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 Quotes in The Iliad
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
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.
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.
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.
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'sOresteia: in these stories, burying the dead will become vitally important.
I say no wealth is worth my life...a man’s life breath cannot come back again.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.