Homer’s Trojan War: Combat in the Iliad

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Right hardy of heart would he be who would then be glad, seeing the battle, and not distressed.”

Iliad 13.343

Homer’s epic, the Iliad, contains two opposing outlooks on combat. The first is the notion that conflict is necessary to preserve what one holds dear – a means to an end. The second proposes that combat is an end in itself, that the violence and destruction are not an unfortunate consequence but rather the source of glory.

It is worth, at this point, understanding the key events in the Iliad. The narrative recounts a period in the Trojan war, which has arisen because Paris (a Trojan Prince) took Helen from the Achean King Menelaus. Under the command of Menelaus’s brother, Agamemnon, the Greeks prepare for war. The Iliad itself begins in medias res, in the ninth year of the conflict. Tensions arise between Agamemnon and his greatest warrior, Achilles, over the fate of a slave-girl – Briseis. The Greeks are increasingly pushed back until Achilles, enraged by the death of his compatriot Patroclus, returns to the fray, slaughtering Hector, Prince of the Trojans.

The epic’s two central warriors represent these differing views of combat. Hector, the Trojan, fights to protect his family and city, while Achilles, the Greek, fights to quench his thirst for violent thrill and revenge.  He sees conflict as ‘play’. The enjoyment he derives from it, and the glory that will be lavished upon him after his death, supersedes the risk of fatality. Achilles perfectly embodies the individuality of a Homeric hero: he surrenders himself to his appetite for warfare. He fought not for a God nor king, but instead for his own exhilaration, welcoming death as a vehicle for his eternal glory.

The modern reader would probably sympathise with Hector and the values for which he fights instead of the pure self-abandon of Achilles’ bloodlust. While the ‘modern’ warrior is supposed to compassionate, admirable and balanced, the ancient warrior was brutal, fierce and merciless. 

The contrast between ancient and modern warfare is also reflected in the difference in style. The soldiers of today are disciplined and trained to work together. In the Iliad, the warriors fight together with their own individual flair. This is exemplified by battle clothing. Now, armies issue standard clothing, with the same camouflage patterns for each soldier. By contrast, the Iliad’s warriors each wore distinctive battle clothing. Armour was an extension of the warrior himself, meant to express their character.

Often in combat, warriors would abandon military procedure and strategy in pursuit of individual glory through duels. This type of playful warfare is what caused Hector to lose his support from the Gods prior to his fight with Achilles. As Hector drags the body of Patroclus, who ventures into battle wearing the armour of his cousin, he breaks the sacred conduct of moral military procedure and loses the favour of Apollo. Therefore, while this form of battle often leads to success for the warrior, Homer shows it as a divergence from the divine: thus, even in the Iliad, such disrespectful actions are not idealised but seen disapprovingly.

The Iliad also explores the varying motivations for war. Each character fights for their own self-interest, whether to right a wrong (Menelaus), expand one’s power (Agamemnon) or simply for glory (Achilles). These different motivations often come into conflict, with Achilles infringing on the Greeks’ image of their own self-righteousness with his desecration of Hector’s body, dragging it around the walls of Troy after vanquishing him. This righteousness and belief in morality is crucial for the Greeks to retain the benevolence of the Gods.

While other ancient writers often soften the finality of death, Homer makes it clear in the Iliad that death is the terrible, inevitable and indisputable end. Homer illustrates this futility in death with the Trojan hero Euphorbus. In death, Euphorbus loses all three of his heroic characteristics – individuality, excellence and youth – but his willingness to lose them is what makes him a Homeric hero: he puts his country above his own temporal and mortal concerns.

Thus, the question arises: if death itself, as opposed to the mere concept, is so tragically everlasting in the Iliad, then why do the men that Homer glorifies welcome it? Homer’s answer is that good men who avoid death are lost to the ceaseless monotony of time; great men, in their death and their glory, live forever. Their legacy is assured.

Magee, B., 1990. The Relation of Religious Mythology to the Conduct of War in Homer’s Iliad. LA Tech.

van Wees, H., 1988. Kings in Combat: Battles and Heroes in the Iliad. Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, P.C. “Battle Scenes in the ‘Iliad.’” The Classical Journal 47, no. 7 (1952): 269–300. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3293405.