Guest Post: Sean Meade Reviews The Illiad

The Illiad by Homer

Sean Meade, in addition to being my good friend, is the Web Editor for Aviation Week’s defense and space content and is the former longtime webmaster/editorial assistant/right-hand of Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett. Sean blogs at ARES for Aviation Week and at his personal blog, Interact:


by Sean Meade

What makes ‘The Iliad’ a classic? Why is it classic?

I think the primary answer is simple: it’s the characters. If you can hang tough through all of the idiosyncratic flourishes and ornaments and repetitions, the characters are compelling: Achilleus, his anger and character; the comparative nobility of Hektor and Patroklos (both of whom we know are doomed); the vagaries of the gods and their adolescent machinations; the supporting cast of Agamemnon, Menelaos the wronged, two very different men named Aias (Ajax), Diomedes, Aeneas, Odysseus, Nestor, Paris, Helen and Priam. Take these characters and others and mix them with an interesting story and you have a classic that reaches out to us from about the eighth century BC (when it was likely ‘composed’ (with heavy use of previous, oral sources) by Homer), maybe from as far back as the 12th century BC (maybe the original setting of what has come down to us as The Trojan War). ‘The Iliad’ still resonates with us today.

One reason ‘The Iliad’ can still move us is that Homer has done a masterful job of relating the ‘accidents’ of life. ‘Time and chance happen to all men’, and people who lived 3000 year ago couldn’t deceive themselves about their ability to control life the way we ‘modern’ people do. Human experience and emotions are often inscrutable. ‘Love’ (baldly called ‘lust’ by Homer) can easily destroy. When it occurs in the most influential levels of society, it can draw whole nations into its whirling vortex. Even the love between men in ‘The Iliad’ can seem illogical (no matter where you come down on the homosexuality question): why does noble Patroklos honor Achilleus literally to the death?

‘The Iliad’, of course, focuses a lot on war in ways that have become shockingly remote for most of us. Nothing is so susceptible to ‘luck’ as war. One ‘good’ soldier gets hit by stray friendly fire and dies instantly. Another ‘bad’ soldier comes through the whole war unscathed. Consider the hazards of love, life and war in ‘The Iliad’. Consider them in our own experience. It makes more sense than many theories to conclude that arbitrary and capricious gods can powerfully affect us.

My final guess (for the purposes of this mini-review) at why ‘The Iliad’ is a classic is that the poetry is timeless. This is, of course, nearly impossible to take in from one read-through in translation. My friend, Jason, listened to the abridged version and talked about its power. The commentators discuss it quite a bit, from what I can tell. Most of us (who aren’t going to pay the price to really test it) are going to have to take this on faith and rate it as we will. Poetry is a dying art, and poetry appreciation is probably in an even worse state.

I wonder what role foreknowledge plays in ‘The Iliad’. Many of us know the broad outline of the story going in. If we don’t, Homer spills it in short order. Does knowing Achilleus dies shortly after this episode in The Trojan War change our view of him? Do we cut him more slack? How does  knowing that Hektor and Patroklos die within the bounds of this story affect us? Or that Odysseus lives? Or that Agamemnon will be murdered in his bath by his wife (he had it coming ;-)?

Something else that stands out about ‘The Iliad’ is the graphic war imagery. Homer’s descriptions almost seem gratuitous when he goes into detail about how one soldier killed another, where the spear penetrated and where it came out, what muscles were severed, what happened to the bowels, teeth or brain. It’s probably distasteful to many of us in the 21st century, but I think we can just chalk that up to cultural differences.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page