The Iliad celebrates war and the men who wage it: man-killing Hector, lord of men Agamemnon, and swift-footed Achilles, whose rage is cited in the poem’s famous opening line. However, the same invocation also mentions the “countless losses” suffered as a result of the Trojan War (1.2). While much of The Iliad celebrates the splendor of military victory, the poem also honestly depicts the costs of war, which significantly undermines the idea that war is a wholly glorious endeavor.
The battle scenes contain many passages focusing on the brutal destruction of the human body. In the very first battle sequence, we see the Achaean Antilochus kill a man, sending his bronze spear “smashing through his skull” (4.533). Homer doesn’t merely say that the spear kills the victim: He emphasizes that it literally shatters the man’s skull, forcing the reader to confront the terrifying and grotesque ways that human bodies are mutilated during war. The descriptions become even more gruesome as the fighting continues. We see Damasus’s brains “splattered all inside his casque,” a spear piercing a man’s bowels, and another spear slicing a man’s liver (12.214). The specific body parts being maimed here symbolize other, equally damaging effects of battle. The brain, for example, represents human beings’ capacity for rational thought, a capacity that is destroyed by war. The violation of the bowels and the liver, organs that process the body’s waste, release filth into the dying men’s bodies, further degrading them.
Homer also draws attention to the way war not only destroys but dehumanizes the Achaean and Trojan soldiers, bringing out their base, animalistic natures. He describes the men as groups of animals rushing into battle. The soldiers are flocks of geese, wild boars, hounds—numerous, fierce, and determined hunters of other men. Though the victorious warrior will emerge as a hero and a great man, he reaches his goal by behaving in a brutal, inhuman way.
While the men behave like animals on the battlefield, they nevertheless experience human emotions when they are forced to deal with the difficult choices and losses inflicted by war. Soon after Hector returns to his wife, Andromache, and his young son, Astyanax, he is obligated to return to battle, despite his love for his family and his wife’s prophecy that the war will soon cost him his life. Though heavy-hearted, Hector insists on going back, claiming that he must win “great glory” for his father and himself, for he has learned the ancient world’s masculine code “all too well” (6.527–529). In this episode, Homer presents us with a culture where the pursuit of military glory directly conflicts with devotion to one’s family, and in pursuing the former, Hector must abandon the latter. But family members are not the only losses the soldiers must endure: They also experience great anguish when they lose their fellow warriors on the battlefield. When Achilles learns of Patroclus’s death, for example, he is stricken with grief, yelling at the gods as he claws at the ground and tears at his hair. Achilles’ intense feelings of grief soon give way to rage, and Homer describes how the hero loses “the will to live, to take [his] stand in the world of men” until he can vanquish Hector (18.105–106). Achilles goes on to slaughter Hector in one of the poem’s most violent passages. Patroclus’s death upsets Achilles’ concept of the world order. Now he fights not for glory or out of envy, but because he simply cannot live until he kills his foe. Grief and rage have become inextricably linked for Achilles, and war is no longer a noble or glorious endeavor but simply the symptom of incomprehensible loss.
The tension between the glory of war and its simultaneous costs fuels The Iliad, as characters must constantly grapple with the difficult, arduous choices their culture demands of them. In this way, it resembles another central theme in The Iliad: the uneasy relationship between human action and divine intervention, which is likewise set out in the poem’s opening stanza. While Achilles’ rage is initially presented as the chief cause of the fighting, Homer also claims that the war is a result of “the will of Zeus . . . moving toward its end” (1.7). The question of how far human beings’ free will extends remains an open one throughout the poem, and Homer never comes down clearly on one side or the other. The Iliad ultimately depicts a deeply dualistic world, where glory must be balanced with agony and individual action with a lack of ultimate control. The Iliad has remained a touchstone for Western culture because it honestly explores essential conflicts of the human condition without condescending to its readers by providing easy answers. Its raw power and beauty has ensured that we’ve kept mulling over its challenges nearly three millennia later.