What a time to be alive, the era of glory and warfare recounted within The Iliad. Life gave no room for softness was we know it today: You were forced to cruelty, or else be left to the whims of those without mercy. A more modern discussion of peace and harmony among men seems almost laughably naive in the context of this ancient world. Especially with this in mind, it’s surprising to see Homer’s capacity for sympathy toward the victims of conflict, easily among the greatest one could expect to witness from a poet from the era. (And doubly surprising as I somehow assumed, walking in, that the sole purpose of The Iliad would be to glorify the exploits of heroes.)
The Iliad follows a short period of vicious battles near the end of the Trojan War, started after the Greek king Menelaus’ wife Helen fled to Troy to wed Paris, one of the princes of the great city. The war becomes increasingly difficult for the Greeks when their champion, Achilles, refuses to fight on account of a feud with Agamemnon––Menelaus’ brother, greatest of all Greek kings––and the gods turn against them in sympathy for their champion. The epic poem largely concerns graphic fighting in the fields around Troy and the acts of the gods influencing the conflict.
And I find the constant presence of gods in the text interesting, gods feuding amongst themselves and hugely swinging the tide of battle with a whim. It not only demonstrates the prominent role of these beings in a pagan religion, with a perpetual need to pay tribute through prayer and the sacrifice of animals, but also shows an understanding at the time of the limits one has in controlling his own fate. That’s not to say it’s completely out of one’s hands: The Iliad regularly demonstrates that not all men are created equal, that a man’s skill will carry him through battle. It just means that sometimes, even if you do everything you can, the Fates can still be against you.
Even with everything I loved about it, however, I do admit that I doubt I’ll ever read it all the way through again. That said, I think that The Iliad’s worth a read-through at least once––despite how difficult it can be to slog through some of the more long-winded or numerous repetitive passages––if only to experience a piece of literature that so thoroughly worked its way into so many facets of Western culture.