The Iliad’s Literary Role
The Iliad represented many things to its classical Greek audience. It showed them their place in the world, surrounded by deities whose nature was both recognizable and utterly foreign. It demonstrated the importance of courage and other forms of martial valor in a chaotic world. It vividly depicted the seemingly random, pointless destruction of warfare, while simultaneously accepting violence as an inherent part of their world. It also described the conflict between a group of pirates and herders and a civilization of farmers and merchants.
To Americans, The Iliad is an important part of a classical education. It is one of the oldest existing stories in Western literature, and has a settled place as part of the West’s intellectual genesis. The story is sympathetic to many of its Greek protagonists, some of whom form archetypes for versions of the heroic warrior. Achilles is the epitome of the warrior in both form and action. Odysseus embodies the cunning hero who outsmarts every obstacle. Ajax is unyielding, both in body and character. Agamemnon is the ineffectual leader, both frustrated by his allies and frustrating them in turn.
Today, most Americans recognize the names Achilles, Odysseus, and Troy, and versions of The Iliad are an important part of American literary and popular culture. The conflicts it shows between the culture and structure of two societies translates to present day conflicts, whether that is between globalization and nationalists, between the developed world and radicals emerging from ungoverned spaces, or between the United State and the Islamic State.
The Iliad’s Cast of Characters
The Greeks of The Iliad are from a tribal, violent society. A seafaring people who raid coastal settlements, Homer depicts their society as bound together by respect stemming from power and tribal loyalties, not the rule of law. Man-slaying Achilles, the greatest among them, refuses to join his compatriots in war after his pride is insulted by Agamemnon’s seizure of Briseis, a woman he captured and enslaved. Ajax, “bulwark of the Achaeans,” seeks to prove his glory and worth by taking greater risks and killing more enemies than anyone else. Odysseus is known to be “quick at every treachery under the sun—the man of twists and turns.” Agamemnon rules through a tenuous web of relationships and oaths of personal loyalty, and occasionally through the threat of violence against his allies and not-quite subordinates. Though their story is one of the earliest entries of Western literature, they did not have a civilization Western culture would claim today.
The Trojans are a more urban and urbane population. Homer takes pains to show that their most powerful warrior, Hector, fights for glory, but more importantly to protect and lead his cherished city and family. Their leader, Priam, is a king, not a warrior leader. Instead of increasing his own power and glory, his greatest concern is the safety of his city and his sons’ lives as they fight before the walls of Troy. Despite their military power, the Trojans focused primarily on the textile trade. The Trojans even rely on technology. Though they are certainly not loath to employ the sword and spear, they also rely heavily on their walls and archers to defend their city.
Americans have more in common with the Trojans than the Greeks. Their urban lifestyle, focus on trade, civilian rule over the military, and reliance on technology resembles the United States. Priam let his field commanders lead his military, not unlike civilian leaders of the American military. Similar to Troy’s reliance on archers and its walls, the United States relies on airpower and other advanced weapon systems, and even shelters its populations behind two oceans, metaphorically similar to Troy’s seemingly impenetrable walls. American soldiers resemble Hector more than the Greek heroes. The Iliad’s writer takes pains to focus on Hector’s relationship with his family. After temporarily leaving the battlefield, Hector meets his wife and son and takes pains to reassure his wife that he loves her, but must leave the protection of Troy’s walls to go back to the fight. He takes the time to remove his helmet to appear less frightening to his son, all in a scene easily reminiscent of hundreds of calls home from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Greeks, by comparison, share some traits with members of the Islamic State. The Greeks legitimized violence against civilians, focused on seizing honor through warfare, resolving disputes through violence, and endorsed the seizure of property and slaves, behaviors the Islamic State would recognize. Achilles, held aloft in much of western literature as the epitome of a hero, executed bound prisoners as revenge for the death of Patroclus, captured and enslaved Briseis after killing her family, and sacked numerous islands and cities. The Islamic State has horrified the world by burning a Jordanian pilot alive, keeping Yazidi women as sex slaves, and targeting civilians.[13-15] The Greeks were not bound to Agamemnon through a social contract realized by a formal constitution. Instead, they were bound by the Oath of Tyndareus, an oath of personal loyalty. Similarly, Iraqi society has a strong tribal culture that affects political life and has influenced the Islamic State’s ability to recruit Sunni fighters.
It would be an overstatement to say that members of the Islamic State are the same as the Greek cast of The Iliad. The Sunni fighters of the Islamic State are divided from many of their opponents by religious and sectarian lines that are not significant in The Iliad. They also show a wild departure from the social norms of most of the rest of the world, while the Greeks were fairly representative of Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean culture. Nevertheless, there are a number of similarities that allow Americans to use a conflict that is still recognizable, the Trojan War, as a bridge to a better understanding of today’s combatants.
Despite the amount of media attention groups like the Islamic State receive, their motivation is a mystery to most westerners. The savagery of their acts, from burning people alive, the mass execution of prisoners, to the enslavement of women boggles most minds. Similarly, Greeks committed violent acts that would horrify the world if they occurred today. But they didn’t define themselves by those acts alone.
Likewise, straightforward explanations of the Islamic State’s violence are likely to miss the mark. While some Islamic State fighters are ideological extremists, many have other motivations. Researchers from Quantum Communications interviewed 49 Islamic State fighters. From their admittedly small sample, they gleaned that the most common reasons to fight were to improve their state or to gain an identity. Others have noted that many Iraqi Sunnis feel they must choose between the brutality of the Islamic State and government-supported Shia death squads, just as many Syrian Sunnis must choose between the Islamic State and the violence of the Assad government. Their choice is not entirely different from Odysseus’ choice to sail for Troy instead of letting his family suffer for his refusal to fulfill his oath. If we compare Islamic State fighters to modern analogues of the lawless, violent, glory-seeking pirates of The Iliad, we’ll understand them just a bit more.
Understanding the Greek view of the Trojans is also helpful. While the Trojans seem more familiar to Americans, from the Greek perspective they hardly seem more civilized. Hector, described as “a match for murderous Ares,” does not appear to the Greeks as the family man interested in peace the Trojans see. The destruction the Trojans rain down on the Greeks seems no less painful to the Greeks because the Trojans have a just reason to defend their homes. Achilles’ pain at Patroclus’ death is not reduced because the Trojans fought to defend their city. Those emotions, understandable in The Iliad, have valuable lessons for our understanding of Islamic State fighters and civilians in the region.
The Iliad is a valuable educational tool. It shows much about the unchanging nature of violence and war. The character’s struggle to understand events around them, deal with loss, and the random, brutal nature of death is recognizable to many that have fought in today’s wars. But it can also show more specific lessons. The lives and culture of some of Western literature’s most famous warriors looks just as much like that of today’s violent extremists as it does like today’s professional soldiers. The Iliad’s ability to make a raiding, tribal group whose society differs so greatly from Western values today the protagonists opens the door to improving American understanding of the Islamic State’s fighters. As long as this continues, The Iliad will have a valuable place.
Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:
Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.
Header Image: "Triumphant Achilles" dragging the dead body of Hector in front of the gates of Troy. Fresco painted by Franz Matsch. (Wikimedia)
 Caroline Alexander, interviewed by Jeffrey Brown, "Why The Iliad Still Matters Today," PBS Newshour, November 18,2015, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/the-iliad-translation/.
 Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 119.
 Ibid., 136.
 Ibid., 195.
 Ibid., 135.
 Ibid., 82.
 Ibid., 210-211.
 Ibid., 203-204.
 Adam Nicolson, Why Homer Matters (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 193-196.
 Mead, Walter Russell, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (New York: Taylor and Francis Group, 2002), 57-58.
 Alfred Thayer Mahan, “The Influene of Sea Power Upon History,” in Roots of Strategy Book 4, ed. David Jablonsky (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1999), 86-88.
 Carlos Parada, “Achilles,” Greek Mythology Link, 1997, http://www.maicar.com/GML/Achilles.html.
 “Jordanian pilots “obscene” burning death by ISIS sparks outrage in Mideast,” CBS News, February 4, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/jordanian-pilots-obscene-burning-death-by-isis-sparks-outrage-in-mideast/.
 Charlotte Alter, “A Yazidi Woman Who Escaped ISIS Slavery Tells Her Story,” Time, December 20,2015, http://time.com/4152127/isis-yezidi-woman-slavery-united-nations/.
 “Syria: Deliberate Killing of Civilians by ISIS,” Human Rights Watch, July 3, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/07/03/syria-deliberate-killing-civilians-isis.
 Euripides, The Complete Greek Tragedies (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 57.
 Hussein Hassan, “Iraq: Tribal Structure, Social and Political Activities,” Congressional Research Service, March 15, 2007, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/crs/rs22626.pdf.
 Patrick Tucker, “Why Join ISIS? How Fighters Respond When You Ask Them,” The Atlantic, December 9, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/12/why-people-join-isis/419685/.
 Colin Freeman, “Death squads, ISIS, and a new generation of fighters – why Iraq is facing break-up,” The Telegraph, June 29, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/10932851/Death-squads-Isis-and-a-new-generation-of-fighters-why-Iraq-is-facing-break-up.html.
 Homer, 367.