Does Homer condemn or praise war in The Iliad? How does Homer view war?
Homer's view of war is suitably ambiguous. He's unstinting in his praise for individual acts of courage and valor on both sides. But at the same time, we are left in no doubt that war is a terrible business, one that causes immense human suffering. It's interesting that for Homer the gods are often much more warlike than the mortals. Each god or goddess takes sides in the conflict, and has his or her own favorite warrior, whom they frequently intervene to protect. The gods are not so much immoral, as amoral. They look upon war as a gigantic game: an endless source of amusement to relieve them of the boredom of immortality.
The Trojans and the Greeks are both tired after years of bloody conflict. Paris seeks to break the deadlock by challenging any Achaean warrior to a duel that will end the war once and for all. Menelaus comes forward to accept Paris' brash, impetuous challenge. In the ensuing duel, Menelaus is the undoubted victor, a fact acknowledged by Father Zeus himself. Yet Hera and Athena aren't satisfied. Hera, for one, has a bitter enmity towards Troy. She doesn't want war to end in a truce; she wants Troy to be wiped from the face of the earth. Reluctantly, Zeus gives in and allows Athena to descend upon the Trojan camp to stir things up. She encourages the Trojan warrior Pandaros to kill Menelaus, an act which will give him great renown. He attempts to do so, and fails, but the damage has been done. The Achaeans are enraged at the breaking of the truce, this shameful breach of trust, so they begin to prepare for battle once more. The words of Gloucester in King Lear are particularly apt in this case:
"As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods.They kill us for their sport."
One way of thinking about Homer's attitude toward war is through examining the vicissitudes of the various relationships: Trojan leaders and their troops, Greek leaders and their troops, Greeks and Trojans, and, of course, the gods who intervene, sometimes helping, sometimes punishing, and often fighting among themselves. It might be useful to think of Homer's stance as one of observer rather than judge. It is defensible to say that Homer recognized that war brought triumph and tragedy, and not always in equal measure. It is also arguable that the protraction of the war, in Homer's view, was because of infighting among the Greeks, infighting among the Trojans, and even infighting among the immortals.
Here is an example of infighting on the Greek side:
- Agamemnon makes a decision that is unpopular with the Greek army when he rejects Chryses's offer of money for the return of his daughter. His unilateral decision precipitates a plague on the Greeks sent by Apollo. Achilles and Agamemnon argue after the plague has raged for nine days; consequently, Achilles threatens to take the Myrmidons home, which would weaken the Greek army. Agamemnon and Achilles continue to squabble, which prolongs the war as they fight each other instead of their common enemy, the Trojans and their allies.
Here is an example of infighting on the Trojan side:
- Hector ignores omens and warnings from a seer about Achilles; he also ignores the prudent advice of his commander Polydamas more than once, with disastrous results.
And finally, infighting among the gods results from their sympathies on either side.
The Trojans were supported by Aphrodite, Artemis, Apollo, and Leto.
The Greeks were supported by Athena, Poseidon, Hera, and Hermes.
Ares, the god of war, switched loyalties from the Greeks to the Trojans.
Instead of looking for evidence that Homer was making a statement for or against war, pull back somewhat and look at what the message might be about war, period. In this case, the was necessary to preserve honor and avenge the injustice done to the King of Sparta after his wife was kidnapped by Paris. So, one message being delivered is that war is a necessary evil, or act, if it is in support of a noble cause. Time and persistence in war pays off (another way of describing Homer's attitude toward war). 10 years is a long time! (Hence, the EPIC nature of the story).
Epic poems typically depict war as the celebration and glory of fighting an honorable and valiant fight. Homer followed this tradition, as well.
Homer does depict the glory and valor typically associated with war epics, but he also gives the readers the negative aspects of war- defeat, death, weakness in character, and the like. The death and destruction war brings is relayed along with scenes detailing bravery and triumph. Homer is careful to depict the vast complications that come with war between people.