“Sing, O Goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures.”
If you know where that quotation is from, chances are you’ve either read the book from which it comes, you’re the kind of person whose knowledge base (mile-wide, inch-deep) would be perfect for “Jeopardy!,” or you’ve been watching the Travel Channel’s new bogus-history program, “Legends of the Lost.”
Spoiler alert: the quote is from the opening verse of “The Iliad,” that great Greek eighth-century B.C. poem, the unparalleled war epic of the ancient world. There are many reasons — its cultural influence, its conservatism, its relevance to religious belief, and its portrayal of human virtue (and vice) — you should push this amazing text to the topic of your reading list (and that of your kids!) in 2019.
‘The Iliad’s’ Indelible Influence
The Iliad, which relates the saga of a ten-year war between Greeks and Trojans incited by Trojan prince Paris seducing and carrying off the wife of Greek king Menelaus, was one of the most well-known pieces of literature across the ancient world. Although likely composed in the Greek-inhabited areas of Asia Minor (where Troy, the ancient city the Greeks besieged, is located), it became central to pan-Hellenic identity.
Athenian schoolboys learned it like Puritan children knew their Bibles. Alexander the Great was capable of reciting “The Iliad” by heart, and modeled himself after one of its great heroes, Achilles. After Rome conquered Greece, it adopted “The Iliad” for itself, and the book’s themes (e.g., undaunted courage, military prowess and stratagem, controlling one’s rage), and characters — including Aeneas, whom the Roman poet Virgil claimed as a founder of Rome — became central to Roman identity.
Even though the Greek language, and the poem with it, was largely lost to the West when Rome collapsed, it remained central to Western European medieval culture and identity. European nations and royal houses traced their origins to “The Iliad’s” heroes. Even William Shakespeare used the poem’s plot as source material for “Troilus and Cressida.”
Young men from some of the most valiant, martial modern cultures of the nineteenth century, such as Great Britain and the American South, were raised on the stories and glories of “The Iliad.” Moreover, though they may not know it, the brave soldiers of these United States are in many respects the inheritors of the great warrior tradition of this prolific ancient text.
An Ancient Paean to Conservatism
The world of “The Iliad,” possibly written by the blind Greek poet Homer, presumes and lauds many conservative principles, including the centrality of family and heritage, the importance of maintaining a unified, fundamentally homogenous culture, and the value of religion. We need to recognize the longevity of these beliefs, so essential to the ancients, to reinvigorate our own appreciation for them, and to help craft an inspiring template for our own children to emulate.
It will not take long for the reader to notice how much “The Iliad” revels in describing in extended detail the family lineage of warriors on both sides of the battle, Greek and Trojan. Men appear on the battlefield, only to be promptly killed, but not before Homer waxes eloquent about the warrior’s ancestry, as well as whatever skills and accomplishments he may have achieved prior to his death.
No one in “The Iliad” is an atomized, untethered individual, able to create his own identity and nature separated from his past or family. All persons, regardless of their character traits and free will, cannot be properly understood apart from the family to which they are inexorably united. We are products of our families, our communities, our nations — and this, for better and worse, is something we must accept and appreciate.
Closely connected to this conception of identity is “The Iliad’s” message that societies need strong bonds of common identity to ensure their survival and flourishing. While the Greeks are a people of a single culture and single language, the numerically inferior Trojans must rely on many other surrounding people groups to bolster their ranks. These peoples have their own customs and speak their own languages. Homer speaks disparagingly of them in Book IV:
But the clamor of the Trojan ranks was as that of many thousand ewes that stand waiting to be milked in the yards of some rich flockmaster, and bleat incessantly in answer to the bleating of their lambs; for they had not one speech nor language but their tongues were diverse, and they came from many different places.
This lack of cultural and linguistic homogeneity makes the Trojan military unstable and chaotic, while the Greeks, in spite of their many internal feuds, ultimately present a united front capable of overwhelming Troy.
Finally, the role of religious piety is central to not only Greek culture, but its warriors’ self-understanding and how they achieve success on the battlefield. Prayers and sacrifices are constantly offered to please the gods, but they also bind soldiers closer together in a common cause and inspire them to acts of heroic virtue.
‘The Iliad’ as Optic to Scripture
Speaking of religion, “The Iliad” also offers valuable insights into the world of the Bible. Indeed, the text was written contemporaneously to much of the Old Testament, and within a Mediterranean culture not far from the ancient Jewish people. For example, consider the central role of sacrifice within ancient Greek culture. Early in Book I, Achilles notes the wrath of the god Apollo upon the Greek forces. He calls together an assembly and urges the Greeks:
…Ask some priest or prophet, or some reader of dreams (for dreams, too, are of Zeus) who call us why Phoebus Apollo is so angry, and say whether it is for some vow that we have broken, or hecatomb that we have not offered, and whether he will accept the savor of lambs and goats without blemish, so as to take away the plague from us.
Sound familiar? In Exodus 12 we read of the institution of the Passover meal, which includes a command for a sacrifice: “Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats.”
Moreover, elsewhere in the Torah, Israel is warned that if they spurn God’s law they will incur divine wrath: “But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15). Later in Book I of “The Iliad,” Homer offers us extensive details not only on a propitiatory sacrifice of meat and wine to the gods, but a liturgical ceremony involving songs, hymns, and chants of a “joyous paean,” which shares similarities with descriptions of worship in the Jewish temple.
In another scene in Book III, representatives of Greeks and Trojans come together to make an “oath offering” and agree to allow Menelaus and Paris to engage in one-on-one combat on behalf of their respective armies. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army, draws his knife and cuts the throats of two lambs and offers a wine libation. He then prays, “Zeus, most great and glorious, and yet other everlasting gods, grant that the brains of them who shall first sin against their oaths — of them and their children — may be shed upon the ground even as this wine, and let their wives become the slaves of strangers.”
One again, there is overlap with the biblical tradition, particularly Genesis 15, which relates God’s covenant with Abraham. There we read that the patriarch of the Jewish people sacrifices and cuts in two a heifer, she-goat, and ram.
As with the Greek-Trojan concord, this covenant sign was meant to symbolize what would happen to Abraham and his people if they failed to honor their part of the agreement. Through “The Iliad,” we come to realize that the centrality of sacrifice and liturgical worship in the pages of the Hebrew Bible — and their deeper meaning — is not unique to the Jewish people, but common to the cultures of the ancient world.
A Dictionary of Vice and Virtue for Young Men
Notice in the above examples that those making religious sacrifices are also the great warriors. “The Iliad” demonstrates how men can be both valorous and pious. It also presents exemplars for how vice and virtue never happen in an isolated vacuum, but affect our lives and those around us. These are lessons that especially our young men, so easily driven by testosterone and seduced by the lies of our culture, need to learn.
As George Will wryly observes, “parents who have raised sons understand that civilization’s primary task is to civilize adolescent males.” “The Iliad” is the story of martial excellence and courage, embodied in men like Achilles and Hector, champion of the Trojans. It is the story of the cunning and prudential leadership of men like Odysseus. And it is the story of the ancient, years-tested wisdom of men like Nestor. All of these men, on their best days, seek to bring honor not only to themselves, but to their nation and their forefathers.
Alternatively, we read of the arrogant and inept leadership of Agamemnon, who prioritizes his own welfare and glory over that of his men. His poor decisions antagonize the Greeks’ greatest warrior, Achilles, who in turn determines to extricate himself from the battlefield in an ancient example of the childish practice of “take my ball and go home.”
Achilles’ self-removal dooms the Greeks to bloody losses, including ultimately that of his best friend, Patroclus. When he learns of this death, Achilles’ rage is incited at the Trojans, whom he massacres with brutal efficiency. After killing Hector, Achilles mercilessly drags his opponent’s lifeless body around Troy.
Of course, we must also mention the lustful selfishness and cowardice of Paris, who cares more about satisfying his libido than preserving his native land. All of these errors still define the ways in which men go astray in 21st-century America.
A Quick Primer on How to Start
Homer’s great work can be intimidating. For those concerned by the length (my copy is 400 pages), “The Iliad’s” often extended, repetitive descriptions of battle, or the sheer volume of people and gods that can appear without context, here are a few quick suggestions.
First, get a good translation of the text with a solid introduction that explains the major themes and persons of the book. My old “Classics Club” edition, which I inherited from my father and can be inexpensively acquired on Amazon, was published in 1942 and has an excellent introduction. There are also plenty of online resources, including the book’s Wikipedia page.
Second, apply some of the basic lessons of Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s “How to Read a Book.” These include determining what you want to learn from the book before picking it up; taking notes and underlying what strikes you as you read, and skipping over sections that seem repetitive, uninteresting, or irrelevant to your reading goals. Just because I read and love “The Iliad” doesn’t mean I consume every single page with the same level of interest or exactitude!
Third and finally, don’t do it alone — read the book with a friend or family member, or with your children, and make time to discuss it. Apply these tips, and hopefully you’ll find yourself, as “The Iliad” describes Agamemnon, “not asleep nor cowardly and unwilling to fight, but eager rather for the fray.” Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like the motto of The Federalist!