The Iliad

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Themes and Colors
Honor and Glory Theme Icon
The Gods Theme Icon
Fate and Free Will Theme Icon
Wartime Versus Peacetime Theme Icon
Mortality Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Iliad, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Mortality Theme Icon

As a story of war, the Iliad confronts the fact that all men are doomed to die. The poem’s battles are filled with descriptions of the deaths of soldiers who only appear in the poem in order to pass away. Homer frequently provides a small story of the life or family history of the deceased, a gesture that shows the tragedy of how much those soldiers leave behind them. However, death in battle is also natural, as Glaucus indicates: “Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men…as one generation comes to life, another dies away.”

The immortal gods may endow a man with nearly immortal powers for a day, such as Diomedes or Hector, but such moments of glory are ultimately limited. The gods also serve as a counterpart for the fragility of men. Achilles is a near-exception to the rule of mortality: by legend, his mother Thetis dipped him in the river Styx as an infant, giving him immortality except for his famous heel. Seemingly the strongest and most invulnerable of Greek heroes, Achilles is still destined to die on the battlefield, becoming a symbol of the fragility of all men.

For the ancient Greeks, the Iliad was thought to be an essentially true history of a lost golden age. The death of Hector, Troy’s strongest warrior, signals the eventual destruction of Troy itself. Often described as a great city with wide streets and high towers, Troy is an example of the impermanence of entire civilizations and the most impressive works of man. As beautiful and powerful as the Trojan civilization is, it cannot prevent its own destruction. Only the chronicle of its passing and the heroism of its men remains in the form of the Iliad itself.

Mortality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Mortality appears in each section of The Iliad. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Mortality Quotes in The Iliad

Below you will find the important quotes in The Iliad related to the theme of Mortality.
Book 1 Quotes

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighter’ souls, but made their body carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

Related Characters: Achilles, Zeus, Agamemnon
Page Number: 1.1-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, at the beginning of the poem, Homer establishes the task ahead of him. Homer will describe the history of the great hero Achilles, who fought alongside his peers the Achaeans (in modern terms, the Greeks) against the Trojans, commanded by the great king Agamemnon.There's a lot to notice here. First, consider that the first word of the poem is "rage." The Iliad is a poem about the savagery and brutality of war, which could be considered the "rage" between different kingdoms. But the poem is also about the rage of individuals: great men like Achilles, who were inspired by their emotions to fight in battle, often achieving great glory in the process. Homer, it's been suggested, both approves of rage and questions what its purpose is. Rage, he says, results in one thing: death (the "carrion feasts"). Yet Achilles's rage also ensures that he'll be remembered forever--as evidenced by the Iliad itself. Finally, it's crucial to notice that Homer is asking the goddess (sometimes translated as "muse") of poetry for inspiration. Homer doesn't see himself as a writer in the modern sense of the word: he's not inventing a story to entertain his audience. Instead, Homer sees himself as merely transcribing the poetry of the gods--an epic, larger-than-life story about the greatest Greeks of history.

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O my son, my sorrow, why did I ever bear you?
All I bore was doom…
Doomed to a short life, you have so little time.

Related Characters: Thetis (speaker), Achilles
Page Number: 1.492.494
Explanation and Analysis:

Achilles (still seething from his argument with Agamemnon) approaches his mother, the sea goddess Thetis. Achilles asks Thetis to punish Agamemnon for his disrespect, and Thetis agrees to ask Zeus for help in punishing Agamemnon. And yet Thetis is saddened by Achilles's request. She knows that a prophecy was made long ago: Achilles will either die young and gloriously, or he'll live a long, peaceful, and forgettable life. In short, then, Achilles is asking Thetis to arrange for her own son to fight in battle and die.

Thetis is understandably upset that she's doomed to lose her son. And yet she doesn't dispute Achilles's wishes: she knows that the prophecy is set in stone, and she even seems to believe that Achilles is better off dead and glorious than he is alive and unknown.

Book 6 Quotes

Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.

Related Characters: Glaucus (speaker)
Page Number: 6.171
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous scene, the warrior Glaucus fights with Diomedes. They're both great men and talented soldiers, and yet fate has conspired to place them on different sides of the battlefield. Here, Glaucus makes an interesting analogy: he compares human lives to the leaves on a tree. As soon as one "generation" of leaves dies, another one comes to replace it.

On a surface level, Glaucus's statement could be interpreted as machismo: he's trying to prove to Diomedes that he's not scared of dying. And yet Glaucus's words are deeper and more insightful--he genuinely thinks of human life as a "passing shadow." Glaucus's metaphor for life is both inspiring and terrifying: it's scary to think that life will be over so soon, and yet it's strangely satisfying to think that death is just one small part of a great natural process. In all, Glaucus's speech demonstrates the code of honor and respect between great soldiers on the battlefield: they think of war and death as the duties of their class.

Why so much grief for me?
No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.
And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you—
it’s born with us the day that we are born.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Andromache
Page Number: 6.580-584
Explanation and Analysis:

In this tender scene, Hector tries to comfort his wife, Andromache. Hector is about to go into battle, and Andromache is frightened that she'll never see him again: there's a good chance Hector will be killed in the line of duty. Hector tries to reassure Andromache by pointing out that everybody dies in the end. the best Hector can do, as a great soldier, is to fight bravely while he still has the energy and the talent. In short, Hector believes that everybody dies, so he might as well die with dignity and honor.

Hector's speech illustrates the strengths and the limitations of the warlike philosophy of the Trojans. Hector is incredibly brave and noble--he's genuinely willing to die for Paris, someone he clearly doesn't even like--and yet he's so focused on war and fighting that he's forced to neglect the other half of life: the life of love, happiness, tenderness, and family.

Book 7 Quotes

But about the dead, I’d never grudge their burning.
No holding back for the bodies of the fallen:
once they are gone, let fire soothe them quickly.

Related Characters: Agamemnon (speaker)
Page Number: 7.471-473
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Agamemnon agrees to a temporary truce with the Trojans. During the neutral hours, the Trojans will be allowed to tend to their dead, giving the fallen soldiers a proper funeral (a funeral of fire, Agamemnon notes). Agamemnon's decision to allow the Trojans to take care of their dead is important, because many of Agamemnon's followers believe that they should press their advantage, denying the Trojans any break from the fight.

In general, then, the passage shows the unwritten code of honor and respect between the two sides of the war. Agamemnon is at war with King Priam, but he knows that all human beings deserve the opportunity to take care of their dead comrades. Agamemnon's speech alludes to common human nature, which he would be a fool to disrespect. The passage is also important because it alludes to 1) the climactic scene of the poem, in which Priam begs Achilles for the opportunity to tend to Hector's dead body, and 2) the events that follow Agamemnon's return from the war, as described in Aeschylus's Oresteia: in these stories, burying the dead will become vitally important.

Book 9 Quotes

I say no wealth is worth my life...a man’s life breath cannot come back again.

Related Characters: Achilles (speaker)
Page Number: 9.488-495
Explanation and Analysis:

Agamemnon has sent a team of negotiators to Achilles's tent, hoping to convince Achilles to fight with the Achaeans once again and help them defeat the Trojans for good. The team offers Achilles treasure and wealth in return for his military services, but Achilles ignores the treasure. He points out that treasure is useless if he's going to die in the Trojan War--which, according to prophecy, he will, if he chooses to fight.

In short, Achilles sums up the futility of war. Even though Achilles is speaking from the vantage point of immortality and heroism, his criticism of Agamemnon's negotiating techniques could apply to any soldier. No amount of money, Achilles argues, can convince a soldier to sacrifice his life for battle--life is the most valuable thing of all, and treasure is worthless when one is dead.

By modern standards, Achilles' words seem reasonable and even noble. By the standards of Homer's audience, however, they're very different. Achilles is expected to embrace danger and battle and die in the process, gaining immortality in the process--Homer's audiences expect Achilles to die gloriously, contrary to what Achilles says here. One of the major challenges of reading the Iliad is judging the poem according to a modern moral code while also recognizing that the poem's original audience would have interpreted it very differently.

Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies . . .
true, but the life that’s left me will be long,
the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.

Related Characters: Achilles (speaker), Thetis
Page Number: 9.497-505
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Achilles lays out the two options before him: he can either fight in the Trojan War and die young, gaining glory and immortality in the process, or he can sail back home and live a long happy life, and be forgotten by history.

Achilles's choice illustrates the differences between honor and happiness. Happiness is personally satisfying, but short-lived: Achilles could enjoy the rest of his life, but his enjoyment wouldn't help anyone else (except perhaps the people back home). On the other hand, honor is selfless and immortal: Achilles would make a great sacrifice by dying on the battlefield, and he would be rewarded for his sacrifice by being remembered forever. Ultimately, the Iliad sees honor as the more important value (although many modern readers of the poem might argue that happiness and peace are better than war and immortality). Also note that the "immortality" Achilles discusses is partly realized by the Iliad itself: thanks to Homer, we're still talking about Achilles thousands of years later.

Book 16 Quotes

Do as you please, Zeus . . .
but none of the deathless gods will ever praise you…
if you send Sarpedon home, living still, beware!
Then surely some other god will want to sweep
his own son clear of the heavy fighting too.

Related Characters: Hera (speaker), Zeus, Sarpedon
Page Number: 16.526-531
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous scene, Zeus surveys the Trojan War and sees that his own son, Sarpedon, is about to be killed. Zeus contemplates saving his son from the danger, but decides against it after Hera encourages him to refrain from interfering. Hera's argument is interesting: she claims that Zeus's interference is a "slippery slope," and will encourage the other gods to meddle in human affairs excessively.

The passage conveys the complicated nature of free will in the poem. Zeus has the choice to interfere in human affairs, but he clearly doesn't want the gods to meddle in human affairs excessively--that's why he ultimately allows Sarpedon to die. Zeus's actions suggest that even gods have to bow before to the power of fate and destiny sometimes. Furthermore, the scene suggests that Zeus, just like Agamemnon, is a leader: he has to balance his own desires with his duties to the other gods in Olympus.

Book 17 Quotes

There is nothing alive more agonized than man
of all that breathe and crawl across the earth.

Related Characters: Zeus (speaker)
Page Number: 17.515-516
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Zeus surveys the Trojan War and witnesses the death of Achilles's friend and lover, Patroclus. Zeus mourns the death of Patroclus, a great soldier and a great friend. In general, Zeus claims that humanity is the most "agonized" of all living beings.

Zeus's speech is important because it captures mankind's divided nature. Unlike all other beings, humans have the gift of self-consciousness: they have the ability to reason, worship the gods, and--crucially--know that they're going to die. Humans are put in a frustrating position: they have enough intelligence to make their lives good and meaningful, but also enough to recognize that their own lives are full of misery and suffering, and are doomed to end no matter what. Human beings have to suffer on behalf of their peers and their civilizations: that is the "noble burden" of mankind.

And yet there's a bright side: humans are capable of worshipping the gods, and they're also capable of great feats of strength, bravery, intelligence, discovery, kindness, etc. It's for this reason that the gods honor humans by allowing their souls to live for ever and be remembered for eternity. One could say that all humans--not just Achilles--are caught halfway between mortality and immortality, and that's what makes them so special.

Book 21 Quotes

Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.
And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am?
The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life
a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you,
death and the strong force of fate are waiting.

Related Characters: Achilles (speaker), Hector, Patroclus
Page Number: 21.119-124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we see Achilles at his most nihilistic. Achilles has tracked down Lycaon, one of the sons of Priam (whom Achilles had previously captured and sold into slavery). Lycaon begs for his life, but Achilles mockingly tells Lycaon that better men than he have lost their lives during the war.

Achilles knows that he's going to die: therefore, he sees the world in the grimmest, most cynical terms. He has no mercy for his opponents in battle--they must die, the same as Achilles himself. Furthermore, Achilles is still furious over the death of Patroclus, and wants revenge at all costs. And yet Achilles' mockery of Lycaon simply isn't dignified: he's toying with his victim, savoring the act of murder instead of just getting it over with. For all his strength and skill, Achilles is often portrayed as an angry, cruel soldier.

Book 22 Quotes

Past the threshold of old age…
and Father Zeus will waste me with a hideous fate,
and after I’ve lived to look on so much horror!
My sons laid low, my daughters dragged away…
Ah for a young man
all looks fine and noble if he goes down in war,
hacked to pieces…When an old man’s killed
and the dogs go at the gray head and the gray beard…that is the cruelest sight
in all our wretched lives!

Related Characters: Priam (speaker), Zeus
Page Number: 22.70-89
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Priam begs Hector, his eldest and favorite son, to refrain from fighting a duel with Achilles-- a duel that Hector knows he's bound to lose. Priam mourns the loss of his other children in the Trojan War--his implication being that he couldn't stand to lose another child, especially one as noble as Hector.

And yet Priam's speech is full of contradiction. He complains that an old man's death is not an honorable thing: dying as an old man is proof that you weren't brave enough in combat as a younger man. When a young man dies on the battlefield, his death is treated as something to celebrate: it's assumed that the young man was a hero and a leader to other soldiers. In short, Priam's speech both implores Hector to stay with his aging father and also admits that Hector's best chance for glory is to fight Achilles and die a hero's death. In a way, Priam is mourning the unfairness of life itself: there's no way for the king to be a proud father and have living sons.

Achilles went for him, fast, sure of his speed
as the wild mountain hawk, the quickest thing on wings,
launching smoothly, swooping down on a cringing dove
and the dove flits out from under, the hawk screaming...his fury
driving him down to beak and tear his kill—
so Achilles flew at him, breakneck on in fury
with Hector fleeing along the walls of Troy.

Related Characters: Achilles, Hector
Page Number: 22.165-172
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Achilles and Hector have prepared to fight one another. And yet when Hector catches sight of Achilles in all his glory, he loses his nerve and runs away. Achilles wins up chasing Hector around the walls of Troy, hoping to catch him and kill him.

Hector's behavior is at once cowardly by the standards of the ancient world, and entirely sympathetic. He knows for a fact that he can't beat Achilles, who is fated to kill him, and therefore has to accept the fact that he's going to die in battle. Hector has tried to come to terms with his own mortality, and yet he can't, at least not right now. He runs in this scene, but Hector then proves his valor by ultimately facing Achilles, and thus accepts his own glorious death.

Book 23 Quotes

But one thing more. A last request—grant it, please.
Never bury my bones apart from yours, Achilles,
let them lie together…
just as we grew up together in your house.

Related Characters: Patroclus (speaker), Achilles
Page Number: 23.99-102
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, the ghost of Patroclus, the beloved friend of Achilles, appears before Achilles and asks him to provide his body with a proper burial. Patroclus, who loved Achilles, wants to be buried next to his friend for the rest of history.

Patroclus's request to Achilles is important for a number of reasons. First, it emphasizes the importance of burial practices in the poem: such practices will become crucial to the plot in the final Book. Second, Patroclus's clear love and respect for Achilles raises questions about the exact nature of his "love." It's been suggested that Patroclus and Achilles enjoyed a same-sex love affair, of a kind that was relatively common in ancient Greece. Other scholars of Homer suggest that the relationship between the two men isn't meant to be sexual at all--it's just a deep, powerful friendship. In either case, the passage testifies to the importance of friendship and love to Achilles, even after he's passed into immortality.

Book 24 Quotes

Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire
to grieve for his own father…And overpowered by memory
both men gave way to grief. Priam wept freely
for man-killing Hector, throbbing, crouching
before Achilles’ feet as Achilles wept himself,
now for his father, now for Patroclus once again,
and their sobbing rose and fell throughout the house.

Related Characters: Achilles, Hector, Patroclus, Priam
Page Number: 24.592-599
Explanation and Analysis:

In the climactic scene of the poem, Achilles confronts King Priam, the ruler of Troy and the father of Hector--the man Achilles has just killed on the battlefield. Priam only asks that Achilles surrender Hector's mangled body so that Priam can provide it with the proper funeral rites. Achilles initially refuses to turn over Hector's body: he's still so furious about the death of Patroclus that he wants to cause pain and grief to his enemies, the same grief that Achilles himself feels. And yet something happens in this scene: Priam touches Achilles' heart, reminding Achilles that Achilles' death will cause his own father (Peleus) tremendous sadness. Overcome with grief for his family and for himself, Achilles joins Priam in weeping. Immediately afterward, Achilles will agree to turn over Hector's body, recognizing that even his enemies deserve the chance to care for their dead family members.

At the end of the poem, the tone has moved from rage to compassion. Achilles is no longer hellbent on revenge for the death of Patroclus--rather, he seems to see the limits of revenge, cruelty, and brutality. By connecting with another man--ironically, the leader of his opponents on the battlefield--Achilles discovers the deep sadness and sympathy that unites him with all other human beings.