Iliad Themes

The main themes in the Iliad are glory, honor, fate, and patriotism.

  • Glory: all men must die and all cities fall. Men endure only through their reputations and the glory they earn, which last into eternity.

  • Honor: Agamemnon nearly loses the war when he publicly dishonors Achilles and disrespects a priest of Apollo.

  • Fate: no man can cheat destiny, and not even the gods seem entirely in control of what Fate decrees.

  • Patriotism: T Patriotism is used to unify armies. The Greek leaders are less able to marshal their soldiers than the Trojans, reflecting the nascent state of Greek social and cultural unity.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2699

In the tenth year of the Trojan war, Agamemnon provokes Achilles into withdrawing from the fighting and asking his mother to get Zeus to give the Trojans an advantage until Agamemnon comes to his senses. As things look their bleakest for the Achaean forces, Achilles sends his friend Patroclus out with his army to keep the Trojans from completely overrunning the Achaean camp. Hector kills Patroclus, which causes Achilles to reconcile with Agamemnon and rejoin the fighting in order to revenge his friend’s death by killing Hector.

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Anger and Hatred
As the first words of the Greek original suggests, anger—rage—is a very important theme in the Iliad. That specific term is only used in reference to three people: Achilles (five times), Apollo (three times), and Zeus (three times), and twice of the gods in general. Yet the emotion is widespread: the Trojans, for example, are angry with the Achaeans for making war on them; the Achaeans, in turn, are angry with the Trojans for harboring Paris and refusing to give Helen back to her rightful husband. Hera and Athena are angry at (or even hate) the Trojans generally, and Paris specifically, because he chose Aphrodite over them as the most beautiful even before the war began.

Betrayal
Related to the themes of anger and hatred in the Iliad is the issue of betrayal. Achilles feels betrayed when Agamemnon belittles him in front of the whole army. Pandarus betrays the terms of the truce (and infuriates the Achaeans) by shooting and slightly wounding Menelaus in Book 3. Helen betrays her husband Menelaus by going off with Paris, and then betrays Paris by returning complacently to Menelaus after the many years of terrible warfare. Paris betrays the sacred obligations of a guest toward a host when he took Helen away with him to Troy.

Fate and Chance
The concept of fate, or destiny, is explicitly mentioned at least 40 times in the Iliad. It is used in such formulaic expressions as “red death and strong fate seized his eyes.” It gets its most notable and extended treatment, however, in Book 16 (lines 433 and following) when Zeus is pondering whether to save his son Sarpedon from his fated death at Patroclus’s hands. It is also an important part of the “subtext” of the poem, the “story behind the story” or what can be read “between the lines.”

It is not entirely certain just how fate works in Homer’s thinking. Most of the time (as when Zeus balances “two fateful portions of death” in his scales, or when Achilles talks about the two different possible outcomes of his life in Book 9), it seems that a man’s fate is set at birth and cannot be changed, even by the gods. In the Sarpedon story, however, Hera’s words at XVI.444 and following seem to imply that Zeus could meddle with destiny, but that he chooses not to out of fear either of the ridicule of the other gods or the chaos that might result.

Honor
Virtually everyone in the Iliad puts a very high value on the concept of honor. This is especially true of the gods, who get very upset if a mortal skimps on a sacrifice, or forgets it altogether, or—as in the case of Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—if a mortal names one of them as possessing qualities in greater abundance than another. It is also true of the major heroes—Achilles and Agamemnon in particular. Indeed, Achilles considers a life of glory and everlasting honor that ends in battle at Troy preferable to a long, dull (at least in his opinion) life of respect at home.

Love
Love is one of the subtler themes in the Iliad, but also one of the most powerful. In Chryses’ actions at the opening of Book 1, or those of Hecuba and Priam in Books 22 and 24, we see eloquent testimony to the love of parents for their children. The tender scene between Hector and Andromache at the end of Book 6 is one of the most poignant depictions of the love between husband and wife in Western literature, as well as one of the oldest. And no matter what other relationships there may have been between them, no one could fail to notice the loving friendship expressed by Achilles and Patroclus for one another.

Helen, while perhaps the obvious character to consider in this context, remains something of a mystery. She certainly seems fond of Priam and at least those Trojans who do not hate or shun her. Her apparent love for both her lover Paris and her husband Menelaus has been seen as fickleness or caprice by some, but Homer and his audience would most likely have taken it to represent the workings of Aphrodite—who is, after all, the goddess of love and passion and thus stands for a power that frequently overwhelms rational thought and other, “lesser” considerations.

Patriotism
Ironically, most of the patriotism that is found in the Iliad is on the part of the Trojans. It is a favorite rallying tactic of Hector’s, as for example when he rebukes the seer Polydamas for predicting an eventual defeat for the Trojans and counseling a retreat with the words, “Fight for your country—that is the best, the only omen!” (XII.243, Fagles’ translation). This is not to imply that Homer thought more of the Trojans than the Greeks, merely that the Greeks of Homer’s day had only begun to develop a sense of themselves as a single nation—perhaps at least in part through Homer's own work, which describes, as Thucydides observed some centuries later, the first action taken in common by the Greek-speaking peoples.

Peer Pressure (Shame)
Peer pressure is found virtually everywhere in the world of the Iliad. Consider, for example, the gambit used twice by Hera and once by Athena to get Zeus to do what they want: “Do as you please . . . but none of the deathless gods will ever praise you” (IV.29, XVI.443, and XXII.181). Menelaus’ debate with himself as he tries to prevent the Trojans from making off with Patroclus’ body at XVII.90ff. is in a similar vein, as is the fairly common tactic of “encouraging” a reluctant soldier by pointing out the potential consequences to his reputation of being found with a wound in the back. Even Helen pleads the need to avoid the ridicule of the Trojan women when she tells Aphrodite that she will not rush off to make love to Paris after Aphrodite has rescued him from the duel with Menelaus (III.406ff.).

Revenge
Revenge is another theme which requires a little bit of reading between the lines. There are numerous places in the poem where one fighting man prepares or threatens to kill another to revenge another death, or an insult or offense. Achilles is fairly open about his desire for revenge on Agamemnon for his insults, and on Hector for having killed Patroclus.

Revenge also drives the hatred of Athena and Hera for the Trojans (they want revenge on Paris), and of Poseidon for the city and its inhabitants (he was cheated out of his proper payment for helping to build the city’s walls).

War
The Iliad is an Epic Poem—as such, it celebrates and glorifies a nation’s great war, distinguishing the “good guys” from the “bad guys” from that nation’s perspective. The epic was the dominant literary genre in ancient Greece, unlike the more personal poetry common today. In glorifying war and a more simplistic view of masculinity, Homer was simply following the custom of his time; however, his portrayal of the Trojan War doesn’t spare us the grim realities of war and its effect on the individual.

Homer portrays Paris as a coward—he wants to have Helen for his own, but is unwilling to fight in the war that results from his actions. Artemis and Aphrodite’s reluctance to get involved is played for comic relief. Achilles and Hector, on the other hand, are the exact opposite—they embrace war, its motivations, and its results. Achilles fights out of rage and later vengeance, while Hector fights for honor and for what he believes is right. Both would rather die on the battlefield than live long, comfortable lives free of conflict. Athena is similarly held up as an example of a goddess who is willing to support the grandeur of the war. For Homer’s audience, most of which were military, fighting proves a warrior’s honor and integrity, while avoiding it shows laziness, fear, or selfishness.

The “wars” in The Iliad aren’t just between Troy and Greece, though. Achilles and Agamemnon battle over issues of fame and pride until Achilles abandons his fellow warriors, proving his pride and fighting spirit while showing his own selfishness. Hector and Paris fight over the latter’s refusal to own up to his mistake and join the troops he himself put in danger. These internal battles are as important to the epic as the fighting raging on the battlefield.

As much as Homer believes in the Trojan War and its outcome, The Iliad does function as a warning of sorts. Men die horrible deaths, as evidenced by the deaths of Patroclus and Hector, among many others; women become war trophies, enslaved or prostituted to the victors; a plague breaks out in the Greek camp, killing a large portion of the troops; and as the war drags on, fatigue and a sense of hopelessness set in. Achilles says that all men, whether brave or not, face the same death. Homer seems to be suggesting that death is not the issue, but that the way a man lives his life is. The tension between the urge to be peaceful and to fight for what is right is unresolved in The Iliad, leaving readers to question whether war is worth it. Each side has a valid reason for fighting, yet a matter that could have been cleared up with a one-on-one fistfight grows into a battle of nations while the instigator sits by and watches. Homer shows us that war, its motivations and its aftermath are far more complicated than a simple hero story can adequately show.

Glory
One of the qualities of a Homeric hero is a striving for fame and glory. These heroes aren’t content to simply do good deeds; they want to be recognized by history and embraced by their countrymen. The pursuit of glory and fame (or kleos in Greek) take precedence even over family. Homer illustrates this tension by placing his warriors in positions in which they have to choose between family and fame; the most heroic characters almost always choose fame in the end.

Andromache begs with Hector to “hang back” in battle so he wouldn’t orphan his own son, but Hector believes in the idea that that fighting on the front lines represents the only way of “winning my father great glory.” Paris, on the other hand, spends his time with Helen rather than fight; he is then seen as a coward and potentially a traitor for his lack of heroic action. Achilles debates returning home to live comfortably with his aging father, but he stays in Troy to win glory by killing Hector and avenging the death of Patroclus. Each hero knows his fate ahead of time if he chooses battle rather than Paris’s route, but these characters prize honor, bravery, glory and fame so highly that they willingly sacrifice the chance to live a long life with those they love.

Mortality
The Iliad covers a relatively short period of time compared to its sister work the Odyssey and other epic poems. In that short time, lives are taken and given, lost and won, and the stage is set for other adventures to come. The overarching truth that these events all have in common is the fact that none of them will last forever—even the gods are humanized enough to seem something less than invulnerable. Achilles is supposedly unbeatable thanks to his mother dipping him in a magical pool at birth; however, she didn’t dip his heel, and that heel—along with his arrogance and strength—is his undoing after The Iliad closes. Hector knows his country will fall in defeat, but he keeps fighting one impossible battle after another as if they have a chance. Hector even alludes to the fact that perhaps those who embrace death rather than fearing it are the strongest people of all.

Both heroes are painfully aware of mortality—Achilles from what he feels is a lack of it, Hector from the daily possibility that some enemy might slip into his home while he’s sleeping and kill him or his family—in this case, all because of a war he didn’t start and couldn’t stop. Homer seems to be conveying an essential truth here—they can die, as can all mankind, and so can everything they’ve worked so hard to build. What are the Greek gods if there are no Greeks to worship them? Buildings won’t stand, no matter how well they were built or fortified, because the gods can destroy them. Most importantly for Achilles and Hector, how can they live on in the hearts of their people if there aren’t enough of their people around who remember them? The world is a delicate balance, and it seems that in The Iliad, Homer is exploring that balance to see how far his characters will go.

In the end of the epic, Hector is dead at Achilles’ hands and Achilles’s attitude is growing thanks to his successful battlefield conquests. He doesn’t think about a world with no people, and no gods for them to worship. This self-interest leads to his death not long after The Iliad closes. The Gods are still in their “heavens,” but they, too, have been taking sides. The gods in the Odyssey are more withdrawn, less likely to interfere because they know some of their brothers and sisters may find out and destroy them. Only Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, rises above.

By placing morality at the center of The Iliad, Homer makes us aware that all things are mortal, and that we must make the best of the life we have as Hector did. He fought for what he believed was right, and he was known as a hero thanks to Homer’s portrayal. In a sense, Hector could be seen as more immortal as Achilles simply because his motivations were relatively pure and he was a simple mortal man fighting against impossible odds.

Loyalty (Or Lack of the Same)
The Trojan war is sparked when Paris, a Trojan prince, captures Helen, the wife of Menelaos of Sparta, and spirits her away with him to Troy. Helen’s betrayal is fueled by a good helping of magic from Aphrodite, but it is a betrayal just the same, one that the Acheans must avenge. Threads of loyalty and betrayal run all through The Iliad, defining some characters as positive and others as negative; there is little gray area, if any.

Achilles’ loyalty to Agamemnon lasts only as long as their willingness to put up with one another—when the king makes a comment about Achilles, Achilles leaves Agamemnon and his army in the lurch. Agamemnon’s loyalty comes into question simply because he chose to antagonize his most powerful soldier in the midst of a brutal war. Paris seems to have no loyalties at all except to himself, and Helen leaves with him at least semi-willingly, albeit under Aphrodite’s influence. When Paris is killed, Helen doesn’t run immediately back to Menelaos, but marries Deiphobos before eventually returning to Sparta as Menelaos’ queen.

The only truly loyal characters in the story seem to be Hector, who willingly dies in protection of his nation and his father, the king and Athena, who protects the Greeks without a second’s hesitation. These two characters are on opposite sides, but both seem to almost rise above the action, as if a few minutes spent together would convince them both that the war they are fighting is ridiculous.

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