Homer’s Iliad, glory and pity

Homer’s Iliad isn’t all about glorifying the noble heroes and the war the Greeks fought in Troy, or indeed war as a whole, or even Greek wars. There are many examples of Homer highlighting the pain and misery of war, and sympathising not only with the Greek dead but also the Trojans. It might be used as an example of how it is possible eloquently to remember the sacrifice of the warriors who fight for their comrades and for noble ideals, but at the same time to focus on the awful nature of war. After all, as Herodotus said…

“No-one is foolish enough to choose war over peace”

Here are some passages from the Iliad which might spark thought about the pity of war, and the possibility of expressing the reasons for conflict and the spectacular nature of the soldiers’ bravery, without glorifying the experience… (Lattimore translation)

“Now the sun of a new day struck on the ploughlands, rising out of the quiet water and the deep stream of the ocean to climb the sky. The Trojans assembled together. They found it hard to recognize each individual dead man; but with water they washed away the blood that was on them and as they wept warm tears they lifted them on to the wagons. But great Priam would not let them cry out; and in silence they piled the bodies upon the pyre, with their hearts in sorrow, and burned them upon the fire, and went back to sacred Ilion. In the same way on the other side the strong-greaved Achaians piled their own slain upon the pyre, with their hearts in sorrow, and burned them upon the fire, and went-back to their hollow vessels.” (7.421-432)

“He who among you finds by spear thrown or spear thrust his death and destiny, let him die. He has no dishonour when he dies defending  his country, for then his wife shall be saved and his children afterwards, and his house and property shall not be damaged, if the Achaians must go away with their ships to the beloved land of their fathers.” (Hector) (15.486-488, 494-499)

“Friends and fighting men of the Danaans, henchmen of Ares, be men now, dear friends, remember your furious valour. Do we think there are others who stand behind us to help us? Have we some stronger wall that can rescue men from perdition? We have no city built strong with towers lying near us, within which we could defend ourselves and hold off this host that matches us. We hold position in this plain of the close-armoured Trojans, bent back against the sea, and far from the land of our fathers. Salvation’s light is in our hands’ work, not the mercy of battle.” (Aias) (15.733-741)

And, perhaps most tellingly, and on Remembrance Sunday, most evocatively,

“My husband, you were lost young from life, and have left me a widow in your house, and the boy is only a baby who was born to you and me, the unhappy. I think he will never come of age, for before then head to heel this city will be sacked, for you, its defender, are gone, you who guarded the city, and the grave wives, and the innocent children, wives who before long must go away in the hollow ships, and among them I shall also go, and you, my child, follow where I go, and there do much hard work that is unworthy of you, drudgery for a hard master; or else some Achaian will take you by hand and hurl you from the tower into horrible death, in anger because Hektor once killed his brother, or his father, or his son; there were so many Achaians whose teeth bit the vast earth, beaten down by the hands of Hektor. Your father was no merciful man in the horror of battle.” (Andromache) (24.725-739)


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