At a Glance

  • All but the gods are mortal in the Iliad; all men must die and all cities fall. Men endure only through their reputations and the glory they earn, which last into eternity.

  • Honor is vital to a functioning society; Agamemnon nearly loses the war when he publicly dishonors Achilles and disrespects a priest of Apollo.

  • Fate plays an important role in the lives of mortals and gods alike; no man can cheat destiny, and not even the gods seem entirely in control of what Fate decrees.

  • The Trojan Hector relies on patriotism to rally his troops; the Greek leaders are less able to marshal their soldiers this way, reflecting the nascent state of Greek social and cultural unity.

  • The warriors are motivated by a fear of shame and ostracism; leaders remind soldiers of the shame they will face if they fail, and Helen fears the ridicule of the other women when Paris is defeated in battle.

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Themes

(Epics for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2,699 words.)