Was it written to persuade readers to question the moral implications and savagery of war or simply to provide provocative entertainment? These questions have been posed for centuries yet rarely have been sufficiently answered. However, an astute student of contemporary politics, media, and entertainment cannot fail to notice that many Homeric themes, such as the celebration of war, the corruption of power, and man's desire for personal glory are as apparent in contemporary American life as they are within the pages of The Iliad.
Though it is unknown whether or not the blind Greek poet intended to create a work that would have such an enduring impact on Western man, clearly the poem's underlying themes and the ominous questions it raises remain relevant in the twenty-first century. One of Homer's primary themes, the glorification of war and violence, is clearly relevant today. The celebration of war is omnipresent throughout The Iliad. To Homer's characters, battlefield courage, skill, and savagery are seen as both the ultimate means of serving one's country and of proving personal strength and integrity.
War is depicted more as an opportunity to achieve a greater good and demonstrate individual valor than as a necessary evil to gain a larger political purpose. Homer's heroes focus more on the craft of battle itself than on the geopolitical goal they hope to obtain through the protracted bloody combat. In one scene, Hector responds to his army's reluctance to fight by proclaiming, “Fight for your country! That is the best, the only omen! You, why are you so afraid of war and slaughter? ” (Homer 333) As a leader and a prince of Troy, Hector has been raised to embrace war as the only true chance for glory.
For Hector, war brings honor to both his soldiers and the country for which they fight. Although he regrets the possibility of not living to see his son grow up, he believes that his purpose is to serve on the battlefield. Because of his integrity and willingness to die for Troy, Hector is the pride and joy of his family and of the Trojan army. His brother Paris, however, is widely scorned as a weakling and coward for his constant refusal to kill. At a time of war, pacifism is simply not an option.
On high school campuses across the United States, we celebrate aggressive football stars and wrestlers far more than intellectual artists or peace activists. The parallels between Homer's depiction of a war-torn society and our own collapsing world are both unmistakeable and highly disturbing. There is, and always has been, a human fascination with violence and sadism. Just as the ancient dramatist Homer depicts carnage with vivid detail and precision, contemporary Hollywood filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, and Oliver Stone, while conveying the cost of war, also appeal to their audience's unquenchable blood lust.
Despite their intentions or supposed “social commentary,” there is no denying that it is ultimately the gore that sells the tickets. The internet, television news programs, newspapers, and magazines garner far more advertising revenues depicting images of violence and destruction than anything with any sort of redeeming value. It is telling that two of the events from recent history that have sold the most books are the Holocaust and the Manson murders. In short: violence sells. The reprehensible slasher film “Saw” was a blockbuster.
The family-oriented comedy “The Kids Are Alright” lagged in ticket sales. Without a doubt, we live in a culture in which violence is perceived not as a necessary evil for the greater good, but as a worthy and even heroic form of entertainment. Homer's Iliad also dramatizes the timeless truth that power corrupts. The arrogant, manipulative gods pulling strings from their plush thrones on Mount Olympus bring to mind modern-day politicians. They can be seen as archetypes of today's detached bureaucrats.
Zeus and his fellow gods dispassionately toy with mortals, watching with amusement as they cut one another down on the blood-soaked battlefield of windy Troy. Shamelessly, like merciless puppeteers, they create tension between the mortals for their own personal entertainment, with little regard for the inevitable mayhem and carnage that ensues. Indeed, the ten-year conflict at Troy is indirectly sparked by the vain goddess Aphrodite's desire to be recognized as the “fairest” beauty among the goddesses, yet as soon as the fighting begins, she pleads neutrality.
Similarly, Zeus himself shows little concern for the rampant slaughter among mortals taking place on his watch, even though initially he aids Achilles in his revenge against the Greeks. More than a few critics of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have decried the dispassionate way in which U. S. “chickenhawk” non-combatants such as George Bush, Dick Cheney, and now Barack Obama have heartlessly made “strategic military decisions” from the safe environs of the White House that have had mortal consequences for U. S. troops on the front lines in Kabul and Baghdad.
For many observers, the U. S. political elite bears more than slight resemblance to the gods of Mount Olympus. However, The Iliad shows not only how power corrupts on the broad, bureaucratic level but on the individual level as well. In fact, the poem's most self-serving and manipulative figure is without a doubt the mortal Agamemnon, who is only concerned about his own pleasure and personal gain. At the beginning of the epic, he selfishly steals Achilles' war prize, the maiden Briseis, when he is forced to give up his own mistress.
Outraged at this act of betrayal, Achilles exclaims that Agamemnon is “armored in shamelessness— always shrewd with greed! ” (Homer 82) Although Agamemnon's actions seem unbelievably boorish and arrogant by today's standards, his behavior is not unlike that of any current leader who abuses his or her position of authority to achieve personal gain. On the local level, the city manager of Bell is now accused of looting his own very poor city's treasury of nearly one million dollars annually to purchase race horses and personal luxuries.
Just as politicians and corporate CEOs pull strings and manipulate workers, so too schoolyard thugs and drug lords abuse the weak. The Iliad remains an unforgettable piece of literature not simply because it is beautifully-written, but also for its stark depiction of how the helpless are trampled by the strong. The third universal, timeless theme in The Iliad that is relevant today is how far men will go to attain personal glory. The main protagonist of the story, Achilles, seeks not merely wealth or vengeance against Troy, but also to be elevated to a god-like stature and leave behind an imperishable legacy.
In this, he is not unlike any entrepreneur or world leader that hopes to “make a name for himself” by turning the tide of history, for better or for worse. Christian evangelist Billy Graham once declared, “The legacy we leave is not just in our possessions, but in the quality of our lives. ” (Graham 48) For Achilles, his legacy will be the ferocity with which he wields his sword, and the body count of soldiers he cuts down. He rejects a simple, comfortable life at home for a vicious, unpredictable life of war, serene in the knowledge that this shall earn him eternal glory and lionization – as indeed it did.
The longing for men to be remembered after their deaths is not a strictly Homeric theme. We live in a culture in which martyrdom is often perceived as the greatest virtue, resulting in the iconic status of figures ranging from Jesus Christ to Che Guevara. Men like these are often praised not simply for the quality of their lives, but also because of their willingness to fight and die for a cause. In America, joining the military and dying in combat is romanticized as the greatest possible act of heroism, whether or not the war itself has any moral worth.
An early death is viewed as a noble death. Even when a young man dies from simple recklessness or self-hatred, as James Dean or Kurt Cobain, we still embrace them as tragic heroes; saints of their generation. In short: this is why Achilles fights. He cares far more about how his story will be told centuries after he is gone than for his own life in the present. Though he briefly becomes disillusioned with his life as a warrior after his conflict with Agamemnon, he regains his motivation to fight and possibly die when he feels he must avenge Patroclus.
He expresses the difficulty of his choice between an obscure life and an honorable death when he proclaims, “If I hold out here and lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies... ” (Homer 265) Eventually, though it is never mentioned in The Iliad, Achilles does meet his fate, without ever living to witness the climactic sack of Troy. However, his life is indeed remembered as one of near secular ainthood, and, just as he had hoped, his name is never erased from history. In the final analysis, was the Trojan War a worthwhile conflict in Homer's eyes? No. The cause was trivial; the cost in lives was enormous. However, once the war was under way, his heroes wrested honor and nobility from the battlefield. The reason for battle is practically irrelevant, but the ferocity with which the battles are fought is legendary. The relevance of this to today's events is indisputable.
For example,when the primary reason for the Iraq war was revealed to be largely if not wholly erroneous – the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction – many argued that it had to be waged for the sake of American “honor,” a Homeric theme if ever there were one. Overall, The Iliad's enduring appeal rests in the universal human truths it presents. Namely, Homer tells us that man honors war more than peace, power corrupts us all, and we all thirst for immortal glory. That is why even in the twenty-first century, The Iliad remains a transcendent and gripping morality tale for the ages.