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