Epics hold a special place in my heart, as you’ve probably gathered from my reviews of great stories like Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh. Like (well-written) modern novels, they’re exciting, full of interesting characters and magnificent events, and describe what it means to be human.
But, of course, there’s so much more to them than that alone. It’s not just that they’re fun to read and hold me in rapt attention. A reasonably competent novelist can do that; it’s the purpose of a story. What epics do so much better than our modern novels is capture the very essence of a culture. Nothing proves that true than the Illiad, one of the most famous stories from Ancient Greece.
The background of the story alluded to or briefly described in the early pages of the story, is this: Paris, a Trojan prince, is approached by three Greek goddesses, Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite, is asked to choose which is the most beautiful. After having them dance naked for him and offer him bribes, he naturally chooses Aphrodite, who promises him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. What she doesn’t say is that Helen is already married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Paris, acting to secure his prize, woos Helen and takes her from Sparta to Troy. The Greeks, enraged by Paris’s behavior, launch an expedition to recover the beautiful Helen. That expedition results in a ten-year siege, the last few weeks of which provide the subject matter for the Illiad.
The story of the Illiad (and I’m assuming the fact that it’s few thousand years of existence mean I can spoil the story a bit) picks up with a plague afflicting the Greek camp due to Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, refusing to hand over a woman he captured. After much fighting, he finally does so, but takes a woman Achilles captured as a prize. Achilles, enraged, decides not to fight for Agamemnon in the coming battles.
Most of the rest of the Illiad describes the following battles. The Greeks attack Troy, are almost routed, and retreat to their camp. The Trojans push into the Greek camp, but are eventually forced back to Troy. A near-continual, heavy battle takes place as various Greek and Trojan heroes, most prominently Hector of Troy, Menelaus of Sparta, Diomedes, Aeneas, Ajax, and Ulysses, fight in single combat against various lesser heroes. Meanwhile, the gods bicker over which side to support, frequently throwing their weight behind one side or another and even fighting in the battle.
One of the Greeks, Patroclus, dons the armor of Achilles in an attempt to rally the Greeks and push back the soon-to-be victorious Trojans. He succeeds in rallying his fellow Greeks, but dies at the hands of Hector.
Achilles, enraged by the death of his friend, finally makes amends with Agamemnon and returns to battle, where he slays many Trojans and forces them back behind their walls. Then, in a tragic battle, he slays Hector, Troy’s greatest fighter and best man. While Priam, king of Troy and Hector’s father, eventually recovers the body, Achilles’ victory is devastating to Trojan morale. The Illiad ends with Hector’s burial after Priam and Achilles sup together.
My summary of the great story in no way does justice to it. In the interest of brevity, I’ve left much out and my writing can in no way live up to Homer’s genius.
But, hopefully, you can catch a glimpse of the brilliance of the story. It’s about pride, honor, and manly conduct. When should men reconcile? What are the consequences of being overly proud? When the odds of victory are slim, should men stand and fight or retreat? Furthermore, fate, glory, pride, honor, hubris, and, most of all, wrath, play a heavy role in driving the story and exposing the basis of Bronze Age Greek culture.
Great men, their names preserved through the endless sands of history, fight for honor, glory, and what they think to be right. Achilles stands by until his dear friend dies. Hector perishes in combat, choosing to die rather than retreat. Countless Greeks and Trojans fight in brutal combat, slaying each other to honor their kings.
Nothing else I’ve read, perhaps with the exception of The Song of Roland, does such an amazing job of getting to the very root of what it means to be human and what the nature of a civilization is. The Greeks, in our minds, aren’t the men that are in a German debt trap. They’re not the partisans of World War II, the Byzantine remnants of the Roman Empire, or serfs of the Turks. To us, they’re bonze-clad hoplites, noble men wielding long spears in a near-impenetrable wall of shields, clashing on the fields of the Mediterranean and slaying monsters or other hoplites. They communed with the gods, fought with distinction, and fought with such heroism that their stories have been preserved through the ages.
The Illiad is one of the prime reasons for that; we have a tendency to think of men at their peak and the time it describes might well have been their peak.
Yes, Leonidas came from a different era, as did Alcibiades, as did the Hellenistic Greeks that, under the banners of Alexander, knocked down the Persian Empire once and for all. But, while those men are certainly worthy of our thoughts and are bright beacons to every proud remnant of Western Civilization, I think the Bronze Age Greeks were Greece at its peak.
They were the ones that created the gods, placing Zeus on Mount Olympus for all time. They were the ones that built Athens, Sparta, and Crete into great states. Whether it be Theseus or Menelaus, Herakles or Ajax, the heroes of the Bronze Age are the most inspiring of the Greeks. Their heroic stories, likely part myth and part fact, are what set the standard for what it meant (and perhaps still means) to be a man.
And the Illiad tells some of their stories in brilliant fashion. It’s a story you must read.
By: Gen Z Conservative