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The Iliad | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does Paris's fighting style in The Iliad reflect on the honor of his character?

Paris often fights with a bow and arrow, striking from a distance and minimizing his personal risk as well as the amount of honor he gains. He also shows his aversion to risk in his very first scene in Book 3 by dishonorably ducking behind other soldiers after seeing Menelaus, the man whose wife he stole. He does wound a couple of the best Achaean fighters but, in contrast to the great Achaean archer Teucer, he isn't terribly effective, usually wounding rather than killing his targets. Paris only occasionally engages in hand-to-hand fighting, the most honorable form of combat. He does so when he must in the duel with Menelaus, but having to be rescued from the duel by Aphrodite, who is the least warlike of the gods, does him no honor. He redeems himself somewhat in Book 13 when he shows a fighting spirit at a time when Hector is discouraged. He is also described after that as spearing an opponent in battle. On the whole he is honorable enough to be counted as one of the Trojan heroes, but he is a less-than-ideal example of an honorable warrior, especially in comparison to his nearly ideal brother Hector.

In what ways, if any, are the gods just as they are portrayed by Homer in The Iliad?

Divine entities in modern religions are usually thought of as fair and just, but the Greeks saw their gods completely differently. In The Iliad, the gods are motivated by their own loyalties with little regard for notions of fairness or justice. As king of the gods, who is primarily responsible for seeing fate carried out, Zeus balances and controls the other gods. However, he simply takes a slightly higher point of view—he is by no means impartial. He grants Thetis's request to punish the Achaeans to pay back a favor that he owed her, not because it is the fair and just thing to do. It actually originates from a fairly petty impulse on Achilles's part. The goddess Themis, whose domain is custom and law, makes only a couple of passing appearances in the poem. Even she displays partiality, seeming more concerned about Hera than any bigger picture of fairness in Book 15. She seems to enforce Zeus's rules rather than the higher concept of law that is justice.

In what way does Homer convey bias toward the Greeks or Trojans in The Iliad?

Homer portrays both sides of the conflict with equal respect and sympathy. Except perhaps in Book 10, there is no sense of the narrator gloating over the defeat of one side by the other. War is the same for both sides: deaths are tragic and terrible, and warriors on both sides have their own moments of achievement, honor, and glory. However, there is a distinct imbalance of power between the two sides. The Achaean army is larger and contains more heroes. When a Trojan hero fights an Achaean hero in battle, the Trojan usually comes out the loser. Aphrodite has to save Paris from Menelaus, who is a relatively weak fighter compared to many of the other Achaean heroes. Hector, the strongest Trojan hero, goes up against Great Ajax, the second-strongest Achaean hero, a number of times and comes out the worse for each encounter. The Trojan army advances only with Zeus's support, and even as they do, Achaean heroes successfully push back for short periods of time. In contrast the gods must be deployed to restrain Achilles and the Achaeans when he returns to the fighting so the Trojans are not immediately overrun. Although Homer does not vilify one side to glorify the other, he clearly portrays the Achaean side of the conflict as stronger and more likely to win. This creates the sense he is on the Achaean side, although with great sympathy for the tragic fate of Troy and her people.

How does the character of Aeneas in The Iliad compare and contrast with that of Aeneas in The Aeneid?

In The Iliad, Aeneas is a somewhat minor Trojan hero and one of the more practical fighters on the Trojan side. Where other heroes like Hector get carried away by their pride and sense of honor, Aeneas seems to act with a realistic view of his abilities and relative chances, at least when not being pushed by a god. His devotion to the gods is a minor point that makes Poseidon, usually aligned with the Achaean side of the conflict, take pity on him and save him from Achilles, who would certainly have killed him. His role in the plot is also fairly minor. However, he is the only Trojan hero to survive the fall of Troy, and The Iliad portrays him as having a great destiny. Virgil picks up Aeneas's story after the Trojan War and makes him the central character in The Aeneid. Virgil emphasizes his piety, a concept which for the Romans encompassed not only devotion to the gods but to family and country as well. Aeneas's destiny becomes the destiny of Rome. Aeneas in The Aeneid is a more conflicted character, often torn between his fate and his feelings. Although he is a fairly minor hero in The Iliad, Aeneas is the primary hero of The Aeneid—like Achilles in The Iliad, no fighter can stand against him.

What does The Iliad say about human suffering?

There is no shortage of suffering in war, from physical injuries to emotional wounds at the loss of beloved comrades. Women suffer worry not knowing what is happening to their sons and husbands on the battlefield, and the death of a husband can lead to a woman suffering a loss of status and support as well. The defeated also suffer the brutality of the victors. The men of defeated cities are killed, and the women who are captured suffer sexual assault and slavery. The consequence of his defeat and the fall of Troy that Hector fears the most is the suffering that his wife, Andromache, will have to endure as a result. But shared suffering can also bring people together. It creates a sense of brotherhood in armies made up of many different groups. It also brings enemies together when Achilles recognizes that the grief his father will suffer is the same grief that Priam is suffering. This connection awakens his compassion and reconnects him with his humanity. Like war, suffering is part of the human condition, but it can be constructive as well as destructive.

What is the effect of characters knowing their own fates in The Iliad?

Because of his mother, the goddess Thetis, Achilles is the only character to fully know his own fate before it happens in The Iliad. He knows he can either leave the war and live a long life or stay, fight, and die gloriously. So when he decides to stay and fight to avenge Patroclus's death, he understands it means he will shortly meet his own death. This is highlighted in his conversation with his horse at the end of Book 19. Hector has less knowledge than the audience about his fated death, but his conversation with Andromache when he returns to Troy in Book 6 demonstrates that he has a definite sense that he and the city will not survive the war. Zeus's help and his pride make him believe for a time he may be able to defeat Achilles, but by the time he faces Achilles at the gates of Troy in Book 22, he knows deep down he will not survive. Their knowledge of their own impending deaths makes Achilles's and Hector's choices to fight rather than retreat both more heroic and more tragic.

How do the gods view mortals in The Iliad?

The gods seem mostly interested in the fates of individual mortals when they have a personal connection to them, usually because they are their children. Aphrodite shows a particular interest in Paris's well-being because he awarded her an important prize. Athena favors a few Achaean fighters, including Achilles, Diomedes, and Odysseus, but only occasionally intervenes directly for them. Specific mortals also gain the attention of the gods by crossing them, for which the gods often hold grudges. But for the most part the gods seem to be working for or against the sides—Achaean or Trojan—as a whole, and take interest in specific mortals only as it relates to their own interests. In Book 21 both Hera and Apollo express the opinion that mortals are not worth fighting over, although that does not stop them from doing so. Apollo explains that this is because their lives are insignificantly short compared to the immortal gods, like leaves "no sooner flourishing, full of the sun's fire,/... than they waste away and die." It is difficult for the gods to care too much about any one mortal unconnected to themselves when they will be dead soon. Thus, they primarily use mortals as tools or playthings to fulfill their own needs and purposes.

In The Iliad, in what ways has Helen become an excuse for a war that has been fought for ten years?

On the surface the Trojan War is about Menelaus trying to get back what was stolen from him by Paris of Troy: Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, and the treasures she took with her. Helen's beauty is a prize that gives the man who claims her great honor. However, there is more than regaining lost possessions at stake. When Paris stole Helen he also dishonored Menelaus and offended his pride and the pride of the Achaeans, and Menelaus and the Achaeans can only regain those things by defeating Troy. Helen has not been returned after nine years of war, not only because Paris will not give her up, but also because it is unlikely that doing so would fully appease the wounded pride and honor of the Achaeans. When Agamemnon gives up Briseis—the prize he took from Achilles—he must publicly avow that he has not touched her, thereby diminishing his manly image in front of his troops (Book 19). Paris would not be able to make the same claim in returning Helen. The duel between Paris and Menelaus in Book 3 could have ended the war because it gives Menelaus an opportunity to take his honor and pride back by personally defeating Paris and reclaiming Helen. However, that chance is lost when Aphrodite removes Paris from the duel, and so the only acceptable outcome that remains for the Achaeans is the destruction of Troy.

How does Homer use the gods in his development of the mortal characters in The Iliad?

Obviously, a number of mortal characters are shaped by their divine ancestry, which usually confers extraordinary status and abilities. Achilles's great strength and fighting abilities are due to his mother being a goddess. Sarpedon and Aeneas are likewise heroic because of their divine parents. Some mortals do not have divine ancestry but are supported by a particular god or goddess. The qualities of the patron god often relate to certain aspects of the mortal character. Diomedes's skill and success in battle reflects his patron goddess Athena's role as the goddess of war. Odysseus's cleverness reflects Athena's role as the goddess of wisdom. Aphrodite's support of Paris is reflected in his tendency to choose love and pleasure over pride and fighting. Homer also uses the epithet "godlike" to describe a number of characters, most major but also some minor, to indicate they display qualities that exceed those of mere mortals.

In what ways is Achilles a sympathetic character in The Iliad?

Achilles is both a larger-than-life hero who exceeds normal human capabilities and a very human character with flaws that the audience can understand. When Agamemnon arbitrarily seizes something he values and insults his pride in Book 1, it is understandable that he would be angry. Every person wants to be respected and can empathize with the feeling of anger. Achilles takes it to an extreme degree and loses some sympathy in Book 9 when he refuses the very rich compensation that Agamemnon offers and continues to hold out his support of the long-suffering Achaean army. His refusal to bend his pride and forgive is an aspect of his personality that seems more godlike and less understandably human. Achilles's grief and guilt over the death of his great friend Patroclus starting in Book 17 also makes him sympathetic. He again goes too far in his desire for vengeance, doing some truly inhuman things on the battlefield and in Patroclus's funeral rites as a result of his anger. But the base emotions—grief, anger, and guilt—are all too understandable. It is not hard to find examples in modern life of people still carried away by these emotions. Achilles gains sympathy as a tragic figure when he chooses to remain and avenge his friend's death, knowing it will lead to his own death. And it is a touching and humanizing moment when Achilles finally lets go of his anger for a time and empathizes with Priam, his enemy in Book 24. Achilles is the only character to show this kind of growth, making it difficult not to identify with him and feel at least some sympathy for his journey.

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