The Iliad is the oldest war poem in the world. We know it as having been composed in Greece by Homer, a supposedly blind poet born on the island of Chios, and written down probably some time in the eighth century BC.
But who was “Homer”? Scholars have exchanged views on this question for many years and the issue of Homer’s identity has, indeed, come to be known as “the Homeric question” and has even given rise to the quip “the Iliad wasn’t written by Homer, but by someone else of the same name”. So, why all the fuss?
The point is that The Iliad (and its more serene sibling, The Odyssey) is composed in a formulaic manner and was almost certainly performed by many different singers or bards before it was ever written down. As each singer recited his version, he would have added his own nuances and expressions. And so the modern-day conclusion is that the poem we know as The Iliad is actually the final version of a poem which was variously recited over many years and existed only orally before being written down.
The Iliad tells the story, not of the whole Trojan war, but of a few weeks towards the end of it, the highlight of which is when the Greek Achilles kills the Trojan Hector in single combat. Although The Iliad is classified as an “epic” poem, the key point about the poem is that it is a tragic poem that spells out the horrors of war but that in no way glorifies war.
The Iliad was read widely by soldiers at the front in World War I. Charles Sorley wrote letters from the trenches about Homer and there are accounts that Rupert Brooke and his friends read Homer to each other on the troopship to the Dardanelles. And various World War I poets used references to The Iliad in their poems (see below the book by Elizabeth Vandiver).
The Oxford scholar, Colin Macleod, one of the sharpest 20th Century scholars to pass judgement on The Iliad, concluded : “The Iliad is concerned with battle and with men whose life is devoted to winning glory in battle; and it represents with wonder their strength and courage. But its deepest purpose is not to glorify them, and still less to glorify war itself. What war represents for Homer is humanity under duress and in the face of death; and so to enjoy or appreciate The Iliad is to understand and feel for human suffering.” That, surely, is the reason why so many men fighting at the front 1914-1918 found so much solace in The Iliad.
An extract from Iliad Book XXII – Achilles faces Hector in single combat :
So Hector spoke, and pulling out the sharp sword that was slung
At the hollow of his side, huge and heavy, and gathering
Himself together, he made a swoop, like a high-flown eagle
Who launches himself out of the murk of the clouds on the flat land
To catch away a tender lamb or a shivering hare; so
Hector made his swoop, swinging his sharp sword, and Achilles
Charged, the heart within him loaded with savage fury.
In front of his chest the beautiful elaborate great shield
Covered him, and with the glittering helm with four horns
He nodded; the lovely golden fringes were shaken about it
Which Hephaestus had driven close along the horn of the helmet.
And as a star moves among stars in the night’s darkening,
Hesper, who is the fairest star who stands in the sky, such
Was the shining from the pointed spear Achilles was shaking
In his right hand with evil intention toward brilliant Hector.
He was eyeing Hector’s splendid body, to see where it might best
Give way, but all the rest of the skin was held in the armour,
Brazen and splendid, that he stripped when he cut down the strength of Patroclus;
Yet showed where the collar-bones hold the neck from the shoulders,
The throat, where death of the soul comes most swiftly; in this place
Brilliant Achilles drove the spear as he came on in fury,
And clean through the soft part of the neck the spearpoint was driven.
Yet the ash spear heavy with bronze did not sever the windpipe,
So that Hector could still make exchange of words spoken.
But he dropped in the dust, and brilliant Achilles vaunted above him :
“Hector, surely you thought as you killed Patroclus you would be
Safe, and since I was far away you thought nothing of me,
O fool, for an avenger was left, far greater than he was,
Behind him and away by the hollow ships. And it was I;
And I have broken your strength; on you the dogs and the vultures
Shall feed and foully rip you; the Greeks will bury Patroclus”.
Further reading :
The Iliad translated by Richmond Lattimore (regarded as the classic translation)
Iliad Book XXIV – a commentary by Colin Macleod
War Music by Christopher Logue (a powerful adaptation of parts of The Iliad)
Stand in the Trench Achilles by Elizabeth Vandiver (a study of the ways in which British poets of the First World War used classical literature)
The Cambridge Companion to Homer edited by Robert Fowler