Masterpiece: The Iliad

DHARMAVADANA introduces the great epic of war, love and human struggle

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus

and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians

–  Iliad, Book I, lines 1-2 (1)


It seems impudent in a way to write about the Iliad as a mere masterpiece. Homer’s sublime poem really belongs in a higher category, of works so great that they have broken free of the human world from which they emerged. It would fit better in a list that included the Pyramids, the Parthenon, the cave paintings at Lascaux, the Kamakura Buddha and perhaps the Mona Lisa, artefacts that seem to stand alone in their significance and transcendent luminosity (2). But perhaps the gods will forgive us.

            Argument has long raged over who Homer was, whether he existed at all, whether he composed both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and whether he was responsible for all of either epic. The majority of scholars now accept that the Iliad is the creation of one author, probably knitting together and expanding on existing epic matter which had been handed down orally. The poem’s clear architecture, its signs of a single story-teller’s art and consistencies of style make the idea of a ‘committee’ or random succession of authors implausible. Whether this one poet was really called ‘Homer’ is another question. Though the main body of the Iliad was put together in probably the ninth century BCE (3), it’s possible that the name ‘Homer’ originally applied to a much more ancient semi-mythical bard. But the Greeks called their greatest poet Homer, and as we know of no other name for him, there seems no reason not to follow them. They ascribed the Odyssey to him also, but most scholars now think that the stylistic differences between the two epics make it likely that they were the work of different hands.(4)

            Whoever Homer ‘really’ was, it is beyond doubt that he was a genius of the highest possible order. This is evident not only in the haunting power of his poetry – his arresting images, his vivid descriptions of battle, nature, domestic life and much else – or the craft of his narrative structure, but in his deep humanity. Homer cares profoundly about his characters, on both the Greek (or ‘Achaian’) and the Trojan side, despite their many foibles and even wickedness. Not only are his major characters described in captivating detail and with great psychological consistency, but his minor characters too – and even animals – are painted with love and skill. The theme of the poem, also, goes much deeper than ‘the wrath of Achilles’ (or ‘Achilleus’ in Richmond Lattimore’s more accurate transcription) as Homer announces it at the start: it is, really, the tragedy of Achilles as a warrior of the Greek heroic age, and by extension that of all young men fighting for glory (or for their country) – the pity of war. Further even than this, the Iliad penetrates to the heart of all tragedies: the suffering woven through human life itself. Several great speeches and dramatic episodes make this clear, and the way that they still touch readers today reminds us of all the reasons why the Iliad has been treasured for millennia.

            The epic does not trace the whole outline of the ten-year Trojan War, but concentrates on one episode near its end. It opens when the Greeks have long been camped among their ships, beached on the coast of the Troad. A battle of wills begins between the leader of the Greek expedition, Agamemnon, and its most powerful hero, Achilles. As part of his spoils from a previous battle, Agamemnon has won Chryseis, but as she is the daughter of the Trojan priest of Apollo, the Achaian seer says he must give her back. His prestige threatened by this humiliation, Agamemnon agrees under pressure to do so but demands in Chryseis’s place the ‘prize’ that Achilles has won for himself, the lovely Briseis. Enraged by such a slight, Achilles says he will withdraw from all fighting – and begs Zeus, through his sea-goddess mother Thetis, to aid the Trojans. This way the Greeks will learn that they should have valued their foremost warrior more.

Thus removed from the central action of the poem, Achilles’s place is taken by Greek heroes whose power serves to remind us of him, such as Diomedes and Aias, until our suspenseful wait for his return is over. In the meantime, Homer develops our sympathy with Hektor, Troy’s greatest warrior, an intriguing character who plays as large a part in the epic overall as does Achilles – and not without reason, under Homer’s masterful control of his plot. As the Trojans press the weakened Greeks, Patroklos, Achilles’s favourite, dons his friend’s armour in a desperate attempt to frighten the enemy troops and push them back, and it is when Patroklos is killed by Hektor that the poem reaches its climax – Achilles’s vengeful destruction of Hektor – and the reader feels the great wheels of Homer’s story turning into their final positions. During the course of all this the poem looks back to the beginning of the war, and forward to its end, hinting at the future death of Achilles and the destruction of Troy, but the main action of the Iliad covers only a few weeks. The fighting unfolds before our eyes as if in real time.

            On the way, Homer’s cast of characters reveal almost every human trait it is possible to imagine: proud, temperamental but thoughtful Achilles; hot-headed, reckless, almost paranoid Agamemnon; romantic, vain Paris; lustful Helen, tortured by guilt; crafty, astute Odysseus; naive, loyal Patroklos; the comic gas-bag Nestor; Hektor, oscillating between heroism and his human fear of death and love of his family; and the great tragic figure of King Priam, Hektor’s father, for whom Homer reserves one of the greatest scenes in his poem, if not in all of classical literature.

            This comes in the last of the Iliad’s twenty-four books. Achilles has defeated and killed Hektor, but in his fury at the Trojan’s slaying of Patroklos, the Greek champion has broken all the rules of ancient chivalry by attaching Hektor’s body to his chariot and dragging it through the dust back to the Greek ships. Patroklos’s grand funeral, a day of games in his honour and more mourning follow, then Priam steals in the night into the Greek camp to beg for the return of his son’s body, so that he can cremate and bury it properly. He walks straight into Achilles’s shelter, and clasps his enemy’s knees in supplication. ‘Remember your father’, he implores the amazed warrior, ‘one who is of years like mine, and on the door-sill of sorrowful old age’. Achilles’s father, the King says, may yet have the joy of greeting Achilles home from the wars, but he, Priam, has lost all of his noblest sons, including Hektor who died ‘in defence of his country’.

            I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through;

            I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.

Perhaps because he knows that in truth he is destined not to survive the war, this produces in Achilles ‘a passion of grieving for his own father’. He gently pushes Priam away and an extraordinary scene ensues, in which these sworn enemies are united in human grief:

                        …and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled

            at the feet of Achilleus and wept close for manslaughtering Hektor

            and Achilleus wept now for his own father, now again

            for Patroklos. The sound of their mourning moved in the house.

Then Achilles, the cause of Priam’s loss, acknowledges the old man’s suffering, seats him on a chair and promises to return Hektor’s body to him. He goes and lifts the body onto Priam’s chariot with his own hands. Throughout the scene Homer’s modulation of the two men’s reactions to each other is perfect: they never forget that they are enemies, yet respect grows between them, they find and acknowledge their mutual humanity in the common sorrow of all mortals, and are able to treat each other with kindness.  It seems incredible that lines like these could have been composed nearly three thousand years ago, such are their startling gentleness and humanity.(5) Yet the Iliad is full of such profound moments.

            Homer portrays the world of the Olympian gods as vividly as the human world, and their individual characters, their foibles and quirks, are just as lovingly drawn. Yet they never dominate the action. Humans, and their common woes, are centre-stage, and it is they who confront life with courage and nobility, and deep reflection, while the gods are shown almost as children. The Olympians take different sides in the war, but whatever squabbling games they play with their mortal toys, the basic joy of the gods is never threatened and they are shown ending the day with their nectar and peaceful sleep. It is a contrast which superbly highlights the existential realities of human life.

            In a good translation (6), the glories of Homer’s poetry – his eidetically powerful images, his penetrating observations – are shown to have lost nothing over time, any more than his themes have: Apollo striding angrily down ‘along the pinnacles of Olympos’ to avenge his priest on the Greeks; Hektor’s son ‘frightened at the aspect of his own father’ before he goes into battle, terrified by his nodding horse-hair crest; Helen weaving  ‘a web, a red folding robe’ and working into it the struggles of both Trojans and Greeks; the immortal horses of Achilles standing and weeping in the field of battle after Patroklos’s death(7); beautiful and suggestive epithets such as ‘Zeus of the Voices’, ‘grey-eyed Athene’,  and the famous ‘rosy fingers’ of dawn.  Encountering the Iliad is as much like entering a gorgeous, perfectly-proportioned temple as a reading experience. It is perhaps not too fanciful to say that in that beautifully architectured spaceone meets a vision not only of heroic Greece, but of human life at all times everywhere.

 As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.

The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber

burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.

So one generation of men will grow while another

dies.(8)

Dharmavadana is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order. He is the poetry editor of Urthona and his own poetry has appeared in the UK magazines The North, Ambit, Under the Radar, The Interpreter’s House and elsewhere. With a group of friends, he runs creative writing workshops in various parts of the country: www.wolfatthedoor.org  He lives in London

[i] The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, 1951). All my quotes are taken from this translation.

[ii]  I like to think that the tradition that Homer was blind is really symbolic of his vision being ‘inward’, of the pure imagination.

[iii] H. D. F. Kitto, The Greeks (Harmondsworth, 1951): Kitto defers to Herodotus in placing Homer in the ninth century.

[iv] See Kenneth Dover and others, Ancient Greek Literature (second edition, Oxford 1997) pp 11-14.

[v] This scene and quotes are from Book XXIV, lines 468 – 595.

[vi] I do recommend Richmond Lattimore’s verse translation, which uses what he calls a ‘free six-beat line’, with natural stresses, to model Homer’s hexameter. To his credit, Lattimore does not baulk at reproducing Homer’s famous repetitions of epithets and longer descriptions, without which to my mind some of the grand formality of the Iliad is lost.

[vii] These episodes are found in, respectively: Book I, lines 43-47; Book VI, lines 466-470; Book XVII, lines 426-428.

[viii] Book VI, lines 146-150.