The element that ties the violence and waste of war together in The Iliad is the imagery of fire. Almost every battle scene can be related to the wrath, anger and futility by observing these images. From the vary start of the poem Homer sets this tone with the symbol of fire: First he went for the mules and circling dogs but then, launching a piercing shaft at the men themselves, he cut them down in droves- and the corpse-fires burned on, night and day, no end in sight. (pg79, p1)
In this instance Homer is commenting on the futility and waste of war by showing us the burning corpses after they have been shot with arrows of plague. He suggests, through this passage and many others, that war is not worth the price the Greeks have paid in lives. Once again, as civilization degenerates the imagery of fire grows stronger to represent the primal urges overtaking the solders. The element of fire is not only sown as the humans battle on the planes of troy but, in book twenty one, the gods of fire and water battle as well. During this battle the imagery of fire is most dominant as two immortal gods futilely fight to their death, killing anything that comes between them. Homer’s symbolic imagery of fire helps to guide the reader and forces them to recognize the futility and horror occurring throughout the war.
Through the descriptive recounting of the horrors and futility of the Trojan War, The Iliad sends messages to the reader critiquing the society in which Homer lived. The most prominent of these messages is that human civilization becomes fragile when dealing with the horrors of war. In the case of The Iliad, Homer shows how one man’s anger can be extended to whole peoples and cities to facilitate a war: Now Paris and Menelaus, Atride loved by Ares, will fight it out with their rugged spears for Helen, and Helen and all her treasures go to the man who wins. (pg137 p1)
This is the turning point where civilization starts to disappear. In this scene the two men, Paris, Helen’s captor, and Menelaus, Helen’s husband, who both love Helen are challenged to fight against each other. The whole concept of civilization is questioned as a campaign is mounted toward a town because its leader stole a Greek’s wife. As the story continues, the civilized manor in which the solders once behaved quickly turns to savage impulses. During the first battle scene, beginning in book two, many fighters battle with honour, facing each other and duelling without interference from the rest of the army. As the poem progresses the battle scenes become more gruesome and honour and civility are forgotten. In book eleven Homer compares the armies to two rows of harvesters with sickles, cutting each other down without honour. Throughout the book Homer tells of the fragility of civilization by demonstrating how fast it can completely vanish.
Another good criticism Homer makes about the world in which he lives, is that as civilization and order deteriorates, man becomes overpowered by savage animal instincts. As the battle rages on, the soldiers become less and less civilized, and no longer kill out of necessity but out of pleasure. In the first chapter we see Achilles holding back his urge to kill the king, when civilization and honour have not been replaced by instinct. A good example of civilization falling apart and savagery overtaking sanity occurs after Achilles looses his best friend:
I’ve dragged hector here for the dogs to rip him raw- and here in front of your flaming pyre I’ll cut the throats of a dozen sons of Troy in all their shining glory, venting my rage on them for your destruction! (pg560, p1) Here civilization has crumbled and Achilles does not appear “to [rise] from barbarism to an enlightened stage of development” to become a civilized person (according to The American Heritage Dictionary). Instead he seems content to satisfy his primal, savage, urges of rage and revenge. Homer does an excellent job of portraying the madness and savagery that develops within the characters as the world around them becomes less and less civilized.
It is no coincidence that these messages are still relevant today. Homer felt the role of his poetry was to explain and to justify the evil in human life – an evil that still exists today. Helen says that “Zeus has set this horrible fate upon us so that we may be the subjects of song for later generations” (pg207 p1) and she is right. Homer wished to deliver timeless messages though his oral and written epics so that future generations would be able to learn from the Greeks. To a certain point he has succeeded. Men no longer wage war (only small battles) over women and rage no longer drive armies. There are also many anti-war activists that promote peace and civilized negotiations versus their bloody counterpart. Charles Rowan Beye tells the best reason why The Iliad remains popular among modern audiences in Homer: In ages that no longer have such bloodshed as part of their daily fare, the poem remains popular because it speaks to the anguished realization of the great nothingness of death that besets the young, by whom nothing yet has been accomplished, and lays to rest the compulsion to perform. (pg8, p2)
But many modern war novels still portray horrors that take place during the wars of our century and the savagery of human nature is still in existence. Although Homer and his literature have opened our eyes as to how quickly our civilization can turn to savagery, society must still learn how to control this conversion. If there where any benefits form fighting a war that lasted over nine years, Homer did not speak of them. He did not tell of economic boosts, political gains or technological advancements. There were no tales of friends bonding during the war, or lovers re-united after it. Instead this epic poem bombarded the senses with death, carnage and killing, pausing only briefly to inform the reader of great tragedy and sadness. Throughout the six hundred page epic, Homer never lets the reader forget the horrors of fighting a futile war or the fragility of human ‘civilization’ and how quickly it can transform into human savagery. As the poem resounds throughout history and modern society, Homer’s fiery message of the savagery of war has been delivered. All we must do is listen.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Books. 1990. Muller, Martian. “Fighting in the Iliad” in The Iliad, George Allen & Unwin. 1984. Beye, Charles Rowan. “Homer” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 176: Ancient Greek Authors. The Gale Group. 1997. Monarch Notes. Works of Homer: Critical Commentary. Marboro Books. 1996