The embodied landscape of Homer’s Iliad is a world rich in complex dualities. To be at once a brutal warrior and a lover, a romantic and a sinner was no great dichotomy for the complexities of humanity are fully acknowledged. The unapologetic yet progressive acceptance of these traits brings a sense of reality to the poem which endows its players with vivid realism. Still, the peoples of the Homeric Mediterranean were governed by laws orchestrating this behavior — obligations, rites. Within the confines of these laws readers discover the most valued traits of the ancients identity: arete, time, and perhaps above all kleos, “renown” or “fame.” Together the Iliad suggests these traits culminate in what can be called “glorification.”
“Keeping with the dualistic nature of Epic literature to be a hero requires tragedy. One must all at once bring and preserve life while taking it.” On the glorification of war in Homer’s IliadTweet
To distinguish a figure as glorious, rather to glorify, or achieve glory remains a noteworthy endeavor. However that which we glorify is shaded by one’s own perspective, individual history, and culture: at best. That said the qualities transcend beyond the cultural boundaries, contributing to what might be called a human endeavor – to live honorably by serving those around you, striving to accord with one’s societal demands while simultaneously and selflessly contributing to what is deemed the “greater good.” Therefore what greater path may one choose to achieve glory, intentional or no, than sacrificing the self for fellows.
As for the glorification of war? The Iliad opens upon the ninth year of a conflict with seemingly nothing to motivate the belligerents aside from a love triangle between a callous king, a divine beauty, and a flamboyant foreigner. Yet, this is enough. Why? Because of the significance of kleos, of honor/glory in the Hellenistic ethos. The cause of the war was of less significance than the chance to do battle. The opportunity to achieve greatness (glory) in the field. Whether live or die, but to do so in accord with the status quo. For the Greeks life was an ebb and flow of peacetime and conflict. Homer illustrates this reality through moments of ekphrasis, such as the illustrated digression on Achilles shield which suggests that war brings peace (and likewise peace, war). But war presents opportunities to achieve glorification and renown. To make a name for oneself. This is especially true for the masses who could fight alongside the greats such as the towering Ajax, or the chance to prove oneself in the theatre of war with gods and goddesses and spirits as witnesses.
Keeping with the dualistic nature of Epic literature to be a hero requires great tragedy. One must all at once bring and preserve life while taking it. Within this text, war is clearly demarcated as a symbol of achieving glory. While not the only path, it remains one most open to mortals. This honorific goal requires great sacrifice, of self and others. And to sacrifice the self is the greatest act one may commit. For many of the figures depicted in this Epic there appears to be less concern about life or death than there does to become celebrated, to be glorified. This shines through the central plot of Achilles fate, choosing celebrity over life. This is true of all parties. Trojan’s. Free-agents. The pantheon, too. Glory comes first and foremost in this world. Societal demands conform to these ideals otherwise one risks a reputation of cowardice. From the lyrical tongue of Odysseus to the prayers of Hector we, Homer’s most admiring audience, are encouraged to cheer upon both sides, not in victory but for valor. It is the battle, not the prize, the chance of landing one’s likeness upon an effigy, where true glory lies. I think back to the Greek “aristeia,” for one to be at their best is to be in their element. And where better to slip into that zone than in the battlefield. For a hero to reach such status a battle is required. For one to be at their best, well it takes the glory of battle.
In conclusion, recall the ancient world’s most memorable figures and ask yourself why are they remembered? They’re often remembered because of accomplishments in wartime. The battles. Peace achieved through conflict. The theatre of combat. Rarely are individuals celebrated without having proven themselves in the battleground involved in some life of death scenario and it’s these figures were taught, or rather told to glorify. So while paradoxical lyrics suggest the follies of war I believe Homer’s Iliad an unambiguous and musical celebration of war. A song of encouragement for an audience bent on living themselves lives full of glory.
The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles
The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles