What role does war play in the Iliad? Is it presented as a good or bad thing? What are the worthwhile causes for fighting a war?

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To compare the Iliad and the Odyssey is to see immediately that the former poem presents one very difficult problem for the poet. The Odyssey has inbuilt variety. Odysseus is constantly traveling to new places, encountering antagonists, meeting witches and princesses or outwitting monsters. The Iliad takes place in a...

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To compare the Iliad and the Odyssey is to see immediately that the former poem presents one very difficult problem for the poet. The Odyssey has inbuilt variety. Odysseus is constantly traveling to new places, encountering antagonists, meeting witches and princesses or outwitting monsters. The Iliad takes place in a single location. There is a great deal of talking and one principal activity to stop the speeches and provide some excitement and variety: war. Even in the tenth year of the war, the sides are evenly matched enough that the absence of Achilles makes a decisive difference. This is essential not only for the plot, but to ensure that war is an exciting spectator sport for the poem’s audience or reader, with characters such as Diomedes and Hector winning glory through their aristeias.

War is presented as the theater of courage, the principal virtue of the Homeric hero. The heroes are there to win glory (and, as a secondary consideration, wealth) for themselves, not to secure the return of Helen or to punish her. Achilles bitterly remarks that the offense for which they declared war against the Trojans is essentially the same as the cause of his quarrel with Agamemnon: Paris stole Menelaus’s wife as Agamemnon stole Achilles’s concubine. The cause of the war, however, is not important. What matters is its fame and grandeur, the opportunities for securing everlasting glory. These are the real reasons for fighting a war. There is a sense, perhaps best captured by the sense of anticlimax and wistful melancholy at the end of the Odyssey, that while the war of the Iliad was taking place, Troy was the center of the world, and every hero worth mentioning was fighting by the side of the Scamander.

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The Iliad is based on an epic conflict, the Trojan War, so of course war plays a major part in the poem. Homer presents war as a testing-ground for heroes: a place where brave soldiers can write their name in the annals of history by performing heroic deeds on the field of battle.

At the same time, however, Homer is unsparing in his account of the horrors of war. His detailed—and at times lurid—descriptions of the heat of battle leave us in no doubt that war is hell. It's notable that Hector, the Trojan prince, is presented in suitably heroic terms for trying to minimize losses on his side.

His concern for saving lives is contrasted with the gung-ho attitude of Achilles, who dives straight into the thick of battle without any thought for the safety of those around him. Everyone else can die as far as he's concerned, just so long as he can achieve glory and avenge the death of his bosom buddy Patroclus.

As to whether or not all this bloodshed is worthwhile, Homer gives us the impression that it isn't. The cause of the war, Paris's elopement with Helen, is relatively trivial, and it's notable that at one point the Achaeans are just about ready to pack up and go home.

Even if the cause of the Trojan War hadn't been so relatively unimportant, it's unlikely that there would be any justification for such wholesale carnage. Furthermore, it's not just soldiers who suffer from this conflict. Hanging over the heads of the besieged people of Troy is the grim realization that, if the Trojans lose the war, all the men inside the city walls will be slaughtered and the women and children sold into slavery. It's difficult to argue that this would be a worthwhile outcome to any conflict.

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This is an interesting question, as Homer present conflicting ideas about war in the Iliad. On the one hand, it is a way men achieve glory. It is also a way individuals can achieve a form of immortality through the memories handed down of their courageous and heroic deeds.

Further, Homer's flawed protagonist Achilles affirms war when he chooses a short life of glory in battle over a long and comfortable life with no glory. As he understands, it is on the battlefield that men test their mettle and prove their worth, both to themselves and others. With such a focus on the honor one can gain from warfare, Homer shows it in a positive light.

On the other hand, Homer doesn't hold back from revealing the suffering and grief war causes. People die in battle, and these people are deeply mourned. For example, when Patroclus, Achilles's close friend, is killed in battle, Achilles grieves deeply, covering himself ashes and fasting due to his distress. He decides to kill Hector in revenge, even though he is told this will cost him his own life. Homer shows that the spoils of war come at a very high price.

Second, the shield of Achilles validates and celebrates the fruits of peace and civilization that the men fight wars to preserve: a world of celebration, of harvests, of dances, and of plenty. This, Homer implies, is what is truly important. War may bring honor to men, but war is not fought for the sake of war: it is sought to defend and make possible the world of peace and prosperity.

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