The Iliad

by: Homer

Books 3–4

The other Trojan characters emerge much more sympathetically, and the poem presents its first mortal female character, Helen, in a warm light. Although Helen ran away with Paris and thus bears some of the responsibility for the deaths of so many of her countrymen, unlike Paris, she doesn’t take her role in the carnage lightly. Her labeling of herself a “hateful” creature and her admission that she wishes that she had died the day Paris brought her to Troy demonstrate her shame and self-loathing (3.467). Her remorseful reflections upon the homeland that she left behind as she surveys the Achaean ranks arrayed beneath the walls of Troy further reveal her regret and sense of having done wrong. The scene becomes particularly poignant when she wonders whether her brothers Castor and Polydeuces, whom she cannot find in the crowd, might possibly have refused to join the Greek expedition and fight for such an accursed sister. Tragically, she doesn’t realize, as Homer points out, that their absence signifies not their anger but their death in battle.

The Iliad presents no clear villains. Though the story is told from the Greek perspective, it doesn’t demonize the Trojans. In fact, in wars that occurred before the start of the poem, such as the struggle against the Amazons that Priam mentions, the Trojans allied with the Achaeans. Both armies suffer in the current violence, and both feel relieved to hear that the duel between Menelaus and Paris may end it. When the two sides consecrate their truce with a sacrifice, soldiers in both armies pray that, should the cease-fire be broken, the guilty side be butchered and its women raped—whichever side that may be. When the cease-fire does fail and open conflict between the two armies erupts for the first time in the epic, the carnage consumes both sides with equally horrific intensity. Furthermore, the text doesn’t unequivocally imply the Trojans’ guilt in the breach—Pandarus shoots at Menelaus only under Athena’s persuasion. Indeed, the gods seem to be the only ones who take pleasure in the conflict, and the mortals, like toy soldiers, provide Hera and Athena an easy way to settle their disagreement with Zeus.