Homer’s Iliad has been read by millions of people over the centuries, and has been held up as one of the great books of antiquity. Homer has inspired countless authors, poets, philosophers and more. But what is the moral message of the Iliad? Is its hero, Achilles, someone to admire and hold in high regard? By his very actions, it seems that he is a scoundrel, a narcissist and has little regard for human dignity beyond himself or his closest friends. Literary critic Robert Winder says, “there isn’t anything we can recognise as a moral reflex” in the story. Let us examine a few of Achilles’ actions, and see if any good can be found in them.
From the very beginning, in Book One, Achilles comes off as a selfish and spiteful man. Following the lose of Agamemnon’s slave girl, he demands from Achilles another slave girl (Briseis) to replace her, despite Achilles rightfully owning her. In retaliation, Achilles lashes out not only at Agamemnon, but the entire military of Greece. He has his mother Thetis speak with Zeus, and they conspire to have the Trojans become more powerful in the upcoming battles, not least because Zeus tricks Agamemnon into attacking at the wrong time. Thetis says to Zeus, “Avenge my son, Olympian Judge, and let the Trojans have the upper hand till the Achaeans pay him due respect and make him full amends.” [Homer: 36]
Aside from the moral question of women as property, which is more a historical issue than anything, Achilles is shown here to be a truly devious character. After being slighted in a relatively minor way, he retaliates more than tenfold: the Greeks are to be slaughtered by the Trojans, until Achilles is given proper respect. So not only does he demand honor and glory that he may or may not deserve, but until he receives it, he wishes death upon his own people. When properly understood, this passage makes Achilles out to be the ultimate villain — not the hero — of The Iliad. (Though, it would be hard to pinpoint the hero, as no one is acting in a manner worth emulating.)
When the Greeks try to convince Achilles to return, he lays out his case in the form of a prophecy told to him. “My divine Mother, Thetis of the Silver Feet, says that Destiny has left two courses open to me on my journey to the grave. If I stay here and play my part in the siege of Troy, there is no home-coming for me, though I shall win undying fame. But if I go home to my own country, my good name will be lost, though I shall have long life, and shall be spared an early death.” 
On the face of this prophecy, we see that it is a heavy matter for Achilles: to choose a fate we know will result in death could be considered a foolish choice. Yet, as a warrior, to die with glory would be a depressing thought. But we know that Achilles is not avoiding the war because he fears death — he is avoiding it to spite Agamemnon, even if the other Greeks die because of it. And by how he words this prophecy, we see his motivation for fighting would be purely glory and fame, he would not be at all concerned with winning or any greater good. In fact, by knowing he would die, it shows that the outcome will be after his death and of little consequence to him. If this war had a moral grounding, Achilles would not be fighting because of it.
At one point, Patroclus makes the decision to leave his friend and lover Achilles. Achilles supports his friend, gives him command of the Myrmidon regiment and even allows him to wear his armor. But he presents Patroclus with one demand. “Even if Zeus the Thunderer offers you the chance of winning glory for yourself, you must not seize it. You must not fight without me against these warlike Trojans — you would only make me cheaper.” [Homer: 294] So, he seemingly wants his friend to do well, and gives him the proper equipment to succeed. But then he shows his selfish nature — all glory must belong only to Achilles, even if Zeus himself provides a chance. Achilles care more about his own reputation than he does about Patroclus or his men winning the war. His word is greatest than the highest god’s.
After his friend Patroclus is killed, and he kills Hector in revenge, Achilles is not satisfied. He goes on to desecrate Hector’s body and then punish the innocent children of Troy. He says to the spirit of Patroclus, “I have dragged Hector’s body here, for the dogs to eat it raw; and at your pyre I am going to cut the throats of a dozen of the highborn youths of Troy, to vent my anger at your death.” [Homer:412] While making an offering to the gods in a fire is standard custom in Ancient Greece, Achilles makes clear by his “vent my anger” comment hat his motives are emotional, not spiritual. One could argue even that had Achilles joined his friend in battle initially, the death may have been averted.
One unexpected defender of Achilles is British Conservative Robert V. Jackson, former member of parliament, who wrote a letter in 1993 portraying the Iliad as a “profoundly moral poem”. Jackson sums up the moral aspect as being “when Achilles overcomes his anger, is reconciled with Priam, and restores Hector’s body to his father – Achilles thus being restored himself to full humanity.” [Jackson 1993] This seems to me largely disingenuous. Priam comes to Achilles protected by the gods, and Achilles returns his son’s body only after desecrating it. We my say that Achilles has calmed down, but he has done little to redeem himself — this is not the man of savagery turning over a new leaf.
Achilles’ actions are no surprise, considering the immorality and foolishness of the entire war. At one point, Achilles refers to his spat with Agamemnon as a “desperate feud about a girl”. [Homer: 355] He is referring to Briseis, of course, but could just as easily be talking of Helen. For years a battle raged on over one woman, the wife of Menelaus, who willingly flees Greece with Paris.
Helen is a flippant creature, to say the least. She marries Menelaus, leaves with Paris, and eventually returns to Menelaus. She shows little regard for either man. The war should be nothing more than a marital issue: Menelaus getting revenge on Paris, or Menelaus divorcing Helen and getting any number of new wives or consorts. Instead, he employs his brother Agamemnon to wage a massive campaign that will kill thousands of Greeks and Trojans who have no personal investment in the matter.
An argument could be made that the Trojans were acting morally in defending Troy, or that Agamemnon was being loyal by coming to his brother’s aid. But it seems hard to justify such a great folly that involved countless men and gods for such a trifle. Helen has been called “the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium” by Christopher Marlowe, and this is quite true. But I think Doc Boone (from John Ford’s Stagecoach) was more correct when he misspoke and said “the face that wrecked a thousand ships”… for not only did Troy burn, but the Greeks paid an equal price.
The gods are no better than the humans, with each deity picking a side more or less randomly, unless they have human children invested in the conflict. Zeus, the most powerful of gods, seems content to lend his allegiance to both sides at varying time, for no ultimate reason. Indeed, as Robert Winder has pointed out, “the gods pursue their fatuous tiffs with an Olympian indifference to the suffering they cause in the mortal sphere.”
If one is to look to a classical book for moral guidance or a historical account of a justified war, you need not turn to The Iliad. Bloodshed, thievery, jealousy, rage and desecration fill these pages. While it may be considered a classic, and rightly so, its lessons for modern man are few and far between.
Homer. The Iliad. Penguin Books, 1950. (translated by E. V. Rieu)
Jackson, Robert. “Letter: Savagery and morality in the ‘Iliad'”, The Independent. December 18, 1993.
Winder, Robert. “Greeks, Trojans and abridgement too far”, The Independent. December 10, 1993.