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Themes

Learn about themes in Homer's epic poem The Iliad with Course Hero's video study guide.

The Iliad | Themes

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As a story of war, battle dominates the poem. There are few moments that exist independently of the conflict. All the characters, mortal and immortal, are focused on the next battle, the next glory.

War

Achilles seeks a vengeful glory by staying separate from the battle. Even the images of nature and everyday life that appear in the many epic similes often contain elements that evoke the violence of war in normal life, creating a sense that war and conflict are part of the fabric of life. In The Iliad the war is sparked, directed, and even occasionally fought in by the gods, making it a force beyond human control, much like the images of storm, water, and fire often used to describe it.

As such, war cannot be good or bad—it is simply a fact of life with inherent contradictions. As Hector says in Book 17, "live or die—that is the lovely give-and-take of war." It is brutal, beautiful, and confusing. It fosters brotherhood and heroism and destroys people in terrible, bloody ways. The poet often describes a haze or darkness of confusion that overtakes the heaviest fighting. Otherwise reasonable people lose themselves in chasing glory and honor, often to their doom. Vengeance leads to a lack of mercy and more killing.

Humanity

Amid the horrors of war, human compassion and connection are hard to find—but not impossible. Glaucus and Diomedes meet on the battlefield and, finding their forefathers were guest-friends, pledge friendship and exchange armor. Achilles shows a hint of humanity early on by understanding the position of couriers sent by Agamemnon to seize Briseis from him, but he immediately turns around and asks that his own allies be killed and defeated to get back at Agamemnon. When he finally emerges on the battlefield, he shows no mercy to his enemies no matter how much they beg, and he treats Hector's body monstrously. However, Priam's grief and humility break through his anger and grief and he is able to show mercy to his opponents. When it does occur, humanity counteracts the evils of war.

Honor and Pride

Honor was supremely important to the ancient Greeks and underlies nearly every interaction in the poem. Honor can be gained through position, athletics, or debate; and particularly in wartime, it is built by demonstrating skill and bravery in battle and seizing valuable prizes. Fighters make themselves vulnerable in battle by stripping their defeated enemies of their armor as battle trophies. They even wear it to emphasize their triumph. Conversely, fierce battles are fought to keep enemies from gaining the honor of looting comrades' bodies. Leaders such as Agamemnon inherently have more honor, but they assume the dishonor for their followers in the case of defeat. The choices of both Hector and Achilles demonstrate that honor and glory are more important than long life.

The argument between Achilles and Agamemnon escalates because both exercise pride without humility. When Agamemnon seizes the woman Achilles has taken as a battle prize, he takes Achilles's honor away and insults his pride. Without an apology, a humbling of Agamemnon's pride, Achilles will not return to the battle. Although Agamemnon started the conflict, he will not bend his pride to apologize. Only an issue of greater pride and honor, avenging Patroclus's death, can make either man budge. In contrast, Priam humbles himself to Achilles to beg for Hector's body and is able to break through his grief and sense of vengeance to reach his humanity.

Gods and Fate

The immortal gods gleefully pull the strings of mortal humans, often determining the fate of armies and individuals without much thought for the consequences. Sometimes the gods push mortals to be better (such as when Hera and Athena restrain Achilles from killing Agamemnon), but often their interference leads to more death and destruction. From a modern perspective, the gods provide explanations for phenomena that people couldn't otherwise explain: chance occurrences, sudden changes in the course of battle, and individual inspiration. But to the ancient Greeks they were the controlling forces in their lives.

Even so, The Iliad shows that mortal actions and choices can sometimes determine a person's fate, such as when Menelaus decides not to face Hector on his own after the death of Patroclus.

Fate is at least somewhat changeable based on the decisions and actions of gods and of mortals. Achilles has the opportunity to choose between two fates—a long life without glory or a short but glorious life. Zeus chooses not to change his son Sarpedon's fate because it would upset the balance of power with the gods, but it seems he could do so if he wished. Even Achilles's actions occasionally threaten to change fate, though the gods always prevent that. It seems that fate is the result of a complex interaction between the gods and mortals.

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Flashcards for Themes

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Term:

Iphegenia at aulis

Definition:

Euripides 408-406

Term:

Symposium

Definition:

Plato 360

Term:

The Iliad

Definition:

homer 1194-1184 traditional 1260-1240 modern

Term:

the odyssey

Definition:

homer 750

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