This July Pages Unbound is celebrating classic literature with a collection of guest posts. We asked other readers to tell us what one of their favorite classics is and why we should read it.
Jillian Quinn was born, raised, and still lives in Philadelphia, where she attended Temple University, The Pennsylvania State University, and Peirce College. To pay the bills, she works for the Department of Defense, supporting the United States Navy, but her true passion is writing. As a writer, of course, she loves to read. On average, she reads anywhere from five to ten books per month. Some weeks, Jillian reads that many within a few days, depending on schedule. Jillian mostly gravitates toward young adult and new adult novels that have a romantic or fantasy element to them, but she also likes contemporary fiction and classic literature. Visit her at Rant and Rave About Books.
Unlike other classics, The Iliad is more real and visceral than any story ever told. There’s no story of unrequited love, no fairy tale ending, no prince charming, and there’s certainly no hope. For centuries, leaders such as Alexander the Great have considered The Iliad a guidebook for modern warfare, serving as the oldest tactical manual in existence.
While The Iliad takes place during the Trojan War, it centers on the last few weeks of the war between the Greeks and Trojans. With the primary focus on the wrath of Achilles, the most notable and memorable soldier in history, we see through his eyes his loss and pain, the need for revenge and fury, and his hatred for Agamemnon that set this epic tale in motion.
Most people are familiar with the name Helen of Troy, but she was Helen of Sparta and wife of Menelaus before she met Paris, Prince of Troy. For ten years, Greeks fought what some would consider a pointless war, all because Menelaus’s pride couldn’t handle losing Helen to Prince Paris. When compared to modern times, there’s a lot of similarities to The Iliad.
Many Americans had voiced their opinion on the Iraq war and the decision to deploy US troops. And while some people may find value in this strategy, others would consider it a war started because of an incompetent commander-in-chief’s attempt to rectify an impossible situation. In Book One of The Iliad, Achilles tells Agamemnon that the Trojans have never done anything to him. He didn’t support the Trojan War, felt as though they were fighting over one man’s pride, a man who hadn’t earned his respect.
I once sat down with a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Marine Corps, who at the time was also my boss, and asked him why we couldn’t withdraw American troops from Iraq. Now, keep in mind I work for the Department of Defense, and my primary concern is the operational readiness of our fleet, so I support our military one hundred percent. Still, I had a hard time grasping the necessity of the war.
I could tell my question took him a bit off guard, but what he said to me made perfect sense. My Lt. Colonel said, “It’s not that simple. There are more things to consider. You have to make slow, tactical moves.” I thought about this for a minute, considering what would happen if we were to make a snap judgment and remove the presence of our troops all at once. I sat back in my chair, looked my boss in the eye, and nodded. Although I didn’t agree with its cause, I understood. He was the kind of leader you would’ve followed into battle, no questions asked, just like Achilles.
After Agamemnon takes Briseis, Achilles’ captive, he threatens to leave with his men. Achilles then enlists the help of his mother, Thetis, who asks Zeus to send a message to Agamemnon in his dreams to attack Troy, the idea being he would realize he needs Achilles to win the war. The plan backfires when Agamemnon tells the men to go home in an attempt to test their loyalty, later requiring intervention from the gods to keep the men in Troy.
In the beginning of my career with the United States Navy, I sat next to two men who each served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both of them sustained permanent physical damages as well as lifelong psychological effects. I was the same age as both of them, barely even finished college, and here I was sitting next to two of the bravest people I’d ever met. When I think of heroes, I think of them. I think of all the men and women who risk their lives to protect their countries. We idolize characters from comic books, respect superheroes like Captain America, but the people who deserve our respect are those who fight for us, fight for our freedom, fight for our honor.
One of the men I sat with lost his twin brother who he’d joined the Marine Corps with after 9/11. His story was heartbreaking and almost impossible to sit through. I was very close with the other man who served in the Army. He suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, so I would take him for walks around our base to calm his nerves. He would tell me what it was like to watch as his best friend’s vehicle exploded, forcing him to listen to the screams of the men who were in the vehicle behind him. These are just two stories of thousands, but they deserve to be heard.
After Agamemnon finally set aside his pride, he offered Achilles gifts because he realized the Greeks couldn’t win the war without him. Achilles refuses and tells Agamemnon he will only fight if the Trojans reach their ships. Eventually this happens and Patroclus begs Achilles to lead his men into battle. He hands his armor to his friend, telling him to lead them. Hector, Prince of Troy, kills Patroclus, believing he’s Achilles, fighting like him and dressed in his armor. This is the turning point of the story.
The wrath of Achilles and the pain of losing his friend please Agamemnon. To win this war he needs an angry Achilles, hell bent on avenging the death of Patroclus. Military leaders such as presidents or arrogant king’s like Agamemnon don’t think of the physical and psychological impact war has on a person.
Patroclus’ death worked out well for Agamemnon because this set Achilles on a killing spree that had him so blind with rage he couldn’t see what he was doing to his own men. Respected by all the Greeks, his men especially, Achilles was one of the most revered soldiers. His men would follow him anywhere, as a good company would, but to what avail. There has to be a point when the bloodshed ends.
With the help of Athena, Achilles later defeats Hector and drags his body behind his chariot as Priam, King of Troy, is forced to watch the man who murdered his son desecrate his memory. Greeks had very strict burial rituals agreed upon by both sides, but Achilles’ hatred for Hector, a pointless war, and the loss of his friend left him blind with rage.
On March 31, 2004, four United States military contractors were attacked by Iraqi insurgents, pulled from their vehicle, beaten, burned, and then dragged through the streets before being hung over a bridge. Known as the 2004 Fallujah ambush, this act prompted the First Battle of Fallujah to regain control of the city, with the Second Battle of Fallujah proving a successful victory.
And while we weren’t dealing with men who could see reason in Fallujah, Achilles was not as heartless and cruel, and therefore, he could be reasoned with. When Priam risks his life to visit Achilles’ camp, he begs him for his son’s body. He kisses the hands of the man who murdered his son. This is where we see Achilles’ compassion, allowing Priam to bury Hector. Often painted as a heartless warrior with no regard for others, Achilles is compassionate when compared to what happened in Fallujah.
Through Homer’s words we feel the pain of losing a friend, a son, a husband, and a brother. We see what war does to a person physically and mentally and the lifelong effects it has on everyone affected by war. The Iliad shows us the use of war as a means of achieving honor, even a sense of glory or fame known as kleos to the Greeks, a recurring theme throughout this epic tale. Over three thousand years old, The Iliad is still relevant in modern times, a valuable tool for learning about infantry combat. But most of all it shows us what we lose to achieve that fame and glory.
Thanks for having me on your blog!