Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad

by Rosemary Sutcliff

Start Free Trial

Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad Themes

The main themes in Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad are honor and glory, destiny and prophecy, the savagery and pity of war, and trickery and betrayal.

  • Honor and glory: Winning everlasting honor and glory in battle is a central concern for the heroes of the Trojan War.
  • Destiny and prophecy: Many characters deliver prophecies in the story, but none are able to escape their destiny.
  • The savagery and pity of war: The war is characterized by grief and bloodshed, especially during the Sack of Troy.
  • Trickery and betrayal: Characters betray each other throughout the story, and the war is ultimately won through Odysseus's trickery.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on April 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975

Honor and Glory

Achilles knows that he is going to his death when he sails to Troy. His mother, Thetis, tells him that he has a choice between a long, peaceful life, after which he will be forgotten, or an early, violent death, followed by everlasting glory. He chooses the latter.

Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline

Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!

Start an Essay

All the heroes are preoccupied with winning glory in battle. Closely connected to this idea is that of the honor due to them in both life and death. Achilles is angry at losing Briseis to Agamemnon, but what really rankles is that Agamemnon has treated him disrespectfully, failing to acknowledge the honor due to a great warrior. This honor is just as important after death. Hector tells Achilles before he dies that King Priam will pay a magnificent ransom for his corpse, but Achilles treats his body without honor, dragging it behind his chariot, an act of contempt which angers the gods. Achilles later shows that he has learned his lesson by treating the body of Penthesilea, the Amazon queen, in a more dignified manner.

Glory, reputation, honor, and honorable treatment are obsessions of all the characters and define their relationships and relative standing. Odysseus is the cleverest character in the story, and it is he who ultimately ensures that the Greeks win the war. Yet because he acts by cunning and subterfuge, he is accorded less honor than the first-rank heroes, Achilles and Hector, whose principal attribute is courage in battle. Paris is particularly lacking in honor, a deficiency for which even Helen condemns him. He runs away from single combat with Menelaus and ingloriously shoots Achilles from a position of safety on top of the Scaean gate. Paris and Philoctetes are the best archers on either side, but neither is a major hero, since the bow is regarded as a coward’s weapon, with which the archer can shoot his enemy from a place of safety.

Destiny and Prophecy

The story is full of prophecy from gods, priests, priestesses, soothsayers, and dying men, who were believed to be able to foresee the future in their final moments. As he dies, Patroclus prophesies the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles. Hector, in turn, predicts that Achilles will be killed by Paris. Paris was himself the subject of a prophecy at his birth, when a soothsayer correctly predicted that he would bring death and destruction upon the city of Troy.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

However, these prophecies do not make any difference to the destinies of the characters. Cassandra, the daughter of Priam, is a special case, since she is fated to see the future without being believed. It is therefore no surprise that her prophecies of Troy’s destruction fall on deaf ears. However, Laocoon, the priest of Poseidon, is under no such curse. He warns King Priam that the wooden horse is dangerous, but the very god he serves, Poseidon, sends serpents to kill him, since the sea god supports the Greek side. Foretelling the future is therefore shown to be of very little use, since prophecy is no match for destiny. Achilles’s death is constantly foreshadowed, and he is even told how it will happen, but this does not allow him to avoid it. Indeed, prophecy merely confirms that the destinies of both Greeks and Trojans are inevitable.

The Savagery and Pity of War

It may seem obvious to point out that war is a savage business, but Sutcliff follows Homer in constantly emphasizing the bloodshed of battle and the grief of parents who see their children die. Priam, in particular, has at least fifty sons and sees many of them slaughtered in battle, including his favorite, Hector. The sorrow of Thetis is also pitifully described, as she foresees her son’s death. Much of the book is given over to the description of deaths in battle, often in gory detail. The amount of blood spilled is always stressed. The battle in which the Amazons fight is particularly brutal. Half the Amazons are killed, and the ground is dyed vermillion with their blood.The books ends with the most savage scenes of all, as Troy is ransacked and its people slaughtered. This is even more shocking than the battle scenes, since it features the deaths of non-combatants, including young children.

Trickery and Betrayal

The Trojans finally lose the war not because they are defeated in battle, but due to a trick thought up by Odysseus. The wooden horse is the most important instance of trickery in the book, and it is carefully planned and executed. The role of Sinon is vital, and he plays it well, pretending to be reluctant to tell his story and complaining that the Greeks wanted to kill him as well as the Trojans.

Odysseus is the most prodigious trickster in Greek mythology, but many characters in the book use deceit—even, perhaps especially, the gods. When Zeus has decided to allow the Trojans to win a battle, he sends a false dream to Agamemnon with the opposite message, that the Greeks will win, to encourage him to fight. Athena, in her turn, stops Hector from pressing his advantage by sending him the idea of challenging one of the Greek warriors to single combat. His fight with Ajax briefly stops the Trojan advance.

A related theme is betrayal. Achilles feels betrayed as well as disrespected by Agamemnon when the king takes Briseis from him. Philoctetes has even more intense feelings of betrayal after the Greeks leave him stranded on the island of Lemnos for ten years, only bringing him back when they need a skilled archer. Poseidon betrays Laocoon, the priest who has dedicated a lifetime to his service, sending sea serpents to kill him. Most significantly of all, Zeus betrays his most favored city of Troy, by allowing it to be destroyed, despite the honor Priam has always accorded to him.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access