Death and Glory in The Iliad

As a war poem, The Iliad necessarily foregrounds the reality of death. In fact, as the scholar Jasper Griffith has argued in his book Homer on Life and Death, Homer’s Trojan epic is “a poem of death rather than of fighting.” What Griffith means is that, despite the poem’s notorious violence, The Iliad doesn’t treat the action of battle as mere entertainment, like Hollywood action films do. Instead, the poet uses the battle scenes as a strategy for centering the hero’s relationship to death. Throughout The Iliad, Homer presents death in its full horror, never romanticizing it or smoothing over the humiliation and pain that a violent death entails. He achieves this effect by recounting each individual death in gruesome detail and also by presenting death as a final end with no promise of an afterlife or posthumous reward. The poet describes death as a blackness that creeps over the individual, whose soul then travels into the darkness of the underworld, Hades, where a comfortless and senseless existence awaits. We see the gruesomeness of violent death on nearly every page of The Iliad, and Homer also shows the grief death causes among humans and gods alike.

Death is always close at hand in the midst of battle, but is is this nearness of death that brings the hero’s greatest reward: glory. In Homer’s poem, the concept of glory proves more complex than it may at first appear. A warrior doesn’t win glory simply by executing brilliant moves or racking up kills. Instead, a warrior wins glory by coming face to face with “courage-shattering death” and still finding the courage to fight. The Homeric concept of glory therefore has a close relationship to mortality and the inevitability of death. As such, glory gives form to the paradox of the human hero—heroes must fight not in spite of the fact that death is inevitable but because of its inevitability. Sarpedon explains this logic in a speech to Glaucus in Book 12:

Ah my friend, if you and I could escape this fray
and live forever, never a trace of age, immortal,
I would never fight on the front lines again
or command you to the field where men win fame.
But now, as it is, the fates of death await us,
thousands poised to strike, and not a man alive
can flee them or escape—so in we go for attack!

Although Sarpedon doesn’t specifically mention glory in these lines, his words make clear that heroic displays primarily have value because they take place in full recognition of the hero’s mortality. In short, if there were no consequences to battle, there could be no heroism in the first place.

Glory goes to any hero who faces his fear of death and still finds the courage to fight courageously. But no matter how great the warrior and no matter how many battles he walks away from victoriously, death still awaits him. Homer drives this fact home again and again in The Iliad, which provides gruesome details of well over two hundred deaths, including the deaths of famed heroes such as Patroclus and Hector. Although these characters face death with honor and hence die with glory, Homer insistently underscores the pathos of death by linking it to the pain and desecration of the flesh. Take Hector as an example. Throughout The Iliad, the poet refers to the Trojan hero as a man of god-like standing. But in death, Hector has fall to far—from being like a god to having his corpse subjected to Achilles’s excessive violence. If anything, though, Hector’s long fall from god-like warrior to desecrated corpse only heightens the value of glory in the poem, since every hero understands that the violation of the flesh is, itself, an inescapable element of glory.