Kleos and the Code of Honor: One of the central themes of The Iliad is the defining of a code of honor. This is most apparent in the character of Achilles, whose narrative is motivated almost entirely by his relationship to honor and the concept of kleos, the immortal fame a warrior could achieve through glorious deeds. Achilles oscillates between defining and, at times, defying that code, giving his character a complexity and ambiguity that mirrors human nature. Other characters also help describe and define the ideal Greek hero. For example, in book 3, Hector upbraids Paris for cowardice. By abducting Helen, he has betrayed the trust of his host and therefore violated the code of honor.
- For discussion: Illuminated like a god, vicious like a monster, Achilles’s character hovers in a liminal space between deity and demon. What is Achilles’s attitude toward war? What is Achilles’s attitude towards death? What does Achilles want? Does he achieve it?
- For discussion: Examine and discuss Achilles’s shifting motivations, goals, and attitudes towards his peers, violence, and his own mortality. Suggested reading: book 1, book 16, book 22, book 24.
- For discussion: Make a list of the major players on the Trojan battlefield, and compare their performances as described by their peers. How did the Greeks define a valiant, or successful, warrior? How does that compare with attitudes toward the military and warfare today?
- For discussion: What did you know about Achilles before you started reading The Iliad? What is your opinion of his character? Does he deserve to be remembered by history? Do you think he is a good or bad example of a warrior?
The Greek Hero: Though the journey narrative at the heart of The Odyssey is better known, The Iliad also offers up a number of characters on journeys of their own, in which the hero must pass through a sequence of trials and tribulations, confronting their own flaws and mortality along the way. Achilles has left his home to win the glory of a noble death, Hector must leave the safety of Troy to fight the invading Achaeans, and Priam must reclaim the body of his fallen son, Hector. However, the ancient Greek definition of a hero differed greatly from most modern interpretations, which require heroes to undergo some sort of internal development through the course of their narratives. For the ancient Greeks, heroes simply excelled at whatever they did.
- For discussion: Compare and contrast two heroes in the text. Why must they leave safety? What are their flaws? Are their flaws overcome?
- For discussion: Does the Greek definition of a hero hold today? Do you consider these characters heroic?
Human Choice in a World Ruled by Gods: Over the course of the epic, scenes of the violent war are interspersed with scenes of the gods being precocious, playful, flirtatious, flippant, and vindictive. These human-seeming gods have incredible power, though, and frequently interfere in the affairs of the mortals on the battlefield. When Paris, who is arguably to blame for the Trojan War, is in danger, Aphrodite whisks him away to safety. When the more honorable Hector is running from Achilles, Athena tricks him into stopping, bringing about his death. Gods choose sides and favorites, and maintain complicated relationships with the mortals they influence, their own desires, and the requirements of Fate.
- For discussion: How would you describe the characters and functions of the gods? Which god do you think is the most important in The Iliad ? Why? How do the Greek gods compare and contrast with characterizations of the omniscient god in monotheistic cultures...
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- For discussion: Consider events that the gods control as opposed to the events that humans control. What factors seem to differentiate the two?
- For discussion: Track examples of deus ex machina in the text. Where do gods seem inclined to interfere in human affairs? What motivates them? How do the mortals react to these interventions?
The Importance of Grief and Ceremony: Death is a constant in The Iliad. As the violence of the story escalates, so too does the attention paid to the treatment of the body after death. In book 7, the armies call a truce to clear the battlefield and properly honor their dead. Multiple fights on the battlefield are motivated by a desire to retain a fallen comrade’s corpse; for example, when Patroclus dies, many other Achaeans risk their lives fighting Hector—their most dangerous foe—to make sure his body doesn’t fall into enemy hands. Book 23 is devoted entirely to describing the funeral rites of Patroclus, and in book 24 King Priam risks death to face Achilles and request the body of his son, so the Trojans can give him a proper burial. And after spending days trying to mutilate Hector’s body, Achilles agrees.
- For discussion: How do depictions of funeral rituals change over the course of the epic? Why do the characters value funeral rites? What do those who are still living gain?
- For discussion: How do different characters express grief? What reactions are they met with? How does this compare with expressions of grief today?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Multiple instances of foreshadowing in The Iliad render the outcome of the war, and the fates of a few of its heroes, known to both the reader and the characters themselves long before the poem’s conclusion. What purpose does this explicit foreshadowing serve? How do the gods react to their foreknowledge of fate? How do mortals?
- Characters in The Iliad are often described in relation to their parentage, be it mortal or divine, and sometimes they break from the course of action to illuminate their personal or family histories at length. What can we infer about the importance of familial relationships to the ancient Greeks?
- A few of The Iliad’s heroes claim gods or goddesses as parents. Does this affect their personal narratives and social status? How? What does it say about the relationship between gods and mortals?
- The Iliad is episodic in nature, with entire books devoted to events that don’t impact the larger sweep of the narrative. What makes these events worthy of inclusion in the epic? What purpose could this episodic nature serve? Does it make the text easier to approach? Why or why not?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Iliad Is Long and Can Be Overwhelming for Students: There are many English translations of The Iliad available to modern readers. Regardless of translation, The Iliad spans nearly 16,000 lines of epic verse and most renderings will contain new and challenging vocabulary for students. The work’s length and the conventions of the epic can make this text particularly difficult for struggling and ESL students.
- What to do: Before teaching any given book in the poem, have students complete a vocabulary study. Giving students an outline of key events in the book or engaging them in predictive activities will also support comprehension.
- What to do: Consider being selective about which books of The Iliad you read. Many educators choose to read only the most famous or the most plot-relevant books instead of the entire text.
- What to do: Engage students in team-learning activities. If students work in groups, each student can do a close study of one specific book (or portion thereof) and share their learning with their peers. Similarly, students can dramatize portions of the text, make cartoons, and draw maps to support comprehension.
The Iliad Treats Women as Property: While the language of a given translation can gloss or romanticize relationships between men and women in The Iliad, especially in the cases of Briseis and Chryseis, women are often traded as enslaved war prizes between military leaders and have very little agency or authority over their own lives. Even the queen of the gods, Juno, is threatened with abuse by her husband.
- What to do: Provide students with historical background about the role of women in ancient Greece and the extent to which they had access to social and political power. For contrast, brainstorm the ways in which women can access, or are working to access, social and political power today.
- What to do: Engage students in creative writing activities that give female characters more agency. Students can write a “Lost Book of The Iliad” or they can reconfigure extant scenes and dialogues from the perspective of female characters in the text.
- What to do: Compare and contrast the agency given to divine women with the agency given to mortal women. Compare and contrast these examples of female agency in The Iliad with the agency given to female figures in monotheistic traditions and/or women in history.
The Iliad Glorifies Violence: Graphic depictions of blood and gore run rampant through the epic. Furthermore, students will likely point out that the Achaeans conquer and demolish a thriving civilization, killing and enslaving its innocents, for a transgression committed by one person.
- What to do: Invite students to engage in an ethical analysis of the Achaean position at various points in the war. At times, both Achilles and Agamemnon consider leaving Troy and returning to Achaea. What stops them? Why do they fight? What choice would students make if they were in a similar position.
- What to do: Address the notion of war and violence as universal human experiences. You might invite students to address the question of whether or not humans must, or will always, wage war. Consider introducing students to the idea of catharsis, that humans use art as a means to address and release the painful experiences from their own lives.
- What to do: Clarify for students that the term hero as it applies to epic characters doesn’t have the same connotation as when it is applied to superheroes in contemporary culture; Greek warriors aren’t blameless, innocent figures. The Iliad’s heroes are complex and make moral compromises, giving them a richness and depth that is reflective of the human condition.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Iliad
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions described above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the text.
Focus on Hector as a protagonist. Invite students to read the text not as the story of Achilles, but as the story of Hector. From the Trojan perspective, Hector is the most important warrior and the greatest casualty of the war.
- For discussion: How does focusing on Hector as a protagonist change your interpretations of the narrative? What qualities does Hector possess that make him a compelling protagonist?
Focus on the epic as a condemnation of violence. Grief plays a major part in The Iliad, particularly Thetis’s grief for Achilles, Priam’s grief for Hector, and Andromache’s lament for Hector and Astyanax. Despite ten years of sustained conflict, neither army has a substantial advantage over the other, either at the beginning or the end of The Iliad. In these ways, the epic reveals—rather unfavorably—the ravages and consequences of war.
- For discussion: What personal reasons do different Achaeans give for their presence at Troy?
- For discussion: If Homer is condemning warfare, what purpose could the intensely graphic nature of The Iliad’s violence serve?
Focus on symbolism. Weapons, armor, and horses all take on increasing value and metaphorical meaning over the course of the text.
- For discussion: Why are weapons, armor, and horses so highly valued in The Iliad? How does their value relate to the epic’s themes?
Focus on naturalism. Natural elements, and language thereof, play a critical role in the text. Consider gods as occasional personifications of natural forces, particularly Thetis and the River Scamander, as well as depictions of Achilles as a celestial, luminous being and the extended similes used to describe troop movements and individual actions.
- For discussion: How do the natural elements in The Iliad affect the plot? The main characters? To what extend do personified forces of nature, such as the River Scamander, reveal more about a character’s development?
- For discussion: What function do the epic similes serve? Why are the human characters of The Iliad so frequently described as forces of nature?