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Timeless Issues Depicted in Homer’s Iliad

Updated on December 9, 2015
Jenny Talaver profile image

Jenny is a Philosophy Major from Ateneo de Zamboanga University. She has been an online writer for three years now.

Introduction

The Trojan War is one of the most haunting events of the ancient times. I dare use such a word to describe this event because even if there is not much clear evidence to when and where this happened, but issues that had caused this war to erupt are still present in our world today, just a few of many reasons why the world we live in is hardly a fair and just place to live in. In a sense, we can consider the Iliad as a parable, a powerful story that transcends time and space in imparting unmistakable truths of the human existence. I will discuss in this paper two issues that can be found within the words that Homer wove in his epic poem, Iliad: a) Adultery and its consequences; and b) War – its Glories and Follies.

The War of Two Kingdoms

Two men of different armies, Trojan and Achean, poised for battle
Two men of different armies, Trojan and Achean, poised for battle | Source

Ancient History Documentary: The True Story of Troy- An Ancient War Documentary

Could the Trojan War be true historically?

Adultery and its consequences

The Trojan War burst into scene in response to the Spartan King Menelaus’ desire to take his wife, Helen from the Trojan Prince Paris with whom the most beautiful woman of that time eloped to Troy. Menelaus directly saw the elopement as treason to Sparta since Helen was his lawfully wedded wife. The fact that Paris took Helen as his own woman even when the Trojan prince clearly saw the King and Queen of Sparta dutifully bound to one another was a grave crime, especially heavy in the ancient Greek culture where men are very particular to any slight against themselves and their families. Not only had Paris and Helen’s adulterous actions destroyed the sanctity of marriage in the sense of the ancient Greek religion, but the pride of every Greek man was harmed in the process. In such a patriarchal society such as the Greeks, a woman that is seen leaving her husband for another man – especially a barbarian, a man who is not from Greece – is an affront to their very way of life. As we look through their perspective through their words in the Iliad, the Greeks clearly saw war as the best punishment to the adultery committed by Paris and Helen. Although it was unclear in the poem whether Helen was punished for the crime of adultery she had done upon leaving her King and husband in Sparta for Prince Paris of Troy, Troy certainly suffered a high price for Paris’ folly of youthful lust. The Trojans do not like the couple very much in their camp as the whole war could have averted, if only Helen was returned to her rightful husband, King Menelaus. But both Paris and Helen refused this resort and instead settled to be together until Paris was killed and Helen was taken back by her husband at the end of the war. On the other hand, Helen's reluctance to be sent back to her husband can be interpreted as fear of retribution from her adulterous actions. Given that the Iliad was written in the context of a patriarchal society, we can presume that maybe Helen is also a victim of the conflict, and not merely a catalyst to the war. Nevertheless, I still stand with the concept of exacting justice against both her and Paris for their crime of adultery – no matter what they do, they will still end up receiving karma for their actions.

Paris and Helen - the couple who sparked a war

Paris and Helen (after of an ancient painting), vintage engraved illustration.
Paris and Helen (after of an ancient painting), vintage engraved illustration. | Source

Modern Approach to Seeing Adultery

Just like in ancient times, adultery is such a destructive crime that tears down families and the foundations of society up to this very moment. Lust, more often than not, urges men and women to look for other partners outside the marital bed. Although illegitimate children are already to entitled to privileges equated to the other children conceived from their married parents, they still live with the stigma of being bastards wherein their siblings run the risk of begrudging them for their part in breaking the ties in a family in fulfillment of the matrimonial vows. Extramarital affairs also pose legal problems for all parties since custody cases will also battled in the courts then on or before the death of the husband or wife, assets and properties will be fought over for rights of inheritance by the surviving children, spouses and partners. All in all, adultery leads to messy affairs – broken families, unrelenting family conflicts, and ultimately broken hearts. Even if most adulterous cases do not necessarily lead the parties involved into as much as bloodshed that Homer pens in the pages of his epic poem, Iliad, the ending of adulterous relationships is not pretty, but a fatal result of a wrong decision made in the heat of a strong emotion such as lust.

Why is there cheating?

War – its Glories and Follies

The Iliad is a chronicle of a war that displays the capability of the human person to experience prowess and downfalls in battle. All throughout his epic poem, Homer shows both sides of war – the glorious warriors, in the midst of their regrets in the gruesome consequences such as death, women turned into slaves and concubines, children’s estrangement from their tearful parents. Here, he depicts war in its entirety – that man may find glory in winning battles or suffer dishonor from a tragic defeat.

Homer is very specific here in the gruesome quality of life in wars – the deaths are brutal and barbaric but this characteristic of war is accepted in the context of Iliad because war is inevitable in the ancient Greek world wherein men are almost ready to go to war for the smallest slight against their pride. War is also fatally intoxicating like a drug towards men because victories can shape the mindset into justifying war as a noble cause when it provides men with elevated notions of duty and camaraderie. War can shape the perceptions of society towards individuals basing these judgments on the way men and women conduct themselves in the process of this event.

War gives man glory due to the honors and praises warriors receive upon their victorious ventures. One such man who falls for the glories of war is Achilles. He becomes narcissistic in such a way that when his pride is slighted by King Agamemnon taking away his prize woman, Briseis, he leaves the Achaean camp and prays for the Achaean army to be defeated by the Trojan army so that the Greek army generals and kings will regret the disgrace that they gave him. He believed that he is the best warrior in their world which justifies that all glory should be his and his alone. However, his narcissistic behavior becomes his downfall as his heel is fatally pierced by an arrow, even when he prides in his invincibility. His tragic death happens not long after he breaks ethical rules of burial when he desecrated the corpse of the Trojan hero, Hector.

Achilles

Iliad also shows that war tears families down. Men die in the battlefield and the losing party suffers their women and children to either death or enslavement to their victors. Hector, despite his wife, Andromache pleading for him to stay against the risk of orphaning their infant son, proceeds to lead the Trojans army to battle and ultimately falls under Achilles's spear, leading to his child being killed by the Greeks to avoid revenge and his wife forcibly becoming a concubine for one of the victorious Greek generals. The Trojan War changed the geopolitical landscape of the ancient world by the sacking of a once great and booming city.

Hector the Warrior over a Family Man

And this grave consequences of war is still prevalent in modern times where families lose their homes and members as casualties of wars that they, more often than not, have no fault in causing the conflict. Soldiers die for the sake of upholding the dignity and security of their nations, but are often not afforded the dignity of proper burial. Achilles' desecration of Hector's corpse is still haunting the human society as we see men and women being killed, and their bodies being mutilated for the sake of the victor's morbid judgments. A few examples would be the following: the ISIS beheading their captives even in the midst of the publicity they receive in the international scene; soldiers being killed brutally and their bodies stripped of all possessions by their enemies; and rebels raping female captives and killing them afterwards. War is not pretty nor is it ultimately good because it destroys the quality of human life. Hence, our world works in the context of the Just War Theory, wherein even if war is inevitable, it should still be compliant with principles such as the protection of innocent civilians, the proper treatment of prisoners, and care for the wounded and displaced, as stated in the Geneva Conventions in the mid-19th century.

Horrific Consequences of War

150 years of humanitarian action: The 1949 Geneva Conventions

Conclusion

Whether the Trojan War really happened or not, the issues that have been woven into the words of the Iliad that Homer used to describe the events surrounding the war are timeless truths of the human existence in this world. Men are susceptible to lust that can lead to the destruction of relationships and social foundations of status. Women are always seen as temptresses, a label often undeserved yet generalized in response to the actions of a few. War is not a pretty picture of human life. Warriors can receive glory in the process, but in the end, die like all others and suffer their families and societies to ruin because in the end, wars have no victors – all parties suffer from the gruesome consequences of the war.

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