's a curious resonance between that line and an account, again published in Carey's collection, by a young farmhand who fought on the other side of the Dardanelles, in Gallipoli, in 1915. We are still turning to The Iliad, amid our own wars: the Australian writer David Malouf's recent novel, Ransom (Chatto & Windus), is about the encounter between Priam and Achilles in The Iliad's final book, while Caroline Alexander's new study of the poem, The War that Killed Achilles (Faber), sees it as a meditation on the catastrophic effects of conflict. It tells us that war is both the bringer of renown to its young fighters and the destroyer of their lives. He is in fact the single biggest cause of the horrendous loss of human life that occurs… ", (Here, as throughout, the translation is Fagles's for Penguin Classics. Read about our approach to external linking. . The military language of the conflicts even brings with it distant echoes of Homer: Operation Achilles was a Nato offensive in 2007 aimed at clearing Helmand province of the Taliban. In the event of a Sino-American war, The Iliad has one final lesson to teach. The Trojan War has not yet ended at the close of The Iliad. TE Lawrence esteemed Homer sufficiently to translate him (rather unsatisfactorily), but he was scornful of the poet's knowledge of military affairs. Above all, Homer’s characterisation of the epic’s main players is wholly and consistently believable, achieved through the characters’ own words – their speeches – which account for over half of the Iliad’s 15,693 lines of verse. groaned a voice from the ground just in front of us. Hippolochus leapt away, but him he killed on the ground, slashing off his arms with a sword, lopping off his head, and he sent him rolling through the carnage like a log. In book six comes the ­famous, moving scene in which Hector, returning to the city after a bout of ­battle, encounters his wife Andromache and son Astyanax. The Iliad is an extremely compressed narrative. When Antilochus brings Achilles the news of Patroclus's death in book 18, "A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles. It seems glorified but on the other hand Homer shows the brutality and injustice of it. Hector ­sorrowfully refuses: honour dictates he must lead his men in the field, though he has ­little doubt of the defeat that is coming. Do the same now. When their kingdoms collapsed around 1200 BC, even this limited use was lost. Compare this account, by John Charles Austin, from John Carey's Faber Book of Reportage, describing the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in June 1940: "A horrible stench of blood and mutilated flesh pervaded the place . An epic adventure poem from the beginning of Greek literature, The Iliad has long been attributed to the poet Homer, though most scholars believe it's a story passed down in the oral tradition through many generations. The last line of the epic is "And so they buried Hector, breaker of horses." What if Homer had Achilles send old Priam packing; abuse, humiliate or kill him? Weil underestimated the power of this passage. Though they are never lacking in drama, they are frequently implausible, even to a civilian eye, not least in the way that soldiers die – ­impossibly cleanly and instantaneously. However, the same invocation also mentions the “countless losses” suffered as a result of the Trojan War ( 1.2 ). (In 2004, the bodies of American contractors were attached to the backs of cars and dragged through the streets of Fallujah.) The baby will be flung over Troy's ­ramparts by the victorious Greeks – a scene that appears in The Trojan Women. Later come those Athenian fifth-century tragedies that develop stories begun in The Iliad: Aeschylus's Agamemnon, and Euripides's plays Hecuba and The Trojan Women, which deal with the calamitous fall-out of the war on its female victims – its "collateral damage". It tells us about war as an attempt to protect and preserve a treasured way of life. At the centre of the poem's most urgent observations on the nature of war is its hero, Achilles, an extreme character in all senses – The Iliad's most bloodthirsty warrior, the quickest to anger, but at times the most tender. "Homer and Tolstoy have in common a virile love of war and a virile horror of it," Bespaloff wrote in "On The Iliad". I lost all my mercy.". The famous Homeric similes, for example, evoke the familiar, verifiable, natural world. . How are we, then, to read the poem amid the horrors and contradictions of our own wars, conflicts that have destroyed countless Andromaches and Astyanaxes? Yet The Iliad still has much to say about war, even as it is fought today. Take its regularly used epithets: these familiar phrases ("wine-dark" sea, "rosy-fingered" dawn) have often been seen as simply as the more or less meaningless metrical building blocks that would have helped a bard to improvise lines of verse on the hoof. Although the Iliad is largely the tale of a brutal war, it contains many reflections of the peacetime life of the ancient Greek civilization. We learn that he had been given a choice – a long life without heroic glory, or a short and glorious life in war. The gods constantly intervene in the war, and to some extent the tides of the war can be measured by the interventions of the gods. / Pity me please," she begs. Every time you lost a friend it seemed like a part of you was gone. ", But it's easy to see why Lawrence struggled to admire The Iliad's descriptions of battle. Throughout the Iliad there is a deep sense that everything that will come to pass is already fated to happen. Its cast of characters includes not only warriors and their captives and families, but the immortal Olympian gods, who perform many supernatural acts in the course of their eager participation in the action around Troy. Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you. A theme in The Iliad closely relatedto the glory of war is the predominance of military glory over family.The text clearly admires the reciprocal bonds of deference and obligationthat bind Homeric families together, but it respects much more highlythe pursuit of kleos,the “glory” or “renown” thatone wins in the eyes of others by performing great deeds. Water . I remembered him in Suffolk singing to his horses as he ploughed. Such humble, almost humorous images have a cumulative effect, creating a lightly sketched vision of a parallel world that sits at the back of the mind as we absorb the "foreground" action of the battle for Troy. The description of battle tactics and wounds are similarly believable (if not wholly anatomically accurate), as is the careful description of landmarks of the Troad, the region around Troy. It is the Trojans, meanwhile, who provide the most obvious focus for the fragility of civilian life, and the horrors that await the city's old, its women, and its very young. He might note that "spin " goes back to The Iliad: the first-century writer Dio Chrysostom argued that Homer, for reasons of his own, suppressed the truth about the Trojan war – in reality, the Greeks lost. During his outburst to Agamemnon in book one, Achilles says: The Trojans never did me damage, not in the least, they never stole my cattle or my horses, never, in Phthia where the rich soil breeds strong men. He had found ­nothing to emulate in either Agamemnon or Achilles – until he read through to book 11 of the poem, when he "got" it. While she does not indulge in crass equivalences, it is hard not to be alerted by her reading to the devastation caused by the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iliad is mainly the story of the final period of the Trojan War, with a special focus on Achilles' experience of this time period. View this answer. In Greek mythology Helen – the wife of the Spartan king – fled with Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy, starting the Trojan War (Credit: Alamy). He prays that the boy might one day be prince of the Trojans, their best fighter, better even than his father, "a joy to his mother's heart". Occasionally, such images contain their own violence, blurring into to the scenes they are helping us conjure. It tells us about the age-old dilemmas of fighters compelled to serve under incompetent superiors. ", Such fierce tenderness is echoed in the conversation of today's British troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. death and the strong force of fate are waiting. For her, it tells a profound, human story – "Suffering and loss have stripped Hector bare," her essay "On The Iliad" begins. At the end of the poem Hector's frail and eldery father, Priam, enters the Greeks' camp and persuades Achilles to restore to him his son's body. For a discussion of the poetic techniques used by Homer in the Iliad and his other great epic, the Odyssey, see Homer: Homer as an oral poet. The Iliad was composed around 750-700 BC, but its origins lie at least some five centuries earlier, deep in the Mycenaean Bronze Age – the world the Iliad poetically evokes. Civilisation – with its settlements, its boundary lines, its hierarchies – breeds conflict and narrative alike. Bleak as The Iliad is, it is made all the bleaker by its divine characters. Or perhaps, ­after all, it was the ­account of Agamemnon's brutal military prowess that transfixed him, the commander knocking the life out of every young Trojan he encounters, deaf to their cries for mercy: "And he pitched Pisander off the chariot on to earth, and plunged a spear in his chest – the man crashed on his back as. Would history really have turned out differently? For a discussion of the Iliad in the context of other ancient Greek epics, see Greek literature: Ancient Greek literature: The genres: Epic narrative. In book 13, an arrow bounces off Menelaus's shield like chickpeas off a shovel; the following book has a boulder thrown by Ajax that sends Hector "whirling like a whipping top". One of its most arresting characteristics, however, is the way it casts us forward and back, hinting at both a lost, peaceful world "back home", and the horrors of the post-conflict world to come. He argues that Achilles is suffering from what we would now call combat trauma, the death of Patroclus causing his character fatally to unravel. . Achilles is Seriously Miffed. With his pronouncement made, Zeus flies to Mount Ida, near Troy, to conduct the affairs of the war by himself. It follows the hero Akhilleus (or Achilles) during the end of the Trojan war. It is this passage that helps Samet find in Hector the blueprint of the "citizen soldier", a warrior fighting to save his home and his values – a neat Americanisation. Most commentators consider this scene to be the most moving in the Iliad. If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter. Former Guardian war reporter Audrey Gillan was, in 2003, embedded with the Household Cavalry in Iraq. "This war is stupid and pointless. You could see his skin changing colour and his eyes were dilated. How much faith do the Trojans and Achaians have in omens? I got very hard, cold, merciless. Anger, Strife, Alienation, and Reconciliation. ", Shay records one of his patients recalling his own fury: "I really loved fucking killing, couldn't get enough. Probably not; but something of consequence would have been lost to the world. When Patroclus is killed by the Trojans' best fighter, Hector, Achilles whirls into a frenzy of redoubled, re­directed rage. What follows is a synopsis of some of the most important events that happen after The Iliad ends. This is a hard world: the war isn't "for" anything, certainly not some greater good, but is merely part of the blind workings of an inexplicable fate that even Zeus, king of the gods, must bow to. Throughout the fighting described in the poem, the advantage seesaws … "He esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge," according to Plutarch's biography. These verses reflect a central claim of epic poetry – that through the inspiration of the Muses, daughters of Memory, it can preserve the knowledge of people and the events of the past – a formidable power in the non-literate, oral cultures in which the Iliad evolved. That wrath is provoked by his ­commander-in-chief Agamemnon's misguided decision to seize Briseis, Achilles's captive woman, as compensation for his own bit of living loot, Chriseis, whom he has been obliged to restore to her Trojan father. Caroline Alexander was the first woman to publish a full-length English translation of The Iliad (Penguin, 2015). This is a passage of tenderness and tearing grief, as we witness the hero's love for his wife and hers for him; and the sweet fragility of their child. In the 11th book, the Greek warrior Ajax slowly withdraws from a bout of hand-to-hand fighting: Like a stubborn ass some boys lead down a road . 1. The power of this scene derives not just from storytelling genius, but from the Iliad’s attentiveness to its own history. The image of Priam begging Achilles for his son Hector’s body has appeared in many artworks – including this 1824 painting by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov (Credit: Alamy). It tells us that war is both the bringer of renown to its young fighters and the destroyer of their lives. The Mycenaeans themselves knew of writing, but appear to have used it only for bureaucratic bookkeeping in their palace states. In the 12th book, the armies are said to fight like farmers rowing over a disputed a boundary stone – war writ small. Only a few lines of verse stand between the Achilles who wipes away the tears of his beloved Patroclus and the one who piles up hecatombs of the Trojan dead. In book 21, he downs the Trojan prince Lycaon. Achilles responds: "Come, friend, you too must die. probably familiar with battles that have taken place in the past century You captured me once before, says Lycaon, but then, merciful, you spared my life. The Aftermath of the Iliad. BBC Culture’s Stories that shaped the world series looks at epic poems, plays and novels from around the globe that have influenced history and changed mindsets. He tells the gods that he is stronger than the rest of them put together, and that he will punish anyone who disobeys. The Iliad celebrates war and the men who wage it: man-killing Hector, lord of men Agamemnon, and swift-footed Achilles, whose rage is cited in the poem’s famous opening line. What I grope to express, Homer repeatedly makes clear, and most sublimely so in the famous scene towards the end of the Iliad, in which King Priam comes through the night to the Greek camp as suppliant to Achilles. The poem's gods, who urge on the fighters and intervene to help their favoured heroes, are flimsy and flippant compared to their mortal counterparts, a source of troubling light relief rather than profundity. Alexander the Great, perhaps the most flamboyantly successful soldier in history, slept beside a copy annotated by his tutor, Aristotle. For every one of them I killed I felt better. The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life. Before unfolding this impressive muster roll, Homer makes a special, public appeal to the Muses to ensure he gets the facts right: Tell me now, Muses, who have your homes on Olympus –for you are goddesses, and ever-present, and know all things,and we hear only rumour, nor do we know anything – . The main theme of the Iliad is stated in the first line, as Homer asks the Muse to sing of the "wrath of Achilles." 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