Iliad Themes


In the tenth year of the Trojan war, Agamemnon provokes Achilles into withdrawing from the fighting and asking his mother to get Zeus to give the Trojans an advantage until Agamemnon comes to his senses. As things look their bleakest for the Achaean forces, Achilles sends his friend Patroclus out with his army to keep the Trojans from completely overrunning the Achaean camp. Hector kills Patroclus, which causes Achilles to reconcile with Agamemnon and rejoin the fighting in order to revenge his friend’s death by killing Hector.

Anger and Hatred
As the first words of the Greek original suggests, anger—rage—is a very important theme in the Iliad. That specific term is only used in reference to three people: Achilles (five times), Apollo (three times), and Zeus (three times), and twice of the gods in general. Yet the emotion is widespread: the Trojans, for example, are angry with the Achaeans for making war on them; the Achaeans, in turn, are angry with the Trojans for harboring Paris and refusing to give Helen back to her rightful husband. Hera and Athena are angry at (or even hate) the Trojans generally, and Paris specifically, because he chose Aphrodite over them as the most beautiful even before the war began.

Related to the themes of anger and hatred in the Iliad is the issue of betrayal. Achilles feels betrayed when Agamemnon belittles him in front of the whole army. Pandarus betrays the terms of the truce (and infuriates the Achaeans) by shooting and slightly wounding Menelaus in Book 3. Helen betrays her husband Menelaus by going off with Paris, and then betrays Paris by returning complacently to Menelaus after the many years of terrible warfare. Paris betrays the sacred obligations of a guest toward a host when he took Helen away with him to Troy.

Fate and Chance
The concept of fate, or destiny, is explicitly mentioned at least 40 times in the Iliad. It is used in such formulaic expressions as “red death and strong fate seized his eyes.” It gets its most notable and extended treatment, however, in Book 16 (lines 433 and following) when Zeus is pondering whether to save his son Sarpedon from his fated death at Patroclus’s hands. It is also an important part of the “subtext” of the poem, the “story behind the story” or what can be read “between the lines.”

It is not entirely certain just how fate works in Homer’s thinking. Most of the time (as when Zeus balances “two fateful portions of death” in his scales, or when Achilles talks about the two different possible outcomes of his life in Book 9), it seems that a man’s fate is set at birth and cannot be changed, even by the gods. In the Sarpedon story, however, Hera’s words at XVI.444 and following seem to imply that Zeus could meddle with destiny, but that he chooses not to out of fear either of the ridicule of the other gods or the chaos that might result.

Virtually everyone in the Iliad puts a very high value on the concept of honor. This is especially true of the gods, who get very upset if a mortal skimps on a sacrifice, or forgets it altogether, or—as in the case of Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—if a mortal names one of them as possessing qualities in greater abundance than another. It is also true of the major heroes—Achilles and Agamemnon in particular. Indeed, Achilles considers a life of glory and everlasting honor that ends in battle at Troy preferable to a long, dull (at least in his opinion) life of respect at home.

Love is one of the subtler themes in the Iliad, but also one of the most powerful. In Chryses’ actions at the opening of Book 1, or those of Hecuba and Priam in Books 22 and 24, we see eloquent testimony to the love of parents for their children. The tender scene between Hector and Andromache at the end of Book 6 is one of the most poignant depictions of the love between husband and wife in Western literature, as well as one of the oldest. And no matter what other relationships there may have been between them, no one could fail to notice the loving friendship expressed by Achilles and Patroclus for one another.

Helen, while perhaps the obvious character to consider in this context, remains something of a mystery. She certainly seems fond of Priam and at least those Trojans who do not hate or shun her. Her apparent love for both her lover Paris and her husband Menelaus has been seen as fickleness or caprice by some, but Homer and his audience would most likely have taken it to represent the workings of Aphrodite—who is, after all, the goddess of love and passion and thus stands for a power that frequently overwhelms rational thought and other, “lesser” considerations.

Ironically, most of the patriotism that is found in the Iliad is on the part of the Trojans. It is a favorite rallying tactic of Hector’s, as for example when he rebukes the seer Polydamas for predicting an eventual defeat for the Trojans and counseling a retreat with the words, “Fight for your country—that is the best, the only omen!” (XII.243, Fagles’ translation). This is not to imply that Homer thought more of the Trojans than the Greeks, merely that the Greeks of Homer’s day had only begun to develop a sense of themselves as a single nation—perhaps at least in part through Homer's own work, which describes, as Thucydides observed some centuries later, the first action taken in common by the Greek-speaking peoples.

Peer Pressure (Shame)
Peer pressure is found virtually everywhere in the world of the Iliad. Consider, for example, the gambit used twice by Hera and once by Athena to get Zeus to do what they want: “Do as you please . . . but none of the deathless gods will ever praise you” (IV.29, XVI.443, and XXII.181). Menelaus’ debate with himself as he tries to prevent the Trojans from making off with Patroclus’ body at XVII.90ff. is in a similar vein, as is the fairly common tactic of “encouraging” a reluctant soldier by pointing out the potential consequences to his reputation of being found with a wound in the back. Even Helen pleads the need to avoid the ridicule of the Trojan women when she tells Aphrodite that she will not rush off to make love to Paris after Aphrodite has rescued him from the duel with Menelaus (III.406ff.).

Revenge is another theme which requires a...

(The entire section is 2699 words.)