The Iliad
Homer

by contributor

Sharon Fleming

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Themes
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
The Glory of War

It can be argued that war is celebrated in The Iliad. We see that characters are portrayed as worthy or the reverse on the basis of how competent and brave they are in battle. For instance, Paris hates fighting and as a result of this he is held in scorn by his family and lover. By contrast, Achilles achieves eternal glory through his rejection of a comfortable and long but uneventual life in his hometown. It seems that the text promotes this way of judging character, and that it even uses it to appraise the worth of the gods. The epic presents Athena and other warlike gods to be admired by the reader, while it pokes fun at gods who flee from war. He utilizes Aphrodite and Artemis’ timidity to establish comic relief. Proving one’s integrity and honor seems to require warfare, and it appears that avoiding fighting is proof of inappropriate priorities, fear, and laziness.

Certainly, The Iliad pays due attention to war’s realities. Men suffer terrible deaths, and women are forced to be concubines or slaves and taken away from their parents. The Achaean army suffers a plague, and many men are decimated because of it. These horrors could cause even the strongest warrior to feel fearful, and Homer informs us that both armies wish that the war ever begun. While Achilles says that all men, both cowardly and brave, must die in the end, the work never makes the reader question the relevance and legitimacy of war. Homer refrains from implying that fighting wastes human life or time. Instead, he shows each side as possessing a justification for war and portrays warfare as respectable and potentially glorious.

Military Glory over Family Life

One of The Iliad’s themes that closely relates to war’s glory is how military glory takes precedence over family. The poem shows admiration of the bonds created by deference and obligation. He shows that they bind families together. However, the work shows much more respect for the pursuit of kleos. Kleos is the “glory” or “renown” that is won in others’ eyes when great deeds are performed. Homer consistently pushes his characters to choose between their desire for kleos and their families. Kleos is chosen by most heroic characters. Andromache begs Hector not to put their son at risk of becoming an orphan. However, Hector is aware that fighting in the front ranks is the only way that he can win “my father great glory.” Conversely, Paris opts to spend his time with Helen instead of take part in the war. In accordance with this, he is treated derisively by the text and other characters. Achilles thinks about returning home to live with his aging father, but he decides to stay at Troy to achieve glory by cutting down Hector and successfully avenging Patroclus. The importance of the decisions Achilles and Hector make is shown in how each of them knows his fate beforehand. Both characters highly value glory, noble bravery, and honor, and they are willing to sacrifice the chance to live a long life with the people they love.

The Impermanence of Human Life and Its Creations

While the events chronicled in the The Iliad cover a very brief period within an extended bar, the poem stays acutely aware of the specific ends that will eventually befall all the characters. It is destined that Troy will fall. We see Hector say this to his wife in Book 6. It is announced that Priam and all of his offspring are destined to die. Hector dies before the poem concludes. Achilles is fated to die early, as well, but this will not occur before the end of the poem. Homer consistently makes reference to this event. This is especially the case near the end of the epic. This makes it clear that even the best of men are not able to escape death. In fact, he implies that the noblest and bravest, and therefore the greatest, men could die sooner than others. In a similar way, The Iliad shows recognition of the fact that mortals’ creations are mortal in their own way as well. Men’s glory fails to live on their cities, institutions, and constructions. Calcas’s prophecy, Hector’s conversation with Andromache, and the gods’ debates consistently remind readers that the high ramparts of Troy will eventually fall. Yet the fortification of the Greeks will not last much longer. While the Greeks put up their bulwarks part of the way through the poem, Poseidon and Apollo plan to destroy them in Book 12. It is thus emphasized that human beings and the world have an ephemeral character, and that mortals ought to try to live honorable lives so that their memories will be noble. As the physical bodies and material creations of human beings cannot survive death, we can try to make them people continue to live by way of their deeds and words. It can be argued that the fact that Homer’s poem exists is proof of this idea.

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