What does the Iliad reveal about the earliest days of Greek culture?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Iliad reveals much about Greek culture as it existed before the Classical Age. As other contributors have already pointed out, we see within this poem the primacy of warfare in the era. Additionally, the Iliad reveals much about the religious life of the early Greeks: how sacrifices were carried...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

The Iliad reveals much about Greek culture as it existed before the Classical Age. As other contributors have already pointed out, we see within this poem the primacy of warfare in the era. Additionally, the Iliad reveals much about the religious life of the early Greeks: how sacrifices were carried out, for example, or beliefs about the power of fate. Indeed, destiny is a critical theme within the Iliad and a power before which even Zeus must bow.

At the same time, one might have a sense when reading the Iliad that, for all that warfare and feats of glory may have been prized, the poem does seem to ruminate on the tragedy of warfare. We see this in book 6, for example, in the famous scene wherein his wife, Andromache, begs Hector not to fight, on account of his family. (We also receive, in this same scene, a glimpse into the terrible fate which might await his family, when Troy would finally fall.) Additionally, one can point towards Achilles himself in self-imposed exile. While it is true that this exile is driven largely out of injured pride and his hostility towards Agamemnon, it is also worth noting that there does seem to be a more generalized disillusionment with war, and the bloodshed resulting from it. As he says in book 9,

For nothing, as I now see it, equals the value of life—not the wealth they say prosperous Ilium possessed in earlier days, when there was peace, before the coming of the Greeks, nor all the treasure piled up behind the stone threshold of Phoebus Apollo in rocky Delphi. Cattle and fat sheep can be lifted. Tripods and chestnut horses can be procured. But you cannot lift or procure a man's life, when once the breath has left his lips. (Iliad (Penguin Classics Ed.) trans. E. V. Rieu, revised and updated by Peter Jones and D. C. H. Rieu.)

In a sense, these scenes suggest that the Greeks possessed a degree of nuance in their understanding of personal glory and feats of heroism. They seem to have been aware of the tragic and destructive elements embedded within such a culture.

Finally, as was previously stated in other answers, we get a vivid sense within this poem of the brutality of this culture as it would have been experienced by women. Consider the treatment of Chryseis and Briseis, who are reduced to concubines by the victorious Greeks. To this, one might also add that the overall picture it paints of the world is a brutal one, where a city, if defeated, would face slaughter and enslavement of its population.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Iliad offers us a window into many key tenets of early Greek society. During the time depicted in this poem, bronze was still the strongest metal. Multiple kings ruled small kingdoms without any centralized government to prevent wars breaking out between small factions. The depiction of women in the poem also helps us understand that they were still viewed as chattel, without agency, in this society.

Warfare was the aim of the ruling classes; piracy was common and was seen as a valid way to make a fortune. However, despite this, guest rights and hospitality conventions were sacred to the early Greeks. The true issue underlying Paris's abduction of Helen was that Paris broke the rules of hospitality; Helen herself was a possession and stealing her represented a challenge to the accepted rules between guest and host.

At this stage of Greek development, there was no concept of a happy afterlife. As such, the only way to live forever was to establish a reputation in order to avoid dying in obscurity, the worst fate.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Among other things, The Iliad shows the importance of war in the ancient world. War wasn't looked upon as a necessary evil; it was essential to defend the prestige of one's homeland as well as individual honor. War was a proving ground in which men displayed courage on the field of battle, potentially turning themselves into heroes whose names would live on in fame for centuries. The ancient Greeks lacked any sense of modern individuality; people were defined almost exclusively by the roles they played in society. Fighting in the seemingly endless wars as a soldier was one such role, the most important one of all.

The role of women in ancient Greece is starkly revealed by The Iliad. Women, of course, were not allowed to participate in battle, so in the poem they're reduced to the state of wailing, anxious bystanders, fretting that their menfolk will be killed and their families taken as slaves. They had good reason to be worried. After the fall of Troy, most of the civilians were either slaughtered or forced to become the Achaeans' slaves. Women were regarded as little more than spoils of war, objects looted from the enemy to be either ransomed or kept as concubines. Indeed, we can get a pretty good idea of how the ancient Greeks regarded women if we consider that the Trojan War as a whole was blamed on the infidelity of a woman, Queen Helen of Sparta, who left her husband, Menelaus, for Prince Paris of Troy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are quite a number of ways to approach this question. We see the importance of gods in the lives of the Greeks. We also see their strong belief in fate. Even the gods cannot control fate. Humans are controlled by the gods and fate and seem to have little control over the outcome of things. They look for signs to guide them. They do not always obey the signs but are aware of the existence of those signs. The other aspect you could focus on is the role of women who are seen as nothing more than trophies to be obtained and owned.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team