Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
One can make a strong argument that The Iliad seems to celebrate war. Characters emerge as worthy or despicable based on their degree of competence and bravery in battle. Paris, for example, doesn’t like to fight, and correspondingly receives the scorn of both his family and his lover. Achilles, on the other hand, wins eternal glory by explicitly rejecting the option of a long, comfortable, uneventful life at home. The text itself seems to support this means of judging character and extends it even to the gods. The epic holds up warlike deities such as Athena for the reader’s admiration while it makes fun of gods who run from aggression, using the timidity of Aphrodite and Artemis to create a scene of comic relief. To fight is to prove one’s honor and integrity, while to avoid warfare is to demonstrate laziness, ignoble fear, or misaligned priorities.
To be sure, The Iliad doesn’t ignore the realities of war. Men die gruesome deaths; women become slaves and concubines, estranged from their tearful fathers and mothers; a plague breaks out in the Achaean camp and decimates the army. In the face of these horrors, even the mightiest warriors occasionally experience fear, and the poet tells us that both armies regret that the war ever began. Though Achilles points out that all men, whether brave or cowardly, meet the same death in the end, the poem never asks the reader to question the legitimacy of the ongoing struggle. Homer never implies that the fight constitutes a waste of time or human life. Rather, he portrays each side as having a justifiable reason to fight and depicts warfare as a respectable and even glorious manner of settling the dispute.
A theme in The Iliad closely related to the glory of war is the predominance of military glory over family. The text clearly admires the reciprocal bonds of deference and obligation that bind Homeric families together, but it respects much more highly the pursuit of kleos, the “glory” or “renown” that one wins in the eyes of others by performing great deeds. Homer constantly forces his characters to choose between their loved ones and the quest for kleos, and the most heroic characters invariably choose the latter. Andromache pleads with Hector not to risk orphaning his son, but Hector knows that fighting among the front ranks represents the only means of “winning my father great glory.” Paris, on the other hand, chooses to spend time with Helen rather than fight in the war; accordingly, both the text and the other characters treat him with derision. Achilles debates returning home to live in ease with his aging father, but he remains at Troy to win glory by killing Hector and avenging Patroclus. The gravity of the decisions that Hector and Achilles make is emphasized by the fact that each knows his fate ahead of time. The characters prize so highly the martial values of honor, noble bravery, and glory that they willingly sacrifice the chance to live a long life with those they love.
Although The Iliad chronicles a very brief period in a very long war, it remains acutely conscious of the specific ends awaiting each of the people involved. Troy is destined to fall, as Hector explains to his wife in Book 6. The text announces that Priam and all of his children will die—Hector dies even before the close of the poem. Achilles will meet an early end as well, although not within the pages of The Iliad. Homer constantly alludes to this event, especially toward the end of the epic, making clear that even the greatest of men cannot escape death. Indeed, he suggests that the very greatest—the noblest and bravest—may yield to death sooner than others.
Similarly, The Iliad recognizes, and repeatedly reminds its readers, that the creations of mortals have a mortality of their own. The glory of men does not live on in their constructions, institutions, or cities. The prophecy of Calchas, as well as Hector’s tender words with Andromache and the debates of the gods, constantly remind the reader that Troy’s lofty ramparts will fall. But the Greek fortifications will not last much longer. Though the Greeks erect their bulwarks only partway into the epic, Apollo and Poseidon plan their destruction as early as Book 12. The poem thus emphasizes the ephemeral nature of human beings and their world, suggesting that mortals should try to live their lives as honorably as possible, so that they will be remembered well. For if mortals’ physical bodies and material creations cannot survive them, perhaps their words and deeds can. Certainly the existence of Homer’s poem would attest to this notion.
Fate plays a crucial role in The Iliad. Not only does the poet use fate as a narrative means to foreshadow future events, but he also uses it as a thematic means to underline the significance of heroism. One of the defining features of heroism in The Iliad relates to the way heroes accept their destiny without flinching. Hector explains this point to his wife, Andromache, when she expresses her concern that he will die in battle. “And fate?” he responds rhetorically, “No one alive has ever escaped it.” Yet despite Hector’s insistence on the inescapability of fate, the poem also shows that destiny isn’t always written in stone. For example, Achilles has two fates, which means that he must choose his destiny. Whereas his mother, Thetis, begs him to choose a long life devoid of heroic glory, Achilles ultimately selects a hero’s death. Furthermore, gods have the power to challenge fate. Before Patroclus slays Sarpedon, a fierce Trojan warrior who happens to be one of Zeus’s favored sons, the father of the gods contemplates saving him to prevent his fated death. Ultimately, though, Hera warns Zeus against following through with his desire since challenging Sarpedon’s fate would set a dangerous precedent.
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