The most infamous poem from antiquity about the most infamous war in our collective memory opens with the words “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.”
In the late 1800’s, most educated people believed the Trojan War—the very event at the heart of Homer’s epic—was a myth. That all changed when Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy and amateurish archeologist, discovered the ruins of a citadel he believed to be the city of Troy. He was ridiculed by the institutional and educational elite of his day; the discovery was too small to be the magnificent city described by Homer. But his discovery sparked intrigue, and successive waves of archeological digs later revealed the walled city unearthed by Schliemann was just a very small portion of a much larger walled fortress, and city, with all the archeological pedigree of the fabled city sacked by the Greeks.
After the Nazis triumphantly marched through Paris, Simone Weil published her magnificent essay L’Iliade ou le poème de la force. It is hard to know when Weil started reflecting on Homer’s masterpiece, but most agree that it was influenced by the traumatic experience of the French Republic in the spring and summer of 1940 when the supposedly most powerful nation in the world was overrun by the forces of darkness in under two months.
Weil wrote that the main subject of the Iliad was “force.” Force, she described—in a very Augustinian manner—was that which “makes the person subjected to it in a thing.” Hauntingly brilliant, Weil explains that force is the power that objectifies the person and strips them of their dignity, freedom, and subjectivity.
Deconstructing Force and Violence
The Iliad certainly does have violent force coursing through its pages. “The Iliad accepts violence,” as Bernard Knox wrote, “as a permanent factor in human life and accepts it without sentimentality.” From the very onset of the poem, Agamemnon holds Chryseis captive and only frees her after the god Apollo sends a plague upon the Greek army. Agamemnon, the petty tyrant that he is, then steals Briseis from Achilles and causes the handsome warrior to sulk in his tent. And this begins the series of events that the Iliad subsequently covers, up to the funeral of Hector.
It is important, now, to remember the archetype of the hero as laid down by Hesiod. In the Theogony, Hesiod and the muses sing their songs of praise to bloodthirsty Zeus. Zeus is the archetypal hero for his martial prowess: his ability to usurp power and kill monsters. But the heroic violence of Hesiod gives way to a new heroism of love and compassion—the rare acts of truly noble energy—that concern Homer.
“Far from celebrating the nakedness of violence, Homer deconstructs it and reminds us that the poor souls who were slain on the fields of Troy were husbands, fathers, sons, and lovers.”
The reality of Homer’s deconstruction of force and violence is also subtly interwoven in his descriptions of violence. Homer does not celebrate violence for violence’s sake; his seemingly grotesque and painfully intimate descriptions of death are meant to expose us to the horror of war and false gospel of glory through violence. When the first description of mass battle begins, Homer tells us that the Greeks and Trojans were “mauling each other there like wolves.” The animalization of war is visibly seen, but, in this manifestation of carnage, we also see tenderness, love, and empathy from the hand of the poet:
“And Telamonian Ajax struck Anthemion’s son, the hardy stripling Simoisius, still unwed. His mother had borne him along the Simois’ banks when she trailed her parents down the slopes of Ida to tend their flocks, and so they called him Simoisius. But never would he repay his loving parents now for the gift of rearing—his life cut short so soon.”
Homer’s poem is not a celebration of violence but a critical unmasking of it. The death scenes are particularly vivid, and, at first glance, one might consider this an outright celebration of naked violence, especially masculine violence unleashed in war. This, however, would be wrong. Far from celebrating the nakedness of violence, Homer deconstructs it and reminds us that the poor souls who were slain on the fields of Troy were husbands, fathers, sons, and lovers. Homer gives the dead humans faces and human names, reminds us of their lineage, and how so many sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers, are now deprived of love because of the slaughter wrought in war. Even in death, as we have just witnessed, Homer juxtaposes beautiful imagery of peaceful landscapes and families to remind us of the true ideal—instead of the faux ideal of glory won in violence.
The chief subject of the Iliad is not so much force, as it is the slow and painful realization of love offering a serene refuge in the midst of force. More specifically, the love at the center of Homer’s grand poem is born of forgiveness and reveals how an act of forgiving compassion is the pulsating heart of true heroism and magnanimity. For all the battle scenes, violent sex, and rage that fills the poem, the most memorable scenes in the poem are moments of love—especially loving moments of embrace.
This is not unintentional on the part of Homer. Two such embraces that stand out are Hector’s embrace of Astyanax and Andromache, where he calms his terrified son by stripping off his helmet and battle armor to cradle the infant babe in tender compassion, and Patroclus’ embrace of the injured Eurylypus, whom he helps to heal after being injured in battle. Both incidents, the studious reader will realize, are not merely self-giving acts to the Other but acts of free will independent of the commands of the gods or other human characters in the epic. The magnanimity of the self-giving act to the Other is also an act of free choice.
We must remember that for a poem which opens about the rage of Achilles, the rage of Achilles is not fully manifested until very late in the poem. It is only after Patroclus dies that Achilles flies into an uncontrollable rage, which sees him storm out of his tent and slaughter numerous Trojans and ending with his butchering of Hector and subsequent attempt to defile the body. In these sequences, we see the worst of Achilles, as Homer intended.
During the rage of Achilles, which drives the poem to its conclusion, Achilles encounters a young Trojan prince whom he and Patroclus— according to older legends—had captured earlier in the war. Lycaon was enslaved but spared. Now Achilles and Lycaon meet again. Foolishly remembering the compassion of Patroclus and the mercy of Achilles he had encountered before, Lycaon throws himself at the feet of Achilles in a position of objectified humiliation. Crying before the shins of the murderous Achilles, Lycaon implores the Myrmidon captain to have mercy on him. Homer describes what happens next in heart wrenching language.
After Lycaon shamelessly begs for mercy, Achilles cruelly refuses, “At that Lycaon’s knees gave way on the spot, his heart too. He let go of the spear, he sank back down…spreading both arms wide. Drawing his sharp sword, Achilles struck his collarbone just beside the neck and the two edged blade drove home, plunging to the hilt—and down on the ground he sprawled, stretched facefirst, and dark blood pouring out of him drenched the earth.” Lycaon is pitilessly slaughtered, and then Achilles vows to wipe out the seed of Priam from the face of the earth. Afterward Achilles and Hector duel, with Achilles killing the great Trojan prince.
We have just witnessed the Homeric cosmos become consumed in rage and war, ending in dark bloodshed staining the fertile lands of the earth. With Hector dead, Priam’s love for his son compels him to venture into the tent of Achilles to ransom the return of his beloved son for proper funeral rites. So the monumental epic reaches its most emotional and tearful conclusion…
Read the rest of my essay: Achilles, Priam, and the Redemptive Power of Forgiveness (Merion West, 6 April 2020)