The Depiction of Trojan War in Homer's Iliad

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11 September 2019 Homer’s Iliad is one of the best known texts of the ancient world. Composed in Greece around the 8th century BCE, it recounts the events of the Trojan War following Queen Helen’s flight from her home of Sparta with the Trojan Prince Paris. It consists of gritty battle scenes, fiery arguments among the Greek gods, and magnificent heroes braving it all. While the epic’s male characters -- Agammemnon; Achilles; Menelaus; Hector -- often ride at the forefront of discussions, the role of women in the Iliad is likewise worthy of attention. They shape the epic in innumerable ways: Apollo’s plague sent on behalf of the hostage Chryseis, the enmity between Agammemnon and Achilles sparked by Breseis, and, of course, the actions of Helen of Troy herself are only a few of the many possible examples of this trend. However, a closer look reveals that while women appear throughout the Iliad, they rarely take shape as characters in their own right; they exist as mere plot devices for the story to use as pivot points. In fact, a careful analysis of the text shows that the Iliad depicts femininity as inherently passive and unimportant.

The theme itself is perhaps best exemplified in a passage from Book 3 in which Helen walks the Trojan ramparts and then talks to Priam, king of Troy, about their predicament. Helen is an especially interesting character to analyze because despite her integral importance to the Iliad (being the very catalyst which sparks the Trojan War), she is only briefly described in this passage as “a goddess [who] strikes our eyes;” a “ravishing” beauty (3.191, 193). Notice how generic and nonspecific these descriptions are, especially in comparison to the descriptions of men in the epic, who have listed notable features: Achilles’ “fiery hair,” for example (1.232). As such, Homer subtly implies that Helen (and other women in the epic) is less deserving of attention because he barely deigns to describe her. In fact, the furthest Homer goes in his descriptions of Helen, one of his most important female characters, is calling her “white-armed” (3.146). This is the very same phrase he uses for other women, like “white-armed Andromache” (6.441). This ultimately blurs the line between female characters; with an identical description, it is almost like they are the same in Homer’s eyes and not even worth differentiating.

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Homer also insinuates women are undeserving of attention in the kind of dialogue he gives them (in this passage and elsewhere). When Helen converses with Priam, she is not built up as a complicated character like so many men in the epic who struggle with the balance of self-preservation and legacy; of rage and equanimity, nor is she allowed great rousing speeches like Achilles or Agamemnon. Instead, she acts merely as a conduit of information for the reader, simply describing each of the Achaean generals: “strong spearman” Agammemnon; “great tactician” Odysseus; “hardy boxer” Polydeuces (3.217,. 241,. 283). This underdevelopment of women’s character arcs in the Iliad hints that they are not as important to the story as a man’s; that they are undeserving of a reader’s attention.

In the very same passage, Helen is depicted as being a passive character without agency. Although she is the very person to have started the events of the Iliad, Priam says, “I don’t blame you [for the war]. I hold the gods to blame” (3.198). Helen is, of course, in large part responsible for beginning the war: by her own admission, she “followed [Paris] to Troy”; he did not kidnap her (3.208). So when the king of Troy himself denies this, he shifts all fault off Helen and therefore imbues her with a strange level of passivity in her own decisions, insinuating that she is not even responsible for her own actions. Helen, herself one of the most influential characters in the Iliad, is seen as nothing more than an unlucky, pretty face.

Even the Ancient Greek goddesses cannot escape the masculine-dominated hierarchy of the Iliad. Hera is the queen of all gods, yet she must still obey when her husband threatens to strangle her should she not “be quiet now” (1.680). Aphrodite, though she saves Paris from Melelaus’ attack, is considered “the coward goddess” by even mortal men (5.371). These are just two more examples of how Homer’s Iliad depreciates the status of women in the epic and suggests that they are unimportant, despite their significance to the plot.

Nevertheless, one might understandably interject here, claiming that Athena is an outlier to this theme. Is she not the ferocious and legendary warrior who rekindled battle after Paris and Menelaus’ duel; who led Diomedes to injure even the gods? As a powerful woman, how could she not be an outlier? While the objector would be accurate in that Athena is a great warrior, in truth, she still fits perfectly into this theme. Recall the essay’s thesis: femininity in the epic is incompatible with strength or importance. While Athena is undeniably powerful and certainly turns the tide of the Trojan War, she does not do so as a feminine character. She is depicted time and again as a masculine, warlike figure -- in fact, she literally takes the place of a man when she ejects Sthenelus from Diomedes’ chariot so she can drive it herself (5.965-8). While she is a woman, she is not feminine, and it is this very lack of femininity, this donning of the masculine helm, that facilitates Athena’s power in the epic. This, in fact, underscores the essay’s argument that women in the epic are inherently passive: in the world of Homer’s Iliad, in order for a woman to be strong, she must abandon her womanhood for greaves and irons.

Through minimalist description and character development of women, the Iliad implies that they are not worthy of attention; through a shifting of blame off women, it insinuates that they are passive and lack agency. This ultimately sends the message that in war at least, men are the powerful and important ones. It suggests that a woman’s place is on the sidelines of the battlefield, subservient to her male counterparts. These are both, at least according to modern values, deeply problematic messages. As such, it is important to apply this critical eye to not just Homer, but to other newer writers and how they portray women in their oeuvres. The Iliad might be old, but its sexist ideals are far from dead.

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