Why did Herodotus write his Histories? Herodotus tells us in his first paragraph, “so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians, may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.” Just as in the Iliad, the Greek soldiers and sailors in the Histories of Herodotus fight for cleos, or glory, and warriors in these warrior societies are immortalized by their great and marvelous deeds on the battlefield. Herodotus is interested in recording any mighty deeds of both the Greeks and the Persians, although the glory was earned mostly by the Greeks. […]
When Odysseus had seen his departed mother in Hades she said from the shades, “your father stays among the fields, and comes to town no more. Bed he has none, no robes, no bright-hued rugs. Through the winter he sleeps in the house where the servants sleep, in the dust besides the fire, and wears upon his body sorry clothes. . . . There he lies in distress, woe waxing strong within him, longing for your return; and hard old age comes on. Even so I also died and met my doom. . . . longing for you, your wise ways, glorious Odysseus, and your tenderness, took joyous life away.” […]
We get a rare glimpse into the lives of the slaves, the lives spent serving their masters, when Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, approaches the hovel of his swineherd Eumaeus, who chases away the dogs who snap at the stranger, offering hospitality to even an old beggar. “Old man, my dogs had nearly torn you to pieces here, all of a sudden, and so you would have brought reproach upon me. Ah well! The gods have given me other griefs and sorrows; for over my matchless master I sit and sign and groan, and tend fat hogs for other men to eat; while my master, hungry, wanders among lands and men who speak alien tongues, if he still lives and feels the sunshine. But follow me, old man, into the lodge, so that when you have eaten and drunk your fill, you may tell me where you come from and what troubles you have borne.” The good swineherd is more concerned about the beggar’s troubles than who he is. […]
While the Cyclops was fast asleep from the wine, Odysseus and his men drove a large wooden stake into his one eye, blinding him. The Cyclops jumped up and tried feeling about for the men in vain. The next morning, they each escaped by hanging onto the bottom of the large sheep and rams as Cyclops let them out to pasture. After escaping the men loaded the sheep onto their ships, and Cyclops roared at them and threw boulders into the sea near their ships. […]
Just as the Iliad revolved around the need to show hospitality and respect to the enemy who had courage to enter your camp, often to ransom his relatives, or to fetch their bodies for a proper burial, so the Odyssey revolves around the need to show hospitality to strangers. Travel in the ancient world was arduous and hazardous, and if you did not show hospitality to stranger, or what the Greeks called xenia, the stranger could die. […]
The embassy to Achilles ends with them leaving not a warrior
but simply a bard strumming his lyre alone on the shores of the sea.
The battle lines sway back and forth, Odysseus and Ajax spy a Trojan spy,
and cut him down, then the Trojans in his advance camp.
The battle wages, many warriors fall, many warriors are wounded and healed,
as Professor Vandiver notes, they either or suffer minor injuries,
the heroes of the Iliad never suffer humiliating injuries. The Trojans fight their way to very walls of the Greek camps,
which was really a fortified fortress with palisades of sturdy timbers,
surrounded by a deep ditch dug to furnish earth for protection. […]
Zeus had agreed to give the Trojans their day of glory, the battle lines fall back closer and closer to the palisaded Greek camp, beyond the ditched palisades and the Greek camp lie the Greek wooden ships, moored close to the shore, floating tinderboxes. But Achilles still will not fight. […]
Hector is pissed. The duel between Romeo and Agamemnon was supposed to settle and finish this endless war that is just dragging on grinding thousands of soldiers in its maw. He asks himself, Where art thou, Romeo? Paris has disappeared from the battlefield. Aphrodite has magically carried his opponent Paris from the battlefield to the bed of Helen just as he was about to lose the duel and end this dreadful war. […]
Agamemnon did much more than rob from Achilles his concubine, that in his hubris he stripped from Achilles not his armor but worse, stripped from him his honor and his glory, making him lose face before his comrade. Indeed, gaining respect and avoiding shame is critical for warriors, and men in any age. […]
So, the Iliad begins with an enemy camp meeting that went badly, but ends with an enemy camp meeting that went well, reconciling Achilles both to Priam and the death of his best friend Patroclus. But in the middle there is an aborted enemy camp meeting that should have taken place but never did, sealing forever the fate of doomed Troy.
These warrior stories are captivating because they are stories about breaking conventions, when conventions are broken to increase virtue, fate unfolds favorably, but then conventions are broken and virtue decreases, fate takes a tragic turn.
Even in our modern culture we never totally escape the warrior ethos. That is why the Iliad is timeless. Men are not allowed to have problems, especially at work. When men look weak, they are toast. None of us want to walk and talk like Bernard Goetz on a New York subway; we don’t want to walk like a wimp, we don’t want to be thug bait, we strive to never show fear, and if we succeed we can conclude that the big city is really a safe place as we arrive home safe once more. We would rather be dirty Harry; me, Smith, and Wesson. […]