Perhaps you are familiar with the Iliad as the longer and less interesting Homeric epic–the one about the Trojan War. But have you noticed that the epic doesn’t actually cover any of the famous events of the Trojan War? It begins in the war’s tenth year, and ends before the famous death of Achilles, the Trojan Horse, and the fall of Troy. The twenty-four books of the Iliad, in this light, cover seemingly very little plot for such a lengthy work, begging the question: what is the Iliad even about?
A surface-level answer could be made from the major plot points of the epic—the death of Patroclus and the death of Hector. But although these are major events in the work, neither is the focal point. Patroclus dies promptly upon entering the battle in Book XVI. The death of Hector occurs in Book XXII, leaving two full books before the end. Compare this to the Aeneid, which ends its epic at the death of Turnus, and one can see that Hector’s demise is not the dramatic climax of the work.
A better answer might be that the Iliad is about “the rage of Achilles.” This is, after all, how the epic opens:
Wrath—sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son AchillesI.1-7
that inflicted woes without number upon the Achaeans,
hurled forth to Hades many strong souls of warriors
and rendered their bodies prey for the dogs,
all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished;
sing from when they two first stood in conflict—
Atreus’ son, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.
Though Achilles’s wrath is an important factor here, the opening (or proem) also places much weight on both Agamemnon (“Atreus’ son, lord of men”) as well as the gods, whom the narrator blames for causing the wrath of Achilles. Additionally, much of the first two-thirds of the Iliad deals little with Achilles, but rather with other Greek warriors, like Ajax, Menelaos, and Diomedes.
The driving force of the Iliad must be something deeper. This is not a new argument. Many classics professors will give lectures on the concept of “glory” (kleos) in ancient Greek culture, arguing that both sides of the Trojan War were motivated by achieving glory in battle. Yet although this might apply to some characters, like Diomedes, Achilles himself seems to not be motivated by glory at all—he scoffs at the praise of others, and seems to reject the idea that his name won’t be glorified.
Another very influential argument comes from the 20th-century French philosopher Simone Weil. In her 1939 essay on the Iliad, Weil argued that the epic was motivated by a concept of “force,” something that turned humans into “things”—a dehumanizing force. In the wake of the Second World War, Weil’s arguments suggested that the Iliad could be a mirror for our own modern world, thus building a bridge between ancient and modern Europe. Yet this is a rather flimsy bridge, since she is unclear on precisely what she means by “force.”
Plot points, the rage of Achilles, glory, force: all are suggested as the focus of the Iliad, yet none are quite up to the task. In their place, I would advance an alternate suggestion: the true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is honor. It is honor, under the guise of love, that drives the Greeks to war; it is honor, under the guise of bitterness, that drives Achilles from war; ultimately, it is honor, under the guise of war, that shows its bankruptcy.
Τιμη, timē, honorem, honneur, honor. It is not earned; it needs defending. It is not self-determined; it relies on external affirmation. It is not a physical substance; it needs a physical representation, or symbol, of its presence. It invisibly animates the whole epic, determining its teleology. Its vehicle for reception is Homer’s chosen sequence of events during the last year of a decade-long war. And the answer to this perplexing question of literary history of why the epic begins and ends where it does lies squarely in the idea of honor.
Honor in Book I of the Iliad
For the ancients, the symbol for honor was possessions. The two-handed cup, often given as a prize in the Homeric epics, was not just a utilitarian vessel–its value lied in its symbolizing of honor, especially if made by Hephaestus of the strong arms. But an even more important symbol for honor was a beautiful, elite female. We see this less than 200 lines into the poem, when Achilles, arguing with Agamemnon, explains his “ruinous wrath”:
But we followed you, O great shameless one, for your pleasure,I.158-62
to win recompense (timēn) for Menelaos and for you, dog-face,
from the Trojans; none of this do you pause to consider or care for.
And now you boast you will personally take my prize from me,
for which I suffered much hardship, which the sons of the Achaeans gave me!
Caroline Alexander here translates timēn as “recompense.” But what lies behind the physical recompense of the return of Helen? Honor—a more direct rendering of timēn. Achilles then shows more clearly his point in his following sentence: “I do not intend/to stay here dishonored (atimos), hauling up riches and wealth for you” (I.169-71). Achilles is clear—he came to Troy to honor Menelaus and dog-faced Agamemnon, not to dishonor himself!
The gods likewise show their awareness of the dynamics of honor. Thetis, the water-nymph mother of Achilles, pleads to Zeus:
Honor (timēson) my son, who was born short-lived beyond all men,I.505-510
and yet now the lord of men Agamemnon has
dishonored (ētimēsen) him; he holds his prize, having seized it, he personally taking it.
Do you now revenge him, Olympian Zeus, all-devising;
give strength to the Trojans until that time the Achaeans
recompense my son and exalt him with honor (timē).
Thetis’s plea begins and ends with honor, the word forming an inclusio for her plea. Her plea is not just about retrieving Achilles’s mental sanity, or a pretty girl—it is about timē. “Recompense my son,” says Thetis, but this is directly connected with honor. The recompense is the restoration of honor. The taking away of the “prize” is the removal of honor. And for these elite kings, Briseis of the lovely cheeks is merely a symbol of honor, a dehumanized pawn on the chess board.
To be clear, the difference between honor and glory is simply that glory is something acquired, while honor is something defended. It is clear that the main contention in the epic is the latter–something evidenced further as we trace how honor is perceived and is changed throughout the epic.
Prophecy and Honor
Prophecy always complicates simple things. In Book I of the Iliad, the prophet Calchas prophesies that the war cannot be won unless Achilles is brought onto the battlefield, so Agamemnon finally gives in and sends a special delegation to ask Achilles’s forgiveness. Meanwhile, Achilles’s mother comes with her own prophecy: Achilles will die if he fights with the Greeks, but he will live to his old age if he holds out. Achilles is presented with the dilemma of restored honor accompanied by death, or lost honor accompanied by a long life.
When the delegation offers Achilles a restoration of his symbols of honor, he refuses:
Phoinix, old father, cherished by Zeus, in no way do I have need
of such honor (timēs)—I think I am honored (tetimēsthai) by the just measure of Zeus,
which would keep me by the curved ships, as long as life’s breath
remains in my breast and my knees have motion. (IX.607-10)
Achilles insists he has no need of this honor that relies on external human affirmation. No one understands him—neither his childhood caretaker, Phoinix, nor his dearest soulmate, Patroclus. Most modern readers don’t understand him at all, either. Why is Achilles such a whiny dirtbag? Because, for Achilles, honor has lost its glimmer when death crouches at his door. Would you not think the same?
On the Trojan side, similar events occur. When Polydamas brings the prophecy that Hector should not press forwards into the Greek camp, Hector responds:
Only one omen is best—to defend the fatherland.XII.243-47
Why do you fear war and battle?
Even if all the rest of us are killed about you
beside the ships of the Argives, for you there is no reason to fear dying;
for your heart is not battle-hardy, nor warlike.
Hector understands honor’s demands in war. One must keep fighting, irrespective of the omens and prophecies, even suggesting to not fight is “not battle-hardy, nor warlike.” The Trojans must fight on to keep their honor. This quote, however, also contrasts with Achilles’s response. For Achilles, honor loses its value because of the prophecy; for Hector, the prophecy loses its value because of honor.
However, there are Trojans who understand the bankruptcy of honor already. In Book III, we have a short glimpse of Trojan elders sitting on the wall, saying to each other that even though Helen is pretty, “let her go back home in the ships,/let her not stay as a bane to us and our children after” (III.159-60). The author seems to hint that these elders, possibly closer to death and more experienced in the game of honor, have understood honor’s futility.
Eva Brann suggests that Patroclus and Hector were Achilles’s two “victims.” But once we understand honor’s role in the epic, Patroclus and Hector are no longer Achilles’s victims, but honor’s victims—or more properly honor’s martyrs. “Your father was not the horseman Peleus,/nor Thetis your mother,” accuses Patroclus, challenging Achilles’s honor as he gets ready to fight for his honor without Achilles (XVI.33-34). And while Achilles refuses to fight for his family’s honor, Hector fights because he is Priam’s son. When Hector’s wife Andromache passionately confronts him about her own fate if he should die, Hector responds:
Surely, all these things concern me too, my wife; but greatlyVI.441-43
I would dread what they would think, the Trojans and the Trojan women with their trailing robes,
if like a coward I should shirk away from fighting.
Hector is fighting for his honor. His wife, as he makes clear, is, at most, a strong secondary concern. This is surely disconcerting for modern readers, but even for ancient readers this would raise some eyebrows. In fact, as we will see later, this ranking of priorities is questioned even by the characters of the epic. Is honor really more important than your wife and child?
The most important challenge to honor, though, comes at the end of the epic. After the death of his friend Patroclus, Achilles is finally motivated to fight, and, in a feat of revenge, kills Hector and then brutally dishonors him by tying his corpse to a chariot and dragging his body around the walls of Troy, refusing to return it for a proper burial. In Achilles’s rejection of the honor of war, he rejects all societal notions of honor.
But King Priam, father of Hector, with the help of the gods, pulls off the most surprising gambit of the whole epic: a journey to the Greek camp to personally request Hector’s body back. The whole thing seems very modern—the challenging of cultural conventions and the interaction between classes. But, here, it happens only through divine intervention, a deus ex machina. It starts with Phoebus Apollo exclaiming, “you gods are relentless!” It seems we are not the only ones who thinks these events absurd (XXIV.33). Zeus eventually approves of a plan to return Hector’s body, involving no small amount of divine action from Thetis, Iris, and Hermes. The problems caused by honor are unresolvable with human means, necessarily needing a supernatural agent to resolve.
The pathos of close family and friends is exactly what pulls on Achilles throughout the epic, both to keep from the war and to go into the war. It is reflected in Achilles’s wrath for the death of Patroclus, his childhood companion. It is shown in his indecision in whether to fight or go back home, where his dad and son are. And at this very moment, it is Achilles’s relationship with his father that Priam draws upon: “Remember your father, godlike Achilles” (XXIV.486). And after the speech, it is the family ties that each cry for:
And the two remembered, the one weeping without cessation forXXIV.509-12
man-slaughtering Hector as he lay curled before Achilles’ feet,
and Achilles wept for his own father, and then again for
Patroclus; and the sound of their lament was raised throughout the hall.
This is the actual ending of the Iliad. The end of honor is the end of the Iliad. The Trojan Horse, Achilles’s heel, the sack of Troy–they can wait for the appendices.
Modern Christian readers should be quick to notice that this pagan critique of honor at the end of the Iliad has much in common with the definitive critique of honor in the Christian religion. The problems that worldly honor has created in the epic could only be resolved by divine intervention. But instead of a regular divine intervention where Apollo just takes the body from the Greeks and gives it to the Trojans, Zeus opts for the human king Priam himself to return Hector’s body, with the help of Iris and Hermes. With the help of the gods, Priam’s willful self-humiliation strikes the definitive blow to the idea of honor in the epic. It is through Priam’s rejection of honor that he was able to triumph over Achilles’s hardened heart. However, this event is obviously not able to be accomplished without a divine intervention for the simple reason that no other major human decision in the epic was motivated by anything other than honor. In a society in which the powerful are unethically motivated, a resolution requires no less than a divine intervention.
Here, the Iliad falls short; the Greek gods could not dishonor themselves and come down to earth to retrieve the body themselves, leaving Priam to do the impossible with divine assistance. The true deus ex machina resolves the claims of honor in society by having the real God come down to earth, resolving the demands of honor.
Some who argue that Christians have little to learn from the pagan classics often do so because they feel that those classics are making an unreserved commendation of the honor of their pagan societies. Yet this is simply not so: both the Iliad and the Christian Scriptures are clear-eyed about the ultimate futility of the pursuit of earthly honor. The Iliad shows the bankruptcy of honor; it can only solve it through a complex and unsatisfactory deus ex machina as the gods intervene to ensure the return of Hector’s body and restore some semblance of honor to a disgraced humanity. In the Bible, deus ex machina is still present—it still affirms the need for divine intervention for the rescue from the problem of humanity—but the solution is the most satisfactory deus ex machina: the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, the God-man.
It was he who said that “a prophet has no honor (timēn) in his own hometown” (John 4:44). It was he,
who, though he was in the form of God,Philippians 2:6-8 (NRSV)
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
But now “we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor (timē) because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). It was through Christ’s emptying of himself, rejecting the worldly honor that he deserved, that God ultimately “crowned with glory and honor.”
Evan Zhuo (BA, Wheaton College, IL) is an M.Div. student at Westminster Theological Seminary
All quotations from the Iliad are from Homer, The Iliad: A New Translation, trans. Caroline Alexander (New York: Ecco, 2015). If you like the Iliad and haven’t given Alexander’s translation a chance, I’d recommend you do so. As a classicist, she is more literal to the original text than any other translation before, and yet her translation doesn’t lose any of the action and rapidity of the popular verse translations like Fagles, Mitchell, Lattimore, etc. ↑
Weil, Simone, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” in War and the Iliad, trans. Mary McCarthy (New York: NYRB Classics, 2005), 1. ↑
Eva Brann, Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002), 95. ↑
All Scriptural references will be from the English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2007, unless noted otherwise. ↑